A Travellerspoint blog

As They Fought at Fidel's Side with Che Guevara

Santa Clara isn't exactly a tourist location, but it is closely linked with Che Guevara.

The room in the university that the presentation took place was room from which Che led rebel forces

to attack. On the short tour, we saw the stage on which Che was bestowed an (honorary?) degree. I

believe Santa Clara was the only Cuban university to give him a degree during his lifetime.

However, the two most important signs of Che's presence in Santa Clara are the Che

monument/museum, and the train. We went to both.

The Playa Giron museum prepared me for a museum that described all of the wonderful things Che

Guevara had done in pointed language. I was not prepared for the Che museum. Very literally not

prepared, as I didn't know enough of this life story, and the museum didn't try to inform me.

There were a few pictures, with captions all in Spanish. But the bulk of the museum was just a

collection of objects that Che Guevara had held at one point in his life. Everything from “here's his

diploma from medical school” to “here's a fountain pen he wrote with once.”

I think it assumed a very high kn owl-edge of the life of Che. It began by talking about Ernesto

Guevara, which I'd only recently learned was the first name of Che Guevara. Then again, I felt like the

museum was around for national pride reasons, than for tourism.

From there we went to the memorial. We weren't supposed to talk in there, but there was a group

behind us that whispered the entire time. It was a nice tribute, with the pictures and field names of the

people who had fought at Santa Clara with Che. Obviously Che was the main attraction, but he just got

a slightly raised pillar in the middle of the room and not a picture the same size as everyone else, so it

wasn't over-the-top.

Then we got back on the bus and drove to the train. We looked around for a little bit, learned about the

Battle of Santa Clara, and took pictures. They'd known that a train carrying soldiers was going to be

coming through, so they drove a tractor onto the tracks, forcing the train to stop, then blew up the

bridge behind it. The train had nowhere to go, and Che Guevra and his men were willing to fight to the

death. It was a victory, and an inspiring one at that. It was with the Battle of Santa Clara that the

Revolution first truly began to succeed.

At dinner, I asked Leonard if he could witness any historical event, which one he'd want to see. He had

two answers. For European history, he would want to see the start of World War 2, but in Cuban history,

the the battle of Santa Clara.

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University of Santa Clara

We had to get up in time to leave the hotel by 8:30 the next morning. Not packed, (we'd be coming

back that night) but fed and with everything we thought we needed for the day. Including the textbooks

we could finally give away.

Ten years ago, when our professors had visited the University of Santa Clara, they'd asked what the

university would like them to bring. The response was textbooks. So before leaving Carthage we each

grabbed a textbook and had been carrying it around in our suitcase ever since.

So we walked into a room and listened to a presentation that gave me flashbacks to junior and senior

year when I'd visit colleges. Here's how many people we have (8,000 undergraduates and 9,000

graduate students.) Here's what percentage of our faculty have Ph.D.s (35%, a number they're proud of

because ti's higher than most nearby universities.) Here's our motto (“Proud of its history, committed to

its present, and open to its future.”)

The re were three people talking about the university. The first one spoke in English, the next two

spoke in Spanish with the first person translating. The first presentation wasn't so bad, but the next two

were so hard to be interested in. Part of that might have had to do with the speakers being psychology

teachers and talking about that.

There were two things that stuck out from the combined talks. The first was how practical all of the

areas of study had been. You could get a masters in applied math. Pure math wasn't an option. There

was a huge focus on biotech (one of the aspects of the embargo is that Cuba has been forced to create

their own medicines, so biotech is one of the leading exports from Cuba.) and other sciences, in

addition to humanities mostly related to social work.

The other was how focused on community development they were. Universities in the United States

often claim to be focused on returning to the community, but there aren't universities where every

single department has service projects related to that department. It also helps that there aren't majors

like “Math, Pure” and “Great Ideas.”

After the presentations and questions were over, we presented the textbooks to the teachers. They were

even happier to receive them than we were to get rid of them.

There were about half a dozen students sitting in during the presentation. All of them were studying

English language. This was, for many of them, the first time they'd talked with Americans, or even

tourists. And it was the first time we were talking with Cubans who weren't trying to sell us something.

So it was a pretty good experience all around.

We talked with them in the classroom, took a group picture (the Cuban students seemed surprised by

how many people were taking the pictures, and how long it took. It seemed normal to me.) Then we

talked some more, walked around the university a bit, and got into the bus (with the students) to drive

to the botanical gardens. We could either listen to someone translate a description of the trees there or

talk more with Cuban students our own age. I chose the latter. Then we piled back into the bus and

dropped of f the students, though our professors asked them for a restaurant recommendation and

invited them to join us. Most of them did. It took nearly 2 hours for us to get food, and we needed to eat

it quickly when it did come. The conversation made it worth it, though.

