Friday, August 10, 2012

5 out of billions of things that will surprise you Cuba has to offer

1.     Yellow Submarine
``                          Not too far from the hotel we stayed at is one of the most pleasant surprises that Cuba has to offer. Not only are Americans huge Beatles fans but you can almost argue Cubans are above us on love for the Beatles. Next to John Lennon park is a Bar/club in which is decorated full of Beatles memorabilia. Pictures, records, lyrics on the wall, Submarine inspired glass windows and one of the best Beatles cover band Cuba has to offer. The entire experience was a trip of sorts, something you can’t compare to anything America has to offer. If you ever find yourself in Cuba be sure to stop and take a trip to Beatle heaven, where everyone has Beatle fever.
2.     Old Havana
Being in Havana has many benefits, one of which is that once entering old Havana you feel as if you have gone to the past. The streets are narrow and some are made of cobbled stone. It is such a pleasure to be able to walk through those streets.

3.     Visiting Artist’s studios
We had the privilege of going to the studios of Cuban artists, something that UNO’s program gave us the special privilege of being able to do. Our group was able to visit the home/studios of three artists. The first of which was named Salvador Gonzalez Escalona who has transformed an entire block into a work of art. All the walls and the sides of buildings are decorated with his Santeria inspired work. The second artist we were able to meet is Eduin Fraga who works in the more contemporary vein of Cuban art. His work is mostly political and mostly works in the mixed media realm with just a few of his pieces being acrylic paintings. The third and final artist who we had the privilege of going to his house is the artist Jose Fuster who works with both ceramics and also paints. Now he really blew me out of the water. He has transformed his entire neighborhood into a work of art but has taken it to the extend that the only way to believe it is to walk through his house and the streets he has transformed.  Cuba to say the least is every artists dream.
4.     The organic Agricultural urban cooperative of Alamar
Its not everyday you get to visit an organic farm or any farm in that case. This program offered us a chance to see how organic farms work. Cuba has had to provide itself with materials and food; so organic farming was the most sustainable future it had. Here everything was fertile and so green. There is a component of the farm that caught my attention. In this particular farm they hire the elderly, this to my surprise has worked well for the farm and has even improved the quality of life for the elderly. After the lovely tour of the farm we were treated to a fabulous lunch that was made up of products of the farm. This food was the best I have ever had.  I hope that one day in the U.S. we too can grow most of our crops from organic farms and adopt a healthy lifestyle that most Cubans have now become accustomed to.

5.     Healthcare System
In the U.S. people seem to boast that we have the best healthcare system the world has to offer. With that said I would like for people to take a look at what Cuba has done to prepare and educate doctors and how they treat patients. In the light of all the babbling of Healthcare reform and options we have, we should look at how Cuba has presented people with free healthcare and prepared some of the best Doctors. There for every eighty people there is one doctor. Their doctors take preventative care and apply it to all their patients so to avoid the problem all together. In Cuba there is this obligation to provide this basic necessity.  Healthcare is for everyone regardless of race and socio economic standing.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Cuban Experience

The entire experience in Cuba was amazing. From the first day to the last, I have no complaints about anything. Getting into the country sucked, but that doesn’t really count. Once there, it was all good. All of the people I met were great; the food, the rum, the music were all great as well. The places we visited around the city were amazing, as was the beach and all of the old cars.  There are problems, of course, just as there are problems everywhere. The streets all seemed well maintained, but the sidewalks were horrendous in many areas.

The thing that stands out the most for me is the people. The people I met while in Cuba are almost universally friendly. Especially the people involved with Okan Tomi and Espiral. The time we spent with them is an experience I will never forget and will treasure for the rest of my life. Even if I never lay eyes on any of them again, my memories of them all will be fond. I was able to get to know a few people fairly well, and whether it was at the theater, at dinner, at the beach, or playing dominoes, I always had a good time. The performances by Okan Tomi are wonderful, and the work done by Espiral is equally wonderful. There are several Cubans who may come to Nebraska, and I hope they are able to make it. Given future opportunities, I will not hesitate to go to Cuba again and again. And given an opportunity, you should go as well.

The food was always good, with the pork and chicken dishes being my favorites. I am not much of a seafood eater, but I did try the fish once and it was tasty. Pizza and Italian are popular as well. There are two local beers which are both good. Mojitos are a popular drink, but without a doubt, my drink of choice while in the country was rum and cola, which is called a Cuba Libre. It is made with the locally produced rum called Havana Club. One of my stops while in Havana was at the Rum Museum, which was small but interesting.

