From the arts to education, religion to the economy, this people-to-people exchange has travelers wanting more.
Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
A few light bumps of turbulence don’t seem to disturb passengers a bit as the airplane bounces through the last wisps of cloud. For those lucky enough to snag a seat with a view on this short trip, their noses are glued to the windows. Passengers in the middle and aisle seats are leaning in as far as possible and handing off cell phones, asking complete strangers to snap a photo of the first glimpse of land below.
For seasoned travelers, this might seem odd if you didn’t consider the circumstances. On most flights, in the final moments before landing, people are securing tray tables and putting away magazines. Tightening seat belts. Storing large electronics. Some even sleep through the landing. There’s not that much to fuss about, since it’s the exploring once you arrive that you look forward to most when traveling. To be honest, just getting somewhere isn’t all that exciting.
Unless it’s to a land you’ve never seen before.
Everyone’s still leaning. Phones and cameras are snapping and the chatter is intensifying when the flight attendant’s voice breaks through the excitement.
“Welcome to Havana, Cuba.”
The adventure begins
Once through security at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, 18 wide-eyed Kiwanians and guests, all part of this inaugural Kiwanis Travel trip, hop on a bus and are swept away to begin a week-long journey around this island of many extremes—and one that was more or less off-limits to most American travelers for several decades. (While only Americans signed up for this first trip, all Kiwanis Travel trips are open to Kiwanis members from any country.)
Jorge, our tour guide, was born and raised here. He’s slightly short and sports a wide smile as he stands at the front of our bus. Within minutes we can tell he’s an encyclopedia of knowledge—explaining this, that and the other with great ease and detail while pointing out landmarks left and right.
“On your right is the U.S. Embassy, which many of you probably saw on television as your flag was raised on August 14,” he says, explaining the moment the United States and Cuba took a visual and historic step forward after the December 17, 2014, announcement that the two countries would begin to ease relations.
A few moments later: “On your right is the Hotel Nacional” … which, he points out, many of us probably know from “The Godfather Part II.” During these first moments on the bus, everyone snaps photos. Some are taking notes. Jorge assures us that we’ll see much of this and more over the next several days, so there’s no need to rely on blurry photos taken through a bus window.
“We’re getting to see the integral parts of Cuba because of the people-to-people exchange. When you travel as a tourist, you only see the highlights.”
There are smiles all around. The mission we’re on isn’t about tourism, though we could be seen as tourists. But Jorge is quick to point out—more than once—that we aren’t tourists. We’re travelers. And there’s a difference. This is, after all, a people-to-people exchange. We are here to learn and absorb the culture. Meet people. Talk about life and music and art and education and, yes, maybe even politics. We are supposed to ask questions. We are supposed to touch and be touched. We are supposed to make new friends. We do all of this and more, while exploring the country most of us only know of through the news.
The agenda is full of interesting people and diverse activities. A tour of the Museo de la Revolución; a visit to an elementary school; a trip to Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s home; an intimate performance followed by conversation with Afro-Cuban group Havana Compás Dance; a quick stop at a cigar factory; a long drive through stunning countryside and the Sierra del Rosario mountain range to visit the rural community of Las Terrazas.
There’s even a surprise stop at “Fusterlandia,” the colorful, sculpted world of artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster. “That’s Fuster,” Jorge says of the man who just drove onto the property as we tour. Fuster steps out of his tiny car, sucking from a straw jabbed into a coconut. “He’s quiet and doesn’t like much attention.” We continue to tour his workshop and take in the endless colorful mosaics of roosters, mermaids, fish, palm trees … the art covers every last inch of his home and surrounding homes in Jaimanitas, located a short drive outside of Havana. This trip is proving fascinating in every way—each twist and turn brings something new, something intriguing, something educational and eye-opening.
“I’m amazed at the enthusiasm and the energy and the ingenuity that the young people we’ve met have shown,” says New York traveler Richard Freeman. “The (Compás) dancers were extraordinary. What they do with so little is ingenious and imaginative. I was also so impressed with the lecture at the University of Havana. I was blown away. This whole trip, I want to get as much out of it as possible. And it’s so much more than I expected.”
