I had a dream of going to Cuba for the longest time because people told me so much about the culture, history, art, music, and spectacular scenery. However, I ended up falling in love with the people (and mojitos).
DAY 1: AN ENERGETIC START TO MY TRIP TO CUBA
My group tour started in the Miami airport wanting to hide under my seat from a woman pushing a gully. She was shouting “who’s with InsightCuba” while handing out sandwiches in the lounge. I hesitantly raised my hand while the Cuban girl sitting across from me giggled. We quickly started chatting about the island she calls home. It didn’t take long to find out Cubans like Americans. And, there is a new brewery called Fabrica De Arte that I had to see. Ninety miles later, I was finally in Cuba!
The energy getting off the plane was palpable. I saw crowds of locals gather to eagerly welcome family members coming home. Antique cars of all colors and palm trees lined the parking lot. I was overcome with fun, laid back vibes, and suddenly felt like dancing! What a pleasant change from my brief stay in uptight Miami. While taking a photo of a classic American car,the owner urged me to get in for a better picture. I refrained since I didn’t have any Cuban money on me, but he insisted stating, “thank you for ending the embargo!” I felt like a symbol of the American dream. Smiling, I got in his vehicle for a priceless photo. He then pulled up the hood and said, look! The engine was ancient.
We stopped at Hotel Nacional de Cuba for a welcome mojito (my first of a dozen). Pictures of American celebrities lined the walls, and a courtyard opened to the sea. The hotel briefed us on the itinerary of our trip. They also told us that despite being informed, they did not accept American dollars because locals loved to trade them on the black market. And to not trust illegal taxi drivers. We were advised to shy away from beggars- they make more sometimes than doctors do on their $600/month salary! Our Cuban tour guide makes about $20/month. Despite free healthcare and education, I don’t see too many other perks of socialism!
It didn’t take long to realize the Cuban fascination with mojitos. It was our welcome drink literally everywhere we went! There is no government regulation on sugar as one of these delicious drinks contained massive amounts of it. After being stuffed to the gulls with authentic Cuban food, and of course mojitos, in a cute restaurant called Naranjo I took my Cuban friend’s advice and visited Fabrica de art my first night in town. She wasn’t kidding- this was a multi-level warehouse turned into an art museum and music venue. Fascinating! Unique drawings and paintings lined the walls and live music could be heard coming out of two adjacent rooms. After grabbing a 1$ Cristal (typical Cuban beer), I sat on a tiny stool and enjoyed listening to Santiago, a local guitarist’s heartfelt and soulful tunes. I was convinced this was my favorite place to go out in Cuba.
While hailing a cab to head back to the hotel, the cab driver tried to charge me nearly double than when I arrived! I said no and was walked down a dimly lit street to an “undercover” cab for a fourth of the price. Remembering what our tour guide said, I quickly obliged and hopped in. The man driving pulled out a yellow, plastic taxi sign and put in on the rearview. He confirmed he was legal (ha-ha). I would never do this in New York City, however, when in Cuba…
DAY 2: LEARNING ABOUT THE HISTORY OF CUBA
The next day we ate lunch at a place called Sloppy Joe’s. A small old school television hanging on the wall playing the1950s movie “Dancing in the Rain” drew me in. I’ve never seen such old shows, movies, and books then I have in Old Havana. It was like they got stuck in the 1950s and never left.
While eating my Cuban sandwich, I realized they are a lot different than their Miami counterparts. Our tour guide’s friend met us at the restaurant. She only spoke Spanish. So, finding an opportunity to practice, I quickly got talking to her. She told me about her beautiful beach hometown of Baracoa and the devastation Hurricane Mathew recently did. She brought newspaper clippings that showed pictures of the damage. Jeff asked her if restoration efforts were going well, and her reply was “no.” He responded, “Then why did you say they were on TV? Did the government tell you to lie?” She didn’t have to say anything as her face said it all. I later found out that she is a professor at a school and makes $20 a month.
While walking around the winding streets of Old Havana, Claudia mentioned she’d only been to the city once before. She said it was too expensive for the average local. My memory reminded me of all the times I’ve traveled and had a local tell me they haven’t visited half the areas I had!
After our stroll, we stopped and grabbed remarkably inexpensive rum and cokes and beer. Jazz music was everywhere, and this local bar was no different. Despite it being mid-day, people were up and dancing. And even the grouchy woman collecting change to use the toilet swayed to some tunes.
The toilet situation deserves its own novel, but I’ll make this brief. There is a plumbing issue in Cuba. In order to use a public restroom, you must first pay the stern woman guarding the toilets. Then, she hands you a small amount of toilet paper that you must throw in the wastebasket once finished and not flush down the toilet. I swear this is so difficult to remember to do! I stomached a few glares because I did not always remember to follow this simple rule.
After leaving the bar, we hitched a ride in a hot pink 1950’s Cadillac that the driver couldn’t resist showing us pictures of him chauffeuring around the Kardashian sisters.
That night we ate at a traditional Cuban restaurant, and I enjoyed the best chicken and rice dish I ever had! Cats roamed the floor and tickled our legs as we ate. We wandered to a Jazz bar across the street from our hotel and enjoyed some authentic music.
DAY 3: LIVING LIKE THE CUBANS LIVE
The following morning our energetic tour guide gave us a mission: we could not spend more than 20 pesos at a local market for a full day worth of food. The purpose of this task was so that we could realize what a typical Cuban lives on per day, and it was no easy task! I ended up purchasing a little salad, two mangoes, and three potatoes. Cleary was hardly enough to survive!
