Note: President Obama announced today that he's resuming normal relations between this country and Cuba. That's great news. It about time. Here I recount my memories of traveling to that country.
In 1977, my friend Charlie Cain, a Detroit News reporter, and I were looking for a place to take a different vacation. As pressroom manager at the State Capitol in Michigan, I had daily contact with news reporters who shared their suggestions. Somebody threw out the idea of going to Cuba.
President Jimmy Carter had let the U.S. embargo against Cuba expire which opened up the country to U.S. travel for the first time in a bunch of decades. We went and we both had our eyes opened to a country full of really friendly people and to overwhelming poverty.
Landing at the Havana airport had a surreal quality with the knowledge that Keywest, Florida was less than a hundred miles away. It was a communist country closed to Americans, but still with incredibly close ties to this country. It seemed like everybody there had relatives somewhere in the Midwest, particularly Michigan. There were people with cousins in Saginaw, grandkids in Lansing and brothers in the Detroit area.
Before we left on our trip, Charlie and I connected with a Cuban family in Lansing where the grandfather was still in Havana. He was poor. He had very little freedom and his resources like clothing were meager. They asked us to take him K-Mart quality clothes to him along with some razor blades. We did. Highlights of the trip included:
- A visit to Varadero Beach on the north shore of the country at a seedy resort right on the Carribean. This was before the commercial development of the past few years. Just down the beach was the Dupont Mansion with a restaurant where Charlie and I ate. We were the only customers. Everytime, we had a swallow of water a waiter refilled it. This was repeated for crumbs dropped on the tablecloth.
- An eerie visit to the Bay of Pigs where soldiers landed via parachute during an attempt to overthrow Castro. We took a motorboat to an island restaurant where we ate crocodile burgers. Our guide explained how the soldiers during the attack became food for the crocodiles.
- We brought a Bible which we got through customs. At our hotel in Havana, I saw the maid eyeing up the Bible. I asked her if she wanted it. She nerviously shook her head no. We left the room and when we got back, it was gone.
- A stay at an East German resort on the south coast which was near a Russian sub base. At the resort bar, we drank vodka shots with a big table full of young Russian sailors. We toasted everything from Chevrolet to Cassius Clay.
- A visit to the bar in Havana where Ernest Hemingway used to dirnk rum and cokes. In the above picture, I stand in front of a Saturday Evening Post article about the bar. It was big time unreal to be sitting on a stool where he may have sat.
Permanently etched in my memory is our visit with the old grandpa that we brought the clothes to. We arranged to meet him in the lobby of our hotel. We patiently waiting until a clerk handed us a note telling us where to look for him.
We invited him to our room to get the clothes. He was stopped at the elevator by the Cuban secret police and hassled. Concerned that he might be jailed, we asserted ourselves and he was allowed to go to our room
When we delivered the gift, he cried. Through his tears, he said he had two sons in the United States. Pointing to us, he said he now had four.
He gave us each handrolled Cuban cigars. These were the real deal and not for faint of heart cigar smokers. As we tried to show our respect to him by smoking them, we could see the gravity of the moment.
During that trip, the world became a whole lot smaller for the two of us. We met and got to know people who deserve better.
I'd go back again now that the country's open once more to U.S. visitors.
It's time to reconnect and share. We have so much to offer each other.