Spring break in Cuba

Reflections on a historic first trip.

Meg Foley and Taylor Jean-Jacques '16
August 3, 2016
Students sitting on the Malecón looking over the Havana harbor during their spring break in Cuba

Exonians take a sunny rest on the Malecón, overlooking the Havana Harbor.

Lingering meals and amazing conversations at long tables in the warm open air. Old American cars and shiny new tourist buses. Singing along with our guide, Flaco, as he plays ukulele on the bus and we ride past villages where kids are playing soccer on dusty fields. These memories evoke a camaraderie that I will never forget from the nine days in March when my colleague Bill Jordan, chair of the History Department, and I traveled to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad in Cuba with 14 students from the upper and senior classes.

I had been to Cuba in 2001, and I’ve often thought back to that trip while teaching. Two history courses — Why are Poor Nations Poor? and Capitalism and Its Critics — raise questions about the Cuban model, and we look at the U.S.-Cuban relationship throughout U.S. history courses as well. With the expansion of the Academy’s Global Initiatives in recent years and the easing of travel restrictions between the two countries, I started to think that Cuba would be a fascinating destination for students interested in questions of economic philosophy and development, as well as history and politics.

We were cared for in our journey by Pata Delgacio and Flaco Hinapié, two Colombian guides from Envoys, the student travel organization with whom Exeter partnered. In accordance with rules for U.S. State Department sanctioned travel groups, a Cuban guide, Marta Palacio, also accompanied us.

Our student travelers were keen observers and intrepid questioners about the Cuban model, and they soaked up every opportunity to listen to music, people watch and stargaze. The combination of our tight-knit group and the remarkable culture made for deeply implanted memories. In the reflections below, Taylor Jean-Jacques ’16 and I offer some snapshots to show how this trip became a learning experience both intellectual and emotional. — History Instructor Meg Foley


Presence and Discovery

By Meg Foley, Bates-Russell Distinguished Faculty Professor

Day 1 Havana Airport

As our plane from Miami lands, the pilot says, ”The good news is, our flight arrived early. The bad news is that three other flights have just landed, and there is only one set of rolling stairs for disembarking the plane. We could be here awhile.” At that moment, Spencer Burleigh ’16 starts taking his copious notes. Throughout the trip, he is our documentarian, continually tapping away into his phone to record his economic observations.

Our first dinner is at a paladar (private restaurant in a home) called simply La Casa (the House). The oldest paladar in Havana, it dates to 1995. Marta, who is clearly impressed, tells us that the owner, Alejandro, is quite famous in Havana and now has enough money for a second house and travel outside the country. The owner comes to our tables during dessert, interrupting the salsa musicians to welcome us and praise President Obama’s openness to Cuba. As we depart the restaurant, he hands us business cards that read, ”Please review us on TripAdvisor.” In a country with almost no visible advertising, I love the irony that he is asking us to do his marketing to other tourists for him — once we are home, with access to the internet.

Day 2 Havana

We learn about the preservation efforts in Old Havana and follow our lesson with a walking tour. The state has poured a tremendous amount of money into renovating the old buildings and re-creating the cohesive feel of Old Havana. Cubans have only recently been given title to the properties where they live. They welcome being within the preservation district, because there is no government money for improvements outside the district.

As we walk through the streets, we are impressed by the intensity of this preservation effort. Students eagerly examine the book and poster stands along the sidewalks in the Plaza de Armas. I spend 10 CUCs (the Cuban convertible peso, or tourist peso, roughly equivalent to the dollar) on a retro children’s book about the heroes of the revolution. When I ask the bookseller for a receipt he replies, ”Receipt? No receipt. This is the free market!”

Late in the afternoon, after lemonade on the lawn of the Hotel Nacional overlooking the Straits of Florida, we walk along the entire length of the Malecón, the long waterfront sidewalk that draws in the Habaneros (Havana natives). The students park themselves on the wall in the setting sun, watching young guys fishing, couples and children strolling, and all the old cars rolling by. They are soaking in this quintessentially Cuban oceanside experience.


Day 4 Havana to Cienfuegos 

Marta gives us little topical lectures whenever we have a bus ride of any length. Today, she relates the history of Cuban-U.S. relations, reminding us repeatedly that Cuba is a poor country. She explains the free-through-university education system, and when she tells us she used to be an English teacher, we surmise that she left teaching for a lucky spot in the tourist industry.

She tells us, too, about the Special Period in the 1990s, with its extreme hardships after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Marta has one daughter, born in 1992. She couldn’t consider having more than one child in those days, even though she would have welcomed more. Maegan Moriarty ’16 asks her more about her daughter, who is now a filmmaker living in Angola. She recounts that when her daughter was finishing her film studies in Paris, she saved enough money to bring her mother over for a visit. That was Marta’s first and only trip abroad.

