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Yampah students flip over Cuba

Aaron Garland
Special to the Post Independent

The smoky haze over Havana, Cuba, seemed a fitting backdrop on our final approach to the Plaza of the Revolution.

Sitting atop one of the few hills in the city, a tall, multi-tiered monument rose hundreds of feet into the gray-blue sky, while the zig-zag shapes of vultures spun carelessly about.

Whistles blew, sirens pierced the clamor of the city and huge Cuban flags fluttered from the rear of our guides’ bikes as we wended our way through this 400 year-old capital city.

On a Thursday afternoon in April, 10 Yampah Mountain High School students, me and my wife, Molly, Yampah parent Michael Maxson, and Felicia “Flash” Trevor of Carbondale’s Stepstone Center, pedaled eagerly toward the symbolic, concrete-clad heart of Cuban independence.

The Plaza of the Revolution is surrounded by large, innocuous government buildings. Directly in front of the hilltop tower is a huge statue of Cuba’s most revered hero, Jose Marti.

The Plaza itself more closely resembles some faceless concrete parking lot at a shopping mall than the site of the Western Hemisphere’s strongest anti-imperialist rhetoric.

For two weeks, a motley crew of 10th, 11th and 12th grade students from Yampah pedaled, strolled, rode and inhaled the vastly different and intoxicating world of Cuba.

The premise of this trip was to learn as much as we could about the often-maligned island state that floats 90 short miles off the coast of Florida and has been at odds with its huge and imposing northern neighbor for more than 40 years.

Let this much be clear: Cuba is a wonderful country and, despite all the anti-Castro rhetoric, it’s nothing to be feared. Our group spent hours talking with Cubans from all walks of life.

We shopped in their markets, ate in their houses, lived in their neighborhoods, drank water from their taps, played along with and danced to their music, began friendships that could last a lifetime and felt, as best we could, the essence of the struggle that is uniquely Cuban.

What an extraordinary country! What amazing and courageous people!

One of the first impressions, as we drove into Havana from the airport, was that things would be different, very different.

On the potholed two-lane highway, our cab slowed and swerved to dodge bicyclists, horse carts, pedestrians and a vehicle stalled in the fast lane, its hood up and several people huddled over its 50-year-old engine.

In the suburbs of Havana, our home for two weeks, the sidewalks were tilting chunks of cracked concrete, the weeds were knee-high in places, telephone wires drooped almost to the ground, telephone poles leaned precipitously one way or the other, and all the buildings appeared to be in advanced stages of neglect. Obviously the welcoming committee hadn’t heard we were coming.

But this is Cuba. There is no money for things as nonessential as repairing sidewalks and straightening telephone poles, at least not much.

Judai, one of the two sisters who worried over our roost for the entirety of the stay, earns $15 a month. Mario, the owner of the house we rented and a full-time child psychiatrist, earns $25 a month in his profession.

With such limited funds it is no wonder that phone poles lean, sidewalks crack and people learn to look past the mildewed exteriors of their homes; something we learned to do as well.

Our first mornings in Cuba began with several impassioned lectures from a scholar of Cuban history and art, Juan Nicholas Padron. He took us back to the day of Columbus’ arrival in 1492 and brought us to the present with facts and stories that painted the background for what we would be seeing.

Our first afternoon we paced the marble halls of an old mansion converted to a museum commemorating the Cuban Revolution, and it started to sink in: Cuba is an amazing story.

For three days in the country west of Havana, we watched farmers walk behind pairs of oxen, gracefully turning the soil of red rich tobacco fields. One afternoon we descended to the catacombs of the oldest church in Cuba where piles of dusty bones sent chills up our spines.

We walked along the neatly groomed paths of Cuba’s Botanical Gardens while bright-eyed 15-year-old Cuban girls posed in wedding dresses along the banks of a splendid Japanese garden.

We shopped at the farmers markets, where we sipped, nibbled, sniffed against a background of endless, lively, high-volume chatter of vendors.

On several well-deserved beach days, we prostrated ourselves on the diamond-dust beaches of Cuba’s northern coast, marveling at the beauty and occasionally lifting our eyes to stare across the waters toward Florida, waters that have known so many misadventures and heartaches over the past 40 years.

The 10 Yampah students were James Castaldo of Carbondale, who was all over that Cuban beat; Andrew Campbell, also of Carbondale, who thrilled our Cuban hosts with his music; Josanna Morningstar of Glenwood Springs, who found it difficult not bring home a kennel’s worth of canines; Jack Wolfe of Carbondale, whose laid-back air blended beautifully with the Cuban scene; Keely Frey of Glenwood, who won the heart of a Cuban baseball star from her box seat; Ben Stranahan of Woody Creek, who sported a red-starred green beret with the authenticity of a Cuban freedom fighter; Laura Hadar of Carbondale, whose walking cast didn’t slow her down a single salsa beat; Spencer Maxson of Missouri Heights, whose engaging personality forged strong friendships and a deep appreciation of the Cuban experience; Anna Ryskamp of Glenwood, who melted icy international relations with adroit moves on the dance floor; and Travis Smith of Carbondale, who promoted the cause of international peace and understanding with his willingness to converse no matter how severe the language barrier.

Among the adults we were joined by my wife, Molly, a nurse at Aspen Valley Hospital; parent Michael Maxson, whose enthusiasm, generosity and willingness to try anything new gave the entire trip a boost; and translator and Cuban enthusiast Felicia Trevor, without whom this trip would never have happened.

We were also helped by Patti Stranahan, Nancy Chromy, Holly Stephens of Scott McInnis’ Glenwood office, Yampah principal Tom Heald and Yampah secretary Linda Zambelli.

The two weeks we squeezed between the CSAP tests and ACT exams were an eye-opening and heart-stopping adventure.

A week into it we found ourselves trekking through a remote valley where we came across farms served by nothing but a narrow dirt path. Curious people with friendly smiles emerged to give directions or squeeze stalks of sugar cane into a sweet, watery nectar; a vastly superior alternative to Gatorade.

We were toasted by the president of a neighborhood communist organization, had speeches made for us and offered toasts of our own to our gracious hosts.

We brought medical supplies and school supplies to give away. We had bottles of Ibuprofen and stacks of clothing to give as a gesture of our support for the Cuban people.

What we got back in return is immeasurable for sure, but the number of times the phrase “life changing” was thrown around at the end of our trip might be an indication of the immensity of the gift the Cubans gave us.

Aaron Garland is a teacher at Yampah Mountain High School and Molly Garland is a nurse at Aspen Valley Hospital.


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