Lead Story

A Truly Remarkable Trip

martinnelson, May 10th, 2016

Traveling to Cuba through Mays is an opportunity that will not disappoint any student. I am excited for the future of this program, and the unique privilege we have at A&M to learn about a country that has been kept in the past for far too long.

To any interested student, you are going to learn a wealth of information about Cuban politics, economics, and agriculture. On our last night in Cuba, a group of professors from a school in Massachusetts visited the residence where we were staying to have dinner with us and to hear about our experiences. It was in that moment I truly realized how much we had learned on our trip. Every person in our group had different insights to provide them. One of the greatest aspects about the trip to Cuba is it will provide you with an opportunity to learn organically, not from a textbook, but from sharing conversations with people. The Cubans are the most open, intelligent, and friendly people I have ever had the privilege of talking with.

One of our overnight trips involved travelling to the countryside to a place called Viñales. This community of people has opened up their personal homes for visitors to stay and experience their way of life. We toured a tobacco farm, ate fresh food, and drank the best mango juice we have ever experienced. However, the most memorable part of the trip to me was meeting a particular farmer while on a hike. A trail led directly into his backyard. Slightly unsure of where to go, a fellow traveler and I were about to turn around when this man appeared. He immediately welcomed us and proceeded to tell us how he grew and processed coffee beans. Not only that, but went out of his way to walk us to where the trail continued and told us of two caves in the side of the mountain we could explore. It’s these acts of genuine kindness that I will never forget and take with me throughout my life.

Traveling to Cuba through Mays is an opportunity that will not disappoint any student. I am excited for the future of this program, and the unique privilege we have at A&M to learn about a country that has been kept in the past for far too long.

To any interested student, you are going to learn a wealth of information about Cuban politics, economics, and agriculture. On our last night in Cuba, a group of professors from a school in Massachusetts visited the residence where we were staying to have dinner with us and to hear about our experiences. It was in that moment I truly realized how much we had learned on our trip. Every person in our group had different insights to provide them. One of the greatest aspects about the trip to Cuba is it will provide you with an opportunity to learn organically, not from a textbook, but from sharing conversations with people. The Cubans are the most open, intelligent, and friendly people I have ever had the privilege of talking with.

One of our overnight trips involved travelling to the countryside to a place called Viñales. This community of people has opened up their personal homes for visitors to stay and experience their way of life. We toured a tobacco farm, ate fresh food, and drank the best mango juice we have ever experienced. However, the most memorable part of the trip to me was meeting a particular farmer while on a hike. A trail led directly into his backyard. Slightly unsure of where to go, a fellow traveler and I were about to turn around when this man appeared. He immediately welcomed us and proceeded to tell us how he grew and processed coffee beans. Not only that, but went out of his way to walk us to where the trail continued and told us of two caves in the side of the mountain we could explore. It’s these acts of genuine kindness that I will never forget and take with me throughout my life.

Categories: 2016 Trip, Home

After a night spent enjoying each others’ company and Brazos’ strumming on a guitar that was rustled up in mysterious fashion from one of the locals, it was time to congregate the next morning. Following the freshest breakfast I’ve experienced in my life, Brandon (my roommate for the evening) and I exchanged broken pleasantries with our hostess and strolled easily to where the professors and some of the group had gathered.

Steadily, the remainder amassed and we walked down to the end of the street to the tobacco farm we would be touring. By sheer dumb luck, Brandon and I had stumbled upon the farm the evening before in our afternoon free time, during which we were able to get a brief private tour of the farm. Leading our group was Sandra, our spectacular program coordinator/tour guide, who proceeded to translate for the woman who owned the tobacco farm. Brandon and I found this somewhat amusing since the evening prior, we had spent considerable time discussing her farm in near perfect English (which, I might add, she taught herself from tourists that stopped through the town), but judged it prudent to respect her choice of language.

While she conveyed to us the processes involved in planting and cultivating her crops, several of us were able to sample the fruits of her family’s labors. Much of this entailed the time to maturity and cycling for the tobacco leaves, coffee plants, various other produce, and honey collection from bee hives. She went on to discuss how a certain percentage of her crop was surrendered to the government, which was then distributed to the large factories for mass production of cigars. With the remaining tobacco, farmers are allowed to formulate their own blends of flavors and spices to distinguish their cigars from the factory productions, which can be sold to locals or to tourists. An unspoken fact, though, is that oftentimes tourists pay much more than the locals, but that has much to do with relative wealth and the dual currency system under which Cuba operates.

