The following article was written by Susan M., a client of Vacation Inspirations. It was published in Pinestraw magazine and is used by permission.
Sometimes there is no better reason to do something out of your comfort zone than to just pick up and go. Case in point is my recent unexpected trip to Cuba, the former jewel of the Caribbean that lies just ninety miles off the coast of the U.S. but has been off-limits to most American citizens for more than half a century.
Tensions and travel restrictions to Cuba have been relaxed by our own government somewhat in recent years, but a mystique of the forbidden still colors most Americans’ understanding of the supposedly communist island nation.
When an opportunity arose for me to go there, I didn’t hesitate — though my purpose was anything but political. Simply put, I was eager to meet the people and see the sights of one of the oldest cities in North America, a place famous for its music and food and architecture, its role at the center of Caribbean life.
If given a chance to return, I would not hesitate. The countryside was lush and gorgeous, the villages quaint with their own palette of fading pastel colors, the people among the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. Art and music were everywhere. And incredible architecture in Old Habana — decayed and softened by the seasons — must be seen firsthand to be truly appreciated. And then there were the vintage American cars . . .
Let me take you back to our arrival at the José Martí International Airport, which looked like any small island landing strip save for “Madam Pipi,” the artfully named bathroom attendant who greeted us upon arrival at the surprisingly modest air terminal. Her function was to watch over the facility and make sure toilet paper was available for the new arrivals. Toilet paper is a big deal in Cuba. Not only is it hard to come by, but whatever is available is typically of poor quality — a little like very thin brown paper towels. Having done some research beforehand, most of us carried our own. It was kind of funny to pack rolls of TP and not be going camping. I once observed a clandestine transaction in a nice restaurant that involved a roll of good old American TP. Tellingly, one of the nicest gestures you can make to the average Cuban is a gift of good quality toilet paper.
Customs was surprisingly easy. We had been warned ahead of time that there was a possibility of being pulled aside for routine questioning and, if so, one of the questions would be concerning if we had brought anything “extra” with us. This was not about contraband, but had to do with gifts and such. Having done our homework, most of us had stuffed all of the extra space in our bags with items we had planned on giving to our service people and the children we were to meet in our “People to People” cultural exchange. We had been instructed to answer that we had “gifts,” not — God forbid — “donations.” The questioning, we were warned, might be accompanied with the possibility of a bag search. It was never made totally clear why there was such a big deal over such semantic differences. But then again we weren’t in Kansas — or Southern Pines — anymore.
Once on the streets of Habana, the first thing every foreign visitor looks for — and sees everywhere — are the antique Americans cars, models straight from the 1950s and ’60s, except these vehicles are very much a living necessity, lovingly maintained by their owners to keep running indefinitely, a powerful sign of how Cuba is frozen in time. I was reminded that the ’50s were a great time for car design with their sharp, sloping fins, rounded body lines, and those big snarling front grills. Throw in some of that tropical color and you have an ever-changing feast for the automotive eye, an old car connoisseur’s tropical paradise.
One just had to stand on any, and I truly mean any, street corner at any time of day to enjoy the parade of vintage autos. There are more than 60,000 classic cars in Cuba with about half dating from the ’50s and the other half divided between the ’40s and ’30s. Chevys, Fords, Plymouths, Chryslers, Dodges, Cadillacs, Buicks, Willys and — to my personal delight — one Edsel I spotted not long after we arrived.
One of the available treats is to rent a convertible and be driven around Old Habana. My cohort in crime, my niece Laura, and I slipped away one afternoon and finagled a yellow ’52 Chevy Bel Air convertible to squire us about. The rates were extremely reasonable and a damn sight better than the cost of taxis in Miami. It was only $30 for an hour and we most certainly got our money’s worth. Ramon was our driver and the car’s current owner. His immaculate Chevy had been passed down from his father. As a rule, once obtained, cars are generally passed down to younger family members since they are prohibitively expensive to own and operate. Ironically, during our stay in the city, a small number of cars were released to be sold to the public — old models of Kias the government decided to sell for $45,000 apiece. On an island where the highest paid workers — doctors and government officials and such — are paid about $20 a month, it’s difficult to imagine any ordinary Cuban being able to afford even an old Kia. But clearly a subterranean economy exists. Many Cubans receive money from their families in the States.
But back to Ramon and our private tour of the city.
