By Katie Thompson, CMRC Program Coordinator
When Fernando (the director of CMRC) first told me I was going to Cuba, I couldn’t believe it. I had literally just graduated with my Masters in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington and had always wanted to work in Latin America in the marine realm. I had never imagined getting my “dream job” out of grad school, but somehow it happened, and my first major task: travel to Havana and meet CMRC’s colleagues in preparation for the Trinational Initiative Workshop, an exchange among marine scientists that will take place in November in Havana.
Because I was still in school mode, I spent the summer reading up on Cuba—it’s history, environmental issues, wildlife, etc.—but nothing could have prepared me for what I first saw and experienced during my first trip to the Caribbean nation.
It was immediately obvious we were in Cuba and not some other Latin America country I was familiar with when we stepped outside of the airport and there was old car after old car dropping people off (The rumors are true! There are a lot of old cars!). My first glimpse into the Cuban system was from our taxi driver when he told us he was an engineer but was working as a cab driver since driving a taxi paid more than any job he could get as an engineer. Driving the taxi even paid more than his wife’s job as a doctor! I couldn’t believe it. He went on to explain how the government owned practically everything—the taxi cabs, hotels, even the cows. This was the first of many memorable conversations I would have over the course of my 48-hour trip.
The next day we visited our colleagues at CIM (Centro de Investigaciones Marinas, essentially University of Havana’s Marine Research Institute) where, despite the lack of air-conditioning in 85°F+ weather and equipment typical to any scientific lab in the U.S., these people were doing amazing, groundbreaking work. In fact, when we were there two scientists were ecstatic to announce their publication of a book on Cuba’s algae—a huge achievement that was a very long time in the making. I was extremely impressed.
After our meetings at CIM, I took an almendrón (an old car that’s a cheap, shared taxi—something everyone should do if you visit Havana!). I was crammed into a car with five other passengers, and, yes, I felt like I was in a movie. The car was from the 1950’s (except the stereo, which had recently been replaced in order to play the ever so popular reggaeton). In route to Havana Vieja, we passed smaller buildings with colonial architecture scattered among tall buildings with soviet architecture. It was a strange mix and all needed repair from decades of use and no to little restoration.
Due to limited time, we had to rush through Havana Vieja, but I made time for my first Cuban coffee and street concert. The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent meeting more of CMRC’s colleagues and learning about the amazing work they do with very few resources. I felt proud to be part of CMRC, an organization that truly believes in collaboration and is supporting meaningful work on the ground.
The next morning I was back in the Havana airport waiting for my flight to Miami, buying a bottle of the famous Havana Club rum as a souvenir. While the trip was short, I met many wonderful people and learned a ton. I had never been to a place where the people were so genuinely warm and welcoming. I’ll be back in November to continue building relationships and learning a little more about the Cuban system I’ll probably never fully understand. But that’s what makes it forever interesting and exciting.
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