Ay Dios Mio!

By: Ethan Smyth

Day 1

There is a reason most tourists visit Cuba in the winter months, and that reason became clear to me as soon as I got off the plane in Havana. The heat. I know, I should’ve been expecting this. It’s not that I thought Cuba, a tropical island in the Caribbean, would be cold in May, it’s just that I didn’t expect this kind of heat. The kind of heat that makes you feel embarrassed to have allowed your mom to convince you to pack a jacket and wool socks in your suitcase. I had no choice but to immediately become resolved to the fact that I would not stop sweating over the course of the next ten days. Once I had that realization, the heat somehow became a little bit more bearable. We met our tour guides, Daniel and David, at the airport, and they brought us to the vans that we were supposed to use for the entirety of the trip, but only ended up lasting us a few days. Oops spoilers, we will get to that. The vans drove us into Havana, where we stopped for lunch. That’s where we met Ernesto. I don’t really know what Ernesto’s job is, but I think he was Daniel and David’s boss, and he kind of showed up randomly over the course of the trip. Ernesto welcomed us to Cuba, gave us some information about the trip, and passed out the spending money that we had transferred. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this first meal was a good indicator of what most of the other meals were going to be like. A salad, that wasn’t so much a salad as a platter of cucumber and tomato slices, with a mound a lettuce and cabbage in the middle. White rice and black beans, a classic combo, were also passed around at most meals. We also typically got to pick a main course from a short list (this time I picked lobster). Then they brought out some sort of dessert and coffee for anyone that wanted it. This formula was followed at the vast majority of meals we had. After lunch we headed farther into Havana, for our salsa lesson. All I have to say about that is, if you think you are going to be bad at salsa dancing you probably are. In my case, at least. After that hour that felt like an eternity, we headed to the homes we would be staying in to change for dinner. I stayed in a house with the other two boys, Baker and Justin. It was a beautiful home with very kind owners, and two tiny and insane dogs. We headed to dinner, which followed the same formula as lunch (this time I picked chicken). After that, we went to a salsa dancing club right on the Malecón, the seawall that stretches along the coast of Havana. I didn’t partake in the salsa dancing, but I did get to know our tour guides a little better, and I tried my very first Cuba Libre, which is essentially a rum and coke. I ordered mine without rum though (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). After that we went back to our houses for the night.

Day 2

Second day in Cuba started off on a high note. Our house mom laid out a nice spread for breakfast, including mango (pronounced mon-go) that I still have dreams about. Also Justin gave me his portion of eggs which was pretty cool because I’m a growing boy and I need my food. We ate up and then hopped in the van. First stop was a wildlife preserve type of thing where we got to see a bunch of crocodiles. I fed one from a distance, so I can tell you first hand that there is nothing quite as terrifying as the sound of a crocodile snapping its mouth shut. After that we went on a short boat ride to an area with replicas of indigenous Cuban huts and sculptures, which was neat. Then we jumped back in the van and headed to lunch. Only thing worth noting at lunch is that I ordered fish, and the head was still attached when it was served to me. So I got a nice meal, and I learned a lot about fish anatomy! After lunch we went on a little nature hike up to a natural pool where you can go cliff diving. I wasn’t planning on jumping, but I’m a real sucker for peer pressure, so I ended up jumping a few times. Would recommend. We did see a crocodile in a nearby pool a little earlier so that was sketchy, but none of us lost any limbs so it turns out it was safe after all. Next stop was the Bay of Pigs Museum, which was closed by the time we got there. All the cool stuff, like planes and tanks, were on the outside so we got the gist of it. As we headed to Cienfuegos, our home for the night, our van broke down (for the first of many times. Oops spoilers). Almost everyone was able to cram into the other van, but I was one of the few tragically left behind. It actually turned out for the best, because Daniel and David brought out a speaker and we had a little fiesta (translation: party). Before long our driver Freddy, a tender man with a kind soul, got the van up and running and we were on our way. In Cienfuegos we had dinner and then had a little party afterwards, which included a band, dancers, and a group of random Cuban youths that were loitering nearby. Baker showed off his killer dance moves, Calista found love, and I played the maracas and ended up joining the band, I think. A good time for sure.IMG_6665.JPG

Day 3

Wow my word count is already almost at 1000, so I’m going to speed things up a little. To save time, I’m not going to talk about the breakfasts from now on. Just know that we ate breakfast every day, and it was always the same kind of stuff. Ok let’s get started. The boys and I decided that we deserved to sleep in a little, so as a result the walking tour of Cienfuegos was abbreviated, but still very informative! From there we headed to a hiking trail where we hiked to yet another body of water, this time with a waterfall feeding it, and we once again jumped in. Loved it. From there we drove to Trinidad, where we would be staying for the next two nights. We went out to dinner and then went to a club inside of a cave. It was pretty uneventful, I don’t want to get into it.IMG_6716

Day 4

This is an easy day to talk about, because we were at the beach all day. It was awesome. We went to a resort with its own private beach, and home to one of the top 20 prettiest views I have ever seen. The water was beautiful with its various shades of blue, and the mountains in the background were stunning. We got some much needed rest and relaxation, and I only got kind of sunburned, so that was nice. We left for dinner, and then headed to a square in the city that had a band and dancing. We headed back early, and some people went to one of our hotel owner’s birthday party, but I didn’t. If you want to hear about it, ask literally anyone but Baker and me. They all love to talk about it. The one thing I didn’t go to ended up being the freaking highlight of their trip. I’m still pissed if you can’t tell.IMG_6753

Day 5

On the fifth day we started off by going to a sugar plantation. We got to try sugar cane juice, which was very sweet, and climb a tall tower, which borderline gave me an asthma attack. From the top you could see the whole valley, which was beautiful. After that we got in the vans to head towards Santa Clara, but before long both of our vans broke down, leaving us somewhat stranded in the middle of nowhere. Eventually taxis came to pick us up, but not before we met a few locals, some sane and some not. Because of the delay, we had to postpone our visit to Che Guevara’s Mausoleum for the next day.  We arrived in the resort in Santa Clara, and relaxed by the pool for the rest of the day. After dinner, we were hanging out when a couple guys came up to hit on the girls in our group. After they were shot a swift L, Baker and I started talking to them, and it turns out they are pretty cool guys. Long story short we ended up becoming friends and later on squading up in the local club, so that was fun.IMG_6771

Day 6

First stop was the Che Guevara Mausoleum. It was closed. The outside was pretty cool though. Then we visited a group that assists the families of people with disabilities. We learned about the organization and had the opportunity to visit with some of the families. We saw first hand the conditions that some of these people had to live in, but we also saw the optimism that they all had, despite their circumstances. Afterwards we drove to a small farm for lunch. I know I said I was going to stop talking about the meals a lot, but this meal was crazy good. I actually can’t describe the meal too much because I am still not quite sure what all the dishes were, but rest assured they were good. Rice and beans made an appearance as well. For dessert we had mango slices and fresh coffee. Some of us may have gotten confused and thought you were supposed to dip the mango in the coffee, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Everybody makes mistakes. Seriously chill out you guys I’m sorry. Anyway then we got a tour of the farm, including a sculpture garden and a bee hive where I got to drink honey right out of the hive. After we left the farm, the van broke down again. Classic. This time they fixed it right back up and we were on our way back to Havana. We were dropped off at our houses (we had the same one as before, so we got to see our crazy dogs again), and we got ready for the night. We went to dinner at a place with really good bread and then went to a bar called Espacios, which was a blast.

Day 7

We woke up bright and early to head to a local restaurant called El Ajaco. We toured their garden and learned about different herbs and whatnot, before heading into the kitchen. They then taught us how to cook two dishes, which we made and then ate for lunch. We also learned how to make our own mojitos. I made mine without rum (that was in case my mom reads this. It definitely had rum lol). Then we headed to Ernest Hemingway’s old house, where we learned about his life and his works. We also got to see the boat that the boat in “The Old Man and the Sea” was based on, which I thought was cool since that is the only Hemingway book that I’ve read. We got in the van to head back to Havana, but before long the van temporarily broke down again, so that was cool. After dinner we hung out at a club for awhile.IMG_6896

Day 8

This was an exciting day. We started off with a walking tour of Havana, where we learned the history of different monuments and buildings, and got to explore different plazas and markets. Also I finally had a Cuban sandwich, so that’s off the bucket list. Then we had a vintage car tour of the city, which made me feel kind of like a rich celebrity. It started to rain so we took shelter in the Hotel Nacional, which is a gigantic and very regal hotel overlooking the ocean. Not quite sure why we didn’t get to stay there overnight but whatever. They had Wi-Fi so I got to facetime my mom for Mother’s Day, so that was a bonus. Afterwards we headed to dinner and then went to a concert put on by a famous Cuban band, before heading to another bar.IMG_6868

Day 9

We started off the day with a nice, long, bumpy van ride to Viñales, a UNESCO world heritage site. We stopped at a viewpoint to marvel at a valley dotted with the towering limestone cliffs that the site is famous for. We enjoyed more of the views from the restaurant/garden where we ate lunch. Then we headed to a farm where they grow tobacco and make cigars. They taught us about the process of making cigars, and then offered some to us, but I didn’t take one (that was in case my mom reads this. I definitely took one lol). Then we went horseback riding through the valley. I almost died two times, once when I was taking a really cool selfie and almost fell off and once when my horse legit went from 0 to 60 mph in like half a second and I almost fell off. Other than that it was a lot of fun.IMG_6920

Day 10

The last full day of the trip had us feeling a mix of sadness and relief. We started the day with a hike/boat ride through a cave in Viñales. That was fun, but what was even more fun was playing with some kittens we found outside. In hindsight that might not be the best idea, because they didn’t seem to have an owner, but I haven’t been deathly ill yet so I guess it turned out okay. We got in the van and started to head back Havana, with a stop for lunch. We stopped for lunch at a hotel that legit had trees growing inside of it which was neat. We had plans to go zip lining nearby, but the rain canceled those plans. We got back to Havana and had our farewell party. There was live music, dancing, speeches, and a lot of picture taking. We even ended up going back to Espacios. It was a last hoorah of sorts, and I know I had a great time for sure.IMG_7041

Day 11

Last day 😦 We woke up real early so we could go on a little shopping spree. First we went to a cigar store inside of some sort of fortress. I don’t really know what came over me, but I ended up impulse buying 20 cigars. I think I forgot that Cuban money isn’t like Chuckie Cheese tickets, where you need to get rid of all of it before you leave. Cuban money can be transferred back to American money, which I seem to have forgotten in the moment. So come over if you want a cigar I guess. Anyway, then we went to a market. I bought a coconut. Then we were off to the airport. Once we got there it hit me that we were really leaving. I had to say goodbye to our tour guides, friends that I had spent the last ten days growing closer to. It was sad saying goodbye, but they give me one more reason to come back to Cuba!

