Yesterday I had to sign up for my Spanish course at the University of Havana. The Campus of the University is an astoundingly beautiful collection of classical buildings and a Cuban tank graces the entrance to the library.
At 9 am all the foreign students, about 40 of them, met in the Edificio Varona and we were shepherded by various professors into a very antiquated lecture hall. (By the way, of the 5 or 6 washroom stalls in the women´s bathroom, only 1 or 2 have toilets in them, no toilet seats, and no running water in the sinks. Again a sign of rather run-down infrastructure…)
There they told us about the program, but only in Spanish, which was okay for me, since I speak Spanish, but about half the group was completely lost. We then had to do a quick written placement test to assess our existing Spanish skills and then the bureaucracy began.
We found out that we needed the following documents:
– a copy of our passports
– an official copy of the hotel guest card and/or a copy of the licence of the private Casa Particular
– 200 CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) in cash for a 2-week course or more for other courses
– 40 CUC for changing our tourist visa to an academic visa (in fiscal stamps which we had to obtain abuot 5 km away)
– 2 passport photos
– 25 CUC in cash to expedite our academic visa if we are in town for only 2 weeks.
I linked up with a bunch of foreign students and we headed off together on our quest to fulfill the Cuban desire for Burocratismo. We first obtained cash at bank at the Hotel Havana Libre, then got the passport pictures done (to be ready for pickup 3 hours later), then searched for the other bank on Calle 23 that would provide us with the 40CUC stamps for the academic visa. With extremely long lineups everywhere, this took us about 2 or 3 hours.
Then we got really hungry and we were approached by a local “Jinetero” (restaurant tout) who promised us a complete meal with main dish, salad and side dish for 6 or 7 CUC. We walked with him, only to find out that the wait at the Paladar (private restaurant) would be about 45 minutes to even sit down, not including food preparation time.
Tank in front of the University’s library.
So we walked up Calle 21 and a private restaurant owner approached us for a meal and we gave in and came inside. It was a beautiful colonial villa, except that the guest room with is obligatory 3 tables and 12 seats was in a dark small dingy room completely without windows.
However, we had a delicious home-cooked meal, I had roasted chicken with rice & beans, salad and a lemon soft drink, all for 8 CUC (about 8 US$). 2 of my student colleagues were from Germany and the other fellow is from Toronto as well, but originally from Poland. We had some great conversations and it was interesting linking up with a bunch of Europeans in Havana.
After a brief rest in the hotel, my friend Pedro again picked me up in the evening and I couldn´t help but tell him about my experience with the Cocotaxi driver yesterday, who had tried to pick me up, despite my clarifications and statements that I was married and not interested in any amorous activities.
Pedro explained that sexual relations in Cuba are a relatively common, easy-going thing and that it is very common for people to link up for quick “meaningful overnight relationships”. He referred to the Cuban people as very “passionate and hot-blooded”, I guess that explains a couple of the advances that I have been receiving so far, particularly since there is also quite a lot of sex tourism where men (and even women) come to Cuba to engage in easily available erotic experiences.
Pedro and I walked through the old town and of course along the Malecon (the seafront boulevard) and saw the beautiful Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de la Catedral where a mass was being held for the passing of Pope John Paul II.
This was very interesting, since Cuba is a Communist / official atheist country and there are much fewer Catholics today than before the Revolution. Actually much of Cuba´s religion is a mixture of Catholicism and Santeria (religious practices of the African slaves). Regardless of religiousness, Cuba has declared a 3-day “duelo nacional” (a national mourning period for the Pope) and the mass was attended by hundreds of people.
Pedro and I then had a nice meal in the “Barrio Chino” (Havana’s Chinatown) for 5.60 CUC (less than US$6) for 2 people and 2 vegetarian meals and soft drinks. After a nice dinner he again flagged down a local private car driver and gave him about 1 CUC for picking us up and dropping us off at my Hotel.
At midnight I dropped into bed, exhausted.
The Alma Mater in front of a concert stage.
However, at 4 am this morning I awoke with major intestinal problems. Apparently my Chinese meal had not become me so well and I had serious digestive issues emanating from both sides of my body. This morning I really felt rotten and I ended up using my own medical kit for the first time and took some Immodium.
I was unable to eat breakfast, but I made my way to the university where at 9 am our classes started. Surprisingly the placement test had put me into the level of “perfeccionamiento”, the highest level and the level of Spanish in my class was indeed very high. The class consists of 7 students, a young woman from England, a young female medical student from Denmark, a middle-aged female doctor from Finland, a young male law student from Sweden, a young woman and man from Norway and myself from Austria/Canada.
Obviuosly there is a very heavy Scandinavian slant in my class and it seems everyone in the class is a hobby sociologist, political scientist, environmentalist and historian. We asked some rather tough questions about Cuban life, the political system, the economic hardships, the double economy, the situation of women and blacks in Cuba, machismo and the situation of the environment.
Some of these questions made our female professor feel extremely uncomfortable and it seemed like she was squirming under the barrage of probing political and sociological questions. She got very defensive a few times about the Cuban system and only after we discussed the good and bad aspects of European and Canadian societies did she loosen up a bit and become a bit more open and frank about the real Cuban life. It seems that to this day Cubans have to be very careful about what they say in public.
For example, she frankly admitted that racism still exists in Cuba and to this day it is still a country with a lot of machismo. However, she did not admit that Internet access and access to non-Communist media is forbidden for Cubans, she simply explained it as an economic issue. (Several of my colleagues had heard otherwise in their travels in Cuba, simply that a Cuban is not allowed to have access to the Internet). She also admitted that it is not allowed for Cubans to visit the tourist areas of the Cayos (e.g. Cayo Coco) which is exclusively reserved for tourists and Cubans have no access to that area whatsoever, a definite point of contention among the locals.
Class ended about 1:20 and my upset stomach did not allow me to intake any food. I headed back to my hotel, slept a little and have been on the Internet for the past 2 or so hours (racking up a bill of about $US 20.00 or s0), documenting my trip.
It´’ll be a quiet evening tonight since I am trying to settle down my stomach. But I am sure the adventures and the learning will continue tomorrow.
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions(http://www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the transitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.
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The interview with photos is published at Travel and Transitions – Interviews