Richard Martin, Bakersville, NC
Cuba is so close – only 42 minutes by air from Miami – but in so many other ways, it’s very far away. To most Americans, including myself, 60 years of embargo by the US government has made our Caribbean neighbor, Cuba, a foreign land of many mysteries.
When I decided to go to Cuba, I immediately began to wonder whether there was a Servas organization and whether I might meet up with day hosts or even overnight hosts to help acclimate me to my exciting adventure. I contacted the National Secretary (and host) Michel Sanz. A few weeks later, he was waiting for me on a street corner with his 4-year-old daughter, Samila, as my taxi slowed to a crawl.
Michel and I instantly smiled as we recognized each other. He picked up one of my bags and we walked half a block and two flights of stairs to his small apartment. A bonus was the discovery that his two children were temporarily staying with him. My stay would be so cozy – and so friendly!
In the morning, Michel walked me to the local café, ordered us two espressos (75 cents each!), helped me exchange currency and gave me a short course on Havana’s sites, bus routes and taxi costs. Then he pointed the way to Servas in Cuba .
Michel primarily works as a travel guide in Cuba, most often with groups from France since he is multi-lingual, like almost all the people I befriended there. But now Michel had his hands-full caring for his two children. He was very apologetic that he couldn’t show me around. But lucky me! One of my life’s greatest pleasures is exploring and discovering the delights and surprises of a new city on my own – getting lost (and hopefully found again). This sense of joy was re-ignited again as I walked open-eyed into the core of the remarkable crumbling, restoring, 500-year-old city that is Havana.
Havana is clearly a city (overall population 2 million), but Old Havana is a place unto itself: compact, organically grown, walkable and safe. There are museums, including the Cuban Art Museum, the Museum of the Revolution and — no surprise! — the Museum of Rum. And then there is the famous three-mile waterside promenade, El Malecon, that leads to the “newer” neighborhood of Vedado and the must-do tour of the Hotel National and where you can get a glimpse of Havana’s glitzy and decadent side when American sugar-plantation and mine owners, bankers, and the Mob ruled Cuba prior to the surprising, spectacular revolution of 1961.
I thought of Cuba as a fairly small island nation, so it was a surprise to discover that the island is nearly 800 miles long! Its many climates, its geography, confounding economy and long tumultuous history has created a rich and diverse culture that was nothing short of amazing to me. Depending on the length and desired pace of one’s stay, there are options. One can easily spend a busy, stimulating, yet somewhat leisurely week in Havana. However, I’d recommend fleeing the city if you can, if only for a day trip here, an overnight there.
Having the leisure of spending an entire month in Cuba, I first traveled east and stayed 10 days in Ceinfuegos, the so-called “Pearl of the South”. I found many delights there and made wonderful friends. More laid-back than Havana, Cienfuegos is wonderfully walkable and beautifully situated alongside the Caribbean Sea.
En route to Cienfuegos with my tour group, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs and toured the museum there. The story of the revolution and the failed invasion and attempt to overthrow the Castro government by the CIA is very much the story of modern Cuba to this day. Although our guide put a decidedly pro-governmental spin on it, it is widely accepted that pre-Castro Cuba was country of corruption and decadence for the few, but abject poverty, squalor and a life that bordered on enslavement for the many. One does hear couched criticism from many younger Cubans regarding their lack of opportunity and their inability to travel abroad. But, overall, my sense is that the Cuban people are proud and of their country and satisfied with their lives. Not to overly-romanticize or ignore Cuba’s many shortfalls, but on the surface at least, it seemed the Cuban people are happier than people in the United States. I needed to see this with my own eyes since I could not have imagined it, considering what I had been told all my life about the misery inherent in their socialistic way of life. As Servas members know, traveling is education.
What called me to visit Cuba in the first place was its history and musical traditions, but another key interest for me was to discover its World Heritage sites, its organic farms and national parks. This quest led me west to Piñar del Rio region, where I stayed in the small town of Viñales for five nights in a comfortable casa particular at $10/night with one of the yummiest, most bountiful breakfast I’ve ever had for $5! My host family was caring and friendly, and treated me as though I was a member of their four-generation family. They arranged a horseback ride deep into the farming region and protected lands where I learned about their natural (“organic”) methods of growing crops from coffee to guavas to tobacco, and the bee-keeping practices that helped them eke out a living. The young men I met there told me that their land, the opportunity to do what they loved, and their ability to prosper and raise families was the direct result of the Revolution. Their grandparents had had nothing. Then the Castro government confiscated large holdings from the rich and gave them the 10 hectares that they use to make a living today.
