A NEW DAWN A tourist in Havana who savors a mojito, smokes a cigar and rides in a coco taxi may never truly appreciate the city and its people. By embedding students with a host family in a neighborhood for 10 weeks, the College’s study-abroad program ensures that students not only experience the real Cuba, but come away forever changed.

by Ron Menchaca ’98 | Photography by Mike Ledford

In the early morning darkness, before Havana fully wakes, there’s a stillness.

Soon, the heat and humidity, the cacophony of exhaust-spewing engines and honking horns, and the crush of humanity will descend upon the day and bombard the senses.

But in the waning moonlight, it’s quiet enough to hear waves crashing rhythmically against the city’s famed sea wall, el Malecón. The streets are so empty that a lone 1957 Chevy slowly rounding a curve, its headlights as dim as candles in the gauzy twilight, takes on a dream-like quality.

Standing side by side atop the raised wall of the arcing promenade, fishermen are like sentries silhouetted on the horizon; the anglers’ only movements are the well-practiced snaps of their rods. Behind them, the imposing stone fortress of El Morro Castle guards the entrance to Havana Bay as morning’s first lavender-blue hues bleed across the eastern edge of the island. The sun rises slowly, illuminating the waterfront’s pale pastel buildings in brilliant shades of pinks, yellows and greens.

It’s the beginning of a new day in Cuba’s capital city. And in many ways, at least symbolically, it’s the dawn of something much more profound.

Everybody wants to see the old cars – the Chevys and Fords and Oldsmobiles of a bygone era.
In America, these automotive treasures would be locked away in private garages, rolled out cautiously only for car shows and Sunday-morning drives. In Cuba, they are everyday means of transportation and a magnet for tourist dollars.
For every immaculate cherry-red convertible cruising on white-walled tires along the Malecón, there are a dozen coupes coughing and chugging up and down the side streets. They show their age – ripped seats revealing rusty springs, toxic fumes seeping into the cabins through holes in the floorboards, doors and windows welded shut by decades of exposure to the salty air, faded paintjobs and tarnished chrome bumpers. Hang on tight, the seatbelts, if there are any, might not latch. The driver will gun it on the straightaways, but the needle on the broken speedometer won’t know.
The front door is open and everyone seems welcome. A game of dominoes is played at a large wooden dining table in the kitchen. On a console television in the living room, a baseball game between Canada and the Dominican Republic is under way. A bottle of Havana Club Rum makes the rounds. The whirring blades of a fan circulate the humid air inside. Outside, the idling engine of an old Chevy coupe coughs and sputters.
Music is the beating heart of the Cuban culture. A melting pot of sounds, Cuban music carries the beats and chords of everything from rhumba and flamenco to the flare of its West African, Spanish and Latino heritage.
Amid the cacophony of rumbling old cars, the pulsing and whirring of music wafting from radios and music venues, and animated conversations of fisherman and tourists alike, College of Charleston students take it all in while studying perched on Havana's famed sea wall, el Malecón.


In all of Cuba’s long and tumultuous history of foreign occupation, dictatorships, revolution and the relentless struggle for freedom, there has never been a time quite like now. In the wake of renewed diplomatic relations with the U.S. and loosened restrictions on travel and trade, Havana is experiencing something of a boom.

There are signs of change everywhere: towering construction cranes, historic restoration projects, hordes of tourists, Wi-Fi hotspots, cruise ships and the first American-owned hotels in more than a half a century. Even a Hollywood movie has just wrapped filming on the island.

Where it will all lead, no one knows for sure. But to see the transformation in progress is to witness history up close, to watch the slow thaw of a country long frozen in time. The import of this unprecedented moment is not lost on a group of 10 College of Charleston students who find themselves living and learning in the midst of what could arguably be described as a revolution.

Just three months after the death of Cuba’s longtime leader Fidel Castro and mere weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, the students arrived in Havana in mid-February for a 10-week stay as part of a College study-abroad program. The eight women and two men represent a cross section of the student body: There are sophomores, juniors and seniors with majors such as Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean studies, biology and political science. They hail from Rhode Island, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia and from just across the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant.

They came to Havana for adventure, culture, education, immersion and connection. And they are acutely aware of the political dynamic that hangs in the humid air as their plane touches down at José Martí International Airport about 10 miles outside of Havana. In fact, for some, it’s the uncertainty of what comes next for Cuba that has brought them here now. As Honors College sophomore Hannah Jane Dantzscher puts it, “before there’s a Starbucks on every block.”

