HFU Abroad Blog

Cuba: A Mother - Daughter Perspective

By Dr. Diane Menago (Daughter) & Judith Fiorelli Menago (Mother)

cuba1People upon finding out we were in Cuba ask enthusiastically how was it?!.... like we were on a tropical island paradise enjoying the newest vacation spot. Neither of us are ever quite sure how to answer that question. The idea that we wanted to get there before "the Americans come in and change it" seems far fetched now. It is a country that seems frozen in time.... Cars from the 50's, buildings in disrepair, women in fish net stockings, an infrastructure that can barely support the people of the country let alone an onslaught of travelers. As Americans used to the freedom of traveling as we please, we were met with a strict itinerary that showed us the culture, music, art and people of Cuba in a very prescribed manner.

On Traveling to Cuba:

Mother: I stood looking at the pictures at the Bay of Pigs Museum, I couldn't believe I was standing somewhere that 50 years prior had touched my life. I was newly married, my husband worked for UNIVAC computers out of Kennedy Airport (formerly Idewild) maintaining air traffic controller computers. We were sitting at a work party with my husband's colleagues when an emergency call came in that they were to report to work to support air traffic control immediately. The emergency---The Cuban Missile crisis. They were required to stay on site for several days until the emergency had passed. Unlike today, news information was not readily available at that time so it was a waiting game. This started a tense time between Cuban and American governments which led to an embargo and a restriction on American travel to Cuba. You never thought about what affect this would have on the Cuban government or the people, we thought about what affect this would have on the people of the United States. It was not some place that I would consider traveling. Fast forward to today, the curiosity of a country that lived under a dictatorship that recently opened its borders to American tourism was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Being able to have this experience with my daughter and her students gave me an opportunity to view history through multiple generation's eyes.

Daughter: It was an adventure to become engulfed in a culture, to experience a third world country first hand, to combine my love of learning with my hobby of photography. The hope of becoming immersed with the Cuban people from behind the lens of a camera, what interesting and off the beaten path shots could one get?

The Island:
Mother: I think the island became more beautiful as you left Havana. I got to experience the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other at our Hotel in Cienfuegos.

Daughter: The experience of everyone sharing a two lane highway; horse and carts, bicyclists, open trucks transporting people to work, old cars, stands with groups of people waiting to be picked up by cars to go to work and tour buses without road rage. The land echoed the road with free roaming horses, pigs, chickens, steer, and roosters, the people knew who owned what livestock and they would help herd them home at the end of the day. The beauty of the ocean and the lushness of the rainforest. The colorfulness of the homes in the towns, the juxtaposition of the old and run down and the new and restored.

cuba2On Freedom:
Mother: We left America with the idea of being immersed in the Cuban culture but were more tourists on a chartered course. There were restaurants, stores, cultural highlights, prescribed cigar and liquor stores and areas that seem to cater to the multiple tour buses that we found.

Daughter: The Cuban people have a love of their country and feel a sense of being cared for by the government. Each town revolves around a square which tends to be the tourist hot spot and generally has a hotel, a restaurant, a church and some stores. The towns are vibrant with art, music and dancing. The people are friendly and very interested in meeting and talking to Americans. They have become quite adept at trying to earn money to supplement what they are given by the government each month. They are provided with rations of food (a bag of rice, fruit, chicken, beans), free health care, community schools and local stores for buying meat. They are able to access 3 television stations that are censored for content.

On Che Guevara:
Mother: One of the only places that I have been to that unless you are physically inside you would never know what it contains.... No gift shop, no pamphlets, No posting to Facebook, Twitter etc. I think he is so revered they don't want any commercialism to surround him.

Daughter: Spectacular museum and gigantic oversized monument of Che in Santa Clara. The eternal flame that lights his mausoleum was lit by Castro himself. The Cuban people have so much respect and appreciation for their national hero. There is no talking in the space that holds Che's remains, you are not allowed to wear a hat or bring in a bag or camera, you are not allowed to visit in inclement weather. There is a reverence that has not diminished over time.

On the Experience:
Mother: I would like to return in 5 years to see how the Cuban people begin to prepare for tourism. The experience of traveling with such a great group of people lead by very knowledgeable tour guides was fantastic. I have a greater awareness of the wastefulness of our country. Cubans use everything they have, they discard nothing.

Daughter: I loved the resiliency and openness of the people, the music, the dancing and our beautiful travel group. I think that traveling to Cuba on an excursion was the only way to see many of the sites that we had access to and helped to develop an understanding of Cuba. I also would like to return in 5 years to see if Americans have more freedom in terms of their movement throughout the country. I would like to have a sense that I am contributing to the overall economy of the country as a tourist.

