Almost 25 years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting a Cuban-American NASA pilot and marrying into his large, wonderful Cuban-American family. Over the years, we have raised three fine Cuban-American young men who could never quite grasp their heritage. A visit to their dad's roots was not an option until only a few years ago when the U.S. State Department approved educational tours -- or as I like to call them -- propaganda tours. In addition, the costs associated with such a trip, and family schedules, also got in the way time and time again.
Recently, the planets aligned for Spring Break 2015, and we decided the time was ripe to beat McDonald's and Starbucks to the Justiz family homeland. After much research, a family trip was booked. Less than three weeks later, President Obama announced the easing of some Cuban travel restrictions and the floodgates opened.
With six family members, a credit card problem (not the fault of the tour company), two family members with the same name (think about that before you name your kid) and the sheer number of Americans who decided they needed to be in Cuba NOW, there were bumps in the road. Our tour company was immediately proactive every step of the way. We were on our way to Cuba.
Here are some observations and experiences from our weekend in Havana:
• If you want to travel to Cuba, keep in mind things will never work as expected from beginning to end. Memorize the phrase: A lo Cubano. Loosely translated to "Oh well, stuff happens." Your patience will go a long way towards making this a good trip.
• The check-in process at Miami International takes about four hours. We were about the only people not taking a 50-inch TV back to Cuba. Once on board the charter, three of my children had tickets in row 34 on a plane with only 33 rows. This mom had no "a lo Cubano" for that, and may have frightened a flight attendant or two. Seats were found.
• Luggage for all but two people in our tour group of 24 came on another plane, almost three hours later. Those 50-inch TVs apparently took up all the cargo space on our flight. Cuban customs officials all look like super models, with the women in tight, form-fitting miniskirt uniforms with epaulets and fishnet stockings. You can't make this stuff up.
• The first thing you notice when you finally escape the airport are the cars. The cars you have seen in pictures. The cars you wanted to see -- but it turns out to be a very surreal moment standing in the Cuban sun actually next to one. It looked like a movie set to me. Many of the cars, specifically the taxis, are in excellent condition with fabulous paint jobs. The average Cuban makes about $20 a month. Is it the Cuban government subsidizing this look, or capitalism at its best? We vote capitalism.
• There are no boats. Or jet skis or paddle boards, or anyone in the beautiful blue water. No one. Most don't notice that until you point it out. Cubans can't have boats -- they could escape. So, best not to have any water sports for the tourists as well, in case they decide to become helpful. I tweeted this and lost my Wi-Fi signal for eight hours. (Coincidence?) I then asked our guest lecturer (remember, this is an "education" tour) about the boats and was told "Cubans don't want boats." As we packed to leave Sunday morning, four boats went back and forth in front of our hotel with a clear view from our room. (Coincidence?) (Lack of boats, then boats images here.)
• Yes, the entire family had hi-speed Wi-Fi in the hotel.
• While you are eating a fabulous breakfast buffet with huge amounts of food including a large bottomless bowl of delicious grilled potatoes, residents told us Cuban families stands in line for one 10-lb. bag of potatoes ONCE A YEAR. They are also rationed seven eggs a month, and one pound of chicken a month. Enjoy that buffet.
• The iconic "Che hat" is for sale everywhere with tourists picking them up by the hundreds and posing for pictures. You can even buy one overlooking the fort where Ernesto "Che" Guevara executed hundreds, if not thousands, of people even remotely associated with the Batista regime. Do me a favor. Don't buy the hat. (You'll see our tour guide and me in the image link below posed in front of a large Che image with bottles of the Texas Shiner Beer we legally imported in our luggage. Our way of saying, "Ha Che, you lose!")
• Our intrepid guest lecturer from above went on to talk about "land reform." I raised my hand to ask, "Is that when the government confiscated the homes of my husband's grandparents." I was told to sit down; I had had my "boat question." (Probably not a good idea to take me to a communist or socialist country.) Watch Wonder Husband see his maternal grandfather's home for the first time in 55 years:
• There is a street in Old Havana named for Wonder Husband's paternal grandfather, Tomas Justiz. That is a picture we will cherish. What you don't see in the picture -- a large military presence watching our every move. Our really smart guide suggested I NOT take a picture of soldiers or their tank. See the images here.
• We met cousins who were born after the revolution. Our dinner invitation was received with tears. The platters loaded with food were received with more tears. The tears flowed again later that evening when we had to say our goodbyes. Can your cousins come visit you? Ours can't. No boat...
• The cost for a trip to Cuba from the U.S., done properly and legally, ran us about $3,000 per person minimum when all was said and done -- and that is just for a few days including air, hotel, transportation, fees, visas, guide, etc. There are still forms upon forms to fill out and going with an established tour company such as InsightCUBA, makes the whole process much easier.
• As soon as you arrive at the Havana airport, you see the lack of efficiency or even space for all the passengers arriving. There aren't enough bathrooms, and there is no food or water until you pass through customs -- which for us was a several hour process. Flights and hotels are at a premium right now, the infrastructure is just not there for the sheer number of people who want to visit Cuba. It probably will be -- along with McDonald's and Starbuck's -- in a few years.
I could write for days and never be able to sum up the sights, sounds, feelings, confusion, elation and politics of Cuba. What I can say is this: Cuba was the flavor of the Caribbean, the iron balconies and street music of New Orleans, the political suppression and fear of Russia, the poverty of Mexico, the quaint sidewalk cafes of Europe, the corner parks of New York City, the family love of Miami and no boats.
Will I return? Yes. In a heartbeat. I have been tied to Cuba by marriage for almost 25 years. I am now tied to Cuba by hope.