And hopefully one day I can return. Cuba is a beautiful and diverse country, with a rich history and kind people. This trip introduced me to a country and culture that is truly unique, which I got to see and experience firsthand. In only eleven days I feel that I have only scratched the surface of what Cuba has to offer. I miss it already!

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El Viaje De Tu Vida

Day 1 – Sunday May 7th

     Today is finally the Day!  Am I really about to go on a trip to Cuba!  I walked into Hartsfield-Jackson Airport where, after many minor setbacks, I met up with the group that after this amazing trip I came to think of as mi familia.  The flight went smoothly and we all walked off the plane ready to start our adventure.  The Havana airport was much larger than I expected and had an array of floors and escalators that could very easily disorient even the most experienced of travelers.  Going through security in Cuba was a breeze compared to the US and so we headed out and met our amazing guides and overall saviors of the trip David and Daniel.  The bus ride to lunch was absolutely amazing!  The feel of Cuba is like nothing I had ever experienced and just simply taking it all in for the first time was extraordinary!  We ate our first meal in Cuba at a beautiful cafe in Havana where we had a wonderful multi course meal, and had an interesting dessert made from sweet milk, rice, and cinnamon which we described by saying “it’s not bad” – a phrase that became a joke when trying the many different foods Cuba had to offer.  Travel tip for when in Cuba, eating out takes around two and a half hours per meal and was actually a really fun time to soak up the culture and have some incredible conversations.  After lunch we drove through Old Havana, which is absolutely stunning, and had a private salsa lesson at La Casa del Son.  I, myself had never really been one for dancing so I wasn’t especially looking forward to this part, but the instructors were amazing and I a great time!  After the Salsa lesson and walking through the streets of beautiful Old Havana, we hopped back in the busses and headed to our hostels where we met our amazing house mom and her 2 very special dogs Jolene and El Nano.  After an incredible dinner we spent our first night at a salsa club where we got to show off our moves we had learned earlier and really got to be a part of the Cuban culture.  Fun fact, if you’re just standing to the side of the dance floor, someone will ALWAYS come get you to dance!

Day 2 – Monday May 8th

Breakfast time!  Breakfast in Cuba is very different than in the US.  There is always an array of tropical fruits like papaya, guava, pineapple, and my favorite the mango, freshly baked bread with butter, some fresh, tasty eggs, and some of the best coffee you have ever had.  Eat as much of the amazing breakfasts as you can because lunch isn’t usually until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and snacks are hard to come by.  Next, we all loaded our luggage into the busses to headed toward the city of Cienfuegos.  Word for the wise, bring some headphones and a neck pillow for the long cars rides because there will be a lot of them.  I wasn’t smart and didn’t bring a neck pillow and I had to watch Justin sleep comfortably with his everyday!  About halfway through the bus ride we stopped at an alligator farm where, for 1 peso, you could take a picture holding a baby alligator that was wearing a sombrero and feed a full sized adult alligator.  Definitely do pay attention when standing around the grown alligators however because there was only a little wire fence holding the alligators in.  After some casual pictures with alligators we piled in a boat and went up river to an island on which there was an old aboriginal Cuban settlement known as Guama Village.  This is a great opportunity to take lots of pictures because there are many beautiful statues commemorating the activities of the aboriginals daily lives.  Next, we hiked through the “Enigma de las Rocaas” with our mysterious naturalist guide who kinda struck me as the mix of Rambo meets Mr. Miyagi.  Here you have the incredible opportunity to jump off a small cliff into a natural spring created by the movement of ancient plate tectonics.  This is a great place to use a waterproof camera or camera phone if you have one but word to the wise make sure not to drop it cause you won’t be able to find it again!  We had lunch overlooking Playa Giron also known as the Bay of Pigs and it was incredible how much you could truly feel the history of what had occurred  at this place!  On our way to the town we had another truly Cuban experience – one of the buses broke down and Katherine, Ethan, and I stayed behind with the guides and the bus while the others crammed in the other bus and headed into town.  The three of us decided to embrace this and it turned out to be one of the funnest parts of the trip!  Our guides and driver pulled out a speaker, some Cuban cigars, and a bottle of Cuban rum and we had our own little party right there on the side of the rode until the bus got fixed!  After dinner Tiffany surprised us with a live band and dancers, and we danced and laughed even more till early in the morning.  Some of the neighbors heard all the music and came and joined us and it turned into one big neighborhood fiesta!

Day 3 – Tuesday May 9th

Woke up early and drove to Trinidad where we went on a beautiful hike.  Partway through the hike we got to walk through a small house/cabin where two men were lived without electricity and running water.  At the end of the hike we was a gorgeous waterfall.  Here again was a great opportunity to go swimming.  You could jump of the rocks into the water and swim underneath the waterfall where there was a small cave.  Again, a really great place for some amazing pictures in the water!  However, definitely would recommend wearing tennis shoes instead of chacos for the hike because the “ranch” might get you.  We had an interesting Cuban dish called Paella for lunch.  By this time we had learned not to ask what was in the food we were eating and with this dish we definitely did not want to ask that question, but surprisingly it wasn’t bad.  After a great dinner at a guitar themed restaurant we went to a club in a cave!  This was definitely a first for me but it was such a cool and unique experience.  Also, the clubs in Cuba usually have some kind of halftime-like show, and this cave club was no different.  The show consisted of the act picking up a full size table with their mouth, laying on and eating glass, and shredding a soda can with their mouth.

Day 4 – Wednesday May 10th

This day came at just the right time!  Just as we were starting to become exhausted from all the hiking and adventuring through cities we had a nice relaxing day.  First we started off the day with a tour of the Valley of the sugar mills where we got to see how sugar cane can be turned into a delicious, sweet tasting drink.  Next we climbed the tower El Torre for a full 360 degree view of the surrounding mountain terrain, and then went on a short shopping trip through the streets around the area.  Then, we headed to Playa Ancon where we swam in crystal clear water in a little natural cove that had been created when a hurricane threw rocks around to form a crescent shape around this part of the beach. The view from the beach was stunning with giant boulders, crystal clear water, and the giant mountains hanging in the background.  After dinner we ended the night by walking around Trinidad and going to a live music concert where people gathered to dance and sing.

Day 5 – Thursday May 11th

Woke up to another amazing Cuban breakfast and got going with yet again a great cup of coffee.  Today we had yet another bus break down in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, but we got to meet several locals this time including the infamous El Loco himself.  We were all really surprised when the busses pulled into the resort where we were staying.  There was a swimming pool, an alligator exhibit, unlimited hot water for showers, and, oh ya, we could get wifi for the first time.  We ended the night by watching a fashion show after dinner.  Also, our very own singing extraordinaire and all around dance pro, Justin, won a bottle of rum in a karaoke competition.  Although going without any phone service was a great really nice and was a great learning experience, whenever you get the opportunity to get wifi definitely take the time to call home!

Day 6 – Friday May 12th

We put on our long dress pants, nice shoes, and dress shirts and headed to the Che Guevara mausoleum.  However, when we arrived we were told the mausoleum was closed for renovations.  It is easy to forget that this stuff is typical in Cuba because, unlike in the US, they can’t just google things to see if their open.  We went to a local mission who’s outreach was to aid families with disabled children, and we helped deliver care packages to the local families.  Seeing the intensely difficult situations these people call their daily lives was deeply touching!  Also, seeing these people smile through all their hardships was inspiring and has allowed me to see how many things we take for granted. Next, we went to Finca Hector Correa and had an amazing meal.  This place was much more than a just a lunch spot, it was what can only be described as a center for creativity and beauty.  Hector Correa had started this farm and ceramics shop when he was younger and turned it into a family business.  It was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen, and we had one of the best meals that I think I have ever eaten there.  We had the best fruit I have ever tasted and the food was unbelievably fresh because it had literally just come straight from the farm.  Also, they had flightless and stingerless bees and we got to drink their honey straight out of the hive with a straw… so ya that was cool!  Dinner was at an amazing french restaurant that had freshly baked baguettes and the best flan I have ever had!  For the evening’s entertainment we went to a club called Espacios and danced till 2:30 in the morning.  Oh ya, and on the way out we saw Harry Styles!

Day 7 – Saturday May 13th

We had an early morning call time and headed out right after breakfast to Ajiaco.  Ajiaco was a restaurant that was named after its specialty dish and received the majority of its ingredients from a 100% natural and organic neighborhood farm.  We got to tour the neighborhood farm and the two brothers who owned it showed us all of their natural farming methods – one example was their use of painted plastic water bottles as a natural bug trap.  After the farm tour we headed back to the restaurant where we cooked our own lunch of Lobster and Ajiaco.  Also we got a lesson on how to make what I am convinced was the world’s best mojito.  Another travel tip, when making a mojito natural honey is a secret ingredient!  On to Ernest Hemingway’s Havana estate Finca Vigia.  Hemingway obviously had great taste because he had the most beautiful house and view I have ever seen!  He even had a writing office that was in the top of a tower overlooking the city – it was easy to think that anyone could be inspired to write with that view.  Also, after reading “The Old Man and the Sea” it was really cool to sea the seaside village and fishing boat that inspired Hemingway to write the book.  We had dinner at a nice modern style Cuban restaurant where we were finally promised a delicious American dessert – the brownie.  Sadly, I would never stoop so low as to consider what they brought out to be a brownie.  But, we revived the night with another quick trip to Espacios – Harry Styles was not there this time.

Day 8 – Sunday May 14th

This was Mother’s Day and boy does Cuba take this holiday seriously.  It was really amazing to see the appreciation mothers are given there.  It was taken as seriously as Halloween or Easter.  Today was the day we got to explore the beautiful Old Havana.  We walked for what seemed like several hours through the streets and got to see a Catholic cathedral with high, intricately crafting ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows.  We passed the large Cuban University located in Havana and unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside, but it looked very new and was one of the nicest looking buildings we saw.  For whatever reason this was the day that we got to eat some American food.  Or that’s what I thought when we walked in the Original Sloppy Joe’s restaurant but it turns out that Sloppy Joe’s was actually started in Cuba?  After a slightly different tasting sloppy Joe and a Cuban sandwich we took a ride in vintage convertibles through the streets of Havana where our guide pointed out many of the historical landmarks that we passed.  As luck would have it rain started pouring down and in another typical Cuban fashion the top wouldn’t stay up on our car so we got soaked.  The car ride ended at the Hotel Nacional where Fidel Castro had his headquarters during much of the revolution and is where many famous celebrities and politicians have stayed when traveling to Cuba.  Here we were able to get wifi for the second time and I was able to FaceTime my Mom and wish her a happy Mother’s Day.  For Dinner we had a private room where a few of us ordered champagne and were surprised when spaghetti popped up on the menu.  We were all very happy to have a little change from the usual rice and beans and it was absolutely delicious!  After dinner we went to a restaurant and bar venue where we saw the Grammy Award winning band The Social Club perform and we got to join in on a real life conga line!

