Tag Archives: Cuba 2014

Last Night in Cuba

June 25, 2014

We have arrived at our last night in Cuba.  We’ve said goodbye for now to most of our Cuban friends and the students—a very bonded group—are now processing what it means to be going home after two weeks in this hot, communist country.  As I write this, all twelve students are sitting in the same dormitory room (having successfully lobbied for a later lights out time,) talking about what they are going to miss most, recalling funny moments, and soaking up every minute before tomorrow.  It’s hard to say goodbye—especially because returning to the US means shutting off contact with the community that has welcomed us so wholeheartedly.

By now you’ve read about the mango, pineapple, and coffee breakfast prepared each morning by the church’s charming music director, Carlos. Today was no different, except after breakfast, we boarded a bus to visit a farm where mangoes and coffee are grown.  The bus took us into the Cuban countryside, known here as ‘el campo,’ where thatched roofs and colorful clotheslines adorn the hills and goats graze freely along dirt roads. Cuba is a beautiful country. There are dramatic mountains in every direction, palm trees tower over modest wooden homes, there are no advertisements or fast food chains, and bicycle taxis are as commons as cars.

After we hiked up a steep, rocky dirt road, we arrived at the first farm, where we pounded coffee beans with a mortar and pestle, juiced sugar cane in an old, manual wooden cane grinder, walked through a banana orchard, befriended two farm dogs, hacked open coconuts with a machete and drank their water, and enjoyed fresh mangoes in the shade of the seventy-year-old tree they were plucked from. From there, we piled back into the bus to go to the second farm, Alcalá.

We arrived at the second farm on foot, having walked several hundred meters due to a deep puddle that made the dirt road impassable for our bus. We were greeted by about a dozen horses, chickens, turkeys, and pigs and ate banana chips and pork rinds to sustain us for the horseback ride.  The horseback ride took us up a dirt road and along a small trail that snaked over a mountain side.  From the top, we got a breathtaking panoramic view of the countryside—something that may have been as unfamiliar to many of our Cuban hosts as it was to us.  Following the horseback ride, we took a dip in a river on the farm property and ate a delicious lunch of pork, rice and beans, and lemon-soaked cucumbers with an omelette and rice and beans for the vegetarians.

The afternoon back at the church in Holguin was spent going through our belongings and deciding what to donate to our hosts.  After a few hours of organizing, we filled more than four duffel bags with clothing, shoes, and other necessities like toilet paper, toothpaste, soap etc. Several of us donated special items—baseball gloves, work boots, jewelry—to specific members of the community who we had forged close connections with.  Dinner was delicious as usual, with a mix of pasta, soup, fried plantains (my favorite), salad, and rice and beans to pick from.  In the evening, we went to the home of Maria Yi—the jefe in Cuba who has been organizing the trip for more than 30 years—to say goodbye to our hosts.

Our evening reflection circle focused on what we’ll miss most about Cuba—and students couldn’t wait to participate. (Answers included: the people, the focus on interpersonal relationships instead of consumer goods, the food, the humor, and the break from social media and technology.)

We are all excited to get back home, see our families, and enjoy a few creature comforts like air conditioning and hot showers again, but I think the students have been profoundly touched by this community, and tomorrow morning it will be quite difficult to leave.

Emma Stieglitz ’05

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June 24: Cuba

At 6:00 a.m. this morning, twelve sleepy-eyed teenagers stumbled towards our daily promise of delicious, sweet mangoes with an underlying fear of our upcoming adventure.  As we enjoyed the fresh fruit and coffee for one of the last few times, we also mentally geared up for what was rumored to be one of the most physically demanding and challenging things that we would tackle on this trip: a hike through a valley that would lead us to the base of a waterfall and back up again.  With bellies full of whatever magic Carlos produced from the kitchen and eyelids still heavy, we boarded our air-conditioned bus to begin the two-hour drive towards what, at the time, seemed like a death trap.

As soon as I woke up from my cushioned, air-conditioned nap, I was met with a view of gorgeous green mountain scenery and pure untouched wilderness.  It was the same lush landscape I’d experienced, but never quite grown accustomed to, for so many of the days I’ve spent here.  It was something too beautiful and too breathtaking to ever lose its luster; the thousands of shades of green never ceased to amaze me.  I quickly snapped out of my dreamy-eyed state when I realized that the rather large bus we were riding in was driving up a winding dirt road next to the edge of a cliff that seemed to whisper of imminent death.  Fortunately, we safely reached the peak of the mountain without any headline-worthy incidents.  We savored the last few seconds of air conditioning and luxury and climbed out of the bus with bated breath.

We were fed pineapple and mango and treated to coffee that was grown on-site as soon as we arrived.  I took three cups of the delicious coffee in the hope that it would give me a boost of energy; in reality, I was just left with what seemed to be a mild form of epilepsy as the caffeine coursed through my veins and made my limbs shake.  Afterwards, we were able to climb to the “Mirador,” which was a balcony from which we could see the entire valley we would soon be trekking down.  The view was incredible.  From our vista point, we could see the gorgeous waterfall and the green tropical paradise that surrounded us.  The moment of silence that followed was a combination of awe and horror as the realization that we would be scaling up and down the seemingly vertical incline crept up on us.  Nonetheless, being the big, brave adventurers that we are, we all put on brave faces and prepared ourselves for the experience of a lifetime.

