For most of my life, I have heard that I was lucky to have been born in the United States, where we often take our freedom and luxuries for granted. I have always tried to be aware, and to make others aware, of other cultures. After studying cultural anthropology and sociology in college, I became even more aware of my place in the world. I was put here to help those who don't have a voice, those who the Western world has forgotten about. That's when I realized that global volunteering was my passion.
As soon as relations between the United States and Cuba strengthened, I was interested in helping the people of Cuba. I have a close friend who started a global service organization with her university; she took students to Cuba and shared photos on social media, and I was inspired to join her on a future trip. So, I was invited to accompany her and her students on a trip to Havana and Viñales.
They were in need of school supplies, baseball equipment, and work gloves for the organic farmers. These small donations, I was told, would really make a huge difference in the lives of the generous, humble people of Cuba. I was told there was much work to be done, and that it would be hard labor in the hot sun. While this intimidated me a little, I didn't let it stop me from going and doing what I could to help.
Why did you choose Bright Light Volunteers?
I chose Bright Light Volunteers because they had a reputation of accommodation, sincerity, and fun. Everything I heard about Bright Light Volunteers was positive, and I have to say, everything I heard was right!
What was your favorite part about Cuba?
The people of Cuba were so welcoming and hospitable. We stayed in casas particulares while in both Havana and Viñales. The families treated us like royalty! Not only were our host families warm and approachable, but so were the farmers we volunteered for.
We were greeted with an amazing breakfast every morning of eggs, ham, fresh fruit, amazing coffee, and warm crepes. After our day of volunteering in the community, we would come home to a warm shower and a feast of pork, fish, or chicken, with plenty of fresh organic vegetables. They treated us to a huge lunch every day that took every bit of two hours to eat.
Even the locals in town were friendly. I loved having opportunities to converse with the people of Cuba. They were so open about their culture and history. They liked learning English, and they liked helping me learn more Spanish.
What made your experience abroad unique?
My trip to Cuba was unique because I don't know of any other trip in which you really get the experience of the culture first-hand. During the days we volunteered on the organic farm, we walked from our casas. We took the same route the farmers took, and even walked with them. It was a long, strenuous, up-hill walk, which gave us an interesting perspective on the day-to-day lives of the Cuban people. Most Cubans do not have vehicles, so this is the reality of their everyday lives. It really gave me an interesting perspective on how other cultures live their lives.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
The local Cuban people loved to share their experiences with the tourists. One pedal taxi driver, in particular, expressed how much he and his family are appreciative of Americans coming to visit, bringing in much-needed revenue to their country. He told us that in 2015, there were just over 1 million tourists who visited the city of Havana. And in 2016, that number leaped to over 4 million. The tour guides we had both in Havana and Viñales spoke excellent English. They really helped us understand the rich cultural history of their nation. They also were extremely accommodating and cordial to everyone on the trip.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I would have been able to bring more donations. Although I brought 20 pair of work gloves, one baseball gloves, and personal hygiene products for donation, I know the Cuban people could have used more. They are so resourceful and practical though. I know they utilize everything they have, and re-purpose what they can't use. I do plan on returning with more donations in the next couple of years.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
During a typical day in Vinñales, the group met after breakfast to walk to the organic farm to volunteer. While there, we split into smaller groups to help the farmers weed their garden beds, plant vegetables, move supplies, tend to animals, or help in the kitchen. There were people of different physical abilities in our group, and everyone was considerate of each other’s abilities. This made for the most harmonious work experience I have ever been a part of.
After working for four to five hours, with plenty of breaks, we sat down for lunch and discussed our day with the group, reflecting what we had accomplished. According to the owner of the farm, at the end of our three-day venture, we saved the workers over a week's worth of work.
Every day, after working on the farm, we had a couple of hours to shower and relax before dinner and our night-time outing. On one outing, we had a salsa dancing lesson, followed by a fiesta on the square, where we were able to put our new salsa skills to use with some locals. On another outing, we visited a hotel for an afternoon at their pool. And yet another day, we toured the valley on horseback.
Since we were in Viñales on New Year's Eve, we were able to experience the Cuban tradition of lighting the Año Viejo Doll, which symbolizes forgetting the past and moving ahead. We also were treated to a traditional feast of roast pig in celebration of New Year's. In Havana, we spent time touring the city via several unique modes of transportation (i.e. coco taxis, pedal taxis, horse carriages, and classic cars), eating at restaurants, shopping, and enjoying the nightlife.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time in Viñales, I walked to the main shopping and dining district, taking in the local atmosphere while finding the best bargain on souvenirs. I felt very safe in Viñales, walking with a small group and even by myself. The city is easy to get around in, as long as you have a couple of landmarks to familiarize yourself with. While in Havana, our group spent our free time playing cards, talking, and getting to know each other in the main casa.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
Accommodations in both Havana and Viñales were excellent. The casas particulares were all beautiful, and each one was unique. On one casa, there was a beautiful rooftop patio that overlooked the city. The main casa in Viñales was owned by a doctor and had spacious rooms and modern facilities. In Havana, the main casa was enormous. It featured a vast common room, which was open to the outside from above. The architecture of the casas and all the buildings in Cuba were magnificent.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
The one thing everyone should know about traveling to Cuba with Bright Light Volunteers is to expect to be busy and on-the-go every day. If you are not used to walking, you might become sore. But, trust me, it's worth it!
Now that you're home, how has your time in Cuba impacted your life?
Traveling with Bright Light Volunteers has changed my life immensely! Now that I know, first-hand, how much the Cuban people benefit from having American volunteers, I will be doing so more often. In fact, I have taken on an internship with Bright Light Volunteers as an administrative assistant, and hope to continue traveling with them in the future.
I will absolutely go to Cuba again, and have hopes to go to other Latin American countries with the goal of global service and being an ambassador for both Bright Light Volunteers and the United States.
Would you recommend Bright Light Volunteers to others? Why?
I would recommend traveling with Bright Light to anyone who wants to travel abroad. Although the goal of the program is global service and volunteering, you are immersed in the local culture and you get to enjoy what it has to offer, all while helping others. It's the best way to travel!
Bright Light Volunteers takes all the guesswork out of travel. They cover your insurance while traveling, they set up amazing experiences, and they accommodate anyone who needs special considerations.
Amanda is a non-traditional student at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where she is majoring in sociology and minoring in business administration. She started college in her 30s, after a 10-year career in customer service, to provide a better life for her family. Amanda’s trip to Cuba was the first time she had ever traveled outside the United States.