Students, Adults Make Friends, View History on Visit
Kalamazoo Public Schools, Linda Mah
Kalamazoo, Michigan – The Loy Norrix PeaceJam trip to Cuba may have turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the nine people who traveled to the communist country this summer.
New travel restrictions and a powerful hurricane have changed the geopolitical climate and the literal landscape of the island nation since the PeaceJam trip in June. While President Barack Obama opened travel to the island nation, new restrictions were put in place by the Trump administration in late June. Cuba was hit by Hurricane Irma, a category five storm, in September.
“There were nine of us that went to Cuba — five students and four adults,” said PeaceJam advisor Sveri Stromstra-May, who has also led trips to Peru and South Africa. “Now that we can’t go to Cuba I wish more had gone with us. And, after Hurricane Irma, I worry about the people we met and worked with.”
Prior to the trip, the group met for several potluck dinners to watch documentaries about Cuba, such as “The Buena Vista Social Club,” to read articles and to discuss the culture. It gives travelers some perspective on what they see on their trip and helps build empathy for the people they work next to during their service projects, May said. The group’s first activity after landing in Cuba was to meet with a professor from the University of Havana, who told them about U.S.-Cuba relations in the past and present, and what his expectations were for the future.
The group visited the cities of Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos.
“What I remember most about my time in Cuba were the people. Everyone welcomed us like we were friends instead of strangers. When they asked questions, they genuinely wanted to know the answers. They took time to talk to us,” said senior Delany Eller.
Each student had their favorite memories. Senior Lilly Gulliver felt the trip to a textbook factory to work on notebooks for students and to learn about old printing presses was worthwhile, while sophomore Matthew Nelson liked meeting with senior citizens who offered dance lessons and stories about the past. Sophomore Carter Miller said he enjoyed giving soccer balls to young Cubans and playing soccer with them.
Other activities included working in an organoponics garden, an organic, urban farming method developed in Cuba, and visiting memorials to the Marxist leaders Che Guevera and Fidel Castro.
“The Che memorial showed us how important the people view their leaders,” Eller said. “It reminded me of a memorial we would give in the United States to some of our fallen leaders.”
May said the trip was eye-opening for the way it shattered stereotypes. “Americans expect to see cigars and old American cars, and Cubans think of Americans as cowboys with horses. People-topeople interactions help to foster change in old stereotypes between our two countries.”