Since it will still be about three months before we do any international traveling, I thought it would be fun to share a few of our more recent trips to give you an idea of what travel looks like through the eye of my camera.
Last year just before my mom came to live with us, we joined a small group tour organized by James Lewis (jameslewisrn.com) to Cuba. It was a legal and licensed people-to-people trip structured for those in the medical profession to get continuing education credits, interact with others in the medical field in Cuba, and donate some medical supplies. We each took with us a small amount of supplies chosen from a list we were provided prior to leaving.
Most travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is outlawed, but tens of thousands of Americans now visit the island legally each year on people-to-people tours, which are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department. People-to-people trips must have educational and cultural exchange itineraries in order to be approved by the U.S. government.
There are now direct flights from Miami to Havana, but in early 2012 we had to fly from Mexico. We flew from Los Angeles to Cancun and met up with our group there. After a short overnight, we flew the next day non-stop to Havana and were transferred to our hotel. Our first five nights were at the Hotel Parque Central, located right on the edge of Old Havana.
The room was a little dated but clean and the location was ideal. The rooftop pool area was inviting and a wonderful place to relax over a cocktail or coffee. The view included Cuba’s Capitol building which was inspired by the US Capitol building in Washington DC.
We felt very safe in Cuba and were free to walk about and explore anywhere we wished during our free time. Being right on the edge of Old Havana, we looked forward to walking the area, seeing the architecture, meeting people, taking pictures, and simply experiencing the city.
How would I describe Old Havana? Beautiful, vibrant, colorful, a combination of decaying infrastructure and restoration, music floating out from every doorway, alive. I was instantly enchanted by the sights, overwhelmed by the sounds, and could hardly take pictures fast enough.
Clothes hung from balconies drying in the afternoon sun, vendors displayed a variety of fresh fruit, flowers or items for a quick meal. It was easy to move along slowly with the crowd, or stand for a while and simply watch passersby.
The local people seemed laid back, friendly and welcoming. We felt no animosity toward us as Americans, however there were hints of not being in agreement with our government policies and embargo when asked directly. For the most part they are a poor people, making well below our minimum wages.
The average monthly salary in Cuba rose 17 per cent between 2006-2011 to the equivalent of $19, the state statistics office said.
Yes, you read that correctly – the average MONTHLY salary. According to this same article, “There is a very small salary range from unskilled to highly skilled labor; so a street sweeper might make $17 and a brain surgeon $22 a month.”
Being in Cuba on a medical people-to-people program, we heard about doctors leaving medicine to drive a taxi because they made more through tips than they did using their skills.
I’ll post more about our tour of a medical facility in a later post for anyone interested in seeing what an emergency clinic looks like there. But for now, back to the sights of Old Havana.
Want to stop in at one of Ernest Hemingway’s old hangouts? Check out La Bodeguita Del Medio. Being on the tourist route, it was busy, and over priced, but the food was good enough to bring us back a second night. They are one of several places that claim to have originated the mojito. The walls are covered with signatures of visitors from all over the world.
Did I fall in love with Old Havana? In a nutshell – yes.
I would encourage anyone that loves photography, has a sense of adventure, is patient and can adapt to a slower way of life, is open-minded, is interested in learning about a different way of life, likes mojitos, and can roll with new experiences with a warm smile and an open heart to go.
There are several tour companies currently offering legal trips for US citizens. Here are a few:
And here is a great site for information specifically for Americans traveling to Cuba:
So, what do you think? Have you been to Cuba? Have any desire to go? If not, what is your hesitation?