Cuba: A Return to Sanity?

January 5, 2015

Dear Friends,

At noon on December 17, 2014, the Academic Travel Abroad team gathered in our conference room to hear President Obama announce he intended to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in over 50 years.  Many on our team have spent the past few years working closely with Cuba to deliver superb educational programs for client organizations like the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Our understanding of the island nation, our appreciation for Cuban culture, and our friendship with many Cuban citizens mean that we care deeply about what happens next. And not just for business reasons.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

First, we applaud President Obama for this historic, if not long overdue, step. No President in the past 20 odd years has had the courage to apply political capital to this thorny issue. Yet every President had the power to do so. Cuba, it seems, means a lot to a vocal few and too little to a vast majority.

Second, the reasons to adopt a different Cuba strategy are numerous.  Here are mine:

  1.  The Cold War ended in 1991, over 23 years ago.
  2.  Our policy of isolation, including the embargo, never worked: the regime was not undermined and Communism lives on in Cuba. In fact, Cuba has been forced to turn to supporters like Venezuela and China for resources while using the embargo as a way to demonize the U.S.
  3. Our Cuba policy has undermined U.S. credibility on the world stage, particularly in Latin America, and has made us look irrational and out of touch. In October of 2014, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for the 23rd time (188 to 2) to condemn the U.S. embargo.
  4. Engagement with a country that commits human rights abuses does not magically bring democracy and freedom to the oppressed people. However, by engaging rather than isolating, the U.S. can build leverage, increase dependence, and thereby exert more effective pressure on the powers that be.

The past two weeks at ATA have been interesting.  Americans realize that things in Cuba are about to change dramatically over the coming year.  They also know the expected surge in U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba will tax the island nation’s current infrastructure.  We have seen a dramatic increase in Cuba bookings, doubling the number we received over the same period last year.

Boys playing chess in Santiago

Boys playing chess in Santiago

While I understand the sense of urgency to see Cuba before too much change occurs, I also want to reassure those who can’t plan a trip in the coming months. Cuba will always enthrall. Its charm and vivacity are irrepressible, as evidenced by its music, arts, and spirited people. No matter when you plan your trip, whether in a month, a year or three years, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Felíz año nuevo!


Cuba: What Does it Say About our Country?

September 17, 2012

Dear Friends,

I find Cuba endlessly fascinating. When you travel to Cuba, you always end up leaving with more questions than answers. Yet, beyond the cultural richness of this island nation, there is another way in which Cuba gives this U.S. citizen pause. Cuba provides an intriguing lens through which to view our own nation. It casts shadows where there should be light and it reveals recesses of our national psyche that lack logic and good sense.

The Capitolio in Havana, fashioned after our very own Capitol

So here are some of my many questions:
•   Why do we implement a policy that restricts our citizens’ freedom to travel where they wish when we object to the same restrictions on freedom imposed by the Cuban government?
•   What other countries does our own government prohibit us from visiting other than Cuba? (None!)
•   When we have resumed relations with China since the 1970s and Vietnam since the 1990s, both nations with Communist regimes and human rights abuse records, why do we continue to isolate and economically oppress Cuba, 90 miles off our shores?
•   How effective has isolationism been in punishing and/or undermining the Castro regime?
•   Who are the real victims of U.S. policy in Cuba?
•   How does a small minority like the conservative Cuban Americans in Congress wield so much power in our democratic system?
•   How much leverage do we have in influencing Cuba’s future direction if we do not encourage economic engagement with Cuba?
•   Why do we export over $700 million in U.S. agricultural products (rice, beans, corn, frozen chicken) to Cuba every year when there is an embargo in place?
•   What other early 1960s policy still dominates our polemic today?
•   Why are we devoting tax-payers’ dollars to policing a complex set of regulations governing our relations (or lack thereof) with Cuba, an island of just over 11 million people?
•   When foreign countries implement laws that make fun of our own (eg. Helms Burton Act), is it not a sign that we lack reason?
•   In a post-Cold War world, what are we afraid of?
•   What will happen when Fidel and Raul die?
•   When will this all end?

