Cuba: Traveling Back to 1950 for a New Hope With National Geographic Expeditions

Hola!

Retro cars lined up after our amazing retro-car journey along the Malecon.
Retro cars lined up after our amazing retro-car journey along the Malecon.

I recently had the great opportunity to be a part of a National Geographic Expedition for the first time. We booked ourselves on one of the increasing number of “People to People” trips for U.S. Citizens to travel to Cuba in the wake of President Obama’s announcement to lift certain bans, including making it easier to travel to Cuba. It used to be that one had to get a license and pre-approval to visit Cuba. Nowadays as long as you fall under one of these 12 categories you can just apply for a visa and go: (1) family visits
(2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
(3) journalistic activity
(4) professional research and professional meetings
(5) educational activities
(6) religious activities
(7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
(8) support for the Cuban people
(9) humanitarian projects
(10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
(11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
(12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

More info on what to know for Travel to Cuba: http://www.afar.com/magazine/12-things-to-know-if-youre-thinking-about-going-to-cuba

The only kind of advertisement in Cuba, socialist propaganda
The only kind of advertisement in Cuba, socialist propaganda
Cuba's best friend, Che. At Revolution Square
Cuba’s best friend, Che. At Revolution Square

We spent 9 days in Cuba, split between Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. There is so much to write about on Cuba but I think I will try to keep it short this time around. For starters, one does not go to Cuba for the food. If you want to eat Cuban food, just go to Miami. In Cuba, due to rations, lack of resources, and infrastructure, the food in general is not that great. And its mostly just rice and beans with grilled, roasted or fried chicken, pork, fish or beef. Well fried plantains and flan is always a good addition to any meal. BUT, you are in the land where the people bleed Rum. In fact, a great fun fact is that Cubans refer to it as “Vitamin R.” And without much surprise, Havana is home to the birthplace of the Mojito and Daiquiri.

El Floridita bar, frequented by Ernest Hemingway, the birthplace of the Daiquiri
El Floridita bar, frequented by Ernest Hemingway, the birthplace of the Daiquiri
Another frequented place by Ernest Hemingway, El Bodeguita Del Medio , the birthplace of the Mojito
Another frequented place by Ernest Hemingway, El Bodeguita Del Medio , the birthplace of the Mojito

To date, there are no scheduled flights from the U.S to Cuba, only chartered ones, which is why it is still best to book a trip via a tour company such as NatGeo Expeditions. Most charters depart Miami, and it was only a 40 minutes flight! Shorter than St. Louis to Chicago! But what a contrast it is. Arriving and driving along the streets, I had traveled back to 1950. Classic and brightly painted old-timer cars chugged alongside our mainland China built air-conditioned tour bus. Havana is a beautiful place, and as our local guide Yanet said, it is filled with a “tragic beauty.” Why? Most of the gorgeous colonial and art-deco buildings are falling apart and in appalling state. But within the ruins is a beauty and hope that resonates strongly among the Cuban locals as well. Many asked me afterward if us Americans were welcomed, and much to my surprise we were so welcome. No animosity whatsover. In a nutshell, the many imaginations, myths and uncertainty about Cuba in the United States are based on outdated cold-war mindsets that has fueled a completely useless and outdate ego-boasting foreign policy that has kept Cuba in the 1950s. But like a famous high-level Cuba economist and a women and human rights activist noted, its through interaction and people-to-people programs like the NatGeo trip that will allow the two nations to break boundaries and rebuild a kinship. Its up to us to spread the word and learn from each other rather than stick to the stereotypes. It was great to be a in a nation where barely any wifi existed. Where young people’s definition of fun was to go out with their friends and talk face to face along the rivers and in the various open parks. No one was looking down at their screens, they were all fully engaged. I felt safer than in any U.S. city walking alone in dark streets. Few people actually came to pester us tourists for money, though according to our expert who has been coming to Cuba since 1987, the number of people who know to pester tourists for change has been on the rise. Guns are illegal in Cuba, the only weapons on hand are their fists and machetes. Basically, I never once felt threatened in Cuba. And if you simply said “No, gracias” to vendors or taxi-drivers or insist on a price, the Cubans were generally friendly and would not purge any further.

