LOUDONVILLE, NY - In a time when Cuba just recently opened their border to the United States, the Siena Women's Basketball program is capitalizing to go on an international tour. The Saints are just the third women's team making the trip to Cuba - Louisville and Bowling Green went last year. Siena will on their Cuba International Tour from Aug. 14-20.
Rising senior Margot Hetzke will be submitting a daily blog entry and pictures for the programs experience throughout the trip. Check back during the Saints' foreign tour for updates by scrolling to the blog section towards the bottom of the page.
The team is slated to arrive in Havana on Monday, August 14 to begin the a City Tour which includes a stop at La Triada Cigar Store. During the tour, the student-athletes and staff with begin in the capital city of Havana, known for its Spanish colonial architecture. While taking time in Havana, student-athletes will be able to grasp Cuban life, culture and customs, while also having the opportunity to visit the port entryway where 1950s American-made cars line the streets. The tour will include the National Capitol Building which is an iconic 1920s landmark.
Siena is set to play against the Cuban National team three times during the trip and all three games are on National Cuban television. Besides playing in three games, the Saints will host two clinics for local children from the Sports Institute. Other highlights of the trip will be when the Saints learn salsa from a professional Cuban salsa dancer as well as visiting the San Jose Artisans' Market, which is one of the most visited cultural and commercial complexes in Havana.
Day 1: We Have Arrived
Monday, August 14th at 4:30 am we, the Siena Women's Basketball team, begin our journey to the island of Cuba. Although it had been an early morning, we woke up excited to get the trip started.
We arrived at JFK around 8:00 a.m. and got on the plane and were off. It was a quick 3 hour flight to Havana and when we finally arrived it was exciting. It took a while to get through customs but once we got outside we realized we were in Cuba, especially when the 90 degree weather hit us walking out of the airport doors.
We had a tour bus and learned about different parts of Havana. We stopped at the Memorial of Jose Marti and walked around the area for a little bit. Then we got to go beneath sea level to get to the Cigar Shop. We learned all about Cuban cigars and rum and the different tobacco used in each and why a Cuban cigar is so special. After that we were able to walk around before we finally checked into the hotel.
Once at the hotel we were able to pick up wifi cards, which for some who are out of the country for the first time was a bit of a relief just knowing we could tell family we made it safe. We had a buffet dinner and then had a little time to stroll around Havana. Tomorrow is the first of three games we play against the Cuban National Team and we are so excited to be here and to have this opportunity.
Day 2: Game One & More of Havana
Day two in Cuba with the Siena team began with a beautiful breakfast buffet, full of all sorts of quintessentially Cuban dishes. We enjoyed the flavors--each individual seeming to find a favorite that was very different from their fellow teammates. Karolina Severova could probably eat the Cuban food every day, forever, and be absolutely satisfied. After breakfast, we quickly got taped up and ready for the game, and off we were--excited for a new challenge, in a new and different place. Of course, you will learn how the game finished; with the Saints offering quite a comeback, but falling just short of victory. Nevertheless the game was an amazing experience, the Cuban people working at the arena were very hospitable, carrying extra chairs into the locker room with big smiles on their faces--we are blessed to be so well taken care of!
So of course we left the gym, but instead of taking the same route back to the hotel that we had taken earlier, our driver and tour guide decided to show us a little more of Havana. We passed through neighborhoods, and a shipping section of the harbor, getting the opportunity to experience parts of the city that many tourists may never see. Upon returning to the hotel we shared another tasty meal, cleaned up, and headed out for a walking tour. Our guides showed us beautiful Catholic churches (very exciting for a group of ladies coming from a Franciscan college, particularly considering we were able to visit the church of San Francisco), government buildings accompanied by explanations of their significance, and of course some local shops. After the tour ended, we were allowed to do some exploring on our own--at which time some of the ladies took the opportunity to ride in one of Cuba's famous classic cars. After returning to the hotel and taking a dip in the rooftop pool, we once again sat down for a wonderful meal.
Recap of game - Cuba 74 - Siena 69 Siena Women's Basketball had their first shot at the Cuban Women's National Team and the first shot of seeing what the 2017-18 Saints had to offer. With six seconds on the clock, Siena was down just 73-69 and ended up falling 74-69 to the Cuban's.
Sophomore Maddie Sims led the Saints with 17 points and seven boards while senior Emmanuella Edkoa added 10 points.
