Honors student Julia recently traveled with us to Cuba, where she got the chance to immerse herself in Cuban culture and to spend time with her extended family in Bauta. Read more about her experience here:
Getting off of the plane was an interesting experience. We walked down the stairs and got on a bus that was really two buses attached. Once we left the airport, we found our guides, David and Alpi, and boarded the tour bus. Driving to Havana, we saw people playing baseball, jumping onto buses, and hung out by the seawall. We ate lunch at Ana’s, and I had fried plantains, guava, pineapple, and chocolate ice cream. After lunch, we went to the apartment, an apartment that many professors own and rent out for extra money. While sitting on the balcony, we discussed funny high school teachers. For dinner, we went to Fabrica de Arte, which consisted of an art gallery, restaurants, bars, and a concert venue. The restaurant was was made out of metal transportation boxes, and during dinner there were two blackouts. We weren’t able to see the entirety of the art galleries due to the blackouts, but the little we did see was exquisite. On the way back, we saw hundreds of people dancing in the streets along the seawall.
When we woke up, we went to La Fountain for breakfast. Once we realized that La Fountain was out of bread, we went back to the apartment and ate granola bars. We traveled to the Salvador’s art square. The area was covered in art and poetry, and it was known for being the center of Rumba. After watching the Santa Ria people perform Rumba, I noticed many people in all white. Once I asked Alpi, he told me that the people in white were being introduced into the religion. They had to wear all white for a year in order to be accepted. There’s other rules as well. The people cannot accept money directly, they must pick it up from the ground. We saw the artist, Salvador. Another fact about the Santa Ria religion is that they do not have a temple, instead the temple is the body. Certain pots inside of a door represent certain gods. Blue pots represent the sea god, the red pots represent good luck, and the chains along the door represent protection. Once we left Salvador’s art square, we went to a cooking lesson. The cook worked in a bed and breakfast owned by an Italian lady. The house was gorgeous, and the cook was the sweetest lady. Her daughter ran around while we cooked, and we found out it was her birthday. After eating a delicious meal, we sang Happy Birthday to her. Our translator was a professional dancer, and after leaving, her husband and her went to the theater. Following the cooking lesson, we took a walking tour of Old Havana. Old Havana looked very similar to New Orleans. There were cobblestone roads, squares, and terraces. We played soccer in the square with a few young boys, and then we passed the Hotel Ambos Munelos, where Ernest Hemingway stayed for eleven years. We saw the police, some in black, some in blue, and a few in purple. The police dressed in black were in charge of crowd control and tourist safety. The police dressed in blue were for traffic control. The police dressed in purple were motorcycle police. During dinner, I found out the Dean of Liberal Arts does not know his left from right, something that I also have never known. I conversed with Malcolm about the climate change, a topic we are both very passionate about. Following dinner, we went to King Bar for a little while.
We ate breakfast in the apartment, which consisted of fruit and bread. Following breakfast, we toured a cigar factory. It takes days, sometimes weeks, to press the cigars. Many employees get arthritis from rolling the cigars. The leaves are very soft, and they feel like soft leather. We went to salsa lessons, and, thanks to my previous dance experience, I did not step on any toes. We watched as the instructors performed a series of dances in a circle that is usually performed at parties. It was very impressive, especially since it was not choreographed. At lunch, I had the best chocolate pudding. Then we went to the Revolutionary Museum, where the president used to live. There were bullet holes in the wall from an assassination attempt . The staircase looked similar to the one in Beauty and the Beast. We saw the Granma yacht. We visited the Muraleando community, which was one of my favorite places the entire trip. It was like walking into someone’s imagination. Malcolm danced all night.
We traveled to Cienfuegos, and while passing the countryside, many horses and cows walked freely without fences. We hiked the Sendero Enigma de las Rocas. There were a ton of crabs, and lizards. We also saw an iguana, a Cuban gar, and a crocodile. We swam in a water hole with brackish water, a mix of freshwater and saltwater. The water was gorgeous. We visited the Giron Bay of Pigs Museum. The photos were very gruesome. Following the museum, we went to the Bay of Pigs beach, where there were actual pigs. The beach was very rocky and there were eight puppies. We collected seaglass. That night we walked on the seawall and danced.
We walked through a marketplace. When we walked into the toy store, it was very scarce. We toured the Tomas Terry Theater, which had a sloped stage. It holds 750 people. We also toured a sugar house, where each room had a different style. The house was absolutely gorgeous. Then, we traveled to Trinidad. We stopped at a fruit stand, and I tasted three different types of mangoes. We went to a pottery shop in Trinidad, and I tried to make a cup. It was quite abstract. The family had a 1915 Model T Ford. We had dinner at La Cieba, a restruant built around a huge tree. We went to an outdoor dancing area, and after Sam screamed, “Te amo!” to the girl that rejected his offer to dance, we went to the Cave Bar.
We traveled to the Sugar Cane Valley and climbed a tower that overlooked the countryside. We tried sugar cane juice, which tasted a lot like apple juice with more sugar. We went to another beach at a resort where a circle of rocks created a type of calm pool.
