Wednesday, December 6, 2023

My Pilgrimage to Cuba

First off, I’ve got to share that I understand that for many Cuban Americans like myself they can have a variety of feelings about going back to Cuba. In my family, no one has returned to Cuba since they left for political reasons in 1960. Many in the family have not gone back and discouraged others from returning until there is more political change and freedoms in Cuba. I understand and respect that. The goal of this is not to convince anyone of anything, but to just share my personal experience.

Why did I go?

I have heard about Cuba my whole life from my family. I’ve always been interested in and felt connected to Cuba. After someone would find out I’m Cuban American, the next question would often be “Have you been?”. Over time, the answer “no” to that question has bothered me more and more. It has been on my bucket list my whole life and in recent years I started really thinking about what was preventing me from going. Of course, there is a whole lot about the Cuban government that I don’t support or believe in, but I’ve visited plenty of other countries before where I felt the same about their government. I was born in the US, so I can understand why when I look at Cuba/US relations that it might not feel as personal as someone who was born there and felt forced to leave, experienced oppression, or saw upsetting changes first hand.

Generally as well, when I see disagreements and conflicts big and small, I’m a big believer in getting face to face and truly trying to understand each other better is almost always a good thing. I make new year's resolutions every year and in January, going to Cuba was on my list.

The fact that I’m nearing 40 might have something to do with it, but hey, I can think of a worse mid-life crisis to have...

This would not be an ordinary trip though, going to Cuba is not a trip, or a beach vacation, but I really saw it as a pilgrimage and structured it that way. I wanted the trip to be about getting to know my roots, really understanding Cuba better and trying to help the Cuban people. There are already laws in place for American citizens that try to limit how an American citizen can benefit the Cuban government by traveling there, but we tried to go beyond. I believe that any benefit to the government was negligible, but the benefit to many Cubans and myself was extremely meaningful.

Initially, I hoped to get a big family trip together, but ultimately it ended up being, for a variety of reasons, more of a smaller trip. It was myself, my brother Brian, my cousin Danny and a great friend from college, Alex who is also Cuban American. We all spoke Spanish, were experienced travelers and ok with a trip with a high amount of uncertainty and adventure. We viewed it as a scouting trip that would hopefully make it easier for us to return with more family members in the future.

I read endless blogs, talked to tour guides and friends that have been to Cuba. Ultimately because I was OK with doing a lot of research on my own, we all speak Spanish and we were willing to be flexible, we decided to organize everything ourselves. There are several approved categories for travel for US citizens under the embargo, we traveled under the “support for the Cuban people” category.

A friend that travels to Cuba often HIGHLY recommended booking as much as possible through Airbnb and it was a great decision. We booked our apartment and most of our activities through Airbnb. For the Airbnb hosts, their business lives or dies by the ratings, so they were all EXTREMELY attentive and helpful. Anything we needed, we could ask them for and if they could not do it, they would arrange it and make sure that you paid a fair price and had a high quality experience.

We stayed in the Vedado neighborhood, it’s around 15 minutes from the most popular touristy area, old Havana, but I believe we had a much more authentic experience by not staying in the most touristy areas. It was safe and a short cab ride away from just about everything.

Before we went on our trip, I got in contact with members from my church’s local congregation. The member I was communicating with was a Doctor. I asked her what they needed from the US and she humbly requested lots of over the counter medicine. We learned in some of our tours that something as basic as 6 ibuprofen pills would go for $10 USD on the black market in Cuba. Before the trip, we went to Costco and loaded up. My Dad lives in Miami and is talking to recently immigrated Cubans constantly (usually people he meets at Publix for some reason, I’ve started to suspect he eats lunch there almost every day) and they recommended we bring food, specifically meats, seasoning and coffee. We made sure to pack stuff for kids like crayons, baseballs, hair ties and more.

