My life partner Greta and I traveled to Cuba for one week on a people-to-people educational exchange tour.
There were 42 alumni in our group from colleges across the U.S., including 14 who booked reservations through five different University of California campuses. Greta was the only person from UC Irvine.
Traveling with us were Vivian, a bi-lingual Cuban guide; Simona, a tri-lingual guide from Italy; and Ernesto, a wonderful Cuban bus driver. There were 39 couples in the group and four single women. Other than their spouses, most people did not know each other beforehand.
All of us were seniors, ages 60 to mid-80, except for one younger couple. Most were retired. All had interesting backgrounds and histories.
On Valentine’s Day night, the group gathered in a Miami hotel conference room for an initial briefing.
On Monday, Feb. 15, we had to arrive at the airport four hours before departure because processing visas and paperwork for travel to Cuba—even with an educational group—takes time. We flew from Miami to Santa Clara, Cuba, which is located in the central part of the country.
After landing, Ernesto drove us to the Hotel Memories Paraiso Azul, a huge resort on Cuba’s north shore. The members of our group were gradually getting to know each other.
At the hotel, currency was exchanged for the Cuban tourist peso, called the CUC. Credit cards are still not accepted in most places in Cuba.
On day two, there was a five-hour bus ride through farmlands and small towns to the historic city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World heritage site. There, our group was invited into the private home of Mata, a well-known Cuban painter. He and his wife served coffee as we viewed his paintings.
Also in Trinidad, we were entertained in a club by an Afro-Cuban band. Many of our group danced onstage with the band’s vocalists.
That night our group stayed at the Hotel Jagua, located in the south coast city of Cienfuegos. Dinner was served at a private home that had been converted into a restaurant. For all of our lunches and dinners, the first item served was the Cuban drink, Mojito, a popular rum concoction with lime and mint leaves.
When Greta and I went to our room, Simona pointed out that we were occupying the room in which Fidel Castro had slept on Aug. 18, 1960, which, of course, indicates the age of the hotel. The ghost of Fidel, who is still living, didn’t appear that night, but in the morning, the shower doors were wet as if someone had taken a shower during the night (and neither of us had).
The following day, on the four-hour ride to Havana, our bus got a flat tire. Luckily, we were near a truck stop that served ice cream, soft drinks, beer and rum. It took three hours to change the tire. Not one person complained about the wait. In fact, the group bonded because of the inconvenience. A couple of bottles of Havana Club rum were shared, which, of course, helped the cause.
Our hotel in Havana for five nights was the majestic, 21-story Melia Cohiba, which opened in 1995. Simona and Vivian had a surprise for the group the following morning: Since our bus was being serviced, they had 11 old convertibles—tops down, each a different color and make—pick us up at the hotel and drive us around Old Havana. Our caravan turned many heads around town.
During lunch, driver Ernesto appeared and gave us the thumbs-up: the bus was repaired and ready to go. The group applauded him. He had become an important part of the cameraradie that had grown among us.
The meals on this trip were incredible. Everything was fresh—tropical fruit, black beans, rice, chicken, seafood and pork. Most wines were from Chile. Bottled water was served with all meals and was always available on the bus. You even brushed your teeth with bottled water.
That afternoon, we were driven to the home of Ernest Hemingway, about 40 minutes outside of Havana. Tourists are not allowed inside, but since the doors and windows were open, one could see nearly the entire home by peeking in the openings. Hemingway is considered a hero in Cuba.
One morning, we had a tour of a cigar factory where 17,000 cigars are handmade daily. Each person can bring a combination of Cuban cigars and rum worth $100 into the states. Greta and I spent about half of our allotment on both.
Being on an educational tour, our group enjoyed lectures by two college professors and other experts. We learned about Cuban history and how Cuba is embracing the free world but faces many challenges along the way. We learned about the heroes and villains; Fidel Castro is highly regarded here while Batista is despised.
We visited an elementary school, senior nursing home, an eco-friendly community and two renowned Cuban dance studios. One night, we had a one-hour salsa lesson. At the University of Havana, one young student gave us an informative talk and a walking tour of the campus. Education in Cuba is paid for by the state, all the way through college, including medical, law and engineering degrees.
By the end of the eight days together, many friendships had been formed among our group.
We found the beautiful people of Cuba very welcoming of Americans. They seemed to be thrilled that we were in Cuba and that relations between our two countries are warming. And in our group, all seemed to feel the same way.
By Tom Blake, San Clemente Times
Tom Blake is a Dana Point resident and a former Dana Point businessman who has authored several books on middle-aged dating. His latest book can be found online at www.smashwords.com/books/view/574810. See his website at www.findingloveafter60.com (Yes, after 60, time rolls on.) To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.