Cuban Women Dancing

Since 1988, Global Exchange has been offering meaningful, socially responsible travel through our Reality Tours. For eight of those years, Drea Hightower has been the backbone of our tours to Cuba. As a tribute to her leadership, and appreciated presence at Global Exchange, we would like to share with you a deeper look at our Reality Tours through the eyes of one of our most passionate team members.

We present to you, a Q&A with Drea.


Question: What separates Global Exchange Reality Tours from other modalities of travel?

Answer: Reality Tours provides participants the opportunity to have unique visits with groups and individuals that you wouldn’t have access to if you were traveling on your own. Our trips are always led by local guides and experts that are educated in a number of areas; they can speak with expertise on a variety of issues, as well as to the realities of the people in-country. Global Exchange and our partners are committed to exposing you as best as possible to the realities on the ground in each country; both the challenges and the achievements.

Question: Do you believe that people to people tourism helps alleviate cultural and political tension?

Answer: Absolutely. Simply giving yourself the space and opportunity to see and feel and experience another country, it’s people, and culture is a first step in suspending the tension that comes from simply not knowing. The same can be said on the other end when folks see you are taking the time to learn about them via travel. In my opinion it speaks volumes.

Question: What does an average day look like when on a Reality Tour?

Answer: When trip leading, I’m always busy. I’m up early, making sure everyone is feeling good and ready to start the day! I work as a team with local guides and drivers to ensure we’re supportive of each other during this experience. I’m always available to our participants to answer questions and facilitate dialogue if necessary. Of course I also take time to connect with our long-time friends and partners on the ground. Trips are a learning opportunity so you’ll also find me taking notes about new developments in-country, or just ideas on how to make our trips better!

For a participant, the day starts with breakfast with their fellow travelers. The morning comprises of meetings with community project leaders, and visits with ICAP hosts to hear about their perspective on Cuba and U.S. relations. After a relaxing, leisurely lunch and cafecito, (oh! and cuban ice cream or flan of course), participants will meet with local artists, visit polyclinics to learn about the healthcare system, and engage with educators through school visits. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the trip is meeting with CDR committees for the defense of the revolution. During this meeting you exchange with community members, which includes: one on one interactions with all age groups, lots of music and dancing, performances from kids while sharing fruits and beverages. This is an incredible opportunity for community building, by breaking down barriers through personal exchange. Also, because the trips are always led by a local guide, it really sets the tone for the tour. Participants are able to travel through a cuban prospective. Such a rich alternative experience would not be possible without our long time relationships with our partners on the ground.

Question: What have the participants expressed of their time in Cuba; regarding their mental state going in, and coming out of such a dynamic experience?

Answer: I talked to a woman today on the phone who is a part of a group of Black educators here in the states. She has been eagerly waiting to return to Cuba with Reality Tours. She told me, “The trip changed my life. It opened my eyes to other possibilities that work in the world.” She was speaking to the fact that a nation is able to survive in a different way than our own, concerning anything from education to healthcare.

Another participant from the New Years Eve trip to Cuba expressed to me that she felt like she came away from the trip as a daughter of the revolution. She truly understood how people were on board with the revolution, and how humbling Cuba has been to recognize that their economic model needs to evolve with the global economy. They are moving forward to be able to successfully progress with the world for their people. She was inspired by the pillars of the revolution, and by the governments ability to take accountability for a system that has not been as successful as they hoped, and then make steps to improve.

You learn in Cuba that the revolution prioritizes things that not even the US has.  Like education, health care, the arts, culture, and community. They removed access of private funding/business for programs like healthcare and education. Its not about who’s making money, its about their people and what they need.

Question: How has the reality tour impacted you, and your view on Cuba and the world?

