I know, I know! I’ve been back for over a month now!! I’m sorry it took me so long to get this blog up, but first I was still processing everything and then life got in the way. But finally, here it is!
As long as I can remember from when I first learned about it, I’ve been fascinated by Cuba. No, I wasn’t alive during Bay of Pigs or anything, but the whole idea of an island so close and yet so far just fascinated me. I knew our governments had major tensions and that we were not able to go there – at least without a lot of red tape and restrictions. And I knew that people would risk their lives to come here. I knew that many people HAD come here to escape from the Castro regime. Admittedly most of what I knew about Cuba and the Cuban people came from history books – and we all know that our history books are written from our point-of-view.
But still I was fascinated by Cuba and always wanted to be able to go.
And then I discovered a little show on Broadway called On Your Feet! which is the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan – two Cuban immigrants themselves. Seeing the show and reading Emilio’s book only increased my fascination and desire to go.
I knew there were some ways, but the primary one I knew about was through a company that organized a people-to-people group to run the Havana Marathon. And, well, we know how I feel about running. In spite of this blog’s name, it is NOT in my repertoire any longer – except what they make us do in the dojang sometimes. So it remained a dream.
And then President Obama announced that things were changing and there was going to be more openness. And I started hearing about a little one-ship cruise line called fathom that would operate under the Carnival umbrella and do “impact travel” where there would be weekly alternating itineraries to the Dominican Republic for service projects and Cuba for people to people (P2P) interaction. And I started investigating.
I already had my Mediterranean/Venice cruise booked for the summer and couldn’t really afford another big trip (the Cuban cruises were significantly more than the DR cruises – largely because so many people DO want to get to Cuba), so the summer was out. I’d already invited my parents on a Disney cruise over Presidents’ Week which was another Cuba option, so that was out. My Spring Break week was a DR itinerary, so that was out – at least for Cuba. There were weeks on either side of my birthday in the summer but… It was pretty clear what could happen politically in November, and I didn’t want to risk waiting until then in case worst-case happened (which it did). So that left Christmas week.
I hesitated for a bit trying to figure out how to tell my parents that I wanted to go on a trip over Christmas, but finally did. They were supportive of my decision and encouraged me to go. So I paid my deposit and then the full fare, booked my airfare and hotel for the night before, and started dreaming and planning.
And soon, Christmas Eve was here and I was boarding a plane to Miami!!!
Christmas Morning finally dawned. I got up and got some breakfast (limited of course by me being Gluten Free – though I had picked up some food at Estefan Kitchen Express in the Miami Airport before taking the shuttle to the hotel), then FaceTimed with my parents and sister before checking out and waiting for my Lyft to the port.
That ride was a bit of an adventure. My driver not only really didn’t speak English, he was not sure how to get to the port and was either incapable or unwilling to use his GPS, so I finally busted out my phone and used mine to get us there. (His tip and rating reflected this as did my comments.)
First sighting of the Adonia. She is a small little ship – 704 passengers IF sailing full. She was close to full on my sailing – at least there were no cabins to upgrade into. There was a large Jewish singles group on the sailing, but I don’t know what percentage of them stayed solo and what percentage doubled up Being Christmas, there were some families on board, but the children were largely older – I think the age limit for fathom is 8 or 9. Being Christmas, the other cruise lines seem to have altered their schedules so that there was no embarkation or disembarkation on Christmas or New Year’s, so we were the only ship in port both days.
I went in and got checked in then wandered around until my boarding group (4) was called. While in the terminal I did meet my friend Rusty (we’d “met” in a FaceBook group for fathom) and his husband Mike.
We had discussed my love for On Your Feet! and Gloria Estefan, and Rusty pulled out a present their house had come up with for me…
Apparently their house has this way of things they have no clue about appearing when the subject comes up – and this was one of those cases. Neither Rusty nor Mike remembered ever having this, but one evening when packing they turned around and it was on a table. Freaky!! But totally cool!!
Finally my boarding group was called and I made my way on board!!
First impressions… The ship is ADORABLE! Very small and homey feeling. I was nervous about being on such a small ship since my “size of choice” is Dream Class on Disney or Radiance Class on Royal and the Adonia is considerably smaller. Here are a few pictures of her interior…
This was the main staircase. Yes, it is modeled after the one on Titanic.
This is the “lobby” area – the desk is where the Impact Guides are based. (I’ll explain them in a moment.)
These are the shops. They mainly carry locally-sourced things OR products that do good for the world and the environment.
I really thought I had more pictures of the ship… I’ll keep looking.
Then I got my first drink on board and perched in a birdcage chair for a little while…
And soon it was time to go back to my cabin and get ready for Muster Drill…
Yes. The Adonia is old school when it comes to Muster. The ship is divided into either the lounge or the dining room – so you’re inside – and you are to wear/take your life vest and any meds and things you cannot be without when reporting.