Marta responds to our every question, but we don’t ask her the questions we know she can’t answer. We wish we could host her in Exeter; she has made the trip what it is for us, and we feel a gulf in being unable to return the hospitality.

We arrive midafternoon at Playa Giron, where the American troops landed in 1961, and we spend a lot of time wrapping our heads around the United States’ Bay of Pigs invasion here. The beach is home to a nice, simple, retro-style motel. Marta tells us it was here that the invasion happened. As we read a detailed history of the incident, we look out to the sea and try to visualize the various craft landing on this beach, and the fighting that ensued in the huge surrounding mangrove swamp. Now we understand the simple white memorials we saw alongside the road for the past 50 kilometers or so. They are memorials to Cubans who were killed while defending against the invasion. We consider the moniker, ”fiasco,” often attached to ”Bay of Pigs” in U.S. history books. I think we understand it differently here.

Day  6 Trinidad

Trinidad is a lovely, must-see colonial town. Its pristine cobblestone pedestrian streets and pastel stucco houses in the historical center are the result of a huge preservation effort funded by UNESCO. After a full day here, students want to interrogate how ”real” this Cuba is. How real is anything that we are seeing?

The heat of the day kicks in and we realize we need time to rest and to consciously process our role as tourists. We sit on the cool concrete floor of one of the casas particulares (guest houses) where we are staying. Armed with a couple of articles on tourism in the developing world, we take time to have a Harkness class, combining these readings with our observations thus far. We decide to spend the rest of the afternoon in pairs, trying to be not just consumers, but deeper observers of the culture — not just tourists, but travelers.

The kids come back from their afternoon of exploration both elated and sobered by their discoveries. Two girls with minimal Spanish worked to speak up in the shops they visited, rather than relying on the more fluent speakers. Chris Agard ’17 and Raul Galvan ’17 tried to find a barber. Spencer, Holly MacAlpine ’16 and Sasha Kennedy ’16 went beyond the historical downtown and found a stark difference as they walked farther: decaying homes, people unaccustomed to tourists in their street. Bill and I happened upon an elementary school and were welcomed in to see the four classrooms and the courtyard playground. The woman who lets us in asks for a tip. We learn from Marta later that she shouldn’t have allowed us in or asked for the tip.

Day 7 Trinidad

Last night we tried our luck dancing salsa at La Casa de Musica, a fabulous open-air dance hall on a wide set of stairs in the center of town. But it was full of tourists and amazing Cuban dancers; it was an intimidating place to learn salsa. So, Pata and Flaco have promised us that this evening, they will teach us to salsa.

After dinner we retreat to the rooftop of one of our casas particulares with iPhone music instead of a salsa band. It is a gorgeous night and you can hear the bands in the distance. We have barely begun our lesson when there is a townwide power outage and everything goes black. We dance for a while longer, but then Abhijay Bhatnagar ’17 lies down and coaxes us to look up at the stars. We lie there long after the power resumes, calling out shooting stars, claiming to recognize constellations, and repeating over and over, ”This is amazing.”

We have been without phone or internet use for a week. We are truly present, aware, listening, watching — and deeply contented.

Day 8 Valley De Los Ingenios

After a long hike trough a tropical mountain forest, we come upon a waterfall and tranquil pool. Flaco checks it out and asks me if I think the kids will want to swim. I nod wholeheartedly. We pull off as many layers as we can while maintaining decency and we plunge in. Kaitlyn Tonra ’16, Honor Clements ’17 and I float on our backs and tell ourselves to remember this moment when things get busy during spring term. Spencer, Holly, Caroline Colbert ’17 and I swim behind the waterfall and try not to hear Flaco calling out that it is time to leave.

Day 9 Return to U.S.

We linger a long time in the Havana airport terminal to say our goodbyes to Marta and Flaco. We don’t want this to end.

With great deliberation and reluctance, students turn their phones back on upon touching down in Miami. The spell is broken, but the friendships and memories have been firmly planted, and each of us wants to go back to Cuba again — even though it can never be the same as it was with this magical group, at this singular moment in Cuba’s existence.


Reflections Under The Stars

By Taylor Jean-Jacques ’16

When people say Cuba is frozen in time, they aren’t wrong. After landing and passing through immigration, we rush outside, standing on tiptoes to see through a crowd of Cubans awaiting their loved ones, and a parking lot full of clapped-out 1953 Chevys and 1957 Ford Fairlanes.

