My "People to People" Trip to Cuba: A KTVU writer's experience

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We just thought it would be interesting to visit the “Forbidden Island”, taking advantage of the possibility to fly directly to Havana from the U.S., under the new Obama administration policies, put in place in 2015.

But, as it turned out, President Trump announced his planned tightening of the travel rules for Americans on June 16, and we arrived in Havana the next day.%INLINE%

Everywhere we went, when people found out we were from the U.S., we were barraged with questions. “Why is President Trump doing this?” Cubans would ask us. “Doesn’t he realize he’s not hurting the Cuban government, he’s hurting the Cuban people!”

We found ourselves having to try to explain about American political parties, the political power of Cubans in Miami, and the idiosyncrasies of U.S. presidential campaigns.

Even under the Obama administration policies, there are hoops to jump through in planning a trip to Cuba. When you go to book your airline ticket, you are prompted to select from a list of 12 authorized “reasons” to visit Cuba.

The one we selected, which most independent travelers choose, was the “educational/people to people” category.%INLINE%

It is this category that President Trump has said he wants to scrutinize more closely. He is proposing restricting this type of travel to organized tour groups only, as it was before the Obama policy changes.

My husband and I feel fortunate that we were able to visit as independent travelers, during what has turned out to be a short window of opportunity.

We visited three cities during our trip: Havana, Trinidad, and Viñales. We stayed in Airbnb accommodations in all three cities. Airbnb began operating in Cuba in 2015, under the new, eased restrictions, along with U.S.-based airlines and cruise ships.

President Trump has said he doesn’t plan on rolling back those restrictions, but the Airbnb hosts we stayed with, are worried. Most of the guests they get through Airbnb have been American independent travelers.

All of the Airbnb hosts we stayed with in Cuba offered us the option of having breakfast, or dinner, prepared for us, right where we were staying. This is something we haven’t seen in other countries, and it was great.

Breakfast was an additional $5 per person, dinner $10. In the mornings, we came out at the agreed-upon hour, to find a spread that included coffee, fresh fruit, eggs, bread, cheese. The dinners we had were some of the best meals we had in Cuba. And it gave us a chance to interact with Cubans, in a private setting.%INLINE%

In one of the places we stayed, it was a friend of the host who stopped by each morning to make us breakfast. On the third morning, the woman confided in me that she is a doctor, who makes breakfasts for tourists because she is only paid $30 a month by the Cuban government. She described the situation as “terrible,” saying it’s not right that someone who trained to be a doctor, has to make breakfasts for tourists, just to survive.

At the same time, it is the extra money from the breakfasts that helps her make ends meet, so she’s worried about the new restrictions.

“If President Trump were smart,” she said, “what he would do is lift the embargo, rather than restrict things even more. For 57 years, the Cuban government has been telling us, all the problems we have, it’s all because of the embargo. If the embargo were lifted, and the problems continued, what would be the excuse then?”

As we traveled around the island, we heard similar stories: one tour guide we had in Havana was a university professor. He is paid $20 a month by the government. The rent on his apartment is $80 a month. So, he depends on his supplemental work as a tour guide.

Besides a potential loss in income from the new travel restrictions, the Cubans we talked with also said, they’ve enjoyed the opportunity over the last two years, to have contact with American travelers.%INLINE%

I saw a lot of Cubans wearing clothing with the U.S. stars and stripes. I asked one of our taxi drivers about it. “We love Americans!” he said. “You DO?” I asked, incredulous. “Even with all that has happened between the U.S. and Cuba?”

He explained: “For 57 years, our government has been telling us that Americans are bad. For 57 years, your government has been telling you that Cubans are bad. But they can’t stop us from liking each other, right?” Big smile.

I explored this further. Maybe it’s just that Cubans like Americans because, from what I’ve heard, they tip better than Europeans? “That’s true,” he said. “But, the Brits and the Russians tip well also, and we don’t like them. We have great affection for Americans.”

And it wasn’t just this taxi driver. As we traveled around the island, I heard the same thing, from other Cubans.
In the town of Trinidad, the Airbnb host we stayed with there, Maria Elena Vergara, says she likes American guests because, get this, she says they go to bed earlier than the Europeans, who, she says, stay out late chasing after “chicas,” and she’s up until 2 in the morning, waiting for them to come in so she can lock the doors for the night.%INLINE%

We had a great time staying with Maria Elena. There was a festival going on in Trinidad when we were there. We joined in a big dance party in the city plaza one night. And Maria Elena, along with her adorable 7-year-old granddaughter, Barbara, took us to watch a carnival-type parade through town another night.%INLINE%

We kept joking with Maria Elena that we were going to take her back home with us, because we loved her cooking. She said she would pack her suitcase in a minute.

When we left, my husband, who doesn’t speak Spanish (I do), wanted me to translate for him. He told Maria Elena how much he appreciated her hospitality and kindness, and how much he would miss her. She started to cry, which made me teary-eyed as well. It was a sweet moment.

In the end, our trip turned out to be more “people to people” than we ever could have imagined. I feel sad that other Americans, who may want to have this kind of one-on-one interaction with Cubans, won’t easily be able to do so.