Going To Cuba With God -Part 3

Going To Cuba With God –Part 3

Santa Clara

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

The weather has changed . Another hurricane is coming. The power goes out  again in our hotel. This time it doesn’t come back on.  I am on the eighteenth floor . Luckily I have flashlights and strong legs. We leave the next morning for Santa Clara in the pouring rain . The water comes over the malecon ( sea wall) as we leave Havana.  Santa Clara is about eighty miles away. It is pouring – hopefully Valerie was praying. We are traveling with the Colombian Ballet Company. They don’t speak English and have good humor about traveling with the kids. (Kennedy Dancers, Columbian Ballet Dancers)

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Santa Clara is most famous for being the city where the last battle of the revolution led by Che Guevara took place. It is the place where Batista’s government  was toppled in 1958.

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In the center of town is a park (Parque Vidal) and a statue of Marta Abrue. Marta was the sole financial sponsor of La Caridad (Charity) Theatre. It surrounds the square and is where the kids will be performing. The building is a national monument of  Cuba and one of the seven big theatres from the Colonial era that is still standing. It has exquisite architecture and an amazing interior. The concept behind the theatre was that the proceeds were to support the two schools that Marta founded (One for boys and one for girls) for the poor children of the city.

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Parque Vidal is probably one of the most typical places in Cuba. During the afternoons, people (especially singles) visit the park to meet others. Although not widely practiced in recent times, the custom was to walk the park around and around. The women walk the inner part of the park, while the men walk the outer side. Another lost custom was for the locals to set up a platform and offer improvisations with their guitars on late Sunday afternoons.   They dressed in their guayaberas and highly polished shoes and played their music. A  guayabera is a light open-necked cotton shirt, often with large pockets and pleats down the front, that is typically worn outside the pants.

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On the other side of the square, is our hotel the Santa Clara Libre (formerly the Santa Clara Hilton). It still has the bullet holes inflicted by Batista’s forces. The rooms are small and the hallways are dark. There is nowhere to rehearse so the Spanish dancers are in the hall doing flamenco improv. They are tired of being upstaged by the tap kids. We all watch them and some of the kids dance as well. The dark hallway is transformed.

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Everywhere we go there are Cuban kids waiting to meet the American tap kids – schools, clubs, camps etc. This time it is a Performing Arts School from Santa Clara.  The children are always incredibly beautiful.   A few of them speak a little English. They watch the rehearsal and hang out after the show. The kids are given sodas. The Cuban kids are very excited about the sodas. One of the boys plays the song from Titantic and dedicates it to my daughter.  They are all having a great time and ideologies don’t seem very important.

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We leave for Havana and stop at a mausoleum which houses the remains of Che Guevara and sixteen of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during the Bolivia campaign. There is also a reconstruction of Guevara derailing the train during the Battle of Santa Clara.

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After tearful goodbyes to our new friends, Valerie and I go home a few days early because our kids were missing too much school. (Michael and Jamilla)

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We had a long layover in Cancun and long flight.  We had visas but we were advised not to say  that we had been in Cuba unless they asked at customs. We were told that at this time if they knew we had been in Cuba, we would be there for a very long time. I asked Valerie what we should do.  She said “I am going to pray.”   We walked through in a few minutes.

“So are you a believer in prayer now?” she asked.   I laughed and did not say anything. (Kennedy Tap company)


For the majority of Cubans life “no es facil.” (not easy). It’s a daily struggle to find food, toiletries and medicine. It is a totalitarian government  -“nothing against the state , everything for the state”. Though there are no guns or drug trafficking, prostitution is on the rise and people can be arrested for anything. But still, they are proud, kind, resourceful and highly educated. The colors, sensuality, crumbling architecture, performing and visual arts, beautiful beaches and cultural heritage, make it a great place to visit. The hope is that the life will get better here. It was an amazing trip and an honor to have met these people.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Paul and Arlene Kennedy.   They taught our kids dance and life lessons. Like the jazz music and tap dancing they loved-  they taught them that in life, you never know what is going to happen next, practice leads to excellence,  and it is always best if you improvise.


Fly Safe Paul and Arlene Kennedy,


Going To Cuba With God (Part 1)

Going To Cuba With God  (Part 1)

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley

My daughter’s tap company was invited to perform at a reception for the Cuban Ballet in Los Angeles.  The director of the company, Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso is blind. When she listened to the kids dance, her face lit up.  She liked what she heard and invited the Kennedy Tap Kids ( fifteen children ages 10-15) to perform at the world renowned Cuban Ballet Festival. They were the first American children to perform at this Festival in twenty years.

