As an avid traveler, it's natural to dream about future travels and reminisce about past travels while sheltering in place. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my last trip which was to Kenya. Today, I invite Susan Meyer to tell us about her last trip before COVID-19 and invite you to dream with me about traveling there someday. She explains how traveling to Cuba has become increasingly difficult over the past couple of years (even before COVID-19), but is still possible.
Twenty-some years ago my mother went to Cuba on a cultural exchange through SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). She came home with several pieces of original art and grand stories of art, music and culture. Later, President Obama opened up trade and tourism with Cuba allowing Americans to visit Cuba without requiring that they go with an organized group. Other countries have been enjoying unfettered travel to Cuba for many years while American’s were just beginning to explore this rich culture. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has steadily undermined our ability to visit Cuba, but thankfully it’s still possible to experience the country. In early December 2019, after years of hearing about Cuba from my friend Charles who organizes specialized tours there, I signed up.
Under Trump, the only way to go to Cuba as an individual is under the US sanctioned purpose of helping the Cuban people. What this means is that we can only patronize small businesses that are owned by Cubans. We are not allowed to patronize government-owned businesses. The Cuban government allows their citizens to have cottage industries, however the government competes against them in extraordinary ways. We went to a tobacco farm in Vinales and were informed that the Government takes 90% of their production and allows them free enterprise with the remaining 10%.
When we arrived at the Havana airport along with many Cuban Americans we saw huge tightly wound bundles of items on the turnstile. They contained appliances, bedding, clothing, personal care items and other things we take for granted but are hard to get in Cuba. Cuban Americans visit Cuba regularly and do what they can to improve the lives of their family members living under Cuba’s communist regime.
Our guide met us at the airport and escorted us in one of the classic old cars that Havana is famous for. Then we checked into our guest house in old town Havana. It was an amazing old structure featuring an old-fashioned elevator with a metal mesh door. The interior of the building had tile walls, tall doors, and extremely high ceilings. The buildings in Old Havana are gorgeous and historic and have changed little from 1959 when Castro expelled all foreigners and instituted communist rule. My husband, Jim and I took a Caribbean cruise back in 1994 that left from Ft. Lauderdale and sailed two-and-a-half days to reach Curaçao. On the way, we passed by Cuba and what stood out was how dimly lighted the island was. I mentioned this to Andreas, one of our Cuban guides, and he told us it was during the darkest days of Cuba. The USSR had fallen and could no longer support Cuba. This forced Cuba to get creative and open their doors to tourism to survive.
Today Cuba is a vibrant colorful country. In December, the magnificent buildings were being restored and the restaurants were thriving in Old Havana. Many European countries have invested in Cuba, partnering with the Cuban government to create high end hotels to advance international tourism.
We learned during our trip that Trump had recently shut down cruise ship visits to the island. Even though most ships aren’t American owned, European countries were afraid of repercussions should they ignore Trumps directive. This has had a major impact on Cuba’s tourism industry. The COVID-19 epidemic then completely cut off tourism. We are happy to have visited when we did and I hope that you will consider a trip to Cuba to experience a country with all of its contradictions and to benefit the Cuban people, when it is safe to do so.
Since a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I wanted to share some of my favorite photos below from my visit to Cuba.
by Susan Meyer
Wine Maker & owner of Rustridge ranch in Napa Valley
The secluded property, once a large thoroughbred horse ranch, was purchased by Susan Meyer's family in 1972. Now it reflects Jim & Susan's two passions: wine and horses. They continue to breed and race thoroughbreds each spring; just about the time new buds form on the grape vines, new foals are born.
Susan invites you to visit her southwestern ranch-style Bed & Breakfast with sweeping views of the vineyards, pastures, hillsides and ancient oak trees.
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