Experience Cuba Through the Eyes of a Volunteer

Guest post by Lynn Lotkowictz

In mid-January, I flew from Tampa to Havana on a trip that would introduce me to a country that has been off limits for me (and most Americans) for over 55 years. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit, non-government organization (NGO) based in Minneapolis.

Along with 19 other volunteers ages 30-78, I spent a week on various work projects that included painting a fence at our base (the Cuba Council of Churches), spending time with seniors at a senior care center and working with students on English in an evening program. Another team did crocheting with a women’s group for part of the day.

Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time. In the evening we all met for dinner at various locations suggested by our excellent team leader, Stephanie. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom had never been to Cuba.

Living with the Locals

We stayed in Miramar, a nice residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All 20 volunteers stayed in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. We were two blocks from the water and near our base at the Council where we met each morning around 9:00.

The joy of staying in a suburb is that you have the opportunity to observe people going to work and school and regularly interact with the locals. It is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. You feel like a part of the community, particularly since you are there to help in some small way.

We walked throughout the area every day and night. I never felt nervous nor did we see anything that looked questionable. The only danger I encountered was the uneven sidewalks which are in disrepair, like many of the buildings. In the evenings many streets did not have lights so we walked with caution and used flashlights when necessary.

Getting Connected

There is very little internet on the island. Missing connectivity, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an “Internet Park” about a twenty minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a mini-mart or store, but we were told there would be long lines and forms to fill out along with passport information. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentleman and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 cucs (approximately $5.00) for one hour of internet. The card provides a password and username.

My three new Global Volunteer friends and I decided to visit the park. It was trashed with empty beer cans and bottles and many young people on their phones sitting on the ground. There was a group of men standing around that looked like they might be our connection.

We approached the young men and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5 purchase completed, we took a photo together with the sellers and then enjoyed the internet for about 30 minutes. We kept the card for another day’s use. Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site I wondered, would I even consider walking up to a stranger in a place such as Central Park or Chicago and purchasing an “off the grid” card with the hope that it worked, and then take a photo with the people who sold it? Probably not.

Lynn Lotkowictz (second from left) meeting with seniors in Havana

Music, Art and Entertainment

If you choose to extend your stay into the weekend, you have the option of adding a weekend package of people-to-people activities or you can make your own plans. The Global Volunteers program includes a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House, art galleries, Old Havana and a morning lecture from two local professionals who discuss history, education and some politics. The package includes meals and accommodations. I found it to be a great value.

My favorite weekend activity was the excellent live music that was playing everywhere, day or night. In addition to street entertainers, restaurants, bars and coffee shops all had talented solo or group performers. Artwork is plentiful and there is a wide variety of architecture including colonial, Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

My students on two evenings were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife Daniella takes care of their home. She knew some English and was eager to help him. We reviewed his tour prices, looked at what’s included and added some language to make the tours more appealing. We helped Allen learn simple statements such as, “Welcome to Havana! My name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?”

After some competitive analysis, we determined that he is competing with the fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50 per hour.  We worked on an appropriate response. “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” He mastered three or four sentences that we worked on intensively for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.

It was a pleasure to see a 23-year-old happily married entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed. When we finished the second night, he looked at me and said, “God bless you and thank you.” I was beginning to see how individuals can make a small but significant impact in a short time and, more importantly, understand these very warm and welcoming people.

In addition, people are creating and operating small businesses out of their homes or garages for serving meals, coffee and beer, or little repair shops and such. Home owners are renting out rooms to visitors for additional income. This is all new and Cubans seem very happy with new opportunities.

The streets, sidewalks and many buildings are in disrepair, and there is much need for improved infrastructure, painting, plumbing, electrical work, etc. Litter is an issue in some neighborhoods. For many, work is hard to find and salaries are low. Supplies of every kind are limited. Many of the local grocery store shelves are sparsely stocked.

Looking Ahead

Throughout my visit, I could sense the change that is coming. During a lively conversation, one of our casa owners described it like this. “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down and getting bigger and bigger and you cannot stop it.”

Tourists from all over world have been visiting Havana for years and now there many American visitors. In Havana we saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere and a walk along the Malecon (a walkway along the sea wall) is perfect for people watching.

Havana, a city of three million, is bursting with activity and it offers a colorful history that people want to experience. It’s old, new, Spanish, European, modern, young and fun!

I only saw a small part of Cuba on this trip. But I’m sure I’ll return again to visit Varadero, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and other places on this fascinating island.

Lynn Lotkowictz lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband Bill, who is an entertainer at more than 20 assisted living facilities in the area.

Lynn’s greatest joy comes from spending time with her family, meaningful travel experiences, and health and fitness endeavors. Her favorite destination is her father’s homeland, Crete. She is enjoying her involvement with Global Volunteers and recently returned from ten days in Havana, Cuba.

Lynn is happy to talk to anyone who is interested in her story or would like more details about her travel experiences. Contact Lynn at llotkow@gmail.com.

All photos provided by Lynn Lotkowictz. All rights reserved.

Also see Lynn’s previous guest post, Volunteer Vacations Offer Fulfillment, Service to Others, and Inexpensive Travel

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