Day 9 – Monday May 15th

We left Havana early in the morning and headed towards the beautiful city of Vanales.  Once there, we ate at an amazing restaurant on the top of a mountain overlooking the fields and city below.  It was by far the best lunch view I’ve ever had and there was also an adorable puppy that sat around the table with us while we ate.  After lunch we met a tobacco farmer and learned how they process and roll the tobacco into their world famous Cuban cigars.  Then, we went horseback riding  through the valley of Vinales.  Just a fun little tip but when you go horseback riding make sure you choose a female horse or you may end up having a horse like Georgeann’s!  After this adventure we drove through the center of the city to our hostel for the night.  We were greeted by our incredibly nice house mom who had prepared freshly made mango juice for us.  She then led us through what seemed like a maze of twists and turns before we arrived at our amazing little cottage that we called home for the night.  We had some time to freshen up and explore before dinner, and we passed some Cubans playing futbol on a dirt field and some cool little souvenir shops.  We loaded into the busses for dinner around 8:30 and drove in what seemed like pitch black darkness for eons until we finally arrived at the cozy little restaurant that looked like it was just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere.  After the busses breaking down the days before, we were really glad when we made it back from dinner safely!

Day 10 – Tuesday May 16th

We took a short adventure through a cave, no club inside this one, and came to a river where we were greeted by a boat driver.  Our driver took us on a ride through the cave and pointed out several interesting looking formations and then dropped us off outside the cave.  We headed to Las Terrazas Biosphere for some zip-lining through the trees but Cuba’s weather had different plans for us, and it started pouring harder than we had seen before!  None-the-less, we had a wonderful lunch at a hotel and ate suspended in the trees.  Not being able to zip-line turned out to be blessing in disguise because we got to have a some french fries made from yuca and take a relaxing, well needed nap while listening to the rain fall on the mountains.  We hopped in the busses for the long ride back to Havana and another travel tip for you… sit towards the front of the bus because I can’t tell you how much nicer it is than sitting in the back of a bumpy bus!  We arrived at our hostels in Havana and got ready for dinner at a modern restaurant called Fusion.  When we arrived at Fusion, Los Boys, the band who performed at the salsa club our first night in Cuba, was setting up to play us a private show.  After pictures and speeches from the guides, we headed back to our night time entertainment in Havana – Espacios here we come!  Once there we ordered our usuals, even managed to find a pizza somehow, and danced and laughed the night away.

Day 11 – Wednesday May 17th

Our last Day in Cuba was came so fast and I can’t believe the trip of a lifetime is coming to a close… we drove to a fort where we saw the world’s longest hand-rolled cigar and had the opportunity to buy authentic Cuban cigars.  We then walked through a giant open-air market where we bought as many souvenirs as we could fit into our carry ons.  Word to the wise, do yourself a favor and buy a puzzle box if you see one.  They are super cheap and they make great gifts!  We arrived at the airport, said our goodbyes to Ernesto, David, and Daniel, whom the trip would not have been possible without, and made it through security and onto the plane.

Cuba was an absolutely amazing experience that taught me many incredible life lessons and although we started the class as strangers and were not the most talkative classmates, I really feel close to everyone in our group after adventuring through this amazing country with them!  I had many life changing experiences on this trip and I can’t wait to go back with Tiffany on the reunion trip to come soon.  Te vet de nuevo pronto Cuba!

Havana Lot of Withdrawals

By: Justin Nail

Cuba: a country so close to home–90 miles to be exact–but unlike anything I have ever experienced.Image may contain: one or more people, sky and outdoorPrior to departing for Havana, I had no idea what to expect from Cuba. I had some working knowledge of Cuban history and politics–but not much more than that which could help me answer a $200 question on Jeopardy. My only knowledge of the social climate in Cuba stemmed from Strawberry and Chocolate and Juan of the Dead which, albeit great films, were a little outdated and only tackled a small range of social issues. I intentionally limited my intake of anything and everything related to Cuba the months leading up to my trip. Why? There’s nothing I love more than exploring a place from a non-biased and uninformed point-of-view. Not only is my desire to learn and experience strengthened, but my retention and interest in everything that I take in certainly peaks.Image may contain: sky, mountain, tree, grass, outdoor and natureI didn’t look at the itinerary a single time before or during the trip, which made my 11 days in Cuba much like a treasure hunt–I never knew what I’d find or where I’d drift next. And if there’s one thing I learned about Cuba, it’s that being your most flexible self is imperative. From bus break downs to sleeping on box springs to substituting air-conditioned porcelain thrones and toilet paper for outdoor stone bowls and tissues–being in Cuba means you’re always at risk for a malfunction, glitch, or slap-in-the-face from your first-world privilege. But those are the experiences that I live for: the smoldering in a bus on a mountainside for three hours while a repair *slowly but surely* makes its way, the acceptance that you’re not going to be able to pick every ant off your loaf of bread at lunch so you just acknowledge that your meal has a little *extra* protein, the chicken that isn’t chicken nuggets and looks suspicious but you force yourself to eat it anyways because all you’ve eaten all day is a piece of bread at breakfast because you have a physical fear of guava and the tap water you accidentally use to brush your teeth when you come home a little borrachito and the impending death you think is awaiting you because of it.Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standingSo many of my experiences in Cuba were true, authentic, Cuban experiences. And if there’s anything that Cuba is, it is true and authentic. Sure—the elaborate and elegant mansions constructed during the era of Spanish colonialism still stand tall, and revolution-era propaganda still greets anyone who opens their eyes in Cuba, but Cuba has forged its own unique personality as a nation—one that you can’t really understand until you experience it for yourself.Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and tableFrom the beats of bongo drums to the sweet aroma of cigars to the greens, blues, purples, and pinks, of decaying, beautiful edifices–I miss everything about the tiny island that became my home for a period of time that definitely didn’t last long enough.Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and sunglassesOn May 7th, I boarded the Delta flight, sat beside my fellow ranch-loving/fearing traveler Katherine and watched Moonlight in its entirety, not realizing that the other students sitting around me would start evolving into my second family before the day expired. As our flight touched down at the Jose Martí international airport, I still had no idea what to expect from Cuba, but I knew that Beyonce had meandered through the same airport not too long ago, so I felt inspired and invigorated. Every time I travel to a new place, I try and give my all to that place so that I can get the most out of my experience. Day 1 was a testament to that—cue sore calves, the first (of many) Cuba Libres, and salsa dancing where there is *no* room left for Jesus. My first night in Havana was all I needed—I was already in love in Cuba. The remaining 10 days—spent city-hopping from Cienfuegos to Trinidad to Santa Clara and a plethora of places in between—did nothing but strengthen my love for Cuba and the people I got to experience it with. Image may contain: sky, cloud, ocean, tree, outdoor, nature and waterI’ll forever remember jumping (or—as I hesitantly recall: flipping/belly-flopping) into the swimming hole with everybody. In 5,000 years—after our world has experienced another ice age—my Apple Watch, which still resides at the bottom of said swimming hole, will be excavated, and I will be a part of archaeological history. Positive thinking—that’s what Cuba’s all about… plus Kanye was right—how could I be mad on vacation?Image may contain: one or more people and outdoorI’ll forever remember the dance battles I was roped into which required me to invent unique hybrid-moves, like my knee-backbend (which I still am nursing wounds from). I’ll remember the extreme and utter obliteration of anything and everything labeled “Havana Club.” I’ll remember the 2 AM beach parties and learning the true meaning of a Cuban sandwich. I’ll forever be haunted by “Bienvenido al Hotel California,” the never-ending, vertical stairs of that tower in Trinidad, and Daniel’s VERY informative explanation of Hemingway’s death for the rest of my life. I’ll remember going to Jovellanos and singing “La Bicicleta” with Tiffany and the beautiful girl we visited—my favorite rendition yet. I’ll miss the random facts about tarragon and mangoes and [insert literally any spice, green, and/or fruit] that I was subjected to every day. I’ll miss the cave club, the puppies, my sweet Gina that I had to leave behind in Trinidad, the architecture, and the constant having-to-swerve to avoid ramming into buses, horses, pedestrians, bicycles, tractors, wagons, or [insert anything that can move], which frequented the highways. I’ll remember the late nights on rooftop terraces—smoking cigars, looking at the stars, and just thinking about life and existence. I’ll forever remember so many things about Cuba, but I’ll forever keep them close to my heart.Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, plant, tree, shorts, outdoor and natureMy experience in Cuba would not have been the same without the people I experienced it with. From El Loco’s hysterics, to horse meat (ha…hahahaha), to ranch attacks, to jilted brides, to “LOOK AT THAT,” to the bread at that French restaurant, to foals—we all became sort of like a family through the experiences we endured together. While I could write a paragraph about every person I went to Cuba with—how beautiful and brilliant each and every one is—I am just going to give a general “gracias” to Georgeann (SASSMASTER), Baker (aka the nicest person alive who, at 19, still uses “Miss” before addressing older ladies), Brittany (the WILDCARD and my beloved, jilted wife), Calista (my confidant and fellow believer in the power of Cuban spaghetti), Katherine (a fellow victim to the ranch and my beloved word mix-up plane game partner and Tide to go supplier), Callie (my country music & Zaxby’s-loving small-town sweetheart whose Tide to Go pen came in clutch also), Menley (my spontaneous and adventurous travel companion x2), and Ethan’s adam apple. I also have to extend all my love to Pam (my salsa queen), Angela (my mother and favorite human on earth), Dave (you are my idol tbh), the tour guides for helping me fall in love with Cuba, and the drivers for being the reason I was able to experience Cuba’s beauty first hand (especially you, Francisco—your flower proudly pokes out of one of the *many* vases I purchased at Hector’s farm). Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and outdoorLastly, Tiffany, I wanted to extend the sincerest of thanks to you for being such a passionate person and overall amazing human being. Your love for Cuba is raw and real, which makes traveling there with you so meaningful and enjoyable. You’re easily one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, and I’m so proud of and amazed by the work you’ve done and continue to do. Thank you for inspiring me and for being the best faculty advisor ever.Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, pool and outdoorI would also like to say that I miss you, Papi. Hope you’re somewhere hitting the mariposa in my honor.Image may contain: 2 people, beardThank you, Cuba, for being such an amazing country full of fascinating culture and vibrant people. I’ll love and miss you forever… or at least hasta que se seque el malecón.Image may contain: sky, tree and outdoorNow, who’s ready for Salsa Club?

