Monday, April 28, 2008


¿Como andas?

So ya ya ya, I’m a slacker on the blog once again. Sorry dudes. I’m going to skip ahead to what I’ve been doing lately and hopefully fill in the gaps later on in life when things calm down a bit. Explanation for the rush-Throughout our program we were told that we would have our carnets (Cuban Temporary Resident card) until the end of our trip. However, at the end of March, Immigration let us know that they would be revoking them at the end of April to begin processing our exit visas. So…subtitles, this means that we are only able to pay for travel in Cuban pesos and rent rooms in casas particulares as students until the end of April. Due to that, we bumped up our planned travel schedule (us being my travel partners in crime Katie, Susan and Mary) up to fit in all of the places that we’ve wanted to visit. Our professors have been awesome and taken a week from our April class schedule and moving it into May so that we could have an extended time to travel to the farther ends of the country.

Three weeks ago, Katie and I ventured to Camaguey for a weekend. It’s a small city mid way down the island (similar distance as between Albany and Buffalo) that was built as a labyrinth to prevent piracy in the 1800s. The bus ride was excruciating…we went Cuban style. First, the bus was very small and the space between the seats made even me feel cramped, so you can only imagine how tight it was. Also, driver insisted on stopping at least once an hour, sometimes more, playing western films between blaring Cuban pop and cooling the bus to a not-so-sleep-conducive-when-in-shorts 50 degrees. We finally arrived after 11 hours at 2 am. After that, we had a great time though, our casa was amazing, with 18th century tiling throughout and a very helpful host family that made killer breakfasts (but still not as good as a diner!) We took a tour of the city on Saturday with a friend of the family who owns a bici-taxi, a bench seat with a canopy attached to the back of a tricycle…it was sweet. To make it better, our guide’s name was Tai-Chi…and he’s the local Tai-Chi instructor, pretty flipping sweet if I do say so myself! We got to see the many churches that dot the city, many of which were visited by Pope John Paul (Juan Pablo) II when he visited the city in 1998. There was this amazing square that was constructed by one of the cathedrals in 1998 that has sculptures of local residents and because it is still fairly new, you can still catch the inspirations hanging out near their replicas waiting for curious tourists. After that, we went to the bus terminal to get our return tickets for Sunday evening, but in typical Cuban “lets really annoy them’ style, the Cuban peso ticket office closes on weekends, making purchasing a return impossible. To calm down, we treated ourselves to a steak dinner, French fries and drinks, a big splurge at 5 CUC (woot!) We got ice cream at Coppelia after that and resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to cut our trip short and not go to Cayo Coco to make sure that we got back to Havana by Monday. So we packed in early and got up early to try and get on the bus waiting list. Oh yea…there were 95 people on the list when there are only 2 buses that go to Havana, each with 40 seats, so that wasn’t going to happen. So, being the resourceful Cubans that we’ve become, we went outside, did some bargaining and pitting taxi drivers against one another and hired one to drive us the 11 hours back to Havana for $20 each (how far would that take you in NYC?) He made it in 7 and just in time for us to eat dinner back at home at ANAP.

Week=same ol’ same, classes, research for paper writing, the boys playing their guitars on the porch, eating peso pizza, watching half-century old restrictions being lifted. Ok, maybe that last one isn’t so bland. One of the cooler prohibitions that was removed was the inability for Cubans to enter or book hotel rooms in tourist hotels. A few of us ventured out just before midnight and headed to the Hotel Nacional to celebrate the change-over and picked up a Cuban friend along the way. The hotel was just as quiet as it would be on any other night, are friend being the only non-hotel employed Cuban there. We had a great time celebrating, but it was a definite sign that although there are changes here, Cubans won’t be immediately affected if they still don’t have the money to take advantage of the opportunities. Anyway, as we were leaving, our friend stood in the middle of the lobby and yells, “I’m legal in here now!” and all of the employees started cheering. It was quite the fun time.

Oh yes. A fun detail on Friday. I was bitten by a dog. Yup…chalk that one on to my “I do my own stunts” list. I was walking with Katie in Habana Vieja looking at paintings when I went to look closer at a piece on an easel and caught the tail of a dog that was sleeping underneath. He jumped up and bit the left side of my left foot, then when I tried to shake him off, he went for the right side of the same foot. Not a pretty site, but three Canadian tourists with a car came to my rescue, pouring purified water on my foot and took me to the hospital. Apparently “Cuba is a rabies free zone.” Uh huh…so they refused me a rabies shot, instead cleaning the cuts, giving me a “muscle relaxant” injection and sent me on my way. Turns out that the muscle relaxant was a tetanus shot that I neither needed nor was told about, so that was a bit frustrating. Its all good now, just was very swollen and sore for a week or so.

After that ordeal, we packed up once again and headed toward Santiago de Cuba on the opposite end of the island. We knew it was going to be long, the ride is about the distance from NYC to DC, but predicted to take 17 hours including all of the stops along the way. So we settled into our cramped little seats and passed the time between napping, watching awful western films, listening to iPods and reading. Intermixed in that was a mariachi soap opera that was on repeat on full blast that must have cycled about 8 times throughout the trip, once playing as our wake up alarm at 6 am (you can bet how that one went over). Including a 3 hour stopover in Camaguey to find a new bus driver, the trip took 21 hours and we finally arrived at our casa particular at 8 am.

