Lost (and Found) in Translation: A (Kinda-Sorta) Spanish Speaker’s Cuban Experience

Written by Amy Yvorchuk


“this blue blob of rusted ancient metal (well, it’s about 60 years old) clunk-clunk-clunks through centuries of resource and decades of revolution. it’s careening over rocky roads and stumbling through the sunshine, searing like scrambling eggs on summer pavement (well, it’s the middle of spring).

we doze off on top of suitcase armrests – i’m the last to fall asleep, because i’m distracted by the wind behind me. i try to stay conscious through this travel through time and time again.

the speedbumps aren’t just for show here; they’re our unwarranted alarms, but we’re never in harm’s way despite this steel juggernaut’s jerking over years of winding and unwinding history interlaced with intersections and precarious infrastructure. we’re davids within this goliath, but in this edition of the story we’re not here to conquer – we’re collaborating with compassion with newfound companions.”

These were the first words I jotted down to remember this experience as we drove through the Cuban countryside from Varadero to Sancti Spiritus on May 16th, 2017, the day our unforgettable journey began. When I look back, my stream of consciousness seems just as shaky as my writing was, just as the bus ride was: I don’t think I’ll be able to translate perfectly through either words or pictures, but I can always try. After all, these GCELE opportunities encourage us as students and global citizens to work towards dismantling barriers – and we do that through communicating with each other on our trip, with our new Cuban friends, and with you, the person on the other side of the screen reading this and wondering, “what do you even do on a GCELE?”

As someone who spoke Spanish really well in high school, but graduated high school five years ago, I’ll admit that I overestimated how fluent I was. “I speak Spanish at a conversational level” is easy to say in Canada, when you’re introducing yourself at the GCELE pre-departure orientation to your new Canadian friends, some of whom do speak Spanish but most of whom know “hola”, “adiós”, and “despacito”. It’s even easy to live up to that statement at the airport, when you’re going through customs or asking your bus drivers their names. But in a country where Spanish is the official language, especially in a city like Sancti Spiritus that isn’t overrun with tourists, the locals don’t sound like the slow, articulated, overpronounced audios from your classroom. They grew up with this language, of course, and so you feel like a child relearning how to speak – but you’re also translating for others at the same time that you’re trying to keep up. Challenge accepted, but maybe I dove in too quickly?


But nine days in Sancti Spiritus taught me much, much more than some of the words and phrases I’d forgotten. Sure, I felt anxious about not being a perfect translator: one event comes to mind in which I forgot the Spanish word for “box” when some of my friends wanted to take some pizza they’d ordered back to the casa particular where we were staying, and I internally panicked. But what I quickly learned from so many new friends is that it’s okay not to be perfect: it’s better to make the effort to communicate and get to know the people around you than to be completely grammatically correct. Enthusiasm, positivity, and curiosity about new environments go a long, long way.

I became inspired by my fellow Centennial students to stop letting my fear of being perfect get in the way of communicating. When I stopped overthinking about the exact words or grammatically correct phrases to say, I actually felt so much more comfortable speaking with volunteers, families, and permaculture enthusiasts in Sancti Spiritus. Whether it was finding a common love for YouTube makeup tutorials with Lorrettys, listening to entertaining stories about motorcycle mishaps from Sandy, or comparing tattoos with Felix, I found that there was so much that unified us Canadians and Cubans that the language barrier wasn’t an obstacle, but a springboard. And as we all laughed and chattered with excitement in basic English, basic Spanish, and wild hand gestures, I realized that this is what makes new experiences so rewarding: you don’t need to be fluent to build friendships.

That said, I would highly recommend all of you to learn how to say “the toilet’s broken” in the language of the country where you happen to be traveling next, because it’s best to be prepared too.



Food Security in Cuba – An Introduction

By: Gun Chong Yang, Nursing Student

GCELE: Pathways to Community Food Security in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

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My name is Gun, but you can call me Chino because that was my nickname during my time on this Global Citizenship and Equity Learning Experience. Along with 14 other students and staff members of Centennial College, I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to the humble city of Sancti Spíritus, tucked away in the heart of the island country of Cuba, to learn about food security and permaculture.

Food security can be defined as having access to affordable, nutritious, and sustainable foods or food resources. Food insecurity, as one could probably imagine, is the opposite of that. When we think of food insecurity, we tend to conjure up images of impoverished children living in war-torn countries and poor, undeveloped nations. On this trip, however, we were taught to re-imagine and reflect on those images not from a political & economic perspective, but through a socio-cultural lens.

