My adventure started with the uncertainty of how much devastation Hurricane Irma would cause. Endless hours of watching The Weather Channel, something I won’t do again except to check the updates, put my nerves on edge. My home in the Florida Panhandle missed the brunt of the destruction but the route I had to take to my cruise with my sister posed a problem. After canceling bookings in Key West and for my timeshares which sustained damage, I booked new rooms at a low post-hurricane price on South Beach and set out with all the emergency, gas and map apps known to man to meet my sister at the Miami airport. Unlike many Floridians, luck was on my side and I didn’t have any problems along the route. Although it was less than a week since the hurricane, Miami was open to tourists with a bustling beach and bar scene so we were able to spend 2 fun-filled days there. We could see the effects of Irma but there was electricity and the store shelves were well stocked.
Then it happened—on Sunday my phone started to fade and died. I had a fully charged laptop, tablet and back-up phone, courtesy of my wonderful son and daughter-in-law who always have the latest version of everything and give me their spares, but I didn’t realize that I could just put my old sim card in the back-up to make it work. I could kick myself for not researching that since you can find anything on the internet. The next day we used my back-up, previously printed Google Maps to get to the Port of Miami and I vowed to go old school for the way back home. I’d traveled farther with less information for years.
The long awaited cruise on the Norwegian Sky was heavenly. We were overfed and hydrated at the many dining options and bars and pampered by the ship’s personnel. The ship was a small city with all the necessities for a life of luxury from a casino to a library. There was Latin music playing almost everywhere to get us in the mood for our arrival in Cuba. It wasn’t difficult to find entertainment at any time of the day and into the night.
We departed for Cuba that evening and by morning we sailed into Havana Harbor. We would soon find out that our luxury cruise was a stark contrast to everyday life in Cuba. The tour director instructed us on how to go through customs, exchange money and find our bus. We were traveling on an Educational ‘People to People’ Visa with a group so it would be easier to account for all of our time, which is required. You could also get off the ship and walk around the city if you told immigration what you planned. I don’t know if there was any follow-up on that. We just chose the easier route that would give us more information and experiences. The price was low and the tour company made it quick and easy so by 10 a.m. we were off in our air conditioned bus to see the sites.
According to our Cuban guide, Cuba is a socialist country and the belief of U.S. citizens that they’re communists is propaganda spread by our government. Wikipedia says, “The Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries following the Marxist–Leninist ideology.” Other sources agree and when he told us of the opportunities affording to their residents it rang true. They have free medical and dental coverage and education including college. Taxes are low and often earnings are under-declared by farmers and business owners. It all sounded like a good system until you look around and see the aging infrastructure, the conditions of the apartments in Havana and the farmhouses in the countryside. Most of the time we saw only the outside of the homes, but it was evident that the living conditions were well below anything we have in the U.S. Outside of Havana houses along our tour route were roofed with palm fronds and appeared to have few conveniences that we consider essential. The Cuban people, like many of the citizens of tropical climates, spend much of their time outside with doors and windows left open for air circulation.
It’s not a surprise that their technology is behind ours when it comes to the internet, which is dial-up, and cell phone service. We arrived a week after they were hit by Hurricane Irma and were told their electricity was back on all over the island, but internet and cell service were still spotty. Of course, these services are expensive and with most people not able to afford cars, they probably aren’t top priorities. Information is also censored so it may not seem as vital to them to have these services.
We did see some classic 1950s American cars but they’d been rebuilt with foreign parts because of the Cuban embargo. There were other foreign cars on the roads. Our bus was built in China. Even on the outskirts of Havana, we saw horse carts used for personal transportation. The carts were sometimes filled with grass cut from the ditches which was used for feed for their livestock. Livestock was staked out along the highway to graze and taken from the farmers if they got free since they can wander into the roads causing accidents. In the city, buses were used for mass transit but in the country, we saw large trucks with benches in the back for passengers.
We were told that the Cuban people’s lives would be much improved if they had access to our products, especially prosthetics and other medical devices. Even rice, a staple of their diet, must be transported from China at great cost. These were some of the many examples given to us for reasons why we should try to influence our government into re-establishing trade. There have been many reasons why the U.S. has kept up the longest embargo in history which started in 1958 with an embargo against the sale of arms and later in 1960 due to the nationalized of American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. Over the years human rights and other issues also kept it in place.
