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Alternative Spring Break Experience: Havana, Cuba

March 15, 2017

Pictured third from the left above

About Me

Michael Tormey is a second-year student double-majoring in Civil Engineering and Economics. Originally from Central Maine, he has loved his time at Northeastern and been passionate about taking on as many responsibilities and experiences as possible. As a campus tour guide, he promotes almost daily Northeastern and the College of Engineering with prospective students, for example. He has conducted research with Civil Engineering Department Chair Jerome Hajjar and is active in the American Society of Civil Engineers, as well as the Institute of Transportation Engineers. He has traveled on the Civil Engineering Dialogue of Civilizations trip to India with Dr. Auroop Ganguly, studying Climate Change Science and Policy. Now, he is developing an independent research project that he will conduct alongside the same Dialogue trip, this year traveling to Singapore, Jakarta, and Bali. His project will focus on sustainable land use and green space development in Southeast Asian coastal megacities. Deeply interested in site design, he will be doing his first co-op beginning in July at VHB’s Watertown office in a land development role. 

Alternative Spring Break Experience: Havana, Cuba

Administered through the Center of Community Service (CCS), Northeastern’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program offers students remarkable opportunities to leave Boston (and comfort zones), to bond closely with a small group of fellow students, and to serve meaningfully in communities throughout North America. Each year, over 16 service trips are offered, with projects varying from construction work in the Grand Canyon, assisting animal shelters in Utah, and serving with organic farmers in Maine. During Spring Break 2016, for example, I was on an ASB team in San Francisco with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and Project Open Hand.

These trips are entirely student-led and organized with volunteered time, and the applications for student team leaders go out each summer. Eagerly looking to expand my involvement with the program and serve on another volunteer trip, I applied and was accepted in August 2016. Our first meeting was to determine potential service locations, and, from the start, I had suggested Cuba as a site, thinking of the amazing opportunity it would be! First, my co-team leader and I reached out to potential host organizations, hoping one of them would be able to take a group of college students to Cuba for a week.

After many weeks of searching and corresponding with volunteer groups, we settled on Global Volunteers, an international service organization dedicated to “Waging Peace Through Service.” The organization leads volunteers for 1-3 weeks to at least 17 different countries from Tanzania to India to Portugal to St. Lucia to Cuba. The organization’s mission aligns closely with that of CCS: the projects that service teams accomplish are those which have been dictated by locals.

The job of the team leader is multifaceted. For all trips, they must coordinate among the host organization, CCS, and the volunteer team. They must verify all paperwork and safety information and account for all logistical considerations for the week. For domestic trips, team leaders also select housing, plan meals, and organize transportation. While, for international trips, the host organization must provide all transportation, housing, and meals, my co-team leader and I still had our work cut out for us, being the first point of contact for all questions regarding the trip. We set up meetings to discuss international safety and to get to know each other better, and we learned as comprehensively as possible anything we needed to know about traveling to Cuba.

Fast forward to March 4th, 2017, at 2:45am. I had gotten four hours of sleep. It was 10 degrees and there was snow on the ground. I trudged to the bus waiting for the group on the other side of campus and, once all 14 of us were present, we rode to the airport to get dropped off at the wrong terminal. “Starting off great,” I thought. In Newark, we bought Cuban visas for $75 each, though the credit card machine was broken until just before the flight departed! Finally, though, we arrived in Havana, Cuba that afternoon, stepped off the plane, and felt the warm Caribbean air.

We stayed in casas particulares, which is basically the Cuban version of a homestay bed and breakfast; we lived in an apartment with a Cuban couple who served us a bountiful breakfast of papaya, mango, guava, eggs, pork, assorted breads, coffee, and juice each morning. We worked in local churches for our service projects. The church my smaller group painted in was a humble one, under construction just outside Old Havana. Others in our group worked at a Salvation Army Senior Center, painting walls and interacting with the seniors there. In the afternoons, we went on excursions around Havana, seeing the Malecón, the city’s lovely oceanside drive, Ernest Hemingway’s house, a community arts center, the Museum of the Revolution, and the beautiful squares, roads, and buildings of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Havana. In the evenings, we taught English to locals—aged 5-70 with levels of English ranging from complete beginner to almost fluent—for a few hours.

It was a fantastic experience, interacting with locals, doing meaningful work, and being introduced to Cuba’s welcoming and beautiful people. We could have stayed in a hotel in Old Havana; rather, we stayed with families in a much more residential neighborhood. We could have gone to tourist sites all day every day; rather, we spent the week working alongside locals, assisting them with useful and beneficial projects. During our week in Havana, we built bridges and cultural connections through simple conversations (almost prohibitive language barrier!), time spent in each other’s company, and smiles.

Each morning I looked forward to coming back to the Fountain of Salvation Church with the people who lived and worked there. It was the highlight of each day to laugh and paint with them, helping them bring to life their lovely church. Each evening, I looked forward to meeting my conversation partners, helping them learn English and learning from them about their lives in Cuba.

It was, for us on the trip, a transformative experience: Cuba has a certain reputation in America, and our two nations have not always gotten along. Indeed, outside the recently re-opened US embassy in Havana, Cuba had built a jungle of flagpoles, on which flags and banners, symbolically blocking the view of the building, were flown during times of particularly tense interactions. Behind that is a grand protest space. Behind that, a statue of José Martí—Cuba’s “George Washington”—holding Elián González and pointing accusingly at the embassy stands proud. While we were in Cuba, though, we experienced only open arms, people ready to welcome us into their homes, churches, and neighborhoods.

Being able to weed out the historical political struggles between the US and Cuba and interact with the Cuban people was so valuable. I loved my ASB experience and the opportunity to get a broader introduction to this incredible city and its people. They were vibrant and welcoming; the buildings and architecture, beautiful and colorful; the service, personal and meaningful.

I am so grateful to Northeastern for the chance to see this amazing island nation, as it was, truly, a perfect experience. About the Northeastern students with me, about the relationship between these two nations, about what it’s like to live in Cuba, about the Spanish language, about the pride of the Cuban people, I learned so much, and will cherish for a lifetime the week of memories in Havana.