Adventures in Cuba

By: Katherine Buchanan

Sunday, May 7th

After much anticipation and preparation throughout the semester, the beginning of our trip to Cuba had finally arrived! Although I was extremely excited, at this point I had no idea how great of an experience the next eleven days would be. We arrived in Havana after a short flight from Atlanta and I stepped off the plane unsure of what to expect but excited nonetheless. After a quick introduction to our guides, we boarded our vans and headed to our first lunch in Cuba. It was at this lunch that we first learned that meals in Cuba last much longer than what we are used to so patience is a necessity. This lunch also exposed us to the common Cuban meal of a Cuban salad (cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oil and vinegar), meat, rice and beans, and a dessert accompanied by coffee. Today’s dessert was a rice and milk pudding and like many other things I would try in Cuba, it was unlike anything I had ever had before but it was not bad! After lunch, we headed to a salsa lesson where we learned the basic steps of a salsa dance. This activity is definitely useful the rest of the trip as almost every night provides an opportunity to practice your new salsa moves. I was thankful for my partner as he was very nice and patient enough to help me learn the steps. After our lesson, we arrived at our first casa where we would stay the night. Our first dinner was also good and we had our first taste of Cuban ice cream, which is some of the best ice cream I have ever had. After dinner we went to a local salsa club and were able to try out what we had learned at our lesson. Even if you aren’t that good at salsa like me, dance with the local people because not everyone gets the chance to salsa dance with true Cubans!

Monday, May 8th

This was our first full day in Cuba and I woke up excited to see more of the country that I was loving already. Our sweet host prepared us a huge breakfast complete with tropical fruit, eggs, bread, coffee, and juice. This is the same breakfast that would have every day which was perfectly fine with me. I looked forward to the fruit every morning as it was so fresh and flavorful. We loaded into our vans and began the trip from Havana to Cienfuegos, where we would stay the night. On the way, we stopped at a nature preserve where we were able to see crocodiles. There were so many and although they appeared lifeless at first, the chicken we fed them on a pole got them moving which was cool to see. We also took a boat trip to an aboriginal village. After lunch, we took a nature hike that led to a natural pool that we were able to jump into. The water was gorgeous and very refreshing. Although it may seem high, jump into the water because you will regret it if you do not! After a quick swim, we continued on our trip to Cienfuegos. During this ride, we experienced our first bus breakdown, something we would become very familiar with during the rest of the trip. Even though a few of us were stranded on the side of the road for a little bit, we soon realized that these breakdowns could even be fun and something that the trip would not have been the same without. After finally making it to Cienfuegos, we ate a nice dinner in a small restaurant. We were surprised by a private party, complete with music, dancers, and even some locals that joined us. This was such a fun night!

Tuesday, May 9th

Our morning began with a tour of the town of Cienfuegos including some information about its history as well as a look at its beautiful architecture. Following the tour, we began our trip to Trinidad. On the way, we hiked to one of my favorite spots of the whole trip- a beautiful waterfall. We were able to jump in and swim underneath the waterfall and even into the caves behind it. The cool water was so refreshing after a hike in the Cuban heat and we had a great time swimming around the waterfall. We then traveled the rest of the way to Trinidad and checked into our casa for the night where we met our unforgettable host, Papí. After our dinner, we headed to The Cave Rave, a cave converted into a night club. We had such a great time dancing the night away in this unique place. I would definitely recommend coming here if you ever travel to Cuba. Another fun night!

Wednesday, May 10th

This day was one of my favorites of the whole trip because it was the beach day! The weather was perfect for a beach day and I was ready to relax after three fun yet very tiring days. The water was so clear and beautiful. We spent most of the day in the ocean and relaxing on the beach which was perfect. After the beach, we went to a restaurant with a huge tree in the middle of it and a gorgeous view of the mountains as we enjoyed our dinner on the roof. The dinner did not disappoint either as the restaurant’s specialty, honey chicken was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip. Following dinner, we enjoyed live Cuban music in the town. We then returned to our house for our host, Papí and guide, David’s birthday party. The party started at the house but later in the night, we moved to the beach and kept the party going. My first Cuban birthday party was definitely an interesting experience that I will remember forever!

Thursday, May 11th

On the way from Trinidad to our next location, Santa Clara, we stopped at a sugar mill where we got to taste fresh sugarcane juice and then climb a tall tower to get an amazing view. Although the steps were very steep and seemed to go on forever, the view was definitely worth it! We got some great pictures and the 360-degree view was something you would not want to miss. Our next bus trip was very interesting as not only one, but both of our buses broke down on the way and we were stranded in the mountains for awhile. Although this doesn’t sound too fun, we made the best of it and it was a part of the trip I will never forget. Our encounter with El Loco that began with a peace offering of fruit snacks kept us laughing the whole time and we were finally rescued by some new vans that took us to lunch. After lunch, we checked into a resort where we would stay the night. It was nice and even had Wi-Fi which I was very happy to have for the first time of the trip! We ate dinner at the resort buffet, watched a fashion show by the pool and ended the night in the hotel’s own club. I really enjoyed this night too!

Friday, May 12th

After checking out of the resort, we began our journey back to Havana to spend a few more days exploring Cuba’s capital city. Before we left Santa Clara, we tried to go to the Che Guevara mausoleum but unfortunately found it to be closed for the day. On the drive to Havana, we stopped in the community of Jovellanos. Here we learned about an organization that provides aid to families with special needs children. After learning about the purpose of the organization we were able to assist them with the delivery of supplies to two families. This was an especially eye-opening and impactful experience. I was amazed at how the families that welcomed us into their home continued to be positive and inspiring despite the many hardships they faced. After saying goodbye to the new people we met, we traveled to a farm where they had prepared a huge lunch for us. The food we ate here was so fresh as it had been grown at the same farm we were eating it at. After lunch, the very kind farmer brought us freshly picked mango and it was the best mango I have ever had. I wish our mango at home tasted this good! He then carried us on a tour of his family’s farm which included many sculptures and even the chance to drink honey straight out of the beehive…what a unique experience! After leaving the farm, we experienced another bus breakdown however this was easily fixed and we were once again on our way to Havana. We checked into our house in Havana, which was very nice and had such a kind man as a host. We ate dinner at a delicious French restaurant and then headed to Espacios, a club in Havana that was fun every time we went there.

Saturday, May 13th

The first stop of the day was El Ajiaco, a restaurant in Havana. I really enjoyed the time we spent here. First, we toured a garden that provided fresh ingredients daily to the restaurant. Then, we met the chef and staff of the restaurant and they began to teach us how to prepare their signature dishes. In the kitchen, I helped prepare a lobster meal. The chef even convinced me to be in charge of flambéing the lobster so guess you could say I am an almost pro lobster chef! After we finished making the lobster, we were given a lesson on making a mojito by the bartender and the mojito we prepared was the best I had in Cuba! We then enjoyed the meal that we had prepared. After lunch, we visited Hemingway’s house in Cuba which was pretty and interesting to see. We had dinner which included a brownie that we were all very excited about but was not as good as a brownie at home, unfortunately. After a quick stop at Espacios, we headed home early for the night and got some much needed rest.

Sunday, May 14th

Our sweet bus driver, Francisco, surprised us this morning with a cake and flowers for Mother’s Day! We began our day with a walking tour of Old Havana and saw some of the sights such as a beautiful cathedral and some of Hemingway’s favorite places like his hotel and the Floridita. We ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s and although I did not get a sloppy joe, the Cuban sandwich I had was pretty good! After lunch, we got the chance to ride in old American convertibles and I will definitely say that riding around Havana in a vintage, red convertible is a surreal experience. It really does seem like you are in a different decade! This was also one of my favorite activities of the trip. Unfortunately, the first rain of the whole trip cut our convertible ride a little short but our drivers quickly put up the roof and we continued to the Hotel Nacional, our next stop. This is a beautiful, old hotel that has hosted many famous people during their time in Cuba. The restaurant we ate dinner at had spaghetti on the menu and this was a great choice because it was so good! After dinner, we went to a band performance and then to another club which was really fun!

Monday, May 15th

We traveled to our next destination this morning and I can definitely say that I would not recommend the back of the bus for this drive as it was very bumpy! We stopped at a rest stop on the way that had amazing views of the valley. We had lunch on the side of a mountain which provided more gorgeous views. After lunch, we went to a tobacco farm where we learned all about the process of making the famous Cuban cigars. After this, we prepared to take a horseback ride through the valley. This was the first time I had ever ridden a horse so I was a little unsure at first but the surreal views of the valley made the ride worth it! I definitely do not regret doing this but I now know that horseback riding is not my favorite activity! After dinner, we spent some time in the central plaza of the town and then headed to bed to rest up for our last full day in Cuba.

Tuesday, May 16th

We started the day with a tour of a cave that involved walking and a boat ride. We then boarded the van to begin our drive back. We stopped to have lunch at a hotel that was very interesting because it was built around trees. Our lunch included French fries which was an unexpected treat for all of us! We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining here but the weather did not cooperate as it poured nonstop. We tried to wait out the storm but it continued to rain so we decided it was best just to begin to head back to Havana. We ate our last dinner which was a bittersweet time that included speeches from our guides that we had grown so close to. We had a private performance by a great band. Of course, we had to make one last trip to our favorite place, Espacios, and we danced the night away to our favorite Cuban songs while drinking the last (of many) Cuba Libres. Like all of our other nights in Cuba, it was a great time and the perfect way to end our trip!

Wednesday, May 17th

Our last day in Cuba! A trip that had seemed never ending at one point was coming to an end and it was definitely going to be a hard goodbye! We spent our morning going to a famous cigar shop at a fortress and then to a huge craft market to buy last minute souvenirs. We arrived at the airport and spent some time saying goodbye to the guides that had made our trip the best ever! I am so thankful for Daniel, David, Ernesto and all of our drivers for everything they did for us! We boarded our plane and got our last views of Cuba as we headed back to the states. It was hard saying goodbye to a country that I had fallen in love with over the last eleven days! Our arrival in Atlanta brought some more goodbyes as our group prepared to be split up for the first time since we left home. We had grown so close and I can definitely say that I wouldn’t have wanted to experience Cuba with anyone else! I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take this trip with these people as it was one of the best times of my life and could not have been any better! Cuba was an incredible country and I hope I have the chance to return one day!

La fiesta nunca termina (Georgeann Hester)

I want to start by saying that this was the most incredible, the most fun trip I have ever been on with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I don’t think there will ever be an experience quite like this one. I’ll never forget all the memories we made together and the experiences we had. I miss this group more every day, and it’s hard to put into words how much I love these guys and how much I love Cuba, but I’m going to try my best!