Our guide told us that our tour may be one of the last before they close the American Embassy over accusations the illness that has affected 21 diplomats at the American Embassy, with symptoms including hearing loss and cognitive difficulties, may have been an attack. After my cruise on September 29th, the New York Times reported that the State Department was withdrawing all non-essential personnel from the embassy. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson repeated the American assertion that the embassy personnel was deliberately targeted. He didn’t blame Cuba and U.S. officials held out the possibility that a third party might’ve been responsible. “Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks, and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort,” Mr. Tillerson said. The State Department issued an advisory that Americans shouldn’t travel to Cuba because some of the attacks occurred in hotels where State Department employees were temporarily staying. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/us/politics/us-embassy-cuba-attacks.html
Back to the tour. After a ride through the countryside we arrived at a farm that grew tobacco for the famous Cuban cigar which is prized for its flavor and illegal to import into the U.S. You can, however, buy them for your personal use and bring them back to the U.S. Although this farmer was reported to be making a good living, there wasn’t indoor plumbing. They were in the process of installing a restroom that at the time of the tour needed to be flushed by getting a bucket of water from the cistern and pouring it in the tank. There was toilet tissue, but we’d been told to bring our own and future stops made us happy we did. The small store where they rolled and sold the cigars was well kept and decorated with traditional Cuban décor. As with most homes, the windows allowed the breeze to come through but it was still extremely hot. The tobacco drying barn was one large open building (see photos and video). It had a dirt floor and must have been used for decades. The farmer and his wife had cigars, brewed coffee and coffee beans for sale. I believe it was a true picture of a profitable business in Cuba.
The rest of the trip into the Viñales Valley showed us one of Cuba’s most spectacular physical landscapes with forested pincushion hills or mogotes that soared from the valley floor. It’s one of the country’s top tobacco-growing regions and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the traditional farming methods still used there and the importance of the region during Cuba’s Wars of Independence. https://insightcuba.com/blog/2013/12/16/live-from-cuba-unesco-world-heritage-sites
We made a stop at an open-air café and enjoyed a traditional meal while being serenaded by a Cuban band. We were first served Cuban rum with coke and then enjoyed a meal of mixed fruit, crisp bread, Cuban rice and beans, roast pork, taro root and for dessert Cuban-style flan and assorted drinks. I chose fresh mango juice which was made from only the juice of the fruit. A teenage cat joined us and begged for food. She ate more pork than I’d ever seen a cat consume in one sitting. We saw many dogs and cats who were even thinner than this one throughout our trip.
Our next stop was in a small town where we bargained with the merchants in an open-air market for souvenirs and saw the few local sites. Although I know that haggling is accepted, after seeing the living conditions I have to admit I later felt like I should’ve just paid full price even though I know there was a markup. The homeowners are allowed to rent parts of their homes and small rental units to locals and tourists through companies like Airbnb. The tourists have brought revenue and they’d like to have more American dollars to add to that of visitors from other countries.
After a short ride, we arrived at a small rum factory that produced Guayabita del Pinar. Guayabita means “little guava.” In the Pinar del Rio region of Cuba, there’s a particular tree whose berries are tiny guavas. The flavor from the guayabitas is infused into sugarcane liquor. In 1892 Guayabita del Pinar grew from a local homebrew to commercial production. Today it’s one of the more distinctive drinks in Cuba. The factory we toured was not state of the art. The bottles were filled by hand through a dispenser and then the tops were screwed on and the labels attached by several women sitting at a table. Again there was no AC. I know, I’m spoiled and couldn’t have worked under most of the conditions in Cuba without a great deal of discomfort but this was most likely a good job in this poor economy. The rest of the factory where they made the rum was not operating at the time of our visit. We mobbed the small store and while some learned about buying a quality cigar, I picked out a bottle of Cuban Club Rum, one of the rums produced at the factory and a large bag of coffee all for 20 Pesos a little more than $20. During the 2 hour ride back to Havana, our guide pointed out more sites and answered our many questions. Reentering and exchanging Pesos for U.S. Dollars was simple. Some of the people on the cruise enjoyed the nightlife at the clubs and some went ashore the next morning before we sailed.
We had a free day to explore the many entertainment options onboard or to rest up for our final day on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay. There were many options from which to choose on the island from parasailing to swimming with the dolphins. We chose snorkeling which was nice but didn’t compare to the Outer Great Barrier Reef but then what does. The Cay had a nice beach but was rocky offshore. The day was well organized with music, complimentary food and drinks. Be prepared for very little shade and wear sunscreen and a hat.
We were able to disembark in Miami at our leisure after breakfast our final day just so long it was before 9 a.m. No one seemed to have a problem going through customs with their Cuban goods.
I’m glad I got the opportunity to visit Cuba. With the future of tourism in doubt there, it may not be as easy for others. The Cuban people were welcoming and I felt comfortable during my visit. Cruising is easy and enjoyable. My advice is to enjoy the food and drink, but don’t overdo it. You can get too much of a good thing. We had free liquor and food at selected restaurants. I was so happy when I found the ones that weren’t buffets because no matter how hard I try I can’t control myself at one. It’s also nice not to have to worry about tips. I was lucky enough to get a free cruise through my timeshare company. I only paid for shore excursions, fees, gratuities and a larger window. If you don’t buy the water package, you’ll be paying more for the water in the minifridge unless you have a bottle you can refill. I’d compare it to staying in a 5-star hotel but with a tiny room. There are more luxurious accommodations to be had at a price.
This was an adventure that I’m happy I made. Cruising will be one of my travel options especially as it becomes more difficult to travel. Although I hope that’ll never happen, I’ll be ready so I can keep exploring the world on my own and with others. In November I’m off to Spain to teach English to Spaniards and for a tour of the country. I’ll need to keep studying Spanish because my skills are still dismal.
Continue the adventure!