Studied at the National Zoo of Cuba, 2005

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In September 2005, and for the following couple of months, I lived and studied at the National Zoo of Cuba, in Havana.

The course I took was called “Wildlife Management Ex Situ”, ex situ meaning “outside its natural habitat”.

What an unforgettable trip…I learned a lot and not only on wildlife but also on the human mind. I met some people who will forever stay my friends. In fact, I visited them several times in their home countries, and they, or their families, visited me in Montreal.

Even though 8 years have passed by, we still keep in touch, the students and the employees as well. Last week, we received pictures from Rosita’s granddaughter, our coordinator at the zoo. During my time there, a big family was born and which members will always stay in contact with each other, despite the distance. I haven’t visited Havana since, but I’m always thinking of going back.

When I came back from my trip, I wrote this letter to my friends in Argentina, telling them all about it and now I would like to share the content of the letter with you.

“Hi guys!

Well, as I promised, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my trip the best I can, even though I don’t know where to start.

I told you that over there we only had Outlook to communicate using emails from a shared account and I didn’t have access to my address book. Therefore, I couldn’t write to my parents anymore. And so I really missed all of them, we practically never stayed out of touch for such a long period of time. I could have had access to the Internet in several places, however I was living on the average monthly income ($6 CAD) so it was not a popular way to spend money!

Ok, so I arrived there at dawn on August 12 without my suitcase (which I received 10 days later after claiming it a thousand times), so they had to lend me some clothes and so many other things during all these days. And that was when I heard for the first time the phrase that defined this trip: “It’s not easy”, which is used so many times and suited the situation so perfectly. And sometimes they would add a little: “But neither is it difficult.” Another saying I like is: “Don’t fight it”.

After that, I got settled into the zoo’s visit house. This one had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and two bathrooms. It was a little problematic every morning given that we were 20 plus the guards and the cooks.

It was a bit difficult for me to eat the food, more than anything the menu consisted of rice, beans and pork meat (which I always gave to the guys). There were some greens, eggs and some fruit juice in the morning. Sometimes, we tried something more suited to our tastes and so we would head downtown to eat.

There guests had good chemistry. They were all originally from different South American countries except for one who was Spanish (a veterinarian who works in Brazilian Amazonia).

We had class from Monday to Friday or Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a lunch break giving us enough time to eat at home. The zoo was enormous: 300 hectares (741 acres approximately), so we had to walk long distances regularly. And you won’t believe the heat and humidity.

It’s not easy! Technically, we had access to a “guagua” (a bus), unfortunately it broke down as soon as we arrived in Cuba. So, we mostly had to get around on foot.

The classes were overall very good, divided into theory and practical courses. We had four exams and a dissertation to submit. I named mine “Alternative solutions to the use of zoos in conservation”, which luckily pleased my professors.

It was a lot of work, especially as we only had four computers, no Internet connection, a few books and we were many to study. Moreover, power outages occurred regularly… That wasn’t easy either!

Practical things we did (or rather, saw or helped with a little):

-          Dental treatment provided to monkeys;

-          Removing a tumor from a lion’s paw;

-          Taking blood and stool samples from peccaries, mouflons, dingos, hyenas and more;

-          Handling snakes with hooks;

-          Various visits to breeding farms, hyppotherapy areas, clinics and taxidermy areas;

-          Observing how lions and tigers were fed;

-          Going out at night to see bugs (tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, etc.), watch birds and all we could “browse”;

-          Also, I sat on a white rhinoceros… that was awake!

Some of the insects were great, like those originally from the African savannah. The deer, hyenas, amongst other things, were great too. But some other things were not that fantastic; like the old cement cages, the monkeys and the carnivores. This sparked a conversation with the zoo’s officials on how to improve the animals’ well-being. The problem, however, is that they don’t dispose of enough economic resources.

The Zoo has 300 employees and with the areas and services of environmental education, on-site consumption, the clinic, and thousands of other things, it is well-organized and shows great potential. The other thing was extracurricular activities. Meaning: PARTY!

Cubans are very festive people and parties can break out anywhere, even in the back of a car, with the radio blasting at full volume. We were addicted to the stereo and wouldn’t miss a single song. And sometimes we would throw parties in our visit house at the zoo. I even went to a big show of La Charanga Habanera—which are famous—and that caused a big brawl: bottles were flying, police officer were rushing, and so on.

Luckily, nothing happened to us, plus we had to walk almost two hours to get back to the zoo. We heard that there a few people died and several injured. It was quite an adventure.