The Cuban team started off strong with while the team played four 10-minute quarters like they are used to. However, the Saints were struck with a 24-second shot clock, different from the 30 second shot clock they are used to. The Cubans went on a 10-0 at the beginning of the game for an early 12-4 lead and led 29-15 after the first quarter. Siena came out with the first four points of the second quarter, all off of free throws, but again the Cuban's went on a 12-0 run and led 48-27. At the half, Siena trailed 50-30.
Coming into the third quarter strong, Aaliyah Jones scored 10 points for the Saints, while holding the Cuban team to just 10 points that quarter. With 10 minutes left on the clock, Siena trailed 60-47. It was a long stretch in the final quarter, but the Saints came out strong and fought hard to get back into the lead. After the team started the game not making a shot behind the arc, Karolina Severova came up with three big treys. It was a close end and the Saints get another shot on Wednesday, August 16.
Day 3: A Cultural Experience
Once again we began our day with a delicious breakfast at the hotel, the staff was very friendly and, of course, we very much enjoyed just being together. Afterwards we left for the US Embassy in Havana, where we were met by a fellow Saint! Having graduated a semi-undisclosed number of years ago, the embassy employee was able to share much about life in Cuba with us, as well as remember his own years in Loudonville. We learned about the economy, US/Cuba history, a bit about the education and healthcare systems, as well as just general tidbits about the Cuban way of life.
Following the embassy visit, we worked a clinic with some of the Cuban junior national team players, at which both male and female players were present. It was really cool to have the opportunity to interact with some of the locals, the language barrier almost a non-factor as both sides began efforts to communicate non verbally, or using the minimal number known of English/Spanish words, respectively. Of course for more complicated conversations or details about particular moves it was helpful to have a translator...but nevertheless the entire experience was a cultural and linguistic.
To top off the day, we took Salsa lessons with local men and women. Each individual on the trip began by selecting a partner, and that partner would become their instructor for the duration of the evening. Ella, Aaliyah, JoJo, Catherine and Coach Jess seemed to be the stars of the show (behind all the Cubans of course), but each participant--no matter how terrible we were--thoroughly enjoyed themselves. After much sweating and many hugs, we left with big smiles on our faces and plans to bring some Salsa moves back to Albany.
Recap Game Two- Cuban Women's National Team 59 - Siena 47. The Siena Women's Basketball team again made a comeback in the second half, but it wasn't enough to the stop the Cuban Women's National Team as they took the second game 59-47.
It was a slow start to the game for both teams. The Cuban women finished the first quarter on a 8-0 run to take a 16-7 lead. The women fought hard in the second quarter, but the Cuban's played very physical and outscored the Saints 20-9 for a 36-16 lead at the half.
Like yesterday, the Saints outscored the Cuban's in the third quarter. Siena came out with a fire and trailed just 49-30 with 10 minutes to play. Siena continued to grind and again outscored the Cuban's 17-10. It was a fight until the end but the Saints fell 59-47.
Siena will get one more shot at the Cuban Women's National Team on Thursday, August 17 at 9:30 a.n.
Day 4 - Last Day in Havana
Yet again, we began with a tasty meal at the hotel before departing for the day. Although the game did not finish as we had hoped, the team really showed some toughness through extremely physical play. Following the overtime, we pulled out a duffel bag full of gifts from the states to be given to the teams, as well as some of the locals. It was an eye opening experience to say the least, as the people (probably 25 or 30 locals) quickly crowded around Coach Jaques to receive anything she had to offer. The team even took their jerseys off and gave them to the Cuban players, who graciously accepted them. A few of the Cuban players actually had children run to them immediately after the game, and supposedly a number of them are mothers. Having never played such a life-experienced team, Siena women took notice.
Following the game we cleaned up, shared lunch, and hit the rooftop pool before departing for the public market.
At the market there were a bunch of little shops that sold handmade Cuban items from clothing to jewelry to household items. It was amazing just to walk around and see what people of their native country could produce and most people walked away with a lot of items for family members. It was a "slow" day for us as we just had the game and the market on the schedule, but this was our last day in Havana and we loved every minute of it!
Recap of Game 3 - Cuban Women's National Team 77 - Siena 71 (OT)
After a quick start and a grueling battle the Siena Women's Basketball team fell 77-71 to the Cuban Women's National Team in overtime.
