• Edward Piegza and local guides in Cuba

    The Amigos Effect: Why I Keep Going Back to Cuba

    <p>In a million years, I couldn’t have predicted how much Cuba would mean to me. When we began the long slog to become one of the earliest companies to get U.S. government approval for travel to Cuba, I didn’t have a personal connection. My closest brush with the island came from the stories my in-laws told about their visits decades before I ever met them. It was a surprise to me that my connections with Cuba would turn into an all-out mission to help Americans see Cuba at this inflection point in history.</p> <p>What I now think of as The Amigos Effect—the benefits of deep, sustained and unselfish friendships with the Cuban people—means that <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">Classic Journeys can offer a $1,000 savings per person</a> on every trip to Cuba until March 17, 2017. With friends like ours, we’re able to make Cuba more affordable even though we have hands down the <a href="https://goo.gl/JXPUDf" target="_blank">best guides</a>, <a href="https://goo.gl/s3itWf" target="_blank">best hotels </a>and best interpersonal experiences of any company that you may consider for your visit.<br><br><img alt="Bar in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8c" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>Gaining access to Cuba started for me as a business proposition. My company, Classic Journeys, is built around the thrill of immersive cultural travel. Being part of the movement to open up Cuba and explore life there was a natural fit. <a href="https://goo.gl/dzYoHn" target="_blank">Wherever we go on Classic Journeys</a>, we’re all about meeting the local people, and the stated objective of the U.S. government was to establish people-to-people connections between Americans and Cubans. It was a match made in heaven.<br> </p> <p>It was also obvious from the get-go that we needed feet on the ground if we were going to succeed. Though the country now permits some private enterprise, government Bureaucracy with a Capital B is impossible to avoid. Phone calls get through better now than they used to. Emails have always been a little hit or miss. Face time (the kind with actual people in the same room) has been our operative mode from the start. Bureaucrats are people too. Their jobs are to toe the line, but they are not immune to people who find judicious ways to make their work easier. We’ve always sought to do that. The biggest bonus was that our measured approach to officialdom put us in connection with the everyday people of Cuba. At first, overwhelmed by demand, the authorities directed visitors to the limited organizations and places that could handle the traffic. In a typical scene, a stoic director of such-and-such a community project stood beside a translator who dutifully relayed the party line on tobacco production, education policy, or whatever topic was at-hand. We’re told that plenty of that still happens, but we’ve moved on!<br><br><img alt="School children in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m91" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>On our repeated visits we kept scratching at the surface. The directors warmed up. They introduced us to the tobacco farmers who gave us their own versions of the quota system. We focused on becoming a regular, respectful and responsive presence in their lives. The teacher in a rural school realized we didn’t want to be just spectators in her third-grade classroom, but that we wanted to hang out for a while with her and her students. Most importantly, <a href="https://goo.gl/JXPUDf" target="_blank">our local Cuban guides</a>—truly some of the most exceptional pros you will ever meet—saw that Classic Journeys and our guests were consistently sincere in our desire to really understand their lives. That’s opened doors that I never even dreamed of on my first few trips. These days, our amigos are free with their time and enthusiasm. There’s nothing mechanical about how our favorite salsa teachers use their eyes and their smiles to get you moving. (My own hips remain resistant to the beat, but that doesn’t stop them from trying!) When we open the door to the workshop where our friends Julio and Nidialys operate Cuba’s premier classic car-restoration business, the reception always blows us away. You instantly realize that they couldn’t be happier to see us all. It’s a your-friends-are-my-friends moment, a greeting that is completely unlike the professional greetings you’ve probably received at plenty of touristic spots.</p> <p><br>Beyond the intimate entrée we get into Cuban life, our friendships have yielded some terrific advantages that are crucial to the <a href="https://goo.gl/dzYoHn" target="_blank">value you get from traveling with Classic Journeys.</a> For instance, we’re regular customers at some of the country’s best paladars. These privately owned restaurants are probably the greatest free-enterprise success story in these parts. As regulars, we’re never shut out, and you might notice that we’re seated at some of the best tables.<br><br><img alt="Friends at dinner in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8r" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>You may have read about the scarcity of top-level accommodations in Cuba. The stories are true. Many properties are, to put it gently, rudimentary. Demand for the best of the best is stratospheric. Fortunately, <a href="https://goo.gl/s3itWf" target="_blank">we’ve been staying at many of those preferred hotels for years now</a>. A Classic Journeys trademark (and this is true all over the world, not just in Cuba) is our fair, above-board relationships with hoteliers. Behind the scenes, we put a tremendous amount of energy into respectful business practices that aren’t always the norm. While other companies struggle to find adequate space, we can confirm access to great accommodations.</p> <p><br>And all of this is why I keep going back to Cuba. First, because the friendships that have blossomed there are so satisfying and the new ones are a constant delight. To walk into Mailin’s paladar in Trinidad and see her face light up in recognition before she smothers me with a hug is a gift beyond words. But, as I said at the start, the other terrific benefit is that these friendships allow us to fulfill a mission that we hold near and dear. <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">We can show you the Cuba we love </a>at an extremely important moment in history…we can do it in style…and we can offer you exceptional value at reasonable cost.</p> <p>After you compare your options, I hope you will allow <a href="https://goo.gl/5J7qsG" target="_blank">Classic Journeys to show you the Cuba we know and love</a>. Because that’s what amigos are for.<br><br><img alt="Woman riding in classic car in Cuba with arms in the air" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kx&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002m8w" style="height: 344px; width: 500px;"></img></p>

