Bienvenido a Cuba
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. Some people have illegal hookups but know they could face hefty fines if the authorities learn of these.
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 there 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… ♥
Cuba… one of the last bastions (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) of laid back people and simple ways. Good to learn you had an opportunity to see/experience a bit of it before American capitalism swarms in and swamps. Give it one year and the place will be plastered with advertisements and promotion for a plethora of U.S. products and services. Hemingway will be rolling in his grave.
By no means does this reader consider your visit/trip unpatriotic. Alternatively, you were/are privileged to have a glimpse of what will too soon be the past… a beautiful legacy and place. Thanks for sharing this glimmer.
Boy oh boy, Eric — you have such a unique/brilliant way of summarizing issues, while simultaneously making me feel so very fortunate to have you as a treasured reader! Thanks for always being here for me…
You write with such openness, joy and compassion Shauna. Thanks for giving us a peek into this hidden world. I’m glad they still have their old world charm. Maybe it won’t be transformed as quickly as Eric predicts.
“I’m just an ordinary girl — with extraordinary freedoms, privileges, and conveniences I need never question. Gratitude and humility flood my heart.”
This is what makes you awesome!! 🙂
I could say the same for your awesome writing, Dear Brad — except you win the “moving me to tears, time and again” category, hands down! 😉 Thank you for the big SMILE!!
That’s not necessarily a contest I want to win! XD
Enjoy sharing this journey with you. Thanks for taking the time to write it with such passion.
And I so appreciate you coming along with me and taking your precious time to leave a kind remark, Kimberly. Thank YOU!
Loved it, great post …
Thank you for the privilege of your gracious visit Mike!
Shauna .. Tears filled my eyes as I read your story. I thank you for dedicating your touching article to me .. I’m so humbled & honored by your kindness.
Thank you for visiting my beautiful country, with an open mind & open heart that you so beautifully have shared with so many of us.
You’ve given me the faith I needed, to believe one day, I actually will return to my home 💕
My Dear Sweet, Huge-Hearted Maria, YOU have been my inspiration in this entire journey, and I’ve carried you in my heart every step of the way. I can’t begin to imagine the anguish you’ve endured, but I know you’ll return and look forward to hearing ALL about it when you do! Thank you for your unbelievable graciousness…You have my deepest respect, hugs, and so much love! 💝
You’re one amazing woman … You’ve inspired me in countless ways. I’m honored to know you .. Thank you for the wonderful friend that you are !
LL, Thank you for this beautiful piece that evokes the color and, yes, VERVE of the people and places you just visited. Your own verve and grace shine through every word, creating a radiant tribute to your friend and your adventure. As always, I am so happy just to know you are out there in the world: you embody a sweeping sense of possibility, and LOVE. Thank you. xoxo
As always, you make me want to scale the highest mountain and break into a full Salsa dance in your honor!! Whatever I did to deserve an angel like you in my corner, I am ever-grateful. I am here solely because of YOU. Oh, AND because you let me borrow your brilliant words. Thank you for inspiring me again and again and making what we do here on wp so rewarding. You’re simply the best! 💞
Oh my gosh, Shauna…you have captured the very essence of our experiences in Cuba that we had the honor of sharing with you & Mark. Your recount of our adventure was beautiful and heartwarming…you are a brilliant writer…thank you for letting us re-live our special memory!!! With love & admiration, the Texans…Nancy & Hans xoxo
Dearest Treasured Travel Mates — the journey would NOT have been the same without your glorious souls! I said it before, I’ll say it again: What a magical, serendipitous connection we enjoyed. Thank YOU both for infusing this once-in-a-lifetime experience with so much laughter, good-spirited wit, and love. God Bless Texas!!! 😘
Truly wonderful and captivating storytelling!
Just seeing your name here is truly wonderful and captivating…Thank you for your consistent kindness. It means the world to me!!
Thank you for sharing your journey and letting us in… I haven’t been there in 15 yrs and I’m sure it has gotten worse since then…
Wow, how lucky you were to see it “back then.” The charm is absolutely present, but they definitely need a lot of TLC. I pray there is a balance between the vintage charm and whatever the future holds for the beautiful island…
Thanks, Shauna, for taking me on a trip to this country that still has its original flavor, for good and bad. I just hope the change that is inevitable will be balanced, preserving the best. I’m sure your friend will be able to travel to see her family and reconnect with her roots fairly soon.
I could not agree with you more, Tiny! There is so much goodness, I hate to visualize our strip malls taking over. Forget Starbucks and McDonald’s on every block!! As for my dear friend, we just need a couple of brothers to move onward — and then — she will return…
I also met a Cuban Maria in Houston, TX who would dream to visit her native land some day…
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excellent and impressive post – as usually… ❤
Comme toujours , je apprécie votre gentillesse, Mélanie!! Indeed there are so many waiting to return to their long-lost, beautiful island. They’ve endured such anguish…I pray it’s soon! 💞
Wonderful post. Like Eric said, I hope to visit before it becomes overwhelmed with US tourists and changes forever. So many from my birth isle have studied there (doctors, nurses) – it’s time I get cracking I suppose! Thanks for sharing your experience.
You are so welcome, Shery! Thanks for coming along on the journey. YES — by all means get cracking! 🙂 I’m so glad I was able to see it in its “original” condition, but it will be fun to watch it receive some much needed renovation, as long as its done tastefully and preserves the gorgeous character. I hope to read about your experience soon…
Hi Luggage Lady. I have never been but it is as though history stopped. But now the USA are I understand trading again. Maybe it will change not a place I would want to visit. Thank you so much for liking my poem People! Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.
What a great post! The photo is wonderful, and I’ve wondered about the People to People tours. My son really wants to go, and I hope we can manage to get there before too long. Thanks for sharing!