Study Abroad to Cuba 2023

Study Abroad to Cuba 2023

This past spring break, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a study abroad trip to Cuba with my school’s honors program. Each year, our honors program here at Harper has a class that includes a study abroad during spring break and I had decided to participate in it this year. I am very fortunate to have grown up traveling with my family, so every opportunity I get to travel, I take it. Cuba particularly as being such a hard country to travel to is really a once in a lifetime chance. The class that was associated with the study abroad was a geography of the developing world class. This worked out as I really enjoy geography and was able to relate a lot of what we were learning about back to my own interests in sustainability. This trip ended up completely changing my perspective of how I should perceive sustainability on a global scale.

The weeks leading up to the trip were filled with anticipation, especially in the classroom. What was supposed to be lectures relating Cuban geography to that of South Asia easily turned into discussions of what we were packing or looking at pictures of the hotel we would stay at in Havana. Luckily, as the countdown to leaving got smaller, nothing seemed to be going wrong. About a week before we left, our professor told us to purchase candy to bring with us to give out as well as to bring any old shoes or clothes to class as she would fill up an entire suitcase with donations for people we would meet. The two days before we left was my most anxious out of all the days. I was worried the most about being in a place with such restrictions. For example, American debit and credit cards do not work in Cuba so that meant I would be stuck with the cash I brought with me and had no way of getting more. This scared me because of the possibilities of getting lost, losing my money, and no funds to get a ride to the embassy for example. I was also extremely scared of having no cellular service. Growing up in the U.S., I was extremely privileged to always have my phone with a signal while in urban areas. Not being able to easily check in on my parents whenever was frightening. Although I experienced all these anxieties, I pushed through and kept on preparing. Lucky for me, I have a grandma who is an extremely seasoned traveler and did a pharmacy run for me and got me basically anything I would ever need in the event of a medical situation while there. This gave me a lot of peace of mind and I was about ready.

Our flight leaving Chicago O’Hare was scheduled for 6 A.M. so we had to be at the airport by 4 in the morning. This was quite early and my stomach was absolutely not having it with the anxiety and lack of sleep. My dad drove me to the airport and once I found the group by check-in I immediately felt better knowing we were all in this together for the next week. Since we were traveling to Cuba, getting our boarding passes was no easy feat but before we knew it, we were on our way to Havana. Once we landed, it started to set in that I am actually doing this and being here, in Cuba, will be my reality for the next week. Once we de-boarded the plane, we were immediately met with ads upon ads of rum and cigars, something that would never go away while in tourist areas in Cuba. Customs was actually very easy and smooth and we were all able to get out bags. Once we left, we met three tour guides for the week. Two were Spaniards who were hired by the company that planned the study abroad to be there every step of the way and planned a lot of the trip themselves, and one state sponsored tour guide. All three of them were absolutely amazing and provided so much insight into the island of Cuba. The drive from the airport to the hotel was probably the time I experienced the most culture shock. Seeing how run down some people’s living conditions are and how different they live is something no one from a western culture is prepared for. However, I quickly accepted that this is the way things are here unfortunately and that I will probably see a lot more of it throughout the trip.

Our time in Havana was short but sweet. We did a lot of the traditional tourist things, we went to museums, monuments, and had a walking tour of old havana. We also ate out so much. Food was tolerable but when visiting Cuba, it's important to understand they are not bad cooks, it's simply a matter of them not having the proper ingredients to make dishes that most of the world is accustomed to. Being in Havana was a real treat to see the rich history behind the city, and to know that not too many people get to know it like we did. Although we stayed in the touristy part of the city, it was still amazing to meet people and learn about their lives under the odd government. During this time, we also learned that there was an election going on. We learned that it is actually required for all Cubans to vote, however, most do not. It was also weird to learn that we, as westeneres, were always being watched. The Cuban government apparently has tons of citizen spies that keep an eye on tourists and others that may undermine the current government. It felt so weird to know that even the housekeeper may be one of these.

After Havana, we then took our bus out of the city to a little town called Viñales to the west. This was when we were really able to see the history of the United States in Cuba. I was constantly reminded of Florida by the architecture and even the highways were a bit similar to those of the U.S.’s. Once we arrived we met our wonderful hosts for the trip, Roberto and Berta. They owned the casa particular which is the term for what is essentially a bed and breakfast. They provided a room and bathroom along with breakfast and dinner. They were such an amazing family who were so kind and extremely patient with my broken spanish. They were so excited to show us what Viñales had to offer and really made us feel as though we were at home. Their cooking was also extremely good for Cuban standards. Every night I would always say “tu comida es muy rico” which is probably wrong but means that their food is very rich and tasty.

