Travel adventures have occupied my mind quite a bit most of my life and there are many destinations that have set up camp in my brain. I keep them tucked away and keep researching and being open to opportunities and the gut feeling when my intuition tells me it’s the right time and the right place to take action. I experienced this strong, overwhelming feeling of urgency in my gut lately that I just HAD to get to Cuba as soon as possible.
The feeling has been getting stronger and stronger with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in the past couple years. I wanted to see the island before it was changed by too many outsiders. I wanted to experience the authenticity of the people, the culture, the colors and the cars. I do love great cars – that comes from my dad who always had quite a collection and he was also a former race car driver in the 40’s. Cars are in my blood.
It was two distinct experiences a couple months apart that drove me to take action. The first was when I was watching the movie Fate of the Furious – the one we had seen them setting up for in Iceland when my college roommate and I were up in Lake Myvatn in the northern reaches of Iceland on the frozen lakes. I just had to see what they were going to do in the movie on that frozen lake. They did A LOT with it – very cool. Anyway… the beginning of the movie begins in Havana, Cuba with all those glorious, colorful 1950’s cars. The next incident was President Trump announcing he was clamping down on some of the openings that former President Obama had negotiated. As soon as I heard that, I started researching trips to Cuba to get over there before the bureaucracy but the kibosh on any travel for Americans.
I found a cruise that circumnavigated the island and made many stops along with sanctioned people-to-people cultural excursions for Americans. I decided to stay in Jamaica before and after the trip to luxuriate in the amazing resorts to soak in the ocean breezes and beaches and allow the trip to imprint on me. Just being in a place where JFK took Jackie on their honeymoon, where he wrote his inauguration speech and where Stella got her groove back in the movie of the same name; so I could feel taken care of in a most luxurious way.
So the first resort was a complete disappointment and I ended up getting a full refund due to the comedy or errors, the terrible food and the lack of service. Fortunately, the new General Manager was Swiss, who know how to do hospitality well. He had been brought in to shake things up and evidently, I was the unpaid consultant that helped him make his point to his managers about what has run them downhill from their heyday. The last resort was purely heaven, gracious hospitality, and sumptuousness to the nth degree. It was just what I had imagined with the spa, the cliffside walking paths, the organic food grown on the property and the Ralph Lauren-designed rooms overlooking the lush gardens and beach. I was pampered to within an inch of my life and I loved every single leisurely minute of it as I tried to drink in every ounce of luxury.
The cruise ship only had 200 guests instead of their usual 1200, so we were very well cared for by the staff. It was a delight to actually have time to get to know them and the other passengers as we soaked in the long-hidden culture of Cuba…at least hidden from Americans. We stopped in several ports around the island, but the jewel is Havanna….at least the few blocks that were renovated for tourist eyes to see.
I was taken aback by the oppression, falling buildings, and poverty. I had only seen the Havana that the news and the movies had wanted you to see. But there were those amazing cars – beautiful, restored 1940’s and 50’s relics that had to have magicians as owners to keep them so pristine. A weird reality is that the old car taxi drivers make $50/hour from the tourists to drive around and doctors only make $60-$100/month while the average income is around $10/month. The economic pyramid is being turned upside down. Air BnB’s are popping up as residents are now able to own a business. It was a little strange rambling around the old city taking in the culture at the same time feeling communist eyes and ears upon you. It was uneasy. Signs of Castro were still everywhere. Very strange to pull into the harbor and not see any yachts or boats…nothing except another cruise ship and the dilapidated terminals with nothing but timbers from many decades ago. The irony of the culture clash was not lost on me — pulling up to the rickety pier perched upon the deck of my Royal Suite. Disconcerting…. The whole place is falling apart. I’m certain many buildings came down after the hurricane as report were that the spray of the waves reached above the lighthouse at Havana Harbor.
The best part of the cruise was the ship’s officers offering me the Royal Suite – the largest suite on the ship because a few of my shower tiles had come up and they didn’t want me to be disturbed by the repair. The place was palatial as far as ship cabins go – you could easily fit 50 people on the deck along with its own outdoor shower, hot tub, lounge chairs and dining suite. One of the perks of having a mostly-empty ship and I’ll gladly take it. If this was part of the Cuban cultural experience, I’m in! I’m forever grateful that I listened to my intuition and took the trip….a lifetime of memories from all my senses.