Busted Myths and Surprises

Despite my concerns about our trip to Cuba, Dad and I had a wonderful time and returned home safe and sound. Not a single night in a Cuban prison for us!

I was not alone in my uneasiness and confusion regarding what Americans could and could not do when visiting this island nation. We met other travelers on our ship who were equally bewildered about our Cuban visit. The suspicious gene in me believes that the confusion is intentional.

Since 1960, Americans could not travel to Cuba as tourists. Travel was limited to journalists, government officials, academics, and those with close family ties to the island. The severe restrictions began to change in 2011, and by 2016, direct flights between the United States and Cuba began to pop up as were cruises from American ports.

Last year, under our new Administration, more restrictions were imposed once again. We had to sign a travel affidavit stating why we were traveling there.  We jumped through a few small hoops to ensure we were compliant under the category “Educational Exchanges- group people-to-people through Norwegian or other organization.” We could not spend any money in any government-owned restaurant, store, hotel, etc.

Cuba held many surprises for us—the first was regarding automobiles. We had been under the impression that we would see nothing but cars built prior to 1959, but that was somewhat of a myth. While we did not see any new American cars, we observed modern German, French, Russian, and Korean cars. I felt like I was in an episode of Happy Days.

          

Havana is a beautiful, very clean city, reminiscent of Old San Juan with its cobblestone streets and old forts. We were surprised to see the existence of a Chinatown, although the population of Chinese in Cuba is now quite diminished from its high of 40,000 back in the 1800’s. When we visited a Catholic church, we were told that Cuba is home to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and several other religions—although the numbers practicing each religion is quite small. We learned that the population of Havana is currently 2.1 million. Wow!

Unlike other islands where we were approached by individuals wanting to braid our hair, the number of people trying to sell us anything was small by comparison. We saw a homeless man on the streets of Key West, but not in Cuba.

The harbor is surrounded by land on both sides, so in order to go from one side of the island to another, our hot-pink convertible traveled in a tunnel similar to the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and New York. Dad and I did not expect that.

We were told in advance that we would have no internet or cell service, yet our young guide carried quite the modern cell phone. So what I learned was that Cuba was not as third-world in appearance as I had been lead to believe.

The nighttime show at the Tropicana Club, where we were taken to in a very modern bus, was entertaining and very-well choreographed. The skimpy outfits reminded me of what may be seen in a Las Vegas show, although I am not sure if the hats we saw at the Tropicana would be seen in Vegas. Dad thought they could be purchased in the lighting department at Lowes or Home Depot since they resembled chandeliers.

We found its citizens to be extremely friendly and all seemed happy to have us visit. When our ship maneuvered into its dock, we were greeted with cheers. We felt quite welcomed, and I look forward to another visit one day.

Now that I have completed my Cuba review, I have satisfied one of the obligations by the United States government for a visit, which is to document each moment of our trip and save such documentation for a period of five years. So there you go, Uncle Sam!

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Do I Look Good in Orange?

When Dad decided to visit a few islands impacted by last year’s hurricanes, I did not realize it could become complicated. After all, we have been on numerous cruises throughout the Caribbean so it should be easy, we thought. But we never visited a Communist country.

We booked a cruise which will be visiting Key West and Cuba—each for no more than a day. Dad was particularly interested in seeing the old cars, which is one of the attractions for tourists visiting that island nation. Why are they all old, you may wonder, and the answer is because the Castro regime had banned the import of foreign cars since 1959.

Once the trip was booked, we learned we needed to purchase a visa to leave the ship in Cuba, and we cannot go to any beaches and are limited on strolling around the island on our own during the entire stay. During the Obama administration, I had learned that travels to Cuba had opened up slightly, but there are 12 categories of authorized travel permitted, such as journalistic or religious activities and research.

Under Obama, individuals could visit under the “people-to-people” category, which meant you had to interact in ways that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

Our new president has changed that, and it now appears that individual travel is now banned. We need to be with a group—hence cruise travel. We booked an excursion through the ship—a show at the Tropicana Club—which is allowed under Trump’s new Cuban travel rules. (Who knew watching scantily-clad women would be permitted?)

However, I have read that our little group of four people can do a tour with a private (non-government) agency, but I am still researching this rule before I book it. I keep thinking of Grandpa’s sister, who we all know ended up in that Russian jail after not following the rules.

All I want is to see the city of Havana, enjoy a nice Cuban lunch with a cold mojito, and check out the old cars. I am thinking it would be easier to visit one of the other Communist countries such as China or Vietnam.