Rotary hears about Dan Ponder’s Cuban adventures

Published 5:20 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Dan Ponder of Ponder Enterprises spoke to Rotary on Tuesday about his one-week adventure in Havana, Cuba.

Ponder went with six other individuals as an exchange program with Auburn University’s Global Initiative Program. The goal was to gain information and insight to see if it was a good fit, as Auburn is looking into opening a branch in Cuba.

“I’ve never felt further removed from the United States than I did 90 miles away in Cuba,” Ponder said.

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Ponder was looking forward to the old cars in Cuba. He said the first thing he saw when he got off was a yellow Kia, so not every car was old, but most were older Russian cars that were over 50 years old. Ponder, along with his wife and the four other people accompanying them traveled on a Chinese made tour bus that could hold up to 24 people. He said it was one of the nicest cars he saw while he was there.

Ponder explained that Cuba is not a culinary destination. While he was there, the group attended mostly government owned restaurants that locals were not allowed to attend. The restaurant was about the 15 percent of the size of the Kirbo conference center, and often only one or two other couples would be dining at the same time. The restaurants would typically look third world on the outside, but once entered would be very sleek and modern.

Ponder and his wife, Mary Lou decided to live like the locals one day and go buy from the Farmer’s Market instead of dining out. They gave the Ponders 20 pesos in Cuban currency, which is the equivalent of 97 cents. It’s the average amount Cubans make for a day’s work.

“Part of the challenge was the language, but part of it was haggling and having to decide between one onion or two,” Ponder said.

Cubans do not just live on the 97 cents; they are rationed out rice, soap, cooking oil and rum.

Cuba has decided to allow some experiential learning. Ponder’s group attended a showcase farm, where they worked on farm to table that cater to a couple of restaurants in Havana. They made fresh cheese right in front of them and had a roasted pig. While Ponder said this was very class, when they took a tour they saw two wheel carts and plowing still being done with oxen and mules and were breaking rocks with sledgehammers.

Ponder described the area as a primitive place living in a 21st century world, but he realizes the Cubans don’t inherently believe their way of life is bad.

“It was a special trip,” Ponder said. “It’s not the type of trip you take for a spa vacation or fine dining, but if you want to learn about a people and a place you don’t know much about, this is it.”