Hatred runs deep, I know. Yet it seems we are in a position to take a risk here. How about trying a new policy, since the one that has been in place for over 70 years has been so completely ineffective?

The fantastical world of artist Jose Fuster, Jaimanitas

“You don’t go to Cuba for the food.”

May 21, 2012

Dear Friends,

No one can deny that one of the many pleasures of traveling usually includes the local cuisine. Whether savoring a rich foie gras on a toast point in France, a saffron-tinted paella in Spain, a creamy carbonara in Italy, a fragrant cilantro-laced larb in Laos, the crispy lacquered skin of a Peking duck in China, the spicy lamb of a Moroccan merguez sausage–there is no end to the fond sensory memories these delicious dishes evoke. So when you are told “you don’t go there for the food,” it takes a hit on your eager anticipation of the upcoming journey.

Deep-fried baby octopi at Melia Cohiba Hotel buffet

ATA has sent hundreds of travelers to Cuba since the fall of 2010, on both professional and people-to-people programs. And sadly, we do advise all of our guests to expect mediocre meals while on the island.  State-run restaurants serve bland, repetitive meals, usually including Moors & Christians (black beans and rice), roast pig, fried plantains, beets and shredded cabbage, and possibly a flan or rice pudding for dessert.  Paladares, privately-run restaurants that are proliferating with recent economic reforms encouraging entrepreneurship, serve a more varied and interesting cuisine.  Some of my recent paladare meals (at Café Laurent and La Guarida in Havana and at Villa Lagarto in Cienfuegos) included shrimp brochette, pork chops, and swordfish. However, none of these meals came close to the fine Cuban cuisine available in the U.S. or elsewhere.

So this disappointing showing begs the question: why are chefs in Cuba not able to produce a higher quality of cuisine? I have heard various answers. The high cost and lack of availability of produce and foodstuffs,  the until-now limited demand for high-end meals, the fairly weak chef training programs and culinary career opportunities, the surprisingly limited fishing that takes place around the island.

A typical Cuban menu, Old Havana

Eighty percent of what Cubans eat is imported, and 40% of that comes from the U.S. (rice, beans, corn).  This dependence is a serious economic weakness and makes foodstuffs expensive for the average Cuban, not to mention for the restaurant owners, both state and private.

Forever resourceful, Cubans are finding ways to address the need for fresh vegetables, luxury food items, and hard-to-find spices.  With a more open door for Cuban Americans to visit and send packages to their relatives, a steady stream of restaurant supplies is flowing into the country. Community vegetable gardens are sprouting up in urban areas.  Between May 2011 and April 2012, I already noticed a huge improvement in the quality of the cuisine. Fruits and vegetables were more readily available, and the shrimp and fish were a little less over-done.  The New York Times on May 18, 2012 reported on an interesting culinary project taking place at the time of this writing–Project Paladare ( Such culinary collaboration between Cuba and foreign chefs will only further the refinement of Cuban cuisine.

In the end, Cuba in all its glory—with its passionate culture, its vibrant people, its whimsical art and ubiquitous music—fills every sensory need a traveler has and more.  So while we assume food is a key component of any successful travel experience, Cuba proves that there is more to life than the material, corporeal needs of human beings.  Cuba feeds one’s soul in a way few travel experiences—or meals–can.

In a few years, with any luck and the continued loosening of the US travel policy on Cuba, resources will increase, culinary training will improve, and the excellent Cuban cuisine we enjoy in Miami and elsewhere will be emulated where it originated—the island nation itself.  And then Cuba will be hard to beat as a destination that truly has it all!

Tribute to the Sands of Egypt

July 12, 2010

In Nubia, with Gracious Host

Dear Friends,

The tale of the Egyptian Prince Tutmosis III and his encounter with the Sphinx of Giza fascinates me.  On a hunting trip in the Valley of the Gazelles some time before his reign, Tutmosis III decided to take a nap to escape the midday sun. He chose the shade below the head (the only visible section) of the Great Sphinx of Giza.  While he slept, the Sphinx spoke to him and told him that, if he dug the Sphinx out of the sand that covered it, he would be assured the throne of Egypt.  So Tutmosis III set to work and excavated the Sphinx, the very first restoration of this site, undertaken circa 1400 BCE. The story of this dream is recounted on the stelae at the Sphinx’s feet.

