Falling in Love With Cuba

CUBA August 2015Accounts from the trip of a lifetime.

Barbara Thomas

I have always thought of myself as a seasoned traveler. I survived the disease-ridden, flooded squatty potty in the mountains of Turkey and stood unflinching as my companion threw every franc we had into the Seine following too much wine at the famed Tour d’Argent in Paris. I’ve lived off of protein bars and Starbucks Via in a remote outpost in China and celebrated Boxing Day in London with food poisoning most vile, brought on by an aging salmon mousse in a charming, out-of-the-way café.

I was born with gypsy feet. Just the mention of an exotic locale and I’m half packed and ready to call Uber. Successful travelers have it down to a formula: pack appropriate black clothing, some comfortable shoes, a fist full of credit cards, enough cash to get out of the airport, and bam—adventure awaits. However, getting ready for my longed-for, someday-I’ll-get-to-go, I-can’t-believe-I’m-getting-to-do-this trip to Cuba brought on panic equaled only by my need to make gargantuan lists. Trip Advisor admonitions flooded over me.

“If you need it, take it. You can’t buy it there.” Well, that’s pretty much true. I packed backups of backups of prescriptions, underwear, sunscreen, insect repellant, antibacterial wipes, creams, sprays, body wipes (in case the shower doesn’t work), face wipes (same reason), portable fans, and extra batteries.

“No one has toilet paper…bring your own.” Yes and no. At most public restrooms, there’s a government attendant willing to sell you one piece, single ply, of toilet paper in exchange for a tip. That’s when wipes are handy. Hotels are fully stocked.

CUBA August 2015“No credit cards, no ATMs.” True. Bring cash. That pretty much ensures against those impulse buys that you really can’t afford but would look fabulous framed over the mantle. Though in Cuba, even the impulse buys are affordable and it’s hanging over my mantle. I actually brought cash home from a trip.

“The air conditioning in hotels often doesn’t work and there are bugs in the rooms.” Thus the extra batteries if I had to convert my portable fan into a room fan and, I hate to confess here, the need to bring my own sheets and a backup supply of bedbug spray. I abandoned the sheets and put away the bug spray after our first hotel stop in Cien Fuegos. We stayed in a pair of delightful guest houses facing the water, with a very popular bar in the lobby and clean guest rooms in Caribbean colors.

“Be prepared for awful food.” I was expecting to eat mostly chicken butts and dried-out rice. Alabama is one of the largest exporters of chicken to Cuba, but market demand is mostly for dark meat, which tends to be situated in the rear half of the bird, I’m told.

All these needs packed, double checked off the list, and crammed into a bulging suitcase, I looked like Stanley headed into the jungle to find Professor Livingstone.

CUBA August 2015Spoiler alert…none of this (except the cash and very little of that) was needed. Our trusty band (and others on the small tour) were treated to eight days filled with lobster, rum, amazing local cuisine, more rum, private concerts of Early Renaissance music, lessons in the language of fans, more rum, visits to artist studios, and a private chamber music concert…every visit required everyone to get up and dance. Music and dance are a part of daily life in Cuba and perhaps what sees them through dire poverty and an incessant hope for change.

As diplomatic meetings continue between the U.S. and Cuba, travel opportunities open up and tourism to Cuba continues to grow. We went on a licensed People-to-People tour, which meant that our itinerary was planned to the minute and included required visits to the Bay of Pigs Museum, Fidel’s Illiteracy Museum, a church/state-run home for the elderly, and other stops designed to show off the glories of the Revolution.

CUBA August 2015The Revolution doesn’t seem to be paying off much for the people of Cuba. They live on $20 a month and pretty much everything is owned by the government. There are two currencies, local and tourist (which holds 25 times the value of local money). If a local Cuban went to the shop to buy a new refrigerator, it would be the equivalent of $9,000. Locals only get state-run TV channels and many only have the ancient black-and-white TVs left over from the Soviet period.

For our small band of tourists and many more, Cuba was indeed the trip of a lifetime, a chance to travel back in time to view the past through rum-drenched glasses. The joie de vivre of the people, despite their poverty, is testament to the power of music and dance. I’d go again in a heartbeat if I had a chance.

Lee Sentell, Director, Alabama Tourism Department

When President Obama announced a thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba last December, I contacted several of my travel buddies about booking Gate One’s nine-day package tour to the land of cigars, Fidel Castro, and those iconic American cars held together by grit and TLC since the 1950s. “Let’s get there before Holiday Inn and Hyatt do a makeover on Cuba,” I said. They agreed. We picked a departure on Aug. 6 because it was $50 cheaper than any other date. We had no idea it would coincide with the arrival of the U.S. Secretary of State and the return of the U.S. flag on an American Embassy on our last day.

CUBA August 2015Our daily itinerary was packed with “people-to-people” encounters, ranging from a visit to a factory to see the expensive Cohiba cigars rolled by hand to dancing lessons with older Cubans to visits with artists and students. The most inspirational was a rundown neighborhood that had been transformed through public art. A highlight was touring the sacred memorial to heroes of the Revolution where Che Guevara and a handful of others are entombed.

