By: Gia Charles, Editor 

Gia at the house of Ernest Hemingway (Photo by Gia Charles)

Gia at the house of Ernest Hemingway (Photo by Gia Charles)

If I had been asked two years ago if I would be among hundreds of international and Cuban students at the University of Havana, sipping espresso and watching the old cars pass by this summer, I would have laughed and replied, “I wish!”

I was a born-and-raised Mainer with a stampless passport and an empty wallet. I always found myself comfortable with the familiar downtown of Farmington, Maine. But to your surprise, I was among all these amazing new friends this summer. I traveled abroad through a program called Academic Programs International (API) that I met at the UMF Study Abroad Fair.

Lynne Eustis, Assistant Director for International and Exchange Programs at UMF, sat by and listened to what I wanted: a class over the summer which fulfilled my Spanish minor credits, an inexpensive budget, and an incredibly life-changing experience.

I chose Cuba because I was drawn to this mysterious country which offered me the language I wanted to speak fluently so badly, with warm beaches and a complicated history of bearded rebels and communism. Why is it that so long after the Cold War, we are still so secluded from a country only ninety miles off of Key West?

So I flew off from Miami in early July, not knowing a single soul and ready for anything. When I arrived in Havana, I was blown away by the sweltering heat and humidity, but I survived it with a dark tan to help me blend into the Latino surroundings. What I didn’t anticipate was the lack of toilet seats and food supply in Cuba; some days our housemaid looked all over the city to find us eggs for breakfast. Most days I went without lunch. I went to a restaurant one day, to find that they only offered one item on the menu and then charged me ten pesos to use their bathroom.

Studying abroad is not always comfortable, but I loved it. I was not able to make any phone calls from our residencia, there was no wifi at our university, or anywhere in the city most days. My friends and I were stuck to communicate with each other everyday, without any type of technology to distract us. The old cars and ornate buildings transported us to a time period and culture where things were made to last. I asked my taxi driver how long he had owned his car, he told me “treinta años¨ which translates to thirty years.

I was able to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house and gaze longingly at his legendary typewriter. I was able to putter around on a boat on a lake in the tropical caves of Viñales. I danced salsa with professionals onstage at Habana Club Caberet. I was able to watch a man roll me an authentic cigar. I was lucky enough to be living a few blocks down from the United States Embassy in Vedado, Havana. On July 21st we marched down and were able to enter the building and receive the first briefing since 1961. You never know what can happen when you travel abroad, you might even make history.

Now that I’m back in safe ol’ Farmington, Maine, I find myself changed completely—whether it’s in the Spanish classroom or in my day-to-day conversations. Cuba follows me everywhere, and I know now, my life would have never been complete without my first delicious taste of international travel.