--by Brent Runyon of The Enterprise, Falmouth, Massachusetts
A group from Falmouth Academy, a college prep school for 7th to 12th graders, returned last week from a spring break trip to an island where the weather is warm, the culture is rich and music fills the air, but where most Americans never go.
The group of 10 students, teachers, and parents spent 10 days in Cuba on a special “people to people” license that allowed them to meet with Cubans, but not to engage in tourism.
The group included six students from 9th to 12th grades, who along with the chaperones and teachers, were immersed in Cuban culture through visits to schools, farms, museums, the ballet and an artists’ colony.
Rachel Dragos, a 12th grader from Sandwich, said she had wanted to visit Cuba since she was 10, when she went on a cruise with her parents. The cruise ship passed near Cuba, so Rachel asked her father why they were not visiting the island. He told her about the American embargo against Cuba, which did not make sense to her.
“I remember thinking that it was the most bizarre thing, and I decided I wanted to go,” she said. “It happened a lot faster than I ever thought it would.”
Impressed By The Cubans
She said she was nervous before she arrived that she would witness a huge amount of poverty, but found the Cubans, although not rich, to be happy, healthy and well-educated.
Their guides spoke English and Spanish, and Rachel said she grew close to them during the trip. “They were just so loving and they gave us such a good perspective on Cuban life,” she said. “It was a unique experience to get to know these Cubans, who were just amazing people.”
Even without access to the parts and tools that are available in the United States, Rachel said she noticed how good the Cubans were at making things work, “The toilet was fixed with string and paper clips,” she said.
Organizer Susan D. Moffat of Falmouth, a photography teacher and the director of summer programs at Falmouth Academy, had the idea to teach a class called Cuba, as part of a cultural exchange elective.
“I went to Cuba in the year 2000 on a photojournalist visa, and it was such a vibrant and colorful culture,” she said. She had always wanted to return, Ms. Moffat said.
After her initial application was rejected by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, Ms. Moffat went to an organization called Witness for Peace, which has a permanent license for educational trips to Cuba.
The license granted the group access to the country, but prohibited them from engaging in tourism, like sunbathing on the beach. “We could not go on the beach because that was against our license,” Ms. Moffat said.
But the group did find a way to swim in the warm Cuban waters on a particularly hot day. They walked out on an old 200-yard pier and jumped into the water without stepping on the beach. Minutes later an entire Cuban baseball team drove up and jumped into the water with their clothes on.
The trip cost $2,400 per person, which included airfare, hotel, and meals, but the students got their money’s worth out of the trip, Ms. Moffat said. “I think they soaked up all the culture,” she said. “It wasn’t a tourist trip, so they were really able to immerse themselves in the Cuban culture and music and the way that people are so clever at finding solutions to problems.”
Ms. Moffat said Cuba seems frozen in time, with crumbling architecture, and cars that date back to the 1930s that have been continually repaired.
Traveling In Style
The group traveled in a “hippie bus” with peace signs painted on the outside, with their guides and visited the Museum of the Revolution, a high school physics class, an organic farmer, a wine maker and a family with a rooftop garden.
A highlight for Ms. Moffat was visiting an artists’ colony, where the residents took time out of their day to visit with the group. “I felt really honored that all of those people took a couple of hours out of their day to visit with us,” she said.
Another highlight was the food, which consisted of beans and rice, salad with tomatoes, fresh, grated cabbage, and cucumbers, and a dessert of fresh bananas and pineapple. Only occasionally was there a dish that included chicken or pork.
Rachel thought the food would be spicier, like Mexican or Spanish food, but found that she loved the simplicity of rice and beans. “It was delicious. It was a lot different than I expected,” she said.
Another highlight was the day 9th grader Tessa Mastroianni of Falmouth turned 15 on the trip. She got to experience the Latin tradition of celebrating the 15th birthday, or Quinceanera, all day long. Everywhere they visited Cubans sang happy birthday to Tessa, Ms. Moffat said.
Ms. Moffat was particularly fond of the Cubans who welcomed the group into their homes. “Cubans don’t dislike Americans,” Ms. Moffat said. “They dislike the embargo that we placed upon them.”
Questioning The U.S. Embargo
Ms. Moffat came away from the trip questioning why and how the embargo continues.
Cuba has been subject to a trade embargo from the United States since the communist revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. As a result, Americans who travel to Cuba without a special license are subject to prosecution by the United States government.
Cubans cannot import medical supplies and food from the United States. “Our sanctions have influenced their lives,” Ms. Moffat said.
In spite of the embargo, the country is incredibly safe, Ms. Moffat said, with little violent crime. There is also a wonderful health care and education system in Cuba, she said. Doctors take care of an entire neighborhood and know about each patient. There is no private land ownership in Cuba.
Overall, Cuba is a rich vibrant, safe, culture loaded with history that is inexorably linked to the United States, she said, especially in the last 53 years. “There’s music in the air. At night people hang out in the streets,” playing music, dominoes and baseball, Ms. Moffat said.
Ms. Moffat plans to do a public presentation about the trip, including photographs and stories of the trip in the coming weeks.
The other students were 10th grader Duke Krauspe of Cataumet, 11th grader Dan Sakakini of Pocasset, and 12th graders Thomas Arthur of Falmouth and Signe Baumhofer of Martha’s Vineyard. The chaperones were Ms. Moffat and parents Stephanie Mastroianni, John Krauspe and Mark Baumhofer.