In single file, we followed our guide down a narrow, almost completely untouched path.  The first few minutes consisted of laughter and a few startled yelps as our feet learned to fit into muddy hiking boots as opposed to Sperrys and stilettos.  As we continued to follow our amazingly nimble guide, Alex pointed out what he claimed to be a fifteen-foot-long yellow snake in our path, which turned out to be entirely harmless but still caused my adrenal glands to go into overdrive.  Eventually, everyone began calling out some helpful nuggets of wisdom that would ensure a safe journey down the valley (helpful tree is helpful, slippery rock is slippery, deceptive rock is unstable, etc.)  We also came across a number of animals and creatures during the hike, including the fifteen-foot long snake, numerous lizards and geckos, far too many biting ants, and two river crabs (yes, they exist) whom we named Jeremy and Jerome.  We kept spirits high as we continued to hike lower, largely due to the chorus of laughter that lasted for the entire hike down.  Our first glimpse of the base of the waterfall was nothing short of miraculous.  With that carrot dangling so closely in front of our faces, we found a new spring in our steps as we quickly rushed towards the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

With red faces and sweaty bodies, not a single person hesitated to get into the water.  The refreshing water cooled us off, and the beautiful waterfall made every ant bite worth it.  We were even able to sit on a ledge under the waterfall, which was probably the best and cheapest massage I’ve ever gotten.  Even those who were wary of doing the hike expressed how glad they were that they’d chosen to go.  As the orange mud stained our skin (and gave us some artificial bronze glow) we sat in the water, listened to the crashing of the waterfall, and admired the hidden paradise that we were lucky enough to find ourselves in.  The high walls of the valley surrounded us with untamed green plants and rocky ledges – the same ledges we’d just hiked on. Nothing I’d ever seen before could possibly compare to this amazing microcosm of nature at its finest.

We were forced to reluctantly climb out of the pool and begin the harder part of our hike: the climb back up the valley.  Faces were stuffed with prepackaged artificial protein and wet hair was flung in a frenzy.  We picked up our walking sticks and followed our trusted guide back onto the ‘trail’ (Cubans use the word ‘trail’ much more loosely than Americans do.)  I pretended that my thighs didn’t hurt and attempted to hide my shortness of breath as we hiked on and on.  On our way down, we walked with the fear of falling, but on our way up, we hiked with the fear of sudden cardiac arrest.  The same rocks we were sliding down on became helpful footholds that anchored us upwards.  We came across a few more lizards and exotic birds and learned to gracefully avoid the anthills as well.  I continued on with the best lower body workout I’ve ever experienced as I began to breathe harder and blamed it on the thinner air and higher altitude.

By this time, we’d all gotten used to being drenched in sweat and caked in mud, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who considered applying for some sort of Man vs. Wild reality show.  Eventually, we saw the top of the mountain, which came as the biggest relief, as I wasn’t sure how much longer I could pretend that I wasn’t tired.  After the last few steps, a couple of Tarzan yells and cries of joy were shared as we basked in the glory of our latest accomplishment.  Additionally, when we learned that we’d spent a mere 30 minutes scaling that valley, as opposed to the suggested 90 minutes it would take us, the glory intensified even more.  Parents: you’ll be happy to know that we survived the journey without any broken bones or venomous snake bites.

Luckily, there existed a natural pool in which we could cool off that was only a short hike away from the top of the mountain.  There, we met up with Fran and a couple of students who had decided to stay behind and enjoy the waterfall and scenic nature from above.  This pool was no less beautiful than the one we’d just seen, and we were all grateful to be able to spend a few more minutes in the cool water with our entire group.  After I was able to cool my body temperature back down to a normal level, we walked back towards our much awaited lunches.  Although the rice and beans, roasted pork, and plantain chips were nothing short of delicious, they paled in comparison to what Carlos whipped up every day.

As our bodies continually produced lactic acid, we boarded the bus to head back home.  Although we say ‘home’ loosely, this church and this community have made a much appreciated effort to ensure that we felt like we had a home with them.  As I dozed off into a much deserved nap, I couldn’t help but feel regret that we’d have to leave this beautiful country and its incredible people in just a few days.



PS. To my family: I may or may not choose to defect from the United States and stay here in Cuba (only kidding.)  I miss you all very much and I pray you haven’t converted my room into a home gym just yet.

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Cuba Update from Monica


It’s Monica here to tell you all about our wonderful day.  This morning, we rose at 7:30 a.m. for an 8:00 breakfast.  After eating the usual assortment of mangoes, pineapple, bread, and coffee, we headed outside for a strenuous day lifting buckets of sand up to the roof of the church.  Although we were sweaty and sore from the hard work we had been doing, our group kept spirits high and finished lifting the whole pile of sand in about three and a half hours.  I have seen the manual labor on the trip having a cathartic effect on me and many of the members of the trip.  During the actual work, we feel terrible, but afterwards, we are cleansed by our efforts and the projected effect that our work will have in the future for the community of the church.

After a short break the group gathered for a delicious lunch in the church.  I overheard many fecund conversations amongst the people in the tables next to me.  Then Tom announced that for the next few hours, we would be able to spend some time in Holguin and have the opportunity to visit an internet café.  Surprisingly, every single person decided against using the internet café.  I thought that this was very special because even after hearing most people air their grievances about not being able to Google the answers to debates or check their grade reports, we all decided to stick it out and fully experience our time in Holguin.  Most groups separated to seek out coffee, while others haggled with street vendors for beautiful jewelry and wooden goods.   After about an hour and a half, we headed back to the church for some rest and journal time.

