Cuba Abré!

Will it always be this complicated?

My journey from Dallas to Havana took 24 hours. No, the year was not 1925, or even 1975. It was July of 2015. Passage from the U.S. to Cuba is no longer about physical distance but metaphysical space, a transforming journey to another universe.

I left Dallas on a Sunday afternoon, happy to escape the searing heat for an exotic, tropical adventure. The flight to Miami was simple enough, but my trip ended there for the day. The thirty minute flight to Havana would have to wait until tomorrow, after my Person-to-Person group had assembled from across the country.

The liminal space of waiting, in airports, train stations, and hotels can be disorienting. Time is out of sorts. Liberated from my typically tight schedule, where I strive for productive efficiency, I suddenly have nothing to do. Yet the sensation of doing nothing is more foreign than the florescent haze of a distant airport or the sultry climes of a Miami hotel. Seeking to smother my sense of time, I must fill it with something. So I swim, eat, call my kids, sketch, and try not to keep watching the clock until bedtime.

In the early hours of the morning, as the sunrise sent its first yellow spears of light into my hotel room, I awoke to a strange dizzying sensation. I was lying absolutely still, yet the room seemed to be moving–spinning. I closed my eyes, but the disembodied sensation of movement remained. The word vertigo emerged, a malady I had never experienced before. I slowly sat up, walked about, got a drink of water, and imagined my adventure ruined by this crazy spinning sensation. It seemed that there was unpleasant pressure in my right ear, and so I decided to treat it like swimmers ear. I laid back down with a towel between my head and the pillow, hoping to warm my internal ear. My husband slept soundly, but his comforting arm found its way to my shoulder. We had more than two hours before the wake-up call, so I drifted off to sleep. When it was time to get up, I felt much better. Hoping for the best, we prepared for the next phase of the trip.

We gathered that morning for a simple breakfast in a generic hotel meeting room. We were eighteen teachers and two group leaders from ACIS, the student travel company I have been partnered with for many years. None of us, including the leaders, had ever been to Cuba. So we sipped coffee and nibbled on cantaloupe with eager anticipation. At last, a cheerful young man arrived—a genuine Cuban—to deliver the coveted visas and explain how we would be admitted to his country.

In the end it was a simple process. We were issued a two part ticket, numbered, with our name handwritten on it. These were to be presented with our passports when boarding the flight in Miami, getting off the flight, and at passport control in Havana. The same would be true when we left at the end of the week.

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Enrique joked: “If you lose it, you don’t get on the plane. And if you lose it on the plane, you don’t get off the plane. If you lose it in the airport, you sleep in the airport.” There were a few uncomfortable chuckles. “And if you lose it in Cuba, you stay in Cuba. But it’s okay. We have 100% employment, so we will find a job for you.” Enrique’s sparkling smile carried the joke this time, but it still hit home. We, the teachers, had to keep up with this tiny document or the consequences would be enormous as well as embarrassing.

Our flight information was reviewed, as well as the upcoming activities for the day. Someone wanted to know about Enrique’s job, as his repeated travel between Cuba and Miami is indeed a rarity. The unasked question was, “Don’t you want to just declare amnesty and stay in the utopia of America?” But Enrique said he was happy with his job. His coal black hair and olive skin spoke of his ancestry; his blue jeans and travel company polo shirt were entirely contemporary. “The pay is good, and I have family here and in Havana, so it a good arrangement.”

After a reminder not to drink the water, we gathered our luggage and headed out to the airport, and towards the forbidden fruit of Cuba.

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Anticipating my first encounter with Cuba

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Preparing to visit Cuba is a puzzle. I’m excited, intrigued, and eager, but my pre-travel research leaves me with more questions than answers.

