My Time in Cuba: A Journey to the (Somewhat) Forbidden Country

Feature Cuba

Katelyn Malecki

Malecki

My name is Katelyn Malecki. The day after earning my Business Administration degree in May, I boarded a plane as part of an amazing Study Abroad opportunity.  I traveled to Cuba with fellow OCC students and professors and spent 10 days in the country.  It was an educational experience unlike any other, and one I will remember for the rest of my life.  Below is a diary detailing my many fantastic experiences there.

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Flying into Havana

From the moment our plane landed at José Martí International Airport in Havana, it felt like we had stepped back in time.  The Havana airport looked like it was something out of the 1980s with the way the gates and signs were designed.  The heat and humidity that hit my face as I stepped off the plane was another clue that I was no longer in Syracuse.  The temperature was in the mid-80s and the humidity was very high.  However, the sun was shining brightly, so I wasn’t too bothered by how sticky everything was starting to feel.

After we got off the plane, we had to go through customs.  This was my first international flight, so it was also my first experience with airport customs.  Luckily the process went smoothly for me since I quickly realized customs often just means handing papers to the customs officer and receiving other papers in return.  I felt both relief and excitement when I heard the stamp come down on my passport that read, “Jose Marti 14 Mayo 2017.”  Inside my passport was also my paper visa that formally allowed me to be in the country.  After walking through more corridors and standing in more lines, it was time to change my currency from US dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos, which are often referred to as CUC’s.  Cuba has two currencies: one for (most) locals and one for tourists (and some locals.)  1 CUC is worth about 1 USD, but there is a service fee for USD that is about 10%.  Cash is definitely a necessity in Cuba – I didn’t see a single credit card machine while I was there and no US bank transactions are allowed.  At this point, we were all done with customs and currency exchanges, so it was time to meet our tour guide and begin the adventure of a lifetime.

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Doorway in my first casa, Havana

Our tour guide was named Ivan (pronounced EE-van), and he quickly became one of the highlights of the trip.  He was willing to answer any questions we had; his knowledge and friendly nature became invaluable.  We left the airport about mid-afternoon for our casa particulars in Old Havana.  These are the Cuban version of bed and breakfasts; we would stay in them throughout our time there.  I enjoyed staying in them because they were a perfect way to experience Cuban life and have conversations with the people who are fortunate enough to work in tourism.  Tourism is Cuba’s top industry, and it is where all of the opportunity lies today.

 

The drive to Havana was quite interesting because we were able to see the outskirts of the city.  It really didn’t feel like we were just 20 minutes from the biggest city in Cuba.  These areas aren’t like our suburbs here; they appear more rural and have of a wild nature feel to them.  I saw many people sitting on the side of the road in groups, just enjoying the Caribbean weather and talking amongst themselves.  This was another clue that I wasn’t in the US anymore – I’m not used to seeing people sitting on the side of the roads in Central New York.  Cubans seem to be very outdoor orientated people.  You can see it in the way their houses are designed to let the natural airflows cool them, which is also a byproduct of having buildings from the past that were built before air conditioning.  This is an aspect of Cuban culture that I enjoyed.  It was refreshing to see a culture that isn’t inside all the time, something people in our culture seem to do more and more of.

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José Martí Memorial

Our sightseeing continued with a stop at the tallest building in Havana, the José Martí Memorial.  It is an amazing structure to see in person since it is a massive 358 ft. five-point star.   It also happens to be where we first saw one of Havana’s most famous treasures: old American cars.  Havana is a city now known for its old cars and crumbling buildings, and I quickly realized that old cars mean lots of exhaust, which was something to get used to.  The buildings were magnificent though.  We were able to see a bit of the city as our bus drove us to our casas and I was amazed.  All cities have old, historical buildings, but there truly is something special about Havana’s.  The contrast one can see is unbelievable.  There can be a building in perfect condition next to one without a roof, as well as a building with a perfect paintjob, but with broken windows that are held in place with tape.  This contrast might be part of why Havana is so different from other cities.

