Seeing the sights, classes (briefly), and Hurricane Irma: Arriving in Havana

23 Sep

My flight between Miami International Airport and Jose Martí International Airport had to be booked through a charter company, which gave rise in my head to the idea that we’d be taking a puddlejumper, but it turned out to be like any of the three Delta flights I took the day before to finally arrive in Miami. The flight to Havana was over before I realized it was happening. Barely waiting in line, my passport was stamped with not a word spoken. The wait for the baggage claim, however, took longer than the flight itself. As I left the airport, stepping into the Havana sun, my eyes fixated on the nearest old blue Chevy.
The first week I was taken by my two study abroad program directors, along with my fellow classmate, on an extensive tour of the city, from walking through the historic Old Havana, to taking a tour bus through Miramar and the Plaza of the Revolution, where the famous images of Che Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos are fixed on the sides of two buildings. At the heart of the plaza is a monument to Jose Martí, the poet and national hero who was martyred in the fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Martí is an important cultural figure, as can be inferred by the busts and monuments to him on almost every street.
On one morning we went to the Museum of the Revolution. Located in what was the presidential palace before the Revolution, the museum is full of artifacts such as weapons, equipment, and clothing used by famous figures such as Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Fidel Castro, to the yacht Granma which was used to transport the revolutionaries from exile in Mexico to their Cuban homeland. It would be impossible to understand the culture here without learning about the Cuban Revolution, and the museum was a good supplement to what I’ve read about it.

The University of Havana in Vedado, founded in 1728 by Dominican friars, is among the oldest universities in the Western hemisphere. It’s current campus (since 1902) is home to an iconic Alma Mater statue which faces the steps up to the university. In the center square a tank, which was captured at the Battle of Santa Clara during the Revolution, rests underneath a tree.
This is where I will be studying this semester, taking classes within the Spanish-for-non-Spanish-speakers department (español para no hispanohablantes) and in the Philosophy, History, and Sociology departement with local students. There is a period at the start of the semester known as “chopin” (shopping), where one sits in on different classes to see which ones to take. I sat in on two classes with local students the first week, which was a little intimidating for me. The speed and accent of the professors’ Spanish takes some time to get used to. Most of classrooms I’ve been in are basic, with wooden and plastic desks, a chalkboard, and a professor’s desk. While some do have air conditioning, I have learned to bring something to fan myself with. Another important item I’ve learned to have on me is a thumbdrive or “memoria.” It is an essential tool as a student. Thumbdrives not only are how weekly readings are distributed, but also how friends share movies, shows, and music.

I was at the start of “chopin” week when I first read in the Granma (the newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, named after the yacht Granma) about Hurricane Irma, but I did not understand where it was heading or how big it was. It was not until I went to a hotel to get internet did I see the lobby TV playing CNN. The stream of anxious reporting that CNN broadcasted on Irma in the days before the storm’s arrival was the polar opposite of the composed, and nonchalant attitudes of the Habaneros. I called my girlfriend and parents and checked my email, as I would each night before the storm, with the television coverage becoming gloomier each night.

The day before the hurricane, we squeezed in a visit to Las Terrazas, an ecological park located an hour’s drive outside Havana off of the highway that heads towards Pinar del Rio. Formerly plantation land, the park is now home to an array of tropical wildlife in a jungle habitat. Small cafeterias and art studios can be found in the village of the same name within the park. My program director took us on a detour to see the ruins of a French coffee plaintation, with wild, ripe avocados growing around it. Guayabas and other fruits were abundant on the sides of the road.

The night before the storm the hotel was more lively than ever, with a buffet and a salsa band. Some of the tourists were huddled by the television and anxiously watched the animated graphics predicting the storm would hit the eastern region of Cuba and then move north just before Havana. With Hurricane Harvey fresh in everyone’s minds, and hearing of Irma’s destruction of the islands before us, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little terrified. The stark contrast between what I was told by everyone here, that the storm with head north before the “ciclón” could hit us, and the apocalypic sensations from the television coverage left a lot of room for uncertainty to grow in me. I had never experienced a tropical storm of any sort before.