Havana: city of contrasts
It’s well into the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), and we have been walking on cobblestone for an hour with not much shade in sight, but nobody is complaining. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone is actively involved in what is happening. Asking questions. Learning about architecture, food, religion. A street performer approaches with his guitar, singing a song in Spanish. Jorge tells him who we are, and the musician doesn’t miss a beat as he quickly changes the lyrics to sing about Kiwanis.
There are centuries of history around us. We walk through Plaza de San Francisco, which dates to the 1600s and is home to the stunning basilica and monastery of San Francisco de Asis. We stop for a restroom break and cold drinks at one of Hemingway’s favorite hideaways: the Hotel Ambos Mundos. We ooh and ahh over art sold on side streets and watch children playing in Plaza Vieja.
“We’re getting to see the integral parts of Cuba because of the people-to-people exchange,” says John Maxwell of the Kiwanis Club of Bayonet Point, Florida. “When you travel as a tourist, you only see the highlights.”
But this is more than a “Top 10 things to see in Cuba” tour. Each day, there’s something new and surprising. Petersburg, Illinois, Kiwanian David Turner says that “with each new experience, it leads to more questions and more excitement about what’s coming next.” And there’s a consensus: Cuba is beyond explanation. A study in contrasts. There is stunning beauty in the countryside and along the coastlines. This is the Caribbean, after all. It’s as aquamarine in color as you could ever imagine. But at the same time that Havana has ornate buildings, architect Miguel Coyula tells us that each day, an average of three buildings crumble to the ground here. It’s like the prince and the pauper, he says, reminding us that 80 percent of Havana was built in less than 60 years. And while it’s well past time for a face-lift, “we need to do everything we can to preserve Havana as a Cuban city.”
Heading to paradise
Venturing out of the capital city, we head to Cienfuegos in central Cuba. Along the way, we get a sweet treat at a sugar cane factory and visit Playa Girón, site of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. But it’s a visit to a Cuban health clinic, where we meet several nurses who answer countless questions from our inquisitive group, proving just how informative and different a people-to-people exchange can be from an average vacation. We have another intimate opportunity to talk with Cuban citizens again when we get a personal concert by the Orquesta de Cámara de Cienfuegos de Cuba. One person in our group is moved to tears during the group’s rendition of “Shenandoah.” Talking with members of the orchestra after the performance, we learn that most of them have been playing since they were very young and that caring for their instruments in the humidity of Cuba can be challenging. We vow to look for them the next time they tour outside of Cuba.
“No matter where you’re from or where you go, meeting and talking with people changes your views of the world.”
Using Cienfuegos as a perfect launching point, we take a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad. Once there, we are welcomed into the home of a local artist, where we see paintings and sketches from various Cuban artists hanging on the walls. Everything is for sale and a few of us take home a piece of artwork. We visit a Santería temple and then some of us brave the many steps of the bell tower of the San Francisco Convent to take in the awe-inspiring views of brightly painted homes set on a backdrop of the Escambray Mountains. We purchase souvenirs. Since it’s our last full day in Cuba, it’s the perfect time to spend our remaining Cuban convertible pesos (known as CUCs).
As the trip winds down, it seems most of us are left with a similar impression of what we’ve seen, who we’ve met and what we’ve learned. Our tour director, Natalia, is Russian. She leads us on a discussion of why it’s important to travel, why we need to open our hearts and minds to other cultures, people and places. Why we do this—why we travel.
“When people ask me, ‘Where are you from, where do you live?’ I tell them I live on planet Earth,” she says. “I think this people-to-people program helps to change people’s views of what’s going on on the other side. No matter where you’re from or where you go, meeting and talking with people changes your views of the world.”
Kiwanian Paul Hutchinson of Gig Harbor, Washington, agrees.
“As Natalia says, the true gem of Cuba isn’t the beautiful beaches and architectural plazas, but rather the Cuban people,” he says. “I see why so many people are drawn to go back. I can’t wait to go again.”
VIDEO: To watch, click on the photo below
This story originally appeared in the March 2016 Kiwanis magazine.