May 7, 2017 – Day 1: ATL to Havana

Off to Cuba!! It was hard to believe that the day was here! It snuck up on all of us I think, so even if I already felt like I was being thrown into something I wasn’t completely prepared for, it was multiplied by ten when I realized I had to drive to airport that day. Excitement levels were at an all-time high for everyone as we boarded the plane.

We finally landed around noon and met our tour guides, David and Daniel, as well as our drivers, Freddy and Sergio. The airport was a little overwhelming just because of the number of families waiting for their travelers to come home, but I was so happy to be there. The heat hits you as soon as you step outside. Or inside. It’s hot no matter what, so that was something to get used to.

After the longest lunch break I have ever experienced (I quickly learned that every meal takes 3 hours at least), we took a salsa class at La Casa del Son. While I was a little nervous because dancing is not a talent I have, it ended up being super fun! The teachers were all so nice and patient and just wanted us to have a good time and know enough to be able to dance with some locals later. They took everything step by step and made it very easy to learn salsa. I think everyone succeeded in the end!

We then had a few minutes to change at our casas before a night out. Our host family was so sweet. As soon as we walked in the door it was like we were part of their family already. They immediately handed us bowls of fruit and showed us to our rooms and told us to make ourselves at home. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but these homes and families weren’t the image in my mind; everything was beyond my wildest expectations.

We went to dinner at El Aljibe and were able to speak with an ex-diplomat, which was quite interesting. The food was really good as well. They were known for their chicken, which of course everyone got, but I don’t think we had much of a choice! Almost every restaurant we went to was family style, which I liked because it fostered that feeling of our group really being more of a family than just a tour group (I think everyone would agree that after everything we’ve experienced together, we’re one big Cuban family now!).

Our night ended with an outdoor concert at 1830. The band is pretty well-known, and we got to meet most of them because David and Daniel knew them. The music was great! I think everyone danced with at least one local, and although we probably failed miserably (well, everyone but Justin because there’s nothing he can’t do), we all had a great time!

May 8, 2017 – Day 2: Havana to Cienfuegos

I learned fast that a night with only 5 hours of sleep is a good night of sleep in Cuba. That first morning was a little rough, though, not gonna lie. Breakfast was amazing. So many tropical fruits, bread, ham, eggs, tomatoes, coffee, fresh mango and pineapple juice . . . you name it, it was there! This menu was typical for breakfast everywhere we went.

There was a little bit of a drive before we got to our first activity of the day – a crocodile farm. Small side note – I thought it was interesting that there are rest stop sort of things on the side of the highways, but they’re basically bars? Or this one was. Anyway. The crocodiles were cool! A little terrifying, to be honest, but there was a little one that people could hold, and that one was pretty cute. We witnessed Ethan feed one of the big ones, which made them even more terrifying, but it was entertaining!

Before lunch we took a short boat ride to a nearby model tribal village, where we were chanted at and brushed with branches and got our faces painted with some clay before walking around the small island and heading back for lunch.

In Cuba one rests for nothing, so even though we were dead tired, we went on a hike along the Enigma de las Rocaas with a naturalist guide who told us about native species and anything else we encountered along the way. At the end, we were all hot and sweaty enough that we couldn’t resist the thrill of cliff jumping into a pool of water below. The lagoon was filled with some of the most clear, beautiful water I have ever seen. I don’t think I will ever see anything quite like that scene ever again.

A short drive later, we ended up at a Bay of Pigs museum, where David and Daniel explained all the history since it got to be too late for us to go inside.

On our way to the hostel, we experienced our first van break down of the trip, where some people got left stranded with a broken-down car. This became a common theme throughout our time in Cuba. We learned to make the most of it, and in my opinion, it added more to the trip than it took away. We may have missed out on a couple activities, but we made more memories together than we would have had we not faced some obstacles along the way.

David and Daniel planned a fun little fiesta for us after dinner, which was so much fun! One of my favorite nights in Cuba, I think. We had some live music and professional dancers who pulled us out of our chairs to dance with them. A few local friends walked up when they heard the music, and we eventually convinced them to join our party and dance with us. I think this was our first taste of the “Cuban sandwich” (probably not the kind you’re thinking of…). Interesting and fun night to say the least!

May 9, 2017 – Day 3: Cienfuegos to Trinidad

After an early breakfast, we headed to the middle of Cienfuegos to check out the beautiful architecture and learn about some of the history of the city as told by Daniel. We got back in the vans and took a long drive to a national park, which was a great time for a nap after a long night of dancing! Although the car rides are a good time for naps, it’s also incredible to look at the beautiful scenery along the route.

The hike we went on in the Escambray mountains was so nice! I’m really into outdoorsy things, so it was right up my alley. The waterfall was beautiful. There was another opportunity to jump off rocks that were pretty high up; it was good to cool off a little before heading back down. There was an interesting cave behind the waterfall that we all swam to; the bats were moderately terrifying, and I think it’s safe to say we were all a little paranoid about the cave monster coming to get us…

Speaking of caves, we went to an awesome cave rave that night. It was an interesting experience just trying to get in the place. They opened late (typical) and lined us up two-by-two before letting us inside. Once we got inside, though, the place was amazing. Colorful lights hung up everywhere, great music, cool people, and an interesting performance group that lifted things with just their teeth!

A little note – Cubans do not hesitate or hold back when it comes to dancing! If they see you just sitting around, you are pulled out of the background and onto the dance floor! There’s no way you can be left not having a great time!

May 10, 2017 – Day 4: Trinidad

Finally, a day for a little break. We spent some time at a beautiful beach – Playa Ancon – with a view of the Escambray Mountains. The water was so so clear and blue with some rocks further back that blocked the big waves from crashing. It was one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been and a great place to relax and nap and reflect on the fun times we had during those first couple days in Cuba (although it felt like we had been there for weeks already because of the amount of activity going on every day – we thought it might already be 2020 when we got back).

After a full day of good rest, we went to dinner at Restaurant La Ceiba, an awesome place with a huge beautiful tree growing up through the building. It felt like we were one with the tree because its branches extended across the roof of the restaurant – super cool. We were seated outside a couple stories up, too, so the view was incredible.

We walked on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad to an outdoor music venue, which was entertaining. No matter where you go in Cuba, there’s always something fun going on, and it always involves music and dancing. There’s never a calm moment, and I love that.

We returned to our host home to celebrate a very special person’s birthday – Papi! It was David’s birthday, too, so we spent a long time partying and dancing with them, eventually ending up back at the beach, which was an interesting experience to say the least. . . However, the beach was incredible at night, with the moon shining so bright you didn’t need a flashlight to see anything. Needless to say, it was a long night, but definitely one of the most memorable! I’ll never forget Papi’s butterfly move, especially since it now lives in Justin’s dance repertoire (hopefully he’ll bring that back at our first Salsa Club meeting – date and time TBD, but I’ll be there!).

May 11, 2017 Day 5: Trinidad to Santa Clara

On our drive to El Torre, we got to take in some cool views of the Valley of the Sugar Mills. It was always neat to be sort of on top of a mountain looking down at fields and towns and houses. Upon arrival we were bombarded with yells from merchants along a little market that lined the path up to El Torre. Some people were handed little grasshoppers made from sugar cane plants. Before climbed El Torre we were given a demonstration on how sugar cane juice is made using this huge juicer that originally operated with one person pushing it (we needed four people, if that tells you anything). We all tried the drink, but I’ll admit it was way too sweet for me to take more than a couple sips.

We climbed El Torre shortly after, which was incredible. That may have been one of my favorite things we did because of the height and the beautiful views all around. Once you get to the top you can see absolutely everything. It was incredible. And a great place for pics!

We continued on our way after that. Unfortunately, Sergio’s van broke down en route, so we stuffed 17 people into a 10-person van . . . maybe not the brightest idea because then Freddy’s van broke down as well. We were in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Cuba. And I really mean that. No phone service. Cows roaming the side of the street (although this is not uncommon). Only a couple cars driving by. But we definitely made the most of it! Passed fans around so we could all cool down a little bit. Watched Justin dance with his new maracas on the side of the road. Made friends with El Loco, one of my favorite people. Or least favorite people. Depending on how you look at it. We had a great time laughing with him, though!

We eventually got picked up by new taxis and were shuttled to the hotel we stayed at that night, Hotel Los Caneyes. We hung out at the pool and watched a fashion show after dinner. We also went to a club on site and witnessed Justin winning a karaoke competition – the prize, a bottle of rum! Brittany and I had a grand time getting to know some of the models from the show and danced with them for a while before getting tired and heading back to our room for a little shut-eye.

May 12, 2017 – Day 6: Santa Clara to Havana

Thank you, David and Daniel, for letting us sleep in a little this morning; that extra bit of bed time was definitely needed.

We visited a sort of ministry in a small town this day. They provide food and support and other resources for families with children with special needs. I enjoyed getting to know the families a little bit and hearing their stories about overcoming and finding faith and hope. It was cool to have the opportunity to see this side of daily life in Cuba. Usually when travelling you see the grand and beautiful things, the perfect things that sort of “define” the place for tourists, but seeing the raw and not-so-perfect side of Cuba made it more memorable of a trip, and for that I’m thankful.

We made another great connection that day when we visited a farmer/potter/all-around amazingly talented man – Hector Correa. We ate lunch with him and some others there before taking a tour of his farm and what I would call an outdoor gallery with sculptures and artwork all over the property that he explained to us. One of the more unique things we did here was drink honey straight out of a honeycomb! It was by far the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. Besides the mangoes (pronounced MON-goes, fyi. Thank you, Angela, for the pro tip). I have yet to find a mango in the US that lives up to a Cuban mango. Guess I’ll have to go back one day!

We visited a bar called Espacios this night, the first night of three nights there over the next few days. It took me a while to warm-up to it, but it’s definitely a cool place! Would highly recommend!

May 13. 2017 – Day 7: Havana

Cooking class in Cuba? Definite yes. Do it. Especially if you get to tour a beautiful garden where the restaurant grows a lot of its herbs and spices and other ingredients! We learned how to make mojitos and lobster and ropa vieja, and had a great time watching Brittany do some flambé-ing in the kitchen. For lunch we ate what we cooked (actually, unclear whether it was what we cooked or what they cooked in the back because they knew we’d mess it up!). We drank some of the strongest coffee I have ever had that a sweet lady named Maria prepared for us. It was an interesting kind of pour-over coffee that is (I think) the traditional way to make Cuban coffee.

We took some time to tour the Hemingway house after this and got some good pics. After another van breakdown, we were graced with Francisco. Probably the most caring, thoughtful man I have ever met. He was always smiling and always positive. Gave us flowers. Then more flowers. Then a cake. So kind!

