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I write this at the luxurious hour of 9 am (Havana-time)  It's 6 am in Portland and I've been up since 4, having gone to bed around 7 pm.  I spent the day yesterday soaking at the Kennedy pool in NE Portland and was alone there with my daughter for nearly half an hour when I heard a tap on the windows above me and looked up to see none other than my co-chaperone, Molly Grove who had similar ideas about visiting the Kenndey School for some post-trip R&R.

We packed a lot into our final day and a half in Cuba, visiting three schools, driving 60 km to Pinar del Rio, touring national monuments, a tobacco farm and taking a boat ride through some underground caves.  Into this, students fit in visits to Palladeros (authentic, home-based Cuban restaurants,) the Mercadio de Artesanias (Havana's equivalent of the Saturday Market,)  and several braved the heat and crowds to attend a massive outdoor concert. 

We departed for the airport at 2 pm and gazed out our bus windows as Ludwig waxed poetic saying he hoped our memories of Cuba would not be "lost as tears are to rain."  Although that sentiment earned a few eye-rolls, others' faces were trained on the rapidly disappearing landscape - absorbing what may be many of our final glimpses of laundry lines, Yank Tanks, revolutionary billboard slogans, las Damas de Blanco, coco taxis, crumbling neoclassical and art nouveau building façades, and, of course, Che...

Viva Cuba

We hope you will join us at our assembly on Thursday, April 15 at 10:40 to hear more about our adventures.

Thanks for reading,

Nance

Final Noche y Havana!!

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Mas Fotografia (Cinfuegos, Playa Giron, Trinidad, y Havana)

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Che School

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Days of Che

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Days 6 &7
We returned on a 6 hour bus ride from Trinidad to Havana. On the way we stopped at Santa Clara, the site of the Che Guevara memorial and mausoleum. It was impressed upon us that this site was one of immense national pride and the students behaved accordingly. We walked in silence into the crypt where Che’s remains (exhumed by archeologists in 1997 from the mass grave in Bolivia) reside alongside his comrades that were executed. We were surprised to see a single female – “Tania” prominently placed among the tombs inside.   We learned (after asking) that she was an Argentinian ally who joined the resistance in Bolivia. 
 
Today we woke early to drive about 1 ½ hours out of town to the Che Guevara school. We had the most magical experience there, interacting with the students and faculty. We were welcomed with a song and poetry performance and then our students were taken on a tour of the campus while I presented (with our translator’s assistance) a selection of short student films and photos from Catlin via a laptop and projector I brought to Cuba. The students were charmed by images our corner of the world.   However, it was the video of the amazing 9-touch boys’ soccer goal that inspired what came in our afternoon. In spite of the carefully planned agenda the school had prepared for us, the Che administrators threw the plan out the window in favor of a field-day sports challenge between our students and the students of Che Guevara.
 
We spent about 2 hours playing soccer, volleyball, kickball and simply hanging around in the vast fields surrounding the campus. Our teams consisted of players from the boys and girls varsity teams as well as ad-hoc participation by others on the trip who knew the games. The crowds were duly impressed by our girls’ prowess on the soccer pitch in particular. Although girls play soccer here, they do not appear to play formally as we do back home.
 
The Cuban players were tough and agile. They were accomplished ball handlers – scissoring around the ball as it progressed toward the goal, chipping perfectly aimed, high arc kicks and moving at lightning speed in the 95 degree, humid air. In the end, they bested us by a score of 3:1.
 
Our volleyball game was tighter. We had the advantage of incredibly gifted players from our team and the height of boys like Ari, Nikki and Ben who were able to dominate at the net. During the volleyball game, we did see some participation from one girl on the Cuban side, but by and large the girls were reticent to play despite assurances from the crowd that they were great athletes. 
 
Out in the fields, other students lounged in the grass sharing music via mp3 players, sang with guitars and posed for innumerable portraits together. Our students had meaningful conversations with the students at Che Guevara School about everything from politics, arts and foreign policy to fashion and popular culture. They made sure to exchange email, postal addresses and in some cases, phone numbers in order to keep in touch.
 
The harder part of our visit was seeing the extreme contrast in facilities and resources between our two schools. As with most schools we’ve visited, the buildings are in disrepair, the library shelves house books that while clearly well-read and loved, are also extremely out of date by our standards. Class sizes are large and the concept of electives is virtually nonexistent.
 
