Editor’s note; When President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro re-established diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Marie and Phil Heft decided they should travel to Cuba as soon as possible. After watching a program by Rick Steves, the travel writer, the Kent couple was off.
We got the news that Fidel Castro had died the night before from a tourist from Switzerland.
It was Nov. 26, and we were staying in the city of Trinidad on the 10th day of our trip to Cuba. We’d spent a day hiking in the mountains and a day at Playa Ancon, a nearby beach.
Phil was swimming and Marie was talking to the visitor from Switzerland when we learned that 90-year-old Castro, who’d ruled Cuba for more than five decades, was dead.
When we returned to Trinidad, we walked to the main square, where one of the residents was standing outside his house.
It was a sad day for Cuba, he said.
Over the next few days, we talked with several residents about life on the island, before and after the man known only as Fidel. We came away thinking the one-time revolutionary was highly respected, but there seemed to be little deep sorrow.
When we returned to our house, we expressed our condolences to the hostess. She thanked us and invited us to watch TV with her. It was showing pictures from Fidel’s life, including of him helping President Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Later, we went to a restaurant and found no alcoholic beverages could be served or any music played publicly for the nine days of condolence for Fidel.
When Phil tried to order a beer, the waiter said that if he served him and the police looked in, he would be in big trouble.
Several days later we had a real brush with history.
While staying in Varadero, the best known beach resort in Cuba, we arranged to go back to Havana by taxi.
We were told we’d probably be delayed in Matanzas because Fidel’s funeral procession was to go through there about 11 a.m.
We started the trip, and the taxi driver went as far as he could on the main route. Then he wound around the back streets to miss the growing crowd of people there to see the procession.
Finally we had to stop. The route was blocked by hundreds of people — including school children dressed in their uniforms — who lined up to see their fallen leader’s ashes pass.
Mothers and their babies, toddlers, people young and old, were all trying to get a good view of the procession.
We decided to do the same.
After we’d waited in the crowd for about an hour, a large helicopter appeared above us and circled several times.
Finally, a line of military vehicles ferrying soldiers and dignitaries came rolling through. They were traveling east to Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel’s funeral was to take place Dec. 4.
Then came a low, flat vehicle decorated with flowers and carrying the late leader’s ashes.
“Fidel, Fidel, Fidel,” the school children shouted. “Vive! Vive! (Live! Live!”)
The helicopter circled about a dozen more times until the procession passed by. Then it flew on. As the crowd broke up, we walked back to our taxi and traveled on to Havana.
‘We are here’
Our stay in Cuba started Nov. 17 after stops in Canada.
We arrived at the Havana airport about 10:30 p.m. and, like at any airport, had to wait around for our baggage.
About an hour later we stepped outside after clearing customs and saw a taxi driver waiting with a sign with our names. We had arranged to stay at a home, and they’d arranged for the taxi to pick us up and take us to Old Havana.
During the ride, Phil tried out his “baby Spanish” on the driver. It worked for a while, but the driver quickly stopped responding. Then we noticed that inside the old beat-up Chinese car was a small TV where you’d expect a rear view mirror.
Ear bud in his ear, our driver was watching a soap opera.
We pulled up to an old, very used building, and he announced, “Estamos aqui.” (“We are here.”)
“Is it possible we’re going to stay in such a dump?” Phil asked himself.
We climbed a steep marble stairway and were ushered into our apartment. It was very clean, well-equipped and secure.
So far, so good.
Living in a time capsule
Waking up our first day was like stepping into a time capsule.
In our casa, we were served a huge breakfast of guava juice, a large plate of four fruits, eggs, a plate of ham and cheese, three large rolls apiece and Cuban coffee with hot milk.
There was plenty left over for lunch.
Outside were horse-driven carts, human-powered tricycles carrying passengers and many pedestrians. Cars slowly worked their way through all this on a very narrow cobblestone street.
We hired Armando, the director of our casa, to drive us for a few hours around the greater Havana area.
We saw the Plaza of the Revolution and the Malécon, the city’s five-mile waterfront roadway and esplanade.
We passed by the University of Havana, the center of revolutionary activities in Havana during the 1959 revolution. Two years earlier, José Antonio Echeverría, the student body president, took over the state radio station and gave a revolutionary speech. On his way back to the university, he exchanged gunfire with police and was killed.
When we got to the beautiful Miramar area with its fancy houses, Marie asked Armando if this was where the rich lived.
Armando, who was trained as an industrial engineer and who seemed comfortable with the communist government, replied that there were no rich in Cuba. Everybody was equal.
The next day we explored Old Havana on foot. We visited the plaza of the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi, the Plaza of the Havana Cathedral, and El Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the city’s old harbor-front fort.
We walked along Calle Obispo, Havana’s main drag, moving among stilt-walkers, cigar-smoking ladies and newly married couples. In one of the main squares, a bunch of little kids was watching a puppet show.
We talked with some owners of perfectly restored American cars — 1955 and ’56 Fords and Chevrolets seemed the favorites.
The restored cars — whose owners thought were worth about $30,000 — were the exceptions. Most of the old cars were junkers with nice paint jobs.
Phil told the car guys that we’d once owned a 1956 Chevrolet, and that when Marie wrecked it in 1960, it was the first major problem in our marriage.
Everybody got a good laugh over that.
From one ‘boy’ to another
When we finished our stay in Havana, we headed west, first to Viñales, then to Trinidad and finally to Varadero.
Viñales is probably the most important area in the world for growing tobacco. When we toured a farm there, our guide bragged that tobacco from their area is what got the Europeans started on their addictions.
We got into a conversation with our guide, who introduced us to his 79-year-old grandfather. Phil, who’s 85, addressed the elderly man as el niño (the boy). The grandfather liked this.
The guide explained that his grandfather had four wives, one official and three unofficial. He said his grandmother was wife No. 4.
The fields were being plowed with oxen or Brahma cows from India. We were told that the few tractors farmers have are used so heavily that they are down for maintenance much of the time.
In Trinidad, a Spanish colonial city about to celebrate its 500-year anniversary, we did a walking tour.
We visited the Convent of St. Francis of Assisi, which has been converted to a museum dedicated to the attempted attacks on the Castro regime.
At one end of the museum was a group of local residents who were dancing. We joined in and chatted them up.
They seemed to like and feel comfortable with Americans. Many of them have relatives in the United States, most of them U.S. citizens. We talked politics with them and found many of them liked Donald Trump.
One postal worker was very dissatisfied with the Castro government. He said he’d worked for the post office for about 20 years.
His current pay: $20 a month.
After we returned to Havana, we flew back to Vancouver, British Columbia, and crossed the border into the United States.
Phil handed a U.S. official our passports and immediately volunteered, “We spent two nights in Canada and 14 nights in Cuba.”
The woman enthusiastically welcomed us home and wanted to know all about Cuba, especially the Cubans’ reaction to Castro’s death. We told her they seemed quite sentimental about it.
Phil told her we were going to write about our trip in The News Tribune.
“I look forward to reading about it in the paper,” she said.