Let the travels begin!

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Since I’m the first to leave (sort of — Elena’s been traveling all summer), I’m starting off our blog for the semester… I’m lucky enough to be one of many friends who are studying abroad this fall, and we thought we’d document our adventures in one spot for family and friends to see. Kim, Gena, myself and Elena (in order from L to R) will be in Paris, London, & Havana for the next few months and will [try to] post regularly with updates on our adventures! Yay here’s to a great semester…

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Some noticings…

So now that it’s October 1 and I’ve officially seen a month of Sundays in Havana, here’s a list of things I’ve noticed about this city, in no particular order:

  • Havana is evidently run by small dogs and street cats. They’re EVERYwhere, and sometimes you’ll see a chicken on the side of the street as well. These furry friends range from mangy and sort of zombie-esque to beautifully coiffed lap dogs; seemingly operating on their own system and rarely aggressive. Last night, my friend and I had a little black dog accompany us all the way to our doorstep (literally) after leaving a bar in our neighborhood. I’ll try to get a few photos next time, especially if we see another litter of kittens!!!
  • I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this (and I’m not sure I am), but there’s a very real military//police presence in the city. On more than one night, I’ve seen what looks like soldiers in training lined up in the dark with a superior patrolling to make sure they’re doing what they should be (it’s not entirely clear what that is, however). Now that I think about it, it’s likely part of the mandatory service that young men have to do here, but either way, it was certainly surprising the first time I saw it. Interestingly, I didn’t really notice how many cops there were until my friend and I were stopped one night, and all of the sudden I feel like they’re everywhere. We had just gotten out of a máquina (more on those later) and were walking back to our house when a young male cop asked us for our ID’s. We haven’t gotten our Cuban ID cards, or carnets, yet, so we didn’t have anything to show him. Luckily, we were able to explain our way out of the situation, but I had never before been approached to prove that I was allowed to be in a certain place. Now I notice that there are police and guards and men with rifles all over the place, especially in our neighborhood where a lot of embassies are.
  • The cafeterías are amazing and we’re all plotting on how to bring them back to the States. They’re effectively fast-food restaurants, only they’re usually tiny (standing room only kind of thing) and often run out of people’s houses. The food is super cheap (like a lot of other stuff here if you’re working in moneda nacional, the national currency, instead of CUCs, the convertible currency for the tourism industry), and generally pretty good. It’s almost always fresh, coming from home kitchens, and while the food can take a while sometimes, people will stop for a soda or juice and be in and out in literally 2 minutes. My favorite things at the cafeterías I frequent: una comida with huevos fritos, AKA a plate with two fried eggs, rice & beans, yellow sweet potatoes, avocado, and sort of cabbage salad; churros filled with condensed milk dulce de leche; and pizza with no cheese, AKA extra fluffy flatbreads!
  • Aside from ropa vieja (effectively pulled pork, but made of beef), my favorite snack I’ve found is mani molido, or these wonderful peanut bars. As far as I can tell, they’re just ground up peanuts (mani), milk, and sugar and they range from fudge-y to cookie dough-esque in texture. So good! Also offers a nice alternative for a  quick snack instead of more bread. So far, the desserts I’ve tried that they sell on the streets or in cafeterías have been the most consistently delectable food I’ve found here.
  • One of the first things I noticed walking around Havana was the old American cars rolling through the streets. In every color, make, and model, ‘50s vehicles function as fixed-route cabs that’ll take you along two main thoroughfares for less than $0.50. Crazy and awesome and sometimes painful when the driver doesn’t successfully swerve around one of the million giant potholes in the street.
  • Another thing that caught my attention immediately was the beautiful wrought-iron gates throughout the city. Whether cordoning off the stately houses in our neighborhood or cascaded with plants on balconies in Centro Habana, these gates are everywhere and come in what seems like infinite variations. From heart-shaped trellises to straight bars with tiny pyramids at the top, I’ve probably taken more photos of gates than anything else here. (They may have also inspired my next tattoo idea!)
  • As soon as we left the airport, we saw revolution “propaganda” on billboards where you’d find ads for websites, cell phones, or drinks in the States. They range from short phrases to murals memorializing certain treks of the revolutionary battles, and the images of Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro, and especially Jose Martí (the literary leader of the first Cuban revolution against Spanish colonialism) are ubiquitous. I’ve also found that there’s an emphasis on the idea that the Revolution is still happening (the newspapers say 55th year of the Revolution at the top, right next to the price and the issue number), and that the revolution is for and by young people. I’ll have to do a whole separate post on this at some point, it’s really interesting and I feel like I learn something new about it every day.
  • Finally, from before we even got here, Suzanne, our program director, kept telling us that if we wanted to do something, we would just have to ask the appropriate people to see about making it happen. I have 100% found this to be the case; one girl on my program was set up to do an ethnographic project with a big name professor here because she went to the center of study he works at and waited for 2 hours to chat with him. Similarly, a friend of mine here was interested in taking cooking classes and found something of a culinary institute in our neighborhood that we just stopped in one day to inquire about what our options might be. After a few weeks of back and forth and trying to get in contact with the woman we were told to speak with (who’s evidently the Vice-President of the Federation of Culinary Associations of Cuba), we’re set up to take a Cuban cuisine course every Tuesday and will leave with a certificate and tons of recipes to take home!

There’s so much more I could write about, and a lot of this took more explanation that I expected it to, but here’s a little list of stuff that’s stuck out to me so far. Literally every day there’s something noteworthy I could add to this list, so I’ll start collecting observations for the next post like this. Also, that photo post is still on the way!

