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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

Ten days in Cuba

by Jacqui Birchall

"This trip has changed my life," was the overwhelming response of the group of Grade 10, 11, and 12 students I travelled with to Cuba during Spring Break. Travelling under the auspices of MOVPAZ (The Cuban Movement for Peace) and Cubana Natura Tours in Havana, and Marcel Hatch of Hello Cuba in Vancouver, the Fraser Heights Secondary School students spent 10 wonderful and enlightening days in Cuba.

Sixteen well-heeled teens used to the all-inclusive hotel life checked into the comfortable but quite basic Hotel Vedado in Havana. For the first two hours they looked unimpressed, and I was a little worried. Wandering the moonlit Malecón, mixing with the icecream consuming crowds in the Coppelia, and strolling the crowded La Rampa to the sounds of live salsa music eradicated all misgivings. With Onelio, our young, intelligent, and charming Cuban guide, we daily explored the many aspects of Havana, visited MOVPAZ, the Women’s Secretariat of the Federation of Cuban Women in Guanabacoa, the most famous museums of Havana and, more importantly, we met Cubans. We delighted in our private salsa dance class with a Cuban family on a moonlit apartment roof deck overlooking the beautiful Plaza Catedral. We ate ropa vieja, (old clothes) a famous Cuban stew, and our junk-food-deprived students cheerfully explored all aspects of Cuban cuisine.

The highlight for our students was meeting with Cuban students. We spent time with first-year student teachers of English in the teacher training college in Santa Clara. This visit was a huge hit for the Cubans and the Canadians. Within minutes the conversations were buzzing. My students enjoyed meeting with young Cubans who spoke English and the Cubans always love to practise their English. How much did they have in common? A lot as it turned out, particularly in music and political opinions. My students did not want to leave.

We spent two days with secondary school students in a boarding school in the province of Cienfuegos. These students represent the most intelligent students in their province and many of them speak English. There is no janitorial staff in this school. The students have to work on all aspects of running the school from cooking to serving food, from cleaning bathrooms to working on the farm. Yes, the school has a farm to provide it with food and we were assigned to pick oranges on one very hot morning. Armed with big bags, and in the company of our student hosts, we hiked the two kilometres to the orange groves and, before working, ate oranges fresh from the trees. Delicious! It gave me a warm feeling to see the students of two cultures, happily conversing and filling the big containers with oranges. The Cuban students have to meet a quota in all aspects of their farm work and the orange containers they had to fill were huge.

After lunch, the Cuban and Canadian students played soccer, volleyball, and baseball. In this baseball-mad country, the students only had bits of wood to use as bats. Soccer was played on dirt with sticks for goal posts. We gave a lot of donations to this school including some baseball gear. (Should anyone be travelling to Cuba, sports equipment would be most welcome in Cuban schools). We delivered letters from one of our school’s Spanish classes. The students were very excited and immediately wrote answers with creative illustrations. Visiting Cuban students made a huge impression on my designer-clad, MP3-toting students. Yes, there is life without malls, credit cards, and the latest clothing and this became more and more obvious as our journey continued.

We visited the memorial to Che Guevara in Santa Clara, and the beautiful cities of Cienfuegos and Trinidad. In Cienfeugos, the people of a CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) had a street party for us. Ordinary people ranging in age from 5 to 80 sang and danced for us, talked with us, and welcomed us with great warmth. We collected many donations for the trip and this was one of the places we gave clothing and personal items. We also presented the CDR with a large Canadian flag and gave Canadian pins to all present.

Our journey ended in an all-inclusive hotel on the Ancón peninsular near the beautiful town of Trinidad. The students loved the beach and the food but were they happy? No. Isolated from the Cubans, they longed to return to the lively, dusty, streets of Havana, the simple Hotel Vedado, and the constant company of Habaneros. On the day we left Cuba, I was amazed to see all the students, even the Grade 12 boys and our guide Onelio, in tears at the José Martí airport in Havana. This was my eighth trip to Cuba and the magic of the island and the warmth of the people never ceases to engulf me each time I return.

For more information on our trip, go to www.hellocuba.ca, click on schools and then click on Fraser Heights.

Jacqui Birchall teaches at Fraser Heights Secondary School, Surrey.

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