Like many Americans, I have wanted to go to Cuba for several years, but until now had brushed it off and being too difficult and not worth the challenge. If you have not been to Cuba, you may not know the extent of the economic sanctions the United States and Cuba have placed on one another. Even if you are aware of the two countries’ relationship, conditions may have changed since you were last updated, and may even have changed between my writing this and you reading it, as the Trump administration has recently been attempting to block Americans from traveling to the island for tourism. The notable exceptions being that Americans will still be able to travel there if they have family in Cuba, or otherwise book an expensive “People to People” tour. This would effectively reverse the changes the Obama administration made which allowed Americans to travel under the “Support for the Cuban People” category. This poorly-defined category assumes that anyone traveling to Cuba to financially benefit the people, businesses, and culture of Cuba is allowed to visit, provided they don’t give money to the Cuban military or military-run institutions. The underlying motivations behind this category, it would seem, involve sending American tourists to Cuba in order to encourage capitalism and thus undermine the Communist government.
Though American politicians have their own reasons for allowing Americans to visit the country, charity and encouraging capitalist ideals generally do not appear on the list of reasons one would want to visit Cuba. Perhaps you have heard the island has soft beaches and baby blue waters. If that is not your bag, you have have almost certainly considered smoking an almost mythologized Cuban cigar or drinking Caribbean rum mojitos or the simple-yet-refreshing Cuba libre. Not to mention the beautiful old cars, ropa vieja, salsa music, rumba and so on and so forth. For the semi-adventurous American tourist, Cuba is the ultimate forbidden fruit. Hungover American college kids are strewn across the Caribbean from Cancun to Punta Cana, but it takes a certain mental fortitude to be able to handle a nation that makes it clear that they are not chomping at the bit to cater to Americans. Not only this, but the tourist card/ visa costs $50, which is not appealing to the casual kid who doesn’t care what island he is on, as long as there is beach and beer. I am not that type of person for two reasons. First, I am obsessed with culture and what makes each country, each island, or even each city different from the next. The second reason I am not that type of college student is because I am no longer a college student! I graduated UConn less than four days before this Cuba trip, which officially makes me no longer a student, but an unemployed homeless drifter who happens to excel at drifting far. You may be thinking: “Shouldn’t Victor be changing the name of this blog, as he is no longer enrolled in an academic institution?” The answer is no. I am still a scholar of the road. If anything I am more a scholar of the road because I don’t have to be a scholar of anything else.
As a graduation present, my parents were incredibly kind enough to pay for the trip to Cuba, along with inviting my best friend Will on the trip with us. Thankfully for all of us, their spending was limited by a nationwide ban on all American credit cards. That’s right, we made the rookie mistake of assuming that our credit cards and bank cards would work in Cuba, the nation notorious for that exact thing. Our error was, as it often is in groups, a result of miscommunication. Let that be a lesson in the benefits of solo travel, and also the importance of making everyone aware of the challenges a certain locale poses. In a group of four, there will also often be unforeseen challenges that stem from different skill sets, desires, and interests. Don’t be like us. Always have a hand in the finances of the group, and share the pertinent financials with everyone. Money, as we all know, can be a great stressor in life and in vacation. If you cannot handle it, there is always solo travel. It is the abstinence of avoiding travel woes, but more on that in future posts.
Regardless, the four of us had an incredible time. Will—a musician by trade—spent much of the trip clapping the clave, as there was an abundance of trios, quartets, and even one orchestra in the streets and restaurants of Havana. On the first night, we were lured in by a jinetero, or a street hustler, who took us to an overly-expensive restaurant for a cut from the restaurant. Another rookie move. We ate and drank, sitting alongside and listening to a couple of guitarists who gave my buddy Will a clave to play throughout the set. This was not even the first time he sat in on a band in Cuba. Over a lunch of ropa vieja at the made-for-tourists restaurant “El Rum Rum,” Will was also enlisted to play clave practically immediately after the blue 1957 Ford that the Airbnb owner sent to the airport to pick us up set us down in Old Havana. These would not be the last times WIll would play Havana. Over the three days, Will counted over ten times that he was invited to stand with Cuban bands and play percussion, likely making it his most grueling tour schedule to date. The ubiquity of live music in Havana is hard to comprehend; sometimes, in busy squares, there will be two or even three groups playing, evenly spread apart, yet competing to attract the most crowds and the most cash. Capitalist artist pigs.