May 14, 2017 – Day 8: Havana

Happy Mother’s Day! This is a crazy big holiday in Cuba. Or seemingly so. Women of all ages are handed flowers and gifts wherever we went.

We took this day to tour Old Havana. The most interesting thing to me was the wooden street that has to be replaced every 6 months just from the amount of foot traffic it gets. We went to several famous places – Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the Floridita, and many more. It’s a really nice place just to walk around, for sure!

One of my favorite things we did was take a tour around in old American cars, ours being a red 1946 Ford with a brand new sound system. Although the rain sort of shortened our ride, we still had a really good time getting see the architecture and more of the city from the viewpoint of a convertible. We ended up at the Hotel National de Cuba where we got to see the names and faces of some celebrities who had stayed there over the years. It was neat to think that we were standing in the same place that Frank Sinatra or Walt Disney or Muhammad Ali stood at some point in time!

After some rest and dinner, we went to a social club to watch a band perform and join a conga line – so fun! We went to an interesting place called Kingbar after that to dance and hang out and have a good time. Entering and leaving that place they were very strict, but it was a fun time once you got inside! That was one of the better nights in Cuba, I’d say.

May 15, 2017 – Day 9: Havana to Vinales

An important note about Cuba – the roads really have no chill. By this I mean prepare yourself to be tossed around in the back of vans while driving to far-away places. No need to pay for a ticket to Six Flags when you get back home because the drives are thrill enough! Although it’s hard to complain when there’s such nice scenery to look at along the way. And being able to just sit for a little while is nice when you’ve been going and going and going for what seems like months on end.

We took a pit stop at a hotel with an outdoor bar and viewing area of the valley below, which was gorgeous. There were some street performers there as well. We got some good pics!

A little while later we made it to the restaurant – Finca Agroecological El Paraiso. The food was delicious, as well as this anti-stress drink they make there. It tasted like a multiflavored milkshake with mint and coconut and cinnamon. Weird combination, but it worked!

Next was horseback riding. A pleasantly unpleasant experience. After learning everything about everything about cigars, we jumped on the backs of some less than excited horses and took a “stroll” through the valley. What we thought would be a slow trail ride turned into the pros whipping our horses and making them gallop while we flailed around and laughed at how ridiculous each other looked. We thankfully took a little break before turning around and learned a little about coffee production. Our friend Angela needed a little pick-me-up and decided to eat some raw coffee grounds out of her hands– not your typical way of getting that much-needed energy boost, but, hey, I guess that works!

Our hostel was in a great location – right in the center of town. That made it easy to walk places in the evening. The view from the roof was amazing. We got to bed a little early that night – thank goodness.

May 16, 2017 – Day 10: Vinales to Havana

Our last full day in Cuba. A little bittersweet. I think we were all getting ready to go home, but once the end actually came, we were sad to be leaving. Or I know I was. I still wish I was back in Cuba. I could relive these 11 days over and over again and be satisfied with my life, I think. It was that incredible.

Anyway, we had an interesting cave experience first thing. . . There were some actors near the entrance wearing next-to-no clothing and holding birds. A couple of us were picked out of the crowd to be part of the performance – including yours truly. Let’s just say that for all us that was a one-time experience we hope was only a one-time experience. The walk through the cave was so cool, though! At the end we all piled onto a little boat and floated along the water while the guide pointed out shapes and carvings in the rock around us. We made our way back into the light while on the boat and then got off to look around at the souvenirs some locals were selling.

After a couple hours in the car we found ourselves at a cool hotel. They try to be one with nature and built the building around all of the trees that were already there, which I thought was super neat. They were located sort of at the top of a mountain, or on the side of a mountain, so of course the view was beautiful. We were supposed to go hiking and ziplining after eating lunch, but we got a little rained out. So rained out that we sat around for a couple hours waiting for it to stop before finally deciding it might be time to head back to Havana.

Our last night in Cuba. We went to a restaurant called Fusion Havana and hung out there for one last hoorah before heading to Espacios again. We had some speeches and photoshoots and last conversations and reflections from the trip before heading back to our host homes for the night and getting ready to fly out the next day. It was a little emotional, but still so much fun! You can’t go a day in Cuba without having the time of your life.

May 17, 2017 – Day 11: Havana to ATL

This was a pretty chill day since we had to leave to go back to the States around noon. We went to a little tourist market – I say little; the place was huge. Everyone bought some last minute things to bring home. We also went to the fortress, where a cigar shop is located, one that’s quite famous. The owner showed up and everyone in there got super excited. There’s a very realistic wax statue of him in there, though. It’s almost scary just how realistic it looked. . . Anyway, we headed to the airport pretty soon after that. There were tears all around, I think. It was definitely hard to say to goodbye. I know I’ll be back as soon as I can, though!

 

It has been two weeks since we got back, and I’m still having reverse culture shock. How that’s possible, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have to go back to Cuba! I fell in love with everything and everyone there, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I had the opportunity to experience this amazing country with some of the most amazing people on this planet. Even though I was uncomfortable at times and completely out of my comfort zone, there’s nothing that could have made this trip better. As Calista would say, someone let me know why we ever had to leave Cuba!!

Auburn Honors Study Abroad Cuba 2017: Brittany Rowe

Day 1: Atlanta/Havana

Today’s the day for us to finally head to Cuba after a semester of anticipation. We get to Atlanta on our own, but we meet up at the gate and from now on we are a group making our way through a brand new country together. After some brief paperwork, we board the plane. After a short flight, we are in Cuba. The airport is not what I expected it to be with its multiple floors and confusing walkways. However, it may have been confusing to me due to my nerves and excitement. We met up with the guides, David and Daniel, and the head of the travel agency, Ernesto, amongst the masses of people, and we quickly made our way out to the van. We first drove to lunch on the outskirts of Havana. It was a relaxing lunch, but it was also our first experience of what I like to call “Cuba Time”, which is always late and slow. Being from the states, I’m used to my lunches taking about thirty minutes to an hour. Lunch in Cuba takes about two and a half hours, which is not bad, just different. The food was tasty, especially the dessert of rice and milk. Our first excursion in Cuba was Salsa lessons. Luckily for me, I had a great dance partner. He kept joking the whole time to get me to relax, and the fact that I was having fun made learning to dance easier. After our lesson, we went to our houses, and our house mom was so sweet. When we came in she was quick to learn our names and she brought us fruit to eat while we got ready for the night. The house was beautiful, and we all got our own bed. After freshening up and sitting on the terrace for a little while, we drove to dinner. We ate at a restaurant that is known for serving their secret recipe chicken dish to dignitaries and diplomats. The food was great and we got to speak about the local history, politics, and economy with a local professor who used to be a diplomat to the United States. After dinner, we went to a local club where we got to meet the band and listen to some amazing music. The people in Cuba are so friendly, and we spent the night dancing and talking. After a night of fun, we went back to our houses to rest for the next day.

Day 2: Havana/Cienfuegos

When we woke up in Havana, our house mom had set out a feast for us to eat. We had tons of fruit, bread, slices of meat, eggs, juices, and coffee. Other than the meat, we would learn that this is a pretty typical breakfast in Cuba hostels. After breakfast, we started our drive to Cienfuegos. A short while into the drive, we stopped at a Biological Preserve where they have crocodiles. We got to hold a baby crocodile and see the larger crocodiles be fed. Then from the preserve we took a boat ride to a reenactment of a traditional village. It was interesting to learn about the process of coal production and to experience a war painting ceremony. Afterwards, we got lunch, which included some of the best chocolate ice cream I have ever had. We then drove to our first hike, which was along a fault line. The trees and cliffs were beautiful, and we saw a lot of birds along the way. The best part was at the end of the hike, when we reached a beautiful chasm that dropped down into water. You could jump of the cliff into the water or climb down into it to swim. We got to enjoy the water for a while before making our way back to the vans. On our way to Cienfuegos, we experienced some difficulties with the van, but the guides and Ernesto were quick to solve the issue and got us to Cienfuegos in about thirty minutes. The hostel we stayed at in Cienfuegos was huge, and there was a large roof space where we could hang out and relax. After a quick rest, we went to dinner at a restaurant with great food, the traditional rice and beans included of course, drank mojitos, and finished the meal with some of the best ice caramel cream in the world. After dinner, we were surprised with a private concert on the beach. The band and dancers were amazing, but the best part was when we asked some of the locals to join in. We spent hours dancing and having fun before we headed back to our rooms. Being able to dance with and talk to the locals of Cienfuegos was an amazing experience.

Day 3: Cienfuegos/Trinidad

In the morning, we ate breakfast in the outside courtyard, and then made our way into Cienfuegos. We toured the center square of Cienfuegos and was able to see the first Cathedral, the only arches of a specific architecture in Cuba, and a beautiful old theatre, the Teatro Tomas Terry. The French-like architecture in Cienfuegos was beautiful. We then drove to a Cuban national park, where we began our longest hike of the trip. As someone who is not very active, though the hike was long, it was completely doable, and the reward at the end is worth it. After climbing along cliffs and rocks you arrive at a beautiful waterfall that runs into a small lagoon. We were again able to jump off a cliff into the water and swim underneath the waterfall. There was a cave underneath where we got to see some amazing rock structures. After hiking back downhill, we went to lunch at a place that makes authentic Paella. We then drove to our house in Trinidad. Many houses in Cuba, but especially in Trinidad, look small from the front. However, as soon as you walk in, the house just keeps going and going. Our houses were like that, and by the time you made it to your room you were in a huge courtyard with a bar and multiple seating areas. After a quick nap, we went to dinner at a music themed restaurant. Though the food was great, it was the entertainment that truly stood out. There was a duo with a man playing the guitar singing with a woman, and they both had amazing voices. The woman especially had an angelic voice. After dinner, it was time for the cave rave. We drove out to the middle of nowhere, and were led down into a huge cave which had been converted into a night club. It was an insane experience. Once the dancing and music started, we had so much fun dancing not only with each other, but with the guides and our host families. There was also an Afro-Cuban show where dancers performed strange tricks such as eating glass and carrying tables with their mouths. The music was the Reggaeton we had already come to love, and we danced until early in the morning. It was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.

Day 4: Trinidad

Today is beach day in Trinidad! After breakfast, we headed to a resort, which gave us an opportunity to see a more tourist like setting in Cuba. The beach was stunning. The water was various shades of blue and was back dropped by mountains. The area we swam at was a cove surrounded by rocks, which meant that there were hardly any waves and wildlife. It was almost like swimming in a pool. We got to spend the entire day swimming and relaxing on the beach. It was a lot of fun. After the beach, we went back to our rooms to clean up before heading out to dinner. For dinner, we arrived at a beautiful restaurant that was built around a huge tree, which reminded us of the tree of life at Disney. We ate on the roof of the restaurant under the canopy of the tree. The house specialty, the honey chicken, was delicious. After Dinner, we went to a concert in the town square. The band was playing traditional Cuban dance music, and we got to watch some amazing dancers on the floor by the stage. We then returned to our house where we celebrated David’s and the owner of our hostel’s birthdays. We danced in the courtyard area until we got some noise complaints. So instead of ending the party, we decided to move the party to the beach. It was a once in a lifetime experience to have a party on the beach late into the morning. It was truly an experience.

