It’s always a great feeling on holiday when you are able speak with people in the local language or say a few words at least! Why not consider incorporating a language course into your next trip away? This is exactly what our guest blogger Val did when she enrolled on a language course in Havana. In learning Spanish, she gained much more than just a new set of language skills! Read on to find out more about her experience…
If I wanted to know Cuba, really know Cuba, I needed better Spanish. I wanted to talk to Cubanos and be confident batting replies to conversations on many, many subjects. Subjects not covered by my GCSE curriculum. Having been to language schools in Costa Rica and Spain I knew the value of immersive learning. Living with locals and speaking it all the time, almost getting to think in Spanish – that was my challenge.
So I arrived in Havana and was collected by Alberto from the language school, not in one of the famous American cars by a very neat modern car, but the Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles and Buicks were all around in varying states of repair. The first thing that struck me was how quiet the roads were. And zero marketing and publicity signs. Also no shops, as such. I was dropped off at the Casa Particular I was staying at and introduced to Betty, my very friendly host, who showed me my room (with private bathroom, air con, fan and TV) the school was in the suburbs of Havana, just around the corner. It was very quiet at night (5 stars for sleep quality) which certainly helped get over jet lag in the early days. All good so far. Dinner at 7pm. Tired though, it had been a long journey from the snows of Gatwick.
Two meals each day were provided at school, and my vegetarian preferences were easily accommodated. It was nice to meet and socialise with the other students, who were a wide range of ages, motivations and nationalities. A family from Switzerland, with adult children, preparing for more travelling in Central and South America, a visiting volunteer engineering teacher from Germany, a designer and a pharmacist from Switzerland; some gap year students in Cuba for two months determined to reach a higher qualification in Spanish. And me, a 55 + solo female traveller at the beginning of her month long trip through Eastern Cuba. We all got along in a mixture of English, German and Spanish and swapped travel tales over fish, rice and beans, united in our common goal.
Four hours tuition every morning gave us the afternoons and evenings free to explore Havana. The experienced teachers carefully tested us on the first morning to make sure we were in the right class at the right level. Some complete beginners and some who had been studying for a number of years, the flexible tuition took it all into account.
We had great fun getting to grips with the local transport options, all types, ages and prices of taxis, plus the local buses, only 20 minutes from the centre, each journey was an education. And a good test of our Spanish, taking turns to negotiate with the taxi drivers so we could practise.
One morning our teacher said we could choose the subject, so me and my three classmates wanted to learn more about how Cuba works, economically speaking. He explained all about the food ration book and how that worked, how people had government jobs and the struggle they have to pay for other essentials. Also how education and medical treatment was free. This, you would never learn from a guide book. Obviously, all in Spanish, so we were learning new vocabulary at the same time. Being of the older generation he could remember how hard it was when he was a boy. “Things are definitely better now, and people are optimistic – “Siempre Adelante!” (Always Forwards! is their motto).
There were fun trips organised, a walking tour of old Havana and a trip to a music bar and optional dance lessons also available, or you could just throw yourself into Havana Parque Central and see where your feet took you. One day we went to one of the mobs favourite hotel hangouts for an afternoon of pool crashing, bliss. Other days we discovered Callejon de Hamel, a graffitied alleyway devoted to Cuba’s african musical and religious past, and took a long walk along the Malecon. So much to see, so little time. We all made plans to return soon for more adventures.
I left directly after classes on Friday to catch a flight to Santiago in eastern Cuba, many of the other students were looking forward to their second week of tuition as a Travelling Classroom. As you may have guessed, this combined cultural visits to Trinidad, Santa Clara and Vinales along with more lessons.
Learning Spanish is certainly a journey I am enjoying and as Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Speaking Spanish to Cubans was a highlight of my trip, I learnt so much more than I would have done only speaking English. It also got me the best seat on the bus many times.
I would certainly recommend language schools overseas, and Havana in particular – it’s not just for teenagers !
About the Author:
Valerie Steele Colton
After a successful 20 years in the travel business as co-founder/director of Dial a Flight/Lotus Supertravel, subsequent careers in marketing and business consultancy, Valerie is globetrotting once again. As part of a growing band of solo 55+ female travellers, her recent trips have included six weeks volunteering and travelling through Costa Rica and a month in the less frequented parts of Cuba.
A professional photographer, she enjoys seeking out the unusual angles and the most stunning viewpoints. Soon to return to Cuba to perfect her salsa style, you can follow her adventures on her website: http://veebeka-travelstories.com/ and see her photography at http://www.veebeka-images.com and on twitter @veebeka