Taking a Family Vacation in Cuba
Before long, Cuba might be just another Caribbean island. But for now it’s the setting for a family trip like no other.
I am standing on the roof deck of the Hotel Saratoga, on the edge of Old Havana. The sky is a supersaturated blue that inspires local artists to say things like, “We know our country by the sky.” The sea, beating against the stone walls of the Malecón and sending geysers of salt spray twenty feet in the air, is an inkier blue, with wide bands of turquoise and a bilious green. Against this lurid backdrop, the buildings—the Partagás cigar factory across Fraternity Park, the high-domed Capitolio, the Gran Teatro, with winged figures dancing on its turrets—seem leached of all color and crumbling to dust, as if the adoring gaze of visitors, not decades of neglect, had reduced the city to rubble. Five centuries of architecture in a pentimento of repair—and disrepair—spliced together with scaffolding and laundry lines like an illustration from a David Macaulay pop-up book: It’s a beautiful, decaying mess.
While I am having an aesthetic orgasm, two thirtyish women, one blond, one brunette, Russian from the sound of them, are lasciviously rubbing each other with suntan oil as they loll on their chaises by the pool.
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“Did you see that?” My friend Lane joins me by the railing. “Her.” She gestures with her chin. “The dark-haired one locked eyes with me.”
“Don’t look back,” I say, “or you’ll turn to stone like one of those cherubs. This is supposed to be a family affair.”
Cuba is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of a typical family vacation—even when the family, as in our case, is rather creatively defined; in our imagination the country is equal parts Buena Vista Social Club and Our Man in Havana, the movie version of which opens on a rooftop much like this. Yet on some level it is entirely appropriate, and not just because Cuba has all the characteristics of a dysfunctional family—an authoritarian father figure, fond of wagging his long, manicured forefinger; squabbling siblings hurling insults across the Straits of Florida; and heartbroken mothers, like the Damas de Blanco, punished for speaking up.
More to the point, “normalization”—begun under Jimmy Carter in 1977—seems inevitable: Fidel won’t live forever. Obama won big in Miami. Even Cuban-American hardliners who resist lifting the embargo support attempts to ease travel regulations. Before long Cuba will be a destination like any Caribbean island. And what could be more normal than a family vacation?
Normal, of course, is relative. An institution that may sound in theory as cheery and wholesome as Disneyland—or a comic road trip with Chevy Chase—can turn out to be as laden with emotional baggage, and as scary, as Cuba. When I was growing up, family vacations were like Two Years Before the Mast. My father, as much of an autocrat as Castro, was a die-hard sailor, so my sisters and I spent summers on Long Island Sound, hurling into our barf buckets while our mother, heartbreakingly stoic, reluctantly played the role of first mate. The problem with the family vacation is the family.
Most people traveling from Miami to Cuba are family; they are the only U.S. citizens who can make the trip without violating the moth-eaten Trading with the Enemy Act, which says, essentially, that Americans can’t spend money in Cuba. They’re the ones we see in the Miami airport queuing at the baling machine with enormous piles of clothing, TV sets, personal-hygiene products, and bedding earmarked for relatives on the island.
For the rest of us—even Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who visited Havana with their mothers and bodyguards—travel to Cuba is still about jumping through hoops. Our way in is via my nephew-in-law, Steve Hart, who runs an educational travel company and has arranged, through his pals at Mass Humanities, what’s called a “people-to-people” license. According to the Treasury Department guidelines, P2P tours must “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.” In short, our experience will be fairly scripted. This is good news with respect to family dynamics: Deprived of choice, no one can be too bossy. Like socialism, it levels the playing field.
Our group is a loose collective of family and old friends. There’s Robin and Susie, two of my sisters, and Susie’s lawyer husband, Greg. Robin has invited Verna, a chatty old high school chum, and her taciturn husband, Ken, who’d probably have preferred to stay home in his woodworking shop. Lane is my oldest friend and something like a sister; we both know Michela, an artist. Good little compañeros all, we march onto our plane.
