Fifteen Maynard High School students had the experience of a lifetime when they traveled to Cuba this year.
“Once the trip opened up, I knew I wanted to go,” Spanish teacher Jennifer Adams said.
The trip included 15 students and five adults and took nearly a near to plan. The group traveled from April 15 to 24.
The trip was run by EF Tours, and would not have been possible a few years ago, due to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. In fact, that was one of the reasons that junior Ryan Henderson, 17, was happy he had the opportunity.
“I’m glad I went just for the experience,” he said. “It’s going to change so much with the introduction of the United States, so I wanted to see how (it is now).”
Even so, Adams pointed out, the tour had strict guideline for its attendees.
“We really had to follow their agenda,” she said. “The government controlled it. We saw a lot of things, but it was what they wanted us to see.”
Being a foreign country –- and one which is not always on good terms with the United States — means its residents have different perspectives on historical events. The group was on the southern Cuban coast for the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was able to go to the site, where Cuban children stood as honor guard.
“While we were doing that, the tour guide was giving us their perspective,” chaperone Phil Kuhm said. “It was interesting to be on the receiving end of history and not be the good guy.”
The group also toured Ernest Hemingway’s house and visited the memorial for revolutionary Che Guevara.
“That was a very sacred place,” Sarah Lawson, 15, said. “There were no hats or sunglasses allowed.”
While the students had their individual likes and dislikes, they all agreed one favorite part was interacting with the local residents.
“The beaches were beautiful,” Jeremy Rappaport, 17, said. “But my favorite thing was when we would leave the tourist areas to see how people actually lived.”
One activity which united the cultures was baseball.
“We played baseball against a local adult team,” Alex Kucich, 17, said. “One point you could always talk about with the locals was baseball. That was a shared pastime. It was fun to talk to the locals.”
The group was also struck by the poverty of the country and the resilience of the people.
“You could tell they were trying to hide the worst of the poverty,” Alex said.
“And if that wasn’t the worst, what was the rest of it like?” Sarah said.
Kuhm said he would have liked to have seen more of Havana and the cigar industry.
“It’s interesting — I asked the tour guide what was the everyday cigar of a local person, and he said most, if they smoke, are smoking cigarettes because they can’t afford cigars,” he said.
Despite this, the group found the Cuban people a resourceful bunch.
In a marketplace, Spanish teacher Dalia Rabinobich liked beautiful, colorful wooden birds, which were suspended for viewing. She asked how they were displayed, and the vendor laughed, explaining it was an old grate from a broken fan.
“It was very clever,” she said. “They know how to make everything beautiful.”
“Poverty is very different,” Sarah said. “Here, they would be begging for change, but there they would make beautiful art to sell — and they are happy. They take the initiative to try to make it better.”
The streets were full of music, which the tourists found a pleasant surprise.
“There was music everywhere,” chaperone Mary Finnegan said. “There were guitar ensembles playing classical pieces. It really was amazing.”
“There was music, dancing food — it really is just a Caribbean island,” Kuhm said. “I was expecting it to be all drab and gray. I was surprised by how open the people were.”
The trip was particularly meaningful to chaperone Sharon Santillo, who was the art teacher at Green Meadow School, now retired, and was one of what the group called their “extra adults.”
“I can still look at them and remember their little faces,” she said of her former students. “It’s a privilege to spend time with them as young adults.”
Santillo had high praise for the teens.
“To the Town of Maynard, how proud they can be of these student representatives,” she said. “I never saw them look down on anything, or roll their eyes. They were so respectful; they are true ambassadors.”
Christine M. Quirk, Maynard Wicked Local
June 20, 2016