Cuba by Sea: The Journey's Beginning
PHOTO: Montego Bay, Jamaica, from the Celestyal Crystal. (photo by David Cogswell)
Friday finally came and with it the long-awaited Celestyal cruise around Cuba. For a long time I had looked forward to this trip with relish. Now I had reached the U.S.-Cuba cusp.
On Thursday I began looking at my familiar surroundings in a different way, knowing that it would soon be swept away and replaced by a completely different world. Only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is in many ways as exotic to an American as any place on earth.
But even for Cuba, the seven-day cruise on the Celestyal Crystal is an unusual trip. It marks a change from most of what has been on the market previously. The most fundamental difference is that it is Cuba by sea. That brings with it many specific differences.
The accommodations are on the ship. The approach is via harbors. Excursions go onto the land, then you return to the ship to sleep and for most meals.
Also unusual is the fact that the first time we put our feet on the ground in Cuba, it was not in Havana, where most of the land tours so far have spent most of their time, but in Santiago de Cuba, on the south shore.
For me, the trip began with a flight to Montego Bay, from where the ship departed for Cuba. Flying into Jamaica (which has such a strong, individual culture itself), as a prelude to traveling to Cuba, was a novel experience. Even in the short time between landing and traveling from the airport to the ship port, we had time to absorb some of that rich Jamaican culture. We drove on the left, listened to home-grown reggae on the radio and the musical patois of the Jamaican accent.
Flying to Jamaica, you fly right over Cuba, and in the past, it has been a big blanked out part of the map, a forbidden zone. But now the doors are opening, and on this trip I knew I would soon be there.
One of the biggest differences between this and any previous trip to Cuba is that it is taking place only weeks since President Obama set off a new era for U.S.-Cuba relations by being the first U.S. president to visit since 1928. That event ratcheted up the change in Cuba and in the relationship between the U.S. and the island nation, which has been accelerating since Obama’s move in late 2014 to begin normalization with Cuba.
But one thing that hasn’t changed, Americans visiting Cuba are still required to carry out full schedules of people-to- people cultural encounters. The Celestyal Cruises itinerary fulfills its people-to-people requirements in part by having demonstrations and lectures on board, as well as with its shore excursions.
Much of the on-board staff is Cuban. Besides their duties as crew members, some of them also do presentations as part of the people-to-people program. It does actually add to the Cuban cultural experience.
I traveled as part of a group of 15 Americans and Canadians. It was a surprise to me when one of the Canadians told me she actually envied Americans for the people-to-people tours.
As an American, I was accustomed to thinking of the restrictions on travel to Cuba in a totally negative way. Americans were barred from travel to Cuba because of the American embargo, and when the restrictions were loosened to allow travel for cultural exchange, the new freedom to travel to Cuba came with cumbersome restrictions. The only way you could make the trip was by adhering to the complex set of rules enforced by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
But there has been some good from the restrictions too, because the people-to-people cultural exchange is a great way to travel. The personal encounters with locals, authentic experiences and immersion in the destination are increasingly the way people want to travel.
Though it is so often repeated as to be a cliche, it is increasingly true — Cuba is changing rapidly and if you want to see it before it changes drastically from what it has been in recent decades, you must go soon.
And now for me, the trip is beginning to unfold. I go forward with hungry anticipation.
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