Answer: Well it certainly impacted me in many ways. I’ve sort of become jaded. Not that Cuba has the best systems, but that they do have great systems in place that provides their community with the right to social programs such as health care and education. It has shown me what is possible in a society where you don’t have privatization. It gives me hope that we can strive for better in this country. But it has also opened my eyes to just how much emphasis we put on corporate interests here in the U.S. It just becomes that much more in your face. You start to see how corporations have taken control over aspects of our life. It is as though our government does not prioritize making its people healthy and educated, its about how can they make a dollar.

There is no denying that, politically speaking Cubans are divided. Just as anywhere else in the world. However, I doubt you would ever find a Cuban saying,  “Yes, I think privatization is a good idea.” Whether or not you believe in the revolution, the point of the trip is to see what we can learn from Cuba. Why it is a right to exchange with Cubans, to have people to people dialogues, to see what we can learn from Cuba, and how we can apply those things to enrich our lives.

Questions: Are there any last words that you would like readers to take away from this inside scoop on a Global Exchange Reality Tour?

Answer: I would like to share one of my favorite sayings that I believe embodies our Reality Tours, “Suspend disbelief.” If you can just pause and give yourself the opportunity to see something for what it is, knowing it’s not perfect, how we can learn from it, and apply the lessons learned to our own lives. This is the biggest gift of all, and I thank Cuba for giving me the opportunity to do so.

End Q&A 


Global Exchange is first and foremost a human rights organization, dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Reality Tours is just one of the many ways we aim to make change. By offering experiential educational tours, and connecting people to people, issues with movements, we know that our participants will leave feeling empowered to take action. Traveling is great, traveling with a purpose is even greater. Join us, or learn more about our Reality Tours here!


Special thanks to Drea Hightower,


Traveling through our Reality Tours  is not simply a trip, but rather a journey. We encourage you to immerse yourself into the ways of life of those surrounding you. We invite you to give way to all your senses and truly understand what it is to be a person living in the country you are visiting. We strive to make connections with others as a way to share stories, and grow our understanding of the world. Our trips challenge you to “Meet the People, Learn the Facts, Make a Difference” and move beyond stereotypes. The following is a story of how one of our participants found not only a new appreciation for a culture outside of their own, but understood the interdependence between herself and the people she met. Here is how she is making a difference. 

(Search for your next adventure through Reality Tours here!)

Afghanistan was a faraway land that I had never imagined traveling to until the summer of 2002. Of course, after 9/11/2001 it had become a location mentioned frequently in the media and I had become consciously and painfully aware of it’s importance in the unfolding history of our time. I was visiting a friend in San Francisco in July 2002. He knew that I had been to the Middle East several times during the past one and a half years, and thought that I would be interested in a talk sponsored by Global Exchange. There was to be a discussion about the situation in the Occupied Territories. I was very much interested, so we went and six months later I was on my way to Gaza. (Another story!) Now, I had an inkling that I knew nothing about what was happening in the world. In the spring of 2003 I managed to travel to Iraq. (Another story!)

Several months later I contacted Global Exchange again. This time I asked if there was a country in the region that I could travel to where I could work with an individual instead of a group. After several discussions my request was accepted by Najibullah Sedeqe in Afghanistan, and so this story began.

It was a short visit, three days in October of 2003.  I stayed in a small guesthouse and in a nearby park Najib and I would take a daily walk.  At that time there were still more donkey carts and pedestrians than cars on the streets. For a moment I felt like I had traveled back in time. There was little evidence of western influence.  Oh, how I long for those days!  It was a fast and furious tour.  We mad many visits including several schools that were recently opened for girls; something that had not happened during the previous decade because of the Taliban rule.

