Talk with any well-traveled person long enough—perhaps over a few glasses of wine—and out it comes. The story. That you-won’t-believe-it, you’ve-gotta-hear-this defining moment that happened thousands of miles away from home. And right now, with our collective travel plans largely on pause, these incredible true tales can seem even more salient, pushing us to remember that this is what a travel can yield.
Bob, a six-time Classic Journeys guest since 2009, has one of the wildest ones yet. During a business trip to Cuba in 2002, he found himself drinking, dining and trading toasts with none other than El Comandante — Fidel Castro himself — much to his astonishment.
The First Hint Was of an Unnamed “Special Host”
“In retrospect, that was likely code for who our ‘host’ would be,” recalls Bob. He was leading a trade mission for his employer and staying at The Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, a 1930s-built masterpiece in central Havana that has housed notables such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
One night during the trip, with no specifics offered, he and his small group of fellow travelers were led to a government building and ushered into a foliage-filled lobby area to await the arrival of the “special host.” Around 9p.m., Fidel Castro walked in, accompanied by his translator.
“I spent much of the next three hours beside him, with his hand right on my shoulder,” remembers Bob. “He talked about everything from what U.S. company pension funds invest in to why he thought the milk from certain cows in Cuba smells so good. At one point I told him he was a capitalist; he responded that my company and I were socialists and we had a big laugh.” Bob found the controversial Cuban leader gracious, charming...and incredibly loquacious. “His speeches used to run for three to four hours; he could talk until the sun came up,” he says.
Then Castro Made a Surprising Spontaneous Gesture
After several hours of cocktails and conversation, the group sat down to a formal dinner that lasted until around 2 a.m. Toward the end, the Cuban leader brought out Cuban cigars and rum, and made a toast. “I came back with my own toast and mentioned that this was such a great evening—except for the fact that my wife, Sara, wasn’t there, as the U.S. government hadn’t let her come,” Bob recalls. (As a non-employee, the U.S. State Department hadn’t allowed Sara to accompany him, much to her disappointment.)
Castro responded immediately, taking out a card with his name and title—Fidel Castro Ruz, Comandante en Jefe—and writing a personal note to Sara on the spot.
Translated into English, it reads:
For Sara, with a greeting of healthy friendship. I am sad that you were not able to accompany us on such a historic day. Be certain that we will not stop until we reach friendly relations that must exist and will exist in the future between our people. I hope that you will be able to go with Robert on his next visit. May that be soon.
“I look back on that evening as one of the most fascinating experiences of my life,” says Bob. “Needless to say, we have saved that note in our safe deposit box.”
After his trip, Bob sent a card to Castro thanking him for his hospitality and referring to their conversation. It didn’t elicit a response. Yet before the Cuban political leader’s health failed and his death in 2016, the couple received a holiday card from him each of the next several years. “It was a nice little touch,” Bob says with a smile.
This True Story Has a Post-Script, Too.
Sara did make it to Cuba eventually. Right as the country opened to tourists, she and Bob were among the first travelers to join Classic Journeys’ new Cuban itinerary when People to People programs opened in 2013. As they prepared for their trip, Bob again reached out to Castro, reminding him of that evening, even including a copy of the original note he’d written to Sara. “We thought, ‘Hey, maybe we could set up some sort of meeting,’” Sara says. The couple never heard back. But Sara, whose birthday coincided with the trip, was in for a treat regardless. “Our guide somehow learned it was my birthday, and arranged the most amazing surprise party in a restaurant that, honestly, was probably better than having tea with Fidel,” Sara declares. “We had musicians surrounding us for the entire dinner, playing my all-time favorite Cuban music. It was like a whole concert for me.”
This Is Hardly Bob and Sara’s Only Favorite Travel Memory.
The well-traveled couple is lucky to have amassed what to many people would be several lifetime’s worth of travel stories, between business-related trips and their own love of hitting the road. “We like art, we like culture, we like food, we like meeting people, we like reading history and international publications, and I love to visit local stores and see what people are buying,” says Sara. “We go to fancy restaurants, we go to hole-in-the-wall places. We’ve biked through Morocco and China, and we’ve been to lesser-visited countries like Myanmar [with Classic Journeys], Oman, Uzbekistan and even Saudi Arabia. We love the way that travel opens your mind to the world.”
In addition to Cuba and Myanmar, the duo have traveled with Classic Journeys to Puglia, Sicily, Argentina and India between 2009 and 2018—and are eyeing a South African excursion in the future. “Life’s runway gets shorter, and there are places still we want to go,” says Sara. “We’ve learned that Classic Journeys is really good at curating great experiences. We love small-size trips, and that’s really a distinguishing feature of Classic Journeys.” The two even became such fast friends with three other couples during their Sicily trip that they joined up with the same groups for their Puglia journey too.
Their Goal is to Pass on Their Love of Travel
“One of the gifts that we want to make sure we give to our granddaughter is a love of other cultures and of travel,” says Sara. “Our daughter has it. And now we want to open up her daughter’s eyes to something that’s given us so much pleasure.” The couple took their granddaughter, now going on nine-years-old, to Paris for her first international trip two years ago. “Now she thinks she’s part French and she wants to move there,” laughs Sara.
Throughout their lives, the frequent travelers have only rarely not had their calendar packed with excursions—until now. “We’re not afraid to travel, but the uncertainty for us right now is the coronavirus,” says Sara. “Once that calms down, or once there’s a vaccine, we’ll be ready to go.”
In the meantime, they’re armchair travelers from home, like so many of us. Andrea Bocelli's recent “Music for Hope” concert, filmed at Milan's famed Duomo cathedral (which they watched on a tip from a Classic Journeys Italian guide) is their latest “travel” experience. And it moved them deeply.
“At the end, he’s singing Amazing Grace outside of the theater, and there’s shots of Milan, London and New York, all with the streets empty,” says Sara, sighing. “It felt so sad. These places become part of who you are. And I like feeling larger than just where I am."
Kelly Phillips Badal is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and world traveler who writes about travel, lifestyle and design. The former editor in chief of Interiors California, her work has also appeared in Sunset, Angeleno, BBC Travel and CondeNastTraveler.com; and she's held staff positions at Better Homes & Gardens and Country Living. Kelly is married to travel and lifestyle photographer Tanveer Badal. Together they split their time between New York City, Los Angeles, and wherever their travels take them. Follow her at @kellybadal
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