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Cuba, the Under-appreciated

Over winter term, several students, including a few English majors, got the chance to journey south to experience the rich and enthusiastic culture of Cuba. Traveling with Professor Walker Rutledge, they spent roughly two weeks being introduced to Cuba in a whole new way. They gained an all-inclusive education on Cuban literature, history, commerce, and art. While many people still stereotype Cuba with negativity (when I was considering the trip, my entire family begged me not to go because Cuba is communistic), these students came back with a very different story.

“Constant welcoming” was one of the ideas stressed by photojournalism major Naomi Driessnack. Naomi is a gerontology/sales double minor and a self-proclaimed “huge Hemingway fan”—two of the main reasons she traveled to Cuba. The trip was partly a means to do research for her thesis on the treatment of age across cultures. As for her Hemingway passion, I already knew a little about that. I had the pleasure of taking Professor Rutledge’s Hemingway and Faulkner course this past fall with Naomi, where he informed us that Ernest Hemingway had lived approximately a third of his life in Cuba.

Naomi described a place called Pinar Del Rio, the main destination for their “agriculture day,” as a “beautiful mountainous region.”

“That’s where all the tobacco fields are. There were men pulling ox to turn the field; it just felt like I was back in time. We got to go to this farmer’s house. You show up and he’s like, ‘Let me show you my tobacco; come into my house,’ and you come in and he serves you coffee. I’m a huge coffee drinker so I was like, ‘This guy is the one.’ He showed us all of his animals and it was so cool. And that’s like the perfect picture of Cuban hospitality.”

Of course, that’s not all the student’s encountered around Havana. They visited many places—a fishing village, a beach, an art museum, and a battleground, to name a few. Naomi said her favorite part of the trip was the art. The students began the day by looking around the only art institute in Cuba, then walking to the community of Jaimanitas which is characterized by rows upon rows of houses decorated in ceramics by the internationally-known Jose Fuster.

I also spoke with EST major Anna Roederer about her experiences on the Cuba trip. She went to Cuba because she wanted to take advantage of the opportunities in college. As Anna put it, “it is definitely not an opportunity everyone has.” I can attest to that; twice, this trip has been offered, and twice, I have been unable to go. It is one of the very few regrets I have since coming to WKU.

Although Anna shared many of the same sentiments as Naomi, she also expressed how easily it was to simply communicate with the native Cubans. Considering Anna has traveled abroad twice before, and I have never traveled abroad, I fully trust her judgment on this.

“I enjoyed talking to the Cubans,” she said. “It was the easiest…easier than any other place I’ve been to talk to the natives. They want to build a relationship with Americans. I was so impressed by the Cuban people I met, just how well-educated they are and how talented. They were so open to share with you.”

It seems to me that Cuba is more under-appreciated than anything else. The adventures Anna and Naomi described to me were always positive, even nostalgic after such a short time. If I wasn’t envious over the idea of warm salt and sand before talking to them, I definitely am now.

With all the talk about their memories of Cuban hospitality and sight-seeing, I almost forgot about the course section of the trip! Since English credits were being offered, there was plenty of reading involved such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries.

At the end of each interview, I had to ask, “Why do you think it is important for English majors (and everyone in general) to study abroad?”

Anna said that because English majors tend to do so much reading, they need to put their learning into practice. Essentially, we need to pull our noses out of the books to actually experience and feel the things we learn. And Naomi agreed, saying, “It just puts it in a completely different context. It made Santiago become real.” (For those of you who don’t know, Santiago is the main character of The Old Man and the Sea.)

Naomi also said something that struck me deeply. “You’re learning at your own pace but you’re also held accountable…there is no limit to learning when traveling.” I feel that this statement rings with inherent truth. As English majors, we will always be held accountable for our learning. We can only get out what we put into our work. Not only that, but we will continue (hopefully) to learn outside of college. We will continue to read, yes? And write? So it only makes sense that we will continue to learn. The great truth about being an English major is that we are limitless. Cuba is a fantastic example of how traveling is a part of that limitlessness.

Read on, my friends. But go out and push the limits.


One Response to “Cuba, the Under-appreciated”

  1. Terry Elliott says:

    So this is what English majors do in the winter. I want to be an English major. Oh, right. I already am. I love the idea of doors opening without limit, M.C. Escher as English major. Love all the voices including the photos. Would love to see more photos from the trip.

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