Not knowing what to expect, we arrived in Cuba on November 29th. It ended up being one of the coolest ports that we have visited. On the first day, we had to attend an all-day informational and welcome reception hosted by the University of Havana. We had to do this due to the embargo that the U.S. placed on the Cuba back in 1960. Typically U.S. citizens are not able to visit Cuba on vacation because it is illegal for U.S. citizens to have transactions in Cuba which would include a ticket into a Cuban airport. But Semester at Sea has a deal with the U.S. government that we are able to visit Cuba if we were students there for an educational purpose and the welcome reception was part of that deal. But it actually was a ton of fun! In the morning, when we arrived at the university we walked up the 80 steps together with the University of Havana students. What was planned for the welcome reception were 3 seminars about politics, economics and culture in Cuba. Then there were a ton of singers, dancers and performers that performed for us in the central square of the University. The University was not very big but it was pretty cool! After, we came back to the ship and a U.S. foreign service worker person had a diplomatic briefing about the embargo and political situations that are between the United States and Cuba. It was interesting to see both sides that he provided and how different they are. That night they had set up a few bands to play in the Plaza Armas. It also had a lot of bars and a ton of space to salsa! That night I salsa’ed with a University of Havana student who said he saw me earlier that day and told me I had a beautiful smile…AWE!
The next day Natasha, Emily and I ventured out into Havana. The first thing we did was get ice cream from a street cart. The guy’s name was Alex and he totally LOVED Americans! He had extremely good English and we ended up getting a picture with him. He sold us ice cream out of a coconut and it was super good! One of the reasons why Cubans are so interested in Americans is because we rarely are in Cuba since we can only be there if we are studying or doing volunteer work. Next we went shopping for a bit and got coffee and another desert! It is really cheap in Cuba. 1 CUC = 1 USD, but everything was cheap. Two coffees and a sundae was only like 5.40 CUC.
The third day was a blast. The University of Havana was opening up a new basketball stadium and they wanted to play against us as the opener! So SAS actually had tryouts for a men’s and women’s team to play in the two games. We arrived at the stadium and it was nothing like a stadium you would find in the states. The seats were just large concrete stairs, the court was slippery and the rims were not normal US standard rims. There was no scoreboard or even a clock and the score was kept by the manual two-sided flip numbers. However, the spirit of the whole event and the cheering of the Cuban students and fans were amazing. The girls team got off to a rough start but was close to winning! And the men’s team only lost by 3. I think we should have won because some of our players said that when they were winning was when time was supposed to stop; and they ended up playing 4 minutes extra. It was pretty neat because the University made jerseys that said USA and had numbers on the back that our players could keep! During both games we cheered A LOT. Like I lost my voice A LOT. It felt like I was at a high school basketball game with cheers and whatnot. The Cuban fans were kicking butt with their cheering. Their volume level and rowdiness topped ours easily!
That night there was a SAS field program which was a farewell celebration held by the University. It literally was a huge dance party where beers were only a dollar! A super deal. It was so much fun! The University students made a slideshow of pictures they took of us during our stay. There was supposed to be the most famous band in Cuba playing, but due to a family emergency, they had to bail. However, the replacement was this amazing 15-year-old girl who had an incredible voice. She sang “Titanium” and I literally thought it was off the computer but it was her singing it! It was way better than the chick in Pitch Perfect. After a lot of dancing and salsa-ing we left. Then Ardy, Ann and I jumped in the bike taxis of other SASers as they biked by. We were taken to China Town where we got some pizza, then headed back to the ship!