HAVANA -- Girls dressed in ruffled layers for a quinceanera. American cars, from the Eisenhower era, in tropical colors. A hand-hewn carousel with peeling paint. Young fans cheering at a baseball game.
These are some of the scenes of everyday life I observed on a recent people-to-people tour of Cuba. These tours allow Americans to travel to Cuba as long as they go with a group licensed by the U.S. government to provide a "full-time schedule of educational activities." (The U.S. government forbids unrestricted travel to Cuba, but in addition to people-to-people tours, travel is permitted for certain other groups, including Americans with relatives there, religious organizations and academics.)
Most people-to-people trips have a themed itinerary like music or food. Some are offered by large travel companies, others by small nonprofits. I joined 21 artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers on a trip organized by a small group from Minnesota that traveled to four cities: Havana, Bayamo, colonial Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba, home of Cuba's historic summer carnival, birthplace of Cuban musical legends and gravesite of national hero Jose Marti.
People-to-people tours are not typical vacations. Structured itineraries include daily meetings with government-sponsored organizations and tours of schools and other institutions. Some meals were in dreary government cafeterias, but we also ate well in paladars, which are intimate restaurants in private homes. You're not supposed to spend the day at the beach the way Canadian and European tourists do, but we did get some free time, and occasionally participants ditched the schedule to explore on their own.
Our program included sightseeing and encounters with artists, writers and filmmakers, but politics was never far away. Political billboards are everywhere in Cuba, on roads, streets and in classrooms and even hand-painted on private homes, and many pay homage to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who helped Castro take power in 1959.
But no effort was made to shield us from unpleasant realities, like the sight of crumbling buildings or women begging for money to buy milk for their children. And the tours do guarantee opportunities to meet ordinary Cubans, whose warmth, friendliness and outgoing nature leap across the boundaries imposed by the decades-long political cold-shoulder between the U.S. and their tropical island nation. When we asked about censorship and other sensitive issues, they sometimes turned our questions around to point out inconsistencies in our own government. But they also acknowledged everyday hardships, like struggling to feed their families and coping with shortages. Those connections created a travel experience that surpassed my expectations, offering glimpses of ordinary life that tourists don't often experience.
Here is a gallery of photos from the tour.