The rules for visiting Cuba have opened up, but there are still many restrictions. As I read the online magazines and blogs, I still see that Fidel’s fearmongering is present, if somewhat lightened, by Raul’s reforms. There are apparently still government ‘minders’ on every block, internal information gatherers for each neighborhood. But I am reading that the pressure is greatly lessened now, that the fear is lifting. I hope this trend will accelerate in the coming months and years. Although I travel abroad every year, I have never been to a communist country before this, and in truth my U.S. brain is having a hard time even imagining a situation in which I cannot do whatever I want, whenever I want. I suppose this is a combination of white privilege, U.S. arrogance, and the relative safety of my suburban neighborhood.

The educational travel company I use for traveling with students has a partnership with an organization that can provide the necessary visas and book the flights from Miami to Havana. U.S. citizens still cannot book their own flights, and we still need a purpose beyond beachcombing to obtain a visa. (At least, that seems to be true as of this writing. The rules are changing quickly.) As our departure date nears, my travel company has informed us that we will have to stick with the itinerary exactly and there is unlikely to be any independent wandering about. The other travel sources I’ve been reading concur: stick with the schedule.

What does this mean, exactly? I’m a musician, and going to see live Cuban music is one of my longest-held, most intent travel desires. There are many terrific venues and musicians in Havana. If it is not pre-scheduled, will we be banned from going? What if others in my group run out of steam (as often happens) before I do? Will I have to go back to the hotel at 9 pm because someone else is sleepy?

My other Cuban dreams are already on the itinerary: Hemmingway’s home, a walking tour of the elegant historic quarter, and many sites of twentieth century history such as Revolution Square, the Muraleando Project and the Revolution Museum, housed in the former presidential palace. I don’t mind traveling with a group, and I know they’ve arranged some lovely meals in paladars, the family run home bistros that are part of the local custom.  I’m ready to be flexible and to play along with the program.

Yet further research has revealed the suggestion to bring your own toilet paper, as this is a rationed commodity in Cuba! Apparently as you enter public toilets someone will hand you a few pieces of TP, because if they leave a roll in the stall it will soon be stolen. In a country that can manage to provide free world-renowned healthcare and public schools, the unavailability of toilet paper seems a strange contradiction. Perhaps I’d better prepare myself for those inexplicable surprises.

Today my tour manager has also warned that we should not drink the water in Havana, or even use it to clean our teeth. Bottled water will be available, of course. Is this journey is going to be like camping with congas?

My packing list therefore includes: toilet paper, handi wipes, hand sanitizer, disposable toothbrushes, bug spray, sunscreen, loperamide tablets, and an assortment of drugstore items for every scenario.

Just as my intrepid spirit begins to waver, I get an email link to our hotel in Havana—a restored palace on the Paseo de Prado. It is luxurious and beautiful, with a rooftop pool and a view of the elegant Bacardi building. I am once again swept up in anticipation. This will be a terrific adventure—I think.

Then there’s the currency issue. Cuba has two currencies. One is the old peso which is only useful to Cubans and seems to be almost like ration cards or tickets (also needed by locals for groceries and other essentials). The hard currency is the convertible peso called CUC, established a few years ago to be on par with the dollar and the euro. However, when you exchange dollars for the CUC you pay a 13% tax, which is not charged for any other currency in the world. Some sources recommend bringing euros to exchange for pesos, which may work out to be a slight advantage as long as the euro stays low. My local bank gives me a good rate for euros, so I will try that out and compare the total exchange costs.

Here my American ego strikes again: Are we sure they don’t want dollars?

My parents visited Russia several times in the early 1990’s, just after the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain came crashing down. The ruble was essentially worthless, and they found that shops all over Russia wanted dollars most of all, but would take European currencies as well. My mother’s little snack packs of M&M’s drew interest from locals, who could not buy candy, so she ended up using chocolate as a tip for waiters and taxi drivers. Cuba’s economy has not collapsed, but they have suffered from losing the support of the old U.S.S.R. Raul seems to be adapting the Chinese model of Communism plus Capitalism to keep the economy afloat, recently allowing individuals to develop their own business ideas and letting farmers sell their produce freely at local markets.