The strangest was a visit to a former school that’s now a museum that celebrates the high percentage of literacy in this poor country. The most unscripted encounter was the free evening that a companion and I took a taxi driver to dinner. We stayed at the Nacional Hotel, a 1930s landmark that overlooks the Havana harbor. Taxi drivers park their restored American cars a block behind the hotel in the afternoon and guests stroll by and pick one for a tour. We liked Edgar del Rio’s shiny 1955 green and white Chevy convertible. We offered $20 for a one-hour tour and a recommendation for dinner. He gave us a tour of the sites and suggested a French restaurant across the street from John Lennon Park. (Yes, that John Lennon. Fidel is a fan.) Edgar was such a great guide we made him our guest for dinner. He told us he paid $35,000 for his car. I still haven’t figured out how he can afford it.

Several takeaways to know if you consider a visit: Public transportation does not exist. Only go on a package tour. People are very friendly. Shops don’t accept credit cards. It is still a communist country with its own version of the KGB. If a Cuban is a troublemaker, he doesn’t get a good job. Nobody owns a home. Consumer goods are in short supply. You don’t realize how poor they are until you see an old man on the street rubbing a fist on his other arm. It means, “Please throw me a bar of hotel soap if you have one.”

CUBA August 2015Dilcy Windham Hilley, Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau

Andy looked worried.

It was past time for our tour group to convene in the hotel meeting room in Miami, and yet not everyone had arrived. Andy was our tour manager, and we were to get information and instructions for traveling in Cuba. It was our evening orientation before departure the next day, and clearly, some were going to go uninstructed.

“Good evening, everyone,” Andy began.  “My name is Andrew…or Andy, if you like.  Andy or Andrew. Whatever you want to call me is fine.” He was a disheveled little man with the pained expression of a toothache sufferer. We listened intently, hoping to grasp the hang of traveling in this new world. “On our last tour,” Andy continued, “a woman stumbled on the uneven streets and broke her front teeth.” Small sighs of concern rippled around the room. “It’s not a good idea to talk to the Cuban people who aren’t part of our tour stops. And you can’t drink the water. For goodness sake, don’t drink the water,” he warned in earnest. “But we always carry a large cooler of bottled water on the bus. You must stay hydrated. On one tour, a guy in our group had to be taken to the hospital because he didn’t stay hydrated.” The sparkle of the trip was beginning to dull.

After Andy imparted a half dozen more warnings to heed, the Alabama contingent could hardly behave ourselves. Could this man think of another thing to deflate us further?  Just then, the tardy members of the group arrived in the room, beers in hand. Andy looked worried.

The entry into Cuba was long but uneventful. Doctors in white lab coats accepted and reviewed our health forms. We were photographed and our passports were scrutinized by stern-looking officials. When we all were approved to pass into Cuba, Andy looked relieved—until our unruly tour began to scatter about the terminal. “We have to stay together,” he shouted over the roar of arriving passengers. “This is not the time to wander off!” It was like trying to corral cockroaches.

CUBA August 2015Soon we met our handsome and knowledgeable Cuban tour guide, Ramiro Mola. He was a take-charge kind of guy, and we knew it the moment we met him. If we were chatty and inattentive during his narratives, Ramiro would shout into the microphone, “ARE YOU LISTENING?!” It delighted us. The first time he reprimanded the group, I said to the lesbian couple from California, “Andy looks worried.” They giggled out loud, and soon this became our anthem.

Andy worried about everything, but he was an earnest tour manager. If we went to the hotel lobby for anything, no matter the hour, there was Andy, pacing and jiggling the pesos in his pockets. We wondered if Andy ever slept.

One day, on the outskirts of Havana, our bus overheated. Thick, dark smoke rose from the engine and began to creep its way into the interior. Andy jumped up and fled the bus, much like the Seinfeld episode where George tramples children and old ladies to flee the birthday party fire. He led us at an impressive gallop far down the block. When we stopped at an unusually safe distance, he turned and faced his cockroaches. He was red-faced from fear and running, and boy did Andy look worried.

Ed Hall, Professional photographer and former director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel

Following six days of intense photography by yours truly and immersive touring by the entire group, day six seemed perfect for a “night out on the town” in Havana. Most of the group opted to visit the venerable night club The Tropicana.

CUBA August 2015In continuous operation since 1939, The Tropicana is a full measure of the time warp experienced on the entire trip. Seated at tables of eight circling the massive stage, we were witness to a spectacle of music, dance, and outrageous costumes. Dilcy Hilley remarked of the late Hollywood design diva, “Edith Head must be spinning in her grave—look at those costumes!” Descriptive words seem to fail, but “outlandish” might do to describe apparel featuring, among other oddities, otherwise scantily clad women wearing functioning chandeliers as hats.

True to the Cuban hospitality we experienced throughout the trip, as a part of admission, each couple was presented a full liter bottle of Havana Club Rum, along with the required Coca Cola to make the national drink Cuba Libre, intended to be consumed during the show. I’m proud of the restraint shown at our table, as three of the four bottles made it back to the hotel as souvenirs. While not the cultural highlight of the tour, night six served as a great evening to unwind and absorb yet another aspect of Cuban life.

There’s so much to say about Cuba, much more than can fit here. The people are amazingly warm and friendly. (On one of our free nights, some of us went to a local restaurant and at the end of the evening, waited on taxis that never arrived. Seeing our plight, two neighbors drove us back to the hotel in their own cars.)

CUBA August 2015Go now. Call any of a handful of tour agencies with a license to do business in Cuba and go; not because it will change, but because you’ll be missing out the longer you stay away. It was one of the more magical and educational weeks of our lives.




Leave a Reply