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  • It was clear by the beaming smiles on the faces of the faculty that this was meant to be the highlight of our semester exchange at the University of Havana. A trip to the Latin American School of Medicine – one of the largest medical schools in the world, attended by over 10,000 students from around the world, and funded entirely by the Cuban state as the centerpiece of their internationalist agenda.

    My roommate Rodrigo – a tall, bright-faced Mexican with a gregarious personality – was clearly buying into the hype. His head bopped along to the Reggaeton blasting from the speakers as the bus sped us out of the city. This was the exactly the type of adventure that had brought him to the island in the first place.

    We arrived at the campus about an hour later, and were immediately corralled into the freshly-painted, fully-air conditioned visitor's centre. We casually browsed elaborate infographics on malaria prevention, child mortality rates, access to vaccines. Trays of refreshments were brought out; a very Cuban assortment of instant coffee and sickly-sweet lemonade.

    A member of the faculty was brought out to answer any questions. Rodrigo was clearly getting antsy. When will we get to meet some of the students?

    "Oh, that won't be possible today, degraciamente". However, I am happy to answer any questions you may have about our student body." He went on to list statistics about the number of students, their countries of origin, and the like.

    Rodrigo caught my eye and I walked casually to his side. "Fuck this," he whispered. "Follow me."

    We took advantage of the usual powerpoint-presentation-technical-difficulties-confusion to slip out of the room. Our joy at escaping unnoticed propelled us quickly and quietly across the courtyard and into the nearest building. We bounded around the corner of the first hallway, only to almost run over two young women, their arms full of books. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them, and an awkward silence hung between us before I spoke:


    The girls smiled, but said nothing. Rodrigo:

    "...¿De donde son?"

    One of the girls smiled, and tucked some hair behind her ear. "Perú," she replied.

    Rodrigo reacted to this news with overzealous astonishment, as if this was the first time he had heard of such a country. "Wow..." he said. "¡Perú!"

    Just then we were interrupted by a slightly out of breath faculty member, who had evidently been on our tail. He smiled politely, but firmly and wordlessly indicated with his hand that we were kindly invited to return to the group immediately. A look of panic took to Rodrigo's face as he desperately tried to steal more information:

    "¿Cuántos años tienen?" How old are you? That's what we came all this way to ask?

    "veintiséis" replied the second girl. Another awkward second hung before we reluctantly turned to follow the professor.


    Outside we rejoined our group in the courtyard, where they were learning about the history of the campus; how it used to be a naval base under Batista; how Castro had converted military bases across the island into schools and hospitals for the needy. I remember the sun was hot and stung my face as I squinted up at the buildings around us, hoping to catch a glimpse of a face in a window. All I saw was the glare of the sun.
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