Obama visit was icing on Basalt woman’s Cuba trip | AspenTimes.com

Obama visit was icing on Basalt woman’s Cuba trip

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Janie Bennett of Basalt hangs in one of the classic cars of Cuba during a trip in March.
Courtesy photo |

Janie Bennett of Basalt visited Cuba last month for the music, for the wonder of experiencing a mysterious place and to meet new people. Witnessing the country’s reaction to President Barack Obama’s visit ended up being a very cool bonus.

Bennett, who was in Cuba from March 8 to 22, said the people she saw in Havana during the historic presidential visit were awestruck. It was the first visit by a U.S. president since 1928. The U.S. imposed sanctions and diplomatic isolation on Cuba 50 years ago.

The historical significance wasn’t lost on the Cubans whom Bennett spoke to.

“‘This is like a dream,’” Bennett said her small group’s guide of six days told them.

“Watching Cubans walk through life — they’re walking to music.”Janie Bennett

Havana went into hyperdrive to prepare for the event. Construction equipment tore up the street to prepare for fresh cement in front of the Capitol. Residents, who don’t have much discretionary income, were given incentives to spruce up their property.

“They were handing out buckets of paint for free,” Bennett said.

She said she didn’t question anyone in-depth about political views regarding U.S.-Cuba relations, but it was apparent that many people in Havana welcomed Obama.

“I thought it might be under the radar a little bit,” she said. Not so.

A surprise stop

The streets were abandoned and families were inside their homes glued to their televisions the Sunday afternoon Obama arrived.

Bennett and Karinjo DeVore of Aspen, one of her traveling companions for part of the trip, learned firsthand how Obama’s trip enthralled Cubans. Their rickshaw-like carriage crashed in a narrow street when the cyclist hauling them swerved to miss a pothole. They were sent sprawling in the accident, and DeVore literally flew through the front door of a house saddled right up to the street.

The family tore themselves away from the coverage of Obama’s arrival at the Cathedral in Old Havana and tended to the women’s injuries.

Bennett said she was impressed by the openness and welcoming nature of Cubans wherever she traveled. She avoided hotels, which are mostly still run by the government, and stayed with families in “casa particulars” while visiting Havana and a region called Vinales. The casas are similar to bed-and-breakfasts although strictly regulated by the Cuban government. They help Cubans make extra money from tourism.

Probably the most memorable visit was at the home of a 78-year-old Cuban whose house featured antique furniture and china in his family for generations. He was a no-nonsense host who clearly expected them to act as guests in his home.

“He was very proud, and he also had a bit of edginess about him,” Bennett said.

He spoke no English and had a very stoic look while watching TV coverage of Obama’s visit.

“I really couldn’t tell if he was elated or angry,” she said.

When their guide asked him his thoughts, their elderly host made it clear he was pleased, Bennett said. He was overjoyed and moved to tears when she gave him a small American flag. He promptly placed it on a place of prominence on his refrigerator.

Burgeoning restaurant scene

Bennett’s trip benefited from the advance work of some friends. They meticulously scouted some of the standout restaurants in an industry still swamped with mediocrity.

Bennett said there isn’t enough wealth for people to get creative, so a lot of Cuban food is bland. That’s changing as the government allows privatization of restaurants, she said, and there’s even a blossoming farm-to-fork movement. Her favorite restaurant was probably La Guarida in Havana, she said, because its stunning setting added so much to the experience. The restaurant, rated 4.5 stars out of 5 on Trip Advisor, is located in a well-worn, white stone building that looks like it has patiently and elegantly waited out some tough times. “You feel like you are walking into what was a spectacular building in its heyday,” Bennett said.

She and her group knew they were in the right place when they were seated next to the White House advance team.

The group encountered a lot of tourists from Europe, South America, Mexico and Africa, giving the trip cosmopolitan flair.

Music lover’s dream

Visiting Cuba is a music lover’s dream, Bennett said. Her love of Cuban music was one of the star attractions for her. She started her trip by meeting friends from her native Australia. They were delighted to hear music drifting out of cafes early in the morning and cascading from bars and clubs at night. It was easy to imagine that the music never stopped, she said.

“I had one person tell me, ‘Janie, we Cubans, we dance before we walk,’” she said.

She’s convinced.

“Watching Cubans walk through life — they’re walking to music,” she said.

They’re also engaged and paying attention to one another, she noted. She found it refreshing to see a culture that isn’t constantly checking messages on a smartphone or using a device to post something to their Facebook page. They are in the present — though it remains to be seen if that will continue.

Fitting final experience

While the impact of Obama’s trip was evident enough, a final experience made a lasting impression on Bennett. On the day she departed, her commercial flight waited a considerable time before the pilot announced that everyone had to get off and return to the terminal.

It turns out the president’s plane was preparing to depart and had obvious preference on the lone runway. The passengers took it all in stride, Bennett said, and she was glad she ended up back in the terminal to witness what unfolded. As Air Force One roared down the runway, everyone ran to one side of the terminal. Faces were pressed against the glass, cameras were clicking. and some people were crying, according to Bennett.

“There was electricity in the air,” she said.