#citylyfe

It’s been so long since I’ve even tried to write a post, I’m not sure where to start. For the most part, everything’s been going great — I’ve really enjoyed starting to feel more comfortable in and around Vedado (the neighborhood we’re staying in) and settling into my classes. It’s crazy to think about all the stuff I would be doing around this time if I were at Barnard… I definitely miss all of that “stuff,” but it’s amazing how much I’ve been able to do without having all that “stuff” to do. We have a ton of musicians in our group, so we play music together all the time, and I’ve been working out a lot more as well as reading for pleasure. Imagine, I can actually read a book knowing I won’t be asked to write an essay about it. It feels pretty good, and has got me thinking about what it means to live in a place. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything particularly “Cuban” or I’m not going out enough to explore what Havana has to offer, but I’ve found that the way I learn about new spaces is by doing the exact same stuff I would be doing in my most comfortable environment and seeing what feels different. So, in what sort of feels like eternal summer (partially because of the weather and partially because I don’t have a ton of work yet), I’ve done as much yoga as possible, played basketball with friends, read novels by female authors I really respect, and chased the best food I can find. All the same stuff I love to do in New York or The Bay. Not to mention the music we’ve found and the museums/galleries/cultural “casas” I’ve just started to discover. It’s starting to feel like this semester is going to fly by and I’m so happy I’m spending it in another amazing city.

Speaking of city life, I’ve figured out that 1) I really miss New York and 2) there are certain things that will be the same no matter what metropolis you’re in. A few weeks ago, I watched Jay-Z’s “performance art film” Picasso Baby (someone had it on their computer here), and I was feeling soooo nostalgic afterwards. I’m used to being away from Oakland at this time of year, so it feels completely normal to think “oh, I’ll be back in the fog in December!” but it feels so strange to hear about friends moving back into the dorms, getting settled into classes, and exploring more of the City without being able to share that experience with them. Don’t get me wrong, I love being here, but it turns out I miss Barnard and being on the East Coast a lot more than I thought I would. That said, I’m loving comparing the urbanity of Havana to that of New York or even a smaller city like Oakland. The hustle and bustle, as they say, feels somewhere between Oakland and NY, but the “fast food,” catcalling, and cultural events feel pretty similar in all three places. There’s so much to get into in any of the cities I’ve been able to call home, it’s just a matter of going out to find it.

Next time, I’ll try to put together a list of the best stuff we’ve done so far, and/or a picture post since people have been asking for photos! [Sorry for the delay on that, I still feel weird whipping out my camera sometimes.]

Almost 2 weeks in Havana!!!

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I found another Alma Mater!
After over a year of planning to “study abroad in Cuba,” I’ve finally arrived and I can’t believe how much learning I have ahead of me. The past week and a half has been a whirlwind — I started in Miami barely 10 days ago, meeting the other 12 people I would be living and studying with and now I’m starting to learn my way around my neighborhood in La Habana. I’m having a hard time writing this because anything I come up with sounds superficial and contrived to me, but being here so far has been equal parts surreal and totally believable. On the one hand, it’s like AGHHH I’M FINALLY HERE, IN CUBA, IN HAVANA I CAN’T BELIEVE I GET TO DO THIS and on the other hand, it feels like it makes sense that I’m here, feeling so lucky to be able to study what I’m interested in in a place I’ve wanted to get to since I was 6. I can’t really describe it, but I go back and forth between feeling like 3.5 months is an eternity and feeling like it will fly by, and being equally excited for both. There’s so much available to us through Sarah Lawrence College (I’m on a SLC program) that I don’t know what I’ll regret missing most if I have to say no in order to make time for another opportunity. But even with all of those options, I know there’s no way I’ll leave here after a semester and feel like I “know” Cuba. I’m nearly certain I’ll leave more conflicted about what I understand about this place and how I can or should fit within it. As crazy as that sounds, I can’t wait for that moment and I really hope this semester serves as a continuation of a long-lasting relationship, both personal and academic, with this culture.

This is officially the first week of classes and it’s looking like I’ll be able to take what I need to count for major/minor requirements at Barnard and continue to study what I’m really interested in, including a percussion class at Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA)! Our program directors keep describing ISA as the Julliard of Cuba, but it has everything from music to drama to ceramics. Next time I’m there, I’ll take some photos because the grounds are amazing — it used to be the premier golf course/country club in Havana but was converted into an art school during the Revolution. Excellent. My other courses will be Spanish language at ISA, a class on Cuban society and culture through El Centro de los Estudios Demográficos (CEDEM) which serves as the centerpiece of our program, and either a Caribbean Lit or Caribbean Art class at The University of Havana (La Universidad). Needless to say, I can’t wait to get into my classes and hopefully start meeting more Cubans my age. In the meantime, I’ll be hanging out with these cool cats:

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Katia, Vivian, Timoteo, Lauren, y Julia on our way to see Cristo de La Habana.

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We found it! Cristo de La Habana.

That’s a bit of an update on me, I’ll be sure to post more detailed stuff as I get my thoughts together. There’s so much for me to think about here, it’s going to take a longggg time for me process all of it, but happily so.

Also, a short list of things I haven’t opened yet:
Hot sauce — the food here is not bland, SLC was fibbing in the handbook lol.
3 of the 4 books I brought with me — I’ve been reading way more stuff I’ve found here. Duh, why didn’t I think of that?!
Face makeup — way too hot/sweaty for that, I should have known.
English-Spanish dictionary — whooohoo!! This is maybe not for the best, but I’m learning a lot just by pretending I understand what’s going on haha.