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Off-Campus Study

Notes from Abroad: Ellis in Cuba

Notes from Abroad is a new feature on the Off-Campus Programs website, in which we highlight small snippets of a student’s experience.  This week’s feature is from Ellis Rutili’17, an Economics/Spanish double major student currently studying abroad in Cuba.

I have been in Cuba for exactly one month today. It has been an incredible period of adjustment thus far, and that adjustment will likely continue to be an ongoing theme throughout the semester. Many of my preconceived notions about Cuba (La Habana, specifically) have proven to be correct; the streets are full of old cars, they use a slang that is completely their own, and everyone, absolutely everyone here is an amazing dancer, with little to no training at all. The people, the place, the food; it is all incredibly charming, and with so many new things to be seen and tasted and experienced, it seems like you’ll never have a moment to yourself. However, one inescapable reality of a semester abroad is that you will be faced with a few very trying, very real questions that only you can answer.

The first question is relatively simple- how will you confront, and subsequently overcome the language barrier? This has been especially relevant for those of us in Cuba, which until quite recently only offered Russian and Chinese as a second language in schools. This is completely different from the lion’s share of countries worldwide, where English is taught as a second language from a very young age. As a result, unless you are extremely proficient in either Russian or Chinese, you quite literally have no choice but to figure out your Spanish as soon as humanly possible. Personally, I have dealt with this by speaking as much as possible in my homestay. My host father, a retired anesthesiologist and an unbelievable chef, cooks myself and my roommate an incredible breakfast every morning, and we talk to him for as long as we can before we leave for class. Every evening we eat dinner together, joined regularly by his partner and their friends from the neighborhood. Every meal is an incredible learning experience. Culturally and linguistically, it is arguably the most productive part of every day, even though it averages about two hours at the most.

The second question will differ far more in its resolution from person to person. It is simply this- how will you cope with being removed from the environment and from the people that you are the most comfortable with? Imagine being homesick, and not being able to call or text for a few hours, or even a few days. In Cuba, public WiFi was not offered until about seven months ago. Routers were placed around the city, and WiFi cards are now sold at ETECSA (a government controlled telecommunication company) stations. One hour of WiFi costs about 3.15 USD, and it will absolutely floor you how fast one hour can fly by when you have friends, family, and a home university to communicate with. Instant gratification goes almost completely out of the window as a communicative option when you visit a country like Cuba. Initially it is completely terrifying in its own way. You feel cut off and removed, when in reality you truly are not. You need to learn to be patient and disciplined in the way that you communicate, realistic about the amount of internet access you can afford, and creative in the manner in which you stay connected to the people you love. It is extremely difficult, and yet entirely manageable.

I’ll cut myself off now with respect to the 500 word limit, but I would love to write more about the experience that I am having in Cuba. This country is a largely untapped well of knowledge and perspective, and there is more to be learned from it every day.