Reflections of Cuba, Summer 2016

By Gloria Kersey-Matusiak, PhD

cuba3Our trip to Cuba was a nine-day whirlwind of action filled experiences that I will never forget. It was, at times, a series of sharp contrasts, an emotional roller coaster for me during which I experienced the full range of my emotions. I wish to thank Nicole Stokes-Dupass for her leadership, encouragement, preparation, guidance, and support throughout this journey.

I share these experiences with the reader, but not in the manner in which these events actually happened, but as snapshots retrieved from the swirling collage of impressions the trip has left on my mind and heart forever.

So, for me Cuba was:

• First and foremost, muy caliente! Relentless sun, oppressive humidity that had me searching for a light visor, clenching a ton of wet-wipes, sun screen, and anti-asthmatic attack inhaler, just in case, but equally imperative were my insecticide sprays, especially for day trips in the country.

Unpredictable skies that suddenly darkened, opening up, releasing buckets of cooling rain at a moment's notice, stopping as suddenly as it had begun. A brief respite from the scorching heat.

Having Yenny, a wonderful young Cuban woman as our tour guide, who was funny, and informative, thoughtful, and sometimes painfully honest about life in Cuba from her perspective. She clearly loved her homeland. Yenny spoke English fluently and was well able to translate for us when our hosts were unable to speak English.

Most importantly, Yenny was a hardworking, knowledgeable, historian and travel guide who was sensitive to our needs and dedicated to ensuring that her "babies" (as she referred to us) enjoyed the most meaningful experience of Cuba. Mission accomplished, Yenny!

Clean, comfortable hotel rooms, we stayed in three in different parts of the country. The one in Cienfuegos was my favorite, the balcony outside my room overlooked the clear blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea, but a few places to change dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos or (CUCs), but no ATMs. We could not use the pesos used by Cuban citizens.

When entering my hotel room, in Cienfuegos, I experienced my first, cucaracha (muy grande), in the corner, yikes! My travel buddy even encountered a lizard. But, the magnificent vista, abundant breakfasts each morning, and wonderful Cuban coffee more than compensated for those brief encounters.

• Long walks over cobbled streets in the heat of the day, interspersed with cool fun-filled bus rides to new adventures.

Air-conditioned seats on the bus where I wrote, read, thought, talked, laughed, or just watched from my window the beauty and the urban blight that was Cuba.

Palm trees everywhere and the fiery red flamboyant plant dotted the landscape, dense forests, exotic plants. Magnificent countryside, generally flat, but with tree covered hills and mountains in Trinidad, a town in central Cuba. Sugar cane, avocado, mango, and papaya trees and other succulent tropical fruit could be found, at times for sale by roadside vendors.

• City landscapes filled with a myriad of pastel colored houses, from dilapidated high rises to single level dwelling places for Cuban families crowded in tiny living spaces. Clean laundry hung from clothes lines draped outside of nearly every dwelling place. It was a return to a time before washers, dryers, and Laundromats. Cars and taxis rolled by representing the same era, circa 1950s for those who could afford them.

• Tiny, well-kept, urban gardens, and the absence of trash, garbage, or graffiti throughout the most impoverished neighborhoods.

Once architecturally grand municipal buildings, now crumbling vestiges of days gone by and did I say, no ATMs. Some city centers where people gathered on park benches surrounded by old theatres, state buildings, restaurants, and hotels, much like Rittenhouse square.

Occasional beggars, pleading in Spanish for monetary gifts from the visiting Americans, but mostly there were polite, smiling, waving, Cuban citizens welcoming us, the American strangers, some areas tables for vendors on city side streets and imagine, did I mention, not an ATM in sight. As my CUCs dwindled, I nearly became panic stricken. How does one live without them?

Cuban children sitting quietly in classes or walking in line through city streets clad in purple or brown colored uniforms indicating their ages or grade in school and

cuba4Talented, artistic children engaged in community outreach programs, singing, dancing, performing acrobatic feats with great fervor, skill, and sophistication far beyond their years; entertaining their American visitors, heartwarming and sad all at once,

Stories of Cuba's history, its revolution, love for Fidel and Che Guevara, and other national heroes. A multi-racial society, we heard stories too of racism that has existed since the time of slavery in Cuba and still lingers, much like in the U.S., impacting opportunities for employment, economic, and social status for Non-white, Afro-Cubans, mestizos, and mullatos. Generally, everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, but the theme was sadly familiar.

Visits to schools, a hospital, a National park, a sugar cane mill, a pottery plant, museums, libraries, churches, and mausoleums all a part of our very interesting and informative journey.

• On other day trips, we learned about religious practices like a folk tradition called Santeria beyond the traditional Catholic Church, which most Cubans practiced. I was surprised to learn that Cubans enjoyed some degree of religious freedom despite the Communist political influences. Like in the U.S., Protestant, Jewish, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religious tradition are also practiced.