Havana's tragic beauty
Havana’s tragic beauty
scenes from Trinidad
scenes from Trinidad
Streets of Havana with the State-Capitol ahead (fun fact, its taller that the Capitol Hill).
Streets of Havana with the State-Capitol ahead (fun fact, its taller that the Capitol Hill).

Cuba has such a rich culture and heritage. From the Afro-Cuban roots, to the Spanish-colonial influence, to artistic and educational exchanges abroad. In fact, we were there during the opening weekend of the Havana Biennial! One would have thought a socialist, formally communist country would not encourage free form of art, some with nuanced political commentary to be so publicly displayed! Oh and every Cuban took interested in these art pieces as they walked by it, and not a single person would try to vandalize or do crazy rebellious things to it, there was a sense or respect for art in Cuba not found in many other nations these days. Music is of course very well respected because beats, rhythm and dancing flows through any Cuban and it is a core part of their history, culture and heritage.

El Tanque, a mural and mosaics project.
El Tanque, a mural and mosaics project.

IMG_7299

Habanas Compas Dance company, Afro-Cuban roots meet Flamenco in a Stomp-esque performance
Habanas Compas Dance company, Afro-Cuban roots meet Flamenco in a Stomp-esque performance
Children perform a folk tale
Children perform a folk tale “The Little Cockroach” at a local performing arts project for children
a Trinidad artist carves soulful locals on panels of wood.
a Trinidad artist carves soulful locals on panels of wood.
Cienfuegos choir
Cienfuegos choir
an Afro-Cuban dance troupe rehearses.
an Afro-Cuban dance troupe rehearses.
Sculptor Jose Fustor's home in Havana. Yes, he takes inspiration from Gaudi.
Sculptor Jose Fustor’s home in Havana. Yes, he takes inspiration from Gaudi.
Art featured in one of the Biennial sites, this piece is made with some bullets and paint, titled
Art featured in one of the Biennial sites, this piece is made with some bullets and paint, titled” Amor Dificil” (Difficult Love)
outdoor sculpture along the Malecon during the Biennial
outdoor sculpture along the Malecon during the Biennial

Through NatGeo and with the nature of a “people-to-people” program, we met with and talked to many wonderful people. From the aforementioned economist and activist, to an American-Cuban (not Cuban-American) journalist, Marc Frank, to an architect fighting to restore and preserve Havana’s beautiful buildings. As well as local entrepreneurs, private business owners (yes these exist and are up and coming in Cuba), managers of local community projects, school teachers, and children. Through NatGeo’s program, and our NatGeo Expert’s local network, I heard from and learned about Cuba from Cubans and saw it through their eyes all the while understanding and seeing why as an American I learned and saw Cuba in a certain way. But that is precisely what I had hope to achieve on this trip. Cuba is so shrouded in mystery for Americans because of the ban and embargo yet for most citizens of the world its an easy plane ride away for another beach vacation in the Caribbean.

The Bay of Pigs or as its known locally Playa Giron
The Bay of Pigs or as its known locally Playa Giron
Museum at the Bay of Pigs, while it uses language such as Imperialists and Yankees, it is not very in your face hate America like the Vietnam War Museum in Vietnam.
Museum at the Bay of Pigs, while it uses language such as Imperialists and Yankees, it is not very in your face hate America like the Vietnam War Museum in Vietnam.
a dancer at the famous Tropicana show in Havana.
a dancer at the famous Tropicana show in Havana.

