Cuba carries a certain fascination with Phil and Marie Heft.
So much so that the Kent couple, retired educators, recently took an intriguing two-week trip to the Caribbean’s largest island and discovered some of the wonders of the nation, its rich history and interesting people.
When President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro re-established diplomatic relations, the Hefts, frequent travelers to Latin America, decided to make a trip to Cuba. Phil, 85, is a retired math instructor at Green River College; Marie, 84, is a retired music director at First Presbyterian Church of Kent.
“It was a very interesting trip, met an awful lot of nice people,” Phil said. “There wasn’t a bit of an anti-American thing. We were treated really well.
“Most of the Cuban people have relatives in the U.S., and for that reason, they we’re real comfortable with Americans,” Phil said. “We thought it was safe, and it was safe.”
The Hefts, who have lived in Kent since 1967, have visited other Central American countries and speak a little Spanish. The raised a foster child from El Salvador.
Upon first impressions, the Hefts said they felt as if they had stepped into a time capsule.
“Outside were horse-driven carts, human-powered passenger-carrying tricycles and many pedestrians,” the Hefts wrote in their chronicles. “Cars were slowly working their way through all of this activity on a very narrow cobblestone street.”
During their stay in Havana, the Hefts took in the Plaza of the Revolution, the waterfront area, the Malécon, and the beautiful Miramar area with its fancy houses. They explored explored Old Havana on foot, visited the plaza of the monastery of St. Francis of Assisi, the Plaza of the Havana Cathedral, and the El Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fortification on the western side of the harbour in Havana.
“We walked along Calle Obispo, Havana’s main drag, taking pictures of people on stilts, cigar smoking ladies and newly married couples,” the Hefts said. “We had a wonderful conversation with some owners of perfectly restored American cars. The original running gear on these cars had been replaced with Toyota parts.”
The Hefts found time to explore Viñales, one of the most important areas in the world for growing tobacco, and took in Trinidad, an old Spanish colonial city that is about to celebrate its 500-year anniversary. They spent a day hiking in the mountains nearby and a day at Playa Ancon, a nearby beach for swimming and sunbathing.
Perhaps one of the most interesting moments of the Hefts’ adventure came word on Nov. 25 of the death of 90-year-old Fidel Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary and politician who ruled the country for more than five decades.
“On the way out, we took a cab back to Havana from our beach resort,” Phil said. “We had to stop for the funeral procession. … We were just watching the crowd. … There were many, many schoolchildren dressed in their uniforms. … Mothers and their babies, toddlers, people young and old, all trying to get where they would have a good view of the procession.
“When the low-flat vehicle, decorated with flowers and carrying Fidel’s ashes, came through, the schoolchildren shouted, ‘Fidel!, Fidel’ – a minute later, ‘Vive! Vive!’ (Live! Live!),’ ” the Hefts added. “The helicopter circled about a dozen more times until the procession had passed through. It was moving eastward to Santiago de Cuba, where the funeral was to take place (on Dec. 4).
“My impression was that the people were out there participating in what they thought was a very important event in the history of Cuba,” Phil said. “It was clear that the procession was being used to give the feeling of a united Cuba.”
For the Hefts, it was history before their eyes, punctuating a memorable trip.