Last time St. Petersburg’s retired baby boomer Lynn Lotkowictz wrote for BoomerCafé, she told us about her time volunteering for an American NGO in Greece. This time, it’s Havana. This boomer really knows how to mix business with pleasure!

Last month, on a trip that would introduce me to a country that has been off-limits for me (and most Americans) for most of my life, I flew from Tampa to Havana. I participated in a one-week service program in Cuba with Global Volunteers, a non-profit NGO based in Minneapolis.

Lynn (second from left) and her team at a Havana home for seniors where they sang and got to know each other.

Along with nineteen other volunteers, ranging in age from Millennials to Baby Boomers to The Greatest Generation, I spent a week on various work projects that included painting a fence at our base (The Cuba Council of Churches), spending time with seniors at a senior care center, and working with students in an evening program on the English language. Another team did some crocheting with a Cuban women’s group.

We stayed in Miramar, a nice residential suburb of Havana near many of the city’s foreign embassies. All twenty of us lived in guest houses within three or four blocks of each other. Mine was two blocks from the water. My team included a dozen or more retirees. Two had been in the Peace Corps, others were interesting retired professionals who were well-traveled and seeking new experiences.

Vintage American cars at the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso in Havana.
(Photo credit: Ralph Hammelbacher/Lindblad Expeditions)

Staying in a suburb, you have the chance to observe people going to work and school and regularly interact with the locals. Put simply, it is a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel. You feel like a part of the community, particularly since you are there to help in some small way.

There is very little internet on the island. Missing the connectivity we’re so used to, we asked our hosts about options. They told us there was an “Internet Park” about a twenty minute walk from my casa. There, they said, we could purchase a card from a store, but that there are long lines and forms to fill out. The alternative was to walk to a certain small park and connect with a young gentlemen and his pals who our hosts said would sell us a card for 5 cucs (the symbol for Cuban convertible pesos), which is about $5.00 and buys one hour of internet. The card provides a password and username. We walked to the park!

At Havana’s Internet park where young men sell online access cards to visitors.

We approached the group of young men and they immediately offered each of us an internet card. With our $5 purchases complete, we took a photo together with the “sellers” and then enjoyed the internet. Mission accomplished. As we walked back to our work site I wondered, would I even consider walking up to a stranger in, say, New York’s Central Park or any place in Chicago and purchasing an “off the grid” card with the hope it worked? And then take a photo with them? Probably not.

Two of my students for English tutoring were a young couple in their early 20s. Allen is an independent contractor at a tour company and is eager to learn English so he can better communicate with visitors. His wife Daniella takes care of the home. She knows some English and is eager to help her husband. We reviewed his tour prices, looked at what’s included and added some language to make the tours more appealing. We went over phrases like, “Welcome to Havana, my name is Allen and I would love to show you my country. What is your name?”

The iconic Morro Castle, gateway to Havana.
(Photo credit: Ralph Hammelbacher/Lindblad Expeditions)

After some competitive analysis, we determined that Allen is competing with the owners of those fancy old American cars that all the tourists seem to love. Their hourly rate is $50. We worked on an appropriate pitch: “Yes, those old American cars are beautiful, however, instead of $50 per hour you might want to consider my van at only $15 per hour.” He mastered three or four sentences that we worked on intensely for two nights. They are sure to enhance his business opportunities.

The refreshing thing is you sense in Cuba the change that is coming. Our casa owner described it like this: “It started like the snowball on top of the mountain, it’s rolling down and getting bigger and bigger and you cannot stop it.”

A quiet side street in Havana.

Tourists from all over the rest of the world have been visiting Havana for years, and now there are many Americans too. We saw a cruise ship, red double-decker tour buses, and souvenir shops. Colorful flora and fauna are everywhere and a walk along the Malecon — a walkway along the sea wall — is the perfect place to people-watch.

The city of three million is bursting with activity. It’s old, it’s new, it’s Spanish, it’s European, it’s modern, it’s young and fun!

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