It’s winter?

I leave for the United States in less than three weeks. It feels crazy to even know that I’ve almost completed a semester here in Cuba, because it sounds like something that would be a part of someone else’s life, and not my own. In the past month, I have come to a greater sense of self than I could have ever foreseen or anticipated. Apart from a third (maybe fourth?) visit to the hospital due to some brief food poisoning, my time in this country has continued to be one of forced growth and new experiences. I look at my Cuban family with fondness and nostalgia, knowing that when the time comes for me to depart, I will desire to leave a part of myself with them forever. It’s true when they say that company makes all the difference.

I have taken a lot of time for myself since living in Cuba. This time is normally spent sitting on the third floor of the house, on the balcony that my roommate and I share right outside of our room. I’m nearly eye level with the building across the street, along with the tops of the palm trees and some telephone wires. Sometimes I crane my neck to see if there’s anyone sitting on their own balcony, smoking a cigarette, talking with a friend, or simply watching the movement of life. I’ve found that in this time alone, my thoughts have somehow slowed down—not completely calmed, as anxiety often gets the best of me, but enough so I’m able to think without rush. I think this embodies the pace of life in Cuba. Time is without boundaries. Time is spent well.

The value of quality time spent together cannot be underestimated. Although the concept of time is slightly different here in the Caribbean, the heart of the matter is the same. Despite personal hardships related to feelings of loneliness, homesickness, alienation, and weariness, I have been shown some of the most honest and transparent type of love. This love is not sugarcoated; it is not ingenuine; it sometimes comes with impatience and misunderstanding, but it fights to the end. It is worth the victory.

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Rainy 22

I celebrated my 22nd birthday a couple days ago. I was reminded of the closeness of love, the universal language that supersedes all darkness and transcends physical borders. Though separated by distance from my family and friends back home, I was still surrounded by so many people who have come to know and care for me over the past two months. My Cuban family planned a surprise birthday dinner, and invited the other students and directors of Spanish Studies Abroad to join. It was a true glimpse of the heavenly community that is promised to me, and I am thankful to have experienced it.

The halfway mark of the semester has just recently passed, and I can hardly believe it. With the changing time comes the changing weather, and it’s evident in the increased amount of rainfall and lowered temperatures. I am reminded of the beauty of change, the loss that accompanies something once-familiar, but the gain that comes with becoming a new creation. Here in Cuba, this concept is a bit muddled to me, as the cultural context is different. I have been challenged and unsettled lately. I find myself entering a stage of critical analysis, of slight hostility, of weariness. I understand that being abroad introduces a whole host of issues, and it is simply a matter of accommodation and willingness to be flexible. I can’t help but feel burdened by the brokenness all around me. I see joy and resiliency, but I also see it as a façade of strength that shields pain, hardship, and spiritual bankruptcy. I am amazed at how real courage is here.

Living amongst and knowing the Cuban people has been an undeserved gift. I am far from worthy of being invited into their stories, a mix of the history of humanity and present-day challenges. Yet, I am still invited to the table. I am given a spot to sit, a reserved place that remains the same day in and day out, regardless of my own failures and shortcomings. I may not always have something to contribute, but I am guaranteed to leave fuller, more whole, better somehow.

October

It rained in Havana last week, and it felt a lot like home. To me, the Pacific Northwest, specifically Seattle, has always been a comfortable and familiar place. I was describing it to another American student a while ago, and dark coffee, gray days, and moody music came to mind immediately. As much as this may be true, I also know that home is where my loved ones reside, and where my loved ones are, my heart is also. Slowly, Havana is starting to become more and more like home—different in some obvious ways, but also familiar with time. I look forward to coming back to the house, where I struggle getting the front gate open occasionally, and can count on at least one family member to greet me when I arrive. Dinner is served around 6:30-7pm every night, and my roommate and I are treated extremely well. Sometimes, we get the privilege to sit down with our Cuban family, our host dad at my right, at the head of the table. Though simple to some, this time is one of my favorite moments of the day, as bowls and plates of food are passed around as quickly as the jokes and teasing. Growing up in the States, my own family was very small, and the nature of our dinner conversation was quite dull compared to what I experience here.

This is now the third full week of classes at the university, and I’m finally beginning to settle into a rhythm. Unfortunately, I have an 8:00am class every day except for Thursday mornings. On the bright side, I’m able to end earlier, with more hours in the afternoon to explore and rest. I am officially taking four classes. Though I have been learning Spanish for seven years now, my Cuban professor is a good reminder of the fact that my grammar could always be improved immensely. Ironically, the professor of my Marxist-Leninist theory class is also named Marx-Lenin… I’m not sure how to explain this one to those of you reading, but nonetheless, it is what it is. Even though I feel frustrated in the classroom sitting among intelligent, well-learned Cuban students whose accents are extremely difficult to understand, I am also trying to be patient, and know that in a few weeks’ time, it will be better.

