Proximity has zero bearing. Less than an hour flight from Miami catapults us backward 50-plus years. On the exterior of the tiny Cienfuegos Airport, a bright blue BIENVENIDO sign beckons.
I possess a Visa solely as part of an approved People to People Program. Daily exchanges to include: mingling with artists, vocalists, musicians (including members from the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club!!), dancers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, spiritual leaders, historians, teachers, and students.
Being here as a U.S. citizen leaves me both awed by opportunity — yet pondering whether my coming is somehow…unpatriotic.
From a bureaucratic standpoint, our welcome is somewhat subdued. Neither U.S. bank-issued credit nor ATM cards are accepted. We knew this before we came. Cash in hand, we pay a 10% commission to change dollars into CUCs at a rate of 1/1. This is not a bargain shopper’s destination. Cellular service doesn’t exist for those with U.S. carriers, and internet is only available in some 5-star Havana hotels at speeds slower than our modem days.
Our Cuban guide shares that, up until a few years ago, a local would be sentenced up to four years in prison if caught using internet in his or her home. He laughs, referring to our online shopping as folklore. “Cubans can’t imagine paying for something on a screen and having it actually show up on our doorsteps. Forget about returning it and getting a refund!” Satellite TV is also forbidden, but he flashes a sly smile, telling us he’s rigged an illegal hookup so he can watch CNN. “It helps me relate to my American clientele better and worth the risk.”
No one in our 22-person group minds. We didn’t come to Cuba to bury our noses in gadgets. We came to experience the contagious verve of the people…
We step onto crumbling cobblestone roads and into another century. Surprisingly well-preserved American made (and Russian overhauled) vintage cars roar all about. Vibrant colors and zippy music tantalize our senses. Even standing in place, the locals sway to a beat I’m convinced is part of their DNA.
From Cienfuegos to Havana, with stops in Trinidad and stunning beaches along the way, I admire close-knit families, communities, and a refreshing enthusiasm from school children to the elderly. The hope sparkling in their eyes touches my soul in a way I struggle to adequately articulate.
I’m just an ordinary girl — with extraordinary freedoms, privileges, and conveniences I need never question. Gratitude and humility flood my heart.
As we make our way to Havana’s airport the last day, our gregarious guide describes the tedious departure process, adding that clients ask him what the airport is like on the other side of immigration. Are their shops? Restaurants? He shrugs. “Well, maybe one of you will be kind enough to send an email when you get home and tell me because I’ve never been…”
🌎 ♥ 🌎
♥ I dedicate this post to my dear friend & colleague, Maria, who left her beautiful island in the second grade and dreams of returning one day soon… ♥