By Dr. Diane Menago (Daughter) & Judith Fiorelli Menago (Mother)
People upon finding out we were in Cuba ask enthusiastically how was it?!.... like we were on a tropical island paradise enjoying the newest vacation spot. Neither of us are ever quite sure how to answer that question. The idea that we wanted to get there before "the Americans come in and change it" seems far fetched now. It is a country that seems frozen in time.... Cars from the 50's, buildings in disrepair, women in fish net stockings, an infrastructure that can barely support the people of the country let alone an onslaught of travelers. As Americans used to the freedom of traveling as we please, we were met with a strict itinerary that showed us the culture, music, art and people of Cuba in a very prescribed manner.
On Traveling to Cuba:
Mother: I stood looking at the pictures at the Bay of Pigs Museum, I couldn't believe I was standing somewhere that 50 years prior had touched my life. I was newly married, my husband worked for UNIVAC computers out of Kennedy Airport (formerly Idewild) maintaining air traffic controller computers. We were sitting at a work party with my husband's colleagues when an emergency call came in that they were to report to work to support air traffic control immediately. The emergency---The Cuban Missile crisis. They were required to stay on site for several days until the emergency had passed. Unlike today, news information was not readily available at that time so it was a waiting game. This started a tense time between Cuban and American governments which led to an embargo and a restriction on American travel to Cuba. You never thought about what affect this would have on the Cuban government or the people, we thought about what affect this would have on the people of the United States. It was not some place that I would consider traveling. Fast forward to today, the curiosity of a country that lived under a dictatorship that recently opened its borders to American tourism was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. Being able to have this experience with my daughter and her students gave me an opportunity to view history through multiple generation's eyes.
Daughter: It was an adventure to become engulfed in a culture, to experience a third world country first hand, to combine my love of learning with my hobby of photography. The hope of becoming immersed with the Cuban people from behind the lens of a camera, what interesting and off the beaten path shots could one get?
Mother: I think the island became more beautiful as you left Havana. I got to experience the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other at our Hotel in Cienfuegos.
Daughter: The experience of everyone sharing a two lane highway; horse and carts, bicyclists, open trucks transporting people to work, old cars, stands with groups of people waiting to be picked up by cars to go to work and tour buses without road rage. The land echoed the road with free roaming horses, pigs, chickens, steer, and roosters, the people knew who owned what livestock and they would help herd them home at the end of the day. The beauty of the ocean and the lushness of the rainforest. The colorfulness of the homes in the towns, the juxtaposition of the old and run down and the new and restored.
Mother: We left America with the idea of being immersed in the Cuban culture but were more tourists on a chartered course. There were restaurants, stores, cultural highlights, prescribed cigar and liquor stores and areas that seem to cater to the multiple tour buses that we found.
Daughter: The Cuban people have a love of their country and feel a sense of being cared for by the government. Each town revolves around a square which tends to be the tourist hot spot and generally has a hotel, a restaurant, a church and some stores. The towns are vibrant with art, music and dancing. The people are friendly and very interested in meeting and talking to Americans. They have become quite adept at trying to earn money to supplement what they are given by the government each month. They are provided with rations of food (a bag of rice, fruit, chicken, beans), free health care, community schools and local stores for buying meat. They are able to access 3 television stations that are censored for content.
On Che Guevara:
Mother: One of the only places that I have been to that unless you are physically inside you would never know what it contains.... No gift shop, no pamphlets, No posting to Facebook, Twitter etc. I think he is so revered they don't want any commercialism to surround him.
Daughter: Spectacular museum and gigantic oversized monument of Che in Santa Clara. The eternal flame that lights his mausoleum was lit by Castro himself. The Cuban people have so much respect and appreciation for their national hero. There is no talking in the space that holds Che's remains, you are not allowed to wear a hat or bring in a bag or camera, you are not allowed to visit in inclement weather. There is a reverence that has not diminished over time.
On the Experience:
Mother: I would like to return in 5 years to see how the Cuban people begin to prepare for tourism. The experience of traveling with such a great group of people lead by very knowledgeable tour guides was fantastic. I have a greater awareness of the wastefulness of our country. Cubans use everything they have, they discard nothing.
Daughter: I loved the resiliency and openness of the people, the music, the dancing and our beautiful travel group. I think that traveling to Cuba on an excursion was the only way to see many of the sites that we had access to and helped to develop an understanding of Cuba. I also would like to return in 5 years to see if Americans have more freedom in terms of their movement throughout the country. I would like to have a sense that I am contributing to the overall economy of the country as a tourist.