It’s Day #3 of the first U.S. cruise allowed into Cuba for 58 years. I’m trying to put my finger on the mood of what I’ve seen, heard and felt. My friends back home are asking, “what’s it like?” and I wish I had a pat answer.
But I don’t. What I can say is this: It’s complicated.
For the U.S. and Cuba, it’s like getting back together and trying to “just be friends” with an ex. You know how it feels… enough time has passed after an ugly break up and now it’s time to re-establish communication with someone who meant a lot to you. You’re willing to rise above all the drama from the past. Excited to be talking again feeling hopeful for the future, letting bygones be bygones.
But then you quickly realize that you are not going to be able to steer clear of old land mines that sabotaged the relationship in the first place. Sound familiar?
Here’s what I mean:
Like many Americans, I felt the rush of excitement when President Obama normalized relations with our old enemy and thought we’d soon be on the fast track to something like the good old days. But now that I’ve been here for a three days, I’m thinking that it’s going to be a long, drawn out unraveling, and things between us will not be “normal” for quite some time.
But there’s no denying that there is still a spark between us.
I felt that strongly when our ship, Fathom Travel’s Adonia, cruised into Havana Harbor on Monday morning. As we drew close to the city, all the Americans on board cheered our first interaction with Cubans as a pilot boat pulled up to show us through the narrow strait into the harbor. As we cruised along the famous Malecon (known as “Havana’s sofa” or living room because it’s where they all hang out), thousands of locals stood waving at us, screaming “Hola!” “Bienvenidos!” We screamed back “Cuba, Cuba, Cuba!” frantically waving our Cuban and American flags as the ship’s horn blasted announcing our entrance. (I am getting chills as I write this, because the welcome we received was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a lifetime of travel.)
The warm fuzzies continued as we disembarked the Adonia. When we pulled up to the ship terminal, the Cuban media was there with cameras, cell phones and notepads in hand, awkwardly looking out at the American media onboard, with cameras, cell phones and notepads in hand, smiling at each other, and feeling a kinship over our shared responsibility to report on this historic event.
Remember the brouhaha that erupted two weeks ago when it was revealed that Cuban-born Americans would not be allowed to sail on this inaugural trip? It was due to an anachronistic Cuban law that forbids them to travel to Cuba by sea (even though they could legally arrive via air). Intense negotiations between Carnival Corporation (which owns Fathom) and the Cuban government quickly resolved the issue, but it provided plenty of fodder for the noisy group of Cuban Americans who are not at all happy about this cruise or the normalization of relations with the Castro regime. (Some of whom sent a protest boat out to greet our departure from Miami.)
To appease this angst, Carnival pulled off a public relations coup. Who was the first passenger to get off the first ship and allowed into Cuba in over 50 years? It was Carnival’s very own Cuban-born lead counsel Arnie Perez and his wife. He was allowed to disembark and greet Cuban dignitaries before Carnival’s CEO, Arnold Donald, who was also onboard to mark the occasion.
In my mind, this was Carnival saying, “Take that, Castro!” and at the same time, saying to the Cuban-American protesters, “Chill out! Look who is getting off the ship first. We won this skirmish so let us do our thing.”
Ugh. Talk about old issues and landmines as we try to be friends again.
But let’s get back to the warm fuzzies. Passengers (around 700 onboard) disembarked and entered the ship terminal where Cuban customs agents checked our visas, passports and stamped them (with a regrettably forgettable passport stamp). We entered a large, modern and bright hall full of tour guides, a band, several groups of dancers, and some stalls selling tchotchkes, cigars and rum. But the real welcome happened outside.
Havana’s cruise terminal is situated across a busy street from a large plaza in the heart of the old city. As we exited the terminal and waited to cross, I noticed a huge crowd of locals in the plaza pressed up against the curb with cameras, flags, big smiles and waves. I wondered if we had a famous Cuban celebrity or soccer player onboard.
But as we crossed the street, I soon realized that it was not a celeb they were cheering, it was us: The first Americans to get off a cruise ship and enter Havana in almost 60 years! I looked into the eyes of older Cubans in the crowd and could feel them reminiscing about the 50s, perhaps thinking of long lost American friends or lovers who disappeared with the revolution. Younger Cubans wanted to see Americans, perhaps for the first time. Similar to the passengers on this cruise, this unexpected welcoming committee was diverse, comprised of old and young, families with kids, seniors, beggars, policemen. They all had arms outstretched to give us high-fives, some even offered hugs and kisses (see photo).
Amid the fracas a polite gentleman approached me and asked if I was in Cuba to find business partners. He said he ran a small vineyard in the highlands that he wanted me to visit and offered me his business card—handwritten on a piece of cardboard. I shook his hand and said, “Maybe! I’m from San Francisco and know plenty of people in the wine business.”
