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I’d been fascinated with Afro-Cuban culture; the people, religion, art, music and dance, ever since I was a child listening to my daddy play Celia Cruz records. I dreamed of one day traveling to Cuba, but this was a dream deferred until 2015 when the Obama administration lifted the 50-year ban on American travel to Cuba. I wanted to go ASAP, but waited for some of the kinks to be ironed out. For example, the initial group trips to Cuba involved privately chartered planes and fees that made them extortion-level expensive. Travel itineraries were also restrictive as all activities were planned out without any off-leash time to explore on your own. As I waited, more commercial airlines began flying to Cuba, the price to travel there went down dramatically and the group-travel requirement changed to allow people-to-people travel. As long as your reason for traveling there fit one of the 12 approved categories including business, family, education or religion, you could travel to Cuba without much hassle. You also could plan your own itinerary. With these changes, news that Southwest Airlines had begun flying to Cuba and the uncertainty of Trump’s plans for the island, I purchased my plane ticket in April.

TRAVELING TO CUBA From Chicago, it took about four and a half hours to reach Cuba including a stop in Florida for the visa (included in the ticket price for $50). After landing, I passed through customs fairly quickly and then exchanged money. The U.S. dollar is not accepted in Cuba. CUC (convertible peso) is the form of currency used by tourists, which is comparable in value. However, to get a better exchange rate, it is best to exchange your dollars for Euros or Pounds and then change those into CUC. Additionally, there aren’t any ATMs and you won’t be able to use debit or credit cards. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't have enough money for all of the things I wanted to buy! When I left the airport, I stepped out into a suffocating blob of family and friends awaiting the arrival of loved ones mixed with cab drivers aggressively soliciting fares. I had never seen anything like this. The casa where I was going to be staying had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport, but I couldn’t find him in the chaos. I couldn’t call to ask where he was either because unless you install a Sim Card for Cuba’s network, your phone won’t work. I had purchased a card beforehand, but wasn’t able to pry open my phone to install it. Fortunately, one of the cab hustlers noticed my panic and offered to call my casa hostess for me. Disaster diverted, a driver arrived shortly thereafter to take me to the casa. FIRST IMPRESSION On the way to the casa, I saw several crumbling buildings that were hanging on by a thread. Classic cars from the 50s and 60s in every color of the rainbow were driving up and down the roads, leaving thick clouds of exhaust behind. The names and images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were everywhere - on buildings, cars, t-shirts, etc. I’d traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, but Cuba already felt different.

CENTRAL HAVANA DIGS I made it to the casa and was greeted by the delightful hostess who met me on the street and had her son carry my bags up the three flights of stairs to my accommodations. She then gave me a tour of her home. There was a small bedroom, living room with balcony and private bathroom. I was told that due to old plumbing, I couldn’t flush toilet paper in the toilet. Okay, that’s a first! Apparently, this is a problem on the island as many homes don’t have functional plumbing. In the bedroom, there was a flatscreen TV on the wall, but no Internet or Wi-Fi. The homes and buildings in Cuba don’t have Internet or Wi-FI access. Locals and tourists must go to Wi-Fi parks to use the Internet. Lastly, there was no AC in the casa, only a small fan. The accommodations were basic, but at $35 a night with a delicious and generous $5 per day Cuban style breakfast, I didn’t complain. Instead, I adjusted my expectations for luxury and eased into the cultural paradigm shift. After the tour, I dropped my bags, and hit the streets armed with only a map and rusty Spanish skills.

As I wandered about Havana's streets, I stopped along the way to chat with the locals. They were all kind and welcoming. Once they discovered that I was American, many professed their love for Barak Obama for allowing Americans to travel to Cuba. The boost in American tourism has led to an increase in economic wealth for Cubans, who exist largely on government food rations and salaries of only 20 CUC (about $20) per month. AROUND HAVANA Although many Cubans are poor, the country is certainly rich visually. For artistic people like me, Cuba is a dream destination. From the bright-colored buildings and interior walls, to the mosaic floor tiles and re-purposed furniture, the island offers constant inspiration. Hollowed out logs were used to create light fixtures. Wrought iron, tiles, and parts from a faucet were used to create funky table tops. Books were bound together to make seating. Different pieces of fabric were cobbled together to cover chairs. The architecture also adds to Cuba’s aesthetic. The historic 5th Avenue, now home to several foreign embassies has beautifully-constructed mansions and well-manicured landscapes. However, the worn out homes and buildings dispersed all over the island, were also worthy subjects for my amateur-level photography skills. Last, and certainly not least, high quality art can be found everywhere. #designheaven

Artwork around Havana

A TASTE OF CUBA I booked excursions that would provide an immersive Cuban experience. First up, was a guided group tour led by an extremely knowledgeable and engaging young teacher from the university whose tours are helping to improve the economy of her hometown, Guanabacoa. We went to the local museum in this township to learn about the three popular Afro-Cuban religions; Santeria, Palo Monte, and Abakuá. Following the museum tour, we were treated to a Santeria performance and were invited to dance with the performers. Santeria is practiced by 80% of the Cuban population. It was created by the slaves belonging to the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and is based on the belief and worship of orishas (saints) who symbolize nature while mimicking the characteristics of humans.

Dancers performing for us at the museum

After the performance, we went to the house of a babalawo (high priest of Santeria). Once we arrived, we all participated in a cleansing ritual that included the babalawo blowing smoke from a cigar on our necks - this seemed appropriate in a place known for its cigars. The ritual’s purpose was to prevent our energy from interfering with the babalawo’s abilities.

Our guide Adriana translating for Damian, the babalawo

Me participating in the cleansing ritual

Lighting candles at the altar

After lighting candles at the altar, the babalawo explained how he looks into a person’s future to give advice. We then went outside to eat an amazing vegetarian meal and drink aguardiente underneath a sacred ceiba tree. Aguardiente consists of 29% to 60% alcohol and is used in all Afro-Cuban religious practices.

Falling in love with "Killer." Sorry Syrus and Sheba!

Deliciously healthy meal

The experience ended with the guide and the babalawo giving us gifts that included Obatala necklaces used to ward off evil spirits. I continued to wear my necklace for the duration of my trip and was routinely stopped by locals who wanted to know where I had gotten the highly-coveted beads. . .

Visit next week to read more about my unforgettable time in Cuba!

Squinting in the Cuban sun. Where's my hat?

Kabria, Founder

Global Attic LLC, Exotic Home Decor

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