Cuba: Explore the forbidden
June 17, 2012
about for several months was now a reality.
Sitting in Miami International Airport waiting for the charter flight to Havana was the first chance I had to meet the other 24 folks who would be joining me. We were from all over the country, of all ages and walks of life, and we were a select group, part of an organization called Witness for Peace, which is a national organization committed to supporting peace and justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. WFP runs several diverse delegations each year and this particular trip would focus on Cuban arts and culture.
Four of us from Summit County already knew each other as after we’d been accepted, we had been lucky enough to get together a few times to share travel tips and discuss what we learned from reading and viewing a wide array of books and films on Cuba.
We were ready to visit this country that geographically is only 90 miles across the Florida Straits, but worlds apart in so many other ways.
There are various ways to get to Cuba from the U.S. If you are a Cuban-American or affiliated with an approved agency that promotes educational exchange activities in Cuba, such as Witness for Peace, you can fly directly from about eight major U.S. airports. If not, then you usually go to Canada or Mexico and take a flight from there and return home the same way, making sure that your passport contains no stamp indicating you ever were in Cuba.
Because of the economic embargo the U.S. imposed upon Cuba some 50 years ago, there are no official relations between the two countries. Unauthorized travel and purchases are considered illegal. Happily our delegation was part of the former as the coordinators, presenters and interpreters all put together by WFP made this trip one I’ll remember for a long time.
Being part of a large group definitely has its ups and downs. It had been over 20 years since I last traveled with so many people I didn’t previously know, and I wondered if I would be able to handle differing personalities, an agenda with set times and places, and in our case, a flash back to the old days as we traveled almost exclusively on an old yellow school bus completely covered with drawings and slogans such as “End the Embargo” and “U.S. loves Cuba.”
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Most of us were just so happy to be here that we started bonding right away, especially since our first project upon arriving was to push the bus and pop the clutch to get the old girl running. We also found that nobody on the streets seemed to take much notice of our mode of transportation, mainly because old crusty buses, and vintage Chevys, Fords and Buicks from the ’40s and ’50s are seen everywhere. Quite often these old cars are spruced up beautifully and serve as taxis.
Most of our trip involved traveling around Havana exploring this city of many contrasts, from gorgeously restored centuries-old colonial buildings with ornate balconies overlooking the plazas, to dangerous, crumbling and overcrowded tenements.
The first place we stayed was neither. Centrally located and modestly appointed Hotel Tulipan provided our first contact with tourists and locals alike. And we were delighted to find that one of Cuba’s finest baseball teams, Los Industriales, was staying at the same place.
When a torrential rain flooded not only our hotel lobby but also the baseball field and caused that day’s game to be canceled, we had a chance to mingle with the whole team. After several Bucanero beers at the bar, invitations were extended to attend a game soon. But with a packed 10-day itinerary, we’d have to hear their games on the road.
After two days at the Tulipan, we said goodbye to our last hotel as thereafter our lodging would be somewhat less glamorous when we moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, which featured dorm style rooms with bunk beds, cold showers and four people sharing a tiny bathroom. We ate in a large community dining room with basic but abundant food. The MLK Center was established by Baptist pastor Raul Suarez, who may be small in stature but who is a giant in the community as he fights for the civil rights of all Cubans.
Listening to him speak when he welcomed us, and then later at the 25th anniversary of the MLK Center celebration where he gave an impassioned speech to an audience of hundreds about bringing home “The Cuban 5” (if you don’t know about these men who have been imprisoned in the U.S. since 1998, do yourself a favor and look them up on the web), made me aware that I have so much more to learn about this country and its people.
Living at the center gave us opportunities to walk around and chat with the residents of this working-class neighborhood, and frequent the local cafes while asking everyone their thoughts about what it means to be a Cuban in Cuba these days.
Another group staying there comprised of Canadian agricultural students and teachers was visiting many of the urban farms and gardens for which Cuba is well known. We spent a morning in one of those, an organic community garden in Alamar located about 20 minutes from central Havana, and considered to be one of the largest and most successful.