A few weeks before the trip we got serious about investigating some of our family history in Cuba. My Dad, my brother and I started digging around and figured out our great grandfather was potentially buried in the most famous cemetery in Havana, Cristóbal Colón Cemetery. My brother got in contact with the cemetery before we left and with the information we had, they told us they had a record and location of the grave. We were shocked, no one in the family had ever talked about any family graves. We also tried to track down the house my Dad grew up in. He had a few things like the address and the name of the neighborhood. We did some google map sleuthing until we thought we figured out where it was, then my brother found some Facebook groups for that neighborhood. He posted a google map screenshot of where we thought the house was in those groups and was shocked when he got responses that said “I know that house, I live in it”. We could not believe it. We made plans to try to visit both the grave and the family house, unsure if we’d find the right places or what we’d encounter but excited with a lot of optimism from the clues we had.

If I think about what overall was most special about the trip, it was how we were treated. Everyone treated us nicely from the start, but as we talked to people one of the first questions they always asked was “Where are you from?”. When we answered “from the United States”, they always looked surprised and asked how we spoke Spanish. We then would launch into the explanation that we have Cuban born parents and explain why we wanted to come to Cuba. We always included our legitimate desire to know our roots and shared our plans of trying to visit important family sites. Most Cubans seemed very touched by why we were there and quickly shifted to “you’re family” mode. They would tell us we were part of Cuba and that we belonged there and we’d discuss our shared heritage. I never visited another country and had people make me feel like I really belonged there. It was a special, emotional feeling to feel our common heritage bring us together and bridge differences. I often felt like I was talking to family and would feel the spirit of my relatives especially the ones that have passed, in these Cubans we had just met.

I had read a lot about the scarcity challenges in Cuba for food and other goods. We made sure to bring everything we needed like sunscreen, bug spray and hand sanitizer, so we never went looking for those things, but it seemed like they would have been hard to find. Food wise, we never had issues finding things to eat, especially with American dollars, but also we tried to go into the trip with an open mind and low expectations. That being said, we did eat some incredible food. I’ve been eating Cuban food my whole life and I like it, so I’m not sure how someone without that background would feel, but I immensely enjoyed the food. I do recognize though that finding food is a big problem in Cuba and was only easier for us because we were able to pay much more than a normal Cuban could afford. Our first night we had a truly, incredible and authentic meal at El Edilio. It was an awesome start to our trip and we topped it off by walking the entire Malecon, which is a famous sea wall with a wide walkway that takes you all the way to old Havana. We even got some ice cream, which was fun because they had some very unique Cuban flavors. 

The second day of the trip we booked a breakfast with an academic with an incredible local professor named Eduardo. We had a great breakfast with fresh Cuban bread and peppered Eduardo with questions for over three hours about the history, politics, economics, he was incredibly thoughtful and it was a great way to kick off our trip. 

From there, we went on a street food tour. This felt super authentic, we saw almost no other tourists and everywhere we ate was filled with Cubans. Our guide was incredible. I got to eat some things I’d always heard about like Guarapo, but never tried. We also ate a lot of items that have become more popular as food has gotten scarce that are used to “matar el hambre” or to take the hunger away. 

Right after that we arrived at the Cementerio de Colon, and a guide immediately spent an hour with us, took us to the grave and explained everything. It was a family grave site, so multiple people can be buried there and we were shocked to find out that someone was buried there recently. We did not know we had any family in Cuba still, but they explained that only someone who could prove family lineage would have been able to be buried and they are going to give us the contact information of whoever arranged the recent burial. We are continuing to investigate, but it looks like we might still have family in Cuba. We feel super grateful that all of our plans to connect with our family history went incredible. 


That night we went to a Cuban cooking class we had booked through Airbnb. We arrived pretty late unintentionally, but luckily our hosts were quick to forgive us. Almost all of us love to cook, so the cooking class was a real highlight. 