Still, if I am buying from a street vendor, is there a chance that they will prefer dollars to pesos? This is a question no one is answering, and perhaps this is because the answer is “No, there is no preference for dollars.” We shall see.

Let us return, then, to the one question that really gets to the heart of the matter:

If I can’t drink the water, can I brush my teeth with Bacardi?

Victory in Time

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My two favorite cities these days are Florence and New Orleans. This month I have been fortunate enough to visit both of these wonderful destinations only two weeks apart. So, what is it that moves me so deeply in these places? Why do I never tire of these lanes and levees?

Art, Music, History, Beauty, Cuisine. Both cities offer an overflow of sensory delights, aesthetic entanglement for all of my senses.

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On these streets, I feel I am walking in the exact footsteps of Galileo and Danny Barker, Michelangelo and Louis Armstrong. I look around, and my eyes are seeing what they saw. In Firenze, I taste unsalted focaccia bread, white bean and lamb stew, and earthy red wines. On elegant Renaissance lanes, I walk through the old market where Leonardo bought his groceries. I look up and marvel at the church of Orsanmichele, adorned by Dante’s inspired hands.

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In the Crescent City, gumbo simmers while Po-boy sandwiches keep body and soul together. A lyric coronet sounds in the distance. Ah, the music of New Orleans! Jazz was born here with a great shout of freedom, and it lives on in an ever-evolving, ongoing celebration of spirit. I sleep in an attic atelier, a freshly remodeled room that has stood since the 1880’s. Through triangular dormer windows, I see the magnificent river winding away from me to the left, while on the right the three spires of St. Louis Cathedral frame the view. Faintly, I hear the up tempo tune from a Dixieland jazz band playing in a restaurant below.

The past lives on, despite cell phones, selfies and diet sodas. Without a time machine, this is as close as I can get to another era, specifically the moments in time and space that changed the world of art and music. In fact, these are the places that changed the world through art and music.

I have come to realize that my imagination is playing an active role in bringing this illusion of history into my reality. The New Orleans I want to experience perhaps never existed. I desire the elegance of the gentrified Garden District without the brutality of slavery; the unique, European-esque charm of the French Quarter without the segregation of Jim Crow. In Florence, I enjoy magnificent sculptures, paintings, buildings and piazzas paid for by the Medici without dwelling on the violence and greed that founded their empire. While the worst of these atrocities may be over, the wounds of racism and exploitation remain.

I want to hold hands with a handsome, ephemeral history that embodies the remarkable achievements of the past despite the miseries of crime, war and disease, the creativity that answered terrible abuses and obstacles with dignity and beauty. Perhaps it is this heroic achievement that is my siren song, luring me back time and again to taste, hear, and see what they achieved through cuisine, music and art. Standing the test of time is the sweetest victory of all.

In the Shadow of Centuries

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My favorite piazza in Rome is the Pantheon, gazing at the Roman temple to all the gods. The elegant dome, intact for 2000 years, shelters a dramatic colorful marble interior, a hint of the glories the Forum once held for the populous.

Today, young lovers lounge at the splashing fountain while tourists link hands to surround the enormous granite pillars, floated to Rome from Egypt by some ambitious Caesar.  The pharaohs provided the obelisk that graces the fountain, too.

Sipping chilled prosecco, I contemplate the range of history–four thousand years or so–on display before me.  Hadrian’s building spree in 80 CE, Egyptian hieroglyphs and medieval ironwork.  A bride and groom arrive with their entourage to pose for photos with the ancient monuments, declaring ‘our love will last as long as the Pantheon stands.’  Ask a Roman engineer how long that will be, and he will answer with ringing authority: Forever.

Running Around in Italy

Excerpt from my newest book

 “Italy: Do More, Spend Less”

A travel essay designed to deliver!

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Rome, Milan and a few other major cities in Italy have a subway service, but I have not found it to be as helpful as in other European cities. In Rome, there are only two subway lines and the stations are quite far apart. But if these happen to coincide with where you want to go, don’t hesitate to use them. The above ground bus and trolley systems are typically far more helpful.

