It was 1980, and I was living in Hong Kong. At the time, China had just opened up to outsiders, and I was leading groups of foreigners on trips to this amazing place. The antique cars that put-putted down the streets of Beijing were the only evidence of the modern world. Outside the city, it was like a scene from the Middle Ages, with peasants living lives just like their ancestors had for generations before. It was like a land frozen in time.
Fast forward 30 years and Beijing is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and China today is unrecognizable.
As I walk the Malecón in Havana now, it reminds me of China 30 years ago. Cuba is changing fast, and my one piece of advice to you is to go now to experience authentic Cuba.
When you think of Cuba, the image of classic American cars from the 1950s probably comes to mind. Because of the U.S. embargo, Cuban mechanics have had to get creative to keep cars on the streets, swapping out V-8s for Soviet diesel engines. Today, about one in six cars is an American classic from the 50s. However, this anachronism will soon fade into history, as the most sweeping relaxation of vehicle imports since the revolution is currently under way.
That’s just one way life in Cuba is changing fast. One of my favorite things to do in Cuba is to eat at a paladar. Paladars (Portuguese and Spanish for “palate”) used to be restaurants run out of people’s homes. Not only was the food great, but the experience offered a unique window into local life. Today, those in-home restaurants are now turning into more traditional restaurants.
The food is still delicious, but it’s not quite the same experience.
Another facet of Cuban society that is rapidly changing is the art scene. Considering how oppressive life in Cuba has been over the years, it’s inspiring that Cuban artists flourish the way they do. The artistic expression of Havana right now makes me think of the Greenwich Village scene from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And the music is just as moving. One of my favorite things to do is to sit at a table at a street-side café, sip a mojito and listen to a jazz quarter play their Latin rhythms.
Another iconic image that comes to mind is of Havana’s Art Deco masterpieces. After years of neglect, these buildings are crumbling, and rather than spend the money to restore them, the government is tearing them down.
The door between the U.S. and Cuba had been shut since 1959. Today, it is slightly ajar, but all it takes is one executive order or act of Congress to either open it wide or slam it shut again. Either way, now is the chance to experience the Cuba of today — the authentic Cuba and its people, their music, their dance, their art and their everyday lives.
For years, Americans were restricted from going to Cuba. But now, thanks to a special “People-to-People” license granted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Road Scholar is able to offer cross-cultural learning experiences in Cuba.
Whatever you want to learn about in Cuba, whether it’s the people, their art, the economy, or life in the more remote parts of the island, we have an educational adventure for you. But don’t wait, change is coming fast.
Road Scholar is authorized to travel to Cuba under OFAC License #CT-2014-308137-1.