A group of Carls and their families gain a new understanding and appreciation for Cuban history, culture, and politics on a Carleton Alumni Adventures program.
Raúl Castro can close down an airport at a moment’s notice.
Most days, that fact wouldn’t affect my life in the least, but today I am in Miami with 30 other travelers on a Carleton Alumni Adventures program. We arrive at 6:00 a.m. to check in for our flight to Cuba, only to learn that the Santiago airport has been closed due to Castro’s unexpected arrival there. Our new departure time is 2:00 p.m.
When we arrive at the gate eight hours later, the flight attendants usher us on board with a sense of urgency. The pilot says we’re in a now-or-never situation. The problem doesn’t lie with the Cuban government, which has already granted clearance for our plane—filled with Americans and Cubans—to land in Santiago. We’re waiting for the U.S. government to approve our departure, and the pilot is honest about our chances. “I’ve never known the United States to grant clearance twice for the same flight,” he says over the plane’s speaker.
But then, without further notice, the pilot is instructing the flight attendants to prepare for cross-check and we are wheeling back from the gate at Miami International. Everyone on board starts cheering, and I realize that I’m shaking a little. Although I’m traveling with Carleton political science professor Al Montero and three guides await our arrival in Santiago, I have been feeling responsible for getting these Carls and their family members to Cuba.
Just 90 minutes later, we are making our descent—the first commercial flight to land at this airport since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city just five days earlier. In fact, Castro had flown from Havana to Santiago that morning to meet with Venezuelan officials who were there to offer help with the clean-up efforts.
We notice that the “U” is missing from the large letters that hang on the terminal, so it reads: “SANTIAGO, C BA.” Because most of us on the Carleton trip are first-time visitors to the country, we can’t really tell what is hurricane damage and what is neglect, but we are sure of one thing: We are really excited to be here.
Over the next 12 days, we see that Cuba is a study in contrasts: beautiful Spanish architecture and crumbling tenements. A president who is perceived by some people as a brave revolutionary leader and by others as a cruel dictator. A lush tropical landscape that yields few viable crops. Mountains and cities. Opulence and poverty. “Our friends from the United States” and “the imperialist United States.”
Fortunately, Carls are an inquisitive bunch and throughout the trip, they ask hard and thoughtful questions of Montero and Joe Scarpaci, who is executive director of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and Economy, an institution licensed by the U.S. Treasury to provide docent-assisted travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens. And so we learn a lot about Cuban history, politics, economy, and art, and the country’s volatile relationship with the United States. Like all Carleton Alumni Adventures, this trip combines the fun and excitement of travel with college-level instruction. Here is some of what we saw and learned.
Day 1: Santiago
24 hours. 378 miles. And a world away
Our journey begins amid the neon glitz of Miami Beach (top photo). Less than 24 hours later, we are sipping mojitos on our hotel rooftop, which overlooks the Hurricane Sandy–damaged domes of la Catedral de Santiago de Cuba, built in 1670 and located in Santiago’s central square.
Day 2: Santiago
Struggles of today. Hope for tomorrow
We arrive in Santiago—Cuba’s second largest city—just days after Hurricane Sandy roared through town, leaving great devastation in its wake. But in the eyes of Santiago’s children, we see hope for the future. The clearly government-sanctioned graffiti (top photo) reads: “Long live Fidel” and “For the unity of the neighborhood.”
Day 3: Santiago
Revolutionaries—then and now
Three men strike a pose outside of the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, a Santiago cemetery dating from 1868 that includes the graves of Cubans who fought for independence. Below: Located in Santiago’s Revolution Square, this statue of hero Antonio Maceo Grajales is (at 16 meters) the country’s tallest monument. Maceo was a military commander who fought in the Ten Years’ War (1868–78) for Cuban independence. The 23 machetes represent March 23, 1878, when Maceo resumed the fight for independence.
Day 4: Baracoa
River life. Farm life
After three busy days in Santiago, the Carleton travelers welcome a taste of small-town life in Baracoa, the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba and its first capital. We go boating and swimming on the Toa River with oarsman “24”—named for the six digits on each of his hands and feet. Later, we visit the village of Guirito, where farmers teach us traditional dances and serve us local dishes. The non-Spanish speakers among us struggle a bit (“Did she say pollo or pescado?”), but we dive in and the meal ranks among my favorites!
