Cuba – As a Volunteer for an Authentic Experience
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In mid-January, I flew from Tampa to Havana on a trip that would introduce me to a country that has been off limits for me (and most Americans) for most of my life. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit, NGO based in Minneapolis.
Along with 19 other volunteers ages 30-78, I spent a week on various work projects that included painting a fence at our base (The Cuban Council of Churches), spending time with seniors at a senior care center and working with students on English in an evening program. Another team did crocheting with a women’s group for part of the day.
Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours. Later we all met for dinner, with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom, had never been to Cuba.
Living the Locals
We stayed in Miramar, a nice residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All 20 volunteers stayed in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. We were two blocks from the water and near our base at the Council where we met each morning around 9:00.
The joy of staying in a suburb is that you have the opportunity to observe people going to work and school and regularly interact with the locals. Put simply, it is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. You feel like a part of the community, particularly since you are there to help in some small way.
We walked throughout the area every day and night. I never felt nervous nor did we see anything that looked questionable. The only danger I encountered was the uneven sidewalks which like many of the buildings are in disrepair. Also in the evenings many streets did not have lights so we walked with caution and used flashlights when necessary.
There is very little internet on the island. Missing connectivity, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an “Internet Park” about a twenty minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a mini mart or store, but we were told there are long lines and forms to fill out along with passport information. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentlemen and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 Kooks (approx $5.00 ) for one hour of internet. The card provides a password and username.
My three new Global Volunteer friends and I decided to visit the park. It was trashed with empty beer cans and bottles and many young people on their phones sitting on the ground. There was a group of men standing around that looked like possibly our connection.
We approached the young men, and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5. purchase complete we took a photo together with the “sellers” and then enjoyed the internet for about 30 minutes. (We kept the card for another day’s use.) Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site I wondered, would I even consider walking up to a stranger in, let’s say, Central Park or Chicago and purchasing an “off the grid” card with the hope it worked? And then take a photo with them? Probably not.
Music, Art and Entertainment
If you choose to stay the weekend, you have the option of adding on the weekend package of people-to-people activities. Or you can make your own plans for the weekend. The Global Volunteers program includes a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, art galleries, Old Havana and a morning lecture from two local
professionals who discuss history, education and some politics. All and all it’s a great value that includes meals and accommodations.
My favorite weekend activity was the excellent quality live music everywhere day or night. Street entertainers, restaurants and bars and coffee shops all have talented solo or group performers. Artwork is plentiful and there is a wide variety of architecture including colonial, Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.
My students on two evenings were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife Daniella takes care of the home. She knew some English and is eager to help him. We review his tour prices, look at what’s included and add some language to make the tours more appealing. We go over phrases such as, “Welcome to Havana, my name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?
After some competitive analysis, we determine that he is competing with the fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50 per hour. We work on an appropriate response. “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” Allen masters three or four sentences that we work on intensely for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.
It’s a pleasure to see a 23-year-old happily married, entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed. When we finished the second night, he looked at me and said “God Bless you and thank you.” I was beginning to see how individuals can make a small but significant impact in a short time and, more importantly, understand these very warm and welcoming people.
In addition there are people who are operating and creating small businesses out of their homes or garages that are serving meals, coffee/beer and other small businesses like repair shops and such. Homes are renting out rooms to visitors for additional income. This is all new and Cubans seem very happy with new opportunities.
Yes, the streets, sidewalks and many buildings are in disrepair, run down and there is much need for improved infrastructure, painting, plumbing, electrical etc. Litter is an issue in some neighborhoods. For many, work is hard to find and salaries are low. Supplies of every kind are limited. Many of the local grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked.
The refreshing thing is you sense the change that is coming. In a lively conversation with one of our casa owners, she described it like this. “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down and getting bigger and bigger and you cannot stop it.”
Tourists from all over world have been visiting Havana for years and now there are many American visitors. In Havana we saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere and a walk along the Malecon — a walkway along the sea wall — is the perfect place to people watch.
The city of three million is bursting with activity and a colorful history that people want to experience. It’s old, it’s new, it’s Spanish, European, modern, young and fun!
I only saw a small part of Cuba on this trip. But I’m sure I’ll return again to visit Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and other places on this fascinating island.