Also, they organized various excursions for us and we were completely charmed by: a crocodile farm in the Ciénaga de Zapata, the beaches (I hit a fire coral with my leg on one of the beaches.

 I wouldn’t recommend touching it, it’s terrible. It hurt and burned like crazy! But we dived with snorkels and saw the most beautiful things), Varadero, with the beautiful beach with unfortunately a lot of regrettable litter.

We were also brought to Bosphere Reserve that had magnificent rivers, caves and more…

We often went to the theatre (flamenco, Cuban National Ballet and Marcel Marceau, the mime) and to the movies, which was inexpensive for us.

It turns out that there are two official currencies in use there: the Cuban peso (1 dollar equals 25 Cuban pesos) and the CUC or a foreign currency equivalent to the U.S. dollar. People are charged in the local currency between 250 and 350, but since there are a lot of things available only in CUC, they are a bit in a pinch if they don’t have some other kind of income.

Many Cubans have relatives outside or open some type of small side business to try to make ends meet. They are in great need.

We, on the other hand, benefited from these two currencies. However, it just broke our hearts to see how they fought to get by.

There are a lot of problems; if something breaks it’s difficult to get parts, houses are falling apart, public transportation system is terrible, and so on. On a more positive note, there are a lot of enviable things like their incredible sense of solidarity: they help one another.

In the neighborhoods, they come in and out of one another’s house as if it was their own, there’s a decent health care and education system, it seems that there’s a good control over the fertility rate by the Government, and the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) also intervenes to help with any problems that might come up.

Many things over there seem to have come out directly from a 1950’s or 60’s movie (as a Mexican friend said), since the cars are all vintage cars and the buildings are as old as well…

Another rare thing I saw is the lack of any brand or propaganda, of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. Incredible! It’s not surprising. However, there’s a lot of political propaganda.

Downtown, the people are particularly aware of the tourists and chase them around. To the point, sometimes, that it’s rather annoying. My girlfriends and I never went out alone in Central Havana and we were very cautious.

Many Cubans complain—and with good reason—that foreigners are treated better than locals and have more benefits, which sounds horrible…

So, there I was, attending the program, between parties and classes until the day to submit the dissertation and the farewell ceremony arrived as well as the camera to film the event. We were on the news later on… We danced until we couldn’t anymore. There we dance “Reggaeton”. I don’t know if they know of it in Argentina. The most well-known song is “Gasolina”.

In the beginning, we didn’t get it but in the end, we were having fun. I danced so much, my own way, but I danced still!! There was also a lot of salsa.There were people who danced incredibly well, it was delightful to watch. Dancing and music are Cubans’ reasons to live (with rum).

Craft markets are spectacular; too bad I didn’t have money… We also visited the José Marti Memorial Museum, which moved us deeply. We were next to the Ecology Center, which has incredible collections of anything you could imagine; snails, plants, birds, etc. As part of a special visit, we went to the aquarium and they let us touch the dolphins and talk with the trainers as well as see the facilities.

Also, we went to a Santería party, which is an Afro-Cuban religion, because it was the Yemayá, the sea’s Orisha. We were all enjoying it: a lot of drum-based music. We also experienced a cyclone and couldn’t step out of our house.

So we brought the party inside, despite not having water or light. I used the rainwater falling off the ceiling to wash myself. Except that the worst part was that afterwards, my hair was full of bugs.

We made a lot of friends, the students and the employees of the zoo, the goodbyes were so sad but we all stayed in touch.

But that’s life; all good things must end, right? There were so many stories, so much love, twists and problems. Because of my protective personality, they called me the mama bear (and because of my rules that went out of hand).

I stayed seven days more than expected because Cubana Airlines didn’t book my seat on the plane. But truthfully, it worked out great because I enjoyed going out a little more with my friends and going to the beach…

I came back on Thursday and it was a good change to be all by myself again in my home after sharing the same place with so much people. The best was going to the supermarket and make up for the lost time!

Not to mention having a bathroom all to myself! Right now I’m back to looking for a job and I’m thinking that I would very much like to go back over there in a year, at best.

A Mexican friend was our photographer and so I brought back a DVD with 3,500 pictures saved on it! You want me to send them one by one!!!… But seriously, I will order several one with time, please don’t get mad

Well, I just summed up two intense months in three pages. If there’s anything you would like to know in details, please ask me.

I miss you guys! I hope that now we are all up-to-date.

Write me, send me some news!

I love you all very much, see you very soon.”