 It is difficult to remember a time before I knew Afghanistan and Najibullah Sediqi, the in-Country coordinator for Global Exchange Afghanistan delegations​.  After approximately fifteen to twenty journeys to that mysterious and beautiful land, Afghanistan, has proven to be a perfect teacher.  Each adventure “was the best of times and was the worst of times.” Each providing me with new insights and giving me great gifts for the soul. Photography, my work, especially in Afghanistan and the Middle East, has taught me many life lessons in the process of making great images.  The sheer cultural shock that often brought excitement of something new also brought struggle, and often I was faced with discomfort, anger and selfishness. With much patience and kindness Najib and others guided me to be a more humble human being. The humility and a heartfelt wanting to return something to Afghanistan has now brought me to a place of action. Over the course of the next year, and with the assistance of Najib and Global Exchange,​ I will develop four to five Indie go-go campaign projects, each to raise funds for one Kabul ​family to purchase a tool or product that would enable them to begin to be self-sustaining.  Each campaign will be in the amount of 300 to 800 US dollars.

Our first project is now live! 

This project will be for the family of Zalikha  for the purchase of an air  compressor to re-inflate flat tires. There are many  on the streets of Kabul.  Please check out the project page to read Zalikha’s  story and please continue  to revisit for updates and new projects.

– Gloriann Liu
To donate and take action now, visit Gloriann Liu’s project page here!

In celebrating our 25 year commitment of solidarity with the Cuban people and our Reality Tours to Cuba, we recognize and appreciate the hundreds of letters and report backs we’ve received from our participants!  Today we hi-light a story from Bob Hoffert of Fort Collins, Colorado.  Bob gives us a glimpse into what many Cubans call “the island of contradictions.”

From Saturday, March 14, 2015 until Sunday, March 22, 2015 I was in Cuba. It was an experience that encourages intense reactions in me more than measured assessments.

My preference would be to offer an organic, integrated account of Cuba because that probably would be a more appropriate representation of Cuba itself.   However, what I can share are glimpses, perspectives, components – not something holistic.

Yes, Cuba was like entering a time capsule, but what you can express in words doesn’t always coincide with the vitality of your senses. The preponderance of 1950s era American cars, the inaccessibility of the web or ATMs, the largely invisible status of cell phones, the uselessness of credit/debit cards, the miniscule presence of anything that resembles a conventional “store”, the cluelessness of where you’d get a hammer or underwear or matches, the absence of fast food or fast anything coalesce into a world more disorienting than merely different. If you’re looking for what’s familiar, stay home.

I also had no sense of the precariousness of Havana’s treasures. There is significant evidence of restoration work throughout the city, but deterioration appears to be outpacing restoration. According to one knowledgeable source, an average of three buildings a day collapse throughout the city. And please do not simplistically displace this condition on Cuban socialism. A poor country, blessed with such a rich structural heritage, but saddled with a brutally punishing blockade can only respond within the possibilities of its capacity.

photo by Drea Hightower

I expected art, music, and dance in Cuba to be vibrant. It was! But there was no way I could have anticipated the excitement of walking down a dark narrow street late at night as the passion of a Cuban band possesses your ears and defines your world. In Pinar del Rio we were escorted down an unlit street guided only by pounding music, we were entertained by neighborhood children singing and dancing, and we ended the evening dancing in the street with 40 to 50 people from the local CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). A reclaimed dump in eastern Havana was the site of a community arts project – painting, sculpture, dance, and music. On the western side of the city we visited another community arts project built around the spirit and practice of Santeria. In all these cases, the reality far exceeded my expectations.

I expected a significant amount of political propaganda and clear evidence of a regimented society. At least relative to my expectations, this is not what I found. What was most notable was not how much public propaganda there was, but how little. What I can say is that I saw a joyful people, an expressive people, a proud and loyal people, and a people who appreciate their government and leaders more than many Americans do theirs. I also found a remarkable measure of pragmatism rather than ideological rigidity. For example, we heard numerous times, “we learned to use elements from capitalism to save socialism.” Think about it, can you imagine an American saying; “we learned to use elements of socialism to save capitalism”?!

