Discovering a hidden treasure in Cuba

Our reporter headed for Havana to write about its music scene
but found another story that was more interesting — its people.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

It's not uncommon for a reporter to search for a particular story only to return with something completely different. After a recent trip to Cuba, those who were curious peppered me with constant questions about various items of interest.

One question posed to me repeatedly was, "What impressed you the most about Cuba?"

That answer was easy — the hospitality of the Cuban people.

My previous journey there one year ago was with a group that had a set itinerary. There was little time for personal exploration, but I skipped an excursion one day to venture off on my own because I was tired of the tourist hotels, restaurants and shops. I wanted to see the real Cuba, so I wandered into town to eat in a local restaurant and drink in a local cafe.

On a return trip to Cuba in July, I wasn't looking for a large amount of Cuban hospitality, but I got much more than I ever expected. Having made a contact during my October 2002 trip, I had the opportunity to meet and make many more friends this time. During 10 days in Havana, I actually lived with a Cuban family for a few days, was invited to a birthday party and an outdoor barbecue, and was taken to the beach on a hot Sunday afternoon.

It should be noted that only Americans who are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department can legally travel to Cuba. Working journalists have a general license.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba has had to depend on tourism to make up the subsidies once received from the former superpower. Now, tourism is the top source of income for the nation. Cuba welcomes tourists with open arms, and there are police officers everywhere to help protect them. There is little crime in the country because the penalties are severe.

To get a visa to enter Cuba, its government requires you to stay in a tourist hotel for a minimum of one or two nights. Upon arrival, my contact, whom I'll call Jose, met me at the airport and took me to the Hotel Inglaterra in Old Havana, where I stayed for three days at $80 per night.

After that, I asked Jose to arrange for me to stay in a licensed private room — called "casa particular" in Spanish. They generally cost $25 to $30 per night, and if you're with a family, meals are usually included. This is how you get to know the Cuban people, and what you will find is not how different they are but how similar.

My stay with the Cuban family was not without problems. Although there wasn't anything they weren't willing to do for me, I had to ask Jose to find me other accommodations. The main problem was communicating. Clarisa, the lady of the house, spoke no English, and my elementary Spanish just wasn't cutting it.

Two things stood out about my stay there. Clarisa's daughter, Ethel, a college student on summer break, spent an entire afternoon in front of the television, mesmerized by Spanish-language soap operas. How is she any different from American students?

On another afternoon, I was walking down the street when I noticed four teenage boys walking toward me, including a tall black kid wearing an Eagles T-shirt. I stopped the group and pointed to the green jersey, only to be met by four quizzical stares.

"Hablas ingles?" I asked, wanting to know if they spoke English.

When the kid in the Eagles jersey shook his head, I pointed to the lettering on the shirt, read it aloud and quickly thought of the few Spanish words that I could come up with to explain myself.

"Philadelphia Eagles," I began, figuring that I'd impress the kids by telling them in Spanish that I live in the city of Philadelphia. "Soy de la cuidad de Philadelphia."

The kid in the jersey responded with a bright smile and nodded, acknowledging that he now understood why I liked his shirt. We shook hands, waved goodbye and parted ways.

I later learned that I was staying at Clarisa's home because Vivian, another friend of Jose's who had expected to house me, had two Swiss women staying in her casa particular. Still, Vivian was curious and wanted to meet me because I was an American. She called me at Clarisa's and invited me to visit her at her apartment. After getting an address, I walked to Vivian's and ended up taking her and her 11-year-old daughter, Carla, out to dinner.

"Is this a tourist restaurant?" I asked Vivian as we were seated.

"No," she replied. "You are the only tourist. Everyone else in here is Cuban."

Dinner for two in that restaurant came to less than $7. Carla said she wasn't hungry and didn't eat, but I suggested that we could entice her with ice cream at dessert time. The waitress later came to our table with ice cream, but Carla politely declined. It probably was the only time that I've seen a child turn down ice cream.

Before the night was out, Vivian told me she was throwing a birthday party for one of her house guests in two days and invited me to attend. Cubans celebrate birthdays just like everyone else. After the cake was served and consumed, the music was turned up, and everyone danced around the living room. Cubans love to dance, and most dance very well.

