Cuba. The mere mention of the country conjures up images and feelings as numerous as they are varied—from cigars, rum, and the tango to Kennedy, Castro, and the Bay of Pigs.
For more than five decades, relations between the United States and Cuba remained frosty at best, with Americans traveling to Cuba facing more restrictions than those going to North Korea, Iran, or even active war zones like Afghanistan.
An unprecedented thawing in relations in recent years is opening the door for Americans to visit Cuba, and UT students are poised to make such a historic trip later this month.
“Part of our mission is to open up the world to our students and give them a perspective on other cultures, other people, other ways of doing things,” said Judith Mallory, international coordinator for UT’s College of Engineering. “This will be an opportunity of a lifetime for our students.”
While travel restrictions have certainly eased, the process of visiting Cuba remains more challenging than simply going online and picking out airfare and a hotel.
The US Department of State permits travel only for certain types of activities, such as visiting relatives, conducting a performance, or journalistic pursuits. The UT trip will fall under one such allowance—a cultural exchange with service project components.
That component also draws in honors students fulfilling their Ready for the World requirement.
“You aren’t allowed to travel from the US to Cuba and just hang out at the beach,” said Mallory. “Our students are taking part in a very detailed, very prescribed program.
“Our impact will be felt in a number of engineering-related projects that will have an impact on the communities where we are.”
Under the communist system in Cuba, there is a generalized policy of resources being available for everyone or no one.
As a result, areas taken for granted in the United States, such as playgrounds, can easily fall into disrepair. Because there aren’t enough funds to maintain all of the facilities, none of them get funded.
UT’s students will use their skills to directly improve a number of such areas, including playgrounds in Havana, Cuba’s capital, as well as doing plaster and repair work at a home for the elderly.
“Part of what we try to provide students is an opportunity to experience real everyday living in whatever country we visit,” said Mallory. “This opportunity to interact with the people of Cuba in their day-to-day lives will stay with our students forever.”
While their engineering skills will be put to the test, Mallory said, the students are also aware they will be unofficial ambassadors, shaping how Cubans view Americans.
Accommodations will be “casa particulars,” sort of the Cuban form of bed and breakfasts, where team members will lodge and eat in the houses of ordinary citizens.
One nod to the tourism industry is that guests can pay between $7 and $12 on average for authentic home-cooked Cuban food.
While that seems like a small amount for such a feast in America, it’s a windfall for Cubans, whose average salary is about $30 a month.
Teams visiting on such exchanges also are allowed to bring “gifts of friendship” when visiting Cuba. Mallory and her team will take screwdrivers, wire strippers, curling irons, and hair dryers—items that many Americans might take for granted but are highly prized by Cubans.
Those last two will play an important role in one of the UT team’s other stops, where they will help with what is called “occupational English.”
For example, students will visit with hairstylists in Havana and work with them on English equivalencies of Spanish phrases, a critical advantage for those workers as tourism to the island continues to grow.
“This is about getting out and seeing the power of how travel can change attitudes and experiences,” said Mallory.
Students will have time to tour or visit natural and constructed aspects of the Cuban culture, including tobacco farms and cigar manufacturers. They’ll also take a boat tour of the coast and visit some museums.
David Goddard (865-974-0683, email@example.com)