Elk River couple meet locals during tour of island nation
by Joni Astrup
For 11 days in January, Roberta and Jerry Takle toured a country that for years was off limits to Americans.
But travel restrictions to Cuba were eased during the Barack Obama administration, and the Takles decided now was the time to visit the island nation located just 90 miles south of Florida.
“I wanted to go before it changed, because it’s going to change and it’s going to probably change quickly,” Roberta said.
The Elk River couple signed on with a tour offered by Globus. They chose that tour because it offered a chance to see Cuba from one end of the island to the other, along with an opportunity to meet Cuban people from many walks of life.
The Takles met and mingled with artists, musicians, farmers, restaurant operators – even a baseball player – a
nd found the Cuban people to be friendly.
They visited a printing shop, a dance school, a pottery studio and a couple of farms.
They heard a chamber orchestra perform, toured a botanical garden, visited a neighborhood with colorful mosaics on all the buildings, bought some of Cuba’s world-renowned cigars, saw Fidel Castro’s grave, and stopped at Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana.
They also went to the Bay of Pigs, site of a failed military invasion of Cuba undertaken by a U.S.-backed group in 1961.
Their visit to Cuba was possible thanks to the warming of Cuba-America relations that began in December 2014, ending a 54-year period of hostility between the nations. In March 2016, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928.
The Takles began their adventure by flying from Miami to Holguin, Cuba. They then traveled by bus to Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, Cienfuegos and Havana. A Cuban guide accompanied their 23-member group, which was made up of 21 Americans and two Canadians.
TVs were everywhere, but some goods were in short supply
One of Cuba’s most iconic links to a bygone era is its vintage automobiles.
The Takles saw a number of them, and Roberta got a ride in a 1958 Chevrolet. It was a sentimental journey, as Jerry was driving a ‘58 Chevy when they first began dating, she said.
Ironically, they learned that few Cubans can afford a car of their own.
A college professor they met told them he doesn’t know anyone who has a car, Jerry said.
There were a variety of other modes of transportation in operation in Cuba, however, including bicycles, bicycle taxis, buses, horse-drawn cabs and trains. The Takles even saw a semitrailer that had been converted into a bus.
While personal vehicles are uncommon, televisions are not. The Takles said virtually every home has one.
Outdoor telephone booths can still be found, but the Takles also saw people with cellphones.
Some goods, however, are in short supply or difficult to get at all. At the ballet school they visited, they learned they make their own ballet shoes and costumes.
At the print shop they toured, workers make replacement parts for the printing press when something breaks because parts are not available.
In the countryside, they saw oxen being used to work the fields. There are tractors in Cuba, but a shortage of fuel and parts.
One thing they didn’t see?
“We never did see a grocery store,” Jerry said.
They aren’t sure where people get their groceries. They did see fruits and vegetables for sale at a small roadside stand, and said that every person is issued a government ration card for staples such as rice.
People appeared to be well-fed and clothed, they said. School children wore uniforms.
Cuban farms had livestock such as cattle and goats and raised crops such as sugar cane and rice.
One of the farms they visited had been part of the King Ranch in Texas before the revolution. They saw a coffee table with an American flag on it, left over from that era.
They learned that Cuba has good health care and a good educational system. Education is mandatory for the first nine years and all schooling, including college, is free. Health care is also free.
The Takles said they saw few signs of a military presence or police and were told that there is little crime in Cuba.
Roberta said it was an interesting trip.
“We got to see the old and they are starting to build the new,” she said. “It’s the time to be going.”