San Francisco Airport

Cuba: Back in Time

Traveling is like a muscle, when not used, it becomes weak. Twelve years ago Audrey and I spent seven months exploring the world. We became good at negotiating prices, navigating cities, understanding foreign languages, and converting currencies. While we’ve taken the boys to Nicaragua, Honduras and several multi-week road trips since, all were under three weeks. Our travel muscle needs flexing.

We entered Cuba without a guidebook – some research was done beforehand — and without a city map. Unfortunately, we failed to pick one up before leaving Jose Marti Havana International after our all-night, red-eye flight which made navigating the city more challenging. Rookie move.

A joy of traveling is picking up an historical book about the country. I chose “The Double Life of Fidel Castro” by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez. The author was Fidel Castro’s personal body guard for 17 years before being sentenced to prison for wanting to retire. He escaped Cuba to the US in 2008 and tells about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Fidel. Definitely not a pro-Castroist view.

It didn’t, however, take this book to realize that their current political and economic structure doesn’t work. I was able to get that from our 30 minute drive from the airport into Havana. Few buildings look new and most look run down with some appearing to be ruined from aerial bombardment when in reality it was likely from the harsh salty air and lack of funds to maintain the once beautiful colonial architecture. It can best be described as either Dilapidated Colonial with muted Hues or Soviet Pragmatism. Neither rarely featured in Architectural Digest.

Walking around Havana is like going back in time — to the 1950’s. Many of the cars are pre-1959 Chevys or Plymouths. Conditions range from pristine to stuck in the middle of the road while the driver is under the hood as other cards go by. Never saw a tow truck as cars appear to be repaired where they stop.

Since poverty is high, compared to our standards, we had items many had never seen before. Local kids were intrigued as our boys walked around with their Fidget Spinners and even more intrigued with the weird eye contraptions we used while swimming – goggles. At one point Colin, while swimming in the ocean, had a dozen kids surrounding him staring at his eyes. He and I then spent the next 30 minutes letting kids try our goggles.

One night as I entered a restaurant, a 56 year-old Cuban-born woman asked where I was from. We chatted for the next 15 minutes until Colin came over and said, “Dad, we are hungry and want to order.” In that short conversation, I learned how, at age 11, she and her family fled to Miami and this was her first trip back ‘home.’ I asked what she remembered as a kid and she quietly and sadly said, “We had nothing.” Then she told me how it was weird to in Cuba but glad she came back.

The day we drove to the airport to start our one-year journey around the world and fly to Cuba, I read how Trump was looking to reverse President Obama’s agreement with Cuba and restrict American access. My first thought was that we just had to make it into the country before any announcements and then we’ll worry about getting out of Cuba. I also wasn’t worried as we expected to visit 25 more countries before arriving back on U.S. soil.

When Friday came and Trump made his announcement, we weren’t surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. At our Airbnb, the owner said he’d had many Cubans come to him crying about the announcement. He also, in the past few days saw a lot of cancellations from US residents. Most people we came across have some relatives in Florida and this would obviously impact movement between the two nations and reduce their opportunities for advancement or family visits even more.

The people in this small island-nation have been more than pleasant and extremely friendly. I never felt threatened or worried. One of the main exports for Cuba is doctors to South America or Africa with tourism starting to increase because of US/Cuba relations improving. So while I am disappointed by the direction the President has decided, it isn’t because many of you won’t experience what I just did.  But, that many of the Cuban people I was able to meet won’t have the opportunity to improve their lifestyle.

I wondered if I would regret flying into our first country on a red-eye where there are no ATMs, no Credit Cards, or no WiFi. I wasn’t.

Bryan Gillette

Bryan Gillette is the founder and principal consultant for The Summiting Group focusing on Leadership and Organizational Development. He has traveled extensively for both work and personal reasons visiting almost 60 countries and 40 United States. He is an avid runner and cyclist and ran 200 miles around Lake Tahoe in 76 hours as well as cycled across the United States. He recently spent one year traveling the world with his family.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Enjoyed the report on Cuba. We’re wanting to go in 2018 so I took the liberty of sharing it with friends. Onward ho to the next stop!

  2. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and educational post about Cuba. It’s a shame that travel between our two countries will be reduced with the recent announcement of the current administration. It’s wonderful you were able to go and have the boys experience Cuba.

  3. Glad you and the family are enjoying Cuba! I have such fond memories of Cuban hospitality, the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, and being educated in the fine art of cigar rolling…

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