Remember in elementary school when we had to write a paper at the beginning of the school year titled “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”? This feels a bit like that, but since I’m no longer in elementary school I can share some reflections rather than just the events!.

I was very lucky to be able to accompany a group of 20 students from San Jose State University to Havana, Cuba for almost two weeks in mid-January. We were lodged in a hotel in Old Havana so were in the best section of the city to get a feel for how the majority of the Cuban people live in their largest city. Here are a few things I learned during our time there:

• Extreme poverty does not need to impact academic achievement. Cuba has a 97% literacy rate and school is mandatory through at least the 9th grade. Most go on to the university for professional degrees as all education is free in Cuba, including the university. Teachers make only 20 pesos per month. Students are often using textbooks with yellowed pages. The only technology in classrooms was a TV. Giving a teacher a box of chalk or a student a pencil was like giving them $1,000,000. I tried to imagine putting an iPad in the hands of each of those children

• If I lived in Cuba, the government would issue me the following rations each month from my neighborhood bodega to feed my family: 5 pounds of rice. 5 pounds of sugar, 1 pound of coffee that has been mixed with beets to stretch it, “some beans” – it’s different every month, and if it’s a good month, I might also get a chicken. Additionally each child is given a liter of milk daily. If I were a teacher there – making that 20 pesos a month – I could add to the government rations by shopping in the government market – where a pound of coffee would take one fourth of my monthly salary. The ability of Cuban families to survive and thrive is amazing and admirable.

• Cell phones have just been allowed into the county during the last two years. With such limited income, few people actually own cell phones – so walking down a street in Old Havana means that people are still making eye contact, smiling, saying hello – building assets! Everyone is NOT talking or texting and walking. They are having conversations with the people around them. Children do not have digital games in their hands. In the two weeks I was there I saw only one child playing with a digital game and walking down the street. As with the adults – children are talking with each other!

• Extreme poverty does not mean that people don’t know and express their “spark”. We met a woman in her late 30’s selling peanuts – she walked down the same street every day and announced her presence by singing in an operatic voice that sounded as if she had years of professional training. Asked about that, she said – “no training – I was born with a gift inside.” As she speaks about her singing, her eyes sparkle and she flashes a smile that lets you know she is living her spark every day as she wanders down Obispo Street in Old Havana. She collects a peso for her peanuts – she collects smiles, praise and appreciation from everyone around her for sharing her voice. Asked if she had a dream for doing something with her voice in a bigger way she didn’t hesitate – “I want to travel to Rome and sing Ave Maria in one of those big plazas.” I left wondering how we can help make that happen!

One day in high school, I remember holding a transistor radio to my ear listening to the minute by minute reports of the Cuban missile blockade. The standoff between President Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev had most of us believing we would be at war by the time school was out that day. Instead Khrushchev blinked and turned his ships full of additional missiles around. Cuba was a country that I never felt I would be able to travel, but life is full of surprises – and Cuba is a country worth spending time in. The people – they are full of determination, creativity, dreams and a desire to learn.

I returned home after a long day of travel feeling as if “my bucket had been filled” by these beautiful people who have so little of what we take for granted everyday – but so much of what we all seem to be looking for – meaningful connection with others that feed our spirits.

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