Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Loving Life in Old Havana

Along the "Malecón", just outside of Old Havana.
Some of the most interesting experiences and interactions I witnessed were on the streets of Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. It would be difficult to walk through the district without smiling at least once. There are children chasing puppies around, men eating ice cream together on sidewalks, performers on stilts, vendors selling old books, outdoor orchestras, art, and music. The city is lively. People aren't rushing to get anywhere; they're just enjoying life.

One of the streets in Old Havana. 

Young boys go for a swim on the "Malecón".

A puppet show on one of the streets of Old Havana.
Churros outside the Chocolate Museum!
That seemed to be a consistent part of Cuban life, enjoying it. The Cuban people are some of the best people I've met. They want to know everything about you: where you came from, how long you'll be in Cuba, what your home country is like, what you think about Cuba. Some people even start conversations with you on the street. They welcome you. They offer to show you around. A couple of times, we were invited to parties. The best part about this was the genuine kindness that we witnessed and were a part of. Of course, you have to be careful of people who might be trying to sell you something or take you to a second location, but most of the time these people just wanted to get to know you; no second agenda.

Probably a big part of why they were so interested in us was because the country was only just starting to open up to tourists when we went. They were probably very curious about the differences between our countries and theirs, between our lives and theirs. But I think the very nature of their curiosity and genuine kindness was their culture and personalities. I loved learning about how many kids they had, what they did for a living, and their favorite artists that they listen to.

But along with these friendly interactions, were also heartbreaking ones. People were open to talking about their lives, but sometimes, if we weren't in a public place, they would reveal to us stories about their family members living in the United States that they haven't seen for years or their willingness to watch an NBA game. Of course, everyone is different. Some people love the United States, some are hostile towards it, but I think it was important for us to hear these stories.

Walking through the streets of Old Havana, I learned lessons about appreciating the little things, loving one another, and staying positive during tough times. The Cuban people have been through so much, but they continue to have an unbreakable spirit. I admire and I aspire.

Every Friday, an orchestra would play classic songs outside. Beautiful music!

Sculptures like this are all over the city. 

Love these dogs! Each one was unique and painted by a local artist.

We had to stop and play with this little one!

Outdoor book market, one of my favorite parts of the city.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cuba: My First Reactions

We heard the pilot's voice come onto the intercom announcing that we would land in just a few minutes. I looked across my fellow student out the window of the plane and saw the green, flat land below. I took a picture of the agriculture, eager to interact with it.

Our first sight of land from the airplane.

Before putting everything back into my backpack, I reached for my Spanish dictionary one last time. I don't know if "dictionary" is the right word for it. It was called "Hide This Spanish Phrase Book" and my mom gave it to me when I first started learning Spanish. The book included useful things from simple greetings to phrases to use when flirting with someone to curse words to yell at people. Luckily, I never had the opportunity to use one of those sections to yell at someone. Nevertheless, I flipped through the pages, worried about the upcoming Spanish placement test that I would have to take once I arrived and whether I had forgotten my Spanish since my last Spanish class, which was six months ago.

Suddenly, I felt vibrations as the plane's wheels touched the ground. Everyone but the students in my group clapped and cheered. Haven't they ever been on a plane before?, a little voice asked in my head. And then it occurred to me. It must have been a while since they've been back. They must not have seen their families. I'm coming here for the first time, but they're coming home.

Someone in our group tells us to look out the window to our right. I reach across my neighbor again and see the big, blue words on the side of the José Martí Airport building: PATRIA ES HUMANIDAD. Homeland is humanity. This would be the first of many signs that we would see along streets and across buildings. That sign was a sort of wake-up call for all of us: we were not in the United States anymore.

"Patria es humanidad"
After going through the long lines of immigration and security and locating all of our bags, we walked out of the doors of the airport into the bright, hot street. It wasn't the bright sun that caught my attention, but the bright, red 1950's automobile parked across the street from us. There it sat, almost welcoming us to the culture and history of this new place. I promised a car-obsessed friend of mine that I would take pictures of any cars that I found fascinating. I knew then that I would not have a hard time finding them.

