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Isaac Taylor’s Reflections on Cuba

Isaac Taylor – As I sit here in the Jose Marti International airport in Havana waiting to go back to the States, I’m reflecting back to our first day – a mere two days ago – when we made our voyage from Miami to Havana. I say a “mere” two days ago because it seems as if we’ve been in the gorgeous country of Cuba for at least a week. My fellow Wallies agree.

We had a long wait in the Miami airport before we were allowed to go through TSA security, during which we patiently waited for Debbie, our travel agent from Common Ground, to collect our passports and various papers so she could go through initial check-in for us. We all were antsy from standing for so long, so Dr. Hollander led us to a small Cuban food stall where he purchased a bit of Cuban coffee for us to share. Cubans enjoy their coffee in a much different fashion than we norteamericanos. The amount a person drinks at once is only a couple ounces because it is extremely strong and sweet. When I downed the coffee shot, it wasn’t long until I was alert and somewhat jittery. But it was so good and I knew I had to find some once the opportunity arose in Cuba.

William Burrowes was the group’ stour guide in Cuba

The flight to Cuba was less than an hour. Upon touchdown, we simply went down the steps that were rolled up to the plane and stepped out onto the tarmac. The warm, wet air, palm trees, and bright orange and blue colors of the airport immediately made me feel as if I’d travelled to a different planet. Smiling was irresistible, and I sighed with happiness.

I’ll only gloss over security and immigration because it was a breeze. They checked my papers in a booth and then I went through a metal detector – much easier than in the States. The most exciting part of leaving the airport was when we went outside and there were hundreds of Cubans waiting on their friends and families to arrive. (We still felt like rock stars by pretending it was for us, though.) In a minute or two we spotted William Burrowes, our guide for the trip. Within a few sentences, I could tell that he was going to be an amazing man who would show us more than we could find on our own in the beautiful city of Havana. William is 62, a native Cuban with no intent on leaving, and a staunch defender of the Revolution of 1959. By the end of the day, it became clear that he could provide a perspective that no American textbook ever could. Perspective is everything.

We were supposed to take a bus tour of the city en route to our hotel, but since our flight was delayed, we only had time to go straight to the Hotel Plaza in Old Habana, the eastern section of Havana. Hotel Plaza was built in 1909. The wealth and decadence of that time shone through in its architecture. We had to quickly check-in and drop off our bags because it was time to enjoy our first meal in Havana.

Students touring a park in Old Havana

El Tiempo is a restaurant in Old Habana where, like so many Cuban restaurants, a good number of the tables are outdoors. We had the privilege of eating at these particular tables, situated near the street but covered by tent-like awnings. The cool evening air drifted through, contributing more authenticity to the atmosphere. Our meal was fresh red snapper, and I indulged in a mojito and a Bucaneer beer, authentic Cuban cerveza. (I am 21, not that it particularly matters in Cuba…)

We hopped on our private bus and went back to the hotel. A few of us got together and decided to explore it. We went up to the top of the hotel on the roof where breakfast would be served the following morning, but found out that there was much more to the roof than that area. In the dark, with only the city lights from below reflecting off the buildings around us, we navigated the rest of the roof and ended up above the entrance to the hotel, which was at the corner of two streets. We could look out and see El Capitolio Nacional, the capitol building of Havana, among numerous other buildings in Old Habana, including the old Bacardi building, which looks quite like a Bacardi bottle of rum. Patrick Bryant ’16 noted how the city was relatively quiet, even though roughly one million people live there. Refreshed doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt.

Next Kalp Juthani ‘15 told us that he poked around enough and found an employee-only elevator in the back part of the hotel. At first, the rest of us didn’t want to use it, but after a bit of convincing, we piled in. Once we reached the bottom, we stepped out and found ourselves in the back hallways of the hotel staff. Kalp led us to our door and then all of a sudden we were back in the lobby, where we rejoined with the rest of our group. Education in proper cigar smoking followed, as Bailey mentioned in his post.

