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A Cuban Consciousness

Down to her gently wagging tail, she was the color of the honey harvested at the Color Miel community art project center we’d just left in Caibarien, Cuba. Her puppy-dog eyes were much the same—a viscous, liquid gold, gleaming bright in the midday sun. Her lineage was clearly mixed, adding dimension and an understated harmony to her appearance characteristic of strays the world over.

Our sweet canine companion on our Travel Impressions trip to Cuba found us in the square of Remedios, a quiet city that recently celebrated its 500-year anniversary and was populated by an aging demographic that lived among its ageless architecture. With a friendly expression on her face and with slight timidity, she joined our “squad” as we broke from the tour group in search of more things to photograph, walking alongside us for half an hour. She was thin, and we assumed hungry; we offered bread and peanut butter. She refused it, happy only to be with us. We returned to the square and silently parted ways, using nothing but smiles, hand motions, and intangible energy to communicate the pleasure we all took in one another’s company and reluctance to part ways.

She was a perfect ambassador of Cuban consciousness.

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A giving spirit that required nothing in return. A humble pride in her neighborhood. And above all, a satisfaction that despite any challenges that could come her way, all was well within her world. She was one of many of this once-forbidden island’s residents who were eager to share their time and heritage with us on a transformative people-to-people tour—an immersive, action-packed product Travel Impressions just launched—and one of many encounters that will resonate with our group forever.

It was moments like this that made all of us grateful that the FAM style was people-to-people. In fact, I can safely say none of our group of 20 would have wanted it any other way. A complex country of a million fascinating facets, Cuba is a country that has been shrouded in mystique for half a century, and its history, progress, and perceptions diluted by the haze of time and space. After so long, to try to discover Cuba on your own is to leave diamonds in the ground, because it’s the encounters and included eye-opening experiences that made this trip the life-changing, bonding experience it was. Instead, our tour partner CTS’s guide Rigoberto Mir—whose boyish smile and “aw, shucks” charm belied a deep intelligence and effortless leadership—offered us insight into a consciousness and way of life we would never have seen had we treated this destination like a sun-and-sand resort escape.

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Only with the people-to-people escorted tour style could we have seen the real, authentic Cuba, which is to say Cuba at its best. Sure, we saw historical sites and architecture that made our jaws drop, from Old Havana’s cobbled streets to Che Guevara’s tomb. But the real magic happened when we made an impromptu stop on the road and Cassandra Rebecchi and Amanda Surkin became enchanted by an elderly man with a toothless grin and sparkling eyes handing out fresh-picked apple-bananas as refreshment while refusing payment. When Marie Richey was handed a bill of local currency by a random stranger who just wanted her to see what their money looked like, but then vehemently rejected taking anything in exchange for her hard-earned money. When I stopped to take a picture of vegetable fritters being made on a street cart, and was smilingly given a no-strings-attached, generous sample for identifying his LSU hat.

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Generosity wasn’t limited to these tangible gifts, either. Sweetness happened unexpectedly—a delightful surprise even when our orientation asked that we “expect the unexpected.” Like when the seniors playfully flirted with Richard “Buddy” Hood, Ray Lewis, Akilah Matt, Patrick Fallon, Felecia White, Trisha Petty, and Jan Mcauley while teaching them the “forbidden” traditions of danzon. Or when Russ Fritz revealed his soft side as he taught a small child how to selfie while watching a street performance of Santeria disciples and dancers in the Callejon de las Tradiciones art project. When Rigo, our charming and lovable guide, quietly shared his personal story of these transitional times and his experience studying abroad in Japan as our bus rumbled through verdant countryside. Or the laughter we shared at the sugar factory as our acerbic hostess gave us the business while giving us the facts.

There’s just so much more to this big island nation than you’d assume on a cursory level. It’s not just Hemingway, extraordinary cigars, and rum for a nickel. Nor is it only an alluring time capsule of the ’50s, with classic cars ambling between stunningly weathered buildings and squares that look more classically European than Caribbean. And although it is the home of perfectly muddled mojitos at Xanadu and otherworldly beaches so calm, the glassine water seems to melt right into the packed, pearlescent sands and watercolor sunsets of Cayo Santa Maria, it’s far from just a beach-and-booze destination.

It’s all of those sweeping generalities, but above all, touring Cuba is about the genuine moments you’ll share with people whose innate generosity of self and non-commercialized passion for their home will move you in indescribable ways. Snapshots like these may have been fleeting, but left an indelible impression. And after all, isn’t that why we all travel? Because to live is to love, and every encounter is just another heart to touch. People to people? More like heart to heart, and may that always be the way to experience Cuba.

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