Wheelchair Travel: Cuba Libre? How Free is Cuba for Travelers on Wheels?
that Cuba is Closing Again… A Look Back in Time, “Girls Trip!” Travel Story
When two of my girlfriends mentioned that they were going to Cuba during a visit to my home in Florida, I said: “Wow, that’s always been a dream of mine!” My two daughter’s father was Cuban American, whom I met while attending the University of Miami.
Deborah in Cuba in the Beachside cafe
I always appreciated the culture I witnessed from his Mother, Father, and Abuela’s and listened to the stories of sadness upon leaving what was their home when my mother in law was only 16.
They were part of the first wave of upper-class exodus…where the children were put on planes and sent out before the revolution began. During what was termed “Operation Peter Pan,” over 14,000 children became exiles with the help of the United States.
“Operation Peter Pan,” over 14,000 children became exiles from Cuba
Most of us heard of the Mariel Boatlift to come later, were those who didn’t have the means or time to get out, began to do so by any means necessary…which meant rafts made of anything available. Many didn’t survive.
Mariel Boatlift (Photo from www.wsj.com)
Later that week, one of the friends called me from back home in MA and said they we were thinking about it and wanted to know if I wanted to join them?!
Since they were both very fit and one in her 20s and ran a horse farm and could lift anything a man could, I didn’t hesitate….YES! I am in!
Though risky to go to a foreign country in a manual wheelchair as a high-level C-6/7 incomplete quad with no trunk support or balance and very poor transfers, being told I had the girls support, I took the chance!
Now, this is the first trip I’ve taken entirely alone without my husband whom I had recently been divorced from, so a LOT of trust, planning, and fearlessness got me to Cuba before it wasclosed down last week again by the US government policy under the Trump Administration.
Now my girlfriends rented an Airbnb which we all know are rarely accessible. This was no exception. However, just like Miami homes in South Florida, it was just a one-story house, and it had wide doors with the beds at a reasonable height, and I could actually get into the bathroom.
We were only going for a few nights and three days so I figured I would forgo taking a shower chair and just do what my Southern Mom calls a “whores bath” wash up at the sink 🤣.
Airbnb home in Cuba in the residential neighborhood allowed a more intimate glimpse into how the people lived.
When I arrive in Cuba, my first adventure with an international flight to a third world destination island began. My welcome was the refusal of the incoming airport personnel to bring my wheelchair to my airline departure door.
They wanted to take me down the steps in the aisle chair and then roll me in that aisle chair all the way into baggage claim where I can pick up my wheelchair. I refused, of course.
They took me down the flight of stairs of the aircraft, and one lone Cuban man who was working the tarmac felt sorry for me as I pleaded with them in my Miami taught Spanish and he personally ran into baggage claim and grab my wheelchair and brought it back singlehandedly.
Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti-la Habana
This was the beginning and the most impressionable thing about Cuba and what many other women with disabilities and men with disabilities will say is the case in countries that are not accessible by law. The kindness of strangers is what allows us to be included.
Of course, I was going there as a journalist for PUSHLiving, which is how I got my Visa. So I begin documenting everything as soon as I got into the airport. Until Cuban authorities told me that I was not able to record and take pictures of the staff or the facilities at the airport. Oops, I forgot I was in a communist country for a moment. Stern military personnel you don’t mess with, blond or not!
The first thing I noticed is that the bathrooms were accessible on arrival. I later found out there were no accessible bathrooms on my departure just holes in the floor, which is the norm at many restaurants and facilities that I’ve visited during my stay.
This is what you learn to expect anywhere that you travel outside of the country you are accustomed to, or should I say, what not to expect ….that is the key. Don’t expect an accessible bathroom and be prepared to cath in your chair or anywhere or whatever else you need to do to get the job done!
So from drivers offering to lift me into vehicles – (1950s classic cars are the norm) to people in the streets offering to push me and carry me up steps to buy cigars, this is the way of Cuba.
