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    After a 45-minute flight, we land on the cracked-concrete runway of José
    Martí International Airport, walk off the plane onto a seemingly
    deserted airstrip, and are greeted by a white bust of revolutionary José

    In old Havana there is a tree that’s said to be older than the city
    itself. It was here, though it was very young, when the Taíno people
    would worship, venerate, and respect her as Ancient Mother. It was here
    too, though a little older now, in 1519 when the Spanish first
    established a settlement. The land was claimed, right beside her growing
    roots, as San Cristóbal de la Habana. She provided shade for the first
    mass and bestowed a breeze for the first council meeting. And as she
    reached toward the heavens, so did a city. Becoming resilient and
    strong, prosperous and wealthy, devout and ideological—she soon had a
    home overlooking churches and plazas, statues and mansions that rivaled
    those of Europe. She felt the breeze of independence and briefly felt it
    taken away from her. As times changed, though, she witnessed the plight
    of the Cuban people under a dictatorship and felt the mumblings of
    revolution brush through her leaves. Then, in 1959, as winter drew to an
    end she was here still to feel the rumbling of a tank shake her roots to
    usher in spring and a new hope for her land. More than half a century
    later, the wind again sways her branches and one of her leaves falls in
    2014, twirling like a Sky Dancer, landing flatly on my head.

    I am about to visit Havana, Cuba for a whirlwind three-day trip, and I
    decide before boarding a charter flight from Miami to José Martí
    International Airport, to drop the veil on my parochial American
    upbringing, to observe and reflect on a country that has persevered
    through difficult times, and embrace (not criticize) its convictions. Of
    course, actually being in Havana, exploring, and meeting the people, I
    am forced to modify this original declaration. Havana lends itself to
    open-minded tourists who should be curious about the political system,
    who want to question the state of the city, and who will dig deeper into
    the country’s modern-day ethos while understanding its past. And once
    you find yourself sharing a mojito with a local, you may be surprised to
    see just how open and honest they are about their lives and their
    country. As my journey unfolds, I find the city to be a living testament
    of its history and ideals, and I meet a proud people who have the
    strength to overcome obstacles that the modern-day traveler may not
    realize still exist.

    I am able to visit Cuba because of loosened travel restrictions on
    citizens of the USA thanks to a recent change in policy encouraged by
    President Barack Obama. Now, tour companies are allowed to operate in
    the island nation as long as they are licensed through the juggernaut
    education-based travel program called People to People. My trip is
    booked through Pride World Travel, a member of the IsramWorld portfolio
    of brands, which is beginning their LGBT-focused tours of Cuba in 2015.
    Because these are educational trips, Americans are still at the mercy of
    the Cuban government that works to organize specific itineraries for
    each group. If you don’t feel like going along with the plans, too bad.
    As long as the official government itinerary is in play, you’re required
    to be with your group. But as I learn during my trip, there is a
    leniency depending on your guide. Luckily, my itinerary is relaxed and
    filled with a steady stream of good food, fascinating people from the
    LGBT community (including my guide), and even time to relax at the gay

    I highly recommend visiting through a well-established tour company like
    Pride World Travel. The company handled every little detail of the trip.
    Having all the correct documents is especially nerve-wracking for
    Americans visiting Cuba. The night before we depart from Miami, a
    representative hands me a packet with everything I need. From a formal
    letter granting me access and a visa to the required Cuban-issued health
    insurance— everything is organized. Also, I receive the VIP treatment at
    the Miami airport when, instead of waiting in line for the charter
    flight, a representative greets us, takes our bags, and hands us all the
    required customs forms that we’ll need to enter Cuba.