• The exotic sounds of Afro–Cuban music, singing and dancing with abandonment were intoxicating experiences as was the Cuban rum infused, Mojitos (although I prefer Pina coladasl). All were plentiful and offered at nearly every meal.

• An award-winning, local choir sang for us, both popular Americana and some Cuban standards, their voices were heavenly.

Scrumptious meals of shrimp, lobster, or the local fish of the day, and for meat lovers, beef and pork to heart's content, black beans and rice, salads of shaved cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots, with oil and vinegar, a white sweet-flavored potato, Cuban style bread and desserts of flan and more flan, a light custard, or arroz con leche, a rice pudding, pineapple and ice cream, or other delicious treats, A variety of soft citrus drinks, bottled water, and of course, rum complemented each meal.

A few Irritating encounters with other unfamiliar insects, undernourished dogs and cats, and roosters, roaming freely around city streets and in restaurants, perhaps, waiting to be served?

• Still, despite my uneasiness with dogs, cats, insects and such, fortified by a glass of one of those delicious rum cocktails, nothing could stop me from jumping at the opportunity to hold a pretty decent-sized alligator in my arms for the camera, just for laughs.

But, my most poignant memories were, the handful of tiny pink posies handed to me by a tricycle driver in response to a rather small tip I gave him for pedaling us for miles across the city streets in the hot sun. And a blind man who asked someone to bring him over to me to kiss me on my cheek after I purchased 4 bags of peanuts at 25 centavos or 4 bags for 1 CUC the equivalent of $1 U.S dollar I thanked him, saying Adios Senore, "no adios," he countered, "hasta luego." I was deeply touched by each of these experiences.

At journey's end, I departed our tour bus tearfully, embracing Yenny, our tour guide, and telling her in my very best Spanish that because of her this had been the trip of a lifetime for me. Through my conversations with Yenny, I had developed a strong kinship. We both cried as we embraced.

I headed toward the airport at Santa Clara, saddened to leave this magical country of paradoxes. I was happy and sad all at once for the people of Cuba. I was saddened by the abject poverty I witnessed. Yet, despite the poverty and daily hardships they faced, their faith had fueled a passion and resilience, the likes of which I had never seen.

Inspired by their kindness and the hope that the Cuban people I met exuded, some part of me longed to stay to see the future of Cuba unfold.

As much as I learned about Cuba, I learned so much more about myself. How much had I taken for granted, while others around the world manage every day with so much less? As much money as I had brought along to buy coffee, cigars, and trinkets for family and friends, I had run out of both American dollars and CUCs by the time I reached the airport at Santa Clara, only minutes from Miami. I was very nervous about there being even the slightest chance I might be held up at customs for any reason that I could not pay my way out of. Like an extra charge for my now much heavier luggage.

I returned to Miami, ever grateful to God for having had this opportunity to experience Cuba and to see first-hand what it really means to have been born in the United States of America. I counted 4 ATMs and quickly withdrew a several U.S dollars, just to hold it in my hands. I heard in my head the rhythm and lyrics of one of my favorite popular songs. Recently, J. Lo performed a remix entitled, Bajo El Mismo Sol. The song's lyrics remind us that we are all the same, living under the same sun. I thought of the Cuban sun, its powerful heat, my transient discomfort, and the daily conditions under which most Cubans live and considered, but for the grace of God...

6/8/16 - 6/16/16 Cuba

Here are a bunch of photos from our recent trip to Cuba! The trip ran from June 8-16 and was an incredible journey. Thank you to Dr. Diane Menago, Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology, for these wonderful photos!

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Reflections on Italy

By junior Ryan Keller

ryan kellerTrying to conjure the words to describe the experience I had in Italy is nearly impossible. It was whimsical, spectacular, and majestic, all in one. The flight to Italy set the mood, allowing us to see the Swiss Alps as we made our way to Venice. I was able to see a view of Venice from above, too, which was mind blowing. It truly is a city on the water.

Once we were in Venice, it stole my heart—it was everything I wanted to find on the first day of the trip—the people, the culture, and the architecture were just perfect. The second day was rainy and so I was not able to explore the streets. However, when the clouds broke open, I found myself running to the canal to take a gondola. That ride was breath-taking and thrilling. Seeing the colors and experiencing the unique atmosphere truly brought the Venetian way of life into perspective. They are a people of the water, and I could truly get used to them.

As we were leaving Venice, I did not know how this trip could get any better, yet somehow it did. Florence was the closest thing to home in Italy. The busy city streets and the history everywhere made the city come to life. The busy streets of Florence had so much to do. I road through the busy city streets in a horse carriage with some of my best friends and ate gelato on a bridge overlooking the Arno River. Couldn’t get much better, right? It did.

