Cuba: The ‘after’ story

Cuba is enigmatic – especially for Americans, whose contact with the island nation so close to US shores has been forbidden for so long. But even other nationalities are eager to see this tiny Communist country that has been embroiled in turmoil for at least the past six decades.

Read my account of how this trip came about.

As our shipload of 2,000 plus passengers departed from Key West, the excitement was palpable.

Havana lay just to the southeast. A reasonably swift vessel could make the 90-mile passage comfortably in about six hours. However, in order to adhere to a set schedule that would allow an entire day in Havana, the captain of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas slowed ship engines almost to idle. Crossing the Strait separating Florida and Cuba would take more than 14 hours. We departed Key West at 5 p.m., with no chance to enjoy either Mallory Square’s street performers or the famed sunset.

Then, even though we were on deck at first light the following morning, we did not catch a sunrise view of el Morro Castle or the lighthouse at the harbor entrance except in shadow. Our first real daylight view was of decaying warehouse structures lining the dock on our vessel’s starboard side.

It was a shock.

First thoughts about Havana

Old Havana lies just beyond what was once a thriving commercial seaport, according to our map, but out of view. We could not yet see the Plaza de San Francisco, first laid out in the 16th Century, nor its impressive fountain and ancient basilica dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We saw a few spires, glimpsed brightly-painted buildings and followed dock workers and delivery vans as the morning dawned.

On the street, old buses, small vehicles, and horse-drawn wagons rambled along the uneven stones. We did not yet see the gleaming vintage automobiles we expected.

Our impression was of a city waking up and readying itself for the day; however, there seemed to be no urgency in the movements. We had been told that commerce progresses in Havana on “Cuban time.” We wondered if the onslaught of visitors was a welcome occurrence now that cruise ships call regularly in Havana.

The transition was immediate. We had been transported overnight back across decades to a place that we did not recognize. even from the pictures we had seen.

In all the magazine stories I had read about contemporary Cuba, I had never, to my knowledge, seen a picture that depicted age and disrepair in such a graphic manner. Was this the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, I wondered?

In the distance, above other roofs, two impressive gold-clad onion domes caught our attention and drew our wonder in the thin early morning light. We learned later that 100_1143they are atop the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was built under the aegis of Fidel Castro, as a lasting monument to Russian-Cuban friendship, according to his memoirs, and was consecrated October 19, 2008, with Raul Castro in attendance.

Across the harbor, we gazed at the impressive bulk of the white marble Christ of Havana statue, the work of Cuban artist Hilma Madera. It was commissioned in 1953 IMG_3930and inaugurated in 1958, facing east, looking over the city with one arm raised in blessing upon the land and people. Incidentally, only two weeks later, Fidel Castro brought the tide of revolution to Havana. The history of Cuba was forever altered.

The 67 huge blocks of Carrara marble used to form the sculpture, the same type of stone that also graces tombstones in Havana’s sprawling Colon Cemetery, had been personally blessed by Pope Pius XII before leaving Italy.

Stepping onto Cuban soil . . .

The ship was quickly and efficiently cleared by officials. Eager passengers began to make their way to the modern interior of the Terminal Sierra Maestra. 100_1198 (2)Heat and humidity settled upon us, but Cuban officials in the bright and airy non-air-conditioned space seemed not to notice.

We had been cautioned not to snap photographs inside the port building. Functionally laid out, the terminal is designed to process visitors efficiently, not as a space to linger, to shop or to socialize. There were no cautionary signs, but we obeyed the rules as smartly-uniformed customs and immigration officials and currency exchange personnel quickly dispatched us onto by-now bustling city streets or to waiting tour buses.

If only we could shed our preconceptions, I mused—about people and places and cultures—as easily as we shed our clothes in a tropical island setting. I thought about those preconceptions as I disembarked in Cuba. The carefree ambience of Cuba was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I felt very American at that moment, and was mildly disappointed that there were no welcoming musicians or souvenir-sellers. 

At first glance, Cuba was not at all what I had expected.

Cuba demystified

Despite the relative ease with which an American can now visit Cuba, it is not at all routine. A visa is required, a relatively simple procedure, but it comes at a cost of $75 per person when processed by the cruise line. There are rules and specific guidelines for filling out the forms, depending on the specific category of authorized travel. Visiting Cuba simply as a “tourist” is still not a valid option for Americans. Travel as a journalist, for humanitarian, agricultural or educational purposes, and for specific other reasons is allowed, but there are strings attached.

