Weary from 14 hours of travel (in the middle seat of three different airplanes from Seattle to Mexico City to Havana), my body longed for a simple bed to sleep in, but my mind was awhirl with anticipation of a trip of a lifetime. Rick, his son Andy, his daughter Jackie, and I were Cuba-bound, and we were eager to explore this Communist island-nation that none of us had ever been to.
The trip was several months in the planning. We did everything by the book: filling out the proper documents for our “General License”, paying for our Mexico-Cuba plane tickets through the appropriate channels, arranging our casas particulares (private bed & breakfasts) through legitimate companies (we used Point2Cuba and AirBnB), and arranging much of our sight-seeing and educational travel through the Center for Global Education and their Cuba affiliate, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. And we prepared ourselves well with smart guidebooks and educational materials like documentaries and books on Cuban history that provided perspectives we hadn’t been accustomed to hearing as Americans (You’ll find a list of some of our most-appreciated resources following this article).
Seemingly with only the stars of an 11pm sky to illuminate the airport runway, our plane landed smoothly on the nearly pitch black Havana tarmac. Right away, I knew that everything from here on out would be much different that what we were accustomed to in the States.
Passing through customs put me a little on edge—not because it should have but because my inner worrywart reared its ugly head. Did I fill out the paperwork right? Did my Cuban visa that I got at the Mexico City airport fall out of my passport? Should Rick and I go to the customs agent together or as individuals? Do I have proof that I’m really traveling to Cuba for “Professional Research” should they grill me about that? So many questions swirled in my brain. Even after the agent took my sweaty-faced picture (dripping with the tropical humidity) to make sure the Cuban government officially knew I was here and what I’d be doing, and even after he waved me through with a smile and an adiós, I could feel my heart pulse and seize until Rick was waved through, too, and reached for my hand.
It was relief to be met by Rey, our guide and representative from the MLK Center. His wide, toothy smile, and his warm, sincere welcome were comforting. Don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t scared or truly nervous about being here, but there was so much I didn’t know and was ignorant of regarding Cuba. I needed reassurance that all was and would be well. As I would learn quickly as the trip progressed, this is a safe, friendly, engaging, and thought-provoking place to visit.
With Rey’s help, we did what all tourists need to do when first getting to Cuba: change money. We came prepared with a mix of large and small bills (in hindsight, we should have had more of the small ones) and accepted the notion of waiting and waiting and waiting in line—something most tourists to Cuba need to get used to and something that all Cubans live with on a daily basis.
Knowing how tired we were from our day’s journey, Rey helped us get to our casa particular in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, so we could get a full night’s rest before hitting the ground the next morning.
Sooner than we thought, 8 am had sprung on us, and Rey showed up with our personal American Classic Car/Cuban taxi for the day. With daylight rather than middle-of-the-night darkness as our backdrop, the 15-minute ride into the old town, or Havana Vieja, was the perfect “Cuba for Beginners” visual introduction into this Caribbean port town. Imposing statues, gas stations, cotton candy-colored buildings, smiling locals, and the myriad forms of transportation that lined and traversed the main drag (a waterfront roadway-esplanade-seawall called the Malecón) provided ample eye-catching targets for our cameras.
Sightseeing Old Havana on foot, we explored the most touristy part of the city. From its Spanish colonial beginnings to contemporary public art, history and culture permeated every space. Luckily for us, the cruise ship travelers had not yet arrived that day, so we toured the area in relative, if temporary, peace and learned about the Then and Now of religion in Cuba, wages and social benefits, Hemingway’s haunts, and habaneros or Havana locals.
Despite Fidel Castro’s revolutionary ideal of allowing for “freedom of religion,” in actuality, religion had, up until recent years, been strongly restricted. Catholicism in particular—which was generally seen as supporting the oppressive dictatorial, elite-class, U.S.-supported government that was run by General Fulgencio Batista and was overthrown by Castro and his (generally) working-class, poorer, non-white Hispanic (read as: Afro-Cuban or mulatto) comrades—took the brunt of the limitations. Churches had been closed, displays of religion in public had been forbidden, and even celebrating Christmas was a no-no. But now, under the leadership of Fidel’s brother Raúl and with the visit of three popes since 1998 (first by Pope John Paul II, then Pope Benedict and most recently by Pope Francis), Cuba has seen an easing of religious restrictions and a growing population of practicing Catholics.
Rey reminded us that the average monthly salary for Cubans is 30 pesos or the equivalent of $30 US. He also gently reminded us that homelessness is essentially non-existent and housing is highly subsidized (although the quality, safety, and comfort level vary greatly within the society). Healthcare is free and available to everyone, including twice yearly house calls (but access to medicines and medical equipment are severely limited because of the strict U.S.-enforced embargo). Education from ages 6-16 is free and compulsory and is free through PhD level to anyone who wishes to pursue that route (Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.7%).
And no one goes without food. Everyone is given a libreta or ration card that provides $2 worth of food each month (about 12% of the true cash value). This “food basket”, supplied by state-run food stores, provides every Cuban with half a bottle of cooking oil, small rations of cooking gas, white and brown sugar, as well as spaghetti. They also receive some eggs, beans, chicken or fish, along with one piece of bread per day, and seven pounds of rice. There are special provisions for children, diabetics, special occasion items like birthday cakes or rum and beer for weddings, in addition to school uniforms and supplies. Cubans who can afford it supplement their diet with food purchased from local vendors, farmers markets or supermarkets, but in Cuba it’s said, “No one can live on the booklet, but there are many who cannot live without it.”
As we passed by a tourist-crowded café on the popular Plaza Vieja, I wondered how many tourists were getting as deep of a look at Cuban society during the length of their trip as we were getting in these first few hours. And popping into the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed and bar where he drank his supposedly “favorite” daiquiris in Havana (both places were packed with tourists), I wondered if this was really what enchanted most visitors.
The people we met around town were, without exception, friendly and curious about us. As translator for our family, it was a joy to be speaking Spanish again, and I found myself adapting to the Cuban tendency towards quick words and dropped letters and syllables. Locals asked things like “¿D(e) (d)ónde so(n) u(s)tede(s)?” (Where are you from?) “¿Po(r) qué ha(n) veni(d)o a Cuba?” (Why did we come to Cuba?) They all wanted to know. Answers of “We’re from America” and “We want to learn about your history, your culture, and your people” were met with exclamations of joyful surprise and gleeful welcome. These individuals enchanted us, each in their own unique way, and they enlivened us to meet more of their compatriots.
For more photos of our first day in Cuba, click on the tiles below:
Stay tuned for more reports from Cuba.
And if you’re interested to visiting our Caribbean neighbors, consider these resources:
Lonely Planet Cuba
Cuba for the Misinformed: Facts from the Forbidden Island by Mick Winter
Real Havana: Explore Cuba Like a Local and Save by Mario Rizzi
Cuba as Never Before: The Absolutely Positively Unauthorized Guide by Louis Nevaer
NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLES
Fidel: The Untold Story directed by Estela Bravo (Netflix)
Che starring Benicio del Toro and directed by Steven Soderbergh (Netflix)
Travels to Real Cuba (It’s in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, but the visuals are well worth your while)