There is an abundance of articles on Cuba as it is a very hot topic these days, whether its politically, economically, socially, or the multiple travel magazines covering one of the hottest destinations nowadays. Cuba is not exactly ready for the inevitable flood of tourists, as their infrastructure can barely accommodate the demand as is.  Which is why many foreign businesses are eyeing Cuba as the next big opportunity. But the opening up of Cuba has been met with mixed sentiment. Some Cuban-Americans are skeptical and fear the wealth gap will widen even more and wont truly help Cuba return to its golden age. Others, including many Cuban locals, are excited and hopeful. Cuba has the opportunity to develop and grow in the most ideal of ways and learn from the mistake of every developed, and developing democratic/ capitalist society today. It can learn from Latin America’s neo-liberal catastrophe, from China’s overdevelopment of Shanghai and Beijing (a development where their history and culture have been tossed out for modernism and materialism), from the United States as well. It has the opportunity to preserve and restore its heritage, culture and abundance of spectacular architecture. It has a population of talented artisans, musicians, doctors, and engineers. Cuba actually has a good education system and healthcare system, that if I may add is all free.

Children play some soccer along the Prado in the early morning
Children play some soccer along the Prado in the early morning
La Liberta, the Cuban rationing book that each household gets
La Liberta, the Cuban rationing book that each household gets
May's supplies and rations. priced in the local national currency, not the Cuc which is what foreigners use.
May’s supplies and rations. priced in the local national currency, not the Cuc which is what foreigners use.

There is a long road ahead, and much remains to be seen as to how and where development will go with Cuba, if at all anywhere. I mean the next U.S. president may decide to reverse Obama’s words and then we go back to square one, but why? Cuba may be a socialist country, but since Raul took over Fidel’s post, the country has already gone through many changes, for the better. The people themselves are living in misery, they are however living in poverty, but for them that doesnt necessarily mean they are unhappy. Sure, this could all change once the doors fully open and materialism and capitalist consumerism shrouds the population, but like I said with the right mix things may not go that southward. Many active voices around Cuba know its a very challenging road ahead for Cuba but they remain hopeful that with the right policies, the right discussions and through people-to-people exchanges the right kind of change can occur in Cuba. But again, who knows. I left Cuba with the same kind of hope as I saw all the potential and opportunities Cuba has to offer, while at the same time I also saw all the potential for failure.

The Cathedral of Havana made entirely of Coral.
The Cathedral of Havana made entirely of Coral.
trying some 20 year rum.
trying some 20 year rum.
this lovely fellow played baseball with Hemingways sons in their neighborhood team!
this lovely fellow played baseball with Hemingways sons in their neighborhood team!
Hemingway's yacht, stored at his Havana residence
Hemingway’s yacht, stored at his Havana residence

I highly recommend anyone to go visit Cuba, especially in the next 2-3 years before things really start rolling. The changes are going to happen over night, but they are likely to be inevitable. There are many tours that run trips for American tourists, I do highly recommend NatGeo as it strikes a balance of keeping things local and authentic, while doing a few touristy things as well as bringing the Cuban story from the Cuban, American and global perspectives. NatGeo also keeps it very informative and educational.

Many articles and sources will say this is the best time to travel to Cuba, I couldnt agree more.

Some great articles: Travel + Leisure, Afar, New York Times on Havana Biennial

View of Havana and the Capitol from the rooftop pool of Hotel Parque Central.
View of Havana and the Capitol from the rooftop pool of Hotel Parque Central.

NOTES:

Like i said, dont expect much of the food, prepare some Pepto Bismol as well because you just never know when things will go awry.

Be flexible and open-minded. The local sayings are “Es Complicado [It’s complicated]” or “No Hay [dont have]” which means that changes and situation may arise at a moment’s notice and you are just going to have to roll with it or find an alternative that works in Cuba. Thing also run on Cuban-time, which means things can be a little lethargic, so be patient.

Cuba is by no means a destination for luxury travel, at least not yet. So be flexible in this regard.

Some tours only stay in Havana, if you can and if your schedule will allow, I highly recommend you to sign up for a trip that goes beyond Havana, to places such as Cienfuegos and the colonial UNESCO heritage site of Trinidad (so pretty and well-preserved).

This post doesnt even sum up the mountain load of information I got in Cuba and all the things I saw and experienced and learned in my 9 days. But it truly is an amazing and unique destination that is only beginning to realize its own potential and future.

Local men fish along the Malecon at sunrise.
Local men fish along the Malecon at sunrise.

Best,

Garythegastronomictraveler.

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