“It was a trip — it was not a vacation.”
When people ask Pete Donat about his recent visit to Cuba, he cannot emphasize this enough. Even though the United States and their former Cold War rival have just started to restore diplomatic relations, it is still illegal for Americans to leisurely visit the Communist island in the Caribbean located just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
But after a special visa was acquired and some other red tape was circumvented, Donat, the owner of Havana’s Fresh Island Restaurant in Carolina Beach, went right to the source.
And the 45-year-old Wilmington resident said it was nothing short of eye-opening.
“I’ve wanted to go to Cuba since I opened this restaurant nine years ago,” said Danat, who travelled to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and then back to Havana during the 10-day trip last month.
“We never were a Cuban restaurant. We get that question a lot. We focus more on Caribbean fare and being in the center of it all. That energy and style. But Cuba has always been on my travel wish list.”
Along with his wife, Lily, Donat also traveled with his brother, Luke, his brother’s wife, Joy, and their parents Win and Lavonne.
And their visit came during an interesting time for the island country.
During their third day in Cuba, state television announced Fidel Castro, the country’s former president and leader of the Communist revolution, had died. Castro toppled the government in 1959, introduced a Communist revolution and defied the U.S. for decades.
News of his death prompted both condolences and cheers from the Cuban people and the mixed feelings were shared within Donat’s travelling party.
“It really is a generational thing,” Donat said. “Depending on how old you are influences how you feel about Cuba.”
During the funeral progression, shrines and memorials were set up all through Cuba as the government called for nine days of mourning for their fallen leader.
Because he was witnessing something historical, Donat said he felt like signing the memorial books and wishing farewell. His father, however, spent many years in the U.S. Navy and was on active duty during the Cold War so no love was lost on hearing the news.
“Let’s just say my dad didn’t care too much for Castro,” Donat said with a laugh.
Castro’s passing did not enhance the entertainment factor for the tourists, either.
Donat said a main goal for the trip was to learn about the culinary traditions in Cuba and see how they compare to what he knows in America. But besides that, they wanted to immerse themselves in Cuba culture, which is based around drinking, music and dancing.
“Guess which three things go away when a country is in mourning — drinking, music and dancing,” Donat said. “But it was OK. We had a great Cuban tour guide who altered our itinerary so we could still see what Cuba had to offer.”
Donat said the Cuban people were very friendly during his visit and because of harsh penalties from the government, crime was almost non-existent among the citizens.
He described arriving at the airport in Havana as ‘going back in time’ as stark reminders that they were in a Communist country were everywhere. From the six channels on the television — all owned by the state government — to the severe lack of basic imports and supplies.
Since the 1960s, successive U.S. administrations have maintained a policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Cuba.
“Everyone always talks about the old-fashioned cars in Cuba and there were a few around but it really made me think about how harsh the embargo has been,” Donat said.
“For instance, if you needed a pedal for your bicycle, you couldn’t buy one. You had to make one. It seemed like every single boat I saw was broken down. It was a lack of basic stuff that we, as Americans, probably take for granted.”
From a culinary perspective, Donat was not too impressed. Once again, he noted a lack of supplies really thwarted what typical restaurants were trying to accomplish.
Plus, a majority of the restaurants in Havana are owned by the government, which doesn’t exactly put creative menus as a top priority. The remaining eateries, Paladares, or privately-owned restaurants, are bringing a dash of style to Havana’s dining scene.
“The quality was better in the Paladares, where at least the food arrived on a clean plate,” said Danat, who has been working in restaurants since he was a teenager.
“Basic stuff, really: All dishes had rice and beans and they love their roasted pork. I still think we serve a better Cuban sandwich then the ones we had down there.”
Another question Donat has heard since his return to the States: Would he ever go back?
“I would,” he said. “It is a beautiful country. But it has a long way to go and their future is bright.
“The biggest thing I took away from this trip was my appreciation for what we have in America. Basic rights. Freedom of speech, capitalism — stuff like that. I really love living in a democracy and I hope Cuba will also have that one day soon.”
For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org
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