October 28, 2012

Travel: Trip to Cuba proves a study in contrasts

Rich culture, scenic beauty and abject poverty make for a trip both sobering and inspiring.


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Highlights of the writer’s Cuban adventure included a walking tour of old Havana.

Mimi Gough photos

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An evening at the Buena Vista Social Club.

Additional Photos Below

Our visit to a local elementary school and subsequent interaction with professor Jorge Sanchez, from the University of Havana, provided us with a greater appreciation for their educational system. All levels of school are "free" to attend, although to get into a college or university, one must take four achievement tests. Since they are extremely challenging, only 17 percent of the population actually pass them and go on to a university education. The remaining students must go to vocational technical schools to learn a skill and then go to work. Sanchez was particularly knowledgeable about the 200-year Cuban-U.S. relationship. He shared his perspective from the colonial era through the revolution and described the economic and international shifts that have occurred in recent years.

We visited a convent, which has local programs for everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens, and met both residents and administrators. Our group had been advised in advance to bring medical and personal supplies from home, so we made a sizable donation to this organization.

On another day, we visited Las Terrazas, a Biosphere Reserve that is a former coffee plantation that has been reforested. We brought additional personal supplies to donate to these workers, after learning about the innovative community that has been developed here.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention two other highlights: our visit to Ernest Hemingway's mansion and an evening at the Buena Vista Social Club. Music and literature are easily inspired amid that beautiful landscape and ever-present poverty.

As our journey came to an end, we became aware that future legal travel to Cuba for Americans is in question. OFAC has not renewed many of the tour operators' licenses.

I am hopeful that the relationship between America and Cuba will flourish in the years ahead. Cuba needs to rebuild its infrastructure to embrace the number of tourists it hopes to encourage, and all of the people we spoke to would warmly welcome our collective involvement in that process.


Mimi Gough is chair of the Travel/Hospitality Department at Kaplan University-Maine.


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Additional Photos

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Cuban elementary school students react to a visitor.


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