Photos and travel profile by Susan Cornell

Time travel is now available to Americans.

There’s something extra attractive about going somewhere pretty much off-limits for more than half a century. Just come up with a good reason to visit Cuba, book transport, and you can immerse yourself in the sounds, sights, and flavors of a Caribbean island in the 1950s;  since at least for now, the door is open.

It’s hard to believe that only 90 miles away by plane or boat, the world can be as different as traveling to another planet. It is one BIG island, nearly as large as Florida, yet rooted in another era. You rarely see Cubans or tourists on cell phones; instead you see pay phones and people making do with the basics for repairing, transporting, and plain living.

Think post-apocalyptic cities you experience on the big screen – add vivid colors through art and architecture to drab-gray crumbling buildings, add in friendly folks everywhere approaching you to talk or playing dominoes on the street, surround this with music and aromas, and you have the recipe for the Cuban experience.  Even if you’ve been to one or more Caribbean islands, don’t have preconceived ideas, for Cuba is unlike anything anywhere in the world.

Even though the time-travel window is open, Americans can’t just pop over for a leisurely vacation and lie on the beach. You’ll need a stated reason falling within one of 12 categories such as visits to close relatives, academic programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in sports competitions or public performances.  We may choose guided or self-directed “people to people” (aka P2P) excursions but  we must also maintain a full-time schedule of activities and retain documents that show how our time was spent.  By definition, a P2P produces “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

Other must-haves include an insurance policy for the trip, including a separate health insurance plan, since most American health insurance plans wouldn’t work in Cuba.   Other essentials include both passport and tourist Visa and a good supply of actual cash, since your credit card, ATM card or Venmo is unlikely to work.

Not ready to take the full gutsy plunge into Cuba independently, my family and I got our toes wet with an “intensive cultural immersion” cruise which circumnavigated Cuba, stopping at three cities and going the guided P2P route arranged by the cruise company. While we’ve traveled extensively throughout the world, I just wasn’t ready to explore a place without the security blanket of a cell phone for mapping, looking anything up on the fly, and making actual phone calls. Then there are concerns such as how to exchange wads of cash and trying to communicate if you don’t speak Spanish.

Cuba actually has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use. When you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC. You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10 percent penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, Mexican Pesos, or British Pounds instead.

While I have no regrets with the guided P2P choice, like most fears in life, if you understand the particular issue properly, there is nothing to worry about.  Next time – and there will be a next time – we will venture out into the countryside with confidence. But what really is a P2P, and is there enough depth when you’re only in a particular place for a few hours or a couple of days?  While technically the cruise was under the Carnival Corporation auspices, it is about unleashing human potential, deepening relationships,   and being part of a larger collective impact story.

Thus, while we were visiting the forts, museums, churches, statues, and performances  and gawking at the hundreds of old American and Russian automobiles, the idea was about giving and receiving, personal interactions. This included asking and answering questions of musicians, dancers, artisans, those who own their own restaurants, and just plain people on the streets.

I’d describe the lion’s share of Cubans as friendly; yet they are also guarded in what they say. The farther we were from Havana, however, the more open people were. Of course there’s propaganda everywhere; and I’m sure we only saw what the government wanted us to see and hear, which is probably true everywhere in the world.

This trip exposed emotions more than any other – there was the heartbreaking story told by a fellow traveler whose family was broken up when he fled after the Revolution and came to the US as a child; there was a “respectful disagreement” between a Cuban tour guide and another traveler over what happened to the Operation Peter Pan kids (did they or did they not land in a concentration camp?); there was the moving performance of a Russian Christmas song by the Coro Madrigalista choir, and then there were the rapping grandmothers who were part of the social and cultural project Cabildo Quisicuaba, which helps the elderly cope with AIDS.   Powerful stuff.

The island and its incredibly mixed bag of people of different ethnic origins and religions is beautiful, and yet it is so sad what Communism has wrought. The buildings are crumbling, the streets seem as old as the cars, the store shelves are often pretty barren; and with ration coupons it’s difficult to obtain necessities.

We wanted to bring with us simple non-monetary donations such as soaps, shampoos, hand sanitizers, and school supplies, knowing that these basics are often in short supply.   A few days before sailing, however, we were advised not to bring donations since the “very intentional focus is on bringing empowerment to our friends and partners. Giving things is more complicated than you might think – and we want to be mindful of long-term, sustainable development and empowerment.”

If you are interested in years and years of incredible history, politics, economics, art, architecture, music, culture, food, religion, and, of course, cool cars, by all means go. But go sooner than later as not only will Cuba likely change rapidly if Americans “ruin it” with Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere, but the door may shut again and this journey may not be available to us at all.

What to buy

  • Rum
  • Cigars
  • Coffee
  • More rum

 

What to bring

  • American Dollars – bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re pretty much out of luck.
  • Even better than American Dollars – Euros, Canadian dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos.
  • BYO Toilet Paper, or be ready to tip the bathroom attendant.

 

What to Wear and What Not to Wear

  • Comfortable walking shoes for cobblestone and streets in need of repair
  • Casual, August in Connecticut apparel (average humidity is 78 percent)
  • Leave precious jewelry at home

 

What to read/watch beforehand

  • Cuba (DK Publishing)
  • Moon Cuba (Christopher P. Baker)
  • Waiting for Snow in Havana (Carlos Eire)
  • The Cuba Libre Story (8-episode documentary on Netflix)

 

 

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