Category Archives: Cuba

Boats, buses and banana plantations

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It’s hard to believe it was just two days ago I awoke at 2:30 a.m., had one last coffee with my new friend Homero (host of a highly recommended casa particular, more info below), and headed for the Havana airport. The trip to Belize would be a long and grueling one – there are no direct flights to Belize from Havana, and I had to pass through Mexico City, then spend the night in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The contrast could not have been greater. The Cuban landscape is free of commercial clutter; aside from a few billboards proclaiming the values of the revolution, or lamenting the Yanqui bloqueo (embargo) or the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, there is no advertising anywhere. For a Yanqui traveler, it’s at once a shock and a relief to the eye.

From the moment I landed in Honduras, on the other hand, my eyes were assaulted with ads for cell phones, soft drinks, snack foods, cars, and any number of consumible items. Dos Molinas Guest House – also highly recommended if you find yourself in Honduras’ second city, the gateway to Roatan, Copán and many other tourist destinations – is located in a typical dusty Honduran street but just two blocks from the City Mall, a brightly lit megaplaza filled with Guess jeans, StrideRite and PayLess shoes, Starbucks coffee and the like. I thought I had stumbled into a forgotten corner of the Galleria by mistake, with blonde, scantily-clad models around every corner.
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Many roads to the Bay of Pigs

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PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA — I had been warned about the many hitchhikers who congregate around the highway entrances looking for rides; public transport outside the city is scarce, slow and overcrowded, and lucky is the Cuban who owns an operational vehicle.

Still, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of people massed under bridges and along entrance ramps, and the paucity of vehicles on the highways available to pick any of them up. Some sat on suitcases or duffel bags and simply waited; the more enterprising jumped up at each passing vehicle and waved. “Pidiendo botella,” it was called – asking for a bottle – for reasons nobody could really adequately explain.

“Picking up hitchhikers is integral to showing your goodwill in a land where on any day, tens of thousands of Cubans stand by the roadside beseeching rides,” writes Christopher Baker in the Moon Handbook to Cuba. “However, there have been many reports of robberies, and I do not endorse picking up hitchhikers.”

How to reconcile these facts? I spoke to numerous Cubans and internationals before my road trip through the Cuban countryside. Ultimately, I decided to follow my instincts, and what began as an act of solidarity ended up providing friendly companionship, lively conversation and an entrée into the everyday lives of scores of Cubans, a genuine connection that had thus far proven elusive. Never did I feel the slightest threat. What was more, I found them guiding me to my destination along roads with few signs and sometimes ambiguous directions.
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Riding with the bulls in Viñales

An oxcart driver looks back to warn us of the "lake" in the road that's coming up ahead.

Tobacco farms, curious formations called mogotes and a tranquil, timeless way of life were what I sought in the tiny colonial city of Viñales in Pinar del Rio – another stop along the Polo Montañez trail, being a favorite haunt of the beloved singer. I found all of that – and a lively nightlife, besides. Maybe a little too lively. Polo’s spirit lingers on, it seems.
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Havana at Last

This time, the second time was a charm.

José Martí International Airport coasted into view, the city of Havana in sharp relief in the sunny background. This time I was headed for the main terminal, not the tiny old dark one reserved for arrivals from Miami. And this time, the journalist visa was firmly in my hand and I was ready.

Jose Marti International Airport
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Havana to Tracy: Not so fast

Cuba, it seems, was not ready for me.

Definitely, I was not ready for Cuba.

It seems that getting a Cuban journalist’s visa is a great deal more complicated than I had been led to believe. My lack of attention to this particular detail led to a brusque reception by disbelieving bureaucrats, a long cold night in Jose Martí International Airport, and the first flight back to Cuba.

It was a costly, embarrassing and extremely painful lesson, but here’s what I learned. I’m sharing the story in the hopes that you will learn from my mistakes.

Countryside near Havana from the airplane window
Outskirts of Havana from the airplane window

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Lighting out for the South

Today I will follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara and Celia Cruz to the irrepressible rhythm of the Cuban son – emanating from Cuban human beings, not my CD collection or a cover band in downtown Houston. Far from the Bayou City, I’ll savor the sunset breezes on the Malecón, the famous boulevard that stretches the length of the city along the Bay of Havana. As many a tourist has done before me, I’ll sit at Hemingway’s favorite bar and have a mojito in his memory.

And while I will embrace the cultural magic of this legendary land, my journey goes beyond culture to something more essential, something universal and urgent.
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