Once again J.B. Tate of the Elmo Community continued his tradition of celebrating his birthday, Christmas and New Years out of the states venturing to a new place.

He’s visited Costa Rica, Africa and Japan, and this time he found himself staying at the House of Jose in Havana, Cuba.

From Dec. 16 until Jan. 12, he joined an influx of tourists who have made their way to there since steps have been taken to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba.

The traveler took a plane from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Miami, Florida, where he waited seven hours for a 45-minute flight to Cuba that took off only after three mechanics fixed a mechanical issue with the plane.

When he arrived, he told Jose, one of the two owners of the House of Jose, of his travel issues, and Jose said, “Oh, that’s Cuba.”

Jose and Ozamy, two lawyers, ran the House of Jose, and became friends with Tate along with many other individuals staying there from various parts of the world including Ireland, Italy and Sweden.

Tate joined them with an interest in learning more about the Cuban history and architecture, and he also visited Cuba because he “always knew it was a very beautiful country.

“It had been 59 years since Eisenhower was president,” Tate continued.

“Americans had not been able to go to Cuba, but that’s all changing now… They call this the invasion of the Americanos.”

He was welcomed with open arms by Jose and Ozamy, and to learn the lay of the land, he spent one of his first few days on top of double-decker tour bus that took him around all Havanna.

That was the beginning of many outings he took during his stay,

One day, he took a 1958 Oldsmobile convertible, one of the many classic cars used as taxis, to Trinidad.

Trinidad, he said, is a “quaint little fishing village” and on the way back, he stopped at a tobacco factory where he watched cigars being rolled before stopping at a coffee plantation.

He also spent some time touring the capitol by a horse drawn carriage.

“The capitol is beautiful — Central Park is there,” said Tate. “When I arrived at the capitol, there were horse drawn carriages on both sides of the road that you could rent. On one side of the road, one guy said $20. Then I went to the other guy who said, ‘$40.’ So, I went back to the first one.

“We stopped at this hole in the wall that had the best mojitos. I bought one for the driver, one for the tour guide and tipped the bartender, so it still ended up costing me $35 anyways,” said Tate with a laugh.

He also went to see “The Nutcracker” where he met two dancers, and he attempted to visit Hemmingway’s house but unfortunately it was closed.

During his stay, he learned businesses were very lenient with their hours.

“Most businesses close at 3:30 p.m. One day I went to the bank 35 minutes before it was supposed to be closed, and there were 10 to 12 people in uniform talking. When I walked in, they turned around and said, ‘No, no, manana, manana,’” said Tate.

This guy Omar he met who teaches English at the University explained to him saying, ‘”Oh well, they just got tired of working that day and said they weren’t going to work anymore that day so they decided to close.”

“They post the hours on the shop, but you can’t go by them,” said Tate.

“They say they open at 8, but it might be 8:30 or 9 until they do, and whenever feel like closing, they just close and go home.”

Much celebration also was had during his time at Cuba.

When he first arrived, Jose had taken one look at his passport and said, “Oh, birthday in three days, party,” and party, they did.

Jose and Ozamy bought him a pina colada cake, and invited their neighbors to celebrate.

“They came, and we drank, we ate, we danced, and we sang and partied to the wee hours,” said Tate.

The following week was Christmas and Christmas Eve, and they had another party.

Then their neighbor Mildred, who was a decorator and worked for the local television station, hosted a “big party” on New Year’s Eve two doors down, and two neighbors had birthdays, so they celebrated them as well.

“So, we had five parties in four weeks,” said Tate, who enjoyed every one of them.

The sounds of cannons at 5 a.m. awoke him on Jan. 1 to another celebration that he wasn’t expecting.

Tate came to learn that it was Liberation Day, the day that marks the end of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista led by Fidel Castro that succeeded on Jan. 1, 1959.

“My hosts had been so kind to me, and I decided to make my last evening in Havana memorable. I took Jose and Ozamy to the world renown Tropicana. I am sure that is above what their salaries could afford.”

The Tropicana is a huge club set up cabaret style, and the group ended up with a table front and center of the stage.

“The meal was wonderful with lobster as an appetizer, a salad, and we all chose chateaubriand as a main course with a flaming cherries jubilee for dessert,” Tate said.

A different wine was offered with each course before the show began.

The Tropicana is known for the chorus line.

“I counted 30 dancers, and those plums were at least four feet high. I do not how they kept their balance, but they did,” he said.

At half time, the emcee came out and was asking people from what countries they hailed.

“When he asked for U.S.A. I remained quiet but looked around, and Jose and Ozamy were pointing their fingers directly to me. Sure enough the emcee came over, with the spotlight, and I had to stand up and be introduced. I was not a happy camper.”

That night the group was late getting home.

“My return reservation said to be at the airport at 4 a.m. for an 8 a.m. flight. I thought that makes no sense, so I told the taxi driver, who lived just up the street, to pick me up at 4:30 for the 30 minute drive to the airport. He was right on time.

“I arrived at the airport about 5. Guess what? The airport does not open until around 6, or a few minutes later. Oh well, that’s Cuba,” Tate quipped.

Cuba proved to a be a very poor country, but he said, “The people are happy.”

Parks were seen every four miles, and the weather was 85 degrees and sunny every day, much contrast to the winter weather Tate returned home to that made him miss the Caribbean Island.

“I would go back to Cuba in a heartbeat,” said Tate, but first he wants to knock two places off his bucket list, Australia and New Zealand. 

Ashley Hodge reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com

Ashley Hodge is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at ahodge@gazettevirginian.com