After a nice nap, we toured the area around our casa, which was right in the heart of the historic district with a famous church 3 blocks down, a few museums scattered around and the site where Fidel proclaimed the Revolution’s triumph on December 31st, 1959. We attempted to buy bus tickets the next morning, but as Cuba goes, it wasn’t easy. We had to stand in line for 3 hours before getting up to the window and being told that every bus to the destinations that we wanted to go to, 2 in Santiago and our return trip back to Havana, were sold out. Panic set in for a few, but we put our names on the much more expensive tourist bus lists for one of the excursions, Baracoa, as well as back to Havana, but no such luck to the Sierra Maestras. As we were about to walk away in dejection, two guys came up and offered to “use their contacts” in the bus station to get us onto the Cuban peso bus to Havana. So, going with the flow, we explored our black market options. Lo and behold, an hour later, we ended up with tickets to Havana in Cuban peso, bought “a la izquierda” with a small bribe fee-oh well, eso es Cuba. We were very proud of ourselves for finding a way to get home, a little amazed by how we did it. In our wait, we bargained a day tour on a bici-taxi to the harder to get-to sites on the outskirts of the city. First up was the cemetery where we saw the changing of the guard at José Martí’s tomb, as well as the graves of Tomas Estrada Palma, the Bacardi family, and many soldiers from the 26th of July movement. After that, we toured the Santiago Rum factory, which is one of the most famous in Cuba and happened to have free samples. Then we headed to the Loma de San Juan (San Juan Hill) where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought in the Spanish-Cuban-American War. That was a long day, so we treated ourselves to dinner at the Melia Santiago, the local 5-star hotel, where we got garlic bread and hamburgers with Coca-Cola and Sprite for 7 CUC, it was AMAZING!

The next day, Susan and I headed five hours northeast to Baracoa, the first settlement in Cuba, founded in 1512. The ride was gorgeous, but was a literal zig-zag through the mountains the whole way, which made for some fun games of rollercoaster. We got there and found the most beautiful place on Earth-it’s like tropical jungle mountains blend into a crystal clear Caribbean beach with a quaint village in the middle and some early Spanish colonial forts thrown in for good measure. It was incredible, we just sat on the Malecón for a few minutes and stared in disbelief. All of that until we realized that we were given bad information and had no way of getting home. Have to love Cuba. So luckily, while staring out to sea to try and relax for a minute, one of those pesky hustlers came up to the two of us and asked it we wanted a taxi or boyfriend. Susan, being the feisty one she can be, says “Nope, out of luck with those two, but you can help us out by finding us a way back to Santiago.” As luck would have it, he actually did have a way and arranged for his brother to drive us back that night…PHEW! Finally able to enjoy the town, we walked along the ocean to the main square, where we found a peso chocolate café (Baracoa is Cuba’s chocolate capital), a few art galleries, live musicians, and a church with Latin America’s oldest cross. We then headed the other way through town, to the harbor, when we got trapped in a rain storm and wound up talking to a family for about an hour and a half. After that, we went up a giant hill to an old Spanish fort, explored there, then had dinner and drinks overlooking the town. We met our ride at 8 and hoped in for another great journey through the mountains, I got to see the Guantanamo Naval Base from a distance and was otherwise fun except that I got sick, but it passed and all was well.

The next day, we took it slow. Saw the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel and his army first began their rebel activities in 1953. They failed miserably the first time around by the way, got sent to jail for a bit. Later that afternoon, we met up with some friends that we had met in a park and went to the first game of the Cuban Baseball World Series between Santiago and Pinar del Rio. It was an amazing game, everyone was on edge and into the game, it was a ton of fun. No peanuts or beer, but lollipops and coffee did the trick from the same type of vender. After an amazing 7th inning where Santiago scored 7 runs, they won the first game 9-2! (They eventually went on to win the title)

We took a ’55 Chevy out to the Bay of Santiago the next day to see the marine sights of the city. First up was El Morro, a fort that protected the entrance to the Bay during the Spanish colonial period. After exploring that for a while and finding Coke in a tourist shop, we headed down to a ferry (more like a covered motorized row boat) to Cayo Granma, a secluded fishing island in the middle of the Bay. We walked around that for a bit, amazed at the disrepair of the houses and the cheeriness of the town people, we stumbled upon a roof top restaurant owned by one of the island’s fishermen. For a whopping 40 CUC, the four of us got 2 orders of lobster, 1 order of both shrimp and fish, a large tomato and cabbage salad, soft drinks, and individual plates of rice and corn. Such a good lunch! After that, we headed back to the casa where the others took a nap and I headed out on an adventure. I had wanted to go to this church way out of town in the middle of the mountains that the locals rave about its beauty, but no one else would go. So, I took local transportation-a covered livestock truck with benches inside, hey, it was 40 cents of a Cuban peso (less than 1 US cent) instead of 30 CUC-up through the mountains for 45 minutes to El Cobre. It lived up to its hype. This huge cathedral was nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and when I arrived, sunrays cut through the clouds and shown just to the right of the main steeple. It was absolutely beautiful. I got to talk to some of the older ladies that lived around the boundaries of the church and heard the history of the buildings and their experiences living so close by, so that was a fun additional touch. After getting some advice from the gas station attendants on how to get home (some things never change around the world), I caught another truck back into the city. Fun sub-adventure, I caught a motorcycle taxi back to our casa! Up side-it was my first motorcycle ride, down side-I burned my leg on the exhaust pipe…oh well!

Friday was set aside to go into the Sierra Maesta mountain range to hike the trails that the Castros had followed as they started their Revolutionary regrouping and planning in ’58. Long story short, the driver never showed and we ended up going to Santiago’s 5-star hotel to drown the disappointment in pasta arribiata, garlic bread and their swimming pool! It ended up being a great end to the week and just the relaxation that we needed before the bus ride home (which ended up being much easier and getting in an hour early-unheard of in Cuba!)

Ok…more to come: Isla de Jovenetud and more daily life!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Part 2!

