HAVANA, CUBA (WBTV) - I went to Cuba on a cultural trip expecting to eat great food and see a country I knew next to nothing about, I came back with so much more.
All eyes are on Cuba for the next few days as President Obama and the Tampa Bay Rays make historic visits to Cuba's capital city, Havana.
It's a place that many Americans have not had to opportunity to visit for the last 50 years because of an embargo, travel restrictions, and unfriendly diplomatic relations. In fact, the last president to visit Cuba made the 90 mile voyage on an aircraft carrier almost 90 years ago. It was Calvin Coolidge who made the trip in 1928.
All of that is changing, last year the U.S. Embassy opened in Havana and travel restrictions were reduced. Just this week it was announced that a US hotel company was going to be able to run a few Cuban hotels, something that would have been unheard of before.
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But, before a major travel restriction was lifted for US citizens this past week, I visited the beautiful country.
I had very few expectations. What was I walking into? I had not idea. But I was more than ready for the adventure.
My only exposure to Cuba was through history books and that described a war-torn country. I made all of my arrangements through a travel agency that specializes in Cuban travel. I went on a "people to people" trip. That is a travel designation which means, for the trip I was on, we had a packed schedule of meaningful, engaging events that centered around the food and culture of Cuba. We were not there as tourists, that's important. But that also doesn't mean I didn't take every opportunity possible to drink from a fresh coconut and walk around the city with my camera.
We spent our days walking through the streets of Havana that are dotted with brightly painted buildings and collapsed buildings beyond repair. We learned about the county's culture and customs, economy, history, architecture and food. All are woven tightly into the fabric of the culture. Did I mention the food? (We ate well.)
In the coverage of the President's trip, you will see colorful buildings and old American cars, but you will also see a very poor, rundown country that appears to be stuck in the past. Don't let that last part fool you, these people might not have a lot of money, but they are resilient. It's a culture that greatly value relationships, family and quality time.
We were told that Cubans make about $20 US per month. Many of their local goods are inexpensive by our standards or provided through the Cuban government. Other than that, they just make it work on a daily basis.
It's not uncommon for two friends to randomly see each other on the street, meet and hug. We were told they do that, "Because we are Cuban." It's just what they do. They love their people. They take care of each other.
With the help of our guide, we met locals. One night, after a long day of travel and planned activities, we had dinner on our own. This gave us the opportunity to walk through some of the less "touristy" areas of Havana. One of the Cubans we met had a place she wanted to try for dinner, so a small group of us happily followed. Unfortunately, natural gas in the area was out, not grilling, no ovens. It was getting late, and we were out of ideas, especially since we didn't know how widespread the gas outage was.
One of the workers at the restaurant, who we didn't know, volunteered to walk our group eight or more blocks to a restaurant that he thought would be clear from the outage. It was a place where his friend worked. I don't know about you, but I don't see many people direct business to another establishment, let alone walk a group of foreigners there. When we got there, our restaurant guide for the night did what we saw so many Cubans do, he hugged his friend and other workers there.
That's an act of kindness that I won't soon forget. That man truly went the extra mile for a bunch of outsiders. It was a real gut check. If given the opportunity, would I have gone out of my way, and dropped everything, on an unexpected night off of work to help complete strangers?
Don't let the lack of US tourism fool you, Cuba has a massive tourism industry among Europe, Asia, Latin countries and even Canada. Tourism is actually fueling a lot of the renovation you see around town, especially in an area called Old Havana. Top restaurants and even a microbrewery near the port fund projects that revitalize some of the most popular tourism areas. In turn. more Cubans are hired to work in the tourism industry.
The floodgates for US tourists are still not completely open, however rates of visitors from the north are supposed to spike in the next year. As of an announcement Tuesday, US citizens can now travel to the island for "people to people" educational trips. The ban on "tourism" by the US government is still in place.
Even though I traveled with proper papers, visas, and purpose, going through customs makes my heart pound. When our group landed in Miami and went through the customs lines, filled out questionnaires and talked to agents, a government official stopped me and pulled me to the side. My heart stopped. She asked where I arrived from and I answered Havana. She asked what I was there for. "A people to people trip," I answered.
"Did you enjoy your time?"
"Yes, very much."
She then smiled and said, "Thank you for visiting my country." She also said she was hoping to go back at the first chance she had to see her family again.
From what I gathered, she was among the many people who came to the United States to make a better life for herself and her family back in Cuba. What got me was that she still loves her home country and her people, even though she left.
"Will you go back?" She asked.
"I hope to."
It was the heart of the people that completely won me over and made the country even more beautiful in my eyes. Few days have gone by where I haven't thought of my trip, the people I encountered and the sites we saw.