By Tracey Teo, Dallas Morning News
Havana.- On May 2, cheering cruise ship passengers waving the flags of the U.S. and Cuba disembarked at the Port of Havana, overjoyed to be the first Americans to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in almost 40 years.
Dancers gyrating to a hypnotic Afro-Caribbean beat welcomed them to the island nation that has always been so close, yet so far away because of decades of travel restrictions. The pulsating rhythm built to a frenetic crescendo, ratcheting up the excitement surrounding the historic maiden voyage of the Adonia, a 704-passenger vessel that is operated by Fathom Travel and owned by Carnival Corp.
The Cuban missile crisis. The Bay of Pigs. The Cold War. It all seemed like a distant dream. The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has many Americans eager to visit the alluring neighbor that shimmers with heat and echoes with music. Because of Cuba’s lack of tourism infrastructure, a seven-day cruise that docks in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba is an appealing option.
Outside the terminal, only a narrow road separated the Cubans from the Americans, not a 100-mile stretch of ocean known as the Florida Straits. A police officer stopped the flow of vintage American cars and waved the visitors across. They were welcomed like family. Indeed, some were family.
The Cuban government recently lifted a ban on Cuban-born Americans traveling to their homeland by sea, a move that allowed 16 Cuban-born passengers to be part of this groundbreaking journey from Miami.
For Maria Peña, an American lawyer raised in Venezuela by Cuban parents, setting foot on Cuban soil for the first time was bittersweet. Her parents fled the country during the Cuban Revolution.
“I’ve had a longing to see my homeland my entire life that I don’t think anybody can understand,” Peña said. “I’m here because we have had the trade embargo for over 55 years, and nothing has happened. Now we [Americans] are coming, and that’s what’s going to bring change.” She’s here “because I support the people.”
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 Easter-egg pastels, line five sunlit plazas lined with cobblestones. The venerable grande dames wear their wrought-iron balconies and stained-glass windows like eye-catching, heirloom jewelry.
Plaza de la Catedral, named for the 18th-century Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana that dominates the square, is the most visited. The cathedral is a baroque masterpiece framed by two asymmetrical towers.
But stray just slightly off the plazas, and the scene changes from one of grandeur to one of neglect and decay. Paint peels from graffiti-emblazoned buildings like blistered, sunburned skin. Rust runs like tears from wrought-iron balconies.
Peña says that’s why her 90-year-old mother, who lives in Miami, has no desire to return to Cuba. “She lived in Cuba in all its glory, and she doesn’t want to see it like this,” Peña said. “I have heard the stories since I was very young about the glory and the glamour and the marvel of Cuba.”
The glamour is still there; you just have to know where to find it. A cocktail party at the newly restored Gran Teatro de La Habana is a good place to start. Marble angels that seem to float against the theater’s ornate baroque facade greeted Adonia passengers who sipped mint-infused mojitos in the cavernous entry hall.
Afterward, many departed for a show at the Tropicana Club, a world-renowned cabaret show that features scantily clad dancers in elaborate headdresses strutting across the stage like exotic birds.
Known as the Pearl of the South, Cienfuegos is a French-influenced port city whose elegant historic core centers on Parque Jose Marti. A statue of the Cuban national hero for whom the park is named stands in the midst of this shady plaza where old people gossip and toddlers chase pigeons.
A highlight 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.
Santiago de Cuba
At Punta Gorda, a bayside restaurant in Santiago de Cuba, cruisers were introduced to Cuban cuisine. Platters of ropa vieja, a traditional shredded meat dish mixed with onions and peppers, were passed around as dancers swishing full white skirts provided entertainment.
Later, when everyone’s intoxication with the island’s music, architecture and natural beauty was at its peak, they encountered a sobering reminder that Cubans live with shortages of basic items.
Locals approached, politely asking for soap, pencils and other necessities. For Peña, this dearth of essentials was especially distressing because it affects Cuban family members. She’s confident the lid of this time capsule that is Cuba is slowly being pried open, providing hope for people who have lived without it for so long.
“I gave some sundries out, and a wonderful woman named Tomasa asked me if I believed in God,” Peña said. “We prayed for each other’s families and both our countries. “This was one of the most amazing, intense experiences I have ever had, and I will treasure it forever.”