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Exploring Cuba

“From Havana to the Bay of Pigs to Cienfuegos, every day was filled with enriching interactions with the Cubans whom we met during our people-to-people exchange.” WAA’s Kate Prehn ’09 tell us about her Cuba adventure.

By Kate Prehn ’09

On Monday, December 9, 2013, I embarked on an eight-day journey of a lifetime with 14 UW alumni and friends: we were heading to Cuba.

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I have never traveled anywhere where you feel so far away, but are actually so close to home. Miami to Havana is only 90 miles. That’s just a little more than the distance from the UW-Madison campus to Milwaukee. But Cuba feels like another world — one where you step back into the late 1950s.

We had so many amazing experiences in Cuba. From Havana to the Bay of Pigs to Cienfuegos, every day was filled with enriching interactions with the Cubans whom we met during our people-to-people exchange. We learned so much and met many Cubans, each with his or her own story. For me, though, there is one day that really sticks out.

On the morning of Friday, December 13, we drove to Las Terrazas to spend a half day there.

Las Terrazas is a distinctive, socialist eco-community in the Pinar del Río province, about an hour’s drive from our hotel in Havana. Las Terrazas is really the Cuban idea in action, with all the good and challenging things that come with that. For me, our experiences at Las Terrazas truly encapsulated what our Cuba trip was all about.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Otis, who was born there. Otis gave us an overview and a short presentation about the community. We learned that Las Terrazas was created in the 1970s by terracing the mountainside (where Che Guevara hid prior to the Cuban Revolution), building houses and, eventually, building additional structures to be used as a senior center, school, clinic, restaurants and hotel. Las Terrazas became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1984, and today it’s a self-sustaining community of 1,200 residents.

Our first stop in Las Terrazas was La Casa de Memoria, a senior center. There we talked to the director, doctor, fitness instructor and a few people who attend the center. We met Maurilia, the community’s administrator; Analia, its historian; and some locals named Felicia, Teresita, Jura and Vicky, who make crafts to sell at the community’s gift shop. Seventy percent of the proceeds from the gift shop go back to support the community. These women take things that we would quickly discard in the U.S. and turn them into beautiful pieces (a trend known in America as upcycling).

For example, a group of women makes necklaces, bracelets and handbags from soda and beer tabs by crocheting them together. Another woman makes beads from nuts that have fallen from trees and recycled magazine pages. In a country where there is not a lot of wealth to be had, these women make the best of what they have and share it with their community.

After the senior center, we made our way through a couple of classrooms. Our first stop was the pre-kindergarten age group. This group of kids was so well behaved. We took them crayons and coloring books, which they were happy to have. It felt really rewarding and made us realize that we take a lot for granted — all of us. The children also had things to teach us. The five- to seven-year-olds have a garden that they plant as part of their curriculum. From an early age, all of the children in Las Terrazas learn the importance of sustainability and community.

For lunch, we went to an all-vegetarian and eco-friendly restaurant called El Romero. Its founder and director, Tito, welcomed us all and told us how everything at the restaurant is grown in Las Terrazas. He told us about all of the courses that we would be having. Everyone at each table got a different soup, entrée and dessert than anyone else.

At my table, we shared everything that came across our plates. The presentation of the food on each of the plates was beautiful, and we all enjoyed the meal. My favorite was the fruit soup, made with oranges and mangoes. And coconut ice cream is delicious!

The restaurant was open air, and everything in it was handmade: the tables were hand-carved; the bamboo containers for herbs and utensils were handmade; each chair cushion was different. And the restaurant looked down over the water. People loved it.

After dessert and coffee, Tito and the restaurant staff helped us to plant an avocado tree on the hillside. We hope that someday, another group will be able to enjoy an avocado that was grown on the tree planted by our Wisconsin alumni group!

Before leaving Las Terrazas, we stopped at the local shop to purchase handmade goods. The community has inspired many artists, including Lester Campa. We had the opportunity to visit his studio and to see the water and mountains that inspire him. We were also lucky enough to see him working on an 8-by-12-foot painting. He autographed a print for me, which is now hanging in my house.

Unlike many Cubans, Lester has been to the United States a number of times for art shows, but he said he would never leave Las Terrazas. He moved there from outside of Havana when he was around 10, and he loves being in the community and surrounded by so many people who support one another.

When it was time to leave, it was hard to get back on the bus. Every part of this trip to Cuba challenged our preconceptions. As Americans, we may think that we know what it’s like in Cuba, and we tend to believe that our way of doing things is the only way things can work. Some of us were skeptical about the community before we got there, but everyone enjoyed the whole Las Terrazas experience. We got to know people.

It was absolutely beautiful.

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