Then I spun around to find a woman dressed up in a traditional Cuban costume, who gave me a big kiss on the cheek, instructed me to take a selfie with her, then asked for a tip. It was crazy. And happy. And confusing, too.
Remember what I said about it being complicated? The old rifts came up even before we departed Miami to cross the Florida Straits.
I flew from San Francisco to Miami last Saturday, arriving just in time for dinner. Luckily, the Best Western near the airport was within walking distance of Little Havana. And I had a craving for a good Cuban sandwich, some black bean soup and tostones. So I went out to social media and asked my followers where to go. The consensus? Versailles, long known as one of the best Cuban restaurants in the city, and a place I’d been maybe 10 years ago, but why not go again?
I’m traveling by myself and dined alone, which means I spent a lot of time (probably too much!) taking photos of my meal and putting it out there on Facebook and Twitter. One of the first responses to images of my feast came from my friend Peter, a Cuban-American from San Francisco, who said something like, “Fill up on Cuban food in Miami- it’s a lot better there than it is in Cuba!” He would know since he’s been allowed to travel back to Cuba to visit family over the years, and has told me what grocery stores and restaurants and kitchens look like—pretty bleak.
That was pretty much confirmed by what I’ve seen walking around old Havana for the last two days: Very few grocery stores and crumbling shells of once magnificent buildings crowded with poor families. I saw a handful of restaurants filled with camera-toting tourists sipping mojitos and eating ropa vieja (which was good, but I have to agree with Peter, not as good as in Miami). And then paying for it with a special currency used only by tourists called CUCs (sounds like loops). Cubans use another currency (the peso) that’s worth about 75% less. For a supposedly egalitarian country, this feels disconcerting; promoting a feeling of “us” and “them.”
That gap was magnified even more when I stumbled upon, get this: Preparations for a Chanel fashion show. Organizers staged the event yesterday outdoors along the leafy Paseo del Prado in downtown Havana, closing off streets. Willowy Tilda Swinton, designer Karl Lagerfeld and a few hundred other fashionistas dropped into town for a few days selling out the few upscale hotels in town.
I missed the show, but saw TV images of models sashaying down runways in the Havana heat. Having been there a few hours before, I knew that there were also hundreds of Cuban mothers holding children looking down from ramshackle balconies onto the scene. The night before this show, a friendly local sidled up to me as I walked along the Paseo, explaining how rationing makes it difficult to keep his baby daughter fed, and would I mind giving him some money so he could buy enough powdered milk help feed her for a month? (He was one of at 15 or so locals who approached me asking for money while I was in Havana.)
Oy, talk about disconcerting. On one hand, it’s exciting to see the global spotlight shining on this hot new destination, but then being pulled back into the reality that Chanel designs are not even sold on the island. Plus you can’t help but think that the money spent on this highbrow event could have easily fed the families looking down on it for months.
One of the highlights of my two days in Havana was an opportunity to ride in one of the hundreds of the famous old cars cruising the streets—most serve as private taxis for tourists. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the visual of these shiny relics of the 1950s, beautifully restored and proudly driven through the streets by their owners (private ownership of cars is a relatively new thing in Cuba). After a day of being chaperoned around town in an air-conditioned bus by Havanatur, the state-owned tour company, I decided to break free.
Instead of taking the bus back to the ship from our tour stop at a museum downtown, I took off with another reporter, and negotiated a deal with the owner of a fancy red and white Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. For $25, he agreed to give us a ride through downtown, out to the famous Hotel Nacional for some photos, then along the seaside Malecon, back to the ship.
What a treat! On a hot sunny day, we speed through the streets, with our driver, Carlos, honking and waving to all the other restored-car drivers doing the same thing we were. In the course of our trip, I asked him if he was ready for the hordes of American tourists ready to pounce on Cuba. I was expecting him to be excited about the prospect, but he was skeptical.
“America thinks it’s going to get 51 percent and take control of all this again. But there’s no way Cuba will let that happen. They might give America 49 percent, but not control. So I don’t think it is going to change much. America won’t come back here for 49 percent.”
And there we are back at the drama that likely ripped us apart during the revolution of the late 1950s, which boiled down to who was in control of Cuba. And given the strong will of the Cubans and the Americans, that standoff might continue for a while. So for everyone who thinks that they need to “get to Cuba before the Americans ruin it”…you can relax. It’s going to take a while.
What do you think?
Disclosure: Fathom Travel, part of Carnival Corporation, covered the cost of my cruise and onboard internet access. TravelSkills paid for my air travel, meals, hotels, transfers and visa costs related to this trip.
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