Geri King of Belleville got an opportunity not many people have had when she traveled to Cuba for eight days in February.
She is a retired OB/GYN nurse practitioner who served in the U.S. Army and Air Force and also worked at Jefferson Barracks Veterans Hospital.
One of her friends convinced her to participate in a people-to-people cultural exchange tour of the Communist country, which has been closed to Americans for more than half a century.
While tourism opportunities for Americans have been limited in Cuba, they are opening up more each year. King said the tour company had to have a special license and everything had to be submitted to the U.S. State Department beforehand.
American foreign policy has always tried to squeeze the Cuban Communist government financially. That hasn't changed a lot.
"You can't bring back more than $100 in souvenirs," she said.
But still she had a good time. Tourists are treated like royalty at nice hotels with plenty of food.
"It was really eye-opening," she said.
Her group of eight people had a Cuban government tour guide and was controlled but everyone was open about what the people in the country do and don't have, she said.
"Tourism has become the main industry," King said. "We ran into a lot of Canadians, Japanese, Brits and Germans. The people were surprised when they learned we were Americans. They haven't seen many."
In some ways the country is advanced. The literacy rate is 100 percent and education and medical care are free.
But in some ways the people are stuck in the same place as they were before the 1959 Fidel Castro revolution.
"They make fun of their cars themselves," King said. Many 1950s-era cars still function there, and consumer goods are hard to get.
"There was a lot of begging, by women," she said. "They wanted soap mostly. They kept rubbing their arms. We didn't know what they meant. Our guide had to tell us."
The group toured by bus and train, visiting historical sites such as the memorial to revolutionary Che Guevara and the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. But they also saw memorials to the revolution from Spain in 1898.
"The national highway is a joke," King said. It was rough and narrow, although it had four lanes. People kept walking on it and the bus had to slow often to avoid bicycles and horses.
She said she was Impressed with the friendliness of the people and how beautiful the land is. In land mass, Cuba is smaller than the state of Florida, and is the 17th largest island in the world.
One of her souvenirs was a carving of a horse made from a cow's horn. She also had a model of a 1957 Chevrolet pieced together from bits of wood.
"They really know how to make do with whatever things they can find," she said.
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