What captivates me about this tale is the fact that, even in 1400 BCE, the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza were already ancient, having existed since Great Sphinx of Giza with Dream Stelae between its Feet2650 BCE, and that the protective layers of desert sand had already buried all but the Sphinx’s head over the preceding 1200 years.

Egypt’s ancient wonders abound, but it is not until you stand within inches of the deeply carved cartouches of Ramses II in Karnak or the stunning turquoise of painted vulture wings on Hatshepsut’s Temple, or the intricate delicacy of King Tutankhamen’s jewelry, that the impossibility overwhelms you.  How can such beauty have survived 2000, 3000, 4000 years? 

Vivid colors of a Vulture's Plumage on Hatshepsut's Temple

Entering the imposing structure of Ramses III Temple, there is a series of chapels to the left.  Little color remains, and the carvings seem simplified, unremarkable.  It turns out, these chapels date to Alexander the Great’s time—circa 332 BCE. Modern, by Egyptian standards!  Yet paling in comparison to the elaborate scenes of battle and power depicted on Ramses III’s own temple walls.

Deep in the Temple of Luxor (circa 1400 BCE), past the small area that once served as a chapel for Roman soldiers during the 3rd century CE, there is a shrine built by Alexander the Great, depicting the Greek king as a pharaoh.  Here, you can stand between the outer wall built by Amenhotep III and the inner wall of the Greek shrine.  Within a couple of feet of each other, the contrast is sharp: over a 1000 years pass from the time the Egyptian outer wall was carved to the time the Greeks erect their shrine. Yet, Alexander the Great’s craftsmen lose this contest: their work appears amateurish at best.

It’s not often that Alexander the Great comes across as lacking accomplishment.  Yet ancient Egypt puts many more modern cultures to shame.  Even the Romans, who seemed to lack the respect and interest Alexander showed Egyptian culture, appear boorish and uncultured in comparison.  The Roman chapel within the Temple of Luxor is made of scavenged temple stones, betrayed by the upside down body parts and images carved on their surfaces.

Image of Ramses III on his Temple

Reflecting on all the perfection that bears tribute to Egypt’s royal ancestors, I can’t help but wonder what we have lost over time in sophistication, technique, and ambition. And I rejoice in the protective benefits of the sands of Egypt—without them, what treasures would have been lost to humankind!

For information on our educational journeys to Egypt, please visit

Language: More than a Practical Portal

February 22, 2010


Dear Friends,

One of the greatest human urges is to communicate. At an early stage, our toddlers demonstrate the frustration they feel when their meaning or intents are not understood for lack of language skills—sippy cups are thrown to the floor; food is flung from the high chair.  The message is clear: we want to be understood!

So no wonder language, as every human being’s most expedient expression, conveys personalities, cultures, nuances and fundamental values the world over.

As many of you know, Academic Travel Abroad, Inc. is not only an educational travel company; it is also a study abroad organization.  We currently send approximately 1,000 US college students overseas every year to study in China, the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain and Vietnam (and as of this summer, Japan and Syria!) on our CET Academic Programs (

 CET’s education abroad philosophy is rooted in the value of cultural and language immersion.  It is clear speaking to anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad that immersion—a real break with one’s own cultural environment, contacts and language—brings understanding and broadens horizons. 

So while beginning the learning process early and undertaking a serious commitment to foreign language study is ideal in order to transcend cultural barriers, I firmly believe that the process is valuable at any age and at any level of engagement

Embarking on a trip to a foreign land, few dispute the value of picking up a phrase book before departure.  This is a practical step. Yet how many view a look at the language of the destination as an essential part of their introduction to that culture?  As important as the study of the country’s history, society, art, and politics is, a basic introduction to the language can teach us so much.

