Not Drinking in Cuba
Not drinking in Cuba, by Jen Palo.
I went to Cuba and I didn’t drink. Woo Hoo! The mojitos were free flowing everywhere. Sexy Latino bartenders expertly combined the Cuban rum, sugarcane, lime juice and basil, topped with a citrus garnish and sometimes adding the forever loved umbrella. At least, I think it’s made with basil, maybe its mint. I thought for a moment that I should look it up but I have no business knowing how drinks are made these days. Not a healthy place to exert my energy. Figuring out how to get to Cuba- now that took some serious energy exertion.
Direct flights from Miami started last September, so booking the flight was easy. Now, what does Cuba require for documentation? Not an easy Google search. In fact most stuff you find by Googling will lead you to believe that it’s best to pay a tour company four to five thousand dollars to handle everything from where you’ll stay, how you’ll get around, where you’ll go, what and where you’ll eat, and of course, “everything you need to get through Cuban customs”. Cuba has long been a mystery for Americans, that dangerous, frozen in time, forbidden place that few know much about. I had to go. I’m the person that steps over the barricade ropes at the Rosecliff Mansion in Newport to see if what the sign says is true. Is the stove really a stove? Who just HAS TO try to open the closed doors to see what interesting long lost mystery might get solved in one peek- until the stern Rosecliff attendant scolds my mischievous disregard for the rules with belittling authority. I refuse to pay a Cuban tour company.
My first conclusion was that we needed to apply for an OFAC license from the US Department of the Treasury in order to enter Cuba. My attempt at this was a miserable failure as I lazily did not include an agenda for the trip and we were denied. Refused. Shut out. This just made me more determined and with further investigation I found that it seemed we needed to order a visa/tourist card which is easily obtained online from Cuba Travel Services for a mere eighty bucks a piece, plus shipping and handling. The strange part about this is that the card is self-fill-in, you write in your name and passport number. Could it really be that easy? Could the whole OFAC thing been a run-a-round? We entered the country easily with the tourist card and passport. My beloved travel partner insists that I add that I did reapply for the OFAC license and on the second attempt wasn’t denied. They sent a long convoluted letter stating something to the effect that anyone can travel under the ‘general license for people to people travel’… so did we need that? I don’t think so but it’ a debatable point.
Cuba truly is a step back in time. We arrived in Havana the day after Fidel Castro’s five day funeral procession left the city. There was a ban on music and alcohol, for the locals anyways. The mojitos still flowed unabatedly for the tourist. As a tried and true practice of my wellness plan, the first stop was an AA meeting. Yes Havana has two English speaking AA meetings, one on Thursday night and one on Saturday night. It was Thursday. Armed with a map, written address, and a few Spanish sentences, I hailed a 1960’s Russian Lada taxi cab. The driver nodded in understanding and took me to an old church that expanded over an entire corner block. The outside was grey and dirty but the inside was bright and elaborate, half filled with Cubans attending service encapsulated with Spanish hymn. (I guess God trumped Fidel as far as the music ban was concerned.) I followed my printed directions off to the side, down a stairway, and off into a corner of the basement. Typical of the AAer- in a church basement we be. There were two locals, one from England and another ex-pat from California. There was a guy from Spain, me, and a dude from Pittsburgh visiting his Cuban girlfriend. I have traveled as far as the other side of the Earth and have found that no matter where I go it’s the same problem and the same solution. A good meeting once again reminding me that it’s in my best interest (and everyone’s around me) that I don’t drink.
The rest of the trip was an exploration of a time passed, a different culture and political ideology. The Cuban people were kind and happy. Yes Fidel was a tyrant, but did his socialist ideals hurt the Cuban society? I mean sure, they had nothing in comparison to first world materialism, but folks were hard working and creative. Ingenuity a necessity in a place where you had no choice but to do so much with so little. A friend of mine who spent a lot of time in Miami with Cubans said, “They can make a lot out of nothing.” Perusing the many art galleries, often simply the front rooms of the family home, showed creative images of romance, music, and a love of culture and country. And of course lots of paintings of the 1950s American cars that filled every street. A hot seller with the tourists. We bought one. Couldn’t help it.
The last day we stayed in a lavish hotel that once was. Twenty foot ceilings in our room with double doors that opened to an over-look of the town square. The surrounding town was mostly dilapidated, dusty, and polluted with the fumes of the old cars. The majestic hotel whispered secrets of days past. People of significance smiling in old photos on the walls. Dinner there was an event with proud servers and deliciously prepared culinary works of art. But you could still see the Cuba of today. The stains on the table cloth, the dirt on the server’s jacket, the casual response of “I’m sorry we can’t make that we haven’t received a delivery of chocolate in a while.”
A different life, a different culture. Kind loving people spirited with creativity. I would go back in a minute.