What a time it was…..

I can hardly believe that our Funky People Online Discover CUBA 2012 Trip was almost three months ago. One weekend visit to Havana has left us with loads of lifetime memories about a country that has been taboo for two generations of US citizens. Well beyond our expectations, we’ve fallen in love with CUBA and cannot say enough about it!

Before I get into the trip details, I have to first thank Tesandra Cohen and the entire staff of Insight Cuba, (www.insightcuba.com) who worked diligently with our travel group from start to finish. Getting access to and booking for Cuba is quite an irregular process. Patience and an open mind about the travel itinerary is a must, as our hosts/travel partner did a tremendous job to make the entire journey run smoothly. Special thanks to our host/guide Jose Ramon Rodriguez for his expert knowledge and stellar efforts in accommodating our interests while in Cuba! We are also much appreciative of the many friends of the Funky People network that lent their usual help to circulate our plans on the web. We could not do this without you – Thanks again!

So what about The Republic of Cuba? It was once the hedonistic playground for the wealthy, business elite and criminal underworld after the post US depression days. Off limits for Americans for so many years, we knew this would be a trip back in time culturally, socially, politically, and historically! However, nothing we’d heard or knew about Cuba would prepare us for this adventure.

A flood of impressions from the very beginning……

The quick 30 minute flight from Miami dropped us into a world we were eager to explore. Havana’s US Int’l airport was busy this morning as we were on one of 20 flights ferrying in various “tour groups” and Cuban-Americans that day. Our tour guide (or “Cuban host for the weekend”), Jose, yells “Group C this way” and pointed towards a parked tour bus. Still too early to check in to our hotel, Jose was super energetic and wasted no time showering us with details about his homeland. Minds open, ears perked and eyes fixed out the nearest window, we were off and speeding towards the capitol center, cameras clicking the whole time…

The first stop was at a sprawling plaza, surrounded by official government buildings in the distance. The Cuban sun was warm, bright and the plaza had scores of other foreign tourists strolling about. This place was our first full dose of Cuban culture. We were standing in Revolution Square. The very spot where Pope Benedict XVI delivered his historic speech in Havana just a month earlier. Wow! Reality had set in at 11:30am local time. “Yes, we’re definitely in Cuba…..quick, group photo!!”

There were so many things that appealed to our curiosity now! What’s next? Who will we meet? What fascinating facts will we learn? A look at the group’s schedule during lunch would reveal a week’s worth of activities were squeezed into our weekend. How would we do it all?

Our first evening began with an impromptu visit to the studio of artist Frank Martinez. For us, his paintings incorporated a combination of various historical events with the pride of the Cuban people. The Cuban art spoke with a political volume the average citizen could not use. His visual concepts were brilliant! I wondered if this free artistic expression would be a recurring theme we’d see in other art displays? Next, the inaugural tour activity was dinner and 2 hour cabaret show at the famed Nacional Hotel of Cuba. Built in the late 1920s, this hotel has quite a bit of history to it. Famous figures like Meyer Lanksy, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, Jack Dempsey, Mickey Mantle, Sir Winston Churchill, Nat King Cole, and Eartha Kitt to name a few, have graced the stage and bedroom suites here. Avid American film buffs will remember the Nacional Hotel was dramatized in the film, GodFather II, depicting the infamous 1946 mob boss summit headed by Lucky Luciano.

The first Friday….

Morning sunshine greeted our first full day in Havana. We were zipped out of the hotel promptly after breakfast and dropped off downtown to begin an all day walking tour of Central Havana. The city was already in swing. The school day had begun, business shops were open and traffic was bustling. Listening attentively to our guide Jose explain the long history of the neighborhood location we were standing, we became fixated on the people, the architecture and the everyday life of Cuba that moved around us. To us outsiders (Americans) it looked like business as usual. It was your typical Caribbean lifestyle. Yeah, we’d been misled to believe our tour here would be cloaked in secrecy, that our efforts to observe and soak in the Cuban culture would be censored by authoritarian rule. Nope, not now. A Cuba under martial law was once a part of it’s history during times of harsher policies by former President Fidel Castro, but clearly this was a new Cuba we were seeing.

What we saw was general order and a balanced way of life. Our guide explained how the government provides free education and healthcare and other life/family services to every citizen. No one is denied access based on race, gender, sexual preference or economic standing. Major crime here was rare. It was comfortable. We were in awe watching this country as it watched us back. The people were charming. Local school children waved for our cameras, and even posed on cue. No doubt they’d seen a few American movies and music videos. Taxi drivers whisked by us, proudly honking the horns of their restored classic American cars! The building architecture was incredible. New, old, Spanish, Colonial, American, Russian modern, traditional – Cuba has a mix of it all. Several older Cubans took the time to approach us while we wandered through the maze of streets and alleys. “Where are you all from, my friends? You’re Americans?”, one gentlemen asked. “Yes, from different cities in the US”, we responded. “That is wonderful. Welcome, please bring back more African-Americans to see Cuba!”, he said excitedly. We posed to take a few photos together and exchanged pleasant farewells. Our few remaining fears were gone. We loved this type of interaction with the people. We were really proud to be here now, doing something special that many Americans citizens and Americans of color had not. The remainder of the walk was post card worthy! Lots of eye-catching views to record. Good thing I packed two batteries for my digital camera, I’d need them.

