Traveling to Cuba, Using the ‘Support for Cuban People’ License

A 1957 Chevy Bel Air taxi cruises through “Fusterlandia” on the western outskirts of Havana. For over 40 years, artist José Fuster has decorated walls, houses, buildings, and more with mosaic tiles.

We were face-to-face as Marcelina clasped my cheeks and looked me in the eyes. “Two words: Moo-ee Boo-ā-no. Say it with me.” After several attempts, she smiled and repeated it as she shaped my mouth. “Muy bueno.” I thought I had been complimenting her on the tocino y huevos that she fried for me and Luis, her husband. He circled his right ear with his index finger and pointed at his wife – our sign for crazy is universal. We all laughed out loud and high-fived. I guess I wasn’t complimenting her for making good bacon and eggs.

So, yes, Americans can travel to Cuba. Visiting only for tourism is not allowed by U.S. law, but the statute provides 12 legal ways to do so. “Support for Cuban People” is the most-used provision to visit the island. Staying in family-run casa particulares (guest houses) is a rule of that provision. I dined on home-cooked meals and shared stories with the families. That’s my kind of prerequisite. Isn’t that what many travelers want to do?

Bicycles in Cuba are used to transport loads of all kinds. They are rarely ridden for entertainment – even by kids.

It also requires participation in activities with Cuban people. Tour a tobacco farm or volunteer for a church or other organization, and take salsa or rumba dance lessons; they all count under the law. Eating at paladares (locally-owned restaurants) is something I would have sought out – it is required under U.S. law. We hosted a pig roast for a small village. Many Cuban tourist services will help arrange almost any ideas you may have.

On the way from the airport to our casa particulares, I saw the expected old American cars – click, colorful buildings – click. Click-click-click at anything that caught my attention. Walking in my free time, I saw musicians – click, salsa dancers – click. And many more clicks of sites I wanted to show folks at home. Havana is a big city; there are a lot of activities and sections to visit. I like the mosaic-decorated neighborhood in the western part of the city. Take a ‘50s convertible taxi out there.

After the big city activities, we drove west to a rural Pinar del Rio province village. My roommate and I stayed at a bright blue casa particulare that had silky purple bedspreads. The bedspreads would be gaudy in a Chicago hotel. They added to the charm of rural Cuba. I chuckled to myself. The proprietors introduced themselves as Luis and Marcelina and invited us to breakfast in the morning.

I would have never guessed that the woman who chose purple bedspreads would be inches from my face during breakfast. It was Marcelina who taught me to say “muy bueno” after I told her “moy bwano” one too many times. That broke the ice and we had an enjoyable breakfast together.

That evening I searched for a paladares (family-owned restaurant) Luis had recommended. Although he said it was not far down the road, I had difficulty finding it. Except for the colors, all the houses looked like his. The first house I ruled out had full clotheslines in the front yard. I kept walking and searching. I finally turned around to check with Luis. Only then did I see a small “restaurant” sign in the corner of the clothesline yard. With some trepidation, I took a path around the side of the house. The owners of the small eatery greeted me with warm smiles. They joined me for an authentic Cuban meal. Déjà vu.

A Havana taxi driver in his ’56 Chevy Bel Air waits for his next fare.

The next day was the pig roast we had arranged – we invited everyone in the village. We chatted with these Cubans and heard all about their lives. It’s a gift that only traveling permits. Chatted? Well, it was more like separate games of charades with very much laughter.

American travelers cannot sunbathe on the beaches. We did something better. The host of a casa particulare led us to a swimming hole known only by a few locals. Muddy water pooled at the bottom of a ten-foot-high waterfall making a perfect, albeit dirty, swimming hole. The braver ones of our group slid down the falls. Then, after a water war between the two countries, we laughed and declared a détente between Cuba and America.

We had some time to explore Havana on our own and to buy some souvenirs on our last day in Cuba. I went to the same open-air stand I had found a few years earlier. I noticed the vendor was looking at me as I walked up the street. As I walked up to his outdoor display, he wore a quizzical look and pointed at his head. I smiled big.

The bright middle house is a family home with a small restaurant. It is common for host family members to join guests as they enjoy home-cooked meals. U.S. law prevents Americans from using the more prominent state-owned restaurants.

He looked under his counter and came up with his own big smile. He was put on the Cardinals baseball cap I had once given him. I had been wearing that cap three years earlier when we discussed American baseball. He knew more players and stats than I knew. After I paid my bill, he smiled and said, “Te veré la próxima vez!” Big laugh. “I will see you next time!”

I looked out the plane window and said, “I will see you next time!” Back in America, people asked about my trip. I smiled, laughed, and answered in proper Spanish. Muy bueno!

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