When the Rice baseball team, coaches and staff boarded an early morning flight Nov. 23 bound for Cuba, they were ready for a 12-day trip of cultural immersion. Little could they imagine it would turn into the trip of a lifetime.
The team had prepared both on the field and in the classroom for the visit to the island nation, and the mission of the trip was well-planned: five games against Cuban Baseball Federation teams and continuation of the fall-semester class that all members of the baseball team registered for about trends in contemporary Cuba. The class was taught by Luis Duno-Gottberg, associate professor and chair of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American studies.
“When we get to Cuba, I want the team to understand beyond the traditional classroom setting and experience that Havana itself will be the classroom,” Duno-Gottberg said before the trip.
It was that and became much more.
The Owls arrived at their hotel, the Melia Habana, in Havana Nov. 23. On Thanksgiving Day, the team practiced at the gem of Cuban baseball, a stadium called Estadio Latinamericano. They also attended a class where the featured guest was Jesus Barosa, director of the Cuban Baseball Federation, and visited Morro Castle and Fort St. Charles.
The next day the team traveled 40 miles southwest of Havana for a game in Artemisa. The Owls won their first of five games by beating Artemisa 4-0. The Rice pitching duo of Dane Myers (six innings) and Addison Moss (three innings) combined to hold Artemisa to no runs on just four hits.
After postgame handshakes and pictures, Rice baseball head coach Wayne Graham said, “The experience of coming here has already been so beneficial, the game was just icing on the cake.” The team then headed back to Havana for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
As staff wrote a recap of the day for the team’s trip blog and prepared for the next day’s events, they saw a news flash on social media shortly before midnight: Former president and Cuban revolutionary hero Fidel Castro had died at the age of 90.
Across the street from the team’s hotel, a nightclub that previously had been loud and brightly lit suddenly went silent and dark. President Raul Castro announced that his brother would be cremated in the morning and the nation would go into a period of mourning that would last until Fidel Castro’s state funeral Dec. 4, the day the Owls were scheduled to return to the United States.
The mourning period meant that many businesses, museums and other facilities would be closed. Public music would cease and alcohol sales at restaurants and bars would be suspended.
“We did all this preparation with the purpose of fulfilling this double purpose,” Duno-Gottberg said. “And after 48 hours in Cuba and after successfully playing one game, this historic event happened and everything with this trip and this nation changed.”
The next day, the team’s Cuba trip blog announced that Rice would temporarily suspend activities out of respect for the people of Cuba. As a government agency and out of respect for the national mourning period, the Cuban Baseball Federation teams wouldn’t be able to play the remaining four games scheduled against Rice.
Duno-Gottberg, staff and Havana Tours, the company coordinating the team’s site visits and activities, scrambled to revamp the trip.
“We stopped the games and for a moment pondered what to do,” Duno-Gottberg said. “Should we go back (to the U.S.)? What’s going to happen in the country? What is the purpose of the trip now? After we awaited everything and realized it was proper — and viable — to stay, we incorporated, in a way, the historical event into our learning experience.”
The day Rice suspended activities, Duno-Gottberg contacted institutions, fellow scholars, friends and artists in Cuba to get a sense of what was still possible to do and what the sentiment of the Cuban people toward Americans was. He realized through those conversations that staying would be appropriate and fruitful and revised the itinerary for the remaining eight days, which no longer included baseball practice or games.
The schedule was a work in progress. Nothing was confirmed more than 24 hours in advance and the agenda sometimes changed by the hour.
“We realized that we had to be very flexible, which is one of the important things the students learned here — to be flexible and resourceful and to solve issues,” Duno-Gottberg said. “We applied that logic and produced many iterations of the itinerary and the syllabus.
“The first thing we added was to have a lot of conversations about what the Cuban people were feeling,” he said. “There were people who were mourning (in Cuba), and there were people celebrating (in Miami). I wouldn’t underestimate that conversation — making the team aware of all the things people were feeling, and this is how we have to go about it.”
Over the course of the remaining trip, the team visited many historical sites. On one day alone, Nov. 27, the team visited the Museum of the Revolution; Granma, a site dedicated to military equipment; Havana Central Park; the Capitol Building, which is a smaller duplication of the U.S. national capitol building; Floridita, a bar made famous by author Ernest Hemingway; Plaza de Armes; Plaza del la Catedral and Revolution Square.
“This has been really eye-opening,” said Rice pitcher Jackson Parthasarathy. “This was my first real time out of America. It was interesting to learn a lot in the classroom back at Rice and then come here and experience it firsthand.”
On Nov. 28, they visited the famous “mobster” Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the Square of St. Francis of Assisi. The next day the team headed west to Vinales and Pinar del Rio, which included a visit to a tobacco farm.
Other cultural and education visits included a trip to the city of Cienfuegos, a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia or “Lookout Farm,” and the Partagas cigar factory.
Even though the nation was in a period of mourning, Duno-Gottberg was able to set up a special visit to a dance studio.
“One of my good friends is a dance critic and another great friend of mine (Rosario Cardenas) won the national prize of choreography in Cuba; she is a famous dancer but also a choreographer,” Duno-Gottberg said. “I talked with them about doing something that would be appropriate in the context of national mourning.”
The company, Company Rosario Cardenas de Havana, did part of a performance of El Monte, which is a modern dance piece.
“They performed a part of the piece for our students, and then all the dancers and the choreographer invited the students into groups to perform with the company. It was parts of El Monte, but the beautiful part of the activity was when the baseball players were also sharing their dance moves — line dancing from Texas — and all of their own traditions,” he said.
“We didn’t play baseball, but there was an exchange that was profound. The class was supposed to last 30 minutes, but the choreographer and dancers were so excited and happy about the attitude of the players that we stayed for 90 minutes. I thought it was incredible and something that we didn’t expect,” he said.
Duno-Gottberg said trip exceeded expectations, “because we confronted something of this magnitude … this is something for the past 20 years people have been saying, that Fidel was going to die, and that when he died everything was going to collapse.
“So Fidel does die during our trip; we (Duno-Gottberg and staff) were scared for a moment about what was going to happen in the country, because we are here and we’re responsible for a large group of people, so of course that’s a large responsibility and a moment of concern, but all of a sudden this becomes an incredible learning experience for everybody — for me, the students and our staff,” he said.
“The trip was an amazing experience,” Rice pitcher Evan Kravetz said. “This is the reason you go to Rice. Where else can you get this? It was out of the box; it was unconventional wisdom. We came here to play baseball, and it got cut short due to unfortunate circumstances, but we learned a lot and bonded as a team.”
The team spent the final full day at a resort in Varadero near the airport, and it gave Duno-Gottberg time to reflect on what had transpired on the “baseball” trip.
“What a lab this is — Cuba and Castro’s death,” he said. “It was a lab of history this week. The class was particularly successful because the magnitude of the event demanded us to ask big questions, and the students asked some tough questions.
“Within the students’ world viewpoint, they are now looking at things in a different and more complex way — a more rich way, and that is success to me.”
The Flickr photo gallery below is a collage of the Rice baseball team’s trip.