The top 10 questions I get asked about living in Cuba

Happy New Year from all of us at API!

Today’s post comes to us from University of Maine student & API Global Leader Anna Foster! She studied abroad with us in Cuba as an International Affairs major. Cuba is one of our very unique program destinations. Because of that, Anna still receives a lot of questions about living in Cuba. Today she’s sharing the top 10 questions she’s been asked about her time in Havana.

Anna Foster stands next to pillar in Havana Cuba

10. How did you get there legally?

When I tell people that I lived in Cuba for 4 months, many people are surprised. The general thought is that it is nearly impossible for the average person from the U.S. to go to Cuba, let alone spend an extended period of time there. However U.S. students are able to study abroad in Cuba for up to a semester with academic programs. You apply for a visa just like you would to study abroad in any other country. You are able to live there for an extended period of time.

9. Was adjusting to Cuban Spanish difficult?

During the first couple of months I spent in Cuba, even the most basic tasks were difficult for me. Taking a taxi or going to the grocery store was something I had to mentally prepare for. Often times I would go over what the possible conversations were going to be in my head before participating in these activities. Living in a country where the language is so different was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to. However, it was also one of the most important takeaways for me. I feel that not only can I communicate better in Spanish, but now anytime I get nervous about doing anything here in the U.S., I think if I could do it in Spanish, I can definitely do it in English.

Study abroad students in Havana Cuba

8. Did you ever feel uncomfortable being an American in Cuba?

Many people have asked me if I felt that there were anti-American sentiments in Cuba. I never felt that someone didn’t like me because I was American. Cubans love to talk about American politics, and they wanted my opinions on anything from the election of Donald Trump to U.S. culture.

I think that in the U.S. today there is an existing idea that Cubans are anti-American. However I didn’t find that true at all. In general, most Cubans are against the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba, but they also don’t blame every American they meet for it. In general I never felt it was a problem being an American in Cuba. If anything, it led to some amazing, interesting conversations.

7. How did you communicate with your friends and family?

Because internet in Cuba isn’t nearly as accessible as in the U.S., this was a challenge! If you want to get internet, you have to walk to a place where internet is available, such as a wifi park or a hotel. Even when you get wifi, you aren’t going to be able to load certain social media platforms such as Snapchat. That being said, you can still communicate with your family via apps like IMO or Whatsapp.

Being unplugged from social media was actually a huge benefit. You spend more time exploring the city and meeting new people and spend less time worrying about replying to snapchats and posting on Instagram!

6. Did you learn how to Salsa dance?

Learning to Salsa dance was actually one of my favorite experiences while I was in Cuba. One of the women that worked in our house was a great salsa dancer and we would practice with her once or twice a week! We also got to take lessons with a salsa instructor who visited a couple times throughout the semester. Dancing was a great way to make
friends with other Cubans and I still take salsa classes occasionally at a dance studio near where I live in the U.S.

5. What was your favorite part?

This is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I think one of my favorite parts of living in Cuba was the time I spent traveling across the country. We spent just over a week driving in a bright yellow taxi down to Santiago de Cuba and back. During this time I was able to learn more about the history of Cuba, explore a wide variety of cities and
experience what Cuba was like outside of the city of Havana. Each place we visited brought new experiences, new lessons and new foods. Study abroad is a great opportunity to travel to other countries, but exploring the country you live in is one of the most amazing things you can do. Traveling around Cuba won’t be something I’ll ever forget and it was definitely one of my favorite parts of my semester abroad.

4. Where did you live?

In Cuba I lived in a casa particular. This is a mix of a student housing, an apartment and a host stay. The best of all worlds! The house where I lived can host over 20 students, but when I was there it was just the students on our program, and students that would come to stay for a week or two and then leave. We also had our own little apartment area, with a living room, a fridge and microwave, and a table where we could hang out or eat.

The best part of living in the casa however was the staff. We had a host mom who would help us with anything we needed and truly acted like a mother to us. There were many other people who worked in the house who were amazing and extremely kind as well.

Anna Foster sits in unique taxi in Havana Cuba

3. Did you get to drive in a 50’s car?

In Cuba there are two ways that you can ride in 50’s cars. You can either rent a car for a certain amount of time to ride around in a nice 50’s car, or you can ride in a car as a taxi. Many taxis in Cuba are 50’s cars in varying conditions. The nicer the car, the more money you are going to pay to ride in it. Either way, I spent a lot of time in many different types of 50’s cars, some nicer than others, because it’s how I got around the city.

2. Did you feel safe when you were there?

There were many times in Cuba that I felt safer than I do in the U.S. Living in a big city means taking the same precautions you would take in any other city, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. When I was in Cuba, the whole issue of hearing loss in the embassy was coming out, and there was a lot of chaos that surrounded that. However API was amazing and my resident directors took really good care of us and always kept us up to date. Overall I felt as safe in Cuba as I do at my home university, if not safer, and I really didn’t feel like I had to worry.

1. Why Cuba?

A lot of people say that studying abroad is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s rare that you will get four months to live in a foreign country, with a lot of free time to explore and learn. Living for four months in Cuba was a completely different kind of privilege. For a majority of people in the U.S., Cuba can seem kind of mysterious and inaccessible. There are a lot of questions about being able to travel there, and what it’s really like to be there. Being able to go to Cuba at all, let alone for an extended amount of time like four months, is an incredible privilege. Living there long enough to really immerse myself in the culture, meet new people, and learn more about the language is something that I’ll never forget and will always be thankful for.

In the end why did I choose Cuba? Because living there as a student was a once in a lifetime experience, and I’ve never been so grateful that I decided to do something. Living in Cuba wasn’t always easy, but it is the time in my life in which I learned the most about myself, and I would go back in an instant if I could.

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