HAVANA, CU–“Finally we come together,” the souvenir shop owner said as we strolled through Old Havana. Against the background of sea-spray crashing over the Malecón and the historic American cars from the 50s transforming us back in time, over one hundred gay men descended upon Cuba this week as part of the first ever U.S. gay cruise to the forbidden island. Organized by Al & Chuck Travel, a division of Legendary Journeys headquartered in Sarasota, Florida, the Celestyal Crystal cruise circumnavigated Cuba embarking from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for a week-long adventure that was made possible through the people-to-people program.
The first port of call for the 1000 passenger ship was the south-eastern town of Santiago de Cuba, known as the original home for Bacardi rum and salsa dancing. It was there that we got our first taste of how the Cuban people view homosexuality, and it was an eye-opener.
“Cuba welcomes every race, every religion, and every sexual identification openly and with genuine acceptance,” Dr. Martha Cordii Jackson said, during a visit to the city’s Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Center where singers and dancers celebrated the island’s vast heritage that, like America, relied on slave labor for decades. Jackson, who is an historian and director of the Center, gazed out upon the packed outdoor assembly and knew that this was an historic moment. A first step in the broadening of American-Cuban relations, but an even bigger step in stripping away the veneer that shrouds the Caribbean island in mystery.
After experiencing the open hostility towards gays in Jamaica, it was a welcomed change to see the eager expression of Cubans who were openly curious about America, and non-judgmental about homosexuality. The commonly held perception of a macho mentality on the predominantly Catholic island is untrue. The acceptance of homosexuality in Cuba is as casual as it is refreshing.
Two nights in the Cuban capital of Havana only reinforced the fact. The people here are survivors and improvisers, a resilient lot whose smiles reflect a charm and enthusiasm for life unaffected by hardships caused by low salaries and scarce commodities. The cultural heritage stands in marked contrast to the crumbling infrastructure, its beautiful architecture visibly mildewed but refusing to die.
The Cuban food is a fiesta of flavors, as experienced at the colorful El Cuajirito (Zulueta #658 in Habana Vieja), where Al & Chuck experimented by offering some upfront and personal time with a foursome of local gay guides—Dayron, Eddie, Manuel and Jose. Each answered questions about gay life in Cuba, and exposed that each had revealed his sexual identity to his family—difficult in any country, but more difficult in the isolated Catholic families of Cuba.
Dinner was followed by an escorted party at Cabaret Las Vegas (Calzada de Infanta, Calle 25 y27, Havana, Cuba), a packed to the brim gay bar and showroom where a special drag performance stunned the revelers with flawless singing and costumes. The club plays host to record number of handsome hustlers who openly plied their trade behind closed doors with standardized pricing, The cost for companionship at the bar is 5 CUC (Pesos Convertibles). Oral sex costs 10 CUC, full intimate sex costs 20 CUC, with an additional bonus for a bottom who charges 25 CUC for his services. A rooming house is available close to the bar for 30 CUC per night (including private bath). As with everything in Cuba, all fees are negotiable, and some haggling is expected.
Although Spanish is the official language of the country, English is widely spoken, and taught in elementary schools to everyone from the age of nine. Since a college education is offered free to all Cuban citizens who desire it, most of the young local gays are college students. Medical care is also offered without charge in the country, with universal testing for HIV and AIDS.
The emergence of Cuba as a gay destination for Americans is inevitable. Al & Chuck travel are offering two additional gay Cuban cruises this year in February and April. For more information, go to alandchuck.travel.
America and Cuba. Finally we come together.