 

Stairway in Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

I also loved was the historical aspect of Havana, which will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2019.  The city played an important role in Spanish Colonialism, which often is the main focus of the city’s history.  The parts of the city that clearly show this old history are the three main forts that can be seen as you walk near the city’s edge in Old Havana.  We were able to visit all three while we were there.  One, named Castillo de la Real Fuerza, is a maritime museum full of artifacts from shipwrecks and models of ships, including those that Columbus used to sail the ocean blue with in 1492.  This fort is one of the oldest in the Americas, and is a star-fort, which means it’s shaped like a five-point star.  That design was supposed to help with cannon and gun firing; however, it wasn’t enough because the fort was built too far from the harbor so it wasn’t able to protect the city from its enemies.  The Spanish were eventually forced to build other forts with one of them being Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or, in English, Morro Castle.  This fortress provides stunning views of the harbor, and the opportunity to climb its lighthouse that was built in 1846.

 

One of the many cannons in La Cabana.

The last fort we visited in Havana was La Cabaña.  We weren’t at this fort for too long, but it was definitely a memorable visit since we were there for one of Havana’s famous traditions: the cannon blast ceremony.  This tradition dates back to colonial times when it used to signal the closure of the city wall.  As an aside, fragments of this wall can still be seen around the city today.  The cannon goes off at precisely 9 PM every day so we got to the fort at about 8:15 and were able to explore the grounds before getting a spot near the fort’s wall to watch the blast.  It turned out to be a full ceremony since several reenactors, dressed as colonials, marched around the fort with a lighted torch for about a half an hour before taking their final spot in front of the cannon.  As a side note, I have a bit of a fear of loud noises (I couldn’t do firework shows for years) so I was slightly freaking out when I realized they had taken their final spot.  Combine that with an obstructed view due to the amount of tourists at this ceremony and you get one terrified Katelyn.  As soon as I saw 8:58 on my phone, I plugged both of my ears and waited for what felt like an eternity.  The blast was extremely loud (as I expected) and I was actually able to see the spark from the explosion, which made it a really cool experience.  After the blast was over, the

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Havana City Lights

reenactors marched back, single file, to the area of the fort where they started, and we were given 30 more minutes to explore.  It was pretty awesome to be exploring an 18th century fort at night.  We were across the harbor from the city, which meant we got an amazing view of the night skyline.  There aren’t that many lights, which I thought was interesting.  Here I was in the biggest city in Cuba and I could still see some stars at night – it was comforting in a way.  While visiting the forts, I loved learning about the history they represented while walking right where that history occurred – it’s a million times better than watching a movie or reading a book on it (although I still enjoy both of those options when they’re the only ones available).

 

View of the Museo de la Revolucion

We were supposed to visit the maritime museum on the first day in the city, but it was closed for Mother’s Day.  This was our first experience with having to adjust to the Cuban lifestyle.  Because of that, we moved our schedule around a bit and on the first full day in the city, we went to the Museo de la Revolución (the Museum of the Revolution).  This museum includes many artifacts from the revolution, and several of them amazed me.  The museum has items like Fidel Castro’s robe from when he defended himself against the pre-revolution Cuban government that was being led by the US-backed dictator, Batista.  It was at this museum that I learned Castro was a lawyer, which is something I previously didn’t know.  This museum allowed me to see things from the Cuban side, and I quickly realized I didn’t know much about this country and its history, which made this trip a true learning experience.  It was also interesting to see the way the Cubans depict the actions of the CIA, which usually are quite negative.  Many of these events are written about in classified governmental documents, and it will be very interesting to see if any of them are declassified during my lifetime.  The other special thing about this museum is that it is housed in the former Presidential Palace, which means it’s absolutely gorgeous.  However, the palace became an issue for many Cubans because while the palace’s interiors are lined with gold-leaf, most Cubans were living in shantytown-like shacks.  Because of this, and because he wanted to appear as being equal to all other Cuban citizens, Fidel Castro refused to live in the palace and it was turned into the museum that it is today.  Overall, this museum was fascinating to see. It was a great activity to experience and one that I surely will never forget.

