For those families who have considered an exchange opportunity, do it! You will quickly realize the world is smaller than you think and that we are more similar than different from one another. Hosting a student is an opportunity you won’t regret with life-long memories made for everyone involved.Read More
YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding
Filtering by Tag: culture
Today, YFU celebrates the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.Read More
The YFU experience is an open invitation to you. The opportunities are there. It is up to you to make the most of it.Read More
A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home.
Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.
Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”
I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.
Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.
Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.
Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.
Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.
There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.
One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba. That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”
Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.
Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 7 –Friday, July 17
A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.
We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.
Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.
While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.
One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!
The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.
As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!
A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.
We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.
This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):
Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services
These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.
I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.
The Day’s Takeaways:
Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 6 – Thursday, July 16
No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.
We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.
I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?
The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.
To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.
The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.
Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.
Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.
We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.
As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The Day’s Takeaways:
It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!
Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.
Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?
All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15
There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.
Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.
For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.
After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.
Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX(the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.
After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).
Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.
The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.
The Day’s Takeaways:
The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?
People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 4 – Tuesday, July 14
By Tuesday we had had some intense experiences and were grateful for a day that was mostly educational. At this point, the Chorus had sung so many formal and informal concerts; they were ready to let their voices rest.
We left our hotel at 8:30 am to travel to Las Terrazas, a rural experience of a sustainable development project in a mountain area located within the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve in a newly named province of Artemisa (created when they split the greater Havana area into a new set of provinces).
The area’s history is fascinating. Once serving as a coffee plantation, it was decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union took out much-needed resources. The Las Terrazas Community Project was developed to restore the area while providing jobs, and creating a new industry of “eco-tourism” for that part of Cuba.
UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 in acknowledgement of the success of the effort.
We started our day with a presentation on the reserve and its importance as an economic driver for the region. What an exquisite and lush landscape, and what a contrast to Havana!
After a brief bus trip through the reserve, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a brief swim in a sulfur water area. Crossing the footbridge, we got a chance to see why this was a popular eco-tourist hot spot. From a hotel nestled into the trees to smaller and more primitive huts, visitors to the area could swim, zip line or go hiking. Farm animals were raised in nearby houses to provide food for residents and tourists alike. It was stunning!
It turns out that the Gay Men’s Chorus wouldn’t get a complete break, as they gave a mini-concert from a tree-tophutto those swimming with us.
After lunch, we visited an area near the old coffee plantation and took in a studio of a local landscape artist. All in all, it was a nice diversion to what had been some deep thinking about Cuba-US relations the days before.
Later that night we would go to a local club and restaurant for dinner (and, of course, some more singing!). As we settled into the evening meal, the club’s local performer came out. This would become a moment when this being a YFU-sponsored trip would come in handy. As the performer entered the dining area, you can see the shock of many of our delegation. While the performer, herself, was black, her exaggerated makeup made her look as if she had come out in “black face.”
We had several African American delegates on our trip, and it created an atmosphere of some confusion. Some in our delegation left the restaurant for the hotel. The next day we were able to discuss with our Cuban guides the history of this type of performance in their country and to learn about some very different connotations. This gave us a chance to talk about YFU’s training called “Colored Glasses,” where we talk to exchange students about seeing a culture not through our own lens but of that of the host country being visited. I was proud of the dialogue and reminded that exchange is challenging even when the two nations don’t have as difficult a past as Cuba and the US. This would not be the first or the last of the culture shock on our trip!
The Day’s Takeaways:
Nature is never so far gone that something beautiful cannot emerge from the ashes.
Interpreting culture is never easy. We bring so much of our own history and experiences into our travels. It’s not easy but so vital to try to see a people through their own lens as much as we do through that of our own. This is why YFU exists!
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 3 – Monday, July 13
Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.
We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.
After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.
Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.
Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.
We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.
The Day’s Takeaways:
All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.
The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.
Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song. Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.
**Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 2 – Sunday, July 12
We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.
We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.
The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.
Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.
After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.
The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.
We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.
It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.
The Day’s Takeaways:
Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country. Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.
One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.
Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.
Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU's first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 1 – Saturday, July 11
90 miles. As a former resident of western New York state, I would drive 90 miles regularly to get from my home in Olean to Buffalo to fly out of the airport or to take in a show. That amount of mileage for anyone who has ever lived in a rural area is as common as being stuck on the Beltway for two hours in Washington, DC.
But 90 miles had a much larger significance for me as I woke up at Miami International Airport Hotel at 3 a.m. with 20-plus delegates from Youth For Understanding and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC who were headed to Havana, Cuba – 90 miles away. We would be in the air only about half an hour, far shorter than the four hours it took to get through all the paperwork and logistics of our charter flight to the capital city of Cuba.
The first sign that this was not a normal airline trip came through the many hours of prepping to simply board the plane. While some travel restrictions have been lifted, you can still only take charter flights to Cuba from the United States. It gave a sense of anticipation to the beginning of our journey, and, if I’m being honest, heightened my expectation for what I might see when I arrived. For more than 50 years, the US embargo of Cuba had created an invisible fence between two neighbors. I couldn’t help but wonder what existed on the other side of a policy-created wall and whether it would live up to the reporting we see in the United States media. The guys from the Chorus decided to whittle away some of the time by singing an impromptu performance at the airport. Their roles as musical ambassadors had already begun.
I had the great luxury of sitting with Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director, on the plane ride over. YFU and GMCW share a common element to our missions: both organizations believe that when we open up our hearts and minds to the “other,” something transformative can happen. For YFU, this trip wasn’t a political statement: it was a chance to live deeply our mission: bringing people who did not understand one another closer together. I have seen the impact of people to people exchanges so many times at YFU. This trip had the potential to really move the needle for those that participated.
We had been planning this trip together for months. To sit on the plane at this moment was somewhat surreal. About a half hour in, Cuba came into focus through our plane window.
Landing in Havana was an experience in contrasts. To look out our window on the tarmac and to see an American Airlines plane, reminded me that much of the rest of the world has no restrictions on coming to Cuba. To have a jet titled “American” smacked of irony. Getting our bags reminded me of the impact of the embargo and the recent loosening of restrictions. Mixed among our bags were medical supplies, wheelchairs and electronics, all neatly wrapped in plastic blue bubbles.
