If you were to ask me what is the one place on earth that I would want to visit above all, I would have said Cuba without any hesitation. On May 5th, I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity become a reality. As some of you know, I was incredibly close to my Abuelo (Grandpa), Vicénte Santiago Estevez. Ever since I was a kid, I remember hearing stories from Abuelo about his life in Cuba, how he met my sweet Abuela and the joys, but also challenges of living in Cuba during the first half of the 20th century. I was so fascinated with the country and genuinely interested in knowing where my ancestors came from. I had dreamed about visiting my grandparent’s birthplace one day, but never thought it would be possible, especially given the strained relations between the U.S and Cuba. Not to mention, each time I spoke with Abuelo he never felt anytime was good to go. Understandably, the last time he was there was right before the Cuban Revolution began- a horrific memory that left a lasting impression on him and so many Cubans.
Fast forward 54 years…this communist country has remained “calm”, the US-Cuba embargo has finally been lifted and Cubans are now allowed to own private business in certain industries – one step closer to capitalism! However, the country still remains in the 1950’s and that makes this country incredibly unique. I knew if there was any time to go to Cuba, the time would be now…That’s when I began my research on making my dream a reality.
I knew 2017 would be the year that I made this dream come true. I spoke with my uncle who had expressed an interest in this journey to my grandparent’s homeland and he was definitely on board. I even got my Dad interested in going! This was definitely a trip we could not pass up. My uncle found a great travel agency, yourcubatravel.com (thank you to Eli who planned everything!) who created a week-long itinerary for us. We had expressed what we wanted to do – walk around Havana, visit my grandparent’s hometown, go to the beach, visit museums, etc. Next thing you know, our flights were booked, our Visas were purchased and the countdown had begun.
On May 5th, we began our travels to this beautiful country. The moment we arrived at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba, I felt a wave of emotion run through me, as I was finally going to be able to see all the photos Abuelo had shown me in real time. It was a very surreal moment.
We were met by our travel guide, Duni and his team, Wilfredo and Aniel, who were our drivers throughout the whole trip. They were SO incredibly nice and just had this sincere happiness to be with us for a week. They seemed sincerely excited to show off their country as were all the Cubans we met who were so proud of their heritage. As we drove around Havana, I immediately noticed the streets were filled with mural political propaganda…“Viva Castro…Hasta la Victoria! Siempre” with Che Guevara or Fidel Castro’s face plastered throughout the city. From a visitors perspective, I can see why one would be confused about their government. These revolutionaries came in to “save” the people of Cuba from their previous dictatorship under Batista, but then the new government stripped them of their rights to live in a free world.
But let me tell you, these people live life to the fullest and I learned so much from interacting with them. Having limited internet access and hardly any of the luxuries that so many of us enjoy in the United States, it was refreshing to see so many people hanging out in the streets, conversing, dancing, smoking cigars, people watching, laughing, and smiling with seemingly little worry. I thought to myself, this right here, is what true happiness looks like. However, it’s all the Cuban people know. So, in that sense, I feel for the people of Cuba. It was bittersweet, to say the least.
There was SO MUCH we did on this trip, I could write a novel! But I won’t because I have so many photos to share with you…Too many, really. However, here are a few highlights I cannot pass up:
THE CARS! The classic 1950’s cars that have been repaired over, and over and over again. They refer to their cars as Frankensteins because today they are made up of spare parts from several other non-US makes of vehicles. Everyone drives around in no rush. The Cuban people do not seem to have the stress we are so accustomed to in the States. Oh, and there are no seatbelts! It was so amazing to see these historic gems still running around the city. The bottom photo was taken of my grandmother with her friends in 1950 and top photo of me just in May of 2017.
Later on in the week, we traveled to Viñales, a small town about 4 hours west of Havana. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with tobacco farms, mogotes (isolated steep-sided residual hills that characterize the region), and thousands of palm trees. We stayed with a sweet family of 4 that welcomed us into their home. They had 2 cute pups, a cat and a macho! That is what the father called it… however I have googled this animal for weeks and I cannot seem to find it! Look up “Cuban rat” hutia – that’s what it looks like.
On our last day, we visited Varadero, a beautiful beach resort town 3 hours east of Havana. The beach was, by far, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen! The water was calm, there was not a fish in sight, and you can see layers upon layers of blue the further out you looked out into the ocean. What I also enjoyed about this town is that it wasn’t overly crowded with tourists. For decades it’s been a European and Canadian vacation spot with very few clubs and high-end restaurants. It’s just a small town with beautiful landscapes and vibrant history.
Not only did we have the pleasure of visiting this beautiful country, but we were also able to connect with some of our extended family who live in Havana. Having never met them, I was so excited about this long-awaited connection. When I walked into their home, there were several photos laying out on the dining table of me and my sister, my parents, and my uncles that Abuelo had sent over to our cousin Nelson 20+ years ago! It was an emotional moment for me as I looked through the memories. I started thinking about Abuelo and thought, wow, I am seeing these photos in Cuba. It was a beautiful moment I will never forget.
As an aspiring photographer, Cuba provided me with countless vignettes to capture on film, especially when it came to street photography. There was always something going on outside, whether that be mural art, musicians performing at a nearby restaurant or bar, the locals playing dominoes, or just people hanging out with all the beautiful architecture as a backdrop. If you decide to make it to Cuba and want to really experience the culture, forego the hotels this trip. There are plenty of bed and breakfast accommodations and the people of Cuba are delighted to have you in their homes and will tell you how much they love their country over a cup of cafe cubano.
Throughout this whole trip, I thought about my Abuelo and how much I miss him. I’m sure he is happy that we got to see his beautiful homeland. I am so proud of my heritage and I hope to carry on the love and tradition that my grandparents have shown me. It has been a humbling experience to visit Cuba and I hope to go back in the near future. Here are a few more photos….Enjoy a taste of Cuba!