We began the day by hiking at a National Park, where we swam into a cave with bats. We also climbed into the cave and jumped out of the opening. On our way back, we stopped at some plants that looked like aloe vera and broke off a leaf only to find out that the plant was not aloe vera. I saw a snake and screamed. We ate a cool pirate place, and then we walked around Trinidad square. There were kids skating everywhere. We went to the cave again, and then we went to a gas station and got ham and cheese sandwiches. After we ate the sandwiches, we went to the beach at 4am. We listened to John Mayer and Michael Buble.
We let Trinidad and stopped at an art farm. Hector, the owner and artist, had Mayan bees, which don’t sting. He also had peacocks and chickens. We went to the highest bridge in Cuba. That night we went to the cannon shoot in Havana.
We went to Fusterlandia, a house that is completely covered in tiles. Then we went to an art gallery, where Alpi’s girlfriend works. We finally had pizza for lunch, and although it was not the best, it was still pizza. Then we went on an old car tour and stopped at Havana’s National Forest. We continued on to the National Hotel, and we had a conversation about economics and politics. The guys also smoked cigars, which I am not a fan of. I could not figure out how to smoke it correctly. Then we went to the Buena Vista Social Club, and we saw world famous singers. I loved the dancer’s dress. Later that night, we went to a bar where we danced for a while. I met David’s girlfriend, who was a blast! We left at 3am.
Around 9:45 am, my aunt, who lives in the USA but has visited Cuba many times, picked me up from our apartment. She hired a driver to assist us with travel in Cuba. As usual, he automatically took my bags and put them in the trunk. Before we left Havana, my aunt asked the driver to stop at the grocery store to grab a few things for my family in Bauta. She bought water, beer, soda, macaroni style pasta (because my cousins had never had macaroni), hot dogs, nutritional packets for a distant cousin whose baby was sick, and wine. The grocery store was very different from our grocery stores. There was only one brand of each item and the line for meat, as well as the checkout line, was incredibly long. My aunt actually had her husband stand in line to checkout while we shopped, and after about 25 minutes, he was at the cash register. While driving to Bauta, we passed the countryside, which was filled with pastures of cows, sugarcane, and cliffs. Many of the pastures were owned by the government. The driver also stopped at a broken down car, but after he ensured that they would be able to fix it, we continued driving. Once arriving at my mom’s cousin’s house, I met her two daughters, Irene and Alba. Irene is eight years old with long black hair that could compete with Rapunzel, and Alba is twenty one years old. Alba is engaged to Jorge, and their wedding is in February. Alba is a college student studying world economics, as well as a manicurist, and Jorge fixes appliances. They are currently remodeling the family house. Irene goes to a school about five blocks down the road, but the school itself is very run down. If Irene’s teacher cannot make it to school, she often does not have a sub. A teacher will check in on the classroom every now and then, but the children have to learn the lesson themselves or their parents have to teach it to them. Most times, the school ends around 1pm and the children are done for the day. But they do not have planned schedules, so the children do not know whether they will have to return to class after lunch until the day begins. Irene’s outfit for school was white knee high socks, a white button down short sleeve shirt, a maroon overall dress, a blue necktie, and a blue hair scrunchie. The school provides one outfit for each child. For lunch, my mom’s cousin made plantains, black beans, white rice, and salmon. She offered flan, coconut pie, and guava pie for dessert. I tried a small piece of the coconut pie and guava pie. After having lunch, I took a nap in the only air conditioned room in the house, which they kindly insisted I sleep in, and then we walked over to my grandmother’s brother’s house. I met my mom’s other cousins, Natalia and Santiago, as well as each of their sons. Natalia’s son is about the same age as Irene, and Santiago’s son is studying to be a chef. Natalia is married, but her husband is not her son’s father. Her son’s father moved to the USA, and they have not seen him in three years. Natalia offered cake, and despite being full, I obliged. That was the best cake I’ve ever had. My grandmother’s brother, his wife, Natalia, Natalia’s husband, Natalia’s son, Santiago, Santiago’s wife, and Santiago’s son all live in the same house. Downstairs is the kitchen, my great uncle and aunt’s bedroom, and the living room, then the upstairs is split in half, creating separation between Natalia and Santiago’s families’ rooms. On the roof is a cage for Natalia’s dogs. She wants to start breeding them, a lab and a Schnauzer. Natalia is a chemist at a pill factory close by. My great uncle is taxi driver, and owns a 1949 Chevrolet. Every part in the car is original, except for the engine. Natalia’s son has a disease that does not allow his body to process proteins, so he is on a strict diet. But he loves dinosaurs, and was absolutely ecstatic about the virtual reality dinosaurs game my aunt brought him. After turning down offers for more sweets, we walked to two of my mom’s cousins’ house. They showed me pictures of their children, one of whom’s daughter has the sick child. The other’s son’s girlfriend had moved to Nicaragua. In the backyard, they had three fighting chickens and a dog with an under bite. However, the dog was as sweet as could be. My mom’s cousins offered me cake and coffee, and after declining the cake, they brought out the best coffee I had in Cuba. Once we left their house, my aunt’s