The Sewanee Cuban adventure

Students in Cuba
photo courtesy of Grant Burrier

by Beatriz Perez Reyes
Staff Writer

Months ago, an email with an appealing subject reached every Sewanee students’ inbox: “New Year’s Eve in Havana? The Study trip to Cuba.” That slogan, along with the charm of the well-known Sewanee Spanish professor Thomas Spaccarelli, was enough to attract a group of students to this annual Winter Break program.

The first of these study trips to Cuba took place in 2011. After the Obama administration gave approval to study in Cuba, Professor Spaccarelli and his former student Grant Burrier (C’05) started conversations about the trip there and about how interesting it would be “to go to Cuba to see for ourselves the island nation that has been so heavily punished by US sanctions and blockade.” At the beginning it wasn’t easy to convince the University that traveling there was legal, “but eventually everyone read and comprehended the law that allows for study trips like ours,” Spaccarelli affirms.

The group departed December 28 and arrived in Havana, where they stayed the majority of the trip. They spent New Year’s Eve in the Old Town, surrounded by live music and streets packed with thousands of Cubans ready to celebrate the arrival of 2014. In the words of Abbey Rowlands (C’14), “spending New Year’s Eve in Cuba was awesome! They have a tradition over there where they throw buckets of water out of their windows at midnight, and we ran down the street where they were doing it, dodging the splashes as we went.” Afterwards, they toured other parts of the island: “I was convinced that to have a really comprehensive vision of Cuba we had to travel outside of Havana,” says Spaccarelli about the planning of the program. During all three of the trips, they have visited other areas such as the Bay of Pigs, Trinidad (a Unesco World Heritage city and epicenter of sugar production and the slave economy of colonial Cuba) or Santa Clara (where the Che Guevara mausoleum is). Besides that, Viñales, the tobacco growing area of Cuba, is another classic destination.

One of the activities that the program’s participants usually remember most takes place in Viñales: trying an authentic and freshly made Cuban cigar or “habano.” The students visited small farms where they observed the whole process of how to make the famous Cuban cigars. Then, they get to try some for free. Some love it and want another, some cough and hate it, but most of them try it and get to immerse themselves even more in the “Cuban experience.”

Besides the sightseeing and activities, the program also combines visits to museums, like the Museum of the Revolution or the National Alphabetization Museum, with daily evening classes of about 90 minutes. In these classes, students learn about Cuban history, politics, and the US-Cuban relationships, knowledge that they can broaden and put into practice when they observe the way people live or when they converse with Cubans about their situation. Spaccarelli appreciated “the honesty with which Cubans talk about the terrible economic reality that is evident everywhere.”

Paul Campbell (C’14) also highlighted: “The biggest thing that we got out of the trip wasn’t going to museums and stuff. It was experiencing a culture that feels incredibly foreign, but at the same time is so close geographically to the U.S.” Sarah Parker Haynes (C’14) admired how satisfied people are with only a very few belongings. Will Noggle (C’14), was also impressed at “how content people seem about the government and about what the government is doing for them.” However, amongst the things that some of the participants on the program disliked most, they considered one of the biggest problems of the country to be the confusing double-currency system.

On one hand, Cuba has an artificial currency, called the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) which is pegged to the dollar and, on the other hand, they have the national currency, the Cuban Peso. The system is unfair because all salaries are paid in Cubanpeso, unless you work in the tourist industry. For example, a cab driver can get paid much more than a doctor. A lady that sits outside of a bathroom, asking for tips in exchange for toilet paper, can easily earn much more than an engineer or a professor at a university. “What I dislike the most about Cuba is the terrible contradiction between a well-educated population that has little to do and little opportunity for the future,” Spaccarelli states, “along with the long-term political problem, which seems to me to be the most pressing issue.”

In short, the group spent around 10 days learning about a different culture and people, about a nation with unique failures and achievements, but also having fun enjoying each other’s company in warm, nice weather. For Campbell, hanging out with Sewanee people was one of the best parts of the trip. When asked to comment on their favorite part of their days in Cuba, everybody had something different to highlight: Spaccarelli enjoyed “going to the urban gardens that have sprung up everywhere in Cuba, almost all of which are organic.”

Chris Haberstroh (C’16) loved the aforementioned tobacco rolling farm; Richard Huber (C’ 16) said that he loved the Cuban beaches, its crystalline sea, and also enjoyed seeing the old cars on the streets; or Hannah Fay’s (C’15) favorite moment was riding the “cocotaxis” (motor-powered rickshaws) during New Year’s Eve.

If you feel that you also need to experience a Cuba trip like this, don’t worry; sooner or later that appealing email will appear in your inbox again.