The surprises I encountered that first day are many, but the most important realization was the near universal friendly and accommodating nature of the Cuban people. Sure, they like tourists for our money, but I think that even if it wasn’t for our money, they would still be amiable, curious, loving, and bursting with culture. Cuba would be nothing without the genuine beauty of its people. Hopefully the embargo will be lifted soon that every person in the States can have the chance to go to Cuba and meet its fabulous inhabitants and enjoy their culture.

Derek Andre Captivated by Cuba’s Beauty

Derek Andre – It’s Wednesday night here in Havana and, as a group, we find ourselves confronted with the sad truth that our stay here in beautiful Cuba is coming to an end. As sad as this may be, I think that the end of our stay here does bring about a good opportunity for me to give my thoughts on a few things that we’ve been able to see over the past few days in this country. So, here’s what I’ve picked up on.

Professor Hollander lectures from the roof of Havana’s Plaza Hotel

This place is beautiful. No really, Cuba is absolutely gorgeous. Everything from the weather to the architecture to the people is beautiful in this jewel of the Caribbean. It really is a shame that travel here is not easier because then more people could see the beauty of La Habana. This afternoon we had the opportunity to walk through the old part of the city (Habana Vieja) and it was breathtaking. To see buildings that are hundreds of years old that have been preserved was amazing to say the least.

The people are astounding. It’s no secret that most people in Cuba live an impoverished life. Everywhere you look in this country you find poverty. But even with this poverty, the people seem to be happy. Everyone you meet greets you with a smile and a handshake. To be quite honest I don’t think we’ve met anyone down here who didn’t seem to be in a good mood. And frankly I believe that people really are happy. I don’t get the feeling that this is just a show for us as tourists, but instead that Cubans are genuinely a joyous crowd.

Wabash students pose for a photo in Havana’s Revolution Square

There really are two sides to every story. In the states most people are aware of the embargo placed upon Cuba by our government, and we call it just that: an embargo. However, down here it is referred to as a blockade. The difference comes for the Cuban assertion that the embargo/blockade prevents third-party nations from trading with Cuba due to US pressures. We heard the other side during our trip to the US Interests Office, that the Cubans could buy food and medicine from the states but on a cash and carry agreement only. What’s the truth? Honestly I haven’t figured that out yet.

It might be time to end the embargo. As I’ve said, people know we don’t trade with Cuba and not just anyone can hop on a plane and travel here. All of this is due to a policy that was enacted during the Cold War when the USA and USSR were having an arms race and Cuba got swept into the fight. Well, last time I checked, the Cold War ended twenty years ago, so why are we still continuing this embargo against Cuba? We can’t argue it’s because Cuba is a communist country, because we trade with China and Vietnam. We can’t argue it’s because of human rights abuses, because we trade with Saudi Arabia. So why is it?

Students listen to a lecture on Cuba’s economy from a University of Havana professor

Personally, I think the embargo is the perfect example of a concentrated interest. For those who don’t know, a concentrated interest is one where a small amount of people care deeply about an issue while the majority of people care very little. With the embargo a small number of people hate the Castro regime, and they scream loud enough to keep the embargo in place. I’m not saying that we should end that embargo, just take another look at it. Just a thought.

In conclusion I would like to thank Wabash for allowing us to come, the Cuban people for being so hospitable, Drs. Hollander and Rogers for putting up with us, Jim Amidon for always keeping track of our group, my classmates for making this trip unforgettable, and my mom Carole and my dad David for getting me to Wabash in the first place. Well that wraps it up for me. Adios from Havana.

Bailey Combs Lands in Havana

Bailey Combs – I would like to start this blog by thanking Wabash College, Dr. Hollander, Dr. Rogers, Mr. Amidon, and Common Ground for organizing this astounding trip. I haven’t even been in Havana one night yet and I can already tell this is going to be an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I started to get this once-in-a-lifetime feeling the second we got into line to check our bags at the Miami airport. We seemed out of place with our backpacks and carry-on luggage as the Cuban-Americans in line with us pushed hand-carts piled high with the large luggage and gifts they were taking back to their relatives in Cuba. The biggest difference between our luggage and theirs aside from the size and quantity of luggage was that their luggage was encased in cellophane. I was told by the Miami travel agent working that this was done to prevent theft by the Havana airport workers. Since the cellophane was such an essential part of Cuban-Americans traveling back to Cuba, it came as no surprise that the Miami airport offered a bag wrapping service at a whopping $50 a bag.

