Thursday, August 27, 2015

Getaways: Visiting Cuba, again and again

Over 14 years, Mamaroneck author has visited Havana, Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, and all kinds of places along the way.

Who: Kate Moody is a longtime resident of Westchester who raised her family here and has been a teacher at every level from pre-K through graduate school. Moody did groundbreaking work at Nickelodeon in the early 1980s before becoming a doctoral candidate at Teachers College Columbia University. Her work on media literacy in the Mamaroneck Public Schools has been awarded by the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. Moody wrote "Growing Up on Television" (Times Books) and later "The Children of Telstar: Early Experiments in School Television Production" (Center for Understanding Media 2000) based on a 15-year history of projects in the Mamaroneck Public Schools. She now lives in Mamaroneck with her Golden Retriever Muffy.
Where: Cuba
Why I went: I began traveling to Cuba in 2002 when I went under the license of the University of Texas. I have been there 14 times to date. Across the years I have visited Havana, Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, Remedios, Cayo Santa Maria and all kinds of places along the way. My focus has been on education systems and have therefore visited schools from pre-school to university including the famous National Art Schools, special education residences, the University of Havana, dance schools, medical schools and hospitals.
The curiosity that led me to Cuba arose from the fact that Cubans outperform students in most other countries in academic subjects as well as all the arts. It seemed to me that there might be some things to learn from their long experience and unusual commitment to public education. I am currently writing a book about what I have learned about education in my travels.
Although I didn’t anticipate it, this has been a period of historic diplomatic and cultural change. By coincidence, I was in Havana last December 17 when President Obama announced declaration of the two countries to restore diplomatic relations. By mid-morning there was much flag-waving and happy celebration in the streets.
What to pack: I just returned on Aug. 1 from Cuba where there was a tropical heat wave. I was able to fly directly from JFK to Havana on JetBlue (two hours and 55 minutes), which made it a relatively easy trip. Would not recommend June-August for first time “norte-americano” travelers. Always think about taking summer clothes, plus good walking shoes, washable items and a HAT. I sometimes travel with a carry-on only.
Where to stay: I have stayed at 5-star hotels, casa particulars (rented rooms in homes), once I slept through a tropical rain storm in a thatched hut outside of Santa Clara, but my best times were staying with my Cuban friend, Dora, and her dog, Cachita, in their apartment in the Vedado section of Havana.
She helps me with translations and we stay up late talking about Cuban history and folklore. Of late, Airbnb is operating to book rooms in Cuba and is experiencing a swift business. As for hotels, The Nacional is steeped in history and overlooks the Malacon and the Straits of Florida; the Melia Cohiba is newer and has the best business center including good Internet, email and telephone connections; the Saratoga is elegant and smaller, with true elegance. (Beyonce preferred this). I have stayed at all of those. I recommend that first-time visitors join a group tour in order to include as many important sites as possible. Soon Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba and there will be no rooms at the hotels available in Havana during 23-25th of September.
Dining: The larger hotels have an abundant breakfast buffet with mango, papaya, about 15 varieties of eggs to choose from and a dangerous amount of homemade breads. Most tour groups have two meals per day included. Paladars are coop restaurants that are public-private enterprises. Some are very good. Paladar La Guarida in Havana is very popular. Along the way, you may want to sample the classic Mojitos, a rum drink with Yerba Buena (mint) or a classic Cuban pork sandwich. Maybe even a cigar. It is now legal to bring Cuban cigars home. Cubans note with pride that 85% of the food produced in their country is organic.
Good to know: Whenever you decide to travel to Cuba, you will find the people very welcoming and friendly. There are now American flags flying everywhere. But, as one travel writer cautioned, “Go now... before the Golden Arches appear!” Buen Viaje!
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If you'd like to contribute a story about your latest getaway, such as Kate Moody's trip to Cuba, please contact editor Karen Croke at or 914-826-1654.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Implications of Normalization

Why American academics are building ties with Cuba

University of Havana. Desmond Boylan/Reuters
The thawing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba will be good for people on the island and in America – and that includes students and academics.
American universities, such as Indiana University, where I serve as dean emeritus and professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the School of Education, are increasingly seeking linkages with Cubans and Cuban educational institutions. The Institute for International Education Open Doors Data show that in 2010-2011 there were 375 US students studying in Cuba. By 2012-2013, the most recent year reported, that number had grown more than fourfold to 1,633.