Ok…part two, as promised. I know that it’s not Wednesday, but not my fault this time! Cuba had no internet…ok excuse?
Next up, are the Juegos Caribes. These are the 2 week games between the departments (Facultads) of the University of Havana. This year was their 86th year, which also coincides with the 280th anniversary of the University and the 85th year of FEU (University Student Federation-Federación Estudiantil Universitario), so there were lots of anniversary celebrations.
Tuesday, the 18th, were the opening ceremonies in the University stadium. As per usual, the event started late…about 2 hours late tonight, but all was well since I got to meet and hang out with Cuban students from my Factultad-Filosofia e Historia. We exchanged phone numbers and hopefully will be able to hang out soon. When the event started, the crowd went wild and so began the craziest week of my trip so far. First up was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Jr. or so I like to call it. It was this amazing group of 7-10 year old martial arts students that performed a routine of flips, kicks and balancing like you’ve never seen before, it was incredible…no worries, I taped it! After that, we were welcomed by members of the University and FEU administration and the parade of Facultads began. Each Facultad had planned their own skit, so I didn’t get to participate, but it was just as fun being in the crowd for it. Each came past the stadium seating and their respective fans went wild, but none compared to ours, which snagged a telephone pole repair truck, the ones with the extendable basket, for the night and decorated it for different time periods, with our athletes dressed up accordingly. It was awesome…we pretty much crushed everyone in the creativity aspect. After the parade was done, the games were officially opened by an official from INDER, the governmental sports authority (Instituto Natcional de Deportes y Educacion Recreacional). Woooot. After that, members of FEU and past Juegos stand-outs ran the torch around the track, up a hill and lit a torch at the far end of the stadium! Then the party broke out, a group of young gymnasts performed and the stadium was suddenly transformed into a club. The performance ended and the track was opened for all of us to dance, as a DJ began to play the current Cuban pop songs. It was sooo much fun, we stayed for about an hour, but the music got worse as the night went on, so we headed out.
Two days later, Thursday, I had my first day of competition. Track (atletismo) began at 9 and I was scheduled to run the 3k and the 1.5k. I was pulled from the 1.5k because apparently athletes are unable to run 2 distance races in the same day, so the Facultad had more runners for that one than needed, so only ran the 3k…the last race. I spent the day chatting with my team mates and had a great time hanging out and exploring the campus of the Havana Sports University, the site of our races. Background-the only races that day were the 1.5k, 400, 100 and 3k, pretty short schedule, right…wrong. This is Cuba. The 3k didn’t go off until noon, right in the middle of the blazing sun in 103 degree heat. Yikes! It was so hot, but off we went. Two girls went out from the start and continued to widen their lead through out the race, but I ran in 4th place until the last 3 laps of the 7.5 lap race. After that, I went into 3rd, tried unsuccessfully to catch 2nd place and finished with the bronze…yay!! The Facultad was very proud and I walked away from the day with one of Filosofia e Historia’s two medals from the day. After that, I came home to ANAP, chilled out for a bit, ate dinner, then went to see a baseball game-Industriales versus Sancti Spiritus! We played clueless tourists, bit knowing where to sit and went down to the front row, since tickets are only general admission, except for the front rows behind home plate. So we were asked to move to up to the general admission section, but were then told…nevermind, just sit in the third row. Third row seats behind home plate…woot! That was fun. Industriales (the Cuban version of the Yankees) were up 2-0 when the rain came pouring down in the 3rd inning. Some how, we managed to meet one of the Industriales sponsors who was at the game that night. Yea, that was lucky. So when the game was officially cancelled, he took us to the team buses and had each of “his boys” come over to talk and take pictures with Katie, Cate and I. It was pretty fabulous. After that, we walked with his friends and him to the Plaza de la Revolución, where we talked about different things about our program and his work, which we each found very interesting. After that, we caught a cab home and called it a night.
Friday was another day of races, up bright and early with the sun to run my heart out. Oh...I forgot to mention one of the best parts of all of this. The Juegos are a pretty big deal around the campus, so if any professor tries to give you a hard time about missing a class for a game/race, the dean of your Facultad will write you an excuse no questions asked….pretty good deal, eh? Luckily I only missed 1 class and the professor told me to go and represent the Facultad well, I would learn more there than in her classroom that day. So…I headed to the University and picked up Kristen and Kelly from UNC along the way to catch our guagua (public bus) to the track. First race was the one that all three of us were registered for…the 5k. Woot. We warmed up for that, checked in almost immediately and got ready to get the hardest race of the week over with. I was assigned to the same lap counter as yesterday’s 3k, who was also the Sports University professor that invited me to her running club after the marathon, so we became good friends. The 25 racers went to the line, the blocks were clapped and we were off. The pack went out slow and I decided to stay in 3rd, on the shoulders of the 1st and 2nd placers for a bit. On the 3rd lap, I made my way up to 2nd and stayed there for another 3 laps. After that, I had a burst of energy and went for it into first. Who knows what came over me, but I forgot about any pain and just loved running in this race in Cuba, with my Facultad cheering from the sidelines for the three of us crazy Americans. It was fun and fueled me through the next 6 laps. On the final lap, I went full throttle and kicked hard to the finish line, finishing in first by 300 m! Kelly and Kristen did amazing, finishing close behind in 4th and 7th place, giving it there all after not feeling too well that morning. I was so excited…brining home the gold! It was an amazing feeling and the Facultad came up to celebrate with me. Until the 200m, my next race, was called to check in before the last of the 5k racers had crossed the line. Quick awards ceremony, ran across the track to the 200 starting line, switched to my make shift racing flats, the flipped the switch to the sprints, or velocidad here in the 537 (Havana…almost 518 for home, but not quite). I was in the outside lane and went out hard, but the 5k kick caught up with me and I hit the wall after the first 100. I still ran hard and didn’t lose any ground, but couldn’t produce that finish to place me higher than 3rd in my heat to qualify for tomorrow’s finals. Oh well. I was done for the day. Wait…nope, they told me at the finish that they needed a sub for the 4x400 relay. It was still 2 hours away, so I agreed, rested up, took my vitamins (yes Mom!), and practiced hand-off with my teammates-Tatiana, Yodi and Lili. When race time came, I was told to be the anchor and we went out to the start. The first three legs went out hard, but couldn’t seem to finish quite as strong, which put us back to 5th place out of 6th. I got the baton and ran strong, but not my max until the last 200, then hit the booster to try and catch the 4th place girl, I got within 10m of her before she saw my shadow and out kicked me to the finish. 