Day 5: Trinidad/Santa Clara

After another amazing Cuban breakfast out in the courtyard, we made our way to the Valley of the Sugar Mills. We got the opportunity to make and taste sugarcane juice in the traditional way the slaves did on the plantation. When we were done drinking our sugarcane juice, we climbed one of the highest towers in Cuba, which came about due to a duel between brothers over a woman. Even as someone who does not like heights or climbing, the climb is definitely worth it. The view from the top of the tower is beautiful. We then walked through the market at the base of the tower. If you haggle with the people selling, you may have the opportunity to get a deal on some interesting linens and shirts. However, be wary of people running up to you and forcing their goods on you. We were kind of forced to buy some bracelets and grass-made “grasshoppers” from a guy who originally said they were free, but then asked for money and refused to take the goods back. After the market, we got into the van to head to Santa Clara. About halfway there, one of our vans broke down. Since we were in the mountains, there was no phone service, so we all had to climb into the other van to try to make it to Santa Clara. But of course, that van broke down to. It seemed that we were in the middle of nowhere, and we were stuck in the heat for about two hours. However, being broke down on the side of the road was probably one of my favorite memories from the trip. Between meeting El Loco and our dance party, nothing bonds people like being stuck on the road. After we finally were saved by some new taxis, we made our way to the resort in Santa Clara. It was a nice break to be treated to the luxuries of tourism for the night. We had a buffet, a pool, and Wi-Fi, all the luxuries you could ask for. At night we got to watch a fashion show and spend time by the pool. Later on, we finally got to go to the club on the grounds of the resort. The party began with a karaoke competition featuring Justin, who won a bottle of rum with his Spanish rendition of “Hotel California”. We spent the rest of the night dancing in the club, whether it was with one another, or some of the locals (including the models). It was a lot of fun!

Day 6: Santa Clara/Havana

After a quick breakfast at the resort’s buffet, we got into the taxis prepared to go Che’s Mausoleum. When we got there, though, the mausoleum was closed. It was still interesting to see the outside of the mausoleum. We then drove to the headquarters of a local missionary, whose mission is to help families with disabled children, both young and adult.  The experience of meeting families that the missionary helps was probably the most powerful experience of the trip for me. To see these families, who have been burdened with such incredible hardships, continue to smile and focus on the joys of life was inspirational. Our next adventure was to a farm, which also included a pottery garden and studio. The food we ate was almost all grown on the farm, and it was by far some of the best food I have ever had. After days of beans and rice and mango, the kind they gave us was a new level of tastiness. We then had the opportunity to drink honey right out of the hive. Luckily, the bees had no stingers and could not fly. The farm hosts a festival where sculptors, including some from the United States, visit and show their works. Some of the sculptors leave their work behind in the sculpture garden. The man who ran the farm was inspirational. His ideas on life and creativity speaks to people all over the world. As we left the farm, we of course had to have vehicular issues again. However, this break down was for less than thirty minutes. The guy who owned the beautiful hostel we stayed at in Havana was so sweet. After a brief rest, we made our way to dinner at an incredibly nice restaurant. The food was amazing! From the bread to the flan, there was so much to enjoy. After the meal, we spent our first night at what would become one of our usual haunts in Havana, Espacios.

Day 7: Havana

When we woke up in the morning, we made our way to a local restaurant, El Ajaco. From the restaurant, we got to walk down the street to a home where the backyard had been converted into an impressive garden. The restaurant uses the herbs and produce from the garden in their recipes. The man who owns the home and garden demonstrated the methods they use to grow their produce. An interesting example is their use of water bottles to line the garden. The bottles help the dirt stay in place and the reflection of sun on the bottles keeps bugs away. After the garden, we went back to the restaurant for our mojito and cooking lessons. The mojito we made is the best I’ve ever had, and the cooking was so much fun. We even got to flambé the lobster. After a great lunch, we went to Ernest Hemingway’s home. We were able to see not only the beautiful home, but also the boat from the man whom “The Old Man and the Sea” is based on. After learning about the life and death of Hemingway, we went back to our houses after a few more broken down vans. The break downs though allowed us to meet Francisco, a sweet bus driver who made sure that all the females enjoyed Mother’s Day by buying us flowers and cake. After dinner on a rooftop terrace, we made a brief stop at Espacios before turning in for the night.

Day 8: Havana

Today was our day to explore the streets of Havana. We got to see the four different plazas, including the Cathedral Plaza where we were able to see the end of a beautiful church service. We continued our tour, which included the hotel Hemingway stayed at while working on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the first fortress. We also finally got to go to a market to buy a few souveniers. We ate lunch at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, which had American food and one of the largest varieties of alcohols I’ve ever seen. After lunch, we got to ride in beautiful classic cars. Ours was a 1946 red ford convertible. The drive was amazing, and our driver was quick to point out interesting buildings along the way. However, in accordance with our luck, it decided to rain during our drive. Luckily, the drivers were quick in putting up the tops of the convertibles. They then dropped us of at the National Hotel, where many famous people have stayed over the years. Dinner was a great meal of spaghetti and ice cream, which was a nice deviation from our usual dinners of rice, beans, and meat. During dinner, we were able to talk to a professor from the University of Havana about the education system in Cuba. We then went to one of the most well-known clubs in Havana and saw the end of a concert from a Grammy-winning Cuban band. The drummer was amazing. After the concert, we went to a seemingly secretive club in Havana. They demand that you are quiet as you enter and exit the club. But once you do enter, you’re in for a good time. We danced until the early hours of the morning.

Day 9: Havana/Viñales

After breakfast, we embarked on one of the bumpiest car rides of my life into the mountains on our way to the city of Viñales. We stopped at a rest stop, and the view of the mountain formations was breathtaking. We then ate lunch on the side of one of these mountains, and it was by far the best lunch view. Also, the food was delicious. After lunch, we drove to a farm where we got to learn about the process of growing tobacco and making cigars. Then we got to ride the horses. The landscape, especially the surreal tree with blowing leaves, was stunning. But the horseback riding, while fun, was also slightly terrifying. Make sure to go horse riding if you get the option, but also make sure to hold on. After horseback riding, we went to our houses in Viñales where our sweet house mom greeted us with mango juice. We then spent a calm night at a bar literally a block from our houses. It was relaxing and fun.

Day 10: Viñales/Havana

We began our day by heading to some nearby caves, where we were greeted by an interesting show of a guy dancing and picture opportunities with birds. After some mild spelunking and a boat ride through the cave, we made our way to some gift shops outside of the cave. We then boarded the taxis and made our way to a beautiful hotel that was literally built around nature. Instead of chopping down the trees on the land, they built the hotel with the trees running through the building and out of the roof. After lunch (which actually included French fries!), we were supposed to go zip lining; however, the weather did not agree. So instead we got to just relax and watch the beautiful view of the mountains and the rain around us. We later made our way to our homes in Havana that we were at on our first day in Cuba. I can’t believe this is our last night in Cuba, though it originally seemed like a long time, I’m kind of sad our time is almost at an end. We ate dinner at a more modern restaurant and had a private performance from the band we met our first night in Cuba, Los Boys. After dancing, speeches, and pictures at the restaurant, we decided to go back to Espacios for our last night in Havana. We danced the night away and had a good time.

Day 11: Havana/Atlanta

Today is our final day in Cuba. We started with a visit to a fort associated with Che, where they also have a famous cigar shop. After that, we went to a large indoor market where there was the opportunity to walk around, drink coconut water from a fresh coconut, and souvenir shop. After those brief excursions, it was finally time to head to the airport. It was so hard to say goodbye to the guides and to the country of Cuba itself. After our flight, it was even harder for me to say goodbye to all the friends I had made on this trip. Through all the craziness of Cuba, we were always together. Though the trip was not at all what I expected, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. My trip to Cuba gave me amazing memories and a life changing experience. I hope to get to go back someday, maybe with the friends I made on this trip.

