A trip to Cuba today is no mean feat. I studied the Cuban Revolution in graduate courses at my alma mater, and, after many years of pondering, in early 2021, I began planning in earnest travel and exploration here. The trip would have to wait until I retired from the State Department, since we diplomats were explicitly forbidden to travel to the island unless on official business.
I already knew some of the daunting obstacles I would face. The decades-long embargo and sanctions against the Cuban government – and people – are a de facto blockade. After a respite during the Obama presidency, the abusive restrictions imposed by the Trump administration still have not been remediated by President Biden. And for me, an ethical vegetarian-vegan, the exploration of the country would be even more challenging, since the diet is little known on by the struggling Cuban people.
Unless one is a tourist at a resort (a class with whom I am averse to be grouped), shopping in Cuba for residents is a continual burden, involving knowing where to find most non-agricultural products and waiting in long and time-consuming lines (colas). I would have to carry much of my protein and essential supplies.
Then there are the COVID-19 related hurdles: retaining the precious and tiny vaccination card proving my two vaccinations; booking at a local Florida health center at least one test which must be no more than 72 hours prior to arrival to Cuba; entering vaccination and test document scans with payment into the system of any country intermediate to the flight to Cuba; and printing out and holding on to test results. In my absence, I also had to find child care for my little daughter after her school let out in early afternoon, until R could pick her up after her work. Nevertheless, I doggedly planned, persisted, and pushed forward.
What motivated me was the suspicion that Cuba was a place replete with scenes and images I envisioned being universal and timeless, and perfect for two fine arts series I have been working on for many years. Owing to the blockade, economic progress for the proud (many throughout the world would say victorious) nation has advanced imperceptibly in the past six decades.
The grinding weight of economic setbacks driven in virtually every aspect by six U.S. administrations has meant visible infrastructure is often crumbling and transportation (except buses, most of which I saw were quite new!) is usually in ancient or poorly maintained vehicles; horse-drawn carts are still evident even in the capital, Havana.
My route would have to be through another country and the choices were few: Mexico, Aruba, Panama, or the Bahamas. (Starting in November, 2021, there resumed some new flights directly from Miami, but a paucity of these seats meant they were quickly snapped up, and at a premium price.) I chose to fly through Nassau, in the Bahamas, as a financial and expedient solution.
Fortuitously for me and just two weeks after my retirement, Cuba would institute a new and less restrictive anti-virus policy starting in mid-November, and I found more than a few flights at fairly convenient times. My family was concerned and friends frowned in consternation upon hearing of my travel destination. This was understandable as there are many misconceptions and ample disinformation about getting to the island. I, too, was apprehensive and expected this trip would be one of the most challenging of my lengthy history of world travel; Cuba would be country #52 for me and I hoped this would be a lucky number as well.
R drove me to Orlando International Airport on the appointed day in late November, along with our young daughter, and adios hugs exchanged. After a stopover in Miami, I arrived in Nassau late in the evening. I immediately ran into trouble when the bed-and-breakfast I had booked turned out to be a decrepit and nondescript hovel and I was greeted by a disinterested and sleepy – perhaps drunk – owner behind the torn screen door. Concerned, I had the driver take me around the neighborhood as I inquired at a couple of nearby hotels but found the prices outrageously expensive (it is the “high season,” I was informed). I thereupon bleakly instructed the taxi driver to return me to the airport, where I slept a couple of uncomfortable and chilly hours on the grass adjacent to the now shuttered building until dawn.
Weary and stiff, and succumbing to the demands of gate officials who (rightly) insisted I was carrying way too many bags and things strapped to my body on to the plane and would have to pay additional charges, I found my seat and we were soon (one hour late) taking off. The flight was brief and I had barely dozed off before we were descending into the tropical Cuban landscape. Entering Jose Martí Airport, I was subjected over the next two hours to numerous inspections and interrogation by no fewer than five officials who wanted to know the purpose of my visit and where I would go and stay. I sympathized with them, as few Gringos were yet visiting here in the past couple of years. An energetic and endearing beagle sniffed at all my bags at one point, and finding nothing of interest was given a yellow ball to play with as a reward. These would not be the only investigations by Cuban immigration officials I would endure in my stay.
Havana fleeted by from my taxi window for the next 20 minutes, and we passed numerous billboards promoting the Revolution or mentioning the deserved national pride in dealing so well with the COVID pandemic. Arriving, I was met by the son of the lodging owner and I truly appreciated his help in getting my bags (one of which weighed 51 pounds!) up two flights of steep stairs to the “𝘤𝘢𝘴𝘢 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘢𝘳,” as the bed-and-breakfasts are known. Doña Leonora, one of three elderly sisters who ran the place, warmly welcomed me and was very helpful and provided important insights and tips. She was relieved that I spoke Spanish and we had a fulsome conversation. Exhausted upon entering my room, I nonetheless knew I must inventory all my storehouse of supplies from my five bags. I laid everything out on a counter and one of the beds on my room. After eating one of my four now-imported apples, vegan jerky, crackers, and peanut butter I had brought with me, I showered and slept very well that night.
The next day I began exploring the quaint and bustling “Habana Centro” neighborhood surrounding my lodging. I was thrilled to find a virtual cornucopia of sights meeting my camera viewfinder and exclaimed to myself, “Cuba is rich!”– in interesting people and scenes.
In spite of poverty for most and quotidian economic hassles for most, Cubans seemed gregarious, proud and no different than the amiable citizens of the nine Latin American nations I have lived in or visited over many years. I had seen many videos on You Tube of heated arguments breaking out when Cubans dealt with lines and exhausted supplies, but thus far I observed only patient queues and occasional attempts to seek ways to save minutes and maximize opportunities. I came upon and entered a humble produce market and saw ample stocks of myriad fruits and vegetables, and at fair prices (although there are many who are additionally stressed out at the inflation rate in the nation). I returned by 8:00 a.m. and for just four Euros (a tad shy of USD 5.00 at the black market rate) enjoyed a delicious breakfast of bananas, pineapple, toast with guava jelly, and strong Cuban coffee.
I packed up my camera bag (two cameras, five lenses, two electronic flashes, accessories) once again and walked in search of an official money exchange. I would ask for Cuban Pesos for Euros (U.S. dollars being impossible to exchange, owing to bilateral reciprocation for U.S. sanctions and embargo). Successful after some delays at the bank, I then set out to find wi-fi “cards,” which were the only way for most Cubans to get internet service. I walked around the city for some three hours and found cards were out (“no hay”) at each of the five stores or official telecommunication offices I was directed to. Happily, I did ultimately locate an office that had stocks and I was able to purchase the limit cards to allow me three hours of service. By this time, muscles in a shoulder and one thigh were somewhat burning from carrying my 35 pounds of photographic gear, so I splurged and hailed a taxi to return me to my 𝘤𝘢𝘴𝘢.
After a late lunch consisting of one of my six cans of beans and vegan jerky followed by a few pieces of candy, I began editing my photos and tightening up my supplies well into the night. My entertainment was via a small short-wave/FM radio I’ve held on to since I bought it the ‘70s and I enjoyed excellent classical music and erudite Spanish language commentary from a local station.NEXT STORY