Alex Lopez, YFU’s Travel Director and a native Cuban, was the architect of our trip. I would later come to realize the profound role Alex has played over 40 years in trying to bring the Cuban and US people together. He greeted us at the airport and got us settled into buses for the ride to the hotel, where we were supposed to receive an arrival orientation. It was a lot of fun to travel in the shoes of exchange students who go through a similar journey: pre-departure and arrival orientations, all administered through folks at YFU. We were living a sliver of their experience.
We would stop at a park and for lunch before getting to the hotel. So much of Cuba is trapped in a time warp. The park, full of children and a few adults, were playing tug to loud, thumping music and seemed more than a little curious about two busloads of Americans who had invaded their summer-time fun.
It was, in effect, a cultural “stare off.” Two peoples who have been kept apart for so long. And here we were. What else would the trip hold?
We had lunch at El Tocororo Restaurant, housed in a former mansion in the Miramar section of the city. An eclectic space, it has been frequented by artists, writers and other cultural leaders. The walls were adorned with corkboards ascribed with the names of famous guests. We were invited to add our delegation to the wall, drawing our shared symbol of the merger of both of our flags with the rainbow/pride heart. It would be nice to think our presence will be a part of the place for a while.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, we were greeted at the hotel by both the United States and Pride flags. The hotels are government-run in Cuba, which made the gesture seem that much bigger.
Later in the evening we headed to Paladar La California for dinner. The leaders of our delegation were privileged to share an intimate dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Charge d’Affaires at the now US Embassy in Cuba (it was still the US Interests Section when we were there). It was fascinating to hear Ambassador DeLaurentis describe this time of transition in diplomatic relations. This was his third stint at Cuba. I asked him why he kept coming back (other than being assigned, of course!), and he said he has always believed there was a way through the political standoff, and he wanted to be help if could. He seems cautiously hopeful. “Hope” would be a theme for our trip.
We spent two hours at the restaurant before heading back before a very long day two. The Ambassador inquired about the music we would be bringing to Cuba. Our delegation was more than happy to oblige his curiosity with what was an anthem for our trip: “Make Them Hear You.”
Would we actually “hear” one another on this trip? We weren’t sure, but the early clues of day one made me curious to find out.
The Day’s Takeaways:
A short distance can be a huge hurdle when mistrust, stereotypes and a lack of real-life information stand in one’s way.
The human need to help another cannot be embargoed. Watching medical supplies show up in the baggage claim reminded me that political policies have a truly human impact.
The joy of children playing tug in the summer knows no international boundaries. If we can find a way to capture that innocence and curiosity of “the other,” we have a shot at deeper understanding.
If there is a hope, there is a chance at peace.
A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillToday, the Cuban and US flags will be raised over their respective outposts in each country’s capital, marking the transition from having “interests sections” to full diplomatic embassies.
Just last week, I was privileged to join a US delegation of Youth For Understandingand Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC participants on a weeklong visit to Cuba. Our seven days in and around Havana were packed with educational, cultural and deeply meaningful encounters. I’ll be writing about my experiences all week but wanted to share one image on the day that flags will fly as a symbol of hope and promise here in Washington, DC and in Havana.
This trip marked firsts for both YFU and GMCW. For YFU, it was our first adult study tour in our nearly 65-year history. For GMCW, it was a historic invitation to be the first openly gay choral group to be invited to sing on the island. For both organizations, however, it signified something much deeper: an opportunity to break down barriers while raising intercultural understanding about LGBTQ and human rights through song and deep personal engagement.
When we arrived at our hotel – which was government run, as all hotels are in Cuba – we were greeted by a rainbow/pride flag – the sign of LGBTQ people – flying alongside the US flag. We were told it was the first time a Pride Flag had ever been flown at a government building in Cuba. To say we were floored by its presence would be an understatement, as there are actually very few Pride Flags even available in Cuba outside of their “International Day Against Homophobia.”
Flags are powerful symbols. So, too, are people who reach a hand out to one another after 50 years of bitter disagreement. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout the week, but find myself thinking today of a journey our Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, took to South Africa at a time when that country was going through renewed diplomatic relations. Ironically, she, too, took a chorus – the YFU Chorale – to spread a message of hope, love and intercultural understanding.
May our respective flags serve as a reminder that people engaging with one another’s cultures have a shot at changing the world for the better.
Reblogged guest post from 2014-2015 CBYX Scholarship Recipient, LindseyOnly 99 days until my exchange year comes to an end. 99 days!
That isn’t a very long time!
And my host parents say that time will just fly faster the closer it gets to my departure date! It’s already going by pretty fast!
It feels like it was just yesterday when I flew in to the Frankfurt airport. When I met my 3-week host family. When I got to know the people in my Orientation Course.
Wasn’t it just yesterday when I hopped on that ICE train to Berlin (and sat in the completely wrong seat in the completely wrong train car) to meet my permanent host family?
Didn’t school just start? Wasn’t Christmas just a few weeks ago? When did it turn 2015? In just a few short days, am I really going to turn 17?!
I guess time goes by extremely fast when your brain has to figure out and process a lot of new things all the time.
With every new day comes a new chance for me to meet someone new, to try a new food, experience something I’ve never even dreamed of experiencing, or to settle in to the German culture. I am truly grateful towards my family, my host families, and also Youth for Understanding. Without the help of the CBYX Scholarship, I would never have had the chance to live my dreams. Because of YFU, I have become fluent in German, learned how to assimilate into another culture, gotten to try authentic German food, been able to see places that I didn’t even know existed, gotten to meet people from all over the world…and the list goes on!
So here’s to an amazing 99 days ahead of me! (and beyond!)
I hope my fellow exchange students here in Germany, in the US, and everywhere else in the world are enjoying their time too!