Fifty minutes later, everyone cheers and we’re on the tarmac of a harmless-looking tropical island. The smiling customs officer snaps our photo and waves us through. We fetch our lilliputian luggage. Pet the drug-sniffing dog. Drop a coin in the bathroom attendant’s saucer for a scrap of toilet paper. Then the gate buzzes and we emerge into sunlight and palm trees and the din of a crying, screaming crowd. It’s like being thrust into the large and sweaty bosom of a family reunion.
After a welcome like that it’s almost a letdown to be cocooned inside the air-conditioned belly of a tour bus, where we meet our local guide, a pint-size fireball named Milagros Chong, who speaks idiomatic English and laughs as much as she talks, which is a lot.
“Okay,” Mili says. “Say, ‘Hola, Mili.’ ”
“Hola, Mili,” we crow.
“And this is Humberto,” she says. “He is the very best driver in all of Cuba. Say, ‘Hola, Humberrrrto.’ ”
We roll our R’s right back.
With a hissing of air brakes, we pull out of the lot and are greeted immediately by a big red, green, and pale-blue billboard with that famous Alberto Korda image of Che Guevara.
“¡Hola, Che!” Welcome to Cuba.
“The thing that’s so trippy about Cuba,” my friend Lindsy had said over lunch in Miami, “is there’s no advertising.” She’s right, of course, but you can’t ignore the billboards. Sometimes they’re propaganda. And sometimes they sound like the motivational double-talk in an episode of The Office: “Para tener más, hay que partir de producir más.” (“To have more, it is necessary to begin by producing more.”) A few years ago, dueling billboards sprouted near the U.S. Special Interest Section’s offices, where the Christmas decorations included Santa Claus, a reference to jailed dissidents, and a quote from Abraham Lincoln. The Cubans retaliated with a billboard across the street showing pictures of Abu Ghraib, a swastika, and “Made in the USA.”
Visiting Cuba feels like visiting relatives no one speaks to—which is part of the appeal. If you asked the compañeros why they signed on, they’d all say something different—the art, the music, the unspoiled beaches, the chance to visit a place where, we hear, even female brain surgeons wear hot pants to work. But everyone would mention the allure of the forbidden.
Seven hours later, we are sitting in an airless conference room, listening to a PowerPoint presentation about America’s historical abuse of Cuba. I am struggling to keep my eyes open. We’ve already toured the stations of the revolutionary cross—from sunbaked Revolution Square, where Castro once fainted two hours into one of his five-hour speeches, to the sea-splashed ramparts of La Cabana fortress, where Che coolly ordered the execution of scores of political prisoners, traitors, and chivatos (rats). We’ve been up and down the stairs of the Museum of the Revolution, Fulgencio Batista’s former Presidential Palace, touching bullet holes in the wall above the bust of José Martí and snickering self-consciously at the Rincón de los Cretinos, where caricatures of Batista, Reagan, and both Bushes are captioned with versions of “Thank you, cretin, for making socialism inevitable.”
Tai Power Seeff captures the beauty and history of Havana and Trinidad, Cuba. view slideshow
Now, feeling both stupid and scolded, I jerk myself fully awake in time to hear my brother-in-law, Greg, who is capable of saying challenging things in a nonconfrontational way, suggest that dealing with the embargo is not the first thing on our government’s to-do list. This is why it’s good to have a lawyer in the family.
If the Revolution is the backbone of cubanidad, its heart and soul is an effervescent population. By day, Havana is all bustle: Pedicabs career around the narrow streets, where old men play cards on the stoops of pocket “private” businesses, like a “cafeteria” with a hot plate and two chairs. Women, clutching their ration books, line up ten, fifteen deep for bimonthly rations of rice, beans, sugar, and cooking oil, while street vendors hustle flowers and photo ops. Restoration workers clamber up wooden ladders, swinging their hand tools, and a few houses down, a balcony falls into the street below.
