by Leigh Ann Henion
What’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler? If you ask Joseph Gonzalez, he might tell you it comes down to the sort of bus you’re riding in.
Gonzalez has been traveling to Cuba regularly since 1996. In May, for the first time, a group of Appalachian State University students joined him – along with Dr. Laurie Semmes from the Hayes School of Music and faculty member Emily Daughtridge from the Department of Theatre and Dance – for a study abroad course called Rhythm and Revolution.
Gonzalez knows that some Cubans have a negative perception of visitors. He said, “They think, tourists don’t care about us. Tourists just ride around in air-conditioned buses with tinted windows.” Some Cubans actually refer to the barriers between locals and visitors as tourist apartheid. “This trip was an invitation to learn about Cuba and engage in a way that we hope will encourage respect,” he said. “As a scholar of Cuba, I write about Cuba, I publish about Cuba. But it’s also important for me to engage students in what I love. I try to get to that place between the academic and the experiential.”
Gonzalez’s students, who were placed in home stays with local families, quickly caught on to the nuances of transportation. Toward the end of the trip, they told him: “We don’t want a bus with air conditioning. We want windows that can open, so we can talk to Cubans on the street. We want to be able to wave at them.”
It was uncomfortably hot. Air conditioning would have been nice. But Gonzalez obliged, with pride. “Those Appalachian students were helping to heal fractured relationships,” he said. “They were very conscious of that.”
Gonzalez and his colleagues are headed back to Cuba in 2016, and they’ll be taking a new group of students. He said, “We’ll make some changes, but that theme of being a traveler instead of a tourist will continue to be the soul of the experience.”
“We were travelers, not tourists.”