After stops at the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, El Capitolio, Teatro Colon, and the Taller Artist Gallery, we broke for lunch at the Dominica Restaurant. The service was top-notch, the food was mouth-watering, the jazz band jammed some great numbers while we ate and talked about the great finds at the Art Gallery! A highlight of the day was our tour of one of Cuba’s many cigar houses. Here, we saw fresh new Cuban cigars being rolled and prepared for smoking. Unexpectedly, we were given the opportunity to indulge in the new product at La Casa de Habano. For me this was a spontaneous moment, since I’m not a smoker. But how could I have come to Cuba without having my first cigar? Kudos to my travel companions in the group for easing me in to this acquired activity, I nailed it like a pro!! Before the day ended, we visited a few more open plazas and parks, stopped at a trade school for boys & girls, and learned a lot more about the progress of the colonial architecture that was being restored. Cuba’s early commerce is definitely linked to other Caribbean destinations we’ve visited. It so awesome we’re seeing it here as well.

The sun began to set as we headed to our hotel. The Quinta Avenida hotel is located in the Miramar neighborhood. A residential area of Havana near several of the international embassies, this location has all the modern amenities you would want. We had great views of a public park, the ocean coastline two blocks over and the Havana nightlife was a short 10 minute ride away. Our Friday evening plans began with dinner and an unsuspecting moment for three trip attendees who were celebrating Birthday’s this very travel weekend. Our toast and cake surprise went off without a hitch for Carol, Kimberly and Myrna! Thanks again to Jose, our guide, for helping with the special arrangements. This was a full day that began before 9am, but it was still far from over …..

Next up was a evening activity to see a stage show, Amigas. This was such an exclusive treat to witness a musical performed in Havana by the famed Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba company. We had great seats, center orchestra, ten rows from the stage to see a rare performance by this popular dance troop. You see the Lizt Alfonso Dance company travels abroad so often showcasing Cuba’s traditional & modern dance culture, that they only have 4 shows a year in Cuba. Needless to say the auditorium was packed to capacity, with over 3000 strong of all ages. Yet another example of how our people-to-people immersion trip in Cuba was special well beyond our expectations. The show ended around midnight, but we didn’t want this first full day to end. The best recommendation was to take in one of Cuba’s popular Salsa clubs, Casa de la Musica! And that we did, feeling right at home with the local Cuban people at this massive stage club. Bottles of Cuba’s Havana Club rum poured, the music pumped, and the 15-member Salsa band that hit the stage 2am was definitely the real deal! The party energy was so over the top, bodies were moving everywhere. My meager Salsa dance lessons from the past 3 months had definitely paid off too. Content with our day, the taxi ride back to our hotel in a classic 1940s American station wagon was just more “icing on the cake”. What a stellar nightcap!

A super Saturday…..

Early rise again and a series of local stops would take us through the various residential neighborhoods surrounding Havana. Cubans were out running weekend errands, shopping for fresh produce, fish and meat for their families. This is a weekly chore for Cubans, since their government food allocations don’t last the entire month. (one major shortfall of the Cuban government’s social services). It was important for us to view/document this side of life in the Cuban community. Everyone pitching in to help make ends meet for their neighbor was a collective responsibility that was understood. We witnessed one such moment when our tour bus passed by a house where several men were hunched over something laying on the sidewalk. “What is that? Is that a….?” Yep, it was…. a freshly killed pig, being divided up and cleaned right out in the open street side. The collective gasps from our bus and the men’s facial expression (“what?”), made me chuckle as I snapped a quick photo. It sure wasn’t a sight for the squeamish, but a real glimpse of daily life in Cuba could not have been planned or more genuine for that matter.

The rest of the morning took us to another gallery featuring paper machete art by the artist Antonia Elriz, and the mansion of US author, Ernst Hemingway, before having lunch at the Terazza Restaurant. The lobster seafood fare was mouth-watering and even more interesting were the framed wall photos of Hemingway marlin fishing with Fidel Castro. Again the house band was impressive! Their jazzy, Spanish guitar rendition of Hotel California by the Eagles, had our attention and a well-deserved applause. Outside this comfy seaside location of Cojimar, a scene for a novella was being filmed while onlookers stood in the distance. We moved on, back to the city for a bit to visit a very important site during our weekend, the Museum of the Revolution. Here our guide, Jose gave us an in-depth history lesson about the early settlers of Cuba, the principles involved in both Cuban revolutions and the Battle of the Bay of Pigs. The sights, the exhibits, and more importantly the conversation that took place was one of the best moments of the weekend. It was refreshing to hear and see the history of Cuba, told by Cubans. We learned about Che’ Guevera and traced the effects of the Cuban Revolution while hearing how relations between the US and Cuban governments wasn’t always a frosty one. “Hmmm…there was another side to Cuba’s story. Colonial history does repeat itself”, we thought. Our questions were direct about Cuba’s “communist” label, and the Castro led-government. Jose answered our queries just as directly, without hesitation. The 2 hour tour/discussion was frank, revealing, and transformative. It was a view of Cuba’s existence most Americans had ever known or would hear. “How could one not think differently about Cuba and the citizens there from this point on?”.

