Mary McClain: People-to-People in Cuba makes for rare experience | TheUnion.com

Mary McClain: People-to-People in Cuba makes for rare experience

Other Voices
Mary McClain

On Nov. 29, 2016, we boarded the first flight to leave Orlando, Florida for Cuba in decades.

Orlando and Jet Blue dignitaries were there to cut ribbons, provide breakfast, and wave on the tarmac to celebrate our historic flight. We had checked the "People-to-People" box on our $50 visa at the Jet Blue counter just prior to the flight. Easy — no organized tour — we like the real people-to-people travel experiences you discover on your own.

Landing in Havana, we grabbed a taxi for our first "casa particulare," which are Cuban guest houses where owners rent out rooms. Vadim and Denia, a young couple with a toddler, cheerfully greeted us and gave us the scoop on the neighborhood. Way more people-to-people than Yelping it.

Our only firm plan was the first casa. Fidel Castro had died just days before. Nine days of mourning with no music, alcohol, dancing, or concerts followed. We enjoyed Havana for a few days, and then took a bus to Vinales a small town in a lovely valley surrounded by stunning hill formations. Bartolo was at the bus stop to greet us with a handwritten sign. He and wife Lucy, a retired couple, were lovely hosts. We then returned to stay in Old Havana after they switched back on the music and mojitos.

... the great miracle to me was their warm hospitality and apparent understanding that everyday people are much the same everywhere.

Recommended Stories For You

That first day, my grown daughters and I walked to the Plaza de Revolucion. It was closed to traffic and filled with throngs of people remembering Fidel. A mellow crowd of all ages, lots of school kids, and nurses in full uniform (a common site) gathered to listen to speeches. As the only tourists around, we were perhaps a curiosity among locals. We always felt safe and were treated with kindness.

While we visited some swanky hotel lobbies, we far preferred our casas. They were very affordable and the fantastic breakfasts could carry you all day. When I think of all our hosts' help — with bus tickets, day trips to the beach, nightlife suggestions, etc., they made our days much more fun.

The third and final casa in Old Havana was my favorite. I was the third person to sign in the guest journal. Our host Julio was eager to please — while his wife Maria worked as a dentist six days a week and their two teenagers attended school. We settled in with an espresso on the balcony overlooking the colonial city. Later, daughter Isabel would lower the house key on a string from the balcony to greet us upon our return.

One morning, Julio joined me after breakfast, still in his apron, and shared their very common family practice of receiving all their clothing and shoes from relatives in the U.S. A former baseball coach, he was now striving to succeed with his rental. A true entrepreneur, Julio is very eager to earn money in his new venture and not be reliant on others.

There were some travel challenges. Wi-Fi access was limited. My paper map got a workout. Yet joining in with the locals on street corners with one-hour Wi-Fi access cards gave us a taste of Cuban daily life.

We walked the Malecon beside the sea, and delighted in the public art and colonial architecture. The plazas, clubs/bars, fancy food and street food were wonderful discoveries. The art museums were world class and the shops were fun.

Sometimes we traveled by taxi — modern air-conditioned ones, vintage American cars, and dilapidated Russian Ladas. Buses, ferries and bicycle taxis figured in. My favorite was a Coco Taxi along the Malecon at night — yellow, egg-shaped, open-air units powered by a motorcycle.

But mostly we enjoyed the people. They were proud to describe their health care and educational systems. Many Cubans are bilingual and were excited to practice their English with us. They were eager to reassure us of their safe streets and plazas.

Despite the anti-American rhetoric they've heard for decades, the great miracle to me was their warm hospitality and apparent understanding that everyday people are much the same everywhere. That what the politicians are spouting may not reflect reality.

Europeans and Canadians were our most common fellow travelers. If rules to again limit Cuban travel for Americans actually go into effect, I hope the travelers of the world will continue to find the casas. American tours tend to stay at hotels where participants are easier to round up in the morning.

Glad we got to do it our way — with freedom and spontaneity.

Mary McClain lives in Grass Valley.