Soon after, a big red truck arrived to take us to the house of Roxana and her family.  We had a wonderful dinner and the main dish was a sauce with plantain balls and veggies.  After dinner, we dismantled the table to form a makeshift dance floor where we spent a long time bailando.  The night culminated in a trip to the roof and some talk about college and the future.  We are all very sad to have to leave this place in two days; it has been a great trip!

P. S. Hi Mom!

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Cuba–June 22, 2014

This morning the majority of the members of our group awoke at around 7:30 a.m. After the previous long couple of days that we have had we were pleased to have been able to leisurely prepare for our 8:00 breakfast time. Today breakfast consisted of the usual: fresh pineapple and mangos, scrambled eggs, delicious rolls, and tasty coffee. This morning I was especially looking forward to my fresh pineapple and did not hesitate to thank Carlos for the millionth time for preparing our food for us.

Breakfast was followed by a three hour church service at 9:00. I am positive that is the longest service I have ever sat through, and though it was long and we were all hot and sweaty, it was nonetheless an enlightening experience. The George School group divided into two groups prior to the church service. One group joined Ileabeth in the teaching of a song to the children of the congregation while the others joined Tom in thinking of and sharing of responses to readings written by a New England Quaker, Thomas Kelly. I happened to be in the latter group and I shared my response to the query: has there ever been a time where I have felt temporary and fully present while simultaneously feeling eternal and lasting. I found myself reflecting on the events of the other day when we were helping to make, mix, and transport cement to improve the church. The sensations of exhaustion, and exertion while working were temporary, and the senses of community and joining together for a greater cause to me felt eternal. To say the least it was a very powerful experience for many of us.

After church our group changed into our bathing suits, grabbed our backpacks, and hopped on a tour bus which drove us to a hotel/resort in the hills overlooking Holguin. A few members of the Church accompanied us on our excursion, and before we knew it we had arrived. The resort was beautiful and offered a breathtaking view of the city. One member of the group even noticed that from where we were standing we could even see “La Loma de la Cruz,” the hill we climbed very early on in our trip. It was quite lovely. The resort also offered a wonderful lunch for all of us which consisted of rice and beans, some pork for those of us who eat meat, and my personal favorite, plantain chips (Mom, please take note. I hear they can be purchased at Trader Joes).The food was great, but the guys serenading our group while we ate made it even better! There also seemed to be an unusual amount of our feline friends hanging around which was entertaining for some of us.

Lunch was followed by a walk down the hill to the resort’s swimming pool. There were several guests already enjoying the refreshing water, but our group did not hesitate to jump right on in! After spending the morning cooped up in the hot church it felt great to go for a swim. Unfortunately we noticed that a storm was brewing in the distance, so we got out of the water to avoid the dangers of swimming during a lightning storm.

Alex managed to snap one of the best photographs of the trip this afternoon when almost by chance he captured a flash of lightning with the beautiful mountain vista in the background. He bragged about it for a solid ten minutes afterwards, and I have to admit it was pretty incredible. When it actually began raining the group took shelter for an hour and a half in the resort lobby. Matt and Natasja decided it would be fun to play a jumbo game of chess in the rain, while the rest of us killed some time by purchasing snacks and chit-chatting. Eventually Fritz, Chinue, and I left to accompany Matt and Natasja in the game of chess. Fritz then proceeded to order a soft drink called “Tukola,” but instead was served two cans of cola. It was pretty funny.

When we returned to the lobby, we still had quite a bit of time to kill. A few of the girls decided we needed to use the bathroom, but upon opening the door to the facilities I discovered a huge, black butterfly. Emma, Emily, and Chinue thought it was hilarious when they heard me yell from outside of the bathroom. Emma caught a series of photos of me cowering from the butterfly, which is pretty funny if you ask me. Our stay at the resort was concluded with a large game of “BS” or “Disconfio” in Spanish. I couldn’t think of a better group of people to spend a rainy afternoon in Cuba with.

Our afternoon was topped off with a lovingly prepared dinner, which was waiting for us when we returned. We had meat, plantains, salad, rice with sardines (that was interesting, but good in my opinion), and some vanilla ice cream. As of now some of us are watching the World Cup, while others are taking showers and enjoying one of our last few nights together.
None of us can believe how our time hear has flown by. It seems like yesterday to me that we showed up with our luggage.

To my family: I love Cuba, but I can’t wait to come home! The ride home from the Philly airport is going to seem short because I have so many great stories to tell you about our trip! It has been wonderful! I love you!


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June 21 in Cuba

After the early morning that we had yesterday, members of the group (of all ages) were happy to have the opportunity to sleep in this morning.

We awoke at 7:45 a.m. for an 8:00 breakfast, which consisted of the usual assortment of mangoes, breads, cheese, scrambled eggs, and of course, coffee. Coffee is taken many different ways here among the group, and all of them are delicious (trust me, we’ve tried every combination imaginable). After our breakfast chit-chat cleared up we cleared the table and a few of us washed the dishes, while the others got on our bathing suits and prepped for the long day ahead of us.

