Cuba Part 1: People to People


OK. How many of you have taken a vacation where the apparent goal was to visit as many churches (even if you’re Jewish) and museums as possible? Or at least until the funds ran out?

Raise your hand…

This year was my turn to pick our summer vacation destination, and I vowed to do something different. After all I had just had one of those “decade” birthdays. After much deliberation I chose Cuba. When informed of my choice, the only thing my wife said was “Cuba?” This she repeated several times over the next two days. On the third day, it changed to “Cuba!”

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Since travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens (unless you’re Jay-Z and Beyonce) is restricted for the most part to educational, cultural or religious programs, we needed to find a group to travel with. A friend recommended Grand Circle Foundation, a company that runs People-to-People Cultural Exchange Programs that help the countries they visit. The Foundation has pledged or donated more than $91 million throughout the world. The programs emphasize meeting and speaking with “real” people.

“People-to-People” travel licenses were created under former President Bill Clinton. Along with many other missteps, they were stopped due to travel restrictions imposed by George W. Bush and later reinstated by the Obama administration. For this reason alone, Cubans love Obama.

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

We landed in Havana and checked into the Hotel Saratoga – the very same hotel where Jay-Z and Beyonce had stayed. Being in the same hotel as A-list celebrities was a new experience for my wife and me. During the next several days we argued with one of our tour group members from Michigan, as to who had Jay-Z and Beyonce’s room. In the end, for the sake of tour group relations, we resolved that she had their room and we had Cyndi Lauper’s room. Why Cyndi? We had just seen Kinky Boots on Broadway. (Has she ever been to Cuba? If not, she can say she stayed in the Rhodes’ room when she visits!)

Art Deco in Havana

Art Deco in Havana

Walking through the streets of Havana you see a city that has been in architectural decline for decades. Buildings once magnificent are now in dire need of TLC. In spite of this, the city still has an amazing air of dignity and style.  Some of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture can be found in Havana. This year Havana was the host site of the World Congress on Art Deco.

Baseball is a large part of Cuban culture. In our tour guide Roberto’s quest to arrange spontaneous “people-to-people” experiences, he organized a pick-up baseball game for Austin, an 18 year-old tour group member who had just received a full baseball athletic scholarship to New Mexico State. Roberto approached a group of young men on a street corner in Cienfuegos, the home of Los Angeles Dodgers rookie phenom Yasiel Puig with the promise of rum and other swag if they could assemble enough friends for a ballgame at the local field that afternoon.

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

With no advance warning we drove to the ball field – which was really a flat field full of rocks and scattered horse droppings. In Cuba horses and other animals are used as lawn mowers. Needless to say, we did not strike fear in the hearts of our opponents as we unloaded from the bus. Sixteen Americans, some slightly overweight (count me in), some in flip flops (count me in) who probably had not played ball in over 25 years (count me in) …if at all.

Trash talking is not nearly so effective when your opponent doesn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t stop either side. No one was keeping score, since we already knew who the winner would be. The game was pure comedy – easy grounders missed, fly balls dropped, horse manure stepped in, not enough gloves to go around, pitches flailed at, cars almost hit, and some friendly cheating. Our side did manage to score a few runs with the help of my 2 for 3 performance at the plate.

Leena and husband

Leena and husband

One afternoon Roberto invited my wife and me to visit Leena, a woman in her late 60’s he had met 12 months prior. She lives in a tiny apartment with her husband off the town square. Leena told Roberto of her dream the prior week that he would visit her soon. She was overjoyed to see him.

During our visit Roberto gave Leena two bottles of Aleve. When they first met, she had mentioned that she suffered from arthritis. To her the medicine was like gold. Even though there is free health care in Cuba, citizens must pay high prices for any medications needed.

Dance Practice

Dance Practice

The Arts have been supported as much as financially possible by the government. Music and dance permeate Cuban culture. At a rest stop between Havana and Cienfuegos our driver Felix offered Laura, a young dancer waiting for a bus, a ride. Before we reached our destination, Roberto had arranged for us to see a rehearsal of Laura’s dance company the following day.

Even though the wood floors in the rehearsal space were warped and probably had never been refinished and the temperature was well over 90 degrees, the dancers vibrated to the beats coming out of a boom box. The condition of the location was irrelevant to the dancers. The pride in their craft was what mattered.

When we checked in at our hotel in Trinidad each group member received a bottle of aged Cuban rum. Since the rum could not be brought back to the US and we couldn’t possibly drink it all, our tour guide Roberto said he had something in mind for the bottles. After finishing an incredible meal in Havana on our last night, we exited the restaurant to find four vintage 1940’s American convertibles -pink, orange, blue and white- waiting to take us back to the Hotel Nacional.

People to People

People to People

Could Hollywood have scripted a better ending to a vacation? Sixteen tourists piled into four vintage convertibles, cruising down the malecon under a starlit Havana sky, horns honking, stopping and passing out bottles of excellent rum to random Cubans. The look on their faces was indescribable when presented with the rum.

Could it get any more “people-to-people” than that???


  1. What a trip! Vintage 1940’s convertible? Giving away rum? Excellent way to end your trip!

  2. This sounds like it was an incredible opportunity – a great way to travel…and the pictures are amazing.

  3. Jeanne DiAmico says:

    Reading this made me feel like I was there on the trip!

  4. I was wondering how you chose Cuba and now I know and so much more! Sounds wonderful!

  5. Pam Mitcham says:

    Enjoyed reading about David’s trip – will send him an email . keep them coming ! Pamela M .

  6. Laura Graham Leonard says:

    David’s future is set – a travel blogger!! Great job and sounds like a great trip!

  7. Dawn Whalen says:

    way to go David – I live for (and long for) my un-tethered days…as I type this and walk around my house looking for a signal!! 🙂 Sounds like an awesome trip!! Cheers

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