Josh Flickinger, sophomore
In late May, a group of 22 Ohio State students had the opportunity to travel to Cuba. I was one of those students. Some of us were from the Newark campus, and some were from the Columbus campus. We were there to learn about race in Cuba and how its perception has changed over history, but the experience ended up being something much more than just another class for many of us.
For ten of the eleven days, we stayed in Havana. The homestays there are called Casas. We were split between three of them. A faculty member stayed with each group. Ferdinand Avila-Medina, the learning skills specialist at Newark, stayed with my group in Casahabana. Dr. Alcira Dueñas, a history professor at Newark, lived with another group just a few blocks from us on the same street. Dr. Tiyi Morris, our professor for the class, stayed a bit farther away with the rest of our classmates in Matilda’s Casa. Each morning we would wake up to a breakfast of fresh fruit and juice, strong Cuban coffee, warm bread and butter and eggs served by Casahabana staff. Then we would meet our bus and go to the morning’s educational activity. There were two each day, one before and one after lunch. We were free between the afternoon activity and dinner. My housemates and I usually used that time to write the reflections required every day by the course. After dinner, we were allowed to explore Havana until curfew at 12:30.
The course was focused on race and Afrocuban culture. Most of our activities pertained to how they manifested in Cuban culture in general. We went to museums on the slave trade and Afrocuban religions. We attended workshops where we got to dance, make art and to build our teamwork skills. We watched performances of dances, visited historical sites and met with religious leaders. We talked to world-renowned professors and journalists about racism, opportunity, history and education. It was a lot to take in, especially in such a small amount of time, but being there in person allowed us to actually experience the things we had been learning about in class. They became memories for each of us instead of just words on a page.
Of all the official activities we did, my favorite was our visit to the Los Positos neighborhood midway through the trip. It was a sweltering hot day, and we met with a professor who led us on a hike through an underdeveloped and impoverished part of town. We started walking down a crumbling alleyway which soon turned into a dirt track that snaked down a long hill into an overgrown river valley filled with shacks. The dwellings in Los Positos seemed to be built out of whatever materials could be found, and they were jammed together along the sides of dirt paths since there were almost no roads through the slum. There was garbage everywhere, piled up on the hillsides, lining the streets, and floating down the creeks and water that flowed through some of the tiny alleys. Waste management services were not in place in the area, so where else was it supposed to go? The people there had come to Havana for many different reasons. Some had fallen on hard times, some had emigrated from the rural countryside looking for opportunity in the city, but most had grown up without many social resources, and they were stuck. All of us who went on the hike were sweating and worn out by the end. To be honest, it was one of the most uncomfortable days of the trip. The people who lived there couldn’t just leave when they were tired of the conditions. There were state and university programs at work trying to provide resources. We even met with an Abakua religious leader who worked in the community. Despite first appearances, there were many people at work trying to help those living in Los Positos, but that afternoon served as a stark reminder that despite its beauty, Cuba is a society that has problems to address, much like any other.
Not all of our activities were academic, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn from them. We had the opportunity to explore Old Havana, the historical part of the city that had most of the beautiful plazas and buildings. There were lots of tourists, but many of the people who filled the streets were Cubans going about their everyday business. We got to tour most of the historic squares and see some of the important statues and buildings. We walked around in groups, looking through the shops and exploring. For the most part, the Cubans didn’t speak much English. I didn’t speak much Spanish, and only a few of the students did. It made trying to figure out prices for taxis or souvenirs interesting, but by the end of the trip we picked up a few words and phrases. The Cuban people were generally forgiving of it though, and they seemed to be excited to meet Americans and practice their English. For us students, being somewhat independent in an environment that was so different from our usual lives gave us a chance to solve problems we had never faced before, and to try to see things from points of view that we never would have considered otherwise. To understand why Cubans did things certain ways – such as charging for using the restroom, congregating on street corners to use the Wi-Fi, or walking most places instead of driving – we had to think about what it would be like to live in a society outside of the United States, while experiencing it for ourselves.
We did have one free day during the trip. On Friday, we took a two-hour bus ride to Varadero in the Matanzas province. It was a beautiful drive. A few of us even noticed the sights in between naps. The Cuban countryside has everything from mountains, hills and valleys covered in tropical forests to vast empty fields used for agriculture. Varadero is a resort town, and the beaches there are considered some of the best in the world. When we arrived, we spent the day in and around the ocean after we checked in to the hotels. I was too sunburnt to do much more than loaf around in pain by the end of the day, but a few other students and I got to watch a live band cover 80s. Some others went to a nightclub nearby that the locals said had the best dancing. There was dancing almost everywhere in Cuba though. Everyone I met could dance, and almost all of them could dance better than most Americans I know.
At the end of the trip, we all had to write reflection papers that incorporated what we learned from the experience. For me, that was one of the most difficult papers to write because there was so much. The class showed us a side of Cuba that we hadn’t looked at before, and put what we already knew into historical context. The academic activities done while we were in the country cemented what we learned in class, and let us experience firsthand everything we were reading about. But the trip was more than that, it let us live with Cubans. We saw them go about their daily lives, we took part in those lives, and we picked up on social cues that we didn’t even know we were getting. And that’s why travelling to another country is such an amazing experience. There are some things that can’t truly be explained with words.