Cuba: So Close, So Far Away

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Pssst. Don't tell anyone but I've been to Cuba. Yes, there is a travel ban in effect, making it illegal for U.S. passport holders to travel to Cuba as tourists or on business. There are exceptions, however. You can apply for a "license" from the U.S. Treasury Department, or you can join the occasional embargo-defying Americans who circumvent the restrictions each year, at the risk of hefty fines and even freedom, by hopping planes to Cuba via Mexico, Canada or Costa Rica.

The licenses are usually issued for humanitarian interests, freelance journalistic purposes and to students whose university has applied for a license.

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Walking around in Havana, Hudsons, Chevys, Edsels and Dodges from the 1950s still fill the roads and highways.

Travelers visiting Cuba today do so at a fascinating historical moment, when the country is still drenched in Cold-War era nostalgia, while it's poised on the verge of a full-scale tourist invasion from the U.S. Anti-embargo forces have introduced a bill in Congress for lifting the embargo, but the consensus is, it won't happen until Castro is gone.

Still, the Cuban government (which owns all the hotels) is sprucing up many of the once-shabby hotels "because Americans are very demanding," according to a government source. Of course, tourism has been huge for many years in Cuba with a virtual onslaught of Europeans, Canadians, Brits and Asians putting their towels down on its sugar-fine, sandy beaches. So, the rest of the world is there. We're not.

I wanted to know what I was missing and what the rest of the U.S. tourists had to look forward to. So, I made a quick and all-too-short trip, to the once wealthy, modern city of Havana, Cuba.

In general, Cubans are outgoing and talkative people who spend a lot of their time outdoors. Music, the soul of Cuba, seemed to be anywhere.

And while I found Havana to be a peaceful and relatively safe place to travel, a little street smarts goes a long way there.

In spite of the severity of the Castro government, the increase in tourism and the general poverty of the population has increased petty crimes in recent years.

So, the government clamped down by stationing a policeman on almost every corner. Of course, there are always a few bad apples that can't be discouraged, as I was to learn on my first walk into town. A very young and sweet-looking man/con artist followed me as I left the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where, in room 511, Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

The man approached me in front of a small grocery store and, with a sad expression, asked my country of origin. He said he had just become a new father, was out of work and couldn't afford milk for the baby, so could I buy him some? As he was gently maneuvering me into this conveniently close store, my radar went up. When I questioned the $12 price for a quart of milk, both he and the store clerk became a little too belligerent. At that point, I turned to exit the store and the sad-faced man tried to block me.

With a smile on my face, I reminded him of the policeman on the corner. Magic words, indeed. I was later told by a policeman that there was no baby, the price of the milk was inflated (doubled, at least, he said) and that they would have just split the money after I left.

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Cubans are outgoing and talkative people who spend a lot of their time outdoors.

Walking around in Havana, you can't help but notice the "yank tanks" of the 1950s on almost every street. To see and hear the gunned-up Hudsons, Chevys, Edsels and Dodges of yesteryear, to see their tail fins slicing the hot air of the city or to watch these once-luxury land yachts rambling along was like being in the Twilight Zone.

My hotel, the historic Inglaterra, is located in the center of Havana. It is perfect for a walking tour to the Capitolio Nacional (capital). Its architecture combines the elegance of neo-Classicism with Art Deco and a 300-foot dome.

Also on my tour was the Catedran de San Cristobal, with its impressive baroque facade. The Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former presidential palace of dictator Fulgencio Batista, was decorated by Tiffany's of New York and now holds memorabilia of the Cubans struggle for independence, with displays of life-sized wax figures of Che Guevera and Camilio Cienfuegos. There's even a crumbling statue (bad quality cement) of Elio Gonzales in the area and when I tried to take a picture, a guard ran up and chased me away.

Before I came to Cuba, I had images in my mind of sandy beaches, clear blue seas, vintage cars and colorful buildings.

In order to see the buildings I had seen in so many books required a "coco taxi" (three-wheeled scooter) ride to the Paseo del Prado. Built in the 19th century along the avenue, they have been restored and are buzzing with bright pastel colors. The Calle Obisbo, in old Havana, is lined with some perfectly restored colonial street houses, dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. They completed my must-see list.

After visiting these historical sites, I reached a beautiful park where I observed mothers and their children enjoying a beautiful sunny day. All the children looked well taken care of and were typically happy, curious and friendly toward the stranger in their midst.

With no tourist travel allowed from the United States, it is not possible to schedule any organized tours before you leave. Thus, some hotels have a select number of tours available and some airlines combine their tickets with a tour. For me, that meant joining a small group of Canadians staying at my hotel for a tour to a cigar-making factory.

The three-hour drive from Havana was on the Autopista Nacional -- Cuba's sole freeway.

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This plaque hangs in the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where, in room 511, Ernest Hemingway began writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

There were only a few cars on the road and most were in bad repair. We saw several breaking down as we were driving by. Our guide told us that often these cars had to be abandoned, as repairs are not always possible.

We also saw many people, whole families, just walking along the road, hoping for a pick up. Our guide explained the code of the highway here is, if you have room, you pick up someone up. And we saw it happen, again and again.

The drive was uneventful, but it was a good opportunity to see some of Cuba's hinterland and to enjoy the scenery that's so different from Havana, while observing a way of life in Cuba.

At the factory, we saw mostly women working as expert leaf-rollers of the famous Cuban cigars. As we slowly walked through the factory, I was keenly aware that we were being closely watched by a government "keeper." I had run across this in other countries in the past, but I still wondered what he was looking for here. There was no begging in the streets of Havana, so it came as a surprise when one brave and desperate soul asked me in a nervous whisper for soap, while keeping a weary eye on that keeper.

Sadly, I had none to give her.

The drive back to Havana became a somewhat scary affair when a major storm hit, after an hour on the road. Gale-force winds rocked our small van as it slid across the road. But still, there were hitchhikers and pick ups were made.

Getting around Havana, while nowhere near as bad as in some places in the world, involved daily decisions.

However, using public transportation -- severely overcrowded buses -- was out of the question. The only choices were a vintage car cab, a coco taxi, or better yet, staying on foot (my choice), as the way to explore the town.

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Once you leave the tourist areas, the streets are lined with extremely weathered and crumbling buildings, like this one.

Just trying to see everyday life in Cuba, outside of the tourist tracks, took me to a lot of areas where signs of more than 50 years of trade embargo were shocking. Everywhere, there were extremely weathered and crumbling buildings, and amazingly, most of them were occupied by not-so-happy-looking Cubans, many of them children. Shopping was a less-than-pleasant experience, as consumer goods are in short supply or not affordable by the average citizen. I noticed on several occasions that buying a Coke or food actually prompted looks of resentment. In fact, one local shop owner actually refused to sell me a trinket, claiming that it was too much trouble to remove it from the window. When I sent a Cuban in to buy it for me, he sold it to him.

Cuban tourism officials are clearly looking forward to American visitors as they are busily upgrading hotels, restaurant food and service. However, whether an invasion of U.S. tourists proves to be a godsend for the impoverished Cubans remains to be seen.

For thousands of Cuban-born citizens, like my neighbor Gisela, free travel is a dream with real hope now.

"I came to the United States when I was 6 and would love to visit my relatives in Cuba and to see where I came from," she said.

That's Cuba, today. So close and yet so far in many ways.

It is a country with a mix of communism and capitalism that has sidestepped the currents of time.

The island has a definite flavor all its own.

You may like visiting it, while being grateful that you don't have to live there.

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