For history teacher Joanne Brandwood, Blair Academy’s first-ever trip to Cuba represented a “remarkable moment” for the School, 16 student travelers and four faculty chaperones. “It’s always worthwhile to travel internationally and meet people from other cultures, but this place was different,” she said. “Our students appreciated the historic nature of our visit to Cuba, knowing that as recently as two years ago, we couldn’t have gone. Both in the positive interactions we experienced in Cuba and the ideas and impressions we brought home, the trip demonstrated to all of us the importance of contact with other countries.”
The Blair group’s nine-day Cuban stay (March 11 to 19), facilitated by World Leadership School, included a variety of experiences and excursions designed to familiarize students and teachers with life in the island nation. Activities included homestays and shared meals with local students and families; tours of Old Havana, a tobacco farm, the Revolution Museum and Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía; and a hike in Viñales. As they traversed the island, group members immersed themselves in the Spanish language and their colorful surroundings, and became familiar with some of the economic and political challenges of life in Cuba. They also learned a bit of Cuban history—sometimes from those who lived through it—and experienced the warm hospitality and generosity of Cuban people.
Through Artists’ Eyes
Among students’ and teachers’ favorite activities were their almost-daily visits to community arts projects. At places such as Vocal Clave de Sol, Orquesta de Guitarras, El Patio de Pelegrín and El Centro Pro Danza de Cuba, the Blair group had the chance to interact with artists and local students while participating in music, dance, painting and more. “We witnessed how Cubans express themselves through art and really got to see the country through artists’ eyes,” said photography teacher Tyson Trish. “The experience gave us new perspective on the power of the arts to create positive change for a community.”
Video studies teacher Wendy Schiller especially loved the Fuster Mosaic Project, a neighborhood covered in tile mosaics that has become a popular tourist destination and thus infused some money into the local economy. “José Fuster, a spectacular artist, has had to carry tiles to Cuba from the Dominican Republic in hand luggage because of embargo issues,” Ms. Schiller said. “It’s overwhelming how much work he has put into the project despite such challenges; seeing it was a reminder that making art is difficult, but so important and miraculous.”
An afternoon at El Centro Pro Danza de Cuba, where Blair students watched a rehearsal of Dracula and chatted with the ballet troupe’s “incredibly accomplished dancers,” and a visit to music-focused Clave de Sol were highlights for Spanish teacher Joyce Lang. “Our kids picked up instruments and began playing, singing and dancing with Cuban students at Clave de Sol,” Mrs. Lang recalled. “It was a very moving cultural exchange, really one of the best moments of the trip.”
Experience of a Lifetime
For junior Nami Hoffman ’18, the entire trip was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. She enjoyed the “touristy” sights but especially appreciated meeting and conversing with local citizens at the community projects, as this deepened her experience of the country and its culture. “Cuba seems stuck in decades past—the cars and buildings are evidence of this,” she observed. “Overall, it was an eye-opening trip, and I hope to visit Cuba again. It’s a country you should definitely put on your travel bucket list!”
While the Blair travelers will likely share photo highlights of their Cuban sojourn with the School community at an upcoming School Meeting, Mrs. Brandwood, Mr. Trish and Mrs. Lang all plan to bring elements of the experience into their classrooms. Mrs. Lang already shared insights from her summer visit to Cuba with her Spanish classes when she taught about the country’s history and artists earlier this year, and she will “bring Cuba back” in the final weeks of class. For Charlie Scheuer ’17, a highlight of the trip was visiting the Plaza de la Revolución, having seen numerous pictures of it and studied the Cuban Revolution with Mrs. Lang in Advanced Placement Spanish.
“Overall, it was a beautiful, amazing trip,” Mr. Trish said, noting that photos of Cuba’s vibrant colors will certainly have a presence in his photography classes. “I hope the experience will become a point of reference for our kids throughout their lives.”