In these ancient cities every time they try to dig a new tunnel for a subway they run into antiquities. Then they have to halt construction and bring in the archaeologists to survey and collect whatever is found. Often, as in Rome, there are mosaic floors and toppled temple columns buried far below street level, relics that are too valuable to be trashed and too delicate or enormous to be easily moved. So the metro line has to be routed around it, or delayed with great expense. I think these obstacles have led modern Romans to leave buried what is buried and focus resources on above ground transportation.

Bus and metro tickets are inexpensive, and passes for multiple days are always a good deal. Between towns I recommend taking trains, but for transportation within a town in Italy, go ahead and get comfortable with the public transportation available. Ask at your hotel for a map.  They usually have a stack of them ready for guests, and will happily take the time to suggest a route. For safety tips, see “Defensive Touring” in chapter 7.

Taxis are also available but are the most expensive choice. I reserve taxi rides for transportation if I have a lot of luggage or there is a special circumstance. (As always, do not get into a car that is not clearly a professional, full time taxi.) Usually you will just be charged the rate on the meter, but the driver may take a circuitous route. Even a direct, quick taxi ride will be the most expensive option. However, if you are exhausted, ill, lost or running out of time, take the taxi. On some of my student group tours I have traveled with people who have limited health and strength, but were hesitant to admit they couldn’t walk the distances we had ahead of us. Don’t be a martyr or a hero. Be smart and take care of yourself. If you find you are unwell, lost or just developing an awful blister on your feet, be willing to step away from the planned activity and get help or rest. You may miss one activity, but you will recover your energy and be able to enjoy the rest of the trip.

The beauty and mystery of Venice holds a charm for me like nowhere else on earth. The most essential features of daily life are altered there, usually in wonderfully surprising ways.  Why should public transportation be any different?  Charmingly called Vaporetti, the savvy traveler can make great use of the water bus service around Venice proper as well as the neighboring islands in the lagoon. You will need to get a Vaporetto map with the route numbers and stops, and fortunately these are easily found online for free from many sources.

Actually, every hotel and most guest houses have free maps of the town, wherever you roam, so you rarely ever need to buy a map. If you want to have one in advance of your trip and are buying a guidebook anyhow, you should be able to find maps of the local public transportation included.

In Venice, find the nearest stop to your hotel or apartment.  The Vaporetto is reliable, but not fast. Once you are in Venice proper, getting around town is easier on foot, and you will have the endless opportunity to enjoy the unique beauty of each narrow lane. I highly recommend Vaporetto route number one, boarding at any stop and riding the full circuit, for a chance to have a leisurely and inexpensive tour of the Grand Canal. The Rialto Bridge and the many glorious mansions will take your breath away and inspire some of your favorite travel photos.

Vaporetto tickets can be purchased from machines at all of the stations. You can also get a card that is good for several days. I recommend this for most visitors, unless you are only in town for one day or less. Your first time on the Vaporetto, watch the other people to see how to board the boats. There will be one area for those who are getting off, and the boat will pull up there first. After they have unloaded, another gate will be pulled open and you can get on. Find a seat inside if you like, or wrap your scarf around your neck and stay on deck to drink in the beauty of Venice.

Unstoppable Music Man

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A force of nature, an amazing performer, and a lot of fun!

Over the last several years I have watched Glen David Andrews perform at least twenty different shows, from Jackson Square to festival stages, and now headlining his own band of exceptional local musicians. Every time it’s different, and always terrific. I have seen this man turn random stragglers into an audience, HIS audience, with just a few lines of music from his horn. To call him “mesmerizing” is an understatement.

Glen works the crowd, literally. He fearlessly leaves the stage to stroll through the audience, his powerful voice—gravelly, soulful, beautiful—needs no microphone. Trombone swinging in the air over our heads, the Crown Prince of Treme won’t quit until we’re all on our feet, dancing and struttin’ New Orleans style.

