From Strangers to Friends: Our Travel Circle to Cuba

After we had all checked in at the Miami airport on June 16 for our charter flight to Cuba, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, I hope this works.”

And by this I meant, 15 women who had never met each other deciding to travel for 10 days together in a foreign country. It could go one of three ways: 15 women traveling beside each other but not really connecting as a group, 15 women getting sick of each other and whining and judging the whole time, or 15 women ending up feeling the bond of friendship.

In this photo we don't yet even know each others names... but the trip ahead of us is going to be amazing!

In this photo we don’t yet even remember each others names… but the trip ahead of us is going to be amazing!

I looked around at our group of strangers spread apart in age from 22 to 67, with one trying to figure out if she had time to get a manicure at the airport and others looking like they had never had a manicure in their lives, and observed how seemingly different we all were from each other.  While trying to remember each others names you could tell we each had our questions about how this experience would yet play out…

My Top 5 Take-Away’s

  1. We don’t have to be like each other to like each other.  No doubt we were all so very different: some women looked like they had stepped out of fashion magazines every day of the trip while others seemed to be wearing the same outfit in every photo; some women undoubtedly came with unlimited budgets while others were rationing out their CUC’s with worried eyes; some looked like they were ready to dance anytime a tune was heard while others needed to put their feet up and rest in the van; some never turned down an opportunity to drink the island rum or local beer while others seemed much happier with water the whole time. We were an eclectic group to be sure. I say all that only to help highlight the beautiful truth that we all really, really, really liked each other. From day one all the way to day ten.
  2. Friendships are meaningful no matter how different they might look.  For some, this trip will simply be the starting point of their friendships: some
    One of my favorite aspects of the trip turned out to be the age span of the group.  It was SO enriching to build relationships with women you might not hang out with back home. What wisdom!

    One of my favorite aspects of the trip turned out to be the age span of the group. It was SO enriching to build relationships with women you might not hang out with back home. What wisdom!

    women stayed up late into the night whispering with their roommates, others rented the classic old cars together for adventures where they spent the whole afternoon laughing and sharing. For all of us though, even if we didn’t come home with new best amigas, we know we have new friends. Without being asked, we simply sat in different seats in the van and switched who we joined for meals– making sure we all got to know each other in ways that mattered. We’re all writing each other this week mentioning the withdrawals we’re all feeling from not being together, sharing our photos, and planning a reunion dinner next month for those who can make it!  I expect to feel close to these women for quite some time.

  3. Group travel encouraged stimulating conversations and sharing. We all too often go on a trip and get lost in our own thoughts; but in a group, we were able to hear different view points, externally process our own thoughts, ask questions, and honor our shared curiosity.  As we all tried to make sense of the impact of the U.S. embargo, how grateful Cubans were for Fidel Castro when
    Toasting new friendships with one of many mojitos!

    Toasting new friendships with one of many mojitos!

    most of us Americans had heard only negative things about him, and what socialism looked like in reality– I was ever grateful to have a group of wise women each processing the same. Several of us walked through the Museum of the Revolution together trying to make sense of the history, my roommate shared with me some background to the political system, our local guide kept revealing how Cubans see their own experience, and all of us kept processing what we were learning in ways that served each other.  At lunches we’d often talk at tables about what we had learned in the mornings and dinners were filled with us sharing our highlight moments.

  4. Learning makes my travel mean so much more! I’ve traveled to Mexico to lay on a beach without giving any thought to how their government is structured,
    IMG_1218

    Visiting the Literacy Campaign museum was definitely a highlight of the trip– who knew that Fidel invoked 200,000 youth to travel to every farm teaching the entire country to read and write so that they could eradicate illiteracy in one year? (And a bonus was finding out that our bus driver for the week had been one of those youth!)

    gone to Italy to eat pizza without caring about their women’s movement, or ridden a camel in Morocco without grasping what causes they are currently struggling with. In order to travel to Cuba legally, though, we had to apply for educational/professional/people-to-people visas which means we had to put in 40 hours of learning. That translated to sitting down with a university professor of gender and African studies to better understand the cultural shifts they’ve experienced and are still undergoing.  It meant visiting a neighborhood community center and dancing and singing with the locals.  It meant meeting an artist and having him share with us what his work means to him.  It meant meeting with the Federation of Cuban Women and hearing the history of the women’s movement in that country.  It meant walking away with a greater appreciation not just for the country as a tourist experience but really understanding and admiring who that country has been and is today. Not every GirlFriendCircles.com Travel Circle itinerary will be as full of learning as Cuba needed to be… but I’m convinced I want to do a little more of it than simply sight-seeing and relaxing!

  5. Women rock!!! Did you know that Cuba is ranked #3 globally in women’s political participation with 48.9% women holding seats in their Parliament? (U.S. is ranked #79 this year!)  Not just are we committed to traveling as groups of women, but we want to learn about the women in the country we’re visiting, too!
    IMG_1149

    We had a ton of questions for one of the directors of the Federation of Cuban Women about the women’s movement in Cuba, the role of women in society, and issues they are still facing.

