Ask the Alumni: Cuba Trips through the Eyes of a Discover Corps Traveler

Three Cuba Trips in and this Discover Corps Traveler Still Wants More

After three Discover Corps Cuba trips, some might consider Elaine an aspiring Cuban expert. The way she describes her experiences there, it’s clear she has seen a side of the country that many have not. Yet, as she shares, there is still so much she wants to see and learn.

Elaine kindly opened up about her adventures – which includes some valuable information for future Cuba travelers – and to no one’s surprise, she is ready to go back again. This time with the whole family.

‘’[The trip] gave me an emotional rush that lasted for two weeks after we got home. It was just so exciting. We’re so used to what we encounter in our everyday lives at home. We tend to think the rest of the world is like that. And it isn’t.’’

Why did you choose Discover Corps versus another travel company?  

Well, I am spiritually motivated and was doing research about companies and how well they use the funds they receive, whether the investment is a good investment or not. We have a group that was meeting at the time and during one of the meetings one of the girls brought up a Discover Corps catalog she had received. None of us had heard of Discover Corps, but the moment I read about your vacations with purpose it just really clicked for me. Vacations with purpose just spoke to me. All of us have been on vacations where you go and sit and read a book or look at the foliage or visit with people, and that’s fine and good, but that for me, that’s not very exciting. That’s a way to kill time. And I can read at home and see friends at home. But I can’t go out and discover what’s new in the world, just by sitting at home.

What is one thing you wish you’d known before traveling to Cuba?

I wish I knew Spanish. It’s not necessary and people are surprised to hear that, and you [Discover Corps] provide a Spanish speaking guide. However, I do think it would be difficult to get around there without a guide. The first casa particulares we stayed at the people didn’t speak any English, but we had so much fun pantomiming and trying to get our needs across or our comments. They were willing to spend the time and we were willing to spend the time. That was another really special thing about the trip. You have to let go of your insecurities to act out these things. Like eating and the yum-yum part [laughing]. But other than that I loved walking into what was new and different. Everything that surprised me was a good surprise.

We just put our phones away when we were there. That’s probably for the better to get rid of your phones, as a traveler. In fact, I certainly would recommend that to my family if we go again because it just lets you kind of get into that world, and we don’t need to be worrying about the weather in Chicago or what’s happening at work. We need to have more trust than we do when we have a phone to turn to to get an immediate answer. We had eight people on this recent trip, and Ed and I didn’t know anyone else in the other six. We had lots of fun. Just connecting. Not life at home, but just talking about our attitudes, and surprises and what was remarkable about the day. And everyone was in the same headspace. I don’t know for sure where everybody lived. But I think we all brought some of Cuba home with us.

Cuba Trips
In Havana, there’s beauty even in the simple things

“That just touched my heart so deeply. He stopped everything he was doing to share with us. I loved that he didn’t know we were coming. So we saw the real guy, his real environment and his real work.”

Tell us about the most memorable experience from your trip.  

We went walking through this little community [Las Terrazas] and we saw a sign for an artist studio. So we walked into it and the artist [Lester Campa] didn’t know we were coming. And he was just amazing. He was happy, sharing, and explaining his paintings to us and what he was trying to accomplish. It was just kind of like a new artist that we had discovered. But he is known to some of the rest of the world because he has paintings in some places in the United States.

He just shared with us like we were old friends. We asked about certain paintings and he brought out other paintings to show us. Later, I found he had some little postcards to make a collage when I got home, so I picked up some of the postcards and was fully willing to pay for them, but he said: “ooohh nooo you can just have those! He was just open-hearted and kind and sharing. Just a typical Cuban that we met. I’m sure if he had the time he would have brought coffee in and we would have all just sat down and had a really long conversation. He had people waiting for him, but we were first with his time. That just touched my heart so deeply. He stopped everything he was doing to share with us. I loved that he didn’t know we were coming. So we saw the real guy, his real environment and his real work.

Cuba Trips
The charming communities of Cuba

What did you think of your guide? What about your accommodations?

He [Discover Corps guide Tury] is so well educated that he could talk about any topic that we brought up. Not just Cuba, he knew about U.S. history, he knew baseball scores, the words to the music that we grew up with. He was a walking encyclopedia. He was so versatile in his command of the language and the history of the United States and Cuba. We had been on a recent trip to Europe and he wanted to know which river we had been down and what cities did we see. He was just a curious and educated person. He was just amazing. He worked so well with all of our group. I’m a mom, and I wouldn’t have been half as patient as he was. And I was a pretty good mom! He was quite exemplary is his ability to handle just about everything.

As for accommodations, the first place we stayed was more traditional and the second and third place were more modern and therefore more comfortable. We didn’t expect that level of accommodation. I value seeing the traditional. It’s part of the trip, experiencing what a typical Cuban has in their home.

Are there any clothes/shoes/toiletries/ camera equipment items you’d say are must-brings on this trip?

I wore long sleeve summer-things but would have been comfortable in short sleeves. Nothing fancy. Just comfortable. Good walking shoes. A layer, short sleeve and long sleeve. We only had rain one afternoon for 45 minutes.

What you would say to someone thinking about traveling to Cuba with Discover Corps?

Go expecting to have a Spanish speaking guide, so don’t worry about not being able to speak the language. Just go and be prepared to be astonished by all the different things there. And just enjoy yourselves, because it’s a trip that will stay with you for a long long time. Also, people better not forget to drink the bottled water. That’s mandatory!

Anything else you would like to add?

The first trip when I went to Cuba with Discover Corps was helping with a community center and in fact, each time that I’ve gone now and gone back to that community to see the changes that occurred…talk about a good investment. I really feel like the time put in there, little that it was and minuscule that my skills were, made a difference. Again this year when I went to see it, it had grown so much. There were active classes going on and you could hear children’s voices singing at the top of their lungs. It was truly heartwarming.

Also, I’m anxious to share this with my grandchildren. You know, growing up here [in the United States], you think everything is just supposed to come your way and you’re entitled to everything you see. And I want them to see another part of the world to start developing some of those different values for participating, and work, and reaching goals, and answer the call for help.

You can’t really tell someone about the Cuban people. You know, they can hear the words, but you can’t get the idea about how joyful and unrestrained they [Cubans] are to meet you. And no prejudice against Americans that I saw. They have their arms open and they are great huggers. All kinds of things that help you really connect on a real basis.

I tell people, I felt just as safe in Cuba as I do in my hometown. Never in my three trips was there anything to cause me to feel I was unsafe. When you take down that possible concern, it just opens a person up. You don’t even know how closed down and protected you are until you get that concern relieved.  

We have done some other traveling, but Cuba is a country that is filled with surprises. I want to go again!

See Cuba the way Elaine describes it, with one of 5 Discover Corps Cuba itineraries:

So what are you waiting for?

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