Participation in some sort of cultural exchange is a requirement, under “people-to-people” guidelines that are well-defined and controlled. Half and full-day tours of many types can be booked through the cruise line; third-party excursions are available. We chose the latter; two separate excursions from two different sanctioned companies. We also built in a few hours of time on our own with thoughts of a museum visit or a leisurely lunch or dinner.

Discovering Havana on foot

We first strolled through Old Havana on our way to meet up with a designated guide. Our planned walking tour promised a sampling of traditional “street food.” We stopped for a morning coffee at an outdoor café where the menu surprise was espresso delivered with a cigar on the side. We opted to forego the cigar, ordering tall iced coffees instead. Served with ice cream, they were cooling and delicious on a morning already steamy with tropical heat! Service was prompt and cordial, and prices were reasonable.

This was no ordinary tour, and the conversation was as satisfying as the food samples.

Our group of six enjoyed typical fried treats, akin in some ways to warm American jelly-filled doughnuts, followed by pizza slices, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, cooling fresh fruit cocktails, and roasted ears of corn dripping with melted butter!

Our young guide, Marcos, 100_1329 a history student at University, was knowledgeable and informative, even leading us to a local B&B to see typical tourist accommodations and meet the proprietors. He gave an impromptu history lesson, answered all the questions we asked, and our time with him concluded over shared beers at a delightful local establishment on another old city square.

Walking through La Habana Vieja is quite an experience!

. . . and from the backseat of a convertible

A bit later in the day, we embarked on our second scheduled Havana experience. We had booked three hours with a car, driver and guide for a tour that would take us to many of the various neighborhoods that comprise Havana, a city that is now home to more than two million people.

Yes, the car was vintage American, a 1958 Thunderbird convertible; bright red, shiny and impressive despite its age, still with its original engine. And Florida plates!wp_20181018_14_45_59_pro1.jpgIt was a whirlwind excursion; we saw ancient forts, business and residential districts, numerous monuments and families out to enjoy the city’s parks and playgrounds. We drove past massive art galleries, the national opera house, expensive hotels, stark Russian apartment buildings, modern steel and glass office buildings, and residential areas crowded with nondescript apartments. We drove the five-mile length of the Malecon, a broad avenue and seawall bordering the bay and frequented, perhaps equally, by fishermen and lovers, according to our guide.

We returned once again to Old Havana, circling el Capitolio, completed in 1929 as the seat of government. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the “House of the People”100_1286 had no real purpose, and today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its dome has been under repair for the past several years, but the building and its adjacent statuary are still impressive.

We both walked and drove past La Floridita, the bar that served Ernest Hemingway’s 100_1307 (2)favored daiquiri. The stool he occupied when he drank there is said to be cordoned off with a velvet rope.

So much to see and do

We also drove past former mansions and beautiful seaside estates, remnants of an age when Havana was the playground of the rich and famous; when what was characterized as “the good life” was also rife with mafia activity. Some storied nightclubs and bars from Havana’s glory days still exist, and overnight visitors have the opportunity to drink and dine in the outdoor atmosphere of the fabled Tropicana Club and former casino.

We sipped Mojitos from a street vendor at the site of el Morro, were awed by the view of the city from hilltop site of the looming Christ statue, and were mesmerized

by the park that has preserved remnants of the military exploits on Cuban soil, including missiles and wing pieces of American planes.

Revolution Square and those bigger than life likenesses of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be forever etched in memory. So, too, will the sight of the American flag

waving from its pole on the grounds of an embassy now staffed only by a skeleton force of diplomats. An August 28, 2018, U.S. State Department advisory once again recommended “Increased Caution” for American travelers to Cuba, following the illnesses and purported “attacks” on embassy personnel.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we visited Havana’s “forest,” a sprawling domain of greenery that winds along what is, sadly, a polluted river. Families still picnic by the river, however. Amid the overhanging boughs and grassy expanse, we sipped icy Pina Coladas, savoring a day filled with new insights and a wealth of lasting impressions, before our classic red Thunderbird returned us to the cruise ship terminal.

100_1523

The takeaway:

Cuba is a sensory experience. We sailed away that evening in deepening twilight, with100_1563 an overwhelming sense that we had barely scratched the surface of Havana, let alone the country, during our brief encounter. The next morning at breakfast onboard, our table-mates agreed that it will take some time to process the total experience. Now, after a full week to consider, my husband and I are still attempting to digest all that we saw and did during our 12-hour stay in Havana. It was not long enough. And, although not my preferred way to visit a country for the first time, it was a delicious and uniquely palatable first taste.