Cuba has gone through an incredible amount of social, political, economic, and cultural growth and transformation within the last 30 years. This is the result of an economic crisis, known as the “Special Period”, that began in the late 1980s due to a halt to the import of oil, food, and other goods from the Soviet Union. With their economy already damaged by the trade embargo set by the United States in the 1960s, the effects of this crisis were felt all over the country.

During the Special Period, Cubans all around the country had to ration their food supplies and limit the use of any fossil fuel-dependent machinery due to their lack of oil. Many farmers suffered greatly because they could not use their large tractors or harvesters and could not easily transport the goods that they produced any more. This also meant that urban communities began to see a decrease in accessibility to foods as well. People were becoming hungry and increasingly reliant on the government for support. Cuba was in need of a solution that would provide food security to its citizens during this vulnerable time.

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Luckily, a few teams of Australian volunteers came and shared with the Cubans a new method of sustainable farming that could be easily integrated into the lives of citizens, both urban and rural, and was seen by the Cuban government as a method to combat the increasing amounts of hunger and poverty that were beginning to spread throughout the country. This new agriculture vision was known as “permaculture”.

Permaculture is the combination of 3 words; permanent, agriculture, and culture. It is a system of beliefs that revolves around the development of sustainable agricultural systems that closely resemble natural ecosystems.

Natural ecosystems, like the earth, are considered to be self-sufficient. This means that they require little to no maintenance in order to proliferate on their own. There exists cycle in nature that all organic material can enter to be broken down into the basic building blocks of life; carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. New plants can use the products of that breakdown, combined with the seemingly limitless amount of energy from the sun, to supplement their own growth. This happens on a large scale all over the planet and seems to have worked so far in creating massive, self-sufficient ecosystems (think large rainforests!), so therefore by integrating these biochemical laws of nature in their own farms, permaculture farmers have been able to produce a large quantity of healthy and sustainable vegetation.

A lot of the food that we eat comes from monoculture farms; farms that only produce a specific crop (e.g. orange farms). Monoculture farming definitely has its benefits, but it is not a sustainable method of farming. They reduce biodiversity, make it harder to recycle nutrients, and often rely heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Permaculture is a different take on the typical monoculture farming that we see today. One of its concepts involves incorporating a wide variety of plants and using them in a way to maximize each plant’s individual development. This is almost identical to the First Nations’ “Three Sisters” concept, where corn, beans, and squash are grown together because each crop has a unique characteristic that provides a benefit to the other two, maximizing their growth potential.

On  the third day of our trip, we planted banana circles at a farm named “Lo Real Maravillosa”. Banana circles are another type of system of crops like the ones described earlier. By planting banana & papaya trees and sweet potato roots in a circular mound with a pile of compost in the center, the circles act as great natural composters, abundant sources of food, and storage sites for greywater or rain.


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Another concept that is a part of permaculture is the idea of producing no waste. Many of the foods and waste products that we simply throw away today have huge amounts of energy and nutrients left over that can be re-purposed. The whole idea of composting is to break waste down into dirt that is enriched by the nutrients that were trapped in the waste before. By composting kitchen scraps and food wastes and turning them into dirt, farmers can save money on fertilizer and produce better yields of healthier and tastier crop.

I remember visiting a man named Edison’s farm and noticing that the ground we were walking on was covered in something that wasn’t dirt. He told us that they were rice husks; waste products from a local rice mill. Edison made a deal where he would take all their waste and use it on his farm. The rice husks would naturally degrade and the nutrients trapped in them would return to the soil, thereby enriching and protecting his soil.

Even human waste can be re-used. For this reason, almost all of the farms that we visited had composting toilets, or dry toilets that collected our waste products, which were added to compost to help make nutrient-rich fertilizer through the bacterial breakdown process. Human waste also contains a lot of bacteria that, during the composting process, produces methane gas, which was used to power some of their stoves.

The final permaculture concept that I will talk about is setting limits and sharing the surplus. Many of the farms that we visited did not only produce food for themselves, but made an excess that helped to feed the rest of their communities. They also sold some of their crops in the local markets. By taking only as much as they need for themselves and ensuring that there is enough for others as well, then there will continue to be enough for all in the future.

This trip taught me extremely valuable knowledge on food security, the country of Cuba, and permaculture. I will definitely apply this knowledge in my future career as a nursing student and I am very grateful for the new perspective I’ve been given on agriculture and food. Thank you, Centennial College, for this amazing opportunity. Sancti Spíritus, I’ll be back!




