Viva, Cuba!

They’ve dallied with lemurs in Madagascar and consorted with hippos and giraffes in Botswana.

They traveled to China in the wake of Nixonian détente, dressed to the nines for New Year’s Eve in Vienna and explored New Guinea in small aircraft whose landing strips were green fields dotted with laughing, running children.

When it comes to world travel, Barbara and Richard Dannenberg – who’ve visited more than 80 countries – take a back airline seat to no one.

So when the opportunity came to visit Cuba, they didn’t hesitate.

“People say, ‘Why would you want to go?’ Our curiosity,” Barbara says. “We go to learn about people.”

The vibrant blonde is sitting in the yellow kitchen of her sleek Purchase home, a room that’s as warm and sunny as she is. Barbara was a middle school science teacher in the White Plains public schools for 25 years. Richard – more familiarly, Dick – was the Dannenberg in the law firm Lowey Dannenberg Cohen & Hart. Barbara has bridge and book clubs; Dick, singles and doubles tennis. Together they are arts devotees – supporters of the Westchester Philharmonic, Purchase College’s Performing Arts Center and Carnegie Hall. They traveled in summer, visited the three kids and assorted grandkids around the country and holidayed with the family in Cancun. But once they retired, they turned the travel dial up a notch, including a world tour “to get (Dick) to think of something other than retirement,” Barbara says.

Cuba and the United States have had a tangled history. Did she worry about that? You’re talking to a proudly independent-minded oldest child.

“I’m my own person,” Barbara says. “People can think what they want to think.”

Indeed, to hear both Dannenbergs tell it, the Cuba trip was a seamless joy, centered on the fabulous chemistry among the tour group’s 22 members, the guides, the driver and the Cubans they met.

Still, a trip to Cuba is not to be undertaken lightly, given the tensions that exist between the U.S. and the Communist country and the embargo our government has placed on it.

“Americans may travel to Cuba if they go with a licensed travel company on a program called ‘People to People’ with the express purpose of meeting Cubans and learning about their culture,” Barbara wrote in an article for The Woman’s Club of White Plains. The Dannenbergs chose Abercrombie & Kent, a company they used on their trip to New Zealand and Australia. The U.S. government also requires citizens traveling there to keep a diary. (Barbara was the diarist; Dick, the shutterbug.)

You can’t use your credit cards in Cuba but must instead exchange U.S. dollars for Cuban ones (CUCs). Internet access is a challenge. Although there were computers in the two modern hotels the Dannenbergs stayed in – the Meliá Buenavista and the Meliá Habana, both owned by a Spanish company – Barbara found she could receive emails but not return them.

Perhaps more important, because of the embargo, you cannot bring back any manufactured items like T-shirts and baseball caps, standard souvenirs for the Dannenberg family. Instead, Barbara and Dick shopped for wood carvings; masks, including one made from a palm leaf (“Never saw anything like it,” she says); original artwork and musical instruments, along with the books and CDs that are allowed. (Among the books were two children’s books in Spanish for granddaughter Julia, an eighth-grader studying the language.)

Barbara and Dick’s Cuban odyssey (Feb. 21-March 2) began when they flew from New York to Miami and checked into the Hilton Miami Airport hotel overnight. They were the only New Yorkers among the 11 American couples, that included two young doctors. The rest were senior citizens or at least AARP seniors. The next day, the group departed with Carin, the “dynamic” A&K tour guide, aboard a Sun Country Boeing 737-800 for the 40-minute flight to Santa Clara.

There they met Nilda, their “sweet,” multilingual Cuban guide and Yanni, the driver of their modern, made-in-China bus for the entire trip. At the “quaint fishing village” of Caibarién, the group went to a cultural center where children sang and danced. The days and nights were filled with such activities – a visit to a print shop with machinery dating from the 1880s to the 1940s; a sugar museum in a defunct sugar mill; and the house and art studio of Madelin Perez Noa, who exhibits in Miami as well.

In the town of Remedios, Dick tried a pedicab – pedaling Barbara and the cab’s driver down the road – and the group met Father Luis, a young Mexican Franciscan, at the cathedral there. Father Luis joined them the next morning for a baseball game, with Dick and some of the others taking turns at bat. Barbara cheered from the sidelines.

Cuba is a complex place, a poor country where the clock seems to have stopped in 1959, the year of the revolution, and yet a nation rich in culture – from baseball to ballet. Before leaving Santa Clara, the group went to a senior center to watch seniors perform the traditional Danzón, which they taught to the tourists. The seniors then followed the group to the beautiful Casa de la Cultura for a concert of Cuban music on antique instruments. This time, however, the tour group performed the dance while the seniors acted as judges. Barbara and Dick took first prize in this impromptu “Dancing With the Stars.”

Nor was it the only dance lesson on the tour. A few days later in Havana, the group had a salsa session on a rooftop patio amid the sunshine and sparkling water

“Thank goodness there were no prizes awarded for this endeavor,” Barbara wrote, “because while we were taking a salsa lesson, our teacher, Marie, taught us how to make a mojito, a popular drink with rum.” No wonder she adds, “We all looked pretty funny and had many laughs about it for days afterwards.”

In Havana, they visited the home of José Rodríguez Fuster – whose colorful tile figures, which decorate his neighborhood, have led him to be dubbed Cuba’s Antoni Gaudí. But they also got a taste of what politics has wrought in Old Havana, an exquisite ruin that is slowly being restored. With Cubans earning just $25 a month, the tourists left clothing and beauty supplies behind, in addition to making donations to a day care center run by Roman Catholic nuns.

Elsewhere Roman Catholicism melds with the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, which the group explored, along with the influence of slavery on the island, at the Museo Municipal de Guanabacoa.
History also played a role in their time at the Francisco Donatien Cigar Factory – where, alas, the visitors had to bypass the stogies in the gift shop – and at Finca Vigía, the home of Ernest Hemingway. There Barbara marveled at how well-preserved everything was – the shelves lined with books, the floors polished, the boat named Pilar out back near the pool where movie stars once romped.

The group’s last night in Havana was one Papa himself would’ve enjoyed. Members piled into “yank tanks,” or vintage cars – Barbara and Dick rode in a 1957 red Chevy convertible – for a trip back in time to the Art Deco-style Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in 1930, for some Cuban-style cabaret.

In the Cuban afterglow, Barbara and Dick are staying stateside for now, though Barbara’s wandering eye has alighted on the Amazon and Myanmar.

Wherever they go, two things will remain true. They’ll continue to reach out to others and they’ll never satisfy the baggage weight limit.

“We never learned to pack lightly,” Barbara says with a laugh.

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