By Rob Tucker
If you happened to read my post about the fishing trip I took to Kodiak Island in Alaska, you may remember that I have a sister-in-law who is a travel agent. Because of her, I sometimes learn about off-the-beaten-path travel opportunities I likely wouldn’t hear of otherwise. I took her up on one a year ago and spent nine days in Cuba.
I was intrigued by the prospect of visiting this island that's been sealed off to outsiders since 1961 and just opened to visitors who belong to 13 approved entry categories.
We flew into Havana — by we, I mean the 23 three of us who signed up for this tour — then boarded our deluxe (de lujo in Spanish) bus to travel to a splendid stretch of white sand called Varadero Beach a couple of hours east of Havana, where we soaked up the sun, took salsa dancing lessons and chillaxed for two days.
After the large hotels in Havana and at the beach, it was a welcome change to head over the mountains and spend the remainder of our trip in small B and B’s. Till then, we felt as though we were being 'watched.' In the countryside we felt less restricted, and toured a daycare facility, a cigar factory and a remote mountain school, affording us more of an opportunity to get to know average, everyday Cubans one on one.
It might not have been us the authorities wanted to keep an eye on, though. It may have been our personable, well-educatied tour guide. She had applied for permission to visit her godparents in Florida, been denied and recently reapplied. The government might have been trying to make sure she didn't attempt to leave with us or claim asylum. Cuba doesn't want to lose its educated, young people.
Another unique Cuban phenomena are all the mint-condition, classic American automobiles driving around. Miami is only 90 miles away, and before Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba was a popular destination especially during the 1950's. Americans imported as many as 125,000 Detroit-made cars to use on the island, only to abandon them in 1959 when the government nationalized all commerce and closed closed off Cuba to the outside world.
Few Cubans could afford to drive these gas guzzlers, and parts were impossible to get due to the US embargo, so there these machines sat in garages and fields. But when the government loosened restriction on travel and car ownership, local entrepreneurs realized that what had become rusty, hunks of junk were actually assets and restored them to their original glory. I had the pleasure of driving a perfectly-restored 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible.
The hardest thing for many of us to comprehend, however, especially for someone from the agricultural heartland as I am, is the state of farming in Cuba. We saw field after field, as we drove through the countryside, being tilled — or attempted to be so — by a lone man, leading a cow or an ox pulling a stick as a plow. We were witnessing 18th-century agriculture still being practiced.
As enjoyable and informative as my trip was, the best thing about it was meeting Cuba's energetic, lighthearted, fun-loving citizens. Music and dancing abounded wherever we went, and except perhaps at the large, tourist hotels, everyone was exceedingly warm and welcoming. Gracias a mis amigos Cubanos.
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