Terry Lickona and I had been discussing a trip to Cuba for a few years, initially intrigued by the improving relations between D.C. and Havana and the vibrant music scene. I kept bringing it up whenever we’d have dinner every month or so until we finally found a window between Kendrick Lamar’s Austin City Limits taping and Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Terry, through his Grammys ties, was able to get us access to one of the best travel agencies specializing in bringing politicians and other Americans to Cuba. Terry’s good friend Leslie, a fluent Spanish speaker from her Peruvian lineage, and my girlfriend, Susannah, who lived in Spain for a year, joined Terry and me in growing excited for the trip during a couple of dinners the past few months as we mapped out the itinerary with our travel agency. We’d be meeting renowned Cuban musicians, seeing historically relevant sites and taking a day trip to the beautiful Viñales Valley, home to some of the country’s best tobacco farms.
After a cancelled Austin flight on Saturday morning, a flooded rental car facility in Houston, a delayed Houston flight and missed connection in Atlanta, we arrived in Miami close to midnight with an early morning flight to Havana. As Susannah said, it was hard work just getting to Cuba, and after the 33-minute flight from Miami to Havana, we were ready to get the experience started.
But from the moment we landed in Havana, the experience was a little different than I’d imagined. I soon realized that this wasn’t a vacation destination, this was a place for government-sanctioned cultural tourism.
Here are some thoughts that have occurred to me since returning to the US:
1. If I could describe Cuba in one word, it’d be interesting. But not interesting like that new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer is interesting, but interesting like the World Cup is going to take place in Qatar or the Olympics took place in Russia interesting.
2. We had an American-led travel agency and Cuban tour guide, but throughout it all it felt like Castro’s government was influencing our trip from where we ate to what history we learned.
3. Limited Internet access means you can’t make a fairly well-informed, last-minute decision based on something you found on Google so you’ll need to have your plans pretty much set entering the country. Localeur would be a great addition to this city, but the limited access to the Internet would make it difficult today.
4. To that same point, your smartphone is dumber than ever.
5. Cuba has two currencies, and despite their attempts to say otherwise, one currency is for locals and one is for tourists. The CUC is equivalent to one Euro, so a bit stronger than the US dollar, but roughly 25 Cuban pesos equal one dollar. If locals are there, you may see a menu in pesos. If locals aren’t there, the menu is probably in CUCs. Cuba really has the system down to maximize spending from tourism to act as both a foundational piece and a side piece of income for the government and its people.
6. If you ever hear someone say some bullshit about “you’re not a real local because you only moved here a couple years ago” just tell them about Chè Guevara. The man is a God in Cuba, and he wasn’t born there, and didn’t grow up there either.
7. Music is a big deal in Cuba, and not just salsa. We met folk artists (trouvador Carlos Delgado), hip-hop artists (Obscesion) and opera singers, and it was all amazing. They truly value music and respect the craft of musicianship and instrumentation.
8. Viñales Valley is extremely beautiful. It’s also extremely touristy. It’s like a quaint, Colorado mountain town got moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Magnets, t-shirts and all.
9. Only 130,000 Americans traveled to Cuba last year out of 3 million total visitors to the country. I have a feeling that number will grow rapidly even before the embargo is fully lifted, simply because Mexico, Costa Rica and other places in the Caribbean and Latin America have become over-exposed and the lack of cruise ships to Cuba prevent the Glenn Beck crowd from flooding the country.
10. The highlights of the trip: riding in a classic car to Ernest Hemingway’s old home, smoking freshly-rolled cigars straight off the farm in Viñales (truly amazing) and hearing some heartfelt performances by student opera singers in Havana.
Final thought, I hope the embargo is lifted. I think the moves Obama and Raul Castro are making are sound ones. A lot of Cuba's problems stem from US decisions, and we need to fix that. The best thing we can do as individuals is support the politicians whom support lifting the embargo and visit the country. It's a beautiful, interesting country and I'm excited to go back and see how the country improves its infrastructure. And to help people experience local without the help of a tour guide or itinerary.