DES­TI­NA­TION CUBA

Your sum­mer travel pass­port to Cuba, Costa Rica and nearby gat­aways all in­side

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

“I hope peo­ple get a chance to go be­fore it gets Dis­ney­fied or Star­bucksed, be­cause it was re­ally kind of spe­cial to be in a place where there was ab­so­lutely noth­ing fa­mil­iar. I re­ally re­ally loved that as­pect of it, it was re­ally amaz­ing. I hope that peo­ple go be­fore ev­ery­body else moves in and starts tak­ing over.” — Grayson Tha­gard, At­lanta res­i­dent who vis­ited Cuba last Jan­uary with his hus­band

Last Jan­uary, Pres­i­dent Obama made the his­toric an­nounce­ment that light­ened the re­stric­tions on U.S. cit­i­zens trav­el­ing to Cuba. It im­me­di­ately led to Amer­i­cans dream­ing of strolling the cob­ble­stone streets among vin­tage cars and vi­brantly col­ored build­ings, or re­lax­ing with a cock­tail on one of the many gor­geous beaches.

But lost in the shuf­fle of that an­nounce­ment was a re­main­ing fact—tourist travel to Cuba is still not au­tho­rized by cur­rent U.S. law. But there are ways around that fact to make some of those Cuban day­dreams come true.

There are 12 cat­e­gories of peo­ple who may visit Cuba with­out vi­o­lat­ing the travel re­stric­tions. They in­clude fam­ily vis­its, pro­fes­sional re­search and pro­fes­sional meet­ings, re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties, pub­lic per­for­mances and more. But one of those cat­e­gories is be­ing used most of­ten by peo­ple and tour com­pa­nies to get around the tourism ban—ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties.

“It’s a tour that’s care­fully crafted so that you will be in­tro­duced to the cul­ture,” says Jo Gi­raudo, De­catur res­i­dent and owner of In­sider Trav­eler. “They keep you busy dur­ing the day and you’ll be taken around to all of the hot spots but it’s un­der the guise of ed­u­ca­tional ex­change ac­tiv­i­ties.”

And as a bonus, you’ll still get a chance to hit up the beaches or night­clubs in-be­tween the ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties.

Pres­i­dent’s niece takes lead on LGBT rights

This is in the Caribbean though, where sev­eral anti-LGBT coun­tries call home—Ja­maica be­ing pos­si­bly the worst of the bunch. So what can LGBT trav­el­ers ex­pect?

While same-sex mar­riage is banned in Cuba, there are em­ploy­ment pro­tec­tions cov­er­ing sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion (but not gen­der iden­tity), and the gen­eral pub­lic’s at­ti­tudes have rapidly im­proved in re­cent years.

In 2010, for­mer Pres­i­dent Fidel Cas­tro took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the per­se­cu­tion of gay Cubans and urged peo­ple to ac­cept the com­mu­nity. He might have had a lit­tle push from his niece, Mariela Cas­tro, daugh­ter of cur­rent Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro. Mariela is a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, the di­rec­tor of the Cuban Na­tional Cen­ter for Sex Ed­u­ca­tion and has been an LGBT rights cham­pion for years, even propos­ing and se­cur­ing pas­sage of a law in 2008 that al­lowed trans­gen­der Cubans to have gen­der af­fir­ma­tion surgery free of charge. And yes, there is an an­nual Pride cel­e­bra­tion with pa­rade in­cluded that’s tak­ing place this month.

At­lanta res­i­dent Grayson Tha­gard vis­ited Cuba with his hus­band, Martin Dun­lap, Cuba’s an­nual Pride cel­e­bra­tion takes place this month in Ha­vana, with Mariela Cas­tro sure to at­tend. (Photo via Face­book) last Jan­uary, just af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama’s an­nounce­ment about eas­ing travel re­stric­tions.

While he says that the ho­tels they stayed in al­ways put two beds in the room in­stead of one, Tha­gard ex­plains, “I don’t know if they did that be­cause it was two male names and they as­sumed. Other than that, there was re­ally no is­sue. We’re not a big PDA cou­ple, so that wasn’t a re­ally big is­sue for us. We didn’t see any rain­bow flags any­where but I didn’t feel threat­ened in any way, shape or form. I didn’t feel like peo­ple were look­ing at us strangely or any­thing.”

Gi­raud con­curs, say­ing, “There’s no LGBT is­sues. It’s com­fort­able, it’s wel­com­ing. I think they’re fig­ur­ing it out at the same time that ev­ery­one else is fig­ur­ing it out. It’s not a big deal.”

Can’t miss cities and beaches

Once you get to Cuba, there is more than enough to ex­plore and Gi­raud says you should be able to check out most of the is­land on a week-long trip.

Old Ha­vana is a must-see and is ev­ery­thing you imag­ine when you think of Cuba. But don’t for­get the beaches. Head east from Ha­vana to Va­radero Beach, prob­a­bly the most fa­mous of them all with the white sand giv­ing way to crys­tal clear water. And there’s even a na­ture re­serve and caves to ex­plore while you’re there.

The town of Trinidad al­ways lands on “Best of ” lists, with tourists (we’re sorry, we meant “ed­u­ca­tion en­thu­si­asts”) soak­ing up the am­biance in Plaza Mayor, the city’s cen­tral square, and ad­mir­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture that dates back hun­dreds of years.

“It’s amaz­ing,” Tha­gard says of Trinidad. “It’s all low-rise build­ings ex­cept for one or two big tow­ers, and cob­ble­stone streets and tile roofs as far as the eye can see.”

Be aware though that your chances of doc­u­ment­ing your Cuban ex­pe­ri­ence in real time on so­cial me­dia might be slim. The cel­lu­lar and wifi net­works are spotty at best and Gi­raud says it will take awhile for the coun­try’s in­fras­truc­ture to im­prove now that the travel re­stric­tions have been eased. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“That was the big­gest change—be­ing com­pletely dis­con­nected from the grid, and it was re­ally kind of nice,” says Tha­gard. “We couldn’t rush home from the day and upload a bunch of pic­tures to Face­book, we just had to en­joy our time there and find things to do.”

If you’re think­ing of wait­ing for that in­fras­truc­ture to catch up to modern times, maybe give it a sec­ond thought. Things are be­gin­ning to change and you might pre­fer see­ing Old Cuba in its nat­u­ral, un­touched cur­rent state.

“I hope peo­ple get a chance to go be­fore it gets Dis­ney­fied or Star­bucksed, be­cause it was re­ally kind of spe­cial to be in a place where there was ab­so­lutely noth­ing fa­mil­iar,” Tha­gard says. “I re­ally re­ally loved that as­pect of it, it was re­ally amaz­ing. I hope that peo­ple go be­fore ev­ery­body else moves in and starts tak­ing over.”

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