Despite the reforms negotiated by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014, the Caribbean nation remains mainly off limits to American tourists. That makes this particular study-abroad trip at this precise juncture an extraordinary privilege, or, to use an apt cliché – the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you see it, Fidel Castro just passed away,” says Sarah Owens, professor of Spanish and director of the College’s study-abroad program in Cuba. “People are going to mark time in the future before and after Fidel. So probably for the rest of our lives, we are going to say we went there a few months after Fidel passed away. Or we went there right after Donald Trump became president. I think it’s a really, really interesting time. And Cuba is changing by the day, by the minute.”

Student's in the College's study-abroad program interact with Cuban students, discussing the cultural differences between Cuba and the United States.

Becoming a Family

The students signed on for an authentic experience, the chance to live as Cubans live, or at least a close approximation. This aspect of the program, embedding students with host families in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, is the program’s defining feature.

The casas particulares, or private homes, where they live with ordinary Cuban families, offer the students more than just a place to sleep and store their belongings. The nature of their accommodations – and the relationships they forge with their hosts – has an enormous influence on their stay, affecting their daily routines, their diets, how they get around, how they spend their free time and how they interact with other Cubans and each other.

“It really is your first point of integration into the culture,” senior Kelty Carson, a double major in international studies and religious studies, says of her host family. “And you learn through them. It’s almost like having that second set of parents because you are like a baby learning how to move through the social norms. They’ve made me feel like a big part of the family. They’ve allowed me to become a little more Cuban.”

Separated from the cloistered confines of the city’s tourism infrastructure, the students are forced to rely on their wits, their Spanish and their youthful confidence to navigate the city and its customs. They know their class schedules and the dates of group excursions and activities, but they enjoy ample free time to lounge on the beaches, dance in the nightclubs, watch live music, explore museums and historic sites and hang out with their host families.

Tom Millington, resident director for Spanish Studies Abroad, the company that organizes the CofC study-abroad trip in Havana, says the program is designed to build bridges and form friendships between Americans and Cubans. University students from the States are particularly well suited to serve as ambassadors because they instinctively crave authentic experiences and human interaction, he says.

“They are very enthusiastic. They are very excited. They are very flexible, curious. And they are willing to try new things,” says Millington. “It’s not just me, it’s not just the professors at the university, but every single person in this community has something to teach you.”

That open-mindedness and adaptability help newly arrived students overcome the initial culture shock of having little or no access to Internet and email, no Target stores for one-stop shopping, no frappuccino. For a generation raised in an always-connected, get-it-now culture of instant gratification, adapting to the Cuban way of life, which places less emphasis on time and immediacy, requires a period of adjustment. In Cuba, things will happen when they happen.

Another glaring difference the students encounter is the lack of choices available to most Cubans – whether it be food, transportation, housing or employment. There’s a saying that Americans are unhappy with what they don’t have, while Cubans are happy with what they do have. It seems that whatever Cubans have is valued, protected and cared for. An old Soviet-era Lada sedan is miraculously kept running decades past its prime, and a pair of new sneakers are cleaned meticulously. The food on the dinner table is treasured. Many Cubans recall the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when food shortages triggered an epidemic of malnutrition across the island. Most of all there is reverence for the large and diverse networks of family and friends who form the very foundation of what makes Cuba so unique – its people, all 11.3 million of them.

Top: Student Kelty Carson shares a laugh with Rodolfo Rodriguez, the patriarch of her host family in Havana. Bottom: CofC students participate in outdoor activities during an excursion to a former coffee plantation in the Cuban countryside.

The students quickly become part of these networks, growing close to not only their immediate host families, but also the cousins, in-laws, friends and random neighbors who flow in and out of the seemingly always-open front doors. After a couple of weeks, they are like members of the family, speaking in Spanish, sipping rum and trading good-natured put-downs in a heated game of dominoes or cards.

The host families, in turn, grow fond of their guests. Rodolfo Luis Rodriguez Trejo has been hosting groups of students in his home for the past few years. At first, he confesses, it was more of a business transaction, a way to earn extra income.

But over time, the experience for him and his family has become more personal, more gratifying. Through the students, he says, he and his family have become “tourists of the world.”

Speaking in Spanish translated by one of his guests, Trejo says he’s not sure he can teach the students anything valuable in terms of historical facts or details about Cuban life. What he can and does offer them is a permanent place in his heart. “It’s about expanding your family,” he says.

