Cuba easily climbed its way to the number 1 spot of countries I would love to travel to again. With hopes to reverse yet another amazing thing Barack Obama brought us, our 45 plans to roll out new regulations on travel to Cuba from the US (new regulations set to be released on September 15th). I don’t see it actually being enforceable until many months later but I will admit once I heard the news, I knew I had to get there, quick. Cuba, the only country that people from the US are still not able to travel freely to unfortunately. This was a whim trip for me. I originally planned to go to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil which is known to be “The African Capital of Brazil.” Unfortunately, Brazil did not accept my visa application so I had to exchange for another diasporic location that was affordable & rich in culture. Cuba came to mind as I knew flights were very cheap at the time.
This was a cultural exploration trip for me. As are all my trips but this one I came with a real personal obligation to engage authentically with the people there. I would see people all the time post in blogs about how they hated Cuba, the city was dirty, the food was terrible & not being able to easily connect to internet was unbearable. This didn’t easily discourage me from visiting this amazing country though, especially since my purpose of visiting may have not been aligned with their purpose. Admittedly, Cuba is not a luxurious location in terms of amenities. You can definitely find those areas that are but in general Cuba is a cultural destination & you must find beauty in the ruins. I knew since I put that this trip was for Educational Purposes on my visa, I had to indulge & learn something while I was there but I also had to make sure I came there with intentions of supporting the people who occupy the Cuban space & many of those people have never seen a world outside of the boundaries of the vast island. I researched what things I could bring that would be beneficial & much appreciated. The main things that came up were toiletries like shampoo & toilet tissue, sheets, candy & of course toys for the babies. I never check bags anymore on my trips but this trip I filled up a whole suitcase with supplies to bring to give to the people when I got there.
I flew from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale then Fort Lauderdale to Cuba. My trip unfortunately got delayed 1 whole day because of weather. However, I was originally told it was due to maintenance & because of that, Jetblue issued me a $250 credit of good faith for the miscommunication. Reasons why I love Jetblue! Honorable. I was bummed that I missed out on a whole day of Cuba exploration but I waited patiently for 24 hours & began my unforgettable journey to Cuba.
So I am a part of a Facebook Group called Black Travel Movement where I saw a woman post a picture of herself with the caption “Off to Cuba.” Liked the pic then a couple minutes later, I saw that same woman at my gate. I introduced myself, noticed she was with another woman, gave them a hug as seeing other people of color traveling always excites me to a point where I have to thank them & embrace them. They were so welcoming & swiftly became my travel squad for the next couple days. We rode to our Central Havana Airbnbs together where we realized we were staying only a few minutes away from each other. Split the taxi 3 ways & made plans to meet back up the next day for a day trip to Vinales.
I got to my Airbnb & noticed it was quite a few of people hanging outside it. Now normally this would alarm me but not once did I feel unsafe In Cuba, not once did I feel on edge or uneasy. I am not quite sure how to explain this but I always felt at home & at peace. Made my way up the 2 flights of stairs to meet my Airbnb host Mario. He was so pleasant & despite what he may say, spoke really good English. The apartment belonged to his sister though who he rents the apartment out to. She was my host mom for the week & made me a delicious breakfast every morning for 3 CUC. I highly recommend staying in a Casa Particular to engage with the locals & get a home cooked meal once a day.
The next day we headed to Vinales which I recommend everyone take a day trip there while they are in Cuba. We visited a cave, visited the tobacco farms, ate an amazing lunch, shopped & was able to buy so cheap yet quality cigars. So worth it as the scenery in Vinales is breath-taking. It is an all-day trip though so make sure you plan ahead for it. Came home this day & was exhausted, only to get woken out of my sleep to Mario & Christina Jo (A kind soul from Brooklyn who was staying in his other property). We agreed to meet up later that night. I got up & had a little time to spare so I decided to walk the neighborhood & give out the many gifts I had bought. I first saw a group of women & I gave one woman a 100 pack of scrunchies & she cried. I ran into a kid’s birthday party on my block where I gave the babies a bunch of toys including glow sticks. They were so grateful & every day after that they would come visit me every time they saw me sitting out on the porch. Every time I had more toys for them as I could have rationed them to other kids but these particular babies stole my heart.
Tobacco House in Vinales.
I finally met up with Christina Jo at 7 where we basically walked around the city looking for a place to eat. We stumbled upon a hidden gem, “Dos Pelotas,” which literally translates to “Two Balls.” I didn’t expect much out of this restaurant but boy did they surprise me. They had an extensive menu & everything sounded delicious. We all ended up ordering separate things so we can sample each other. I got the bistek wrapped in ham & deep fried paired with rise & beans, sweet potatoes & salad. So delicious! We ended up coming back to this particular restaurant 2 more times. That night though I did end up sick. My heart is telling me, it was not the restaurant. I had an allergic reaction, nauseated stomach & could not stop sneezing & coughing. It got to a point where I could barely breath & my host mom felt concerned. She gave me a pill for my stomach & something that resembled Vicks Vapor Rub for my breathing. I was better instantly & she even stayed the night with me to make sure I was ok. If this is not the epitome of mercy & benevolence, I do not know what is. I honestly can’t find the words to thank her. Truly appreciative of Mariela’s (host mom) presence & compassion.
The next day I woke up & took the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus to explore the city. It was a great way to see the city in a decent amount of time. It was very hot though. Sometimes the heat was unbearable. I had to take a break as water was hard to come by & dehydration is real in Havana. I visited The Museum of Revolution, Revolution Square, & Central Park amongst other places. Later that day I linked back up with Christina Jo again & we continued to explore the city together. We decided to eat at La Familia which is a restaurant that many people recommended to us. The food was average to me. Incomparable to Dos Pelotas. Upon exiting the building we ran into Alain Garcia Atola who was an Afro-Cuban from Santiago De Cuba who was in Havana working. We talked to him for a minute & asked him to take us to a certain street, as we were a little lost. He ended up being our personal tour guide for the rest of the trip & expected nothing in return.
The next couple of the days the three of us were inseparable. He showed us where to find some amazing art, some more amazing food restaurants, gave us history lessons & even showed us some of Cuba’s great nightlife. We went to Fabrica de Arte one night which is an Art Gallery/Night Club. Super dope! Don’t leave Cuba without checking out this jewel. It costs 2 CUC to get in & can get pretty crowded so get there early. Met so many dope people here too from the US. That Sunday was my last day there & I was able to experience La Ramba (an alleyway that is clothes with art & history). On Sundays from 11am-3pm they have an Afro-Cuban celebration equipped with live music & dance, selling of art & a tour of the Afro-Cuban culture/religion in Cuba. This was probably one of the highlights of my trip. That night we sat on The Malecon for a couple hours which Cubans call “The Big Sofa.” We laughed, reminisced on the week & promised we would see each other again. Those two really became my brother and sister over the course of a few days & the next day I struggled in tears saying bye to them, my Host Mom & Mario. This trip was truly life-altering & I am already making plans to come back.