Fidel and I go way back. In 1958 he was hanging out in the hills near Havana waiting for the best opportunity to finally undo the despotic Batista regime and rescue Cuba for the Cuban people. Havana was known as a retreat for New York gamblers and mafia bosses, drugs and prostitution. A third of the island nation was owned by foreign corporations like the United Fruit Company and the rest by other wealthy landowners and the Cuban elite. Most Cubans were poor and getting poorer. They were the ones Fidel was fighting for.
I was graduating from college, moving to Minneapolis and getting married. What I knew of Cuba was Desi Arnaz and Guys and Dolls. But now Cuba was in the newspaper (we didn’t have a TV yet). So on New Years 1959 Fidel and his guys swooped into Havana sending the Americans, wealthy Cubans (and eventually many of the professional classes) fleeing to Miami. Batista escaped to the Dominican Republic. By that time not even the U.S. government wanted him. It was exciting even in faraway Minnesota. It seemed like a good thing for the Cuban people. A few days later I had my first baby. Big changes afoot for everyone.
Then things got complicated, as happens with revolutions.The Haves fled and the Fidelistas acting in the name of the Have-nots appropriated their land, their homes and their silverware (much like what happened in the American Revolution when loyalists fled to Canada and their grand estates were divided into smaller holdings for commoners). Ugliness ensued. Fidel soon proclaimed himself and his new regime to be communist, the word that above all others set American nerves on edge. And so Cuba under Fidel became an incendiary bomb on the U.S. doorstep and has remained so for over fifty years, more or less. While I despaired when Fidel, too, turned out to be somewhat of a thug and despot, I still held a warm spot for the Cuban people. I was part of the sixty-five percent of Americans who rejoiced when President Obama made overtures to renew relations with Cuba.
When I found that the Roadscholar organization (nee Elderhostel) was sponsoring a nine-day People to People Connection in Cuba, I signed up. Our group met in the Doubletree Hotel in Miami the night before our flight to Havana — twenty-two altogether, four guys and eighteen women, average age somewhere in the mid to late sixties — bright, educated, well-traveled, excited to be “seeing Cuba before it changes.” We were cautioned to pack light and wear our “flexibility hats.” Not to expect services and amenities we were accustomed to in other travel destinations. Our cellphones would not work there. Internet access would be spotty at best and expensive. This particular program would focus on artists, musicians, dancers and ball players.
The international terminal in the Miami airport provided a preview of what was to come. Rose, our Roadscholar leader, herded us through showing our passports, checking bags, IDs, security, tickets and boarding passes for our charter flight (U.S. airlines don’t yet have permission to fly into Havana). A huge shrink wrap machine squatted in the middle of terminal. After the short forty-five minute flight we arrived in Havana. The wind was blowing as we stepped off the plane and on to the moveable stair and deplaned onto the tarmac. Inside we reversed the passport and security process had our pictures taken and were buzzed into the area to await our luggage. The attractive young women who staffed the airport provided a sample of the split personality that is Cuba. Waist up they were dressed for work, khaki uniforms with badges; waist down they were dressed in short skirts, black lace stockings, sometimes high heels. Two smallish carousels began disgorging cargo including wide screen TVs, building supplies and many large, shapeless bundles in blue shrink-wrap (things Cubans bought in Miami with plans to sell them, we speculated). And eventually our luggage (no reclaim checks).
Then we were introduced to Vivian, our Cuban guide, and ushered out to our bus. Groups of Cubans half a dozen deep that were gathered behind barricades started cheering and clapping. “It’s something Cubans do for fun,” Vivian explained, “Go out to the airport and greet the people coming in (or returning from Miami).” Our tour bus #425 was a large, shiny comfortable coach (made, we learned, in China) and capably herded by Orlando, our driver for the week. He helped us on and off the bus, guarded any belongings we left on board and wielded its monster girth in and out of narrow streets and tight corners to our admiration and amazement.
On the drive into the city we passed miles and miles of Caribbean style stucco houses with shutters, balconies, grillwork surrounded by lush greenery and bright flowering trees. I could still make out the hint of pastel colors of their origins. Virtually all of them were shabby and rundown, in need of paint, new windows, steps, and no doubt plumbing and electrical wiring. The sidewalks are crumbling but the streets are clean. Our first stop was Revolution Square, the Cuban homage to modern Cuba where profiles of Che Guevara and another of the major revolutionaries adorn the facades of the government buildings and an obelisk type monument with a gleaming white sculpture lent gravitas to the site. Our guide didn’t explain much except it was a photo opportunity. This was odd only in retrospect, since she explained everything to come in great detail.
We ate dinner at our first paladar and drank our first mojitos (the national rum cocktail, rum optional). The paladars were part of Cuba’s first foray into private enterprise starting in the nineties when their Soviet sponsors pulled out leaving the Cuban economy in shreds. Castro allowed some to open these small restaurants in their homes. Now many are flourishing, making Havana a bit of a foodie destination. The dining rooms and tables were always nicely, sometimes elegantly, appointed; the silverware and wine glasses often did not match. They use what they can get. In the week ahead, many of our meals were in paladars and all were delicious.
Our destination was the Hotel Nacional which would be our headquarters for five nights. The Nacional was built in 1930 and attracted such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, mafia bosses and New York gamblers. It retains most of its glamour (including ash trays on all the tables), but the elevators and air conditioning are unreliable and the toilets don’t always flush on the first try. It has not yet adopted the Great Fluffy Pillows that rule in U.S. hotels. But it was comfortable and romantic. We were ready for a People to People Connection. Stay tuned.
Rosemary Rawson is the author of Coming of Age (SRP, 2014). Coming of Age by Rosemary Rawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License