We arrived in Cuba on Thursday, March 8 at 10:30 am or so. Customs was a unique experience. It was indicative of Cuban life in general. We had to pass through a slow, bureaucratic customs check where we showed our passports in a little air-lock like room before passing through the magic door to our luggage. When we passed through the door to enter the luggage area, we were greeted by a woman with a metal detecting wand, in a severe military-like khaki uniform. But this is Cuba. In Cuba the TSA inspector wore a short skirt that ended above her knees and her exposed legs were adorned with a sexy pair of black fish net stockings.
Since many of the people on our flight were expatriate Cubans visiting family, they had packed multiple huge suitcases for each traveler. I knew we would have a problem when we were checking in at the Miami airport and the agents asked our personal weight before boarding the plane. It was obvious that the plane crew was concerned about exceeding the maximum gross weight of the airplane. My guess was confirmed when we learned, while waiting for our bags, that half our baggage was left in Miami for the next flight to Cuba. So we waited for two hours for the next plane to arrive.
While waiting I tripped and fell on the hard concrete floor. Before my big butt hit the ground a baggage handler was by my side and within literally a few seconds thereafter, a medical person with a stethoscope was next to me asking if I was okay. Contrast that to the kind of attention you would get if you fell in a U.S. airport.
Since I was a little shaken up, I sought an empty seat on a bench next to the wall. When I went to sit down a woman said “Occupado” meaning occupied. But another said to sit. I was soon surrounded by a buzzing Cuban family – grandmother, mother, father and kids. After only a few minutes they adopted me. I was offered Cuban coffee, asked about my family in America, and in general engaged in conversation as if I were an old friend.
We finally got our missing bags and got on a modern bus to go to our hotel, which is as modern and luxurious as a European 3-Star establishment. Cubans call tourism the industry without a smokestack. And they are serious about giving good service.
Cubans are gracious, friendly and jovial people. They like us “NorteAmericanos” and they are not afraid to say so, and they all express regret at the estrangement between our two governments. I have now eaten dinner in five different restaurants and each is better than the last. Some were Hemingway haunts like the Floridita Bar, and some old American-era elegant hotels like the famous Hotel Nacional. The food has been wonderful, the fresh fruit fantastic and the Mojitos to die for.
There is no question that this is a totalitarian state. But, it seems to be a totalitarian state that cares for people. Even in the poorest sections in the village of Santa Clara, which is three hours outside Havana, there is poverty but no apparent starvation. Medical care is accessible and free. Food is rationed but staples are available. Some things we take for granted like shampoo and conditioner, Tampax and ibuprofen are luxuries. Newspapers seem non –existent and though we can see CNN in our hotels, common people cannot see it in their homes.
One example should characterize what we take for granted but the Cubans cherish. On Saturday I saw a beautiful young woman whose hair was dry and brittle looking. You could see the pores on her face were clogged because she had no available facial scrub. I gave her a bag of travel-size shampoo, conditioner and facial scrub I had brought to Cuba. When I saw her three days later her hair was shiny and well groomed, and her complexion was clear. It is a small thing, but sometimes small things enhance one’s life.
Wherever we go, we see change. Old colonial-era buildings are being restored. A ramshackle building that is literally crumbling is often next door to a beautiful restored villa. Streets are well-paved. People have decent clothing and capitalism is creeping in. Gardens where vegetables are grown for the market are permitted. In a couple of years, when the restoration of the areas tourists see is complete, this will be a city that is a work of art.
Everywhere we went we would encounter street musicians or little bands in bars playing first-class Cuban music. Last night I was sitting in the Plaza de Los Conquistadores, drinking locally-made beer with lemon and listening to a terrific group of three male singers with a guitarist as accomplished as any on America’s Got Talent. Today we went to a baseball game where we saw the Industriales (comparable in Cuba to our Yankees) defeat Santa Clara 3-1 after seven tied innings.
But we are here on a religious mission. There are 1,200-1,500 Jewish families in Cuba. Some families came here when grandparents fled the Turks around 1900. Some fled Hitler in the 1930s and a few families were here during the occupation by Spain. We spent most of Saturday in Synagogue and brought warm wishes to the people from the U.S. We visited cemeteries Sunday to pay our respects and visited a family our group has adopted. They have a little girl with a degenerative neuro-muscular disease and our group leaders visit them twice or three-times a year to bring them equipment and supplies to keep their daughter alive. The family is not Jewish but our efforts are not limited by religious affiliation but by need.
We also have six duffel bags of baseball equipment for a summer camp for boys. We have a huge LL Bean duffel bag full of children’s Tylenol, skin creams, feminine hygiene supplies, and other personal items. We have six or seven bags with diabetes test strips and meters and information about diet for diabetics. All this goes to various groups within the Jewish community. Today we gave a diabetes workshop to inform people how they can follow a diet that is better for diabetics than the traditional cuban diet.
My overall impression is that the Cuban people I meet in the street, and I make an extra effort to do so, admire and love the U.S. They feel our government is hurting them with the embargo and the Cuban government reinforces that sentiment, calling our embargo inhumanitarian and a holocaust. What I learned is that the only tourism the embargo has minimized is tourism from the U.S. Canadians, Dutch, Dominicans, French, German and people from other South and Central American countries are here. Our embargo has not forced a change in government and it has not starved the Cuban people. What it has done is to limit the import of healthy whole grain foods and vegetables, which would minimize the spread of diabetes.
I expect Cuba will once again become a major destination location. The weather is too good and the people too gracious for it not to happen. The day will come when Cuba will compete with Miami and the Jamaicas for tourism. When that day comes, the students and we adults who made the trip in 2012, will be able to say “I knew Cuban when…” Until that day, I am enjoying my trip to Cuba, a vacation spot where everyone but Norteamericanos (U.S. citizens) are encouraged to visit.