In Cuba, they sigh, no es fácil. And there’s always a sense that beneath the pleasant hum of everyday life is another parallel life which makes a scratching sound, like mice trapped in a wall. But the schoolchildren who throng the Paseo del Prado—that tree-lined promenade which stretches nearly a mile from the Malecón to the Parque Central—look so innocent, perched on tiny stools, busily drawing along with their teachers; and the streets feel sunny and safe enough that a loner like Michela can wander off and engage friendly strangers in conversation without keeping one hand on her wallet.
After night falls, the city dresses up as someone else—someone who dresses like Johnny Depp as Bon Bon, the transvestite, in Before Night Falls. Even the scrawny stray cats, rubbing against the chair rungs in waterfront cafés, have a louche sway to their hips. One night we go to the Café del Oriente—where the Belle Époque decor and the B-movie crowd more than make up for the mediocre food—and afterward we walk through Old Havana. In Cathedral Square, a fat full moon hangs between the ruined buildings, and dance music pours out of every bar—a different band every few yards, so it sounds like we’re punching buttons on an old car radio.
“Look,” Robin whispers, pointing up ahead. “Susie and Greg are holding hands.”
“You know what they say,” I whisper back. “Sex is better in Cuba, even with your spouse.”
Transportation, like most things Cuban, is an exercise in creative problem solving. People pedal rusting bikes, families cram into motorcycle sidecars, and on the highway to Santa Clara, horse-and-carts move slowly past lines of hitchhikers. So traveling by tour bus is only slightly less mortifying than being hauled around in a rickshaw by a bantamweight Cuban. But the bus has the advantage of being spacious enough to accommodate our different personalities. Michela, who winters in Buenos Aires, can move up front to lecture Steve and Mili about the similarities between Cuba and Argentina. My sister Susie, whose favorite things in life are her animals and her downtime, can retreat to the back of the bus with her meditation tape. Given our schedule, we all need a rolling break.
We have one more stop along Revolutionary Road before we make our way to Cienfuegos, through the lush landscape of a country where a big papaya can cost more than a day’s wages. Where the state makes it easier, I hear, to get a sex-change operation than a tonsillectomy. And where teaching, as Mili did before she followed the money into tourism, went from being a reasonably well-paid profession, when Cuba was a client of Russia, to the unsustainable province of mostly amateurs.
“How can a street sweeper make as much as a lawyer?” We pester Mili with our idiotic questions, although there are things she’d be foolhardy to say out loud; she grew up, like every schoolchild in Cuba, reciting, “We will be like Che.”
Just outside Santa Clara, site of the battle that put Batista on the ropes, the Che Memorial is a complex of several buildings, including a museum where pilgrims can pore over personal memorabilia—the pistol, the journals, the beret of course—and buy picture postcards.
“Check this out,” I say to Verna, who has a serious crush on Che. “Here’s one you don’t have yet.”
“No!” she huffs. “I want him smiling.”
Alberto Korda, whose accidental snapshot of Che is said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography—so often that it might as well be a logo—was a fashion photographer until he fell in love with a revolution “more beautiful than a woman.” And there is something vaguely erotic about this fetish-laden shrine to the world’s sexiest revolutionary—even in the chaste and dimly lit mausoleum, where Che’s remains are interred with those of twenty-nine other guerrillas, including Tania, the woman who was rumored to have been his lover and whose name Patty Hearst took when she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army. Are sex and revolution always conflated? I wonder as I walk back outside, where Susie is doing yoga in a small patch of grass near our bus. Not when you think of Gandhi or Rosa Luxemburg.
I’m hungry and it’s too hot to think. All I know is that under the soaring royal palms and unmistakable Cuban blue sky, gazing up at the bold geometry of Che’s memorial and knowing that half a million citizens of Santa Clara volunteered thousands of hours of labor to build it—why, if standing inside Chartres could make you believe in religion, or standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial could make you believe in democracy, then this could make you believe in the revolution.