Siena got off to a hot start and finished the first quarter on a 9-0 run to lead 17-8 after 10 minutes of play. The Cuban Women's National team came back big in the second quarter. After leading for most of the first and second quarter, the Cuban's took the lead with 25 seconds on the clock. Siena was unable to stop the Cuban's who finished the second stanza on an 11-0 run for a 32-29 lead at the half. All three games, the Cuban Women's National team has scored 20 or more points in the second quarter.
Siena came out strong in the third quarter, like they had for the first two games. Hayley Winter made two free throws at the end of the quarter which helped push the Saints back into the lead 43-40 with just 10 minutes left to play. In the final stanza it was a hard fought battle on both ends of the court. With 4:45 left, the Cuban Women's National Team took the lead then it became a back-and-forth game. Siena learned the hard way that with the 24 second shot clock you only had eight seconds to get the ball across half court and it came at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter. Joella Gibson made a huge steal with 28 seconds left in the game and hit one free throw to tie it up 58-58. The buzzer would sound and the Saints would head to overtime.
After a couple of exchanged baskets, the Cuban Women's National Team went on a 7-0 run and never looked back. Siena flirted with the lead, but the Cuban's continued to hold the Saints off and finished with three wins over Siena and the final one coming off a 77-71 overtime victory.
Day 5: Saints in Veradero
Once again we began our day with a delicious breakfast at the hotel, the staff was very friendly and, of course, we very much enjoyed just being together. Afterwards we left Havana to go to Veradero Beach. On the way there we made two pit stops. First, we got off to take some photos on top of a hill before leaving the province of Havana. It was beautiful up there and it was nice to take some group photos with each other. Then we went to Saturno Caves. We went swimming in a cave - even Ella! It was so amazing. We walked down to the cave and just jumped right into the water.
Once we were done there, we took the final trip to Veradero Beach and our new hotel that is right on the beach. We had nothing else on the agenda so we were able to relax at the pool or the beach and when we got there around lunchtime they were celebrating "Cuba Day" so there was a big festival with authentic Cuban cuisine for lunch! It's hard to believe it is already Friday and we have just one more day until we fly back to the US.
Day 6 - Last Day in Cuba
So for our last day in Cuba we were able to have a free day to relax or go snorkeling, one of the many amenities at the beach. So for many even though we were a little tired we got up early to get going with our final day.
We went to the beach and decided right away we wanted to go snorkeling more than use the paddle boards or kayaks. A group of us went out to do the snorkeling and there was also a guy who would take your photo with fish swimming around you - it was amazing! After that we just relaxed at the beach, many of us took naps underneath our umbrellas.
We all met up at the hotel buffet for a final team dinner. We all talked and laughed and discussed all of the amazing things we did this trip. After Coach made a toast and just like that it is really the beginning of senior year for me and four other teammates! After dinner we went down and took a photo on the beach as the sun was setting. It was such an amazing view and I can't believe our trip has come to an end. Tomorrow we have a long journey back to New York!
Day 7 - We're Back in the US and reflecting on our trip
After a beautiful week in Cuba, there is much to be discussed.
Yes, we were provided with everything we could want out of an island vacation--a five star hotel in Havana, quintessential Caribbean fruits and pastries, nights of dancing and beautiful music, and to top it all off, two all-inclusive days in Veradero. To say we are blessed would be an understatement, and an exceptional amount of appreciation should be afforded to those who made this trip possible. With all that said, there exist certain truths that we should like to share about our experience.
Many pictures were taken beside the rooftop pool--selfies and group photos alike--but in searching the skyline beyond our smiling faces, that is the true Havana. From this angle, we looked in on a world of tourism, of luxury and respite, yet our backs are turned to the real people of Cuba. It was so easy to succumb to the wonders of both Havana and Varadero, but as tourists enjoy the pleasures of Cuba, the people live in poverty. In some regards it is possible to remain oblivious, but our trip aimed to achieve a greater understanding of a very different culture from our own.
In the United States, we are blessed with materials that make building infrastructure possible. In Cuba, many of the homes and businesses are crumbling, and homes in the countryside are not even built of a single material, but instead are composed of what appears to be scrap metals and woods, assembled haphazardly. In no way would these buildings meet "code" in the United States, and I imagine the notion of building codes and zoning boards is quite impossible for Cuban people to comprehend. In Havana, one can walk along the streets and pass concrete homes that, although the outer structures still stand, the floors within the homes have collapsed. The people on the streets could not be kinder, but they will ask you if they can have your backpack, or the shoes you are wearing so that they can give it to their son or daughter. We carried tennis balls around the city, and children's faces lit up upon the realization that they could actually have the tennis balls we were holding. Amongst all this poverty and in order to keep the city secure, there are police and military personnel around every corner, patrolling the streets. Some are in uniform, others are dressed as any other Cuban citizen so you would not recognize them, but their existence makes an American hyper aware of her words, and her actions. I cannot speak to how their existence makes a Cuban feel beyond what little Spanish-speaking natives on the streets could brokenly share with us, claiming that "free education" and "free healthcare" come at a cost, gesturing that this cost is somehow related to the military presence. This is a very different world for an American to walk around in, just 90 miles off our coast. But these are not the only noticeable differences.
