A year ago I was in Cuba. I have been reminded of my visit by a picture a fellow traveler has just sent showing me readying to puff a Cuban cigar. One puff was enough for me, but I defied U.S. Customs officials and buried another in the depths of my suitcase to bring into the country for a cigar-loving friend.
I sampled my cigar on a tobacco farm where the group I was traveling with stopped. I learned there that there are 33 brands of cigars and 240 different cigar shapes; that the French and Spanish are the leading buyers of cigars and that in Cuba a cigar’s price range is $3 to $23 while in Spain, an average quality cigar will cost $25.
En route to the farm from Havana, I learned that the country’s car shortage means hitchhikers are everywhere. They stand with their luggage on the roadsides and especially near bridges and the entrances to towns or villages. There, truck drivers tend to slow down and it is easier for the hitchhikers to attract their attention For one or two Cuban pesos the hitchhikers can usually cadge rides to their destinations. Out of necessity, there is a lot of make-do in Cuba.
Although restrictions on U.S. travelers going there are lessening to some degree and the Obama administration has increased the amount of money that Cubans in the United States can send to relatives in Cuba, life there remains a hardscrabble one. Even now that the legalization of small businesses and the sale of houses are being allowed under President Raul Castro, life is hardly easy for Cubans. Few have the money to buy a house or establish a business. The 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo that prohibits business dealings between someone in the United States and someone in Cuba remains in place. Even a Cuban-American who wants to send a car part to his blood brother in Cuba who needs it is forbidden by the U.S. government to do so; violators must pay an enormous fine. Tourism, however — particularly from Europe — is bringing in money. But for the average American, getting there, even though Cuba is only 90 minutes away from Miami, isn’t easy.
Organized groups of artists, photographers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and now tourists on costly people-to-people programs, have relatively little difficulty. They often fly to Havana directly from Florida. But for other Americans seeking to visit, at least when I was planning to go, it was quite different. I could not fly directly from the United States, so chose to leave from Canada.
A Canadian travel agent gave me a document called a religious license. This allowed me to enter Cuba, even though I was an American. Issued by the Obama administration, the document had more liberal conditions for visiting than those of earlier administrations.
To get there, I flew to Toronto where Toby and Nancy Condliffe of Vineyard Haven and Toronto put me up for a night. When I came back into Boston from Toronto on my return trip, I wasn’t asked about my smuggled cigar but was asked at customs to present my license. The customs official was pleasant. He simply said he had never seen such licenses and wondered what one looked like. He took mine to a superior to examine further. A fellow traveler who flew home to New York was taken aside and interrogated when she said she had been to Cuba.
My visit was eight days long and my companions included a doctor from Florida, two anesthesiologists from the Midwest, a teacher from Boston and one from New York, a builder and the owner of a software corporation from the Midwest. The doctor had been able to fly directly from Florida.
We were met on arrival in Havana by a tour guide who took us to our hotel (where the elevator man whispered as he took me to my room that he needed toothpaste for his three-year-old son. Could I give him some?). We were told at dinner that night that, as foreigners we would be using CUCs (convertible pesos) while Cubans used CUs. U.S. dollars could not be used. We soon learned that the CUC was considerably more valuable than the CU and could be spent in stores where CUs could not. On our first day in Havana, a tearful young mother approached a Spanish-speaking member of our group and asked her if, with her CUCs, she would buy milk in a special store for her sick baby. They would not accept her CUs, she said. Our hotel was not far from the seaside drive called the Malecon. Day and night, young and old perch on its wall above the sea. Fishermen fish. Young lovers kiss. The elderly look longingly out at the green sea they cannot cross. Once-handsome houses look down on the Malecon and today, thanks largely to Spanish investment, some of their exteriors are being restored to make Havana look inviting to visitors. Sadly, the interiors are rarely restored. And beautiful as it is, the Malecon and the houses along it are easily flooded in hurricanes; you can see holes in the street where pavement has been washed away. On the first day of our visit, we were taken to a social service agency that helps Havana families look after their children and keep them off the streets after school. They sang, danced and played musical instruments for us and showed off artwork they had done. Then we visited one of Cuba’s 21 medical schools, renowned for the number of students from South America to whom they provide free education. In exchange for offering this medical training, Cuba receives some of the products it desperately needs — including oil from Venezuela — from the home countries of the students. We were taken to a dancing school to learn the salsa and the rumba. The class was on the rooftop of a dilapidated apartment building. On the way up, we could see holes in the floors of downstairs apartments. We were told by one of the teachers, who was black, that in pre-Castro days she would never have been allowed to live in a heart-of-Havana apartment.
We strolled on Obispo, Old Havana’s pedestrian street and main thoroughfare, lined with once grand, now dilapidated 18th and 19th-century mansions. On the cobblestone Plaza de la Cathedral, there were baroque mansions to admire. All tourists visit the Bodeguita del Medio Restaurant a half-block away from the 18th-century Jesuit cathedral. It was in this restaurant that Cuba’s — and Ernest Hemingway’s — favorite drink, the mojito of rum, soda water, sugar and mint was created.
Within the city, we traveled variously by taxis of ancient vintage (all automobiles in Havana are of pre-John F. Kennedy days) or in egg-shaped two-passenger contraptions that were cheaper than taxis. Visiting restaurants and bars and Cuban music venues and art galleries, we sometimes encountered mournful Cubans who longed to be able to go outside their country (now, I understand that is possible for them), but more often the people we talked to were cheerful. Children kicked balls in the streets. Music and musicians were everywhere.
In an effort to restore Old Havana, the government is training a carefully-selected group of 17 to 25-year-olds to learn carpentry, house painting, plumbing, plastering and electrical installation, and we were taken to watch them at their work. We visited an in-city organic farm where some 350 tons of produce are grown annually. In our brief visits outside the capital we learned how fertile the land has always been, but also how much farmland was destroyed by Soviet fertilizer provided by the USSR during its years of close association with Cuba.
And of course there was a visit to the house that Hemingway bought outside Havana in 1940 with $100,000 he received from Paramount Pictures for his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Along with some 9,000 books and magazines that the house contains, trophy heads and elk and pronghorn antelope antlers from animals the writer shot decorate the walls. In an out-building is Hemingway’s 38-foot cabin cruiser, the Pilar.
All but one night of our stay was in Havana itself. That night was spent in a country hotel where, on our arrival, we were told there would be no hot water until after 6 p.m. We stayed there that night, but rebelled the next day and demanded to be returned to the city since all hotels are government-owned whether in the city or the country.
My visit to Cuba was a learning experience (including my puff at the cigar.) Sadly, I did not see a beach resort, though two members of our party did, spending only a little more than $100 for two, including meals, for an overnight stay. But there is always a next time, and perhaps the next time if the U.S. embargo is finally lifted and building materials, tools and paints can be sent those 90 miles over the Straits of Florida, I will be seeing a restored Havana.