Historic changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba are coming. Having traveled legally to the island in 2002, my feelings about the breakthrough are mixed.
As I watched President Obama outline his vision of increased travel and commerce between our countries, down to the oddly specific detail of American credit cards being accepted in Havana, I couldn’t kick the sensation that — poof! — one of the world’s last truly exotic destinations has vanished.
Havana’s immense appeal for me lay in its foreignness, its lack of McDonald’s, ATMs and mobile hotspots. The impossibility of phoning home or turning on CNN created a cocoon of delicious isolation.
I grew up hearing my mother talk about how Havana was a favorite destination when she was a stewardess for TWA in the 1950s, before the revolution. It was amazing nearly half a century later to stroll past the same hotels, boulevards and big-fin Cadillacs she had described, worn but essentially unchanged.
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I welcome normalized ties with this very close neighbor, but there are things I will miss when the embargo is fully lifted:
Paladares: When I was in Havana, the government issued licenses to ordinary Cubans that allowed them to serve home-cooked meals to tourists inside their homes. I ate the best meal of my trip in a young couple’s bedroom on a flimsy card table covered with a tattered but ironed lace cloth. The husband rode up on a bicycle with a fish that the wife fried with plantains, garlic and fresh herbs over a propane burner.
Playas del Este: European tourists flock to Varadero, which regularly shows up on most-beautiful-beaches lists, but when our B&B hosts told us Cubans weren’t allowed to go there, we went to Playa Santa Maria del Mar instead, one of a string of beaches east of Havana where the natives go to swim and picnic. We were the only non-Cubans there and we spoke no Spanish but a group of kids invited us to sit with them while one boy played a beat-up guitar and the rest sang.
The Malecón: This 5-mile-long oceanfront promenade will lose a lot of its charm when neon KFC and Gap signs obscure the orange glow of the old streetlights, when traffic clogs the road between the buildings and the sea, and tourists in Hawaiian shirts taking selfies replace skinny teenagers necking on top of the wall at night.
Coco Taxis: Actually these football-helmet-shaped motorized tricycles will probably increase in number, but I imagine they will become more reliable, perhaps even summonable by Uber. Shame, because one of the most interesting afternoons we spent involved two Coco Taxis — the first broke down and the second ran out of gas. Driver number two then stopped a belching farm truck and insisted that the farmer take all three of us the rest of the way, because the taxi driver didn’t want to send us off alone with a stranger. I felt like an extra in the film “Guantanamera.”
Contraband: There is no greater thrill than going through customs in Miami and declaring Cohiba cigars and Havana Club rum (if you travel to Cuba on a visa, you can bring them back legally) and watching the other travelers’ eyes widen with envy. When everybody can do it, the delicious illicit feeling will be lost.