On January 3, 20 Encore travelers departed for Cuba on a People to People Bridge Between Cultures trip and it was indeed a trip of a lifetime. Grand Circle Foundation did an extraordinary job in planning this journey for us.
Our exchange started with a candid discussion on urban development in Havana led by Pedro Vazquez, an architect and urban planner. It was very evident that the Cuban people are very excited about the positive change in our governments. And this remained evident everywhere we traveled in Cuba. We shared a visit at a senior center where we delighted them with our singing and they sang for us. Smiles all around.
A great Cuban lunch followed a visit to a handcrafts market. We embarked on a neighborhood walking tour through the beautiful streets and squares of Old Havana. The evening entertainment was at Muraleandro, a community arts project of colorful murals and various forms of street arts. We met with local artists to view their works and enjoy their performances. And of course we performed for them to wild applause!
The next day started with a lively discussion on U.S./Cuban relations led by a pair of Havana residents. They shared their views on the possibilities of the 60- year- stand-off coming to an end. Then we hopped aboard local transportation –bicycle cabs – to travel to the local market to meet vendors and buy some produce to give to the day-care facility we would be visiting next. After lunch, we enjoyed Havana’s historic La Cabana, an 18th. Century fortress complex near the entrance to the Bay of Havana. Then some visited the Fine Arts Museum and some of us became part of the Epiphany Parade through Old Havana! Talk about loud and crazy! And Cuba Television caught some Encore members on film for TV across Cuba later that evening!! They knew we were Americans and they loved it.
That evening we visited a public art project in Jaimanitas, a village where Cuban artist and sculptor Jose Fuster decorated more than 80 homes with Gaudi-inspired murals and domes. We met with Jose, had dinner with artists, and, of course, sang!
The next day we drove to the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, a UNESCO Site. We enjoyed a spectacular performance by the Cantores de Cienfuegos and then we performed for them. A truly unforgettable moment of our trip! A real artist to artist experience!
We celebrated our good fortune with a fabulous dinner at the private paladares, Villa Lagarto.
The next morning offered an interesting discussion with writers, artists and musicians of the Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba (UNEAC). We visited the studios of artists and heard about the challenges in earning a living through their art and craft. That afternoon we were entertained by elementary school children in lively song and dance, and after dinner, headed back to UNEAC to hear a great “Son” band performing Cuban classics. Our Encore singers certainly can dance! The community came out for this evening and mingled easily and happily with Encore.
We left for Trinidad, a 500 year old colonial city, stopping for a visit to Cuba’s largest Botanical Park. Upon arriving in Trinidad, we visited small basket weaving and pottery-making operations. That evening we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner at a private paladar in a former colonial mansion.
The next day brought a tour of a sugarcane plantation in the Valle de los Ingenios, a UNESCO Site. About 30,000 slaves were brought to Trinidad to work on the sugarcane plantations. We enjoyed a folkloric group demonstrating Afro-Cuban dance and music and we joined in on the dance. We also visited a family in Trinidad and enjoyed fruit from their stand.
The next morning we drove out to the Sierra Del Escambray mountain range to visit a small plantation and meet with the owners in their home. A very lively discussion indeed and, of course, we sang! They loved us!
On our way back to Havana, we stopped at a fishing village Cojimar and enjoyed lunch and conversation with fisherman. We visited Hemingways’ home Finca La Vigia, where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea. And learned our very own Encore singer on the trip, Gay Gelhorn, was the niece of Hemmingway’s wife Martha and it was this house where they lived. Incredible moment to have Gay toll the Hemmingway bell into the home.
A speaker from the Ludwig Foundation – a private non-profit organization created to promote Cuban culture – spoke to use about the role of dance in Cuba and enjoyed a fabulous performance by the Malpaso, one of Cuba’s first private dance companies. They will be performing at The Dance Place in DC in March and many of us will be attending. They were amazing. We also toured the historic Colon Cemetery, awash in white marble with elaborate memorials to Cuba’s past.
Our last evening in Cuba featured dinner at Starbien, a renovated colonial mansion. It was a great time to toast our fabulous experience and bid farewell to Cuba. We all said we wanted to return soon. And then our superb tour guide Miagros (Mily) surprised us with a string of 1950’s automobiles – all convertibles in hot pinks, oranges, etc, - just waiting to take us back to our grand hotel, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. What a great ending to an unforgettable journey
Photos of the trip will be available on our Gallery page over the next several weeks - check back to view the highlights of our trip!