Our time in Viñales was very peaceful and adventurous, we spent most of our days exploring the UNESCO world heritage site. We went horseback riding, went on several hikes, toured several different farms, and even visited some locals homes.The natural beauty of Viñales is absolutely breathtaking. One morning we went on a sunrise hike, this was up the side of a mogotes which is what they call their mountains. They differ though due to geologic reasons and have almost vertical sides. Walking up though was absolutely worth it as the sunrise was absolutely beautiful. We ended up watching it from someone's front yard who served us coffee and juice. We also did some community service in Viñales by walking along a few paths and collecting trash that was left. We ended up picking up a lot since there were 14 of us. It felt good to know we left the place better than how we found it. While in Viñales, I was also able to geek out about my favorite thing ever: regenerative agriculture. This is basically a form of agriculture where you prioritize soil health over just using a ton of fertilizers and pesticides. We were able to visit a few farms here that use this method. One was quite literally in our backyard, it was a small agroforest which is a forest but specifically planted to produce food. There were many fruit trees as well as some sugar cane on the ground and they all seemed to be doing well. It was really amazing to see this here and it being used in other parts of the world besides the U.S.

It was around this time when I had a major enlightening about the environmental crisis around the world. I realized that no matter where we are in the world, everyone will get affected by the impact of climate change and that even these people who have barely any money or resources are still trying to do their part to make the changes necessary. These people have every excuse in the world to not care about sustainability or the environment, yet they still put in the effort, even more than richer countries. This also had a darkening undertone about how no matter who you are or where you are, climate change will still be felt by everyone and everyone will face the impacts. This part of Cuba was recently impacted by hurricane Ian that had ravaging effects on local buildings and infrastructure. These people felt the impacts of this storm particularly hard as many could not afford or even get access to the materials necessary to rebuild. For example, we asked our tour guides what type of things we should bring to donate and one of the most needed things was nails to build with. It is a bit shocking to know that these people cannot have access to things as simple as nails while we can walk down the street to the home depot and pick up as much as we want.

As we were finishing up our time in Vinales and heading back to Havana, I began to become really close to the family we were staying with and shared some amazing moments with them. Although I was struggling to communicate, relying on my 2 years of high school Spanish, I was still able to bond with them about fishing and telling them about my own life. I also told them we cannot see the stars in Chicago because of all the light and they seemed very surprised by that. They told me some nights, they can see the entire milky way galaxy, unfortunately we couldn’t while there but is something I envy a lot. On the way back, we stopped at a beach north of Viñales called Cayo Jutías. It was unbelievably beautiful, the water was clear and warm and the sand was so white. There was also basically no one there which made it even more crazy. All of this beauty was shadowed, however, by all the dead marine life and coral that we swam over. Our group talked to a local fisherman who said many years ago, he had no problem catching fish to feed his family but now he struggles greatly to catch anything. This was another reminder that no matter where you go in the world, climate change has its effects.

Everyone in our group had gotten sunburned that day, we basically all fell asleep on the bus ride back to Havana. The more time I spent in Cuba, the more accustomed I got to the local infrastructure and building style, it did not feel much different from the United States despite being an extremely poorer country. However, this was likely because we were always in tourist areas that were purposely maintained to be nice looking for foreigners. We got back to our hotel and went out for dinner that night as a last hurrah. It was, again, surprising to actually see the differences in wealth between tourist areas and the rural areas we came from. The restaurant we ate on that final night was located in one of the best spots for an establishment. It had air conditioning, fancy silverware, and they even remade one of my classmates’ food when he had an allergy problem. This was something we were very much not used to after a few days in the countryside. It was a fun last night listening to live music while talking about our adventures we had that week. Soon, we all passed out ready for our long travel day home.

The next day, I woke up early to go on a walk with one of my professors and two classmates on El Malecon, which was basically a seaboard walk. Despite there basically being a highway right there, reminding me of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, it was still beautiful to see the water and buildings that lined the waterfront. We only spent an hour or too doing this before we went back to the hotel to get ready to depart. We gathered our belongings and checked out. We took a quick photo-op at Plaza de la Revolution on our way to the airport. It is one of the most famous attractions in Havana but felt more like a parking lot than anything. We then continued on our way to the airport, again looking at some of the extreme poverty of the outer city. It took us a very long time to check-in at the airport but we eventually went through and into the waiting area. We took our last few breaths of the Caribbean(and car exhaust filled) air.

We were on our way home and quickly landed in Houston for a long layover. We went through customs, which was much easier than expected. Two classmates got pulled over and questioned but we soon were at our gate waiting. My first American meal after a week of rice and beans was a crispy chicken sandwich, baconator fries, and a large Dr. Pepper from Wendys. I had missed the sweet taste of high fructose corn syrup and enough carbohydrates for three people. We then got on our final plane to Chicago and watched as storms rolled over the great plains below us. We arrived close to one A.M. and we were all exhausted. We quickly got our luggage and had a big goodbye with one another as our rides came one by one. I said goodbye to my roommate and saw my dad and sister waiting for me. I was happy to be home in my country but kept thinking about the experience I had just had.

I am so grateful for my experience in Cuba and think it was one of the highlights of my life so far. I learned so much about a different culture and about my place on this earth. I not only learned about another culture but more about what it means to be human and different crises we face as a species. However, my biggest takeaway is just how similar humans can be when it comes to things like conversation or eating meals as a family. Although the mask of culture can appear to alienate us from one another, once you remove it, you can easily connect with one another with core concepts of humanity. Finally, it made me realize how environmental changes are not just subject to rich countries but our decisions have had consequences on the whole world and other countries, such as Cuba, have to deal with them as well. I hope I can return one day in the future and see a better, more prosperous nation doing better.