Twenty-two people recently returned from a 10-day “edu-vacation” to Cuba — the first of eight “Go Learn” adventures scheduled for 2015. Go Learn trips, organized by the University of Utah’s Continuing Education department, combine education with a vacation to facilitate deeper connections between travelers and the communities they visit through a unique and authentic experience.
The journeys are led by U experts and begin with a custom-designed, pre-departure course to help travelers prepare so they can fully enjoy the destination.
Professor emeritus of economics Al Campbell led the recent trip to Cuba. The Cuban economy has been one of his central research areas, which has allowed him to visit the island annually since 1991.
Judy Kiel, web content specialist for Continuing Education, is a travel enthusiast and was excited to join the group. She has participated in a few of the travel programs organized through Continuing Education years ago, but this was her first trip with Go Learn, and she shared her experience:
Judy’s “Cuba Revealed” Adventure
We arrived in Havana Jan. 31, and as soon as we left the airport terminal, I felt like we were at a car show, what with all the old cars parked in the small parking lot. Driving into Havana, all we could do was wonder at the countryside and people living there. It was marvelous just being there.
We stayed in Havana for four days, and our hotel was comfortable and in a great location near the Malecón — the road along the seawall. We listened to several speakers in the small conference room there, which worked well for our group size.
Marc Frank, the longest serving foreign correspondent in Cuba, spoke of his experience living in Cuba for nearly a quarter century. Jorge Mario Sanchez, a prominent economist, spoke about housing issues, economic development for the average Cuban and how the microenterprise climate has been built from remittances sent from families living in the U.S. Miguel Coyula, an architect and urban planner, discussed the issues Cubans face in preserving their architectural heritage while at the same time moving forward with renovations and rebuilding while dealing with the lack of funding throughout the country. All of the speakers discussed the developments regarding U.S.-Cuban relations announced in December and agreed that Cuba is not ready for an influx of U.S. tourists because the infrastructure is not yet in place.
We toured Havana by bus and by foot. The visit to the Viñales Valley was as if we stepped into the pages of a National Geographic — farmers using cattle to plow, horse-drawn carts hauling sacks of tobacco leaves and vehicles from the 1940s and 1950s were common sights. We visited a tobacco farm where we were shown the art of rolling cigars, and then we were invited to share a Cuban coffee. Rum flowed freely at nearly every meal, and the food was always plentiful and tasty. Music was everywhere, and all of the bands were excellent. On one fabulous evening in Havana, we went to the Café Madrigal restaurant for tapas and drinks and listened to the music of Frank Delgado, one of Cuba’s most famous musicians. He plays “nueva trova” music, which is a movement in Cuban music that emerged in the late 1960s after the Cuban Revolution and consequent political and social changes. It combines traditional folk music with politicized lyrics.
Four nights in Havana was not enough.
We drove from Havana to Playa Girón, the site where the famous Bay of Pigs invasion took place in 1961, and we visited the Bay of Pigs Museum. It was very interesting to learn about this event from the Cuban point of view!
On to Trinidad, where we spent two nights at casas particulares, or Cuban bed-and-breakfasts. What a great experience to see and live (though briefly) in a Cuban home with the owners. The interiors of the homes were very nice – full of heirlooms, extraordinarily clean and very welcoming. Our rooms were comfortable with canopy beds, private bathrooms and air conditioning.
Our last stop was Cienfuegos, where we were introduced to the local chapter of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. We toured a few studios and brought back works of art and many CDs the musicians had cut. Some of us even had an impromptu visit to a fire station we saw along the way (one member of our group was a retired fire captain, so he really enjoyed this). We had a boat tour of the bay and more good food in privately run restaurants.
The food in Cuba was tasty and not spicy at all. We usually had the choice of chicken, pork (ropa vieja was common) or fish (usually red snapper), which was accompanied by a variety of sides, such as white rice, black beans with rice and salad. There was often a fruit plate with pineapple, mangoes and papayas, and dessert of flan or ice cream. We had an American birthday cake one evening to celebrate three birthdays of fellow Go Learn Cuba travelers. It was quite delicious! All meals except breakfast were accompanied by mojitos for those who wanted one (or two!). Soft drinks, water and coffee were readily available.
In addition to learning about the history of Cuba and the local towns, politics and culture, I really enjoyed visiting with artists and musicians and hearing about how they managed to keep making art and music, even if censored by past government officials. They told us about how they support programs for local children by teaching them how to make art and music, and we handed out supplies for the artists and these programs. We wished we’d brought more!
These moments with local people turned out to truly be a cultural exchange, and a real person-to-person educational experience. More than just being a tourist — visiting the sights and sitting on the beach — this trip opened our eyes to the issues facing the Cuban people and how the U.S. embargo has affected their everyday lives. I hope this isn’t the trip of a lifetime — I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Go Learn takes curious travelers across the globe or across the state border. To see other trips available this year, visit the Go Learn website.
*All photos by Judy Kiel