Here’s a little of what we learned about Cuba. Did you know that…..

#1: Nickel and Cobalt represent large exports for Cuba. Cuba has the second largest nickel reserves in the world only to Russia.

#2:Cuba has two currencies. The locals use the CUP (Cuban Peso), however this money is not traded internationally due to the American embargo. Therefore a second currency was created for to allow visitors, tourists and immersion tour groups to use. This currency is called the CUC (or Cuban Convertible Peso).

#3: Baseball and dominoes are national obsessions in Cuba!

#4: American author Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” and “For whom the Bell Tolls” whilst living in Cuba.

#5: Cuba is home to nine (9) UNESCO Cultural and Natural World Heritages sites.

#6: Cuba is the real birth place of the Bacardi Rum brands. Bacardi distilling operations moved to Puerto Rico after Fidel Castro’s takeover.

#7: Cuba is the most populated country in the whole of the Caribbean. The population of Cuba totals more than eleven million.

#8: The official flower of Cuba is the Butterfly Jasmine, while the national bird is the Tocororo or the Cuban Trogon. The official tree of the Republic of Cuba is the Royal Palm.

#9: Under a socialist system, the Cuban government provides all health care and educational services to every citizen. Cubans enjoy the highest life expectancy rate of any country in Latin America or North America.

#10: Cuba boasts one of the best healthcare systems in the world. It has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world. In fact, there are so many doctors in Cuba, that the country lends doctors to other countries that face a shortage of medical professionals.

The final stop of our last day was to an unassuming corner residence in a quiet outer Havana neighborhood. We thought we’d be able to spend the remainder of our afternoon seeing a performance and meeting the local music curators. Boy, were we in for a surprise. This was not your regular Jazz joint in the traditional American sense. The 270 Club was a place of communal dance where the youngest patron was a mere 65 years old. We walked inside this home that had been converted into a dance club to see our elders, some as “young as 85 and 95” dancing up a storm. To call these golden folks, old, seemed inappropriate. The sight was an awesome experience – what a vibrant group! Just heartwarming to see these men and women loving life and bee-bopping to jazz music in such a manner. We almost could not relate to this…because the peers of our/my generation do not dance to jazz like this or at all. (We merely nod our heads while listening, unfortunately.) Our time here was magical and very moving. We got a chance to share laughs and even learned some of the swing dance moves we’d seen. The photographs of famous figures on the wall of fame and the songs that played that day will be embedded in our memories for a good while. The hugs and smiles will never be forgotten. We felt like we’d spent time at our grandparents house with their friends for an afternoon. “This was our new found home. Who could have imagined having such a unique experience like this?” In Cuba, no doubt. There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus when we left. Hands down, this was the best moment of the entire trip and so fitting that it was our last site visit. The vote was final….we love, love, love, CUBA and its’ people!

The weekend finale could not have been better. It was one last chance to take a breathe and reminisce over live music and another three-course seafood meal at the Tocororo Restaurant. We were sad to be leaving the next day, but were richly satisfied that we’d made this decision see Cuba this way. We toasted to our gracious hosts and then retired for one last night on the town. It was back to the USA the next day, loaded with photos and authentic souvenirs of our journey. Personally, I was eager to show off my authentic Cuban baseball jersey to my sports buddies. Our group zipped through customs at Miami International Airport after landing with no hassles, just as Insight Cuba had arranged – we did it!!! Our group members beamed with overwhelming pride as we thought about the intoxicating journey. Our friends, family and colleagues have got to hear all about our good time in Cuba. And we would need to figure out how to get more people to follow in our footsteps.

My personal recommendation is to consider making plans now for Cuba. The window for US government sanctioned, organized “legal travel” is not promised forever, but then again how often are great windows of opportunity in life. This was a momentous tour for the Funky People and one of our top two trips to date, in my opinion. So close, but yet so far away, there’s just so much that is undiscovered about Cuba and her culture – it deserves a encore visit for more exploration. Humbled and forever thankful to have seen a small bit this time around, we hope you join us on a future planned excursion. Until then…..sign up for all FP travel & event updates here.

Get a glimpse of the Cuba we discovered on our public site gallery. View the short videos and all three photo album links titled: Havana Cuba ~ Apr 2012.

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