The first of many photos of classic cars.

We boarded our van and left the airport for a tour of the city. As we passed signs about the homeland, images of Fidel Castro and José Martí, and the local people going about their day, I knew this would be unlike any experience I have ever had.

All of my years of traveling to other countries was no longer applicable. Typically when I visited somewhere, there would be moments where I have seen something or gone through something similar. I knew how to deal with people. I knew how to detect when a situation wasn't right. I knew the best way to haggle. I knew the best ways to get around. There was something different about this place. As if all of my previous experience and knowledge that I picked up over the years suddenly vanished and I was starting out fresh. But I didn't cling to these experiences and beg them not to go. I felt a sort of satisfaction with this oblivion. That I was ready to experience this place with a clear mind. That I was ready for Cuba.

Stay tuned for more stories about Cuba!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Cuba: A Series


Since Cuba has been in the news so much because of Fidel Castro's death, I think it would be relevant to talk about my most recent trip there! That's right. I went to the mysterious island of Cuba and I'm going to tell you about it.

First of all, I wasn't able to enter the country by scrolling through Expedia, booking the cheapest flight, and cruising on down. Although the United States announced its new relationship with Cuba, it still hadn't opened up to tourists during the time that I went. So how did I get the chance to go there? Study abroad!

My university offers a Study Abroad trip to Cuba every year and I was accepted as one of the lucky students to go. When I was thinking about doing a Study Abroad program, I considered many Spanish-speaking countries because I am working on my Spanish minor. Although I considered many places though, it was not hard to narrow down my choice to Cuba. Not many people get the opportunity to go and I wanted to see the country in its rare state, pre-touristy transformation.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting some stories about my experiences as well as tips for people looking to go in the future. Look out for posts about the food, some popular attractions, culture shock, and what I got out of spending six weeks there!

Stay tuned and stay classy!
A view of La Habana.

Click here for my latest post about Martinique!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spring Breakers Hit Martinique!

2016 was quite the year of travel for me! I hit the Caribbean three times traveling to Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin, Martinique, and Cuba. I was only in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Martin for a few days because I was on a cruise, but it was equally amazing to visit them!

As I sat in my cold Pittsburgh home a few days ago, trying to keep warm with my mug of hot chocolate, I couldn't help but think back to my Spring Break trip with the girls earlier this year. A few friends and I found a great group discount to Martinique, a small, French-owned island in the Caribbean. As I hadn't left campus during Spring Break before, I figured I might as well! We packed our bags and headed to John F. Kennedy airport for our flight to the exotic island.

Road trip ready!

After a short flight and hundreds of photos taken of me sleeping with my mouth wide open, we landed in Martinique. Our main mode of transportation was by a car we rented from Avis. I haven't rented a car before, but it was surprisingly quite simple, especially when there isn't a line of people! We took our adorable little car to the place we were staying and after we settled in, we got some drinks. I ordered a fancy fish with some rice, beans, and maduros looking things and it was very yummy! My drink was what caught the most attention though! Three different colors: it was hard to miss.
What a drink!

My yummy first meal in Martinique.

Day 1: Exploring and Relaxing

Because we arrived when it was still dark out, we didn't get to see the lovely view outside our room. Boy was it a surprise when we woke up the next morning! We could see the trees reaching all the way out to the vast, blue sea. Apparently the place we were staying in had its own beach so we could see the path disappear among the jungle of trees heading towards the sea.

The view we woke up to!

A view from the front of our little place.

Our adorable little car.

The driver and the navigator.

We went to the main lobby to get on the Wifi and tell our parents we were alive (the Wifi didn't reach our room) and then we were off once again to explore the island and, more importantly, find some food. We were able to find the main town on the island via an app called It sounds sketchy, but it seriously helped! Every time I have traveled to a place where I won't have data for my phone, I download a map of the city/country when I land and I can access it wherever I go. You can even look up restaurants and things to do (I don't really know what the science is, but I love it).