Then it was time to go up on deck and say Adios to Miami for a week!
While we were sailing away, there were activities with the Impact Guides to get us into the swing of things and get ready to Travel Deep!
Ok, so there are a couple of terms I should probably explain…
Impact Guides – Think “Cruise Staff” on other lines. Or camp counselors for grown-up camp. 🙂 The Impact Guides are responsible for all the programming on board – Spanish language classes, book club, lectures on the cities we would be visiting or aspects of the Cuban culture (like Santería), dance classes, or other things like Visual Storytelling or Travelers of Fathom. They were all super cool people! They also went along on our fathom-organized P2P experiences to make sure everything was copacetic.
Impact Travel – This one more applies to the Dominican Republic cruises, but it’s basically what it sounds like – travel that makes an impact. On the DR routes, it’s literal – making water filters or pouring concrete floors. On the Cuba routes, it’s more the P2P impact – that impact that comes from one-to-one interaction with the people there.
Travel Deep – The catchphrase of fathom. It’s a reminder to go beneath the surface, to explore, to dig a little deeper.
This one really spoke to me – I’ll explain further later.
So… At sea we were. And the first signal that this is a SMALL ship became evident in that we were definitely feeling the motion of the ocean. Me? I loved it! Others, not so much. But still, it was wonderful to be back at sea!!
I got ready for dinner in my little ocean view cabin (I really thought I had other pictures of it, but I can’t find them) and headed up. It’s not at assigned times, but generally you just get seated as you come – usually being seated with others – though one night I did snag a table to myself by asking.
Being gluten-free was not quite as easy on a small ship as on the larger ones – but apparently I could have asked for more than just selecting from the marked entrees…that just wasn’t made clear to me and I didn’t want to be “that person”. I’ll know for next time. (Again, more on that later…) Still, I didn’t go hungry and the food was pretty good.
The first full day was a sea day, so I went to some classes and chilled.
Chilling included a cafecito – which became a morning ritual! YUM!!!
That night was VERY rocky (LOVE!!!), and it was also Wine and Paint Night. (This is an optional, extra-fee thing that is very limited. Offered twice on the Cuban itineraries.)
Yep – I’m that talented. I painted myself before we even got started. Or got wine.
But I managed to make a pretty nice picture (which I gave to my friend Ana and she has in her dressing room!)…
Around 4:30 the next morning, we passed Guantanamo…
I didn’t set an alarm – I just woke up and saw it. Snapped the pic and went back to bed.
A little later – after daybreak – we began to see the entry to Santiago’s bay…
We were “assigned” groups to help with debarkation so that customs and the currency exchange wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
A couple of notes here…
When you are going through passport control, there are body scanners, and if they indicate that you have a temperature above…I think 99 you have to go through a medical inspection. I didn’t have to, but I did see one person pulled aside in Cienfuegos.
When exchanging currency, you are better off if you’ve exchanged your US dollars into Euros as there is an additional 10% exchange fee tacked onto US Dollars.
Once through both of those, the Impact Guides give you a numbered sticker and direct you to your bus. They do not stuff them – there is a max of about 30 people on any given bus. And you’re not on the bus for the entire time.
I’ll just post some pics from the tour with what they are, and I’ll link to my whole album at the end of the entry.
Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs – pronounced “kooks”). They have buildings or monuments on them. This is the currency tourists use. Cuban citizens typically use Cuban Pesos (CUPs – pronounced “coops”). One CUC is about 25 CUPs, so guides and drivers make a LOT more from tips and tourist payments than they do from their government jobs. TIP YOUR GUIDES AND DRIVERS!!!
I have a Cuban Stamp in my passport!!! (Actually two as I got another one in Havana!!)
San Juan Hill
El Morro (the fort that guards the entrance to Santiago
Then we went to a beach club for a Cuban meal (different buses went to different places)…
And there were puppies!!!!
But this was also where the first real culture shock hit. Because right next to this beach club was this…
People lived here!
Then it was back into Santiago for our cultural exchange. We got to see and hear the Coro Madrigalista, which is one of the oldest choral groups in the country. They were really good.
Then we walked down to a park and could shop for rum and/or cigars and/or do some exploring. I did buy some rum (a gift, and some for me to use on ship with diet Coke – yes, you read that right…they did NOT take your rum purchases when you boarded the ship in Cuba!!), then I went exploring a little.
Then we walked back to meet the bus and head back to the ship.
Around noon the next day, we began our entry into Cienfuegos.
We did another bus and walking tour…
Then we went to the theatre and had another choral concert.
Then it was back to the ship. We had another sea day, and then early the following morning we began approaching Havana.
