Free Cuban food fills a gap

July 14, 2000

A gap year can be the best of your life, but do not expect it to be all highs and no lows, warns Nicholas Scott

With so many ex-volunteers and students saying that their pre-university gap year was the best year of their life, young people, often away from home for the first time, cannot be blamed for expecting it all to be sweetness and light.

The truth is that, as with any other year, the gap year has its high and low points, and mine has certainly had its share of both.

As one of six volunteers, I went to Cuba with the Scottish-based charity Project Trust, which was working in collaboration with the island's ministry of higher education.

When I arrived last September I knew little of what to expect in the coming 12 months. Along with a Scottish volunteer, I was allotted a place at the University of Pinar del R!o, in the tobacco-growing region in the west of Cuba, to teach English-language classes.

It was a baptism of fire. The little information we had on the students' level of English and the type of classes we would be teaching was not enough to prepare us for our experience. We were sent in with no knowledge of what students were meant to learn and with little or no Spanish with which to communicate with the beginner-level students.

This had a bad effect on the Scottish volunteer who, after just three months, decided to head back for pastures cold in Scotland, leaving me a lone Brit in a university where there was an obvious lack of interest in English. Mostly this was because the language department was made up of former Russian teachers who had had to retrain in English following the collapse of the Soviet Union and cooling relations with Russia.

The three hours of teaching duties a week left plenty of time for leisure activities, but provincial Pinar del R!o could not supply them in great abundance. The big city beckoned, and with much trouble and many run-ins with the layers of Cuban bureaucracy, I moved to Havana.

Havana is a different world, both in educational and leisure terms. If the three months in Pinar del R!o were the "down", then Havana has been the "up", thanks largely to support from Project Trust.

For the past few months, home has been the Jose Antonio Echeverr!a University of Technology (, a veritable hive of activity on the perimeters of Havana and a real indicator of so many good things in the Cuban education system.

The university is a child of the 1959 revolution. Built in 1964, it leads the country in technical studies and has computer rooms and technical facilities that could put quite a few British universities to shame. It is managing to keep up-to-date with all the latest technologies through a concerted effort to attract foreign collaboration and currency.

The international relations office in which I now work as a translator is at the vanguard of a movement to keep Cuban universities in their deserved place at the forefront of universities from the developing world.

The office is active in creating collaboration programmes, inviting foreign professors and students to Cuba and sending Cuban professors abroad. My translation of its website and publicity materials is an attempt to help it in the non-Spanish speaking world, where it is only just starting to make a really concentrated effort.

As a student volunteer, I live among the students and eat the same food as them. All Cuban students, and the thousands of Latin American and Caribbean students who are on free scholarships at the invitation and expense of the Cuban government, are entitled to free accommodation and food.

The residences are not of the same standard as British residences, and the students grumble about the free food, but that says more about their expectations and how they take their right to good food for granted than it says about the food itself. An average lunch or dinner consists of rice and peas or beans with bread and vegetables, though there are weekly chicken dinners, a source of great excitement among the meat-starved students.

The Eli n Gonz lez case did not go unnoticed in the university. Students were invited to many public shows of defiance against US "anti-Cuba laws" and the "Miami Right-Wing Mafia" - the Cuban government's term for anti-Castro Miami Cubans. While Eli n was still with relatives in Florida, the demonstrations were so big they closed the university and brought the city to a standstill by halting public transport.

My time in Havana is ebbing away, and the carnival season is now here, along with the sweltering summer heat. With the end of the academic year, I am free to travel the island, to meet more of its special people and to learn more about a fascinating country that has entered the new century as one of the last outposts of communism.

With only a couple of months left before I make the step into the next phase of my life as a student at Sussex University, it is with trepidation that I am looking forward to loans, residence costs and tuition fees.

Nicholas Scott is a volunteer with Project Trust, which sends 17 to 18-year-olds on gap years to 24 developing countries in Latin America, Africa, the Far and Middle East. His website is at

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