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Sculpture of Napoleon found in Havana

Havana is filled with many great history and art museums, on top of the history and art that can be found wherever you go in the city.  We visited several other museums, including one dedicated to colonial art (which ended up being a bit of a history lesson as well) and another dedicated to Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon).  Now, at this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why I just mentioned Napoleon as I’m writing about Cuba.  However, located in what used to be the mansion of an Italian-Cuban politician is a museum dedicated to the French leader.  The museum is stunning due to both the artifacts inside, and the mansion itself.  It even includes Napoleon’s death mask (a mask made of his face right after he died), which was very cool to see.  It was moments like this that made the trip so special.  Before coming to this country, I would never have guessed that it has a museum dedicated to one of history’s most infamous rulers, but I was certainty glad to see it does.

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View of the many trees in Las Terrazas

When we left Havana, we drove for about an hour before stopping at one of the most beautiful, nature-filled places I’ve ever seen.  It is called Las Terrazas (“The Terraces”) due to the terraces that were cut into the mountains to help reforest the area after it had become completely bare of any trees.  After several decades of reforestation efforts, it is now filled with trees and the hills are gorgeous because of it.  I got to see trees like banana trees and mango trees and mahogany trees, as well as smaller plants, such as coffee bushes.  We took a walking tour of the community and learned how it operates.  It is a self-sustaining farming community that the government created to help bring things like education and healthcare to farmers who live in the more rural areas that previously didn’t have those things close by.  We were also introduced to two very talented artists who both had gorgeous work.  After the tour, we ate a big lunch where the only thing you ordered was your drink, everything else was family-style.  To end our visit to Las Terrazas, we were able to go swimming in a freshwater pool-like area that was complete with small waterfalls and a sloped rock that was covered with algae, which made it perfect for using it as a natural water slide.  It’s safe to say I definitely had fun that afternoon!  We were then back on the bus to the next destination, which was Viñales.

If I had to pick a favorite out of the places we visited in Cuba, I would probably have to pick Viñales.  It is an area known for farming, so many of our daily activities were linked to that.  I think part of the reason why I liked Viñales so much was because it also happened to be when the group seemed to become a sort of family.  We had previously spent three nights in Havana, so we were getting to know each other pretty well, and the more rural aspect of Viñales seemed to help everyone relax a bit.  I also loved the woman who was in charge in my casa particular.  She was so sweet and attentive.  We had to eat lunch at our casas during one of the days in Viñales and the food I was given from this woman was amazing.  She knew how to make these delicious fruit smoothies too, which made the meal even better.  I felt bad at the end of the meal though because between myself and the two other girls staying at this casa, we couldn’t finish all the food!  There was just too much deliciousness on the table, and not enough room to finish it all.

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Part of a farm in Viñales

The main activity that we partook in while in Viñales was a tour of a tobacco farm.  Here we learned all the ins and outs of tobacco farming, as well as how farming works in a communist state.  The farmer said he has to give 90% of his harvest to the government.  When asked how much he keeps, he said 20%.  That is an example of Cuban humor, but it’s also an example of how Cubans sometimes bend the rules a bit to get by.  At the end of the lesson on tobacco farming and cigar making, the farmer lit about 6 cigars and was very intent on having each and every one of us try them.  These were cigars made with their own family recipe, which everyone says are much better than the government-produced ones.  We were also taught cigar etiquette, which is something I never really thought I would learn.  However, I was in Cuba, so I made sure I paid attention to the lesson.  I guess “When in Rome” works for Cuba too!

