Of every marvelous, multicolored memory I could share with you about Cuba, here’s my favorite:
Young adults, about the ages of my three kids, line the large windows in front of the elegant Hotel Parque Central in the cultural core of old Havana. Many wear designer jeans. For a moment, I think they’re holding lit matches, rock-concert style, as they face inward toward the opulent hotel lobby. Then I move closer and see what’s in their hands.
These teens and 20-somethings, for whom the United States’ 54-year embargo is a history lesson, are standing at the window to access the hotel’s Wi-Fi. They are using 21st-century technology to connect to a vast outside world that their parents know little about, just as we eager Americans have arrived to devour the mysteries of their long-isolated island.
But not isolated for long. Curious about Cuba? Go now.
Cuba is changing. It is opening up. It is at an exciting, albeit complicated, crossroads. Look around and you’ll see horses and carts galloping down highways, torn-up streets and dilapidated buildings, and stores selling dated and limited merchandise. You’ll also see massive restoration projects, privately owned restaurants that would be at home in Manhattan, and a growing bed-and-breakfast industry.
I visited Cuba in September as part of an eight-day People-to-People educational exchange, courtesy of the world’s greatest adventurer, my mother Estelle Rosenblum, dean emeritus of the University of New Mexico College of Nursing.
My almost 82-year-old mother has traveled to every continent, most of it with my late father, Sidney, including six trips each to China and the former USSR. One country she never thought she’d see was Cuba.
I never thought I’d see it, either. The Caribbean’s largest island, a mere 90 miles from U.S. soil, remains for most Americans its most elusive, due to an embargo imposed in 1960, shortly after the American-supported Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban revolution.
This political hot potato was not dismissed, or minimized, by our gracious guide. Twenty-six-year-old Laura has never set foot outside of her beloved “Planet Cuba,” as she calls it. She hopes to visit the United States one day, but she’ll return, because “Cuba is my home.”
On our many scenic bus rides, Laura regaled us with an encyclopedic knowledge of her country, the good and the challenging.
Education is free, through graduate school. Everyone enjoys excellent, government-funded, medical care. Literacy is reported to be nearly 100 percent. Voter turnout is 97 percent. Forty-five percent of legislators are female.
But with jobs scarce and the average salary $40 a month, people rely on ration packets to make ends meet. (Those packets limit Cubans to five pounds of rice per person per month, as well as one pound of chicken and 10 eggs.) The black market is alive and well for everything from fresh fish to car parts to “Breaking Bad” reruns (seriously). Few homes have access to the Internet. Flush toilets are limited. Everywhere we went, we were approached by beggars.
Many of us, at the request of the tour operators, brought bags filled with clothes, school supplies and toiletries to leave behind.
“Poverty, there is poverty, but it’s not only the embargo to be blamed,” Laura said. “I hope we can find a solution. But, please, abandon preconceptions.”
Many have. An estimated 250,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2013 – “half legally” Laura said. (The other half likely entered via Canada or Mexico.)
Sanctioned People-to-People exchanges began in 2000, were suspended in 2003, and then opened up again in 2011, thanks to a push by President Barack Obama. Our trip was developed for the UNM Alumni Association, in partnership with international tour planner Go Next, which navigated us through six pages of authorization-to-travel documents, a travel affidavit and mandated Cuban travel insurance.
We were joined by fellow Lobo Chad Campbell, (UNM MBA, 2004) who now lives in Las Vegas, Nev., with his partner, Wendy Oldham. The other 14 travelers came from around the country, many from the legal profession. Completing our group was our energetic Go Next program manager, Thea, who kept us on schedule and constantly laughing, especially during a competitive trivia game between the Fighting Mojitos (my team) and the Rum Runners, who ultimately won.
Don’t let “educational exchange” scare you. Yes, we were required to put in eight hours daily of engaging with the country and its citizens in Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. Yes, we were reminded to practice the phrase, “I am on a licensed People-to-People educational exchange,” should we be stopped by a police officer. (Never happened.)
But “engaging” with Cubans was generously interpreted. At 9 a.m. on our first Sunday, we were welcomed with our first lesson: A tall glass of “Vitamin R” which stands for Rum.
Walking through the streets as a group, we engaged with security guards in fishnet stockings, dancers on stilts and beautiful children in elaborate costumes who were savvy enough to charge us for taking their photo.
Our days included a concert by the world-class Orquestra de Camara and a demonstration by elite dancers at an art high school. We practiced our salsa skills at lunchtime (thanks to Vitamin R consumption first), shopped at open-air markets and visited master novelist Ernest Hemingway’s retreat, largely intact since he left it in the early 1960s.
There’s his typewriter, which he used standing up. There’s his bathroom scale to keep track of his weight. There are his liquor bottles, still on a cart in the living room. Oh, how the Cubans love Papa. A running joke among our group was how many bars in Havana were Hemingway’s “favorite” watering hole. The guy got around.
We stepped inside Che Guevara’s somber mausoleum, visited a coffee plantation and an organic farm – the latter a growing industry garnering international attention. We toured the massive Christopher Columbus cemetery, where the guide joked that, “until four years ago, this was the only place in Cuba where you could own private property.”
In 500-year-old Trinidad, I hiked with Chad and a few others up 167 steps to the top of a bell tower overlooking railroad tracks and sugarcane fields, then climbed down and gave my straw hat to a grateful lace vendor working under an oppressive sun.
One evening before sundown, our group rode in a procession of ridiculously fun and noisy “Coco Taxis” to Havana’s famous Palace Hotel, where I thought I might run into the cast of Boardwalk Empire.
We saw art – big and bold and much of it political. We ate, and ate. Many of our meals were served in “paladares,” privately owned restaurants or private homes, which is among the most stunning examples of the new Cuba. The fare was tasty but limited: Beans and rice, shredded beef, chicken and lobster, with flan dessert as a sweet finish. The restaurant owners greeted our group enthusiastically, thanking us for coming and explaining the challenges and excitement of becoming entrepreneurs. (One chef even boasted that he’s getting good reviews on Trip Advisor).
Similarly, we toured a lovely home that has been transformed into a popular bed and breakfast.
And one among us had a special moment, cheek-to-cheek, with an original member of the Buena Vista Social Club, and I have photos to prove it. (You go, Mom!)
I assumed that we would be chained to our tour team, admonished to not dare wander off. But we had an abundance of freedom. Chad and Wendy regaled us at breakfast with their tales of Cuban nightlife. One afternoon, I started walking past horses, hanging sides of beef and men smoking jumbo cigars and soon realized I was lost. A kind young man with a cycle rickshaw pedaled me back to the hotel.
Fellow Minneapolis journalist Kristin (also traveling with her world-traveler 82-year-old mother, Kay) and I strolled along the Malecon, Havana’s bustling 2.5-mile-long seawall. One warm evening after dark, Kristin and I walked to a plaza inhabited by young Cubans and sat for hours drinking beer and reminiscing about our favorite travel adventures over many decades.
We’ll both be adding Cuba to our list. I already want to go back, as soon as I can.
Cuba, said our guide Laura, in her emotional good-bye, “is a country where everything is possible and impossible at the same time. Thank you for embracing my people.”
The pleasure was all mine.
Gail Rosenblum is a columnist for the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis. Raised in Albuquerque from nursery school through college at the University of New Mexico, she is completing her second term as a member of the UNM Alumni Association Board. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.