At this point, we were allowed free reign to look about the farm. Many wandered to the large, shaded barn where months of tobacco leaves were hung to dry in stacked rows. Others managed to accumulate adorable farm animals.

Extending our many thanks for such an awesome opportunity to explore her land, we returned the collection of baby animals and returned to our original gathering point to begin our return from Viñales to Havana.

Categories: 2016 Trip, Home

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have traveled extensively, visiting countries from Poland to Panama. As any traveler would, I picked up on the cultural elements that made each society unique, but also picked up on the similarities shared among various nations. I can say without a doubt that my experience in Cuba allowed me to discover the most unique place I have ever visited. A country that challenged my expectations, pushed me to discover, and allowed me to interact with their people.

When we arrived in Cuba, I was unsure of what to expect. Cuba has long been mysterious to Americans, so I was deeply interested in what I would discover. The first discovery that our group quickly made was that the Cuban currency system is incredibly complicated. We had gone over currency during our pre-departure classes, but realized once we were in-country that it has a large impact on normal Cubans. The Cuban monetary system utilizes two currencies: the CUP and CUC. The CUC is meant for tourists, who legally are not allowed to use CUPs in transactions. As a result, the CUCs are much higher in value, which has driven thousands of Cubans to seek employment in the tourism sector. It is not uncommon in Cuba for a doorman at a hotel to make four or five times more in monthly income than a doctor! This was certainly something I had never seen before, and would be unheard of in almost any other country in the world.

My expectations for Cuba were framed from my visits to countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, where large portions of the population struggle economically. As a result, many are undernourished, unhealthy, and live in makeshift shacks. I was shocked to see very little of this in Cuba. Every citizen is provided a ration card by the government, and citizens “own” their apartments or houses, allowing them to live their rent and debt-free. For many Cubans, up to 90% of their income is used to supplement these rations, leaving few funds for the few consumer items that can be obtained. As a result of these policies, there are surprisingly few malnourished and homeless inside of Cuba, which completely shattered my original expectations. This observation was summed up succinctly by an American I met in the former Havana Hilton, who said, “the worst here [Cuba] is better than the worst in Mexico or other Latin American countries, but the best in those countries is much better than the best here.” This is a statement I completely agree with, as I never saw the level of poverty that I had seen in other Central American nations, a fact that was true in both Havana and the surrounding countryside.

Cuba also shattered my expectations about how much investment and development is needed there. Cuba requires billions of dollars of investment in their infrastructure to rebuild roads, railway systems, modernization of telecommunications, and utilities. A banking system also needs to be created and maintained to allow the economy to realize its full potential. Due to government restrictions, very few Cubans have access to internet. When it is available, it is expensive, and their activity is monitored. In my opinion, for Cuba to truly flourish, these investments in infrastructure and information must be made to ensure the long-term welfare of the Cuban people. I was encouraged by the talks held in Havana between Presidents Obama and Castro, but Cuba must continue to reform and allow investment to improve the welfare of their people.

My final surprise was the Cuban people. Truly, they are warm-hearted, generous, and believe that the future holds great potential. They are very friendly, approachable, and go out of their way to make sure visitors feel welcome, something we witnessed not only in our Residencia, but on the streets as well.

Cuba has been and will remain a mystery to many Americans. The improvement in relations will allow many to experience something completely new, just as our group did. With the continued thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, increased investment and development, I am positive that Cuba will begin to emerge from the shadows and fulfill its true potential.

