A View of Cuba Through The Eyes of An American HS Student

By Char Shryock,  Dir. of Curriculum and Instruction for Bay Village City Schools and Allison Shryock, Senior at Avon Lake High School.

Over the long President’s Day Weekend, my daughter Allison, along with 9 other members of the Avon Lake High School National Honor Society and their advisor, Jeff Arra, had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba with To Cuba Now. [https://tocubanow.com/our-team/]  I feel strongly that the best way to build an understanding of other cultures is to give students the chance to meet students from other cultures.  What follows is my daughter’s account of her trip, a trip that no student from my generation would have been able to take.

In her words…

I had a chance to go to Cuba.  That was the reason I wanted to go.  It was Cuba. I didn’t really have an idea of what to expect. Now that I have been there, I want to go back. Cuba is beautiful. I always felt very safe. No one is allowed to own a gun. There are very few homeless people, since the government provides housing and a free education.  The food was delicious. We did have a lot of guys honking at us and trying to talk to us!  I am glad I got to go to Cuba now, because I think that over the next 50 years, they won’t be so far behind, it will be a much different place.

The first thing I noticed after we landed and went to the hotel were the cars. The old cars were cool.  The nicer old cars are taxis. The cars that the people drive were not in the same good condition. I liked that the traffic lights have a timer countdown for green, red and yellow!  Everyone was outside. It was a lot like Spain when I was in Sevilla this past summer. You see people sitting out talking. There is not a lot of cell phone coverage in Cuba, although people we met had phones.  I didn’t miss using my phone, because we all spent time talking at lunch and dinner too.  It was easy to speak Spanish with the people in Cuba. They did not have an accent.  The people are friendly. They have a lot of pride in their country.  We were fortunate to have a guide and a bus driver who wanted to be sure we saw everything on our government approved itinerary.

Our hotel was nice.  I shared a room with one of my friends.  We could buy WiFi cards to use at the hotel, but the WiFi still wasn’t very dependable.  People who really want something that must be downloaded from the internet can order the files, and they will be delivered to them on a jump drive.  The water system in Cuba is not in good shape. There are not many public restrooms, so you use the restrooms in the hotel or restaurants.  I learned that you always leave a tip for the bathroom attendant. There wasn’t always toilet paper, so we carried Kleenex packs with us. The toilets didn’t always flush.  We take access to plumbing and safe drinking water for granted.  There are very few stores. People have identification cards which they can use to get food and medicines.  One of the first places we got to visit was the University of Havana.

We had the opportunity to talk with 2 students at the University of Havana.

The University of Havana was small compared to college campuses that are in an Ohio city, like Cleveland State. We got to go into the auditorium building where they hold graduation.  All education in Cuba is free, so it is a highly educated country.  When they are going to begin college students select what college majors they want. They then take 3 tests, kind of like our ACTs. The points students get on the test decide what major they will get. If you get the right points, you get your first choice. If you don’t then you work your way down your list until you find a major that matches with the points you earned.  There are no double majors. Students can go through college once, then go back if they want to add a second major.  There are other universities in Cuba, but the University of Havana is the only one with an engineering program.   At the university, the only place they have WiFi is the library. It was interesting that all the students are required to take English to graduate, but the classes aren’t very good. Only one of the two students that I got to talk with could actually speak fluent English.  His family had provided him with private tutoring in English. In Cuba, the only private schooling that is allowed is for English or Music.  The campus had a lot of courtyards and open air spaces between the classroom buildings.  One thing that is very different on the Havana University campus is the fact that there are no college sports teams or athletic facilities.  Athletes in Cuba do get to compete in the Pan American Games.

We visited Las Terrazas Community and The UNESCO Sierra Del Rosario Biopreserve.

The K-12 school that is part of the Las Terrazas Community.  All the students who attend the school live in the community. They go to school 11 months out of the year.  There was one library for the school, but there were many books in the library.  There is a community library as well. We got to see the school’s computer lab. There is no WiFi, but the students were using Google Paint on the computers in the lab.  The school was really a lot of smaller buildings around a courtyard or greenspace. Each classroom was in its own building.  Students wear different colors of uniforms for different levels of school. Red is primary school, yellow is middle school, blue is high school and brown is for students in technical school. The only book in English that we saw in the school was a dictionary but all students in the school are required to take English. While we were in Las Terrazas, we also had a chance to go to a coffee plantation and see the giant grinding stone that were part of coffee processing in the past.  The community is located near the Sierra Del Rosario mountains.  

