Travel: Heart in Havana
Monday, August 15, 2016

 By Angela Fossi

TNCP Community Writer
For as long as I can remember, Cuba was so close to my heart, but so far way. 
I grew up after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Images from Cuba were everywhere. My grandfather was a cigar afficionado and would praise Cuban cigars, so of course I had to get Cuban cigars from Toronto. Growing up near Canada, I was envious hearing stories from Canadians going there for vacation. My love of baseball and Cuba’s long history of great players stoked my passion for everything Cuban. 
During the past 20 years I have done a fair amount of cruising in the Caribbean and I was always paying attention when the ship was near Cuba, hoping to catch a glimpse. For so many years I figured that was going to be as close as I could get.. Recently when travel restrictions began to ease between the United States and Cuba, my dreams of visited there seemed more possible. Imagine my excitement as I booked my first trip to Cuba and headed there in April. 
I think the best way to really understand a culture is to visit and meet the people who live there, walk the same streets they do and enjoy their food. My trip to Cuba hatched from an important event that happened in November. While I was on a cruise I met my boyfriend, Ramze. During our early conversations it was apparent we both love to travel and given more time and money we would both be happy traveling the world. While we spent a lot of the beginning of the relationship talking about our shared love of Cuba, Ramze was at a major advantage. He has been spending at least a couple of months a year in Cuba for the past 5 years and even runs his own business, and assists travelers to make sure they have the best experience while in Cuba. 
Poor guy, as soon I found that out I couldn’t stop asking questions. I wanted to know if it was safe (very), affordable (very), gorgeous (very), open to Americans (getting better each day) and if you need to speak Spanish (it helps). I don’t want to get political and I think there are pros and cons with every government. I was aware that the life of Cubans may be changing for better or for worse because of the ease in restrictions with the United States but I wanted to see the country now.  I was eager to get there before Starbucks and McDonald’s move in. 
I have been fortunate enough to have visited more than a dozen countries, mostly in the Caribbean. I was pretty sure what to expect things moving slowly on island time. I was also prepared to see limited resources and infrastructure. I have seen poverty and crime alongside gorgeous beaches and glamorous resorts. I have walked into a Dunkin Donuts guarded by a police officer holding a machine gun to protect tourists. The tourism business is big in this part of the world and it seems like in some places tourists are nothing more than walking dollar signs. As far as researching Cuba, I had done enough research to be prepared for food rations and crumbling buildings. I was also aware that U.S. banks are still restricted in Cuba so credit cards will not work, nor will your cell phone.
As soon as we landed, I realized crime wasn’t an issue. The people are carefree and honest.  The passion coming from the crowd waiting for loved ones at the airport was intense. Families ran to greet passengers who may have been gone for a few days or a few decades. Either way, the greeting was the same. I noticed a difference in myself as well; normally I would be one of the first to push past a crowd of people, but I stopped to enjoy the moment. How do you not smile at a scene like this?  
As we were taking a taxi to the casa, we were surrounded by some of Michigan’s finest. The stories are true, Cuba really is a classic car paradise! Most cars are either state owned or taxis, so the number of cars on the road is relatively small.  I am not a mechanic, but I know Cubans have limited access to parts and money.  I start thinking about how difficult it must be to keep these cars working and looking good.  Somehow they find a way and it really adds to the charm. 
Shopping in general in Cuba is unlike anything I have experienced.  Most stores are state owned, unless it is a craft market. Forget about comparing brands or shopping for the best price. If you want bottled water there is one brand and a set price at all stores. Some restaurants may have imported options but it is rare and beyond the budget of locals. Some things you won’t be able to find in stores there we STOPPED HERE  take for granted here such as diaper cream, feminine hygiene products (very limited), toys, travel coffee mugs and almost anything we label as disposable. The available merchandise varies based on what the state supplies to the stores. So many travelers bring hard to find items with them to give as gratuity instead of cash. We took 2 suitcases full of supplies for Ramze’s friend who is expecting her first baby in June. She was excited as someone who won a million dollars. I can only imagine what she would do if she was here doing the shopping. Her first experience at a Dollar Store would be overwhelming. 
But the sights, sounds and smells of Havana cannot be beat. The city is beyond charming with its gorgeous landmarks, ocean views, classic cars and beautiful people. All around people are talking, laughing, singing and playing. Children were actually playing in the streets alongside dogs and cats that roam freely. Most residential streets were built long before cars and are typically still not used very often by cars so they become an extension of people’s homes. Street vendors, cafes and restaurants fill the air with amazingly tempting smells. The larger restaurants typically had a salsa or latin band playing. Overall, it was really easy to stop at a sidewalk bar and enjoy the people watching while sampling another Havana Club rum cocktail or Cuban beer. 
I spent ten days in Cuba and I knew by day two that it was going to be difficult to leave. I felt so welcomed and the experience was everything I hoped it would be. It was a great reminder that sometimes you have to stop dreaming about something and just make it happen. I am so grateful to finally follow my heart to Havana and I’m already looking forward to going back next year. 
For more details regarding this trip please check out Angela Fossi’s blog at:
This article was printed in the May 29, 2016 - June 11, 2016 edition.  

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