Cuba on my mind

This December I got itchy feet. I’d been to Spain and Morocco in late September and October, but the fall felt flat. I wanted another adventure, so I looked into flights. Somehow I found a ticket to Havana three weeks before departure for 27,500 miles there and $215 for my return. Booked!

Cuba wasn’t originally on my #50for50 list. I’d wanted to visit for a long time, but the educational trips open to Americans that were run by tour companies felt too constricted to me. When Obama lifted restrictions in 2016 to let Americans travel solo to the island, other places were higher on my travel list. But now the-new-president-who-shall-not-be-named had started messing with Americans’ rights to travel to Cuba again, so I decided it was time to go before any new restrictions were put in place.

I didn’t want to get arrested coming back into the US so I did some research. As expected, I learned that many Americans travel solo to Cuba and have no problems. They just plan “support-for-the-Cuban-people” itineraries that include lots of local interactions and educational opportunities to visit legally. I needed to get a travel certificate, but that was easy. And I needed to avoid government-owned lodging, but I planned on staying in guesthouses anyway. The trickiest bit was learning that I wouldn’t be able to use my US debit or credit cards in Cuba, so it meant paying for everything in cash or paying in advance. I exchanged a considerable number of dollars to EUROs to bring with me and headed to AirBnB to pre-pay for casa particulares—simple rooms in people’s homes.

Next up was deciding where to go and how to get around. My friends Cathy and Gary had visited, but only stayed in Havana. Other Montanan friends had traveled the entire island as a family, but they went on a private trip they organized with a hired guide and driver. Since I was traveling solo, that would double or triple my costs so I decided to just go and figure out transportation once I was there. I had heard I could hire taxis for $100 between cities, and I figured I could find other travelers to split the cost with me—if not, I’d just suck it up and pay.

It was funny to feel a little scared flying into Cuba when this would be my 62nd country. I knew from talking with friends that there would be no problems entering and exiting, but years of antagonistic US-Cuba relations had gotten into my psyche. Could I really travel there alone with no issues at all?

Yep. Arriving and departing couldn’t have been easier, and it was a breeze to travel around. I just let my guesthouse host know where I wanted to go and he or she set me up with a shared taxi—that collectivo driver then found other passengers so the cost was $25-40 depending on how far I was going. I even went from Viñales to Trinidad for $40—a usually 7-8 hour drive that our speed-racer drivers pulled off in six hours driving their 80s Peugeots 120 kph (halfway there, near Havana, we pulled over to change cars so each driver could return to their home base).

So did I fall in love with Cuba? Sadly, no. I did enjoy myself, and I think others should go to experience it and more importantly support the local economy. But for me, it didn’t come close to my top 10 or even top 20 destinations. Havana felt like a faded portrait of a great beauty, and every local I met was struggling. I would treat myself to a delicious, decadent dinner for $30, but it was hard to feel good about it after learning that most working Cubans earn a $26 government salary a month. $26 a month. Yes, they receive free health care, free education, and monthly food rations, but the rations last about two weeks so the $26 needs to cover another two weeks of food plus soap, clothes, and anything else needed. That was mind-boggling and heart-wrenching to me, as you could see there was a solid infrastructure in the country.

I met engineers working at waiters because they can make four or five times more thanks to higher private salaries and tips. Owners of prized private cars also make much more, as can homeowners who rent out rooms. But I was told they need to be careful to not be too successful or they could lose their licenses. I was even told how someone could own a cow but they didn’t have the right to sell its milk for more than a set amount at a set price at a set store, and they didn’t have the right to kill and eat it. So much for “private” property. I know there are many other countries with much worse poverty—and that was exactly what was bothering me: These people don’t need to be poor. They’re being kept poor to prevent social inequalities. (And yes, I know, I’m not an expert on Cuba, the economy, or the impact of the US embargo, but this is what I came to believe based on what I heard from a small set of locals. Skewer me if you will.)

What I did love about Cuba was the people I met. They were kind, interested in the greater world, and eager to talk and connect. I also loved the explosions of color, rhythmic beats of music, and flashes of beauty on nearly every block. Cuba’s history fascinated me with all its twists and turns, and I gained a deep respect for Cubans’ ability to get by with whatever they can cobble together. My Spanish also got a workout. I was so thankful to know some of this language to converse more meaningfully with the people I met along the way. Cuba is still a place I encourage you to visit. Spend your money, support locals as much as possible, and appreciate a country that has experienced hardship but perseveres with a knowing nod and a smile.