Today we had the opportunity to take a trip to Gibara, a small coastal town in the province of HolguIn. The bus ride was about an hour long and during it, the twelve students had the opportunity to get to know Roxanna.

The total time spent on the bus was 120 minutes, and as such we each got to spend ten minutes talking with her, asking and being asked questions. From what I learned she loves math and is scared to play sports, but is nonetheless excited to get the opportunity to come to George School next year. Although not official, we all strongly hope that she will have the opportunity to be a part of our community next year.

After the bus came to a stop, our group got off and were led across a small moat to a beautiful overlook of the Caribbean Sea. We later learned that the small patio type area on which we stood to admire the sea used to operate as a fort in hopes of protecting Gibara from pirates. Regardless of the history, the view was one of the nicest we had yet seen. We then walked to La Plaza de Las Madres, a small square/park right near the water dedicated to the work done by mothers around the world (Mom, I’m imagining a witty yet snide remark on gratefulness from you right now…). We then walked to the Hotel Ordono, a beautiful yellow building of several stories, proudly waving the Cuban flag. We walked into its lobby to find ourselves treated to “refrescas”, several different sodas and juices from which we were allowed to choose. We sat in the lobby for a few minutes until Tom strongly encouraged us to enter the bathroom, regardless of whether we needed to use it. He did so because it was incredible, or at least according to Cuban standards. It had a beautiful interior, soap and a hand drier, which in conjunction were able to subtly remind us of the true disparity of wealth that exists between the U.S. and Cuba (It would be wonderfully average there, but truly incredible here).

After taking several mirror selfies like any energetic group of teenagers should, we headed to the roof to a small landing and “mirador”. This lookout which is more or less 6 stories up, gave us an incredible view of the water and all of Gibara. We took turns (including the 8 Cubans who accompanied us throughout the duration of the trip) looking through the binoculars, and were able to get an even better view of exactly what was happening 6 stories below us. I would attempt to describe the incredible vista, but would prefer to wait for pictures to truly do it justice.
We then went to La Iglesia de Los Amigos de Gibara, the Quaker Church in Gibara. It is very large by comparison to the church in which we are staying, and can apparently sleep up to 70 people. It has a very similar water filtration system that we were quite happy to be able to use after our walk, and Emma gave us a tour of all the areas of the church that have been built up or remodeled since her visit 10 years ago. We later went into el templo, the actual sanctuary part of the church in which services are conducted. We learned of the similarities and differences between the theology of this church, of the one in HolguIn, and of our meeting at GS. We may or may not have received a brief lesson from Tom on the Ecumenical Movement, and before we knew it were off to our next location.

We boarded our air conditioned bus and drove for 20 minutes to a seemingly random street, on which we unloaded and questioned why we were where we were. The street was filled with tiny homes with metal grates covering the windows, and people and dogs roaming everywhere. The scene, which seemed quite ubiquitous to much of the area that we have seen, reminded us that it is rare for people in the country to have anywhere near the wealth and luxury that we experienced at the hotel. We were then taken by our tour guide onto what seemed to be a driveway, but actually led to the restaurant at which we ate. Named La Cueva, the restaurant gave us a very unique experience. While we waited for our table to be prepared, we were greeted by a collection of different animals, including alligators, chickens, and cotillas (I would have googled them to let you know what family of animals they belong to, but that is difficult here. Regardless, they were adorable). The restaurant was an odd one, however we were able to order whatever we wanted, which was an experience that we had not yet had in Cuba. The service was not ideal, but we were happy to have enough food to continue on our journey.

We got back on the bus once again, and drove to a tiny beach right at the entrance of the town. The experience we had at this beach was startlingly different from the one we had at Guardalavaca. The beach was thin and rocky, and there was plenty of trash and biting ants were clearly present. Although it was not the picturesque, beautiful beach scene we experienced several days earlier, it gave us an image of what is more common to experience for the Cuban people. We sat on the rocks and talked, or walked around the beach in search of sea glass. The small beach was quite crowded, and Cuban music blasted from the stairs. When we saw a storm begin to roll in over the mountains, we knew that it was time to bring our excursion to a close and get back on the bus.

Our drive home was relaxing, and the rain on the windows put many of us to sleep. We woke back up to get off the bus and return to the church and Holguin, a place which is quickly becoming a true home away from home. Dinner was ready shortly after we returned, and consisted of salad, chicken, rice, french fries, and jello. We enjoyed our meal and listened to Emma tell stories of some of her worst dates, which caused almost too much laughter among the group. We then cleaned up and went back to our rooms, where we got changed into our nicer clothing and planned for the meeting of the Young Adult Group. The term meeting seems a little formal for what we did, as it was really more of a group of people of all ages singing and playing games. It started with Tatiana, Sky, and I taking on a group of three 12-year-olds in an acting competition. We were expecting to go down in flames, but with Sky’s ability to act as a UFO, Tatiana’s to drive a bus, and mine as a fish we somehow came out on top.

We then shared with the Cubans two games we had talked about earlier in the week, Secret Leader and the Human Knot. I was expecting the language barrier to pose a problem for the fluidity of the games, but they worked surprisingly well and were able to bring us closer together. They showed us their own games as well: Katie took on Roxanna in a balloon race, Chinue and Lydia demonstrated their drawing abilities while blindfolded, and the entire group worked together to play a funny (but harmless) prank on Alex. The meeting concluded with watching a Pixar short, and we said goodnight to the attendees not living the church and made our way back to our rooms.

