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Complicated. What an overused word to talk about messy relationships. “Messy” might work better. Or maybe “complicated” does fit.

I am sitting in “complicated” right now.

Complicated’s name is Cuba.

This is my fourth visit to the island, and it has taken four visits for me to move beyond the sense of being overwhelmed by sights, sounds and smells, never mind politics, constantly blaring salsa music, and the people… the people!

I am traveling with two faculty colleagues and 23 undergraduate students.   The three of us are experienced with travelling with students. We have clear learning outcomes for our courses, and we roll with the occasional stomach bug or worse. We’ve got this educational travel thing down.

I expected “complicated” would be an issue for our students, and advocated for regular reflection time in our individual course groups as well as gathering as a larger group for time to voice concerns, questions and doubts.

As it turns out, this undergraduate demographic seems to manage well with “complicated”. They are experiencing it daily: the drawing students spending hours looking at one usually dilapidated (previously beautiful) place and transferring it conceptually into a sketchbook, the photography students focusing and shifting while seeing colors and space and projecting humanity through their lenses, the Spanish students speaking with locals about their lives and realities. The students from all three disciplines come back and report on what they have seen and learned, with surprising clarity and awareness to nuance.

Right, wrong. Black, white. Good, bad. None of these contrasts make sense in Cuba.

Cuba is all about grays. It leaves no one untouched, but maybe dazed and confused.

What a lesson in history, politics, international relations, each and every minute you are in the street. What a lesson in resilience, persistence and creative perseverance, each and every Cuban that you meet.

I wonder if experiencing Cuba at an older age is like going to an amusement park: before your inner ear calibrates well, the thrill of the rides is awesome and amazing! Once your inner ear has established an equilibrium that keeps you safe and steady, the Tilt a’ Whirl, leaves you unsettled in your dizziness. What before was a thrill is now something you don’t clearly understand.

Or maybe twenty-somethings are just better at “complicated”?

About Claire Ziamandanis

Claire Ziamandanis is Professor of Spanish at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Over her 20 years at the college, she has been a champion for study abroad, establishing the first affiliation for Spanish students, and then working with the Study Abroad office to open the doors to students from other majors. Claire loves travel, food, wine and Spanish but not necessarily in that order!


  1. Awesome post.

  2. I think equating it to a Tilt a’ Whirl is perfect. The history we have with Cuba is quite the ride.

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