Most students at the school live in the nearby area, however a selection of students opt to board at the school during the week. When we broke for lunch it was clear that our simple Cuban lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, a piece of chicken and a 1 oz helping of chocolate cake was extravagant. At Roberto’s urging, we ate discreetly on the bus while the majority of the Che students transitioned to afternoon classes and then exited to bid our host students a truly bitersweet farewell.
 
Please post messages for us when you can!  We'd love to hear from you!!
N

Trinidad, Tourism y Socialism III

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Days 5, & 6
We’ve had an incredibly packed schedule for this first half of our journey and are now enjoying a half day of rest at our hotel in Trinidad, thus giving me some headspace to write this update. We have traveled 5 hours from Havana to Trinidad, stopping along the way at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) a large lake housing a replica Taino community (the original indigenous population of the Carribean.) and Cinfuegos (a French colonial settlement about an hour and a half outside Trinidad.)
 
The kids have been incredibly focused, flexible and kind to one another. It’s a large group and although we originally feared that traveling around in a gargantuan tour bus would make us stick out like stilt-walkers in a preschool; groups our size are ubiquitous throughout the country. Parking lots are jam-packed with double-decker, luxury tour busses and because other forms of transportation are hard to come by for Cuban citizens, we are among the ONLY vehicles on the road – sharing lanes with horse-driven carts, mopeds, bicycles and hordes of pedestrians.
 
Unpacking tourism is the real work our group has to grapple with. Virtually everywhere we go we see the dichotomy of being tourists in a socialist country. Hotels, restaurants, and historic sites are beautifully preserved – yet they are outposts in a sea of people living in abject conditions. Don’t get me wrong, everyone seems to genuinely appreciate us – earnestly inquiring about where we come from, do we like Cuba, sharing a bit of their lives with us. As our busses drive down streets and highways, people stop whatever they’re doing to wave.
 
Whenever we stop, at a historic site or a explicit humanitarian destination, we are in the position to offer little donations to individuals. Whether it’s a baseball to a group of kids playing in a vacant lot adjacent to a colonial mansion or a bar of soap to a mother begging on the street, we have had to balance on that delicate fulcrum between giving and receiving, reminding ourselves that they have something to offer us in the way of sharing their stories and smiles that would never occur in a similar panhandling situation in the States.   Forgetting my small humanitarian aid packets one day, I chose to give a seventy-year old woman a CUC after she discreetly approached me in Old Havana. As I handed it to her, she had tears in her eyes and kissed me on both cheeks. I saw her a couple other times that day and she came right up to me and embraced me or gripped my arm repeating her thanks – we’d connected in that moment.
 
Today we experienced an intensely different type of need as we made our way up the cobbled streets of Trinidad. We were there to see some of the town but our primary objective was to leave donated clothing and toothbrushes with the town’s central Cathedral. Almost from the instant we exited the busses, we were cased out by people looking for donations. Trinidad is far more remote than many other places we’ve been and you can see the need and desperation on the faces of the people there. We did give out large quantities (discreetly) of our mini aid kits and some toys to kids on the street, but we were unprepared for the crowds of women, men and children who began to stalk us on our journey to the Cathedral. It was incredibly hard on the kids to have to say “no mas” repeatedly when we ran out of kits. This is a community used to bartering and haggling and it took a lot to communicate to them that we were out of aid and time.
 
At 8 pm tonight, under the stars, I had an amazing conversation with my pod of 8 students (Logan, Lauren Ellis, Josh, Stephen, Brian, Jackson, Leah T., and Lily.) We discussed our day in Trinidad and the tension between being tourists in this place of desperate need. The students were so amazing – a credit to the years many of them have spent engaged in service at Catlin and on global excursions. They were candid with one another (without my prompting!) about their discomfiture about our accommodations knowing that the staff waiting on us needs to return to their homes in Trinidad. They talked about high and low points of the day. Brian gave a pair of yoyos to some boys outside the city’s cathedral and one of the boys called a third over and passed off one of the yoyos to share it.  He said he hoped that we'd all think about this when we're engaged in service in Portland.  Can't do better than that!
 
More to come.

