“This trip was the best week of my life,” said Keene State College (KSC) senior Cameron Cummings.
I’m sure many people say this about spring break in Cancun or in Florida with friends, but from this trip, the Geography 371 course gained more than just fun times in the field with Dr. Jo Beth Mullens and Dr. Christopher Cusack.
From March 9 to March 17, a group of KSC geographers and honors students took to Cuba with a lot of excitement and a little Spanish vocabulary. After spending the first half of the semester learning about Cuban history, we took advantage of spring break and immersed ourselves in the culture that history created. We saw the sites we learned so much about, such as the Revolution Museum and the organic farms of Viñalles and Las Terrazas, to the beautiful Caribbean beaches featured in the pages of our textbook.
The most interesting part to many members in the group was the exposure to such a different political system. Cuba is one of the few remaining Socialist governments in the world. I believe that some students thought we would see how poor and desolate the lives of these “oppressed people” are, however the experience showed a very different reality. The people of Cuba love Cuba, and the people of GEOG-371 came to love Cuba as well. There were no people who suffer from homelessness, the healthcare is free, the education is subsidized and advanced degrees are encouraged. In fact, in a lecture we attended on economics, the teacher was a young woman with a PhD in Economics, pursuing a second PhD in Political Science.
The downfalls that we first learned about in the Science Center room 264 were also very real in our individual homestays in Havana. The people of Cuba live on fixed salaries and food rations. It was very clear that as tourists, we were living the good life, but it was also clear that the lack of people who suffer from homelessness was in equal proportion to the lack of wealth. In this socialist society, the vast majority of Cuban people are truly, for the most part, given equal opportunity in all aspects of life. They are also under the constraints of equal limitations in terms of mobility towards prosperity.
The trip as a whole was educational. You couldn’t do anything without learning or experiencing something new, but it wasn’t necessarily all planned out. A huge part of Cuban culture that is experienced by women is “Machismo.” This is the sort of “game” men play of cat-calling female tourists in the streets. We were warned about this behavior prior to leaving the classroom, but upon arrival in Cuba, the attitude was very different than expected. The catcalls were not aggressive and the females on the trip who spoke about it reported never feeling unsafe. When we were out dancing or at a bar, it was clear the men were interested in this foreign American breed of woman, but never in an entitled or disrespectful way.
One student was dancing with a boy and when she said she wanted to leave to dance with her friends on the trip, he smiled and said “Have a good night,” and didn’t pursue her any further. How many KSC ladies can say that is the typical reaction they get when they say “no” to a boy at a party? The educational take away from this night out dancing was the idea that equality and lack of entitlement within the Cuban political system of socialism is also deeply rooted into social and cultural behaviors.
We had the nights free, for the most part, to experience the local nightlife with our peers, but during the day we saw and did amazing things too. Walking around Old Havana was a highlight for many people. The colorful buildings and interactions with locals at street markets was always a source of bliss. So many Cuban people approached us just to say how happy they were that Americans and Cubans could be friends again. They spoke about December 17, 2014, the day Obama and Castro lessened the travel restrictions between the countries, as a day of new hope for mutual relationships. These conversations helped remind us that while our various governments represent both countries, the people represent so much more. The most important part of the Cuba-U.S. relationship going forward proved to be the person-person relationship. Politics played no role in the ability to learn and make connections cross-culturally.
Every spring break is a gift, whether it’s at Señor Frogs or your couch with a good book and homemade food. But, the spring break of GEOG-371 was easily the greatest gift many students involved have ever received, myself included.