Dispatches from Cuba: Part II
On Wednesday, June 18, the LSU Honors in Cuba summer study abroad program returned from its three-week stay in Havana. Our sun-tanned participants were full of enthusiastic stories about all they had learned and experienced during the latter half of their visit (read about the first week of the trip in our Dispatches from Cuba: Part I).
When we left off with our intrepid travelers, they were spending the weekend in the small city of Viñales, about 100 miles west of Havana. While in the Viñales area, students learned about local agriculture and visited Las Terrazas, a nature reserve. Las Terrazas is named for the man-made anti-erosion terraces that line its hills, more than 10,000 acres of which are covered in secondary (replanted) forest. This is just one example of the environmentally sustainable practices for which Cuba is known. Cuba has been repeatedly found to be the only country in the world that has a truly environmentally sustainable economy.
After returning to Havana on Sunday, June 8, students resumed their normal course schedule at the Juan Marinello Institute, Honors in Cuba’s host and program partner. Classes continued to cover Cuban history and society. Students also researched their final project topics, through which they investigated an issue in Cuban culture relevant to their interests or major.
Local outings in the afternoons focused on the arts and visits to community projects. Students headed to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana on June 10. The museum’s collection contains not only Cuban art but also works from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and the works of European masters. On Friday, June 13, students visited the Fuster Project, a decades-long community art project in a small fishing village on the western outskirts of Havana. Cuban artist José Rodriguez Fuster, who has been called “Cuba’s answer to Gaudi”, has decorated the exteriors of more than eighty homes, as well as public squares and parks, with fantastical, brightly colored murals, stone mosaics, and sculptures.
“’Fusterland’ was like a Disneyland of mosaic, ceramic, and sculpted art,” said Jeremy Joiner, Coordinator of Academic Advising for the Honors College and one of the trip’s co-leaders. “The size and scale of Fuster’s project alone is incredible, but the way his work combines so many different themes and elements of Cuban life, society, and culture—some cheerful, some somber—is truly breathtaking.”
“My hands down favorite experiences in Cuba were the community projects we went to,” said Honors in Cuba participant Annie Reed. “They presented a chance to make Cuban friends and to see how Cubans express themselves creatively.”
The following morning, Honors in Cuba departed for its second weekend trip, this one to Matanzas. Matanzas is considered the arts capital of Cuba and many well-known Cuban poets and musicians have made their home here. The city was referred to as the “Athens of Cuba” during the 19th century sugar boom. It has more recently been known as the “Venice of Cuba”, or the City of Bridges, thanks to the 17 bridges which cross its three rivers.
Matanzas was also the location of a number of slave uprisings in the mid nineteenth century. Students visited the Triunvirato Sugar Mill, where 329 slaves led by a woman revolted in 1843, and the Slave Route Museum, housed in a former Spanish fortress. The latter’s exhibits outline the practices of slave traders and Cuba’s role in the transatlantic trade.
After spending Sunday on the white sandy beaches of Varadero, students had only two days in Cuba left. They returned to Havana to work on and present their final group projects.
LSU Honors student Grant Gonzalez said that the trip leaders suggested creating a network-news style video report as a final project. “We each took a different topic and created a short video about it,” Gonzalez explained. “We covered democracy, healthcare, tourism, and pop culture in Cuba. The directors of the Juan Marinello Institute really seemed to love them.
On Tuesday evening, students enjoyed a goodbye dinner with the Cuban professors who had given guest lectures and led in-class discussions.
“We formed unique friendships with the people we met,” Gonzalez said. “We’re used to saying goodbye to someone—we know we will be able to call them or friend-request them on Facebook and talk whenever we want. It’s different between Cubans and Americans. There is a good chance that we will never be able to see each other again, because it’s difficult to go to Cuba as an American.”
On Wednesday, the Honors in Cuba group took off from Havana
Reed recalled her experience on the flight from Havana to Miami. “I was sitting next to the window, filling out my customs form, when an older man came and sat down next to me, and asked in Spanish for help with his customs form. After we filled out the form together, I asked him why he was going to Miami. He was traveling to the US for the first time—he had never been on a plane before—to visit his daughter, who had lived there for 20 years, and his two grandchildren. He was 70 years old.”
We have no doubt that since the Honors in Cuba travellers have landed back in Baton Rouge, they’ve been assuaging their Cuba nostalgia by keeping hard at work on the final research papers required by the course. Meanwhile, Mr. Joiner and program director Devyn Benson, Assistant Professor of History at LSU, have already begun planning for next year’s Honors in Cuba program!
“Cuba was a life-changing experience for me.” Reed continued. “My perspective widened—we were able to see more than just the mainstream information about Cuba available to us in the US. The deep history between our country and theirs makes Honors in Cuba unlike any other study abroad program.”
Grant Gonzalez concurred. “If someone asked me if they should commit to this trip, I would tell them that it will change their perspective on life. It was absolutely amazing.”
Article by Liz Billet, LSU Honors College Communications Coordinator, 225-578-0083, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on LSU Honors College study abroad programs, visit honors.lsu.edu or e-mail email@example.com.