Guest blog by YFU USA Host Mom Lisa HudgensMy family's very first hosting experience was with a blind girl from Japan. She was the only student who was coming for a 6-8 week summer program that had not been chosen by a host family. We learned about Rie when someone posted flyers at a neighborhood event. My own children were 6 and 10 years old at the time. We had a large dog and lived in a ranch-style house in Novi, Michigan.
Rie was 17 years old when she came to us. She had lost her sight at age 3 due to cancer in her eyes. I learned that, by in large, Japan does not, "embrace" or make many accommodations for people with disabilities in their culture/environment. Blind children do not mainstream into the local schools, so they are sent away to live in a dormitory-style boarding school with other blind children when they become school-aged at about 6 years old. Rie was able to see her parents who lived in Kyoto on some weekends and during her vacations from school.
Rie had very good English, much better than the other exchange students, maybe because she was so focused on using her hearing to navigate her new world. She picked up the idiosyncrasies of the language better than others and she had a greater need to communicate in order to understand her new environment and culture. She was full of questions and absorbed and remembered everything she heard.
When Rie first came to our house, she asked that my 6 year old slowly walk her around so that she could feel the layout of the house with her hand and my daughter would tell her what each room was. She said that she was painting a map in her mind of our house and she counted the steps between rooms etc. To our amazement, she only needed to orient herself once. She would occasionally bump into a wall if she was in a hurry, with no harm done. Rie used a white fold-able cane when navigating herself only when she went outside of the house. She liked to hold the crook of someone's bended arm if we were navigating rough terrain or a very busy/congested area. She was up front about this with us and always told us how we could best help her in particular situations where she needed help - and we appreciated that.
Rie had technological tools to help her including a computer and keyboard that had adaptions so she could read and write using her braille keyboard. (Note: Cell phones and the internet were not available to the general public in mass yet.) We were fascinated that she was having to translate Japanese braille to English braille. I called around and we were able to check out English braille books from the Farmington Public Library for her and my girls watched intently as she used her fingers to read. She would read aloud to them and tried to teach them how to read English braille with their fingers.
Rie visited as a special guest to our Girl Scout troop where she showed the girls how to do origami. (She could feel which side of the paper was colored and which was white!) She would have the girls give her the different origami papers and try to trick her, but she always got it right. She built elaborate and complicated origami creations and encouraged the girls to ask her questions about life in Japan and her life as a blind person.
Rie was very neat and organized so she could easily find her things. Our family had to take care not to leave things on the floor so she wouldn't trip on something unexpected, which was a great reason to encourage my kids to keep things picked up. Although Rie had her own bedroom with a twin bed, she sometimes preferred to sleep on the floor as she was accustomed to sleeping on a mat on the floor in Japan. My girls thought this was very odd. We had to be mindful to turn off her bedroom light at night and the kids always had to knock before entering the bathroom because she didn't need a light and you couldn't tell the bathroom was occupied. She preferred to bathe each night and always cleaned the tub afterward. I'm not sure if the girls' bathroom was ever kept so clean on a regular basis! Rie loved to set the table, load the dishwasher and hand wash and dry dishes, she helped plant in the garden and take the dog for a walk accompanied by someone else. She liked to bake and just needed a little help with measuring. She liked to help at the grocery store and she held on to the cart and loaded and unloaded the items. She loved to brush the dog on the patio.
We took Rie on excursions where she could be hands-on or use her hearing. Her favorite was a petting farm where she interacted with many animals for the first time and she loved music events where she always clapped to the beat or tried to get the girls to dance with her. She liked the hands on science museum, too. We took her to the Woodward Dream Cruise and she listened to the loud cars, went to a Fourth of July parade and fireworks and was so excited to go camping for the first time. She rode on the back of a tandem bike at Mackinac Island and was thrilled with the boat ride.
She liked bowling with friends, who were sure to steer her in the right direction. She enjoyed going to the local park and swinging for hours. She liked being with the family on movie night and we tried to help her understand what was going on.
Her favorite thing of all was meeting new people wherever she went. A bonfire with the neighbors was a special treat. She had never experienced a bonfire or roasting marshmallows and s’mores. A good friend of ours had a very good friend of theirs, Jerry, who was also blind. We got the two of them together for some of our excursions. He loved having Rie teach him Japanese as he already knew 3 other languages and he, in turn, tried to teach her to play the guitar. We provided her with a small musical keyboard in her room and she practiced piano daily.
In true Japanese form, Rie was never without her camera and would ask you to help her point it in the direction or sometimes take the picture for her as she always wanted a picture of herself with the new people that she met. She was creating a scrapbook to show her family and friends. She liked creating paper arts and beading bracelets. She looked forward going to church with our family, she liked the music, the prayers that were repeated aloud each week and she would try to say them, too. Her family was Buddhist, but she found the Catholic mass very interesting. She requested that we give fairly precise times when we needed her to leave the house so she could be 100% ready because she didn't like to be late.
Rie made a few good friends who helped her at exchange student outings and looked out for her. She was so very appreciative of everything; she experienced and showed so much gratitude. I think having young girls was great for her. They were uncomplicated and loving toward her and being an older sister gave her confidence that she could be helpful to them and they looked up to her. At the same time, my girls also loved being needed by Rie, helping to guide her and explaining the things that we saw to her. They felt empowered that they were helpful to someone older than them. Because "seeing" her new environment wasn't part of her experience, connecting to people in her new culture was her focus.
Rie was respectful, kind, helpful and appreciated the love of a family. She was not used to being hugged and shown much physical affection, but my girls got her used to it quickly. They liked to snuggle with her on the couch. The only rule was that they had to give Rie warning before giving her a hug so they didn't knock her off balance.
We had a wonderful time hosting Rie for a summer and it had an amazing impact on our family, especially our girls and everyone who met her. Everyone was in awe and also inspired by her bravery and gumption. She chose to become an exchange student at 17, came to a foreign country where she knew no one, and learned a new language and culture; all of this without her sight.
My girls still tell me today, ten years later, that they think of Rie when they have to get up the courage to do something that scares them. I am proud that we decided to take the chance and say YES to hosting Rie. The experience itself and all of the lessons we learned from each other have been immeasurable.
