Travel enough and you’ll experience some interesting things, but for me one event trumps all others, considering I’ve lived in South Florida now longer than anywhere else. I was in Havana, Cuba – a place most Americans couldn’t easily travel to for a generation – when Fidel Castro died.
The journey to Cuba began in December 2014, when then-President Obama announced he was normalizing relations, opening the door to ease travel restrictions with the island nation just 90 miles south of Key West, after more than a half century. I remember that day because my workplace was immediately contacted by a reporter to comment. This was not something many people ever thought could happen in our lifetimes.
From the time of Obama’s announcement, it took almost two years for commercial airlines to unwind years of red tape to establish air routes to Cuba. Fellow traveler and friend Christi was interested in going, too, and she took the lead, investigating all of the needed details. We both like traveling over Thanksgiving, so that was the date we decided to shoot for, in 2016. Timing worked out as Southwest began its first flights between Florida and Cuba in mid-November. The only hiccup was that there was no direct commercial flight to Havana, yet, so to make our dates work, we would have to fly in and out of Varadero, a beach resort town about two hours from Havana. About a week before we left, Christi said another friend wanted to jump on the trip. In hindsight, it was fortuitous to have this very tall man, our friend Tim, join us as the third amigo and unplanned bodyguard – not that we needed one, mind you, but it did put our family and friends at ease to have a guy along on the trip.
We purchased our Cuban Visas at the airport in Fort Lauderdale for $50 just before boarding our flight. We arrived at the Varadero airport, the least pleasant airport I’ve ever been to, late in the afternoon the day before Thanksgiving, and nervously made our way through immigration, hoping everything would be okay. We had done everything right, but were in uncharted territory. As an American citizen, when you visit Cuba – and it has been this way for years – you must declare one of a list of approved purposes for going, and you had better be prepared to show proof. Christi suggested we select “people-to-people cultural exchange.” This option has since been prohibited as one of the official reasons for Americans to visit Cuba. As I officially entered the country, I didn’t get a Cuban stamp on my passport – you had to have asked the agent to do so – but I was thankful to get in without a hitch. Next up, the ride to Havana.
Christi used her “rusty” (her description, not mine) Spanish to negotiate a taxi from Veradero to Havana. After a stop at a gas station, we were on our way. In the short time it took to drive out of the airport we saw our first 1950s American cars, which we would see a lot of throughout the trip. Christi had booked an AirBnB apartment in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. The apartment was older, probably built mid-century, like many pre-embargo buildings in Cuba, but in decent condition and comfortable. We learned quickly that the person she had been communicating with in perfect English regarding the apartment was not the on-site Cuban owner/AirBnB host, but likely a third party, perhaps a relative or friend in the U.S. or Canada who was running the listing. The hostess didn’t speak any English – which is something travelers to Cuba should never assume, and be ready to navigate. Plus, it became very apparent once we were there how tightly controlled Internet access is by the government for Cuban citizens. Even for tourists, Internet access is extremely limited. We could only get online for an hour at a time by purchasing a code in a wifi area, in our case, hotel lobbies. We saw people lined up on the street near a telecom company accessing the Internet even before Castro’s death. Afterward, the crowds outside the telecom storefronts were huge.
Unlike many buildings in the heart of Old Havana a few miles away, the Vedado, which dates back to 1898, is one of the best maintained areas in Havana. That said, there are still crumbling mansions interspersed in the neighborhood. Most interestingly to me, the Vedado is home of historic hotels including the Hotel Nacional, an oceanfront resort modeled on The Breakers Palm Beach, and the Capri, a mid-century time capsule hotel I was in love with – one of the first hotels built to cater to the American Mafia in the 1950s. Both hotels are owned by the Cuban government. As tourist spots equipped with wifi, the hotels became important to us for connectivity later in the trip when friends and family from home wanted to hear from us. We found a fun nightclub in the neighborhood for our first mojitos, as well as a great restaurant, Starbien, that we returned to later in the trip. We were also befriended by an adorable stray dog who followed us to the club and waited for us to come out. Christi ended up taking him back to the AirBnB for the night and snuck him out the next morning when the host unexpectedly came by to make us breakfast.
We had to deal in cash pretty much everywhere. They didn’t accept credit cards, perhaps due to the lack of an official financial relationship with the U.S. Despite the currency being pegged to the U.S. Dollar, there was a tax on changing American money to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) in Cuba, so we opted to get Euros from our banks at home and exchanged the Euros for CUCs at the airport. At the time, the equivalent of $650 US was plenty of money for me for a five-day, six night trip, not including the flight and AirBnB, which were paid for in advance. Almost everything is negotiable there, especially things you buy off the street like trinkets – or the Russian vinyl Beatles album I found – talk about a rarity! Even at a restaurant, we were offered a prix-fixe meal of 25 CUC, which included a ton of food, but we asked if they had a smaller option and ended up getting a meal that still included a huge amount of food – TWO lobster tails – for 15 CUC. There is a second currency, Cuban Pesos, which is worth almost nothing. We were cautioned not to exchange Cuban Pesos for CUCs, which someone did try to do, apparently a common scam on tourists.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we wandered around on foot and saw some of the sights in our neighborhood, had dinner and overall a great time. Some of us, more than others, were desperate for wifi and connection to the outside world, so we spent some time at the Hotel Nacional. We had a mojito at the bar where many pre-Cuban-revolution American gangsters and celebrities had hung out. I imagine the iconic scene in The Godfather Part II where the Corleone and other crime families pass around a golden telephone and talk about how wonderful it is to do mafia business in Cuba. That scene must have been set in a fictional version of the Hotel Nacional. I scoped out an upcoming show at the hotel by the legendary Buena Vista Social Club that was scheduled for later in the weekend and tentatively planned to go. Little did anyone know, that show wouldn’t be happening. Later, after a much-needed nap, we headed to a Beatles-themed bar Christi had discovered in her research called Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine), for some live music.