Cuba used to have a highly industrialized agricultural system that depended on trade with countries like America and Russia for exporting sugar, rum and tropical fruits and importing much of its food. But the U.S. trade embargo and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991caused a crisis which forced the country to become more self-sustaining. Small organic farming was a logical offshoot. More of these urban farms are sprouting up all over the island with the Castro government’s encouragement and are proving that healthy food at fair prices can be grown without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or even fuel. I can’t tell you how impressed I was to see a pair of oxen being used in place of a tractor to work the fields.
No trip to a Caribbean island would be complete without exploring its beaches. One of the most beautiful and popular beaches can be found in the charming resort town of Varadero.
Our home here was Casa del Carino, a large house with an inviting veranda and only steps from the sand. Usually it’s a retreat for disabled and disadvantaged children, but often is rented out to larger groups when its schedule permits.
Once again, dormitory-style accommodations, but by this time we were all pretty friendly with each other.
Nobody woke up in our room, when some of us late-night partiers returned after an evening of literally dancing in the street at one of Varadero’s well known live music nightclubs, Calle 62, which that night featured a red-hot all women band.
A word about the music and clubs in Cuba, especially in Havana – you must experience all of it and often – from jazz to salsa to the cabarets and even world class ballet. It’s all incredible and intoxicating. If you’re up for a bit of adventure make sure you include La Tropical. Not to be confused with the famous and expensive cabaret La Tropicana, La Tropical is where you go on a Saturday night to join hundreds of locals bump, grind and get personal on a very crowded and sweaty outside dance floor. As is typical, the bands don’t start until almost midnight and after several nights of that, many of us had a hard time showing up for breakfast and morning meetings.
As previously mentioned, art and culture was the focus of our WFP delegation so museums, art and vocational schools, and an eclectic book publishing house were all on the agenda. One that stood out – the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos School teaches students carpentry, masonry, mural painting and plaster work so that when they graduate in two years they can work in the restoration of Cuba’s many famous historical buildings.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Museum of the Revolution, which includes everything you need to know about Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and the rest of the important figures of the Cuban Revolution. The museum is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace and is beautifully preserved.
Perhaps one of the most interesting schools we visited was the National Center for Sex Education, headed by Raul’s daughter, Mariela Castro. The government has done an abrupt about-face in dealing with same-sex equality. Whereas the Castro government was initially homophobic, it has now become a leader in advocating for sexual rights and tolerance. The center pushed for the passage of a law that provides transgendered persons with free sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy, making Cuba one of the most liberal nations in Latin America on gender issues.
There is so much more to tell about what we did on our trip, from meeting world renowned artists such as Saulo Serrano and Jose Fuster to participating in a secretive Santeria ceremony. But space is limited.
I will say that much has changed in Cuba recently, even though it is still a communist country citizens are now allowed to buy and sell cars and real estate. People have cell phones and computers, although Internet service is poor and strictly regulated. Perhaps most importantly, small privately owned businesses are cropping up everywhere.
It is safe to walk at night all over Havana and talk to everyone you meet. Most Cubans are happy, healthy due to free medical care, and eager to speak with Americans. One woman who owns her own small inn showed me a calendar with Obama prominently displayed on it hanging in her kitchen. She fervently hopes that he will be re-elected in November so that he can end the embargo and let trade resume with our two countries. She dreams that someday she’ll be able to see some of her relatives who left Cuba for America so many years ago.
And so, we ended our trip where we started it, in Miami, with promises to stay in touch with each other and to spread the word about the good work that Witness for Peace does and what Cuba is really like. I plan on returning some day, hopefully sooner rather than later and hopefully I’ll be able to display the stamp in my U.S. passport which shows that I traveled to a country that is so close, yet so wonderfully different is so many ways.
Terese Keil has lived in Breckenridge for over 20 years, and has traveled extensively, often trying to involve some volunteer or liaison opportunities in her trips.