Visiting Cuba Safely, as an American in 2018

The somber, quieter Havana that I experienced on a pre-normalized U.S. relations trip in April 2013 with my parents is now a louder, more robust one. Construction cranes hover high above halfway-built hotels in Old Havana, in large part thanks to the thaw in diplomatic relations furthered by Obama in July 2015. IMG_2550Meanwhile trucks and handcarts compete for space along narrow roads. Russian LADAs from the 1980’s mix in to the scene with mint-condition classic American cars from the 1950’s, all shiny and colorful.

This time instead of paying homage to our family history here, I brought our daughter Emily, a sophomore at Boston College, to show her how truly safe and stunning it can be to explore Havana.

 And thankfully Emily fell in love, as I already had, with this tarnished gem full of architecture frozen in time, whispering what once was and beckons at what could be again. Possibility is written across the facade of every magnificent crumbling building.

Cuba, as I hoped Emily could see, is a living, breathing lesson of communism and socialism, a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida. “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” as Hemingway once wrote. The Cuban people have been through so much oppression and destruction, but what we saw in their eyes and from their lips on our visit was far from defeat.

And although not admitting failure, the government of this Caribbean island nation under communist rule is clearly recognizing the value of tourism, and relaxing its grip on the country. But yes, I could still feel the socialist stranglehold in places that hurt my spoiled American self, like the scratch-off government issued WiFi cards that we had to buy to get a fleetingly precious hour of connectivity in our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Mercure Sevilla in the heart of Old Havana, just down the street from the Capitol.

This afforded us the chance to throw open our giant corner room windows each morning (what building codes?) to take in the sights and sounds of this charming neighborhood. There were birds chirping in the trees along Paseo del Prado (picture Barcelona’s Las Ramblas), red-uniformed children laughing and playing, ballerinas pirouetting between wide open yellow windows of the famous National Ballet school next door and salsa dancing captivated us from across the way.

As we drank our morning cortado, I felt a bit high from the exhaust rising up from the street resembling a classic car parade (what emissions inspections?). It’s certainly less claustrophobic and more “cowboy” here, and it reminded me of the freedom and possibility I felt when I lived as an expat in Saigon in the 1990’s. I was also reminded that the loneliness of being a foreigner can be mitigated by open-air buildings and welcoming neighborhoods.

So yes, our location was ideal, and so inviting—with balmy rustling palms, a lively band and wafting cigar smoke encircling dancers in the open-air salmon-colored courtyard.

It felt as if Hemingway himself would round the corner at the bar, with a mojito in hand. He had indeed stayed here, many years ago. But with all that said, Cuba still has rough around its edges—our toilet backed up each day, the beds had no blankets, the elevator broke down (yes, while we were in it), and the smell of mold and mildew overpowered us each time we approached our door.

But we took it all in stride. Safe? Yes, we felt safe here. And our U.S. Embassy was open, albeit minimally staffed. I felt like I’d entered a small town that took their time with everything and everyone. There was always a long wait at the front desk, but only because the receptionist staff was taking their time with each individual. They seemed to know how to relax, even while working.

The hotel maids were the same way, lounging around the hallways chatting and smiling. Then we’d walk into our room to find that that they had not only left it spotless, but had turned our bathroom towels into insanely ornate animals with long hand-written notes wishing us a great day.

I wanted to find the secret, to learn from them, from each person we met. I might be an uptight, impatient American but I too could learn how to relax and be cool, be Cuban. Perhaps this was what Hemingway was after too, to be in on all this Cuban coolness and to find the ability to simply relax and enjoy life as they do. Perhaps this is why my great-grandfather was lured here in the 40’s to open up his nightclub at 1 Bernaza Street, a few doors down from La Floridita.

I wish our governments could finally relax and trust, the way Emily and I did on this trip.

And as American tourists, we felt compelled to visit the requisite sights: cabaret show at the Tropicana,

canon-firing ceremony at night atop the old Spanish fortress, sitting with Hemingway’s statue at La Floridita, IMG_8830the fascinating Gaudi-like Fusterlandia,

“the happy son of Sugarcane,” tour at Havana Club Rum factory,

standing in Revolution Square staring up at the image of their beloved Che,

taking in the Gulf of Mexico vista from the Malecon,

Plaza Vieja, Cathedral Square, seeing chicken sacrifices in the Havana Forest along the Almendares River, IMG_2443San Franciso de Asis Square, Obispo street, Hotel Nacional,

and Hemingway’s “Finca Vigia” (lookout house).

In between sights, we ate long leisurely meals with mojitos at local paladares (private restaurants) and also in a few government restaurants, to learn the difference.

The garden on the rooftop of one paladar in particular, showcased Cuban ingenuity and resourcefulness with greenery growing beautifully out of old toilets, bathtubs, and sinks.

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We also noticed are so many more European and Canadian tourists, thanks in large part to European cruise ships in port. Havana, especially Old Havana, is being slowly refurbished, but that bump in investment that occurred since Obama’s 2015 relaxation of the ban has been scaled back since Trump’s hardline speech in mid-2017. Living conditions are still extremely difficult, and so much of the breathtaking Spanish-colonial architecture is literally disintegrating, having had almost no upkeep since the revolution of 1959.

We had a truly magnificent dining experience with a wonderful fellow AirBnB traveler from Nevada at La Guarida, the best paladar in Havana. We dined on rabbit and mojito, at this remote mansion where Jack Nicholson and countless other celebrities had dined before us.

