By: Lily Soroko
Last year, in my Latin American history class, I became fascinated with the ancient and modern history of Cuba. I already knew I wanted to visit, so when Cuba was announced as a 2016 global travel trip, I was ecstatic. I signed up and was accepted, but the idea that I was going to Cuba didn’t become real until the last student-parent meeting. We discussed the itinerary, packing lists, safety, and final travel details, and in what felt like no time at all, I was getting ready to leave for the airport as my parents struggled to let me go.
The short 90 miles between Miami and Cuba flew by (literally), and while the travel day was long, we hadn’t even left our own time zone. My first impression of Cuba was the midnight bus ride from Varadero to Havana. We were all exhausted from a full day of traveling, but because so much anticipation had built up, we were all wide-awake. We made it to the center of Havana and settled into our Casas, preparing for ten days of non-stop adventure. In the next few days we played baseball with a youth baseball team, visited museums and national monuments, learned how to salsa dance, and cooked and ate dinner with Cuban families in their homes.
These experiences were particularly special because I was able to interact with people in their own environment and in their own homes. Whether discussing American baseball teams with a little boy named Andy or learning the rules of dominoes from a grandmother at her daughter in-law’s kitchen table in Havana, these moments of warm connection flowed easily and without pressure. I will always remember them as some of the best moments of the trip.
After our time in Havana, we traveled to another city named Cienfuegos for one day. On the way we snorkeled in the Bay of Pigs, an incredible experience considering that just last year I had learned all about it in my Latin American History class.
We then traveled to Trinidad, which is a small, colorful city about six hours from Havana. At breakfast during the second day in Trinidad, we learned that Fidel Castro had died. We were all shocked and a little uncertain about the remainder of our trip. His death forced us to really examine our situation as American tourists in Cuba, a new idea for both of our countries. In Trinidad, life moved on. The only noticeable differences were the lack of music in the rooftop bar above my bedroom and fewer people out and about on the streets. However, when we went back to Havana at the end of the trip, buildings were covered with Cuban flags and posters of Fidel, and we even saw from a distance the procession of his ashes through the streets. I will never forget the moment when we got back to our Casa in Trinidad (which is above a restaurant) after dinner and all the staff were sitting at the bar watching a special about Fidel and his life. Even though not all Cubans may have liked him, the fact that the most influential person in their country had died was incredibly powerful.
While our itinerary was shifted to deal with closed areas and to be respectful of the nine days of national mourning, we were given the opportunity to do things that we had not originally planned. Things like riding horses to a waterfall, going to the beach, and riding around in old American cars proved to us that being flexible can also be rewarding. For our last day in Cuba, we traveled back to Havana. Since we had first arrived there almost nine days earlier, I was eagerly anticipating our return because it was my favorite place we had stayed. While the streets were a bit quieter and there were ten times as many political posters, the overall friendliness of the Cuban citizens never waivered.
I loved this trip for many reasons, but to me, the best thing about it was the people. The connections I made with my group members, the Cuban people, and the country itself will stay with me forever.