For example, few written languages paint pictures and convey cultural lessons as plainly as Chinese.  Some characters are logical, with the stone radical associating with hard, strong, fundamental concepts, the heart radical expressing feelings, and the hand radical describing actions and gestures.  Yet other characters betray social preconceptions: peace is a woman under a roof; home is a pig under a roof, precious is jade under a roof… And a woman with a son is just plain good.  It doesn’t take long to realize the rich cultural lessons hidden in every pictogram.

Then there’s French. How many nations boast an Académie Française dating to the 17th century in which “immortals” rule on all matters pertaining to the glory of the language?  Here is a culture that drills its young with daily “dictées” of complex paragraphs to test the subject-verb accords, feminin-masculin mastery and subjunctive conjugations, in addition to requiring excruciating “explication de textes”—pulling apart and analyzing a text, word by word, line by line.  So whether you master the classic lines like plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘the more things change, the more they stay the same”) or the common exclamation ça va pas, non?! (“You are not well, are you?!”), some dabbling in French is not only fun but can reveal much about this rich culture.

On a recent business trip to Japan, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by two fluent Japanese speakers.  On the plane ride over, I asked that they review the basics of polite Japanese phrases for me: from dozo and arigato gozaimashita, to an often-used phrase—dozo yorushuku onegai shimasu.  The latter was translated for me as “please forgive me for any trouble I will ever cause you.” It’s a mouthful, and it’s spoken very rapidly by native speakers, but it is used constantly. To me, it revealed much about the culture I was about to visit. The extreme politesse and consideration the Japanese extend to each other are ubiquitous.

I still remember the delight one of my China travelers expressed when a phrase I had taught her had the desired effect—a smile and a grateful nod from a proud Chinese mother.  “Hen ke ai!”  this American traveler had said, admiring a toddler with rosy cheeks in Shanghai.  “Very cute!”

So next time you’re heading abroad, I encourage you to look at the language as more than a practical portal, but as a window onto greater cultural understanding and meaningful interaction.  As few as three syllables can make the difference between being a passive observer and being an active participant in your discovery of the world.

The Beauty of Group Travel

December 2, 2009

A Brass Door Knob, Forbidden City, Beijing

Dear Friends,

It’s been a while since my last post.  The fall was busy and marked by a trip to China in October that will go down in my mind as one of the greatest group travel experiences ever. This National Geographic journey started in Beijing and wove its way south through Xi’an, Chongqing, the Yangzi River, the Three Gorges Dam, ending in pulsating Shanghai.  In reflecting on the success of this experience, I concluded that my 23 travelers encountered group travel at its very best and here’s why:

1. Their Openness:  Marcel Proust is known to have said “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Throughout our time in China, each and every traveler demonstrated a willingness to see through the eyes of others or even to expand their way of thinking in ways that were unfamiliar to them.

2. Their Sense of Community:  From the very first day in Beijing, our group showed respect and care for each other, exchanging personal thoughts and experiences, maintaining punctuality, watching out for each other in crowds, resetting a bike chain during a circumnavigation of the City Wall in Xi’an, lending a sweater when the weather turned cold in Shanghai, and empathizing when someone’s personal belongings went missing in Yichang.  During breakfasts and free meals, I observed different travelers joining each other at different times, developing new friendships and learning from one another.  Couples welcomed single travelers within their midst, and no group was exclusive.

VIP Access to the Terra Cotta Army

3. Their Cultural Sensitivity:   No aspect of Chinese culture went unappreciated on this trip.  Each traveler expressed awe, curiosity, and genuine respect for all our itinerary presented.  From the serenity of the Confucian Temple in Beijing and the Great Mosque in Xi’an to the animated hacky sack players at the Temple of Heaven and the charming, erudite Mr. Wang ( former Chief Engineer of the Three Gorges Dam Project), our group members captured 100% of each significant moment and encounter.

4. Their Joie de Vivre:  I marveled at the personal stories behind each traveler and how they came to choose a trip to China. Many had overcome sadness and challenges in the year or so before the trip, and despite these (or perhaps because of these), they launched themselves into China with a verve and appreciation for life that was heartening.  Their perspective helped them enjoy themselves to the fullest.

