An educational tour gave couples from Port Washington and Saukville a fascinating look at what American tourists will find when restrictions on travel to Cuba are lifted
For Barb and Jerry Dickmann of Saukville, their trip to Cuba was an opportunity to check an item off Jerry’s bucket list.
For Diana and Larry Verheyen of Port Washington, it was a chance to walk in the footsteps of his grandparents, Bill and Rosalia Roob, who traveled to Cuba in the 1940s. The Roobs had their picture taken in the famous Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana. The Verheyens and Dickmanns found that the tavern is still in business, with a photographer on duty, and had their photos taken there too, posing just as the Roobs did more than 65 years ago.
The trip a lso gave the couples the chance to immerse themselves in a culture that has largely been off limits to U.S. citizens for the past 50 years.
“It’s like going back in time” Diana Verheyen said. “There are no billboards. There’s no McDonald’s. There are a lot of old cars and bicycles. Travel is more by horse and buggy and bicycle than anything.”
The people, they said, are poor but they are full of life and proud of their culture and country.
“They are joyful spirits,” Barb Dickmann said. “We were immersed in culture.”
While travel to Cuba is still limited, thanks to a 53-year embargo that bans most trade and travel between the U.S. and the island nation, the Dickmanns and Verheyens were able to travel there on a week-long “Cuba: It’s People and Culture” People to People educational tour.
To travel, the couples needed not just a passport, but a visa and an authorization letter to allow them to return to the U.S.
They visited more than a dozen communities and had a strict itinerary. While there was free time, they weren’t allowed to roam around on their own.
“Everything was controlled,” Verheyen said. “Our days were filled.”
Their guide helped personalize the tour as much as possible, they added. She brought Dickmann, a potter, to a local ceramics artist while the rest of the group was at the bodega and arranged for a driver to take the couples to Sloppy Joe’s in a 1954 old, pink-and-white Mercury convertible.
“The guy (driver) didn’t speak any English, so he would just point at things,” Dickmann said.
Classic cars can be seen throughout the country, and they’re primarily used as taxis, the women said, noting relatively few people drive.
The cars are kept running by any means possible, they said, noting that the frames of these classic vehicles are sometimes mounted on truck frames to keep them running.
Among the spots the Dickmanns and Verheyens visited were author Ernest Hemmingway’s home and a tobacco farm where Larry Verheyen sampled the renowned Cuban cigars.
“He said it was the best he’s ever had,” his wife said.
They were each allowed to bring back $100 in cigars and rum.
While many people picture Cuba as a lush land, the couples visited during Cuba’s dry season, so they said the island was more brown than green.
But the country’s beauty extends to its architecture, which Verheyen said was one of the most striking things about Cuba.
“But they don’t seem to have kept the buildings up,” Verheyen said. “They’re aged and dirty from pollution.”
Outside the city, the buildings are often so run down that it’s difficult to tell if anyone lives in the homes or not, she said.
Restoration was a term they heard often, Dickmann said.
“They’re trying to restore Havana and bring it back to its former glory,” she said. “They have a huge task before them.”
There was little graffiti seen, she said, noting, “They said the kids can’t afford the paint.”
But people have taken it upon themselves to beautify their neighborhoods, she said.
Community art projects are common, as are individual efforts to improve neighborhoods.
They visited one neighborhood where a man had, over the past 22 years, tiled everything in his yard and down the street, Dickmann said.
In another area, someone had removed 65 truckloads of garbage and created an art house in an old water storage tank.
“They’re very proud of their art,” Verheyen said.
While guides and officials stressed that everything is free, from food to medical care, the fact is that it isn’t enough to live on, the women said.
From the day they are born until the day they die, Cuban citizens receive food ration books that provide them with staples they can obtain at the bodegas.
“It won’t last you the whole month, but you can supplement it by shopping at the farmers markets,” Dickmann said.
“They really made it sound like it was a great place to live,” Verheyen said, but it’s a difficult life.
The store shelves are sparse, she said, noting she stopped at a supermarket for coffee and found little there.
“The first row had vegetable oil — there might have been 10 bottles,” Verheyen said. “Then the shelves were empty until you got to the flour, and there were maybe three bags.”
Many residents make ends meet with funds sent from relatives who live abroad, the women said.
Many people set up shops in the front of their homes, the women said, while others create restaurants in their homes.
“That was some of the best food we had,” Dickmann said.
And while education is mandatory starting at age 5 and many people have masters degrees, they often find it is more financially advantageous to work in tourism than in their chosen field, Dickmann said.
For example, a doctor can earn $60 a month in the medical field, while someone working in tourism, serving as a guide to a bus of 32 people, can earn many times that in tips alone.
The trip to Cuba isn’t the first time these longtime friends, members of the Port Washington High School Class of 1965, have traveled together. They previously visited Ireland and the Alpine countries together.
There are concerns about what will happen when travel from the U.S. to Cuba opens up, with many fearing that it will bring an influx of businesses and tourists that will destroy the culture of the country.
Dickmann and Verheyen echoed those concerns.
“If we lift the embargo and we go in there, it’s just going to blow the country up,” Dickmann said. “When America comes there, I hope we go there with sensitivity. These are very nice people who are just trying to live.”
Image information: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Traveling in style in a pink-and-white convertible were Larry Verheyen, who sat next to the driver, (back row, from left) Barb and Jerry Dickmann and Diana Verheyen. The couples stood next to Ernest Hemingway’s deep-sea fishing boat Pilar. Jerry Dickmann (left) and Larry Verheyen listened intently to a tobacco worker at a farm in Vinales. Beautiful architecture can be found throughout Cuba. A box of fresh bread was carried on the back of a bicycle in Caibarien.
Photos courtesy of Barb Dickmann