    After a 45-minute flight, we land on the cracked-concrete runway of José
    Martí International Airport, walk off the plane onto a seemingly
    deserted airstrip, and are greeted by a white bust of revolutionary José
    Martí. Once through the doors, we are escorted into a flickering
    neon-lit room filled with guards. I am so glad I have the paperwork in
    order. The buildup and anxiety are unnecessary. The pleasant (and
    handsome) agent takes my whole packet, stamps my passport (though I am
    told you can request a separate sheet to be stamped), and I walk through
    the door into the baggage claim area. Only one person in my group is
    taken aside for further questioning (this is routine), but he rejoins us
    a few minutes later.
    Our on-the-ground tour company, Havana Tours, which is government owned,
    whisks us through customs and takes us straight to a van. “Welcome to
    Havana,” shouts our guide, Oscar, who will be with us for the entire
    trip. He quickly begins pointing things out, but it’s hard to pay
    attention. I’m in CUBA, keeps repeating in my head. CUBA! The old 1950’s
    American-made cars rumble by us, but they aren’t exactly like the ones
    in pictures. Most are beat-up, rusted, and loud, but they are still so
    sexy and filled with men and women cruising with the windows down.

    “Here’s a school,” he says pointing to a Creamsicle-orange building with
    kids in white uniforms playing tetherball in the clay ground surrounded
    by a lush baseball field. A propaganda billboard proclaiming “We Have
    Socialism” with a picture of revolution leaders serves as their
    backdrop. “All education up to a master’s is free in Cuba,” he proudly
    exclaims. We all collectively shake our heads thinking of our enormous
    student debts.

    Then, we drive past the obelisk-like monument in Plaza de la Revolución
    and whiz around the iconic images of Che Guevera (“Until the Everlasting
    Victory, Always”) and the lesser-known revolution leader Camilo
    Cienfuegos (“You’re Doing Fine, Fidel”).

    When we exit the turnabout plaza the street becomes a gorgeous,
    Spanish-inspired boulevard with a tree-lined pedestrian median. Here is
    where I get my first glimpse of the effects of Cuba’s political and
    economic climate. Each side of the avenue is lined with one stately
    mansion after another even-more-impressive mansion. Large gates open to
    reveal overgrown tropical flora and gorgeous Italianate-like buildings.
    Each, though, has been weathered by the climate forcing their colors to
    fade, but their beauty, and significance can easily still be admired.
    “The people who lived here,” our guide half-smirks, “Weren’t too happy
    about the Revolution.” And you can understand why. “Oh, what the gays in
    New York could do to this street,” one other guest quips.

    As the avenue curves toward the sea, we see our massive hotel, Meliá
    Cohiba Hotel Havana.

    Through the tour company, we have VIP service and are brought to “The
    Level,” a special check-in area with a private concierge (you’ll be able
    to exchange your US dollars here for the local currency, the Cuban
    Convertible Peso or CUC). My accommodations are unexpectedly large; it’s
    a corner room with surrounding windows. I open the curtains, running
    around my room pulling them to reveal a stunning view of the sea. A
    large bed, two televisions (which get international channels), a Jacuzzi
    tub, and most amenities one would expect, including Wi-Fi (for a hefty
    price), from a modern hotel. We also take delight in the multiple
    restaurants, the outdoor pool on the second floor, the large gym/sauna,
    and the attention-to-every-detail customer service.

    Celebrating our first night, we literally feast at a palador (privately
    owned restaurant) called La Moraleja. We walk down a lighted, trellised
    path to an indoor/outdoor dining area. The owner happily greets us and
    lets us see his extensive wine collection. Importing more than a couple
    bottles is illegal so this assortment has taken him and his father many
    years to collect. Havana Tourism representatives meet us and, in a grand
    show, we dine on chicken, lamb, lobster, traditional rice and beans,
    fried yucca, clams, shrimp, and fried cheese. It’s obvious, knowing a
    bit about the food rationing that the socialist system in Cuba uses,
    that our local company doesn’t normally dine this way (of course, we
    don’t either). I’m hesitant to talk about it, but a fellow traveler
    outright asks, in a non-disrespectful way: “You’re not used to eating
    like this are you?”

