HAVANA TIMES, March 25 — My dear compatriot: Recently we have been receiving several visits a week from People-to-People exchange tours at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba. As the number of these tours is likely to increase I’d like to say a few words to those of you making the trip across the Straits of Florida.
I am delighted that you have decided to visit Cuba. I know it wasn’t easy to make the decision to come here, and some of your friends might have looked at you funny when you told them where you were going. I also know that the trip didn’t come cheap. But despite those obstacles you are on your way.
Because of current travel restrictions to the island you are probably coming on a specific travel license that allows People-to-People exchanges. I also have to use a travel license to make my journey home from Cuba.
Likewise, Cubans must also get permission from their government to travel outside their country. My point is that all of us coming and going from Cuba have restrictions imposed from one side or another. Keep this in mind as the first of many areas of solidarity you can use to relate to your Cuban hosts.
When you arrive to Havana and board the tour bus you will be embarking on a busy and somewhat rigid schedule. I encourage you to keep two things in mind:
The first is that the United States State Department continues to forbid “tourism” to Cuba. Therefore your travel provider, in cooperation with a Cuban government travel company, has gone to great lengths to abide by these rules to avoid legal problems for everyone involved, especially you. This is done by scheduling your time around cultural exchanges and informational tours while avoiding “touristy” things like mojitos on the beach.
The second thing you need to remain cognizant of is that your Cuban tour guides are paid to give you a tour of their country. No one wants to talk badly about their home to strangers. Would you expect to go on a group tour of Washington D.C. and the guide say something like “this is the White House, it is the home base of an evil empire perpetuating capitalist globalization”? No, you would not hear that from your tour guide. Similarly expect your Cuban tour guide to be respectful and proud of their country.
Now, my dear compatriot, I fear I may have you worried. You might be questioning whether or not you should come to Cuba if you are not going to be able to get a “down to earth” or “real life” experience of the Cuban situation.
So to lay those fears and frets at ease I will offer a few ways you can make your highly regulated trip a bit more…free. (At least in spirit if not actually cost.)
– Get to know your guide right away by asking them about their family. Tour guides will spend 20 hours a day, or more, working for you the entire time you are in Cuba. That means they won’t be around their family. Show them you recognize that.
– Ask people in the tourist industry where they work when they are not giving tours. You are likely to meet an engineer, a linguist, or a professor. You might find someone who has the same profession you have back home. Don’t be afraid to “talk-shop” while on vacation.
– Buy people drinks. Don’t be afraid of getting into a conversation with a stranger. Remember that even if it is boring or difficult to communicate your busy travel schedule will pull you away soon enough. Use this to your advantage and be outgoing without fear of getting bogged down for the whole day or night talking with the same person.
– Sneak away. You need to do this without making the bus wait on you so as to be respectful to the other guests and the host. One way around this is to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and then show up on schedule when the bus is supposed to pull away. This will give you a chance to get away from the group for an hour or two without having to make them look for you. Remember forgiveness comes easier than permission.
– Tip. Tip. Tip. I don’t know why we Americans assume no one needs a tip outside of our country. Some people working in the Cuban tourist industry had to pay money to get their job. The only way they put food on the table is with your Convertible Pesos. Tip.
So, fellow American, I hope after reading this you have some ideas on how to get the most out of your trip to Cuba. If you find yourself frustrated try to remember the context that you are traveling in is highly regulated, mostly from our government. Perhaps use that frustration back home by expressing your concerns about travel regulation to Cuba with your elected officials.
I will close with an invitation. If you find yourself at the Latin American School of Medicine ask to go to the bathroom as soon as you arrive. If you see a tall, lanky guy with an American flag sewn onto his coat sleeve at the top of the stairs ask for a personalized tour of the campus. I’ll make sure to get you back to the bus on time.