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.

visa 3

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.


BYO Charmin

Anticipating my first encounter with Cuba

Hemingway novel

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?

In the Shadow of Centuries

Pantheon 2013

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.

The Heart of Florence


Piazza Santo Spirito          

(excerpt from my upcoming book Italy: Do More, Spend Less)

One lovely Florentine evening, as the heat of the day subsided, Russell and I decided to explore more of the Oltrarno side of the city.  Looking through entertainment listings in The Florentine, a local English language newspaper produced for visitors, I discovered that there was a film festival in town that included free outdoor movies projected onto the façade of a church.  I deduced that a movie was to be shown that very evening on Santo Spirito Church, so that’s where we headed.

Strolling along the Arno River was charming in the twilight.  The Ponte Vecchio, imposing in its long and tumultuous history, yet precariously constructed, still cast a medieval spell over me.

Soon we turned away from the river on Via del Santo Martino towards Santo Spirito. As we approached, we fell in behind some English speaking tourists who were looking for a specific restaurant.  A young woman insisted it was the best restaurant in town, based on someone’s recommendation, and she particularly said they had to have the antipasta, which she appeared to think was a specific type of spaghetti.  (I am not making this up.)

Trying not to chuckle, my husband and I slowed down a bit so as to put a distance between ourselves and this group.  In another few moments, Santo Spirito Church rose up on our right with its imposing, and rather austere, pale brick exterior.  A crowded restaurant was straight ahead, and I could see the group looking for antipasta standing wearily outside waiting for a table to become available.

I could also hear the sounds of happy chatter and the clink of glasses coming from the piazza on our right, so we turned that direction to see if other dinner options might be available.  Just around the corner were six or seven more eateries, all with ample seating in the shade of lovely old trees.  We made our way down the row at a leisurely pace, checking out the menus posted on walls or simple wooden pedestals at each place.  The wait staff was cheerful and greeted us in English and Italian, but they were not aggressive like their counterparts on the other side of the river.  Eventually we chose Ricchi Caffé, and settled in for a lovely dinner.  A fountain splashed in the center of the piazza, and a dozen little boys chased a soccer ball all around while their families gathered in trios and pairs to gossip.

A carafe of supertuscan house wine between us, we toasted the moment.  Two older gentlemen passed by us, one wearing a beautiful white linen jacket and the other a pale plaid sportscoat.  They were dressed for the evening passagiata, another wonderful Italian tradition.  It seemed the whole neighborhood was ready to participate.  A leisurely stroll in the cool of the evening, greeting neighbors, stopping for a drink or simply walking, watching each others’ children grow up, and passing the days into years with friends and family all around.  To me, this is the heart of Italy.

Let the Good Times Roll!

A Review of the Rick Steves’ Rolling Backpack at Jazzfest, New Orleans

Day 1: Packing & Departure

I relish the anticipation for each new travel adventure.  My desire for new sights and sounds beckons always.  Travel planning and re-planning is one way I hold the wanderlust at bay, which always includes a packing list.  And while I try to maintain a bit of style when I travel, I have learned the hard way that it is essential to take less stuff than you first put on the list, and to pack for the trip you are actually taking as opposed to the trip of your fantasies.

This time, I’m packing for a five day road trip to Jazzfest in New Orleans.  All my life I’ve heard about this giant festival of music: the amazing music, fun and food.  I adore New Orleans, having visited many times and written both a novel and master’s thesis on topics rooted in this quintessential American city.  But I have never been to (insert “holy grail” sound effect) Jazzfest, and this is the year I will correct that omission.  You can call it a bucket list event if you like, but I prefer to think of it as a life goal rather than a pre-death-wish.

I also have a new suitcase: the Rick Steves Rolling Backpack.  Rick promises that it will be lightweight as well as functional, holding 1960 cubic inches of my stuff and yet still be optimally portable.  The rolling backpacks I’ve seen before weigh a ton with nothing in them, so while I like the choice of rolling or carrying a bag, I don’t want to break my back when I need to pick it up.  And with the ever-shrinking weight restrictions of the airlines, I have set a goal of reducing what I carry when I travel.  I’m planning to spend a week in Italy this summer, and hope to carry only this piece of luggage.

