Harford County resident Patricia A. Bosse was drawn to Cuba. Perhaps it was because she was born the same month and year as the Cuban Revolution - January 1959. Or that the papers she had written during her college years about Ernest Hemingway's life in San Francisco dePaula sparked her interest. Regardless, she hoped to go there one day.
Shortly before Bosse's 45th birthday, she got her wish. On Jan. 5, Bosse and a dozen others from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland's international study program boarded a charter plane bound for Havana as part of a two-week study.
To prepare for their experience abroad, everyone in the group was required to read books on Cuban history, politics and culture and attend two briefings.
"I felt very prepared," said Bosse, an alumna of the college and its vice president for institutional development. "I think the benefits of traveling through an academic institution are the readings and preparations we do in advance. It really gives you a very good background for what you're going to see and do."
Each year, about 80,000 Americans travel to Cuba, many through third countries. Travel to Cuba is not in itself restricted. U.S. citizens and residents, however, are prohibited from spending money, of any currency, in Cuba unless they are licensed by the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers the sanctions imposed by the U.S. government against the government of Cuba.
College of Notre Dame faculty member and trip organizer Leonor Blum applied for and was granted a specific license that allowed for three educational trips. This year's trip was the third.
"The real experience begins when you touch down in Havana and you're driving through the city and getting to your hotel," said Bosse.
She quickly realized how far away they were.
Because the Cuban government does not recognize U.S. banks, American travelers are limited to cash-only transactions - which meant no credit cards - a rude awakening for the mainly college-age travelers.
"There are parts that seem so familiar," Bosse said. "It's 90 miles from Florida. I guess that's the biggest 'aha' - how geographically close this island is. It was a little less than an hour on a charter flight from Miami to Havana; yet you're so far away."
For Bosse, home is on Little Gunpowder Falls, south of Fallston in Hydes, where she and her family live in an old fieldstone house on the top of a hill. One of the first things she noticed were the cows in the desolate Cuban countryside. Her neighbors' cows in Hydes are plump and wide-eyed. In Cuba, she could see the outline of their ribs.
The differences continued to amaze her as she and her group, which ranged in age from 17 to 81, settled into their new surroundings. Bosse has traveled through Europe, "where you can pick up the phone and call home, like it's nothing." But none of her travels compared to her experience in Cuba, she said.
"We were very remote communications-wise, and we really felt that separation, that isolation," Bosse said. "Despite the very limited geography, just politically and socially it is so far removed from the U.S."
Bosse described it as stepping back in time: well-preserved 1940s and 1950s cars scattered along uneven roads, dilapidated housing that lacked common comforts of a modernized society - such as working plumbing and electricity, "the things we take for granted."
But there were glimpses of life that were recognizable to the group.
Telephone service was widely unavailable, Bosse said, but the Internet proved a common means of communication.
"All the places we stayed in had at least one log-on station, where you buy a card and sit down for a certain amount of time," she said. "We were all at one time or another able to get ourselves cued up and check in at home."
For Bosse, who left her three children and husband at home, checking in was a necessity. "I left in the middle of flu season, so I left my husband with two of three children sick," she said. "I was hoping when I came home that everybody was still going to be speaking to me."
During the two-week stay (except for Bosse, who had arranged to leave after the first week), the group visited the 16th-century colonial town of Trinidad, met with Cuban students and professors at the university in Havana and toured residential areas that, after decades of decay, were under renovation.
"Very little has been done with the architecture ... though there is a movement to renovate and update some of the residential areas," Bosse said. "But even the renovated areas, by our standard here, would be substandard - with water leaks, buckling plaster, exposed electrical wires. Charming and romantic in some ways, but not a place where you'd want to live."
What impressed her the most were the people.
"You don't quite know how you're going to be received as an American traveling in Cuba," Bosse said. "The Cuban people were very friendly. There was absolutely nothing but graciousness with which they deal with individual Americans. Whatever they have, they are willing to share with you."
And then there was the music. "The Cuban people have very little, but they have music," she said. "And they love it - Afro-Cuban influences on some, the traditional Cuban music, the salsa. And everyone dances. It is a very colorful country with very warm people."
Several of the residents opened their homes and invited the group to join them in "celebration." During those Santeria celebrations - a blend of Catholic traditions with Spanish heritage and African tribal practice - Bosse and others from the Baltimore-based Catholic college witnessed a practice they had only read about or seen in movies.
Bosse said she was fascinated with the Santeria celebration.
"The ceremony began with a Cuban man with chiseled features standing in the middle of the room, playing the violin to 'Ave Maria,'" Bosse recalled. "The next song was to an Afro-Cuban beat, praising the gods and goddesses. They blend it together in one tradition."
She said she saw no animal sacrifices, although that is a common practice.
Bosse said she hopes to visit Cuba again and believes that the island will one day reopen to tourism - something she sees as a mixed blessing.
"One day Cuba will open to tourism, and that will be good for the people there," she said. "But now, when you fly in and out of the airport and get that 30,000-foot view of the island, it's just unmarked beaches all the way around - jungle and forest, mountain ranges and beautiful pristine beaches with no sign of the development you would see on any of the nearby islands, such as the Bahamas and Caymans."
As Bosse said goodbye to the others and boarded a charter plane back to Miami, she was sad to leave the trip early, but eager to return home.
"Most of the people on the plane were of Cuban heritage," she said. "When the first wheel landed in Miami, the crowd erupted in applause. They were applauding because they were back on American soil. And I shared that feeling. While we had a wonderful time and I wouldn't have traded that experience. ... I still was very happy to be back where I could go pick up the phone or go to an ATM."
She added: "But I would go back. I felt like I barely scratched the surface."