Posted on Feb 7, 2017 in Alumni News and News
As 14 Flying Jayhawks prepared for our trip to Cuba Jan. 6, tour director Antoinette Ford of Gohagan & Company wisely urged us to “be flexible and have open minds and hearts” during our visit to the island nation, which is struggling to accommodate the dramatic influx of tourists from the United States. We soon learned that the Cuban people welcome Americans with open arms, eagerly sharing their extraordinary culture and history. But Cuba’s aging infrastructure, dual currencies and years of isolation from the United States make for an unpredictable, challenging adventure. One of our local guides joked that the unofficial motto of Cuba is, “It’s complicated.”
Joining us on our journey were 26 Traveling Owls from Rice University and 12 alumni of Vassar College. In addition to making new friends from across the United States, we treasured the opportunities to meet and talk with Cuba’s citizens, including our local guides, musicians, dancers, artists, community leaders, farmers and the owners of several paladars, local Cuban homes that have become restaurants.
Our adventure began with six nights on the majestic M.Y. Le Ponant, a three-masted French sailing ship making its first Cuban voyage. For three nights, the ship remained in Santiago Bay, on the southeast coast of the island, as we enjoyed daily excursions. We visited San Juan Hill, the pivotal site of the Spanish-American War (known to Cubans as the Spanish-Cuban-American War). A lively performance by local musicians and dancers provided the perfect introduction to Cuban culture. We also toured the magnificent Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, which includes the mausoleum of José Marti, Cuba’s national hero and a literary legend in Latin America, as well as the grave of Fidel Castro. We were fortunate to witness the changing of the guard.
Other sites in Santiago included the cathedral and shrine of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. Outside the city, we visited the 16th-century Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a Spanish fort more commonly known as The Morro. Brilliant sunshine made up for the buffeting winds as we enjoyed the breathtaking views of Santiago Bay and an exquisite a cappella concert in the fort’s chapel by four Cuban women, Vocal Vidas.
As Le Ponant sailed from Santiago, the ship’s crew hoisted the KU flag and we enjoyed a glorious day at sea before arriving in Cienfuegos. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city features a picturesque square bordered by the historic Teatro Tomas Terry, where famed tenor Enrico Caruso and other legendary stars performed. We also visited Santa Clara, where we learned the danzon, a traditional Cuban dance, from senior citizens at Abuelos de Fiesta, and toured the Che Guevara Monument and the History Museum of the Revolution.
After leaving the ship, we traveled by bus to Havana, the highlight of the first day was a visit to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s stunning home, which boasts lush gardens and spectacular views. While our guide enjoyed telling us that actress Ava Gardner once skinny-dipped in Hemingway’s pool, most of us were more interested in seeing the famed author’s retreat, with its hunting lodge décor, historic photos and, of course, his typewriter.
The next morning began with a tour of the city in the vintage U.S. cars that local drivers have carefully and painstakingly preserved. Riding in a ’57 pink convertible Chrysler New Yorker sure beats a tour bus. We then walked the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, including the Plaza de la Cathedral and other squares where restoration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s colonial structures will continue for years to come. In a Havana suburb, we marveled at the wondrous, whimsical mosaics by artist Jose Rodriquez Fuster, who has adorned not only his home and studio but also his neighborhood with joyous, colorful sculptures in all shapes and sizes. Fuster’s eye-popping art lifts the spirits of residents and tourists.
From Havana we ventured to the Vinales Valley, which sits amid dramatic hill formations that are part of the Sierra de los Organos mountains. A local organic farm has become a favorite tourists’ lunch spot, known for tasty all-natural smoothies (rum optional) and delicious family-style meals. Our last stop was a tobacco farm, where Senor Benito explained the process for growing, drying and rolling the leaves that become Cuba’s famous cigars. A few travelers shared a smoke with Benito, who also welcomed us into his home for coffee.
After a long day, a few of us rallied for an evening at La Tropicana, the famous night club where extravagant (and decadent) entertainment first flourished in the 1940s during Havana’s heyday as the forerunner of Las Vegas.
As U.S. tourism continues to soar, Cuba no doubt will change drastically in the years to come. The Flying Jayhawks counted ourselves fortunate to visit the island as a new era begins.
—Jennifer Jackson Sanner
Jennifer Jackson Sanner is senior vice president of strategic communications and advocacy and editor of Kansas Alumni magazine. View more pictures from the trip on Flickr.