Prasannaa Venkatesh (class of 2020) grew up in Chennai, India. Prior to Darden, he was an Associate with the Bain Capability Network, India. He recently participated in Darden’s Worldwide Course (DWC) to Cuba, focused on learning from an ‘Economy in Transition’, along with 31 fellow classmates. Prasannaa reflected on some of the meaningful moments from the course in this photo essay.
As I navigate these formative years of my life, I have come to imbibe Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ words, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” My first year at Darden has been a whirlwind of great experiences. In the same vein, participating in the DWC to Cuba was one of those rare instances I can look back and term as life changing.
At first glance, Cuba would seem like an island wrapped in a time capsule. Arriving at Havana, its many anachronisms immediately caught my attention – Chevys and Buicks from the 50s on the roads, a legacy of Soviet era architecture, and lack of internet connectivity. Walking through the plazas of the ‘Old City’ – Havana recently celebrated its 500th anniversary – I was happy to note an abundance of spacious public spaces in the capital city. At twilight, Cubans and tourists alike would sit by the Malecón (the oceanfront esplanade) to enjoy a calm evening.
The Republic of Cuba operates in a unique environment – it is one of the world’s last remaining socialist economies that is centrally planned. In addition, the prohibitive embargo imposed on the Cuban people by the United States has impacted their lives in pervasive ways. Given heavy constraints on the private sector, Cuban entrepreneurs demonstrate an incredible sense of talent and enterprise to succeed against all odds. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; but also tell a good story, and do joke about it! In interacting with Cuban entrepreneurs, I found a sense of humor and a defiant positivity in dealing with day-to-day challenges.
Cuba is bursting with art, music and dance! Some of the entrepreneurs we interacted with were professional designers who had graduated from Cuba’s National Art Schools. Apart from the fantastic modern art exhibits at the National Museum, colorful and creative graffiti lent themselves well to the old building walls. Surprisingly, Havana was just the tip of the iceberg. My friends and I visited other cities like Cinefuegos and Trinidad, and found the streets dotted with boutiques by local artisans.
Our itinerary also included several musical and dance performances. Walking the streets, it was heartening to see many live music acts perform in the evenings. We enjoyed a mellow evening with noted Nueva trova musician Frank Delgado. However, my favorite was an electrifying performance by Habanas Compas Dance, the percussion-and-dance ensemble combining Spanish folk music with Afro-Cuban and other contemporary rhythms. Of course, one cannot simply visit Cuba without trying to learn Salsa, which has roots in Cuban folk dances. I might be able to tell my right foot from my left on the dance floor now.
Cuba’s varying landscapes has something in it for everyone. My personal favorite was the Viñales valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Known for its beautiful hills, tobacco fields, and a rich multi-ethnic society that has preserved its traditional way of life, Viñales is a living landscape. To enjoy the sights, we went on horseback riding, biking and hiking tours. In the evenings, the main street came alive with live music and dance (and Piña coladas!) greeting the tourists who thronged it. We stayed at casa particulares (private homestays) at Viñales. Our hosts were kind and genuine, and also brilliant chefs.
I would like to thank the Batten Foundation for providing me the opportunity to attend the Worldwide Course in the form of a scholarship. I would also like to thank Professor Robert Carraway for leading the program, and the DWC Cuba team for curating the best possible itinerary for our student group. Cuba was a blast! Having met some fantastic people who have made for memorable experiences, I am sure to look back at my time in this fascinating country with a wide smile.