See below for Andrew's chilling first-hand account of the earthquake and avalanche at Mt. Everest Base Camp and the extraordinary efforts that followed.
Here’s the brief update:
A 7.9 earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday, killing thousands in Katmandu, causing severe damage to many villages in the Khumbu Valley and triggering a massive avalanche that obliterated about one-third of Everest Base Camp.
As of today (Monday), all of our IMG expedition team is safe and accounted for. Unfortunately, the death toll across base camp appears to be more than 15 and climbing.
Our endeavor to reach the summit has been officially called off, considering the damage to i) base camp, ii) the Sherpa community in the villages up and down the Khumbu, and iii) the route up Mt. Everest. We will begin trekking back down the valley sometime in the next few days and I hope to arrive back in Philadelphia in time to graduate from Penn on May 17th.
The international aid effort has been impressive, which I think reflects a growing empathy for the victims of foreign disasters. By promoting intercultural exchange through Youth For Understanding (YFU), hopefully such international awareness and care will only continue to grow.
Thank you all for your support and concern, and in particular to Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s and Ag Warehouse for your terrific support of YFU.
Here’s the longer update:
The last 49 hours felt like a week.
First, there was the avalanche. Felt like I was sitting on the edge of a large trampoline as somebody else jumped on the middle. It was disconcerting when something I have taken as stable my whole life begins to move underneath you. It made me realize how much I take for granted, like stability in the very ground that we live on and build on. My first reaction to the earthquake was fear that it might destabilize the glacier under our feet—that a mighty crevasse might open up underneath us. Very quickly, though, the threat from above became clear. We heard rumblings above us in all directions, and when I looked, I saw only a wall of snow ~ a quarter mile high rushing toward us from the north. In retrospect, this may have been the plume created after the real thrust of the avalanche had already hit central base camp. At any rate, I did not know where to go, but I figured I wanted to be able to see the hell that was about to rain down on me, and so I stayed outside. I thought about the likelihood that the plume might carry rock and ice chunks, and so I assumed the fetal position behind a medium sized boulder, hoping it might act as a shield from any flying debris. I put my elbows by my sides and my fists against my forehead, hoping that I might create an air pocket, should a blast of snow cover me. I was breathing hard, waiting for it to really come down hard before taking one monster gasp before I was buried. In retrospect, putting my face in my jacket might have 1) reduced the likelihood that my mouth and nose filled with snow and 2) increased the likelihood that I would have an air bubble to breath. Live and learn.
When I stood up, I had about 3 inches of snow on me but nothing more. I was lucky. Our expedition leader quickly confirmed that all of our International Mountain Guides (IMG) team was accounted for, and the next thing I heard was a discussion between him and Himex about which would serve as the most logical hospital, since the Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA) hospital had been destroyed. They agreed that IMG was easier to access, and we began to clear our communications tent and our dining tents for casualties. Within an hour, they started to pour in--some walking, most being carried.
The first role I assumed was that of a traffic cop, helping to direct casualties to the right tent. Soon, the doctors were in search of supplies to use in treating the patients, bedding them, and keeping them warm. I helped collect Nalgene water bottles for use as hot water bottles that patients could clutch, and I led a group of people to neighboring camps to find more sleeping bags and foam mattresses, after we had donated our own. More camps and their doctors arrived, and soon there were multiple large medical kits. Once we were sure there were enough sleeping bags, pads and warm water bottles to go around, I started looking for ways to be helpful inside the patient tents. At first, this meant helping to distribute food, water and trash bags, but before I knew it a doctor asked for help setting a splint on a patient who had broken his femur. The next patient we helped had compound fractures in both of his legs; when we lifted up the sleeping bag covering him we saw both of his legs at right angles to where they should be when he was lying on his back. He received a heavy dose of pain medication and we wrapped both of his legs to two hiking poles, using sections of foam sleeping pad to insulate the legs from the poles and bandages.
We moved to the next dining tent, where my first task was to help prevent a gentleman’s toes from developing frostbite. He had broken his pelvis, shattered the bones in his hand, and dislocated his elbow, and the bandages around his legs were so tight that his feet had gone numb despite having dry socks and a heavy sleeping bag around them. He was grateful for the foot massage and hot water bag I gave him and was surprisingly lucid and understanding, given his severe injuries.
The final gentleman I helped had an 8cm cut across his forehead which went down to the bone, and my responsibility was to help clean up his face after the doctors had bandaged his gash. He, too, was remarkably kind and even maintained a sense of humor as I cleaned his face. He kept saying in broken English “I look good, yeah?” He even fell asleep with a smile on his face. By the time I was done cleaning him, the doctors had finished their second sweep of that tent, so we cleaned up and made sure the patients had everything they needed for the night. By this time it was approaching midnight—the earthquake had struck just over 11 hours earlier. The doctors suggested there was nothing more we could do until the sun came up and helicopters began the medevac, so I went to sleep after checking in one last time in the head trauma tent.
My Sherpa climbing partner lost a cousin in the avalanche and had a nephew with a serious head trauma. He had no idea how his small village in the next valley had fared in the earthquake and he was quite distraught.
I awoke at 6:00 am to the sound of the first helicopter, and remarkably, no additional patients had died during the night. By 6:15 I was helping move patients to the helipad. This required a bit of coordination, as there weren’t enough stretchers to go around and one doctor was keeping a master list of patients in rough order of urgency of evacuation. I felt useful going between the four tents, finding the specific patients who needed to be prepped for each subsequent helicopter and helping to move them to the landing pad we had built at the edge of our camp. By late morning, all of the casualties had been transported to the next closest Himalaya Rescue Association hospital in Pheriche, and within a couple of hours we learned that an MI-17 chopper had carried them all safely to Katmandu. This was good news, because the earthquake had knocked down one of the walls of the Pheriche hospital and they were not equipped to handle the 25-40 patients that had come their way.
