Many associate Cuba with communism, the Castro family and the Cold War. These Cuban stereotypes remind many Americans of another political system and cultural circumstances. Prof. Elizabeth Ferry (ANTH), who led a tour to Cuba this year as part of Brandeis Travelers program, brought back stories that challenge these stereotype. In 1961, during the heart of the Cold War, the United States banned Americans from visiting this neighbor. Things changed in 2015 when the U.S government historically restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.

      As Americans had been banned from traveling in Cuba for more than fifty years, Ferry commented, “There was a lot of excitement on [our part] just to see what things were like.” To even further heighten their excitement, the day the group landed in Cuba was the same day President Obama announced his forthcoming visit to the country.

      Both sides shared the excitement. The Cubans the group spoke to were looking forward to the visit, which to them symbolized a new chapter of relationships between the United States and Cuba. Ferry firmly believes in the importance of travel and intercultural communications. “I think it’s important because it’s easy, when you’re in your own place, to think that the way you do things is the only way,” she said. “When you see somewhere else, you learn that there are lots of different ways to do things.”

      Ferry began teaching at Brandeis in 2002 and is a professor in the Anthropology department. Her fourteen years at Brandeis are no coincidence. “For me, it’s a perfect combination of great students, really exciting research and a sense of mission of the institution … and the sense of collaboration between faculty and students on those things,” she said. As a member of the Latin American and Latino studies program, Ferry was designated to be the faculty guiding the trip.

      According to Ferry, Cuba is a country “[that is] so vibrant intellectually, artistically [and] politically.” For Ferry, the journey was filled with joy and surprise. 

     While in Cuba, she met a man who is both an artist and papermaker, utilizing a motor “from a Soviet washing machine” to create pulp for his paper. At a bookmaker’s, trash and weeds, rather than being thrown away, were used to create the bindings. Ferry was impressed by this ingenuity and noted “a feeling of everyone having lots of ideas and coming up with these cool things in this very rapidly changing place.”

      The group attended lectures held by local experts on art, architecture and Cuban culture. They also were able to observe a contemporary dance rehearsal and visit a tobacco factory. The group was not confined to itself and was able to reach out to locals. Although not every participant was proficient in Spanish like Ferry, there were no issues talking and interacting with locals.

      The conversations the group was able to have with Cubans allowed them to experience another side of Cuba. 

     They met an artist who uses “advertising signs from before the revolution” to create new pieces. They also spoke to a famous contemporary artist who discussed with them the influence of his Afro-Cuban heritage on his religion. They considered how new investments in Cuba would change the landscape of Havana. Ferry noted the importance of speaking  “about heritage and architectural preservation in Havana … and how not to lose the character of the city.”

      The tour was immersed in a social setting different from the American society in various ways. During the tour, Ferry and her peers met an artist who financially supports his brother, a dentist. “His brother can’t make enough money as a dentist, so he, who is an artist, needs to support his brother, which seemed very surprising to us. In the States, often it’s the dentist brother who is supporting the artist. I thought that was interesting,” Ferry reflected.

      Ferry believes that travel helps people to “see a lot of interesting new things that you wouldn’t get the chance to see otherwise.” Any possibility of heading a trip to Cuba again? “I’d love to,” she said with a smile.