CUBA LIBRE

A local couple brings the long-forbidden culture of Cuba to St. Louis and vice versa

Dealing with the combination of U.S. travel sanctions and the often baffling whims of Cuban bureaucracy can be a challenge, but the Andersons have built a solid string of contacts that have made the process go more smoothly as time has passed. Take the transportation issue, for example: "Arranging transportation to and from Cuba, as well as in the country, can be an adventure," says Jane. "We fly into Cuba from Cancun, and we used to use Air Cubana, but we've switched to Air Mexicana now because they're more professional. It costs more, but you get what you pay for. And this year we've managed to improve our bus service in Cuba as well."

The concept of daily music-and-dance workshops may deter some potential travelers who feel they don't have the skills to participate. But according to the Andersons, although professional musicians and dancers continue to be the core participants, the definition of "professional" stretches over considerable territory.

"Some people who come know they're amateurs in terms of their music or dance talent, but they're enthusiastic about participating and learning," says Thor. "So when the workshops first start, everyone goes through an audition, and then the instructors divide them up according to talent level. So even if you're not very skilled, you can still enjoy and learn."

Jane Bowling-Anderson and Thor Anderson, whose St. Louis-based Caribbean Music and Dance Programs makes official travel to Cuba possible.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jane Bowling-Anderson and Thor Anderson, whose St. Louis-based Caribbean Music and Dance Programs makes official travel to Cuba possible.

The workshop concept allows CMDP to bring Americans into Cuba legally, but as the barriers between the U.S. and Cuba continue to fall, the Andersons are preparing to offer tours that focus on the enjoyment of all aspects of Cuban culture — without the workshop premise.

"I think workshops will continue to be our core business," Thor explains, but we're also registering a new brand, something that we're calling Planet Cuba. It's a way to offer a tour that shifts the balance from an intensive workshop to a vacation experience that still immerses you in the Cuban culture — adding art, architecture, history and other cultural elements to music and dance."

The Andersons also see the Planet Cuba concept as a way to get people who do make the journey to Cuba out of Havana and to relatively unknown but fascinating cities such as Trinidad and Santiago.

"Havana was visited by about 80,000 Americans last year," notes Curtis Anderson, "and almost all of them didn't get outside Havana." Thor adds, "Havana's becoming what's called a "mature' tourist destination. And although I certainly wouldn't compare Havana to a typical tourist city — the people continue to be very friendly and have great pride in their culture — big tourism is a cynical business, and eventually it changes the nature of a city. Outside Havana you find cities and people who think seeing a tourist is very unusual."

"And going to places like Trinidad, which is 480 years old and is still very much intact and unchanged, is like walking into a time bubble," says Jane. "It's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen, and there are places like that throughout Cuba. When people come back, they tend to become mini- ambassadors for Cuban culture."

For more information about Caribbean Music and Dance Programs, check out the company's Web site at www.caribmusic.com or call, toll-free, 877-665-4321.

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