For many Americans, traveling to the Republic of Cuba is not an option. But for Fall 2014 voyagers, they are now included in the lucky few to explore a place that remains relatively pure and untouched by its surrounding nations.
As the ship pulled into the port of Havana at sunrise, the warmth shined over the city, lighting the old stone fortress on one side and the antique cars passing on the other. The entry into the port at daybreak was just the beginning of a warm reception from the country of Cuba.
Meeting the ship as it arrived, leadership from the University of Havana came on board to officially welcome the voyage to their country. ‚ÄúWell, you‚Äôre finally in Cuba. And we see you‚Äôve kept the best for last,‚Äù shared Rector Gustavo Cobreiro Su√°rez, through a translator. ‚ÄúWe want you to know that the Cuban people are friends of the American people. We respect your culture‚Ä¶ And we hope that one day for an American to travel to Cuba will be the most natural thing.‚Äù
The Fall 2014 voyage was the largest academic group sponsored by an American institution to enter Cuba in recent history. For Semester at Sea, this was only its twelfth visit to this country in the program‚Äôs storied 51-year history. Granted access for the purpose of education, all community members engaged in a day full of programming by the University of Havana about the nation‚Äôs history, politics, and youth culture.
But the voyage‚Äôs introduction to Cuba was much more than a series of lectures. Breaking into song and dance in the university‚Äôs quad, the Cuban students proved there was more to their culture than what could be learned from textbooks and the media. A spirited population driven by their love of movement, music, and pure happiness, the students beamed with a joy that was instantly contagious within the shipboard community.
Divided by a 54-year embargo but joined by a passion for world friendship, Cuba looked for this experience to be a positive step in bettering their relationship with the United States. Throughout the four days spent in the country, students engaged in numerous opportunities for a people-to-people education. “The prospect of establishing a healthier relationship with Cuba can only be achieved by having the people of both countries understand one another. Our visit provided an opportunity for our students to connect with University of Havana students intellectually, socially, and emotionally,” said Executive Dean, Sue Weitz. Coming from many cultures of significant political differences, their time in Cuba shed light on the two countries’ similarities and differences. Both sides were able to gain¬†new perspectives and be introduced to issues of controversy and human rights that were previously unknown to many. “I hope the student to student exchange will stimulate them to be deeper critical thinkers and compassionate human companions,” added Weitz.
But in all the smiles exchanged, thoughtful gestures of diplomacy, and cultural experiences, the most moving moments in Havana were probably¬†the first and last. After initially setting foot on Cuban soil, the shipboard community arrived at the university and stood at the bottom of a daunting set of 88 steps. Lining them were local students who had come out on a Saturday morning to greet the voyagers. As John Lennon‚Äôs Imagine was played over the outdoor speaker system and both sets climbed side by side, a bond of friendship and peace immediately formed between the two groups. ‚ÄúIn that moment I couldn’t help but think about how amazing this feat truly was considering our past,‚Äù said Jade McGuire, student from The¬†University of Maine.
Four days later as their time in Cuba came to a close, students stood aboard the MV Explorer¬†waving to the Cuban students, thanking them for their hospitality. As Jack Johnson‚Äôs cover of Imagine¬†played¬†over the ship‚Äôs external speakers, the community reciprocated the gesture extended days prior and dedicated the song to their new friends. As a mix of smiles and tears washed over both sides, hopes and dreams of the world living as one¬†then had never felt so real.
Photos by: Joshua Gates Weisberg