With the injured evacuated, we began to clean camp. Within an hour, there was a 20’ area outside of the head trauma tent littered with blood soaked sleeping bags, water bottles and soiled clothing and bandages. I helped sanitize our dining tents, first sweeping them and scrubbing the floor mats, then disinfecting the tent walls. By noon, the camp was beginning to look like normal, except for the piles of debris and the large stockpiles of medical equipment.
While all of this was happening, one of our IMG guides and a team of Sherpas went into the icefall to check its condition—to see if the climbers at Camp I and Camp II had a chance of climbing down on their own. A number of ladders had fallen down and the camp of the “Ice Doctors”—the elite team of Sherpas who create the route through the icefall each year—had been destroyed, so the conversation quickly turned to helicopter evac of Camps I and II. Located at ~20,000’ and ~21,000’, Camps I and II require incredibly talented helicopter pilots to access.
Almost exactly 24 hours after the initial earthquake, we got the first major aftershock, measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale. As before, we had just sat down for lunch in our newly cleaned dining tent, and as before, we all ran outside to watch for avalanches. It was much cloudier that afternoon, and so we could hear new avalanches coming, but couldn’t see them. Finally, we saw the tail of one running down the Khumbu Icefall from the direction of Camp I. This second earthquake had little impact on base camp, but we later learned that it worsened the condition of the icefall and badly damaged the village of Pangboche about half way down the Khumbu Valley. We heard the second earthquake was particularly terrifying for Camp I because they heard avalanches in all directions but couldn’t see anything. Luckily, no one on our team (and I believe no one on the mountain) was hurt by the second earthquake. Helicopters couldn’t fly the rest of the afternoon, so we relaxed a little bit and began to prepare for the following morning.
If the clouds lifted, helicopters would attempt to bring down all of the climbers and Sherpa from Camp I and Camp II. At 6:00 am this morning, they began doing just that. After somewhere north of 50 helicopter sorties, each carrying 1-2 passengers without gear, we learned that everyone on the upper mountain had been brought down to safety. These evacuations didn’t require nearly as much base camp manpower as did loading the sick the previous day, and so a group of us hiked over to the Himalaya Rescue Association hospital to help them dig out the rest of their equipment.
The wreckage around base camp was phenomenal. The first destroyed tent was about 100m from my tent, and by the time we had walked 200m from my tent we were in the epicenter of the destruction. As we dug out the hospital, we discovered tents buried by multiple boulders the size of mini-fridges, and we could only imagine the impact caused by such objects falling from thousands of feet above. We heard a story about one doctor who was standing next to someone watching an avalanche fall from the northeast when the much larger avalanche pummeled the two of them from the northwest. One doctor was left standing; the other was hit by a boulder and found over 400 meters away toward the middle of the glacier.
By early afternoon, about 50 hours after the initial earthquake, all of the seriously injured had been medevacked and all climbers from the upper slopes of the mountain had been brought to safety. Finally, we could relax a little bit and digest what we had just been through.
Our expedition leader brought us all together to announce that our expedition was officially over; the earthquake and avalanches had destroyed much of the route through the dangerous icefall and many of the Ice Doctors had either been killed in the avalanche or had left for home after their camp was annihilated. That, plus the risk of further aftershocks and avalanches and the need for many of our Sherpa teammates to go back to their villages to take care of the earthquake damage there, made the decision quite simple. Our team will spend Tuesday packing and hopes to begin the trek out of the Khumbu the following day, Wednesday.
What will I remember from this tragedy?
1. The selflessness and emergency management skills of the doctors who flooded our camp and our IMG team
2. The resilience and perseverance of the patients who remained calm and even expressed gratitude throughout our best attempts to treat them.
3. The willingness of everybody to pitch in—whether they were clients or guides or Sherpa, and whether they were helping by treating patients, keeping the stoves going, managing logistics, or donating their only sleeping bag to the victims.
4. The building international aid effort for the people of Nepal, and particularly the thousands killed, injured and suffering in Katmandu. I truly believe that international responses to tragedies like this get better as the world becomes smaller and people are better able to empathize with one another. And nothing builds cross-cultural understanding quite like teenage intercultural exchange. I could not be prouder to be here on behalf of Youth For Understanding (YFU), and I could not be more grateful for the support to YFU (Youth for Understanding (Andrew Towne) from so many, particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s, and Ag Warehouse.
Read a follow-up article in the Grand Forks Herald here.
Our deepest sympathies go out to the people of Nepal. A powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.9 hit Nepal, causing mass devastation and loss of life. We are relieved to report Andrew Towne, YFU Alumnus to Germany and a member of the YFU USA Board of Trustees, who was climbing Mt. Everest to raise funds for YFU, is safe and healthy. -------------------------------
We received the following email from Gary Towne, Andrew's father, after a 45 minute phone conversation he had with Andrew on Sunday.
Update from Gary Towne
Andrew is well and uninjured, has spent the last 36 hours without sleep, helping to find and care for the injured and helping with MedEvac. All of the severely injured have now been evacuated by helicopter. Several dozen people remain at Camps 1 (20,000 ft.) and 2 (21,000 ft.). It seems that these climbers experienced fewer if any injuries, none serious, but the situation is still not yet completely clear. Present concern is to determine the best way to help these people down the mountain. The altitude is near the limit for helicopters, so only 2 or 3 climbers can be evacuated on each trip. On the other hand, the ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall (through which they must pass if descending on foot) have mostly been destroyed. Setting these ladders and ropes takes a large team of Sherpas at the beginning of each climbing season. There may not be that many left on the mountain; and, in any case, it appears that the icefall is very unstable, continuing to collapse, and is unsafe at this time.
Andrew stressed that the tragedy is profound—for the Sherpa community in every village of the Khumbu valley and elsewhere, as well as the entire nation of Nepal—the worst natural disaster to afflict the country in historical memory. At the same time, he clarified that this year’s avalanche had a very different effect from last year’s. The 2014 avalanche affected only Sherpas, who were rigging the ropes and ladders, and who face much greater risks than visiting climbers. Each climbing season, a Sherpa may make 30 or more trips through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, because they do the rigging and repairing as described above as well as guiding the groups of visiting climbers. Each visiting climber, however, traverses the Icefall only about 6 times—it is part of altitude acclimatization hikes as well as the final push to the summit.
