I plan travel for a living.
Booking myself a research trip to Havana, Cuba would surely be a cake walk. With tourism opportunities expanding for Americans, I wanted to go down and tour various hotels, try different excursion agencies and set up relationships for my clients’ future trips. I soon discovered, the term “Island Time” in Cuba is on a different level. Yes, the typical lackadaisical speed of islanders is at play but when the businesses you’re dealing with can only get online 2-3 times a week, planning is a challenge. A custom trip to Cuba requires patience and the ability to go without all I’s dotted and T’s crossed.
Up to a few days before going, I had considering scrapping it altogether. Changing US Government regulations paired with general frustration over making plans official, it seemed almost not worth it. I had a looming sense this could be a disaster of a trip but in the end, we went…though hesitantly.
After checking in to our hotel, the dazzling Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski la Habana whose lengthy name is as grand as she is, we decided to stroll around a bit. I don’t hide my gringo very well and almost instantly was sucked into conversation offering anything from black market booze, cigars or “companionship” of many varieties, all “just over here in my cousin’s place”. Ditching the offer, more came, every 10 steps it seemed and all “in my cousin’s place”. Perhaps there really is a place called, “My Cousin’s Place”, but I doubt it. Overwhelmed, I thought as I looked out on the decaying city that I would spend my week going no farther than sight of my hotel haven.
Fortunately, we stuck with our plans to meet Frank, a local tour guide to show us the city. Frank’s perfect English in tow, he immediately explained, “nothing in Cuba is as it first appears”. For instance, the streets may look unsafe at first, but they are not. His statement set the tone for the rest of our trip and he walked us through neighborhoods we’d never dream of exploring, pointing out fascinating details one after the other. “Can we walk here on our own, at night” we asked Frank. “Yep. Just be smart like any city you visit”, he said.
One minute we were in a place that appeared as though a bomb had been dropped. The next a cobblestone paved European style square lined with cafés, music and artisans peddling goods in the shadow of a cathedral. The new Cuba, Frank explained, is seeing a surge in the bohemian, artisan culture and independent businesses are popping up. Every one of them lives or dies on tourist dollars.
My biggest fear in visiting Cuba was that I wouldn’t be able to connect to the place and the people. So, we peppered Frank with question after question, trying to make a connection and get a sense of understanding. We talked about his life, his thoughts on the current government and the historic revolution when Fidel took power. What did it mean to him? What did he think of the US involvement? Mind you, Frank is one voice in a country of over 11 million. But his voice matters. All we know is what we hear in the US media so we took this Havana natives’ words in like a sponge.
Perhaps the moment I’ll remember most was as we walked along one of those decaying streets. Frank pointed out a painting with a bench below and said how much it meant to him. He passes it often on his tours. The painting is a Cuban flag done in faded grey and charcoal tones; Not the vivid colors of the actual flag. And on the stone bench below he says, there are usually 2 or 3 people sleeping. For him, it’s a symbol. The flag of the country he loves, dulled in its grandeur, hovering over the sleeping people. We would soon discover for ourselves just how symbolic that image was...
Frank had saved our trip with his insight into the overwhelming city of Havana. Truthfully, we would have loved having him along for the rest of our trip and you can do just that if you plan ahead. Although we didn’t have him along for the rest of our explorations, his words stuck with us everywhere we went and shaped the way we interpreted what we encountered.
If someone asks you for money saying they’re hungry or homeless in Cuba, take it with a grain of salt as they likely aren’t. The government, no matter what your opinion of it, does provide basic food and housing for every single Cuban. It may not be the best food and the loveliest of home, but they’re provided for all.
Discrimination exists in Cuba but not for the color of your skin. Many businesses are there strictly for the tourists and very few Cubans are allowed to patronize them, much less afford what’s on offer. The sparkling new shopping area by our hotel was referred to as “The Museum” by locals, selling a Canon camera for $7,000 and a Bulgari watch for $10,000. Locals earning an average government salary of $25 a month stroll past, pausing for a selfie with the glamorous goods in the windows.
Just as Americans choose their political sides the Cuban people do as well for their own reasons. Something that really stuck out, no matter which side they were on is that if nothing else changed, the average salary needs to go up. Nevertheless, whatever their political affiliation we found the Cuban people gracious, friendly and delightful to spend time with. They love meeting Americans and even if your visit with them is brief, you’ll walk away knowing one thing. Cubans are proud to be Cuban.
There were several “must-do” things on our list and The Museum of The Revolution should top your list. It’s a surreal experience as an American to tour a monument that doesn’t paint your beloved homeland in the best of lights. Although a classic study in government propaganda, I kept an open mind to grasp what their government thought about the US involvement in their revolution. It was fascinating and eye opening. Housed in the former Presidential Palace of Fulgencio Batista and seen as a symbol of corruption, the palace was a constant target of revolutionary violence and still bears the scars, it’s walls riddled with bullet holes.
The Gran Teatro de La Habana, The National Theater. Breath…officially taken. One of several government restoration projects, this spectacular edifice holds its own against all I’ve seen in America and Europe. The façade is magnificent, decorated with sculptures of marble and bronze featuring four groups of statuary representing charity, education, music and theater. Home to the famous Cuban National Ballet, her 1500 seats are just a part of this enormous building, constructed to serve as a cultural hub. Open since 1915 and now housing several rotating art galleries, a guided tour is your best bet in exploring the palatial building.
Dog lovers that we are, some research led us to The Aniplant Project, a group of animal lovers and volunteer veterinarians who exhaust every resource at their disposal to medically treat and adopt out as many dogs as they can. We packed an extra suitcase with things they simply can’t get like gauze, syringes and antiseptic. Calling upon their humble clinic we encountered a basic but spotless facility. A small colony of un-adoptable pups lives on site, headed by house dog “Cuba”. He runs the show and makes sure you know it. While our visit was brief and burdened by language, we managed to convey our gratitude for their work and theirs for our gifts. Very little words were needed for respect to be shared and a connection made evidenced by tears, shed as we left.
Many Americans long to see Cuba and many do not. At least not until their government changes.
Fielding many rumors, uncertainties and the unstable relationship the US has with Cuba we still chose to go. And while it wasn’t love at first sight, with the help of an amazing guide named Frank, we departed Cuba feeling educated, enlightened and unexpectedly changed.
Frankly, Havana…we can’t wait to see you again.
Images from Cuba
We're going places and so are our clients.