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HAVANA -- Cuba assaults the senses. It did mine.

The combination of music, heat, energy, colors, people, art, car horns, insane drivers, food aromas, cigar smoke, potent rum, currency confusion and the political noise that make up the fabric of this fascinating country swirled like a salsa dancer in my head during the eight days I was there.

This whirlwind of emotions began even before I left Miami, at the check-in line for my Marazul charter flight to Havana, where I hooked up with my fellow travelers as we embarked on Insight Cuba's eight-day Classic Cuba people-to-people journey.

Next to my line was a quite different kind of queue. Long and slow-moving, it was filled with people toting a lot of baggage, much of it swathed in layers of plastic wrap: flat-screen TVs (I counted 11), lamps, cookware, bedding, computers and a large rattan birdcage.

It made for slow progress.

A vintage American car and a wall of graffiti art in Havana.Most of the passengers in that line were Cuban-Americans on their way to visit families, bringing with them items inaccessible and/or far too expensive for their relatives back on the island.

In Havana, at Jose Marti Airport, I saw the same items come off the baggage carousel and the joyous, emotional reunions that took place moments later when families reunited.

Our orientation session later that evening, after check-in at the Melia Cohiba, a glittering, modern structure that looked out of place overlooking the Malecon boulevard and seawall, found us tentative and hesitant at first.

Nine strangers, but all of us there for the same reason. Cuba had been on our bucket list. Years of red tape and successfully conquering a maze of U.S. Treasury Department rules and regulations for Insight Cuba and the dozens of other companies that now offer legal, licensed people-to-people programs had greased the skids for our arrival.

Insight pioneered the programs back in 2000, ran them until President George W. Bush shut them down in 2003 and reactivated them once the Obama administration reinstated them in 2011.

The Orquestra de Camara performed for our group in Cienfuegos.Insight has carried more than 8,000 curious Americans to this mysterious, complex country since the programs began.

Tom Popper, the company's president, described a visit to Cuba as "a real and raw experience. The Cuba bug bites me every time I go back. The lens changes. I see something new, I understand something better."

The regulations regarding people-to-people programs are very specific. We were not there to vacation or to run with the waves at Varadero on Cuba's north coast, where most of the stay-put, all-inclusive resorts are located and the destination for the bulk of Cuba's annual 2.9 million foreign visitors, many from Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

The condition under which we were allowed to travel to Cuba, was that we meet, greet, interact, interchange, talk, listen, participate in planned educational activities and communicate, often with hand gestures, smiles or grade-school Spanish phrases, with Cubans across all age groups, professions, jobs and venues.

Our group of nine set out to do just that, loosely shepherded by our Insight guide, Lisette, our local guide, Marlon, and our bus driver, Omar. Ours was a non-tourist itinerary, although it could be reasonably argued that the elements of life to which we were being exposed are the most rewarding aspects of any travel.

Ballerinas at the Pro Danza dance company in Havana.As we boarded the tour bus for our first foray, Marlon gave us a piece of advice that resonated all week: "Being here is magical. It is a combination of the First World and the Third World. Go with the flow. It all resolves itself one way or another. Be patient, a lo Cubano. It's OK. We do things the Cuban way."

Havana is a boisterous city, half in ruins, with deteriorating mansions and sputtering, finned 1950s-era cars that chug along the five-mile-long Malecon, which Marlon described as "the world's longest bench." But signs of private enterprise are popping up all over Havana, thanks to Raul Castro and his government's retreat from running just about everything on the Caribbean island.

One example is the rise of privately run restaurants known as paladares, where payment is in the Cuban convertible peso (CUC, pronounced "kook"), the currency used by tourists. The monetary unit used only by Cubans is the Cuban peso (CUP).

There are close to 2,000 paladares now operating in Cuba, with the bulk in Havana, as local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of social and economic reforms initiated by Raul Castro when he took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008.

Until that time, visitors were offered few culinary options other than the state-run restaurants with set menus and bland food or in paladares that were subjected to government regulations covering the number of seats, the hiring of employees and the type of food offered.

Things have improved noticeably since then.

Schoolchildren were just as curious about our group of Americans as we were about them.My group had lunches and dinners in many of the state-run eateries. We were pleasantly surprised with the surroundings, the presence of air conditioning and the menus.

Some venues were very ornate, like the Palacio del Valle in Cienfuegos, an ornate mansion that once served as a casino under Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista until he was removed by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Another treat was the French Union restaurant on Havana's fancy-mansion Fifth Avenue, which borders Lennon Park. In 2000, Fidel Castro unveiled a statue of the park's namesake, Beatle John Lennon, commenting that he agreed with the line engraved at the base of the statue from the song "Imagine": "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

The meals began with a mojito, always included rice and beans, steamed starchy root vegetables, some form of chicken, grilled fish or pork and a small salad. They were capped with an espresso and a bowl of delicious Cuban ice cream.

We were ever conscious that we were eating food in quantity and quality and at a price not available to most Cubans. In general, the abundance enjoyed by visitors to the island offers a striking contrast to what is not available or affordable to most Cubans.

