“Everywhere you went, there was music,” said John Dodge, describing one of the many lasting impressions from a recent trip to Cuba.
An old friend and former colleague, Dodge traveled to Cuba with his wife, Ann Dooley, on a sanctioned tour. A veteran journalist, Dodge is currently the Community Manager for EnterpriseCIOforum at IDG.
“Ann and I had talked informally about going to Cuba,” said Dodge, explaining how the trip came about. “As a Wisconsin alum, she got a flyer. We said, ‘Let’s do it!'”
An estimated 450,000 U.S. travelers have signed on for tours offered by licensed educational, church, or cultural organizations since the easing of travel restrictions in 2011. The University of Wisconsin holds one of the licenses to organize tours.
This particular trip included 36 travelers visiting for a week in early February. After flying American Airlines from Boston to Miami, Dodge and Dooley joined the tour group for the Havana leg on an American flight operated by ABC Charters. “Regular American flight. American crew. 737. Like flying to Chicago,” said Dodge.
One Cuban guide and one representative of AHI Travel led the tour group, which got around by motor coach. Dodge said it was very comfortable, though “People kept getting locked in the bathroom.” Between excursions, Dodge found the hotel accommodations to his liking. “Great bang for the buck.”
For currency, he first converted American dollars to Euros or Canadian dollars before leaving the U. S. Then, in Cuba, the non-American currency was exchanged for Cuban CUCs.
People going on one of these educational and cultural tours should not expect a typical island vacation. “Lots of lectures,” Dodge said, “not going to the beach.”
The group made two separate visits to the University of Havana, as well as to a primary school. There were performances by a choir and a dance company to see, plus the obligatory visit to a cigar factory. Dodge was particularly impressed by the “fascinating, airy, friendly” atmosphere of a retirement home. Later, at the war museum showing The Bay of Pigs from the Cuban perspective, the rhetoric of the ’50s and ’60s evoked the heightened tensions of those times.
If it sounds like a busy schedule, it was. “There’s not a lot of rest time,” Dodge said. Still, the people on the tour typically had the hours of 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to themselves. Dodge said there were no restrictions on where people could go. “None. Nightclubs. Jazz clubs. Restaurants. Anywhere.” Dodge and Dooley walked everywhere, but some of the others took cabs.
As for the individuals they met there, Dodge put it simply: “The people of Cuba are amazingly warm.” At the same time, he also said: “People asked for money all the time, but we never felt threatened.” He pointed out the Cuban people regularly do without what most Americans would probably take for granted. Consequently, he recommended visitors pack gift items such as baseballs, makeup, barrettes, and even pencils and paper. He also emptied his Dopp kit, left over-the-counter medications, and gave residents the hotel soaps.
The scarcity of necessities prompted some advice about public facilities that Dodge passed on from a Canadian friend who’d been to Cuba before: “Bring toilet paper, because bathrooms usually have either a seat or paper, but not both. And tip the attendant well.”
For a vintage car enthusiast, Cuba is an automotive time warp. Dodge had high praise for the ingenuity of the mechanics who’ve kept American cars from the 1950s out there on the roads. “We took a ride in a ’57 Ford convertible with a Toyota engine.”
One highlight of the week came unexpectedly. When there was a last-minute change of hotels one night, he recalled an unscheduled side trip that ended with a memorable evening standing in the sands of the beach at the closest point in Cuba to the U.S.
Looking ahead, as more educational and tour licenses are granted, more Americans who feel the so-near-yet-so-far allure of Cuba will see some opportunities to go. The ongoing restrictions might keep the flow of visitors to a slowly expanding trickle, but that also preserves the current state of Cuba. As Dodge said: “A lot of people want to go before it changes.”
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(Photo: John Dodge)