A history of success

Indiana University has a long history of engagement with developing nations including Vietnam, Macedonia, Angola, Kyrqyzstan, Indonesia, South Sudan and many others.
Before the opening of China, for example, Indiana University established a partnership with Zhejiang University . Today, Zhejiang is one of China’s top 10 universities and routinely sends undergraduate and graduate students to study on our Bloomington campus. Each summer we offer a select group of undergraduate students the opportunity to spend a month learning about American culture and heritage while considering their prospects for graduate study. This experience has taught us that such partnerships are an effective way to dispel misconceptions and establish longtime, mutually beneficial partnerships.
Indiana University is one of 12 American universities selected to participate in the Institute for International Education Cuba Higher Education Initiative to promote linkages with Cuba. Two other Big-Ten institutions selected are Rutgers University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The goal of the program is for each participating university to develop a strategic plan for engagement with Cuban colleges and universities. The target date for completing the plans is December 2015.
We will take a study tour to the island in early fall to learn about the system of higher education in Cuba, identify potential partners and begin to form relationships with Cuban counterparts. Then Indiana University hopes to start working together on research, study-abroad opportunities, student exchanges and other forms of collaboration.
The road won’t be easy.
Cuba’s centralized system of governance presents considerable bureaucratic hurdles. Ideological differences between the two systems will require respect for differences and high levels of cultural sensitivity. American universities have had a long tradition of academic freedom and self-governance. In Cuba, academic partnerships and research must be centrally approved.
The obstacles are not insurmountable, however. Already there are signs that improved relations between the US and Cuba are accelerating social and economic reforms that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

A homecoming

In May 2012 I was invited to lead a group of Indiana University alumni to Cuba as part of a people-to-people cultural exchange tour of the island.
It was my first trip to Cuba since 50 years earlier, when my parents made the decision to leave everything behind to give my younger sister and me a chance for a better life than the Castro revolution promised. I was 11 years old.
We arrived in the United States with the clothes we wore, US$5, and two bottles of Cuban rum. My father promptly sold the rum to get a little extra cash.
America embraced us. We were given asylum, government assistance to get on our feet and the opportunity to pursue our dreams in freedom.
I was apprehensive about going back to my birthplace for the first time. I still vividly recalled how, 50 years earlier, the Communist government had called us and others leaving Cuba gusanos, or worms.

A surprising openness

But the Cuban people I met were warm and welcoming. One of the first things I noticed was that everyone with whom I spoke either wanted to leave or wanted change. Many common people also were willing to speak out on the system’s flaws and call for a better way of doing things. Such openness was not what I expected to find in Cuba.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in 1961. Alberto Korda/Museo Che Guevara

In a 1961 speech to intellectuals, Fidel Castro famously said “Within the revolution, everything goes; against the revolution, nothing.”
During a second visit, in 2013, I attended a lecture from an economics professor from the University of Havana who spoke about the new liberalization of economic and social policies. When I asked the speaker whether he saw any contradiction between Fidel’s dictum and the current privatization policies, he didn’t have a good answer.
He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ya veremos – we’ll see.”
What we are seeing is that privatization is gaining ground.

One small businessman

During my first trip, in 2012, I met a cuentapropista. This entrepreneur had started a business selling rum mixed with guarapo, the sweet juice produced when sugarcane is squeezed through a grinder, to tourists outside the Ernest Hemingway House Museum in the outskirts of Havana. Although we did not talk politics, it was obvious that he enjoyed talking with a fellow Cuban from America. He offered me a free drink.
I went to see him again in 2013 and he excitedly told me about his plans to expand his spiked guarapo business to a location outside El Morro, the iconic Spanish fort that dots the entrance to the port of Havana.
At Indiana University, among other things, we’d like to explore having students in our entrepreneurship program work with Cuban cuentapropistas to develop business plans. If that happens, Cuban entrepreneurs like my guarapo-selling friend would benefit, our students would gain real-world experience, and together we would be helping to pave the way for economic and social changes needed in Cuba.
That’s why the raising of the Stars and Stripes at the American Embassy in Havana will be good for the people of Cuba and for Americans.
P2P Cuba Cruise
Montego Bay – Santiago de Cuba - Havana – Maria la Gorda - Cienfuegos 

Join the Cuba/US People to People Partnership for a group program
departing Havana or Montego Bay between December 18 and April 11.

Book directly your program and cabin here 
P2P information
P2P registration

Cuba Cruise is the most convenient (and least expensive) way to get an introduction to the people and ambiance of four distinctive regions of the large and complex island of Cuba.   Enjoy guaranteed quality transportation, meals and accommodations.  Unpack and pack only once!  

Participants in Cuba Cruise just like travelers on more conventional ground tours are purchasing a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities". 

With at least a month notice, encounters with counterparts can be arranged for special interests groups of at least 40 persons, e.g. teachers, medical practitioners, lawyers, students, artists, social workers, dancers, musicians; African Americans, Irish Americans, Chinese Americans, Hispanic Americans; Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faith communities, etc.  Supplemental charges will apply.

If originating in Havana, you can allow one day before embarkation and one day after disembarkation for transit without stress due to flight connections. Information is available about places to stay, both private bed and breakfasts and hotels.

