One of the many reasons why I really love what I do, is that I have the honor to accompany you along the journey, as you study abroad in Cuba. From your arrival to departure, you will be transformed as a person. I promise. My role is to support you along the journey that will certainly stretch and challenge you. Through facilitated reflection and just in your day-to-day experiences, you find yourself thinking more critically, creatively and profoundly about who you are and the world around you.
In Cuba, the air is hot and humid (like in Miami!) but it smells of diesel. Yes, the 50s era cars are there, and so are the impatient crowds waiting for their relatives coming from the US. You will realize you are indeed in the unknown. The bags are taking quite a bit of time to come out onto the beltway. You are impatient and nervous. And you observe how Cubans, who do not even know each other, begin small talk as if they do. This is a very common way of passing time while waiting, in whatever cola (line) or situation. This your first lesson into Cuban culture, a sense of community and being “in it” together. Eventually, you and your new Arcadia Cuba compañeros/as (companions/comrades) slowly make your way through the “other side” of those glass sliding doors.
You are surrounded by emotional reunions, tearful hugs and kisses. You observe the Cuban way to greeting each other, typically giving one kiss on the cheek, but on this occasion, hugs are long and deeply cariñoso, affectionate. Amongst the crowd upfront with a huge smile, you hear me shouting, “Bienvenidos mis queridos estudiantes (welcome, my dearest students)”
You’ll hear often the Cuban expression, No es fácil, pero no imposible (It’s not easy, but not impossible either). And everyone certainly finds that to be true when it comes to Cuba’s dual currencies. It is part of the Cuban experience, to learn, adapt, immerse, and try to understand the complicated realities in Cuba.
Next, we head to the Arcadia Residence, which is located in the beautiful, leafy and central neighborhood of El Vedado. Outside waiting to greet you -- your new Cuban family, Lorenzo, Ruty, Kendra, Maite… not only will they feed and care for you very well throughout your program, but they will also become your source laughter and familial support whenever you need it! There is your Arcadia Residence itself, this colonial mansion with all the modern comforts, will certainly meet your expectations and likely beyond.
Our intensive and important orientation is spread out throughout the first week, so don´t worry! I am there to support each of you, ongoing throughout the program and beyond.
We are all here to learn and equally teach one another from our own life experiences. With that framing, we also share leadership and participation in building a harmonious community in and outside the Arcadia Residence. So we start by getting to know one another and our unique reasons that brought us here-- to same table in La Habana, Cuba.
Our first orientation session is heavy. I provide a lot important information on health, safety, security and wellness. We cover topics everything from where to find your delicious, yet non-tap water jugos (juices), women’s circles, issues of diversity and inclusion to matters related to Title IX. Given we share leadership, a couple students volunteer to be the resident health coordinators. It’s all our role to support each other and make the very, very best of la gran oportunidad to study, live and be well in Cuba!
Es complicado…It’s complicated is another common Cuban expression. A Cuban historian once told me, there are many Cubas within Cuba. From the beginning of your journey in Cuba, you will learn that Cuba is a complex nation. After 20+ years traveling to this island nation, being a student myself of U.S.-Cuba history, policy and relations, there is still so much I don’t know or understand. However, as a facilitator, my role is to also have a participatory, open, respectful and uncensored session on political education. I do know lots of Cubans with very diverse and authentic perspectives. By offering a totally honest and transparent space for students to ask about what we know and don’t know then we can start building mutual understanding from there.
The attitude of Cubans towards US citizens is that of true friendship. It is indeed hard to find a Cuban person who doesn’t have a relative in the United States. Everywhere in Cuba there is the overwhelming notion that the two countries are meant to be friends.
One of my many hopes is that at end of the program our students leave Cuba with sharpened life skills and maybe even some new ones. One of those important life skills is a sense of direction and helps to be able to read a map---at least to get you home and school or even the emergency International and neighborhood-level clinic, which later in the orientation week, we actually visit and tour together. I will walk you through the process of checking-in, getting a consulta (doctor’s appointment) and then processing the bill that is covered by your Cuban health insurance. You’ll be pop-quizzed you on what is your home address (en Español) and what you would need to tell a taxi to get you home! Sometimes we can’t depend on technology, so it gets down to the basics. Although, we are all grateful for the offline app, map.me, which provides a detailed full Cuba country map on your smartphone. Download it before you depart!
The first full day in La Habana is a busy one-- as orientation is now all about diving in and learning how to swim. By this time, we are all excited and anxious to leave the house to enjoy our first welcome meal together and then venture out a little to explore our neighbor’s nearby nightlife.
We get buddied-up to jump in and the experience the shared taxi, which are known as almendrones or a.k.a maquinas, both words Cuban Spanish colloquialism. At first it seems nerve-wracking with a back seat already full with Cubans starting at you, a driver who seems to be shouting but that’s only because that’s how he talks and plus the music is blaring. Eventually, you will learn whole new way of communicating that’s not Spanish or English, but rather Habanero.
But getting lost is part of the journey. Remember it’s that life-altering adventure you came for, right? Just keep pushing forward and remember, I’m here for you.