What was my obsession with Cuba? For as long as I can remember, I longed to go to this mysterious and forbidden country. So close to us yet fifty years behind us. I nagged my photographer buddies about having to go – “we have to photograph this place frozen in time!” I tell them. It was a merging of my two loves, history and photography. My friends just said, “yes, yes, sure sure”. If no one wanted to go, I was going to sign up for a group on my own. But in early 2000 it was not recommended to go. I researched on the State Department’s website about travel to Cuba and it all but said, “Yo, you’re on your own. We have no American Embassy and if you get in trouble maybe Sweden’s Embassy can help you – maybe not. Buena suerte, Americana” (no it didn’t say it just like that, but you get the picture). Okay, a little scared, but I was still determined to get there one day.
Years later, President Obama speaks of opening relations with Cuba and again I nag my friends. “We have to get there before it all changes!” Last year, two of my closest friends, devout bird watchers, break the news to me that they are spending two weeks in Cuba bird watching. They were getting to Cuba before me? They invite me, but there’s a catch…I have to be a “birder” for two weeks. My Leica and I can’t go wandering alone around the streets of Havana. If the travel visa says I’m a bird researcher, I have to be a bird researcher. I love them dearly, but me looking for birds while in Cuba?! What about all that history and architecture, music and culture? Besides it hurts my neck to look up all the time. With a heavy heart, I have to decline. But I know I am going to get there. My best friend tells me “put it out into the universe” and I’ll get there.
Well the universe answered me in February. My friend, Paul, called and said his wife found a Cuba trip on line and wants to go. I’m in! Guy says he’ll go, although I think he was only doing it for me. He says he hears there’s some great beaches in Cuba. Ut oh…I don’t want to tell him that Americans are not permitted to be tourists on Cuban beaches. We are only permitted to be in Cuba on a specific cultural, education or religious mission and laying on the beach with a mojito and a James Patterson novel is not one of them. “I’m sure that will change soon, honey” I tell him, but probably not by April.
Our travel agent takes care of all our necessary documents, visas and itinerary and we find ourselves on the Havana Air flight from Miami to Cuba. I am seated next to a woman from Miami who is traveling with $10,000 in cash for her cousin to purchase his apartment. Apparently, you can’t just send money like that to Cuba. My history lesson begins. She tells me what life was like after the Revolution for her family and the Cuban people and how they are still oppressed. We touch down at Jose Marti, a small airport desperately needing a face lift and locate our luggage. We exchange our money as the American dollar is not accepted in Cuba nor are credit cards. The amount of cash we are all carrying is astounding as we don’t know what to expect.
Our group of six are all seasoned travelers. Paul is a photographer for National Geographic and he and his wife, Bonnie, have traveled all over the world. Chris and Lee have literally traveled to the ends of the earth looking for birds, and Guy and I have a love for Europe. Seasoned as we are, we all glanced at each other nervously as we enter the customs booth – one by one. “I’m here on an art education tour” I rehearsed in my head so I didn’t say the wrong thing. With only one question being asked to us by the customs official, we find our way to the other side – we were in Cuba!
Arriving at a high-rise apartment building which appears to be mostly vacant and in need of TLC we are greeted by a lovely woman, Dredy, who will be with us for our stay. We step into a 1950s penthouse with glass windows and balconies overlooking the brilliant blue sea. Just beautiful! Our first taste of Cuba, waiting for us outside are two classic convertibles ready to take us on a tour of old Havana. Cruising around the crumbling streets of Havana, your first impression may be of poverty, austerity and sadness but the beauty of these buildings and the Cuban people will soon change this impression. As we rumble down the Malecon we pass houses built in the 1800s and 1900s and you feel that you may just be in old Paris or the Garden District of New Orleans. Buildings needing much repair, yet beautiful nonetheless. “Elegant negligence” as my friend, Chris, describes it. I couldn’t believe I was finally here.
Life in Cuba is not easy, but they are rich in so many ways. Rich in culture, music, education – in living life. It is like an oasis from the excesses of mankind just a short plane ride away. Every night we watch as Cubans gather on the Malecon, a stretch of seawall, where young people flirt and the musicians play. Music, laughter, and chatter is heard until the wee hours of the morning. Cubans seem to celebrate life, it’s a world without electronics, social media, and the unending news cycle. It is a world where people spend time with one another and help their neighbor and dance in the streets to music. Their laundry is hung outside the windows, the juice is fresh squeezed, and transportation is either an antique Chinese bike, an ox and cart or, of course, an old American car. Cars lovingly cared for for over 50 years.
We hear “Conseguir” – a common word. “To manage” – they make do. They work hard and out of necessity they manage to survive. Highly educated, the monthly salary is only $25 per month and survival means supplementing their income with other work. The woman keeping our house and preparing our breakfast is an Anesthesiologist in the hospital, our tour guide is a Nuclear Physicist educated in Russia and our cab drive a Mechanical Engineer. However hard they work, they remain a gracious and happy people. Although not being allowed to travel outside the country or having many of the conveniences we take for granted, they never speak negatively. They do speak of all they do have such as education and health care which are provided for all Cubans. They are amazed at what we pay for this in our country, as am I.
Our journey takes us to a Cuban art museum, cigar factory and the home of Ernest Hemingway on the outskirts of Havana. A beautiful escape from Miami in the 1950s, the home is just as he left it. A visit there is truly a step back in time. A visit to the town of Vinales and a tobacco plantation was a highlight of the trip.
My story cannot finish without speaking of the food in Cuba. With economic reforms in 2011 the Cuban government allowed private restaurants, paladars, to expand beyond the previous limit of 12 persons in their homes. Many of these fine restaurants rival some of the best in our country. We found one was better than the last and our Chef Guy was not disappointed. An average meal, with wine, was about $25 per person. Sadly, many of the local Cubans cannot afford to enjoy this luxury.
Change will come to Cuba they say and although in many ways this will be good for the Cuban people, I am sad to think of what it may do to their way of life and culture. For me, I loved the simpler way of life and perhaps it is easy for me to feel this way knowing I can get on a plane and go back to my comfortable lifestyle – but perhaps not. My Cuba experience will stay with me for a long time. ♥
For my gallery on Cuba, click here