Midway through our meal, some Americans from California smiled toward us from the neighboring table, reveling in our mutual good fortune at being here in Havana, happy, safe and supporting the Cuban people, in spite of the recent cooling of diplomatic relations.

But the best moments of the trip by far were those spent walking along the pastel-colored streets of Havana with Emily, day and night, feeling cradled in that delicious small-town sensation.

One night we walked down to the Malecon seawall at sunset, where we were immediately enveloped by musicians and fishermen. It felt like we were part of one big happy block party full of Spanish guitars and African drums.

We also took advantage of a few AirBnB experiences. During one of them we spent an afternoon with Josue, who charmed us with his cowboy hat and story of his family’s 1954 Chevy, affectionately called Marilyn.

The vintage cherry red convertible was his grandfather’s, who had named it after Marilyn Monroe. Apparently Josue’s grandparents used to argue a lot over how much time his grandfather spent polishing the car each night in hopes that when Marilyn Monroe arrived to Cuba, she would come take a ride in it. As the story goes, one night his grandmother got so fed up that he wouldn’t come in for dinner (because he was too busy polishing Marilyn) that she locked the door and made him sleep in the car overnight.

Our favorite moment with Josue was our heart to heart conversation over coffee at Café Fortuna in Miramar about his family, his love for Cuba and it’s nightlife. He sold us on La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (La Fabrica, for short), housed in an old cooking oil factory in Vedado since 2014. A close second was our drive with him along the Melecon at sunset, with Hotel California playing on the radio (and cool winds in our hair).

Seeing Havana through Josue’s eyes while listening to his open and honest love of his family and his country was priceless. He has never left Cuba, and has no interest in doing so. That was food for thought.

We also loved it when he drove us up to Morro Castle, where we felt the influence of 400 years of Spanish colonialism most profoundly. He showed us the precarious cliff (not a guardrail in sight, mind you) that held so many wonderful memories from his youth (and drop dead views of Havana and the Gulf of Mexico too).

IMG_8886Then we stood beside El Cristo de Havana, which is a large statue of Christ overlooking Havana (think Christ the Redeemer in Rio) before we saw La Cabana de Che Guevara.

The nearby statue of hand-holding, symbolizes, according to Josue, how Cuban people only have each other to hold on to in the face of hardship.IMG_2389

And yes, with so much taken away under the Castro dictatorship, all they had was each other to depend on. The same is true of all the devastating hurricanes this island has had to endure. And now with the growing influx of tourists, I hope that they continue to lean on each other and appreciate the power and the gift of their small community.

Emily truly impressed me with her poise, as she keenly navigated our way along the picturesque streets of Old Havana.

As we explored different neighborhoods, we could feel that strong sense of community and it was so comforting. We felt such genuine kindness and helpful attitudes in every Cuban we met. And I now realize, that is the thing that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s the feeling that the guidebooks don’t tell you or can’t quite explain. The whole town feels a bit like a family reunion, with the same kind, helpful faces popping up at every turn.

Even with over 2 million residents, we kept running into the same people all over the city. And that small town feeling was better than all the rum, coffee, cigars and sights put together.

I hope that no matter what the future holds for Cuba, especially in this ever-increasing climate of tourism, that they can retain their powerful sense of community. It is what gives them strength and protection in the face of oppression and natural disasters.

Jet Blue took us back to JFK, on International Women’s Day, where we touched down between Nor’easters, in the land of snow and cold,

bringing back only our warm memories of Havana, our slightly better Spanish, rum, cigars, coffee and yes, a much greater love for Cuba and it’s people.

To ensure that your tourist dollars are being directed toward the Cuban people, not their government, please follow these tips when you are ready to book your trip:

  1. Buy a ticket on Jet Blue out of JFK, it’s direct and inexpensive, but be prepared for a long wait at the “CUBA Help Desk” thanks to current diplomatic relations.
  2. When prompted, select “Support for the Cuban People” when making your reservation.
  3. Use AirBnB to book a room or apartment (I prefer superhosts.)
  4. When you get to Cuba make sure to eat in paladars (they are better than government restaurants)
  5. Bring cash to cover your stay since U.S. credit and debit cards are not accepted in Cuba.
  6. Buy handicrafts from self-employed shopkeepers.
  7. Get to know the difference between Cuban Peso Convertibles and Cuban Pesos. To get an authentic (and far less expensive) experience, look to the shops that sell things to the locals in pesos, not convertibles.IMG_2646
  8. And if you decide to hire a guide, do so privately (one option is: Enrique Nunez: iroko011@gmail.com/ cell: 535-391-3768

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Transportation: I like Jet Blue if you are coming from Florida or New York.

Hotels: Hotel Mercure Sevilla, Hotel Nacional, AirBnB’s, Ambos Mundos (especially the top floor), Hotel Inglaterre.

Attractions/sightseeing: Tropicana, Havana Club Museum of Rum tour, Revolution Square, Old square, Cathedral square, San Francisco de Asis Square, La Bodeguita del Medio, La Floridita, Hemingway’s house, Fusterlandia, Callejon de Hamel sociocultural project,

Morro Castle and Cristo de la Habana (Christ of Havana).

Restaurants & Bars: La Moneda Cubana (rooftop Paladar), 12 Apostles, La Guarida, Paladar Café Laurent , El Rum Rum de la Habana on calle Empedrado, La Flauta Magica, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and the fairly empty American Embassy.

 

 

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