The Citizen travels to...Cuba!

It was the first time for The Citizen -- but not Ohio Township Supervisor Herb Hartle -- when he and his wife, Bernadette, recently traveled to Havana, Cuba. Herb and Bernie are pictured above with their driver, Jorge Rodrigaez, and his 1951 Pontiac. If you take The Citizen on your next trip, e-mail us the photo, the.citizen@verizon.net, and you could be featured in a future issue.

One of the perks of retirement is the freedom to travel wherever and whenever, Florida being an escape of choice for many northerners.

Herb and Bernadette Hartle didn't just stop in Florida and relax on the beach, though. Instead, they moved on a few hundred more miles south to visit where most Americans rarely consider for a vacation destination: Cuba.

Herb, now retired from Nabisco, and Bernadette, retired from the Ohio Township Police Department, still is active as an Ohio Township supervisor, but in 1962, he was serving in the Air Force and was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had always wanted to see what the country was like, and so he and his wife arranged their journey as learning tourists.

Even though some relaxation of restrictions had been proposed under the Obama presidency, the U.S. Department of the Treasury continues to regulate travel to Cuba, but with 12 categories that permit travel, one of those categories being education.

Enter People-to-People travel, an agency that allows any American legally to travel to Cuba, provided they engage in a full-time schedule of educational activities.

And so the Hartles spent March 15-22 on tour for learning experiences, with People-to-People providing visitors with unique access to people and places the average tourist rarely sees.

The Web site for the agency promises visits to the most sought-after sites and “…to meet the people who make the country so special.”

Hartle said that their tour guide was Cuban and spoke English, although they don't teach the language in schools. “Our bus driver could not speak English, as most people only speak Spanish. If you don't know Spanish, you would have to hire a guide.”

The tour did not try to hide the impoverished conditions under which many people live.

“A lot of poor people don't have 24-hour water or electricity. Havana is the only place with 24-hour service, but it is safe to walk the streets. And even though they have an alcohol problem, they don't have other drug problems, as you get 15 years for first offense.”

Despite that poverty, Hartle noted, “They still think their government is the greatest and they think they won the Cuban Missile Crisis. The government gives them money every month and pays for schooling and health care. If you don't go to college, you have to go in the army for 10 years.”

He observed that visitors are treated kindly. “They are starting to like the Americans coming because Americans spend money -- although they will still try to cheat you on what things cost or not give you right change.”

Despite a few negatives, most of their experiences were good, however.

“Our days were very busy, seeing school children perform. All boys play baseball and you will see kids kicking a ball around and everyone plays dominos. We also saw how they make cigars, sugar cane production, and, of course, the revolution museums. We had very little free time, but we did spend a few days at a resort on the ocean where people from all over world vacation.”

While People-to-People handled all of their travel details, there are other methods of traveling to the country, with several on-line sites offering step-by-step advice.

Hartle observed, “More Americans are traveling there. We were having dinner at a restaurant and there was a group of eighth graders from Tampa who were there for a week. Not sure if it was strictly for Spanish or educational. Also, there was a couple from New York who were staying at our Hotel Nacional in Havana. They just came down for a long weekend.”

A highlight of the week was seeing all of the old cars from the fifties, which are “…amazing to see operating.” They even had the opportunity to ride around town in a 1951 Pontiac convertible.

Looking back on the trip, he said, “Overall, I guess it was somewhat enjoyable. It makes you appreciate what you have, like water (you can drink), working toilets and electricity.”
Not that he had to provide any more reasons for making the trip but he simply explained, “This has been something I wanted to do,” adding, “Probably will never go back.”