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Travel Logs January 2017

Living History in Cuba

By Melanie Wiseman

Walking through Havana is like stepping back in time. There are old cars in a rainbow of colors everywhere, dating from 1927 to 1961. Seeing the sights from the back of a bright red 1958 Ford convertible was pure heaven.

Our plane landed in Cuba the day after Fidel Castro died. My husband Dan and I joined 16 other travelers from around the U.S. on the short, 45-minute flight from Miami. We left behind thousands of people celebrating in the streets of Little Havana and arrived in a country observing nine days of mourning. Our living history journey had begun.

Our guide, Yanet Baute Montero, welcomed us at eastern Cuba’s Camaguey Airport, assuring us that despite “the situation,” our experience would be filled with countless memorable interactions with the Cuban people. While we anticipated that living through this historic moment would be the highlight of our Cuban adventure, it actually took a backseat to our experiences with the Cuban people, who stole our hearts and opened our eyes.


It’s Complicated...Or Is It?

The U.S. Department of the Treasury still regulates travel to Cuba. One of the authorized ways for U.S. citizens to travel to the country is via “people-to-people cultural exchanges.” These tours open communication and generate positive relations between the two countries.

“Cuba is complicated,” said Montero. “I will answer any questions you have, but it will always come with a lengthy explanation.”

Throughout our travels, “It’s complicated” was a frequent joke among the group. Some things certainly were complicated, but the freedom we enjoyed there wasn’t. We were able to talk to Cubans at leisure and uncensored, and explore cities day or night on our own. Due to the U.S. embargo, I anticipated the Cuban people being apprehensive over visits by U.S. tourists. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. They were very welcoming and accommodating.


Feelings about Fidel

Castro’s passing offered us a unique opportunity to hear firsthand the varied views Cubans had of him. Montero compared him to a complicated father figure. “Fathers do good and bad things, but you still love them,” she said.

As one young man I spoke with said, many Cubans had never known anything but life under Castro’s rule. Like Montero, the people I spoke with had mixed emotions about the man.

“I hope that someday, sooner than later, I will be able to do what I want to do and not what someone tells me to do,” said a man named Sandoval, 53.

After 60-year-old Sibario watched the funeral procession carrying Castro’s ashes, he put his hand over his heart. “We watched glory pass by into eternity,” he said emotionally.

No one forgot Castro’s positive contributions. “He freed the Cuban people from the dictator Batista,” Montero said. “After the revolution, Fidel’s first priority was land redistribution, followed by education, health care and road development. He also gave huge support to music, dance and theatre.”


Exploring Cuba

In Camagüey, we navigated labyrinths of narrow streets via whimsically painted bicycle taxis. We visited with talented local artists displaying amazing works of bronze, leather, wood and ceramics. At the renowned, historic Conservatorio de Música José White, students performed for us on their chosen instruments.

We also learned about the rich Spanish and African heritage of the Cuban people. Country roads took us past miles of sugar cane before we were escorted to King Ranch by horsemen, who carried the U.S. and Cuban flags side by side.

The quaint town of Remedios was a group favorite. Centered around a large square park, we visited with a group of elderly men who congregated daily, referring to themselves as the “local philosophy club.”

Everywhere we looked there were children in crisp school uniforms, often holding the hand of a grandparent. Homes are generally multi-generational and traditions are passed down.Santa Clara, the liberation of which ended the Batista regime, was a hub of activity following Castro’s funeral procession.

In Caibarién, tobacco factory workers showed pride in their work—rolling cigars in Cuba is considered a highly skilled trade and art.

A personal highlight for me was visiting the Finca Luna family farm in Matanzas. I spoke at length with the owner’s son-in-law, Jorge, who taught himself English. He was thrilled to share the notebook he used to study.

Matanzas also led us to Palmar de Junco, built in 1874, the oldest baseball diamond in the western hemisphere. After a talk from a former professional player about Cubans’ love for the sport, our group took to the field to play some baseball ourselves.

The following day we spent hours on one of Cuba’s gorgeous beaches, swimming in the refreshing, turquoise ocean. When we finally arrived in Havana, the sound of music was in the air once again — the mourning period for Castro was over.

We enjoyed a breathtaking performance by the Malpaso Dance Company, several walks through Old Havana, Revolution Plaza, jazz and traditional Cuban bands, the lively Coro Vocal
Luna (the only all-female Cuban choir) and Club Melen, where we joined locals for spirited games of dominoes, their “second national sport.”

Walking through Havana is like stepping back in time. There are old cars in a rainbow of colors everywhere, dating from 1927 to 1961. Seeing the sights from the back of a bright red 1958 Ford convertible was pure heaven. We marveled at the locals’ ability to keep these cars running. “We are innovative people,” said one car owner with a smile. “When you don’t have access to all imports, you have to improvise. We may use parts from a broken TV or blender to fix our car.”

Cubans always greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and take pride in being a culture without racism. Wherever our journey took us, they were friendly and full of good humor. “If you have two Cubans, you have five opinions!” they joked.


What the Future Holds

Castro’s death is unlikely to change Cuban society in the immediate future. “‘Communism’ is not a word you will hear in Cuba today,” Montero said. “It’s ‘socialism’ and we are always learning how to do better. We know our model is not perfect.”

Cuban economist Jorge Egozcue said that change will be complicated, as Cubans have been used to a government that takes care of them for more than five decades.

With just 90 miles separating the U.S. from Cuba, we are definitely neighbors. The Cuban people are thrilled with President Obama’s outreach and simultaneously anxious to see how the new U.S. presidential administration will affect them. “In the end, we have more in common than you would think,” said Egozcue. “There is no rationale to be enemies. We are neighbors.”

We returned with a love for the Cuban people, and continue to pray that they have a chance to play a role in their own future.

Our journey came full circle as a taxi brought us home from the airport. The young cab driver asked where we had been, and I told her that we arrived in Cuba the day after Fidel Castro died. She paused and said, “Who was he?”

Well, it’s complicated.

Melanie Wiseman has called western Colorado home for more than 30 years and enjoys writing, photography, traveling and the outdoors.

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