Melrose groups explore country, learn about our neighbors

A group photo of one of the two Melrose groups to visit Cuba in June. The group visited landmarks and learned about the food, culture and history of the country. Contributed photo

For many years, Cuba was a mystery to Americans—a country we can see from our coastline, a source of bootleg cigars, its streets full of ancient, much-repaired American cars. Its people sometimes fled to the U.S. in small boats to escape its poverty and harsh regime. It was freed from Spanish rule in the Spanish-American War of 1899 only to be taken over by a Communist government, which has remained in place while other countries around the world have changed course. And, of course, most Americans weren’t allowed to visit Cuba, and Cubans were not allowed to come here.

But recently, restrictions have changed somewhat. Trade embargoes are still in place, but American citizens can visit for certain reasons, the major one being education. They can even bring back a limited amount of cigars and liquor. The Cuban tourism industry, which provides 74 percent of their income, is in high gear. Everybody has smartphones. The people are well educated.

Two Melrose groups recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba for eight days with Spanish-speaking guides. They went under the auspices of an educational travel company. One group of nine, led by Melrose High School Spanish teacher Ana Pottratz left on June 9. A group of 29, led by Joy Davis, also a Melrose Spanish teacher,  left on June 17. Both women had visited previously. They made a circle from the  capital city Havana, population 2.1 million, to Ciensuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara, cities roughly the size of St. Cloud. Only four on Joy’s tour spoke Spanish, and six on Ana’s. English was heard only is some of the major hotels. They traveled in smooth-riding air-conditioned buses that even had plug-ins for electronic devices.  Seven hours of every day were devoted to education.

Havana hotels were comfortable, said the visitors, although the décor was slightly out of date, and the air-conditioning iffy. Ana found them comparable to similarly priced European hotels. Some rural accommodations were in a tiki-hut style, and visitors, such as roaches, chameleons, and frogs, occasionally dropped in.

Joy said,  “Cubans are very friendly people who love to visit, especially with Americans, to get to know them better.” The major industries are sugarcane, tobacco, and other types of agriculture. In rural areas, people may travel by horse and wagon. Cubans shop mainly in small markets. At one point, group members were each given $10 and told to source the local markets for a nutritious meal for a family of five, a challenging task. “It was an experience to see people buy half a tomato, because that’s all they could afford,” Ana said.  “There are no stocked grocery stores, no Walmarts,” said Joy.

As for poverty, Joy said, “It depends on how you define poverty. Everybody is guaranteed free health care, education through Ph.D., housing, utilities, and groceries. Everybody earns around $30 per month, and that $30 has to pay for everything.  They will not be able to buy a lot of things beyond what’s needed to survive.” In addition, they have a book of coupons brought to stores monthly to exchange for necessities.

Everything you have heard about Cuban cars is true. Apart from some Russian models, they are American makes from the1950s and 1960s, repaired sometimes with Russian parts, sometimes with washing machine innards. Government-owned cars are leased to citizens to use as taxis, provided they keep them rust free, and university professors can be found driving taxis to earn extras for their family. There are also standard yellow taxis.

For many years, Cuba and Russia were trading partners.

“Cuba went through what is known as the ‘Special Period’ in the early 1990s due to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Joy explained. “The Cuban economy lost its major trading partner for oil and other things, and the Cuban people went through extreme poverty.” Russian-style apartment blocks are typical in Havana. “In the last 60 years, nothing has been kept up, old buildings are in need of renovation, and the government doesn’t bother to repair them. The government owns the radio and TV stations, and the press is highly controlled.”

The group traveled in a classic car to a welcome dinner when they arrived in Cuba this past June. Contributed photo

The group visited a cigar factory, where everybody tried one of the products. They saw a daily dance session at a senior citizen center, where an old gentleman described the history of dance, and a cabaret show in Havana. They visited author Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar where the author presides in bronze, drink in hand. Ana’s group couldn’t tour the Che Guevara museum because they arrived on his birthday, celebrated with parades, crowds, and an enormous cake. Joy’s group did and witnessed an attitude of gratitude and fond memory of the revolution’s fallen comrade.

Many of the restaurants, called paladars, are in homes, where they grow vegetables and bring them straight to the table, a true definition of home cooking.

“The food was wonderful!” Ana said. Pork, chicken, root vegetables, plantains, and eggplant cooked in different ways were on the menu. They had a chance to ride a bull, and saw typical arrangements of a washer and dryer outside on the porch  They toured a barber/beauty school which was partly privatized, allowing students to learn these trades. Barb was especially interested in the art schools where among other things, students make metal sculptures to be displayed in various towns along with tiles and other home décor items. She also managed to find a family that would let her tour their home, where a sleeping grandma woke up fast and asked for money!

Many on the tours viewed them as a life-changing experience. People wishing to visit Cuba are advised to consult the Internet for educational tour opportunities or cruises.

“I would encourage you to go before it changes too much. Otherwise, some of the things that make it so great right now might be gone,” Joy said. “No other country will ever compare to it because no other place has the unique culture, history and society as they do.”

Ana added, “It is a beautiful place to see how the power of humanity survives.”