Leaving our baggage at the hotel, our hungry group travels to La Casa, a family owned restaurant. We eat the traditional foods served in almost every restaurant across Cuba: moros y cristianos (white rice with bean sauce), platanos (fried plantains), cabbage and other vegetables, swordfish, and a selection of meats — lamb, beef and chicken. The braver students even try rabbit. During our meal, we are serenaded by a Cuban band playing traditional guitar music called Guajira and are introduced to the most popular song on the island, ”Guantanamera.” We quickly learn the lyrics and sing this song throughout our trip.

Over the next few days in Havana, we learn about the Cuban education model, in which education is free of charge at all levels, and schools after the secondary level are specific to various interests: the arts, athletics, medicine, etc. We tour the University of Havana with an undergraduate student and buy books in Spanish from the street vendors outside. In Cuba, the government funds the health care, education and housing of all of its citizens. Its socioeconomic hierarchy is reversed, compared with that of the United States, due to the tourism-based economy. Tourism is becoming a large source of income for the island as U.S. citizens begin to travel to Cuba. Here, a cab driver who transports tourists will have a higher income than a doctor would.

We learn about Cuban art, too, visiting a museum just outside Havana that houses the works of many artists, including paintings and sculptures by Wifredo Lam, a Cuban artist who played a role in reviving Afro-Cuban culture. We are fascinated by his unique style of portraying hybrid figures. Driving past sculptures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, we arrive at a pottery gallery filled with abstract vases and plates that are painted with scenes of the Cuban countryside.

Later, we visit a museum/center for artists-in-residence that serves as a daycare for children with Down syndrome. Although we know little Spanish, we are still able to interact with people — drawing and singing along with the kids and learning to work with clay alongside a potter. I had thought not knowing Spanish would hinder my experience, but I learn to connect to people without using much language. As we walk through the streets, people ask where we are from and they welcome us to their country.

We spend a great deal of time in museums, including the Museo de la Revolution — housed in the former ”White House” of Cuba, where artifacts such as Fidel Castro’s glasses and the key to his Presidio Modelo prison cell line the walls of the former presidential office. The hallways are marked with bullet holes, left untouched since the Cuban Revolution. We stop by Havana Cathedral. Built in 1777, it served as a church, convent and collegium for the Jesuit missionaries on the island.

Our final days in Havana are spent exploring, buying posters and Cuban chocolate with our pesos, listening and singing along to live bands on the street. We navigate a traditional Cuban market, enjoy our favorite street food of chiviricos (fried dough covered in sugar), and spend an afternoon walking miles along the iconic Malecón, where ocean water laps at the esplanade. We end our time in Havana with the cannon ceremony. This ceremony is held at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de Cabaña, built by Spaniards in 1774 to control Havana’s port. Our group huddles in the cool night breeze as we watch soldiers march in 18th-century uniform and fire a cannon into the Havana Bay at precisely 9 p.m.

We spend the next part of our trip traveling the countryside and living in houses in Trinidad. Partway through the cross-country drive, we stop by the beach to splash in the water and relax a little, then visit the Che Guevara mausoleum. El Che was known not only for his major role in the revolution, but for his role in reforming Cuba afterward. He initiated agrarian land reform, spearheaded a literacy campaign across the country, and served as president of the national bank and a Cuban diplomat. The mausoleum holds El Che’s remains, and there is a wall inscribed with his farewell letter to Fidel Castro. We listen as it’s read aloud to us. Cuba is certainly evolving, but it is still restricted in certain ways by its socialist ruler, Raul Castro (Fidel Castro’s brother). Because our group is from the United States, for example, we are required to travel at all times on a tour bus that is tracked by the government. Marta explains that if we travel off the path mapped out for us by government officials, she could be reprimanded or lose her job.

During these sun-filled days in Cuba, we grow as we adapt to a more simple life, without luxuries or typical amenities such as internet access or even toilet paper. We spend more time interacting with one another and our environment, and we find ways to entertain each other — playing card games or reading books about Cuban history — instead of reaching for our phones. Roaming the streets in groups, we stop for gelato, sing along to musicians and climb to the top of the city’s bell tower. In the evenings we sip nonalcoholic mojitos at an outdoor club with live music, and Pata and Flaco teach us to salsa. At night we share reflections on the roof of our Trinidadian homes and fall asleep under the stars.

We end our trip with a two-hour hike through the rain forests. As we climb through the trees, our instructor points out various plants and animals. Halfway through the hike, we stop for a dip in the natural pool of crystal-clear water. Traveling back to the airport on our last day, we celebrate with traditional Cuban sandwiches of ham and cheese. Over these nine days together, we have learned not only about Cuba’s past and present, but we have learned about ourselves as well. I can confidently say that our trip to Cuba is one we will remember forever.