Cuba- An Intercultural Journey, Days 4 and 5

We began our fourth day in Havana with a visit to a local secondary school where we observed Udi conducting a master class with the students. We did not stay for all of Udi’s master class—he generously taught for four hours!—but it is clear from the students we observed that there are immensely talented, young musicians in Cuba. The young cellist, Alexander, who performed “Dos Gardenias” with Udi at the church the night before, was also in attendance and is a student at the school (pictures 2 through 7).

After departing the master class, our group rode on to the University of Havana to speak with a local professor about Cuba’s higher-education system.  We walked through the busy campus and stood on the steps where thousands of students marched during the Cuban Revolution. In Cuba, a college education is free (including graduate education), but students must pass rigorous exams in order to be accepted to the universities. The University of Havana is the oldest university in Cuba, founded in 1728 (pictures 8 through 11).

Following our tour of the University, we set off to a small, local farm called La Yoandra. They called the farm a finca to denote that it is a sustainable community-operated farm. At La Yoandra the arborists and farmers maintain over 100 types of flora, much of which is cultivated to sustain the restaurant located on the property, Il Divino. We ate lunch at Il Divino and attended an interesting cooking demonstration featuring garbanzos, garbanzo beans, which are hugely popular in Cuban cooking. Following lunch we had a lovely tour of the farm. Aside from the 100 types of flora present, La Yoandra is also home to numerous animals including geese, wild turkeys, chickens, and oxen (picture 12).

We departed to a local museum in Guanabacoa, a small town just outside of Havana. The museum we went to specializes in the Afro-Cuban religion, Santeria. Following our tour of the museum, we watched and participated in a music and dance performance by local practitioners of Santeria (picture 13)

After dinner that evening, many group members walked from the Hotel Nacional to a great jazz club called, Zorra y El Cuervo (picture 14) just a few blocks from the hotel’s front steps. We knew we were at a great place when we looked around and noticed that there was quite the crowd of locals in attendance!

Day 6, and our last day in Havana, began with a visit to a local primary school, Escuela Elemental de Música y Danza- Paulita Concepción, specializing in music education. We were treated to wonderful performances by the youth, including a fabulous student choir. As luck would have it, Udi had his cello on hand for an impromptu performance. It was especially fortuitous that we were at a music school because they had a double bass on hand for fellow traveler and former bassists with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Emilio Gravagno. Together, Udi and Emilio joined one of the professors at the school for a special concert for benefit of the students and our group. I know our group loved their performance, but you could barely hear our applause over the thunderous roar of the children's clapping and screams! (pictures 15-18)

After our group lunched, we traveled to the El Patronato Synagogue Bet Shalom and local Jewish community center, where we met with the President of the center. She provided the exact amount of knowledge and comic relief our group needed after a heavy lunch! She told us that there were 7 synagogues and approximately 1500 Jewish people in Cuba. El Patronato benefits greatly from donations from Jewish community members in the United States. There was a picture on the walls in the community center commemorating a visit made by Steven Spielberg in the 1990s. We also had the chance to tour the newly renovated synagogue and visited the farmacia (pharmacy) on the second floor. The representative we spoke to told us that the pharmacy was open to all members of the community, not just the members of El Patronato. The pharmacy was filled with all kinds of prescription and non-prescription drugs and vitamins, many of them donations from the United States (pictures 20 through 22).

Tonight we had free time at the hotel and dined independently, which resulted in many of the group members eating cacahuates (peanuts), drinking mojitos, and sharing some laughs on our last night in the Hotel Nacional's beautiful back porch sitting area. One of the best parts about a group trip is the incredible bonding experience!