RAISE YOUR HAND if you have been thinking about visiting CUBA – THE EXOTIC DESTINATION CLOSE TO HOME. In February of this year, I was lucky enough to join the ranks of Americans visiting Cuba for the first time. Until recently Cuba was this exotic and mysterious neighbor we weren’t allowed to see in person. Oh, the really adventurous could go there by flying to Mexico or Canada and flying to Cuba from there. I was not among that contingent.
So this past February I walked onto the Holland America Veendam to see for myself what the real Cuba is like. We sailed into Havana early the next morning to start our 18 hour odyssey. As we stood on the deck waiting to disembark, one of the first things you think is “It looks like a normal morning in any tropical city.” Going through customs to enter the city is quite strict. Not only do they take your picture and do x-rays, but they take your temperature. If you have any fever at all, you are not allowed entrance. Once through all the entrance lines and getting your Cuban money, you go downstairs to board your designated bus for your day out.
Trip down memory lane
I chose to ride in one of the “classic” cars of my past. These cars are being maintained and used as taxis in the city. I scored a hot pink convertible and a driver who spoke some English. The first thing you notice is there are no seat belts. After they start the car, the second thing you notice is they use leaded gas, so the fumes bring back memories.
Make no mistake this is a Communist country and all around you there buildings in various states of disrepair because there simply are no resources to fix them up. That is really a sad sight. However, all the Cuban people we met, were extremely friendly and outgoing. Our guide for the day in Havana invited us to ask her any questions about the government, the country or even their religion Santaria. We took her up on that as we rode around to various sites and learned a great deal about the culture and lives of the people of Cuba.
What would a trip to Cuba be without Cigars!
After lunch we went back to the heart of Havana and walked through the three major squares and an indoor flea market. In one of the squares we went into a shop for a little retail therapy. Since all pricing is government controlled, it doesn’t matter which shop you buy from. I got the requisite cigars and rum and also picked up some Cuban coffee.
Happily toting my purchases I climbed the gangway to the ship so that I could take a shower, eat a little dinner and get ready to head out again for my night at one of the nightclubs that were available for shore excursions. I picked the show at the Hotel Nationale de Cuba since I was interested in seeing the hotel. It was the hotel of choice for lots of American gangsters and mobsters. There is an entire room with pictures dedicated the various personalities who have stayed there.
The show itself was very colorful with lots of music and dancing and costume changes. It was very interesting and I’m glad I went, even though it started at 10pm and ended just shy of midnight. We had to hurry back to the ship since it was departing at 1:30am. For me, beginning my day at 6:00am to view our arrival into Havana and getting to bed around 12:30am after a full day of touring, was exhausting, but exhilarating just the same.
AT-SEA DAY – BUT KEEPING BUSY
The next day at sea, I attended two Microsoft workshops, an America’s Test Kitchen demonstration, a BBC show and had afternoon tea. I got my exercise jogging between the different venues as they were on different decks and in the front and back of the ship. While I was taking advantage of the activities onboard, we were steaming toward Cienfuegos, our next and last stop in Cuba.
Next stop – Cienfuegos
We arrived there early on Saturday morning, which was a market day. My pick for the shore excursion here was to a graphic arts studio and a concert of all flautists. (I’ve always wanted to use that word). They are an example of the emphasis on art and creativity of all kinds in this society. All of the graphic artists at the studio and the musicians are young people with great enthusiasm for their medium of choice.
After lunch at a very modern hotel, we went back to downtown Cienfuegos for a walk through the market and a visit to a lovely theater. Once again, you could see signs of deterioration in this beautiful building and you wish you could do something to bring it back to its glory days.
Now that the door has been opened, I hope to go back and be able to see more of this exotic neighbor of ours. The more Americans that take advantage of this opportunity, the better both cultures will be. Why don’t you join me in considering a vacation to CUBA. Contact me to schedule your next adventure.