Cuba continues to surprise me, in ways that I could never have anticipated. There is something both whimsical and antique about the island itself, where history seems to be stuck in a certain period, yet the timeline of humankind continues. I am grateful for the moments of self-discovery that reveal themselves unexpectedly, for the challenges that seem trivial in light of my American privilege. I anticipate that these will only increase in number as the semester goes on.

As with all things, there are seasons. I trust that this one is good, and will be for my good.

One Week In

This has felt like one of the longest weeks of my life, due to reasons of culture shock, time zone difference, and overall adjustment to living in a foreign country. Despite having many activities and events packed into the span of a single day, I also have been wrestling with prevalent, almost-existential, themes of purpose. I have many questions to ask of Cuba, of the people who inhabit this island, of the Cuban government, and of God, who I know to be the God of every nation.

On a practical note, classes officially started at the University of Havana this week, and I am more disoriented than I have been in a while. The education system in Cuba has many layers, but most interestingly, school is compulsory up until the university level. It also seems that learning is taken quite seriously by students and families alike, despite differences in teaching style and classroom resources, such as the lack of technology. I do find it exciting that there is quite a large department for humanities, philosophy, and social sciences. The thought of attending the same university that Fidel Castro graduated from also sends shivers down my spine.

If I’m being perfectly honest with myself (and with you, the reader), I am quick to say that I don’t know much. I know enough within the scope of my academic studies, how to relate to other human beings, and the difference between right and wrong (most of the time), but in the grand scope of it all, I live with ignorance. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, yeah? However, I don’t believe that staying in this space can do anything but harm. Cuba is a country of paradoxes. Its history is long and rich, filled with tragic stories of colonization and slavery, but also of fascinating political relations with other hegemonic countries in the world, i.e. the United States. One thing that I have come to realize in my short time in Havana is the sheer power of a community, and its existence as an active, living, breathing thing. Community looks differently depending on the context of where it resides. Though Cuba is not exempt from systemic issues of racial and class divisions, I can foresee it taking a bit of time to fully grasp the complete picture. In the meantime, I hope to continue staying parasite-free and joy-filled, trusting that my semester here will serve a greater, grander purpose than anything I can speculate at this moment.

 

Havana Good Time

In just a little over a month and a week, I will be departing from my hometown in Seattle, Washington to the island of Cuba, where I am spending a semester in Havana. Why, may you ask? Why, Amy, have you chosen to do such an outrageous deed? Recently, I have asked myself the same questions.

The university that I attend requires all of their foreign language students to complete at least one semester abroad in a language-relevant country, and I do want to walk across that graduation stage in May 2018… Therefore, I’m going to Cuba. Ironically (but not actually), I had the opportunity to take a course this past spring that focused on Cuban literature and culture, which helped prepare me a bit more for the coming season. This course covered the beginning origins of the island of Cuba with its indigenous presence, and followed the changing of governance from Batista to more recently, Raul Castro. I was struck at how much content could fit into one semester’s worth of learning, but moreover, at the immense amount of history that has colored modern Cuban society.

This fall, I will be taking a grand total of four courses at La Universidad de la Habana, which is the country’s oldest university, and one of the first to be founded in the Americas. Fortunately, I will also be living with a local family, which I had the privilege to do in my time in Guatemala, and I know that this in itself will be a formative experience. I am hopeful for the richness and depth of the Cuban culture, to gain an intimate perspective on the country’s infrastructure, on the lifestyle, and to bring back to the United States a fuller, more wholesome understanding of the world. I hope to be transformed, not only in my thinking, but in the way that I approach my own life circumstances. Given that Cuba sits in a very unique position on the international stage, I am interested to see how my identity as an American citizen is further developed.

With any new season, there comes concerns of transition, change, and negative emotions associated with those concerns. I would be remiss to claim that I don’t feel afraid, or that my mind hasn’t wandered down a dark, windy path of “what if” questions and dangerous hypothetical scenarios. If you have ever lived abroad for any period of time, you know exactly what culture shock and expectation adjustment look like.

A shortage of toilet paper? No way.
The same meal for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner? Shut up. 
Stomach parasites from drinking the water? Get out.
Loneliness? Anxiety? Fear? Homesickness? Folklore. 

There are many days where my American ethnocentrism is called into question, and I am forced to confront how it is that I am privileged enough to walk this earth with the promise of food on the table, access to clean water, and a roof over my head. Yet, I neglect to take this discomfort to the next level and actually make a visible change in the way I live. While in Cuba, I will be slapped in the face with these harsh realities, and I hold on to the hope that I may be equipped with grace and integrity when necessary.

How precious this life is. How short our days are numbered. Although my mental endurance may get the best of me at times, I am confident in knowing that by faith, trust, and an eager, expectant heart, my three and a half months in Cuba will not be for naught. May I be used for a glory and goodness that is greater than I could ever fathom or imagine. I am ready for Havana good time.