Tag Archives: cuba

2 Days Til Cuba

30 Dec

I’ve been quiet lately on the blog, but there really hasn’t been too much going on. After finishing my last final I had was able to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak at Georgetown University, went for a tour of the State Department, and then headed home to Boston/Sharon for a few days. I spent a day and a half in the city at my friend’s place, first catching up with my old friend Jamie from Ecuador (an American) who I hadn’t seen in over two and a half years. She’s also from the Boston area and was home for the holidays, even though she still lives in Ecuador while getting her Master’s.

Later, my friend Sebastian, a Paraguayan who is studying at American University, came to Boston to spend Christmas. He spent the night with my friends and I as we went out to a couple of bars, and the following morning we gave him a quick tour of Boston on a cold day. Luckily my buddy Fish knows the city like the back of his hand and gave a great tour, including New England Clam Chowder. My time in Boston was short lived and I flew back on Christmas, returning to Washington with a nasty cold. I whiled away three days in my apartment alone trying to recuperate and enjoying my only real week of vacation before leaving for Cuba. Yesterday was the only real day that I got out for a bit to do something, going down to the National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian. I’ve wanted to go there for a while, but as often happens when I go to a museum, I lost patience and wandered through quickly.

When there are too many exhibits and people I don’t like being in a museum. That explains why I was in and out of the Louvre in 30 minutes. I saw three big pieces and got out. In just two days I’ll be leaving Washington to head down to Miami, and the following morning we’ll be leaving as a group to go to Havana, Cuba. I’m still debating whether or not I want to bring my lap top, and it will probably be a game time decision. I’ve been told that our hotel will have Wi-Fi, but I’m skeptical of the connection speed, especially if 14 other people there are trying to use the Internet at the same time. I don’t want to come home to 200 emails, but I also don’t want to be so connected that I’m online all day long. Part of the joy of traveling is disconnecting.

Check back in just in case to see if I’m blogging from Cuba or if not, I’ll be back in two weeks and will have stories, photos and probably videos as well (though my ability to edit videos together when I get back is cut short by the beginning of the semester and my internship at the Organization of American States).


How to Prepare for a Trip to Cuba: Part II

14 Dec

Last month I wrote a piece about how to prepare for a trip to Cuba in preparation for my two week study abroad at the University of Havana in January. Our group had our second pre-departure meeting tonight, so here’s a bit more on the kinds of things you should consider if ever thinking about a trip to Cuba.

First we had an hour lecture from the Secretary General from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Though the United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations in each others countries, they do have an Interests Section under the flag of the Swiss. This basically means that if anything should happen to a citizen of either country, or a situation should arise, it would be easier to work out a solution. Likewise, there are educational and cultural aspects behind this, and I think that a part of it has to do with at the very least, trying to keep relations from totally being cut off.

The Secretary General gave us a little history on Cuba and its relationship with the United States, and then took some questions from the students, depending on what they will be researching in Cuba. I’ve decided to research how the economy has been developing related to post-Soviet era tourism. After the Iron Curtain fell, Cuba lost a great trading partner and aid, and thus had to look for another way to bring in revenue. Around this time period investments started to be made in the tourism industry, and as restrictions ease, the tourism industry seems ready to boom. I’d like to figure out the implications should the doors between the US and Cuba freely open one day.

Most importantly, we covered little details on things to remember and be careful about when traveling to Cuba. Bring as much cash as you think you’ll need because your ATM and credit card will not work. If you’re there on a tourist visa, you are only legally allowed to spend $179 for necessities per day (food, drinks, entertainment). Of course, that’s according to the United States, but once there, the Cubans won’t mind if you spend over.

You are not allowed to buy anything as a souvenir. Literally, nothing except artwork will be allowed into the US. If it’s a piece of art from a known artist, it has to get an official seal. Street vendor art doesn’t count, unfortunately. However, you can bring back informational items, such as books, movies, CDs, and posters. Sorry, but the little magnets and cigars are not worth the potential fines and jail time.

Apparently you are required to keep records of all of you travel documents for five years after visiting Cuba, just in case. This means you should hold on to any records of receipts, notes, journals, photos, or airline tickets. If you ever want to get a security clearance, you might want to hold on to these things. Your passport does not get stamped for your benefit. Imagine getting stopped anytime you travel with your passport again and interrogated as to why you were in Cuba. Instead, you’re given a separate document to hold onto while you’re on the island.

The charter airplane only lets you bring 44 lbs worth of luggage with you, including your carry on, so pack wisely. However, you also might want to consider bringing some gifts. Evidently, Cubans are very open to talking to you in the street, and engage with you easily. Yet it’s also common in the culture to ask for a gift as a sign of friendship, and it could be awkward if you have nothing to offer. Something small should do, like a pen or a something along those lines. I’ve already thought ahead and have decided that a stack of autographed Post-Its should be well received when I explain what a famous blogger I am back home (right?).

