Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Rocky Mountain College Takes Adults


RMC course takes group on cultural trip to ‘high-energy’ island country

When Rocky Mountain College offered a course about Cuba this winter, no students signed up. But adults in the community jumped at the chance to learn about and visit the communist island nation 90 miles south of Florida.

The class wanted to get a sense of the politically isolated country while its aging dictator, Fidel Castro, and his younger brother, President Raul Castro, who took power in 2008, are still alive, said Jennifer Lyman, an environmental sciences professor who taught the course.

Twenty adults and Lyman toured Cuba for nine days in late February and early March in an “Introduction to Natural Cuba Tour” organized through Cuba Educational Tours.

Contrary to general belief, travel to Cuba is legal and safe, said Nancy Wiggins, a Billings resident who went on the trip.

“It was a high-energy place. You could just sense the energy. Here’s a population that’s ready to take off,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins’ interest in Cuba comes from a social and political perspective after having been a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru in the 1960s.

More than 50 years after the Bay of Pigs, the failed 1961 invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles attempting to overthrow Castro’s new communist government, the United States continues trade sanctions against Cuba even though the world has changed, Wiggins said.

“We trade with China, but for some reason we’re sanctioning Cuba. It made the trip very interesting,” she said.

“That embargo needs to go. There’s a hunger for Western things,” said Vicki Tapia, another Billings resident who went on the trip.

A need for ‘gifts’

Cubans don’t have easy access to products that Americans take for granted. While Wiggins was buying an item, the clerk commented on her lipstick and asked if she could buy it from her, she said. Wiggins gave the woman her lipstick. “Of course they love it,” she said.

Because the group traveled under a humanitarian license, it was told to bring useful items like soap, shampoo and batteries, Lyman said.

Tapia and her husband, Lionel,

stocked up on boxes of pencils and pens and Tylenol to give away, she said. They were told to call them gifts, not donations, she said.

While restrictions have eased somewhat under President Barack Obama’s administration, travel is limited to licensed visitors for specific activities — “a group with some sort of focus,” Lyman said.

Rocky’s trip had a “people to people” focus with the Americans meeting Cubans to learn about the country’s culture and environment.

“We went to botanical gardens and museums. It’s a real mix of things,” Lyman said.

The trip featured a walking tour of Old Havana to see its Spanish colonial-era architecture; a visit to the former home of American author Ernest Hemingway; and a day trip to the Vinales Valley, a tobacco-growing region with limestone formations and caves. The group also visited the cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad de Cuba.

Hemingway connection

To prepare the group, Lyman taught Monday night classes on Cuba’s history, culture and politics.

The class also learned about Hemingway’s time in Cuba from Valerie Hemingway, who was Hemingway’s daughter-in-law and is an author and Bozeman resident. Valerie Hemingway, who is teaching a course at Montana State University Billings, had been Hemingway’s secretary in Cuba and then married his son.

When the Rocky group visited Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm, which was Hemingway’s home near Havana for more than 20 years and now is a museum, the class met the museum’s director — a bonus that Lyman attributed to the connection with Valerie Hemingway.

The group flew into Havana from Cancun, Mexico, on a Russian-built airplane and traveled around Cuba in Chinese-made buses. American-made cars are mostly 1950s-era vehicles that serve as taxis.

One night, the Tapias and another Billings couple hired the driver of a 1956 Chevrolet taxi to take them to a park that had a sculpture of John Lennon sitting a bench. The car was in pristine condition, with fresh paint and a powerful engine. When they asked about the engine, the driver told them it was a Toyota, Tapia said.

On their first night in Havana, the group got tickets to see the Buena Vista Social Club, a Grammy-award winning group of musicians, some of whom are in their 90s, perform at their regular night club.

“That was so amazing. It was a highlight for everyone,” Tapia said. She even joined in a long conga line. Did she know how to conga? “Heck, no. I was just following the person in front of me,” she said.

Mojitos, Cuba’s signature rum-and-mint cocktail, awaited the Rocky visitors at almost every stop, Lyman said. At the tobacco farm, the group got to puff on some freshly hand-rolled Cuban cigars. By law, Cuban rum and cigars cannot be brought back into the United States.

Money shuffle

Cuba’s tourism is an important part of the economy and operates on a different monetary system.

Dollars are illegal in Cuba, so the Rocky travelers converted their money into either Canadian dollars or euros before leaving. At their hotel, they changed their money into Cuban convertible pesos that tourists use.

Cubans use the peso, which is valued differently from the convertible peso. The Cuban peso can be spent only at state-run stores where Cubans buy staples such as cooking oil and rice.

The average monthly salary for Cubans is $20, and prices at convertible peso stores are too expensive for most residents, according to the U.S. State Department.

Food is rationed, but “it’s not enough to really survive,” Tapia said. Cubans rely on tips or the black market or relatives sending money from the U.S. to live from month to month, she said.

“You tip for everything. We spent more money on tips than anything else,” Tapia said.

While at the John Lennon sculpture, a Cuban sitting on a nearby bench jumped up when he saw the Rocky foursome and put wire-rimmed glasses on Lennon’s face, Tapia said. “And he put out his hand,” she said. They tipped the man and took his photo by the famous Beatle.

Despite hardships, Cubans seemed happy, Tapia said. “They’re warm and generous and very open to America,” she said. The Cubans drew a distinction between Americans and government policies.

“They say, ‘We know it’s the government, not you,’ ” she said.

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