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Gorgeous Viñales sunset during dinner

Both nights in Viñales were filled with delicious food.  The first night, we went to an organic farm and there was so much food, it could barely fit on the table.  It was all served family style here, so you would take whatever you wanted.  There was fish, pork, beef, chicken, yuca, rice, beans, and plates of other assorted, fresh vegetables.  It was crazy to think that it all came from the farm we were sitting on.  The farm also had a specialty drink called an anti-stress drink, which was a delicious mix of things like coconut milk and pineapple, finished off with some medicinal plants like star anise and basil.  I don’t know how they made it so good, but our tour guide recommended it, and I am glad I followed his recommendation.  The next night, we had dinner at a place located right on a small cliff’s edge, which made for a perfect view of the mogotes hills and the valley below them.  This dinner began with a cooking lesson and we learned that Cuba has had to adapt to a limited options of food items ever since the Special Period, which was when Cuba suffered an economic crisis in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union was subsidizing many goods for Cuba, which was creating a false economy for the country.  When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba could no longer afford all the food items that they had previously, which forced them to adapt.  However, I came to appreciate Cuban food because I liked how it was often predictable, yet still included surprises.  In our demonstration, the woman who was the chef made a delicious dip for bread out of just a few ingredients.  I also learned that the two Cuban spice staples are oregano and cumin.  Cumin is my favorite spice, so I was happy to see the chef add that to everything she made.  She also cooked root vegetables and we were all surprised to see how fast she was able to peel them.  After the demonstration, it was time to eat.  We sat out on this platform that slightly hung over the valley below, which allowed for an unobstructed view of the gloriousness that we were surrounded with.  Both dinners here also happened to be during sunset, which made them even more beautiful and special.

Viñales was such an amazing place for more than one reason.  The last night, I was just sitting on the terrace of one of the casas our group had, talking with chaperone the travel company sent for us, who was from London.  I loved how peaceful and quiet it was there.  It was completely different from Havana and because of that, it almost felt like we were in another new country.  I am so glad we were able to visit this amazing place – it added so much to the trip and is a place I hope I can return to someday.

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Mural found in Korimakeo

After two nights in Viñales, it was time to get back on the bus and venture to the next destination, Cienfuegos, but we made a few stops along the way.  We first stopped at the Korimakeo Cultural Project, which was started by the Cuban government back in 1992 and is intended to bring art and culture to the more remote areas of Cuba.  This includes things like musical performances, art showings, and dance performances.  The campus houses students who get paid by the government to learn a particular form of art and then travel across Cuba to share that art with citizens who wouldn’t be exposed to it otherwise.  Most students are only there for no more than a few years when they can then move on to something like the National Ballet.  We were fortunate to experience both a music and dance demonstration put on by the current students, and both of them were spectacular.  I felt almost entranced by both of them; you could sense the passion in every student.  This project also shows how much the Cuban government cares about art and culture.  They feel like everyone in Cuba should have access to it, which is something I find to be very positive and interesting.  I am glad we stopped at this magnificent place (which is almost in the middle of nowhere) and am grateful for the performances we were able to witness.

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Beautiful Bay of Pigs

We spent quite some time at Korimakeo since everyone seemed to love it, but that meant we were a bit behind schedule.  The bus ride from Viñales was already a pretty long one, so when we arrived at our next stop, the Bay of Pigs, the plan had changed just a bit.  The original plan included the option of snorkeling, but we were only able to swim in the bay since the snorkeling place was closed.  However, the water of the bay looked absolutely perfect with the aqua blue color the Caribbean Sea is known for, which quickly made up for us being late and missing out on the snorkeling.  I ended up just floating in the water for a while, staring out at the sun reflecting off of the crystal blue water, which turned out to be just what I needed after a long trek on the bus.  All good things have to come to an end though, so I eventually had to get out of the water and prep myself for getting back on the bus again so we could reach the next city, Cienfuegos.

