In 2004, I lived life a bit more in the moment than I do today. A risk taker and not as restricted by burdens of job and family, I yearned to live like Hemingway on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean writing the days away. I convinced my boyfriend (and myself) at the time that the allure of Cuba was too great to refuse. With only a Frommer’s guidebook (too afraid to search on the Internet), bright hues of red, yellow and green pulled me into the pages of what I imagined to be Trinidad. I immediately rang up a Canadian travel agency and booked the seven-day adventure with only one pause for concern, “Is this trip refundable?”
A few months later as our departure date loomed, President George W. Bush announced further sanctions against the Castro regime and along with that enormous fines and possible convictions for any Americans disobeying the travel ban. I may like to live on the edge but I do try to abide by most rules so I cancelled the trip. Sometimes things are not meant to be – the boyfriend and I broke up and another 11 years passed by before I set foot on Cuban soil.
It was worth the wait.
I traveled from Mexico City to Havana on a sunny day in late January. A family friend had arranged for me to stay with her cousin near the University about a 20-minute walk from Old Havana.
When I first arrived at my casa particular (room for rent), I thought I stumbled into a community center. Friends and neighbors peeked in the door of the living room, while others sat on chairs and couches and chatted with my host mother. I introduced myself to everyone and I understood they were cousins, or second moms and aunts and definitely very involved in each other’s lives even if not related.
I quickly discovered no one speaks English and after being up for many hours my concentration waned and I only noticed mouths moving presumably asking me about the United States and New York. Thankfully, Hans from Munich (not his real name) enters the house and grants me a Spanish language reprieve. He greets me, we make introductions and I learn (from him) that he is a famous Munich DJ to the soccer players and that he found Jesus four years ago. “I used to do a lot of drugs and sleep with lots of women and party. Now the “chief” guides my life.” Ok then I mean I don’t know why but I really want to hear more about him and I press the conversation. He was visiting Cuba a few years ago with a fellow German friend and spotted his now fiancé being solicited for sex. (The Cuban government has been cracking down on tourist sex /prostitution). When she refused, he was intrigued so he asked her for coffee. Apparently it’s that easy to find love in Cuba.
My host family lives in a converted house with three rooms on the main floor consisting of a living room, kitchen and a side room; a second floor with a bedroom and bath rented out to guests – my temporary gigs; a third floor with a room for the computer, and a divided area for the two children and parents to sleep; and a separated open roof floor with a kitchen and spare room. Currently, the roof is home to Hans.
When Communism fell in Russia in 1991, Cuba went into a state of deep decline knows as the “Special Period” to Cubans. Russia had been the country’s lifeline for food and supplies and now the Cuban people suffered from a shortage of water and electricity and basic everyday needs. During this time, Fidel Castro opened up Cuba to tourism appealing to Canadians and Europeans and their pocketbooks. Many families like mine sold rooms in their homes to tourists as a means for income.
I paid $45 a night for my room and it included breakfast, dinner and guava smoothies throughout the day and the most hospitable, generous, welcoming people I have ever met. Keeping in mind Cubans have limited money and supplies, stores etc., I found my meager accommodations to be clean and my shower functioning with a trickle of water, which is more than I can say for the tourists who paid for 4-5star hotels. Killing hundreds of mosquitoes a day while trying to shower was just part of the experience. My family even bought me eggs with their rations after I mentioned that’s what I eat for breakfast. A humbling experience for me on day one when I learned every Cuban household maintains a Libreta (ration book) entitling the family to a monthly supply of basic goods like fruit and meat provided at a small cost.
With a population of about 11 million, the Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining state-capitalist countries following the Marxist-Leninist approach /Communism. It’s an archipelago of islands located in the northern Caribbean Sea where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Cuba is only about 90 miles off the coast of Florida but far enough to make it a metaphor for forbidden fruit to most Americans. Approximately 3 million tourists visited Cuba in 2014 up from 600,000 in 1991.