After such a long day, I will be happy (in about 15 minutes) to see the side of my pillow and reflect on the opportunities that we’ve had today, and get excited for the day that lies ahead of us tomorrow.


P.S Happy Birthday Beau!! I love you and miss you lots and hope that the start of your 14th year was great! I’m coming back with miscellaneous trinkets for you so be prepared.

Mom, Dad, and Dan – Miss you guys too! Can’t wait to get back and share everything that we’ve done. All is well here; please try not to worry too much. Happy belated Father’s Day and Anniversary! Send my love to Piper and Gibbs and I look forward to seeing you guys at the airport on Thursday night. LOVE YOU!

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June 20: Day 9

We are now well into the second half of our trip. This morning we had to wake up at the very early hour of 6:00 a.m. Breakfast was the usual mixture of fresh fruit, strong coffee, and yawning teenagers. Once we finished our meal, we were quickly swept onto a bus for an exciting day in Santiago de Cuba.

The trip to Santiago from Holguin is a relatively long journey, and we made a pit stop on the way which made it even longer. However, unlike the United States, Cuba does not have a well maintained system of superhighways. Our route consisted of winding, narrow, two lane roads which meandered over the tall, lush mountains. The chauffer mastered the hairpin turns and challenging roads which allowed for a relatively nice ride. About halfway through our journey we traveled a bit off course to the birthplace of Fidel and Raul Castro.

Upon entering the compound it was impressively plain. There were no swarming crowds as you would expect at an American National Monument, there were only a few guards, a tour guide, and a couple of simple buildings waiting for us. Now, it is important to understand that the Castro’s are heroes in Cuba, so their birthplace carries a lot of significance to the Cuban citizens; As Fran described it is similar to Monticello, hold the ornate architecture.

We were given a tour of the grounds which consisted of a tomb, a schoolhouse, a house for the teacher, the main house, the grandmother’s house, Ramon Castro’s house, a post office, a few restaurants, and a lot of farmland. The guide told a detailed account of the family history as we explored the monument which was interesting because it was influenced by Cuban bias instead of the American bias that I am used to hearing. After our tour was finished, we embarked once again in our comfortable, air conditioned bus.

As our group approached Santiago de Cuba the roads became wider and wider and eventually transitioned to the Cuban version of a highway. Now think about I95 or the interstate nearest you. The road is divided, there are nice white-dotted lines which separate the roadway into lanes that provide plenty of room, and there are relatively few or no pot holes. In Cuba a highway consists of a wide stretch of macadam with no divider in the middle, no white lines to divide the road into lanes, and there are more potholes on the road than cars (Note: there were almost no cars on the road). While we had a safe journey, it is an interesting contrast to the luxurious interstates of America.

After 2 ½ hours of driving we finally reached our first destination, a beautiful little village on the southern coast of Cuba. We walked up a broad path which was lined with vendors on either side and reached a beautiful Spanish fort, surrounded by a deep moat (without water). Our tour guide gave us a brief background on the history of the fort and its purpose in the Spanish American war and the Cuban Independence movement. Next, we were free to walk about the outside of the fort and take in the beautiful views that it offered. To one side, the stone walls of the castle faced the deep blue Caribbean Sea, where the water continually crashed into the rocky shores far below. On the other side, there was a beautiful vista which displayed the Santiago Harbor and the entirety of the downtown. After basking in the views, we were taken to a restaurant overlooking the Caribbean Sea for lunch. We were served a simple meal of rice, vegetables, and meat paired with delicious mint chocolate ice cream for dessert. Once we were stuffed with food and ready for a siesta, as they call it here, we boarded the bus and traveled 30 minutes to the historic center of Santiago.

Once downtown, we walked to the central square of the city. Historic monuments surrounded us on all sides. Our tour guide explained that to one side was the Santiago Cathedral which underwent much damage whether it was by hurricanes, earthquakes, even pirates (they stole the bells from the towers). On the other side stood the oldest house in all of Cuba which was built in 1515, City Hall, and the Casagranada Hotel. After a brief history lesson, we were allowed to go off in groups for shopping. The area that I went to was a vibrant pedestrian only block. One of the streets was lined with your typical stores (grocery, shoe, furniture, etc.). The other street was a little bit less ordinary. It was lined with tons of different vendors selling everything from bongo drums, to key-chains, to leather baseballs. This was a really cool experience because the prices were all negotiable and I managed to perfect a technique of getting the lowest price possible. After an hour, I was getting all of these knick knacks for half of the original asking price. Once everyone shopped to their hearts content, we boarded the bus again and went to see a few different monuments across the city.

First, we visited a primary school which used to be an armory in the pre-revolution era. This building was Fidel Castro’s first major attack which actually ended up being a failure. Hundreds of bullet holes still remained on the face of the building, left there as a reminder of this event. Second, we visited the second largest cemetery in Cuba. I never thought I would say this about a cemetery but it was actually stunning. Massive tombs yielded the names of famous and important political, economic, and social figures such as members of the Bacardi family (as in the alcohol) and even the massive monument/tomb of Jose Marti who was the most important individual in Cuban Independence. Marti’s tomb is guarded 24/7 and the guards switch every 30 minutes. We had the privilege of seeing the changing of the guard ceremony where 3 guards marched from the main building out to the tomb, accompanied by music, and relieved the guards standing duty who consecutively marched back to the main building. This was a really cool experience because it was another demonstration of how passionate and protective the Cubans are of their history. After this affair we once again boarded the bus and made one more stop at a massive monument on our way out of town.