Its people are charming, proud, gregarious, curious, talkative, hopeful, guarded and resigned — all at the same time. Cuba cannot be easily dismissed, even after such a short stay.

Do I want to return? As yet, I have not decided. For now it is enough to report that a cruise ship call in Cuba is unlike a port visit to any other nation on earth.

It changes a person.

I have many more thoughts to share: Look for additional insights and photos Wednesday, October 31.

 

 

 

 

 

The travel bug and what to do about it

It’s a recurring malady. I take a trip and come home. It’s nice to be home. But then I see an ad, watch a movie, flip through my photos, talk to a friend, read a new travel blog, hear a newscast about lower air fares — and I’m off again, at least in my mind.

The planning begins anew, and I find myself putting together itineraries, daydreaming about places, reading up on cultures, sampling recipes — all those things that make planning a trip so much fun.

Invariably, I book another trip.

On the spur of the moment . . .

This is by way of saying that we were recently off again — my husband and I — this time on a short trip, but one that took us — for the briefest of stays — to a place we’ve been wanting to visit for some time now: Havana, Cuba.

It was a last-minute excursion, another “too-good-to-resist” deal, this time for a five-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, booked scarcely 30 days in advance.  It took only a glance at each other and a quick nod to make the final arrangements. It’s all about spontaneity, after all, isn’t it?

And this time, that happened, including a low introductory fare offered by Sun Country Airlines for new DFW-Tampa service. After flying with them on this inaugural route, we hope they like DFW as much as we like them; we were pleased by more than just the low fares, and would certainly consider flying with this Minneapolis-based airline to other sunny destinations!

When the details fall easily into place, it seems like destiny.

Details and more details

A visa is required for travel to Cuba, at a fee, of course. Forms stating the purpose of the trip must be filled out in duplicate by each person; approved categories of travel include “Support for the Cuban People” cultural exchange tours.

Last year, it was possible to qualify under a “People to People”category and simply spend time walking the streets of Havana, enchanted by old cars, local rum and cigars, music and dancing, dining out or searching for evidence of Ernest Hemingway.

Not so anymore.

Today, once again, visitors must participate in some sort of organized tour or program, or make arrangements before leaving home for well-choreographed and documented personal encounters with Cuban citizens. Records — including a daily journal — are to be kept for a period of five years, and there are restrictions, both on how and where Americans go and how they spend their money.

Reliable sources say that there is little chance of being checked, but the requirements are in place, and could be enforced. Still, in 2017, more than 600,000 Americans visited this island nation that has been essentially off limits since 1960. And 2018 promises to attract even more Americans, now that’s it’s possible to fly via scheduled airline directly from the United States to Havana.

U.S. government rules pertaining to Cuba travel are fluid. They were altered more than once even as the Obama administration first made it easier, then once again imposed additional restrictions on individual travel. Today it’s still impossible to go as a casual tourist, but it is relatively easy to book a flight or to arrive via cruise ship. American credit cards, with some exceptions, do not work, and currency must be exchanged for the local equivalent of the dollar, the CUC. Cubans still use the Peso, and the dual monetary system can be confusing.

It’s not as easy as crossing the border to either Canada or Mexico. But  the impediments did not dampen my enthusiasm.

Havana — Street Food and Vintage Cars

Planning for the journey could not have been more fun. We made contact with fellow travelers via the internet, and even booked a street food tour with another couple, along with their teenage daughter and Spanish exchange student. What fun to think about “fast food” in Havana!

The trip itinerary includes Key West, a much-loved destination since our days aboard our own cruising yacht. Returning to a well-known old eatery for a leisurely “back home” breakfast, snacking on conch fritters at a familiar beach bar and listening to a local musician at another casual waterside cafe are good enough reason to look forward to a quick stop in a favorite city.

A stroll to the “Southernmost Point” seemed in order to remember the times we previously posed there, looking towards Cuba and anticipating the day we could depart under our own power for the quick crossing. Traversing the 90 miles to dock in Havana would have been easy. Sadly, it was not to be.

This time, Key West was to become the jumping off point to Havana adventure, but with a big ship to take us there.

We were eager to experience it all!

A total of 12 hours in a foreign country might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this trip seemed to offer a perfect sampler — the best possible way to evaluate if, how and when we would return. Or, alternatively, to conclude that a single sip is enough, and then to turn our sights toward other shores and begin planning for other trips. Either way, I knew from the beginning that the trip would hold some special memories and result in plenty of stories to tell.

Read my initial impressions of Cuba in The After Story on Sunday, October 28.