This year’s (2015) avalanche was more diffuse in its effect. Not only was the total number of casualties substantially greater (exact figure not yet known), but the spread of those injured was indiscriminate. Both Sherpas and visiting climbers were killed or injured. Observers on site seem to agree that the source, location and path of this year’s avalanche were unprecedented and could not have been anticipated. The Khumbu valley ends in a cirque (French, or cwm, Welsh), a semicircular valley ground out of the mountain’s base by the root of a glacier. Last year’s avalanche fell from the east side of the cirque. This year’s avalanche fell mainly from an ice cliff in the saddle of Pumo Ri (and perhaps some other slopes) on the north and west. The falling masses of snow and rocks created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that came together at the bottom, and, blasting out through the most direct path, hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall. (Adapted from the International Mountain Guide (IMG) web blog.) Most observers Andrew has spoken to feel that, in normal conditions, without the violent earthquake that dislodged the ice cliff, this avalanche would not have occurred.
Chance, Fortune, or Providence played a major role in which parts of the camp were most affected. Some areas seem to have escaped nearly entirely due to positions farther from the Khumbu glacier or under a protective ridge. Andrew’s tent was only 100 meters (1 football field) from the edge of the devastation. 200 meters from his tent was squarely in the middle of the worst hit area. Even in severely hit areas, deaths were unpredictable. According to one report, a boulder crashed through a tent, drove a climber through the tent’s side and crushed him, while leaving two companions still in the tent relatively unscathed. For more frequent updates and an official perspective see the IMG blog.
Plans for the future are unclear. In the short term, the situation is still evolving, and safety of the greatest number is the highest goal. Priorities include the evacuation of the teams at the higher mountain camps and the continuing search for those who may be still buried. (UPDATE: as of Monday morning Nepal time, reports suggest that Camp I and Camp II have been safely evacuated to lower elevations, thanks to some of the world's best helicopter pilots flying 50+ sorties.)
Whether teams remaining on the mountain will be able to finish their climb and reach the summit has not been determined. Whether Everest climbs will be closed for the remainder of this season or even further into the future is also not determined. The Sherpa people, upon whom all such expeditions depend, have suffered profoundly, and the full extent of the effect on them is not yet known. Their dedication, faithfulness, fortitude and well-being must be remembered in any consideration of Himalayan climbing. The income they derive from guiding is a very important support for them, their families and communities, but we cannot forget that they put their lives on the line to earn it, as Saturday’s tragedy so clearly shows. (UPDATE: IMG has officially ended its expedition up Mt. Everest, due to the devastation of the Khumbu Valley and its impact on our Sherpa team members, the destruction of the route through the Khumbu icefall, and the continued risk of aftershocks and further avalanches. We are mourning the deceased, praying for the injured, and focusing on a safe descent of those at base camp.)
Andrew sent his deepest thanks for expressions of concern, support and prayers. He also wanted to make several points. His Everest attempt has been a benefit in support of Youth for Understanding (YFU), an old and highly respected international exchange program with which Andrew went to Germany in his high school junior year and of which he is now a board member. He is paying his own way; all money contributed goes to YFU. In addition to many individual contributions, Andrew also received major corporate support as YFU Partners from Ag Warehouse of Finley, ND, Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops & Scheels Sporting Goods of Grand Forks, ND, and Casual Adventure Outfitters of Arlington, VA. Whether or not he is able to complete his climb, he feels an obligation to acknowledge their generous support.
It is still possible to contribute to YFU. Bill Harwood, Grand Forks and UND graduate now retired from the State Department (and incidentally once stationed in Kathmandu), said of YFU, “When I worked for USIA, YFU was a major grantee organization. It had started back in the Eisenhower days, as I recall. During the next 50 years they got major contributions from corporations like Toyota. . . . Then [there was a] falling off of federal and private donations . . .” YFU remains a very worthy and venerable organization for fostering international understanding, worthy of generous support.
That is also very true of the aid efforts for the Sherpas and Nepal in general. For anyone who wishes to contribute to the Sherpas, Support For Sherpas, a British group, seems to be responding to that specific need, while Mercy Corpsand Global Giving, both American groups, have opened efforts for all of Nepal. I’m sure there are others, but these were some I could find on short notice. All three have easy-to-navigate donation methods.
After such an extended update, I expect that I will be winding down pending further major developments. If you wish frequent updates, check the IMG blog.
Thank you for all of your expressions of concern,Gary Towne
A moment of levity in a picture not all of you may have gotten—the yak with Andrew's gear ascending a "street" in Namche Bazaar.
April 22, 2015 Update Prior to Earthquake
First, Andrew's father corrects the record...
"Thanks for Andrew's update. I reread the article in The Lightand thought I'd correct a minor error. Andrew's FIRST summit was Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, at the age of 6 in 1988, just before we left Vermont for North Dakota. He is at the left in the picture. His brother Jonathan, 8, is on the right."
Here’s the brief update:
On April 14, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (~17,500’)
We descended back down the valley to acclimatize at about 19,900’ on Lobuche Peak on April 19.
We returned to base camp two days ago and are getting ready for our first venture into the Khumbu icefall on the 23rd.
Our team is strong and morale is high. We were fortunate to receive Buddhist ‘puja’ blessings both at base camp and in Pangboche village with Lama Geshi, the spiritual leader of the Khumbu Valley.
Here’s the longer update:
In the last two weeks, we finished the trek to the head of the Khumbu Valley--Everest Base Camp (~17,500’). Along the way, we visited Lama Geshi in Pangboche for a Buddhist puja blessing. Lama Geshi fled Tibet during the Chinese takeover and is considered the region’s spiritual leader. Before blessing our climb, Lama Geshi had an audience with a woman from a neighboring village, and seeing how significant it was to her to be able to meet with him made us even more grateful for his time. Lama Geshi encouraged us to “Give up all intentions to harm others from our heart and do our best to benefit them all. If each and everyone of us feels the Universal Responsibility to do so, we will all enjoy the feast of peace!” At 83 years old, Lama Geshi was spry and obviously delighted in everything he did, saw and felt. It was clear that he was at peace with us and his surroundings, and our team left with a larger worldview and sense of purpose.
