A Duke student's impressions of Cuba

ByTanya Thomas
Monday, September 21, 2015
ABC11's Steve Daniels with Tanya Thomas
ABC11's Steve Daniels with Tanya Thomas

HAVANA -- First Impressions

Seen from my bedroom window, Havana, with its pastel buildings and the geometric metallic structures of monuments and embassies, reminds me of a carnival. There's always something going on, a conversation on the street below, a car zooming by. What's it like to study abroad here? On any given day, I'm hit by how surreal my life is right now. A few times a week (or day), I'll walk to the University of Havana, where one of my classes is, and climb the iconic steps-the Escalinata- that lead up to the main entrance of the school. Here you can see students chatting with each other on benches, fanning themselves with a rainbow of habanicos (folded fans), adding to the breeze blowing through the lush canopy of shady trees at any moment, or blowing smoke from their cigarettes at rates that would make any surgeon general cringe. But es Cuba-that's Cuba.

If I'm feeling adventurous, I'll take the long way home from school and walk down a new street, maybe checking out an art shop or bookstore. When your sense of direction is as bad as mine, perfectly gridded streets with clearly labeled letters and numbers are a godsend for exploring without totally losing your way. I might walk by the U.S. embassy and look up at the familiar American flag flying in the ocean breeze-a flag that less than a month ago, I watched go up on the TV set in my Miami home-and wonder if I'd look tackily touristy if I whipped out my phone to snap a picture. So far, my verdict is always yes, I'd look ridiculous. But what's the rush? I have four months to find the right moment to snap a good picture. Right now, I just want to get settled, get a feel for the city, find the perfect lunch spots, and decide when on earth I'm going to start doing homework.

Studying in Cuba is watching history unfold-taking in a world-famous city both as a tourist and as a local. Or at least, as the closest to a local I can possibly get, given my status as a foreigner, and as a student. Conversations with newly made friends remind me of how different-yet still similar-life can be from a forty-minute flight's distance away. Occasionally I'll see a double decker tour bus filled with tourists cruising the Malecon, and I'll wonder how their experience here will compare to mine at the end of this semester. As I visit a favorite lunch spot yet again and strike up a conversation with another regular, I like to think that with my four months, I'm getting the better end of the deal.