Editor's Note: for more information on group tours with Tracy, visit www.friendlyplanet.com.
She has wanderlust and a spirit of adventure, with a penchant for discovery. An elementary school educator and counselor by profession, Statesboro native Tracy Chandler Lewis considers life to be one long learning experience. Her favorite subjects to teach were probably geography and history, but she has a particular appreciation for the Arts and for music. Her special interests have led her from the classroom to locations abroad where she now prefers to spend her time at recess - exploring exotic cultures.
Her first introduction to the country of Cuba happened at age nine when she moved with her parents to Puerto Rico for five years. There she recalls, "I established relationships with friends whose grandparents were Cuban." Making friends there and being immersed in the Latin culture had a lasting effect.
Flash forward to 2006, when Tracy had the opportunity to visit Cuba with her brother-in-law on a religious visa for missionary work. Fidel Castro was still president. The Soviet collapse of communism had already occurred in 1991, and Cuba had been without a strong communist ally for 15 years. But the often televised images of a cigar wielding dictator in camouflage and oppressed citizens in the streets were not the images she saw. "It was just like the 50's or 60's," she said. "It felt like being on a movie set."
Seemingly sixty years back in time, the Caribbean island of Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States. Most Americans are not aware of the island's close proximity or the rich Latin culture with influences from Africa and Europe that still exists after years of communist rule.
Fidel Castro resigned as president in 2008, and his brother Raúl Castro was elected the new president of the Republic of Cuba. In his acceptance speech, Raúl promised the people he would remove many of the economic and other restrictions placed on citizens for many years, including travel. Citizens are now able to obtain exit visas with a passport and national ID card.
In 2012, Tracy was in Cuba again on tour when one of her friends spotted a promotional flyer soliciting tour guides for Friendly Planet Travel, a Pennsylvania company specializing in group tours worldwide. On a lark, Tracy decided to apply for the position, and is now a group leader for Friendly Planet, specializing in educational tours to Cuba.
Cuba is now open for tourists and visitors, but one must have a valid reason for visiting the country. It is still illegal for ordinary American vacationers to hop on a plane bound for Cuba, which has been under a United States economic embargo for nearly 50 years. True, plenty have dodged the restrictions - and continue to do so - by flying there from another country like Mexico or Canada (for Americans, traveling to Cuba is technically not illegal, but it might as well be since the United States prohibits its citizens from spending money in Cuba, with exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reasons to travel there). And while Washington has also expanded licensing for educational groups traveling to Cuba by loosening requirements, travelers joining an educational trip must still receive credit toward a degree. It is easier for United States citizens who do not have special status as working journalists or scholars to visit Cuba legally, so long as they go with a licensed operator.
In addition to education, other reasons approved for traveling include religion, horticulture, and healthcare. Trips to Cuba are not the typical Caribbean vacation of beach hopping and mojito-swilling. Days are filled with a busy itinerary. "I'm usually up and ready to go at 7:30 a.m., breakfast for the group is at 9:00 a.m. and then we begin our day of discovery. The focus of our group is to interact with local citizens and to learn about the culture," Tracy said.
Many things about the culture of Cuba are to be admired. The island has a 100% native population with a 1% rate of illiteracy. Attributed to the government's Literacy Campaign of 1961, when Fidel Castro sent "literacy brigades" into rural areas to educate the populace with phenomenal success. Families now teach each other to read and write.
In addition, everyone plays a musical instrument and most are engaged in expressing themselves through art media. All employment is controlled by the government with standard wages, even for professionals like doctors. But there is a high ratio of doctors with one in every seventy people holding a medical license. There is no free enterprise, except for some private restaurants called paladars, where you may find doctors working as waiters for the tips.
The Cuban peso servers as the country's currency in the all cash society. Workers receive a portion of their wages in convertible pesos, the rest in national pesos. Street vendors and small shops selling basics prefer the national peso. Visitors and "dollar shops" prefer the convertible peso which is 25 times more valuable than the normal peso confusing shoppers who often perceive prices as "too cheap."
"There are no devices on the streets - cell phones, iPad, laptops - and no internet," Tracy said. "The people are very friendly and they love Americans. It is very hot and humid, but the culture is amazing. The music, dance, art, and architecture is so beautiful and inspiring. There are cobblestone streets and everything is so colorful, including the cars which are American built from the 1950s and 1960s. People ride bicycles and some have the cars which they can easily keep running because they're mechanical. The only problem they have is acquiring parts, but they are inventive and have great ingenuity."
Their ingenuity crosses over into providing for the family as well, with gardening and animal husbandry as important past times. Cuba must import almost everything, including 65% of food. Families have organic gardens out of necessity.
"Cuba also has no crime, no drugs, or very little, there are no guns, no shootings, and the people aren't afraid of harsh punishment or anything like that," Tracy said. "It certainly has an allure."
She has seen Cuba go from a land of no opportunities to a country ripe with many opportunities. Tracy's tour groups form approximately once or twice a month. She may do three one-week tours back to back and then return to Statesboro or the Bahamas, where she spends about one-third of her time. The travel veteran who has visited 53 countries and all seven continents has overcome the greatest challenge of international travel - leaving behind family and friends - to reap the most satisfying rewards of meeting the people of the world and getting to know them.
Her next adventure? Vietnam, perhaps. In Cuba she met award-winning author John Shors who leads participants on literary tours to the settings of his novels. (www.johnshors.com). Tracy was a fan of Shors' book Dragon House, set in Vietnam. She has talked to him about developing a tour to Cambodia. "We've talked about a tour to Angkor Wat, the largest continuously operating temple complex in the world dating from the 12th century," she said. "You would love it!"