There’s a joke in Cuba that the three greatest successes of the revolution are health, education, and sports; and the three greatest failures are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To that I would add the three great unintentional consequences: thousands of square miles of unspoiled and biologically diverse wilderness; countless architectural treasures, seven of which are designated (and funded) as UNESCO World Heritage Sites; and a vibrant visual arts culture that can take advantage of both the Cuban educational system and a kink in the embargo which has opened it to buyers in the American art market.
Cienfuegos provides access to all three. About a third of the way down this crocodile-shaped island, on the Caribbean coast, it’s just thirty miles from the Zapata Swamp, the largest protected wetland in the Caribbean. But we’re in Cuba to commune with people, not plants, and must, alas, make do with a brief guided tour of the nearby Botanical Gardens, two hundred–odd acres of exotic flora, including hundreds of varieties of palms, dozens of flashy orchids, and thick vines that inspire Steve to grab hold and make like Tarzan. Here we stroll in the shade of giant trees, swatting at mosquitoes and smelling strange flowers, like one that reeks of dirty laundry. Then a quick bathroom break before hitting the road again.
“Do you have some change for the attendant?” I ask Verna.
“Of course,” Verna says. “But she probably makes more than a doctor.”
When we pull into Cienfuegos, it’s clear why the city is called the Pearl of the South. The historic center is a perfect example of French neoclassical architecture, all beautifully restored, with a pristine town square where freshly painted green chairs line up at attention. The outskirts feel like a sleepy seaside town. Horse-drawn carriages clatter down dusty streets, and men carry huge strings of garlic slung over their shoulders like bandoliers; at dusk the setting sun turns pale-blue buildings purple and casts a burnt-orange glow over the young boys fishing for their dinner from the pier. Cienfuegos has the vaguely raffish charm of an artists’ colony—like Key West in the early ’60s—and is, in fact, home to a close-knit community of local artists whose studios we will visit on our art crawl. But first, a people-to-people “discussion” with members of the local branch of UNEAC, the National Writers and Artists Union, after which we are presented with our portraits—savagely hilarious caricatures that have been sketched by a couple of strolling artists who now expect to be paid. Thank you, cretins, for making socialism possible.
By the time we leave Cienfuegos later that afternoon, our cultural plate has been filled to the point that we’re having a hard time digesting it all. Along with the half-dozen local artists’ studios we visited in the morning, we had already been to seven museums and the house of José Fuster, the tile artist who’s turned his entire Jaimanitas neighborhood into a Gaudí-esque fantasia. We’d been serenaded by a salsa band in Cathedral Square and by the Cantores de Cienfuegos choir. We’d seen Hemingway’s house, his favorite bar, and the burial plot for four of his dogs. We’d been to a rehearsal of Ebony, a struggling young dance company, and to closing night of the National Ballet of Cuba, where the great prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, ninety-one years old and nearly blind, was escorted onstage to take a half-dozen curtain calls. “Oh my God,” Robin said, “I was afraid they were going to kill her.”
As crazy as our schedule has been, it’s probably a more interesting way to see Cuba than the typical sand-and-surf vacation that Canadians and Europeans have been enjoying here for decades—or so I suspect, because the Hotel las Brisas in Trinidad is the sort of place they flock to.
Out on Ancón Peninsula, one of the areas first developed after the revolution, Las Brisas is the kind of all-inclusive resort that was originally designed to keep out everyday Cubans. It’s a sprawling compound built in what the brochure calls “colonial style,” but it more closely resembles a bunch of hastily assembled props for an amateur production of South Pacific. There are about two hundred rooms, some with hot water. In ours, an icy trickle drips from the showerhead. The lights don’t have bulbs, and through the broken patio door we can hear a loudspeaker booming from the stage across the courtyard. In the hangar-size dining hall, where two hundred French runners with sharp elbows crowd the steam tables, the food is so bland that unless you’re carbo-loading too, it feels like there’s nothing to eat.