N

PS - sorry about the randomness of the pictures! Uploading takes a LONG time here and it gets jumbled.

Trinidad, Tourism y Socialism part II

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Trinidad, Tourism y Socialism

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Day 4 y Havana

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We're all well today after our first of a series of visits to schools.  We began with a trip to a training facility for preservice teachers which includes a sort of lab-school for neighborhood children.  Afterward we went to the world's only Literacy museum.  It was all fun and games until we saw the blackboard taken from the Bay of Pigs that had been hacked apart with machetes!  Cuba leads the world in educating people in first world countries with their literacy model.

More to come.

Off to Trinidad tomorrow.

N

Notes from Cuba

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With only a few minutes left on my internet terminal, I wanted to share some of our observations from our trip so far...

There is no advertising in Cuba, save for billboards and murals celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Revolucion.

Very few people have cell phones, which in a group of people at a bus stop makes for the unfamiliar sight of everyone with their heads up, looking around instead of down.

Yank tanks abound, as do soviet-era cars and few new vehicles here and there.

Temperatures vary delightfully between the 60s at night and high 70s in the day, significantly lower than usual for this time of year, due to El Nino.

Our guide, Ludwig, can answer any question you ask him about Cuba. From identifying random structures in the skyline to answering probing questions about la raza de Cuba, he is an invaluable member of our trip, as is our expert bus driver who carefully avoids brave pedestrians, stray dogs, and narrow streets.

Oops! three minutes left to post--we'll try to put more up tomorrow!

Notes from Cuba

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With only a few minutes left on my internet terminal, I wanted to share some of our observations from our trip so far...

There is no advertising in Cuba, save for billboards and murals celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Revolucion.

Very few people have cell phones, which in a group of people at a bus stop makes for the unfamiliar sight of everyone with their heads up, looking around instead of down.

Yank tanks abound, as do soviet-era cars and few new vehicles here and there.

Temperatures vary delightfully between the 60s at night and high 70s in the day, significantly lower than usual for this time of year, due to El Nino.

Our guide, Ludwig, can answer any question you ask him about Cuba. From identifying random structures in the skyline to answering probing questions about la raza de Cuba, he is an invaluable member of our trip, as is our expert bus driver who carefully avoids brave pedestrians, stray dogs, and narrow streets.

Oops! three minutes left to post--we'll try to put more up tomorrow!

la fotografia

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y Havana

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Cuba Blog: Days 2&3
 
Forgive the delay in this posting. The hotel’s “cibercafe” is only open from 9-7 and we are often out between those precious hours. Add to this the fact that uploading photos takes about 15 minutes / image, and we’re simply on “el tiempo Cubano.”
 
Here’s a rundown of our first 36 hours:
We arrived just past midnight on Tuesday morning.   After our passage through customs, we were taken to a VIP room to await our guides who would escort us to the hotel. Cuban customs was truly one of the most surreal experiences of my life. We walked into a completely barren underground foyer with a solid wall housing several booth-type windows. We were directed to stand in line and when we made our way into the booths (one at a time) we were asked to pose for a photograph and several sleights of hand seemed to pass over our passports, visa and other necessary documents. Once “approved” we went through a door and emerged into a vibrantly colorful area with mosaic tile walls, customs agents wearing miniskirts and fishnet stockings, and more inspections of our baggage. There, we filled out additional paperwork and were then escorted to a VIP waiting area until our driver and luggage could be coordinated. It was nearly 1:30 am by the time we left the VIP area. We were so thrilled to be leaving when the customs agents (presumably) asked to detain 5 of our students for questions regarding food we had brought in our luggage. 4 of the 5 students were questioned and the 5th was made to repeat the entire entrance sequence! Shaken, we finally boarded our bus and were taken to the hotel.
 
Driving into town from the Airport, we were stricken by the large numbers of people assembled at street corners, talking into the late hours.   The streets themselves boasted very few cars or motorcycles and densely packed rows of houses and apartments. 
 
Day 2
We spent our early morning attending a very informative lecture by representative of the Havana historical society. I was impressed by the students’ ability to rally themselves after having gotten a maximum of 4 hours’ sleep! The students were engaged with our speaker and asked some very poignant questions about race relations in Cuba and how the perceptions of America have shifted with the Obama administration. All in español -of course.
 