This was fourteen years ago.  Getting a visa for  Cuba at that time was very difficult.  We applied and while we we waited, we raised the money for the airfare. The Cuban government would pay for everything in Cuba. As Americans, you were not allowed to spend money in Cuba.  You could not use a credit card . There was no cell phone service, internet or atms. We didn’t get any information about lodging, meals, performance schedule or our itinerary beforehand.  We did know to bring every medical supply we could think of.   The visas  did not arrive until the day before.  It was very stressful.  I had a lot of anxiety about going.

My mother was legally blind and loved ballet , opera and theatre.  I was raised hearing stories of Alicia Alonso, the blind ballerina. I had seen her dance when I was young  and  my daughter had  done a  book report on her the year before.  I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to go if hadn’t been for her.   I had grown up with her story.

In case I wasn’t nervous enough, Hurricane Mitch ( the deadliest hurricane  since 1780) was in Cancun at the time we were leaving. We had decided to fly into Cancun because they didn’t want the kids to go past the picket signs in Miami. For the last few days, the news would show empty Cancun airport and a city ravaged by the storm.  We were still going. I  was preparing, convinced we would be staying in a storm shelter if we even made it to Cancun. I packed lanterns, flashlights , my earthquake blankets and water.  The night before I was having a panic attack.

I called one of the moms.  What are you doing  about the storm Valerie?  What are you bringing?. Her response was “I’m praying.” “You’re praying?” I try to keep the hysterical edge out of my voice.  “ Yes”, she replied. I could see that she wasn’t going to be any help.

I was so nervous that I didn’t sleep.  I was  still deciding whether or not we should go at the airport in the morning. When we arrived at the airport , the teachers and students were in a  circle praying for the safety of the journey . Really? In the middle of the airport? This was a devout group.  They practically pushed me on the plane.  The plane was empty .  The media had done an excellent  job.   We can each have our own row in coach.

The flight is relatively smooth. We land in the empty Cancun airport.  It is sunny. Valerie looks at me. I don’t say anything.  Fifty skycaps  come running toward us ( the only people around)  with their carts. Sorry, we  are just changing planes.. We take pictures near the broken glass and blown out windows .

We move on to my next fear.  It is the very small plane that is taking us to Havana.  I have a fear of small and very small planes. I sit with Arlene Kennedy on the plane.  Arlene and Paul Kennedy ran the Kennedy Dance School and Tap Company. Many famous tap dancers have come out of this school.  Arlene Kennedy had danced around the world and  had seen it all . She  dealt with all the chaos at the Kennedy  School with a quiet strength.  On the plane, she acted like we were sitting in the Chinese restaurant next door to the school having a chat.  It was exactly what I needed.

I didn’t have to worry. When the turbulence started, the Mormon missionaries sitting behind us started to sing and pray.    We finally landed.

Landing in a  Communist or Military oppressed country always feels different .  There is a lot of security and people with guns around.  (It was pre 9/11). It is quieter.  The air smelled thick with smoke. It was about three o clock in the morning for us. We waited on line for a while . They didn’t stamp our passports, but stamped a separate piece of paper. At that time it was better not to have a Cuba stamp on your passport.  There were no stores in the airport.  We were taken to a bus and driven away in the dark.

We were going to our first destination, Varedero, a beautiful resort city about a two hour drive  from Havana.  We were told that we would be in a five star hotel.  It didn’t look like a hotel – it looked like a camp.  It smelled like a tropical island.  It was very dark and there were dim or no street lights so we couldn’t see where we were.  The kids were brought into the dining room.  All they wanted to do was go to sleep. They were exhausted.  Someone brought out vanilla ice cream for everyone.  They didn’t want it. They were American kids. They could have ice cream any time they wanted. ( for dessert only)  I had to tell each one of them quietly that they had to eat the ice cream .  It was a special treat that they had prepared for us. (when was the last time you forced a kid to eat ice cream?) At the end of our trip in Santa Clara,  we saw a line that stretched out over many blocks. We looked to see what they were lined up for. It was an ice cream cart. They understood.

We were then taken to another building. We had to climb two flights of stairs with our suitcases.  I don’t travel lightly.  In addition to my regular packing, there were  costumes, dance shoes, extra food, medical and storm supplies. Thank you Tony Nicholas for carrying my suitcase up the stairs that night.  Our room has a big hole in the screen ( the size of my head). My daughter is allergic to mosquitos and I read that they were there.  ( I never saw them).  We moved into a big dorm room with all  the kids.  My daughter and I shared a twin bed . Luckily I  brought a pillow as there weren’t any.   The kids were now hopped up on sugar from the ice cream and jet lag. There was a woman I didn’t know in the bed next to us.  My daughter did not look happy. I tried not to cry.  Things were not off to a good start.

Viaje Con Cuidado,