From Pangboche, we ascended past the tree line and spent a few nights in the town of Pheriche, ~14,500’. We climbed nearby ridges during the days and enjoyed sampa cake and yak stew in the evenings. I read The Boys in the Boat during our downtime, which brought back a flood of fond memories of college rowing.
After camping for a few nights ~16,000’, we finished our trek to base camp. Located on the NW edge of the Khumbu Glacier, Everest base camp is a series of camps stretching out about half a mile. In the picture below of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, base camp is on the outside ridge of the curving glacier at the base of the icefall. Camps generally draw water from the west side of the moraine and use the east side of the moraine as the path for accessing other camps and the Khumbu icefall, which leads up into the Western Cwm that separates Everest from Nuptse. IMG’s camp is fantastic. Our summit team includes ~24 climbers, 8 guides, and about 50 Sherpa guides, porters, cooks and camp managers. Our tents occupy the high ground along the ridges of the moraine and at the center we have dining tents, a common tent with internet and electricity, and a large Buddhist altar for pujas and prayer flags.
We spent two nights taking in base camp before hiking back down the valley to Lobuche Peak (20,128’), which we ascended to within a couple hundred feet of the true summit to help us acclimatize. The views from the summit ridge were incredible—we could see four 8,000m peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu) as well as the shorter but equally famous peak Ama Dablam.
By the time we got back to Everest base camp two days ago, we were beginning to feel much more comfortable living at these high altitudes. Yesterday, our expedition had a large puja blessing ceremony at base camp, during which we each received a sundi necklace for good luck during our climb. The ceremony was similar to the one we attended with Lama Geshi, but longer, larger and more involved. What struck me most was how genuinely happy all the Sherpa seemed to be during the ceremony. The part where we each got flour painted on our faces to symbolize our hope that we may all live long enough to grow a white beard quickly turned into a game of tag, with Sherpas delighting in smearing the flour quickly and profusely on those who least expected it. And the traditional Sherpa dance at the end of the ceremony lasted almost 45 minutes, as more and more Sherpas suggested additional songs and even invited westerners to sing and dance alongside top 40 music blaring from two small portable speakers. I left the puja with the realization that joy is a choice—it is a state of mind that we can embrace and accept where and how we want. Our Sherpas very much chose for the puja to be a joyous, fun occasion, and their energy infected all of us. I hope that as I climb the mountain and eventually return to the States, that I too will be able to choose joy and contentment as easily and regularly as our teammates do here.
Over the next three weeks, we will be moving up and down Mt. Everest in rotations—climbing and sleeping higher on each rotation than we did on the previous one. Between rotations, we will rest and recover at base camp, and on our third rotation we will attempt the summit. The mountain looms over 2 vertical miles above us right now, but by focusing on health, nutrition, and taking one small step at a time, I think we will make the most of this opportunity. I reflect regularly on the lessons I’ve learned from so many of you, and climbing, joking and becoming acquainted with the Sherpa make me continually proud to be taking this mountain on as a way to advance intercultural exchange for teenagers.
Did you know that April 17-19 is Global Youth Service Day? Consider hosting an event that gives back to your community while helping to increase awareness that we're all citizens of one world.This occasion provides the perfect opportunity to come together with your fellow volunteers, staff, students and families to share our mission within your local communities. Think about the causes that inspire you and come up with your own project or find a local event to participate in.
Have fun and get creative! You could:
Be ambassadors for peace - bring together area exchange students and cultural groups for an interactive intercultural day celebrating diversity
Offer to tutor students in language or world history
Get together with your neighbors and plant a community garden
Connect with elderly citizens through cultural presentations at a local senior residence
One needs look no further than YFU students Sarah and René for inspiration.
René volunteered in a broad range of community service activities including walking to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, dismantling holiday decorations for the City of Ann Arbor, removing invasive plant species in Ann Arbor parks and cutting branches at a park on Nature Area Workday, shoveling snow for elderly neighbors, leading games for children at a pool event, and helping raise awareness of CBYX, YFU, and exchange through booths at community events. For GYSD René pulled weeds and invasive species in local forest to help regrowth of native species.
While on program, Sarah completed more than 137 hours of community service! Her involvement included everything from coaching youth soccer, volunteering at American Red Cross blood drives, participating in community recycling events, organizing international lunches where students brought dishes representative of different countries and discussed the culture and food of the country to classroom presentations on her native culture and language. She continued her involvement by participating in GYSD as a volunteer at the City of Portsmouth's Quarterly Hazardous Waste Collection, Document Shredding, and Electronics event.
Find more ideas and tips inYouth Service America's planning toolkitfor creating your own GYSD community project!
Share your service projects & photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #yfuGYSD. We’ll be following along and might even share your project on our social media. We can't wait to see how you will get involved!
A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael HillThis is one of my favorite times each year: the time when we get ready to receive the list of students who want to come on exchange to the United States through a YFU program. At YFU USA, we are the proud recipients of close to 2,000 students each year, who come from more than 50 countries and who express hundreds of cultures.
While many of those students have already signed up to make the world their home, there is still time to take this adventure of a lifetime! Why might you want to do that?
The world is becoming an increasingly connected place, and your future success will depend on your ability to adapt to the world and its various peoples. Coming to the US will give you a chance to experience a typical American home, to make new friendships that will last a lifetime, and to experience up close what makes the US such a special place. But you’ll also have a chance to share your culture. In YFU communities across the nation, we have host families and schools who are interested in learning from you.
One of the great things I get to do as President of YFU USA is talk to students before, during and after their program. Here’s some of what I hear from those who came here on exchange:
It changed my life and gave me a second family and group of friends. I will never see myself just as a citizen of my own country again; I now belong to two cultures and two nations.
When I got ready to apply to college, my exchange year set me apart from others. Not only did the colleges and universities know that I could handle anything that came my way, they knew I had already proven I had the curiosity and drive to succeed.