Getting off the plane in Havana: It’s a journey just getting there!

The adventure continued as we boarded an all-white airplane with a small American Flag and ID numbers as its only distinguishing marks. In a row of three seats, Adam Alexander, a Fiji at Wabash, and I occupied the two seats closest to the aisle. As we sat there speculating whether or not someone was going to occupy the window-side seat next to us, a woman appeared holding her baby boy. Adam and I tried to get up to let her reach her seat but she cut us off and offered her seat to one of us. We both scooted over but right after we did this she said, “Now you must do something for me.” Adam and I stared at each other wondering what we had just gotten ourselves into when suddenly the little boy was plopped into Adam’s lap. After the woman had situated herself in her seat, we entered into a conversation from her and found out her name was Sandy and her son’s name was Luis. Sandy gave us plenty advice on what to avoid in Cuba, namely drinking the local water, and in exchange we helped her get her baggage off of the plane.

From the airplane, we had to walk across the tarmac to the José Martí International Airport. The terminal was silent despite the large crowd of passengers crowding around the baggage claim. We quietly collected our luggage and headed for a set of automatic, sliding doors which were the exit for the terminal. We were stunned when the doors flashed open and a noisy multitude of Cubans eagerly awaiting their relatives were barely restrained by a rail fence. From the back of the crowd, we could see an elderly man holding up a “Wabash University” sign. This older man was William, our tour guide for the Havana portion of our trip. He used to teach history, French, and several other subjects at all levels of the Cuban education system.

He and his driver took us from the airport to the hotel to drop off our bags before heading out to dinner a restaurant named El Templo. It was here that I benefited the most from Dr. Wilson’s Spanish classes because Patrick Bryant and I spoke with our driver in Spanish the entire time. After topping off dinner with éclairs and chocolate ice cream, William rushed us off to La Cabana fortress, a Spanish installation from the 18th century AD, for a reenacting of the closing of the gate ceremony which involved a cannon being fired.

William Burrowes discussed cigars and Cuban culture

We retreated from the fort back to the Hotel Plaza, where we were staying, so that William could give us an introductory lesson in Cuban culture, namely the proper way to smoke a Cuban cigar. I learned that the thicker the cigar the better it is, that one should take their time lighting the cigar, and most importantly to never ash your cigar if you can help it.

As the smoke died down from our first day in Havana, I would like to thank and encourage those reading this blog to read my teammate Isaac Taylor’s blog and the forthcoming blogs of the other students on this trip as well. Viva la Bash!

Wabash Students Ready for Cuba

Wabash College Professors Ethan Hollander and Dan Rogers will take 14 students to Cuba over Thanksgiving break. The students have spent the semester studying the the political issues between the United States and Cuba, and will hear from officials and fellow college students on both sides. After four days and three nights in Havana, the Wabash class will spend another three days in Miami to round out the experience.

Professor Ethan Hollander — Cuba isn’t easy to get to. Although the waterway that separates Cuba from the US is only 90 miles across, the bureaucratic, historical, and political chasm between the two countries is wider and more treacherous. So why bother?

Professor Ethan Hollander and Dan Rogers visited Cuba last year to plan the trip.

More than almost any other country we could learn about, Cuba encourages reflection upon complex and controversial issues. But Cuba is also a country where unbiased reflections are nearly impossible to find. Cuban and American observers both tell the story of the island nation, but the stories differ so widely that it’s hard to tell who (if anyone) is getting it right. The story of the US-Cuban relationship is so wrought with uncertainty, misinformation, and spin that historians and analysts disagree with almost the same ferocity as the governments themselves.

