Lifelong memories of Cuba
Cuba was a place I was fascinated by, but equally hesitant at the same time. If I had taken notice of the strange looks and comments I got from people when I mentioned we were going, I wouldn’t have gone.
That’s the great thing about travel. We all get to go where our comfort and risk levels allow us to wander. For some, that means they will never leave the shores of their own fair country.
For others, it will mean traversing the world looking for adrenalin-inducing adventures, which only seem to intensify their need to find the next most terrifying opportunity.
Some go as activists for their own important cause, whilst others simply go to be involved in and learn from the local culture as it is seen through their own different sets of eyes. It’s heart warming to know that there is no right or wrong.
Is it safe?
Of course it is. Cuba is one of those countries that developed a reputation of mystique and sometimes horror, producing images of constant political upheaval, security concerns and human rights issues. And then there’s just the difficulty in getting there. So close to the US you feel like you could touch it, yet so far away.
The blessing that will come with a reduction of restrictions on entry will be the time taken to enter and exit the country. Leaving Cuba for the US took us all day. Jose Marti International Airport is small, crowded and the Cubans could never be accused of being on anything but island time, so allow yourself enough time to be processed through here.
We were required to pay departure tax in cash at the airport, prior to clearing through security but as of May 1 2015, this should now be included in the price of your ticket. Just check to make sure this is so.
A number of chartered “white label” aircraft, with only a small US flag visible near the tail, arrive and depart from this airport carrying specially approved Cubans and US citizens to and fro. For the rest of us, we need to fly via such places as Mexico, Guatemala City, Canada and the Bahamas. We chose to go via Nassau in the Bahamas, as it seemed like the most direct way to proceed. (tongue firmly in cheek here!)
It looked glorious as we flew overhead but we had no time in our itinerary to stay. We had to disembark at Nassau, which acts as a giant clearing house for US Customs and Immigration. At least the time spent here being pre-cleared before entry into the US allowed us to pass painlessly through Miami airport at the other end.
I am so pleased that we went to Cuba, and to be honest, whilst we didn’t seek to get involved in any way with the political situation, you can see and feel the impact of the socialist rule and it’s ongoing issues with the US and therefore the rest of the world all around you.
We went to get involved with the locals, to eat with them, talk with them and learn from them. I know they appreciated, however small, the gift of soap to assist with their families. The coloured pencils and felt pens that we gave to our host Senor Calderon for his young boy to use was a small thing for us to be able to do, but nonetheless duly appreciated in an environment where such basic schooling tools are hard to come by.
And most of all, we got to experience Cuba before it becomes “cool”. We got to see it in amongst the unclean back streets of the ‘hoods where locals set up stalls in the front of where they live, selling everything from plumbing pipe, to wash tubs, to gadgets that keep the flies off your food.
We got to see the former glory of magnificent buildings that in their hey day would rival some of the most glorious we’ve seen in Europe. We got to see the crumbling, broken ruins where families live, bringing up their children without any of the modern assistance many people enjoy.
And whilst the food of Cuba might not be high on my list of award winning international cuisine, the food we ate was provided to us with such love that you can’t begin to understand the appreciation we had for those who had prepared it for us. We had achieved what we set out to do. We had seen the real Cuba, for a short time, from inside their world and out.
You should come too
My wish for the Cubans of tomorrow is that they get to retain what is important to them now, and that they aren’t flung aside when development comes their way, but they open their minds, even just a little, to embrace the positive opportunities that might enter their world. Someday, we may return, but I know that it won’t be the same.
So, what do you think? Are you ready to take the plunge?