I have just returned from a two-week cultural tour to Cuba led by my husband, Bob Jones.
A Chinese-made bus transported us 1,063 miles across the eastern part of the island from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
My usual mode of travel is solo or with Bob as a companion. So traveling with 32 others encased in a tour bus was a new kind of adventure. But the experience of zigzagging across Cuba as part of a large entourage was eased by the fact almost all of the travelers were from Hawaii, some of whom I had known since our elementary school days at Punahou.
Today, it is easier for Americans to visit Cuba than any time since Fidel Castro’s soldiers took over the country in 1959.
Just before President Barack Obama’s visit in March, the U.S. government announced new rules to permit Americans to travel to Cuba as individuals on what’s called “people to people” tours.
Before that, U.S. citizens were allowed to visit recreationally, but only as members of group tours on educational visits.
We were on such an educational group trip, but along the way I did meet people who had come to Cuba as newly allowed individual travelers such as Justin Klein, a computer programmer from Los Angeles.
I talked with Klein one night as we sat beside the swimming pool at the Gran Hotel in Camaguey, watching a 1950s-style aquacade. Some of the wonder of traveling in Cuba is that spectacles like water ballet, long considered passé in the United States, are still beloved by Cubans.
Klein dismissed the aquacade as “touristy” and told me about authentic things he had seen as he traversed the country on small buses with his father, including “a cockfight to the death” and a giant toad they came across in a water-filled cave near Vinales in the west of the country.
Even individual travelers like Klein and his father are supposed to show that they have had a variety of meaningful, cultural experiences with Cubans. The U.S. still prohibits Americans from going to Cuba to hang out only as tourists at beach resorts, sunbathing and drinking daiquiris. Although, I am unsure how U.S. officials would ever catch you if you spent your entire time in Cuba lollygagging at a fancy beach hotel.
As with many other Americans I met, Klein said he had come to Cuba to see it “before it changes too much.” An American trying to get there before the hundreds of thousands of other Americans expected to arrive this year.
Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco says he initially scoffed at such a romanticized notion. He wrote after his most recent Cuba visit, “Every time some well intentioned gringo told me, ‘I want to go to Cuba before it changes,’ I’d be tempted to snap back, ‘Yeah, and I want to go to North Korea before it changes, too.’
“An attachment to this romanticized notion of Cuba’s crumbling — albeit preserved — grandeur demonstrated a real lack of understanding. It’s hard to overstate the impact of 50 years of political, economic, and psychic deprivation at the human level. I wanted to see Cuba — its people and my own family — enjoy the material as well as the emotional riches of a prosperity they’d been denied for far too long.“
Yet Blanco says now that as U.S.-Cuban relations are warming and real change is possible, he worries about the impact on the authentic Cuban life his extended family has lived for centuries. He half-jokes about his uncle leaving his farm fields to make mojito-flavored lattes at Starbucks.
I heard the phrase over and over again from fellow travelers: “I want to get to Cuba before it is ruined.”
But Cuba has already changed a lot since I visited the country 17 years ago, sneaking in from Cancun, Mexico, with my mountain bike in a big cardboard bike box to join my friends on a biking trip in the western part of the island called Pinar Del Rio.
It wasn’t technically illegal for an American to visit Cuba then, but it was against the law for an American to spend money in Cuba. When we returned, one of my fellow bikers got caught. But all that happened is the U.S. customs agent confiscated the bunch of cigars she had purchased to give as presents and tore them up in front of her.
“I think he expected me to cry but for revenge I kept a poker face, “ she told me later.
But my sneaky first trip to Cuba is a story for another day. Back to our tour.
The government runs all organized tours in Cuba and all guides are government employees. Our guide was a Havana native named Armando “Mandy” Galan, 29, who idealized the Cuban way of life. Mandy, who called our bus “the train of happiness,” was our gateway to understanding the ins and outs of life in Cuba today, including what it is like to function in a country where the average salary is $22 a month.
“You have to have other jobs,” says Mandy. “Everyone in Cuba lives on under the table money, the gray market.”
Mandy and maids, waiters, busboys, porters and others in the visitor industry get needed extra money from tips.
Owners of beautifully restored 1950s Chevrolets and Pontiacs use them as to taxi tourists. Or they rent their own vintage cars to other Cubans for $50 a day so the Cubans can run their own tourist car ride businesses.
Tour guides get kickbacks from steering visitors to privately owned restaurants.
Retired professor Juan Suarez Castella, who we met in Santa Clara, has a government pension, yet he still toils at night as a taxi driver and guide. Castella says he loves Cuba, especially the country’s free medical and dental care.
“I got two teeth implants for free. My friend in Miami paid $5,000 for each of her implants,” says Castella.
One of our guides on my Cuban biking trip years ago was a pediatrician. She said she made more money showing us through the steep mountain roads of Pinar del Rio for a week than she did in a month working at the hospital.
In Cuba, education is free, all the way through graduate and professional studies. Everyone has a degree, but very few have regular salaries high enough for day-to-day survival.
“You have to invent your own way of making a living,” says Mandy.
As our “train of happiness” made its way ever-eastward, there was much to enjoy, including the Alamar Organic Farm, 10 miles east of Havana. Organic farms are trendy in the United States now, but this 4.5 acre plot was created out of necessity after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until then, the Soviets had been subsidizing the Cuban government with up to $5 billion a year. Then it all stopped. There was no fuel, no food. People were starving.
Cubans call this time “the special period.”
Isis Salcines, who works on the farm, says of this time, “We went to bed rich, and woke up the next morning poor. It is very sad. The special period never ended.”
At the farm, we watched as netting was picked up over a large swath of wiggling, fertilizer-producing worms.
“The worms work 24 hours a day. They don’t ask for a salary. They don’t ask for vacations or sick days off, “ says the admiring Salcines.
Alfonso Gonsales, a member of the organic farm cooperative, says the farm was created at a critical time in the Cuban economy, “but now it helps in a new way as Cubans try to live healthier, to eat better food. We all want to live to be 120.”
Gonsales says working on the farm is good for longevity: “I come here with a headache and it is gone in five minutes.”
Outside the farm we watched a man grind sweet, cold juice out of stalks of sugar cane to make a drink Cubans called guarapo. As we were watching, an impoverished man in the line, waiting to buy the some, treated us to a glass so we could try the sweet juice. Such is the generosity you still see in Cuba.
Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula, was another wonderful place to visit. I loved its smallness, its elegant simplicity, so different from the huge mansions people feel compelled to build in Hawaii today.
At a large wooden desk in a book-lined room here, Hemingway wrote most of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”
The 15-acre property is a tourist destination; its frenzied parking lot crowded with tour buses and souvenir stands selling things like Che Guevara refrigerator magnets, guava juice and wooden carvings of vintage cars. But the house and gardens are peaceful.
Visitors are allowed only to peek into the residence, not enter it. Some are unhappy to see so many animal heads from Hemingway’s African safaris, including the particularly doleful black head of a huge African buffalo he shot on the Serengeti Plain in 1934. But outside, there are also the carefully marked graves of his four dogs, each remembered with its name written in black print.
Hemingway lived at Finca Vigia from 1939 until 1960, one year before he shot himself to death in Ketchum, Idaho. At the time of his death, he was a Cuban citizen.
All of that was a long time ago, before Cuba became a totalitarian Communist state. Now President Raul Castro is slowly instituting economic reforms such as allowing some people to have private businesses and to own cell phones and giving farmers the option of selling some of their produce directly to consumers instead of the state.
It is a good time to visit Cuba because it is the slowly changing economy that makes it interesting. The country has a very long way to go before it is “ruined.”