Note: In early October, Paul and I went to Cuba on an “approved” week-long tour in Cienfuegos and Havana with 16 other US travelers. The US government requires travelers on these “People-to-People” trips to record a journal, and keep it for five years. These posts are drawn from my journal.

Friday: the first half-day sets the pace

Shrink-wrap is a big business in the Miami airport.

In the next line from ours, people check great bags and boxes of goods—TVs, microwave ovens, crates of toothpaste, clothing, just about anything that will fit on an airplane—all of it bound in layers and layers of plastic film, which was dispensed at wrapping stations located in front of the ticket counters. The shrink-wrap holds the bundles together, and makes them harder for light fingers to open here, and on the other side of the 90-mile strip of ocean that separates Miami from the lizard-shaped island of Cuba.

Canadians were the most frequent tourists to Cuba until 2011. Then, President Obama announced that Cuban-Americans could travel at will to the island to visit family. Furthermore, there would be no restriction on the amount of “gifts” they brought with them.

Now, the greatest percentage of visitors to Cuba are ex-Cubans and their offspring.

Our plane belongs to a charter company, but it’s a 737—three seats across on each side of the aisle. It can pack a lot of stuff in the hold. At two dollars per pound over the accepted 44-pounds-per-person baggage limit, it’s cheaper for travelers to bring this stuff into Cuba than to send it—and far more likely that it’ll make the trip intact.

These “gifts” are not taxed on the Cuban side. Perhaps the Cuban government hasn’t figured out how to do it without stepping on the delicate new tendrils of rapprochement between our two countries. Or perhaps they feel it’s easier to accept the shadow economy this largesse creates, than to boost the economy they’ve created so Cubans can live on their salaries.

The trip from Miama to Cienfuegos takes less than an hour. Two young women in white shirts and short black skirts welcome our group to the Jaime Gonzalez Aeropuerto Internacional. Heidi, our US group leader, introduces Ariadna as our Cuban guide; Claudia is in training. Her role, so far as I can tell, is to look young and lovely and chomp her chewing gum.

We all file onto the bus.

The bus is a hulking, modern Chinese-made wonder with cushy seats and a bathroom. Our driver, Yacton, zips us through the outskirts of the city, past both plain and ornate homes, most paint-faded and peeling, roofs weathered and occasionally falling in. Ariadna says they are owned by the families living in them.

Can they sell the houses? someone asks. Ariadna says they can, but that this is new.

Here, we pass an old, graceful Colonial palace, now a hotel; there, a boxy high-rise, the ugly cement trademark of Soviet architecture, which is an oxymoron.

The Great Bus of China chugs along Cienfuegos’ Malecon, a paved road edged by a seawall, and into the upscale neighborhood of Punta Gorda. Ariadna points to a grand hotel, “once owned by Batista—the president after Fidel—“ she corrects herself—“before Fidel. Whew!” She turns to Heidi and says, her tone ironic, “I hope you’re not recording this…”

Our hotel, Perla del Mar, is owned by the government. Most Cuban hotels are. It was once a house, and the lobby opens onto the bay. Our room is modest but clean: two single beds; air conditioning; a bathroom with soap, shampoo, toilet paper, and a file of teensy ants that climb the wall from the fiberglass tub.

We down our free “Welcome Cocktails”—Cuba Libres—and follow Heidi across the street to the big, ugly, highrise Jajua Hotel to change money.

Cuba has two currencies; Communist paeans to equality aside, they define and divide the island’s economic classes. The common man in any non-professional job earns roughly 300 pesos a month. With this windfall—about 12 dollars—he can buy a limited palette of goods from two types of peso store. These stores are government-owned, and will not deal in anything but pesos:

The Ration Store is highly subsidized: every citizen is entitled to a measure of flour, a pound of frozen chicken—never breasts—five eggs, four ounces of coffee, a bag of rice, some sugar and a few other staples, once a month, all dirt-cheap. There’s a daily ration of one bread roll per person, to be collected every day. Young children and seniors receive a ration of powdered milk.