We began the long trek back to Holguin after a long and tiring day. We were greeted by a delicious dinner of pulled pork, rice, salad, orange tang, and arroz con leche (rice pudding). On our trip to Santiago de Cuba we got to see several significant monuments and places and made memories that we will all take back with us upon our return to the United States. We have six days to go and several memories left to make. See you all soon!


Fritz Hillegas

P.S. Mom, Dad, and Logan I miss you guys and I hope you have polished up on your Spanish speaking skills because that is all I will be able to speak when I get back!

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Day 8 in Cuba!

We have reached the end of another day, day eight to be exact. This morning started off like any other with a wonderfully prepared breakfast that included fresh fruit, eggs, and an assortment of breads–although today there was a large amount of work waiting for us. For the first day we were going to be working on the church where we have been staying. Promptly at eight o’clock Reynaldo, the man who ran the show today, came to find us and bring us to the roof. The mission for the day was to put a cement roof on a room. The goal was to have a three story building.

When we gathered on the roof there were already eight or more Cuban men eager to begin working and finish the roof of this relatively small room. It still amazes me how willing the church community is to help regardless of what they need. All of these men showed up to do very labor intensive work because without them the work would take much more time. Before the cement could be spread on the rebar and wood planks that make up the base of the roof, we had to make the cement. One lesson everyone learned today was that to make cement you need one bucket of water, two buckets of rocks, one bucket of Portland cement powder, and one to two buckets of sand. All these need to be mixed in a cement mixer and then spread across the ground to be shoveled around. Reynaldo and a few other workers gave us each a job whether it be shoveling rocks, sand, or cement powder into small buckets, getting water from a barrel into a small bucket, or shoveling and mixing the finished cement that was soon to be transferred to the new roof. When enough cement gathered on the ground a group of four students, instructed by Fran, began shoveling the mixture into more buckets.

Fran had created such a good system we all worked flawlessly. Four people stood on scaffolding, two on a lower level and two a level up and closer to the roof; two people stood on the ground; and a rotation of four more people shoveled and mixed the cement. Fran would tell each person when to start the shoveling and they would put two to three shovelfuls of cement into a bucket and that bucket would be carried up one side of the scaffolding by three different people and the workers on the roof would dump the buckets into a wheelbarrow and then put it down on the rebar. The bucket would make its way down the other side of the scaffolding to the person waiting on the ground. For the majority of the afternoon I was the person on the ground putting buckets down as well as handing them up the waiting people on the scaffolding. This was no easy task and I cannot even imagine how difficult it was to mix the cement with shovels and then have to put it into buckets for multiple hours. Such a procedure is a novelty to Americans because we never work in such conditions because our technology is so advanced. The kind of work we did today is very similar to that of the 1920s and 30s. It was absolutely amazing to see the succession of our work and how much of an impact we were making. By ten o’clock, we were half way done the roof and a couple hours later we were still powering through the work in direct sunlight but our energy was still high. We completed the roof just in time for lunch, one meal which I have never been more thankful for.

The afternoon we spent relaxing before we went to the park to play volleyball with the young communist group. When we got there a huge group of them were standing around and we quickly jumped in and began playing against them. Even though my skills are rusty, volleyball was still one of my favorite parts of today. We took the fifteen minute walk back to the church, which seem to be getting shorter but in reality I’m getting used to all the walking. Dinner was ready when we arrived and we were served a delicious Italian-American dinner of pizza and pasta and I took the usual second helping. The food here is so amazing whether they cook Cuban food or a spin on American food it’s always delicious, maybe a little too delicious.

This trip has already been such an eye opening experience and I look forward to what next week has to offer. Going from sweating while shoveling cement to relaxing on the beach, this country is a truly amazing place and I could not be more grateful for this opportunity.

Sincerely yours,

Lizzy Mahoney

PS. Mommy, I would greatly appreciate it if you made me cookies and brought me milk. I know it will be almost midnight but milk is one thing I really miss and you already promised cookies. I also want you to know that I love you and miss you so much, see you in a week!

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Wednesday, June 18 in Cuba

Hello readers of this blog (especially my mom, dad, and brother, Andrew : ) ),

Today has proved to be a mellower and more relaxed day but still full of new things to learn.  This morning started with the arrival of a new fruit for breakfast.  Watermelon! As much as I absolutely love having mangoes every morning it was nice to see some new variations of our breakfast.  After breakfast almost all of us girls (plus Tom) went back to the home for children without parents to finish up painting the exterior that we started yesterday. The boys (plus Katie) stayed at the church to prepare supplies for the work we will be doing for the church tomorrow morning.  While the walk to the children’s home is a long one, it is always interesting to see which way Carlos will take us to further prove that we have no understanding of the layout of the city at all (we’ve spotted some street names on some buildings…it’s a start).