My Learning Journey in Sancti Spiritus

Feeling anxious about what my next 10 days were going to be like, I hopped on the plane with 14 strangers and off we went to Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. For the next 3 hours, my imagination was free to run and wonder what exciting things were just a few short hours away from me. We stepped off the plane and as I inhaled with much excitement we started our journey!

We all gathered on the back of a bus with benches for seats and windows as air conditioner and our suitcases packed between our legs! An experience you might ask – absolutely! The next five hours were full of an experience like no other gaining friendships and seeing the world beyond my typical norm. We arrived at the foundation we would be staying at for the duration of our stay and the greeting, although a language barrier, was very special and inviting. One thing about the foundation was whenever we walked through the doors the table was set every single time with delicious meals prepped for us like clockwork. Beautiful dinners of fresh local fruits and veggies, freshly squeezed fruit juice from local farms – it was wonderful.

As we began our adventures, day by day the experience got greater and connections became stronger. The team work was phenomenal. I have never been part of a team who worked so collaboratively in my life. We laughed we cried but most important we worked together. We saw tarantulas and encountered scorpions, slightly shocked by the shower head (it pays to know the language and read the signs 😂😂). It was used to heat the water but clearly had written do not touch shower heads.

Those are just a few of my wonderful experience but let me touch on the amazement of the utilization of material and waste matter that was so efficiently reused to build garden beds and dead leaves and grass used as mulch to turn into amazing soil. This way they reused human and animal waste to create soil from mother nature. It was so amazing to see the beautiful gardens flourishing with fresh tasty fruit and not to mention the all natural medicinal plants they had for many different illnesses. I was truly inspired by the hard but not too challenging work the Cubans had put together. They have done the gardens in a way that is so amazing and eases the work load daily.

I was truly inspired when I returned home I had reused 2 old BBQs I had and cleaned them lined them and created beautiful garden beds that have now started to grow carrots, tomatoes, green onions, squash and more. To touch on modes of transportation a tad, the coolest experience we had was riding a horse and buggy. Though our horse took a little hissy fit and decided which paths he wanted to take and when, it was quite the experience. The truck we took was an open back and that is something I’ve always wanted to try. Every morning we woke, ate breakfast and on the back of that truck we went.

The Cuban friends we made were so amazing and accommodating. They taught us to dance salsa and took us to a wonderful beach (I might add we were stung by jelly fish, just another experience to add to the list 😁) but the friendships gained were friendships kept. We swapped emails and keep in touch on a a weekly basis. It’s amazing how the experience continues to flourish even after the project is over. One last piece I would like to add is they have taught me so much in such a brief time. My eyes have been opened to a world of amazing new opportunities that I continue to carry with me.

By: Alysha Morris

Sancti Spiritus, Cuba – GCELE Experience

By: Inez Tarditti-Falconer

Sancti Spiritus, Cuba… Where do I even begin? This GCELE was literally a trip of a lifetime for me. I learned things I never thought I could learn, went through experiences I never would have imagined, met Cuban friends that I never thought I would have met and travelled with an amazing group of people from Centennial!

While in Sancti Spiritus, I really got a taste of what it’s like to live in Cuba. I went on this trip with the mindset that I would be helping the people there, but in reality, the people of Cuba taught me and helped me more than anything. I learned a lot about the permaculture movement happening in Cuba and what that meant in regards to their food security. It was moving and inspiring to get to know how the Cubans we met lived a life that revolved around nature and taking care of the land, while living off of it as well.

Many of the farmers were teachers, engineers and ordinary people with other jobs. They had farms and gardens as a side activity. I thought this alone was moving because taking care of these farms and gardens is a big and task requiring a lot of hard work! Since I know how to speak a bit of Spanish, I was able to speak with some of the farmers and I honestly learned so much from them. They are so wise, knowledgeable and humble in all that they do – it was amazing to meet people like them.

All of my new Cuban friends are always in my heart and without a doubt, I will be returning to Sancti Spiritus to see them again!  I also got the chance to plant banana trees, papaya, sweet potatoes and coffee. I was actually in the dirt and planting! It was such an awesome feeling, mainly because, before this trip I would have never ever thought I would be working in a farm and getting dirty – or even planting anything at all!

Learning about permaculture in Cuba opened my eyes to our own food security in Toronto and what that really means for us. I also stayed at the foundation’s museum, and something that I had to get used to was the water shortage. Mostly during the days, the water would run out and return in the evening. I never had to deal with anything like this in Toronto, so it was something that made me realize just how grateful I should be for something as simple as having unlimited access to water in my home. From the drives in cars from the 50’s, to the delicious food, to the vibrant energy of the Cuban people, to the endless laughs and memories, I can honestly say that I enjoyed every second of it.