On our first day in Havana (we were there overnight) I opted to take the tour to Las Terrazas. Las Terrazas is a UNESCO biosphere community of 1000 people. There are artisans who live there. The community has two doctors – usually ones who are doing their state service after completing medical school – and the number of people allowed in each day is limited. They also grow all of their own food and animals. Here are a few pictures.
Yes, there is a macaque who lives there. Her mate did just after she had a baby. She rejected the baby – who is in the care of the vet – and she is now probably back at the Havana Zoo in exchange for a new pair.
We had lunch and then went to the ruins of a French coffee plantation…
We drove back to Havana and I wandered a little before getting ready to go out for the night.
I had made reservations for a car to take me to the Hotel Nacional where I had dinner at La Barraca and went to the Cabaret Parisien.
Then it was back to the ship to sleep.
The next morning, I got up and decided to be brave and head out on my on. First thing…rented a car and driver for an hour tour…
Like a proper diva! (And yes, I matched the car.)
Yes, their capitol building is modeled on ours. But 3 inches larger.
I took a Coco Taxi (it’s like a little bubble motorized scooter “cab”)
and went to Callejon de Hamel de La Habana – a street known for Santería. And cool folk art.
My guide Miko
Then I rented another car to go over to the fort and El Cristo de La Habana.
Then it was time to get back on the ship and wave adios to Havana (aka La Habana) and Cuba…
That night was New Year’s Eve, but I was boring and was in bed before midnight. I sleep so well on ships, and it had been a full week.
Early the next morning it was Bienvenidos a Miami once again…
Once I disembarked and had my luggage, I gave Lyft another try to the airport and had an amazing driver – this one got full tip and full marks! I had a while to kill at the airport, so I got some food and Cuban coffee at Estefan Kitchen Express, hung out with Rusty and Mike for a while as they were waiting for their flight, and did airport laps before boarding my plane home.
I knew seeing and experiencing Cuba had affected me. There was define culture shock. We would pass buildings that here in the US would be abandoned but our guides proudly told us “That is our pedagogical college!” or “That is our medical school!” The hospitals – and the nurses – looked like images of hospitals from the 50s. In so many ways the country is trapped in the 50s or early 60s.
In Havana, there is beautiful architecture, but behind some of the facades are crumbling buildings. And some of the facades are crumbling even while showing the splendor they once held.
The people don’t have much at all by our standards, and yet generally they seem happy. Our guides spoke glowingly of “The Revolution” and how good things are. They don’t know any different, and so I do believe that many of them are happy. They have been told a different version of the history between our countries from what we have – the books of course are written from different points of view.
But the people are some of the warmest and most generous people I’ve met. The little girl I took a picture of – I got to speak a little with her mother. She was wonderful and so welcoming. The same can be said for all the people we met. They love Americans – and not just because we come and spend money. Many of the people genuinely want to talk with us and interact with us.
I mentioned earlier how I thought On Your Feet! gave me some insight before going. And it did inform my trip. And I truly felt that I was carrying the whole cast in my heart as I was journeying into the country that many of them come from either directly or ancestrally. But my trip has now informed how I see the show as well. I entered the lottery for a ticket the Tuesday I was back, and I won. And I spent much of the show in tears because I *got* it. I still cannot get through “Mi Tierra” without crying. And that’s a beautiful thing.
I am so thankful that I did get to go and experience Cuba – not the same as being on the ground, but more than many ships will get as the harbors/bays for Santiago and Cienfuegos are so small most of today’s ships will not be able to get in.
I’m thankful I was able to go before Cuba turns into “just another Caribbean island” with its Diamonds International and del Sol and Señor Frogs.
I’m thankful I was able to go before January 20 happened – because God only knows what is going to happen now.
And I’m so thankful I was able to go before fathom as a cruise line ceases to exist – which will happen at the end of May. The Cuba cruises were selling well, but the DR cruises not so much. They were always significantly less expensive and significantly less full. And so the Adonia will go back to P&O – and some of the impact activities in the DR will be offered as excursions on Carnival Corp cruises that go to Amber Cove.
I am lucky in that I will get to return to Santiago for a day over Spring Break! I had decided to book the DR – before we learned that fathom will cease to exist – and was super excited for that. And then about a week before Christmas, we got notification that beginning towards the end of this month, most of the DR cruises are being turned into “Cultures of the Caribbean” cruises which will visit Santiago AND the DR! I’m excited to do my own P2P thing this time – rent a car and driver and see things I didn’t get to see before.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this experience in this blog entry. You can see all my pictures (over 1000) in this album
They say that travel changes you. And I can say 100% that I am not the same person who left JFK on Christmas Eve after this experience. I’ve been changed for the better. And for good.