On board, please introduce yourself to some of the120 Cuban staff members.  Most speak English and welcome a chance to exchange experiences and personal stories.  We will create two structured interactions for our travelers with some of the Cubans but that is not the only chance to get to know the folks who will be part of your life for a very pleasant
and meaningful week. Also plan on attending daily on board talks about Cuban history and culture.

Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Riverhead, NY


Monday, August 17, 2015

Commercial Flights by End of Year?

Obama Administration Pushes for Deal to Start Flights to Cuba by Year’s End

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Carnival/Fathom Plans Cruise to Cuba

 Business Monday

August 9, 2015

Tara Russell of Carnival Corp.’s Fathom weighs in on the brand’s plans in Cuba

Thursday, August 6, 2015

MSC Cruises Homeporting in Havana

MSC Cruises to inaugurate Cuba as a destination in December 2015


MSC Cruises, the world’s largest privately-owned global cruise line and the market leader in the Mediterranean and South America, announced today that, starting in December 2015, its 2,120-guest MSC Opera will homeport in Havana for the winter 2015-16 season to offer guests 16 Caribbean cruises of relaxation and discovery.

MSC Cruises will give cruise travellers from around the world a unique chance to get aboard the completely renovated 65,542 GRT MSC Opera, part of the Company’s €200 million Renaissance programme, and cruise to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico with two nights and two and a half days in the Cuban capital.

Gianni Onorato, Chief Executive Officer of MSC Cruises, commented: “We are particularly proud to make this exciting new destination available to our guests. For this, I wish to personally thank all those who worked with us over these past several months to make it possible for MSC Cruises to launch Cuba as a destination to its guests. In particular, I wish to thank the Ministers of Transportation and Tourism of the Cuban Government and their representatives for their continued highly professional contribution.” 
Mr. Onorato added: “The move to Cuba attests to our steadfast commitment to offer our experienced guests and holiday-makers the best and most sought-after destinations as they become accessible – thus further enhancing our global offering while providing travellers best-in-class experiences and service.” 
“The inaugural cruise will take place in less than six months from now,” concluded Mr. Onorato,“but we can definitely attest of the strong demand for the product, due to the combination of the attractiveness of Cuba as a culture-rich destination, coupled with the fact that it is offered through our distinctive MSC Cruises experience.”

The seven-night cruises will be available to MSC Cruises travellers with a combination of packages. In particular, from Spain, Italy, France and Germany, as well as Canada, Brazil and Argentina these will include of fly and cruise combinations. The Company is also pleased to announce that the opening of the sales across all channels for cruises on MSC Opera will be on Thursday 9 July. 
To offer local ground services and shore excursions MSC Cruises will partner with Cubanacan, the Cuba-based group created more than 20 years ago known for its experienced professionals and high quality of service.

The first cruise will start from Havana on 22 December 2015, following MSC Opera’s Grand Voyage to Cuba from Genoa, departing on 2 December 2015. To ensure that guests can enjoy and discover the capital city, the Grand Voyage will include a call in Havana on 18 December, and resume its itinerary in the region before heading back to Cuba for its final call of the journey on 22 December. On 12 April 2016, the ship will leave Havana for a Grand Voyage back to Europe, with Warnemünde (Germany) as its final destination, arriving on 7 May 2016. 
Explore and unwind 
During their two-and-a-half-day stay in Havana, MSC Opera’s guests can explore the city’s stunning old centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and discover its history, culture and architecture. No visit to Havana is complete without a stroll along the famous Malecónseafront promenade, where the island’s renowned laid-back lifestyle is in full effect. 
The island of Cozumel, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, offers some truly spectacular Mayan ruins, at Tulum. Travellers can snorkel with sea turtles and bathe in refreshing cavern waters, explore ancient Mayan caves or bask in the natural beauty of this island, which lies just off the coast of Quintana Roo
In Montego Bay, on the north-western coast of Jamaica, guests can go white-water rafting in the Martha Brae Rivertour an old plantation at the Good Hope Estate or learn about the mysteries of Rose Hall Great House – a fascinating colonial relic imbued with rumour and intrigue. 
In Georgetown, the Cayman Islands, guests can snorkel in Stingray City, take a catamaran cruise to the coral reefs or just unwind on the pristine white Seven Mile Beach, on Grand Cayman’s western shore, famed for its gorgeous cobalt waters and coral sands. 
MSC Opera’s Renaissance Programme 
As part of the €5.1 billion investment plan announced in 2014, MSC Cruises had earmarked €200 million to fully renovate and modernize - through a cutting-edge full renovation project named “Renaissance programme” - four of its existing ships: MSC Armonia, MSC Sinfonia, MSC Lirica and now Havana-bound MSC Opera which is currently in dry-dock and expected to return to service early July 2015. 

Other itinerary changes 
In connection with the deployment to Cuba, MSC Opera’s original winter 2015-16 schedule in the Canary Islands, Madeira and Morocco has been cancelled.