December 30, 2015


After working a winter skiing course for NOLS in early December in the mountians of western Wyoming, I had about two days before heading to Cuba with Ava's family.  The adjustment from living in tents and snow shelters to all-inclusive resorts in the humid tropics couldn't have been more abrupt.  I'll try to keep this post in summary form as the prospect of recounting all the events and experiences we had in Cuba is far too daunting.

Rick, Nancy, Maiya, Shaun, Ava and I traveled to Cuba with Backroads on a People to People visa.  There were 20 participants in our tour group, including the six of us.  We had two amazing Spanish guides and a local Cuban guide who was employed by the state.  We spent seven days in Cuba; three near the town of Matanzas, and four in Havana.

The Hollidays (sandwiched by an Elliott and a King) at the Dupont mansion, Xanadu

A requirement of our People to People visa was that we needed to spend all of our time engaging with various locals and generally learning about Cuban culture.  This made for a highly educational trip as well as giving the trip a pretty intense "go, go, go!" vibe.  The following list provides an idea of how we spent our time:

  • Visited an organic farm
  • Visited tourist attractions such as the Dupont Mansion and Hemingway's house
  • Listened to lots of live, local music, and speaking with the musicians
  • Ate at several private restaurants, many of which also served as art museums
  • Toured some limestone caves
  • Spoke with a former professional baseball player
  • Spoke with Marc Frank, an American born Cuban who writes for Reuters and Financial Times
  • Visited several art museums and spoke with artists
  • Had many great and enlightening conversations with our Cuban guide, Oscar, who encouraged us to ask any and all questions
  • Walked the streets of Havana, visiting Catholic churches and a synagogue
  • Hiked through a reforested coffee plantation
  • Visited a small town in the forest with a commune vibe
  • Etc., etc.
Rather than recount all of these experiences and more, I'll summarize my overall impressions and learnings.  I think the biggest thing I got out of this was a first-hand impression of what life in a communist/socialist country is really like.  The US media loves to demonize communism and socialism doesn't fare much better.  We always hear the negative side associated with these types of societal structures, but never the positive.  Speaking for what I observed in Cuba, it's true that people tend to have very little expendable income.  However, you don't need much expendable income when education and healthcare are free and housing and food are highly subsidized.  The education system is so good that one of Cuba's main exports is educated people (e.g., doctors).

Old Catholic church in Matanzas

Of course there are problems with this system, just as there are problems with any system, but my point here is that it is not all bad.  In some ways (education, health care, lack of xenophobia, equity), Cuba is far ahead of the US.  Other than the occasional theft, there is almost no crime.

The cars, and much of the rest of the country, seem to be stuck in the 50's.

The next major learning I'll talk about is my impression of the general state of contentment of the Cuban people.  In the news, we hear about Cubans risking their lives to escape Cuba via raft, directly implying that life in Cuba is so awful everyone wants to leave and some people are willing to risk their lives to do so.  Based on what I observed, this is the exception rather than the rule: akin to saying that everyone in the US wants to shoot up a school because there have been so many mass school shootings.  Everyone we spoke to seemed content with the system and actually had quite a bit of pride in their country, while at the same time recognizing that there is substantial room for improvement.

A sample of the somewhat morbid art that was fairly common

I have many other thoughts pinging around in my head that have yet to land and solidify.  Suffice it to say that I learned a ton and think I will continue to learn as I process my experiences and filter media coverage of Cuba through a realistic lens.  I'll finish with a smattering of pictures, but before I do, I'd like to give my sincere, blog-public thanks to Rick and Nancy for making this trip possible.

We found many adorable dogs, and at times wished we were on a People to Dogs visa

Invasive bamboo, a cow, and a cow reflection at a sustainable farm/restaurant/art studio

Classic Havana

Streets of Old Havana

Cuban National Bird (Cuban Trogon)

Hiking through a former French coffee plantation

Totes adorbs

Also totes adorbs

Baseball practice near Hemingway's house, by far the most popular sport in Cuba

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