At one point, he encouraged Laura and me to sit on the back of the convertible as we were driven through Old Habana at dusk. At first we felt kind of silly sitting up there like visiting American princesses, but soon it was hard to resist not giving the royal parade wave to people we passed — who smiled back as if they were enjoying the show. We quickly got over self-conscious reservations and had the time of our lives — prompting other cars to honk and passengers to wave as they passed us.
At one point, Ramon pulled in and parked on the Paseo de Martí in front of the Distrito Capitolio, a central meeting place for these old model cars. It was a wide four lane boulevard with a diagonal parking strip running down the middle. Out we hopped and wandered up and down the row of cars, posing and taking photos, chatting with the owners, bumming cigarettes and entertaining us with their stories. Talk about an afternoon lost in time. We won’t forget it anytime soon.
Ramon dropped us off at a local restaurant that was definitely off the beaten path, and the evening ended with a stroll through Old Habana, where locals and tourists were out in force. On any given street you’ll hear a hodge-podge of languages and accents.
While ambling through the narrow cobblestone streets, we never knew what we would encounter next: bustling outdoor cafés, infectious music tumbling from doorways, intriguing glimpses into exotic looking courtyards, or expansive plazas with children running about. We capped off our footloose evening at the famed Floridita, birthplace of the daiquiri. Ernest Hemingway often stayed in room 511 at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, which just happened to be located on Obispo, the same street and just a few blocks away from El Floridita. Daiquiris and mojitos were supposedly two of Hemingway’s favorite libations, and it was reported that he was known to consume an average of over fifteen daiquiris a day. We lingered a bit at this famous watering hole and even puffed on a real Cuban cigar, hoisting our daiquiris to Papa. When in Habana . . .
A traveler cannot simply visit Cuba without encountering tributes to Ernest Hemingway almost everywhere you turn. It was said that he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls during his frequent stays in his corner room of the Hotel Ambos Mundos (which had a cigar named after it). Being an avid fisherman he kept his boat, the Pilar, docked in the fishing village of Cojimar. The village and its inhabitants were the inspiration for his novel The Old Man and the Sea, for which he received both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature. When the villagers heard of Hemingway’s death, a local artist volunteered to make a commemorative bust of him if the needed metal could be provided. Having no money or means to purchase the metal, the local fishermen collected scraps and pieces from their fishing boats. The completed bust was placed on a pedestal overlooking the harbor and its pier — and stands watch today.
Of course, a lively bar also sits on the harbor where the local lore has it that Hemingway once swiped a public urinal and carted it home to his house, arguing that he had “pissed away” so much of his money into the urinal that he rightfully owned it.
Papa Hemingway purchased a home nearby for his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was an acclaimed war correspondent at a time when women did not venture to the front lines. The open ranch style home stands in evidence of an elegant lifestyle sitting atop a hill with a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. Visitors are not allowed inside but can lean into the front door or peek into windows under the vigilant gaze of attendants. When the house was first restored, visitors were allowed to wander throughout, but once authorities realized that volumes of the former owner’s personal books were vanishing, the practice was stopped. The home is not lavishly decorated but is heavily and beautifully appointed with animal trophies and other mementos from Hemingway’s African safaris, set against white walls and simple, yet comfortable, furniture. Rumor has it that Ava Gardner was a frequent guest at the Hemingway home and was “caught” by Hemingway swimming nude in his palatial swimming pool. One can only hope it’s true, though it’s not clear if their supposed tryst was before or after she was cast in the movie The Snows of Kilimanjaro, based on his novel of the same name.
An another occasion, we traveled about two hours out of the city to the village of Viñales. The first stop was at the home of a local tobacco grower named Benito, quite a character. In Cuba, a beautiful woman or handsome man is said to be a “mango.” Several of us thought that Benito was most definitely a mango! He met us in a tobacco curing barn and explained how Cuban tobacco is harvested and cured, and demonstrated the way to roll a perfect cigar.
After inviting us inside his home for superb coffee, we were invited to walk around anywhere on his plantation, the Cuban appellation for a farm. Benito also grew sugarcane and had a small cane press where the juice is extracted. Adding a shot of rum to a glass of the sugarcane juice made a refreshing drink called guarapo, although I don’t think the rum was a requirement. Rum seems to be the standard additive to anything one cares to drink, especially the coffee.