We arrived in Cienfuegos just in time to get settled in at our new casas before heading out to dinner.  My casa here was very cool since it had an atrium-like garden, which turned out to be where breakfast was held.  As for dinner, we ate at a unique ocean-themed restaurant that had delicious food.  They had the craziest lights made out of puffer fish – that is something I never would’ve thought existed.  The menu here included quite a few pasta options, which surprised me since pasta isn’t very Cuban.  It also was fairly small, which gave it a nice feel, and ended up being a great way to end the day.  I then walked back to my casa and enjoyed the air conditioning while catching up on my questions for my class, before calling it a night.

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Palacio de Valle

Cienfuegos is the place we spent the least amount of time, but we were still able to do a mini tour of the city’s center.  Like most of Cuba, it features great architecture.  However, since this city was settled by the French, it has a bit of a different feel to it.  I’ve heard some people say it looks like a mini-Paris, but with never having visited Paris, I can’t make the same statement.  I can say, however, that it is gorgeous – the town center features a historic theatre that was built in the 1800s and looks like the perfect venue to get dressed up and attend a ballet at.  We were also able to visit this gorgeous mansion on the outskirts of the city that was an incredible sight to see.  It is called Palacio de Valle and although it used to be someone’s home, it is now a restaurant.  We didn’t go inside, but the outside is gorgeous enough.  It is mostly Moorish in style, but it also includes elements of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, and Italianate styles.  With that being said, it is an architectural wonder and completely amazed me.  Our journey had, yet again, brought us to an amazing Cuban gem.

Our next stop was another amazing sight, but in a different way.  It was the Che Guevara Mausoleum, which also includes a museum.  Che Guevara was one of the revolutionaries in Cuba who actually was from Argentina.  He met the Castro’s in Mexico and decided to come to Cuba to help fight.  He was responsible for the victory in the Battle of Santa Clara, which is considered to be the turning point for the Revolution because it led to the fleeing of the current leader, Batista.  Because of this, the Mausoleum is located in Santa Clara.  The spot also includes a massive statue of Che which allows you to realize where you are almost immediately.  We all went inside the mausoleum where his body is kept along with several other men who died with him in Bolivia.  He was in Bolivia to assist the country with its own revolution and ended up being captured and executed by a CIA-backed force just nine months into his journey there.  While inside the mausoleum, we had to be completely silent, as a sign of respect, and weren’t allowed to take anything inside, other than ourselves.  Cell phones were especially not allowed inside, which was somewhat frustrating since that also meant no pictures were allowed.  It was surreal to be right next to the body of one of the most well-known Cuban revolutionaries.  We then walked over to the museum that includes items from Che’s life.  These items included things like baby pictures, medical instruments (he was also a doctor), and guns from the revolution.  This museum was remarkable since it includes so much and shows how much Cuba loves this man.  I wish I was allowed to take pictures, but I will have to settle for the many mental pictures I took while inside.

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Part of the Temple of Yemaya

After the stop in Santa Clara, we continued onto our next destination, Trinidad.  Trinidad used to be where many sugar plantations were located and is now mostly known for tourism.  We were greeted by a quick, yet still drenching, downpour.  We quickly followed our guide through the city to visit a museum that featured historical items that related to Trinidad.  After the museum, the rain thankfully had stopped, so we walked through more of the city and stopped at the Temple of Yemaya.  While here, we learned about the religion of Santeria, which is a mix of Christianity and the native African religion.  This religion was created by African slaves when they were forced to become Christians.  Instead of giving up their native faith entirely, they secretly combined the two and created Santeria.  The temples are typically parts of people’s homes, and this one was no different. It was fascinating to learn about this religion and see a small bit of it in the form of this temple.  After the temple, we did a small tour of the city before we were shown our casas.  Our tour guide joked that everyone gets lost in Trina (the local term for the city) because the city doesn’t follow a grid; it’s more of a circle layout. He pointed out all the landmarks we could use to get around just in case we did get lost.  Spoiler alert: I got lost.  However, in my defense, I ended up being closer to my intended destination than I thought, I just had to walk a little more.  After the tour, we were shown our new casas and were given the usual time before dinner to chill and recuperate a bit.  The houses in Trinidad are quite recognizable since they are all painted in bright colors and no house matches its neighboring houses.  I quickly realized color was about the only way I could distinguish my casa from the others, which made me very thankful for the tradition!  I loved my casa here since it had this big great room at the front of the house that didn’t have any glass windows, just bars.  This made it feel like I was always outside, which I loved.  The people were very nice as well, which always helps.  That night, we went to a nice restaurant that featured live music.  We had another great view of the sunset too since the restaurant was like a big covered porch.  It was another example of the indoors, but also outdoors, Cuban style that I loved.  We had arrived in Trinidad and had yet another great day in Cuba!

