The standard explanation Cubans give for why things are as they are in Cuba is, “It’s complicated.” This phrase became our mantra during our Chamber adventure to Cuba.
The trip could not have been better timed. We experienced the last days of Fidel Castro’s life and the moments right after our presidential election. It provided experiences that I will always cherish as unique. From the moment we deplaned in Havana, it was clear that we were far from home. Dozens of huge, blue plastic-wrapped items came down the baggage rack – all gifts/necessities coming to Cuba from America. Who are these people arriving? How did they get from Cuba in the first place? “It’s complicated.”
I’m not “pie-in-the-sky” about the conditions in Cuba since 1959, and I don’t condone the impact of the Castro regime on Cubans and Americans. But, with an open mind and an eye to take in all that Habana has to offer, the exposure to Cuban culture and people was eye-opening. The logistics and scope of our itinerary filled our days: we learned how handmade cigars were created on a guided tour by a Cuban cigar expert of a cigar factory, where we saw the process firsthand. We stood in the Plaza de la Revolution and saw the images of Fidel, Che Guevara, and others on buildings. We toured the Museum de la Revolution, where we learned about Cuban history and saw pre- and post-Castro artifacts. We saw and learned about the multicultural background of the Cuban population and culture: mixing indigenous Cubans with Spanish conquerors and African slaves to create a rainbow of faces and experiences that incorporates part of each segment’s background and culture.
The culture of Cuba was fascinating. We saw a performance by Habana Compas Dance group, met a local sculptor in his studio, and visited the studio of the artist known as the “Picasso of Cuba.” We took a personal tour of Old Habana with the architect tasked with its renovation. We spent an evening at the Vegas-themed outdoor musical revue at Tropicana (think Godfather II with Fredo!). We toured the home of Ernest Hemingway, and enjoyed many wonderful meals – and mojitos – at the Paladars (privately owned restaurants). We paid a visit to a large art and craft market, and as the grand finale of our trip, were chauffeured to our final dinner in classic cars. No matter the experience, our senses were filled with vibrant color, sounds and smells!
Not all was pretty though: you could see buildings not touched since Castro took over. We learned how difficult it was to move to a new residence, we saw street dogs begging for love over food, and we saw the difference between a government food store and a private farmers market. We realized that we all spend more on a meal in Arlington that most Cuban people earn in a month, and that the fence between our four star Spanish hotel and the Atlantic Ocean was to keep people out and not us in, and that a gratuity of two or three dollars and some toiletries was a big deal. And the Cubans (at least THIS week) still take no American credit cards or checks, have a totally different currency for Cubans and for tourists, and have little or no internet/cell phone service for Americanos. It’s complicated.
All this being said, I loved every moment of my Cuban experience, and I would go back in a heartbeat to spend more time exploring the things I saw for an hour or two and to see more of the country. But who knows what sort of Cuba will be there the next time I can visit? It’s complicated and growing more complicated by the day. So, go while you can, experience all Cuba has to offer, and bring the best American behavior to them. It’s a simple choice.
To learn about traveling to Cuba with the Chamber, view our 2017 Cuba Getaway trip details. For more information about all of the Chamber's travel programs, visit our travel page.