    “No!” they all say laughing. Their candid response gives us our first
    glimpse at the openness of the Cuban people. Our hosts freely explain
    the ration books and what that gives them: rice, beans, and eggs. Taking
    a bite out of a lobster tail one says: “It’s why we are so lucky to have
    been placed in tourism.” It’s a sobering moment, and we consider asking
    for our food to go so we can share it with others. “No, no, no,” they
    insist, “You can leave it for the staff at the restaurant.”

    The conversation never treads on awkward, which is refreshing. We
    compare apartment prices, talk about their travel restrictions, the new
    iPhone, if they ever figured out how Whitney Houston died, and if New
    York is just like the movies. The owner is happy we’re visiting too. To
    show his appreciation, he lights us Cuban cigars and brings us beautiful
    rum. Taking a pull on the cigar, I think to myself: I could get used to

    After dinner, according to our official program, we’re to meet an
    activist group. So I am surprised when we arrive at a nightclub named
    after the award-winning Cuban-produced gay movie Strawberry and
    Chocolate called Café Fresa y Chocolate. Inside, there is a band waiting
    for us called Aceituna sin Hueso. This café by day is attached to the
    Cuban Film Institute and is a regular hangout for the arts community
    (a.k.a gay), but at night, particularly once a month, the band (not
    exactly an activist group) performs. “It’s a place where everyone feels
    safe,” the bombshell lead singer Miriela Moreno tells me. By looking
    around, you can see many more lesbian couples than gay men sitting at
    the tables drinking Crystal beer. For non-Spanish speakers, Moreno’s
    music is still easily understood through her palpable soul-crushing
    passion and the get-up-and-dance beats by her band. The group, who has
    traveled abroad to Spain to perform, uses their lyrics to send
    anti-homophobia and anti-prejudice messages, she tells me. I quickly
    develop a straight crush on her as I gulp down several Bucanero beers
    while watching them completely turn the small café into a Miami
    Beach–style club.

    A driver picks me up in the morning in a 1950’s canary-yellow,
    convertible Buick Dynaflow—it’s that Havana moment I’ve read about. He
    honks his horn to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw” as we drive down the
    waterfront street called the Malecón. His horn pulsing to the rhythm of
    the sea attracts the attention of the early-morning fishermen who turn
    their attention away from their poles and give us a wave. The Cuban flag
    proudly waves in front of a grand monument to Cuban Independence hero
    Antonio Maceo Grajales who sits tall on his horse looking over the city.
    The car breezes past the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, the site
    of tense anti-American protests, particularly during the Elián González
    affair. We pass the statue of González’s father holding a small Elián
    and pointing to the United States Interests Section’s glass-covered
    building. Even while pointing it out, our guide is never awkward about
    US and Cuban relations.

    I take in my first views of the famous buildings along the Malecón.
    Weathered by time, the buildings seem different depending on how the
    early-morning sun hits them. The sun’s struggling to pierce through the
    dark clouds overhead, and the lighting reveals splendid patterns,
    architectural accents, and varying states of decay and renovation. But
    most of all, I think, it reveals a color spectrum that my eyes are
    unaccustomed to seeing in New York. It reminds me of the colors from a
    PAAS Easter egg coloring kit, each egg always turned out to be a new and
    exciting shade. The row of buildings is peppered with new projects,
    including a new government-owned hotel, which gives me hope that this
    once-grand waterfront will be revitalized.

    We then turn onto an unassuming street. In accordance with our
    itinerary, we’re to “Visit Paloma Project which promotes gender equality
    (part of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry and
    meet with the Director Lizette Vila.” A woman, no taller than 5’2?,
    reaches her arms out for a hug as we reach the wrought-iron arched
    entrance, and a lumbering dog lifts his head at the upcoming excitement.
    She hugs each of us like a long-lost relative and leads us through the
    well-manicured front garden and into the building. Trinkets (witches,
    clocks, sage, figurines) and old photos (Castro, trans* activists,
    famous singers) dot the walls, and we carefully try not to disturb the
    large Santaria (local religion) shrine on the floor that’s filled with
    hopes, dreams, and prayers. We’re brought into a small room and offered
    tea and cookies, and we kindly accept (it is considered bad form not to
    enjoy specially prepared food).

