11 02 2011

After four weeks of classes, I thought that I would write about my experiences thus far with studying Spanish at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba.

It started in January 2010, when I was on holiday here and visited the university to enquire about studying. My friend works there and introduced me to the guy who deals with foreign students. He explained the procedure to me and gave me a slip of paper with the information required (such as date of birth, occupation, dates of study), advising me to apply by e-mail about six weeks or two months before I wanted to start.

 In September 2010 I e-mailed with the information requested and received no reply. I asked my friend to investigate and she informed me that he had not received the e-mail. I re-sent it and again heard nothing. My friend printed off a copy and took it to him personally. She was sent to the section dealing with immigration requirements and made an application on my behalf for a student visa. She had to submit Cuban stamps to the value of 15 CUP (about £0.45). I don’t know how I could have done that from the UK, but fortunately she did it for me.

 I was advised that the visa would be sent to the Cuban embassy in London, who would contact me. After about six weeks, when I had heard nothing, it occurred to me that nowhere in the information that had been requested had there been my address or phone number. Therefore, there was no way that the embassy could contact me. Fortunately, I know somebody who had worked there and she told me who I should contact. I got through to him and he replied that he had received nothing. However, he took my phone number and rang back later that day to say that it had arrived. I went to the embassy to collect it, where I had to pay a fee of £40. The visa allowed me to enter Cuba at any time between mid December and mid January and gave me a period of 30 days there before I would need to extend it.

 During all of this time, I had heard nothing from the university about course times or joining instructions etc. However, I knew that the university returned from its festive break the first Monday in January. I arrived in Cuba on December 29th and went to the university on the morning of January 3rd. None of the people that we needed to see were available, so we returned in the afternoon. Again, none of the people that we needed to see were there, but we were told to return the next afternoon with my passport, four photographs and Cuban stamps to the value of 40 CUC (about £30).

I arrived at 2pm on Tuesday 4th and had to queue for two hours. Most of those waiting were university staff off to work abroad, mainly in Nicaragua. I finally got seen and completed my application. I would need to go through three stages: first, apply for and receive the student carnet (ID card); second, sign a contract detailing hours of study and costs etc.; finally, undertake a test in the language department to ascertain what level of tuition I would need. I was advised to meet the woman at the university the next day at the immigration office.

The next day I waited for two hours in the immigration office, where my fingerprints were taken and my application completed. Apparently, the carnets normally take ten days to arrive, but there were delays because the immigration office had no plastic for the cards. If, however, I purchased the plastic privately, this would circumvent the delay. I was advised of a private address where I could purchase the plastic. The following day (Thursday 6th) I purchased the plastic and took it to the university. I was told not to become anxious, as the classes did not start until January 18th and I should have my carnet by then.

At various stages in the next week and a half, I called at the university and was told that the carnet had not arrived. On January 17th, the day before classes started, I went there and was given the same answer. I asked how I could start classes the following day and was advised that I could not, because first I needed the contract, which could not be completed until they had the number of my carnet. Fortunately, my contacts at the university were able to assist and, after a bit of negotiating on my behalf, I was given a slip of paper advising the teachers that I could start without the necessary paperwork, because I was awaiting its arrival.

On Tuesday 18th, without contract and without carnet, but with a handwritten slip of paper, I went to the university and was given a test. Fortunately, my three years of self-study with books and CDs had produced some results, because I was placed in the intermediate level. I went along to the classroom, where there were two other students, both retired Italian men. Santiago is full of retired Italian men, particularly during the winter months. They come here to escape the Italian winter and to enjoy the company of young Cuban girls, often young enough to be their granddaughters. Some have worked out that becoming a student allows them to prolong their stay on the island.

The teacher was excellent, very patient and very enthusiastic. We had an air-conditioned classroom, with a modern computer, that did not work. The teacher had one course book, of which she was a co-author, but no other copies for the students. There was a whiteboard, but the pens barely worked and it was almost impossible to read anything that was written there. This continued for the next two weeks, during which we were joined by two other students, a young guy from the Czech Republic and a young woman from Germany, who is studying psychology as part of an exchange programme. We were then advised that our teacher (the only good thing about the course) was leaving us to go and work in Venezuela for a year.

After 27 days (on Jan 30th) my carnet finally arrived and I was able to complete my contract. Another young Czech guy, who was at the immigration office on the same day as me, is still awaiting his. We now have a new teacher, new classrooms (we don’t have a regular one, but have to meet outside the office each morning to be advised where we are studying), a new course to follow (but still only one copy of the book) and have been joined by two new students, young Canadian women who are studying here on an exchange programme. The new teacher is equally as good as the last and the good news is that the new classrooms have blackboards instead of whiteboards and the teacher has some chalk.

 Would I recommend it to anybody else? If your primary objective is learning Spanish and you want a well-run and well-resourced course, I would suggest that you try somewhere else, such as Spain. However, if you want to spend a long period in Cuba and learn more about the country and its people, whilst improving your Spanish, you would enjoy it, providing that you can cope with the bureaucracy and lack of resources. At times it has felt like an obstacle course and I do not think that I could have managed without my contacts at the university. The teachers, however, are a pleasure; and the Cuban students at the university are serious, industrious and courteous. I have very much enjoyed and am continuing to enjoy the experience.



6 responses

11 02 2011

I’m really enjoying reading about your journey in one of my favorite places. You are one lucky dude!

13 02 2011

Good blog and very accurate info. Im a Santiago native living abroad and I appreciate your postings.
BTW, for how long can a person stay on this student visa?

14 02 2011

I think that the student visa lasts for the duration of the course. Mine is valid until December 29th. I’m not sure if I would have to leave the country then before returning.

18 02 2011
Michael N. Landis

A wonderful account which captures the Kafkaesque experience of Cuban bureaucracy! Like you, my Spanish is at an intermediate level and, back in September, I had the choice: to take a one month course at the U. of Habana, or just swim on my own in a sea of Spanish. I chose the latter, living off the grid for a month with my friends in the reparto San Augustin 20 mi. west of Centro and Habana Vieja. No one in the neighborhood, including my friends, speak or know much English, so I had to use, and expand, my Spanish. Probably didn’t advance as much as you did, taking a formal course, and doubtlessly continued some of my bad gramatical habits. On the other hand, really enjoyed my “total immersion” experience. My frustrations were more nitty gritty, such as my “anally retentive” experience of searching from one end of Habana to another looking for a toilet plunger (to rectify an error I caused in my host’s plumbing)! Like you, eventually, after an arduous “odyssey,” eventually I arrived at the successful completion of my journey!

7 03 2011

A revealing description of ‘how to’.
Your blog is a quality read
I’m about to have 3 months in Cuba, looking for Spanish improvement also

Muchas gracias

18 08 2011

HELLO agian ! Yes you have a beautiful talent of expresisng your self ! I really love reading your experiences ! Thanks so much for taking your time to share some of your vastly , Bizzare , Real, Honest , Authetic comments , —tahats just how it really Is SI ! SI ! SENOR ! !
CUBAN experiances usually wild and not for wimps !
I plan to go to Sanatiagao about twice a year , every YEAR , When I am about 5 years older , and able to work lesstime , I see myself there for longer strecthes of time Yes < i love the people and the beauty of that part ofCUBA , SURE ! I also love the fabulous live Cuban music too . MANY thanks to you yet agian , ! —-For taking your time to share kindly , all your valauable comments and humourously Honest ,experiences with others ! GRACIAS !

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