We went to an African/Cuban dance club where talented dancers utilized instruments and chairs to make music and upbeat routines. We ate lunch at a casa (very typical), and the swordfish was delicious. Again, live music surrounded us and was incredibly impressive. After lunch, the bus took us to the literacy museum, where I learned about Castro’s revolution in the 1960s to get every Cuban reading. It felt a bit like propaganda to me.
While strolling around Old Havana, I noticed an unusual number of stares. I don’t think they see many Americans. I bought a painting of the eclectic streets and for a kiss on the cheek received a 15-dollar discount.
That evening was the election, and we all know how that ended. The next day you would’ve thought the world was over–the mood was so glum. I went from feeling beloved and the symbol of opportunity to feeling apologetic and as if I should hand out free hugs. Cuba relations have come far, and I sincerely hope nothing hampers the progress. We toured the Colon Cemetery full of architecture and unique graves. Our tour guide had an Eagles shirt on, my home team!
We then visited a medic clinic, and a doctor lectured us on the medical field in Cuba. I still can’t get over what they make: a whopping $600 a month! While eating lunch near revolution square, a group of students who dropped out of school came and told us about missions to work in the service industry. Cubans seemed to lecture us rather often.
The National Museum of Art was interesting and hosted a variety of local paintings with powerful stories. Our guide showed us one exhibit of an oar of a boat symbolizing a particularly rough time in Cuba called the “special period” (1980’s). This was when many tried to flee because conditions were so bad. She vulnerably told us about her own experience hiding pet chickens and a pig in her home, that they would later eat, and barely getting by.
A visit to Cuba isn’t complete without a trip to Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, la Florida. We met friends from the U.K. that were more than eager to talk politics! We discussed the many ways the world was upside down this year (Cubs, Brexit, Lennington soccer team, Trump). We ate at a spectacular restaurant with four levels and delicious food. Despite it being under renovation and looking like it might fall upon entrance, like everything else in Old Havana, it was delicious, and the rooftop bar was to die for. More than once, I felt like the Adams family was going to pop out from around the corner. The fish tacos, spanner and lemon pie were top favorites.
DAY 4: SERENITY, SHAME AND HUMOR?
The next day we left for Cienfuegos. While stopping at the Bay of Pigs, I got to go out and snorkel. To be honest, it was nice to be by myself and have a little bit of free time. We next went to theBay of Pigsmuseum, gala mouth, where I felt horrible for being an American. I somehow felt a part of this operation that went awry. On the bus, we watched a Fidel documentary, and I couldn’t help but feel a local love and admiration for him. This is very contradictory from what I learned in the US.
We arrived at our hostel, and two welcoming locals came to greet us. After showering up, someone was singing “Michele my bell” outside my door. Two drunk Italians greeted me walking out of my room. My mother is going to love this, haha. If you can’t beat them, join them. We shared a bottle of white wine on the patio (beautiful terrace overlooking the town), and I conversed with them in Spanish.
We ate dinner at El Prado. It’s worth bragging about the shrimp with special sauce.. Cubans sure know how to make great sauces! We danced at a nearby club, and I ended up salsa dancing with our guide and bus driver. The bus driver would not let me dance with any other guys – culturally speaking I think they are pretty possessive here. And like I said, they don’t see many Americans, which would scare the bejesus out of me ever witnessing a female college trip to Cuba.
Our drive to Trinidad was beautiful! Farmlands growing crops and sugar surrounded us. Despite being extremely hot, 95 degrees, the colonial homes were quite the view and walking around was enjoyable. Live music again serenaded us at lunch. We next visited a woodworking shop where an artisan was creating beautifully etched out art pieces of the elderly. He valued their soul. His wife created crochet tops and started a non-profit for abused women. I bought one and received the card of the women who created it.
Friday night, we visited the Palacios. The Alhambra in Granada immediately came to mind. Next, we grabbed a slice of pizza and went to the rooftop hotel bar to watch the US versus Mexico soccer game. I was happily surprised that the bartenders were cheering for the US. The conversation turned quickly from connecting over a shared passion for soccer to talking politics. “What happened with Hillary Clinton?” the bartender asked in surprise. You and the rest of the world are wondering that I replied with tears in my eyes.
Our last day in Cienfuegos, we visited an art studio where we got to hang out with little kids, and I got to practice Spanish. We watched “Fresa and chocolate” on the bus, a great documentary, and Cuba from 13 years ago at the LGBT community. I highly recommend it! It won this award…
The last night we went to a great restaurant and reminisced about our trip on the rooftop. I ordered risotto for dinner, drank mojitos, and once again stuffed my face. We heard that Bon Bon, the most popular band in Cuba, was playing next-door to our hotel. We grabbed a drink first at a nearby bar and coincidentally I made friends with the guitar player who happened to be setting his nerves. We enjoyed a great jazzy show.
DAY 5: SAD TO SAY GOODBYE
The last day we stopped at an outdoor art studio that reminded me a lot of Gaudi in Barcelona. We then listened to a beautiful violinist that made me consider what’s next for Cuban/American relations and brought tears to my eyes! I hope everyone gets the opportunity to drink mojitos, enjoy Jazz, and explore the beautiful island of Cuba.
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