There was a point that week where we were debating whether or not to leave the island, as other programs already had. We were assured that our residence was well equipted to endure the storm and the recovery period afterwards (and indeed it was), so we stayed. Saturday morning we were told that we could not leave the residence. There was nothing to do but wait. We were told that morning that it would come a little closer than expected. The wind and rain that day came in waves, and we followed the local news coverage on the television. Sleeping that night was difficult with the sounds of the storm outside, but before I knew it the worst had past, safe and secure the whole time.

The power was out for a few days, and when it came back on, the whole street erupted in cheers, and people ran outside. A few minutes later, a downpour came down, and out went the power again, returning much later in the evening. It was not until Tuesday until I was able to leave the house, and even then I would only go around the block. I spent my time reading books, playing board games (learning dominos, very popular here), and watching Telesur news and El cabellero del rey, a Cuban telenovela.

It was not until I was able to go around the city did I understand how bad the storm actually hit. I was told that many of the older Cuban generation believe that this was the worst hurricane that they had experienced in their lives. The eastern regions of the island were hit the worst, but the hurricane did its toll on much of Havana as well, our residence was luckiely far enough from the ocean. The water rose over the Malecón (“the sofa” of the city, a common meet-up point by the water) up until Linea, flooding the busy waterfront area. The people who lived there were preemptively evacuated. The streets were tan from the sand carried by the water, and the trees had browned, dead from the salinity. With the power out, police directed the congested traffic, and the city, bustling my first week here, essentially shut down. Falling trees damaged houses and blocked streets, taking out power lines with them, and the Cuban military has been continuing to do recovery work in the affected areas. Now two weeks later, things have mostly come back to normal in the city.

Classes were cancelled for over a week, but I’m happy to say this past week I’ve been back to studying at the university.

More to adventures to come, ¡nos vemos!

Buen viaje: Preparing to study in Cuba

30 Aug

A little light reading in preparation.


Bug-proofing my clothes wasn’t very fun, but neither are mosquitoes.


I am looking forward to having my preconceptions challenged as I spend almost four months experiencing life as an international student at the University of Havana.

I’ve been asked why I am going to Cuba, as opposed to other countries. It’s a good question, as many students go to countries like Spain, Mexico, and Costa Rica to learn Spanish. I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for so long that it’s hard for me to answer. I’ve also had classmates show me pictures from their recent trips to Cuba, and I must admit I was a little jealous.

Anyone that knows me knows that I am both a fan of jazz music and something of a nostalgist. So, it is hard for me not to romanticize Cuba as its prevalent images are classic cars, salsa dancing, and Afro-Cuban jazz. I was able to catch a Buena Vista Social Club (one of the most internationally known Cuban musical groups) concert on their final tour back in 2015. I first heard their eponymous album while surfing the web for music back in high school. I fell in love immediately with it by the end of its first track. I think of a combination of all of this made Cuba the destination for me!

I have a few goals for myself while I am there. Primarily, I want to practice Spanish, explore the city, and meet local students. I am also hoping to practice journal writing and mindfulness while I don’t have constant internet connection (and therefore constant distractions).

I know most of my time will be spent studying for classes, and I’m sure that the first month will be rough adjusting to the cultural differences and language barriers. But I hope I come out a better traveler, student, and world citizen by the end of the program.

I am very lucky to be going in the first place. I am grateful that my parents believed in my dream and supported it, as they have always done for me. I would not have this incredible opportunity if it were not for them.

In my next entry, I will be on the ground in Cuba. Hopefully exchanging currency (Cuba has a dual currency system) and getting an internet card (necessary to access the internet there) won’t be too difficult.

I am looking forward to sharing my adventures in Cuba!

¡Hasta luego!