In the United States, we have so much. We build and grow things all over the country that can sustain us. In the lush and fertile land of Cuba, 90% of food is imported. Of course the United States trades too, but at least we have the infrastructure in place for commercial agriculture to exist. I do not only mean the plows and tractors necessary to farm large masses of land, but all the means necessary to then ship those products to markets across the country--roads, bridges, tractor trailers, cars, trains, and manpower. We have the ability to ship goods thousands of miles, and the ability to communicate on where those goods are moving to and coming from. We have incredible networks of interstate highways and telephone cables; we have electricity that makes this communication possible.
The Cuban people are not so lucky. The infrastructure to support a producing economy does not exist, and although the people wish to privatize and create a better life for their posterity, the government restricts business in the private sector, making only certain privatized occupations permissible. Doctors, engineers and lawyers, as well as a number of other jobs, are only permitted to work as government employees. For example, should you get into a medical university the Cuban government will pay for your schooling and you will work as a licensed, government doctor for as little as 20-25 CUC a month. To put this in perspective, as I understand all currency is relative to cost of living, average rent in Havana is around 19 CUC a month. Because of this, many medical doctors are either rented out, by the Cuban government, to foreign countries where they can make a little bit more money, or these doctors will need to have side jobs to survive. Because the private sector is most lucrative, individuals will try their hand in businesses there--but again these occupations are limited. The only jobs people can really do in the private sector are own a taxi, be a waiter or waitress, work jobs in tourism, or own a small restaurant. The caveat to all these options is that each of them is harder than one may think. Owning a car in a nation that still drives vehicles from the 1950s, that has really avoided importing new cars for nearly 4 decades, is exceptionally expensive. In recent years the Cubans actually put in a Peugeot dealership, but the cars were selling for almost $200,000 because they were in such high demand. Needless to say, somebody who makes 25 CUC a month and pays 19 of it to their landlord isn't exactly capable of purchasing a $200,000 vehicle.
So then we have those individuals who work in tourism: individuals who have access to foreign currency--and tips. These people are highly educated, one Iberostar employee explaining that he has degrees in sports medicine and physical therapy, but chooses to work as a pool boy because he can make more money. So it would seem that when visiting Cuba one must always keep in mind that the individual waiting your table, cleaning your room, or mixing your drinks could actually be a brain surgeon or chemical engineer, with almost no opportunity to succeed in their chosen field.
This lack of opportunity deprives the Cuban people of something I, and I imagine many Americans, take for granted each and every day. One may not live the perfect life in the United States, have the most stuff or be protected from all hardship, but US citizens move throughout their daily lives with hope for the future, and that has a profound impact on the way we carry ourselves. I am blessed to be surrounded by teammates who have hopes and dreams, who are smart women that not only have the ability to go places, but believe they can be more and do more in the world. We say things in the United States such as, "the possibilities are endless," or, "the world is our oyster," and we believe these statements to be true. That hope, that belief in opportunity affords Americans intangible successes, each and every day.
In closing, I will admit that this is by no means an exhaustive narrative of life in Cuba, nor should any statements made be regarded as absolute truths, but instead as general observations and contemplations. There is much more to say and to be learned about Cuba, but the most lasting impacts are entirely related to perspective. The trip has offered our team a greater understanding of what it means to be grateful, and of that which we should be grateful for.
In the United States we are given the freedom to vote, to speak our minds, to practice our chosen religions; to attend university, to own our own businesses, to privately practice medicine and law. We are free to work hard and reap the benefits, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. These freedoms, just a few among many, are not given to all people, in all nations. Although I so wish that freedom, opportunity, and hope for the future were universal--that all human beings could enjoy the same possibilities that exist from the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee--I should be forever grateful to the men and women who have made such possibilities real for the American public, and for all the men and women who continue to believe that freedom and opportunity are worthy causes to stand behind.