    So in Cuba that meant eating dinner in the home of the Three Anna’s (a mom and her two daughters who rent out rooms to travelers) in Cuba de Santiago and asking them what it’s like to be female entrepreneurs.  It meant dance classes and perfume making!  It meant looking at how free education and free healthcare leveled the playing field in that country for women and minority groups.  It meant that when we were guided through the fine arts museum that the female guide focused on women artists, the women who inspired the male artists, and how women were objectified or seen at different times.  Fascinating!  I loved being reminded of our connection with our sisters in another country.

Cuba was thought-provoking and fascinating…. the embargo means no Coca-Cola, McDonalds, or Starbucks. Where else have you been where you’ve seen that reality?

Easily the most famous face in Cuba... Che is one of about five revolutionary heroes.

Easily the most famous face in Cuba… Che is one of about five revolutionary heroes.

The whole country is like a land caught in a time warp where it may be decaying, but you can see the grandeur of their history since it hasn’t yet been bull-dozed for condos or replaced with corporate skyscrapers. The people have dance and music running through their veins, along with big doses of idealism, love, and generosity.  While we uphold movie stars and singers, they revere their revolutionaries.  It was a city of dichotomy where the vision of who they want to be is so spectacular and yet how it plays out can sometimes leave you feeling pangs of sadness… (which is true of the U.S. too.) What a trip!

A huge thanks to the fourteen other women who made my trip so meaningful and memorable.  You each added such a special essence to our group chemistry.  I wouldn’t have wanted it without a single one of you.

One of my favorite photos almost captures the whole group as we head out for an evening in Old Havana!

One of my favorite photos almost captures the whole group as we head out for an evening in Old Havana!

And to those who feel the tug to travel… We invite you on one of our upcoming trips this fall!  We have Egypt from Sept. 26-October 6, Iran from Sept 26-October 6, Peru from Sept. 29- October 11, and Cuba from Nov. 3-12.  So whether you want to cruise down the Nile in Egypt, behold Machu Picchu in Peru, see the Persepolis in Iran, or salsa in Cuba– we will take good care of you and introduce you to new girlfriends who are drawn to travel! All our trips are for women, by women, about women.  You are so welcome to join the magic!

 

 

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12 Responses to From Strangers to Friends: Our Travel Circle to Cuba

  1. Carol McHuron says:

    Shasta
    I love your blog! You captured the complexities of the relationships of the women traveling together and the wonderful paradoxes of Cuba that captured our imaginations, hearts and spirits.
    As one of the travelers, it is a trip that I am thinking about continuously as I process what it means to me now and in my future. Thank you for the wonderful gifts both the trip and your memories of it.
    Carol McHuron

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Carol– you were one of the gifts of the trip for me! :) It was such an honor to meet you and get to know you. I am so happy that we were both on the same trip! xoxo

  2. Dolly says:

    I found the information exciting and interesting, especially about Cuba. A visit to Cuba is on my bucket list.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Dolly– definitely go! And go sooner rather than later as I fear that once the embargo is lifted the entire country is likely to be impacted in countless ways. I felt so privileged to be able to go now…. I think there are a few more spots on our trip in November!

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am going on a trip to Cuba in August with a humanitarian group. Do you have any tips for a new Cuban traveler? Thank you!

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Tips? hmmm….. bring cash (we did no credit cards), gifts to give to residents you meet (anything baseball, art, or food from a US brand, make-up), and plan on buying a hand-fan on your first day there! :) We lived with those fans in our hands to try to generate some breeze when you’re in a building. We really had such an amazing time… definitely keep a journal! Enjoy!!!!!

  4. Katherine Badriyeh says:

    Shasta, this blog makes me want to go to Cuba pronto. Would you consider going again with a group of women? I’ve always been drawn to Cuba, or rather the things I’ve heard and seen about Cuba, I’ve never been. But I feel that my temperament is simpatico with their culture, even more so with your blog. I love the idea that it’s an actual requirement to spend one on one time with the citizens and to learn about their culture and way of life. so fascinating!

  5. rita whitt says:

    Found you via the “End the Travel Ban on Cuba” on Facebook. We’ve been to Cuba 3 times, each with Insight Cuba. I found your perceptions so similar to our experiences. Thank you for sharing. I traveled with my husband but were joined in the adventures by 14 “strangers” who now are friends. I think being in Cuba forges friendships more than being in Europe or the US. There’s something so mysterious and magical about Cuba that one feels privileged to have shared it with kindred spirits.

  6. Cynthia Salamy says:

    Shasta,

    What a wonderful blog! I appreciated all your insights into Cuba and it’s people and your descriptions of the varied people on the trip….all of them blending together into one big friendship circle. I do hope you’ll be going to Cuba next year as well. (I’m scheduled for Hawaii the first week in Nov.)

    Many thanks again for your blog:-)
    Cynthia Salamy

  7. Pingback: 20 Friendship Moments I CRAVE -Shasta Nelson - Urban Campfire | Gather' Round. Share Stories. Merge Perspectives. Set the World On Fire.

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