Can I do it, Rick?  Will your new Rolling Backpack carry all that I think I need, and be lightweight too?

I ordered the bag online on a day when they were having a 20% off sale.  It was still over a hundred dollars, so I was only cautiously optimistic as I placed the order.  It arrived a few days later in an enormous box that my ten year old son thought was empty.

“I think someone pranked you, Mom,” he said, lifting it over his head.  “See?”

But we both heard a clatter of something inside, so we opened it to find Rick’s newest suitcase.  I lifted it easily with one hand.  It really does weigh about five pounds, as promised.  As my son scrambled into the big empty box, I inspected my purchase.

It has sturdy wheels and a pull-up handle, as well as the padded straps you need to carry it as a backpack.  I tried it on and adjusted the straps, and it was light and comfortable—but still empty.  The interior space is not chopped up, but basically one big open block.  Some people like a lot of little compartments, but I am not one of them.  I make my own compartments with Ziploc bags, and I want room to pack whatever odd things I may pick up along my journey.  There are straps to secure your stuff as well as a little zipper pouch attached to a strap along the bottom.  Rick calls this a document pouch, and it is there to secure things you don’t want to lose track of.  The suitcase also comes with a lagniappe: two white mesh drawstring bags.  Perfect for organizing a wide variety items, but my immediate plan is to use these to separate clean and dirty clothes. Padded handles on the top and side, lots of zippers on the front, durable fabric exterior; it all looks great.

Listening to Trombone Shorty bust out the tunes of New Orleans’ newest generation of jazz musicians, I take out my list and begin to pack.

For an outdoor music festival, casual comfort is the key.  I want breathable light fabrics that will keep me cool, and a little sexiness doesn’t hurt.  Fortunately, rayon blends take well to being rolled up in a suitcase and are lightweight, so that’s the primary core of my list. I aspire to Rick’s level of minimalism in packing, and have watched his various programs on the topic.  I take students on European trips, too, and have used his videos to help them prepare.  And while I have learned to wash out clothes in the bathroom sink, I still want to have some variety of clothes on my trips and feel stylish while visiting wonderful places.  So lightweight dresses top my list, and if I bring a pair of jeans, it’s what I wear on the plane, not pack in the bag to be weighed.  Same goes for my cowboy boots, which unfortunately had a pretty rough time at Jazzfest.

Everything I wanted to take for the five day trip fit easily into the Rolling Backpack, even my straw sunhat folded nicely in half and was wedged into the top layer of stuff.  The weather promised to be 80 degrees each day, with some hint of rain on Sunday, and I knew from experience that it would be humid as well.

I loaded up the family—yes, my husband and I took our two sons, age 10 and 14—and headed off to Jazzfest.  We travel all kinds of places with our kids.  They have a great time, their metaphorical horizons are huge, and they have learned that even when they’re bored and worn out, if they hang in there long enough there will be ice cream.

Day 2

Rick’s bag is doing wonderfully so far.  This morning I chose an outfit from the top layer and had no problem finding my sandals wedged along the side wall.  I wore my cowboy boots on the road the previous day, so I gave them a rest.  My Jazzfest tickets were still in the document sleeve, easy to find with the attached strap.  After my morning coffee, I unfolded my straw sunhat and sewed on some green and gold mardi gras beads and white fabric roses.  Does that make me sound like ‘crazy hat lady?’  If you’ve never been to New Orleans, I will just tell you that Crazy is King; the funkier and more eclectic, the better, and there is no day of the year when a costume can’t be worn.  Trust me.  The creative culture is one of the things I love about the place.

