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My Recent Trip to Cuba from Jill Vickers

My Recent Trip to Cuba from Jill Vickers

My Recent Trip to Cuba

March 2024

Jill Vickers

Class of 1968

 

 

The four of us climbed out of the '59 Chevrolet into the hot humid air of the afternoon. We were standing on the pot-holed asphalt in front of a row of three and four story attached apartment buildings. Above our heads a jumble of wires crisscrossed up and down the street. The faded pastel facades of the buildings were crumbling with railings missing balusters and, on some, missing stucco exposing the underlying bricks. My husband and friends stood silently taking in the scene. My heart sank. They had put some trust in me to arrange this lodging for our week's stay in Havana.

 


Then the ancient wooden door opened, and Janio, the concierge, welcomed us in English with a big smile. We stepped over the wooden barrier and followed him up steep, marble stairs to the second-floor apartment. As promised on the  open layout with kitchen, living area and balcony greeted us. Also, two bedrooms, queen beds and AC, each with a full bath connected by an interior courtyard. A spiral staircase led to a roof- top room with tile floor and wicker chairs overlooking the city. Tropical plants everywhere and a retro feel.


Janio introduced us to the housekeeper Gloria who promptly hugged each of us, then adding air kisses. Janio had arranged for our ride from the airport and, at the apartment, our exchange of American currency for Cuban pesos at a Black-Market rate of 330 to the dollar. He pointed out the cell phone included with the apartment that we were to take with us as our phones didn't have Internet. He reminded me he was available any time to help.

 


Gloria pointed out the apartment's luxury features, ice machine, water cooler and an outdoor shower on the roof-top space, describing each in Spanish. We didn't take in much of what she said with our limited Spanish, but we did appreciate the contrast between the grim exterior appearance of this Vedado neighborhood with the pleasant welcome we received inside.


The Cubans we met as guides and translator work part-time in the tourist business in order to get by. All three shared personal stories and made us feel our interest in their country and their lives was a welcome connection.


Gustaf, our city tour guide, spoke with pride in his government for sending him for more free education at a university in the Soviet Union when he was a new college graduate. He also shared his dismay that a new government policy made payment by credit card mandatory at government restaurants, cards backed solely by dollars. Only the wealthy have dollars, and we couldn't use our US-bank-backed cards. So, no refreshments at a roof-top establishment while we enjoyed the view.


Sandra, our young guide on an all-day tour to Vinales Valley, told us, after describing the horrors of public bus transportation, how being able finally to buy an electric bike "changed my life"; Teaching French at the university, she's making the equivalent of $15 a month. She made no effort to hide her dissatisfaction with current government policies.
"I can't talk politics with my father. We need another revolution."

Denise, our translator for the cooking class, is a professor of sociology pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. She joined us at the home of retired chemistry professor Raquel for meal preparation and dinner. Denise expressed disbelief when we told her that we had been barred from entering campus. We wanted to see the pre-Columbian art housed there. "It's an open campus," she said, clearly dismayed. Closed to all but students we were told. Denise also shared that yesterday's power outage had thrown the university into turmoil. This is apparently related to the lack of oil shipments from Venezuela. "That happens a lot in the countryside, not here in Havana." She reminded us that tickets to all sporting and cultural events are so cheap, anyone can go. She sees world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana.


One sun-filled afternoon, we flew down the Malecon in a '49 Chevrolet convertible, top down, along The Straits of Florida, the waves shooting spray into the air beside us. Our many taxi rides around Havana in pre-1960 American cars was another connection with Cubans. The taxi drivers were keeping the cars of our youth running with diligence and ingenuity and seemed happy with our appreciation of this.


The hardships are obvious. City services are minimal. The street cleaner was a man pushing a small cart with a broom and dust pan. Garbage bins overflowed. Water is delivered a few times a week to a barrel on the roof. Government ration cards cover a mere fraction of the cost of living. The free milk program for children ages 0 - 7 awaits help from the World Food Program to continue. Privately-owned shops at the front of ground-floor apartments hold just a few bags of rice, beans, chips, some soft drinks and beer - these two for the same price - and the ubiquitous bottles of rum.


Still, there is a feeling of resilience in the air. In the art, the music, in Cubans' pride in the safety of the streets and in free health care, in the light step of kids off to school hanging on a mother's arm, teenagers joking together, trim females dressed in form-fitting skirts the colors of the sunset, forest and sea and more.


Americans can visit Cuba. It's easy to buy a visa at the airport before checking in. The official reason for one's visit must state "in support of the Cuban people," one of the twelve legal reasons allowed by the U.S. Office of Assets Control. I was never asked if I had done so. An airline ticket includes travel health insurance. We planned our own visit,  we have with the people of our island neighbor and, in doing so, supported the Cubans who provide goods and services.