An Once in a Life Time Experience

If I could describe my GCELE experience in one word it would be unforgettable. Prior to my departure to Cuba, I had anxiety of about if I would fit in with the group or if I would be able to adapt to a new culture. Even though I had anxiety, I’m extremely grateful that I was apart of this GCELE. I had such an amazing time learning about Cuba’s history, culture and the concept of permaculture. Permaculture is focused on design elements of agriculture ecosystems that support each other and a sustainable human habitat.

During this GCELE, we learned about different design layouts that were used in the permaculture sites. The two designs that I was able to contribute to was the mandala and the spiral.

While I was working on these design elements, I was amazed at how the local Cubans who helped us were extremely fit and hard working. It was nice to see the community support and help one another. This also made me realize how hard some individuals have to work in order to be food secure.

This experience taught me how to be humble, resourceful and insightful.  I am thankful that I was able to be a part of this once in a life time experience. I was able to meet amazing new people and learn how I could apply permaculture elements in my own garden. If you’re thinking about applying to any GCELE, I say go for it! You get the chance to learn something new in another country and the opportunity to experience a different culture.

Elizabeth H.
Social Service Worker Student

A Genuine Experience

Travel is what I live for. I have been lucky enough to visit more than a few countries on various continents, and my appetite for seeing the world is only getting stronger and stronger. Even though I always try to really explore the destinations I visit and be respectful of their customs and culture, my experience with the Centennial team on the 2018 GCELE in Costa Rica taught me that there are definitely ways in which I can improve as a traveler.


Our group was introduced to a few Indigenous groups in two parts of Costa Rica. We had a great privilege of getting to know some of the members of those communities. They welcomed us with their arms and hearts open. It was an experience that most likely none of us would have had the chance to get without the hard work and the networking between the staff from Centennial College and our Costa Rican partners.


Admittedly, these were the most genuine and life-changing interactions that I have ever had with Indigenous people abroad. Traveling from a country like Canada, it is easy to get wrapped up in your own expectations of what your planned cultural experiences should look like. You may want to witness ceremonies, dances, and see people walk around in their traditional clothing. There may not necessarily be anything wrong with that. However, you should also ask yourself: Am I really finding out who these people are? How did they get to where they are now? What are their current struggles? Is there anything I can give back to the communities that I visit before I leave, or do I just want them to perform on my own schedule before I get on my way?


In Costa Rica we had a chance to see what the lives of Indigenous communities really look like. We met with university students from remote parts of the country who moved to Cartago to pursue higher education and better their lives. It was really heartwarming to find out that some of their main goals focus around using their knowledge to give back to the communities that they came from, as well as to aid underprivileged people from all of Costa Rica. We also learnt how community members and their allies formed an organization that gives Indigenous people the power to coordinate and dictate how tourism happens in the areas that they inhabit. In addition, we met with female entrepreneurs who were able to build successful businesses in spite of numerous adversities, as well as members of an organization that focuses on helping women who are escaping domestic violence. The list goes on…

Throughout the trip what stuck out to me was the great strength of the people we met, their genuine concern for one another, resilience, humility, hospitality, and willingness to share with us.

Would I have learnt all this from an afternoon spent at a village built for visitors, snapping away pictures, and being a tourist myself? Certainly not!


I am forever grateful for this life-changing opportunity. I am also hopeful that I can now more respectfully participate (even if for a short while) in the lives of people from countries that I visit. I would like to instill the same gratitude in everyone whom I may help plan their own adventures in the future.

I am determined to always be a traveler, not a tourist!



Greg K.

GCELE – Leadership and Sustainable Practices – Cartago, Costa Rica


Permaculture in Cuba- My GCELE Experience


The night before our flight, I wasn’t sure what to expect on this GCELE. Sure, I knew we’d be working closely with the growing permaculture community in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. So like plants and stuff, right? And as I discovered, yes there were definitely plants and stuff, but also so much more.

Cuba can be described as a closed system due to heavy restrictions on importing/exporting. As a result, resources can be quite limited. These limits on trade are one reason why developing and maintaining food security in Cuba is especially essential. It also means that labour intensive field work is not as convenient as it would be here in Canada (unfortunately you can’t visit your local Home Depot when your shovel breaks).

The words of a Cuban permaculturalist stuck with me; she said that necessity forces people to learn and adapt. The hard times that Cubans have experienced has generated a wealth of creativity and ingenuity; particularly in the areas of food security and sustainability. Having the opportunity to take part in this project was nothing short of incredible. I’d like to share a few of the cool things I saw with you.


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A permaculture site, Sancti Spiritus

i) Banana Circle (upper left corner)

A large hole is dug and banana trees are planted in a circular formation around it. In the hole, compostable materials such as dead leaves and branches are thrown. This allows organic waste to be reincorporated into the permaculture system and at the same time gives added nutrition to the soil. In addition, trees planted like this are more likely to survive storms and hurricanes as opposed to conventionally grown banana trees.

ii) An example of vertical growing

In order to make the most efficient use of space, some crops are grown vertically. Here in this picture you can see this concept applied in the stacking of the tires which contain different vegetation. 

iii) Resourcefulness  

As mentioned earlier, Cuba is a closed system with limited resources. Accordingly, waste is kept to a minimum as new uses are found for items that would otherwise be thrown out. Discarded tires and bottles were used in the physical framework of many of the permaculture sites we visited. In this picture old bottles are used to create borders.


This GCELE has been humbling and insightful. I had the opportunity to observe and experience a very different way of life, one that contrasted with the fast pace of the city most of us are used to. More significantly, it has made Global Citizenship realer to me. There is a strong connection between local and global issues, and by learning from each other regardless of borders, solutions can be developed collaboratively.

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 (, 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.