Travelogue: A Glimpse Into Volunteering in Cuba

In mid-January, I flew from Tampa to Havana on a trip that would introduce me to a country which has been off-limits for me (and most Americans) for most of my life. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit non-governmental organization based in Minneapolis.

Along with 19 other volunteers ages 30-78, I spent a week on various work projects which included painting a fence at our base (The Cuba Council of Churches), spending time with elders at a senior care center, and working with students studying English in an evening program. Another team did crocheting with a women’s group for part of the day.

Every afternoon, we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours. Later, we all met for dinner at various locations suggested by our excellent team leader, Stephanie. The trip was a combination of helping our host community, and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom had never been to Cuba.

Living with the Locals

We stayed in Miramar, a residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All 20 volunteers stayed in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. We were two blocks from the water and near our base at the Council where we met each morning around 9am.

The joy of staying in a suburb is that one has the opportunity to observe people going to work and school, and regularly interact with the locals. Put simply, it is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. We felt like a part of the community, particularly since we were there to help in some small way.

We walked throughout the area every day and night.  I never felt nervous, nor did we see anything that looked questionable. The only danger I encountered was the uneven sidewalks which, like many of the buildings, are in disrepair. Also, in the evenings, many streets did not have lights, so we walked with caution and used flashlights when necessary.

Getting Connected

There is very little internet on the island. Missing connectivity, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an Internet Park about a twenty-minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a mini-mart or store, but we were told there are long lines and forms to fill out along with passport information. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentleman and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 cucs (approximately $5.00) for one hour of internet. The card provides a password and user name.

My three new Global Volunteer friends and I decided to visit the park. It was trashed with empty beer cans and bottles, and many young people were on their phones sitting on the ground. There was a group of men standing around who looked like they could possibly be our connection.

We approached the young men and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5 purchase complete, we took a photo together with the sellers and then enjoyed the internet for about 30 minutes. (We kept the card for another day’s use.) Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site, I wondered… would I even consider walking up to a stranger in, let’s say, Central Park or Chicago and purchase an off-the-grid card with the hope it worked? And then take a photo with them? Probably not.

Music, Art, and Entertainment

If one chooses to stay the weekend, there is the option of adding on the weekend package of people-to-people activities. Or, we could make our own plans for the weekend. The Global Volunteers program includes a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, art galleries, Old Havana, and a morning lecture given by two local professionals who discuss history, education, and some politics. All and all, it’s a great value which includes meals and accommodations.

My favorite weekend activity was the excellent-quality live music everywhere day or night. Street entertainers, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops all have talented solo or group performers. Artwork is plentiful and there is also a wide variety of architecture including colonial, Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

On two evenings, my students were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company, and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife, Daniella, takes care of the home. She knows some English and is eager to help him. We review his tour prices, look at what’s included, and add some language to make the tours more appealing. We go over phrases such as, “Welcome to Havana, my name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?”

After some competitive analysis, we determine that he is competing with  guides who have the fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50 per hour. We work on an appropriate response. “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” He masters three or four sentences that we work on intensely for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.

It’s a pleasure to see a 23-year-old, happily married entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed. When we finished the second night, he looked at me and said, “God Bless you and thank you.” I was beginning to see how individuals can make a small, but significant impact in a short time and, more importantly, understand these very warm and welcoming people.

In addition to those like Allen, there are people who are operating and creating small businesses out of their homes or garages, serving meals, coffee or beer, and other small businesses like repair shops and such. Homeowners are renting out rooms to visitors for additional income. This is all new and Cubans seem very happy with new opportunities.

Yes, the streets, sidewalks, and many buildings are in disrepair and run down, and there is much need for improved infrastructure, painting, plumbing, and electrical. Litter is an issue in some neighborhoods. For many, work is hard to find and salaries are low.  Supplies of every kind are limited. Many of the local grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked.

Looking Ahead

The refreshing thing is we could sense the change that is coming. In a lively conversation with one of our casa owners, she described it like this: “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down, and getting bigger and bigger, and you cannot stop it.”

Tourists from all over the world have been visiting Havana for years, and now there are many American visitors. In Havana, we saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses, and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere, and a walk along the Malecon – a walkway along the sea wall – is the perfect place to people-watch.

The city of three million is bursting with activity and a colorful history.. It’s old, it’s new, it’s Spanish, European, modern, young and fun! While I only saw a small part of Cuba on this trip, I’m sure I’ll return again to visit Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, and other places on this fascinating island.

by Lynn Lotkowictz