Cuba, Stuck in Time, But Getting A Little Unstuck Every Day

I’d been excited to go to Cuba, mostly because it seemed like a big mystery. 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but essentially closed to Americans for more than 50 years. Was it still stuck in time at January 1, 1959? Was Michael Corleone still getting into his car to escape before Fidel and friends (okay, in reality Che and Camilo) showed up?

Lots of old cars, but more new ones than I'd thought

Lots of old cars, but more new ones than I’d thought

So when Obama announced a new approach to US relations with Cuba, I was excited. Would this mean things would be easier, i.e., more US tourist friendly? Then again, I didn’t want it to be *too* US tourist friendly …

And there was the issue of getting accurate information. Lots of hearsay, lots of unknowns. A friend had gone years ago on an educational trip – Bring powerbars, he said. The food is awful. Okay, so that was quite some time ago. Things might be different, but ….

Friend who went to Havana few years ago: Food is terrible. Bring colored pencils for kids.

Friends who went 2 or 3 years ago: There are  restaurants, and they each have the same five things on the menu. Except there’s no fish and there’s no chicken. And it’s just rice and beans or Cuban sandwiches. Neither very good. Or you eat in someone’s home.

Friend who went 6 months ago: Food was good, if you know where to go. Bring a backpack full of items to donate, things like diapers (okay, really, I’m going to buy and bring a box of diapers?)

Our reality:

Food was good. Flattened grilled chicken, with salad and rice and beans = a good, reliable meal in Havana, Trinidad, almost anywhere. Food at the Paladar Los Mercaderes in Old Havana? Very good, like a restaurant at home – elegant, quiet, lovely.

Donated items? Our tour guide advised us to donate in the smaller villages we visited. They need soap, shampoo, toiletries. Don’t donate in Havana, he said, they have everything. I would add this: if you have gently worn high heeled shoes, take them. I wasn’t sure where the 20-somethings in Cienfuegos got the heels they wore on New Year’s Eve, but …. I’m betting someone will want your sparkly, but slightly out of date evening pumps. I know I wish I had brought mine.

Cubans, ready for the Yankee invader

Cubans, ready for Yankee invaders

It’s easier to get around, but still not quite easy. You have to bring cash with you. Yikes. And as of now, you still have to go with a group – bleh. More on that later.

All in all, an amazing place. A strange blend of 50s Soviet slogans and inflexible bureaucracy, funny money currency and developing world scams. But also English-speaking young people hustling, hungry to connect to and experience the world.

There’s plenty of poverty to go around and a lack of infrastructure, especially when you get out of the cities. But the country is ready to explode onto the tourist scene.

Then there’s the untouched Caribbean beaches and wildlife … and beauty.

Hello there.


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