When we got to the home we were immediately greeted by some of the younger children like Christian, Jose, and Isabella who don’t go to school this week because they don’t have exams.  It always brightens my morning when I can be greeted with cute side cheek kisses from little 6-9 year old kids.  It amazes me how open and caring this community is and how welcoming every member is towards all of us.

We started painting the rest of the stucco siding of the house with the green paint right away.  I learned from the previous day’s work (and our work at Calabazas) that painting stucco with tiny paintbrushes never proves easy.  It is painstakingly slow work to get the paint into the small cracks and bumps but there is something relaxing about working on a certain spot diligently and carefully.  It also helps to have others around you to talk about what TV shows we should watch or whether or not Tom should let his soon-to-be-8th grader get a Facebook and with what conditions. We eventually seemed to be running out of paint again like we had the day before and it really let me see how precious these kinds of materials are and that they are not to be wasted (unlike the impression I got after our last painting adventure in Calabazas which ended in an all-out paint war).  Ultimately, we decided to dilute the paint to get the last wall painted only to learn that the thinner paint makes the work of painting stucco so much easier.

After the last touches, I spent some time cleaning out the paint buckets and then migrated to the front porch where all the kids were using the water colors I brought.  There was a wonderful relaxed feeling during this time and I got to watch Sky paint a beautiful butterfly while Jose painted a rainbow (most of which ended up on his legs and in between his toes).  Overall there was something very sweet to this moment of just hanging out and watching these kids enjoy the simple joy of water colors.  We then made our way back to the church but not before getting at least five or six kisses each from the kids.

We ate lunch at the church and found ourselves with a somewhat free afternoon.  We decided this would be a good time to walk around town with our newly exchanged money and find some little souvenirs and trinkets.  I was able to get some pretty postcards, key chains, and a bracelet and necklace from stores or street vendors.  While this was somewhat uneventful, a smaller group was approached by a man who said “Y’all must be Americans”.  While that seems a bit scary, it was actually a man from Oklahoma who had been living in Mexico and vacationing in Cuba for a month now.  It was very interesting as we have not met any other Americans while we’ve been here in Holguin.

After our time in the square, we split up to go to different homes for dinner.  I went with the largest group of 8 to the home of Aleida and her family (which includes Anna, a very, very cute three year old).  The one thing that has been hard for me during these home visits has been my attempts to not appear to be a rude guest.  These families are feeding us with so much food that they normally wouldn’t have and while I want to eat it all there is only so much I can eat at one time.  A common theme I’ve picked up on is that if I do not take a lot of food that means that I don’t like it, but I don’t want to take too much food and leave too much uneaten on my plate.

Overall this was a very interesting family to learn about as almost every generation was there that night including the great grandmother.  It was also interesting to learn about Aleida’s life as a civil engineer and her experiences as a woman in a science field in a region where that field is more targeted towards men.  The most interesting part of this dinner was when the grandfather took us to his small workshop garage behind the apartment.  Tom described him as a sort of mad scientist and inventor.  It turns out that he has worked directly with Fidel Castro for inventions and he showed us a little Fiat in his garage that was given to him by Fidel.  The work space was filled almost completely by the taken apart car with no room to walk around but he was still able to show us a variety of his inventions including a contraption that creates wooden beads. He uses it to supply a lot of the city with beads and after showing it to us he promptly gave us our own bag of his wooden beads.  He also has many inventions helping in the art of cosmetology which is the profession of his wife.  Everything down to the lights powered by the car were constructed by him and it was a very interesting experience to be in his presence.  The dinner ended with the family giving each of us a flower and an apple mango.  It has been so absolutely wonderful to have these dinners with these individual families and to feel their generosity and kindness.  So far this trip has been absolutely eye-opening and a truly fun experience.


Emily Rucker

PS. I love you and miss you Mama and Papa, have a wonderful anniversary!

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Another Great Day in Cuba

This morning was quite a strange one. Last night we collectively came up with the brilliant idea to all secretly wake up at 6:00 a.m. to have “group bonding time.” Everyone was super excited and we were all planning how to wake everyone up without disturbing the others in the house. When the morning came our plan started with me waking up as Lydia’s alarm went off. The two of us woke up the girls in our room who helped us wake the rest of the group. As we all gathered in the church classroom a serious flaw in our plan became apparent. We were all dead tired and had no idea what to talk about. After grumbles of how bad of an idea this was we eventually managed to have a pretty enjoyable bonding session.

After another wonderful breakfast the majority of the group walked to a home for children without parents, as it is called in Cuba. Five of us, including me, stayed to help transfer an intimidating pile of wood to the roof of the church. After the completion of this project we joined the rest of the group at the children’s home where we learned that we would be panting the outside of the house. The task was made much more fun with the help of three kids from the home, Isabela, Jose, and Christiano. Isabela, who is six, decided that she would steal my paintbrush and sit on my lap while painting both me and the wall. After lunch we returned to the home to give them some of the clothes and art supplies we had brought with us. The children put on a fashion show for us with the clothes. Only after the fashion show were they given the surprise that the clothes were theirs.

Afterwards we and the residents of the home sat on the porch to do water color paintings. After a few minutes of watching the kids paint (Isabela painted a house with butterflies above it) we got the idea to paint each of the children a sign with their names on it. I first painted a sign for Isabela by forming her name into a rainbow and surrounding it with butterflies, I then attempted a graffiti style one for Yordin which I didn’t finish but promised I would return and complete. We departed with many hugs and kisses and promises to return the next day.