5th place, not too shabby and we were done for the day. We headed across the infield to pack up, but then across the megaphone they announced the qualifiers for tomorrow’s finals…4x400m-last qualifier-Filosofia e Historia!! Somehow we managed to make it to finals, I learned some new Cuban swears pretty quickly after that was announced! How did that happen!? Who knows, but it did! Although it didn’t make any difference because we had no more substitutes and 2 of the girls couldn’t make it tomorrow. Oh well, we had a great time anyway! I headed home at 5, showered and rested my tired legs, and had an amazing ANAPpetite (what we call our ANAP dinners…clever, no? ok…maybe just dorky, do you have ANAPinion? Got that one?) I got all dressed up after that and went to see the National Ballet, directed by Alicia Alonso, perform Giselle. That was wonderful! I wish that the US had as many cultural events open to their citizens as Cuba…where else could I see world-class ballet for USD $0.20?
Day 3 of the Juegos competitions. This time swimming. Yup…you read right, I some how got rooked into swimming. Up with the sun again, but luckily had time for coffee…phew. I met Sara and Alex at UNC on the way to the University and after waiting for an hour, we went to the swimming stadium on our own. It was pretty sweet, we took the guagua outside of Havana to the PanAmerican complex built for the 1991 games that Cuba hosted. We had time to warm up, I saw a guy wearing an AU shirt (although he had no idea what AU was) and the races began. First race was the 50m butterfly (mariposa), which Sara got a bronze…yea Fresa! The next race was the 50m backstroke (espalda), which both Sara and I both competed in. The whistle blew and all I remember was my flailing arms, frantic legs and water rushing up my nose, but when all was said and done, Sara got first in our heat and I got third! Neither of us ended up medaling, but we had a good time. Alex was in the guys heat and also had a great race, but didn’t medal. Third was the 50m breaststroke (pecho), which Sara and I also raced in together. Whistle blew, goggles filled with water, kept swimming the breaststroke, and somewhere along the way switched to the butterfly…oops! So I got disqualified, I don’t profess to be a swimmer nor ever will, and Sara got second in our heat, but no medal. Unfortunately, my legs got mad at me after that and went shaky for a bit, so I went for a walk and withdrew from the next race, the 50m freestyle (libre). I was all better when the race began and watched Sara swim to a third place finish in the heat, but no medal, and Alex get fourth in his heat. Next up…relays! Our Facultad only brought 4 girls, so we all sucked up our fatigue and went for it. First up was the medley relay-I swam backstroke, Dania swam breaststroke, Sara swam butterfly and Dahlia was anchor with freestyle. At the end of my leg, we were in 3rd and each successive leg closed the gap between us and 2nd place, but we fell just short and got 3rd. Bronze! Yay! Our Facultad was very proud and came down to the pool to congratulate us. Not much time to spare though, the guys were soon in the pool and we were there to cheer them on as well, they swam a tough race against stiff competition and just missed the podium by a few seconds. After that was the 4x50m freestyle relay. Three days of intense competition was taking its toll on my body, but by getting in the pool, it gave my three competitive teammates the chance for another medal. I was lead-off, the whistle blew and I was ok for the first 25m, but after the turn, I was done. My legs just didn’t want to move, they did to the finish and were enough to keep us in 4th, but it was time to call it quits after that race. Sara was in next and pulled us right back in the race, then Dania pulled close enough to swim in the bubbles of the 3rd place swimmer. Dahlia dove in and took charge, brining us comfortably into 3rd! Another bronze! Wooot! After that was the guys and they were well on their way to a silver, when the third leg suddenly got the biggest cramp I’ve ever seen-baseball sized and visible outside of the leg-and had to be pulled out of the water before he could finish his leg. They were disappointed, but glad he could get help quickly. Alex was our final racer, in the 200m free, where swam hard, but not quite enough for a medal. We waited for a bit for the totals to be calculated, then had the medal ceremony. Winners from our Facultad-Sara with an individual bronze and our relay with 2 bronzes! Team-wise, the guy’s Facultad members placed 7th and the girls got 3rd! Daikel, our Facultad president was impressed that we placed so high with the minimum number of girls needed to compete…go us! After a long day, we went back on the bus and got some ice cream before the rain clouds got the better of us and let it pour. I went back to ANAP, had dinner, they got ready for another night out on the town. This time, I went with Susan to the Hannover Boys Choir at the theater down the road from the residence. They have always been too far away or too expensive for her to see in Germany, so this was a perfect chance. They sang a beautiful mix of classical compositions and contemporary music from both Germany and Cuba. From there, we headed to our friend Ray’s house and had coffee with his mom, grandmother and sister and talked about his upcoming move to Germany, which they’re all very excited about. The rain came again and Susan and I headed back to ANAP and called it a weekend.
Lets stop there…are your eyes tired yet? Part 3 will be separated from this for your sake-coming up is Easter (3 ½ hr. Christian rock in Spanish) and Matanzas (Santeria goat sacrifice). This weekend I will be traveling to Camaguey, so I suppose I should include that too. April is pretty crazy with travel, as the government is taking our ID away at the end of the month to process our exit visa, so I’ll be away every weekend until then. Fist-Camaguey, then two weekends in Oriente-Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa and the Sierra Maestras, then last weekend off to Isla de Jovenetud. Just a little itinerary there! Talk to you all soon! xoxo