A kindergartener waves her pom at us in Fengdu

5. The Authenticity of the Experience:  A group of individuals this genuine deserves the most authentic and truest of experiences.  I am proud to say National Geographic Expeditions delivered on this promise.  We were the only foreigners to visit Panjiayuan (a Beijing flea market), the only foreigners to eat in many of the local restaurants selected, to gain VIP access to the Terra-Cotta Army Museum, to hear an exclusive briefing by the dedicated Director of Foreign Relations at the Great Mosque in Xi’an, to enter the restricted visitor center led by a senior engineer at the Three Gorges Dam Project, and to play jump rope with kindergartners  and sing songs with retirees in Fengdu.  And all these authentic experiences were augmented by the superb lectures and refined expertise of our Expert, Ken Hammond.

Without a doubt, my fellow travelers on this trip enriched a well-planned, educational itinerary by applying the very best principles of group travel.  With their important contributions, I would venture to say we achieved perfection, a rare and beautiful thing in the world of travel.  I am forever indebted to them.

Kate Simpson

Kate Simpson on the Smithsonian Journeys blog

July 6, 2009

Below is the latest blog from Kate Simpson, President of Academic Travel Abroad as seen on the
Smithsonian Journeys blog page:

China: Understanding Etiquette

July 1st, 2009 by Kate Simpson

Kate Simpson is President of Academic Travel Abroad, where she began her career as a China Program Manager in 1998 after completing a degree in East Asian Studies from Yale and a post-graduate fellowship in Chinese literature. Kate loves to travel to hidden corners of the countries she loves most, like Haute Savoie in alpine France or the Ming villages near Huangshan in China. Click here for more on Kate.

A James Cox gilded birdcage clock in the Forbidden City's Hall of Clocks and Watches, Beijing.  Photo: Flickr gruntzooki.

A James Cox gilded birdcage clock in the Forbidden City's Hall of Clocks and Watches, Beijing. Photo: Flickr gruntzooki.

I always chuckle when I visit the Hall of Clocks and Watches in Beijing’s Forbidden City, which features gifts to Chinese emperors presented by foreign envoys. In Mandarin Chinese, the words “give a clock” (song zhong) can also mean “sending one to one’s end.” For this reason, traditionally, clocks and time pieces are not considered the best choices as gifts for Chinese friends. Diplomacy without language comprehension or an understanding of proper etiquette can pose challenges!

As a student of China, I loved using the Mandarin skills I had to navigate cultural differences with Chinese counterparts. However, language alone doesn’t always help. As with all cultures, body language, actions, and rituals convey more information than words alone. And when it comes to eating and drinking, the Chinese are emperors of protocol! Certainly, formal banquets are different from a casual meal with friends, but generally, here are some tips that help me keep my relations with the Chinese untainted by faux pas:

• At a banquet, hosts and guests have very clearly defined places at the (usually) round table. The host always sits in the seat facing the door. His or her guest of honor sits to his or her left. To the host’s right, the next important guest is seated (or the interpreter if there is a need).

• If toasts begin, make sure to lift your glass so that it touches below the rim of the person’s with whom you are toasting. This is a sign of respect.

• If you have had enough to drink and your hosts are insisting on another “gan bei” (dry your glass: a shot), say the two words “sui yi” (as you wish) and take a modest sip. This is usually something women can get away with more easily than men and it indicates that they respectfully decline to down their glass.

• Always leave something on your plate to indicate you have plenty to eat. Make it clear that you consider the meal very ample. This gives your host “face.”

• If the dinner is not a banquet, when the bill comes, it is customary to fight noisily over it with the other party, and let the party who did not pay for your last meal together pick up the tab eventually. But you need to put on a good show of it! This play-acting takes place regularly in Chinese restaurants across the world. You’ll know it’s your turn after the next mealand fight.

• When your guest leaves the banquet hall or restaurant, the host should walk them out to the door, often repeating “man zou, man zou” (go slowly).

Many of the more traditional protocols are fading with China’s more relaxed approach to relations with foreigners. However, erring on the side of formality is never a problem in a country whose pride in its heritage and traditions runs deep.

Now that you know, try these tips for yourself. Click here for travel to China.


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