Our guide smiled with half of his cigar hanging from the corner of his lips. He tucked his paperback Santeria book in the nook of his elbow and crossed his arms over his tie-dyed “Rastafarian” t-shirt. He squinted at us over the rims of his glasses and drawled, “There’s one piece of advice I’d like to share with you all.” Our guide paused and waited for the group of flush-faced American students toting backpacks and cameras to listen.
“Enjoy my country,” he exclaimed, “but don’t try to understand it!”
We all laughed and clapped as our afternoon tour of popular Afro-Cuban religions concluded outside of the Callejon de Hamel art installation. Our professors, Richard Gioioso and Carlos Gonzalez-Ferrin, nodded thoughtfully and grinned as if they had heard that type of statement before from other Cubans. However, it seemed ironic to take a class all semester to learn about the intricacies of the historical, cultural, and political aspects of a country so unknown to many of the students (and many Americans), and then travel to that country only to hear a Cuban instruct us to “enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it.”
Later that week, we spoke with Cuban economist Gladys Hernández, who also had a similar manner of discussing Cuba. After her introduction, she allowed us to ask questions regarding the embargo, the Cuban economy, and the pros and cons of both of our economic and political systems. Each of her answers began with “Well, it is very complex,” or, “The question you are asking is certainly complex.” While her responses sounded heavily guarded and meticulously worded in contrast to our warm Santeria tour guide, both individuals seemed to be referring to a general lack of transparency between the Cuban government and its people. I noticed a shared frustration among my classmates and the Cubans with whom we spoke regarding the opaqueness and double-sided nature of contemporary Cuban society.
From the discussion-based style of Dr. Gioioso’s class, I felt that I had grasped several facets of Cuban life that had been completely foreign to me before signing up for the course. In Cuba, however, I was constantly questioning, incessantly probing, changing and re-changing answers and opinions the way a seamstress might alter a gown on a shifting, growing body. Meanwhile, my classmates and I began to bond over casual conversations with our interpreters, the waiters in restaurants, taxi drivers, and strangers on the streets of Havana. The Cubans we met had as many questions as we did. They laughed with us and talked about their goals and concerns for the future. During group reflections, we discussed our opinions and findings from our lectures and encounters. The notion of community is at the heart of most of the significant dialogue in Cuba, and I was beginning to feel like the Cubans we met had embraced us into their family.
We met a journalist who told us that if you were to take a shower in Miami and fly from the airport in Miami into Havana, your hair would still be wet. It was disturbing and confusing: we have neighbors about ninety miles away from our shores, yet most of us in the states know little about them; prior to the study tour course and trip, I had only associated Cuba with the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am grateful that Saint Joseph’s University provided twelve students with the opportunity to travel to a country that Americans cannot freely visit, but I hope that my first time visiting Cuba will not be my last. As students who had firsthand experience living and learning in Cuba for ten days, the communication surrounding education on the relationship between the United States and Cuba and policy change is in our hands. I hope there will be more study tour programs like this in the future, and that the continued sharing of information will yield a collapse of the barriers established during the Cold War. Saint Joseph’s students work to fulfill the University’s ‘not for spectators’ spirit and the study tour to Cuba validated that promise.
Teresa Tellekamp is a junior from Smithtown, New York. She is double majoring in English and Spanish with a minor in Political Science. She took the course ‘Contemporary Cuban Politics and Society’ this past year which allowed her to have this amazing experience. Teresa is involved with Alpha Gamma Delta as their Publications Coordinator, the Haub School of Business Dean’s Leadership Program, Winter Immersion Program Leader (Guatemala, 2015), a tutor in the Writing Center, a Hawk Host Tour Captain and involved with Adopt-A-Pop through weekly service. Teresa is currently interning with a broadcasting company on Long Island and she is extremely interested in working in trade publishing in Manhattan. She loves to write and travel so she hopes to incorporate both of those passions into her future plans!