You’ll never visit a country where the people open themselves up to visitors they way they do in Cuba. At first, it’s a surprise, but 50+ years of international politics can’t change the fact that the people of our two countries have long been friends. When you join the People-to-People Exchange Program offered by Classic Journeys, you discover immediately just how curious, open-hearted and welcoming they are. So smile…ask a question…test your Spanish, no matter how basic it is. You’ll be rewarded with good conversation and gracious hospitality.
Hop into a ’59 Chevy Impala
You’ve seen the pictures of the “runway queens” – colorful and carefully-maintained classic U.S. cars from the tailfin era. Imports were cut off in 1959, but there are still more than 60,000 of them on the road. And their drivers are a proud and talkative crowd. Ask the owner of a turquoise Plymouth about his car, and you’ll get the whole story of where he found it, how he worked on it, and the pedigree of its Mercedes engine and Japanese transmission. But you’ll also see that plenty of these “Yank tanks” are real workhorse cars that are showing their age. Car talk will reveal to you just how dependent Cubans are on these vehicles because new imports are few…and almost no one has money to buy a new car.
Ask for the fresh coconut candy recipe
In the tiny rural town of Puerta de Golpe, Classic Journeys will take you to Patio de Pelegrin, a lively community project run by local artist and activist Mario Pelegrin. The town’s kids learn arts here. Senior citizens gather for company and to preserve old folkways. And a woman named Maria sets up a card table with a spread of her homegrown fruit. But zero in on the candy in the center. It’s made from fresh coconut condensed milk and (we think) a secret ingredient she withheld with a smile. It’s so good…and she’s so happy you love it. Seconds are encouraged.
Swivel your hips with a band
Are Cubans born with more muscles than Americans? You might think so when you see EVERY Cuban’s ability to move to music in ways we can only dream. But you have to try. They want you to try. They love it when you leap up in the middle of a performance (and there is always a band playing) to give it a try. Any man, woman or child will take your hand and dance with you until you drop. You realize in those communal moments what music means. It’s joy. It’s escape. And it is absolutely meant to be shared. You’ll be a bit shy for the first day, but that wears off fast!
Mull a mojito
Bring home this lesson if you bring home no other. When one adds one’s sprig of mint to one’s mojito glass, one never ever crushes the leaves. The milder mint taste is in the stem. Use your mulling tool to press the stem and leave the leaves whole. It really does taste better. As many of these rum-and-lime-and-mint drinks as you’ll be invited to imbibe, it’s good to know the secret. Classic Journeys assures you a mojito-making lesson as part of a cooking instruction at one of Havana’s best cooking schools. Eating and drinking your way through a country is a great way to understand it.
Root for the Vegueros
If the game is in season and your visit matches the schedule, try to get to a Cuban baseball game. Cubans. Are. Nuts. About. Baseball. You might luck out and attend a game in Pinar del Rio where their championship team the Vegueros play. This is Cuba, so the park is in rougher shape than any in the U.S. But the fans are first-rate…and there’s no better way to bond than by questioning the ump’s eyesight when the local team is out at first. Even if you never manage to get on the Veguero-cam, the fans will applaud you for trying.
Take a puff with a cigar-roller
A Cuban tobacco-growing family only gets to keep 10% of its crop. The rest of it must be sold to the government. With the precious leaves they retain, every family rolls its own, and it is so much more complicated than you’d think. Leaves from different parts of the plant are used for wrappers or flavor or to assure that the cigar burns smoothly. In the drying barns and out in the tobacco fields, the farmers are happy to tell you all about it. Yes, they’ll light one up for you, but even if you’re not up for a puff, the aroma punctuates the end of the story. (And it’s amazing how right a cigar smells in the same air where it was grown and dried—even to a non-smoker.)
Chat up a roomful of third-graders
In a rural community called Las Terrazas, a third-grade teacher waves you into her classroom. She knows you are there because you’ve sent the schoolyard chickens squawking on your approach. You learn in Cuba that an unexpected invitation like this is always to be accepted. So you squeeze into the 12’ x 12’ classroom. The kids might be shy for at least five seconds, and then they are clowning and singing “Itzi, bitzi araña”. (That would be “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” in English, and they’re tickled if you sing it back to them.) It’s a great shared moment and a connection like you never expected.
Admire the work of a recycled-paper artist
Artists are almost as common in Cuba as musicians. The government pays them to practice their skills, but that doesn’t always mean supplies are easy to come by. Just talk to Ariel, an accomplished printmaker…who has to make his own paper. He has a spare room in his apartment complex, complete with traditional tools to make the pulp, squeeze it and dry it. The only raw material available to him is discarded 8 ½” x 11” office paper. Tattered reams of it come to him from recycling bins, and he transforms it into beautiful rag-style paper for his prints. He is proud to show you how, and you’ll be struck again by the ingenuity and tenacity that Cubans display to you at every turn.
Return the endless smiles you receive
It has to be said again. The best way to experience Cuban life and culture is with a big smile and an open mind. Throw a nod and wave his way, and a farmer will drop his machete, leave his taro field, and just chat for a while. The woman at the ration shop will explain the process of acquiring the 7 pounds of subsidized grain every Cuban is entitled to every month. The chef in a paladar (a privately owned restaurant) will tell you at the drop of a hat what it’s like to run a business in Cuba. At any turn, our people-to-people trip can instantly turn into a heart-to-heart experience.
Classic Journeys offers three legal People-to-People Exchange Programs to Cuba. To see complete details, including itineraries, departure dates and pricing, go to Havana to the Viñales Valley, A Long Weekend in Havana and Cuba for Families.