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Hola Asere,

How is everyone? I’m a dork again and haven’t written in forever. I apologize…I lose. Good news is that its because I’ve actually found a social life here and its keeping me hopping! So anyway…on with the show.

Let’s start with our group trip to the central provinces of the island. It was fantastic!

We set out Wednesday the 12th for the four hour bus ride to Santa Clara and the Escambray Mountains. Our first stop was the Ernesto Che Guevara Museum and Memorial in downtown Santa Clara, which documents Che’s life, his role in the revolution and in others in Africa and Latin America, and is also where he was laid to rest after his body was returned by the Bolivian government. Santa Clara was chosen for this site because it was there that Che launched his attack on an armored train that was carrying supplies to Batista’s troops, which guaranteed victory for the rebels and resulted in Batista fleeing the country the next night. It was really interesting museum, but I found more value in exploring the surrounding streets, located behind propaganda billboards and tourist bus stop. The houses were made of wooden planks, tin and cement and are in a state of serious disrepair with their residents on the front steps watching kids play baseball with broom handles or coming back from work on their horses. As I passed between the museum and a park, a mother came up to me and said “I know you’re a tourist here and that you’re carrying soap and shampoo for your travels, will you go back to the bus and give me some?” It was heart breaking and made me wonder how these residents live such a hard life with strong pro-revolutionary slogans in their face everyday. The revolution definitely has its good points, but there was a striking disparity between propaganda and reality in this case. After we wrapped up the museum, we headed into the Escambray Mountain Range at sunset to our hotel on a beautiful reservoir, with a pool, rooftop lounge, and best of all…hot water and French fries!! It was pretty much heaven. After getting settled, we went to the Escambray Theater, an institute that creates and performs plays based on controversial issues of the revolution, hopefully provoking participation and reactions that will help to perfect the situation for the population. We watched a movie about the history of the theater, me the actors and had an amazing 5-course dinner. Around 11, we headed back to the hotel, hung out for a bit, then tucked in for the night.

On Thursday, we met in the morning for breakfast and a boat tour of the reservoir. We rode for an hour and saw a good portion of the lake, then were taken to a site owned by the tour company, which had a restaurant, live band and hiking trails. I set out with a few others up the trail, which was unexpectedly straight up, to the top of the hill and a great panoramic view of the lake and mountains. After heading down, we got French fries-amazing-and listened to the salsa band play the typical Chan Chan and Guantanamera set, then went down to the water. We collected some shells, then were given the ok from the boat captain to dive in the lake off of the boat…so clearly we did! Don’t worry…we were safe! We had a great time in the water until our time was up and we had to head back to the hotel. We hung around the pool for a while, got a nice tan, then went for another hike with Abby. We found a trail up one of the higher mountains near the hotel and timed it perfectly for sunset! It was amazing. We had such an good 360 degree view of the lake, mountain range and valley as the sun went down and changed the colors of the area. It was one of those once in a lifetime experiences. One element that we forgot-sunset means no more light….oops. So we trekked down following our tracks in the dark and made it home without a hitch…yay us! After showing and getting all of the prickers off of my shoes, we went back to the Escambray Theater to watch a play about the prohibition on Beatles music being lifted. It was really interesting to see how different frustrations were paralleled with the songs, and how despite these existing issues, some have been alleviated. It was pretty fun to watch. After that we had another great dinner, but an awful dessert…boiled candied orange rinds=no good and had a dance party with the actors until 1am.

Friday, I woke up for sunrise across the reservoir, which was a beautiful way to start the day. We had breakfast, packed up and headed out for our second leg of the trip to Trinidad. What should have been a 1 hour ride turned into 3 hours of sheer torture as we took a “short cut” through the twisting, crumbling, narrow mountain roads and our air conditioning broke in the 98 degree heat. Needless to say, there were 35 grumpy tourists in Trinidad. We got some free time to walk around the town and explore the art galleries, cathedrals, and UNESCO supported colorful colonial homes. After a few hours, we headed to our hotel, which ended up being an all-inclusive beach resort with not only hot water and French fries, but also a hot tub, real pizzas and catamarans! Life is good, epecially when its all on AU’s tab. Some days I love my school. So we ate several pizzas and plates of fries with pineapple slushies before heading to the pool and life-size chess board. We had a buffet dinner, which had good marinara sauce for the pasta, a garden salad and pies…things which are hard to find around Havana! After that, we saw sunset on the beach, watched an awful attempt at a dance show, then joined a conga line to the bar led by one of our academic advisors here…shes such a crazy, awesome 65 year old.

Saturday, we had breakfast, then headed into Trinidad for our guided tour of the Museums of Architecture and Romantic Arts, then had some free time to make purchases in the galleries and artisan fair and visit other parts of the city. From there, we went back to the hotel for beach time and lunch, where I had a vegetable pizza and went for a kayak ride. After that, we headed into Valle de los Ingenios, where the sugar mills were based in the 1920s and 30s. It was a gorgeous, long valley with a tower in the middle, which we were able to climb, that was used to keep watch over the slaves. Susan, Cate, Matt and I went back into Trinidad after that to watch the sunset from the top of one of the Cathedrals, but ended up on a hill above the town, with a great view of the ocean, city and mountains below us and a beautifully crumbled early 19th century church behind us. We had some great conversations with local artisans on our way back to the city and found out some non-guide book listed things about Trinidad. We had a great rest of the night, with dinner, swimming and watching ESPN…I was in my glory.

Sunday morning we left Trinidad to head back to Havana, with a pit stop in Cienfuegos along the way. It was an easy drive and we arrived with enough time to take a quick tour of the historic plaza in the city. There was a quaint, yet extravagant theater in the middle of the town, with an unassuming façade and gorgeous balcony seating and a mural on the ceiling. Back on the bus, we drove 4 hours back to Havana and arrived just in time for the always wonderful ANAP dinner and our house family waiting for us with hugs as we came up the stairs.

Next up: Juegos Caribes! Matanzas! And plans for future travels due to some unexpected changes! Coming on Wednesday…I promise!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Part 2