More than 80% of Cubans work for the state. The average wage in most state jobs is set at $13 to $20 a month.

A typical street scene in Havana.Those in the private sector, which is expanding under Raul Castro's recent reforms, are paid in CUCs, and tips from tourists often supplement their salaries.

On a free evening in Havana, Insight gave each of us CUCs equal to approximately $20, supplied us with a list of paladares and sent us out on our own. We split into two groups. My group chose El Atelier (the word means "tailor"), a paladar within walking distance of the Melia.

We did get lost en route, and one Cuban tried to steer us to another restaurant, but a second group befriended us and walked us to the front door.

It was a warm evening with a full moon and a sultry breeze. We climbed stairs to the candlelit rooftop restaurant overlooking the neighborhoods of Havana. The paladar, which opened three years ago, serves about 100 guests a day at lunch and dinner combined.

The owner and his family live on the ground floor.

Our waiter, a man named Edy, told us he works four days a week and walks to work "because the bus breaks down, and I don't have a bike. I love it here. I meet all kinds of people."

That night we spotted two uniformed Israeli soldiers, a party of Germans and several tables of tourists from Canada.

A folk dancer in Trinidad, Cuba.Graham chose rabbit, Catherine dined on duck, Tanya ordered a Caribbean lobster, and I had a shredded beef dish called ropa vieja, which translates as "old clothes."


With wine and dessert, we each ran above our $20 worth of CUCs and gladly paid the difference, including a generous tip to Edy, who told us as we left, "I will see you in USA someday. Maybe."

Much of our itinerary in those eight days revolved around Cuban arts in all forms.

In between visiting senior centers, touring a polyclinic to see socialized medicine at work, driving through Havana's Colon Cemetery, talking with young chefs-in-training at a gastronomy project, stretching a few Cuban pesos at a farmers market, peering into the rooms of Hemingway's home and listening to a speaker at the Literacy Museum, we wended our way down cobblestoned streets in Havana, Cienfuegos (known as "the pearl of the south") and the colonial town of Trinidad to meet artists and graphic designers in their studios.

Two in my group sat at the pottery wheel of Azariel Santander Alcantara at his studio/home in Trinidad. We watched ballet rehearsals in sweaty, makeshift rehearsal halls in Havana, and we were pulled onto an open-air stage at Palenque de los Congo Reales in Trinidad to try and follow the steps of the fast, energetic dancers.

We enjoyed a chamber music performance in Cienfuegos and could not snap photos fast enough while visiting the community art project of artist Jose Fuster, who has transformed more than 80 homes in the fishing village of Jaimanitas on Havana's outskirts with ornate murals and domes.

"There is a treasure here," Marlon told us. "Our most important resource in Cuba is human resources, not tourism, and our artists are passionate and revered."

Azariel Santander Alcantera, a celebrated potter in Trinidad, Cuba.So, too, are children, who made us feel welcome at every encounter.

Though I love to dance, I'm not very good at it. It has to do with a sense of rhythm, or lack of it. Angela, "6, going on 7," picked up on that right away. She clutched my hand in the circle of young dancers and other bumbling adults at the La Colmenita (Little Beehive) Children's Theater one afternoon in Havana. Together, we managed a decent two-step to some form of Cuban salsa.

Angela hugged me at the end of our performance and again as our group left the dance studio, a non-air-conditioned room in a converted building in Old Havana.

She was one of 20 or so kids, ages 4 to 7, who show up at the theater every weekday after school, one of many after-school centers in Havana. The dance classes are free, as is the school that Angela attended every day and the university that she can later attend.

"We all have the right to learn," Marlon said. "We don't put aside a single person."

The director of a community center in Havana opens her doors at 7 a.m. each day so kids can get something to eat and have a place to go before school.

When they leave for school, the senior citizens arrive to spend the day.

"Our most important goal is to get the young and the elderly into places like this so we can help improve their standard of living," the director said. "Kids get a chance to see what they want to do, maybe as artists or dancers or musicians, and seniors can socialize and not feel lonely."

A work by sculptor and designer Jose Fuster.The services are free. So are education and medical services for all Cubans, regardless of income or lack of it.

Our overnight at Hotel Brisas del Mar, an all-inclusive resort on the beach in Trinidad, was an eye-opener, as well.

It's not fair to compare it to the over-the-top all-inclusives throughout the rest of the Caribbean because it does not match up in terms of service, accommodations or culinary appeal.

It was packed, however, with foreign tourists from Europe, South America and Canada.

One guest, from Canada's far north, told me it was her sixth visit.

"Have you seen anything else in Cuba?" I asked.

"No need," she answered. "Everything I want is here."

"You're missing a lot," I said, just as fire dancers entered a large courtyard to begin the evening show.

I talked to Marlon about it.

"We have been living in unending crises for years," he said. It's la lucha, the struggle, the way we know. We are glad for tourists. Some just want the beach. That is OK, because others, like you, have seen a slice of the real Cuba. You are the messengers. You will come back to see more."

I will.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.  


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