We sank into pizza night, a classic Margherita, and switched on the TV news. President Obama's surprise announcement stopped our chewing. New relations with Cuba. A lifting of one of the last symbols of the Cold War. We could travel there and teach English in Cuba -- legally -- with some restrictions.
My travel partner, Beth Eby, and I knew we had to get to Cuba, and fast, before everything changed. I'd been following the country -- its revolution, people, music and yes, vintage cars -- for decades.
So I jumped online and spent the next two weeks searching for ways to get there, especially Havana Vieja, the old city and a World Heritage Site. GeoVisions caught my eye.
We wouldn't be one of many in a tour group. We could stay at a casa particular, run by Cubans, and teach English in Cuba.
We spoke minimal Spanish, but figured "we can do this."
Excited and a little nervous, Beth and I spread the word to friends and family. Reaction was, shall we say, mixed. "Why Cuba? What will you eat?" "Cuba? Really? I've always wanted to go there." And from my 92-year-old mom, "What an adventure! How far away is it?" Some thought Cuba might be dangerous (it's very safe) and air travel "sketchy," but we had to go.
After two days of travel, with a long layover in Mexico City, we peered out the airplane window at our cloud-shrouded new island. "This was it! Cuba!"
Beth and I emerged from the airport into a 90-degree day cloaked in humidity and a 30-minute taxi ride to Hostal Leonel, our home from April 21 to May 6. We needed that ride time just to process what we were seeing. A man walking a skinny goat. Dilapidated bus stops with rusty tin roofs. Once glorious Spanish colonial buildings faded and crumbling into ruin. Ruble in the streets.
But also Plaza de la Revolucion with its magnificent Che and Camilo sculptures, pedi-cabs, mango trees, kids playing street soccer and hawkers pushing carts with the most beautiful fruit. We weren't prepared for the poverty, or the beauty.
Finally, the taxi clattered to a stop and dropped us off. We climbed six flights to Hostal Leonel and its amazing family. Amy, a banker and the Hostal's matriarch, is a buzz of energy. Leandro, her husband and a doctor, a gentle presence. Their sons, Leandro and Leonel, well versed in the business, were full of insights and help. The entire family speaks English.
We learned so much. From memories of eating the "cover of the pineapple, the cover of the banana" in the struggle for food after the Soviet Union's fall to what to say for more delicious, fresh-pulped mango juice. "Jugo, por favor."
We quickly felt like part of the family. Beth and I built our routines around breakfast and lunch, eaten with other travelers in Amy's dining room.
We spent our mornings on long exploratory walks to plazas, museums, booksellers and the famous Malecon. We made regular stops at Cafe O'Reilly for fresh roasted coffee. Afternoons we sifted through the ESL handouts we brought and created the day's lesson plan.
Our students weren't always on time, but they always captivated us. We were greeted with the "Cuban kiss" -- an air kiss to one cheek with a nifty pucker sound to highlight the affection. They were bright, cheerful and eager to learn. We were having fun. So were they.
I've been home several weeks now. These thoughts linger. Traveling to Cuba isn't easy. Long layovers, customs and immigration lines sap your energy. At first glance, she's no beauty. The narrow streets are crowded with people, trucks, cars, stinky garbage and skinny dogs. There's dirt. There's mud.
But beneath the poverty is something intoxicating. Cubans have little, but live their lives joyfully. They laugh. They sing. I hope I never forget that.
-- Pat Harrison