A Cruise to the Forbidden Island
By: Tracey Teo
The Bay of Pigs. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis.
Say “Cuba,” and that’s what comes to mind for many Americans, but all that seemed like a distant dream when the 704-passenger Adonia, a cruise ship operated by Fathom Travel and owned by Carnival Corp., sailed into the Port of Havana on May 2nd.
Dancers gyrating to a hypnotic Afro-Caribbean beat welcomed us to the island nation that has always been so close, yet so far away because of decades of travel restrictions. As we made our way through the terminal, the pulsating rhythm built to a frenetic crescendo, ratcheting up the excitement surrounding the historic maiden voyage of the first American cruise ship to sail from the United States to Cuba in almost 40 years. I felt privileged to be part of it all.
The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has many Americans eager to visit the mysterious, beguiling neighbor that echoes with music and shimmers with heat. Because Cuba’s tourism infrastructure is in its infancy, a seven-day cruise that docks in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba is an attractive option.
A walking tour of Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcases centuries-old architectural gems from the Spanish colonial period. Majestic renovated buildings, many painted in rainbow pastels, line five cobblestoned plazas. These venerable grande dames wear their wrought iron balconies and stained glass windows like eye-catching, heirloom jewelry.
But stray just slightly off the plazas, and the scene changes from one of resplendence to one of neglect and decay. Paint peels from graffiti-blemished buildings like blistered, sunburned skin. Rust runs like dirty tears from wrought iron balconies.
For every building that has been restored, there are at least two that have not, but that’s Cuba – a juxtaposition of the best and worst of everything.
I tried to imagine Havana in the heyday of its mid-century glamour. In the 1940s and 50s, the capital city was the epicenter of hedonistic nightlife for American celebrities who flocked to this sultry, tropical playground, checking their inhibitions at the airport upon arrival. A night on the town meant dressing to the nines and trying your luck at one of the many Mafia-owned casinos or taking in an over-the-top cabaret show at the famous Tropicana.
The casinos are long gone, but the 77-year-old Tropicana is still a Havana hotspot, enticing tourists with sexy, long-legged showgirls sporting feathers, sequins and little else.
Aside from a never-ending parade of vintage cars, the club is one of the few things that survived the 1959 revolution.
A Day with the Dead
A cemetery may seem like an odd choice for a shore excursion, but at Cementerio Cristóbal Colón, I was immediately struck by the ethereal beauty of the 136-acre sprawling burial ground named for Christopher Columbus. Ornate mausoleums, crypts and family chapels in architectural styles ranging from classical to art deco make the place feel more like a charming sculpture garden than an ancient necropolis.
As I wandered among the imposing statues, the soft strumming of a guitar reached me, and I felt compelled to find its source. In Cuba, impromptu musical performances have a way of popping up almost anywhere, but I didn’t expect it here. I followed the soothing melody to a crowd of women gathered reverently at a towering marble sculpture of a mother holding a baby.
It was the grave of La Milagrosa or “The Miraculous One.” Amelia Goyre de Hoz died in childbirth in 1901, and her infant son soon followed. The pair were buried in the same coffin, the baby at the feet of his mother. According to legend, when the tomb was opened, the baby was cradled in his mother’s arms.
La Milagrosa is an unofficial saint, revered as the protector of children. Many women visit her grave to pray for a healthy pregnancy.
In a particularly poignant moment, a young woman flung herself at the venerated monument, reaching up to touch the baby’s head. I don’t know her story, but the woman’s posture conveyed a sense of hopelessness. Oddly, it was a hauntingly beautiful tableau, and the woman almost seemed to be a component of the sculpture.
I never did learn the name of the tune that lured me to this sacred spot, but I’m glad I followed it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gained insight into this intriguing aspect of Cuban culture.
The Pearl of the South
Cienfuegos, known as the Pearl of the South, is a French-influenced port city whose elegant historic core centers on Parque José Martí. A statue of the Cuban national hero that is the park’s namesake stands in the midst of this picturesque plaza studded with flowering trees.
As I passed a group of teenage boys on a park bench, something struck me – they were actually talking to each other, laughing at each other’s jokes. Not one of them was texting or checking email on a mobile phone.
Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising since the internet only arrived in this time capsule of a country last year and is highly restricted. Residential broadband internet service is unavailable, but there are a few Wi-Fi hotspots in public places, usually the town square.
Thanks to our lightning-fast connectivity, many Americans seem to have a desperate need to communicate with everyone they know except those who are physically present, but Cubans have yet to pick up this vice. They still have one-on-one conversations, and you can tell what they are feeling by looking at their face instead of an emoji.
A highlight of this inviting city was a private performance by the world-famous a cappella group, the Choir of Cienfuegos, at Teatro Tomas Terry. A rousing repertoire of Cuban and American songs was almost enough to make the audience forget the historical venue’s lack of air conditioning.
Buen Provecho! (Eat with Pleasure)
At Punta Gorda, a restaurant in Santiago de Cuba, I enjoyed an al fresco lunch with my fellow cruise passengers. Maraca-shaking musicians and dancers swishing cloud-like white skirts had us bopping in our seats while we took in the spectacular view of the bay and sipped refreshing, minty mojitos. The mood was fun and festive, and I was pleased our family-style meal included ropa vieja, a classic shredded beef dish seasoned with onions and peppers.
After a long morning of sightseeing that included a tour of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, a 17th-century fort that once protected the city from pillaging pirates, we were famished. We dug into platters of the tender meat like starving orphans. The consensus at my table was that this rustic comfort food was “delicioso,” and some enjoyed it so much, they were determined to try and recreate it in their home kitchens.
This dish can be heavy on tomato sauce, but this less saucy version allowed the rich flavor of the meat to shine through.
Sides of mashed cassava and rice and beans rounded out the meal.
Riding back to the ship with a full stomach, I felt a twinge of guilt. Ropa vieja may be the national dish, but few Cubans can afford to make it. Those who can, probably need a black market connection to get the meat.
An American grocery store stocked with a wide variety of meat, seafood, dairy products and shiny, spotless produce would make the average Cuban swoon. Like most Americans, I take for granted abundant, high-quality food and get annoyed when my local grocery store is out of something.
“What! Now I have to drive across town!”
Cubans are largely dependent on government-operated ration stores that stock little more than rice and beans.
As my bus pulled into the lot, the Adonia came into view, and I saw it for the first time the way I think the Cuban people do – as a shining beacon of American optimism, a sign of change, a symbol of hope.
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Fathom is Carnival’s social impact brand. It offers every-other-week sailings to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. (855) 932-8466, Fathom.org