 

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El Cubano National Park

The next day was my exercise day.  I refer to it as that because I was moving for pretty much the entire day.  To start, I went with a small group of people on an optional hike to a waterfall in El Cubano National Park.  The group was small because you either had the option of sleeping in or hiking and many people took the first option.  The hike ended up being really cool though, but definitely not in the temperature sense.  The waterfall was the best part, as I was expecting.  This was swimming stop number three for the trip and was the most unique for me.  It was a deep, yet fairly small swimming hole that you would swim to via this somewhat narrow channel filled with very slimly rocks.  In fact, the whole area had slimy rocks which led to me entering the water in a not-so-graceful way.  The only good thing about that form of entry was getting used to the water quickly since it was a bit cold compared to the hot air temperatures of Cuba in May.  After swimming through the short, narrow channel, you would then be in a 10-meter deep pool that was carved out over time by the waterfall.  There was also a small cave behind the waterfall that I swam to.  I was actually able to see bats moving around inside, and that, combined with the darkness of the cave and deep water underneath me, made me swim out of the cave and back to the less creepy area of the swimming hole.  After hiking back to the origin of our hike, we were rewarded with a delicious lunch that featured a vegetable soup that was amazing, even though it was approaching 85 degrees outside.  After lunch, we bused back to our casas and had some free time before partaking in a salsa lesson.  I used my free time to explore a bit with a few other people and to get some souvenirs for my family.  After walking around for a while, we spent some time sitting on the main steps in the center of the city and watched the people around us.  I could definitely see more tourists here, but that might also be because the city really only has a few key places for tourists to be and if you go to one, you’re bound to see a bunch of them.  Before we knew it, it was time to head back to our meeting point where we met up with the rest of our group and walked to the salsa lesson.  That salsa lesson ended up being a workout.  Not only was it during the hottest and most humid part of the day, the dance itself had me sweating like crazy.  We were taught all 16 basic steps of salsa and then performed them with partners.  Although it was sweaty and mildly embarrassing, I ended up having a lot of fun and was ready to end our last night in Trinidad at one of the best places possible: the beach!

 

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Sunset and storm clouds at the beach

The beach was gorgeous.  It featured the brilliant blue water of the Caribbean Sea I had seen just a few days before, and the water was just what I needed after a day full of exercise of all kinds.  We ate a picnic-style dinner at the beach and watched the sunset.  We ended up getting hit by a massive storm, but the clouds before the storm hit made for perfect pictures.  The storm made us leave a little earlier than planned, but I’m glad we left when we did because the entire bus ride ending up being during a crazy downpour.  This meant we had to walk (run) back to our casas in the rain, but thankfully they weren’t too far away from where the bus dropped us off.  It was quite a way to end our time in Trinidad, but by this night, I was already feeling a bit sad since we only had one full day left before leaving this magnificent country and returning home.

