The first time I heard about the plan to issue “People to People” licenses to travel legally to Cuba and have significant interactions with Cuban people, I knew it was something I wanted to do. My memories of hearing about Cuba go back to some of my earliest years. I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury that first year, was awarded a license, and off flew our intrepid group in 2012. We met amazing people and had adventures both in Havana and in the nearby countryside and beyond.
During the second year our trip was organized under the auspices of another licensed non-profit called the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. This trip also visited many of the same sites, but we were much more successful at bird-watching on this trip and it was a revelation to me. Our skilled guides helped us to see more amazing, endemic, birds than I could have ever imagined.
After I returned from this trip, I thought I would not return for at least a few years. Two years in a row was fun, but there are so many other great places to visit. But – the people I met in Cuba stayed strong in my mind. There was our first guide, Frank, whose mother got him through the starvation of The Special Period by getting him to focus on playing the piano. Our second guide, Yuli, talked frankly about being a young woman growing up after the Revolution. We watched her transform from a city girl who thought nature was icky, to an avid binocular-grasping birder calling out bird names in one afternoon. On both trips, my counterpart at the National Botanical Garden, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, talked with the same passion about “her” Garden as I talk about “mine.” Miquel Salcines and Norma Romero shared with us their stories about how Cuba was forced during The Special Period to embrace the principles of organic gardening, and how their innovative Alamar Organoponic Garden has provided food and so much more to the cooperative. On this last trip, we met with Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, for a very frank discussion about Cuban-American relations. We saw very talented young people perform at both the Opera de la Calle and the KORIMACAO Project. And the person who returns to my mind most often is a young botanist, Alejandro González Álvarez, at the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture, who was filled with enthusiasm about plants and about the future. He would dearly love to be able to attend botanical conferences and workshops outside of Cuba. I have been unable to make this happen, but I do intend to keep trying.
I left Cuba this year, fully intending to not return for a few years, if at all. But people continued to ask me about whether I was going in 2014 and after a while, I realized that I was not ready to part from these people. One thing that really surprised me was that even though American visitors to Cuba have greatly increased the last two years, all of these people, and those who stopped us on the streets of Havana, were so excited to meet us and share with us. I was stunned to find that in 2013, the people we had met with in 2012 – even just once – remembered me and were happy to see me return with more people. Our first guide, Frank, recognized me in a restaurant and warmly greeted me. Alejandro wanted to show me things that had changed since my first visit, with great pride.
So… UWBG is going to Cuba in 2014! Come with me and make memories of your own! Enjoy the stories, the plants, gardens, agriculture, birds, and so much more. But it really is the people that will stay with you, people. Don’t miss this opportunity to share with them on our People-to-People trip. I plan to lead a trip to New Zealand in 2015 and because it would be at about the same time, I really won’t be going back for a while after this.