There it was. Havana. I was about to step foot on the forbidden island. The hidden gem of the Caribbean. The island of controversy and music, art and cigars. The land of classic cars that's the dream of every car collector in the US. The day had come. I could finally travel legally to Cuba. Having been in the cruise industry for years, I had dreamed of docking in the port of Havana. Cruise after cruise, we would sail by the island on our way to the typical tourist ports of Jamaica or the Bahamas when the Captain would announce from the loud speaker "Now on the port side is the island of Cuba." Passengers would flock to the decks to see the only thing we were allowed to see. There on the horizon was the outline of a country caught in the past but begging to be recognized and loved by Americans.
People to People Cultural Exchange! President Obama set it into motion. US citizens were allowed to go to Cuba as long as we were engaged in meeting the Cuban people and learning of their culture. So, my husband and I jumped on the first cruise ship allowed to travel from Miami to Cuba. Fathom Adonia. We wanted to see as much as we could in the 7 days we had. Ship was the way to go. And Fathom had planned it right. In accordance with all of the regulations, Fathom had arranged tours for us that met all of the PTP requirements. We read all about it for weeks. We dreamed of what it would be like to walk the streets of Havana. We swore we would not be tourists. After all, we always travel like the locals. We eat on the streets of third world countries and talk to the natives in our broken attempts at their languages. Cuba would be no different.
But I have a confession. After the initial tears of realizing we were about to dock in Havana, I was like every tourist I was not supposed to be. As the Havanese were waiving to us from the dock, my camera was locked on the old Chevys whizzing by in bright pink and turquoise, as they cruised along the Malecon. I could hear the music emanating from the dock and all I thought about was dancing in the streets of Cuba. The first day excursion took us through art galleries and churches, memorials and grave sights. We saw the streets of Cuba, which by the way are the cleanest streets I have ever seen in a so called third world country. I was overwhelmed by Old Havana. It was beautiful. Finally the tour ended, we jumped back on the ship, cleaned up and were ready for our free time in Havana. Yep, we could go off on our own in this mystical city and explore.
Having made a reservation at a Paladar, a privately owned restaurant versus a Government owned restaurant, we headed back into Old Havana. The sun was setting and the mood was romantic. The Paladar was only 4 blocks from the ship. It was exquisite. When we arrived the gentleman at the front rang a bell to let them know we were coming. As we ascended the stairs, the most beautiful music was playing. My senses were on high alert! All I could dream of was real Cuban food and a real Mojito in the real Cuba. We were seated at a charming table near the wide open patio doors with wrought iron railings. I felt like I was in Tuscany or Paris. It was enchanting and exciting. The waiter took our order and the anticipation grew. Lobster in a pineapple brandy sauce called out to us. And of course the mojito. I was in Cuba. It was all I had dreamed it would be. Then it happened.
After the young waiter brought us our drinks, he stopped for a moment at our table. Then as gentle as a man can speak he asked us in his broken english, "Are you from US?" We said, "yes" not really thinking much about it. What happened next has changed me forever. He touched his heart and broke into the sweetest smile. Then he slowly said, "We are so glad you are here." I almost burst into tears. How had I missed, as I walked through their city, looking into the faces of the Cuban people? How did I become the tourist that searches for Cuban cigars and takes pictures of old cars? How had I not gazed into the eyes of the Cuban people? That moment changed me. I still cry when I think about it. Next, I scoured the room looking at everyone's faces. I noticed that all the waiters were looking at us with the coyest smiles. The Americans were here. I would gently catch their eyes and smile back. It is not like they have not seen Americans before. But for the first time they were seeing us with hope. And for the first time, I saw them. I saw the faces of the Cuban people. I then realized the opportunity we have all been given. Not to go there and change them. But to go there and see beyond cigars and cars and into their hearts. And maybe, just maybe, they would change us.