Author: Helena Arroyo

Translation: Noëlla Moussa

In September 2005, and for the following couple of months, I lived and studied at the National Zoo of Cuba, in Havana.

The course I took was called “Wildlife Management Ex Situ”, ex situ meaning “outside its natural habitat”.

What an unforgettable trip…I learned a lot and not only on wildlife but also on the human mind. I met some people who will forever stay my friends. In fact, I visited them several times in their home countries, and they, or their families, visited me in Montreal.

Even though 8 years have passed by, we still keep in touch, the students and the employees as well. Last week, we received pictures from Rosita’s granddaughter, our coordinator at the zoo. During my time there, a big family was born and which members will always stay in contact with each other, despite the distance. I haven’t visited Havana since, but I’m always thinking of going back.

When I came back from my trip, I wrote this letter to my friends in Argentina, telling them all about it and now I would like to share
the content of the letter with you.

“Hi guys!

Well, as I promised, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my trip the best I can, even though I don’t know where to start.

I told you that over there we only had Outlook to communicate using emails from a shared account and I didn’t have access to my address book. Therefore, I couldn’t write to my parents anymore. And so I really missed all of them, we practically never stayed out of touch for such a long period of time. I could have had access to the Internet in several places, however I was living on the average monthly income ($6 CAD) so it was not a popular way to spend money!

Ok, so I arrived there at dawn on August 12 without my suitcase (which I received 10 days later after claiming it a thousand times), so they had to lend me some clothes and so many other things during all these days. And that was when I heard for the first time the phrase that defined this trip: “It’s not easy”, which is used so many times and suited the situation so perfectly. And sometimes they would add a little: “But neither is it difficult.” Another saying I like is: “Don’t fight it”.

After that, I got settled into the zoo’s visit house. This one had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and two bathrooms. It was a little problematic every morning given that we were 20 plus the guards and the cooks.

It was a bit difficult for me to eat the food, more than anything the menu consisted of rice, beans and pork meat (which I always gave to the guys). There were some greens, eggs and some fruit juice in the morning. Sometimes, we tried something more suited to our tastes and so we would head downtown to eat.

There guests had good chemistry. They were all originally from different South American countries except for one who was Spanish (a veterinarian who works in Brazilian Amazonia).

We had class from Monday to Friday or Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a lunch break giving us enough time to eat at home. The zoo was enormous: 300 hectares (741 acres approximately), so we had to walk long distances regularly. And you won’t believe the heat and humidity.

It’s not easy! Technically, we had access to a “guagua” (a bus), unfortunately it broke down as soon as we arrived in Cuba. So, we mostly had to get around on foot.

The classes were overall very good, divided into theory and practical courses. We had four exams and a dissertation to submit. I named mine “Alternative solutions to the use of zoos in conservation”, which luckily pleased my professors.

It was a lot of work, especially as we only had four computers, no Internet connection, a few books and we were many to study. Moreover, power outages occurred regularly… That wasn’t easy either!

Practical things we did (or rather, saw or helped with a little):

-          Dental treatment provided to monkeys;

-          Removing a tumor from a lion’s paw;

-          Taking blood and stool samples from peccaries, mouflons, dingos, hyenas and more;

-          Handling snakes with hooks;

-          Various visits to breeding farms, hyppotherapy areas, clinics and taxidermy areas;

-          Observing how lions and tigers were fed;

-          Going out at night to see bugs (tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, etc.), watch birds and all we could “browse”;

-          Also, I sat on a white rhinoceros… that was awake!

Some of the insects were great, like those originally from the African savannah. The deer, hyenas, amongst other things, were great too. But some other things were not that fantastic; like the old cement cages, the monkeys and the carnivores. This sparked a conversation with the zoo’s officials on how to improve the animals’ well-being. The problem, however, is that they don’t dispose of enough economic resources.

The Zoo has 300 employees and with the areas and services of environmental education, on-site consumption, the clinic, and thousands of other things, it is well-organized and shows great potential. The other thing was extracurricular activities. Meaning: PARTY!

Cubans are very festive people and parties can break out anywhere, even in the back of a car, with the radio blasting at full volume. We were addicted to the stereo and wouldn’t miss a single song. And sometimes we would throw parties in our visit house at the zoo. I even went to a big show of La Charanga Habanera—which are famous—and that caused a big brawl: bottles were flying, police officer were rushing, and so on.

Luckily, nothing happened to us, plus we had to walk almost two hours to get back to the zoo. We heard that there a few people died and several injured. It was quite an adventure.

