We at Reality Tours love sending high school aged groups to countries all over the world- it’s an incredible opportunity for young people to learn more about our global neighbors, themselves, and the issues shaping global society today. Recently, a high school group from Missoula, MT traveled to Cuba under a People-to-People license with Global Exchange as a Travel Service Provider. Below, a student and chaperone share their insights as they challenged their perceptions about the island nation and gained new ones.

Sierra Lenox, a recently graduated high school senior, reflects upon culture shock, history, education, health, and community in Cuba:

Photo by Windsor Green

Photo by Windsor Green

The first day I arrived in Havana was a complete culture shock. The weather, culture, food, and language were all unfamiliar. Havana was only an hour from Miami but to me it was a different world. My personal perception of Cuba was completely contrary to reality. Due to the relationship between the Cuban and U.S government, I was surprised at how friendly and welcoming the Cuban people were. Although I was out of my comfort zone I never felt unsafe. Cal, our guide did a great job of making sure our needs were met. He was intelligent, honest, and personable. I appreciated how he gave us a real tour of Havana versus only seeing the tourist sites.

Photo by Windsor Green

Photo by Windsor Green

Later in the trip we had the opportunity to visit the Che Guevara Mausoleum. Che’s face was everywhere we went, plastered on buildings, clothing, books, and other souvenirs. Che valued education and his ideas were reflected by the Cuban people. All of the young people in Cuba were very aware of their history and had pride in their roots. I think that’s something that’s lacking in the United States. History, government, and current issues are not a priority in education.

We visited a cultural center, whose purpose was to unite young people with older generations. We watched the separate age brackets interact. The older community members are mentors to the young adults. They work together to create a stronger community. As a young person in the United States I learned a lot about changes I can make in my own life. My experience in Cuba exceeded all expectations. I hope someday other Americans will have the opportunity to travel to Cuba without restriction.

Kim Bostrom acted as a chaperone with the group and shares her thoughts on keeping an open mind, the health system, and living up to our ideals:

Visiting Cuba was one inspiring, confusing, and educational experience after another. This started during a layover en route, before we even got to Havana, when a Mexican-American from Colorado on a business trip to Mexico told me he would love to visit Cuba but he does not intend to go because he hates communism. Rather than challenging his comment, I set the tone for my trip by replying, ‘I’m curious to see how it is and is not working, and compare it to our system here which certainly does not work for everyone either.’ We parted ways after a bit more chit-chat, but his comment stayed with me throughout the trip. What does this other social system look like, and why is it so feared and hated in our country?

CubaStreetView copyMy first impression of Havana was that the city seemed incredibly clean. An early rain signifying the transition from dry to rainy season had settled any dust, leaving the spotless streets looking freshly swept just for us. There was no sign of the city grime or the desperate poverty I had seen traveling in other cities around the world. The majestic buildings of the elite had been converted to everyday apartments. Their tired exteriors show the neglect of limited resources imposed on the country by a brutal blockade, but no homeless crouched on corners as I have seen in Managua, Nicaragua; San Jose, Costa Rica; Phoenix, AZ; or my own little hometown in western Montana.

During our trip we visited many organizations working to develop strong communities. We visited two clinics and learned that healthcare is a human right in Cuba. Clinics and hospitals treat people because they are injured or sick, not because they have insurance or a Mastercard. Billboards that would advertise car dealerships and shopping in the US carried inspiring quotes or promoted pride in the revolution. One simply read ‘Educate your kids!’

BloqueoI came away from this trip with a very deep respect and admiration for this social project created through revolution that seems to have been unintentionally enforced through the US blockade. What if billboards in the US advertised ideals rather than products? What if our ‘grocery stores’ were cooperative endeavors to grow healthy produce, and healthcare was a moral obligation of our society, provided at no cost with a focus on preventing illness and disease? Is this what we fear and despise? Our guide advised us not try to understand Cuba so much as enjoy the experience. He was right: after an amazing, educational trip, I not only am far from understanding what is happening in Cuba but also question how much I understand my own culture as well!

Thanks to Sierra and Kim for sharing your thoughts with us! Global Exchange is a Licensed Travel Service Provider to Cuba. For more information, contact cuba@realitytours.org.