I had the privilege of visiting Cuba in October. My mom and I had always wanted to go but never had the chance since American citizens were not allowed to go unless they were going for very specific reasons. With some of the embargo being lifted we were able to take a tour with Mayflower Tours. There are still some restrictions on traveling to Cuba. You have to be visiting for religious reasons, educational or now people to people which is what we took.
What is people to people? People to people means you visit the country to meet the people and gain an understanding of how both sides live and to engage with them. The experience was unforgettable and just what we were looking for. In this blog I will give you just a taste of what we saw and experienced. I highly recommend visiting this amazing country and it’s wonderful people. This blog is a work in progress and I will add to it when I can. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
When we received our itinerary for Cuba it mentioned giving gifts to the different groups that we met with. This is a “Thank You” from the tour group to the performers. We met with 4 different groups of kids who preformed for us, a wonderful group of abuelitos (grandparents), and some amazing artists and singers.
You will notice in certain places locals will ask you for clothes, shampoo, soap, lotion or pens. Use your discretion as to whether or not you give them anything. Just keep in mind if you get off the bus and give them something they might follow you. You are not in any danger as Cuba is very safe, but having people follow you can be unnerving to some. It didn’t really bother us but some people in our group didn’t like it. When we weren’t touring and had some downtime we talked to some of the locals or workers at our hotel and did give them some things like extra shirts we took or razors and deodorant. Again, anything you give out is totally up to you.
If you visit a lot of groups like we did ration your gifts. Most people gave their gifts towards the beginning so the groups at the end received a lot of hotel toiletries. There were a few of us who had enough for each group. My advice is to set aside certain things for each group. We separated the groups into kids and adults but you can separate them however you want.
We picked up most of our gifts at the dollar store, Wal-Mart, party stores and whenever we saw something we thought would be good. I broke down the lists into the type of groups you will meet and added some things into the miscellaneous categories in case you leave gifts for maids or bartenders or anyone else. I did follow a suggestion I read on a Canadian website and tipped our bartender with a few colored pens in addition to a monetary tip. He enjoyed the pens and our drinks became waaaay stronger! Not saying you have to do that but just a friendly pay it forward since it worked for us. We also left a little something for our maids. You don’t have to but we did and our rooms were nicer (they were amazing anyway but they added little extras), beds decorated with towel animals or flowers and hand written thank you notes were pretty cool. Here is a list of things we took and also things that were most requested:
Bubbles, crayons, coloring books (you can get small ones from party stores or party aisles), stickers, Spanish/English dual language books (kids learn English in school and are almost fluent by 13), art supplies, some toys like cars or dolls or whatever you want, puzzles, notebooks or basically anything you would gift a kid from 5-18 here in the U.S. (non-electronic). I took mostly things for younger children and didn’t realize we would be meeting with all ages.
Angeles del Futoro (Circus Kids):
Most of the things we gave them were the same as the other kids. We are sending some sequins and glitter for their costumes as they are all hand made by their parents or the community. They did request some juggling balls or tennis balls to teach the kids how to juggle. I am crocheting some and sending them to the kids.
Artists (El Tanque Community Art School):
Paint, paint brushes, paper, pipe cleaners, sewing materials, yarn or crocheting materials (knitting materials too but I saw more people crocheting than knitting), beads, glitter, sequin, felt, needles, colored pencils or basically any type of art supply you can think of. The community art center that you visit towards the end was a phenomenal place. I’ll talk about it more in the art section.
Feminine products (can be hard to come by and are very appreciated.), razors, deodorant, pens (for some reason pens are something a lot of people ask for. We took pens with different colored ink, those were a hit!) gloves for gardeners/maintenance, aspirin, Tylenol or other pain relivers (again hard to find), antacids or other medications, turtle wax or other things for their gorgeous cars, hats, nail polish, sewing kits, lotion, toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair brushes, hair ties, guitar pics or strings, sheet music, flashlights, safety pins or basically anything you would like to gift. Since we took a lot I also made little thank you packs for our Cuban and University guides, our bus driver and I gave a Ford hat to our cab driver who drove us in a 1955 Ford convertible.
What to bring for yourself:
These are just a few items to bring along to make your more comfortable, or things I should have taken! Bug spray, when you visit the botanic gardens it will become a life saver! A few of the outdoor paladars also had mosquitoes so keep your spray with you. A backpack or the bag Mayflower gives you. You can always leave it on the bus, it is safe on there. I carried a backpack and kept water, my camera and some snacks if we needed them. Take a hat or an umbrella to beat the heat. Sunblock, good walking shoes, first aid kit with band aids and other things (my shoes rubbed and caused a blister, band-aid to the rescue!), anti-itch bug cream so if you forget your bug spray you won’t be too miserable, medicine such as aspirin, ibuprofen, allergy, antacids or stomach relief, or anything else you take (it is very hard to find a lot of meds there so take what you need!) fan or something to fan yourself with (again amazingly simple but soooo worth it when it’s hot), loose fitting clothing or moisture wicking, pillow (if you have neck problems bring your own pillow, they vary greatly by hotel!), tape like gorilla or duct tape in case your suitcase or something else rips or to wrap things you bring home, plastic bags for dirty clothes or to give gifts in, sewing kit for yourself, baby wipes, disinfectant wipes or a small tube of antibacterial gel, toilet paper (not every stop has toilet paper so it’s good to carry your own.) camera….because it is an amazingly beautiful country, electric converter, I never could get mine to work but most of the hotels had U.S. type electric at the front desk so they were very nice and charged my camera batteries for me. Anything else you can think of!
Art is everywhere! They are fantastic artists and make due with what they have. They make their own paint and paper and recycle a lot of items. Art can be found everywhere, from murals and statues to carvings and paintings, if you love art you’ll love all of the amazing places you can buy it or just enjoy it. Make sure you have room in your suitcase because it is hard to resist all of the great pieces. Here are a just a few of the murals and art pieces we found. You can also see more in the shopping section below.
Community Art Program
One of the last groups we visited was an Art program that is free to the community. Casa Cultural Comunitaria El Tanque is the name of this amazing place. El Tanque or Muraleando (another name for the center) was built on a landfill.The teachers teach many different types of art such as painting, photography, drawing, sewing, crochet/knitting, sculpture, carving, dancing, singing and other types of art. They have so many amazing sculptures all done by members of the community. They rely on donations of supplies and money from visitors so they can provide the classes for free. They make art out of anything they can get their hands on, they had art made out of plastic or glass bottles, bed springs, car parts and many other mediums. They even made their own paper and paint. It was really amazing to see all of the art created from what most would consider trash. Our group presented the gift to the center after they sang and danced for us. I found a sewing kit in my backpack that I forgot to add to the group gift. The head of the program took me to the sewing teacher so I could give it to her. She was very happy with it and said the local people who sewed the dolls would be very happy to have new needles and thread.