I expected the U.S. embargo to have a damaging impact on life in Cuba. It does. But somehow that is an insufficient observation. Its consequences most severely punish the exact same group of people who were used and exploited prior to 1959 – the poorest and the most vulnerable.  Has the embargo worked? Yes and No. Yes, it has created great personal and societal pain. Its consequences are powerful and not unrelated to the deterioration of Cuba’s architectural heritage. If these are the purposes of the embargo, it is a great success and has done its job with damaging magnificence. If the embargo’s purpose is to topple Cuban Communism, it is an utter failure. It has deepened solidarity and legitimated the Revolution in the eyes of the people beyond anything the regime could have accomplished on its own.

I too often heard “we are not perfect” from the Cubans we met. Surely they are not and perhaps that statement is too often used as an excuse for doing little or for not doing better. That is their burden and challenge. It is our burden and challenge to not allow our dominating power to blind us from respecting an exquisitely unique place with a vision of a different way to build their society and serve their people. It does not require our agreement or approval. It does require our honoring the self-determination principles for others we so insistently cherish for ourselves.

Cuba was, for me, a revelation and a joy.

Bob Hoffert

Please visit our website for more information on opportunities to travel with us to Cuba!

Middle East Reality Tours Director Drea Hightower ponders her upcoming Reality Tour to Iran. Learn more about Reality Tours to Iran.

As the July 20th deadline to reach a broad nuclear deal with Iran approaches, eyes are focused on Tehran and the six major powers working toward a deal. But beyond news reports of diplomatic meetings, discussions about the future of Iran are happening on the streets.

Like so many others, I have this driving curiosity to visit and learn firsthand about the countries in which the U.S. has little to no diplomatic relations or strained relations with. Whether Cuba or Palestine, many people I’ve talked to on my travels have been able to make the distinction between the relationships of governments and that of the people of each nation. When given the chance to interact and have dialogue, the thing that shines through every time is that which we have in common: family, friends, laughter, love, and more.

School girl in Iran waves peace sign.

School girl in Iran waves peace sign.

As I begin this journey with a group of mostly strangers, I wonder what we will all find in common with those that our government has demonized for so long. And with the next round of Nuclear Talks scheduled for June 16-20 in Vienna, the conversations we’ll all be having with the people of Iran will certainly give us better insight and a different perspective than what the media will report.

I also begin to ask myself those exact questions I have encouraged so many of our travelers to ask themselves before they leave; why is this important? What are my preconceived ideas about Iranians and their culture? Will I be witness to any of the changes implemented by President Rouhani? And most importantly, what will I learn? What would the Iranian people ask of me, of us, as North Americans?

So while there is still so much work to be done before I leave, I smile at the thought of seeing the beautiful minarets at dusk, hearing the melodic call to prayer and watching myself and 11 other participants be transformed by the experience of Citizen Diplomacy; a unique opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue in a way that even our governments haven’t been able to.


We look forward to hearing from Drea when she lands back in San Francisco, hopefully with many stories and Persian sweets to share!

A House Appropriations subcommittee recently approved a spending bill which contains provisions that would impact people-to-people travel to Cuba. The bill has been dubbed the “Jay-Z, Beyoncé Bill” by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who opposes the provision, as it’s timing appears in response to the kerfuffle caused by the celebrity couple’s travel to Cuba in April.

BloqueoIt’s time to end the unfair and unjust travel ban to Cuba!

Eligibility for travel to Cuba has fluctuated during the Obama Administration, with dozens of people-to-people licenses granted in the last two and a half years, allowing U.S. citizens greater ability to learn more about the island. But this bill would threaten to eliminate people-to-people travel and once again restrict travel to Cuba to educational exchanges involving academic study related to a degree program.

Take action to let President Obama know that he took a positive step in liberalizing travel regulations and he needs not only DEFEND these measures but also EXPAND them and grant general licenses for all categories of travel. Your voice will ensure that the White House stays squarely focused on moving U.S. policy towards Cuba out of the Cold War and towards a brighter future that, at the very least, fosters people-to-people ties.

Take ActionTake Action!

Help us urge President Obama to