WEST JEFFERSON-Cathy Allinder never really thought she’d spend her vacation in a communist country. Things just worked out that way.
“Visiting Cuba was kind of like stepping into another world,” Allinder said in a recent interview with the Jefferson Post. “You have to be prepared to go with the flow. Mine was a wonderful experience in a lot of ways, but it’s definitely not like visiting the Grand Bahamas.”
Allinder recently returned to Ashe County following a 10 day trip to the once cloistered island of Cuba. While the nation is only some 90 miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, a trip like Allinder’s was difficult or impossible for more than half a century thanks to an embargo and travel restrictions first enacted by President John F. Kennedy’s administration.
Little more than two years ago, however, President Barack Obama lifted certain travel restrictions to Cuba, a move that opened up the tiny Caribbean nation to legal visits by certain groups of United States citizens.
But that still doesn’t mean tourists can plan their own Cuban adventure just yet, according to Allinder. Visits by Americans must still fall within certain designations like a “people-to-people” trip designed to promote interactions between Cubans and Americans.
In Allinder’s case, she visited the country as one member of a group taking part in a nature photography competition.
“I’d traveled with this agency out of Florida before – they focus on educational trips throughout the world – and I ended up on their mailing list,” Allinder said. “They happened to advertise this trip last fall and I got their last spot in August. It filled up so quick that I was really lucky to score that spot. Very few Americans had been there for 50 years so I said why not.”
Allinder said the flight from Atlanta to Havana lasted only two hours but said the trip did include a quirk specific to Cuba. She said each member of the group was required to purchase Cuban health insurance before they’d be allowed to travel to the country.
“Didn’t matter how great your health insurance is here in the States, we had to purchase their insurance as part of the boarding process,” Allinder said. “It was interesting.”
Her first two days were spent in Havana, taking in the classic American autos that Cubans have kept running since the 1950s. Classic Chevies, Fords, Chryslers and Plymouths cover the island’s streets, and each has a story about how its owner kept it running long after it would have been relegated to the scrapheap anywhere else on the planet.
Like anywhere else, Allinder said some of the classic rides were a step away from the junk yard while others boast modern day paint schemes.
Allinder said the entrepreneurial spirit is also on display by “Yank Tank” owners, many who will not allow their car to be photographed without compensation.
The group then traveled three hours south of Havana for five days of bird photography, Allinder said.
“Cubans have been smart about this,” Allinder said. “They’ve realized that they have certain species you can’t find anywhere else on the planet and that people want in to the country to see these things that haven’t been seen, in some cases, for years. So they’ve capitalized on ecotours like the one I went on.”
Allinder gave the Cuban people she met and the places she visited high marks for hospitality, though cultural differences were on display.
“At one point I think we annoyed the people at this restaurant when we asked for napkins,” Allinder said. “They came back with three squares of toilet paper. That’s when we realized, OK, it’s still hard for them to get access to certain things.”
Another key difference between Cuba and the United States? Allinder said the sweet smell of Cuban tobacco smoke hangs over much of the island’s establishments.
“That was something I didn’t necessarily expect,” Allinder said. “It’s natural for folks to light up a smoke wherever they are, and they enjoy it. It’s a big shift coming from the United States.”
And Allinder said she’s already answered the question of whether or not she’d go back to the island. She’ll return to Cuba later this year as part of Optics for the Tropics, a conservationist group that helps raise funds for optics equipment to be used by ornithologists and naturalists in the tropics.
“Yes, you remember that you’re in a communist country and you still realize that this is very, very different from what you’re used to,” Allinder said. “But it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to take in a place that very few Americans have seen in half a century. I’d do it all over again.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.