Hasta la Proxima Vez, Cuba

Hasta la Proxima Vez, Cuba

Author: Calista Rogers

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Sunday, May 7th, 2017
¡Dios mío! It’s far too easy to forget just how different other countries can be compared to the United States. The weeks of preparation and anticipation finally came to an end as we stepped off the plane in Havana, Cuba. The feelings of sonder were absolutely unreal, and I rediscovered my love for travel in the blink of an eye.
Our first stop was lunch, and ironically our first lesson in Cuban patience as well. 3 hours and 3 courses later we headed to our dance lessons, which I was a little hesitant about at first but ended up having the best time. Be sure to pay close attention, you’ll have plenty of time to show off your awesome salsa moves later in the trip, and also at our monthly Auburn Salsa Club meetings, courtesy of our president and probably one of the best Salsa dancers out there, Justin.
We spent our first night in Cuba at a Salsa club, toasting the trip with the first of many Cuba Libres, sin hielo por supuesto. If you have any inclination to dance, get out there and do it! How many people can say they’ve danced the Salsa with native Cubans? No need to be nervous, and even if there was, Tiffany, David, and Daniel will come to your rescue.
Monday, May 8th, 2017
Breakfast in Cuba is like no other. Mango, papaya, guava, pineapple… all the tropical fruits you can imagine and they’re fresher than you ever thought possible. Word of advice, try all the fruits and eat as much as you can while you’re there. You might be sick of them by the end of the trip, but the freshness of fruits in the United States shies in comparison to Cuban fruit.
First road trip, be sure to bring your Dramamine if you get car sick easily because boy are these roads bumpy, and they got progressively worse throughout the week (or maybe the lack of sleep finally started getting to our carefree Cuban attitudes). Also, bring a neck pillow if your carry on allows it, bus rides are the perfect opportunity to sneak in a power nap.
Stopped at a crocodile farm, and as much as they don’t look it, these creatures are very alive. Paying the 1 peso to feed them and see some action is definitely worth it. I can’t help but think the only barricade standing between us, a thin wire fence, would be no match for a hungry crocodile…
You’ll soon learn that you don’t always have to know what you’re eating if you’re hungry enough. Maybe have a little patience before digging in because we often started eating a dip/etc. before they served the other part of the dish we were supposed to pair it with.
While hiking the “Sendero Enigma de las Rocas”, you’ll find an opportunity to jump off a small cliff into probably the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen. Even though you’ll see a baby crocodile early on this hike, don’t you dare pass this up! It’s safe and I have no doubt you’ll regret it if you do. You might even find Justin’s long lost Apple watch if you do. While the cause of my first L in Cuba is unclear, I recommend you don’t swallow too much water like I did.
For the first time, our van stalled. Little did we know this would be a recurring theme throughout our adventure in Cuba. You’ll find yourself laughing at the situation instead of being upset, maybe it’s something in the water that makes everyone so carefree in this country?
Second night in Cuba- more dancing! David and Daniel surprised us with a live band with dancers, SO much fun. Even some random neighbors came by to see what all the commotion was and it turned into one big fiesta. Also, I’m still waiting on my email from the Cuban drummer I gave my email to in case you were wondering.
Tuesday, May 9th, 2017
Started out the day with a hike to a beautiful waterfall in Trinidad, then followed it with a well-deserved lunch of paella.
We arrived at our hostel, owned by our favorite, Papí. Who knew he would turn out to be such a character? Also update, we somehow found chicken nuggets (yum!!) and also hot dog dip (not so yummy). Ended the night at the Cave Rave where we witnessed such a strange yet cool performance of men lifting things with only their teeth… sometimes the language barrier really prevents you from knowing what is actually going on, but just go with the flow. This was the first night we discovered Papí’s true personality and signature dance move, both of which are indescribable. Also this night brought the birth of the “Cuban sandwich”… a dance I hope to leave in Cuba. I’ve never danced this much in my entire life.
Wednesday, May 10th, 2017
Leave it to Daniel and David to pick the perfect time for a beach day. Just when the sleep deprivation starts to get you, you’re saved with a day relaxing in the Sun with a breathtaking view of Playa Ancon with the Escambray Mountains in the background. Another surprise- French fries by the pool, just when you were starting to miss American food just a little too much.
The view of the Escambray Mountains at dinner was surreal, and so was the house special of Honey Chicken. Everyone at our table ordered this and it was the right decision. We began the night listening to live Cuban music, another opportunity to salsa if you’re interested. We then returned to the hostel for Papí and David’s birthday party. So many “Cuban sandwiches”, and even a “grilled cheese”, an American take on the “Cuban sandwich” courtesy of Georgeann.
After two noise complaints, we decided to move our fiesta to the beach, a very unique decision which led to one of the most interesting nights of my life. It was at this point in the trip that I became well aware that la fiesta nunca termina en Cuba (the party never ends in Cuba).
Thursday, May 11th, 2017
Climbed El Torre while touring the Valley of the Sugar Mills. Maybe do some cardio prior to the trip to prepare yourself for the steepness of this seemingly never-ending climb, because the view is totally worth it.
Try el Guarapo!! You’ll probably never have the opportunity to do this again (unclear if you would want to), and you need to take advantage!
Buy one of the beautiful handmade cloths, and remember to haggle!
Surprise, surprise – one of the vans broke down again so we all piled into the one working van, which ironically broke down a few miles later in what seemed like the middle of nowhere Cuba. I’m thankful for this breakdown as it provided us with the opportunity to meet El Loco, a surreal memory I will never ever forget.
On the road again, and to a super nice resort in Santa Clara. Surprise – there’s wifi! I facetimed with my dad for over an hour.
Started the night by watching a fashion show on the pool deck and finished it in the resort’s very own club, where Justin won a bottle of rum in a karaoke competition. So fun!!
Friday, May 12th, 2017
We were all prepared for our trip to Che’s Mausoleum with our long pants and sarongs but unfortunately found it to be closed. From here, we traveled to Jovellanos where we met some of the community’s leaders and were given the opportunity to help deliver gifts/donations to families with special needs children. This was probably the most eye-opening experience of the trip and also my whole life. Seeing how happy and thankful these people are even when it seems they have so little will make you realize just how entitled and materialistic we are here in the United States.
After the visit to Jovellanos, we traveled to a farm and met one of the most inspirational men I’ve ever encountered. After feasting on the best rice and beans I’ve ever tasted (and I now believe myself to be a rice and bean expert) and the mango that had been picked that very morning, we toured this beautiful farm and got to suck fresh honey through a straw directly from a bee hive- don’t worry they don’t sting!
It wouldn’t be a road trip for us if the van didn’t break down, this makes… number four? Don’t worry, we were still laughing at this point. This night I stayed in a hostel owned by maybe one of the kindest men in Cuba. Dinner was at an incredibly nice French restaurant where I definitely didn’t leave one crumb behind. I don’t think I could choose a single favorite part of this meal, although it would probably be between the pumpkin soup, fish croquets, and fresh flan and ice cream… Finished the night dancing at one of our favorite Cuban bars, Espacios – so fun!
Saturday, May 13th, 2017
It was on this day that we tried the best mojito I’ve ever had (so what if this trip was the first time I had ever tried a mojito – just like with the rice and beans, I quickly became an expert on the topic of mojitos). We cooked our own meal of lobster and beef and prepared our own special mojitos with the help of the amazing teachers and chefs at El Ajaco.
Our next destination was Ernest Hemingway’s beautiful home and then to dinner at a restaurant. For years scientists have wondered if you could make a group of college students weep at the mentioning of a classic American dessert, the brownie. The answer is yes, but only if it is preceded by 7 days of withdrawal from real chocolate. While the brownie didn’t live up to our standards, it was a nice change.
Due to the unfortunate break downs, we had a new driver for the night, Francisco, who is probably the sweetest man I’ve ever met. Not only did he buy all us women flowers that night, he even baked us a cake and gave us even more flowers on Mother’s Day.
Sunday, May 14th, 2017
I was shocked how big Mother’s Day was in Cuba. This was the first day we got to explore the streets of Havana, and I was overwhelmed with the gifts for sale especially for Mother’s Day.
Who knew the Sloppy Joe originated in Cuba? I sure didn’t. If you get the chance, order a Sloppy Joe, you won’t be disappointed.
After Sloppy Joe’s we got to ride in the old American cars that can be seen all over Havana. First rain shower of the trip happened to fall when we decided to go for a ride in these convertibles. Don’t worry, nothing the convertible top can’t handle, even if you did get a little moist at first. The ride took us to the National Hotel, where we enjoyed drinks and wifi, a luxury I didn’t realize was a luxury until traveling to Cuba.
We ate dinner at a really nice restaurant where they offered spaghetti. Yes- spaghetti! I inhaled my serving in less than 5 minutes I think. Dessert was ice cream and also the cake Fernando baked us for Mother’s Day- yum! After dinner we caught the end of some live music at a social club where we danced in a conga line – it was like something out of a movie. We finished our night at what seemed like a super exclusive bar – be sure to keep your voices quiet as you enter!
Monday, May 15th, 2017
On this day we arrived in Vinales – I lost count of how many times I thought to myself “are we there yet?” as I was getting a little queasy while trying not to hit my head on the roof of the van during this super bumpy car ride. Word of advice – sit as close to the front of the van as possible, ask Ethan and Baker, it really does make a difference. Today we learned how they grow tobacco and roll cigars. After, we took a scenic ride through the Vinales Valley horseback. This was one of the most surreal activities during the whole trip as the view was breathtaking.
We ate dinner at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, thank goodness our van didn’t breakdown. I have a feeling our encounter with El Loco would be a little less entertaining if it had occurred in the pitch black in the middle of no where… When asked what there is to eat in Cuba, the answer is simple: rice, beans… or rice and beans, and boy do they taste different. I promise, you too will be an expert in rice and beans by this point in your trip as well.
Tuesday, May 16th, 2017
We bid farewell to Vinales and headed to Terrazass where we were supposed to go hiking and zip lining, but the weather decided otherwise for us. No worries, as we all desperately needed that little power nap after gorging on French fries that while maybe a little Al Dente, hit the spot nonetheless.
We returned to Havana that afternoon for our final night in Cuba. I could not believe a trip that had at one point seemed never-ending, was coming to an end. We ate dinner at a super nice restaurant and had a private performance by Los Boys. The guides loved their t-shirts, and even put them on immediately. We decided to move the party to our favorite party place, Espacios, where we danced the night away. Baker, Katherine and I decided to go out on a limb and order a pizza but I definitely ordered it wrong, as we were presented with what seemed like cheese bread, but hey it was only 4 CUC and it still hit the spot.
Wednesday, May 17th, 2017
El día final… Started with a visit to a fort where we were presented an opportunity to buy authentic Cuban cigars. We also saw the world’s longest cigar (still wondering why on Earth someone rolled such a thing) and the man who rolled it. We then visited a market to buy the souvenirs we had been itching to buy the whole trip. Who knew a simple trip to a market would be one of the most overwhelming experiences one could have while in Cuba?
We finally bid our farewells to quite possibly the best tour guides on the planet, David, Daniel, and Ernesto and found ourselves waiting to board our plane and return to the US. It was at this time I got entirely too excited about American food and accidentally purchased 5 packets of M&Ms and the most flavorful can of Pringles I have ever tasted in my entire life. Side note, after 11 days in Cuba, the #1 bottled water in Cuba, Ciego Montero, finally started to taste normal to me.

Cuba, you have given me amazing memories, friends and stories that will last a lifetime. I am so thankful I had this opportunity and if I ever get the chance to return, I will not give it a second thought.

…countdown to Cuba

The Cuban travel visas, final itineraries, and student-designed t-shirts (they turned out great!) have been distributed and everyone is getting super excited for our Sunday departure. Hard to believe we are almost on our way. Tomorrow I will be presenting about my beloved Honors trips at an “Auburn Engagement with Cuba” conference at the Auburn Hotel and Conference Center. Almost ninety participants have come to hear about how all the exciting ways our faculty, students, and staff are collaborating with Cuba. I can’t wait to tell everyone more about all the great adventures that our students will enjoy during their ten days on the island. How will I squeeze it all into the allotted ten minutes?

The Honors Trip to Cuba 2017 is almost underway–just a couple more days! Can’t wait!

Abrazos,

Dr. S

 

 

Vamos a Cuba, 2017!

I can hardly believe that it is time to gear up for another wonderful adventure in Cuba! I can truly say that taking groups of students and alumni to Cuba has been the most rewarding chapter of my career to date. I have enjoyed every minute of sharing my love for Cuba with my fellow travelers. Our May 2017 trip promises to be as exciting and wondrous as the two 2016 trips. So much is happening and changing on the island, and we get to see it for ourselves!

We will spend the spring semester preparing for our trip–planning, packing, researching, and learning about Cuba–and when we return from our adventure, the student travelers will post their photos and stories to share with friends and family.

I cannot wait to lead you on another “ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME”!

Abrazos:

Dr. Tiffany Sippial