We sank into pizza night, a classic Margherita, and switched on the TV news. President Obama's surprise announcement stopped our chewing. New relations with Cuba. A lifting of one of the last symbols of the Cold War. We could travel there and teach English in Cuba -- legally -- with some restrictions.
My travel partner, Beth Eby, and I knew we had to get to Cuba, and fast, before everything changed. I'd been following the country -- its revolution, people, music and yes, vintage cars -- for decades.
We wouldn't be one of many in a tour group. We could stay at a casa particular, run by Cubans, and teach English in Cuba.
We spoke minimal Spanish, but figured "we can do this."
Excited and a little nervous, Beth and I spread the word to friends and family. Reaction was, shall we say, mixed. "Why Cuba? What will you eat?" "Cuba? Really? I've always wanted to go there." And from my 92-year-old mom, "What an adventure! How far away is it?" Some thought Cuba might be dangerous (it's very safe) and air travel "sketchy," but we had to go.
After two days of travel, with a long layover in Mexico City, we peered out the airplane window at our cloud-shrouded new island. "This was it! Cuba!"
Beth and I emerged from the airport into a 90-degree day cloaked in humidity and a 30-minute taxi ride to Hostal Leonel, our home from April 21 to May 6. We needed that ride time just to process what we were seeing. A man walking a skinny goat. Dilapidated bus stops with rusty tin roofs. Once glorious Spanish colonial buildings faded and crumbling into ruin. Ruble in the streets.
But also Plaza de la Revolucion with its magnificent Che and Camilo sculptures, pedi-cabs, mango trees, kids playing street soccer and hawkers pushing carts with the most beautiful fruit. We weren't prepared for the poverty, or the beauty.
Finally, the taxi clattered to a stop and dropped us off. We climbed six flights to Hostal Leonel and its amazing family. Amy, a banker and the Hostal's matriarch, is a buzz of energy. Leandro, her husband and a doctor, a gentle presence. Their sons, Leandro and Leonel, well versed in the business, were full of insights and help. The entire family speaks English.
We learned so much. From memories of eating the "cover of the pineapple, the cover of the banana" in the struggle for food after the Soviet Union's fall to what to say for more delicious, fresh-pulped mango juice. "Jugo, por favor."
We quickly felt like part of the family. Beth and I built our routines around breakfast and lunch, eaten with other travelers in Amy's dining room.
We spent our mornings on long exploratory walks to plazas, museums, booksellers and the famous Malecon. We made regular stops at Cafe O'Reilly for fresh roasted coffee. Afternoons we sifted through the ESL handouts we brought and created the day's lesson plan.
Our students weren't always on time, but they always captivated us. We were greeted with the "Cuban kiss" -- an air kiss to one cheek with a nifty pucker sound to highlight the affection. They were bright, cheerful and eager to learn. We were having fun. So were they.
I've been home several weeks now. These thoughts linger. Traveling to Cuba isn't easy. Long layovers, customs and immigration lines sap your energy. At first glance, she's no beauty. The narrow streets are crowded with people, trucks, cars, stinky garbage and skinny dogs. There's dirt. There's mud.
But beneath the poverty is something intoxicating. Cubans have little, but live their lives joyfully. They laugh. They sing. I hope I never forget that.
-- Pat Harrison
I lived in Havana, Cuba for one month through GeoVisions. My assignment was teaching English to school age children with another teacher. We taught Cuban students in the afternoons. The children were eager to learn and very appreciative. We were always greeted with excited giggles, squeals and Latin cheek-kisses.
Teaching children was fun. I had plenty of free time during the week, as well as the weekends, allowing travel to the beach and rural Cuba. Our living accommodations were clean, safe, comfortable and healthy. Cuba is a very safe country, but you must always be alert for desperate persons trying to use you in some way for their personal benefit.
I chose teaching English in Cuba because of my love for the Latin culture, and because I wanted to meet the Cubans on a very personal level.
With travel restrictions of U.S. citizens being relaxed, this was a perfect opportunity to travel, meet the Cubans and provide some value to them. Indirectly, this is a goodwill mission to provide friendship, love and support to these beautiful persons.
GeoVisions made the experience possible and took care of all of the arrangements while teaching English in Cuba. Their business partner in Cuba (Jakera) did an excellent job for all of the on-site arrangements. My family and friends were very surprised, if not shocked, I would go to this “forbidden land.” They were concerned about my safety and the unknown. Personally upon my arrival, I was not surprised by the poverty in Cuba because I have been to other Latin countries, as well as other third world countries.
I was shocked by the essential absence of crime and the devastating impact of socialism creating a widespread class of poverty. I was also very surprised by the aggressively friendly Cubans in the tourist areas seeking any form of help by very creative offers of friendly services. My annoyance with these hustlers was abated when I realized they are struggling to survive (average income of $20 per month.) Courteous and respectful response declining their offers was well received.
Also, traveling with another person significantly decreased these gestures. Although free enterprise is growing in Cuba, there’s still limited opportunity for innovation and reward for performance. Cubans do not have the liberties and freedoms we take for granted. For example, Cuba has nationalized most buildings, houses and businesses. The government owns most everything, even farms. The inefficiencies of government control are quite evident and the communistic philosophy seems to overtax and oppress businesses with revenue collection and a high level of regulation.
For example, tobacco farmers give 90% of their crop to the government “land owners.” Socialism provides excellent education and health care with subsidized food and housing for their citizens. The Cuban people know about their material oppression, but are a very happy and friendly people, which is evident in their hospitality, warmth, dance and music.
I now have Cuban friends and opportunities to return some day.
This program has broadened my perceptions of the world and given me a greater compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.
I have seen first hand the beauty of the Cuban culture and how a different form of government has changed their lives. My volunteer teaching English in Cuba experience through GeoVisions has touched their lives and has definitely broadened my life perspective.