The next day we went to explore a little bit of the coast so we booked an excursion that took us to some sites along the coast. I can tell you this, we did not see a lot or see the “best” beaches in Cuba, but what we saw was incredible. A really highlight was the lunch which was at someone’s house in a fishing village. It was a real fishing village and afterwards we went out to talk to fishman cleaning fish on the water's edge. A funny moment from the visit, I went inside to go to the restroom and got chatting with the two ladies that made us lunch and one of them was probably in her 80’s. She looks at me and says, “one of the other guys out there is a Dr, right?” She had not talked to the rest of the group yet, but she said she could tell by looking at him. She was right, my brother is a doctor. We all had a good laugh about that and I thought a lot about how my mom, who is not alive anymore, would have enjoyed that story as she was always very proud of her Doctor son. 

We went home after that, got cleaned up then set out in a taxi to find the family home, which is about 30 minutes outside of Havana. It was surreal to see it and to retrace my father’s steps that he would have taken to school and his Aunt’s house who lived around the corner. We were not 100% sure it was the right house, but as we were looking at some video footage from the 60’s and compared it to the existing features of the house, things like the windows and the tile patterns were identical. We spent some time with the family that lived there. They were very gracious and welcoming and we were able to share gifts that my father had given us to take. 

That night, we had another cooking class and did not realize it was at the same place. Luckily it was a different dish but we had just as good of a time as the first night. We might have made some life long friends after doing two big dinners with the same two ladies. We topped off the night with some more ice cream and hit the hay. 

The next day, Alex and I set off early to go to the University of Havana. He had a picture of his Abuela on the steps from when she went there and he wanted to recreate the picture. Unfortunately, the steps were roped off on Sundays, but after a little convincing the guard let us run up quickly to take a few pics. We then went to the local branch of our church. It happened to be a regional meeting of many congregations across Havana. We could not stay for the whole time, but we were touched by the warmth and welcome we received. Also, the meeting was held on the roof of the building in Havana, so hands down it was the coolest location of the church I have ever attended. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences, I was inspired by their faith and dedication. We got to learn a lot about how our church is operating in Cuba. 

Since it was our last day, we decided we had to see some of the sites in old havana. We asked the professor to join us and he took us around for a few hours and took us shopping for some souvenirs for our kids. It was really awesome and interesting, but that definitely felt like a more tourist experience, compared to the rest of the trip, but I’m glad we got to see a lot of those famous sites. We then rushed back to our apartment, packed up and headed home. We were only there for three and a half days, but had an incredible time. Cuba has always felt a world away, but the reality is it’s only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. 

The trip could really not have gone much better, it exceeded expectations. I think our deep personal reasons for going and our intense planning helped make it a success.

What tips do I have if you want to travel to Cuba?

1. Go with an open mind. Do not compare anything to another country or trip, be ready to experience it for what it is.

2. Be flexible. Cuba has shortages, blackouts and sometimes there were places that seemed closed unpredictably.

3. Do your research. The rules, guidelines are constantly changing. Be OVER prepared. Understanding some about Cuba’s history and current relationship with the US is a good idea to fully absorb Cuba.

4. Try to do some good. We brought lots of supplies and gifts, but you don’t want to just dump them on people in the street, try to be thoughtful about how you do it.

5. Be aware of the difficulties of the Cuban people. Be gracious, flexible and TIP. On our food tour, one of the planned stops was closed, the guide seemed very worried about how we’d react, but we just rolled with the punches and had a great time.

How has this changed my view of US and Cuba relations?

I think for me it confirmed that most of the animosity between Cuba and the US lies in small groups of leaders that are following their own interests. The embargo to me has seemed pretty ridiculous for a long time and a double standard in how we work with a LOT of countries that we disagree with. I don’t believe that something that has not been working for 60 years should continue. That does not mean that I don’t think there should be some things that the US can negotiate that are in its interests if it were to fully lift the embargo, but I think it mostly stays in place because of political inertia and florida’s historical position as a swing state, not because it’s the most effective way for us to nurture democracy in Cuba. It was clear that in Cuba so much of their challenges are blamed on the embargo and it’s an easy out for many other deficiencies in their form of government. The reality is that the Cuban people have suffered much more than the leaders from these policies and they have not been effective.