"How can you go to Cuba? You're American." I hear this over and over again from friends. From the Cuban Americans I meet in Miami, I hear worse: "Be careful - it's horrible, dangerous." Usually, it's because the Cuban Americans are afraid of being detained there; so afraid they've never gone, therefore I choose to ignore their advice. Besides, I've already got my license and Cuban visa, which was simple and easy and didn't even take very long.
I'm traveling with my girlfriend, who is Cuban American and has been to Havana already around a dozen times. We each travel with an enormous duffel bag filled with gifts for her Cuban relatives, and when I arrive at the Miami airport, I see everyone has at least one similar bag, which we all stop to have shrink-wrapped. Some passengers have many bags, some have wrapped up entire bicycles, Christmas trees, even a wooden chandelier. Besides our duffels, we bring only two small overnight bags, one packed with both our clothes, the other filled with canned and boxed food - things like Hershey's Kisses and Krispy Kremes that Cubans have never seen. I wonder at the necessity of this traveling picnic; I truly have no idea what I'm in for.
The airport in Cuba's Santa Clara, where we arrive just an hour after takeoff, is small and simple, crowded but not inefficient. At passport control the slender immigrations agent with the Frida Kahlo mustache is kind, though she asks me twice if I know anyone in Cuba. I get my first real glimpse of what to expect when I am told to stand in a special line because my bag has been tagged for food. The elderly man who inspects my duffel carefully saws off the shrink-wrap with his only tool, a tiny, anemic penknife. "Chocolate, cookies, candy?" These are the first things he sees on top. I nod, afraid to trust my lousy Spanish. He zips up the bag, nods, and sends me on my way.
Outside, the parking lot is a mix of cars from the 1930s all the way up to modern day--American Chevys sit cheek-by-jowl with small Russian box cars; most vehicles look like they've seen better days. I meet Kooki, my girlfriend's elderly Prima (cousin), who has hired a regular old car and an elderly driver for us. She gives me a big hug and a kiss, then proceeds to talk to me in Spanish as if I were fluent. "Mi Espanol es malo!" I stammer.
She shrugs and goes back to telling me things I have no way of translating, yet I like her warmth. She reminds me of the actress Olympia Dukakis, someone she has absolutely never heard of. Two hours later, after jouncing over country roads with barely a streetlight, past the occasional cat, bicycle, dog, or motorized cart, we arrive in the seaside town of Trinidad, a throwback to the days of Colonial Cuba.
We are staying at Hostal El Rintintin, and though we were expected at 7 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., they welcome us with open arms and usher us up two circular, narrow staircases to the rooftop, where a small kitchen begins to hop as three people cook our promised dinner. I gaze at the delightful covered terrace as the waitress bustles around laying the table, apologizing because they just put away the dishes, thinking we were not going to show. I am already charmed.
Glancing in the kitchen, I notice several bottles of Havana Club, my favorite rum (which I was introduced to in Bali as you cannot obtain it in the U.S.). I point, and Mariela, the host, stops working in the kitchen and comes out to pour us each a generous shot of the smooth white rum with just a touch of sweetness. My girlfriend and I toast to our adventure, which has already started. Cousin Kooki arrives and sits down to join us, pronouncing the rooms clean and comfortable.
An avocado and tomato salad is placed on the table, followed by delicious pan-fried chicken and a rice and black bean combo called Morro, one of the most typical Cuban dishes. I look across the night sky and notice the colonial tower of the tallest building in the main square, the dramatically lit rooftops of the adjacent building, and the Cheshire Cat moon hanging in the air amid the star-filled heavens. Tomorrow we will explore Trinidad on the eve of its five-hundredth birthday, but I can tell already: I love Cuba.
I obtained my visa and license through a Miami non-profit, Explore International [www.exploreinternational.org], which has been in operation for thirty years, sending people on mission trips.
According to Explore International director, Dr. Teo Babun, "the visa is not provided by the US - you can go with whatever license you get from OLFAC, (usually person-to-person or religious); then on the Cuba side, standard procedure is to issue a tourist visa." He further explained: "Cuban-Americans are allowed to travel under a general license and can go also anywhere a non-Cuban American can travel."
As of this week's announcement by President Obama about normalizing relations with Cuba, things may change, and rapidly. At the time of writing, all these details were accurate.