As a group we watched live bands play on several occasions. We went to a jazz club and a place called the Yellow Submarine, along with a few others. The Yellow Submarine (yes, named for the Beatles) was a great club and had a really good band playing. Between sets there was an eclectic and great mix of music videos. The jazz band we saw was full of super talented musicians and put on a great performance. Speaking of musicians, the percussionists of Okan Tomi are amazing as well. They are the driving musical force behind the dances the group performs. The dances are mesmerizing and completely amazing. Unfortunately there is no way to put it into words how great they truly are. Hopefully they will be able to perform at the Orpheum someday and you will be able to see for yourself.

Cuba is completely misunderstood by the majority of Americans. Do not confuse politics or ideas about Castro with the Cuban people. The people are not so very different from us, and hopefully, someday soon, everyone will be able to experience the greatness of Cuba.
Jeff Wattier


 “A writer’s job is not to judge, but to seek to understand.” –Hemingway

What is there to say about Cuba? About Cubans? I’ve always hated the invariable, gushing assertion from any traveler abroad that the people of an area are “wonnnderful.” A skeptic might point to the deep pockets of the American tourist as the inspiration for the brightest smiles and sweetest compliments in the so-called Third World. I can’t say that I would disagree. The true source of my indignation, though, lies deep beneath a well-worn suit of armor constructed of only the finest cynicism with the sickeningly sweet belief that people everywhere are wonderful. To be sure, people are flawed and often misguided, but ultimately aren’t the great majority of us wonderful?

So what is it that makes me want to describe the Cubans as such? Our last night in Havana, we had the opportunity to celebrate with several members of Proyecto Espiral, a grassroots community-based group with whom we had been working all week. It was great to see these two groups of people from seemingly different backgrounds interact and just have a good time. Even I (shy to a fault and less than proficient in Spanish) was able to let my guard down and really try to communicate and connect with a group of people ultimately not so different from myself. At the beginning of the trip, I was nervous that I might encounter some animosity as an American in Cuba. However, I always felt that I was welcome and that people were open to hearing and discussing the various advantages and disadvantages of our two countries. I think that is what really stuck me as so “wonnnderful” about the Cuban people; among them you find a certain humility that is lacking in the United States.

I think perhaps one of the greatest problems plaguing the American public today is not debt, obesity, or even our unfailing allegiance to the likes of Facebook and the iPhone, but our arrogance. In the US, so many people have the set mentality that we truly are the greatest nation in the world. We have put ourselves high on a pedestal with the intention of illuminating our nation but with the effect of isolating it. Certainly, there is much in the United States to be admired, but we need to bring ourselves back down to a level where we can admit our faults and see other nations for what they really are.  We are so quick to judge those different from ourselves, but do we ever really take the time to try to understand? How is it that we list Cuba among our enemies? When I look back, I can only find friends.

I think the United States is still clinging to old Cold War grudges and in doing so is blinded from seeing the lunacy of our continuing embargo against Cuba. The Cuba I saw is not a threat to the United States. It is my hope and belief that soon our two nations will be able to work together as friends and neighbors to accept our differences while learning from one another. 
Christina Nespor

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Satisfaction of Collaboration

This is perhaps one of the most satisfying days as a professor that I have ever had.  Even as you plan things and events you hope that they can bear the fruit of your labors, and over time you learn to be humble and grateful whatever the results because in the end you have an idea that things worked or didn’t but you don’t gloat because things are never as good or as bad as we perceive them to be, especially when you work with human beings. So as I conceived of this service learning trip to Cuba I could only hope that I could bring together two Cuban groups (one a community service collective and the other a Afro-Cuban dance and cultural group) and have my students engaged in a renovation project of the theater that the dance group now calls home. Everybody performed far beyond my expectations and at first glance the essence of service learning has come to life. We prepped the walls of the theater for painting by scrapping, chipping and cleaning the surface for plastering. Tomorrow an army of painters from all three groups will contribute to yet another step in the remaking of an abandoned 1940’s film house into something that more and more looks like a performance space. So much work remains, sound tiles, ceiling tiles, flooring, plumbing, lighting all need to be brought into the 21st century but we have already contributed to enhancing the integrity of the building today so that we can return in the future and work with our new-found Cuban collaborators to improve this space for them, their community and generations to come.
Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

Organic Urban Farming

Our Meal at the Cooperative
My time in La Habana, Cuba has been truly extraordinary and eye opening. I can say that Cuba has nothing like what I expected it to be. During my visit I have had the opportunity to visit some amazing places and speak to various Cuban citizens of various backgrounds, age, and occupations about various issues that affect Cuban society such as poverty, education, and healthcare. I feel that there is a lot the United States could learn from Cuba especially in the areas education, healthcare, and organic farming.
On Wednesday the group had the privilege of being able to visit and tour the Organic Agricultural Urban Cooperative of Alamar. I was amazed in the achievements this cooperative has done in the field of organic farming. On this farm they grow various vegetables, herbs, fruits, fruit trees, and decorative plants. In the entire farm they don’t use a single gram of chemicals. The cooperative even creates their own pest repellents using only natural/organic components and they also reproduce many species of insects that naturally help keep the crops pest free. For fertilizer they create their own fertilizers varying from manure, hummus, and compost.

