Getting first-hand experience of third world conditions during a trip to Cuba was a memorable experience for a small group of senior students from St Kevin’s College, Oamaru.  It is believed that this trip represents the first time any school from New Zealand (and very likely from Australia) has visited Cuba. Michelle Buckham, Teacher-in-Charge Geography/Tourism, led the trip. She had toured in the Caribbean before and was contacted by an Australian tour firm and the plan for a school visit began in July, 2016.

While not an official school trip, everyone in the 13-strong party that left at the beginning of the April school holidays was associated with St Kevin’s either as a student or staff. A lot of effort went into fundraising for the trip and also to source many items to be donated to hosts, but in particular for the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. That area had been devastated by Hurricane Matthew in October, 2016.

Pupils involved in the Justice Awareness Group (JAG) at St Kevin’s got behind the drive to gather donated items. The US embargo of Cuba means that many items that New Zealanders find easy to buy are not readily available in Cuba. Many Baracoans are in desperate need of basic supplies; for example underwear, children’s clothing, sheets and towels, toiletries, pens and pencils for schools. So the Oamaru community and businesses came to the party with either donated or discounted goods. As an example, each member of the party carried about 100 pens. So successful was that aspect of the trip that besides each member of the group packing donated items in their own luggage, Air New Zealand also allowed them to take an additional three luggage cases of goods without charging any excess.

Some gifts were for specific Cubans whose circumstances were known from prior meetings. Mrs Buckham mentioned that at one of their accommodation houses a young part-time housemaid, Yiyi, got a big surprise when she opened the door and was presented with a donated violin.

Veronica Jack gave the violin on behalf of St Kevin’s pupil and JAG participant Rata McMullan who had learnt to play on it. Yiyi is a capable musician and hopes to start up her own music school. It was lucky they arrived when they did because within a short time that day she was flying off to New York to play in an orchestra there. Mrs Buckham noted that there were incredibly talented musicians all over Cuba as it seems to be a country where people love to play music and dance.

Another targeted gift was a roll of duct tape. It was given to a man whose bedroom roof leaked. He was reduced to tears on receiving what for him was a very precious gift. Again an item not easily obtained in present day Cuba.

Cuba is on paper a very Catholic country, with an estimated 60 per cent of the population as Catholic, although only a small percentage of these attend Mass regularly. According to Mrs Buckham there were religious pictures and also shrines in many of the houses they stayed in.

The group arrived first in Havana, but headed to cooler accommodation in the mountains in Vinales to acclimatise. After three days there they began a conducted tour of Cuba with one of the highlights being the Bay of Pigs where they visited the Playa Giron Museum commemorating those killed in the 1963 invasion.

The tour moved on to Trinidad for a couple of days, then on to Camaguey for another two days before finally back to Havana and an obligatory ride for all in a 1950’s classic American car.

Mario Alguzaray, the Cuban ambassador to New Zealand in Wellington, was so pleased to hear that the group had visited Cuba and taken helpful supplies and goods for the people of Baracoa that he plans to visit St Kevin’s in September. He is going to open an exhibition there that will display a wide range of photos taken on the trip.