Also, they organized various excursions for us and we were completely charmed by: a crocodile farm in the Ciénaga de Zapata, the beaches (I hit a fire coral with my leg on one of the beaches.

 I wouldn’t recommend touching it, it’s terrible. It hurt and burned like crazy! But we dived with snorkels and saw the most beautiful things), Varadero, with the beautiful beach with unfortunately a lot of regrettable litter.

We were also brought to Bosphere Reserve that had magnificent rivers, caves and more…

We often went to the theatre (flamenco, Cuban National Ballet and Marcel Marceau, the mime) and to the movies, which was inexpensive for us.

It turns out that there are two official currencies in use there: the Cuban peso (1 dollar equals 25 Cuban pesos) and the CUC or a foreign currency equivalent to the U.S. dollar. People are charged in the local currency between 250 and 350, but since there are a lot of things available only in CUC, they are a bit in a pinch if they don’t have some other kind of income.

Many Cubans have relatives outside or open some type of small side business to try to make ends meet. They are in great need.

We, on the other hand, benefited from these two currencies. However, it just broke our hearts to see how they fought to get by.

There are a lot of problems; if something breaks it’s difficult to get parts, houses are falling apart, public transportation system is terrible, and so on. On a more positive note, there are a lot of enviable things like their incredible sense of solidarity: they help one another.

In the neighborhoods, they come in and out of one another’s house as if it was their own, there’s a decent health care and education system, it seems that there’s a good control over the fertility rate by the Government, and the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) also intervenes to help with any problems that might come up.

Many things over there seem to have come out directly from a 1950’s or 60’s movie (as a Mexican friend said), since the cars are all vintage cars and the buildings are as old as well…

Another rare thing I saw is the lack of any brand or propaganda, of Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. Incredible! It’s not surprising. However, there’s a lot of political propaganda.

Downtown, the people are particularly aware of the tourists and chase them around. To the point, sometimes, that it’s rather annoying. My girlfriends and I never went out alone in Central Havana and we were very cautious.

Many Cubans complain—and with good reason—that foreigners are treated better than locals and have more benefits, which sounds horrible…

So, there I was, attending the program, between parties and classes until the day to submit the dissertation and the farewell ceremony arrived as well as the camera to film the event. We were on the news later on… We danced until we couldn’t anymore. There we dance “Reggaeton”. I don’t know if they know of it in Argentina. The most well-known song is “Gasolina”.

In the beginning, we didn’t get it but in the end, we were having fun. I danced so much, my own way, but I danced still!! There was also a lot of salsa.There were people who danced incredibly well, it was delightful to watch. Dancing and music are Cubans’ reasons to live (with rum).

Craft markets are spectacular; too bad I didn’t have money… We also visited the José Marti Memorial Museum, which moved us deeply. We were next to the Ecology Center, which has incredible collections of anything you could imagine; snails, plants, birds, etc. As part of a special visit, we went to the aquarium and they let us touch the dolphins and talk with the trainers as well as see the facilities.

Also, we went to a Santería party, which is an Afro-Cuban religion, because it was the Yemayá, the sea’s Orisha. We were all enjoying it: a lot of drum-based music. We also experienced a cyclone and couldn’t step out of our house.

So we brought the party inside, despite not having water or light. I used the rainwater falling off the ceiling to wash myself. Except that the worst part was that afterwards, my hair was full of bugs.

We made a lot of friends, the students and the employees of the zoo, the goodbyes were so sad but we all stayed in touch.

But that’s life; all good things must end, right? There were so many stories, so much love, twists and problems. Because of my protective personality, they called me the mama bear (and because of my rules that went out of hand).

I stayed seven days more than expected because Cubana Airlines didn’t book my seat on the plane. But truthfully, it worked out great because I enjoyed going out a little more with my friends and going to the beach…

I came back on Thursday and it was a good change to be all by myself again in my home after sharing the same place with so much people. The best was going to the supermarket and make up for the lost time!

Not to mention having a bathroom all to myself! Right now I’m back to looking for a job and I’m thinking that I would very much like to go back over there in a year, at best.

A Mexican friend was our photographer and so I brought back a DVD with 3,500 pictures saved on it! You want me to send them one by one!!!… But seriously, I will order several one with time, please don’t get mad

Well, I just summed up two intense months in three pages. If there’s anything you would like to know in details, please ask me.

I miss you guys! I hope that now we are all up-to-date.

Write me, send me some news!

I love you all very much, see you very soon.”

Author: Helena Aroyo

Translation: Noëlla Moussa

Amelie Delobel

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