Story by Kelley Bruss
he classic American mental picture of Cuba features a rainbow of vintage cars, posed on cobbled roads.
“It all kind of looks planned,” said Maggie Donnellan ’18. “And it’s not at all. It is definitely stuck in time.”
Those cars, the ones that make such great photos, “are older cars that are actually falling apart,” Donnellan said after spending three weeks in Cuba with a Furman University May X class. Now, the image left in her mind is of Cuba’s people.
“Cuba is the most resourceful country. Period,” Donnellan said.
The May Experience – May X – offers compact, real-life learning experiences, many of which involve travel abroad. English Professor Nick Radel, Ph.D., and Communication Studies Professor Rich Letteri, Ph.D., developed a May X travel writing course that studied in Italy in 2015. This year, they decided to run the same course in Cuba, taking advantage of shifting political winds to explore a country that most Americans know only through history books.
“In some ways, they probably learned infinitely more here,” Dr. Radel said. “There was evidence in their essays that they really began to wonder what it meant to live in Cuba.”
n 2015, President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and both countries re-opened each other’s embassies. But while the United States’ 1960 embargo remains in place, tourist trips to Cuba are still illegal. However, permission to travel to the country has been and continues to be granted on a case-by-case basis under 12 specific licenses. Education is one of them.
Travel writing asks the students to get out of their own heads – a crucial skill in a liberal arts program.
“This is about a place, the meaning of a place, the value of a place,” Dr. Radel said.
But it isn’t only about the place.
“Travel’s also a great occasion to take yourself apart, analyze yourself,” he said.
Katie Foster ’17 got to know a teen-aged girl who lived in the Havana home where Foster stayed for several days.
“She wasn’t as hungry for American culture” as you might have expected, Foster said, describing the girl as “interested but not fixated.”
“We think that we’re the center of the world and we’re not,” she said.
The professors added a component to their May X program this year, requiring students who would travel to Cuba to take a course during the spring semester and learn more about the political, economic and cultural history of the country.
“We wanted them to understand that America had a vexed relationship with Cuba and Cuba wasn’t necessarily all in the wrong,” Dr. Radel said.
Donnellan wasn’t sure how that would play out in the country, when Cubans realized where the group was from. She was pleasantly surprised.
“I didn’t feel any animosity toward Americans or America as a whole,” she said. “I think the Cubans are as curious about Americans as we are about Cubans.”
Foster called them “some of the warmest people in the world.”
“The poorer areas we were in, the more generous the Cubans were to us,” Donnellan said.
he students weren’t the only ones encountering surprises. “I thought of Havana as a quaint, colonial place,” Dr. Radel said. “It’s a huge city.”He also saw more development and more evidence of social classes than he expected.
“If you’re in downtown Havana and you want to pay for it, there are some very nice hotels,” Dr. Letteri said. Certain streets “would rival the French quarter in New Orleans.”
On the other hand, there were constant reminders that many Cubans live in a perpetual state of deprivation. A bathroom might occasionally have soap, but rarely paper towels. Items considered basic necessities in the States – dish soap, toilet paper, medications – are hard to come by.
Oppressive heat brought the Americans up close to the realities of unreliable electrical service and absent or non-functioning air conditioning units. And aside from sweet fresh fruits, the cuisine didn’t spark the palate like many in the group expected.
“We ate more rice and beans than I ever have in my entire life,” Donnellan said.
Tourism has been operating in Cuba for decades. It’s only that Americans have been mostly absent. Donnellan met travelers from Denmark, Australia and Canada.
Since the industry is government-run, the Furman group expected – and got – a healthy dose of propaganda, both in talks and the selection of sights that were deemed must-see. But group members felt free to talk with both their guides and the few people they met who spoke English.
Foster recalled one of the guides telling her, “I don’t love socialism, but I don’t hate it.”
But in another encounter, an older Cuban used an expletive and the word “dictator” to talk about Fidel Castro.
“He just went on and on,” Foster said.
Traveling in Europe, even when it’s new for students, quickly becomes a comfortable and normal-feeling experience. Cuba was not like that.
“This, as they stayed longer and longer, got stranger and stranger and more difficult for them,” Dr. Letteri said.
Coming home, the travelers learned quickly that people here were eager for a glimpse of life in a country that’s among our nearest neighbors.
“It wasn’t like we were the first Americans,” Foster said. “But it was a special time to go.”
A Personal Experience
Some of the Furman students’ most personal experiences in Cuba came in Havana, when they stayed in “casa particulares” – literally a rented portion of someone’s home. Many of the essays students completed for the course drew on their interactions with host families.
Maggie Donnellan wrote about a patio garden that seemed out of place in her Havana host’s otherwise practical and barren home. But when Monica invited Maggie to join her on the patio early one morning, things became clear.
“Every morning, Monica wakes up, slides on her threadbare slippers which sleep right outside her bedroom door every night, and walks down the hall past her three children, mother, and exchange students all still deeply asleep. She does not flick on a lamp, because she knows that soon enough, the Havana sun will rise again and she will have enough light.
She waters each plant with recycled rainwater which she collects in rusty buckets and decaying, plastic bowls from the gutters above. She takes care of the plants like she does her three children, with a strict attentiveness and instinctual grace.
Monica goes on to say that the plants are good for her energy and soul. She likes to see them greet her every morning. Each flower is special and pretty with varying colors and sizes…
At first, the garden and keeping it alive was tedious, but now Monica views it as a therapy of sorts. She and her friends sometimes chat over tiny coffee cups on the balcony enjoying the garden and its beauty.
At my Tennessee home, with water, fertilizer, and internet inspiration to share, gardens grow in abundance. We grow hundreds of tomatoes and flowers on a whim, and occasionally let them die even quicker. We appreciate the beauty and occasionally the functionality of our plants, but only when going to the grocery store down the street is less convenient.
Yet their true purpose surpasses us. The peace, calm, and happiness brought by a dawn wakeup call and morning rituals float over our heads. The simplicity of watering flowers and keeping them alive, not just for their beauty, but instead for their function and utility unfortunately is not a part of our world.
This misshapen, mismatched, and misplaced patio on the corner of Calle 23yB in Havana Cuba is the most extravagantly purposeful piece of Monica’s house. My question about her garden silences her normally talkative nature. How does one explain something that provides beauty in such a utilitarian lifestyle?”