People think former President Barack Obama opened the American tourist doors to the Republic of Cuba. But that’s not entirely accurate. Obtaining a Cuba visa still requires some finagling. Since the 90s more than 25,000 Americans have visited under the auspices of Road Scholar’s People-To-People tours. I didn’t want to have to plan a thing, so I signed on. It was a 761-kilometer tour from Santiago de Cuba to Havana for 15 days in November 2016.
The first reality is that the “blockade” is a two-way restriction. The United States government restricts American tourists. But once allowed into the “Forbidden Island,” it’s Cuba providing the “payback.” Cuba will gladly take our US dollars – but at a 10- percent exchange rate penalty. And the Cuban visa restricts Americans from “having fun” and having “free time or recreation” inconsistent with “a full-time schedule.”
It was clear. I would not be scuba diving.
The agenda for our third day was a “full day field trip (55 miles) to Guantanamo, founded by the Catalan (Spanish) and French colonists who mingled with native people and slaves.”
Our rest stop at Café Arabica offered Cuban coffee, shaved Cuban chocolate and rest rooms – but the toilet water was not running. We 16 Americans exited our “motor coach,” armed with our Sani Wipes. A strategically placed map next to the bar pinpointed our location – a few kilometers from “Territorio ocupado ilegalmente por los E.U.A” – the Guantanamo Naval Base.
Back on the “guagua” bus –pronounced “wawa” – our Cuban guide Jose told us the Caribbean’s largest island had a population of eleven million, of which 12 per cent is black, and 66 per cent is white. Our first stop was for the Tumba Francesca (French drum). The ebony skin of the women in colorful cotillion dresses glistened. Indeed, most people we saw in the city of Guantanamo were not white.
Shepherded across the street, we explored the different musical instruments of Cuba at Casa del Changui. The one Chamoru in our group eagerly cha-cha-cha’ed, a dance that was invented in Cuba. As we were nearing lunchtime, most of us accepted the mojitos in glasses with the logo: Havana Club -- El Ron de Cuba. Two Vegans selected virgin drinks.
Next our group had lunch at a hotel, to the sounds of two tenors in The Golden Boys. They had trained in classical voice for six years at the University of Havana. Our meal included a choice of bottled water, red wine, Bucanero or Cristal beer, the latter created by Canada’s Labatt Brewery. We departed to the sounds of “Time To Stay Good-Bye.”
Sacred time came next – a.k.a free time—probably all of forty minutes – until our “wawa” ride to our third People-To-People interaction for the day. We all fanned out into Jose Marti Plaza, the heart of Guantanamo. I ducked into a chocolate shop, fascinated by the murals from Baracoa, depicting the process of producing my favorite food group. Eyeing Cubans partaking of this delicacy, I pointed at my desired purchase. But it wasn’t to be. Cuba still uses a system of two currencies, and my tourist CUCs –Cuban Convertible Pesos --would not be accepted. Our “Bank of Manuel” –our American tour guide --was not around, so I had no access to CUPs - the Cuban Peso. Sadly, I never did taste Cuban chocolate.
I nosed into a farmacia – since both of my sisters are pharmacists in my hometown in Connecticut. I found the shelves to be quite barren. Back in the plaza I gifted a Cuban with a US flag, and, as with the other 99 that I gave away, it brought great smiles. Next I visited the Etecsa telecommunications office where there were no lines. That’s because the lines are outdoors, not inside with the precious air conditioning. A “ticket of navigation” for one hour cost five CUCs, but the “Nauta” cards were also hawked on the streets for less. I had meant to locate the Writer’s Union on Calle Maximo Gomez, but I had forgotten to ask directions.
Cuban art was on the schedule as a finale. Artist Carlos Rafael welcomed us into his home-with-studio. After mojitos, we asked him questions. His medium is “anything that is available.” He loves Charlie Chaplin, whose likeness graced the home’s walls, along with a black coral sea fan, and acrylic paintings of classic American cars. They are referred to as “almondres” or almond-shaped. Carlos’ attractive wife hosts a local daily TV show.
Before we knew it, it was time to pile back into our “wawa,” and say “adios” to the place that is not a U.S. Naval Base.