I talked with Gretter and Angela, and then Leonard. All of them were in their second year at the

university, studying English. English is a six-year program, and most of the others are five-year, though

math is four. (There might be others that are shorter, but I only asked about math.) After the first year,

students studying English need to take a comprehensive, challenging, test. If they fail, they find

something else to study. That appears to be the only chance they get to change their major.

Gretter asked me “What are you studying? Psychology, no?” When I told her it was actually math, she

looked at me shocked and asked “what are you doing here?” And then we needed to explain that the

United States universities were much less focused than in Cuba. And most people at Carthage had two

majors, and even beyond that we take classes outside of those. Meanwhile, they're spending hours each

day in classes just for English. And they take a few other classes in introductory French and Spanish

grammar, but they're all taking the same classes.

Their English was absolutely phenomenal. That's what intensive study can do for you. When Leonard

was giving a description of a class, it sounded familiar from years of language classes. There's a

dialogue, and then grammar, and then practice where they need to talk with each other. And vocabulary.

Lots of vocabulary.

Matt started to give a description of what language classes were in the United States, but only got as far

as saying “I tested into German 202, which meant I tested out of German 101, 102, and 201.” Then

Leonard asked “What is 101? Because one of the conversations used it, but we not understand what it


Another thing they used to study language was watch T.V. shows. American television shows. I asked

at one point if they watched British TV, and the response was, and they said no. not yet. Later on they

might study different dialects, but for now it was only the United State accent.

I asked a few people the question that I don't really love being asked, but can concede it's important.

“What are you planning on doing after you finish school?” Angela talked about how one could become

either a teacher or translator. She'd like to be a translator, though most people ended up going into


Leonard mentioned that directly after college, he needed to complete at least 2 years of work. The

universities are free for Cubans, but after graduation they need to spent two years working for the

government. After that, he would love go to France, though he's not sure if he'll be able to.

There are 14 universities in Cuba, one for each province. The University of Santa Clara and the

University of Havana are considered the top two in the country, though it's not clear which one is

better, and the idea of fighting it out through baseball games seemed foreign to him. They did have

intra-school baseball games to decide which department was the best.

When applying, you apply specifically into the field of study you're taking. Leonard was competing

with 600 students from around the area for five spots. They needed to take three tests: history, math,

and one other that I forget. And once they're in, they still have that challenging end-of-year test. There

were 22 students who took it, but only 11 who passed.

It was all so fascinating, and it was wonderful to be able to talk to the students in a natural situation.

Much more interesting than learning about the taxonomic classification of different kinds of palm trees.

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Playa Giron

Before I describe the museum at Playa Giron, I'd like to pause a moment to reflect on the U.S.

perspective of what happened. I'd like to, but I can't, because Internet access isn't common, fast, or

cheap here. I miss being able to verify and fact-find things before I write about them. So basically I

need to bluff my way through. Bear with me, or read the first section of Wikipedia because you can.

Also, if there's a heading titled “US Mistakes,” that would probably be worthwhile.

The Bay of Pigs was, quite simply, a failed attempt to invade Cuba. The U.S. trained Cuban exiles

(supporters of Batista who needed to flee during the revolution) to reconquer their homeland. They

were furnished with weapons. It was carefully planned out, but then a lot of cuts took out some of the

aircraft and artillery they needed to fight. The U.S. also assumed that Cubans were more discontent

with the government then they were. The U.S. did that a lot.

Now, back to the museum.

The first thing you see when you enter the museum is a newspaper collage to spell out the word

“Giron.” Underneath it, in smaller, less newspaper-y letters, “Fictoria del socialismo.” That basically

sets the tone of the museum.

The museum began with a description of what the area was like pre-revolution. The people were doing

pretty poorly. (The text was in Spanish, but there were sheets of paper with English translations on it.

The translations were sometimes grammatically accurate, but not always.)

It went on to a description of what it was like after the revolution. Literacy rates soured, and the land

was able to belong to the people who lived there.

Then it went on to the mechanics of the invasion. There were plans and maps, though I'm not quite sure

where they came from.

Then a description of US attempts to weaken Cuba pre-landing by destroying key defensive features

like the battleship La Coubre. Then onto the actual landing.

A little further on, they describe the international support Cuba received around the Bay of Pigs. Not

goods, just words of encouragement.