The following day, after comically running around Havana searching for the impossible—a way to get money from the US to Cuba without wiring it to a local—we decided we would just have to convert our American money even though the Cuban government would impose a 10% tax on it. In the midafternoon, it began to grow especially hot and we walked into a Cuban art museum to take in some of the island’s visual creative works. The museum was four stories and extremely overwhelming, so my museum fatigue quickly manifested itself as regular fatigue and I sat on benches most of the time, staring at paintings of Che Guevara and Picasso-like portraits of what I think were naked women. We also tried to stop by Coppelia, the famous ice cream institution created by dairy enthusiast Fidel Castro, who was so fond of ice cream that he built what looks like a Soviet spaceship-style building dedicated to bringing the cold stuff to the Cuban people. Unfortunately, Coppelia was in disrepair and we didn’t think they’d be selling ice cream anytime soon (or anytime recently, for that matter). We walked to the road that stretched along the ocean and let the breeze cool us down instead. We saw people fishing, but not catching much, and I thought of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” That book took place somewhere out there, I thought. I doubted anyone ever caught a fish so big, at least not this century. I got the impression that fish was not something Cubans ate very often, unless they caught it themselves, and I imagined that much of what was caught (or likely imported) ended up on some tourist’s plate. Not once did I smell fish, or fish guts, and only once or twice did we come across a butcher or anyone with more than a few pieces of beef or chicken in their store. However, fillets and lobster abounded on menus across Havana, though we were often informed the restaurants had run out. In fact, many of the restaurants we visited would give us long menus, and then only point to two or three items that we could chose. Presumably, the government does not allot the good people of Cuba surf and turf dinners. To be fair, neither does Uncle Sam.
In the evening, we found a $2 happy hour with salsa music, and a man and woman in all white who were offering dances to customers. After a quick Cuba Libre, which went straight to my dehydrated pores and my cerebellum, the woman curtsied to me and I accepted, never being one to turn down a dance. Needless to say, I danced terribly and sweat all over her. Partially to blame was the fact that the only time I ever salsa-ed was in my 10th grade Spanish class during foreign culture week, but I’ll happily blame sweat and rum whenever given the opportunity. I decided to call it a night and headed back to my blesséd air conditioned room until my parents returned.
Late at night, Will and I went to the water, as we often do. In Norwalk, where I live, we make it a habit of strolling down to the Long Island Sound and kicking our feet in the sand while we watch the water undulate darkly. Will and I even looked at water before I lived by it, though, too. In fact we almost got arrested looking at water one time. In our shared hometown of Wilton, at a small park called Merwin Meadows, a pond is surrounded by fine sand trucked in from somewhere else. Will, another boy, and I once walked into the closed-at-dusk meadows just to look at the dark water, like the hypnotizing darkness at the center of a flame, contrasted with the bright lights of the train stations and restaurants across the road. The Wilton PD, who routinely patrols the area looking for teenagers being teenagers (another offense we were guilty of), caught us standing and looking, then sprinting and running, and chased us down to the other side of the park. They called my parents. They were mad.
In the Havana night, there were more than the city’s fair share of lovers hugging and making eight-appendaged, two-headed spiders with the way they would embrace on the ramparts, embracing with everything but the arms and the legs. A homeless man came up to us, offered a sip of his liquor and a 3-peso note, explaining it was a gift to a couple of Americans from his country of Cuba. Then, he demanded we give him a gift from America. All we had was a quarter so we gave him that. After all, it is the thought that counts, right? He stumbled off in a huff, as he had spent the better part of a half hour telling us his story, sharing his philosophy, and buttering us up with his 3 peso ($0.12) gift. I honestly felt bad that he worked so hard in masking his sleight of hand only for it to not pay off. In this way, I saw how Communism truly isn’t fair to those who work hard. Such salesmanship should be on display at a car dealership somewhere, not hitting up tourists at 1 am by the docks in Havana.
