I spent the entire fall semester in Cuba taking classes at the University of Havana and venturing across the island to explore Viñales, Topes de Collantes, and Santiago.
university of havana
The University of Havana. All photos courtesy of the author.

Everyone says that college is the time to travel — study abroad lets you collect new personal experiences and expand your horizons, so why not take advantage of the opportunity? When I sat down to look at my school’s study abroad programs, one location immediately called out to me: Cuba. My grandparents left Cuba for Venezuela, where my dad was born, one week before the Bay of Pigs invasion. I grew up eating lechón, cleaning the house to the tunes of the Buena Vista Social Club, and listening to my dad tell stories about my grandparents’ upbringing in Havana. Given some of the difficulties with traveling to Cuba, study abroad was the perfect opportunity to learn about and get to know my abuelos’ home country —a place my dad had never even visited— all while earning academic credit.

I was able to experience the Cuba that doesn’t usually make it into travel guides and connect a little with my raíces, too.

In August 2018 —after an orientation that involved repeatedly asking people’s names and trying to get used to speaking Spanish full-time— nineteen other college students and I lugged our heavy suitcases up to the baggage check at MIA. Like middle-schoolers on a field trip, we were corralled by the directors of our study abroad program through the terminal, did multiple head-counts, and excitedly asked each other who was sitting next to whom on the plane. A few of us sang “Guantanamera” while waiting on the jet bridge, which, as if it weren’t already obvious, immediately alerted all the native Cubans that there were yumas on board.

Related Post: Biking Cuba: Is Havana the Ideal City for Two Wheels?

I spent the entire fall semester in Cuba taking classes at the University of Havana and venturing across the island to explore Viñales, Topes de Collantes, and Santiago. As a foreign student, I was definitely more privileged than the average Cuban. However, I like to think that after four months prowling around La Habana to find the best cafecito, giving Cirque du Soleil a run for its money with the contortions I pulled off on the packed guaguas, and dropping consonants out of words like only vowels exist, I was able to experience the Cuba that doesn’t usually make it into travel guides and connect a little with my raíces, too. 

All those brightly-colored classic cars and even taxis are widely considered tourist transport. Instead, if you want to do as the Cubans do, take a guagua (bus).

Before arriving, we’d been warned that living in Cuba might be sort of like camping: we’d have to go without some stuff that we were used to, but we’d adapt and still have an amazing time. Well, when we got to the baggage claim, the lights went out right as the luggage started to be loaded onto the conveyor belt. And I don’t mean they flickered off, I mean they just shut off. “Bienvenidos a Cuba,” our director said, and that’s when most of us realized we were in for quite a different experience than we were used to back in the good ol’ EEUU. 

That’s just how Cubans are: besitos are the rule, not the exception. 

One of the first things I learned is that all those brightly-colored classic cars and even taxis are widely considered tourist transport. Instead, if you want to do as the Cubans do, take a guagua (bus) from a terminal like this one in Havana. Guaguas can get pretty crowded and uncomfortable, even borderline asphyxiating on a hot day when you’re cheek-to-cheek with a stranger (in more than one sense). However, they’re also microcosms of the cities themselves, making them not only one of the cheapest and most convenient methods of transportation, but also one of the best places to people-watch. 

I was worried about being the only foreign student and joining such a close-knit group. My classmates not only shared a national background, but had been sitting next to the same people, stressing about the same assignments, and experiencing the same challenges and triumphs every day for the last three years. And as a granddaughter of Cuban migrants, my pop-culture knowledge and slang were outdated by a little over half a century. However, as soon as they learned my name —¿Gabriela? ¡Pero eso es hispano!— my classmates absorbed me into the group and treated me like an old friend. That’s just how Cubans are: besitos are the rule, not the exception. 

The conversations we had about Cuba itself were also invaluable, providing me with the missing sequels to the stories I’d grown up with.

study abroad havana
Havana, and Cuba in general, has an incredibly rich music scene.

You can go to El Submarino Amarillo to hear covers by Anglo rock bands (and take advantage of that AC while you listen to AC/DC), or see any number of famous performers like Silvio Rodriguez or Cimafunk at free concerts along the Malecón. However, I really enjoyed attending concerts by up-and-coming artists, most of whom were university students my own age. Besides the fact that going to these concerts is a great way to support new artists during a challenging time in their careers, there’s something magical about trekking across El Vedado at night with friends to see a singer whose name you saw by chance on a flyer. Those songs might someday be radio hits!

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study abroad havana

You never know what you’ll see just walking around Havana. One day while out with a friend, we stumbled across this LGBTQ+ pride demonstration at the Paseo del Prado. Activists and allies gathered with rainbow flags and participated in a televised flash mob, and yes, it involved a few salsa moves that I will not attempt to replicate. While the Cuban government and the public still have a complicated relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, nothing has deterred LGBTQ+ Cubans and their allies from advocating for equality and promoting positive views of LGBTQ+ individuals on the island through marches, social media campaigns, and fun events like this one. 

While I spent most of my time in Havana, I never tired of traveling outside the capital to visit different parts of the island. Cuba is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with gorgeous beaches, mountains, and rivers.

Farmers plant coffee in the mountains, where the altitude produces a particularly good crop, then sell most of it to the government so the public can get their fix. Growing coffee in Topes de Collantes is often a multigenerational family business, with each neighbor insisting their beans produce the best brew. You have to be part mountain goat in order to navigate the steep, twisting terrain of the cafetal, but the views (and direct access to caffeine) more than makes up for it. 

october 28
October 28th is the anniversary of the death of national hero Camilo Cienfuegos. Members of the military, students, and the general public honor his memory by participating in processions to toss flowers into the ocean. I snapped this photograph before joining friends from the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria, the University of Havana’s student government, which coordinated a march from the university to the Malecón to throw a bouquet of roses in Cienfuegos’s honor.
latin american film festival

During our last week in Cuba, we all got our second “passports” to attend the International Latin American Film Festival. Almost every night we wolfed down our dinners —after four months I never got sick of pork, yuca, and arroz moro— and headed over to the Cine Chaplin or the Yara theater, periodically sending scouts to the lines at the theater entrances to try and gauge what our chances of getting in were (not good). While most of us didn’t get to see the more popular films (good thing Roma came out on Netflix!), camping out with my friends in lines that could rival Black Friday and analyzing the indie Italian movies we actually got to see was a fun way to end the semester. 

study abroad havana

The best part of my semester abroad was by far the people I met. My host family (left) and the friends I made, both American and Cuban (right), helped quell any homesickness and make this one of the best experiences of my life. We went to Coppelia and played dominos, celebrated birthdays and crammed for exams, explored the island from end to end, and shared a LOT of chisme. The conversations we had about Cuba itself were also invaluable, providing me with the missing sequels to the stories I’d grown up with and allowing me to make my own determinations about the history and legacy of the island. I still Whatsapp my Cuban family and friends from the university on an almost daily basis, and it doesn’t hurt that I now have an excuse to return to those Cuban beaches, either. 

study abroad havana

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