Finally, there a section devoted to all the people who fought their. It includes their names, faces, and

some of the belongings that were found and ended up in the museum. (Outside the museum is a wall

with the names of all those who died fighting for Cuba at Playa Giron. There are also markers at the

exact position each man fell.)

The very layout and pictures tell a story, even without words. Besides, there were a lot of words at the

museum. I only read bdcause we were rather leisurely making our way through, and I wanted to be

roughly at the same pace as everyone else.

“The armed town represented a hard blow to the Yankee imperialism and its domestic flunkies and it

confirmed the strength and irreversability of the revolutionary process.”

That was... interesting. I made note of it and kept walking on.

“Dozens of wounded and burned persons were the prize paid by our people for the cunning mercenary

bombing sponsored by Yankee administration.”

“The martyrs' example overcame the people''s grief.”

Or, probably my favorite: “The mercenaries brought in aircrafts, ships, and tanks to no avail against a

people determined to defend the revolution. The mercenaries were well armed. The people had was it

was needed: reason and moral standing.”

Throughout, the invaders were called “mercenaries.” The closest it came to admitting that they were

once Cubans and not cold-blooded murderers who only cared about cash was in describing the trials

after the people of Playa Giron won.'“The revolution demonstrated in a public trial the guilt and

miserable moral condition of the mercenaries. Fighters against the dictatorship of Batista testified

against the vile tortuorors who also came in the new trials The people condemned the crimes of

notorious murders who came to restore a system of dishonor. Their testimonies were similar, they'll

came deceived. Others were just cooks, or their missions were purely spiritual.”

The Cubans gave “humane treatment for defeated enemy who shot against the people.” A history book

might say that they shot some of the invaders, kept the rest in prison for 20 months, and then returned

them to the U.S. in exchange for supplies.

The differing perspective doesn't surprise me. I'd expect to see things like praiseworthy quotes from

Fidel Castro and stories like the man who, dying, wrote “Fidel” in his own blood. Their Cubans, Playa

Giron was a victory, and most of the contents of that museum makes sense. Their perspective makes

sense. The only thing that surprises me is how different from a U.S. museum the captions are.

I loved it. It was a fascinating museum because, for the first time, rather than just looking at the items

and pictures there, I was thinking more about how they all fit together. “Every museum tells a story,”

our professor told us. “What story is this one telling?”

Perhaps more importantly for general life experiences after, what stories do our subtler U.S. museums


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All Inclusive Resort

One of the things we learned about in class was how Cuba had loved sticking tourists in all-inclusive

resorts. All-inclusive resorts that they explicitly forbade Cubans from staying in. That way, the tourists

would talk to the people at the front desk, they would talk to the waiter, they would talk to whoever

drove them there, and they would talk to the bartender. And that was it.

So I was rather surprised when we pulled up to the Playa Giron Hotel. While our teacher was checking

us in and the rest of us were waiting around, someone came by with orange juice. Then we went up to

the front desk to receive a pink wristband, like what you'd get at a waterpark. That bracelet got us

everything from dinner to free admission to a dance area. (I didn't go, but some people did.)

Dinner was a buffet. There were several kinds of meat, bread, salad, and soup. There was also decent-
tasting spaghetti and desserts. One of the drink options was a carbonated light green liquid that one of

my dinner companions said was cactus juice. If it is, and the juice is anything like cactus fruit, than I

have a newfound appreciation for my name.

The resort was on the beach, and it also had a swimming pool. I sat by the beach the next morning for a

while, but didn't swim. I was kind of terrified of sea urchins. The last time our teachers had stayed at

this resort, one of the students went out swimming. She kicked off against the break wall, and came

away with a sea urchin in each hand and foot. Apparently, the proper procedure was to wait until they

left on their own, which was a slow, painful process, and she walked gingerly for the rest of the trip.

No one got sea urchins embedded in them, so so far so good.

We all have mental lists of things we miss. (Things of the non-human variety, because there's no nice

way to say “I miss pickles more than my friend Bob,” even if it might happen to be true. They're

missed in different ways that it's not really possible to compare.) The top of my list is probably “my

music library.” I have 25 songs. 14 of them are Japanese rock. I keep waking up with a song stuck in

my head, and I can't listen to it, so I'm stuck with the 30-80% of the lyrics I remember. It's irritating.

Anyway, other people have American coffee listed pretty high on their list. I'm the opposite. I think I'll

miss Cuban coffee when I go back to the states. It's strong, and a lot of people saturate it with sugar, but

I like it fine plain.