I also found very interesting that unlike the United States where organic produce tends to cost more than “regular” produce which often tends to keep people from buying organic, in Cuba the organic produce in priced cheaper than the inorganic produce in order to encourage the population to eat organic produce and by doing so Cuba is helping its citizenry live healthier lifestyles. I believe that it would be highly beneficial for the United States to consider doing something along those lines so they can help people of all social classes live a healthy lifestyle.
After the tour of their facilities the cooperative director offered us a great meal consisting only of produce that had been grown in their farms. The meal consisted of pineapple, mango, beans, vegetable soup, bananas, cucumber, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, and fresh mango juice. I can honestly say that out of all the amazing meals that we have had in our time in Cuba that the one at the organic farm was the best and the healthiest.

I hope to see something similar to this cooperative in the United States, especially in Nebraska. I feel it would be a great way to encourage everyone to eat organic foods and live healthier lifestyles.
Gabriel Gutierrez

Our Day on July 17th

Today we visited Revolution Square and learned about its importance.  We found out that protests are preformed there on many occasions and in 1998 the pope spoke in there.  We visited an area that honored individuals that are regarded as intellectuals and influential people in Cuban culture and history.  The list included U.S. individuals.  Some of the U.S. individuals included Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglas, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.  The influence U.S. had on Cuba through its intellectuals surprised me and many of my classmates.  The classroom readings never mentioned these issues and it was very enjoyable to see this in real-life. 

We then visited a 1930s historic hotel called Hotel Nacional.  It was popular ‘back in the day’ because of mob connections and now many famous people stay at the hotel.  Interestingly enough, Nebraska’s own, Dave Heineman, stayed at the hotel in 2005.  Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado explained he was conducting an agriculture agreement with Cuba in 2004-2005.  

We then visited Callejón de Hammel, which is a street cultural center led by an internationally recognized painter and muralist named Salavdor González Escalona.  Many of us thought his artwork was just amazing.  It illustrated Afro-Cuban heritage and culture.  Some paintings showed Afro-Cuban religious heritage, while others illustrated the history of Afro-Cuban lifestyle, and others illustrated Afro-Cuban life today.  His work was so amazing and left me speechless because of its beauty and the vibrant colors.

We then visited Eduin Fraga’s art studio and he explained how he utilizes newspapers to create a collage theme for his artwork.  He uses newspaper articles that describe his piece and incorporate them into his work.  For example, if he is painting a piece about jazz music, he utilizes a newspaper piece about jazz music into his painting.  Eduin mentioned that he started incorporating collage-type painting into his work because when he started painting he and the Cuba did not have much.  So, he found what he could to paint and he liked the style.  His style is beautiful and left me speechless as well.

By the end of the day I bought an Afro-Cuban painting and two of Eduin’s paintings.  To be precise, I bought one of Salavdor González Escalona student’s paintings.  The painting was so vibrant and spoke to me.  The painting was of a Yemayá, who is the African goddess of the sea, maternity, and fertility.  I also bought two of Eduin’s paintings, both paintings illustrated the love of jazz music in Cuba.  It saddened me though, that art is sold so cheaply in Cuba.  I bought two pieces of art for $40 CUC (approx. $40 U.S. dollars) each and another for $60 CUC (approx.. $60 U.S. dollars).  Such fine and exquisite art is normally sold at higher prices in the United States.

