Over the Rainbow: To Cuba with the Michigan Community Touring Choir

CubaEarlier this month, the Michigan Community Touring Choir made “Witte history” as the first of our groups to travel to Cuba!

From April 1 – 8, 2016, I was fortunate to be the Witte representative accompanying the Michigan Community Touring Choir for Witte’s first tour to Cuba! This group was directed by Dr. Meredith Bowen and included singers from the Holland Chorale, Sistrum, and the Lansing Women’s Chorus, as well as a number of other singers from throughout Michigan.

dupont mansion, varadero, cuba
The choir posing in front of Dupont Mansion in Varadero

Their repertoire included the song, Over the Rainbow (arr. Russ Robertson). This song quickly became the theme song of our travels to Cuba—

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Many of us in the group (myself included) were only in elementary school when Fidel Castro came to power in January, 1959. Until very recently, Cuba may as well have been “over the rainbow” as far as most Americans were concerned.

car in trinidad
Trinidad

Part of the appeal of travel to Cuba is because it has been “closed” to most Americans for more than 50 years—but there are many, many reasons why Cuba is a very interesting destination. First of all, it is a beautiful Caribbean Island very close to the United States. Our flight from Toronto to Havana was only 3 ½ hours and in the same time zone, but when we landed, we didn’t have to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas.” From the moment we entered the chaotic Havana Terminal, it was very clear that we were indeed “over the rainbow”—and in another world.

Besides the beautiful weather, one of the other main attractions of Cuba is their rich culture the “people to people experiences”. For a music group like the Michigan Community Touring Choir, the opportunity to have workshops with Cuban choral directors and joint concerts with Cuban choirs was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

cuban audience in havana
Cuban audience at a performance in Havana

Our group had three choral workshops/exchanges/joint concerts—in Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Havana. The quality of the Cuban choirs was outstanding and the Cuban choirs were equally impressed by the Michigan Choir. In two of the three exchanges, the Cuban directors and choirs taught our group new songs that they performed together at the end of the concerts. Wow– what a special experience for the American and Cuban performers and audience!

Choral workshop in Matanzas
Choral workshop in Matanzas

Whether your future travel plans to Cuba are as part of a performing group or for another of the 12 approved reasons, here are a few highlights plus a few words of advice—

We stayed in Havana the first night and then went to Cienfuegos for two nights before returning to Havana. Day excursions also included Trinidad (near Cienfuegos), Varadero, Matanzas, San Francisco de Paula (Hemingway’s former home) and Cojimar (setting for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea). The combination of being on the north and south side of the island and in cities, smaller towns and country roads gave us wider view of Cuba. Definitely visit more than just Havana when you go to Cuba.

cienfuegos
Cienfuegos

I had expected run-down buildings badly in need of repair but I wasn’t prepared for some truly magnificent architecture including the Spanish Colonial buildings in Trinidad and homes reminiscent of the French Riviera in Cienfuegos. Havana itself reminded me of a less glamourous version of Nice, France. I was also prepared for and looking forward to seeing all the classic 1950’s American cars—and they were everywhere. What surprised me was that there are lots of newer cars too—and also horse drawn carts.

havana
Horse-drawn cart in Havana

Other surprises—

Hotels: These were a pleasant surprise. We stayed at the Hotel Capri in Havana and the Hotel Jagua. Both are 1950’s vintage, but nicer than expected. The lobbies and public areas were lovely, hotel staff pleasant and efficient, elevators, plumbing and air conditioning worked fine and the breakfast buffets were almost embarrassingly bountiful.

trinidad

Restaurants and Food: Especially as a vegetarian, I was not sure what to expect from the food. In addition to our huge breakfast buffets, most meals were in the private restaurants known as paladares. Many of these are in private homes, so each one is unique. Yes, there were lots of black beans and rice, but the meals were varied and usually included beautiful fresh salads and scrumptious desserts. Non-vegetarians can expect to eat lots of pork and seafood. Besides mojitos, other beverages were always available. Water is always served in bottles.

street dog in Cuba
Street dogs are a common sight in Cuba.

Bathrooms: The amenities for tourists are, of course, worlds away from what the average Cuban experiences. It’s difficult for the Cuban people to purchase even basic items like soap and toothbrushes—so be sure to bring some to give as gifts. Also, many buildings do look like they are about to fall apart and, except for the hotels and nicer restaurants, the plumbing (especially the bathrooms) is inadequate, not very clean, and frequently out of order. As noted in our Travel Tips, make sure to always have toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water.

In spite of these inconveniences, I encourage anyone who has the opportunity go “somewhere over the rainbow” to Cuba. After all, there is no longer any reason to say, “Oh why, oh why can’t I.”

choral performance in Matanzas
The choir performing in Matanzas

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Check out our earlier blog post Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How? for answers to some FAQ’s.