City of Contrasts

The country itself is also a teacher, and it doesn’t take long for the students to recognize that Cuba is a country of stark and perplexing contrasts. Away from the tourist district of Havana Vieja, average Cubans live lives of remarkable simplicity, their options only as diverse as those stingily doled out by their country’s socialist government.

While a tsunami of tourists has created some opportunities for Cuba’s people – namely an increase in government-issued licenses for Cubans to operate B&Bs and restaurants catering to foreigners – the reality is that everyday Cubans subsist on an archaic government-run food rationing system, receive sanitized news from state-controlled media outlets and can be jailed for engaging in political dissent.

In the shadows of the swanky government-owned hotels – with their gift shops full of expensive Cuban cigars and bottles of Havana Club rum – most Cubans live in densely packed neighborhoods where power blackouts, streets strewn with waist-high piles of trash, a disturbing number of stray dogs and cats and a crumbling infrastructure are a way of life. And yet, they are an enormously proud and resourceful people, optimistic, friendly and gracious.

“Everything that they have is turned into some positive light,” observes junior Jack Feeney. “There’s no negativity. And that radiates in all different aspects – in culture, in music, in dance, in food. Life here is just happy.”

For one student, in particular, the harsh and controversial legacy of the revolution that brought Castro to power hits painfully close to home.

Maggie McCartin, who is of Cuban descent, grew up hearing her Cuban grandmother tell stories about Castro’s government seizing her family’s property and leaving them little choice but to flee their homeland and build a new life from scratch in the United States.

“Being here in Cuba, I’ve been able to find out a lot about the circumstances people were under as a result of and prior to the revolution,” McCartin says. “A lot of the wealthier people in Cuba were harshly affected by the revolution. They came in and took a lot of their property from them. My abuela [grandmother] told me that they gradually came in and said this property is for the Cuban people.”

Given her family history, McCartin says she has struggled to understand why many Cubans still seem to revere Castro and his fellow revolutionaries. Even in death, his image and his defiant chants of “socialismo o muerte” grace murals and buildings along the country’s highways.

Events in Cuba tend to unfold naturally. It’s best to go with the flow. It will happen when it happens. No one seems to be in any particular hurry except the taxis, which fly along the winding waterfront at dizzying speeds, offering warning honks to pedestrians considering whether to cross the street. Yet, there never seem to be any serious accidents.
The 10 College of Charleston students and their professor grew close over the course of their trip to Cuba, forming friendships that will last beyond their time at the College.

Cougars in Cuba

College of Charleston students have been studying abroad in Cuba since 2000. The program offers students an immersive experience in a culture that most Americans have been denied access to for more than 50 years.

The students on this year’s trip attend classes at a cultural center called the Centro de Estudios Martianos, located a short walk from their houses. The center is devoted to the study of José Martí, a revered freedom fighter who led the battle that won Cuba’s independence from Spain. His name and likeness are ubiquitous throughout the city; he is Cuba’s Abraham Lincoln.

In addition to Owens, the students also have two Cuban professors affiliated with the nearby University of Havana who teach classes speaking in English. Courses in Latin American studies and political science are held on weekday mornings and early afternoons. The students generally have their weekday evenings and weekends free.

The classroom is narrow and cramped with white walls, pinkish tile floors and tiny desks, but a breeze blowing through an open window soothes the overcrowded feeling. Clutching backpacks and wearing tank tops, shorts and running shoes, the students look just as they would back on campus in Charleston. The sheer normalcy of the scene is reinforced by the professor’s announcement of a pop quiz.

Most of the students did not know each other before the trip. But, as is often the case when a group of strangers is thrown together in unfamiliar circumstances, close bonds are formed.

“Everyone gets along and we all vibe really well together,” says junior biology major Shea Held. “Going through this and being in a different country with these people, you experience things in a different way than if I would have met them in the United States. You are forced to have the same life here and do the same things. You can share opinions about something that you never would have talked about before.”

During a coffee break between morning classes, the students discuss their social plans for the evening. Underscoring the notion that they genuinely seem to like one another, they will all head out together to a waterfront nightclub later that evening.

