A ‘TRAVELZOO’ Cuba recommendation, with a side of an Italian Cultural experience. Do as the Romans Do!

To have a successful trip when visiting an unknown destination, especially one of a foreign language, research is absolutely required, and also a mind set of ‘Do as the Romans do!”

For example, one of the current TRAVELZOO top 20 deals is to Cuba.  In a nut shell, it is one night in Miami, three nights in Havannah, including most meals, with an English speakicubang travel guide, air fare, and various sites to visit.

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My thoughts are, first and foremost, if one must have an English speaking guide.. for a three day tour, it smells like tourists.  From a Cuban’s standpoint, how much is a tourist, someone who doesn’t even care to try to speak to us, really want to know about us?

1:  If one travels to another country, not willing to try to speak the native language, the experience is not going to be the most authentic.  It may be a rewarding experience to simply see sites and visit an unknown land, but the treatment received by the locals will be one of treatment; not hospitality.  For example; if someone comes to visit your home, and does not take the opportunity to show respect for the language spoken in your home, how does that change the way in which you approach that person?  It immediately stages a barrier.  The effort is completely on the host/hostess, and the effort indeed becomes work, unappreciatively.  I cannot tell you how many places I have visited that, simply by purchasing a 4X3 translation guide-English to French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc.,  my experiences in the hospitality of each and every country have been those of absolute pleasantries and more.

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An example:  My first trip to Italy, was with a group of great, long time friends who were well traveled, except one.  He was a wonderful man, albeit a pompous and arrogant man, with a very deep voice which could be heard by all  (I loved the guy, but …).  Our very first dinner, in a very small region outside of Milan, was in a quaint and charming Villa which served dinner in an area adorned with Italian exquisite simplicities, personal services, and a wine showing that in and of itself was so enticing that the Italian menu had no significance.  We knew it would be a first impression never to forget.

wine-grapesAnd then; first I must digress and explain the wine showing so you ‘feel’ as much of this experience as possible:  Once we decided on the first bottle of red wine; one made from the grapes from the very harvest of the region we were staying, and upon the suggestion of the Italian server, one glass for each of us (the Italian version of the Riedel Cabernet; the big beautiful bowl of very thin glass that hums when full; no expense spared here), plus one wine glass for the server, was placed ever so dramatically in the center of the long oak table which was draped ever so seductively in chianti colored linens with white roses and white lace place cards, created the perfect setting for the very enchanting singing server while he poured a good size swallow into the first glass; then from the first glass he poured the swallow into each glass, and after the final pouring into the ninth glass, he saluted to us all, offered an Italian prayer, then elegantly cherished  the wine, swirling it around his tongue before a long and almost orgasmic finish, then held the bottle up for us all to cheer.  And we did.

The wine was beyond our expectations, and the presentation set our first night of Italian splendor into a delightful camaraderie of jubilation over what was next to come… and then..

(I’ll simply call him Mr.) Mr. decided he needed to have the server, the lone Italian-speaking-server for our table of eight,  explain each and every item on the menu, from the first plates all the way through the fifth plates, (In this region, the Italians eat the pasta as the first plate, then on to other dishes, before the salad to cleanse the palate before the main plate depending on the restaurant) in as much English as the server could muster.  Talk about dampening the mood, letting the air out of the tires, and anything but curtailing the ever-forever Americans’ reputation for being closed minded and lazy!  My hopes were that one his fellow male friends would cease his selfish manner and allow the Italian server to work his magic.  In seeing no hopes of this happening any time soon, I finally whispered, “We will eat again tomorrow, so starving is not an option; and by the end of the trip, you will know what the menu items are in the ever so romantic Italian utterances and you will depart Italy much more cultured for having put your trust into ‘doing as the Romans do”.  He looked around at his table mates who eagerly were awaiting their first plate and realized this wasn’t about an American who had not done his homework.  It is one meal.

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What can go wrong in a cucina where the only food that is served is grown outside in the very vivacious and aromatic gardens we walked through to enter, by a chef who has been cooking specialties from her backyard her entire life, and who has earned a five star rating in doing so?  Please, make us Americans look good and appreciate the culture you are visiting, I prayed!

Needless to say, it was one of the best meals of my life.  I, after dinner, excused myself to find my ‘itsy bitsy ‘Italian restaurant dictionary’ and I shared it with the Mr. over a simply beautiful glass of port on the terrazzo.  When I left for my room, he was still pronouncing each word over and over as he advanced down the page, repeating the English meaning in hopes of recognizing a few things on the menu tomorrow, and to be more of a world traveler instead of a tourist.  That was the last of an ordering debacle during our ten day trip.  Thank God.

In short:  To do a trip to Cuba without showing respect to learn at least ten of their most important words, and to only visit the busiest parts of Cuba, is very limiting and unrealistic.  Cuba and the Cubans have so much more to offer.

Thought #2:   To explore Cuba, one must explore Havannah, and elsewhere in Cuba.

Kuba 2003Sea-Cliffs-Varadero-Cuba Imagine someone coming to the U.S. and spending one day in Time Square, one day in L.A.’s Chinatown, one day in Chicago, and one day in Philadelphia.  Would that be a cultural realization of the U.S.?  Not even close!

havana-attractions-habanaviejaI would highly recommend researching all of Cuba and what is truly needed for an authentic cultural experience.  Playa Giron (not known there for the bay of pigs!), Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, San Francisco de Paula, and Santa Clara, to start.  Research places from the Cuban stand point!  What if you only went to Play Giron for the ‘bay of pigs’ history, only to learn that to the Cubans, the ‘bay of pigs’ story is just one point in time.  To the Cubans, Play Giron is one of the most beautiful beaches where Cubans spend their holidays to relax and enjoy their own country’s God given beauty.

Another thought:  Hire a driver!

On a trip to Bogota, I hired a driver on the recommendation of native friends.  (Another story all together, but at the end of the trip we were finally told that he was Secrity Guard turned Dance Partner
more than a driver, he was a security agent!).  Any way, the week of his services, all day every day, was $500.  His car, his gas, his native experience, his insurance, a dancing partner at times, our personal tour guide as long as we did our best to communicate in Spanish, and a history and personal perspective we could never have gotten from a guide for a couple of hours a day, was worth wayyyy more than $500!!!  And, I was on a tight budget!

This trip, via TRAVELZOO to Cuba, is not one I would recommend.  At $1500 +, the experience will be a fraction of what could be experienced in ‘real’ Cuba, with appreciation from both cultures of the experience.  I am not one to review anything that I feel will end up with a ‘downer’ perspective.  But, I feel there is such an awarding, educational, and enriching experience in traveling that I do hate to see anyone spend money that could be better spent.

I always come home with names and numbers of friends I’ve met from abroad, and I know they will contact me when their time to visit me, or any destination in the U.S. is on their agenda, for my guidance.  I am always excited to reach out to make it the best adventure possible for them!  Always!  It is so rewarding to share our beautiful country with those seeking ‘our’ experience, and they too, anticipate sharing their ‘world’ with us.

I have gone on several TRAVELZOO trips and have never been disappointed!  Some of them have literally saved me thousands of dollars, and have allowed me the opportunity to visit places that I could not have afforded to without their discount.  It is simply a matter of research, and when possible, reaching out to learn from someone who has already shared the experience, but, someone who is a traveler, not just a tourist!

Visit http://www.travelzoo.com for the weekly top 20, and more!

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