A Chance to Pause

Rachael Abernethy ’16 spent four months in Havana, living with a family of three—a mother and her two adult sons—and taking courses at the University of Havana in Spanish language, Cuban cinema and Afro-Cuban studies.

Through the program Spanish Studies Abroad, she arrived in Havana in January 2015. “Cuba had been in the back of my head,” says the black studies major from San Diego, “but I didn’t think it was possible to actually go there.” Bewildered friends and family asked: Why not go to Spain?

At Amherst, she says, “I don’t often find myself pausing. In Cuba it was the opposite. There’s a general culture of taking the time to stop and get to know people.

“I’d sit on the seawall and watch the water, and the people fishing next to ‘No Fishing’ signs. I learned to be flexible, to not have a schedule, to just be at peace with myself.”

Twice weekly, Abernethy tutored an 11-year-old girl in English. “She often interrupted our lesson to teach me about the history of her country. It’s a country with such a strong culture and sense of self. Cuban people are resilient; they’re creative. A lot of them became like family to me.” 

While Abernethy encountered few Americans, she met tourists from Russia, Germany and Costa Rica. 

One favorite memory is of playing soccer at José Martí Park. “There were Americans, Germans, Italians, Cubans. All of a sudden two people with trumpets came up and started playing Cuban jazz. That was just an afternoon in Cuba.”