After Viñales, we started in on another routine week, but actually not really. Monday we went to class as per usual, and had an interesting history class about Cuba from the 1933 revolution against President Machado through the first years of the 1950s, as Fidel was rising in the ranks of political society. However, our afternoon International Relations class was cancelled and we had the chance to go to the University talent show at a theater downtown. I didn’t know what to expect, but the acts were amazing! There is some serious talent in the student body here. There were dance groups, soloists, bands, comedians and poets that performed for two hours and were great. I took down a few names of the poems and songs that were included and I’m hoping to find them online. I also got my first package from home! Yay! It was soo nice seeing things from the US again and getting some snacks from home! Tuesday, I had off from classes and used the day to visit the Olympic Committee, but unfortunately tell them that I wasn’t permitted to work for them (a long story…). It actually went better than expected, they invited me back anytime for interviews and gave me a magazine that is sent out to the National OCs from the International Olympic Committee and the opportunity to subscribe to it, as well as three pins-one of a project that they’re involved in, the Cuban flag, and the official Cuban OC pin…sweet! After that, I set off for tallest building in Havana to take some pictures with Susan and Cate, but we got distracted by the fact that there was no line at Coppelia. We took the opportunity and went into the Moneda Nacional section and ordered an ensalada each, 5 small, delicious scoops of vanilla (today’s flavor) with caramel sauce and nilla wafers…yuuum…grand total 5 pesos each ($0.20) I <3 pesos. After that was a seminar on Cuban race relations, dinner and dance lessons. We’ve finally started pairs dancing, so it is actually starting to look like we can salsa! Wednesday, we were supposed to go on a field trip to Guanabacoa’s Santeria Museum, but instead we had a lecture on three sects of Santeria from a 65 year old academic. In addition to studying world religions, she fought in the ’59 revolution in the streets of Havana, survived an airplane loosing 2 of its 4 engines en route to Spain, and was denied a visiting professorship at Harvard because she has been put on the US terror watch list...I’m curious about the reasons behind all of those stories. It was an interesting class and I’d love to learn more about that religion and its popularity here. After class, I actually made it to the tallest building in Havana, the Focsa tower, with Susan and Mary, and got an amazing view of the city as well as some good panoramic pictures. Our group split up and I went for a stroll around Centro Habana, away from all of the Embassies and wealthy organizations of Vedado, through the residential areas of Havana’s working class. It was an eye opener and one that I liked experiencing because I was able to get a sense of the real conditions of living in Cuba, all of its hardships, community and routines. I’m hoping to do this more often. I ended up talking to an older man on the side of the street who was fixing the engine of his 50s Chrysler and having one of the best conversations yet. We talked about his dream to travel abroad and see the world outside of Cuba, but inability to do so because he has barely enough to live a comfortable daily life here, and his hopes that certain restrictions and constraints on the population will be lifted under Raúl’s proposed reforms. After we finished talking, I went to the University and met with the president of the student federation for my school (Facultad de Filosofia e Historia) about the possibility of joining a sports team. I signed up for track, with swimming as a back up, and found out that baseball/softball isn’t offered to girls at this level and the few others that are offered were filling quickly, even though it was only the third day of classes for Cuban students. It showed me that the interest is there, but as a society, sports are still considered the man’s realm and female participation isn’t well accepted. He had dance lessons again Wednesday night, and continued to progress…you guys better get ready to learn when I get back! Thursday, we had our history class at the Museum of the Revolution and explored the exhibits from the Spanish colonization through the 1959 revolution, which is where we are in class. After we finished, Susan and I stuck around and saw the artifacts from the ’59 revolution, including Fidel’s boat, the Granma, a few of the vehicles used on the battle lines, two 1950s airplanes, an armored tank, a missile representing the Missile Crisis, the engine from a destroyed U-2 spy plane and a pirate rowboat…yea, which one there just doesn’t belong? Anyway, after we finished that section up, we went through the 1959-present section of the museum and explored the areas that used to be the presidential palace up until 1965, which were beautiful. That afternoon, we walked up the street to the Capitolio building, a replica of the US Capitol that housed the Cuban representative body from the 1930s to the 60s. Now it houses the Academy of Math and Science and retains all of the grandeur of its past. The architecture was incredible, including a library straight out of Beauty and the Beast, grand meeting rooms and a decorative rotunda, with ceilings that were detailed in gold. We were let into the old legislature by a security guard that liked us and got to stand at the president’s podium, as well as pretend to be representatives speaking on the floor, definitely a fun experience. Friday we went to the beach and soaked up the sun and ocean, then hit an outdoor reggaeton/salsa concert by the Malecón that night.

OK….IMPORTANT-STORY OF THE WEEK! So…Saturday, I woke up early with Kyra to run a “marathon” race at the University in honor of International Women’s Day. Marathon apparently means 3.5k here…not sure how that word got lost in translation, but we thought it would be fun to run a race while we were here and just have fun at a short distance. Registration was classroom desks and lined paper with our names written on it along with the scrap of paper with our number on it. We also ran with five UNCers who were running in memory of their student body president who was killed this week and was on this program two years ago and also ran this race while she was here. I made my way to the front of the staging area in time for the Cuban National Anthem, then the gun fired and we were off. It was the most aggressive start I have ever seen, pushing, shoving, elbowing all over the place with people full out sprinting down the starting hill. The pack died as they couldn’t maintain the sprint and I caught the girl that I had had my eye on since the start (hot pink spandex…it was easy to keep track of her). There were tons of people on the street cheering us on from their balconies, the busses that were stopped on the side of the road and families who had come to see people run. Anyway, I maintained my pace, having a good time, taking pictures while running and listening to my iPod, when all of a sudden the road forked and the guides looked startled and quickly directed me to the right as all of the people in front of me went to the left. I was handed a slip of paper with the number 1 on it. Huh? Then I heard “Pare, pare, este es el fin!” aka…stop crazy, this is the finish! Then other girls started coming down the same road and getting their slips. I WON! I placed first for the female category at the University Women’s day race! How sweet is that? A bunch of Cubans were coming up and kissing me on the cheeks, saying congratulations, and happy women’s day, it was surreal! I’m still not really believing that it happened. There was a ceremony on the steps of the Museum of the Revolution where I received a gold medal and a bag of prizes, including some pretty cool shirts. I was approached by several groups to run with them throughout the provinces of Cuba, so I might try a few of them out and was also told by the president of my faculty to count on running track here! SWEET! So I was on top of the world. Then the day only got better, as our group had lunch with Phil Brenner from AU and got US updates, then went to the US Interests Section mansion for a cook out and party. This house was incredible-coral and limestone exterior with a royally decorated interior with a total of 63 rooms throughout the property, giant grounds, swimming pool, tennis court, playground, formal gardens…you name it, it was there. We had a great time, having actual beef hamburgers, potato fries, pickles, Coca Cola, chocolate ice cream and chocolate chip cookies. I was in heaven. After lunch, we talked to the Interests Section director and his officials about the foreign service, which was very intriguing, and played a few games of tennis. We then had coffee on cups with gold eagle emblems and looked at the artwork in the house. Overall, it was an absolutely incredible day that I was so perfect I’m not sure if it was a dream or not. Seriously a day I will always remember.
Today, its chilly and I’m in a long sleeve shirt and back to reality. Going to a flamenco show this evening at 5, then getting ready for classes tomorrow. This week, we head off on our mid-semester 5 day trip to the middle part of the country. We head off on Wednesday to visit Trinidad, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos and will return at some point on Sunday! I’ll talk to you then! P.s.- I’m giving you homework!
For more info on life in Cuba look up these things:
Cecilia Valdez
El Morro/La Cabaña/El Punto
José Martí
Hotel Nacional
Los Van Van
Polo Montañez
Universidad de la Habana
Los Muñequitos
Charanga Habañera



