"Cuba is what it is."
These were our Cuban guide's first words as we arrived at the Jose Marti airport in Havana. She ushered our "People to People" cultural tour to the so-called V.I.P. Room, where the bar was laden with snacks, rum and beer, but the ladies' room was unusable.
After an unexplained delay, when everyone seemed in charge and no one was, we escaped to a luxurious bus and drove to our hotel, a sharp contrast to the decaying structures of Havana's poor. When I asked if the cost of paint was prohibitive, our guide replied that people had only limited resources and feeding their families took precedence over painting their houses. Available food was inexpensive but rationed.
The Cuban people were warm and welcoming. They seemed delighted to have Americans visit and blamed their problems on U.S. government policies, not us.
On our first afternoon, we attended an obligatory meeting with a diplomat who spoke on the Cuban-U.S. problems. Of course, we heard the party line but had to concede that they had a few points on their side, too.
One tour member, a Miami attorney, had a great deal to say about the Cubans who fled during the revolution and were stripped of all their properties and possessions, even their wedding rings. He demanded to know about restitution. The diplomat replied vaguely that this was being discussed, but that he had never heard about rings being taken. He also said that each country had a lot to offer the other if they would only sit down to discuss their differences.
Our guide admitted that there is a lot wrong in Cuba, its inefficiency and bureaucracy, but that no matter how bad things are now, it was far worse before the revolution. Her grandmother had to walk two miles for water and had no health care whatsoever. Now 95 percent of Cubans are educated, and every area has a medical clinic.
After that first day we gave ourselves over to the joy of being tourists. We were taken to a cigar factory in lush, tropical Pinar del Rio and then to a tobacco plantation whose owner, Benito, was handsome enough to be a Hollywood recruit. Two of my new lady-friends smoked cigars with him in the drying sheds. I was more interested in his homestead, where chickens wandered freely while fighting cocks watched from cages. Guavas and avocados lined the barnyard, and laundry flapped on the line.
We were taken to presentations of hip-hop and rumba, to concerts and art galleries, and to the residences of Ernest Hemmingway. One evening we went to an out-of-doors night club to see a fabulous song-and-dance show that went on until midnight, which was too long for me.
Modern cars traveled the streets of Havana, but the most prized vehicles were U.S. Chevrolets of the 1950s. Proud owners kept them painted and in repair, and our group had the pleasure of riding to dinner in five or six beauties. One friend chose a place in the back seat of a convertible, giving the Queen Elizabeth wave as she went.
Our trip was a smash with good fellowship, frequent infusions of rum, a new respect for the Cuban people and a hope for their future. Would I return? Perhaps, but not until a change in the political climate occurs.
Meanwhile, we remember the parting words of our guide: "Cuba es como una mujer. No es posible comprenderla, solamente amarla." Cuba is like a woman. It is not possible to understand her, just love her.