Ah, Cuba- where do I begin?
It is ironic that I would arrive in Cuba - a country about which many Americans would say there is no freedom there - during a week when a few have been free, in the United States, to disrupt the lives of so many.
A little over 2 weeks ago, I boarded a charter flight in Miami, filled with other tourists and many Cuban expats.
The expats were carrying all sorts of merchandise - T.V.’s, computers, baby carriages - to bring to their families in Cuba. Our Cuban guide later told us that even at the $20 per pound fee the charter flight levies, it’s still the cheapest way for Cubans to get these products. There was a palpable air of excitement among them. One was wearing a paper and plastic bejeweled “Happy Birthday” crown.
When the plane touched the ground in Havana, the Cubans broke into a hardy round of applause. I don’t know how this practice originated, but I took it to be a sign of joy that they were back in their homeland, and it gave me goosebumps.
We entered into a small nondescript airport entry room. There were a few guards with very friendly looking little doggies sitting at their feet.
“They’re drug dogs,” one of our group said.
“They look so friendly and laid back,” I responded.
“That’s all right, they know what they’re looking for.”
“Ah - so they’re profiling dogs.”
“Yes, profiling drug dogs,” we all laughed.
The dogs eventually got up and wandered through the small crowd, wagging their tails and sniffing around the bags.
After a brief time in the airport waiting room, we were met by our wonderful Cuban guide and driver - Martin and Felipe. We had already met up with our unlikely American tour leader, Tracy, a lovely Southern belle from Georgia who has fallen in love with Cuba, the night before in Miami. Turns out, Cuba has a very stringently enforced drug law. Martin told us- any amount, of even marijuana - 25 years in jail.
I suppose that’s an understandable position, as the government of Fulgencio Batista which Fidel Castro and his forces overthrew, gave its tacit approval to (and greatly profited from) the Mafia’s turning Cuba into a huge international drug trafficking port. Martin reminded me later that Cuba is an island closely surrounded by countries where drugs are plentiful.
We finished up fairly quickly at the airport, loaded on to our bus, and off we drove to Revolucion Square.
Edwin, my fellow tourist and a Nuyorican, who, like me, keenly felt his kinship and shared history with Cuba, and who also like me, had looked forward to this trip for years - whispered to me that this was still a surreal experience for him, as we stood on the square, looking around us at the 1940’s and 50’s autos, and the huge icons of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, both heroes of the Cuban revolution. Indeed, it took a while to sink in that we really were on Cuban soil.
After our stroll around the square and a brief ride around central Havana, we were driven to Old Havana, a district in the heart of the city, which is the core of original Havana, and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I searched in our walk through it, and over the next couple of days, for signs of commonality with New Orleans - the Plaza de Armas, so similar to Jackson Square and Pirate’s Alley, the former Place D’Armes - even the name tiles are the same as the street name tiles in New Orleans - the narrow streets lined with Spanish style houses built so close together but yielding sights of lovely expansive courtyards within, even a little storefront tavern in a private house, so reminiscent of many I passed by as a child in the 7th Ward.
Then it was time for lunch, where we were served our first welcome cocktail (usually a Mojito, but Cuba Libres were available, too), and were entertained by the first of many bands (music is everywhere in Cuba) that played for us during our visit.
You'll find a recipe for Mojitos and more pics on the next page...