But Wabash is a place where we teach the next generation of leaders to think critically. And given the uncertainty and spin, the Cuban-American experience is one about which critical thinking is most necessary. Given that no analysis or history of the relationship is unambiguously free of bias, the Wabash student – the critical thinker – needs to see the country with fresh eyes. He has to experience it first-hand. Anybody can learn about Cuba from the newspaper or a textbook. A Wabash student has the tools necessary to learn from direct experience. Our trip to Cuba will allow our students to do just that. And we hope that his conclusions will be more thoughtful, more responsible, and more humane as a result.

In Cuba and in Miami, we will see the Cuban-American experience from both sides. We’ll meet politicians, journalists, scholars, and students from Miami and from Havana. In Cuba, we’ll meet with the Chairman of a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, a ‘Neighborhood Watch’ organization responsible for representing – or spying upon – everyday Cuban citizens. In Miami, we’ll meet the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, a prominent leader in the Cuban-American community and outspoken critic of Castro’s regime. In Cuba, we’ll meet with a group of student leaders from the University of Havana. In the United States, our student leaders will meet with Tim Padgett ’84 – a prominent journalist and Wabash alum who has made a career of thinking critically about the complex dynamics we’ll be witnessing first hand.

Not just any College could take its students to Cuba. The complexity of diplomatic relations with the country would make it impossible were it not for the support of the Wabash community, our colleagues, the administration, and – most of all – the students of this generation and of generations past. This is the community that makes it possible for Wabash students to experience what other students don’t even think about. And it’s the community that makes it possible for us to embark upon the unprecedented journey that we’re about to begin.

Hammering Out the Meaning of Katrina’s Destruction

Chet Turnbeaugh ’14 — Two years ago, I decided to tag along on the yearly spring break trip to New Orleans.  I was ready to enjoy the summer-like weather and to hopefully rebuild, what was in my mind, a broken city.  As a freshman, this trip was eye opening in many ways.  The irony of a city, which had been built and maintained by the resourcefulness of its ports, nearly destroyed overnight by water, seemed surreal to me.  How tragic it was to think of the loss that had occurred in a city as majestic as the Big Easy, how even more tragic it was to witness first-hand six years after the first winds of Katrina.

Nearly eight years since disaster struck, I approach the topic of New Orleans much differently now.  Having been here once already, I knew some of what to expect going into it—boarded up windows, caved-in roofs, magenta and olive colored shutters, red and black x’s on the doors, and beads of all colors imaginable.  Yet, what I wasn’t expecting to find was the depth of meaning that I found in my physical labor.

This time around we have partnered up with lowernine.org, a nonprofit organization that pairs local homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward—the poorest and worst affected portion of the city—with volunteers to help return original community members to their homes.  My team was placed on a house a few miles outside of the Lower Ninth, that belongs to a gentleman who has done a lot to help in the rebuilding efforts, but has received little in return.  His home, which his family has owned for over thirty years, is in need of a new roof.  During the storm, his garage and most of the interior of the house were rendered uninhabitable.  My time has been divided equally between replacing rafters on the roof and destroying he remnants of the garage. In these seemingly opposite natured tasks, I have encountered the duality of the universe: creation and destruction.

On the morning of the third day, we were standing on a wobbly roof and by three o’clock the entire structure was dismantled.  The astonishing fact about this was that every board remained in tact, because these would all be salvaged to reuse on other portions of the house in order to diminish costs.  As I was hammering, sawing, and pulling boards apart I was reminded of the strong winds that originally broke windows, doors, and roofing tiles.  Consequently, I realized that until the boards were all taken down, which meant the death of a once functional garage, they could not be reestablished to their new position on the roof. Sometimes, destruction is necessary to learn to appreciate and accept all that is, before allowing it the grace and flexibility to naturally take shape in a new form.

In the case of one homeowner on Franklin Street, the destruction of a garage means the rebirth of a roof over his family’s heads.  Similarly, perhaps the destruction of New Orleans was to illuminate the real Road Home—a world where humans recognize their connectedness to other humans’ needs and are more than willing to help restore the wounds beauty suffers at the hand of fate.  If this is the nature of the story in New Orleans, than maybe I am not as distraught as I was a few years back.  This week, I have enjoyed breaking down the useless to reform the useful and I walk away with a better appreciation for the benefits that can come only from dealing with loss.