A few days prior to a second visit to Cuba, I turned on the TV and Fidel Castro’s death headlined the news.
“Holy Shit,” I shouted to my husband. “Our trip just got more interesting.”
His funeral would take place during the end of our brief five-day visit. I figured it was an opportunity to see Cuba in a different light, in a positive way. Until I learned of the mandatory nine-day grieving period. No celebrating, no music, no alcohol.
Mixed news and comments came from the online news regarding how these rules applied to tourists. Absolutely no alcohol, from a few sources. Plenty of drinks available reported others. How appropriate, typical conflicting news coming from Cuba.
I suggested we buy a bottle or two of alcohol from the duty-free shop at the airport, just in case. After all, the four of us traveling together to Cuba enjoy our evening cocktails. A complementary food buffet awaited at our gate.
“This is nice, do they offer this on every flight?” A friend asked?
“This is the inaugural flight for Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.”
We also enjoyed a special bag full of goodies, including a special t-shirt marking the occasion.
Waiting for our luggage and rental car in Havana took three times as long as the flight itself. But we easily found our way to our base for the next few nights, the famous Hotel Nacional’. At the hotel there was no music, but conversation and drinks flowed. It hummed with energy. We ran into Jesse Jackson in the lobby. I smiled and he naturally extended his hand, I shook it and turned around for a photo opportunity with our friends.
We took to the town for dinner, a short walk to a recommended restaurant.
“What do you mean no wine?” I expected it, but we still asked. The food was excellent but the place was eerily quiet, not even music played overhead. This seemed true everywhere we went, including the rooftop bar at a neighboring hotel.
Starting my day with a run along the Malecon always brings a smile to my face and sets a positive attitude for the rest of the afternoon. We waited for the red hop on/off bus a little too long, and ended up taking a tok tok style wagon powered by a man on a bike. He decided to give us a tour along the way, the ghetto tour as we later referenced it. Everyday living up close in personal along streets and alleys. Everyone stared and we wondered what kind of sign was plastered on the cart as they all gazed from us down towards the tires. Although interesting, when we finally arrived at the artisan market I was ready to disembark.
We shopped, found the historic old quarters and stumbled upon the only lunch spot in town serving beer. It was crowded but we scored a table and people watched while waiting for food. I even bought a copy of Granma, the official communist newspaper covering the life and death of Castro. I got it for its historical value.
We did take the red bus around town and back to the Hotel Nacional. Along the way we passed revolution square where they disassembled the stands and speakers left over from the previous days of speeches, honoring and remembering Fidel prior to their southern march to his final resting place in Santiago De Cuba. I wanted to witness the large masses of people in the square, but as my husband pointed out the traffic would have been a nightmare.
The following morning I ran into the vice president of China in the lobby. His security forces swept though the hallway just as I passed in the opposite direction. I noticed one of the security guard’s eyes widen, so I stepped back as he passed straight through to his limo awaiting outside. Li Yuanchao and his men wore small pins of Mao and the Chinese flag. He was short and walked with determination. I smiled at the thought of almost completely blocking his path by accident.
We left Havana for the next portion of our stay in Varadero, a beach side resort described as having beautiful water and beaches. For lunch we stopped at a crowded roadside grill along the way. It was one of the best meals we had in Cuba and as a bonus they served cold beer. Our all-inclusive resort seemed charming at first until we realized we had to walk a half mile to our room. Not a big deal, if it’s a once a day stroll. But all the action, restaurants and bars revolved around the lobby. Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Varadaro. The beaches were marginal, food bland, rooms unattractive and activities lacking. We made the best of it and explored some nearby caves and went shopping in town. We even ventured into another dilapidated town to see “the real Cuba” with many horse-drawn carriages one last time.
Our last evening we finally heard music, the mandatory ban was lifted the following day. Cuba without music is like sunbathing on a beautiful beach without the sun or sand. It is a large part of their culture and when music and dance is taken away, the people seem disheartened.
Were they sorrowful because of Fidel’s death? I’m sure some were since he was the only leader they knew. He is portrayed as a hero in all Cuban media. But the ban came about because people were openly celebrating in the streets. Imagine all the income lost from tourists due to the ban. Perhaps they should have had nine mornings of mourning.