All in all, this trip was unreal. When I was back in Toronto and it came time to tell all my friends and family about it, I found myself having difficulties putting it all into words. It’s one of those experiences that you just had to be there to really get it! I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity by Centennial. I think that GCELE’s are such an amazing part of this College. Because of this trip, I have memories that will last a lifetime, lived through experiences that have changed me as a person and made amazing new friends. Without a doubt, this GCELE was absolutely and unforgettably INCREDIBLE.

I chose Cuba to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday

by Thi Huyen Anh Nguyen

This year I want to celebrate CANADA’s 150th birthday in Cuba. I felt kindly honored to be selected to participate the project “ Cuba Food security” of Centennial in Cuba. This was an incredible experience to meet and work with a team, a community and a family in Cuba. I am thankful to Centennial College and Canada for giving me the opportunities to study, live, work and enjoy my life in Canada.

Omar’s Farm

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Written by Thi Huyen Anh Nguyen

GCELE – Cuba “Food Security”

In the 2nd day of the project, I had a chance to visit a farm where belongs to Mr. Omar. He was an amazing person that I have met. We were guided to see the farm with a lot of crops, beside that he is also developing a breeding farm with rapids, chicken and pigs. Mr. Omar is really dedicated with his farm by not stop learning new knowledge from the other countries and hence he did not hesitate to share what he learned to the farmers in Cuba. He said that he would always share what he learned to help the other farmers to develop their farm; hence everyone will have more healthy food and a better life. I learned that being selfish does not make life easier or happier. Sharing experiences to the others that also mean to learn and receive new things from the others when they give you their knowledge, feedbacks, and new perspectives.

He was presenting about a liquid culture that is Effective Microorganisms (EM). They include the photosynthesizing bacteria, lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and fermenting fungi. He knows how to make EM what are mixed cultures of beneficial naturally occurring organisms. EM has incredible applications such as increasing the microbial diversity to soil ecosystem. It has been proved that EM is benefit for soil, plant growth, cleaning, yield (permaculturenews.org, 2016). In his farm, he does not use chemical components to feed crops or animals, or does not have Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) productions. In addition, he also introduced about biogas composition from waste productions of animal, plant, or food that is helpful to protect the environment from pollution. He uses many resources and materials to recycle such as old water bottles; old pines and even used pumping machine then recreated a water pump. These works contributed a huge impact on the environment positively.

I would never forget these days in Cuba; I had been so much amazing moments about people, families, communities and particularly the country. Cuba is a beautiful country where are very hospitable, kind, and happy.


What is Permaculture and Why is it Important?

Written By: Keerthan Sritharan

Permaculture is a term that I wasn’t fully aware of until this GCELE learning experience. In my past environmental science courses, I was introduced to the concept of a self-sustaining agricultural system but I wasn’t sure what that had meant. I know now that permaculture is a term used to describe agricultural systems and social designs that makes the land, such as farms, more sustainable and self-sufficient. Permaculture is a holistic approach that makes agricultural systems more productive through the complex interplay of people, soil, water, energy, plants, animals, and appropriate technologies. Permaculture is a way of making a sustainable human habitat while looking for sustainable ways to satisfy the human needs.

With the concept of permaculture, there are a set of three ethical principles that follow it:
1) Care of the Earth – For example, respect the biodiversity, take care of the soils of which life grows from, and do not pollute rivers and waterways
2) Care of the People – For example, take care of yourself and those around you, sharing of any beneficial knowledge of permaculture, and not producing any unnecessary crops that would go to waste
3) Sharing the Surplus – For example, spreading the wealth of food produced, sharing of resources and equipment, and helping out troubled communities


So now you may be wondering why is permaculture implemented in Cuba and what is the importance of it to the Cubans. In order to answer those questions we need to attach a little bit of history behind the permaculture movement in Cuba. Cuba had a longstanding tradition of growing their own food without harming the natural environment but it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the “Special Period” when the food crisis started. The collapse led to the national problem of food insecurity. For example, the collapse decreased the amount of imports such as farm supplies from the soviet bloc and this turned into an overall decrease of 80% in imports which hurt Cuba economically.

Over time, the Cubans were encouraged to take up rural farming and help to provide food for themselves through organic agriculture. The Cubans didn’t use heavy machinery but rather relied on very sustainable farming strategies such as crop rotation and composting usage. With organic farming and implementing permacultural strategies, Cuba got closer to resolving the national food crisis.