I’m still trying to finish my last final paper so I can breath a bit, enjoy a few days at home in Boston/Sharon, and then come back to sit around in Washington for a week. It turns out I don’t have work the week of the 26th, so I’ll be able to see some sights in DC, finally. In other news, today I was accepted for not one, but two internships at the Organization of American States. One was related to hemispherical security (including international terrorism, drug trafficking, criminal organizations, etc) and the other was dealing with the ministries of labor of the member states of the OAS, worker’s rights, etc. It was a tough choice because both paths are very interesting and will be challenging yet rewarding, but in the end I chose to work in the department related to labor. The internship will start at the beginning of next semester and run until May.

Preparing for the Trip to Cuba: Lesson #1

14 Nov

Before our class can take off for Havana, Cuba in early January, we will have two introductory classes to prepare us for the two weeks spent studying and researching at the University of Havana. Tonight was our first meeting, and after quickly introducing ourselves we got down to business. There are a few things to keep in mind when doing research on Cuba, and maybe it’s more important to remember these things than for conducting research on any other state in the region.

First, check multiple sources to make sure the translation is correct and not biased. You might be reading an extremely right-sided version or left-sided version of a story, and though this is inevitable with such a volatile subject, you need to be aware of this as it’s happening. The best way to get a middle-ground viewpoint is to read as many sources as possible and then draw your own conclusions. (For all intents and purposes, we’re talking about culture, economy and contemporary politics.)

Figure out the analytical and critical framing for your sources. If reading about the history of Cuba, who wrote it, what is their background and potential influence? Yes, you may be reading an English version, but it could be coming from a 5th generation Cuban who was forced to leave after Castro took power. Think about how that might affect their view of history, especially the revolutionary history.

In terms of political science, you need to re-conceptualize the idea of civil society. Civil society refers to ways in which a society will gather to discuss and debate, among other things. The United States, for example, is a very open civil society, with book clubs, church groups, softball clubs, etc. You might think that these kinds of activities are banned and non-existent in Cuba, but there are other ways in which a civil society can exist.

Identify the causes of the revolution. Are we looking at only what is presented in an American history book, or a Cuban book, British book, Colombian book, etc? Read the historical evidence but also think of context and other events occurring in the world at the time. We will be looking at multiple viewpoints of Cuba, and though I’ll go into this with an open mind, I will also try to keep clear of accepting everything I hear from my hosts as the absolute truth. Investigation and objective research will be my task.

With less than two months until the trip, the wheels are already in motion. Our visas are being processed and arrangements for hotels and airfare are underway. I might need to check in with a travel clinic to see if I need any booster shots (even though I received a few goodies before Ecuador), and then I’ll get to experience Cuba firsthand.


Headed to Cuba in January!

18 Oct

I got some good news that I was waiting on this afternoon. Though I’m still in my first semester as a grad student, I applied for a new program at American University to travel to Cuba during the winter break and study for two weeks at an intensive course at the University of Havana. I guess my years of experience and hard work have finally paid off because I was accepted and will spend two weeks this winter learning about the culture, economy and contemporary politics of Cuba. This is a great opportunity because I know that in the future things will change with Cuba, and I’m eager to get to see how things are before major tourism opens up.

I’ve already become something of an expert on the Southern Cone and the Andean countries after living in South America for three years, but my experience in the Caribbean countries is admittedly less impressive. In Central America I’ve only been to Costa Rica and because it was years ago, don’t have extremely vivid memories. I’ve been to Puerto Rico a handful of times, but as a tourist. I know that there are extreme differences between traveling somewhere as a student or worker. But mainly, the fact that I am now fluent in Spanish and can converse with people openly opens doors in so many ways. Now I hope to improve my knowledge and understanding of this region which has been off limits to many for so many decades.

It’s funny, but already a number have people have told me to be careful when I go to Cuba. I appreciate the concern, but I wonder what it’s based on. Obviously they aren’t speaking from experience, or even stories from friends who have been there. Why do some Americans (if not most) possess an image of Cuba as dangerous? Yes, they have a different form of government and ideology, and we are in theory enemies, but where is the evidence saying that I’m likely to be robbed? I know someone who was robbed in Havana, but I know many more who’ve been robbed in Quito, Guayaquil, Buenos Aires, Boston, New York, Washington, etc etc. I’ve been told that you generally don’t need to fear for your safety walking down the street in Havana, but don’t worry, I don’t try to push my luck…too much.

Maybe it’s something about having already been through a bus hijacking, but I’m not too worried about travel to certain parts of the world anymore. There was a time when I wouldn’t consider going to Bolivia, for example, but eventually I was backpacking around there on my own. Once a person has fluency in the language, they gain a great sense of empowerment and comfort. So much of fear is based on a lack of language ability. Sometimes you just need to know how to shmooze your way out of a situation.

So Travel Guy will continue to be traveling, and already the prospect of a trip ahead has me excited and anxious to get underway. Still, there are miles to go before I sleep, and though we’re halfway through the semester (yes, already), I have a million other things to work on as well. Here’s to 2012 in Cuba!