Day 1: We’re Not in USA Anymore
When our plane landed at the José Martí airport I felt as though I was in a movie. The movie was a mixture between The Wiz, Hallmark Channel, and Telemundo and I was the main character. Nevertheless, the film didn’t start smoothly. I was terrified of flying; a fear that was only intensified by the rough entry onto the landing strip. But rough landings are to be expected. What was not expected came next. Upon exiting the plane I realized there was no gate; only steps. The entire airport was one large room about the size of two high school gyms. However, the real culture shock came when I went to the restroom and discovered, THERE ARE NO TOILET SEATS IN CUBA. We met our wonderfully amazing guides at the airport and the rest of the day was spent getting a crash course on Cuban culture. You know that scene in every movie where the protagonist gets to a foreign city that starts with a montage of her walking down random alleys, taking pictures with and of the most obscure art, and wandering around until she winds up in the middle of the city and ends with the camera doing a 360 pan of her standing in the middle of a street to symbolize her taking in the rhythm of her new home. Replace the 80’s Pop with Cuban Son and that was how the rest of the first day in Cuba felt.
Packing List: Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, tennis shoes, camera charger, money for bathrooms, snacks that won’t melt, string backpack or purse that you don’t mind carrying
Tips: When converting money, get as many small bills as possible. You will thank me when you realize you tip at EVERY SINGLE MEAL. It is best to plan for tips when creating your budget. We tipped 2-3 Cuc every meal.
Days 2-3: When In Cuba, Do What the Cubans Do
What do the Cubans do? Judging by he amount of activities we packed into these three days, I’d say they do everything. We hiked through forests, swam in natural springs, danced in the street, took boats to the hidden Taino village, visited the Bay of Pigs Museum, and ate on the coast of the actual Bay of Pigs; and that was just the second day. The third day was all about Ché. It took less than five minutes at his mausoleum to understand just how important his legacy is to Cuba. Che’s mausoleum was like a holy ground where even the slightest hint of noise was forbidden. He is enshrined among many other fallen heroes, with little distinction between his tomb and the rest. Yet the single wall where his lone plaque lies is still enough to demand respect and show the amount of reverence people have for him to this day. Sadly, like all respected leaders there were no pictures allowed so to fully understand you have to visit yourself (which I highly suggest you do for all the locations described in the blog). The mausoleum was followed by a lighter trip to see the local professional baseball team. The Cienfuegos Elephants were a nice group although very few understood English. The few that understood my choppy Spanish were eager to explain about their economic situations and their dreams of playing in America. One of the players, Ortiz, was even nice enough to sign my souvenir jersey for free.
Packing list: BUG SPRAY, SUNSCREEN, shorts, sandals, phone and camera chargers, money for souvenirs and tips, change of clothes if you plan on swimming
Tips: You can never have too much bug spray and sunscreen. If you think you have enough, bring extra to share with a friend. They will greatly appreciate it.
Days 4-6: It’s Time to Eat
And eat, and eat, and eat. I ate so much within these three days I think I gained ten pounds. It didn’t help that most of the activity was touring historic districts of cities where people are willing to sell you food for 50 cents. Lunch and dinner was always lobster, rice, salad, bread, desserts, etc. I would’ve kept eating too, if it wasn’t for the food poisoning. However, my sickness came just in time for me to miss out on the long hike up the mountain on day 6. Thank God! There was also plenty of dancing as Trinidad is a city that never sleeps and music fills your ears from sunrise to sunset. A night on the town steps was worth a month of Salsa lessons in the US. Everywhere you looked there were people of all ages dancing the Cuban Son better than most professionals I’ve ever seen.
Packing List: A nice sundress, money, sunscreen, camera, shorts, phone charger, and a light backpack or purse
Tips: This was when we learned you had to pay for wifi. I didn’t use more than three hours total the entire trip so don’t go crazy with the wifi cards. You really won’t stay in one place long enough to use a ton of wifi. Trust me, there is a lot more interesting things happening around you than there is on Facebook. You’ll live without it.
Days 7-8: Let Us Pray
Day 7 started with a much needed visit to a local Cuban church. Surprisingly, there was another group from South Carolina visiting as well. Their pastor was the guest of the church and was the leader of he sermon that day. Later we had the opportunity to sit in on Sunday School classes. I sat with the older students and talked with the teacher about the way the school and meals work in the small town. We learned that the church had an outreach group that visited families with disabled children. We were able to visit some of the families that the church helped and learn about their challenges and ways they receive help. They were very thankful that we came and grateful for the few gifts some of the other students brought. Lastly we visited an organic farm that was sponsored by the church and learned about the growing methods. The purpose of the farm is to provide food and economic opportunities for local families while teaching farmers about organic, sustainable growing methods. Day 8 was a return to La Habana with more touring and personal history lessons. The day ended with a musical performance from the infamous Buena Vista Social Club at one of the local restaurants. It doesn’t get more authentic than that!
Packing List: gifts for the children (baseball cards, baseballs, coloring items, dolls for any girls), bug spray, sunscreen, sandals, a mini bible, money, camera charger
Tips: My biggest regret of the trip is not having anything to give the families I visited. Don’t make the same mistake as me. You’ve been warned.
Day 9: And Then We Rested
Seriously it was a day of rest for me. I went with a small group to Chinatown to meet some of the descendants of Chinese immigrants and walked around downtown Habana. It was a calm day for the most part.
Packing List: sunscreen, camera, money for souvenirs
Tips: This was the best day to find souvenirs. Take advantage of the free time. You can sleep when you get back.
Days 10, Part 1: Love at First Sight
Day 10 was when I found it. I found where I wanted to have my wedding. It was the perfect mixture between rain forest, mountain, and garden. After yet another long van ride listening to the musical selections of the best chauffeurs Cuba has to offer, we arrived at the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, Orquideario Soroa. It is a beautiful orchid garden tucked away into the mountains. There is a lovely bridge in the middle of the garden with a view of the valley below. It is the most magical place for a wedding and 10 years from now when I find a husband that is where I will get married. Sadly my pictures don’t do it justice.
Packing List: bug spray, sunscreen, camera, bathing suit
Tips: There was a pretty waterfall in the valley that we were able to swim in. The steps are no joke so be ready to burn some calories.
Day 10, Part 2: Going Out With a Bang
Surprise!!! Rooftop party at Sylvia’s!! Ernesto, the hero of my trip, the protector of the squad, the musical tour guide, the man of 100 jobs, and the man that does everything with the smile and aura of what can only be described as authentically Cuban, surprised us all with a rooftop performance of my favorite band in Cuba, Los Boys. How he made it happen is still a mystery but it was the best surprise of the trip. There was so much loud dancing and singing that people in the streets below us joined in. We met the families of Domingo and David, our tour guides, and gave away shirts to the men that made the trip possible.
To everyone that made this magical trip possible,
Thank you for allowing me to live the life I’ve always wanted. Thank you for opening your hearts and homes. You will forever be remembered and I will forever be grateful.
Victoria Roberson- Your long lost Cuban.