I had so many experiences in Cuba that it is not an easy task to decide the highlights, but the Havana Jazz Festival was certainly one of them. Yet again, my Servas host Michel came to the rescue! Several weeks before I was to fly to Havana, I had heard that the legendary Havana Jazz Festival would coincide with my visit. I e-mailed Michel: “Is it possible to get tickets?” He replied yes, and he did: a front row seat tickets to the festival’s closing “exclusivo” closing concert by “El Comite" in the newly restored Jose Marti Theater in Old Havana. Cost? $20!
See: El Comite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=151UE9o2Vro
Since returning from Cuba, I’ve compared notes and impressions with others who have visited. One friend told me that, as a single woman walking Old Havana, she suddenly realized how safe she had felt, that she wasn’t always looking around in caution. Indeed, I too had noticed this. No matter where I roamed, I felt generally safe: curiosity from those I met, but also an immediate sense of friendliness and welcome, almost without exception.
In fact, I had heard many times that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world in which to travel. It’s true that Cuba is a so-called police-state, a term that conjures all sorts of disturbing and worrisome images. But the sense of safety may also have to do with the fact that private ownership of guns is illegal. Or with the fact that in such a culturally diverse country with a long history of struggle, the Cuban people have become more tolerant and accepting of one another than what’s found in so many other parts of the world.
In summing up my time in Cuba, this is what I’ve come up with: Cuba is close. Cuba is fascinating. Keep your eyes open, smile often, and you’ll be richly rewarded. It’ll feel easy; you’ll feel safe. It will be a memorable journey, a journey of a lifetime.
*Note: The Cuban government requires that homeowners be licensed and charge a taxable fee to have anyone other than a Cuban national stay with them overnight. This applies to Servas travelers from abroad. The average nightly rate in a casa particular (private home open to guests), even if the owner is a Servas host, averages $25/night in Havana, $10 in rural areas.
Blogger Conner Gorry owns and operates the now-closed English bookstore/coffee shop, Cuba Libre, in Havana, and provides this insight on daily life amidst the coronavirus. Here is an excerpt from her full posting:
“Cuba is doing a bang-up job of getting a handle on the coronavirus. Early, effective measures adapted from decades of successful infectious disease control; clear, comprehensive, daily communication from the highest ups; active screening of over 6 million and counting; treatment and tests for everyone needing them; isolation and quarantine centers throughout the island; and all manner of steps to assure food supply, defer taxes and licensing costs for private businesses, guarantee salaries (at least in part), and prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly – these measures are making an impact..
However, Cubans are extremely social and it’s so hard for us not to kiss friends cheek-to-cheek. We too have ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ orders, but many of my neighbors are out and about buying flowers and ice cream. I get it. You can’t live on bread, rum and good humor alone (though sometimes it seems like it here!). And most people have to work! So we cajole each other to maintain social distance because we know how hard it is to refrain from doing so ourselves.
I know the economic reality of this is hitting everywhere hard all around the world. But at least here, you will never be put out of your home. At least here, food, medicine, and utilities are subsidized, and education and healthcare are free.
Each morning, I wake to this nightmare that is our new “normal”, don my mask, pick out my pandemic-designated clothing for the day, change to my outdoor shoes and walk my dog, Toby.
Such is life in Cuba today.”
Mother’s Day 2020
A friend with whom I traveled in Cuba, who has many good friends there, told me of the deep sadness the Cuban people were feeling on Mother’s Day. It is a bigger holiday there than here, but stores are essentially closed, and one can’t buy a Mother’s Day card. Even the cemeteries are closed; no one can lay flowers their mother’s grave. But after 500 years of occupation by foreign invaders, the Cuban people have a remarkably indomitable spirit. For now, they are biding their time. I know that, surreal and troubling as it all is, they will soon rise and dance again.