90 Miles to Cuba

The Cuban flag blowing in the wind.

Last year, when President Obama made the landmark decision to lift the nearly 60-year U.S.-Cuba trade embargo and open the proverbial gates to Cuba for educational travel, it was a dream-come-true for me. I immediately booked a people-to-people trip and high tailed it back to the future to gain an authentic Cuban experience.

View of Havana’s skyline from the Malecon.

I arrived a day before my people-to-people trip was scheduled to begin so I can take in Havana at my own pace. The first stop on my itinerary was the Malecon, a 5-mile waterfront sidewalk along the Caribbean Sea. After spending the first 27 years of my life being baked the color of milk chocolate by Florida’s blazing sun, I was convinced that I was a certified hot weather pro. Despite facing the Midwest’s harsh winters for the past 10 years or so, I figured going back to 90-degree mid-day weather would be like riding a bike.

Well, let me tell you: the devil is a lie!

The very spot where I thought I was going to take my last rites after being in the Cuban sun for 15 minutes.

After just 15 minutes of walking along the Malecon in nothing more than a tank top, denim shorts and Chuck Taylors, I nearly passed out with the beautiful Caribbean Sea to my left and stray dogs to my right. I could not believe what was happening to me. The sun assaulted me, stole all of the moisture from my body, and left me ashy, thirsty and gasping for air. At that moment, I truly believed that after just a few hours in Havana, the one-two punch of sun and heat was going to be my grim reaper.

But, like any tourist who underestimates the ferocity of the Cuban sun, mental promises of Havana Club rum and plantains became my will to live. So, I pushed through the heat exhaustion and thirst that had me tied up in its kung fu grip.

Just when I was on the brink of accepting that rum and fruit were no longer my salvation, I saw what looked to be a huge 4 or 5 story building in the distance. Was it really a place that I could retreat from the heat or was my mind playing tricks on me? I mustered my last bit of strength, quickened my pace and behold — it was a mall!

MVP of the day: the rum and pineapple juice that saved my life!

I entered the mall and feverishly looked for an elevator or escalator to transport me the Jazz Café, a restaurant that was located on the top floor. To my dismay, there were no electronically powered transportation devices — the mall only had stairs. With libations and food within reach, step-by-step, I made my way to Jazz Café where I happily hydrated myself with water and rum and filled my belly with a ham and cheese sandwich as if it was my last meal. After enjoying my meal, I took a moment to sit back and enjoy the Malecon from the air conditioned restaurant.

Welcome to Havana!

*90 Miles to Cuba is the first of a six-part series about my travels to Cuba.