My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio
My daiquiri in El Floridita
—Ernest Hemingway

And so we did.

La Bodeguita del Medio

La Bodeguita del Medio

La Floridita

La Floridita

We have learned to embrace that New England anomaly known as February vacation—that random bonus vacation we get, just six weeks after the winter vacation, at a time when we’re all so sick of being snow-bound that the last thing we want to be is stuck with our family—by getting out of New England.

So this year, we went to Cuba. Yes, Cuba.

When folks hear we went to Cuba, they ask the same questions. I’ll just go ahead and answer them here:

Yes, we went legally (as opposed to going illegally through Mexico or Canada). While Americans can’t just pop into Cuba as if it were, say, England or Kyrgyzstan (no, really, no visa needed), there are ways to go legally. We went with a tour company on what’s called a People-to-People exchange, which is a somewhat educational tour provided by companies that have obtained a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The company we went with offers a regular tour (which was happening at the same time) and a family tour. The main difference, as far as I could tell, is we didn’t go to a Buena Vista-style club and our dinners were at 7:30 instead of 9 p.m. Fine by me! We also lucked out in that we were the only family to sign up for the tour, which means the tour ended up being private.

No, it was not cheap.

Our trip was just coincidentally at the same time that the State Department began easing the restrictions on the travel to Cuba. We booked the trip six months ago, before Obama decided to open relations. It had almost no effect on our trip. The only difference it made, however, was shopping. When we booked the trip, nothing could be purchased in Cuba except for art. By the time we went, we could bring back $100 per adult in tobacco and alcohol.

And finally, hell, yes we did! As much rum and cigars as allowed by law. Adam asked, “Wait, the kids can’t bring back rum and cigars too?” No, Ivy League Boy, minors are not allowed to have rum and cigars. Duh.

I think when you go to a place for the first time, you have certain expectations in mind. People think France and they picture berets and French bread being carried down the street and dancers doing the can can. German brings to mind lederhosen and beer. Spain is those crazy matadors and the running of bulls. But when you arrive to the place, you quickly learn that while, yes, France has bread and Germany has beer, the countries look nothing like the stereotype.

Not so with Cuba.

Before we left for Cuba, I pictured cars from the 1950s, farmers in those brown hats, and revolutionaries everywhere. And that’s exactly what we got, and so much more. Bicycles everywhere. Horse and carts on the roads in the countryside. Fields being plowed with oxen.
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The one downside of the State Department restrictions was, as part of the People-to-People license, we had to fill out a form every day (the boy: “Ugh! Homework?!”), in which we wrote where we went, what we got out of it, and what we thought the Cubans got out of our exchange. The forms are sent to the State Department. I was stressing about it until Adam pointed out that it didn’t really matter. “It’s not like they can take the trip away from us.” Right.

It was easy to say what we got out of it; harder to know what the Cubans got out of the exchange. Some were clear (“We had a great exchange about the difference in American and Cuban education systems”), some were less clear (as the boy wrote after we visited the Museum of the Revolution, “They got to tell Americans about the Cuban Revolution”).

The trip was eye-opening in so many ways. I plan on posting more about it in bits and pieces. In the meantime, if anyone is curious, my photos are on Flickr.