Santeria, Salsa, and the Bay of Pigs

On Wednesday we had our final academic lecture. The speaker was diplomat-turned-academic Dr. Carlos Alzugaray. He spoke to the students about the historic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations announced in December 2014. He also outlined some of ongoing points of contention between the two countries, including the future of Guantanamo, payments to Americans for lost property during the 1959 Revolution, and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism. Dr. Alzugaray’s connections to the Cuban government and the timeliness of the topic made this an especially interesting lecture.

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After Dr. Alzugaray’s lecture we had a brief closing ceremony and received certificates from the Marti Center. Somewhat unexpectedly, the staff of the center asked if one of our students would say a few words about our experiences in Cuba. Sam gamely volunteered (or, more correctly, we volunteered him) and he offered a heartfelt thanks to our friends at the Marti Center.

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After the lecture we visited the Guanabacoa Museum, a museum dedicated to the practices of Santeria. The museum was off the beaten path, and it was our first time really venturing out of the city center. The museum itself did not have the impressive architecture or exhibit space of the Fine Arts Museum, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Among other things, we learned that initiates to Santeria wear all white clothing, a phenomenon we had witnessed several times around Havana.

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When we left the museum we drove back to the main part of Havana. We passed a group of Cubans gathering to commemorate the explosion of La Coubre, a ship that was bringing weapons to Cuba in 1960 that mysteriously exploded, killing almost 100 people. I was not familiar with this episode, but it occupied an important place in Cuban memories of U.S.-Cuban relations. Cubans described the explosion as another example of America’s historic efforts to protect its interests on the island. We ended our afternoon back at the Jose Marti Center with a short salsa lesson. I have some video of our lesson, but I think I will do everyone a favor and keep it under wraps. We actually did pretty well, considering the fact that none of us had any experience with salsa dancing.

On Thursday morning we all boarded a somewhat rickety school bus for a trip to Playa Giron, the beach where the Bay of Pigs invaders landed in 1961. One the way we saw–you guessed it–some old automobiles and some propaganda posters.

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We also stopped at a “nature center” where they had a crocodile (cocodrilo) breeding area. Sam paid a peso to feed the animals; you can just barely see the food in the crocodiles mouth and the wire running up to the top of the photo.

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Our hotel at Playa Giron had this nice painting on the wall. Am I the only one who thinks the guy on the bottom left in the blue shirt looks a little bit like Barack Obama? I’m not sure what to make of that.

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After several days in the city it was nice to spend some relaxing time on the beach. But our time at Playa Giron was only meant for relaxation. For our class we had read a book about the Bay of Pigs landing, so standing on the beach we could compare the information from the book with our own observations. Several students found that being at Playa Giron gave them a more complete understanding of why the mission ultimately failed.

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Of course, for some of our time on the beach we put our academic discussions to rest and simply enjoyed our surroundings.

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