 

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The Mazaca Iznaga Tower

Our last full day was spent mostly on the bus, but we did make a few stops along the way.  Our first was at the Manaca Iznaga tower, which was used in the past as a watchtower to observe the slaves as they worked in the sugar plantations.  This tower is massive – while two stories was the norm back when this was built, the owner of the plantation was definitely a “Go Big or Go Home” person since this tower has seven stories.  I was able to climb the tower, which allowed me to see great views of the surrounding Valley of the Sugar Mills after climbing all 184 steps.  The stairs were all wooden, so it was a bit of a scary climb, but the view at the top made it worth it.  We then got back on the bus and continued to head toward Havana.  We made a stop at a local pottery studio and got to meet the man behind it who has been making pottery for decades now.  It was fascinating to watch him create intricate pieces of pottery out of lumps of clay.  Our next stop was for lunch and although it was supposed to be fast food, I think it ended up being the longest we ever waited for food.  However, we all reminded ourselves that we were in Cuba and needed to adjust to “Cuban time.”  After lunch, it was more time on the bus before we eventually arrived back in Havana.  We were greeted by some afternoon rain, but it was nothing serious.  Since it was already late afternoon, we were taken right to our casas and got ready for dinner.  The casa that I stayed in was massive and gorgeous.  My room had a red theme and felt very regal with the high ceiling and stained glass design on the windows.  Our last dinner together was at a very nice restaurant in Old Havana, and apparently is where Beyoncé and Jay-Z ate when they visited Havana.  We were eating pretty late, but no one was watching the time.  I bring that up because at one point, I realized a bunch of people were looking out over the water at something.  I couldn’t figure it out until I saw the characteristic waving of a torch over the water, but I didn’t realize what it was in time because just before I was about to warn everyone, there was a loud explosion as the 9:00 cannon blast went off.  It felt like we had come full circle from the second night, when we went to see the cannon blast, and because of that, it was the perfect way to end our last night in Cuba.

 

The next morning, we had time to visit one more museum before heading to the airport.  This museum was amazing since it included all different types of art from Spanish paintings to Egyptian hieroglyphics.  It even had actual mosaics taken from Rome.  I couldn’t believe I was seeing these things in Cuba, but I was glad I was!  It wasn’t a museum to miss, that’s for sure.  We were then on our way to the airport where we said our goodbyes to our tour guide, bus driver, and chaperone.  I couldn’t believe we were actually saying goodbye – the ten days had flown by.  After going inside, we thankfully checked in and got through security pretty quickly with no issues.  Our plane ended up being delayed (which is common in Cuba), so I used some of the time to get some last souvenirs and change my Cuban CUC’s back to USD’s.  It was then time to board our flight and say goodbye to this fascinating country.  After a pretty turbulent flight, which I used to finish watching a movie I started on the way to Cuba, we eventually landed safely in Atlanta.  The next step, or should I say steps, was customs.  This was my first time going through US airport customs, and I had no idea it

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The Atlanta Airport’s Jungle

was so involved.  Fortunately, it’s not difficult, but it does take some time since it involves waiting in multiple lines.  It ended up being the typical give a paper, get a paper ordeal, which is really the only somewhat confusing part of the whole process.   After customs, it was time to get some food and then wait for the flight to Syracuse.  It was weird to eat American food, at first, since I got so used to ultra-fresh Cuban food.  I was starving though, so it wasn’t too weird for me to eat it!  After exploring the jungle-themed underground walkway of the Atlanta airport (it’s the best), I decided to sit by the gate until it was time to board since I could feel how tired my body was getting.

After just a couple more hours, we were landing at Hancock Airport and just like that, the trip had officially come to an end.  Just writing that now makes me feel a bit sad, but I know I will have the memories and pictures from this life-changing trip forever.  I met amazing new friends, experienced things I never thought I would, and saw things I never thought I would see.  Thinking back to November, I am beyond glad that I decided to attend an info session on this trip since that started this whole experience.  Those ten days are some of the best days I’ve had in my life so far, and I am so grateful to Onondaga Community College and the professors on this trip for allowing me to have this amazing experience.  And if you’re ever looking for a place to visit, I highly recommend Cuba because it is truly unlike anywhere else in the world.  It’s full of hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered, and in a word, it’s magical.

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