Anyway, we found the downtown area and walked around for a while before we found a cute bakery and ordered some bread.

A French fort and a beach along the shore of the town.

Finally found some food for breakfast.

I forgot to mention that only one of us spoke a tiny bit of french so navigating and speaking to people was quite difficult. Ordering bread wasn't even that easy! Note to self: bring language dictionary wherever you go. But our lovely friend who knew french helped a lot even if it was only a little bit.

After we filled our tummies we almost felt forced to check out our little private beach, so we drove back, gathered some fruit from a local fruit stand, traveled down the little path, and lay on the beach for a good couple of hours.

Watermelon and a view: a perfect combination.

The path to the private beach.

A relaxing afternoon.

We could see the other side of the island!

After a couple of hours we were hungry again and decided to drive to another part of the island for dinner and a walk. The ocean was beautiful. We strolled along the boardwalk watching young, local men playing volleyball on the beach and taking pictures of the islands in the distance. We then found a nice restaurant for dinner that served pasta and even more fun drinks. 

A shot of the island in the distance. 

The boardwalk leading into the ocean. 

If you like piña coladas...

Spaghetti bolognese for me.

Carbonara for my friend!

Day 2: Climbing a Volcano

We had planned on hiking ever since we found out that there was an active volcano on the island and today was the day! We packed up some granola bars from the local supermarket and a whole lot of water before heading out. We thought it would be a good idea to stop by a bakery and grab some breakfast and maybe even pack some sandwiches later (we later realized that this was a bad idea once we reached into our bags to find soggy sandwiches).

A cheesy breakfast before the intense hike.

Mont Pele in the distance. 

 The girls getting ready for a long hike.

The hike was definitely one of the most intense I have ever done. The path went straight up the mountain and the steps were at least two feet apart. At one point we were even on our hands and feet. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable. It was one of the best experiences of my life! We stopped many times and made sure to drink a lot of water so we didn't get dehydrated. Once we made it to the top, we saw the most amazing view of the island. It was so worth it despite the soggy sandwiches and extreme sun burn (ouch)!

 Here we go!

This cow is much better at hiking than we are.

 A view from halfway up the volcano.

 The side of Mont Pele.

 So high up!

Almost there ladies!

Our neighbors didn't want theirs so they gave it to us!

As sore as ever, we drove home and, to our surprise, our kind neighbors ordered one too many pizzas and were kind enough to give us theirs! We spent the rest of the night making dinner and reading. It was a truly magical day. 

Day 3: Beach Day and Souvenir Shopping

The next day, we went to a market in the town and shopped for some souvenirs to bring home. We spent the rest of the day taking advantage of our private beach and eating at another fancy restaurant with sublime food and drinks. 

Panorama of the beach with a cameo from my friend.

Took this selfie without realizing my friend's toned behind was in the shot!

Shopping is tiring!

I wish I was still looking at this!

My friend's mojito was better than whatever I ordered.

Oh so good!

Day 4: Sightseeing and Reminiscing

On our last day, we ventured to yet another part of the island and came upon an awesome monument dedicated to those who were slaves in Martinique. It was so moving to read about the meaning of the sculptures.
The sculptures of the slaves looking out to the sea.

After admiring the sculptures we traveled to a beachy area that had some shops and restaurants along the beach. We decided this was a good place to stop and enjoy the time we had left. We ordered some drinks and lunch and relaxed before heading back, making burgers, and packing for our flight the next morning. 

The town along the beach.

Another nice boardwalk!

We found a nice spot for lunch!


Our trip to Martinique was one of the best Spring Breaks I've ever had! I loved hanging out with the girls and trying new things and new places. So thankful for being able to find an affordable trip on such a friendly and relaxing island. Stay tuned for a few upcoming posts about my study abroad trip in Cuba. Stay classy!

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