Exploring the Forbidden City–La Habana, Cuba

On December 17, 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the monumental decision to begin normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.  In doing so, the two presidents initiated the process that will chip away at over 50 years of international discord.

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Classic Cuba- Photograph by Hanna Osthimer

A month prior to this historic announcement, I traveled to La Habana (Havana), Cuba aboard a ship along with 500 other students.  This was the final destination of a study abroad program, Semester at Sea, with an itinerary that included 14 other countries.

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Along El Malecon- Photograph by Hanna Osthimer

At this time, U.S. citizens were limited in accessing the island nation only 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  A visa granted on the basis of higher education allowed us an exclusive look into the country we had only read about briefly in textbooks.

If you were to ask me about Cuba before I visited, I would have only been able to recount simple phrases, hollowed of any cultural significance: Bay of Pigs, the Tropicana, and Cuban cigars.

Yet, in traveling to the country, I learned of the warmth, openness, and resilience of the Cuban people.  I learned that the Cuban people are divided on their view of the United States, oscillating between resentment and yearning.  Perhaps most importantly though, I learned about myself.

The fact is that Cuba is an impoverished nation where the majority of its people live in a state of hunger and need.  Yet, the collective outlook is one of joy and gratefulness to reside in an island paradise where life moves slowly and without the stress of wanting more, more, more.

The greatest lesson learned from Cuba remains in my heart today as I remember to appreciate all that I am fortunate enough to have.

Now almost a year after my visit, President Obama and President Raul Castro continue their commitment for change.  Just last week the two leaders met at the United Nations in light of Pope Francis’s visit to both countries.  Progress has already been made, with each nation reopening embassies in the capital cities.  I look forward to even more positive change in the months and years to come.

Would you consider traveling to Cuba, either for tourism or educational purposes?

Blog post written by Hanna Osthimer.

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