Day 5: Baracoa/Cienfuegos
This morning, the Carleton group boards a charter flight to Cienfuegos, which translates literally to hundred fires, but is more commonly known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South). First settled by French immigrants in 1819, Cienfuegos was added in 2005 to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as an outstanding example of Spanish Enlightenment urban planning. Bicycle taxis and scooters are the preferred means of traveling in Baracoa.
Day 5: Cienfuegos
The results are in!
On November 6, Americans gather with Cubans and Europeans in the Hotel Jagua bar to watch the U.S. election returns on CNN. With the exception of one or two Romney supporters, the crowd is all Obama all the way. Later, Larry Perlman ’60 displays the Cuban paper’s headline, which reads: “Lessons from an election: how Obama won.”
Day 6: Trinidad
All in a day’s work, part 1
Carls spend a leisurely day in Trinidad, the fourth of the seven towns founded by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez in 1514. The town appears today much as it did when the Spaniards left the island in 1898, following 400 years of Spanish colonization; it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. We visit museums and artists’ studios, browse in shops, and watch children fly kites near Plaza Mayor, the town’s central square. The guy pictured below rides around the square on a donkey, collecting the equivalent of 50 cents from tourists who want to take his photo.
Day 6: Cienfuegos
All in a day’s work, part 2
After lunch in Trinidad, the group splits in two—some of us choose to visit the ruins of sugar mills and other remnants from Cuba’s once-thriving sugar industry, while others hike to a nearby farm. Chiquis (pictured below with Liz Parrish ’60) and his family live simply off the land, where they raise livestock and crops, including coffee beans, which they roast and grind themselves. They serve the brew proudly to their American guests.
Day 7: Havana
Cars, cars, cars
The stories you’ve heard are true: Cuba’s streets—and especially Havana’s—are littered with American automobiles from the 1950s. The cars’ condition varies widely from rust buckets held together with little more than putty and a prayer to mint Fords and Chevys that would make any aficionado drool.
Day 7: Havana
Look at that ash
There’s just something about a really good cigar. The way the rough tobacco leaves feel in your hand. That golden brown color. And then, the whoosh of the flame and that glorious and distinctive smell. Many of us sample the Cohibas while we’re in Cuba. Above: Howard Rubenstein ’53 shows us how it’s done.
Day 8: Havana
A glimpse inside
Traveling with Joe Scarpaci from the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and Economy means getting up close and personal with Cuba and its residents. In Havana, Joe introduces us to Sabina, who fought successfully in the Cuban courts to keep the building she owned with her husband after he died. Today Sabina (pictured below in her kitchen) operates a thriving mango freezing business, leases space to other businesses, and lives in the building she owns free and clear.
Day 9: Havana
People gather at the serving window of a Havana bakery to buy freshly baked bread. It is common to see parents and children hanging out along Havana’s Malecón, enjoying the scenery and each other’s company.
Day 10: Havana
The Museo de la Revolución is located in what had been the presidential palace—beginning in 1920 with president Mario Garcia Menocal and ending in 1959 with Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries. Designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and Belgian architect Paul Belau, the building combines Spanish, French, and German architectural elements.
Day 11: Havana
What to eat?
We’d been warned that Cuban food was all over the map. Some days we would feast on fresh and flavorful octopus, shrimp, and papaya. And the next day we might have canned green beans and canned pears. Cuba has a history of importing most of its food, but our visit to Organóponico Vivero Alamar, a cooperative organic urban farm and research center in Havana, reveals a brighter future. Here, 150 farmers grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that they sell at local markets—facilitating access to healthy food at fair prices and creating a model for sustainable farming.
Day 12: Havana
Palm trees make me happy. Beginning with our first night in Miami, I have enjoyed being surrounded by these crazy Seussian plants. Cuban colors and culture make me happy, too. I’ll miss the brightly colored buildings and the cars and, of course, the wonderful people we have met—both Cubans and my fellow Carleton travelers.
Web Extra: View other photos and illustrations from the Cuba trip at go.carleton.edu/cubaphotos. Learn about other Alumni Adventures, including an upcoming Cuba trip with professors Al Montero and Joe Scarpaci.