A Week in Cuba

March 25, 2013 at 3:18 pm 12 comments

Souvenirs that Americans can't buy.

Souvenirs that Americans can’t buy.

If I heard the question once, I heard it a zillion times. You’re going where?

It was as if everyone I talked to had gone deaf as I explained that I was headed out of the country for spring break on assignment for the magazine. I was tagging along on a trip that’s unique in the Alumni Association’s extensive offerings of travel opportunities: Cuba.

No one could quite believe it. I understood why. I’ve set a goal of traveling to all 50 states and seven continents (11 states, two continents to go), and I’ve got an extensive list of countries I want to visit. But it had never occurred to me to add Cuba to the list. It didn’t seem possible.

It’s really hard for an American to go to Cuba. The United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power, and it imposed an economic embargo on the country in 1962—more than 50 years ago.  Plus, the U.S. government restricts travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and the country is on the state sponsors of terrorism list. (Click here for a good primer on U.S.-Cuba relations from the Council on Foreign Relations.) If you go, you’re not a tourist on vacation—you are officially, by the terms of a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a traveler participating in a people-to-people educational exchange. Those licenses aren’t easy to get, but the Alumni Association did it.

And believe me, the terms of the license matter. Our week in Cuba was wonderful—a life-changing experience, in some ways—but it certainly wasn’t a traditional vacation.

The 28 of us on the tour, including faculty host John Nichols, professor emeritus of communications, were on the move at 8 a.m. every day. We visited a senior home,  a maternity home, an elementary school, a dance school, a synagogue. We listened to lectures. (And, in John’s case, gave them.) We didn’t see any beaches (although we did pose for a group picture at the Bay of Pigs after exploring the nearby museum about the failed CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles). And we couldn’t shop for souvenirs: The U.S. government restricts how citizens can spend their money, so we could bring home only items classified as educational materials: newspapers and books, music, and art. (Not, as I explained to everyone from my brother to the pastor of my church, cigars. My pastor was joking. I think.)

Now that I’m back, I repeatedly hear another question: What was it like?

It’s a simple question, but even after two weeks of reflection, I don’t have a ready answer.

It's amazing that some of these cars still run.

It’s amazing that some of these cars still run.

Cuba was beautiful—blue skies, brightly colored buildings, fantastic old cars, music I’m still hearing in my head. (And in my office. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to an album that was one of my favorites even before the trip, Ibrahim Ferrar’s Buenos Hermanos, and a new favorite I brought home, Guajiro Natural by the late Polo Montañez.) It was photogenic, as you can see from the slide show at the end of this post.

Cuba was sad—people living in houses that were literally crumbling, and doctors and university professors working in the tourist business because they couldn’t make enough money in their original professions.

Cuba was friendly—full of passers-by wanting to try out their English (often, incredibly good; always, far better than my meager Spanish). I’ve never felt safer in a big city than I did in Havana.

Cuba was confusing—a system of two currencies, one (practically worthless) for Cubans, the other for foreigners. And it’s just hard to grasp that except for a handful of private restaurants, everything is owned by the government. We kept asking, “Who owns this restaurant?” or “Who pays for your college education?” and the Cubans kept looking at us as if we were crazy and saying, “The state.”

Most surprising of all, Cuba was familiar. I lived in Miami for about a year, and parts of the country, particularly sections of Havana, looked like my old neighborhood. Havana Vieja, the old city, which has been revitalized, had packs of tourists (from other countries, of course), and streets lined with buses—just as in any other major city. Who knew?

And Cuba was invigorating—already, I want to go back. I just need to learn some more Spanish.

As I’m sure you can tell, I’m still processing my notes and my thoughts. (Also: nearly 3,000 photos.) I’m writing a story for our July/August issue, and I’ve got a few more interviews to do. Our local guide told us on Day One that we were coming to Cuba to get answers, but that we would leave with more questions. Wow, was he right about that.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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Entry filed under: Alumni Association, The Penn Stater Magazine. Tags: , , .

An Emotional Meeting of the Board of Trustees Preparing for Our Board of Trustees Project

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Thomas Berner  |  March 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Nice essay and photos.

  • 2. M Kauffman  |  March 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Great photography Lori! Look forward to seeing all 3,000

  • 3. Ken Partymiller, PhD '77  |  April 3, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I happened to be in Cuba the same week and ran in to a number of you at the Melia Cohiba. I had an excellent time, also, with a group from my undergrad college, and would both love to go back AND highly recommend Cuba.

  • 4. John and Eleanor Kelley  |  April 3, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Excellent photographs, Lori, and hope to see more as well as your article this summer.

  • 5. Mary  |  April 4, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Nice article! One of your slides shows “souvenirs that American’s can’t buy.” You are wrong. These items are definitely works of art and are allowed for entry into the USA. Even a license plate can be hung on a wall as a work of art. Just a tip! If interested, go to
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLeaBvsVl-o&feature=youtu.be and view my video after a recent 2-week trip to Cuba. Prior to going to this fascinating country, I recommend renting DVDs on Fidel Castro or reading “The History of Cuba” by Clifford Staten. I’ve traveled around the world and Cuba, by far, was the most amazing. Go for it!

  • 6. Betty Frandsen  |  April 5, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Where did you get the idea you couldn’t purchase souvenirs in Cuba? Both times when we were there no one cared what we bought. And what souvenir is not educational or cultural? (We were there in 2003 and 2012) Otherwise agreed with most of what you said, some things depend on just where you are and who you meet at a given time.

  • 7. Tina Hay  |  April 5, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    I went to Cuba a year ago with another tour group and we were told something similar to what Lori was told: You cannot buy anything in Cuba and take it back to the U.S., except for “informational materials” (books, tapes, photographs, and CDs) and I think artwork. But I’m sure that it depends a lot on whether your bag gets inspected at Customs when you arrive back in the U.S.

  • 8. Richard  |  April 12, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    great photos, interesting piece; don’t mean to a wise guy but did you see any commemmoration of any Cuban citizen killed in the “revolution” or kiled by Castro?

  • 9. Anonymous  |  June 28, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Lori , you know, it would be very very dificult for me to download 3000 pic with my dial up connection or a very slow and expensive WIFI ..I still have more answer . Your guide in Cuba

  • 10. Worth Reading — 12/4/13 | A Touch of Cass  |  December 4, 2013 at 1:02 am

    […] The Penn Stater: A Week in Cuba […]

  • 11. Cuba! | The Penn Stater Magazine  |  December 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    […] For decades, the U.S. prohibited its citizens from traveling to Cuba except under certain circumstances, such as academic research. (Penn State Hemingway scholar Sandy Spanier ’76g, ’81g and telecommunications expert John Spicer Nichols have who’ve been to Cuba many times, for example.) More recently, the U.S. government began allowing citizens to visit under specially licensed “people to people cultural exchanges.” I went on one such exchange in 2012 via the Santa Fe Photo Workshops, and the Alumni Association has offered several trips under a similar umbrella. Our former senior editor Lori Shontz ’01, ’13g went on one such Penn State trip and wrote about it here. […]

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