The food was really good.

Dinners were chicken, rice and beans or ropa vieja (pulled pork with tomato sauce and vegetables, this was my favorite.) Even though the main ingredients were the same, each meal had a different taste.  A lot of restaurants also served an appetizer of plantain chips.  There was no Coke, but I tried their coke-like pop, Tukola.  There was only one brand of pop, Ciergo Montego. The average price for our dinner at a nicer restaurant was 6 Cucs (pesos).  

You can’t use American credit cards in Cuba, so I took Canadian and American money.

Cuban currency is the Peso, but it is usually referred to as Cucs. The exchange rate changed every day, so some days it was better to exchange Canadian currency, and other days American currency had a better rate.  Gas prices were interesting. There are  3 types of gas in Cuba. The lowest type is for the cars the people drive  and it costs 80 cents in Cucs. The middle type is for military vehicles and it is 1 Cuc per gallon. The last is 1.20 Cucs and it is for nicer cars.

There were a lot of car dealerships , but inside the dealerships there weren’t any cars. The average monthly salary for most people was 25 Cucs.  I realized that most of the kids on the trip were carry 150 – 200 Cucs with them at any given time.  We were rich.  We had been asked to wear very casual, not too flashy clothing because many of the people we were going to be meeting can not afford to buy expensive clothes.  Part of the community service that we did on the trip was contributing over the counter medicine, toothpaste and clothing to the Convento Las Virginias.  

We also visited a community center, and a few art galleries.

The center was local project where kids could go to take art and dance classes. Kids can sell their art there.  We also met dancers from a local dance company. The dancers were really good, and, they expected us to be able to do the same salsa moves. This is not like American dancing, and we weren’t very good.   We visited a number of art galleries, and got to hear a local band.  Music and art are very important to the Cuban culture. Fidel Castro supported the arts.

Old Havana was pretty.

There were many plazas and there was a lot of renovation going on. We visiting the Ernest Hemingway house.  It was away from everything else and surrounded by trees. The Cuban people called him Papa. He wrote many of his books while he lived in Cuba and knew Fidel Castro.  The buildings reminded me of a lot of the buildings I saw while I was taking a class in Sevilla, Spain this past summer.

There is a historic fort in Havana called El Morro Castle.

Every night at 9:00 the reenactors, dressed as historic soldiers, fire a cannon as part of the reenactment of the attack by the British in the 1700s. The night we were there, 2000 people were at the event.  A big book fair was taking place in Havana and there were many Canadians attending the event.  We also walked along the The Malecon. It is a seawall walk along the Atlantic. In the evening everyone sits and hangs out here.

Fidel Castro led a revolution in Cuba.

Students from the University of Havana started the revolution.  In the walls along the marble steps going into the Museum of the Revolution, you can still see bullet holes.  One of the displays in the museum is a wall of caricatures of the American presidents ,making fun of them.  

There are pictures all over the city of Che Guevera and signs saying, “Fidel Lives In Us” and “Viva Cuba Libre.” They have a lot of pride in their country. Because it is difficult for Cubans to leave their country and travel like we can, they have a different perspective on other countries. There are no study abroad programs at their university, although foreign students can apply to attend. Because of this, some Cuban think that all of their monuments or statues are the biggest or the best in the world.   We learned from our guide that all men have to serve 2 years in the military, but for women military service is voluntary. The Cuban healthcare system is well developed. They feel that they have really advanced medicine but don’t share with us because of the embargo.

On our last night in Cuba, I sat and watched my friend playing soccer with a group of students in the park across from our hotel.

I talked in Spanish with two parents who were sitting with their children watching the soccer game too.  Some of the teenage boys watching the game were talking about both of us. It was funny, they didn’t know I could understand them. At one point the dad I had been talking to yelled out to them, “You know she can understand you”. This could have been a park in Avon Lake. I am glad that I went to Cuba. Our guide, Ernesto, and all of the other people we met were interesting to talk to and happy that we wanted to know more about Cuba. I learned about their culture, and the importance of art and music.  I saw the impact of not having access to a lot of different kinds of products or money to buy a lot of things. I left all of my over the counter medicines and travel size products in the hotel room for the maid.  I now have a much clearer picture of Cuba, beyond what we learned in history class.

University of Havana


Currency and Travel


A view from our hotel

The city of Havana

Some of the cars

A view of the Sierra Del Rosario Mountains

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