Here is where it is very tempting to ramble on and on about how wonderful Jazzfest is!  The music was fantastic, and the choice of music available all day on ten stages was overwhelming—but in a good way.  The crowds were also overwhelming at times, and not in a good way.  Then there are the long lanes of food stalls, where many of New Orleans’ greatest restaurants have signature dishes for sale at terrific prices.  It was fun to line up for a Crawfish Beignet, then stand with the crowds at long tables and savor the delicious flavors.  The drinks were where they gotcha: overpriced, and nothing special.  But you’re allowed to carry in unopened water bottles, so that’s what we did.

Day 3

Four people in one hotel room might be cozy and/or fun, but it doesn’t take long for all the stuff to pile up and become disorganized.  My attempts to keep the clothes segregated failed completely, and this morning I had to move a lot of stuff around to find what I needed for the day.  But that’s not the suitcase’s fault.  I pulled out several things to hang up, stuffed my dirty clothes into one of the white mesh bags, then zipped the bag shut to keep my stuff separate from my three boys’.  My cosmetics were in a hanging bag in the bathroom, so aside from (unknowingly) sharing my toothpaste I was still in good shape there.

Soon enough we were ready to head back to the fest.  More music, more food, more fun!

One of the things I like about Rick Steves is that he is still a traveler.  He does not seem to insulate himself with five star hotels, limo rides and exclusive tours.  So his travel guides still offer information that is helpful on the ground, for regular people, and is useful whether it is your first or fifth visit to a city.

Rick has also become a bit of a philosopher over the years.  Most famously, his Backdoor Travel philosophy encourages tourists to embrace local cultures as they travel, and talk to local people as they journey through Europe.  A more recent book, Travel as a Political Act, reveals in intense desire to help Americans get outside of their comfort zone and try to see the world, or at least a few issues, from someone else’s point of view.  It can be mind-blowing to discover the possibility that someone else can have a completely different point of view from yourself and not be wrong.  We need more of that in this troubled world.

Day 4

Our last day of Jazzfest dawned bright and clear, with a promise of rain later.  The temperature had been lovely thus far, hovering in the low 80’s, and that Sunday began no differently.  The grass at the fairgrounds had already begun to wear down into dirt, so I returned to my cowboy boots.  Boots and miniskirts seem to be popular this year, so why fight it?  I still had two outfits in Rick’s Rolling Backpack that I hadn’t worn yet.  I’m still happy with the bag, but the return journey is always the test.  Will my boxes of pralines and bottle of Old New Orleans rum squeeze in with the jumble of my other belongings?

Over breakfast at Croissant D’Or we poured over the schedule for the day.  Choosing carefully, we mapped out a plan for catching our favorite musicians plus a few we’d  never seen before.  I tried not to look at the line-up for next weekend.  How I wished I could stay another week!

Sunscreen, sunhat, water bottle, sunglasses, folding lawnchair.  We were ready for the journey.  One of the tricky things about Jazzfest is that you can’t park anywhere near the fairgrounds.  There is a flat rate for taxi rides from the Quarter, and it’s not quite too far to walk.  The festival offers a rather overpriced shuttle ($16/person/day), but since we are a family of four that’s out.  If you have a local friend, you can get dropped off.  For us, the city bus was the best deal, so we made our way to the edge of the Quarter to catch the 75 cent ride uptown.

Almost as soon as we arrived it began to drizzle.  Hoping it wouldn’t last, we pressed into the Gospel Tent and found a seat on the back bleachers.  Listening to Amazing Grace in eight part harmony is a religious experience unto itself, and I was transported to another place.  The ladies of Kim Che’re’s group then rocked the house with a praise song I’ve never heard before.  “Loosen up and dance for Jesus!” she belted out.  How can you resist that?

When their show was over we headed to another stage, and then another, stopping for Alligator Pie along the way.  The rain backed off for part of the afternoon, so we set up our chairs outside the Blues tent to hear Kermit Ruffins festive fresh take on New Orleans classics.  The crowd had filled up the tent as well as the doorways.  Three songs into the show, heavy tropical rains suddenly poured down upon us.

