"We want to see Cuba before it changes."
Simultaneously, on multiple continents, the brilliant Germans, Turks, Argentinians, Mexicans, and other Americans at the Havana guesthouse where we were all staying had hatched the unique idea that they needed to get to Cuba before Starbucks, Chipotle and Urban Outfitters do. One local guide claimed that U.S. tourism was up 36 percent from December, when Raul Castro and President Obama become BFFs.
My husband, Jon, as a child on a family vacation, visited Cuba before the island's last big change. Fulgencio Batista was the dictator, the American mob ran the hotel casinos, and Fidel Castro seemed like an annoyance rather than a mortal threat.
Jon had long wanted to return. He suddenly decided now was the time, before Cuba changes. Good idea, but arranging the details wasn't easy.
Never miss a local story.
Despite America's new opening, we had to book our trip with a tour organizer (Australian), change our money into Canadian Loonies, and fly through Cancun because of America's embargo restrictions that presidential aspirant Marco Rubio thinks are so helpful. Once we were on the island, no one took credit cards, toilet paper was not guaranteed, soap was a luxury and, most appalling to us first-worlders, there was virtually no Internet. When I did weasel my way into a fancy hotel "business center," the guy at the next computer terminal was from Northeast Philly.
Except for the enterprising native who unsuccessfully tried to mug my husband (who also can't get his wallet out of his jeans pocket), Cubans were welcoming, even when they had nothing to sell us. Most Cubans don't have anything to sell tourists, though there are an amazing number of people who claim to work in cigar factories and just happen to have a few "extra" Cohibas.
My fellow Pennsylvanians can instinctively relate to Cubans because their country also sells all its liquor in government stores, the roads are full of potholes, and everyone is madly preparing for Pope Francis' visit. It's just that in Cuba, the state controls almost everything, including the newspapers, where I could be a cartoonist as long as I drew Raul as the handsome, brilliant genius that he is.
While in Havana, we stayed near the historic square where slaves were once sold. It's now lined with a restaurant with tablecloths, an excellent coffee shop, and a microbrewery -- which could use a brewer from Philly's Fishtown to help with its recipes.
Fortunately, there are few cars, because the ones they have are 60 years old, belch pollution, and can barely pass down the narrow streets. The cars are, however, luscious, and made me wish Detroit would return to some of those flamboyant styles. If Cubans can have tail fins, why can't we?
While Detroit carmakers are forced by our embargo to stick to the mainline, Chinese carmakers are busily peddling their fin-less "Geelys," most recently 719 of them, to the Cuban car rental market for tourists. Since many actual Cubans, especially outside Havana, still get around on horse-drawn carts (including trotting along on the one main "interstate"), there would seem to be room for growth. Missiles are not OK in Cuba; a growing Chinese market apparently is.
The historic architecture is beautiful but decayed -- severely decayed -- with trees growing out of balustraded balconies and interior stairways that would even make Pennsylvania inspectors take notice. Many families live packed in these potentially lucrative buildings that will all be renovated soon. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Raul Castro are facing the same problem: How do you make way for the new and wealthy without displacing the old and poor? It will be interesting to see if the Castros, whose rule depends on total control, can do any better than Philadelphia has.
Personally, I doubt it, as the U.S. restores its diplomatic relations with Cuba and the tsunami of Americans joins all the other world's tourists making plans to see the "real" Cuba. Before it changes.