    One by one, new people enter and sit with us in a tiny windowless room.
    We form a circle and exchange those awkward first-meeting smiles.
    Lizette Vila enters the room and goes around introducing everyone. “This
    is Milena and Juani Santos,” she says pointing to an older gentleman and
    a young lady. “Juani is the first transgender person in Cuba, and Milena
    has recently transitioned and is the focus of an upcoming documentary,”
    she nonchalantly shares as our jaws nearly hit the floor.

    She then continues and introduces Isabel Blanco, a famous ballerina who
    now teaches acceptance and empowerment through dance; Ingrid Leon, who
    produces documentaries about woman’s rights and has just completed the
    documentary about Milena; and Teresa de Jesús Fernández who works for
    the government’s gay-rights agency, Cenesex.

    For a gay journalist, this room is a jackpot. I am ready to fire off
    question after question, but it never becomes a structured interview, it
    becomes a wonderful discussion that doesn’t lend itself to an
    uncomfortable middle-of-the-room recorder. We drop formalities, and we
    talk, connecting with each other, undistracted like pre-iPhone days. We
    learn of Juani’s struggles growing up as the only girl among boys and
    how he has found acceptance from his brothers after having pioneering
    surgery in Copenhagen. Milena tells us about being kicked out of her
    home and finding the government-supported resources and
    government-provided medical treatments to make her into the woman that
    she always knew she was. Ingrid discusses the difficulties of creating
    documentaries in Cuba and the thrill of watching her controversial
    pieces air on the state-run television channel and her hopes to show
    them at international festivals.

    It is Lizette Vila, whose passion for her work, her openness, and her
    intelligence that captivates my attention most. Moving her hands with
    wild gesticulations, reminding me of my Italian grandmother, she
    discusses each person in the room’s successes and troubles. Her empathy
    and her understanding go far beyond the goal of the organization, which
    is to advance equality through the arts. While her ideas on feminism and
    the LGBT community seem quite progressive, even radical, she insists
    that they are in line with the beliefs of many other people in the
    country, including Mariela Castro, the director of Cinesex, and the
    daughter of President Raúl Castro.

    She likens Cuba to a strong, fertile, and beautiful woman whose
    resilience in the face of revolution and embargoes continues to inspire
    her and the arts community. And while she is lucky to travel around the
    globe and meet with LGBT and feminist leaders, she continues to thank
    socialism. “It’s because of socialism and the Cuban government that we
    exist,” she tells us while placing her arm on my shoulder.

    After long hugs and countless photos, our driver and Oscar have to
    nearly pull us away, despite the excitement of our next stop, the gay beach.

    Apparently, it is highly unusual for the government to give visitors who
    are part of a planned tour such free time. After realizing that there
    may be some leniency in their rigid schedule, I beg, like the literary
    nerd I am, that our driver stop by Ernest Hemmingway’s home where he
    wrote Old Man in the Sea. I am told that after Hemmingway’s children
    came to see it recently, they closed it for renovations. As our van
    heads down a village street, I begin to smell the salt water. Little
    shops and restaurants dot the street, and men and women walk carelessly
    through the middle of the road with fishing poles. In front of us is an
    old and crumbling Spanish fort, long docks that seemingly stretch to
    nowhere, and a round, baby-blue plaza with a bust of Hemmingway. A man
    sings “Guantanamera” alone, children run up to us shouting “amigo,” and
    an old woman sits, legs crossed, dwarfed by the fort, gazing out. “This
    is Cojimar, where Hemmingway was inspired to write his novel.” Oscar
    tells me. Sitting here by the bust, as I hand Tootsie Pops to the
    children to quiet them, and watch fishermen row back into the docks
    looking miniscule compared to the ocean, and I can see how Hemmingway
    fell so in love with this town, the mysteries of Cuba, and, more
    importantly, the sea. “But the old man always thought of her as feminine
    and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild
    or wicked things it was because she could not help them,” he wrote in
    Old Man in the Sea in 1952.

