The American visiting Cuba gains an appreciation for the resilient joy and spirit of its people, and takes home memories of a time warp free of the strip-mall banality of the rich world. Venturing here offers a chance to befriend a poor and struggling island society that is, in its own way, an inspiration...and headed for breathtaking change. And as the wheels of my Aeroméxico plane left the Havana airport tarmac, I hoped to someday soon return to find a society that has kept the good in its heritage while gracefully and gently joining the family of nations in an aggressive global economy.
Fidel Castro, the human embodiment of Cuba's Revolution, survives...but just barely. People I met didn't know exactly where he was and figured he's alive, but no longer coherent. Even so, it seems that Cuba's Revolution survives because of the stature of Castro. We asked many times, "What happens here after Fidel and Raúl Castro are gone?" The answer: "Nobody knows what will happen."
Sure, the Cubans are poor in material terms. But they are no poorer than other Latin Americans. And they have a strength of character, national pride, and human dignity that is unique in this region.
Cubans are free to talk politics, and they love doing just that. We spent hours on the rooftop of our B&B talking with our hosts. The conversations were wide-ranging and full of memorable quotes: "Cubans are great athletes. We earn more Olympic gold medals, per capita, than any other country." "When you give people things for free, they don't value it." "We don't throw away anything. We just repair it and repair it and repair it." "Resistance and dissident movements get no traction in Cuba, because people here assume they are funded by the CIA to destabilize our country."
I traveled to Cuba completely legally, but through Mexico. My government knew exactly what I was doing, because whenever I prearranged or paid for something (even via London or Canada), a form popped up making me declare that I had a general license to travel in Cuba. (Of the 12 acceptable categories, I simply had to declare that I was on "professional research.") Returning home, we flew from Havana to Mexico City (departing at about 6:00 am, no departure taxes, very straightforward...like any flight). Then we flew from Mexico City to Houston. At Houston, US Customs hardly looked at me. I pleaded, "But I've been in Cuba. I bought souvenirs, too." The man in the uniform just said, "Welcome home."
(It's my hope that this Cuba series has inspired you to consider traveling there yourself. For a complete and practical listing of the B&Bs we slept in, the restaurants we found that we'd recommend, and our sources of information -- as well as more posts about our Cuba trip -- visit Trish Feaster's blog, The Travelphile.)