The other peso store sells food and incidentals at a slightly higher price to supplement the rations.

The second type of money is convertible currency, called CUC. Like pesos, these are bills and coins; unlike pesos, they can be traded for foreign currency and used in CUC stores that sell groceries and supplies at a higher price for CUC only.

Although there are peso-based food stands, the CUC is what people of means use if they go out to eat. This limits both government-owned restaurants and the newer privately-owned “paladars” to a clientele that includes tourists; high government officials; doctors and other select professionals; tourist-service staff like Ariadna; famous musicians and athletes—all people who have ready access to CUC.

I hand the clerk at the Jajua four hundred US dollars, and she gives me 348 CUC. The CUC is pegged exactly to the US dollar, but every dollar loses 13% in translation because that money goes to the government. This is universal, whether you change money in a hotel or a bank. And US tourists have to change money: US credit cards don’t work in Cuba, nor do ATMs or Travelers’ Checks.

Or US phones, for that matter.

We pocket our reduced cash and ride the Great Bus of China to downtown Cienfuegos.

People-to-People tours must take in three cultural/educational events each day; if we don’t, we make it up tomorrow. Our first stop is a tour of the Tomas Terry theatre, built by a Venezuelan sugar baron of that name in 1889. The walls of the atrium are hung with period posters of Sarah Bernhardt and Caruso, who played there back in the day. The theatre now hosts government-sponsored entertainment like ballet and music at bargain fees.

After, we gather in Cienfuegos’ square, facing a cathedral covered with scaffolding. Next to it, a billboard of Che Guevera is fixed to the flat roof of an office building. The billboard crows: Che’s Legacy Will Go On! Small cars—beat-up Russian Ladas and sleek new Chinese Geelys—park next to the plaza’s sidewalks.

Cienfuegos was founded by a Frenchman in 1819, after the Haitian revolution. The founders solicited more Frenchmen, Ariadna tells us, to “lighten the skin of the population,” of which a high percentage were African slaves.

Rain spits down as we tread The Boulevard, Cienfuegos’ walking mall. Suddenly, the deluge; we duck into a peso store—the grocery that’s one step up from a Ration Store—to keep dry. It is nearly bare of goods.

Next door is a government-owned CUC-only grocery (Ariadna says—without irony—“Everything is government-owned”). It’s the size of a Brooklyn bodega; the shelves are fairly full, but show little variety, and the prices are only slightly cheaper than they might be in Stop ‘n Shop.

We slip into yet another government CUC store. Its merchandise includes two overstuffed vinyl-upholstered chairs, a pair of Chinese-made refrigerators (priced at 780 and 800 CUC), a blender and a toaster and a shelf of birthday cards under glass.

The rain slows, and shops begin to close. Ariadna tells us the hours posted on the doors are flexible. “The saying goes here, ‘The State pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work,’” she says, as we hurry to our next Event.

It is a culture museum, and we plop down on folding chairs to listen to an a cappella performance by the Chorus of Cienfuegos. The soaring harmonies of these men and women are delightful; the director young, passionate, and pitch-perfect. She originally worked with the troupe for her public service, then the government hired her for full pay.

Ariadna tells us that every Cuban has to give three years to public service. “You could be given a job you love, or a job you hate,” she says. “You do it for three years. It’s not your choice.”

The director answers questions: Yes, this is the members’ professional  jobs; yes, we practice five days a week. Yes, we travel all over the island; we have traveled to other countries; we hope, too, to go to the US soon.

There is no email list to sign to keep abreast of such a potential US tour; email is a rara avis here. A chorus member sells us CDs; they are fronted by a group picture, and there is no index.

Then we are back on the Great Bus of China, off to the Hotel Jajua, where we will partake of our first meal at a government-owned restaurant.