A Week in Cuba
If I heard the question once, I heard it a zillion times. You’re going where?
It was as if everyone I talked to had gone deaf as I explained that I was headed out of the country for spring break on assignment for the magazine. I was tagging along on a trip that’s unique in the Alumni Association’s extensive offerings of travel opportunities: Cuba.
No one could quite believe it. I understood why. I’ve set a goal of traveling to all 50 states and seven continents (11 states, two continents to go), and I’ve got an extensive list of countries I want to visit. But it had never occurred to me to add Cuba to the list. It didn’t seem possible.
It’s really hard for an American to go to Cuba. The United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power, and it imposed an economic embargo on the country in 1962—more than 50 years ago. Plus, the U.S. government restricts travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and the country is on the state sponsors of terrorism list. (Click here for a good primer on U.S.-Cuba relations from the Council on Foreign Relations.) If you go, you’re not a tourist on vacation—you are officially, by the terms of a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a traveler participating in a people-to-people educational exchange. Those licenses aren’t easy to get, but the Alumni Association did it.
And believe me, the terms of the license matter. Our week in Cuba was wonderful—a life-changing experience, in some ways—but it certainly wasn’t a traditional vacation.
The 28 of us on the tour, including faculty host John Nichols, professor emeritus of communications, were on the move at 8 a.m. every day. We visited a senior home, a maternity home, an elementary school, a dance school, a synagogue. We listened to lectures. (And, in John’s case, gave them.) We didn’t see any beaches (although we did pose for a group picture at the Bay of Pigs after exploring the nearby museum about the failed CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles). And we couldn’t shop for souvenirs: The U.S. government restricts how citizens can spend their money, so we could bring home only items classified as educational materials: newspapers and books, music, and art. (Not, as I explained to everyone from my brother to the pastor of my church, cigars. My pastor was joking. I think.)
Now that I’m back, I repeatedly hear another question: What was it like?
It’s a simple question, but even after two weeks of reflection, I don’t have a ready answer.
Cuba was beautiful—blue skies, brightly colored buildings, fantastic old cars, music I’m still hearing in my head. (And in my office. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to an album that was one of my favorites even before the trip, Ibrahim Ferrar’s Buenos Hermanos, and a new favorite I brought home, Guajiro Natural by the late Polo Montañez.) It was photogenic, as you can see from the slide show at the end of this post.
Cuba was sad—people living in houses that were literally crumbling, and doctors and university professors working in the tourist business because they couldn’t make enough money in their original professions.
Cuba was friendly—full of passers-by wanting to try out their English (often, incredibly good; always, far better than my meager Spanish). I’ve never felt safer in a big city than I did in Havana.
Cuba was confusing—a system of two currencies, one (practically worthless) for Cubans, the other for foreigners. And it’s just hard to grasp that except for a handful of private restaurants, everything is owned by the government. We kept asking, “Who owns this restaurant?” or “Who pays for your college education?” and the Cubans kept looking at us as if we were crazy and saying, “The state.”
Most surprising of all, Cuba was familiar. I lived in Miami for about a year, and parts of the country, particularly sections of Havana, looked like my old neighborhood. Havana Vieja, the old city, which has been revitalized, had packs of tourists (from other countries, of course), and streets lined with buses—just as in any other major city. Who knew?
And Cuba was invigorating—already, I want to go back. I just need to learn some more Spanish.
As I’m sure you can tell, I’m still processing my notes and my thoughts. (Also: nearly 3,000 photos.) I’m writing a story for our July/August issue, and I’ve got a few more interviews to do. Our local guide told us on Day One that we were coming to Cuba to get answers, but that we would leave with more questions. Wow, was he right about that.
Lori Shontz, senior editor