A WOMAN in torn jeans and a ruffled top talks on a cellphone as we get ready to board our Cubana Air flight to Havana from Cancún, Mexico.
The men in line next to us check three flat-screen Samsung TV sets — and bring aboard a stack of Italian panini presses as carry-on luggage.
The plane is Soviet-made. The snacks are Canadian. We know we're on our way to Cuba when, once airborne, the flight attendant offers plastic cups of Havana Club rum.
An hour later, we land at modern, efficient José Martí International Airport. An immigration agent checks our passports, but doesn't stamp them. We pass through metal detectors where a security worker in tight white shorts, a black tank top and white sandals wands us down. TSA, not.
"Welcome to Cuba," she says with a smile.
Most lasting memory of my first trip to Cuba: Riding a 1955 cream-colored Chevy taxi on the 4-mile-long Malecón, Havana's oceanside boulevard, as saltwater splashes over the seawall and "Hotel California" plays on the radio.
We're headed to La Coppélia Havana, a sprawling ice-cream emporium that could be mistaken for a slightly rundown amusement park. Built by Fidel Castro in 1966, it was supposed to be Cuba's answer to Howard Johnson's.
Everyone here is smiling. Even a wait in line — sometimes two or three hours on busy weekends — turns into a party, with couples kissing, kids playing and strangers striking up conversations.
"Welcome to Cuba," says a man sitting next to us. We watch in awe as our Cuban tablemates order 10 plastic dishes of ice cream — 50 scoops in all for about 4 cents each, a grand total of $2.
"Frienemies" is what one Cuban jokingly called the few American travelers he sees here. Tourism is booming — to the tune of about 2.7 million visitors in 2011, up 7 percent from the year before. But because the U.S. government forbids most Americans from traveling to Cuba unless they are on educational or cultural tours, it's mostly Canadians and Europeans filling the hotels and tour buses, sipping mojitos and riding around in the vintage American cars or yellow open-air oval taxis called "little eggs."
"Why on earth would an American want to go to Cuba?" asked a man standing behind me at passport control, then answered himself by telling me that he finds the island "unlike anyplace I've ever visited."
SHORTLY AFTER Castro took power in 1959 and seized privately owned assets, the United States imposed an embargo that has restricted American travel in varying degrees ever since. The Obama administration cracked open the door in 2011, but in recent months reversed course.
Tour operators taking Americans to Cuba are now being required to submit extensive paperwork to renew their licenses. Only a few of about 140 programs with one-year licenses have been renewed. Some have had to cancel or delay trips and lay off staff.
San Francisco's Global Exchange, an international human-rights organization that sponsored the tour my husband and I joined last fall, says it is reviewing its options for some types of tours while joining other groups in petitioning the U.S. to reconsider the new rules.
"The situation is changing day by day," says Carleen Pickard, executive director of Global Exchange.
Because our group traveled under a license Global Exchange has for professionals doing research, we had the freedom not only to travel with a group but also to spend another five days exploring on our own — seeing Cuba as it is, in the ordinary rhythms of life.
A socialist state just 90 miles from Miami, it's changing fast as Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro, attempts to remake a state-controlled economic system that's left its citizens dependent on jobs and subsidies the government can no longer provide.
"Every morning, we wake up and there's another change," says our group's guide, Jesus Noguera, dressed comfortably for Havana's heat and humidity in sandals, a green polo shirt and khaki shorts.
Today, it's an announcement that farmers, once they've met their quota for providing the government with produce at set prices (often so low, they discourage production), can now sell their surpluses directly to hotels and restaurants at whatever price they can get.
This follows news that Cuban residents can buy and sell homes and used cars (previously only trades were officially permitted) and start many new types of private businesses, including home restaurants called "paladares" and "casa particulares," Cuban-style bed-and-breakfasts.
Like most Cubans, Jesus works for a company owned by the state. A single father, he makes, at age 44, the equivalent of about $20 a month — the same as a doctor, teacher or waiter — in return for free medical care, education, nearly free housing and government-subsidized transportation and basic foods.
After graduating college, he worked as a social worker, but later turned to tourism for the same reason many doctors and teachers moonlight as waiters or taxi drivers.
"It's all about the tips," he explains as our minibus pulls away for a day of sightseeing in Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city. Once a slum, the area is now getting a massive, government-financed makeover aimed at boosting tourism. It's our first lesson in understanding Cuba's two-headed economy.
Tourists bring in the hard currency that Cubans need to buy many of the things they want and need. The tips we leave, and most everything we pay for — hotel rooms, taxi fares, meals — are paid in convertible pesos called CUCs (pronounced kooks) — each worth approximately $1.
State wages, on the other hand, are paid in Cuban pesos (called CUPs or moneda nationale), with a conversion rate of 25 to $1.
While the national money buys some government-subsidized staples — coffee cut with pea flour, for example, so bad it causes percolators to explode; cooking oil, pizza sold from kitchen windows and cheap, plentiful ice cream at La Coppélia — it's no substitute for the coveted CUCs.
Bottom line: If you want the best chicken or fish, a Chinese-made washing machine, a cellphone, computer, TV, an Internet card or the latest fashions, you have to pay with money the state doesn't use to pay you.