Immediately the folks sitting around us crowded into the already-packed tent.  I saw the human crush and decided to stay outside.  Now that there was plenty of room, my husband and I danced to Iko Iko as the rain soaked our clothes and our boys laughed at us from under an umbrella.  We carried on for two more festive songs, then shook off the rain and went to the Economy Hall tent for the Treme Brass Band Memorial show for Uncle Lionel Baptiste, a New Orleans iconic musician who passed away last summer.  As they proudly boast in New Orleans, “We put the fun in funeral.”  The memorial was mostly a celebration of Uncle Lionel by the Treme Brass Band and a huge group of Second Line dancers and musicians, who paraded through the audience in fine Sixth-Ward style.  (If these terms are like a foreign language to you, check out my novel Bent but Not Broken or simply do a Google search.)

As the celebration ended, we ventured out into the rain again.  Stopping to Salsa dance for a moment at the Gipsy Kings stage, we soon were back at the Blues Tent.  BB King was wailing away in his signature blues guitar style.  My husband tried to explain to my sons who he was and instill a sense of reverence, but it didn’t really sink in. We resolved to play them some of his music on the drive home to improve their cultural literacy.  There are some things that kids just need to know.

Fun was had by all, and when the last show ended we shuffled towards the exit, regretting only that we had to go home the next day.

Day 5

It’s a good thing I’m not in a hurry to catch a flight as I slowly sort, organize and repack.  Partly, I’m exhausted but euphoric after our wonderful weekend of music.  And so is everyone else.  We’re all moving a little slowly this morning.  However, Rick’s Rolling Backpack is still proving to be a great choice.  Clothes, souvenirs, and everything else still fit nicely in the bag, and still with just a little room to spare.  However, I now have my soggy cowboy boots that have not dried at all in the tropical humidity.  Sloshing home the night before, I actually had a puddle of water in my right boot, which I poured out cartoon-style while standing in line for the bus ride home.  Also, my straw sun hat is still totally wet.  Another reason I’m glad that I do not have to pack these wet items for a plane ride.  Instead I put them into a plastic bag from Rouses’s grocery store.  Hoisting my fully loaded bag onto my back, I easily maneuvered down the tiny, twisting staircases in our historic two-hundred-year-old hotel.  I slip past a lady with a huge, bulging suitcase that she is banging slowly down each step with such a loud thud I’m sure she’ll break through the wooden stairs.  Am I feeling smug and superior?  Yes, if I’m honest.  But mainly I’m just relieved not to have her burden there, or hopefully ever again.

I always hate to leave New Orleans.  With my family, we made one last stroll through the French Quarter, lingering at our favorite points.  We slipped into the cheery, tiny cave that is the original Café Beignet for omelets and sugary beignets.  One last stop at the Louisiana Music Factory, where a crowd has gathered for a live performance in the store.  We pushed into the aisles to pick up new CD’s by artists we heard at the fest, and enjoyed one more unexpected musical moment as Tuba Skinny played a nostalgic ballad from the tiny stage in the store.

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that it’s time to start the drive home. Walking back to the car, I could hear a brass band at the corner of Jackson Square echoing through the streets, calling me back like a siren song.

Hello, my name is Lucy, and I’m a Travel Addict…

…But if I’m a travel addict, at least I come by it honestly. My parents, prompted by my English professor father, traveled to Europe several times while I was growing up, and I was fortunate enough to have a mother who insisted on dragging me and my brother along. My addiction to travel began with intensity at the tender age of ten when my Dad was leading a group of college students on a six week tour of Europe. We spent almost two of those weeks in Italy. After that it was all over. Somewhere between Venice and Florence I was forever infected with the Travel Bug.

As of today, I’ve been to Europe sixteen times, with two more trips planned this summer.  About half of those have been with students and the others with my husband and family.  I’ve had so many great experiences during those trips: beautiful moments, hilarous stumbles, and eye-opening revelations.  My worldview is forever changed–and changing.

My books, Episodes in Student Travel, as well as this blog, are my offering to those who love to travel and read about travel, and who are eager to open the joyous door to discovering other people and cultures in our shared global community.