I still keep in touch with my host family. They visit me, and I still visit them. The world is truly my home now.
There are a ton of reasons to consider a year with us in the United Sates. Whatever your reason, know that we’re ready to help you take this adventure of a lifetime. We can’t wait to say, “Welcome to the United States!”
Very truly yours,
Michael E. HillPresident & CEOYFU USA
Interview with Alex Lopez, YFU Travel DirectorCuba may be only 90 miles from Florida, but for half a century, it's been largely off-limits to most Americans. Since 2011, Americans have been allowed to go to Cuba on tours run by licensed companies like Interplanner, YFU’s Adult Study Tour provider. Recently, President Obama asked the Treasury Department to expand permissions for travel to Cuba, though general tourism on one’s own will still be forbidden. This renewed attention on Cuba has many would-be travelers wondering what the island neighbor has to offer. We talked to our own expert, YFU Travel Director and native of Cuba Alex Lopez to find out.
YFU: What do you think participants come away with after a YFU Adult Study Tour to Cuba?
Lopez: Participants will be surprised to learn that the Cuban people have a great respect and admiration for the American people. Travelers to Cuba find that Cubans can easily separate politics from culture and appreciate people for who they are.
Cuba travel does not whitewash the challenges that Cuban people face. YFU travelers will experience the real Cuba, filled with culture, creativity, art and loving people. They also get to see the reality of Cuban living standards, which are often difficult and impoverished. The program changes beliefs and attitudes and allows people to look past politics and into the heart and soul of a culture and its reality. In my 37 years in the travel industry, I have never seen a single travel experience change so many lives as a visit to Cuba does.
YFU: What would you say to tour participants about the citizens of Cuba?
Lopez: Cubans are friendly, warm, communicative, enthusiastic and hospitable people. It is uncommon to meet a Cuban who is not outgoing and fond of festivals, music and especially dancing. Most Cubans find it easy to joke around about almost anything, even hardships and difficulties.
The Cuban people have endured 53 years of a U.S. economic embargo that has severely burdened the entire population. The Cuban people have always welcomed American visitors and have been able to separate the political differences between the U.S. YFU will be a great ambassador delegation, and who knows, maybe soon we will be the first to open the way for a student exchange program between both nations helping to heal the wounds of decades of isolation.
YFU: This is a really unique opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba. What parts of the tour do you like the most?
Lopez: The island has nine United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites. They’re architectural gems that have not been discovered by Americans from this generation.
You’ll never forget your visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The collection ranges from the traditional to the modern. It’s as good as any museum in New York.
Participants will also enjoy the Cuban cuisine. It is much more inventive than just black beans and rice. Because of the embargo, they don’t always have the best ingredients, but they sure make do. Paladares, privately owned restaurants that are often run by families (sometimes out of their homes), have become popular in recent years. They are intended to give tourists a truly authentic Cuban experience.
YFU: Why should YFU alumni or anyone else travel to Cuba?
Lopez: The announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations makes this trip a historical time to visit Cuba. It is the most sensual island in the Caribbean and has been frozen in time for American visitors. Cuba is full of friendly people, amazing geography, and has 250-plus museums and 500 years of historical sites. Havana’s architecture is magnificent, and dance, culture and great cuisine are everywhere. This is a truly educational experience!
Learn how you can join Lopez, along with YFU USA's President & CEO in Cuba this summer! YFUUSA.ORG/TOURS
*Traveling under the People to People General License.
Guest blog by YFU USA Host Mother & Volunteer Denise Helland
Just over three years ago the Helland family welcomed their Chinese daughter into their family. Denise and Rob were empty nesters living in a rural suburb. Jiting came from a skyscraper apartment in one of the world’s biggest cities. They all had a lot to learn.
Homemade chocolate chip cookies opened the doors to US culture. I taughtJiting how to bake on her second day, making cookie dough and showing her how to use our oven. She said that she would never be able to make them at home in Shanghai as most ovens aren’t large enough for even a small baking pan. While we introduced her to the all-American cookie, it was moon cake that transported us to China. Jiting explained this treat comes in many varieties - not just marshmallow. While shopping at the local Asian store, we got a good laugh upon realizing that what they were selling as a popular “Chinese” packaged treat was probably the only thing there that was made in America!
To Jiting, American schools were open and less restrictive in class choice with the exception of US history. In her first weeks, Jiting exclaimed, "Why must I learn so many little details about US history? We have dynasties and our history is not so difficult!" As we had with our own girls, together with Jiting, my husband and I spent what seemed like endless hours on homework.
Jiting immersed herself in every holiday – dressing as Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween; helping to make Thanksgiving Dinner with extended family; and caroling with the Christmas Choir.
In turn, we jumped into the Chinese New Year!
Jiting brought us to a real Chinese restaurant where families of first and second generations had gathered together to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. We were sitting quietly waiting for a server when she jumped-up and started waving her arms and snapping her fingers! Oh, not the American way! We asked her to sit and wait patiently. Jiting looked at me and said, "Mom, if this is an authentic Chinese restaurant, then we must do like at home. If I don't get someone to come to us, we will never eat!" The evening was very special and a lot of fun. We laughed about fortune cookies – another treat made in America and not authentically Chinese.
Then it was our turn to surprise her. We’d learned about the red envelope tradition in which Chinese youth receive money from their parents or grandparents at the New Year. We presented Jiting with a special red envelope containing a collection of quarters from each of the 50 states. She was elated.
Jiting loved and was loved by all of us. When asked what she would like to do or where she would like to go before returning home, she chose to visit our extended family in Iowa as she’d grown fond of her American card-playing uncles and grandparents (she has become a master at cribbage).
Now a YFU China Volunteer, Jiting helps a new class of students each summer as they prepare for their adventures abroad. She is a lovely young woman attending college in the U.S. and is an unofficial liaison to Chinese university students who've never been to the States before. Our reunions continue every year – before the fall semester starts and at all the major holidays. Her first activity at every visit is to bake us chocolate chip cookies.