Categories: 2016 Trip

This trip was amazing. I had always wanted to study abroad and Mays offers so many opportunities to do so. I started researching online and was amazed when I saw the listing for a study abroad trip to Cuba, of all places, scheduled for Winter 2016. It worked perfectly with my schedule and I thought it would be a wonderful experience and opportunity to be different from any other study abroad trip. We were the first student group to go and I can absolutely say we left our mark there and planted seeds for other groups to go back. We took classes and attended lectures from top professors at the University of Havana on topics including their current economic state, agriculture, the growing tourism industry and more. These professors were brilliant and we learned so much. We spent most of our nights in Havana, the capital city, maybe a half mile from the coast. I came to know that city very well, and got a real feel for the culture. My Spanish is spotty at best and I was still able to communicate okay with most of the locals. That was one of my favorite parts and I was amazed at how nice they were, their attitudes toward the obviously communist government and how they live their daily lives. Despite the country’s many restrictions to foreign travel, we were still able to have a wonderful ‘touristy’ portion to the trip when we traveled outside the city to the town of Vinales. One thing I will never forget is riding on horseback through the mountains in the beautiful evening sunset.

 

Categories: 2016 Trip

I applied for the Cuba program for two reasons, to go somewhere few Americans have been and because I am interested in entrepreneurship and how it manifests itself in a country where most of the economy is run by the government. I knew very little about Cuba except that it is a country on the verge of change and that it won’t be in its current state for much longer, and in terms of expectations, I had none, I had no idea what to expect except for 50’s cars and cigars.

Pre-Departure meetings were held every other Sunday and gave us the opportunity to learn a little more about Cuban economics, history and culture. They allowed me to meet my peers who I would be traveling with for 2 weeks and learn much more about Cuba from our diverse presenters.

When we first arrived to Havana I was struck by how foreign the place felt. I never imagined that a place so close to America would feel so different and I think it would be fair to say that I felt overwhelmed. As my peers and I became more accustomed to the city and each other my confidence in navigating the busy streets of Havana increased to where I began to feel totally at ease. Even with my subpar Spanish I was able to get around just fine. The trip was focused on entrepreneurship so naturally we talked to as many entrepreneurs as we could. From shopkeepers to restaurant owners to barbers, each person had a unique story to tell and were amazing people to meet. I couldn’t even comprehend the risks they had to take to make the dream of being a small business owner come true.

Cuba is an incredible country! On this trip I saw some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable, met some amazing people and made some life long friends. Cuba is a vibrant country with some of the warmest people that I’ve ever met and their laid back but accommodating attitude was something that I really identified with. This really was a once in a lifetime experience and I can confidently say will be one of the best trips I’ll ever go on in my life!

Categories: 2016 Trip, Home

Cuba Study Abroad 2016

When I found out about the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba I knew I could not pass up on such a unique trip.  Upon acceptance I began some basic research of the country we know so little about.  Of course, most of us know about the famous Cuban missile crisis and the laws forbidding free trade with Cuba for the last 50 some-odd years, but so few of us actually have any basis for imagination of the mysterious country only 90 miles south of our own United States.

With such limited concrete knowledge of Cuba, we could hardly develop expectations for the trip.  That aspect essentially made everything about our travel experience a surprise.  The journey began in Havana where we were immediately immersed in the Cuban culture.  We stayed in a local resident’s home in a very convenient location.  The owners of the home cooked our meals, washed our clothes, and graciously cleaned up after us daily.  We had 2 drivers who escorted us to all of our daily activities.  The Cuban nationals were exceedingly friendly and loved interacting with Americans (whether we could communicate or not).  They were so welcoming of us into their homes and businesses.  Cuba is one of the safest destinations I have traveled to and I was never concerned for myself or others on the trip.

A privately owned business in Cuba is called a “Paladar.”  Entrepreneurs brave enough to start their own Paladar were the focus of our trip.  We visited many of these Paladars and interviewed the owners/founders.  Hearing their intriguing stories of how they were able to open their own businesses and why they chose to do so was astonishing.  We visited everything from restaurants and farms to barber shops and resorts on the beach and listened to the fascinating stories of these entrepreneurs.  Although it was not completely necessary to be proficient in Spanish (I can hardly make a sentence) it wouldn’t hurt to have some background in the language.  Overall, the trip changed my life and the way I view individuals, politics, foreign affairs, and the definition of happiness.  I am proud to have been one of the first U.S. ambassadors to Cuba and would strongly recommend this trip to anyone who is already interested enough to have read this.  It’s unlike anything else you will ever do and NOW is the time.

