Brenda Garay: After waking up in the wee hour of the morning, to get to the Miami International Airport, emotions set in, as we came to the realization that the day had finally come, we were the select few that had been chosen to embark on this journey. Upon landing in Jose Marti International Airport, we witnessed as individuals in the plane clapped upon landing. It was intriguing because I have not found that to be a norm in the flights that I have taken internationally or within the U.S. At the airport, we waited a long time to get our luggage, and then headed out where we were welcomed by our guide, Amircal. As we stepped out of the airport, the first smell that penetrated was the smell of diesel fumes, along with the smell of cigarettes of those smoking around us. This smell would become the new norm as we made our way through Havana over the next week.
First stop was lunch, we were taken to a paladar, which is a family owned restaurant that operated out of their home. I opted to have some ropa vieja, a traditional shredded beef meal, with moros y cristianos, a rice and bean side, both were delicious. After eating, we visited Old Havana. From the start, I was impressed by the architecture that surrounded the city. Experiencing the European influences in the architecture, that reflected the art deco, neo, and roman influences. It felt like I was walking through the streets of a European country and not Cuba. Although I was impressed by the architecture, I also realized as we walked down the streets that there were also many needs for maintenance in some of the infrastructures that had been completely disregarded. Nonetheless, the richness of the Cuban history and cultural influences could be seen through each street we crossed and every building we saw.
Some of the most breathtaking views, were the cars. Seeing cars that have become extinct or near extinct in the U.S. running down the street, made me feel like I had travelled back in time. I felt like I had been taken from modern times back to the 1950s. I had heard this to be true from friends in the U.S., but I was still in awe seeing these cars brightly making their way up and down the streets of Havana. I became eager for the first opportunity to take a ride in one of these vehicles.
Annabelle Audet-Griffin: Our first day in Havana was an eye-opening introduction to Cuban culture and history that set the stage for our immersion into Cuba’s healthcare system. Upon arriving at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, our group was greeted by our knowledgeable and enthusiastic Cuban guide for the week, Amircal. Our morning began with a walking tour of Old Havana, which is the city-center of Havana and a UNESCO world heritage site. Along cobblestone streets lined by brightly colored buildings and vintage cars, we made our way to historic Plaza de Armas to see the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and receive an overview of Cuba’s history. We continued down a bright street, passed by a hotel where Ernest Hemmingway penned several of his short stories, and ended up in a beautiful baroque-style square. There, we visited Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, which dates from the 1700s and is rumored to be where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once kept. The limited amount of vendors and tourists in the area allowed the experience an authentic old-world feel, which was a refreshing surprise given the area’s reputation as a tourist hot-spot.
Following the tour of Old Havana, we enjoyed lunch at a paladar, which is a family-run restaurant set up alongside a family’s home. We were served delicious homemade Cuban dishes, including the national dish Ropa Vieja. The paladar had it’s own rooftop garden, which the family used to cultivate fruit, vegetables, herbs, and honey (yes, they had bee hives!) for their cuisine. We were invited upstairs to take a look around the garden and were even given a brief overview of what was being grown. The remainder of our day was spent in preparation for the week to come, followed by a welcome dinner at another wonderful paladar and a group activity assembling small donation bags for the facilities and clinics that would be hosting us throughout the week. What a special introduction we were given to beautiful, bright, and energetic Havana!