I'm so fortunate. I've been to Cuba four times between 1998 and 2015.
The first two trips in 1998 and 2003 were industry events, held in Havana and attended by U.S. trade officials and tour operators. Dozens of Cuban "minders" choreographed our every move, which did include, between meetings, a ride in a turquoise '57 Chevy convertible, two overnights at the famous Nacional Hotel and a front-row seat at the Tropicana nightclub show.
The second trip included a three-hour speech by Fidel Castro in a large meeting room. He addressed a group of foreign press, and he spoke without notes, allowed no photos and finally acknowledged through his translator that we were probably hungry. He left the meeting room abruptly around 11 p.m., but not before I managed to hand him a copy of Travel Weekly.
On both trips, I traveled on a journalist visa and any opportunities to talk and mingle with the Cuban people were minimal.
But the second two trips were people-to-people tours, forays into the Cuba that I have come to love. The first in 2013 was with InsightCuba on its Classic Cuba program, one of several in its Cuba portfolio at the time.
On the second trip in 2015 I accompanied a group of travel agents on Friendly Planet's six-night Highlights of Havana & Varadero itinerary.
(For both, even though I traveled with the tour and participated in all the tour events like a paying traveler, I traveled on a press visa issued by the Cuban Special Interest Section in Washington and carried a laminated card from the International Press Center in Havana approving my assignments; this enabled me to write about my experiences for Travel Weekly.)
Both trips far exceeded my expectations in terms of opportunities to meet, mingle, witness, observe and participate in Cuban life with the Cuban people.
Each trip followed a fast-paced strict itinerary of activities that met all the people-to-people requirements, and I did interact with Cubans across a broad spectrum of ages and professions, including (but not limited to) farmers, dancers and artists, musicians, fashion designers, professors, museum directors, bartenders, chefs, students, kids at a day care center, handymen, gardeners, street-food vendors, tailors, busboys, taxi drivers in their bright yellow coco cabs, nurses, tour guides and tobacco growers.
I bought a small bag of mani molido (ground peanuts) from a Cuban man astride a donkey on a side street in Havana and visited a farmers market to buy vegetables I'd never seen before; toured the Corona cigar factory in Havana whose factory floors resembled a sweatshop from the 1920s and whose 625 employees were paid $20 a month; sat on the sea wall along the Malecon on a warm night with couples, families and amateur musicians.
By gesture and a bit of English, one young man told me on the Malecon that "this is free. This is where we have our fun, and we sing and we talk."
I visited a local bodega at Las Terrazas, a countryside community outside Havana founded by local farmers after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Cubans living there shop for basic foods using the quotas in their subsidized ration books.
What I saw was a minimal inventory of eggs, bread, rice, beans and root vegetables. Every Cuban has a ration book, and those who can afford to supplement the basics shop at other stores where more foods are available.
I stopped in at a senior center where the trio of elderly ladies sitting on a couch gratefully accepted donations of soap and shampoo. They touched my earrings and my hair, and one told me to "stay young." At least I think that's what she said. I said that I would.
The people I met made do, they created, innovated and took what they had been dealt and dealt with it. One paper-making artist I met used an antiquated, Russian-made washing machine to wring out scraps of used typing paper mashed into pulp that he then strained through a piece of screen from an old door.
"I put the remains between rags and hang it up to dry. Then I have papers, and I can paint birds," he said.
I had an hour on a beach in Varadero late one afternoon and met two Canadians who said they loved visiting Cuba.
"What other places have you visited besides Varadero?" I asked.
"Just here, This is Cuba. This is all we want," one of them answered.
The author in Havana, Cuba, in 2015.
Not for me, not ever.
Although people-to-people Cuba travel now is banned, travel under the category of support for the Cuban people is not, for now, and many of the requirements for that category mirror those in the people-to-people programs.
In the support for the Cuban people category, accommodations must be in rented accommodations in a private residence, meals must be taken at privately owned Cuban restaurants and purchases must be done at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans.
I'm hopeful that the spread of Airbnbs and other forms of private housing as well as the growth spurt of the small family-run restaurants known as paladores has opened up opportunities for the Cuban entrepreneurs whose spirit and ingenuity seem boundless.
Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet, said it well last week. "We will always find a legal way to bring people to the amazing destination of Cuba," she said. "We will modify our programs to conform with other licenses that make travel possible. Our travel program is not about sun tanning, but rather a deeply immersive experience with homestays and the majority of meals in paladores.
"It's about forming a deep connection with the Cuban people, and our travel is always planned with the betterment of the destination at its core We're not giving up on Cuba, and we don't think anyone else should either."