Categories: 2016 Trip

Before being accepted for this trip I had very little knowledge about Cuba besides the Bay of Pigs and the 1950s cars. Even after being admitted into the class I had a very limited idea of what to expect once we arrived in Cuba. In our biweekly classes the semester leading up to the trip we learned a lot about the history and culture of Cuba, but I do not know if anything could have fully prepared me for the Cuban experience.

Overall it was an amazing, once in a lifetime trip. We fully immersed ourselves in the Cuban experience, from the food to the language. We meet some fascinating people, experienced incredible hospitality, and heard inspiring stories from the entrepreneurs who have created so much from so little.

After the Revolution, the Cuban government privatized all business. This meant that outside of your government assigned job, there was no way to legally make a living. Slowly the government allowed people to start their own businesses. At first you could operate a business but you could not hire any employees and everything required very strict and expensive permits. Over the years the government has loosened the restrictions and currently 26% of the population is not employed by the Cuban government and they are hoping to reach 40% in the next few years. While that number may seem small and uninfluential to the free market economy we are used to in America, it is actually a huge accomplishment for a communist government. We met several inspiring entrepreneurs including restaurant owners, an organic farmer, a salon owner, and my personal favorite a barber that transformed a barbershop operating out his living room into an art showcase, a nonprofit barber school, and a community development cooperative.

It was clear throughout the whole trip that the people of Cuba have experienced a lot in their lifetimes but that they are excited about the future. Everyone was excited to meet and talk to you and tell you their story. The people really do love their country and its culture. They are extremely proud, and rightfully so, of what their country has accomplished and overcome. They do not want aid, only opportunity. They do not ask for anything, but are always excited to show you more about their lives and their culture. The people, the business they have started, and the culture they have surrounded themselves in are inspiring and infectious.

We hiked a mountain at sunrise, rode a boat through a dark cave, learned how to salsa, ate endless amounts of black beans and rice, experienced incredible artwork, explored the beautiful University of Havana, visited the previously vacant American Embassy, and so so much more. I loved this trip and everything about it. If I could change one thing about it, I would have asked for more time in Cuba, but for now I cannot wait to go back.

 

Categories: 2016 Trip

This trip is one of a kind.

Cuba is a country unlike any other, especially the United States. The really incredible thing about this trip is getting to see just how different institutions like schools, hospitals, and government programs can be, how different people’s lives and opportunities can be, and how different cultures can be just because of the structure of the economy in a country. Cuba is full of wonderful, well-educated, globally-minded people that want to improve their lives as well as their communities. This trip introduced us to some of these people, but more importantly, it gave us a glimpse into the greater cultural mindset of Cubans: the value of community, the value of motivation, and the value of history. Cubans today are in touch with where their roots are; the isolation that the country has experienced has created a country that is more in tune with and prideful of its short history than perhaps any other.

All the talk about macro-level culture and ideologies aside, Cuba is in a tumultuous time: the effects of brain drain, an aging population, and economic insecurity are taking a toll on the country, causing the beginnings of an economic upheaval as ties begin to warm up between Cuba and the US. What made this trip so exciting was getting to visit right now, during the period when the least is known about the future. Will the embargo end? Will Cuba remain Communist? Will US investment help or hurt Cuba? Our group examined all these questions and many more by talking to business owners, economists, embassy personnel. and foreigners traveling or doing business in Cuba. This trip allows you to come to your own conclusions, do your own research, and live for 10 days in a society completely unlike our own, experiencing the instability that Cubans live with daily for yourself.

What really blew me away about the trip was the hospitality we experienced. Our guides, hosts, speakers, visitors, and many others made us feel comfortable wherever we went, even with our limited Spanish ability. Cuba is an incredibly safe, literate, and educated country, and never for a minute did we doubt that while we visited. We visited 3 different cities and numerous small businesses, and at each we felt like guests of honor.

Our small group (16 students, 2 professors, 1 local guide) made it easy to bond, travel, and share our experiences, so within a day we already felt like we’d known each other for weeks.

I cannot recommend this trip highly enough for anyone who is interested in: Latin American culture and history, international business, economics, entrepreneurship, or political science.

– Brazos Elkins

Categories: 2016 Trip

Cuba Business 2016

Categories: Home