Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Eau Claire Wisconsin Couple Join National Geographic Trip

New rules make travel to Cuba easier for Americans

Last year President Barack Obama's administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they go with a licensed operator.

By: By Eric Lindquist, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis., Superior Telegram

Cuba has an exotic reputation as an island nation known for aromatic cigars, classic cars, spicy Latin dances and Fidel Castro-style communism.

But despite lying just 90 miles south of Florida in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba has been mostly off-limits to American travelers since being put under a U.S. economic embargo 50 years ago.

That began to change last year when President Barack Obama's administration resumed issuing so-called "people-to-people" licenses intended to promote more contact between Americans and Cubans and make it easier for ordinary U.S. citizens to visit the island as long as they go with a licensed operator.

The opportunity was too good to pass up for Wayne and Carole Halberg of the town of Washington, who long had dreamed of exploring Cuba.

When Carole received an email from National Geographic touting its newly approved Cuban people-to-people tours, she told her husband, "I think we need to go and we need to go soon."

Wayne immediately agreed, and they promptly booked a trip in January led in part by renowned Cuban authority Christopher Baker.

They're lucky they acted fast because the tour was full within two hours, and the pent-up demand for Cuban travel among Americans helped National Geographic fill all of its trips for the year within two days.

"It was wonderful," Carole said of their nine-day vacation that was more a cultural experience than a tropical island getaway. "It was a rare chance to see something really authentic."

The people-to-people licenses require U.S. visitors to spend at least eight hours a day learning about Cuban culture and also to keep a journal and record all spending in the communist nation. The Halbergs had plenty to write about, as their trip included visits to farms, homes, schools, factories, art studios, natural areas and even the historic Bay of Pigs.

"It's so amazing because Cuba hasn't had much Western industrialization, so it's environmentally pristine," said Wayne, who considers himself somewhat of a Cuba buff.

Wayne also is a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and thus treasured the opportunity to visit the legendary author's house near Havana. Visitors weren't allowed to enter but could explore the grounds, see Hemingway's wooden boat and look in the home's open doors and windows.

As the Halbergs traveled through the countryside on tour buses, they were amazed to see acres of former sugar cane fields left as fallow land. Sometimes scenes seemingly from a bygone era, such as two men and an ox trying to plow the earth, played out before their eyes.

And on those rural roads, the 23 tourists on the National Geographic tour were as likely to cross paths with residents on ox carts or bicycles as those behind the wheel of a car, Wayne said, noting economically struggling Cuba has only one car for every 1,000 people.

That's one reason for a government rule that requires anyone driving a truck who comes across someone standing by the road to stop and let him or her ride in the back of the vehicle.

In Havana, classic American cars from the 1950s were everywhere and a huge attraction for visitors.

"If a car breaks down, they fix it where it breaks," Carole said. "They're masters at it; they're geniuses when it comes to fixing cars."

The Halbergs said their Cuban hosts were friendly and used to seeing tourists, just not many from the United States, although some Americans for years have dodged travel restrictions by flying to Cuba from other countries, such as Canada or Mexico.

But their openness disappeared when the subject of politics arose.

"The people are very restrained about expressing their opinions because they don't know who's listening. They don't even say Castro's name; they just do this," Wayne said, pretending to rub a long beard. "The bearded one."

These glimpses at life in a modern communist society were part of the appeal of the trip for the Halbergs, who came away impressed by the country's high average level of education and world-class health care but sympathetic to citizens who receive a ration card once a month entitling them to about 10 to 12 days worth of food and basic supplies from government-owned stores with extremely limited choices.

"They're on their own for the rest," Carole said, adding the government also provides every child with a birthday cake until age 14 and all marrying couples with a bottle of rum, a case of beer and a wedding cake for their nuptials.

The average monthly salary of a Cuban is $18, according to National Geographic.

For Carole, the trip also was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, who visited Cuba a century ago and bought 20 acres of land for $500. She still has a copy of the handwritten deed (in Spanish) for the land, which was surrendered to the government after Castro came to power in 1959, as well as postcards and photos he sent.

When she asked the tour guides about the land purchase, she was told it was something many early visitors to Cuba were talked into but something akin to the classic con of "buying swampland in Florida."

Considering Cuba's leadership is mostly elderly and changes appear imminent, the Halbergs are glad they made the trip when they did so they could seemingly step back in time and experience old Cuba.

They clearly are not alone, as Cuba is a hot destination for Americans unsure how long the people-to-people licenses will remain available. The high level of interest prompted both the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association to offer trips this summer.

The chamber tour is sold out, as many participants viewed it as a rare opportunity.

"These licenses are only good for one year, so these tour companies may never get this opportunity again," said Bob McCoy, chamber president, who is going on the trip this month. "Even if Cuba eventually opens up more, it would be a different experience. No one will see it like we're going to see it."

Lindquist can be reached at             715-833-9209      ,             800-236-7077       or eric.lindquist@ecpc.com


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