My husband Roger and I have had Cuba at the top of our list of travel destinations for years. When we heard that the Obama administration was relaxing the US travel restrictions with Cuba, we both had the same idea– we had to get there before WalMart and Starbucks! A little research and we found Soltura Travel, a company that organizes small group, custom-designed tours run by American Ian Sergeant, and it sounded like a good fit. We crossed the border from San Diego, caught Aero Mexico from Tijuana, transferred in Mexico City, and 3 hours later landed in Havana in late November 2015.
We went with few expectations and very little pre-trip preparation. My image of Cuba came from a teenage understanding of the Cuban missile crisis, teaching an enthusiastic and gregarious group of Cubans in a beginning ESL class, and seeing the movie Buena Vista Social Club, which swept through the US in the 1980s. I loved the music and carried a vivid mind-photo of huge waves crashing into a sea wall and washing over a broad four lane, nearly empty road in Havana. That I wanted to see–and sure enough, those waves are still crashing and washing over the Malecon, running for miles along the coast at the edge of the city and now traversed by a tad more traffic. At night, lights illuminate rainbow clouds of sea mist, and at sunset, young couples line the sea wall. One of our guides called the Malecon “the longest sofa in Cuba.”
Most everyone we talked to before we left mentioned the old cars in Cuba, but cars have never been a big deal for me. However, Ian rented three colorful old convertibles one morning, and we drove down the Malecon through a tunnel under the sea and over to one of the imposing forts the Spanish built to defend Havana. I have to say, it was fun! Other cars honked, people waved, the wind blew our hair and we laughed as we passed and admired one another. When we got out, our drivers carefully looked over the cars, adjusting this and that, polishing here and there. Our driver firmly informed Roger that one cannot slam the door of an old car! These cars are a national treasure, not for sale at any price.
I knew that we would be staying in “casas particulares,” private homes that rent out rooms, rather than in hotels. Fine with us, since we love meeting people and exploring neighborhoods. However, I had no idea how comfortable we would be. Would there be hot water, air conditioning, a good bed? I was prepared for minimal comforts, but instead we found a clean, newly renovated room with king size bed, plentiful hot water, aircon (which we never needed), access to a balcony garden and a breakfast of eggs, bread, fruit and freshly squeezed juice, all overseen by our friendly host, Rene. I’ve been working on speaking Spanish for years but still freeze when a native speaker responds with a rush of words. Rene was a born teacher and truly honored my request to “habla lentemente, por favor” (speak slowly please). We were able to have some pretty interesting conversations about our lives at the breakfast table because of his patience and enthusiasm.
In the English-language newspaper, Gramma International, I was amazed to read on Nov. 20 that there had already been 3 million tourists in 2015, beating a previous record by a few thousand. Cuba is definitely not depending on Americans for tourism, the number one source of income for the country, but everyone seems excited about better relations between the two countries and more American tourists. Cubans are warm and welcoming. Tourism has changed a lot since Raul Castro took over from Fidel in 2011, the casas particulares being a good example. There are now 200 entrepreneurial opportunities related to tourism that Cubans can engage in, including room rentals, small restaurants, guide services, massage and taxis. We heard that most people who are able to offer rooms or open restaurants probably have family in the US to provide support as they set up shop.
While these changes are a sign of more economic opportunity for the Cuban people, we travelers had to wonder where things are headed. We learned that a doctor in Cuba makes $42 a month, the highest paid government position there is. A teacher makes about $32/month. If a room in a casa particular can be rented for $35/night and a 4 mile taxi ride in Havana costs $6, how many young Cubans are going to study for years to become professional? We hope that the pervasive sense of pride in Cuban accomplishments, the honor with which these professions are regarded and the sense of service instilled by the Revolution will continue to motivate young Cubans.
Check back soon for more blogs about the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban way of life and arts and culture in the next few weeks.
- The US decision to warm relations with Cuba has been controversial. Do you think it’s a good idea? Why or why not?
- Do you think it’s more interesting to prepare carefully for travel by doing research and talking to people about your destination or do you like to be surprised when you get there? What are the advantages of both?
- If you have a career already, what were the most important considerations in choosing it? If you’re still considering a career, what factors are you looking at? How important is money and what other factors must be considered?