Ramblings Of A Traveler in Cuba
#1 GETTING THERE
I really really really wanted to go to Cuba for so many reasons I knew of before going, and most reasons I learned after I was there. I couldn’t wait to go to Cuba. I dreamt about it, and read about it. It’s a country that, right now, is unspoiled and virtually untouched by USA tourism. The very thought of going to Cuba made me feel giddy all over – call it a traveler’s sickness. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and only 90 miles from Florida. We all know that, I think.
However, Cuba is a BIG MYSTERY to most USA travelers because we, meaning you and me without family in Cuba, are not supposed to go there.
Problem is, the USA government has not wanted you or me, or any one like us going to Cuba for the last 50 or 60 years. So what’s that about, you might ask? I don’t want to get all political here, but it has something to with USA imposed embargo.
I do recommend a very good paperback, award-winning novel that gives a good overview about the time leading up to the ousting of American Enterprise (namely Sugar Cane) in 1958 and prior years leading up to Castro’s revolution. Book title is, “Telex from Cuba” by Rachel Kushner. It isn’t a history/political book, but it will answer a few questions in novel kind of way, good story, and easy reading. Looks like there might be some sort of movie coming out with the same name. I haven’t seen the movie, so I’ll refrain from comment.
The USA government loosely says (not an exact quote) if you are a legal USA citizen, and you have no family in Cuba, you are not going to legally enter Cuba. No way, no how. There is a loop hole/exception however, as there seems to be in a lot of US laws. Oh, I know & have researched a good number of ways you can go to Cuba illegally. I know as well as you, you can swim from Key West to Havana Cuba, its not that far, only 90 miles. However, you do have to be able to swim around & through multitudes of very hungry sharks, and I hear the currents can make mush out of you also. Remember Diana Nyad, who is a world-class endurance swimmer, and who became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage on Sept. 1, 2013? She tried 4 times before and finally made it. She was only 64-years-old at the time and did it in a mere 53 hours. I saw a video of Diana right after she made history, and she looked very salt-water-logged and close to death. For the rest of us, however, swimming is probably is not an option. OK, back to my blog.
Any United States citizen that tries to enter Cuba without special permission, is breaking USA law and can be fined $20,000+ and/or maybe incarcerated in a not too pretty USA jail. From what I am told, the Cuban Government doesn’t really care about us visiting their country as long as we don’t do bad things that are illegal most every place else in the world, like being really, really stupid. I am sure the Cuban government has bigger problems to deal with than you or I as long as we behave.
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Get this, not only does the USA government NOT want us to go to Cuba, but the USA government does not want its citizens spending any money once there. Of course, there is a loop hole/exception here also. Oh, and guess what? The USA government does not want its citizens having “fun” in Cuba. To my knowledge, there is NO loophole/exception on having “fun”. Fun is absolutely, strictly prohibited. I’m not lying. That’s right. It’s written on the group itinerary – no laying on the beach, no swimming in the ocean, no snorkeling, no scuba diving, no canoeing, and absolutely NO diving or jumping into the beautiful, unpolluted Cuban water.
The Group Itinerary didn’t specifically list “fun” things not to do as I listed above, but our tour guide told us and that’s gospel enough for me. Nor was broadly smiling listed on the Group Itinerary as being ban by the USA government, but I didn’t broadly smile while I was in Cuba just in case. An aside, you might be able to get by with smiling if you made it to look like a cheek twitch or itch and don’t show teeth. I saw some in our group doing that.
Sounds like a great place to visit, right? From what I think understand, anybody else on the face of earth can go to Cuba legally and easily. But if you are even remotely listening to the news, you have heard that things are a changing between Cuba and USA (thanks to the current Pope, who is not from either the USA or Cuba). At the time of this posting, things have not changed that much yet (July, 2015) but could anytime.
The thing is, you want to get there now, before Cuba opens up to USA tourists. Right now, its like it was in the 1950s and 60s – not sure what that was like because I wasn’t born yet, but I hear it was pretty groovy. So what are a few things that make Cuba such an awesome place to visit?
Everyone has heard of the old, vintage cars driving around, parked everywhere, and stopped at every working red streetlight or standing stop sign. These old cars are the pride and joy of the country, and for good reason. They are stunning. I have heard it said, that present day Cuba is the biggest and best preserved vintage car museum in the world. I can tell you right now, it is. You see them everywhere. And I am not alone when I say that when the USA citizens are able to go to Cuba without the current strings attached, these wonderful cars will disappear into the sun set of the modern day world – and what a loss!
