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Cuba - Away She Goes

Cuba

I have been to Cuba 3 times now, for a total of 5 months.  The first time, I studied abroad for the Spring 2009 semester in Cuba, at Casa de las Americas (español).  I returned May-June 2012 and 2013 as a teaching assistant for Northeastern’s short-term faculty-led program on the subject of photography.

While there for a semester, I lived with 7 other students from Northeastern as well as 9 University of Michigan students.  We called our beautiful penthouse in Vedado the Real World House, and it mostly lived up to its name.  We went to classes tailor-made for us at Casa de las Americas.  NU is one of the few universities in the United States that can legally send students to Cuba.  While there, I went to Varadero, Viñales, Pinar del Rio, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Matanzas.

As a TA on my most recent trips we lived in Havana, also in the Vedado neighborhood, and went to school at the Centro de Estudias Martíanos, which supports the preservation and discussion of Jose Martí’s work and legacy as a poet, political prisoner, dissident and freedom fighter.  I lived with my students, helped them with translation and finding locations to shoot, advised them on technique and image content, and accompanied the group to Pinar del Río, Viñales, and Trinidad.

One of my compañeros  from the Real World House has since grown an amazing organization called Cuba Skate.  He started it in 2010, and it aims to bring skate supplies to Cuba, as well as build a skate park there and promote cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans.  I am a proud supporter of Cuba Skate, and I suggest you contact Mi les y Lauren if you want to get involved!

NU’s website for the first trip.  NU’s website for the second trip.

The Globe’s The Big Picture did a Havana-centric entry.  I lived in a (gorgeous) apartment overlooking the Malecón, which is shown several times.

If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right. Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering. Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you. Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason… Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me?  Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion… Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse;... read more

Tightlipped

Those who know me and read this blog have noticed that there are usually two reasons for me to go quiet: I’m incredibly stressed and busy, or I can’t possibly keep my mouth shut about a new potential opportunity. This time it may be a bit of both.  I’m graduating in May, which brings with it a job hunt and certain anxieties about friends moving away, finding a place to live, and paying off bills.  Granted, I’ve been rather laid back about the whole thing, but that doesn’t make it go away and that doesn’t make people stop asking me about it. On the bright side, I’ve been having beautiful, magical transportive dreams of crumbling colonial facades, cramped, sticky rooms bursting with tambores, and of course, that living creature that is the malecón. See you in May, mi habana! Like this:Like... read more
Evening in Havana

Evening in Havana

After a long day at the beach, watching backflips and swimming to sandbars and eating little cajitas of fried chicken and potato chips for a CUC, we would climb the fourteen floors up to the penthouse.  A shower and a Cuba Light*, dancing along to Otis Redding, the Hold Steady, Lady Gaga or perhaps all three.  We didn’t even fight over who got the shower first, because nobody wanted hot water on those days anyway. There’s something wild and liberating about drinking in the shower.  It’s just enough outside the norm, just strange enough.  Like life really could just be fun forever.  And on a sunny day, after a lot of laughs and swimming, it’s the perfect way to wash off the salt and sand.  It’s days like this that made me love the cool showers.  And the precarious genius of Tomatina parking her laptop in the bathroom. After a shower its time for the balcony, for reading and writing as the sun slips below the malecon.  There’s a balcony right off my room, and I usually got it and it’s perfect breeze all to myself.  The advantage of having your own spot is that everyone knows where to find you, and the company was always good when it came.  Somehow writing feels special if it’s from a balcony in Havana.  From there I watched the floods, the fights, the niños skating, the guys rolling up to see which chicas would come out that night. On these perfect days, these three-day-weekends-every-week days, these relaxing in Havana days, these full and content days, the food was somehow always good.  Rice... read more