For dinner we again broke up into smaller groups to eat at someone’s house. My group, led by Fran, went to the house of Carlos. After yet another delicious Cuban meal, in which I again out-ate Alex, we joined Carlos’ wife, daughter, and granddaughter in their living room. The two year old granddaughter, Vienna, had the spotlight. She was fascinated with our shoelaces, more specifically untying them. She even requested to wear my shoes and adorably walked/wobbled/hopped around in them. Our goodbyes were met with the cries of Vienna saying that she didn’t want us to leave.

Our experiences today reminded me of the incredible ability of these people to find light and happiness in everything no matter what their situation. It also reminded me how much I love kids.

Best Regards,



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Cuba Day Five

Good evening parents,

(Also, hi mom and dad, I’m alive and I put on sunscreen every day so don’t worry about me). My name is Alex and I will be your guest writer tonight. Our fifth day in Cuba proved to be another busy one that was filled with periods of intense hard work as well as periods of relaxation and immersion in Cuban culture. We started off the day with an 8:00 am breakfast in which we were treated once again to Cuban coffee, which I’ve found to be the best coffee I’ve ever had. After another delicious breakfast we prepared ourselves to spend some time at a retirement home in Holguin where we would be doing manual labor for the first half of the day.

We piled into a vintage Chevy truck and took about a five minute drive down to the retirement home. The minute we hopped out of the truck, I was struck not only by the physical state of the building itself, but also the odd looks that we were getting. This has become rather commonplace when we walk around public areas, but to see the same looks from these people was even more of a reality check. In a way, being viewed as the minority has humbled me as I now think I have a greater understanding of the fact that the world that I live in is by no means the norm for everyone else. Here, I think that I am somewhat out of my comfort zone at all times, but in a good way. It makes me more eager to learn about my surroundings as well as the people that I am interacting with, so that I can feel more comfortable here.

After getting off the truck, we were greeted by the man who ran the retirement home. He greeted us warmly and explained that the home was born from the Cuban Revolution in the spiritual sense. Essentially, this man was saying that the home operates with the ideals and concepts of the Cuban Revolution, similar to the way George School operates with the concepts and ideals of Quakerism. After this greeting, we observed a massive pile of rubble and stone that needed to be loaded onto the truck and dumped in a nearby landfill. We were given about five or six shovels and immediately went to work. As some time passed, we devised an efficient system in which some students would create piles near the bed of the truck, and others would use the shovels to throw the material onto the truck. While this was happening, we also had people digging through the piles in search of any large chunks of stone, and others that were sweeping up the dirt that was left over from the pile. After about two hours of this, we had filled our second full load onto the truck, and were ready to take this final pile to the landfill. Tom informed us that only two students would be able to go to the landfill, and I quickly volunteered. Fortunately, I was able to go to the landfill, and while it may sound weird that I was eager to go to a massive pile of trash, it ended up being a really powerful experience. After a bumpy ride to the landfill, we turned off the main road and there was a drastic change in scenery. In a matter of seconds, my surroundings went from narrow streets filled with houses and food stands, to a wide open field, surrounded by beautiful, green hills. Yet, as we drove through the landfill, I was surprised and confused by all the people that we saw. Then, as I got off the truck and began to unload the rubble, I realized that these were people who were digging through the massive piles of trash were in search of anything of value. I then began to think about all of the images of poverty that I have seen in my life, and I believe that this struck me the most painfully. To see that there were people who quite honestly had nothing but what they could find in the landfill was really hard for me. However, we returned to the home after unloading the truck and it seemed that we all felt good about what we had done today. In the morning, we pulled into a dirty parking lot filled with this massive pile of rubble, and after hours of hard work we pulled out of a completely clean lot.

After our morning of work we were treated to a delicious lunch that included a mouth-watering chickpea stew. To be honest, I was a little scared that I wasn’t going to get enough to eat during this trip, but after tasting Cuban food I’m a little bit worried that I’ve been eating too much of it. Regardless, we were able to relax for a few hours after lunch. I was woken up from a nice nap and told that it was time for dance lessons, something that I was not looking forward to in the least bit. We all gathered in the classroom and created an open space to dance in. While I consider myself a high quality dancer, the reality is I simply have no idea how to dance and this was reflected when we were all required to do a few seconds of solo dancing in the middle of the circle. However, it was a learning experience and I enjoyed learning something new with the group. After dance, we were all able to get a refreshing shower in, as we prepared ourselves to go out for dinner. For dinner tonight the group was divided in half, and both groups were hosted for dinner at the homes of two of the church members. Our smaller group arrived for dinner around 7:30, and it was immediately clear that they had prepared way too much food for us. However, our hosts were incredibly nice and I ended up eating three full plates of food, which is starting to become a trend for me on this trip.

Finally, after another funny, reflective group meeting at the end of the night, our busy day came to a close. From massive landfills to massive gourmet meals, I truly am experiencing all corners of the spectrum in Cuba. Yet, as I have more and more experiences on this trip, I find that it is important to do just that: have as many experiences as one can. This truly is a completely different world, and I think it’s important that I immerse myself in all different aspects of this world so that I can come out of this trip with a greater understanding of the world.

Yours truly,


P.S. Mom I need a new phone case, also miss you and love you and happy late Father’s Day, dad!


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