Even for a city that’s as vivacious and alive during the day as Havana, nightfall introduces a whole other level of energy. Latin beats drift from open doors, forming a continuous, reverberating soundtrack along neighborhood streets. The music is occasionally punctuated by the unmistakable tinkling sound of ivory-like dominoes being scooped into a pile – signaling the end of another spirited game. Shot glasses of Cuban rum and teacups full of sugar-sweetened coffee fuel the festivities and conversation into the wee hours of the morning.

But the students won’t partake on this night. They have an early wake-up the next morning for an all-day excursion to Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve located in the mountains of Cuba’s Artemisa province. The excursion will offer the students a respite from the intense sensory stimulation of the city. A couple of the students will brave a zipline that offers a thrilling ride over the forest canopy and panoramic views of the region. Others will go kayaking and horseback riding. Later, they’ll all swim and jump from rocks into the Baños del San Juan, a swimming hole whose mountain-fed spring water is said to have healing qualities.

The Journeyman

Collin Laverty ’06 understands the allure of Cuba.

After visiting Cuba through the College’s study-abroad program in 2005, he embarked on a career path that ultimately led him to start a business that helps other Americans visit the island nation.

Launched in 2012 with alumnus Adam Linderman ’06, Cuba Educational Travel organizes custom trips to Cuba ranging from family excursions to corporate retreats to political delegations.

The company has put together trips for Netflix and Spotify, and last spring it helped arrange a free concert along Havana’s famed Malecón by electronic music DJs Diplo and Major Lazer that drew upwards of 500,000 people, mostly Cuban teenagers.

“Over the last two and a half years, business has been booming,” says Laverty. “Everyone wants to travel to Cuba.”

The roots of the company can be traced back to Laverty’s college experience. In addition to his 10-week trip to Cuba during his senior year, he participated in a semester-at-sea cruise as a sophomore that included a stop in Cuba, and he went to Santiago, Chile, his junior year. These trips awakened a passion in him, and he knew he wanted a career involving international affairs and travel.

Following graduation, he took an internship with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on U.S.-Cuba relations, where he worked his way up to become director of the center’s Cuba program. Over the next three and a half years, he became deeply involved in policy research and advocacy efforts aimed at restoring normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

After leaving the center in 2011 – he’s still on its advisory board – to earn a master’s in international relations at the University of California San Diego, Laverty began thinking about how he could put the contacts, knowledge and insights he’d gained into a business tied to Cuba. Within a matter of months, he had obtained a license from the U.S. government to organize travel to the Caribbean nation, launched the company and moved to Havana.

Business was good, and it got even better after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014. But the election of Donald Trump has raised concerns that things could swing back in the other direction.

“There are threats to kind of cut off travel and trade and investment opportunities, which will be bad for business,” says Laverty, who also runs a boutique consultancy called Havana Strategies, which helps U.S. companies enter the Cuban market.

While his livelihood is dependent on Americans visiting Cuba, Laverty recognizes that unrestricted trade and travel could kill the goose that laid the golden egg. He’s spent enough time in the country and has enough relationships with Cubans – his wife is Cuban – to understand there must be a balance.

“I think the Cubans understand the old city is a jewel, and the fact that there aren’t billboards and mass consumerism is something that’s appealing. And I think they understand that they need to retain that,” he says. “The U.S. can lift the embargo tomorrow, that doesn’t mean they have to allow McDonald’s in, and it doesn’t mean they have to allow 10 million Americans a year. Ultimately, it will be up to Cubans to manage that challenge.”

In the weeks to come, the students will also spend a few days in Cienfuegos, a stunningly beautiful city situated along a natural bay on Cuba’s southern coast, and Trinidad, a colonial city whose opulent buildings stand as monuments to the region’s history as a hub for sugar production.

Back outside the nightclub, their stay in Havana not yet half over, the students know there will be plenty of other chances to stay out late and socialize, to soak in the richness and splendor of a city unlike any they’ve ever seen or visited. One after another, they retire and drift away toward their casas.

The day’s searing heat has dissipated and given way to a refreshing breeze of salty ocean mist. Out on the Malecón, the patient sea continues its unrelenting churn on the aging iconic barrier, its restored walls holding back the surge of nature.

But there are other equally powerful forces nipping away at Cuba. Politics, commerce and culture are converging to form what may be a historic wave of change.

The students bid adios to Havana in late April and return to their lives in Charleston, resuming the business of earning a degree. Forever changed and awakened by the experience, most will rank it as the highlight of their college careers, if not their entire young lives.

Some of them may return to Cuba. And if they do, neither will be the same as before.

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