Traveller interview: Alison McPhillips, on a small group tour of Cuba

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Cuban street
Cuban street. (Photo by Balint Foldesi)

What made you want to go to Cuba?
It was actually my friend Helen who had talked about it for a number of years, and kept saying she really wanted to go to Cuba. Sheís 50 next year, so she said Ė letís just book it, and we did! It was just me and Helen going, and it really was a great trip.

Had you done a small group tour before?
I had done other small groups before, and in fact it was a conscious decision to do a small group tour, so that you would get to meet other people doing something similar. We had looked at doing it independently because Cuba is quite easy to navigate around, but we just thought it would be nice to experience it with other people. We had a great group, predominantly Australians, and so it was great fun.

What is the most useful thing you packed?
The most useful thing that I packed was actually my smart phone, because there was limited access to phone calls or internet access, and so having the freedom to access the internet when you got to an internet square or hotel that had it, meant that we could communicate with home. And having an 11-year-old and other kids at home, I did want to make sure my husband was feeding them!

Did you pack anything you didnít need?
I took water sterilisation tablets but you donít really need to as on the trip they provided bottled water on the bus in a big bottle from which you could fill up your own bottle. My friend was ill when she was there, and I think she wished she had packed more Dioralyte! I was absolutely fine, thankfully.

Did you learn or use any of the local language?
I had done a year of Spanish at university, but Cuban Spanish is way different. We did learn some bits and it is nice to be able to say please and thank you at a minimum, isnít it? That and a smile will get you most things anywhere! And local people definitively appreciated us making the effort.

What is your favourite souvenir/present?
Probably the rum we brought home! I had never had a mojito before, and I thought I am here and had to try one. My sister, who has also been to Cuba, and I are planning to do a Cuban evening with the rum when she next comes down. We will do the whole thing, with mojitos, rice and beans, coffee and everything and have a bit of a laugh.

Havana Club
Havana Club. (Photo by advencap )

Were your preconceptions very different from reality?
Yes, I thought it would be much poorer, and there didnít seem to be extreme poverty. It isnít a rich country but people didnít seem to be starving. Some houses were better than others but they all looked like decent accommodations. Obviously things are still in short supply, but were much more freely available, from talking to people, than during the American embargo, when you couldnít buy toothpaste, soap or shampoo. But now it is available.

Where was your best sleep?
It was probably the first night in the casa in Havana. It was an amazing house with a grand piano when you walked in, and an old 1950s car outside. The lady who runs it is called Natty, and it was just a really nice introduction and felt like a stereotypical image of what I thought Cuba would be.

What did you think was going to be hard that turned about to be ok?
I think just getting on with people in the group, as of course I had concerns about how the group dynamics were going to work. I am in my late 40s so I was hoping it wasnít going to be a bunch of 20-year-olds, but it wasnít at all. It was a really great good mix, and we got on fantastically well as a group. I think that was one of the highlights of the trip. One of the things that Helen and I wanted to do was the catamaran trip, as an extra excursion, across the bay from Trinidad. And after we booked it, everyone decided to come too, so the whole group stayed together even on the free day because we go on so well! In fact, one of the Australian girls who was on a round the world trip has already been to stay with us when she was visiting London.

Catamaran. (Photo by Patrick Nouhailler)

Did you have a scary moment?
No nothing at all, well apart from the taxi drivers in Havana. When we took the taxi to the airport back to Havana, the state of the vehicle was interesting! We didnít think we would actually get to the airport at one point, with its belching smoke and all the windows that didnít wind up. And then it started raining and it was just hilarious. We were on the freeway and he couldnít pull over to fix the windows, but eventually he did and just put the window back in place with his hands! But all that was what we expected really and so it just added to the adventure.

Was there one local person that you met whom you will always remember?
It was probably our driver who was absolutely hilarious. He was called Che Lenin, as in Che Guevara, and he was just really nice. I think he spoke better English than he let on, but he was just really nice, a kind guy and always smiling and funny.

And what did he think of all this tourism happening all of a sudden in Cuba?
Well, I think they were quite politically guarded in their comments. We were asking them questions, but he and the guide were quite on script for their answers. So that was quite interesting. But they value the tourists and all the money that is being brought in. But it would be interesting to ask them the same question in ten yearsí time.

Any other big moments on the trip you want to share?
For Helen and me it was just really lovely to get away from the kids, and remember what it was like to be someone other than just someoneís mum or someoneís wife, or the person that I am at the hospital where I work. It was just really nice being there and meeting people who just meet you, and donít have preconceptions about who you are or what you are. That for me was really nice.

Anything you wouldnít recommend about the places you visited? Maybe something that is a bit overrated in your opinion?
The only thing that slightly bothered me was when the meals were included, we tended to have the same meal every time. The food was fine, but you went to the same sort of place and you had your rice, or your chicken or beef, and it was basically the same set meal. And yet there would be a lovely tapas bar across the road, and I sort of thought, why canít we go there? So, that was the only downside to the group thing, and of course I get that they probably pre-booked it because there were 12 of us. But that was my only niggle really. Of course there were plenty of times when we did eat independently, but when we were having a group meal, I did think we could actually split into two groups and spread the money around.

How about underrated, in that it was a pleasant surprise?
I went with really low expectations because it wasnít really somewhere I had ever wanted to go to, and I thought it would just be another Caribbean island. But actually it really is a hidden gem, and so much more than I thought it would be. And so it is somewhere I would recommend, before it changes. Helen and I both have daughters of the same age, and we were thinking we would like to take them back in six or seven yearsí time so we can see how much it has changed, and they can experience it for the first time.

What is your favourite photograph?
It would probably be on the catamaran. There is a photo just of the group of us with our feet all dangling over the edge of the boat. And it is just really nice.

And finally, has this trip influenced where you would like to go next?
The Cuban trip has made me realise that I like travelling as myself, rather than as part of the family package! So I would like to do some more trips like that, either by myself or with Helen. This trip has given me the confidence to do that again. That Cuban trip would have been my husbandís idea of hell! He likes five star hotels, he likes to know exactly what heís doing, and he likes to research exactly where he is going to eat. But he is really supportive and says, ĎJust go. Iíll look after the kids and just goí. So this trip has definitely made me a bit more adventurous again, and go off and do some things just for me. And be a bit selfish. So that is quite nice.

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Written by Catherine Mack
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