Top: Everette and Walt Studdard stop for a photo in Havana; Bottom left: Stilt dancers brighten the Havana streets; Right: A woman looks on from her balcony in Havana. Photos provided by Walt and Everette Studdard.
Walt and I have just returned from a fascinating trip to Cuba. We have wanted to go to Cuba for years but didn’t want to chance a heavy fine.
We recently heard that 10 U.S. travel companies had been granted special licenses by both the United States and Cuba to conduct People-to-People programs. The travel company takes care of the visa, authorization letter, and specific license that is required.
The program is rather strict and demands that participants follow a full educational exchange curriculum. The trip is not meant to be a vacation or leisure trip. It included very little free time—only a few hours in the evenings.
We learned a lot about the history of Cuba, the Revolution, life in Cuba under Castro, changes that have taken place in the last few years, etc.
We visited organic vegetable farms, a tobacco farm, community cultural centers, museums, churches, concerts, dance studios, art studios, historical districts, city plazas, national parks, cemeteries, beach resorts, several cities and towns, several neighborhood reclamation projects, and much more.
We found Cuba to be a peaceful country. Citizens are not allowed to own guns. We expected to see soldiers and policemen in public areas with guns but we did not.
The people are not allowed to celebrate but one holiday a year. After Castro took power in 1959, he canceled all holidays. He allowed the celebration of Christmas only after Pope John Paul’s visit in 1988.
After taking power, Castro closed all churches. Cubans were not allowed to wear any religious symbols or display any religious items in their homes.
When applying for a job or entry into college, the first question asked of the applicant would be, “Are you religious?” If the person answered, “Yes,” they would not be considered.
Left: The owner of the tobacco farm shows how to hand roll a cigar; Top: A cart and horse in rural Cuba; Bottom right: Children sit for art lessons in the pedestrian boulevard. Photos provided by Walt and Everette Studdard.
I expected Catholicism to be the national religion, but I don’t think it is as widespread as Santeria, an African faith. In order for African slaves to practice their religion during the time of Spanish rule, they had to merge their gods’ identities with certain Catholic saints. Over the years, the two religions have almost blended. I did not see any protestant churches in Cuba, but Walt did see one Presbyterian Church.
There is little private enterprise in Cuba. Most citizens work for government-owned farms, restaurants, hotels, construction groups, schools, etc. The average income for professionals such as doctors, lawyers, architects, or dentists is less than $50 per month.
It appeared to me the best jobs were the ones that related to tourism. Our tour bus driver was a former dentist and now makes more in tips in one week than he would make in a year as a dentist.
Cubans have little expendable income. For those who wish to buy a car or some property, they have to depend on relatives in other countries to help them out. Only since Raul Castro took control have citizens been allowed to sell residential property.
Cubans are given free housing, medical services, education (even college), funerals, and some food. They receive ration books and can purchase staples for very little money. Any extra food costs them more. Things are rather inexpensive for locals. For example, a local bus ride costs five cents.
Few Cubans own cars and most walk the majority of the time. Large trucks with bench seats and old school buses travel between towns and are usually packed with people. We even saw a couple of dump trucks loaded with standing passengers. Many Cubans hitchhike between towns. They hold up a fistful of money to entice drivers to stop for them.
Cuba is the only country in the world that we have visited with two currencies. One is for the local people (Cuban National Pesos) and one for tourists (Cuban Convertible Pesos.) The exchange rate was 26 national pesos for $1 U.S. and one convertible peso for $1.
The currency exchange booths and banks are owned by the government. They charge 13 percent to change your money to pesos and 13 percent to change it back to U.S. dollars. We were not allowed to use the national peso or our dollars, except for tips. I thought it was interesting that our tour guide collected tips from our group before every stop. It usually was just $1 U.S. or one convertible peso per person. She would then give these tips to a band, artist, restaurant for employees, guide, museum employees, etc.
Before going to Cuba, we were told that we would not be able to exchange U.S. dollars there, but that was incorrect. It is true that you cannot use a U.S. credit card, ATM card, or cell phone there.
Cubans are not allowed to have Internet in their homes. The only exception is for doctors. I don’t think they have phones either. The only TV stations are state owned.
The average Cuban has no idea what is happening in the world. They are starving for news. Some hotels have Internet connections for guests, but it is expensive and slow. The only people that I saw use cell phones were tour guides.
Many Cubans in cities live in Soviet style apartments that are very run down. Often four generations of one family will live together. In small towns and rural areas, Cubans live in squalid, small, one- or two-room homes.
The green hills and valleys of Vinales, just a 2 1/2 hour drive from Havana. Photo provided by the Walt and Everette Studdard.
Cuba produces two beers: Cristal and Buccaneer. The government also produces the soft drinks and wine. The choices are simple—red or white. In our state owned hotels, beautiful buffets awaited us at every meal. The only problem was that the food was tasteless, because of a lack of seasoning, and often cold.
Music was everywhere. Cubans are very talented even if they are just banging two sticks together.
One night, Walt went to hear members of the Buena Vista Social Club at the National Hotel with some other members of our group. One of Walt’s favorite artists, Ry Cooder, has recorded with this group.
This has to be one of our favorite trips. We encourage any of you who like to travel to put Cuba on your list. This door for travel in Cuba has only been open since January 2012.
Hopefully, Americans will continue to be allowed to travel there.
Everette Studdard and LTC Walt Studdard, USA, (Ret.) Anniston, AL http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Everette/
Editor’s note: One agency that handles these People-to-People expeditions can be found at www.ietravel.com. Their phone number is 1-800-234-9620. Their office is located in our original home state, ALABAMA!
Reprint from Jan-Feb 2013 • Volume 43, No. 1