Local Couple Heads for Cuba

EDUCATIONAL ADVENTURE: Roger and Bev Gestrine Hope to Help Cubans, Marinate in Mysterious Culture

Roger and Bev Gestrine have done a fair amount of traveling in their time together. In all, they have explored China, Mexico, parts of Europe and the Bahamas, but none of those ventures has ever gotten them as excited as their trip to Cuba.

“The motivating factor to us is that Cuba has been closed to us for 40 years so it’s a big mystery,” explained Bev.

In reality, travel to Cuba was first restricted for Americans in 1960, so reciprocal relations between the two nations has been sporadic at best for at least 55 years.

On Saturday, though, the Chehalis couple began their trek to the curious communist island nation. And by the time you read this, the couple will likely be chopping up their first attempt at the tango.

Bev Gestrine, 72, who last year retired from a long career at Centralia College, noted that she has long had a fascination with Cuba, so, “When it seemed like the doors were opening a little bit for Americans to (visit), I thought I’d found out a little about how to do that.” Bev added that, “You can’t just get on an airplane and go down there.” She explained that the trip must be for humanitarian or educational purposes.

With those parameters established the Gestrines began to figure out how to qualify as humanitarian visitors.

Prior to their departure the couple detailed the variety of experiences that they were looking forward to sharing in the newly opened country while soaking in the unknown cultural element. They said the best part of their humanitarian itinerary is that it allows them both time to work with the locals and then socialize with them afterward in order to more fully learn their stories.

A few groups that the Gestrines are slated to visit and work with during their stay include a traditional Cuban dance troupe, a working cattle ranch, a senior center and, of course, the competitive local dominos scene.

“There’s just a lot of opportunity to interact with a lot of different types of people,” said Bev. The couple pointed out that they are both excited that they will be, “actually meeting (the locals) and not just having somebody tell us about them.”

During their past travels around the world, Roger and Bev have always enjoyed themselves but they were exceedingly excited for the free form nature of their trip to the recently-removed land of taboo. Through their previous travels the couple has learned how to appreciate and relate to a variety of other cultures, so “People who have different beliefs from us is not a problem,” said Bev.

During their preparation for the trip Roger, 74, and Bev read and heard a lot about Cuba’s shortages of many basic necessities. With that reality in mind the couple prepared a collection of gift bags filled with practical items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner and coloring books for kids. The couple was not sure who would receive the bags prior to their departure but they are confident that those details will work themselves out naturally during the course of the trip.

Roger, a retired engineer, noted there is growing concern among some Cubans that their country will soon be overrun and ultimately gentrified by an influx of outsiders. With that likely reality in mind, Bev and Roger wanted to make sure to get to Cuba now so that they arrive during the short window where they can still see the remnants of old Cuba while another, new era makes its inevitable inroads.

“It will be interesting to have conversations with Cubans about the prosperity (the end of the embargo) will bring their country,” said Bev, who also acknowledged the massive amount of work that will need to be done to accommodate the corresponding urban growth.

The couple noted that Internet connections in the country are notoriously undependable and American credit cards do not work. Likewise, there are not enough hotels to house all of the new visitors so Bev and Roger will be frequenting bed and breakfast type houses during their visit.

“Basically everyone who has an extra bedroom is renting it out,” said Roger.

Roger recalled that he had just graduated when Fidel Castro took over command of Cuba. In those preliminary Cold War days, Roger remembers that socialism was considered a four-letter word. Now socialism is a practice that garners considerable support at American polling booths and Roger sees its positive net effect on American society.

“It takes a whole combination,” said Roger. “You don’t really think about it but our fire department, schools, and police department are all socialized aspects.”

The Gestrines chartered a plane to take them from Miami to Cuba for their 12-day trip, and the couple admits that not all of their time will be strictly dedicated to righteous pursuits. Roger noted that Cuba was a favorite getaway for “Papa” Ernest Hemingway, so, “We’re going to be visiting all of his haunts, if you will.”

Roger is also excited to see the lineup of classic-style American cars from the 1940s and ‘50s that still dot the streets of Cuba. That fleet of daily drivers was imported before the historic trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba and talented mechanics have toiled away for generations now to keep the vehicles on the road.

“It’s amazing that they can keep them going,” said Roger.

With all that in mind the globetrotting couple realizes that the most memorable aspects of their adventure will likely be the ones that they failed to plan for, or even imagine.

“It’s going to be a packed 12 days,” said Bev.

Note: The Chronicle will have a follow-up story on the travel adventure of Bev and Roger Gestrine once they return from Cuba.

Jordan Nailon, The Chronicle

May 10, 2016

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