TRAVERSE CITY — No smartphones, no credit cards, no Google Maps.

Those are a few of the things Cuban blogger, journalist and professor Elaine Diaz told Northwestern Michigan College students and staff that they must prepare to forgo ahead of their 10-day trip to Diaz's native country this month.

Bring a physical map, Diaz said as she met with the group Feb. 19, because there's no Google-powered directions to help lost travelers in Cuba.

Or if a map won't do, there's another option for disoriented tourists, one that nicely dovetails with college officials' oft-cited goal of improving students' global competency by exposing them to people and places outside the United States.

"There is this other way," Diaz said. "You can talk to Cuban people."

Diaz, a University of Havana professor who teaches courses about digital journalism, communication and the Internet in Cuba, met with NMC students and staff while visiting Traverse City as a guest of the college's International Affairs Forum lecture series.

Diaz talked to the NMC travelers about what they can expect to find in the Communist-controlled island nation that for more than 50 years has been largely cut off from the United States, thanks to trade embargoes and travel bans.

Diaz described many differences between the two countries. Cuban families, for example, often live with three generations under one roof and survive on a $25-per-month average family income.

At the same time, though, Cuban culture is more similar to American culture than many think. Cubans wear the same clothes as Americans. They listen to the same music, and watch American television shows and movies, Diaz said.

NMC visual communications student Desiree Morgan, 21, said she's going to Cuba because she wants to learn about the country's culture. 

She's also curious to see if Cubans are as adept at recognizing tourists as Traverse City residents are during tourist season in northern Michigan.

"I know when there's fudgies or new people here we can point them out," she said. "It'll be interesting to see that turned around on us."

Morgan is one of a handful of visual communications students who plan to film a documentary during the trip.

Diaz urged the aspiring filmmakers to take the film project off the beaten path. There's already a plethora of documentaries devoted to Cuba's popular tourist destinations and sites, she said.

"You can show something different just by walking three blocks from Old Havana," she said.

The NMC visual communications students and staff leave for Cuba March 27, along with several students from the college's humanities program.

Humanities instructor Jim Bensley, also the college's director of international services and service learning, organized the trip. Bensley said the trip came together after a colleague called and told him about a Connecticut-based corporation called Exploria that helps academic groups travel to the hard-to-reach country.

Bensley was told to quickly organize a trip because Cuba won't be Cuba for long. The advice was strangely clairvoyant, in a way. Bensley received it long before President Barack Obama announced late last year that he intends to roll back decades-old United States policies that limit trade and travel between the two nations. The policy shift could spell big changes for Cuba.

"He said, 'You have to do it in the next two years, because after that, Cuba isn't going to be Cuba," Bensley said.