A Trip to Cuba Part 1: Cultural exchanges

With restrictions now lowered, and U.S. airlines starting to offer new flights, many Americans are thinking about visiting the once forbidden island of Cuba.

KTVU’s Tom Vacar was there recently covering a cultural exchange, which is the primary way many people are going.

Vacar reports it's one of the best ways to go because it’s a way people meet and get to know each other.

The Mayflower Chorus, a troop of volunteer performers who love to sing, performed at the Marin Civic Center in May, just before their trip to Cuba that month.

A few days later, assisted by a Vermont cultural exchange scheduler Music Contract International, members paid their own way to share the universal language of music. "Everybody loves music - doesn't matter even sometimes what the words are," says Paige Betten of Music Contact International. "We're all people and we're all touched by similar things. And when we get to sing together and for each other, that's quite amazing," adds Mark Penn, the Mayflower Chorus Director.

Cultural Exchange is one of 12 activities allowing Americans to visit Cuba where the 40-year-old Mayflower Chorus performed for and were entertained by Cuban choirs, musicians and educators.

They visited four exchange concerts in the cities of Havana and Matanzas. Besides performing in their own choruses, the Americans and Cubans sang pre-selected songs together. "When there are two groups and they're both singing to each other, it's a mesh that very little else can parallel," says Choral Director Mark Penn.

But, this is way more than a cultural exchange. It's person-to-person diplomacy where there was once only suspicion. "We Cubans see these kind exchanges between the two countries as something great," says Cuban Marta Palacio.

"There's something about music and even more about singing, that transcends the wedge that was created politically over the years," adds Penn. Through an interpreter, a member of the Cuban chorus says, "It's better. It's better. Music unites people; unites people and that the most important thing since the beginnings, when music started."

While there was ample or sightseeing, it’s only a small part of what one should come to Cuba for. "If you do that and you're not mixing and mingling with the Cuban people, you're missing the heart of this country," says Music Contact International's Paige Betten. "They were the happiest, most joyous, welcoming, loving people that I've seen in all of our travels," adds Mayflower Chorus member Gretchen Klein.

Fifty-seven years after the revolution, Americans want to flock to Cuba and Cubans want Americans to come. "We want more Americans to come just to visit us; to know more about Cuba to compare what they have heard about Cuba and what we have, what we really have here," says Cuban native Marta Palacio.

Gretchen Klein, Mayflower Chorus Member adds, "For Americans, for us, going to Cuba and interacting with the Cuban people brought an understanding that we didn't have before. I'm hoping we brought some understanding to them." Jose Antonio Mendez, a Cuban Choirmaster says, through an interpreter, "All these changes have provided the possibility of having better relations with other countries and the choirs coming from the states. And, now we are very happy because we can pass on your love and friendship."

One concert was held in the former Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose brutality, cronyism and corruption led to the revolution. Today it its Cuba's Museum of the Revolution, a fitting place, under a pre-Batista fresco that spoke of a different future for the island nation the Mayflower Chorus closed with a song of hope and understanding.