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  • Group of kids in Cuba

    Cuban and American Kids Connect (with a little help from our friends).

    <p>One of the best benefits of spending extended time in Cuba for the last 4 years, is that we’ve been able to create long-term friendships there. A regular highlight of our <a href="https://goo.gl/ifpZKb" target="_blank">Cuba for Families</a> and <a href="https://goo.gl/KqlTZm" target="_blank">Havana to Viñales trips</a> is a visit to a small rural school. We know the principal and the teachers, and best of all our tour leaders like Heather Harding and Eric Kessler have come to know the kids themselves.<br><br><img alt="School children in Cuba" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kz&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qWt" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>Back home in Washington state, Heather had the idea of connecting the students at her local schools with the Cuban kids she’s come to know. The result has been an amazing pen pal style back-and-forth. Check out this article in the <a href="https://goo.gl/c48lAE" target="_blank">Port Townsend Leader</a> for the whole story.</p> <p>One of the perks is how enthusiastically our guests are greeted whenever we arrive at the school. <a href="https://goo.gl/SEHgzt" target="_blank">The people of Classic Journeys are a “known quantity”</a>, so there’s no shyness or need to work our way through school bureaucracy to get inside the classroom for an experience that basically defines “immersive”.<br><br>After scores of adventures in Cuba, we’re thrilled to get that kind of reception wherever we go. While a lot of visitors to the island end up feeling like spectators, we’re welcomed as friends. The difference is incredibly important. For instance, in Havana our friends Julio and Nidialys love it when we stop by the workshop where they restore and update classic cars. There’s none of the distance or testing of the waters that happens when strangers meet strangers. The welcome is warm and immediate, and we get full value from our time together. The same thing happens from the tobacco farms in the <a href="https://goo.gl/5A2qvb" target="_blank">Viñales Valley</a> to the Santeria temple in Trinidad.<br><br><img alt="Cuban car workshop" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kz&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qXI" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br><br>If you follow the news, you know that travel to Cuba has skyrocketed in the last couple of years. We think that’s nothing but good for the island. But large groups of travelers suffer the same problems in Cuba as they do anywhere in the world. <a href="https://goo.gl/SEHgzt" target="_blank">Our small groups, averaging just 10-12 guests, </a>avoid the traps of only going to places that can cope with a swarm of visitors. As time has gone by, we’ve only found more and more opportunities to slip out of the mainstream and relax into our visits. It’s the difference between marching in lockstep and being waved down by a friend for a leisurely conversation.<br><br>On the flip side, the Americans who are trying to visit Cuba on their own are shut out of these experiences too. A teacher won’t temporarily suspend a lesson for a casual passerby. If you walk into a cigar-rolling workshop on your own, you’ll get a pre-packaged reception rather than the clear signal that it’s just fine if you want to hang around for a while to learn what’s happening.<br><br><img alt="Cuban cigar workshop" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7kz&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qXN" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>We’re proud of the kind of work that Heather and Eric do to create and sustain our relationships with the wonderful Cuban people. And nothing makes us happier than when we get to share those warm and happy connections with the good people who travel with us.</p>

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  • Cuban flag

    A Cuban-American reflects, now that "he" is gone.

