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My Cuba Experience: Reflections on the travel component of P.W.C.'s International Studies Program
By Nikki O'Rielly, Prince of Wales Collegiate, St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

What comes to mind when someone mentions the word "Cuba"? Many people think of beaches, endless summers, vacations, swimming and tanning. Others think of politics; Castro, poor unfortunate people, a deprived country. It is true, Cuba is and has all of those things, but it is so much more and I have learned this from my International Studies experience.

Cuba is a country full of endless beauty. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Havana on February 1, 2004, we saw lush vegetation, palm trees and tropical flowers. To me, a Newfoundlander, I did not know that such beauty could exist at this time of the year. As we drove though Havana and into Motanzas, we also saw the magnificent architecture that defines Cuba. It was evident that Cubans take great pride in what they have.

Upon arriving at the university we saw the true radiance of this country - the people. We, the Canadian delegation, strangers to the Cubans, were greeted with open arms, smiling faces and, of course, flowers. That night we were treated to a welcome in true Cuban style. There were many dances, such as the Conga, Salsa and Son. Many traditional songs were sung. We learned that Cubans are very talented people and realized that we were in for two amazing weeks.

Monday was our first day of Spanish classes, which were a little slow the first few days, but later were full of games and fun. Every weekday started out with Language classes. The afternoons and nights were filled with cultural and historical field trips. Many educational activities took place at the university. Pottery classes were a lot of fun and provided an opportunity to mingle with the local people. It was enchanting to create something with a Cuban friend which we could keep forever. Other activities at the university included dance classes where we learned traditional dances and sports. We played many Cuban games as well as volleyball and soccer.

A variety of activities took place outside of the university. This is where we experienced the real Cuba. At the university we were sheltered from many of the shortcomings of the country. We were surrounded by only the brightest of students. As we traveled to various cities we saw the downside, and there are downsides to every city in the world. There were beggars, hungry people and drunks. However, as in all cities, there were many beautiful sights. We first visited Motanzas, the city closest to the university. The Cubans treated us to anything we wanted, including delicious sweets. Many of the girls were given colorful flowers. We also visited a fortress in Motanzas that was once used as a prison as well as defense for the city. One evening we had a beach walk in the city, which was very enticing. Another day we went to the capital of Cuba, Havana. We learned many historical facts about the city but the most exciting part of the day was when we were allowed to go with our partners into the city and browse at our leisure. At this point we experienced the hustle and bustle of a culturally rich country. Everywhere there were street performers, venders and tourists . That afternoon we treated the Cubans to supper. We took them to the finest restaurants, which they greatly appreciated. That night we visited the fortress in Havana which was hosting the International Book Fair. There we attended a concert and the firing of the canon. It was enlightening to be surrounded by unknown people in a foreign culture. It was that moment, at the concert, when I had to let go and embrace the Cuban lifestyle. We later visited two more cities, Cardenas, an historical town, and Varadero, the ultimate tourist resort. This is where I spent Valentine's Day, on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world surrounded by my new best friends. That was a day I will cherish for the rest of my life, but it is not the only one I will remember. One of the most eye-opening experiences was our visit to a coffee plantation. It is now inactive but was once filled with slaves. We were served supper by the resident family and given a tour of the plantation which featured the story of what happened there. Cuba has clearly come a long way in just a little time. This experience made me proud to be from a country that never permitted such torture.

Evenings were full of activities that brought that Canadians and Cubans together, such as when we introduced the Cubans to Newfoundland and Canadian culture and together prepared the Canadian-Cuban festival. We quickly learned that no matter what the activity, every night had to conclude with at least half an hour of dancing. These were the nights when friendships were made even stronger.

As the days went on, I realized this really was an experience of a lifetime. My whole way of thinking had changed. Sure, I still valued everything I owned. I believe I value them even more but, in a way, material things became unimportant. I did not miss the things I thought I would miss while I was in Cuba. I learned to appreciate a different lifestyle. Water was cold, living space was dirty and food was the same all the time. However, I have to admit, I loved it all. It was a learning experience and I continue to learn from it today. The people I became close to were mesmerizing. Even with very little in the material sense, they were so grateful and giving. I think their culture allows them to be a more caring because of the lack of competition. Equality means everything to them, and there exists a great peace. Getting to know a Cuban is an eye-opening experience. They taught us that it is possible to live and be happy without the technologies and comforts of our "new world". They live happily because of love, and I think many Canadians had forgotten that was possible. When I think of the word Cuba, I think of a world full of friends, being appreciative and grateful, but most of all that very important word, love.


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