This morning, after breakfast, we walked to the bank. Unlike at the other hotel, they could not

exchange money at the desk. So we had to walk about a block, wait for the exchange bureau to open,

and then wait in line for a bit. But it was OK, because we got to look at a small shop and talk with


I sometimes try speaking in Spanish, often with mixed results. Between their English and my guess at

cognates, I can have conversations, though they're not exactly smooth. Fortunately, certain things, like

buying jewelry, are simple. “Hola,” “Cuanto?” either knowing Spanish numbers or talking with

someone who knows English numbers and can tell you're an English-speaking tourist, holding up the

money and object you want to buy, and “gracias.” There can be more to that transaction if you're

familiar with the language, but there doesn't have to be.

We left that place at noon as well. I wasn't sad about that. It was a nice place to spend a night, but any

more than that would have felt frivolous and boring. Lying by the ocean was nice, though. I'm going to

miss that a little. Won't miss the sea urchins though.

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New Art for the People

At noon we got into a bus. And drove. And drove. And drove. And then we got off to use bathrooms.

Then we got back on, and drove. And then we ate lunch.

Lunch was pretty good. Some people were being eaten alive by mosquitoes, but I was barely bitten.. I

think I felt one on me, but that never itched. So I managed to get lucky. In terms of food, we had soup,

salad, fish, and fruit. In separate courses. It was very good, even if the grapefruit is very tart in Cuba.

The plantain chips and rice with black beans that are served at many meals make up for it.

Then we got back on the bus and drove.

We stopped at an artists colony (“Art,” meaning music, dancing, theater, design, etc.). Its not quite a

school, but it's more than just a group of artists living in close proximity. The purpose is to give some

training and preparation to young artists who may have never received formal schooling. The people

there are around 24 or 25 years old, and 95% of them have never been to school for their art. They live

three for 11 months out of the year, and can stay for however many years they want. During that time,

they receive a professional salary.

The first room we went into was a dance studio. The first thing to strike me was how dissimilar their

clothing was. Every time we've passed Cuban students, they've had identical uniforms. But in the dance

class, which is mostly about uniformity, they were wearing all different colors and styles of shirts,

leggings, and leg warmers.

Some of the students had been there for as little as two days, but they were still willing to show us

something that they'd been practicing. So they all came onstage, turned on the music, and started

dancing. At the beginning it was hard to tel; where to pay attention because there were four pairs of

people all doing lifts and bends and jumps. But then they settled down into all doing the same or

similar things.

It was a beautiful dance, and stunning for only 2 days of working together. (Obviously, the students

there had both motivation, and also varying amounts of prior experience.) Then two students said they

anted to show us something else that they'd recently been practicing. So they put on the music.

“One two three o''clock four o'clock rock. Five six seven o'clock eight o'clock rock. Nine ten eleven

o'clock twelve o'clock rock. We're going to rock around the clock tonight.” It wasn't what I was

expecting, but the dancing to accompany it was amazing. Lots of energy, and several times where the

girl would be lifted high into the air only to bend backward until her head was almost on the floor.

From there we went into a design room. On the table there were a lot of drawings, some in color and

some not. Most of them looked vaguely architectural, though a few were clothing, and some just

seemed to be drawings. They were all designs for theater. So most of them were set designs, but some

of them were costumes. Once they were finished, they would submit them for approval, and if they

were approved they would be built.

Again, a lot of people had been there for two-ish days, but since they didn't need to perform, they didn't

have it as hard. One of the people there discussed how much he liked the turnover. “It's about new

ideas. New people, new ideas.” Given the lack of formal education, I imagine there is a lot of variety

among the people when they first start. I'd be curious as to how their art changes during their stay.

Finally, we went to listen to some music. It was very loud, but very good. First there was what felt like

a full band- piano, drums, brass, etc. The next song had only four people. 2 guitars, one box which was

used as a drum (I can't describe it better than that because I only saw it from a distance) and a violin. I

think that was my favorite song, just because the combination of sounds were unique and interesting.

Finally, there was another song that had the same instruments as originally, plus four singers. The

performers had been there anywhere from three days to five years.

Overall, it seemed like a very interesting place. When I was talking with the professors after dinner, we

discussed how even if they hadn't had formal training, they had a lot of motivation. With art, and

especially with music, I feel like there are a lot of people who would say “the music is in me, and I

needed to share it.” And so it seems like the artist's community is good for getting people from that

need to the realization of it.

The person who I believe was the director of the program was very proud of Cuba for having it. They're

also working to extend it by encouraging other Latin American countries to start their own programs

like it. When the piano player was introducing the band, he said “It's important for us that people in other countries have the opportunity to know what's going on here.”

Then we got back into the bus and drove.

Posted by Soseki 13:57 Comments (0)

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