The group finished the night by hanging out at a dance club called the “Yellow Submarine.”  We heard an amazing band and were surprised at how much U.S. music Cubans actually listen to.  We were told that John Lenin inspired Cubans during the revolution and that he is still popular today.  Lenin’s influence can still be seen in Cuba today.  There is a park with Lenin’s statue in Havana in honor of him.
Lisa Kent

First Impressions

The plan for the Cuba service learning experience was to meet in Cancun on Saturday evening at the hotel, then fly to Cuba Sunday afternoon. I arrived a day early in Cancun in order to do some sight-seeing. I met with the rest of our group on Saturday night at the hotel and once everyone was settled in, we went out to dinner. Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado took us to a small place that is slightly off from the main area called Paladar. The food there was excellent and not a tourist trap like most of the rest of Cancun is.  You know you are eating at a good restaurant when there are all or mostly all locals eating at the place.
Down a Cuban Street
Sunday morning, after a great breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and headed for the airport. We got to the airport around 10:30 AM and started a line to get our tickets. We first had to get out tickets from the travel agency and then check in to get our boarding passes. The airport was complete chaos – most airports are – but this seemed more chaotic than most. It was extremely crowded and there was a line of people next to us who had purchased tickets for a flight that was double-booked and now full. Apparently, double-booking is not uncommon and regardless of when you bought a ticket, boarding passes are given out on a first come first served basis. This is the reason we showed up at the airport early - to make sure we got on the flight.

So we stood around and sat around and lay around on the hard floor waiting for the guy to show up and give us our tickets. Hours passed and nothing happened. We were all pretty tired and annoyed when we saw that the flight had been delayed; first until 7:30 PM and then until 8:40 PM. We finally did get our tickets and boarding passes, but the majority of the day was spent in the airport waiting around. Flight delays happen, and while everyone was tired, we knew we were going to be in Cuba that evening. Once we got through security, which went smoothly, there were chairs so we were a little more comfortable. We slept, read, or got on the internet while waiting for the flight.

The flight itself was over quickly, less than an hour in the air. When we landed, going through security in Cuba was surprisingly quick and easy. I expected it to take a lot longer and be more of a hassle than it was. No one had any trouble getting through Cuban customs either. We got into the van that was waiting for us and as soon as we left the airport the first thing we saw was an old 50’s Chevy driving down the street. Then we saw another one and another one. Really old American cars all over the place! These are not show cars, but are driven on a daily basis. Cars from the 1930s through the present are available; including American and Soviet. The older ones do not have original engines in them but use Soviet engines that they are able to get parts for.

Old American Cars Driven in Havana

We finally arrived at the hotel sometime after 11 PM local time (Eastern Time zone) and they staff was kind enough to reopen the kitchen for us and make us sandwiches which tasted great after a long day. Most restaurants close at 10 PM in Havana. After eating, and a brief orientation meeting, we were all ready for some sleep. I did check out the TV before going to bed and was surprised to see CNN, ESPN, the Weather Channel, Showtime, and many other channels available in English language in addition to all of the Spanish language channels. I even saw Murder She Wrote dubbed in Spanish while flipping through the channels! Not unusual at all in most places, but I did not expect the variety of TV that is actually available in Cuba.

I was not sure what to expect, but so far I have been surprised by what I have seen! Tomorrow we will really start exploring the city and will be able to see much more so check back again soon!
Jeff Wattier

Service Learning in Cuba

Some years past I attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. I remember clearly the message of the keynote address, even though the name of the speaker has slipped away from me. The message was this, that as academics we are in the business of “making people better people” regardless of our respective disciplines. The message sticks to me till this day. So in crafting a service learning course and project in Cuba I intentionally have kept this thought in mind. For me the critical question is and continues to be, how do we give students an experience that enhances substance of what it means to study Cuba while integrating a significant and meaningful service learning activity that addresses community needs and concerns, as the Cubans see it?

In this regard, we will be partners and collaborators in that endeavor. We’ll bring resources, our sweat and understanding of their reality and concern of what constitutes their well-being. All of this is being done at warp speed. We are in the midst of a six-week online course on Cuba anchored by an 8 day on the ground experience in Havana. We will meet Cubans from every walk of life, from economists and physicians to dancers, students and artists. Our broad objectives are to bring the substance of our readings and lectures to life and to engage an element of the Cuban reality to enhance the promotion of art and culture in their society. Specifically, we are collaborating with Proyecto Espiral, a community service collective comprised of students and young professionals to assist Okan-Tomi, an Afro-Cuban dance company in their effort to renovate their community theater in Marianao, a suburb of Havana.

None of the students has been to Cuba before although one of the graduate students did accompany me on a previous international service learning trip to Peru. What I know from my trip earlier this year to Cuba is that our collaborators and partners are excited to work alongside of us. It bodes well for a productive and fruitful experience that we hope will serve as the first of many more trips of this kind. My hope is that it deepens the relationship and linkage between our Cuban partners and the university. Moreover, we are hopeful that someday in the not too distant future that Okan-Tomi and the members of Proyecto Espiral will grace the UNO community with their presence and their gifts.

Service learning as a pedagogical method aspires to provide a transformative experience and opportunities for young people to reflect on this one in a lifetime adventure in learning. We all should be so lucky.
Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado