PARK HILLS – The Caribbean island of Cuba has been buzzing with an influx of American travelers, taking advantage of the lifted travel ban that had been in place since the Cold War.
Sarah Stahl, a foreign language instructor at Mineral Area College, recently returned with five other local travelers from a nine-day tour that includes airfare, transportation, tours, hotels, meals and a multi-lingual tour director.
The “Havana Highlights” of the itinerary included exploring Little Havana in Miami, then flying to Old Havana. Other sites visited include parks, agricultural areas, an elementary school, arts and literature organizations, a bioreserve, a tobacco plantation, a Compas dance school and a circus school, all visited between May 22-30.
Stahl, who teaches Spanish at the community college in Park Hills, said the trip was enhanced because they were able to join two other community-college sponsored groups, from North Carolina’s Pitt Community College and Rockingham Community College. Stahl said their tour director indicated they were being given much more freedom than her previous groups because of the changing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba
“We had to go on all of our scheduled cultural activities, however, we were allowed to shop, walk around the city, and go to the beach,” she said. We were also allowed to buy souvenirs, tobacco and rum. We could spend $400 altogether, $100 of which could go toward rum and tobacco. Plus, we could use the internet and send post cards.”
Stahl said the group was wowed by the number of antique cars running on the streets. “It was like a car show every day,” Stahl said. “Castro’s regime blocked American imports in 1959, and these beautiful cars are lovingly maintained, with recycled and hand-manufactured parts, from generation to generation, often within one family.”
As on any trip, the food was part of the adventure. “The food was excellent,” Stahl said. “Typical food is ropa vieja or ‘old clothes,’ which is like pulled beef, rice and black beans, acorn-fed pork, ajiaco, which is a stew made out of root vegetables and corn, chicken, fried plantains and yucca.”
Stahl said Cuban food is very different from Mexican food. “Mexican food is spicy and they eat corn or flour tortillas for starch,” she said. “Cuban food is a fusion of Spanish, African, Taino (the indigenous people of Cuba), and Caribbean cuisine. Cubans eat rice and beans with almost every meal. They flavor their food with garlic, onions, salt, and bay leaves.”
Stahl said she was impressed by Cuban music and dance. “I learned that Cubans are excellent artists and musicians,” she said. “We saw salsa and Afro-Cuban dancing at Compas Dance and we listened to music by the Buena Vista Social Club, which is a famous Cuban musical group.”
The group visited a variety of churches, as well. “According to our group leader and other guides, Cubans are allowed to practice any religion they want. They can be Catholic, Protestant, or practice Santeria, which is a mix of Roman Catholicism and an African religion,” Stahl said. “However, the majority of the people are Roman Catholic, approximately 60%.”
As for the Cuban people in general, Stahl said they were well-received and she felt very welcome in the country.
“We got to interact with a variety of people, both as a group and individually,” she said. “Even though, by American standards, it’s not a wealthy country, the people are well-educated, well-spoken and expressive. They’re healthy, there’s a sense of community and family among them. We weren’t encouraged to get into deep political discussions or anything, but we were able to connect on a friendly level with many citizens. It’s what makes travel so worthwhile.”
So worthwhile, Stahl said she is thinking of organizing more trips in the future, possibly one to Montreal and Quebec, and another to Austria. For more information, contact Sarah Stahl at 573-518-2128 or sstahl@MineralArea.edu.