“Yum,” says Ken. “Potato, the other white meat.”
But you don’t go to Cuba for the food. You get better Cuban food in Miami. And you don’t go to Cuba for five-star hotels. (I know a woman who was bumped from her hotel and relocated to a mental hospital.) You go for something mas piquante—which is not what you find at Las Brisas. This place, I complain, is like a country club prison. And so at night the men roam around the edges of the outdoor cabaret, toting bottles of wine. The women, in a fit of capitalist pique, compete ferociously for the two-dollar beaded bracelets.
“That’s mine,” says Lane.
“I saw it first,” says Robin, grabbing it.
“I have two of those: I’ll sell you one,” Susie whispers to Verna.
Fortunately for us, Trinidad is only fifteen minutes by taxi from Las Brisas. It’s a pretty pastel town that flourished during the sugar and slave trades and today depends on tobacco processing and tourists like us, who clamber along the cobblestones, admiring the conservation work that has made historic Trinidad a jewel in the crown of surrounding slums.
We have already spent one evening at Davimart, a local paladar, one of Cuba’s new-style private restaurants, enjoying grilled lobster—the best meal of our trip—and several hours touring a pottery studio, where I was convinced to take my turn at the wheel. Throwing pots is probably the Cuban version of karaoke.
Today, however, is a rare free morning, and the photographers are feasting on gorgeous images. With the purplish foothills of the Escambray Mountains in the background, Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor is postcard perfect: churches and repurposed baronial homes, terra-cotta roofs and white-painted iron fences. A pregnant Xolo dog, with the sparse facial bristles of a pig that barely escaped the pig roast, sits on her haunches, dugs drooping to the brick sidewalk, next to a turquoise wall. Through the half-closed wooden shutters of a day care center, toddlers nap under a wall mural of Snow White, Mickey, and Minnie.
And so it goes. Hot, languorous, and just enervating enough that by the time we gather on a corner, waiting for our bus, I am ready to engage the old man whose donkey wears a sign on its halter that reads RENT ME. Steve ducks into the local bodega to pick up box lunches for our ride back to Havana. And Michela is trying to tell us about something she discovered, but a toothless old woman has appeared at her elbow and begins pestering her. “No,” says Michela. “Vamoose.”
The woman peers up at Michela, purses her rubbery lips, and makes a kissy face.
“Look,” says Michela. “She’s telling me to kiss off! Because I won’t give her any money. No! No dinero.”
The woman continues kissing the air.
“Oh, all right,” Michela says, digging in her bag for a coin. “Now go away. Basta.”
The woman laughs, showing her gums.
The rest of us giggle. The more Michela resists, turning this way and that, the more the woman dogs her—and the more we laugh. Kiss. Basta! Kiss. Giggle.
Finally, Michela turns her back, arms akimbo. The woman walks away, then turns around and, looking at us conspiratorially, tiptoes back up and gently kisses Michela right between the shoulder blades. It was the most candid people-to-people moment we had.
“This would be a perfect place to stay if you were traveling with children,” someone said gamely. We had been sitting on a sugary slice of beach, on a bay of turquoise water so salty we barely needed to scull to stay afloat—the best thing about Las Brisas.
“You couldn’t do a trip like this with little kids,” said my sister the grandmother, looking up from her book. “The food is too weird, and the bathrooms are too iffy.”
“I hate children,” said Verna, mother of five.
No cell phones, no credit cards, no children—my formula for an ideal family vacation. Which may have been exactly what our parents had in mind. Unlike my aunt and uncle, who drove cross-country with my cousins in a VW bus, they were no more interested in a family vacation than we were. Two decades later, when we began taking “sisters vacations” to mark our mother’s death, we had very specific ground rules: no parents, no spouses, no kids.
