by Frances Bucien
Going to Cuba is not a vacation, but for 21 travelers from MetroWest, joined by six from Chicago, it was a delightful and eye-opening experience.
Just 100 miles from the Florida Keys, Cuba should be much more familiar. US government restrictions on travel to the island are part of ongoing economic sanctions by the United States. The thaw of frosty relations under the previous administration has been reversed, but groups and individuals committed to interactions with local Cubans can still visit.
Here are ten takeaways.
Cubans Are Friendly
Is it the climate? People are warm and affectionate and greet visitors with hugs and a kiss on each cheek. They are interested in the US and retain a tremendous fondness for Obama. The atmosphere is joyful and suffused with music and color.
We Felt Safe
We were cautioned to leave expensive jewelry at home, and to watch our bags in crowded spaces. But we walked freely, and violent crime is virtually non-existent.
Synagogue Doors are Open
Visitors may be surprised that Friday night services at The Patronato and the Shabbat dinner that follows are open to everyone and there is no security. We met with two delightful pillars of the Jewish community and visited the Jewish cemetery. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a panel reads, “There is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. If you say you are an anti-Semite, people will ask what that is.” Unlike many Spanish-speaking countries, traditional Catholicism in Cuba has been incorporated into a syncretic blend of Catholic and African belief systems.
We Came Bearing Gifts
On a previous trip, residents of the neighborhood bordering the Jewish cemetery said they had gone months without toilet paper. We brought it, along with toiletries, adult diapers, medicine, art supplies, and other hard-to-get items. We also donated money for the Patronato and Sephardic synagogues and for cemetery upkeep.
We Had the Best Guide: Miriam
No guidebook could provide Miriam’s intimate look at the Cuban Jewish experience. Unlike many Cubans who left for the United States, Miriam has traveled back and forth for almost two decades, making over 150 trips, witnessing changes and nurturing friendships. The musicians, the 96-year old photographer who took our group picture, our driver and official guides, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and many more people we met have long associations with Miriam, who continues to hire and support them.
Cuba is a Feast for the Senses
Our jam-packed itinerary included a chance to explore old Havana, delectable dining in imaginative locations, a trip to a nature preserve, two dance performances, visits to a cigar factory, an art museum and outdoor ceramic studio, home hospitality, live music, markets, and more. We also witnessed gorgeous buildings crumbling along the seawall, and houses in disrepair. Miriam describes Cubans as “survivors,” and those classic cars? That they are still running is as good a metaphor as any.
Get an Expert Opinion
We heard from an academic and a diplomat who shared tough truths. Cuban women are academically and professionally accomplished but still face the “second shift” of housework and childrearing unassisted. And although the US Congress allocates $20 million yearly to “promote democracy” in Cuba, the money goes to politicians and organizations that remain obstacles to better relations. The embargo and consequent lack of investment dollars keep Cuba from developing its considerable human and material assets. Cubans who can leave for opportunities elsewhere do.
Universal Healthcare & Literacy
Although wages are low, Cubans have good schools and free health care. For those Cubans who gain admission, there is no charge for the university or medical school.
Tech Both Matters – and Doesn’t
Internet access is limited in Cuba. Our group logged in at the hotel, but on the road we were forced to forgo connectivity. One group leader still harnessed tech to manage her household in absentia, using Alexa for wake-up calls and a Ring camera to monitor comings and goings.
JCC MetroWest Travel is the Best
We were joined in Havana by six fellow travelers from Chicago, one of whom quipped, “What a great bunch of people – not one kvetcher.” It takes some behind-the-scenes talent, aka experienced leaders from JCC MetroWest’s Center for Adult Enrichment, to help everyone bond. This group ranged in age from 40 to “prefer not to say,” and included singles, couples, and two generations of two families, and everyone had a great time.
To see more great photos of the Cuba trip, check out our travel-dedicated Facebook page here. Get more info on JCC MetroWest travel here, or contact Gina Goldman: [email protected] or (973) 530-3448. Upcoming trips scheduled include Italy, Chautauqua and Morocco.