    I’ve made everyone late to the beach (by Cuban standards) as people
    usually begin leaving around 4 P.M., but it’s still filled with
    fresh-face tanned youths sipping Cuban rum, and parsnip-colored tourists
    lounging in rented chairs protected by rainbow-colored umbrellas. “Mi
    Cayito is a place where the gay community can really be free,” Oscar
    tells us as a couple of transwomen walk by topless. We find a comfy spot
    and make our way into the crystal-blue Caribbean waters while the locals
    ogle at our foreignness. Unlike other gay beaches in the Caribbean, this
    feels empty and safe (though I would, of course, use common sense). We
    begin to recognize a familiar cast of characters who proudly promenade
    up and down the sand runway sporting everything from thongs to one
    pieces, holding hands, swigging glass rum bottles, kissing, and
    celebrating life. We easily chat with locals who are interested in why
    we’re visiting, and we excite them when we say how much we have always
    wanted to visit Cuba, their home.

    As the sun begins to set, it casts that oh-so-picture-perfect tint of
    colors only found in the Caribbean.

    That night, Oscar takes us for a stroll along the Malecón where under
    the moonlight miles and miles of men and women sit along the waterfront
    during the weekend. The massive crowds and the people’s carefree no-rush
    attitude impress me. The whole idea of hanging with friends to just sit
    on a ledge and talk the night away seems so foreign. As cell phones are
    quite expensive and most social-media websites are blocked, nobody is
    looking at tiny computer screens. They are engaged, interested, and more
    importantly valuing each other’s time together. Gay groups sit among the
    straight couples, and you’ll easily notice them by their not-so-discreet
    gazes. As we walk to another “cruising” area, every crevice or ledge is
    filled with people. We rest under a dark and Sleepy Hollow-esque statue
    of “Don Quixote in Vedado” and eavesdrop on Spanish conversations (my
    Spanish teacher would be so proud I picked up the word bottom, pasivo).

    Havana’s gay scene and nightlife doesn’t just take place on the streets.
    Oscar takes us to a place called Café Cantante below the Nacional
    Theatre that’s hosting an event called il Divino. First, I visit the top
    of the building that overlooks the lit-up Plaza de la Revolución where
    an illuminated Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos act as guardians over
    the cars rolling around the circle. Downstairs, tables are set up, and,
    slowly, people begin to trickle in. It’s illuminated like a 90’s roller
    rink, and we’re hardly expecting much modern music, or much at all. Then
    the DJ plays US Top 40 with videos projected on both sides of the stage,
    and by half past midnight, the oh-so-sexy crowd has overtaken the seats
    and the bar is packed. A host comes on speaking machine-gun Spanish,
    getting the crowd fired up. He shouts out to us few Americans, Germans,
    Spanish, and then a dance number ensues. We’re mesmerized and watch a
    string of performances, while doing our best talking to the locals. I
    learn quickly that buying a beer is way more effective than
    chitchatting. We ask when the famous drag queen will hit the stage, and
    we’re told 5:30 A.M., and I am afraid my tired eyes will lose this
    battle with Father Time.

    Old Havana is crumbling,” our guide tells us. “Over one building a day
    currently collapses in the city, but it’s because of tourism that we’re
    slowly beginning to rebuild and restore,” he adds. The parts we
    experience sing of Spain and most of the buildings in the tourist areas
    are still in good condition.

    When we arrive in the tourist-heavy part of Old Havana, it looks just
    like I had always imagined. I’m standing adjacent to the old lighthouse.
    Here, a young guard sits reading a book, she brushes her newly dyed red
    hair out of her eyes and she angles her head up and uses her book as a
    visor to see the clouds rolling in high above the centuries-old
    buildings and trees. A wind whips their delicate leaves, and they fall
    to the cobble-stoned plaza. Still green and still with much more time to
    be had catching Caribbean sunlight, they become part of the sediment
    that has held the stone together for centuries. They are pushed farther
    into the ground by opened-toed tourist sandals belonging to curious
    visitors and re-smushed by handed-down Nikes belonging to local vendors
    hawking Che Guavera trinkets. One of the tree’s wide-base roots
    stretches far across to the El Templete monument and curves, snake-like
    toward a bust of Christopher Columbus. The branches touch the
    neo-classical monument gently brushing the façade like a grandmother
    smoothing the cheek of her new grandchild.