This trip to Cuba was a chance to do something different while we could still get up and salsa. In a manner of speaking, of course. When Mili tries to teach us a few steps one night after dinner, Susie and I hide under the table. Robin, who is five foot ten, lurches around gamely, supported by five-foot-tall Mili. “Look,” Mili calls out, laughing. “It’s Alicia Alonso.”
Salsa seems seductively familiar, but it’s as complicated—polyrhythmic and asymmetrical, the beat buried under a wall of different sounds—as Cuba. And as openhearted, as expressive, as Cuba seems, we’re just skimming the surface. Granted it’s a beautiful surface: “To live in Havana,” Graham Greene wrote, “was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt.” It’s easy to fall in love—“We have to help these people,” Lane says, time and again. “We have so much in common.”
What we don’t have in common is money. The really trippy thing about Cuba is that there’s no discretionary income—of course there’s no advertising. As someone pointed out, spending time in Cuba is like visiting a Communist theme park: After all, we can leave. Our only real point of reference to what our Cuban friends live with is a memory of when we were prisoners of our families, restless citizens on the island of adolescence.
Paradoxically, part of Cuba’s appeal is that it’s been cut off from the worst of America: the consumerism, the ignorance, the overdevelopment, the waste. People joke that when you arrive in Cuba, you set your watch back fifty years.
But Cuba isn’t really fixed in amber. Creative by necessity, it’s been jerry-rigged from pieces of the well-preserved past, the exigent present, and the ever-hopeful future—like “Yank tanks,” those classic ’50s American cars, imported before the revolution, retrofitted with Russian motors, lovingly cared for with homemade paint and metal trim, and licensed, under one of Cuba’s forward-leaning laws, as privately owned taxis.
On our last night in Havana, Steve, whom we have taken to calling Papa, commandeers three convertibles—kandy-kolored streamlined babies in pink, red and white, and yellow—and we blast off past the park and the crenellated golden arches of Havana’s Chinatown, stopping at lights only long enough for the cars to belch smoke and rumble.
“Remember the summer Daddy rented us a convertible?” I yell to my sister Robin.
“You mean the one we wrecked?”
“Yes. Why on earth did he do that?”
“I think,” she calls back to me, “he was trying to do something nice for once.”
Then we’re off again, the wind and the fumes in our faces, cruising the Avenue of the Presidents, with its topiary trees like giant chess pieces. Past the Hotel Nacional, that grand old temple of temptation from Havana’s salad days, and all along the sea-splashed Malecón. It’s as exhilarating as a communal dream, where past and present and future collide, and freedom is a thing with tail fins.
Rules of the Game
Many foreign travel destinations are circumscribed by warnings from the U.S. State Department or the Centers for Disease Control, but Cuba is governed by the Treasury Department, specifically the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which decides who can travel to the island and when. Since the Obama administration’s announcement in January 2011 reinstating so-called people-to-people trips to Cuba, OFAC has issued licenses to travel companies and other groups that organize “purposeful travel.”
Our trip was put together by Steve Hart, a Cuba travel expert who has led tours for a number of organizations (firstname.lastname@example.org). Groups that have OFAC-issued licenses include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and alumni organizations at Princeton, Tufts, UCLA, Smith, and Harvard, to name a few. Others can be found at the Latin American Working Group’s Web site. Several travel outfitters, including Austin-Lehman Adventures, Backroads, and National Geographic, are also licensed to operate people-to-people tours.
Many tours require strict (some would say rigid) adherence to a preset itinerary. Insight Cuba, however, offers some flexibility in customizing a tour to particular interests. Tom Popper, Insight Cuba’s president, says, “Most Americans have waited their whole lives for the chance to travel to Cuba. It has come and gone in the past, and who knows how long it will stay. The time to go is now” (800-450-2822; three-night trips from $2,095).
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