I’m no historian. If you have a problem with some of the facts, grammar or spelling, please contact my fourth grade teacher, Miss Brick. She wasn’t especially proud of me then and I’m sure her opinion over the years hasn’t changed. One thing, I’ll try not to extend the truth and tell the story as it was lived.
Most of my friends never thought I’d return from Cuba alive. They expected me to receive my Social Security checks from inside a Cuban jail. I wouldn’t be able to count on Navy Seals coming to my rescue. The only person who thought I’d return safely was my 90 year old mother. She warned me about the water, not to break anything and to email her immediately once I returned to American soil. However, I’ve since learned, she took out a large term life insurance policy on me that allowed a death benefit by firing squad.
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I was issued a Visa with 11 other musicians, writers and professors to travel to Cuba for Professional Research. Most of the group had been to Cuba several times performing and gathering information primarily to write and educate students and the general public on the history and evolution of Cuban music including Cuban jazz and dance. This was my first trip. I’d been sales manager for a Baltimore jazz station, musician and writer and had a healthy obsession for years about Cuba, 57 Chevys and Desi Arnez.
Friday, our group met in Cancun, Mexico at the Courtyard Marriott five miles from the airport. We had a quick meeting to go over the itinerary for the trip as my compatriots smoked cigars and drank large quantities of rum to prepare their bodies for what lay ahead.
Saturday: Back at the Cancun Airport ready to check in. A good guess would have been about 125 people at the gate mostly Canadians and Europeans waiting to board the plane. I did meet a young woman from Montana who was part of a Canadian tour group. Americans can get into Cuba from Canada and Mexico with a travel visa. The Cubans don’t stamp your Passports but it’s against the law. You can’t legally get into Cuba unless you’re traveling for “Professional Research” and can document how you qualify.
We boarded the Russian jet on time and as we taxied and gained speed, the cabin immediately filled with vapors. At first I thought it was smoke and thought we were going down until I was reminded by the person sitting next to me that we were still on the runway. Next thing I knew a female flight attendant stepped through the fog making sure seat belts were fastened. I couldn’t wait for the Cuban peanuts.
The flight lasted an hour. We picked up our bags, went through customs, got hassled a bit and had to answer a few questions as to why we were in Cuba. I tried the Che look of a week’s facial growth and head bandana but I wasn’t fooling anybody.
The airport was very modern. No McDonalds or Fidel fries but nicer than I expected. A bus was waiting to take us to the Florida Hotel. We later learned former President Jimmy Carter had asked to stay there on a recent diplomatic trip but Fidel wouldn’t let Carter stay in a hotel named after the state of Florida. Fidel still carries a grudge.
Inside our “made in China” bus, Raul, a representative of the Cuban Department of Tourism, gave us a quick history lesson including the lowdown on Cuban Currency. Cuba is the only country in the world according to Raul with 2 currencies: one for the Cubans and one for everyone else. The CUC’s, pronounced ‘kooks’ are worth about 86% of a Cuban Peso. When you exchange $100 dollars you get about $86 in return. They also make you pay $25 in CUC’s when you leave the country. Nice.
Driving through Havana on the way to the hotel I was surprised at the size of the city. The city of Havana was designed for a population of 600,000 and there are over 3 million people currently living there. There is street after street of infrastructure literally crumbling to the ground with many of the buildings occupied by Cuban families. I had no idea the city was so large. Makes you wonder what it was like back in the 40’s and 50’s when they had an economy.
Our hotel was located in Old Havana. We were located right in the heart of the state owned restaurants, night clubs, gift shops and hotels. The Floridawas grand and had been recently renovated by the state. The lobby and restaurants were beautiful and what you’d expect from a hotel that catered to foreigners with money to spend. There were only 31 rooms and for some reason I still don’t understand, I got the ‘Presidential Suite,” It didn’t say Presidential Suite on the door but the room was 3 times the size of everyone else’s room and it had a toilet seat. Wow! Now that’s Presidential.
Next stop: Chinatown for dinner. Actually it was called Chinatown but there were no Chinese; just Cubans in Chinese garb. We walked through Old Havana and into Havana to get there. There were a lot of Chinese Restaurants stacked next to each other but like every restaurant we patronized during the trip, everything tasted the same plus there were no fortune cookies.
From there we walked to Hemingway’s favorite pub for a little Cuban jazz and I danced with a very nice 6 month pregnant Cuban lady who got into me for a couple of rum and cokes. The pictures were worth it. Around midnight with the musicians packed up we headed back to the hotel for cigars, rum and a good night’s sleep in a bed with a canopy.