Hello World,
Sorry for the long delay in updating this, Cuba has been keeping me busy! There is so much to see and do that I’m thinking that four months might not be enough!
Let’s start from last weekend. Get settled, this one is going to be long.
Katie, Kyra, Susan and I set out early Friday morning for Viñales, a UNESCO protected system of mountains and caves about three and a half hours west of Havana in the Pinar del Rio province. We took a tour bus from outer Havana through the beautiful, rural countryside along the highway. There were many tobacco and banana farms (called fincas), oxen drawn plows, and humble thatched homes with colorful clothing hanging to dry outside. About half way, we turned into the mountains for a short stop at Las Terrazas, a terraced eco-friendly farming community in a paradise of palm trees, mountains and teal watered lakes. It was absolutely gorgeous! They have a fully self-sustainable community with schools, housing, shops, and a medical clinic, as well as tourist attractions like a zip line, paddle boats and camping spots. Definitely a place that is on my list of placed to return. We headed back down the mountain toward Viñales, alongside more mountains and farms for about an hour, then through the city of Pinar del Rio, and finally into our destination.
When we stepped off of the bus, we were swarmed by village women with business cards offering us rooms in their homes to say in for the weekend. We found an offer that we liked and followed her through the small, one main road town, to her family’s home. Unfortunately, we had some troubles with identification and they wouldn’t accept that we were temporary Cuban residents and we had to find another place to stay. We found a lovely family down the street that accepted our ID and rented us two rooms for the weekend at 15 CUC (same in dollars) per night, plus the option of dinner for 7 CUC and breakfast for 3 CUC. The family was made up of the owner-Margarita, her husband-Estevan, Margarita’s mother, father, sister, and 1-year old nephew, as well as Estevan’s son from a previous marriage that comes home on weekends. They welcomed us with freshly pureed banana juice, oriented us to the neighborhood, and set us up with guides to explore the mountains and tips for where to visit. We headed out into town after that, with an imposing chain of round-topped, tree covered mountains in front of us. The four of us ended up wandering down a dirt path into a tobacco farm, where farmers were harvesting their leaves and tending to a calf that had been born a few days before. Then we headed down to the other end of town to find the botanical gardens, which came highly recommended, but no one in the town knew about. After getting directions from two school children, an oxen cart driver and a lady at a bus stop (also being the klutz that I am and running straight into a bench and bruising my leg pretty badly), we found the gardens behind a gate covered in halved grapefruit and oranges and bananas on a string. Oh…and there was also the doll head fence toppers and baby doll scarecrows, both would have scared off any bird or intruder…it was crazy. The gardens ended up being very nice, some beautiful flowers and views of the Mongote mountains, and a plate of fresh fruit at the end of the path. We headed back to the house for sunset, where we sat on the flat roof and got to see “el puesto del sol” with a full view of the mountain range and the oranges and bright yellows of the sunset. That was definitely a memorable experience and made for some great pictures. We headed down to the best Cuban dinner so far, of fried fish, tomato and bean soup, rice, plantain chips, tomatoes, cabbage, pineapple, grapefruit, papaya, bread, and mojitos. It was sooo good and the four of us polished it off. After that, we planned out the rest of the weekend, tried to motivate ourselves to go out, but with a lack of an idea of where to go and being exhausted, we crashed.
The next day, we were greeted by freshly harvested and ground coffee, eggs, bread and guava jelly, pineapple juice, pineapple and grapefruit for breakfast. We then had the chance to learned how to make the coffee from Margarita’s mom, Clara, who was about 75 and had an electric personality that became made us excited about whatever she was doing or talking about. So she showed us how to roast the beans, how to know when they’re done, then the proper way to let them cool, how to grind them by hand and the way to brew the coffee in a cast iron pot. All of it was interesting and I bought a pound of the final product to let you all sample! After that, we grabbed some peso snacks and were picked up by our guide, who led us to his house and saddled each of us on a horse. Of course, I got the little one, named Luciero. We headed into the valley between the line of mountains that are visible from the village and the strip parallel to them, where the caves are located. We road through tobacco, sugar cane, corn, coffee and banana fincas, each one a bit different from the next and got to see some amazing views of the mountain range. After riding for a bit, and occasionally racing each other, we visited a campesino, or combination farmer/rancher/cowboy, who invited us into his home and showed us his land. We began by processing raw sugar cane through a machine called a trapiche, similar to a rotating press, which extracted sugar juice from the cane. The guides and four of us each got a cup, then were given a splash of rum and grapefruit juice to make the drink one of the best I have ever had. After that, we got to try a hand harvested and made cigar, of tobacco and guava leaves, honey, rum and sugar. The combination was really good and I picked some up for you guys at home. After trying out the trapiche and machete to process the sugar cane and hearing about the crops, we headed into the mountains toward the caves. We road through a tobacco field and saw the drying process, over a wooden bridge, and arrived at the cave. We left the horses outside and headed into the pitch dark with lanterns, wandering through stalactites and stalagmites and hearing the ecological history of the cave system. We reached the end of the cave and were guided to a swimmable lake! We had our bathing suits on, so we jumped in and explored the cave that way! It was chilly, but refreshing since it was about 90 out on the horses. The water was over my head for most of the way, but toward the end, it became shallower and the lake ended in a mud pit! Supposedly the mud has healing powers, which may or may not be true, but it made for a great mud fight regardless. We swam back and headed out of the cave for our ride back with the horses. The way back was more a chance to see the incredible views of the mountains and ride fast on the horses than visit the sites, so it was a different way to see the same path that we had taken into the valley. The tour ended and we headed back to our casa particular for showers (hot water!!!! The first since I’ve been here!) and the food that we had brought to make our own dinner. We headed out to a salsa and reggaeton party on the town central square, but that ended pretty quickly when one of my friends started feeling sick and it didn’t seem to be a quick fix. We headed back to the casa with her and Margarita’s family was great in helping us take care of her, calling a doctor and everything to make sure that she would be ok. She started feeling a bit better around midnight and fell asleep, so we all got some rest and waited it out until the morning.
I had breakfast early in the am, of bread and honey, coffee, pineapple juice and eggs, then we all packed up before our bus and headed out for one last walk around the town to get everyone some fresh air and recoup from the night before. We ended up walking down a random dirt path again, on the opposite end of town than before, and found a campesino and his family walking just a head of us. I asked him where a coffee finca was and he guided us there, showed us around each crop, explained their growing season and profit (**side note**-1 seasonal harvest of tobacco for about an acre of land is only paid 10.50 CUC by the state, so that is either all the family can live on for a year, or they have to expand their property or diversify crops, yet each cigar made from that tobacco costs 10 CUC and only requires ½ of the leaves from one plant) After our tour of the crops, he showed us a day old baby goat, which was adorable, showed us his drying house for tobacco leaves and rolled us each a cigar from his plants. It was such an unexpected morning, but turned out to be my favorite part of the trip. We paid him 60 pesos for his help and the look on his face was unforgettable, just absolutely ecstatic and thankful. It was all we had, the equivalent of $3, but he was so happy…it was an incredible moment. We headed back to our house and said our goodbyes, exchanging contact info to keep in touch, then went to the bus station for our 2 o’clock bus back to Havana. I passed for 11 for the kids fare (yea yea yea, but hey! It was ½ price!) and we wound our way back through the Cuban countryside back to Havana just in time for dinner!
The end of my Viñales story. Look up at the next blog for more stories from the week. New pictures are being posted!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

