Annual Cuba trip pays homage to history and tradition

Spring break travels: Pleasure or purpose?

While most students plan on visiting their families or taking a trip to Cancun, Mexico, for spring break, 25 AU students will leave Friday for Cuba and spend their weeklong vacation learning about the people and the politics of this country still-closed-off from America.

The trip is part of a larger program called Alternative Spring Break, which seeks to mix experiential learning with service and ultimately raise students' cultural awareness.

However, Cuba is not the only destination for some students this spring break. Many will spend next week in places south of the border such as Mexico and Honduras, or overseas in Vietnam.

Students pay a $1,500 fee for housing, meals and airfare and the trip offers a unique opportunity to explore an exotic country closed to most Americans, explains Andrew Willis, a senior organizing the trip.

Formal diplomatic relations do not exist between the United States and Cuba, and it is illegal to travel to the neighboring country without a license.

"This visit will allow the students to look at the good and the bad for themselves," said Chaplain Joe Eldridge, who will accompany the students to Cuba. "President Bush calls [Cuba] a dungeon of despair and hopelessness. Others say it is a utopia of contentedness. Students will see that the truth is likely somewhere in between."

While in Havana, the country's capital, students will meet with Cuban bureaucrats as well as political dissidents. They will visit college campuses and speak with a student group called the Youth Communist Movement.

The students will have a chance to converse with "ordinary people who don't live on more than a couple of pesos a week and prominent government officials," Willis said.

The Cubans make a clear distinction between the American people and the American government, Eldridge said. Eldridge, who chaperoned a trip to the country a few years ago, describes the people as "eager to talk, very congenial, hospitable and gracious."

Students themselves will also have the chance to devise the itinerary for their stay in Cuba, and will visit the Museum of Revolution, theaters and a cigar factory, among other places. True to tradition, the trip also includes attending a professional baseball game.

Students choose to participate in this experience because "they are attracted by the charm of a place that has not been invaded by McDonald's or Starbucks," Eldridge said.

By exploring an alien system of governance in an isolated country and trying to move about in an unfamiliar culture, students will step out of their comfort zones. That, however, is a part of learning. The experience and the impressions it leaves will last a lifetime, Luz Lazo, a senior going on the trip, said.

The trip has brought together a diverse group of students who may not have otherwise met, Lazo explained.

"We share this common interest and many of us have become friends," she said.

The trip also involves a service component. Over the last few weeks, students collected an assortment of items, including Tylenol, scarves and even tampons from residents of Letts Hall. The bookstore also contributed notebooks and other school supplies.

They will donate several suitcases full of these items to a nongovernmental organization in Cuba called the Christian Student Movement which sponsors this trip. Cuba does not have a foreign exchange market and operates on a ration system. Students hope the goods will help to alleviate the shortages of these common items.

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