Sharon and Alex McKenzie celebrated their birthdays in Cuba this year.
The Boca Grande United Methodist Church youth camp mission was just the latest of six successful missions to Cuba for Mama McKenzie but it was the first time for her daughter visiting the enigmatic island 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.
How did they celebrate their birthdays?
Sharon McKenzie, right, and her 14-year-old daughter, Alex McKenzie, returned recently from a nine-day youth mission trip to Cuba.
"I worked with a pastor to do a little surprise party for her," said McKenzie, executive director for the Port Boca Grande Museum and Barrier Island Parks Society. "So we had a huge sheet cake, Cuban-style, which are beautiful cakes. And we had some little balloons and they hung some lanterns and some little flowers and had orchids on the table. It was really beautiful."
The main mission goal was to deliver needed supplies and see how well-acclimated the youth on the mission could handle a trip to a Third World country such as Cuba with its steamy climate, sometimes shabby conditions, demanding travel schedule and foreign language.
"They rated 10 on everything," McKenzie said of her youthful charges. "One person did get ill for a couple of days because she was over-heated and didn't drink as much water as she needed to drink. Hydration is a huge issue when dealing with a lot of heat and not the typical environment you're used to being in."
Air-conditioning was often absent, including a four-hour van trip to a camp outside Havana. But that wasn't the most taxing part of the trip. The group left at 3 a.m. for an ensuing 10-hour drive, McKenzie said, in an attempt to beat the heat.
"Those are tough conditions when it starts to heat up in the van," she said. "There were 12 of us in there. So it wasn't real spacious either."
Obtaining drinkable, bottled water in 2-gallon jugs was a daily requirement. The group went through at least four jugs of water per day.
"We would drive around town to find water," McKenzie said. "We would drive until we found it."
Despite the hardships, McKenzie touts the value of mission trips to places such as Cuba.
"You come away with a lot more than you put in," McKenzie said. "It's like a spiritual renewal. When you see people who are so grateful for the smallest things - like little hotel toiletries - you could just see their appreciation and gratitude for anything we brought over and gave them. It makes you feel good about yourself. It makes you feel as if you're a decent human being because, wow, I've done something significant in their lives."
In some of the more remote areas a 14-hour drive is required just to get rice and beans. The mission group was allowed to bring in 15 pounds apiece of food and medical supplies, and brought back basically the clothes on their backs, McKenzie said.
The cost to take the trip was roughly $1,200 apiece including room and board and airline tickets. Going through airline security was not an issue, McKenzie said. A woman whisked them through customs, which amazed McKenzie, because it had never happened in her previous Cuba trips.
"I've never had a special white-glove treatment like that," she said. "It was like someone rolled out the red carpet for us."
The group's days would start at 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. camp breakfast. In meeting sister churches, the group had to be ready an hour earlier. Bedtime came post-midnight.
Cuba, however, still observes the tradition of taking a one- or two-hour afternoon siesta. McKenzie and her group embraced the peaceful interludes.
"After lunch we would all be exhausted and overheated and all lay down," she said. "It's a habit really hard to break when you come back. My body's like going: Time for my nap!"