And you'd better have plenty of it. Because of the U.S. embargo, which prevents Cuba from importing any American-made product or anything made with American parts, these items sell at inflated prices, often more than they would cost in the U.S. or Canada.
A conundrum in a country full of them.
WHAT YOU DON'T see in Cuba is as mysterious as what you do see. There are no billboards, for instance, or signs advertising sales or discounts. No Starbucks. No McDonald's. Few real stores.
For the average Cuban — an estimated 40 percent have no access to hard currency either through jobs or what relatives in the U.S. send — "shopping" means lining up outside a darkened booth to buy sugar or cooking oil with ration coupons, or, for those with access to dollars, wandering through a cluttered "hard currency" store such as La Distinguida on Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main shopping street, where a bottle of dishwashing soap costs $3.15 and an extension cord goes for $12.
The "struggle," a word that took on special meaning during the revolution that brought Castro to power, continues in new ways.
Cuban activist and writer Yoani Sánchez documents the inconsistencies in "Havana Real," a compilation of blog posts translated into English by Mary Jo Porter of Seattle.
Sánchez no longer has to disguise herself as a foreigner to buy an Internet card in the lobby of a hotel, for instance, but despite 19 tries since 2006 for a visa, she's still not free to travel outside Cuba.
One day I put together a list of all the ways I see people trying to make money. I watch a man selling rolls of toilet paper out of a plastic bag. Others sell peanuts in paper cones, cookies out of buckets, or pizzas and pastries from their front windows.
"Leave the tour guide and find your own people to talk to," writes blogger Angel Santiesteban ontranslatingcuba.com, where Porter and other volunteers translate the work of Cuban bloggers into English. "Don't stay in the hotel swimming pool, walk along the Malecón, and enter the Cuban reality."
AWAY FROM the tour group, we travel three hours from Havana by bus to rural Viñales, a UNESCO site known for its national park, limestone cliffs and farms harvesting tobacco and corn.
Scenic hikes and cave explorations await, but the best reason to come to Viñales is to do as Angel suggests — get far enough away from the bubble of tourist Havana to experience real life by staying with a family in a casa particular.
We settle into Casa Papo y Niulvys, a peach-colored bungalow with a bright, spacious guest room overlooking a garden on a quiet residential street.
Niulvys, 36, is a gracious and talkative hostess who teaches high-school physics and electronics. We quickly agree to let her cook supper for us. Add a couple of Papo's pre-dinner mojitos spiked with fresh mint from the garden, and we paid around $50 a night for the room, breakfast, drinks and dinner for two.
Niulvys uses her government ration booklet to buy cheap sugar and a few other staples, but for the coffee, pork, chicken or lobster she serves guests, she goes to privately run farmers markets or stores and pays in the hard currency she earns from tourists.
Government taxes on the casas are high — $150 per month in low season and $200 in high season — whether or not they have guests every day. But with the income they earn, the family is able to buy things they could never otherwise afford. They turned a closet into a computer room for their children and recently bought a second air conditioner for the house.
"It's difficult," says Niulvys, who never seems to stop laughing or smiling. "But we are Cubans. We adapt."
IT'S TEMPTING to spend our last few days on our own back in Havana in a historic hotel such as the Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway wrote from an upstairs room, but instead we pick out another casa particular, this time in Havana Centro, a gritty neighborhood of crumbling streets and peeling paint where few tourists wander.
Compared to pristine Havana Vieja, Centro is like a rich man who lost all his money and is gradually earning it back.
Many of the buildings are falling apart. Others, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this part of Havana attracted movie stars and wealthy Americans, house beautifully restored hotels and restaurants.
Sitting one evening on the tiled terrace of the faded Hotel Inglaterra, we try to imagine what the French-designed Paseo del Prado promenade was like pre-1959 before Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces evoked the 03C rule: Zero Movies. Zero Shopping. Zero Night Clubs.
The scene probably wasn't all that different from what it is today. Tourists sip drinks on the patio, breathing cigar smoke and exhaust fumes. A woman in a white halter top sits night after night at the same table, sipping a Coke while she waits for a customer who will pay her more for a few hours than a doctor makes in five months.
As guests at Casa Colonial Yadilis y Joel, we wake to the sound of a man yelling "Pan y mantequilla!" (Bread and butter!) as he wheels a large blue box down the street.
Why run down the stairs when you can put your money in a basket, lower it on a rope from your balcony and pull up a loaf of fresh bread?
Yadilis' grandmother left Cuba for the U.S. after the revolution, and for a long while Yadilis wanted her family to join her mother and other relatives living in Miami. But Joel was convinced they could build a future in Havana, and persuaded her to stay and open the casa particular. They traded houses with a woman next door and spent several years remodeling guest rooms in an 80-year-old walk-up painted bright pink.
Yadilis dreams of the day when she can visit her family in the U.S., but so far, the only way the Cuban government will give her a visa is if she travels without her two young children.
She is a busy woman, involved in her church and things around the house, so we didn't get to chat as much as I would have liked. But when we leave, she kisses us goodbye.
"When are you coming back?" she asks. "When are you coming to the United States?" I ask, "with your children?" She answers without hesitation.
"It is my dream."
Carol Pucci is a Seattle-based travel writer. She can be reached at www.carolpucci.com. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Some information on American tourism and the licensed U.S. tour programs is from The Associated Press and The Miami Herald.