February 24th!

Happy February 24th to all! Not only is today the announcement of the election results in Cuba, but it is also the day that their War for Independence began in 1895 (Spanish-Cuban-American War). So today means many things to Cubans.
The election results will be announced at 2 and the country is awaiting the news. Although, similar to Tuesday, today seems to be a typical day in Havana without much overt excitement or tension. (Just joking…apparently the announcement time changed to 6:00, I guess even presidential election results don’t follow a schedule here!)
This morning, I headed to the Palacio de Convenciónes (Convention Center) in Miramar, where the Asemblea Nacional was meeting to elect the republic’s next President and Commander in Chief, as well as the new second in command. I caught a maquina (taxi car from the 50s) to Miramar with Susan, Robin and Matt and was able to have an interesting conversation with the driver and another passenger. I asked them if many people were going to the Palacio to observe the elections and what they thought would unfold today. I was told that the Palacio would be busy, but they didn’t transport many people there, and that although today is historic, they weren’t too anxious to hear the result. The passenger was quiet, but at one point spoke up, saying, “Esto es que el Comandante ordene”-this is what the Commandante (Fidel) ordered, as in he has said a all along that he wants Raúl to be his successor and that is what will transpire. That seems to be the consensus around here- why be excited when we know what will happen? It’s more of an emotion of retaining the status quo, whether that individually means something positive or negative, rather than viewing things from the big picture that this is a new era in the revolution. The four of us tried to get into the area around the Convention Center, or even inside if possible, but the police were less than flexible about security today. We tried almost everything, but in the end were denied and ended up hanging out in the parking lot where the invited diplomat’s parked. It ended up being a good place to camp out since we got to see all of the countries that were invited and talk to their chauffeurs about what was going on inside. Then we walked down the street for one final attempt to get in and ended up talking to one of the head security officers from the Ministry of the Interior for about an hour. It was an amazing conversation about the electoral process, conditions in Cuba (he had a very favorable view), political freedoms and events at the Convention Center. He was very proud that Cuban citizens are able to choose their representatives, even though they are all within one party, that they are there to represent their constituents and the issues, rather than being career politicians and that those factors would combine to create the best possible government this afternoon.
After the conversation, we headed back to Vedado and had another good conversation with our taxi driver. Unlike most other Cubans that I’ve talked to, he had many opinions about what he hoped would happen today. Rather than the Raúl Castro/Carlos Lage pair that seemed to be popular, he wanted to see Felipe Pérez, Fidel´s former Chief of Staff, elected as President, and really doesn’t like Lage. So that was interesting to hear, especially as some of his comments could have easily been considered as dissidence and we were riding in a state owned taxi. When we got back, I went out in search of a newspaper and any events surrounding the election. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to report on, as life has been continuing on as usual within the changing political environment. I learned that Sunday papers are combined with the Monday papers because the Correo (postal) workers don’t work on Sundays, so that’s always helpful to know. Other than that, people were listening to music, playing basketball and baseball, doing chores and watching the tv for results. I tried to get the opinions of some of the people on the street, but couldn’t get too many people to stop or if they did, to say something in public about the election. I’ll try for more tonight after there is some closure to the election process and people can react rather than predict.

So, election results were just announced and Raul Castro is officially the President and Machado is the Vice President. He was a name that didn’t come up much, so I’ll do some research and post more details mid week. I video taped the announcement and hopefully I can post it soon! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Pictures!

All is still well in Cuba, things are just as calm as yesterday and they seem to be remaining that way at least until Sunday´s election results. In the mean time, I was able to compress some pictures and post them on my flikr site at . Nothing too extraordinary, but they´re very representative of the normalcy in Havana. Hope that you enjoy them!