That night, I met Renate Landtwing (the birthday girl), 32, and Christine Heinzier, 30. They were teachers and lived in small towns near Lucerne, Switzerland. They also were about to depart Havana to explore other parts of Cuba with some other friends, two of whom arrived at Vivian's house later that evening and taught the Swiss women some intricate steps of salsa dancing.

I also met Vivian's older daughter, Janet, 18, her niece Yadira (pronounced Yah-DEER-da), and assorted neighbors and friends who came over for Renate's birthday party.

Janet had the prettiest blue eyes and immediately reminded me of an old Steve Lawrence hit, Pretty Blue Eyes, which was on the playlist at WBCB-AM when I was a disc jockey there in the 1990s. The song is about a young boy who falls in love with a girl with pretty blue eyes that he sees from his window. Explaining this story was something of a challenge.

Most Cubans who attend a university learn a second language. The two most common are English and German. Vivian spoke a little English but was fluent in German, which is how she communicated with her Swiss guests. Fortunately, they also spoke English, so I told the story of Pretty Blue Eyes in English to Christine, who translated it to German for Vivian, who translated it to Spanish for the rest of her guests.

During the birthday celebration, Jose called. He had arranged to have a beach house for a week, and although his family was there for the duration, Jose had been called into work during what was supposed to be his vacation time. Nevertheless, he planned a barbecue for that Sunday and invited Vivian and her family and me to visit with his family at the beach house.

Vivian had to work a half day on Sunday, so I met her at her shop and we picked up the rest of the gang and went to a beach that was about 10 miles east of Havana. There wasn't anything different about this beach than any along the coast of New Jersey, except that everyone but me was Cuban. After a short swim, we all laid back to soak up some sun.

After a while, Carla wandered off and sat down to play in the sand. Then she headed for the sea.

Like a mother hen, Vivian was keeping a sharp watch and immediately called out, "Carla, no!"

I asked Vivian if she was simply concerned about Carla swimming alone, and she confirmed my suspicion. The solution was easy. I started to walk toward the sea, called out Carla's name and pointed to the water. Her face lit up, and she raced into the surf ahead of me.

When it was time to leave, Yadira was missing. We soon found out what she was up to. Just 17 and pretty as a picture, she had attracted the attention of a boy her age. We found them talking together a short distance from where we were. I didn't understand a word of their conversation, but I was convinced it was similar to the ones many of us had on the Jersey shore when we were teenagers.

We stopped to say goodbye to Jose and his family and then drove back to Havana. I was a bit melancholy after dinner because I knew that I'd be returning home the next morning. I really didn't want to leave.

The youngsters all said farewell before going out for the evening. Later on, Vivian gave me a warm hug and paid me the ultimate compliment as I said goodbye.

"Tu eres mi bueno amigo," she said. ("You are my good friend.")

The Spanish words that I needed at that moment eluded me. I could only hope that the expression on my face told Vivian that the feeling was mutual.

Should anyone consider a similar trip, be aware that there are some caveats to observe. A specific license to travel to Cuba can be obtained several ways. The best opportunities are with educational, cultural or athletic exchanges. You can find information about these programs by surfing the Internet.

The travel restrictions are in place because of the trade embargo imposed by the United States more than 40 years ago. After the success of a revolution in 1959, the Cuban government began to nationalize U.S. businesses and commercial properties. A partial embargo was begun in 1960, during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, and expanded to a total embargo in 1962 under President John F. Kennedy.

Attempts to lift the trade sanctions and normalize relations between the two nations were begun by Kennedy in 1963 and continue to this day, including numerous resolutions passed by the U.N. General Assembly calling for the United States to end the embargo.

General information about licensed travel to Cuba can be found on the U.S. State Department Web site,

Also, should you decide to try accommodations other than tourist hotels, only deal with people you know. I was approached on the street many times by Cubans offering everything from cigars to private rooms. Common sense dictates that you should only stay in licensed private rooms where your safety and personal possessions will be protected. Cubans must keep records of all guests, so your hosts will ask for a passport or some other form of identity.

This story was published on Oct. 1, 2003, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.

Carla as an 11-year-old on a beach near Havana in July 2003.


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