    “A storm is coming,” the guard tells me while collecting ten CUCs and
    placing the bill into her fanny pack. “Just a few minutes,” she says
    opening up the faded-white doors of El Templete. “I will have to shut
    the doors if it rains.” Inside El Templete there are three massive
    floor-to-ceiling canvases by the French painter (who later moved to
    Cuba) Jean Baptiste Vermay. The exquisite pieces give a first-hand look
    into the importance of Cuba. They show, and more importantly allow me to
    feel, the power, wealth, and divinity that came from the establishment
    of the European New World.

    Stepping out from the tomb-like quiet of the monument onto one of the
    three main squares in Havana, Plaza de Armas, reveals a bustling scene.
    I manage to make it around to a few vendors at the Second-Hand Book
    Market, where eager salesmen who are trying to pawn off mostly
    Spanish-language books about the Revolution quickly surround me. As I
    settle a deal for a five-CUC paperback of The Old Man and the Sea and an
    assortment of old prayer cards, I spot a raindrop stream down a graphic
    novel, Revolucion Cubana. The vendors parachute plastic tarps over their
    stands with such routine indifference I can only imagine how many times
    this happens. I stroll with my group around the square. Drop. “It’s just
    a light drizzle,” we convincingly repeat.

    Drop, drop. Through the rain, we dodge into little shops, taking in the
    local characters, and make our way through two more major plazas. Each
    reveals an other-worldly, different-time charm. A young girl in an
    orange quinceñera dress floats out of an old church, her parents
    snapping photos, as she poses against the beautiful stonework, British
    boys stumble through centuries-old courtyards with cigars and rum and
    Cokes, and old women whose dresses are wet and sandals are worn sneak up
    behind tourists begging for a CUC.

    We make it to Plaza Vieja and duck into a microbrewery called Factoria
    Plaza Vieja and sample the beers made on the premises and watch the
    lively cast of characters. An old woman dances alone in the rain and is
    joined by little children, while small dogs step across the cobblestone
    square and weave through the modern sculpture of a rooster. The once
    droplets have turned into monsoon-like conditions, and I watch the water
    flow rapidly through the Old City. “The city has seen much worse,” our
    guide tells us, reflecting on past hurricanes. Through Spanish columns
    an image of Che Guvera looks almost dystopian in the near-zero visibility.

    The rain luckily subsides, and we are back in Plaza de Armas. The guard,
    protected by a small umbrella, with near-perfect dry red hair, is still
    waiting by the monument under dripping leaves. “They say,” Oscar notes,
    “This tree has been here since the founding of Cuba.” I look up at the
    branches still moving like a flag from the ocean winds. He takes my hand
    and places it against the trunk. “See how smooth it is?” he says as I
    brush my hand against an almost sanded-down ring on its trunk. “Each
    year, people line up all the way down the street to celebrate the birth
    of the nation, and we walk around the tree while still touching it,” he
    says like an old prophet. “Touch the tree and think of a wish, dream,
    hope, or something you’re thankful for and walk around three times, and
    with each time drop a coin at the base.”

    One. I trace the tree first with my eyes closed thinking hard about a
    personal wish that I send up through the trunk, and I open my eyes while
    carefully stepping and see the square as it may have appeared in the
    beginning and see the hopes and dreams of a colonizing people. Two. I
    come around again and thank the tree for modern-day Cuba for the people,
    for their hospitality, and I wish that they too will find answers for
    the problems that they live with each day. Three. I come around for a
    final time and think of Cuba’s future, and I thank the tree that I am
    already a small insignificant part of it.

    Source: Uncovering Gay Havana, Cuba — PASSPORT Magazine –

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