The Windmills' second trip to Cuba was just as spectacular, educational, humbling and invigorating as the first. Each of the 10 Windmills players and the coaches and the chaperones came away with their own special story--each person's heart was touched.
The trip, from Feb. 5 through 11, was another outstanding example of friendship through competition. The girls from both countries played with passion and smiles on their faces. The two coaching staffs coached with mutual respect. This year's Windmills head coach, Kelly Ostler, had been given a detailed scouting report by last year's coach, Ray Ostler, her father.
"Basically, they learned everything we showed them last year and used it against us," smiled Kelly, a Fenwick grad, former Windmills and University of Chicago player and currently on the U of C coaching staff.
The apprehension and the just plain not-knowing were greatly reduced this year, especially when the Windmills arrived at Estadio Ramon Contes--where we had played one of our games last year--and saw some familiar, friendly faces in the opposite dugout. Some of the Cuban players were not only wearing smiles, they were also wearing pieces of the Windmills uniforms our girls had left them last year.
Because of several factors, the main one being the U.S. embargo, material resources are very scarce in Cuba. This fact is painfully obvious, not only because of the dilapidated, run-down buildings and infrastructure throughout Havana, but also because of the meager equipment and cleats with which the Cuban girls played.
Last year, after playing, dancing, singing and bonding with their Cuban counterparts, it was difficult for our Windmills girls not to leave behind whatever equipment, shoes or clothing they could.
But as meager as the material resources are in Cuba, time and time again all of us on the trip were struck by the strength and depth and humanity of the Cuban people's spirit. Rest assured there are tremendous contradictions in contemporary Cuban society. However, repeatedly, wherever we went, Cubans spoke frankly and honestly about their problems in a spirit of pulling together for the common good.
As we filed into Contes Stadium, we were greeted by the cheers of at least 400 elementary school children filling the seats. It was their "spring break," and they were enthusiastic in their cheers for both teams. It took less than two innings for the 15 Windmills parents and chaperones sitting in the stands to be completely surrounded by curious, friendly and talkative Cuban boys and girls.
When not playing or practicing softball, the Windmills players had an opportunity to be tourists in the Havana area. Tourism is a growth industry in Cuba, with people from all over the world flocking to the streets and restaurants and clubs of Havana--from all over the world except, that is, the U.S. We explored the Ernest Hemingway connection, visiting his home at Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) and having lunch at Las Tarrazas restaurant in the town of Cojimar, the fishing village setting of The Old Man and The Sea.
The girls delivered gifts to a day-care center in central Havana, visited a museum about the Santeria religion in the town of Guanabacoa, visited churches in Old Havana and San Isidro, bought ice-cream in the Copelia neighborhood of Havana and went swimming in the beautiful ocean beaches 25 miles east of Havana.
One afternoon, a reporter working for the Chicago Tribune came to the Hotel Nacional to talk with the Windmills players. As I sat in the background listening to these American teenagers speak of their Cuban experience, I recalled how I felt last year on our first visit to Cuba. I heard one of our girls explain that this trip was the most amazing experience of her life and that she now had a better understanding of the difference between 'needs' and 'wants.' I knew once again that this trip was a gift to all who had participated, a gift we would all have for the rest of our lives.