It’s been nearly a year since my last post…a particularly extended period for a budding blogger. But like most “leaves of absence” I am reinvigorated and committed to regularly authoring my thoughts on branded experiences.
To jumpstart posting, I’ve been thinking about the resiliency of sustained traditions, which are essentially branded occasions. One such tradition is taking an annual vacation–a time for purposely changing our routines to relax and enjoy new experiences. Recently, we had the opportunity to do just that by vacationing in Cuba through my husband’s college alumni association. As you know, Americans visiting Cuba must comply with itineraries that include certain cultural interactions. Sanctioned group tours offer the most turnkey option.
I will admit to a longtime fascination with Cuba, fueled by its revolutionary history and proximity to the U.S., as well as the popular Buena Vista Social Club documentary and my own Caribbean roots. I was unsure what to expect besides hot weather, some ideological commentary and salsa music. Additionally, group travel was a novel experience, as we’ve always preferred to set our own itineraries and travel independently.
Our group numbered just 13 travelers, which kept us less conspicuous and facilitated smooth movements. As well, the sightseeing/cultural itinerary was sufficiently varied and provided us with a reasonable transparency as we discovered Cuba and its citizens.
Unsurprisingly, politics has hampered their economic stability and substantially contributed to deteriorating infrastructures. We learned, for example, that three buildings collapse each day in Havana (or “La Habana” as its known locally). In spite of free education and healthcare, many struggle to feed their families and coexist among neighbors whose lifestyles are subsidized by friends and family who have fled the island.
More recently, the government has permitted certain businesses to launch outside of state-run organizations. These bed & breakfasts and home-based restaurants or “paladars” are obliged to remit substantial portions of their revenues to the government, but they exemplify the Cuban resiliency and creativity. And frankly, the meals we enjoyed at these family paladars were significantly better than those served in the more prevalent state-run restaurants.
You’re likely familiar with one of their national drinks—a lime-infused rum and coke known as the Cube Libre—or Free Cuba. Our arranged meal providers always offered a “welcome drink” of mojitos or Cuba Libres. The irony of this titling is not lost on anyone—locals or tourists alike. As vacationers, we wanted to believe that it perhaps symbolized the triumph of the human spirit over state ideologies. Or maybe just saying those words keeps optimism afloat during these otherwise difficult times.
After a week of touring, we left Cuba saddened about their near-term prospects but hopeful that over time, the locals will have expanded opportunities to engage in free-market experiments like the paladars. In the meantime, consider the deep value of our vacation traditions. I hope your summer features some downtime and hopefully you can unwind while expanding your mind.