Garrett Kalt a Churchill County High School graduate returned home after two weeks abroad in Cuba.
According to Washington State University’s website, the trip to Cuba is an enigma to most Americans due to its political situation and its relationship to the United States. The program offers students an opportunity to explore and study a country with a rich history, a unique culture and a fascinating sociopolitical status in the world today.
Kalt, a sophomore at WSU, said the program allowed him to meet with American and Cuban journalists working in Havana. He visited old and new Havana, as well as schools, museums and sites pertaining to the country’s history and politics. Kalt and the other students also ventured outside Havana to visit the countryside, coastal regions and eco-communities to see how Cuba is working to protect its natural resources and botanical beauty.
“A lot of my time in Havana was spent interacting with locals,” Kalt said. “Although I had to use ‘Spanglish’ often, it was through these conversations that I was able to better grasp the culture, lifestyle and stories of the Cuban people.”
Cuba really is its own unique country, Kalt said. From the cars rolling down the streets that appear to have been featured in “Hot August Nights” in Reno to its world-famous cigars and music-based culture — a travel experience in this country is like nothing else, he said.
Kalt said one of the many highlights of the trip included the conversations he had with some of the Cuban people.
“The people of Cuba are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and they have some diverse stories to share,” he added.
For the most part, Cuba is a poverty-stricken country. Healthcare and education is free in the communist society, and the approximate minimum wage for an employed Cuban citizen is $15 per month, Kalt said. It is because of this that Kalt and the other students brought simple gifts such as soap, shampoo, a baseball or some fishing line to give to the Cuban people they interacted with. Regardless, tourism is a huge part of the Cuban economy and for some, it is what is keeping food on the table, he said.
“The Cuban people are very appreciative of the small gifts we bought a long with us to give to them,” Kalt said.
Cuba is different from the United States. Kalt said it was important to keep an open mind about the Cuban way of living since Cuba has a lot of gray areas with an intricate history that can be difficult to understand.
“The best thing you can do is listen, take note, and enjoy the experience,” he said.
Kalt said he observed the lengthy process that Cubans must go through in order to obtain a visa to travel outside the country. He said family members and friends wait outside while the individual is going through the interview process. Kalt said a park near the embassy is called Weeping Row.
“I followed a family through the process and spent time with them and their friends while they were waiting for their family member during the interview process,” Kalt said. “Unfortunately, the individual did not receive a ‘golden ticket’ to travel to the U.S. to see his family. It was hard to watch because everyone around him was sharing in his sadness.”
Kalt, though, said the people of Cuba seemed to be very community driven. Strangers he passed on the street would stop to say hello.
Benjamin Shors, a clinical associate professor at WSU, said Cuba challenges the students to consider an entirely different way of life, and a political system that has been at odds with U.S. policy for more than a half century. He said it also forces the students to realize that behind the embargo are real people with many of the same concerns and hopes that Americans have.
“Few students could match Garrett’s level of intellectual enthusiasm and interest in the functioning of Cuban society. He was a great addition to the course,” Shors said.
Kalt’s parents, Alan and Keiran, were excited Garrett had an opportunity to travel to Cuba, especially as the relationship with the United States and Cuba is evolving and expanding. Alan Kalt said since the university sponsored the program, they were not overly concerned for his personal safety since the university had adequate safeguards in place and students were briefed on what to expect during their time there.
“Garrett is about making memories, sharing time with people and embracing ethnic diversity. We knew this trip would provide him with that opportunity,” Alan Kalt said. “We were hoping that Garrett’s perspective of the benefits of democracy, freedom, and a free market capitalistic economy that we enjoy in the United States would be expanded and obtain a greater appreciation for the life and opportunities afforded to Americans. This trip was a step back in time and a view of poverty and personal struggles that Cubans are facing is significantly different from those back home in Nevada. We also wanted him to know, that he could actually survive without a cellphone and Internet access.”
Garrett Kalt said that one day hopes to return to Cuba to see how far the country has progressed since his first visit.