We went to Cuba a couple of years ago – yes that Cuba – the forbidden island (at least to most Americans) – before the recent easing up of US tourist visas. It was a humanitarian mission of sorts…we went with a rugby group that we are associated with. So we were allowed, I’ll get to that later. We had to get special permission, and had to have special visas. Was I intimidated? YES. Was I a bit concerned? YES. It was nerve wracking, but it was exciting at the same time.
I grew up during the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. That island so close to our Florida shores was mysterious and frightening to me. I had visions of Castro’s army patrolling the streets with machine guns and armored jeeps, juxtaposed with all of those cool old school cars. What I found was quite the opposite. There were times when I was uncomfortable…like when the agents came through arrival lines with their dogs, and when we were interviewed individually by immigration in a inclosed cubical. Except for these small incidents at the airport, I felt very safe. And actually we saw a more heavily armed police presence in Mexico City than in Havana.
Signs of poverty were everywhere, we heard stories of medical doctors driving cabs after hours to make ends meet.
The Cuban Peso is different from the Peso we, as tourists, use, and is worth so much less. The Cuban people are mostly paid in “Cuban Pesos” and have to purchase their monthly rations and other goods at exorbitant prices. One beer could cost a person a day’s wage. Wow! Another peculiarity we discovered… as Americans, we weren’t able to use credit cards, unlike tourists from other countries. I’m hearing that things are slowly changing and if restrictions are further lifted for US citizens, I’m sure that everyone is going to benefit.
As I said earlier we were there with special permission. We were with a rugby group that has toured all over the world. We’ve been with them in Asia, South Africa, Europe, and… Mexico City just before our arrival in Cuba. As you can see, our guys were a bit older than the Cubans.
Although impoverished, we found the people to be very friendly and seemed to always be smiling. These kids were the lucky recipients of several large cartons of clothing that we were able to distribute. The contents disappeared in a flash as soon as the containers were opened. We also sponsored a party for the players and their families later that evening. They were very grateful.
Signs of Cuban ingenuity were everywhere. Many Cubans turned to their creativity to earn extra money.
This guy had quite a show with his dogs.
This fortune-teller sitting outside a popular restaurant was a happy soul.
While these women were selling flowers.
We had our selection of rides – from horse & buggy or scooter to those famous old cars.
The Cuban music was delightful. These guys entertained us in one of Hemingway’s favorite restaurants. Go here for my post on Hemingway’s Cuba.
As you can see everyone wanted to have their name scrawled on its walls – both outside and within.
Signs of Fidel, his brother, and Che were prominent everywhere – on the walls of a cigar store, in an upscale hotel lobby, and on the walls of buildings.
We really liked our experience in Cuba, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The people are so friendly, and overall seem so happy despite their impoverished conditions. I hope more Americans will be able to experience their culture and hospitality. Perhaps with the easing of travel restrictions for the US, this small country so close to our southern shores, will be more accessible and finally be able to begin to recover from years of repression. I would love to see it restored to its glory days.
Come back next week for “Cuba My Experience Part 2” when I explore the architecture of Havana and surrounding areas.
Until next time…