A three-day side trip from Havana led to a stay at one of the many homes for… (Jorge Abreu )
Reporting from Havana — My trip to Cuba last summer was a lifetime in the making. My father emigrated from Havana to Miami in 1961 at age 6, and the family who came with him filled my childhood in Dallas with food, politics, jokes and, yes, dominoes. I longed to visit the source, to understand what all the fuss was about.
When the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions in April, my father, sister and I at last booked our tickets to Havana.
"Get ready to go back in time," a friend told me.
Her words had seemed exaggerated and dark, but the past was unavoidable. I met relatives I'd never known, the many offspring of my grandmother's cousin. Inside their modest living rooms, we drank coffee and talked about our older relatives, the bond that tied us. When my father's family immigrated, they stayed behind and have inhabited the same crumbling homes for the past 50 years.
On a day-to-day basis, Havana, home to 2 1/2 million people, was chaotic. Sure, I wanted an authentic experience, but this meant getting lost in the heat and confusion, waiting in lines and being flattened on packed buses.
My relatives, on the other hand, handled life with resigned ease. They talked about getting by in an extralegal culture, where puny public wages are supplemented by black market activities. On their roof, an elaborate setup, hidden under potted plants, pulled in New York-based Univision, a clandestine addition to the government TV channels.
Our guidebooks glorified Havana's night life, but a few days of navigating its run-down streets exhausted us. Added to that was the helplessness of reconnecting with family who were worlds apart, and who would remain that way, no matter their warmth and hospitality. I needed an escape from my escape, so we took a side trip to Viñales, a small town about 100 miles west of the capital in tobacco country where my great-grandmother had once lived. From the bus window, we saw concrete change to countryside, with farmland and an occasional mill or factory coming into view. The crowds were gone, and the air was cooler and cleaner in Viñales, perched in a valley and home to fewer than 30,000. Rivers snaked through fuzzy, dome-like hills, called mogotes, that surrounded it. North of town, a large system of caves lurked beneath the hills, a popular tourist attraction and onetime refuge for runaway slaves.
As the bus rolled onto the main street of town, a small mob of locals greeted us, offering rooms in their homes for a nightly fee. Cubans throughout the country rent rooms to tourists in what are called casas particulares. The homeowner earns extra money, and the casas are inexpensive, about $20 per night, compared with resort hotels, which can cost upward of $100.
My father had reserved a house over the phone from Dallas, and we walked less than a mile to it, passing tourists, Cubans and dogs skinnier than the ones I'd seen in Havana. Drivers moved down the street in everything from horse-drawn wheelbarrows to souped-up Chevy Bel Airs. We arrived at a charming blue house, with a front yard and fruit trees out back.
Inside, our hosts cooked us a lobster dinner and advised us on the area's activities. Máxima, the matriarch, was pushing 97, and her age revealed itself through repeated introductions, but she smiled each time, as if welcoming family.
I peppered her with questions, all of which she answered matter-of-factly. Did she play dominoes? Not for a while. Had she ever been inside the caves? No. Driven a car? No! Had life changed a lot in the countryside after the revolution? Yes.
If I paused, she would jump in. I didn't mind if I'd already heard it, because my Spanish was rusty and I enjoyed the slower pace. No doubt she's forgotten me by now, but I relished the chance to sit and talk with someone who reminded me of my great-grandmother, who was chatty until her death at age 99.
After dinner, we wandered the streets again. Live music wafted from restaurants, where small bands played " Buena Vista Social Club" songs.
Drawn to the sound of a louder performance, we stopped at a towering old church that offered live music every night in a side room. Outside in a small plaza, tourists and locals socialized and danced, avoiding the entrance fee.
It wasn't difficult to find a ride the next day to the caves. As my dad approached a group of men on a bench to ask about one, I snapped some photos of the shiny American cars from the '50s.
It turned out that one of the men owned a flashy purple-and-red Bel Air, and soon enough we were on our way. He blasted reggaeton and salsa and explained that our fee for the day, $25, was more than he made in a month as a teacher.