Cuba: The Trip that Changed Everything

Somehow, I knew this year, would mark something new, new adventures and new perspectives on life. Year 25 started out with a bang!

Three weeks ago I embarked on a journey to a place that many only dream of going. A place where I had roots and family I never met: Cuba. For one week, I and 27 other MBA students, sailed on Fathom’s Adonia to Cuba to serve as student ambassadors, studying business culture in Cuba, and connected with entrepreneurs of all kinds!

I couldn’t wait to get back and share my journey with all of you, so, here goes!

Sunday & Monday: At Sea
Our first two days at sea brought with it feelings of excitement, expectancy, and nervousness. We spent much of those two days in class and bonding with one other. This time together gave us the chance to learn more about Cuba’s culture, the cities that we would be visiting, and each other.

Tuesday: Santiago De Cuba
Day one in Cuba was spent in the revolutionary city of Santiago. There is a strong and unique pride and culture in Santiago that reflects its revolutionary roots and strides.

The first half of the day was spent visiting historic sights like Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a fort on the coast of Santiago. There we had time to explore the fort and adventure around the compound meeting locals. The views were simply breathtaking!

After some sightseeing, we gathered for lunch, and I had my very first Cuban beer, Bucanero! Then, we proceeded to the Cathedral to present our personal gifts for the community to the Father!

After that, we had a few hours to really explore and get to know the people of Santiago! In order to interview the local community entrepreneurs, we were divided into 6 groups of 5. While interviewing, to support their time, we also had to make a purchase from the establishment!

We interviewed the owners of 2 shops, a bar, a pizza stand, and a barbaria (barbershop)!

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Con Clase
The barbershop was by far the most memorable experience. Con Clase was a neighborhood barbershop owned by Inaudies Miguel (figRo) a 19-year-old two-time national judo champion. It was only 9 months ago that Inaudies opened his shop, so he was thrilled to have us visit and excited that we wanted to learn more about him. One of my group members, Danny, missed his barber appointment at home so he sat in the chair to get an authentic Cuban cut.

At Con Clase, we met Michael one of Inaudies’s friend and manager of the shop. Michael introduced us to all of his friends at the shop, one of whom had the cutest crush on me!

With one hour left in Santiago, we visited a bar where I met Susana and Martina! Susana, the black woman, wore a beautiful head wrap, which I later learned signifies Santeria (an Afro-Caribbean religion)! She also told me she was a Rastafarian. Once I told her I was Jamaican, it was a wrap! She loved my scarf, and, instantly, we became friends.

It was really great starting our Cuban journey in Santiago where the Cuban Revolution began.

 Wednesday: Cienfuegos
The Culture of Cienfuegos was quite different from Santiago. The people were more laid back, calmer, and easy going. There was definitely less hustle and bustle there!

We visited several different businesses with the hopes of understanding how they worked and how they sustained themselves. It was interesting how doing these interviews gave us the opportunity to connect more with the people, through their stories, and get to know them a bit more. That day, we met entrepreneurs and innovators from all walks of life and backgrounds, and were introduced to their various ways of doing things.

First we stepped into a beauty salon filled with women getting their nails and eyebrows waxed. It was interesting to see that, just like in the U. S., the beauty salon was the women's mecca and place to feel comfortable and at home.

The generosity of the Cuban people was felt as we interviewed a man with his own fruteria! Though we stole 15 minutes of his time, he still wanted us to have something and insisted we take bananas and some guavas as a token of his appreciation. One thing that really resonated with me was that the people really wanted to make sure we had a good impression of them; they treated us well.

Thursday: Sail
Thursday was a low-key day as the remainder of the student groups did their special presentations on Cuba. I pretty much relaxed and prepared my mind for the upcoming excitement of the next two days: Havana!

Friday: Day one in Havana
As soon as we stepped outside the gates of the port, we were all mesmerized by the beauty of the cars. Everything was so colorful, so vibrant! We loaded up in vintage jeer SUV's and made our way to the U.S. Embassy.  At the embassy, it was interesting and great to learn of the strides that our country was making to help enhance the lives of local business owners, journalists, and change makers in Cuba. The next stop was the university of Havana, which is where many important Cuban figures, including Fidel Castro, pursued their studies.