The following day we opted for slow, cheap activities to stretch the pesos we had left. After breakfast, we eventually made our way East to the docks Will and I had visited the night before to see the Cuban Rum Museum. For those who have visited distilleries, breweries, or vineyard before, you are likely familiar with the story I am about to tell. You pay your money, they sometimes show a video in an air-conditioned room, they point to a bunch of organic matter, water, and barrels (not necessarily in that order) then you drink from a small plastic cup. After that, there is a gift shop where you can buy more to drink, if the sample did not satiate you.
It was hot, early afternoon again, and we returned to a waterside restaurant with outdoor seating. By the bay, the breeze was constant and the shade was substantial, so we easily overstayed our welcome by slowly sipping Cuban Cristal beer and sharing salads, paellas, and other seafood while watching a large Bahamian-registered cruise ship pull out of the docks and away. Even more tired by the seductive stint of relaxing and drinking, we made it barely a half mile through an historic Plaza de San Francisco before we came to another, shadier square where an entire orchestra was setting up to play. There we sat for their entire hour-long performance, bobbing our heads and tapping our toes sleepily as they played. In the late afternoon, our sun-stolen energy was returned and we came upon another historic square, this one the Plaza de la Catedral.
With our dwindling Cuban money and an American ‘20,’ we were able to negotiate with a waiter to give us four entrees for a mixture of Cuban and American dollars. A band played behind (and with) Will until he tipped them, and they scuffled away. In the evening we walked around the Prado and El Floridita (where Hemingway famously drank), and went to the top of a fancy hotel to get drinks, only we didn’t have enough money for them so we lounged by the fancy hotel’s pool and watched the rich business-people and tourists ignore the DJ and scream at each other over his music. Next to him, a strange glow-in-the-dark wire sculpture of the Cuban Capitol building with a building-sized woman laying down inside it sat for “atmosphere.” On the walk home, we bought a $5 bottle of rum which came in a vinegar-type plastic bottle, and went to the Airbnb to make alcoholic smoothies of our remaining breakfast fruit while watching a Spanish-dubbed version of Fifty Shades of Gray, due to the fact that we had lost the remote and grew too intoxicated for anyone to get up and change the channel. When my parents went to bed, Will and I tracked down an ‘underground’ club to which a guy on the street the day before had given us an invitation. It had no name, only a sticker on the door depicting an eyeless pineapple man. The cover was $5 apiece (the bouncer took American money), and and we danced, closely packed in, until two o’clock. After, we made our way to our Airbnb which was only a block away but felt like twenty. Oh to be young.
In the morning we broke fast on rolls, cookies, and fruit then caught a maroon convertible to the airport, first going to the wrong terminal because none of us had received any notifications informing us of our terminal. Or, rather, we had received them but could not open them. Cuba really felt like moving up a difficulty level in traveling. I have a carrier that gives me texts and lets me use data in over 130 countries in the world, and my ATM card works virtually anywhere but those places that block American cards. Reading this, I am sure longtime travelers are rolling their eyes at my having to use paper maps and learn to exist without credit cards. However, these things have made travel so tremendously easy to the point where one can hardly go wrong in many parts of the world that have adapted to contemporary technologies.
Despite the hiccups, Cuba is a tremendous destination and I recommend Americans to go. It can be humbling to find yourself somewhere you aren’t praised and welcomed as a tourist. Ultimately, it felt we were there as much to support the Cuban people as our own nation’s. In the crossfire of political entities, we forget that countries are just people and land, and should not be confused with the people who control them. Governments impede on people connecting, and borders make it easier for us to focus on what, both literally and figuratively, separates us and ignore the common ground. The mantra of all the Cubans who learned of our nationality was “I love Obama; fuck Trump.” Several times we heard this from different people, and their opinion is valid: the Obama administration reversed decades of hostility toward the country, making him a symbol of peace and international recognition. Trump’s reversal of this reversal paints him as someone who values ‘winning’ over mutual benefit and civility. I went to support the Cubans, but returned realizing how much we need support, too.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.