While strolling through the shops of Florence; I made a quick decision to stop in a shop. It was an ordinary art shop; nothing appeared different about this one. While in the shop, I met the owner, a short older woman who spoke English very well. While speaking with her, I found out she moved from America to Italy with her husband in 1966. She used to be a resident in what she called the “Greater Northeast of Philadelphia.” I was overwhelmed with excitement and shock; it was such a cool occurrence to meet someone who came from your home.

Afterwards, we traveled to the hillside wonder of Assisi, where we saw medieval city streets and the beautiful Basilicas of St. Clare and St. Francis. They were truly majestic in their own ways. St. Clare’s was only one floor with little ornamentation. The structure truly represented St. Clare as a woman, representing her humble beliefs in every brick. St. Francis had this giant, powerful basilica that represented the waves he made by standing up for the church. Both are wonders in that Italian hillside.

Following Assisi, we traveled six hours to Pompeii, and it rocked. It was amazing; the history, the methods of communication, and the structures showed the ancient Roman intelligence. As a communications major, communicating is a skill I love understanding—their use of symbols was brilliant since there were too many languages so much of the population illiterate. It was a fascinating sight, how they communicated directions, potable water, and food.

After Pompeii, our group sang our hearts out to “Pompeii” by Bastille, which was thrilling and awesome. We arrived in beautiful Sorrento only a few hours later with the Mediterranean Sea only a few feet away from our hotel. The sea had no problem splashing me every time I got too close. Our night in Sorrento led to our half day on the Island of Capri, which was indescribable: I loved Venice—don’t get me wrong—but Capri was amazing. The water was so blue and the towns were so cute and happy. I couldn’t help but fall in love.

After returning to the mainland, we made our long journey to Rome where we saw sights like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and traveled between nations to Vatican City. The city in itself was amazing; it is truly the Italian New York City. That said, my favorite part of Rome was nowhere above ground: it was the underground catacombs that blew me away. Seeing the sights, understanding the culture behind them, and grasping the fact that someone came up with the idea to build the catacombs underneath Rome was the highlight for me. Italy in of itself was a place I would recommend to any traveler. The cities and towns were great, the food was not badly priced and tasted delicious, and the sights were astounding. It was simply a perfect trip!




Hot on the heels of Italy, our Holy Family University study abroad program is currently in Cuba! The group left on June 8, leaving the Philadelphia area and flying into Miami, Florida, to meet their tour director and to attend a lecture at the Interactive Cuban Cultural Center. While there, they also toured Little Havana in Miami.

From Miami, it was straight to Havana, Cuba for two days. Our group met with faculty and students at the University of Havana for study and discussion of educational systems in Cuba. Our group also visited a local artist in Havana to discuss the impact of art on the Cuban community and culture and then followed it up with a visit to a neighborhood-sponsored learning center.

The next destination was Cienfuegos. Here the group travelled to the Zapata Peninsula where they participated in a National Park workshop that explored the local ecosystem and conservation. While there, the study abroad participants met villagers of a Taino village to dicuss their culture, specifically their oral traditions.

Today and tomorrow, our students are exploring Trinidad and Santa Clara where they will be meeting with a photographer, a horse whisperer, and a family of potters – these all help to paint the picture of small business entrepreneurialism in Cuba.

Once our group returns, we will have photos and commentary on the trip!

5/28/16 The End of Our Journey

Daily Update: May 28, 2016 - Our Final Day

It was an amazing experience travelling through all parts of Italy.  The HFU Abroad group had an incredible time exploring the country, which left memories for a lifetime!

Top middle photo: Class of 2016 graduates pose in Capri.
Top left photo: The entire Italy Abroad group in Capri.
Bottom right photo: Italy Abroad in front of the Coliseum.
Bottom middle and left photos: Dr. Rochelle Robbins, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, helps the Tiger throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, guaranteeing a return to Rome!







5/27/16 Rome Continued

Daily Update: May 27, 2016

Continuing our trip through Rome, we visited St. Paul's Basilica, the tomb of St. Paul under the Papal Altar, The Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Italian Parliament building.



















5/25/16 - 5/26/16 – More Rome!

Daily Update: May 25-26, 2016

Continuing our exciting trip through Rome, we were able to visit quite a few stops along the way. We experienced the Catcombe di Domitilla (the catacombs) along the Appian Way as well as St. Peter's Basilica and the Piazza San Pietro, as well as the Sistine Chapel and the beautiful Trevi Fountain, an iconic 18th century sculpted fountain.
















5/24/16 - 5/25/16 – Rome

Daily Update: May 24-25, 2016

Here are several shots from our time spent in Rome, including the Roman Colosseum as well as many Roman ruins...


















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