Why everyone should visit that magical island at least once
A difficult task is writing about Cuba. The experience of Cuba. The magic of Cuba. The mystery of Cuba. Impossible to articulate these any better than has already been written many times over. Last year, I wrote a blog on visiting, kind of, the Hemingway house in Havana, Last day with Hemingway. I briefly touched on the incredible time I had visiting Cuba in November of 2017, one of the last tours to legally operate under the “people to people” banner, one of the 12 ways, now 11, that Americans can use to travel to Cuba. Since Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1957 and the subsequent alliance to the Communist party, Cuba has been a political battle in terms of the legality of travel to the country and the previous administration was quick to clamp down on travel from the US, making it harder for Americans. Visiting Cuba was something I never thought of until I saw President Obama go there in March of 2016. Rick, one of my closest friends of 35 years, Mom, Lourdes, was born and raised in Cuba and I had always been fascinated with the Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky gangster/glamour days of Cuba, so I booked a tour called ‘Hola Cuba’ with intrepid travel. https://www.intrepidtravel.com/us/cuba/hola-cuba-for-US-citizens-116428
Pico Iyer, the brilliant travel writer, famously wrote, “For centuries, Cuba’s greatest resource has been its people.” When I stepped off the plane at Jose’ Marti International Airport in Havana, I was a little nervous, but quickly very hot and sweaty as I was met with the tropical humidity common with the Caribbean. Clearing Customs and Immigration was a breeze and took all of 10 minutes (I was asked, in Spanish, if I wanted my passport stamped, “Of course!”). An immediate assault to the senses, the drive in from the airport to Havana Vieja or Old Havana where I would meet my group and stay, for 2 nights, in the first of five Casa Particulares, basically B&B’s, around the island, was a blur. After 15 years of tour guiding, it occurred to me that I had never been a member of a tour group before, only leading them. Valeri, our tour guide, Cuban born and raised, made me feel very welcome and had patience as I subconsciously would step in and corral the group or instinctively “Shush!” them when he was talking. The 14 Americans got along famously and Valeri was so impressive in his knowledge and ease of delivery with a captive audience eager for exposure and knowledge.
Grateful for 6 years of Spanish in high school and college, meeting people in Cuba was easy. Everyone smiles and is very friendly. The longer I was there, the more at home I felt. “Cuba may be the only place in the world where you can be yourself and more than yourself at the same time.” – Pedro Juan Gutierrez. I, like most who have traveled there, feel a longing to return and have mixed emotions about loosening, what we call the “embargo”, what they call the “blockade.” Although to me, it’s hypocritical for this country to allow it’s citizens to travel to China or Russia or the Middle East everyday of the year (pandemic not withstanding), yet because of the Communist Party affiliation and the record on Human Rights, it should be harder to travel to Cuba? With one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 95%, Cubans are well aware that theirs is not a perfect world, but you will never find more of a sense of community and caring for each other than the Cuban people. I remember one of our step-on guides in Havana quoting Castro in describing race in Cuba. “There is no White and there is no Black, there is only Cuban.” (Black Cubans don’t necessarily feel that way).
The “Special Period”, or the years after the fall of Communism in the former Soviet Union in 1989, left Cuba’s economy completely decimated. It forced the country into survival mode to the extremes and those effects are very much on display today in Cuba. The resilience of the Cuban people gives them a strength far extending past hurricanes, power outages, shortages, and yes, even pandemics. Scholars worldwide travel to Cuba to study pharmaceuticals making their socialized health system solid and trusted by the Cuban people. Safety is a strong feeling throughout the island as many locals still hitchhike their way around. Music and dance fill the air wherever you go. The Cuban people are not anxious like most western societies. More like “Que sera, sera.” (what will be, will be., for those not old enough to remember the opening to the Doris Day show, like me).
The video above that I posted to my Youtube channel clearly shows that I could not make a living as a photographer, videographer or editor, but, the 4-minute video makes me miss Cuba more than ever. After the pandemic, I hope to return to travel and would cherish the opportunity to return. There are so many places to see, but after visiting Cuba once, the experience draws a string from your heart back to the island full of amazing people, rum, endless miles of beaches and a sense that you are so welcome it almost feels like home.
Traveling to Cuba;
There are still many ways for Americans to legally travel to Cuba. A passport and a Visa to Cuba (above) is basically all you need. Below is a link to the Global Exchange’s websites FAQ about traveling to Cuba.
While it’s clear that some movement has to be made by the Cuban government in order for things to get better for the people and democracy, I do worry that once that happens and it seems inevitable that it will, some of the magic will be lost. If you’re a traveler like me, and I hope that you are, you’ll consider exposing yourself to a place that, I guarantee, will never leave you.
After the pandemic, will you travel?
If so, where will you travel to?