Our afternoon was spent on a 5 hour walking tour of old Havana. The city is undergoing a major restoration project courtesy of one wealthy steward. We were blown away by the grandeur of the city, the neoclassical, art deco and Moorish architecture, the vibrant sherbet colors, the cleanliness and above all, the people. Old Havana is clearly a tourist hot spot. There are boutique hotels popping up everywhere and people dressed in colonial traditional costume walk the street in hopes of providing tourists with colorful photo ops in exchange for a few CUCs (the local currency.) Among the clearly staged trappings of the city, our students spied numerous incongruencies: secret police armed and ready on every corner, street dogs lying lethargically all over the place – even in the middle of the road, neighborhood children playing baseball down a less frequented alley, hide and seek in large plazas, people domestically hanging their laundry to dry from the terraces above the urban bustle below.
 
Exhausted from lack of sleep and the intensity of our first day, we called it an early night and got everyone to bed by 10.
 
Day 3
We woke by 7 to get an early start for our first destination: a former convent that now serves as a senior community center, child daycare and assisted living facility for children with medical disabilities. The route to this destination took us through part of the other 65% of old Havana, clearly in ruins. Buildings here are falling apart from weather, age, hurricanes and simple erosion. Entire corners of buildings are crumbling. People pop in and out of holes in walls that serve as their homes. The open-air market that we pass is receiving is morning delivery of meat, un-refrigerated and uncovered by a man riding a rusty tricycle.
 
As we approach the convent, it’s clear here that the city’s benefactor’s attentions have been hard at work. The building is pristine with beautiful landscaping, flowing water fountains and teak plantation chairs for each of the some 300 seniors assembled to greet us. 
 
Our reception was overwhelming. Handmade cards, songs and warm smiles, hugs and applause were showered upon our group. We spoke briefly to the crowd and were then shuttled upstairs to see the children’s facilities. It was interesting that no actual children appeared to be on the premises. Our students were deeply disappointed not to be able to spend more time chatting with the seniors so we agreed that a smaller delegation of students would return later in the day for a visit, chaperoned by Mark and our guide Ludwig.
 
Following the senior center, we went to a cigar factory. No photography was allowed in the factory, so I’ll do my best to capture it in words. It was an amazing sight to see room upon room of people working to assemble each stage of the cigar by hand. There was one room where nearly 25 women sat in special leather chairs with benches attached to them to sort tobacco leaves. Another room housed 250 people rolling cigars by hand, another area for the banding, and a final area for packaging. It was noted that most of the workers at the factory were of Afro-Cuban descent. There was also a local news crew there producing a piece about young employees of the factory (although no one appeared younger than about 18.) Our guide explained that although there is no policy for people of different backgrounds working in different trades – generally speaking the “white collar work” in the hotel / tourist industry is carried out by people with lighter skin, while the manual labor jobs tend to be carried out by people of African descent.
 
We left the factory after our hour-long tour and boarded the bus for Hemmingway’s historic home. Located closer to the coast, Hemmingway’s estate is everything you’d picture it to be. Located on top of a hill, the land falls away in rolling valleys filled with banana, palm trees and tropical flowers. Dogs roam freely (as they do elsewhere) but this particular pack seems to be more welcoming and proprietary of their domicile. They rushed to greet us and escorted us around the estate, making us honorary pack members.
 
After Hemmingway’s house, we moved on to a nearby seaside village Cojimar and had an incredible seafood lunch of paella, fritters and bouillabase. Mark discovered a local bodega approximately 100 yards from the restaurant and took a group of us on a tour there. It was alarming to the kids (and to me) to see what the people who worked at the restaurant had to use for their own personal grocery shopping. The store was nothing more than a bare garage with a few pallets of eggs, sugar and about 4 bottles of baby formula. In Cuba, the government issues the equivalent of food-stamps to purchase the necessary items for living (1 kilo of rice / month for example.) However, as we are discovering, those stamps are only good at these bodegas and there is no guarantee that the bodega will have an adequate supply of the items you might need. You get what you get. People don’t have extra income to take a cab to the next bodega, so many rely on supplemental income from begging, performing music in tourist spots, etc. 
 
More to come.
 
Besos y abrazos todos!
Nancy

In Cancun

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