On what was Black Friday home in the states, we had another day of sightseeing. We took an organized walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) that Christi had booked, one part exploration and one part validation that our trip was at least somewhat educational in nature. After a day of walking around the city learning its history, being serenaded at lunch with the Cuban classic Guantanamera, and having drinks at one of the many bars frequented by Ernest Hemingway during his time on the island, we hit it off with our tour guide and made plans to go out to a nightclub frequented by locals later that night. We packed into a questionable taxi – one of many, because essentially every car with a driver looking to make some cash could be a taxi. The bar was an old, well-maintained mansion. On the wall was a vintage telephone, the kind used from the late 1800s to the 1940s. I had taken a photo of myself (incorrectly holding the earpiece) of a similar phone by the bar at the Hotel Nacional – not exactly something you see every day in Fort Lauderdale, where even people living on the streets have a smartphone. That phone was the kind of thing you see and think of as just a decorative antique. We had some drinks and made our way around the rooms of the mansion/bar, when suddenly everyone in the bar started to get calls on their cell phones. I happened to be near the old telephone as this was happening, and to my surprise, it rang. A large, tall and clearly overserved man near the phone picked it up and answered it in Spanish. That moment was surreal enough for me, but then our tour guide gave us the news. Fidel Castro was dead. After the initial surprise, he said, “Oh [bleep], they’re going to close down the club!” and proceeded to go directly to the bar to buy a bottle of rum from the bartender.
What our tour guide realized was that the news of Castro’s death had triggered a nine-day-long period of national – government imposed – mourning, which meant no music, no performances of any kind – including street performers, no bars, and no liquor sales. We could still have a glass of wine with dinner, but that was about it. So what do you do when you’re unceremoniously kicked out of a bar well before closing time with nowhere to go? You accompany your tour guide, his friend and their bottle of rum to the Malecón, a five-mile stretch of oceanfront sidewalk and seawall in Havana, which Google tells me is also known as “the world’s longest sofa.” And so it was for us, contemplating the old-age death of the island’s most famous resident while sitting alongside an oceanfront Cuban people have used to escape, or try to escape, the island in homemade rafts.
The next morning, all was quiet, very literally, as the luto nacional (national mourning) period had begun. I naively didn’t think this very significant world event would be a cause for alarm for our family and friends, because of how calm the situation was in Cuba, but we found out soon that while we sat along the Malecón drinking rum the night before, a couple hundred miles away in Miami people celebrated in the streets, banging on pots and pans in joy at the quiet end of the dictator who forever changed the historical course of their homeland. So the moment we surfaced on social media that morning from the lobby of a hotel, we were inundated with messages from concerned people checking on us. I had no cell phone access so I messaged my family through Facebook and let them know everything was okay.
We were safe and sound, however, the party was over. My Buena Vista Social Club show had been canceled. I tried with my two years of college Spanish to engage a street vendor and ask how he felt about Castro’s death, but got a very bland, factual response to the effect of “He was our leader for many years.” Chatting amongst ourselves, we speculated that people were too afraid to speak their minds. Most of the locals we spoke with thought we were Canadian until we shared that we were American, since flights from the U.S. had only recently begun. We also speculated that Castro may have died earlier that day on Friday or even longer before and that the news was shared late on a Friday as a way for the government to exert the most control over the situation and quell any possible uprising. As we walked around that day, I noticed a massive increase in police in the streets of Old Havana and even took a sneaky photo of one. They seemed to be on every street corner.
Other than missing out on getting a Cuban passport stamp, my greatest souvenir regret of the trip was not grabbing a copy of that day’s Cuban government propaganda newspaper, the Granma, but we did get a photo of it. The rest of the trip was kind of a blur for me. We headed back to Varadero to an AirBnB there for a day before our flight home, and just as we got to the place we were staying, gastrointestinal sickness hit me hard. I knew in advance this was a real possibility, but somehow still managed to get myself sick – the water is not purified and can do a number on tourists. The culprit could have been a piece of fruit I purchased in a bodega, melted ice in a mojito, or when I used tap water to brush my teeth.
Perhaps the truest test of a good travel companion is how your friends treat you when you get GI in their presence. Christi says the AirBnB hosts were very kind, as well, not that I remember. Those two certainly passed the test – and I didn’t miss out on much because Fidel had put an end to the celebration, anyway. I was down and out for a good 24 hours, barely rallying enough to get my green, sweaty self readmitted to the U.S. despite not being sure if we had followed the proper protocols with our Visas or if there could have been an issue related to Castro’s death. Slick, mysterious international spies we are not. Or are we?