Tommy Joyce with his distinctive white beard was somewhat of a celebrity riding in an open taxi cab down main streets in Havana with Cubans shouting to him: “Mr. Hemingway! – Mr. Hemingway!”
The 1956 Ford convertible cab driver was a physician trying to make extra money to augment his practice, Joyce said.
Joyce and his wife Grace had taken an educational and cultural exchange tour flying to Cuba on World Atlantic Airlines from Miami after he took part in a Hemingway look-a-like contest in Key West.
Joyce has always had a smile and a hug for his friends as well as for his clientele at his Stockton Airport restaurant. His long time catering business has served thousands of brides and countless corporate events throughout San Joaquin County and beyond.
“When we took off and when we landed (at the end of our trip) many of the passengers clapped. My perception was they were glad to get back home,” he quipped.
He noted there were a tremendous number of plazas and squares in the country. They had landed at the Jose Martes Airport that had been named after that revolutionary from Spain. There were some 15 in his group on board the aircraft with four from Minnesota and two from Florida. One was an engineer from Boeing and another was a school teacher from Boston as well as other tourists from Arizona and Peoria. He added that their group leader was from Washington State.
Joyce said he was surprised they were hardly ever panhandled by anyone on the streets in Havana. He said that citizens have to live off of $20 a week, adding that their food is rationed – each carrying a ration card of their own.
The couple recalled spending five nights in the National Hotel where they saw framed pictures on the walls of notable mobsters from the past such as Myer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
“The streets and the infrastructure are terrible. I give them a lot of credit though because they adapt. They live like the Amish, but not by choice,” he said.
The former restaurant owner said it is not unusual to see a truck bed being pulled down the street by a horse. There are lots of motorcycles on the streets, but no Harleys, he added.
The Joyces said they took in a show in the Moron Theater that rivaled anything they had seen in the states. The talented entertainers do it mostly for resorts and for the tourists, he noted. Joyce said he had met two men in the hotel from Las Vegas and New Orleans who had come in from the Cayman Islands just to watch the Cuban baseball playoffs.
“Soccer is picking up but baseball is their number one sport,” he said.
Joyce noted few speak English but music is their life .
Joyce noted that Cubans are now allowed to own their own homes and can pass them down to their children when they die. While Castro did not encourage religion, he didn’t put a stop to it either with 50 percent of the population being Catholic. He said when Russia pulled out the Methodist movement went from 29 churches to 172 since 1991.
He noted restrooms have no toilet seats and a tourist has to pay 25 pesos to an attendant to get just four pieces of toilet paper to serve their needs.
His wife Grace purchased a painting of a plaza during their trip in a city where many of the restaurants are owned by the government.
“But those owned privately were good,” Joyce said. “They were serving mostly shredded beef – one was chicken and it was excellent.”
In looking around in the shops, he recalled seeing “Lucky Strike” cigarettes from a British/American tobacco Company. He also noted that Cuba is the No. 3 tourist destination for Canadians.
“One German tourist told me he hopes the U.S. will keep the embargo (of Cuba) up because it is a cheap vacation spot – they come three times a year,” Joyce said with his opinion that the embargo probably will never be lifted as long as the Castro brothers are running the country.
He added that if the embargo were to be lifted, the intrusion of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken would ruin the charm of the island’s offerings.
“They don’t have convenience stores and fuel stops either,” he said.
Tourism is their main industry as is the draw of Hemmingway’s “Old Man of the Sea.”
Joyce said the idea of the educational trip to Cuba came from his wife initially who asked if he would want to go to the tropical island
“I said, yeah. I’d never met anyone who has gone to Cuba, but I wouldn’t go again,” he said.
The bus trips on the tour are all too fresh in their minds. To save gas the bus driver coasted downhill and went places he wouldn’t go with a car. He said the cabs were all convertibles and he remembers those of late ‘50s vintage as being Buick, Chevrolet and Fords.
He noted that the trip had been approved by the U.S. Department of State.