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What Michele Boyd learned in Cuba

After 25 years on the Southwestern Michigan College Foundation board, Signal Travel and Tours’ Michele Boyd decided to benefit its major gift initiative for the new nursing building with a Cuba educational tour. Cuba “is something people have been interested in. All the rules for Cuban travel have been developed by our country. They want everyone to come and are opening up to tourists. I’ve traveled a lot, but this was one of the highlights because of the people,” Boyd said during an informational meeting at SMC June 14 about two Havana-based trips planned Jan. 11-17 or Jan. 25-31, 2018.

“It’s going to be a changed country within a matter of years. I’m glad I experienced it before it changes,” said Boyd, who visited the communist-ruled Caribbean island nation last January.

She and a friend had planned to visit Cuba for graduation in 1964, but the United States withdrew diplomatic recognition and closed its embassy in 1961. President Kennedy signed a trade embargo banning most trade and travel in 1962. It still exists, though President Obama relaxed rules in 2014.

Restrictions President Trump announced June 16 prohibit individual Americans from traveling to Cuba under a broad “people-to-people” category in favor of tour companies licensed under U.S. jurisdiction and accompanied by a company representative.

“All countries but the U.S. have been going there,” said Boyd, who gave out 50 South Bend Cubs caps. “We found people absolutely wonderful. In the people-to-people program you stay in one hotel the whole week. The first night you spend in Miami for Tauck’s orientation. The tour manager with you the whole time meets you in Miami. It’s a short flight to Havana.”

A member of their group left an expensive watch on an airport security table.

“Our tour manager said, ‘It will be there.’ We thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ But we called the airport, described the watch and it was,” Boyd said. “There is absolutely no crime. The bus driver who picked it up had it on his wrist when he delivered it in the morning. He said, ‘I slept with it! This is the most expensive thing I’ve ever touched.’ He was tipped generously, probably a year’s worth of wages” for returning the timepiece.

“The tour manager said, ‘Nobody will bother your stuff. We respect each other and each other’s property.’ These people don’t have a lot, but they have enough to keep them happy. It’s a very upbeat atmosphere, with entrepreneurial spirit. I was in Yugoslavia before it became Croatia and it was very downtrodden. People were sad.

“Our guide was very open the day of the bus trip to an organic farm. She said there are five religious denominations,” including Catholicism. “‘We’re free to practice our religion.’ In her house, she did not believe in a religion, but celebrated Christmas with a tree and gifts because she had an 8-year-old. He walked to school every morning without any fear of being shot.”

An average worker earned $13 a month, Boyd said. Children wear uniforms that cost 10 cents. “We’re able to buy houses,” said the guide, who was in the process of acquiring her grandmother’s. “I feel I have probably as much freedom as you, minus the crime.”

Boyd said as students advance in grades, “They’re targeted for what they’re going to be. It could be baseball.”

A major revenue source is “farming out their doctors,” Boyd said. “They have very strong medical education and facilities. There are hospitals everywhere. They train their doctors, then send them off to South American countries to work, which provides income to Cuba. They’re on the leading edge treating lung cancer.”

“Restaurants” are found tucked away in private homes converted into dining rooms.

“You go down tree-lined streets,” Boyd said. “All of a sudden, there’s a lovely restaurant. They were all full for lunch and dinner. If you went into the emergency room needing a heart transplant, you’d get one. They have no medical or drug bills.”

Police shooed away a potential panhandler outside the Hemingway house.

Deposits and insurance are due June 30, with the rest payable in October.

Contact Boyd at 1-800-365-4972 or by e-mail at micheleb@signaltravel.com.