My name is Mara and I joined the Caledonia team at the beginning of March, 2023. I found the recruitment ad for the role of travel coordinator earlier in the year, and every question was one that resonated with me. Have you been to Cuba? Yes. Do you speak Spanish? Yes. Are you based in Leith? Yes. I read down the list and my eyes kept growing wider. Having worked in hospitality for what I would call too long, I had set myself the New Year’s resolution of finding a new job, and not only am I proud to say I accomplished that in the first few months of the year, but I also managed to make it my dream job.
This was before I knew our director, Kath, was going to invite me to Cuba only a month after starting. Again, the answer was yes. And what a trip we had. We had the pleasure of meeting our clients booked on the April Dance trip, who were also the first clients I worked with. It was a big group with great, diverse personalities, and so wonderful to get to know one another. I met our Cuban team – our lady in Santiago, Odalis, in charge of all things that side of the pond; our tour leaders Aylin and Naomi, who both speak incredible English, are very efficient but still love to have fun; members of the local Arts Council and of course, the dancers of the company with which we work, Cutumba. There were a lot of people to meet. Each with a bigger smile than the last and just as warm of a welcome.
I have been travelling to Cuba since I was only a few months old, and this being my first trip to the island not being in Havana, not seeing my family and not being with my family, it was monumental for me. I sat on the roof terrace of my homestay on the first morning before heading down to work, overlooking the rooftops of Santiago with my fresh brewed cup of sweet black coffee and I was overcome with a profound sense of gratitude. Gratitude for being back in Cuba, for the experiences I have had there throughout my life, for my heritage, and for my new job allowing me to explore my relationship with the island more. I pondered this feeling for slightly too long and lost track of time. So, I quickly drank the rest of my coffee and hurried down the road to start the first day. As a very green member of the company, it was important I learned how the trip works and experienced all that a future client might so I participated in all the dance trip activities. Also, as someone more accustomed to the west side of the island, I was looking forward to getting to know Santiago in the east a bit more. We started with an orientation walk around the city, our local tour leaders Aylin and Naomi pointed out the biggest landmarks, where the dance lessons would be held and the best places to get good ice cream and food – an important blog yet to come.
Starting in the dance classes, we were introduced to our professional partners for salsa and son that we would be working with. My dancers were doomed to accept the challenge of someone who could knew the steps but was hopeless following a leader. With their patience and skill, they quickly whipped me into shape. The classes were held in an old colonial style building with a big open courtyard that provided plenty of space and light. Our typical routine was an hour of Son to start (a very traditional Cuban dance, where Salsa found its roots), an hour of another rhythm in the middle, a little more lighthearted and fun based like mambo or chachacha, which gave us further ideas to style our Son and Salsa, and in the last hour we focused on the star of the trip, Salsa. Our main dance teachers, Coco and Laima, were brilliant, and all of the dancers had incredible attention to detail. As we started to wither from the concentration and heat, we were served perfectly timed cold water, fresh guava juice and coffee, which swiftly revived us, ready to dive right into the next class.
As part of my job in Cuba, if you can believe it, I had to go on 5 nights out with the rest of the group to drink mojitos and salsa with internationally renowned dance partners. And this provided great real-life practice of what we learned in the daily classes. We were in a different venue each night, with different live music or the city’s best DJ, known locally as Jorgito, who really engaged the audience with his sets, with a grand finale of having the privilege of seeing Latin Grammy award winning Septeto Santiaguero on our last night. Being out altogether, it cemented not only what we learned but also our relationship as an entire group, and we could completely let our hair down and paint the club red, outside of a class dynamic.
On our tours around and outside of the city, I met our professional local guide, Yenia, who has a vast knowledge of the rebellious history of Santiago. On our first day we visited the Moncada Barracks, where Fidel Castro planned his fateful attack on the Cuban army, La Loma de San Juan, commemorating the history of the Cuban-American-Spanish war, and Plaza de la Revolución, a landmark in every Cuban town featuring each city’s hero. A few days later we were taken up La Gran Piedra, a literal big rock wedged 1,234m above sea level. Standing atop the rock, the most astonishing view of the countryside and sea (it is said that on a clear day, you can see the coast of Jamaica). I could have stayed up there all day, it took my breath away. Upon our descent, we visited La Isabelica, an old coffee plantation, and La Granjita, one of Castro’s hideouts for his guerrilla army. We sealed off the day with a delicious lunch and cultural presentation in all things coffee, cigars and rum. For our last day trip, we visited El Morro, the old fortress that stands at the entrance of Santiago Bay. Almost all of the original architecture is maintained, and it makes for some gorgeous pictures of the stonework and the ever-stretching horizon of the Caribbean Sea.
It was already a big trip, meeting all of my new colleagues and joining activities. But on top of this, it was Caledonia’s birthday – celebrating 25 years of travel and culture in Santiago de Cuba. Kath has been dedicated to Cuba for a long time and has made a name for herself and Caledonia in Santiago. I felt like I was accompanying a celebrity, her being greeted with joy up and down the city, and shoutouts from the MC in every salsa club we visited. Kath is revered for the work she has done for the people of Santiago, and that is clear to see. I can remember at least 3 ceremonies of recognition for Kath and her work in Cuban culture that seemed to surprise us every few days. Adorned with flowers, gifts and many thanks, the members of Artes Esenicas (the local Art Council) had a lot of gratitude to show for the 25th Anniversary of our director and her labour of love with the city – the first non-Cuban to be recognised in this way in the city’s history.
To add to this busy trip, we finished the April Dance trip with a week of performances and concerts held in celebration of FIDANZ, the international dance festival held every two years in Santiago de Cuba. There were incredible, beautiful displays of Cuban talent every day, and it all kicked off with a parade that started in one of the main squares, Plaza de Martes, and traversed its way through the city to Parque Céspedes. The Caledonia team and clients were invited to take part, and there we stood with our royal purple t-shirts proudly stating, “Caledonia Worldwide, 25 Años en Santiago de Cuba, 1998-2023”. Dance performances took place on each corner throughout by the most popular companies in the city including Danza del Caribe, Ballet Folklórico de Oriente, Kokoyé and our brilliant compañeros from Cutumba. The week carried on with a mix of traditional, contemporary and international dances and closed at the end of the week at Teatro Heredia, complete with again, an award and lovely acceptance speech from our wonderful Kath.
All of this activity culminated into a whirlwind of mixed-up schedules, hot weather, photoshoots, high emotions (plenty of tears), wonderful new connections and memories for us all to cherish for years to come. This trip was my first working holiday with Caledonia, and it is one I am bound to remember for the rest of my life.