Accessible transportation in Cuba means drivers pick you up and carry you into 1950’s taxis!
I am so happy to be able to share with you the many pictures I took that will bring the island to you.
I like to say that the trip was worth it if not only because of the people and the fascinating history you learn firsthand about pre and post-revolution life (not what you will hear from those expats who still have so much hurt, anger and pain in their hearts to see this side of those who remain).
However, I must give a warning. I probably wouldn’t risk it again as it could’ve died on the way home due to unforeseen circumstances in a country were mechanical breakdowns are the norm.
So being this vulnerable as a woman with the risk of Autonomic Dysreflexia and the inability to walk at all, was perhaps a little more dependent on luck or an angel looking out for me…guiding me home, than one should want to rely on alone.
You see, my girlfriends going back to MASS, and leaving me in what they thought were the capable hands of the special services team (I was waiting outside the designated office space with no one ever arriving to retrieve me) went to another terminal.
I ended up just pushing to the arrival desk with my luggage on my lap and waiting in line to be greeted in Spanish and told to wait.
When the man finally came to get me, with no acknowledgment or hello, he took me to the elevators that lead down to the gates. Yet, all elevators down to my flight departure were broken and after an hour of people yelling back-and-forth, (i.e., talking Cuban) to each other and STILL, no one addressing me personally.
I don’t even know what was going on and why the ten plus personnel all were yelling, with no one, even looking me in the eye. The guy just kept hitting the button to the elevator repeatedly as it would actually make it work….while the clock ticked away.
My flight was preparing to leave me, in Cuba, alone, with no cash ( I had spent all my Cuban dollars as we perfectly planned to run out on the last day!), American credit cards that no one takes (they take only European cards), banks closed, and nowhere to stay!
Then a miracle happened and somehow with 10 minutes left ..the elevator suddenly worked! I was taken down by one of the Brown-shirted commanders who decided to take me under his wing, and he flew my wheelchairs through all the security points (and there were four!) with his badge waving in the air to let us pass.
“Cuba Libre” drink (photo from thebacklabel.com)
At the very last minutes before the door was shut; I was whisked onto a first-class seat and being on this airline (Spirit airlines) I was back again in the land of the free. The flight attendant, who was waiting and had been aware of my ordeal, asked me if I wanted a drink. Indeed, I did as I was ready to cry with gratitude and relief. I ordered a “Cuba Libre” and the gentleman next to me, a Cuban born leaving as a visitor home, laughed out loud and stated those on the island think it’s funny that someone in America would invent a drink called “ free Cuba” when they “are anything but free.”
He was a great companion, this young music artist who travels back to see his family from New York. Let’s just say they don’t drink Cuba Libres in Cuba. But I learned that in many ways there, they are free.
Why many may find this very controversial, I learned this while speaking intimately with people in their homes; they are now able to own their own homes, have their own businesses (thanks to Obama they told me on the streets as this was a condition he had to open island again) and they actually really love their sophisticated and very available healthcare.
There was a clinic literally right across the street from the home where we stayed
and walking distance from all homes throughout the island. I watched a grandma go and travel to see her hip surgeon for plans to get a new hip, and she valued and respected her doctor highly.
Why most I saw didn’t have extravagant things, and they simply repaired rather than replaced all the things that broke, they had food rations for each home so nobody went hungry and you could buy your own food with income that you made via work or business. So each family was given the minimum that you need to survive with anything extra you could provide is a bonus. No one went hungry.
Healthcare is free, and everybody has a purpose and a job if they can work. So things are a lot less worldly of course and shiny like our new developed worlds, but the people seemed relaxed, carefree, very family oriented, and healthy.
So thank you, Obama, for enabling me to meet the homeland of my children’s ancestors and to share with you…and them, these images and experiences.
Watching live music on the street
I hope one day to return again, with my grown daughters and hopefully a new man (who can whisk me down the stairs of a broken elevator if need be!) J to enjoy it all over again.