By Conrad Swanson, The Daily Iowan 
Jake Krzeczowski watched as a small group of Cubans clothed in white chanted to the beat of drums. The University of Iowa journalism student observed the Santeria religious ceremony in El Bosque Del Rio, Cuba, a forest near Havana.
“I can’t say the word culture enough,” said Krzeczowski, a former Daily Iowan employee. “It’s an interesting place. There’s an absence of materialism, more community, rich culture and people from all walks of life.”
The trip was the first opportunity available for students since President Obama eased travel restrictions to the country for certain study-abroad programs from accredited universities and religious organizations.
Events such as the Afro-Cuban ceremony allowed the 13 UI students to immerse themselves in the Cuban culture.
They returned Jan. 13 from the two-week study-abroad trip.
“It was a big thing for kids from all walks of life sharing experiences and being able to be in a place we’ve never been before,” Krzeczowski said. “And a place that most people can’t go.”
Robin Hemley, the UI Nonfiction Writing Program director, set up the majority of the trip. Hemley, who has traveled to several other countries, including the Philippines, Slovenia, and France, said Cuba was an opportunity not to be passed up.
“Cuba is, for Americans, terra incognita,” he said, “It’s a bit of a time capsule, and it seemed like a fascinating place to do a workshop.”
Hemley planned the students’ daily routine of waking up at 8 or 8:30 every morning and going to a writers’ workshop in which they could share their work and discuss assigned readings. The students traveled around Havana with a tour guide, ending many of their nights sitting in their hotel lobby debriefing the day’s activities.
John Rogers, the UI associate director of the Office for Study Abroad, said the Study Abroad Office had to deal with extensive paperwork.
“There’s still a lot of paperwork involved,” he said. “I wouldn’t even say that the regulations have been lifted, more that they’ve opened up a bit.”
Hemley said he noticed the lack of animosity toward Americans from the Cubans.
“Cuba’s an impossible country to sum up,” he said. “I found it inspiring and confounding. Despite a 53-year embargo, no Cubans harbor resentment for Americans. They love American culture.”
And students’ writing styles were clearly affected by their exposure to Cuban culture, Hemley said.
Though the trip was focused on writing, students came from a variety of majors. Hemley said all improved their writing skills.
“And at first, they wrote in the mode they were used to, but by the end they were all writing well-deserved smart travel pieces about their time in Cuba,” he said.
Krzeczowski recalled visiting with two Cuban women around the age of 25, one an artist, the other a tour guide. The artist’s son had died from an illness and a lack of medicine, the tour guide’s husband had died of cancer.
“They weren’t upset or mad at anybody,” Krzeczowski said. “They have an interesting outlook on life. They can deal with certain things. The artist can travel but doesn’t leave Cuba. She said, ‘Why would I leave? There’s a premium on happiness here.’ “