Everyone has heard of the lack of electricity and/or running water. Well, I am not sure that is cool or groovy, but its a way of life for a lot of people living in Cuba. Some locals told me, “we are doing fine, don’t bring something in that’s going to cause us more problems.” Some positive things about NOT having “modernized kitchen” are 1. No electricity or water bill, 2. No freak out when the stove or frig blows a gasket, 3. No ugly stainless steel appliances to keep clean and shiny – only vintage cars, 4. No trying to impress the Joneses. Jones is not are real common name in Cuba anyway. Heating and air-conditioning are not real common in Cuba either, but hey in the Caribbean who cares. It’s not like its too hot or cold in Caribbean paradise. We won’t get into the lack of “modernized Bathrooms in Cuba – that would be a whole blog of it’s own.
Everyone has heard of the pristine, unpopulated, unpolluted coastline/beaches. Really! Cuba DOES NOT have miles and miles of 18 hole golf courses that butt right up to the sea coast and only allow the golf players paying huge green fees have exclusive access to coastal scenery. NOR is Cuba big on having the outrageous, mega resorts with kiddy activities announced on loud speakers throughout the day and night. The beaches I saw in Cuba were miles and miles of pure, unadulterated beauty. Very few cheezy tourist shops selling only made-in China souvenirs, no mounds of cast away Styrofoam cups, straws, empty plastic sunscreen bottles, no discarded essential clothing littering the beach, no amplified disturbance, no motorized beach vehicles, no costal dumping grounds, and barely any commercialism. I am so afraid and can only imagine what will happen to this extreme beauty when you-know-what happens as we know it will sooner or later.
And no doubt, everyone has heard of the handmade best-in-the-world cigars. Those wonderful cigars will become mass-produced and mediocre to say the least. Just like what happened to some brands of Mexican Beers (i.e. Modelo, Corona, even Dos Equis – they were good once & still are in Mexico). Once the USA capitalists get a hold of a good thing, the result is often not-so-good.
I could go on and on here, but the point is, I feel all this and much much more will go away when the USA tourist flood gates are opened.
Well, let’s pretend I am a good law-abidin’ USA citizen legally carrying a proud dark blue USA passport with a special chip embedded. I do not willingly break the law, you understand. So you might ask, “How did you do it?” Well, things are a little more relaxed if you have family members in Cuba that you are going to visit & can prove beyond any shadow of doubt (and keep that proof handy for the rest of your life just in case someone from the USA.gov asks) – I have already alluded to that fact. I have no family, so the only way I could legally get to Cuba was to go with a group claiming/proving it was a cultural and/or people-to-people encounter/exchange and be approved by USA.gov. Our guide said that the USA tourist must be able to account for time spent with Cuban people and be involved in cultural activities for at least 6 to 8 hours a day. You must keep all documentation forever or until death whichever comes first (again in case someone from the USA.gov asks), and you are encouraged to keep a daily encounter/activity journal along with the printed, official stamped group itinerary. Yep, I went anyway and even followed most of the rules.
Biggest problem: The thought of group travel – scary beyond scary. The thought of being stuffed in a tour bus with other tourists was incomprehensible. Yuk! Eating together, sleeping together (in the same hotel), having to be “on time”, herded around like a group of confused goats, never being able to be an individual, never being able to set your own schedule, and only going potty when it was a scheduled “group” stop. OMG! I begin to have nightmares while awake thinking about the upcoming trip I had just spent my hard-earned travel money on.I could go on and on here, but the point is, I feel all this and much much more will go away when the USA tourist flood gates are opened.
The major thing you want to make sure you do when you travel this way is to get to the airport in Miami, find your gate, and stand inconspicuously in an out-of-the way corner. You want to make sure you are the first to arrive (even before the pack leader) so you can inspect & form first impressions of your tour mates as THEY straggle in. That way you can decide, before actually speaking to anyone, who you are going to bond with & cling to, and who to avoid at all costs even if that person turns out to be really nice and fun to be around.
On that happy note, I will leave with the final thought of the post; I arrived in Havana, Cuba with the group aboard the plane & attended the group welcome party with lots of free Cuban Libra (coke and rum – very generous with the rum) & free Cuban cigars. And I met the nicest, best tour mates ever. It was love at first site with every one of the 20 folks who were just as interested and happy to be touring Cuba as I was. I almost thought I was going to have fun with the group after all.