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Top Five Things to Check Out in Havana, Cuba

by Nikki Pena

Except in the mobster era, Cuba has never been as popular in the United State as it is now. Travel restrictions ban a majority of people in America from entering the country.

In just a few years, that will all change.

Pitt students have been granted the privilege to study aboard in Havana for decades, given that they can afford it. This year, the opportunity was offered to Pitt-Greensburg students in the form of a generously subsidized weeklong trip with reasonable requirements–at least one history course, a G.P.A. of 2.75 or higher, and a clean judicial record.

For most people, a week is more reasonable than a few months, mainly for financial reasons. But the added burden of culture shock is also intimidating. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Cuba if the program were three months long, especially because I do not know Spanish

That week was enough to change my life. Being one-quarter Cuban, I had my own reasons for visiting–to explore part of my heritage and make cultural connections. While there, I found even more reasons to go back. Here are five reasons you should visit Havana:

1.) Art Around the City

Nikki 1Havana is embellished with murals and statues like any other city. Only, in Cuba, artists are not allowed to express negative thoughts about the Cuban government. Many works featured Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Jose Marti. That’s not to say there isn’t work that challenges government in general, just not Cuba’s government.

Our hotel wall was covered in about 60 canvas paintings of Jose Marti. They were available to purchase for 20 Cuban convertible pesos (or CUCs) apiece.

On entering the Museum of the Revolution, formerly the Presidential Palace my group and I were greeted with the Wall of Cretins, which are caricatures of Fulgencio Batista, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Busj. Each caption sarcastically thanks the former leaders for their help in the revolution.Nikki 3

Going up the marble stairs, I spotted a marble bust of Abraham Lincoln, who was a hero in Cuba for liberating the slaves. On the walls next to the chapel, ther were coffee paintings of Che Guevara and Raul Castro’s departed wife, Vilma Espin.

Less political artwork can be found in Fusterlandia, a neighborhood covered in mosaic glass tile creations by Tile Artist Jose Fuster. After traveling across Europe, Fuster, flooded with creative ideas, brought a new world to his neighborhood. His studio is open to the public and features stories of floors covered in creatures, cowboys, paintings, and vibrant, glossy designs. There’s a gift shop and even a spot to dine with friends on the lowest floor. Outside of the studio, merchants sell handmade goods along the street.

2.) Cuba’s Limited Globalization

It’s nearly impossible to escape the influence of commercial enterprise around the world, especially in food service. Cuba might just be the last place in the world that isn’t tainted by corporate takeover, namely, American corporations.

Companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, and Dunkin’ Donuts are nowhere in sight. Instead we bought our food at outdoor restaurants, cafes shaded by trees, and candlelit dining rooms in the homes of the locals. Sadly, this might change in the years to come.

Unlike in America, the Cuban dining experience is very lax in terms of efficiency. Quality meals in Cuba take more time to prepare than in the U.S. During lunch, at The Presidente, it took an hour for nine sandwiches and an order of ravioli to be brough to the table. Cubans are also lax with their health codes. While eating lunch at Hostal El Canonazo, chickens and roosters freely roamed the premises. They were surprisingly well-behaved and didn’t bother people to get food.

Even in smaller groups, there was, on average, about a 30-to-40-minute wait for food orders. No matter where we went. Even at our hungriest, my group and I didn’t care about the wait. In fact, we started embracing it and we used the extra time to reflect on our thought and daily events.

3.) Landscape

True love begins at the Malecon, a promenade off the Gulf coast starting in Old Havana, where vivacious waters crash into the wall and spray off the edges. Hot, humid days were saved by pulsating winds, especially while on the brink of a cliff overlooking the Morro Castle. It’s known the Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” while visiting the windy coast Cojimar. Havana is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever seen.

4.) Architecture

Architecture in Havana stems from colonial, baroque, neoclassical, Moorish, art-nouveau, art-deco, and electic influences. This is the result of their shared history with Italian, Spanish, and American cultures. Somebody pointed out that the capitol building looked similar to the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Disintegrating colonial buildings and forts are being repurposed for museums and tourist attractions.

5.) The Positive Attitude of Cuban People

Cubans are generous, hardworking, and progressive thinking people. They have a high regard for education, and they continue to be leaders in medicine and hard sciences, even without the latest technology. I was amazed when I met a professor who was 23 years old, something you don’t see in America.

Everyone I met was excited about the lifting of the embargo in the United States and the future of Cuba. There was a language barrier, so that was about the extent of most conversations with locals.

Marta Rosa Munoz, our program advisor, sat down to chat with us the day before we left.

“I love living in Cuba,” she said. “When I wake up, I don’t just make coffee for myself, I make it for the neighbors too.”

And it’s not just coffee. Cubans are ver giving with everything, even the little bit of food they get from their rations. Munoz would generously give her neighbors anything they needed–whether it was eggs, rice, or a good meal.

This is a result of living in a social system that considers what is best for everyone, not just one kind of people.

We think of Cuba as a developing nation, but we could learn a thing, or a few things, from the attitudes of the locals. They are constantly thinking of what they need to do, and they have an amazing ability to not care about things they don’t need. American culture just doesn’t have that.

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