Lunch that day was at Finca Agroecologica el Paraiso, which was an unconventional organic farm and restaurant. One didn’t just walk off the street, sit down and order food as we do stateside. The procedure was more of an arranged meal. We dined in an open-air thatched-roof pavilion overlooking the Valle de Viñales, where the village takes its name with part of the Guaniguanico mountain range rising in the distance. These mountains are characterized by mogotes, which are calcareous rock with sheer sides rising up to 1,500 feet. They were reminiscent of Arizona mesas minus the desert aridness. The meal was prepared in a small attached kitchen that seemed to consist of a large roasting pit and little else. The main course was a roasted pig as good if not better than most I have consumed in famous barbecue restaurants across the American South. All of the food, except the pig (which came from a neighboring farm), was grown by the folks doing the cooking and was served family style. It was simply superb. After a week of dining in various establishments, there was never any question as to our favorite spot. Fantastic locally grown food with a view to die for prepared by the host family with pride and love. It doesn’t get much better than that — in any language.
The final stop that day was at a tobacco sorting warehouse. Originally, we were to visit a cigar rolling factory. Unfortunately, the Cubans were celebrating the 55th anniversary of “The Revolution” which took place on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista and declared Cuba a liberated socialist nation. Thus the cigar factory was closed. However, with some finagling by our translator, we were able to go inside of a tobacco grading and fermenting warehouse accompanied by a local woman who had worked in the facility for over thirty-five years.
Having been raised on a tobacco farm, I found the whole process from planting to rolling quite absorbing, especially how workers in the sorting, fermenting, and rolling warehouses are reading literary works as they labor. The tradition began in 1865 and continues to this day. Not only are the workers relieved of what would otherwise be monotonous work, the theory goes, but are inspired to learn to read and write themselves at a time when it is more important to work than go to school in order to support their families. Because of this dichotomy, the country’s tobacco factory workers are among the most educated of the population. The day’s reading generally starts with a daily newspaper and is followed by continued reading of the unfinished book from the day before. Usually it is the workers themselves who choose the title. The genres range from classical to contemporary subjects, including political and detective page-turners. Many famous cigar brands such as Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta were created during the readings of Dumas and Shakespeare and John Grisham.
One way to get a feel for the history of an area is to check out the local cemetery. A good cemetery is not only beautiful with statuary, artistic headstones, and impressive crypts, but gives visitors an even deeper sense of history and cultural permanence of the island. Since I love a walk around a good cemetery, I was not at all disappointed in the Cementerio Cristobal Colon. Established around 1871, the beautiful burying ground encompasses over 138 acres of marble and granite monuments and statues on the more than one million tombs. Yet, because of the traditional method of exhuming remains and placing them in an ashery near the original grave so another body can be interred, more than two million people are actually buried there. On average the cemetery has about forty funerals per day. Among the magnificent tombs and gravestones is a rather modest grave with a statue of a mother holding a child in her arms. This is the grave of Doña Amelia Goyri who died, along with her child, while giving birth at the age of 23. Her distraught and devoted husband came every day to the grave to visit her, local lore holds, knocking three times on the lid of the tomb in order to awaken her soul as he poured out his heart to her. Then he would place beautiful fresh flowers on the tomb and always back away as he left, so as not to turn his back on his beloved. When it came time to open the grave and move Doña Amelia’s earthly remains to the ashery, it was discovered that the remains of the child, which had been laid to rest at Amelia’s feet, were now in her arms! People from all over the world have paid their respects to Amelia following her husband’s ritual of knocking three times, touching the statue as they encircle the tomb asking her to grant their wishes, and exiting without turning their back to her as a sign of respect. The graves next to hers are covered in marble and granite plaques giving thanks to Amelia for granting their requests. It is the only gravesite in all of the cemetery that by the end of every day is covered with fresh flowers.
Our glorious Cuban sojourn ended too soon. We reluctantly departed for home with a lot of unanswered questions about this incredible Caribbean island, but not because anyone was unwilling or unable to answer them.
In retrospect, I wondered about small things, like how did they manage to get Tabasco sauce in the breakfast restaurant at the hotel, and how is it that American Airlines can land there if we have an imposed embargo? How the heck can these friendly and welcoming people live on a ration book and $20 a month?
We also missed the beaches, which I understand are rather amazing, but maybe next trip.
Cuba’s future seems paradoxically up in the air and lost in time, though after our lovely and intensely personal “people to people” visit, I must say what a sad thing it is that this silly embargo remains in place.
Time and tides will surely change Cuba. But in the meantime I can say without hesitation that the captive island nation captured a piece of my heart — and I would happily return to visit in a heartbeat.
And now not just because I can.