My Experience in Cuba 2017

My trip to Cuba, Varadero was a trip of a lifetime! As I look back at this experience, I am incredibly grateful to Centennial College to have given me this opportunity. Before my departure to Cuba, I was very nervous but excited to be going to a country I’ve never been before. Although my GCELE group had a lot of meetings provided by our leaders to prepare us for this experience, it is completely different from when you are there. Arriving at the Juan Gomez airport in Varadero, I was already in love with Cuba, especially at how hot it was compared to Toronto. We took a school bus to where we were staying; Casa Del Carino, our home for the next ten days, it was beautiful place with an incredible view of the beach in the background.

The school bus we took to Casa Del Carino

On the second day, we visited two local farms. The first farm was a developing farm called Rosy farm the owners were a very loving couple and were generous to allow us to explore their land. The second farm was more developed with a lot of different crops and animals. An interesting part of this farm was the farmer had invented a solution without the use of chemicals called EM. This solution could be utilized for many things, but one thing that amazed me about it was he used it in his bunny cages, and there were no bad odours from the rabbit’s cages at all!




The Jardines Bellmar was the farm we worked on for the duration of our trip, and let me tell you it was a lot of hard work! Being in the hot sun, cutting down trees and weeds with machetes was something I’ve never done before. But for Roberto and Cusa the couple who own the farm, I give them a lot of credit to be able to do that every day and without so much help. Working on the farm, it made me reflect and take a look at how much effort and hard work goes into the food that is put on my plate every day.

Cuban food!
Hut on the farm made from organic materials
Roberto (In red) & Cusa (In green)


My grade 8 student (Ian) & I


Being in Cuba was a memorable experience for me. I was able to meet amazing, loving people, from Roberto and Cusa to the fabulous ladies who cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all of us every day to the grade eight students who worked with us on the farm.  At times the media can portray Cuba in a negative way and before coming here, I had some of those negative images and stereotypes within me. But after ten days of being in Cuba, I honestly believe how the media portrays Cuba to be untrue. Although they may not be the richest people, they are rich with love, family, and culture and that is something that radiates in every single Cuban. Cuba is a beautiful place that I definitely plan on visiting again…. Viva Cuba!



Off the grid for 10 days

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GCELE Cuba, Varadero

May 2017

Written By: Alison Spice

            Mission: Go unplugged for 10 days. That means no internet, no emails, no social media, no calls and no text messages. Do you accept the challenge? “Hmmm ahh, I guess so. YES! Challenge accepted.” Alison replied, with quivering uncertainty in her voice. Would you have taken the same challenge? Most wouldn’t.  At first, I was scared. The first two days I felt incomplete and bare. I felt like something was missing. I wasn’t able to look at my Facebook when I had a minute or two to pass by. I wasn’t able to check my numerous emails. But, in reality the reason I was so reluctant to give up my phone; was the fact that my phone made me feel safe and secure. I feel complete, I feel connected and I feel safe having my phone in hand.


Having no phone meant more conversations, more adventures, more sleep and more thinking. It was refreshing. I was no longer being controlled by my phone. I didn’t have to look at my phone each time the screen lit up with a notification or a sound “blinged” to see who or what was just texted. I connected with people face to face not from screen to screen.  I got to know people.  I went for evening walks. Not having a phone opened my eyes to just how consumed I have become to this piece of technology. It made me realize the importance of human connections. To actually listen to our friends and families instead of listening with one ear while navigating the latest “status update” on Facebook.


Besides my reality of having no phone, my days where hot, sweaty and tiring. Some days were spend clearing fields with a machete for fruit trees to be planted or helping with the construction of a compost toilet. Each day was a new adventure. I remember the day I ate a hot pepper even though it was green. Thinking it wouldn’t be too spicy. Boy, was I wrong! It was CRAZY hot! At least 10 times hotter than the seeds of a jalapeno. Yes that HOT! My face became instantly flushed and my eyes began to swell up with tears. And to think people complain about the Cuban food being so bland. I only have a picture of the hot pepper not of my face after eating a green one. Wow, to think what would have happened if I too a bit of the red one?!!


I had the most amazing fresh fruits and vegetables I have ever had in my entire life. The Cuban food had its own unique flare. I developed and new-found appreciation for the food that reached my plate each day.


These were all new experiences that I would not have had the opportunity to do here in Canada. The wealth of knowledge I now have from this “once in a life time experience” is unmeasurable. Then, what is the next step. What do I take from this experience?


To step back. To embrace life. To give back. To teach others the importance of permaculture and the importance of spending time with family. At the end of the day we never have enough time. Time goes by too fast. That is why time is priceless.