Varadero

Picture this: you’ve spent three weeks living in a beautiful foreign country but have barely seen the beaches.  You only have two showers and they’re both always cold, and you’ve been eating arrozcompollo morning noon and night since you’ve been here.  Your mattress is thin, the pillows are stuffed with rags and old cotton batting. But then you get the best news: you’re headed to an all-inclusive resort on the longest uninterrupted beach in the world.  All you can eat food, much of which comes from la Yuma.  All you can drink liquor, but the only one that matters is rum.  The showers are hot, and there’s one for every pair of people. Okay, this place creeped me out. Also among the amenities?  Cubans are bussed in and out every evening, and only if they have proper identification proving that they work on a resort.  This way, there are no pesky hungry people ruining your beach view.  Bingo is conducted in English, French, Spanish and German.  At every meal beef–no matter that outside of these tourist traps is like winning the lottery to find beef from a cow in a Cuban restaurant. “I can’t even say ho-laaa!” the tourists cackle, mostly Canadians and British.  People stumble around at all hours, never leaving the specified resort area.  Never removing their precious plastic bracelets that separate them from the rabble that is Cuba. We only stayed for three days, but for most, this is all they will ever see of Cuba. We stuff our faces, we shower several times a day.  We drink all day long, accomplishing little else.  We cook... read more

Cover Up

Say it’s for respect, say it’s because of religion, say it’s just a rule and don’t ask questions, say it’s arbitrary and sexist.  Just don’t say we need to wear high necklines and low hems so that we are not sexually harassed.  Don’t do it.  Don’t victim blame, don’t lie.  In harassment-heavy countries like Cuba and Egypt, I have seen anecdotally that the amount of clothing is irrelevant.  Cuban guys say piropos to all women, regardless of clothing and almost regardless of age.  White women get slightly more commentary, but no amount of clothing will make me less of a gringa. In Egypt, it has been found that women believe they get harassed less when they cover up more (more being even more than we do in the West, since it includes the abaya, the hijab and the niqab.)  However, these same women actually self-report higher levels of harassment when they are more covered.  It’s just an instance of intense cognitive dissonance, egged on by years of messaging from men, women, harassers and victims alike claiming, as if in some desperate plea for relief, that if only we could wear the right amount and combination of clothing, they would just leave us the hell alone.  But they don’t.  Women in full abaya and hijab get raped in public.  Women in jeans and modest shirts are assaulted all the time. To say that I can stop (or even stem) harassment by changing my clothes is an indictment of women and men alike.  It says men cannot control themselves and thus need to be prevented from seeing that which entices them... read more

Luxury and Insult

Sometimes we forget that the totally normal things we do at home can be seen as totally not okay elsewhere.  Before going to Egypt, we were asked not to go running through Cairo.  For one thing, between the smog, the traffic and the craterous sidewalks, it’s quite dangerous.  And for another, it’s insulting.  Some people ignored this advice and ran anyway.  In their mind, no one has the right to tell them not to exercise.  But in the mind of an Egyptian, running is an ostentatious show of wealth.  For hard-working poor people, the idea that you have so much energy and time that you can exert yourself for fun is downright insulting and bizarre. In Benin, students came to me upset about the behavior of an otherwise excellent student.  He was such a nice guy, such a good friend, that they couldn’t believe his parents had raised him, “that way.”  Confused, I figured out they were referring to his smoking.  Like in the Dominican Republic, very few people can afford cigarettes in Benin.  For someone to smoke them often in public would be akin to flashing expensive watches and purses in an American slum. Whenever traveling, there are special considerations that vegetarians need to take to ensure their health and suitable meal options.  It’s important, though, to remember that vegetarianism (while some people firmly believe it has the moral high ground) is a way of being picky.  This means that additional limitations beyond the lack of meat can often be incredibly difficult to honor, and are generally seen as demanding.  The concept of vegetarianism is upsetting for many... read more

