We were in Cuba delivering supplies to a Cuban health care facility when we learned that United States Government regulations are rigid. We had to fly a chartered plane from Miami to Cuba; then we faced many questions from Cuban immigration and customs officials after we landed at the airport. But once admitted, we felt quite comfortable, except for the uneasy feeling we were in some sort of dream.
After adjusting, I stood on the front lawn of the 1930s-era Hotel Nacional de Cuba, with its history of mobsters and movie star guests. I sipped a rum-based Mojito while overlooking an azure sea filled with fish, but I saw nary a fisherman or fishing boat in sight. The reason: On both the north side and the Havana side of Cuba, fishermen are not allowed to leave the harbor with anyone – including family members – on board. The fear of the revolutionary government is that a fishing boat will head to the United States coast of Florida, 90 miles away, allowing escape from the communist environ of Cuba.
With the image of “God” Che on everything from postage stamps and coins to giant neon renderings on high rises, you might think you're in the worker's paradise of Lenin. But you are not. Havana's population ranges from the affluent to the poor. You'll find floor shows under the night stars attended by prosperous Cubans and tourists like us. You'll also see poverty-stricken people on the streets repairing old shoes, sharpening scissors on a contraption cobbled from a bike wheel, or simply sitting and talking in front of the two hundred year old buildings, falling down from lack of repair. There is always a lot of talking. It seems there are groups on every corner conversing with one another. In many cases residents wear a dazed expression, as if they have just awakened from a bad dream. However, the people still smile and laugh; children run and play in the cobblestone streets. Occasionally you'll come upon a group of young children tossing a baseball to each other, and you'll notice that former office buildings have become living spaces.
Life is difficult for most residents. Because of the embargo the United States has kept against Cuba, meat and many food items are rationed. Citizens pick up their provisions at ration stores, but, we are told, rations seldom last past the middle of the month; meager salaries, typically $30 to $40 a month, are augmented by an underground economy. Many 1950-vintage American cars, most of them lovingly kept in near original condition, ply the roads as taxis. The color of the license plate tells the status of the owner, denoting, perhaps, an official of some sort or an army officer.
If you amble along the narrow streets of old Havana, you'll find yourself treading on bluish-color ship ballast pavers. These pavers provided ballast for Spanish ships that came to Havana's sheltered harbor four hundred years ago, dropping anchor here for provisions and for filling their holds with treasure from the Spanish empire in Central and South America.
If you walk more than a few blocks, you'll come upon a large square with restored buildings around its edge, housing such sites as art galleries, faded restaurants, and maybe a government bureau. In one area, we spotted a movie being filmed. The actors, wearing clothes of the 1930s, their faces painted with makeup, were sitting about consuming sandwiches and drinking coffee taken from a table covered with food for the cast and crew.
Our own restaurant meals were less than good, except for the excellent fish and Chilean wine we indulged in at a privately-owned house-restaurant and at Dos Hermanos, near the waterfront. Dos Hermanos was a haunt of Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, who spent a number of years in Havana.
We spent two days at an all-inclusive resort close to the scene of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs disaster in1961 – an unsuccessful attempt by trained Cuban exiles to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Again, we found the food at the resort poor, but we also found a high point – a $10 snorkel trip in the clear blue water on the south side of the island, where fish, covered in brilliant multicolored scales, played above a coral reef.
One of the most interesting tours we experienced was to the former palace of Dictator Fulgencia Battista. Inside are many items from the 1959 revolution, during which he was overthrown by Fidel Castro's forces. In an annex, visitors see the yacht that carried Castro back to Cuba, where a small group began the armed attack. At least two small tanks and parts of a United States spy plane, shot down in the 1960s during the Bay of Pigs battle, are also on display.
Quite close to this display of the Revolution is the Spanish Embassy. The Cuban government has blocked the view of the sidewalk from the street with a solid fence covered with revolutionary slogans--to shield the four hundred or so Cubans with relatives in Spain who line up each day to obtain visas to leave this island
We were among eight American visitors lucky enough to participate in a Santaria ceremony conducted in a tiny home by two priests of the island's native religion, a blend of Roman Catholic and a type of voodoo. The priest, burning incense and drawing smoke from a cigar, covered us with fragrant flower petals and scented water. He revealed details of our lives we believe he had no way of knowing. We came from the Santeria ceremony with a great deal of respect for the religion.
Each day of the week we spent in Cuba brought new emotions. We discovered that restaurants and hotels are government-owned and that guides are government employees and very careful of their comments to tourists.
We learned it is a custom for hotel guests to leave items on their pillows for maids and staff. We appreciated the warm notes from hotel maids when we left cosmetics or other small items which we take for granted and which Cubans cannot afford.
We found joy in the expressive Cuban music played by small combos in the squares while we relaxed in the sun under umbrellas. We appreciated the small and inventive handicrafts carved from wood or created from paper mache, as well as the small paintings we purchased from vendors for very little money. The warmth of the artists and craftsmen showed us that the human spirit will always prevail. We liked the waves and smiles of the school kids, and we liked the fact that we, as United States nationals, very rare visitors, were greeted warmly.
It's a very strange and wonderful place, this Cuba. Yet we left undecided. Did we like it? Did we not? The value of a journey is in its memory, and our Cuba visit gave my wife, Yvonne, and me the opportunity to remember this island for a long time to come. Perhaps it will draw us back again.