One of the best benefits of spending extended time in Cuba for the last 4 years, is that we’ve been able to create long-term friendships there. A regular highlight of our Cuba for Families and Havana to Viñales trips is a visit to a small rural school. We know the principal and the teachers, and best of all our tour leaders like Heather Harding and Eric Kessler have come to know the kids themselves.
Back home in Washington state, Heather had the idea of connecting the students at her local schools with the Cuban kids she’s come to know. The result has been an amazing pen pal style back-and-forth. Check out this article in the Port Townsend Leader for the whole story.
One of the perks is how enthusiastically our guests are greeted whenever we arrive at the school. The people of Classic Journeys are a “known quantity”, so there’s no shyness or need to work our way through school bureaucracy to get inside the classroom for an experience that basically defines “immersive”.
After scores of adventures in Cuba, we’re thrilled to get that kind of reception wherever we go. While a lot of visitors to the island end up feeling like spectators, we’re welcomed as friends. The difference is incredibly important. For instance, in Havana our friends Julio and Nidialys love it when we stop by the workshop where they restore and update classic cars. There’s none of the distance or testing of the waters that happens when strangers meet strangers. The welcome is warm and immediate, and we get full value from our time together. The same thing happens from the tobacco farms in the Viñales Valley to the Santeria temple in Trinidad.
If you follow the news, you know that travel to Cuba has skyrocketed in the last couple of years. We think that’s nothing but good for the island. But large groups of travelers suffer the same problems in Cuba as they do anywhere in the world. Our small groups, averaging just 10-12 guests, avoid the traps of only going to places that can cope with a swarm of visitors. As time has gone by, we’ve only found more and more opportunities to slip out of the mainstream and relax into our visits. It’s the difference between marching in lockstep and being waved down by a friend for a leisurely conversation.
On the flip side, the Americans who are trying to visit Cuba on their own are shut out of these experiences too. A teacher won’t temporarily suspend a lesson for a casual passerby. If you walk into a cigar-rolling workshop on your own, you’ll get a pre-packaged reception rather than the clear signal that it’s just fine if you want to hang around for a while to learn what’s happening.
We’re proud of the kind of work that Heather and Eric do to create and sustain our relationships with the wonderful Cuban people. And nothing makes us happier than when we get to share those warm and happy connections with the good people who travel with us.