cuba dancingATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – For 17-year old Catherine Curtin, “it was like we were going back to see old friends; we picked up right where we left off.”

That was the first reaction of the Red Bank Catholic High School senior on returning to Cuba last week for the second year of the GUEST program she herself designed in 2016 as a means of establishing friendships between American girls and their nearest island neighbors to the South.

Catherine, with the guidance of parents Dan and Patricia Curtin of Bayside Drive, designed GUEST, a multi-year ambassadorship plan using volleyball as a means of sharing with girls in other countries. Her aim was to meet, share, and learn more about other teens who don’t enjoy the same benefits as she, the daughter of hard working and successful business parents, does in the United States. 

GUEST is Catherine’s acronym for Girls Universal Empowerment Sports Tour, the name she gave to her program of interacting with Cuban teens for several years on the volleyball court, with an ultimate aim of hopefully bringing a small team of Cuban girls to the United States for some healthy competition. 

cuba group

In June, 2016, Catherine and Red Bank Catholic friend Ava Zokoll, who graduated from Red Bank Catholic last year and is now at the University of Miami in Florida, traveled with the Curtins for the first year of the program. This year, Salma Abdelbarry of Manasquan, Catherine’s friend from their elementary school years as students at Oak Hill Academy, now a senior at The Ranney School, came on the trip. She came for the same reasons as Catherine…to learn more about other people, see firsthand everyone doesn’t enjoy the same life style as she does, and see how she can reach out a hand in friendship. Rather than playing volleyball, Salma came as both interpreter…she is president of the Spanish Club at the Ranney School…and photographer and diarist to record the five days the girls played volleyball, visited the beach and cultural sites, and renewing friendships and forged new ones. 

One of the first things Catherine learned this year was that while Cuba was certainly a lot of fun and quite educational last year, “I definitely liked this year better because I felt we had deeper connections with all the girls and the people around the Barrio Habana community.”

The Barrio Habana community is the Havana-local community group that works with Cuba Education Travel to provide experiences for traveling tourists or ambassadors who want to interact with local youngsters and teens in actual Cuban settings, without staying in the fanciest or most expensive hotels or eating in the eagerly sought-after restaurants. Instead, the GUEST group of five, including this reporter, stayed in the street- front casa they enjoyed last year. They all found it the same spotlessly clean, comfortable, pleasant casa in the heart of the city a block away from one of the many parks and squares that dot Havana.  And they were all delighted when the staff at the small B&B welcomed them back with hugs, kisses, and lots of laughter.

It was obvious the first morning of the daily three hours on the volleyball court in a fenced in rugged concrete park across from a church and surrounded by badly decaying buildings, that the American teens were warmly welcomed. Those who played last year were quick to exchange greetings and hugs; the few newcomers to the Cuban team, as others had acted the year before, were a little hesitant at first in making new friendships. “But by the end we were all hanging out and they asked us to hang out at night too so I felt very welcomed and embraced, “Catherine exclaimed.  Speaking of last year’s friends, Catherine said, “When they saw us they were very excited. They all came up and gave us a hug and a kiss and I think were surprised we came back! They did remember me and they all asked where Ava was as well. That made me feel like we made a good impression on them last year and formed a bond. “

Catherine laughed that her friends “asked me about my dogs because I told them about them last year which I thought was funny.”   An avid animal lover, Catherine couldn’t pass a cat or dog on the Cuban streets without stopping to pet and talk with them. In several of the pocket parks at the ends of each block, local families had cages set up with a bevy of animals for sale, ranging from litters of Dalmatian dogs to birds and hamsters. Local sales people also set up stands with all the accoutrements for animals, from leashes and muzzles to feeding dishes and toys.  “I would've taken every single cat and dog home with me if I could,” Catherine said. “I thought it was sad and a little scary to see them all over the streets, but most them seemed well taken care of and there were many times where we passed by and people were feeding them.” 

There were no language barriers, the high school senior continued.  Neither side, Cuban or American, spoke more of the other’s language, she said, “but because we had formed a friendship last year that carried over, I think love and friendship create a kind of a universal language.”   Volleyball is the same world-wide with exercises and warm-ups the same. That’s the reason why Catherine chose the sport as her tool in bringing friendship. I think it's such a good opportunity to bond and share with other young girls. Even if we don't speak the same language, we can communicate through a common love of the sport.” 

There were not many differences between the two visits, Catherine said, adding, “Honestly I didn't think much has changed.  I found that disappointing because of the awareness people now have and the resources others have to help but just don't use. But I did notice a difference in the attitudes of some of the adults because of actions taken by President Trump.” People did not elaborate of any specifics of Trump’s actions, and the teens did not speak of it, but the adults who did give opinions definitely don’t like what he is doing. 

cuba in shadeDuring the afternoons and evenings, Catherine and her American group, often accompanied by several of the Cuban girls, explored some of the cultural aspects that Barrio Habana espouses. One day they visited Aula Ecologica, a handicrafts and games workshop for local children, one evening they attended a pena, a cultural gathering of live music and a street movie. On another day, they enjoyed a performance by Habana Compas Dance, aa blend of Spanish, Cuban and Afro-Cuban heritage music, and visited the Muraleando Community Project where a group of artists used new and recycled materials to create artwork throughout the neighborhood. The took a Rhumba dance lesson at one of the most popular dance studios in the city, and spent an afternoon on the sandy beach and in the 80 something temperature brilliant blue water of Habana Bay.

And when it was all over, the girls shared gifts, another experience Catherine remembers with some special tugs on her heart. 

“It was funny, actually” Catherine laughed, “the last day we went to the market to look around for presents for friends back home and we saw two of the girls at the market, Leiani and Yury, two we had spent the most time with last year and this year. They said hi and then said we had to go the other way because they wanted to get us something. So, when we were all done shopping we walked back to the hotel and they gave us each gifts… a bracelet in my favorite color, pink, which they remembered, and a pair of matching earrings. Salma got the same thing in her favorite color, purple. “

While their Cuban hosts never asked any questions about life in the United States, “they did say they would love to visit; but it's very challenging for them, too.”

So what are some of the lessons Catherine brought back from Cuba this year. “I loved everything… the beach, food, and casa, everything is so beautiful and the food is delicious! Actually, I think there may have been more restaurants this year, I saw more restaurants sort of, westernized.  I have been lucky enough to travel on more than one trip to the third-world. Each time I was charmed by the people but struck by the poverty and lack of opportunity, especially for young women. If I can reach someone through sport I can impact them in other ways too.  I think helping others is the most important thing anyone can do! Helping others isn't something that I see as a burden but more an opportunity to better not just one community but the world. I believe every little thing I can do to help contributes to a bigger overall cause. Sharing cultures is just another advantage that comes along with helping others. 

Catherine added “I will take away a sense of thankfulness and eagerness to help others even more, because of the troubles I have witnessed in Cuba.” And is there any lesson she has learned, a question that brought on peals of laughter. “I definitely learned to take shorter showers because of the shortage of water.”