husband went to a barber. My aunt introduced me to two family friends at the barbershop, both of whom had left Cuba and were studying in the US. They spoke English, and we discussed the idea of Cuban time, US education, and English. They both said that they missed the US and only returned to Cuba to visit their families. Also, they said that school in Cuba, particularly math, is more difficult in Cuba. The math they learned in 9th grade in the USA was the same math they learned in 6th grade in Cuba. If you think about this, it makes sense why. Cuba does not teach world history or governmental structures in their schools, so there is a large focus on math. We drove to Bauta’s town square, which is centered around a yellow church, the same church that my aunt had her First Communion in. When my aunt was a child, the boys had to walk one way around the square and the girls had to walk the opposite way in order to only be able to have short conversations. My aunt remembered when her cousin would take her to the square to meet up with a boy she liked. On the corner of the square is a statue of Antonio Maceo, a Cuban general who was killed in 1896 during the Ten Years War. Later that night, my family had a party for me, inviting all of the cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and more. They made pork, rice, black beans, plantains, yucca, and cake. We played dominos, and the kids played freeze tag, jump rope, musical chairs, ring toss, Monopoly, and hide and seek. I met my grandmother’s sister, who cleans houses. My grandmother and her look exactly alike. Around 9:30pm, we turned on the WiFi and FaceTimed my grandmother. Her sister and brother cried afterwards, but I think they were happy tears. They asked my grandmother to come to Cuba to visit, to which she said maybe. My grandmother’s brother began telling me about when my grandmother left and how sad he was. My aunt’s last memory was my grandmother’s brother crying in the back of the house. People lined the streets to tell them bye.
In the morning, my aunt realized the water was running out, so she called the plumber. However, Alba’s father was able to fix it. A piece of pipe had broken on the water tank, and he found the part rather quickly then fixed it. My grandmother’s brother and his wife picked my aunt and I up to travel to Artemisa, where we found souvenirs and cooking oil. On the way back, we passed the same cliffs from the day before. My aunt pointed out these giant, missile sized holes in the cliffs, and she said that the Russians used to store their missiles in the cliffs. Once we got back to the house, my aunt and I walked to downtown Bauta and ate at a little bar called Sancho, where we ordered ham and cheese plantains. After lunch, we drove to a friend’s farm, where he raised cows and grew vegetables and fruits. He had recently asked the government for more land to farm on, and they accepted his request. However, he has to sell his cows’ milk to the government. He works for the government testing new agricultural processes. He has two experiments currently, which are testing methane levels in human made ponds. His wife and him live on the farm, as well as his parents. He sent us home with two bags full of mangoes and an entire bag of peppers. When we returned home, Irene’s mom had made shrimp, rice, black beans, and plantains. Irene and I tried to see who could make the best napkin fold. She made a cat and I made a triangle. I’d say I won. After dinner, we sat in the living room and talked until 11pm. My aunt told me about how my grandmother used to throw the best parties in Bauta, and she could kill a chicken with one flick of her wrist. She told me about how my grandfather used to stop at every broken down car and fix it. She told me that when they moved to the states, he did the same thing and helped a teenage girl whose car had broken down in a bad part of Atlanta. After fixing her car, her father, a farm, brought a giant basket of vegetables to my family every year. My grandfather also had medicine and food for anyone in Bauta who needed it. The last story I heard was about how my aunt scratched her arm on a fence after running from cows in a pasture. My grandfather’s brother was supposed to be watching them, and she said my grandmother scolded him for days about her arm. I told Irene that I would wake up early and say goodbye to her before school. It stormed that night, and I barely slept. I did not want to leave my family so soon.
The next morning I woke up around 7am and sat on the front porch while drinking my coffee. Around 7:30am, I said goodbye to Irene and told her that next time I came, we would have a pajama party. I made two little bags of clothes, toiletries, money, and little trinkets for my family. Alba gave me a pretty string heart key chain that I hooked onto my backpack while packing. My grandmother’s brother brought over little snacks for my grandmother that she used to love. A family friend gave me Cuban coffee to take back to my grandmother as well. My grandmother’s grandfather picked up my aunt, her husband, Alba, and I to take me to the airport. I had told my grandmother’s sister goodbye yesterday, and I did not get to see Natalia because her son’s father (from the US) was in town. We were about halfway to the airport when a police officer flagged us down. My grandmother’s brother pulled over and she asked, more like told, if her friend could ride with us. So she hopped in next to me. We dropped her off close to her destination, and then continued to the airport. We parked the car, my grandmother’s father backing it into the parking spot, and of course grabbing my bags. After saying my goodbyes to them, I went through the security check. I waved goodbye to them once more as I walked through the security checkpoint. I cannot wait to go back to Cuba. I cannot explain the amount of love I felt from all of them, and they did everything possible to make sure my stay was amazing.