When not on tour, you can find him at d.b.a. on Frenchman Street every Monday night. Actually, he plays almost every night. Check OffBeat magazine, free in the New Orleans area, for great music all over town.

Second Spring

She was 81 years old, and a freshman in college. She surprised me then, and inspires me today.

My very first day of college, many years ago now, we all assembled in the coliseum for chapel. I attended a small Christian school in Texas, one of the few schools in the country to still require daily attendance at chapel (basically a brief, informal worship service). On the opening day of school the mood was cheerful as friends greeted each other after summer break, and those of us who were freshmen tried not to show our awe and anxiety as we searched for a seat or a familiar face in a sea of thousands.

The marching band played a spritely processional as a parade of flags filled the floor of the coliseum. Each flag represented a home country for the international students, carried by one of the students from that land. It was a mesmerizing and impressive display, as if the whole world had stopped by.

Soon the announcements began. The voice over the loudspeaker boomed: “We’d like to introduce to you our oldest freshman this year. Innes, please stand up. She is 81 years old and starting her freshman year as an English Literature major.” Cheers and applause filled the stadium as Innes stood, waving her arm and smiling. She was talking, but her greeting was drowned out by the enthusiastic crowd. She was tall, with straight silvery gray hair. She wore a simple dress of blue and white cotton, not too different from those that my grandmother used to make for herself. She seemed strong, energetic and happy.

What a strange thing, I thought, to start college at eighty-one. Was she thinking of working after she got this degree, when she was already past retirement age? Why was she doing this?

Innes became a familiar figure on campus. I didn’t have any classes with her, but many freshmen classes were held in the same few buildings, so we passed often in the halls and stairwells. Frequently I saw her in the women’s bathroom of the student center just before or after chapel. Near the mailboxes and the cafeteria, it was a huge and often crowded restroom. A large area was given to a wall of mirrors with a long counter in front of it. We would set our purses and backpacks on the dry counter to fix our hair and makeup. When Innes was there, she never hesitated to speak to anyone with an easy friendliness.

“Your hair is so beautiful. It’s such a lovely color,” she would say to someone brushing out their hair. Or “Your purse is falling. Here, I caught it. What a pretty bag.” Her German accent was noticeable but not thick, and her cheerful compliments easily accepted by the young girls that surrounded her.
One day someone asked Innes what brought her to college. “Vell,” she answered, “I sent all of my children to college. And all of my life I wanted to go to college. Now that they are grown up, I decided it was time that I go to school!” She laughed. “I love it here. This is a great place.”

On a warm day in October, Innes was wearing a short sleeved cotton dress. As she washed her hands at the sink I noticed something for the first time. Across her forearm was a faded blue tattoo, a long string of numbers.

At seventeen years old, I was remarkably young and foolish. But I knew what that was.

I wanted to go up and hug Innes, but I was too shy. I quietly left the bathroom, deep in thought. That tattoo was a mark from a concentration camp. She was a Survivor. That meant that when she was a young woman, she was not fixing her hair and wearing pretty clothes, or worrying about seeing a certain boy on the way to the next class. She had spent her youth slaving away in a prison camp, starving, being beaten and tortured, and every other horrible thing that men have conceived to do to other people. Innes had survived all of that, and somehow she now managed to be cheerful to others who surely didn’t appreciate the comfortable lives they had. And…she was genuinely happy!
Innes graduated a semester before I did, surrounded by a crowd of children and grandchildren. She beamed and waved as they again announced her name, this time as the oldest graduate. The next semester, I met the young man who would become my husband. His first semester was my last, so he missed Innes. But he’s heard the story and felt her influence.

I learned from Innes that you are never too old to reinvent yourself, and it is never, ever too late to follow your dreams.

Innes was not afraid to start over, and because of her, I have discovered that I have the courage to reinvent myself too. I am not the reader of my life, but the author. When it is time to write a new chapter, or a whole new volume, I open the first blank page and dedicate it to Innes.