After the university, we were treated to an intimate lunch at Restaurant 1958! Wow, what a treat that was. There we met and ate with the owner of the establishment as he shared with us his views on business, on Cuba, and on how he was able to open the restaurant! I even got to meet and talk to the waiters, Carlos and Jorge, who were simply amazing. Restaurant 1958 was truly a gem!

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After that, we were able to split up in our own groups and roam the city. The first stop was cigars! So, our afternoon driver took us to Hotel Melia where we purged on authentic Cuban cigars and exclusive rum. Two hours later, the bartender at the cigar shop made us an amazing mojito!

A few other snapshots of our day

Bueno Vista Social club with Noel and Rosa: Celebrating Amaranto Fernandez 89th birthday

We had an amazing evening with our taxi driver, Armando. He showed us the authentic Friday night experience in Cuba; lots of young people dancing and drinking beer at the local Alapaso, across from the Melacon. It was such a raw and authentic feeling. He spoke with us for three hours, over beers, about life in Cuba and his story. He shared his love of Cuba, his fears, and his want of more opportunity. It was such a blessing to hear the perspective of a Cuban millennial. The evening was a memorable and amazing experience, one that I will cherish forever!

Day one hands down was epic!  It was rich and full of so many different experiences.

Saturday: Day two in Havana

Our last day in Havana, we were determined to see and explore as much of the city as we could.  So, with cameras in tow, we set forth to the Capitaole. We walked through the streets of Old Havana where you could feel the artistry and authenticity of Cuba. The colorful walls, crumbling buildings, and decayed walls all a part of the city’s story. Everything was picture worthy, and I couldn’t help but feel amazed just walking and being amongst the people.

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The walk to the Capitole wouldn't be complete if we didn't have a drink on the way. We stopped at a bar and met with locals for a special mojito-like drink! And, of course, took photos with the bartender.

On our journey we met Luis and Yoandri, who became our tour guides for the remainder of the afternoon. They took us to a paladares with authentic Cuban food! For those that don't know a paladar or paladares (plural) are restaurants that are managed or ran by self-employed people. Many Paladares are family-run businesses and offer a more authentic experience for tourists and visitors looking for homemade Cuban cuisine.

There we ate and laughed and learned more about their lives in Cuba. They then took us to a market, to buy gifts, and, after, for a stroll along the Malecon.

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Post Trip
Upon returning, I thought about all the people I met, people who were simply surviving and making their lives work in the most creative ways possible. It made me look at my own life, a bit, and allowed me to realize how good I have it. Those thoughts put a lot in perspective for me. Those people are there making some part of their dreams come true, pushing themselves to make their lives more meaningful and here I am, with every gift and resource at my fingertip, possibly, not using it. I became teary-eyed thinking about the stories from the guys in the barbershop, from our Havana taxi driver, and from all the others whose amazing stories I heard. How truly blessed I am to have had this experience!

I left America on December 11th excited to learn about the business structure and the place my grandfather once called home and came back with all of that and more. The memories made in Cuba will last a lifetime. I am truly humbled by this experience. Every little complaint and worry, instantly, felt insignificant. While there, I felt like I could be myself; the people were so warm, so welcoming, and so vibrant. The beautiful faces will forever be imprinted in my heart! The generosity and love from the Cuban people will be with me always. We have so much to learn from these creative, hard working, and genuine people.

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If you ask me how my trip to Cuba was I would describe it with two words: Life changing.

Thank you to Dr. Tworoger and Dr. Frogey for their endless dedication to making this trip possible for us. And, a special thank you to Dr. Silvia Orta for creating a warm and authentic atmosphere for us all. Special thanks to President Hanbury and Mrs. Hanbury for sharing such a special moment with us!

Want to learn more about my trip, or interested in what I have planned?

Hit me up!

Love,
Lauren Alyssa
Lauren@thegemwithin.com