Right before school started, I traveled to Havana, Cuba along with 12 of my classmates – and volleyball teammates – led by coaches Bendfeld and Doland for the experience of a lifetime. The purposes of the trip were primarily volleyball, cultural enlightenment and service.
Thinking back on the trip, the first thing that comes to mind is sweat. Walking out of the airport in Varadero, we were all hit by the warm, humid air mixed with cigarette smoke. With an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius every day we were there, our delicate Canadian heat tolerance was unable to save us from the excessive sweating for the remainder of the trip.
The ride to our hotel in Havana took two hours, during which I fought to stay awake so I could enjoy the views of the clear blue sky, the lush green hills and the colourful, intricate buildings. The driving in Cuba seemed to reflect the relaxed Cuban way of life. All the cars, taxis and buses cruised on at a comfortable speed, and no one seemed to be in a rush. Along the way, our Cuban guide, Guerline, gave us some bits and pieces of Cuban history.
We spent the next six days playing volleyball in the mornings and exploring the island in the afternoons. Despite the heavy rain for half the trip, we visited beautiful sandy beaches, toured Old Havana, celebrated new friendships with Cuban athletes, and volunteered at a children’s community and dance centre.
While we were there, we were treated to a dance recital by a group of children and a group of professional dancers. After their performance, the SMUS students were called up onto the stage to learn a new dance and show off our awkward salsa moves. It was inspiring to meet the man who ran the centre and see how much passion and dedication he had for the work he does. It was also amazing to see the connections he has made with all the kids, dancers and helpers at the centre. To express our support for his efforts, we brought several bags of donations filled with basic necessity items like soap and toothbrushes, as well as arts and crafts items to entertain the kids.
Throughout the week we played a lot of volleyball, and learned more about Cuban history, holidays, and common ways of life in the 21st century. The roads were plagued with potholes and the water-stained walls revealed a glimpse into the tough life Cubans face in a country still struggling after their political revolution. It was enlightening to see the resilience, fortitude, and simple happiness of the people that make up Cuba’s incredible culture, in spite of the hardships they have faced.
Leading up to the trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Cuban girls and the volleyball centre. All of my burning questions were answered the moment I walked through the door. The facility was built for the Pan American Games in 1991, and it had been poorly maintained ever since. The wood floor is slowly decaying due to the heavy rains, there were holes in the court, and gravel, dirt, nuts and leaves were scattered across the floor. I was amazed to learn the National Cuban Volleyball Team trains in this facility.
We were warmly welcome by the Cuban athletes and coaches, who spoke little to no English. Over the course of a few days, we played with and competed against this group of Cuban girls. They were skilled, yet humble, spending as much time as they could helping us improve our game. I learned many things – including the fact that I have the capacity to completely sweat through a shirt in less than an hour. It was also fascinating to see the way the Cubans adapted their style of play to the conditions in which they played. For example, because they could not slide and dive on the decaying wood floor, they had an incredible level of anticipation so they never needed to go to the ground to reach the ball.
Within six short days, undeterred by the language barrier, us Canadians and the Cubans quickly became “amigos para siempre” – friends forever. Along with improved volleyball skills, we learned the essence of being present. As cliché as it may sound, I found it impossible not to have a renewed sense of appreciation for the life I have in Canada after my experience in Cuba.
That message really hit home for me, again, when we stopped in a courtyard during our walking tour of Old Havana and we saw a poorly dressed old man. He was brushing away the garbage along a fence, and as he swept away the litter and leaves he was singing to himself. I was amazed to see someone who had evidently seen the tougher side of life and could still be so cheerful and grateful for all he has. This man was lovin’ life. Although it was something so small, it made such a big impression on me.
As we returned to SMUS with three immaculate gyms and high-end gear awaiting us, the Cuban athletes would continue on their lives, playing volleyball on a decaying court with their old knee pads and frayed volleyball shoes. Through the athletes’ focus on their love of the game instead of their equipment, I learned to always make the best with what I have, and not to focus on the materialistic aspects of life.
As we said our goodbyes to the country and the people on the last day, I was not ready to go home. Although I missed my bed, tap water, and Tim Hortons, there was so much left to see. We sometimes lose sight of the small things that make life so surprisingly wonderful – something that doesn’t seem to have happened in Cuba. My memories of Cuba will always be filled with the laid-back welcoming people, warm beaches – and a bit of indigestion. I hope to visit Cuba again in the near future, but until then, my Polaroid photos will suffice. #CubaVibes