    <p>[EDITOR’S NOTE: These heartfelt comments came to us from <a href="https://goo.gl/n3ywOm" target="_blank">Ralph, a Cuban-American Tour Leader for Classic Journeys.</a> You’ll note, as we did, that he never refers to Cuba’s late leader by name.]</p> <p>Solemnity on one side, absolute jubilation on the other.<br><br>This was the scene on either side of the Florida Straits at the end of November. As a son of Cuban immigrants and a native Miamian, I couldn’t help but let out a momentary sigh of… well, relief.  It’s not as if I had lived a minute of the collective suffering experienced by a large portion of Cuban Exile Miami.  I didn’t live through the jarring struggle of a revolution or the disheartening process of nationalized properties.  I also never felt what it was like to stand in lines at refugee assistance centers or the fear of uprooting the family and arriving in a foreign land with no understanding of its language.<br><br><img alt="Plaza de la Revolución in Havana" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7l5&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qg5" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>My sigh of relief was for those who spent a lifetime waiting for that moment, including those who died waiting for it.</p> <p>It’s important to note that the celebratory tone on the Florida side could easily be dismissed by many as a macabre exercise performed by a heartless, enemy faction.  After all, a display of elation on the heels of a human being’s passing could easily be interpreted as inappropriate under most circumstances.  But such an assessment would be grossly oversimplifying matters. </p> <p>Growing up in Miami was a lesson on waiting.  Most everything that a lot of people did–or proposed to do–was all contingent upon “<i>him</i> leaving,” whether by counter-revolution, <i>coup d’état</i> or death…</p> <ol><li><i>The purchase of a new home in Miami?  Perhaps we should just wait until he’s gone. We have a perfectly good house over there. Surely we’ll get it back when this is all over.</i></li><li><i>My parents and other family members are there.  Can we go back there and get them?  Maybe it’s best to wait until he’s gone. This will blow over soon enough.</i></li><li><i>I noticed you have an old bottle of champagne in the cupboard.  Oh, that’s being saved for when he’s no longer there?  We’ll be popping that open any day now.  You’ll see…</i></li></ol>   <p>That was during the first decade, or two, in exile.  Beyond that, the tune gradually changed and I lived it firsthand.</p> <ul><li><i>Someday you’ll see what a beautiful country we had to leave…  Someday, inevitably, he’ll be gone…</i></li><li><i>If I die before he’s gone, will you promise to leave my ashes there when he does go?</i></li><li><i>Let’s face it. He may live well over 100 years… After all this time, waiting for him to go is futile…</i></li></ul>   <p>The waiting in Miami was a palpable and interminable reality—a wait that would last nearly six decades.  In the meantime, waves of refugees would continue arriving on Miami’s shores, some on treacherous journeys that would end in drowning.</p> <p>Old-timers, on their perpetual wait, would see their American sons and daughters have American sons and daughters. Many couldn’t wait long enough to witness the wee-morning hours of November 26th, 2016. My parents and grandparents certainly didn’t make it.<br><br><img alt="Local Cubans" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7l5&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qfv" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> </p> <p>The loss of a country, a way of life, is something that I cannot fully relate to, as I did not live through it at all.  Thanks to my folks and their hard work, my sister and I wanted for nothing growing up.  Those old-timers did their best, not just to fulfill the American Dream in their adopted nation, but also to recreate a small slice of the pre-revolutionary Cuba that they knew throughout pockets of Miami-Dade County…a Cuba of yesteryear that only exists in the hearts and minds of septuagenarians and octogenarians and each of them carries a scar of a deeply divided people.</p> <p>There are no winners on either side.  In Cuba, just about everyone has an aunt, uncle, cousin or dad in Miami. The wounds of a severed citizenry are apparent upon broaching the subject of family with ordinary Cubans on the island.</p> <p>When the announcement of his passing occurred just after midnight on November 26th, <a href="https://goo.gl/n3ywOm" target="_blank">I was in Cuba with Classic Journeys.</a>  I was told by a Cuban tour guide whom I had befriended on an earlier trip there.  She was, understandably, distraught.  His figure as supreme leader was all she knew growing up.  I gave her a compassionate hug, wished her well, and she drove off in her Soviet-era Lada.  I immediately thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity for reconciliation this can be; not just for the continued thawing between the US and Cuba, but for Miami and Havana, specifically.<br><br>As her car drove out of sight down Paseo Avenue in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana, I imagined the reaction to the news in Miami.</p> <p>I sighed…</p> <p>I knew their wait was over.<br><br><img alt="Cuban car" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y50000001z7l5&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM500000002qgA" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img></p>

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