The different world begins at the Havana airport, where a line of pre-revolutionary sedans-turned-taxis waits for passengers and billboards decry the lingering impact of the U.S. blockade.
And for tour member Elisabeth Munder of West Palm Beach, who is visiting with her husband, Adam, and two friends, it continues at one of the group's first stops, the closed-for-renovation National Capitol.
Within minutes of our arrival, we're surrounded by hucksters dubbed jineteros, a nickname based on the Spanish word for jockeys (meaning they ride on tourists' backs). But alongside the touts offering photo ops in a gleaming convertible, a very pregnant woman sidles up to Munder and tugs on her arm with a soft-spoken request — for her empty plastic water bottle.
'No one is starving here'
That firsthand view of Cuban economics will be echoed elsewhere this weekend, as will our guide's fears that we're getting a bad impression. The following day, when a muscular young man cradling a puppy stands at the door of the tour bus hoping for a few pesos, José exhorts us not to cave: "No one is starving here," he insists. "We have a saying in Cuba about people like him: He should be out in the fields cutting sugar cane."
Our itinerary, like those of other "people-to-people" programs, includes a mix of standard cultural draws and places other tourists wouldn't see. We take a walking tour of Old Havana, where sultry grandmas in spandex tops sway to yet another rendition of the Buena Vista Social Club's hit Chan Chan, and watch a cannon blast ceremony at La Cabana, an 18th-century fort overlooking the harbor.
And at the National Literacy Museum, we're greeted by personable director Luisa Campos Gallardo, herself a product of Castro's successful year-long campaign to teach more than 700,000 people to read and write. Among the exhibits: photographs and letters from the project's 100,000 volunteers, mostly teenagers, and a blackboard laced with bullets that Gallardo says were fired during the botched, CIA-led invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
No matter where we go, we're in a bubble.
Since the Cuban government frowns on U.S. operators booking the growing ranks of privately owned restaurants known as paladares, we generally wind up at government-owned places with less-than-memorable cuisine (albeit an always-included cocktail). Even at two notable exceptions — Cafe del Orient, with tuxedoed waiters and a prime location in Old Havana, and a roast chicken restaurant called El Aljibe — we're served a set menu and surrounded by other tourists.
But Susan Dare of Franklinville, N.J., who booked the trip as a 50th birthday gift for her husband, Doug, is glad she came.
"I was thinking we'd go to block parties, have some rum and share some crazy conversations," says Dare. While that scenario hasn't panned out, they did have a memorable encounter with a hotel chef as they waited for the tour bus: "He asked us, 'So, how's America? Pretty great?' " recalls Dare, and "he felt like a friend we hadn't seen in years."
And so, it turns out, do our gray-haired hosts at the Esquina del Jazz. Within minutes of our arrival in the living-room-turned-museum, we're comrades in arms — picking up the finer points of swing, boogieing to vinyl recordings of Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and discovering the true meaning of people to people.