What Relaxed Restrictions on Cuba Really Mean

January 14th, President Obama signed an executive order, and on the 28th of January it went into effect.  It was thrown out with the trash on a Friday afternoon, a safe time after the mid-term elections, in order to protect various members of congress from voter backlash.  It has received little to no publicity, and on NYT it couldn’t be found by searching for “Cuba” until a week or so after the fact.  Every piece I’ve read on it has reported few facts and even less analysis.  So what does it really change? All airports in the US can apply to send direct flights to Cuba.  The direct flights will still land where they always do (Jose Marti airport outside of Habana), but now Miami is not one of the only options. There is no time limit.  Before, it was a 12 week minimum stay for undergrads, making short-term faculty-led programs impossible, which have greatly grown in popularity in recent years in the world of American university-level study abroad.  3 months for a semester abroad doesn’t seem unreasonable, but for many college students, that’s a big commitment.  And once you’ve spent three months using Cuban showers, eating Cuban food and sleeping on Cuban beds, you will seriously value what a 4 week program could do for Cuba. Pursuant to the above point, Northeastern University is sending a Dialogue to Cuba this Summer 1.  Apply!  Speaking of faculty, previous restrictions meant that students had to have a full-time, benefits-eligible university rep with them throughout the duration.  That means you need a professor willing to spend 12 weeks in Cuba every... read more

Cuba

It is so inconceivable to me that Cuba is this far-away, unattainable, imaginary place.  To me, Cuba is home.  When I went to Benin, I didn’t miss Boston, Mass.  I missed that sunshine balcony in habana, cuba. Yes, it is crazy and hungry and desperate and backwards and hypocritical.  But it’s also musical and smart and beautiful and politically aware.  It’s hiphop and dancing and cuba light and fresh fruit all the time and the best beaches you have ever seen. My friend Sarah, who went with me to Egypt, is going for the Dialogue.  And Allyson might apply as well.  It makes me so jealous.  And beyond the obvious bit of I want Cuba to be mine and only mine, I just want to be back there.  I want kisses on the cheek hello, no matter how inefficient I constantly complained they are.  I want stars at night in the city, and stairs forever to get home.  I want walking everywhere you go, and salsa with strangers, and ghetto spanish like you wouldn’t believe.  I want Chango and fidel on tv and no ads and Victoria Hasta Siempre. The Dominican will be amazing, and so will wherever I go next.  But it won’t be home.  It won’t be Egypt and it won’t be Cuba.  It won’t be that feeling of never knowing what’s legal, of torn out parking meters, of instant friendship with strangers, of total impotence against the lack of facts, of surrendering to serendipity. I’m putting on my shade to cover up my eyes.  I’m riding solo.  Te extrano, Cubita.  Besitos y mucho ache Like this:Like... read more

Choosing a New Place

When I first heard about the Benin trip, and how it had a one-week France component, I was a little bummed.  I had already been to france, I already had that stamp.  But I think a lot changed when I was in Cuba. As the trip got closer, I thought of paris as a comfort, as a home in so many ways.  As a breath of fresh air, the way a weekend at my parents’ house can be.  Now, when I think of bangladesh, I don’t think oh! Now I can say I’ve been to asia.  I don’t think about all the great proximate countries and how to cram them in as cheap as possible.  I think about how hard it will be to experience my first truly blind foreign language experience.  I think about how ill probably be alone, and what will I do for housing.  I think about how they treat women, and wonder whether harassment is prevalent.  When I think about the Dominican Republic, I think of the comforts of Spanish and familiar food.  I think of the proximity to Cuba and Haiti.  I think about how going there three times in a six month period will be such an asset.  Of course, I also hope there will be enough food, and that I wont get sick of spending so much time there. I think a lot, too, about the choices I don’t make.  Latin america isn’t supposed to be my focus area.  Shouldn’t I be in Africa or the Middle East?  Shouldn’t, as a friend suggested, I be running back to Cairo? This is where... read more

Domino

This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago.  The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird. I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window.  Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa.  I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home.  But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself.  It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up. There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles.  One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando.  Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall.  They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time. Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated.  He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum. “Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me.  So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.”  He seems pleased... read more

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