KINGSPORT – Phil Gregg recently returned from a trip that few Americans have ever taken.
Gregg, a Kingsport native who now lives in Johnson City, spent two days last month in the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, learning about the culture and meeting some of the citizens.
Though he wasn’t quite sure what to expect, Gregg said the trip was both “amazing and depressing.”
“There’s no amount of research that’s going to get you ready to go and get you ready for what you’re going to see,” Gregg said.
Gregg visited Havana, Cuba, at the end of August as part of a Carnival cruise. Though he was on the ship with around 2,000 people, not all of those got off the boat when it docked in Cuba, as Americans have to have a specific reason for visiting there.
“Myself and Patti Taylor, we went on a journalism visa, because we were going to take pictures,” Gregg said. “You have to have a reason to go to Cuba. Tourism is illegal; it’s because of the embargo (imposed by the U.S.). For the rest of the world, they’re allowed to go. Americans, we can’t.”
Gregg added that he had to create a printed itinerary of everything he planned to do each day. He must keep that itinerary on file for five years, in case the U.S. government has need to request it.
Many aspects of Cuban culture are vastly different than the U.S., Gregg said. There is very limited Internet access, no chain restaurants or grocery stores and virtually no cell phone service even in the capital city.
Multiple generations of the same family often live in one house, because housing costs are so high. The city’s one-lane roads are often filled with foot traffic and colorful, old-fashioned cars that citizens must purchase from the government.
“It’s surreal; you’re stepping back to the 1950s,” Gregg said. “These cars are whizzing by you; it’s like stepping back into ‘Happy Days.’”
Streets are lined with Spanish-style architecture, some of which is in a state of disrepair. All the while, the smell of diesel fills the air, as most Cuban vehicles run on diesel fuel, Gregg said.
“It’s hard to process the emotion of how fascinating and interesting it is,” Gregg said, “but at the same time, it’s so impoverished, and you feel for the people. … But they’re happy; they don’t know not to be.”
Cuba has two different currencies, Gregg explained. The first, called the CUC, is specifically for travelers and is equal in value to a U.S. dollar. The second, known as the Cuban peso or the CUP, is used by the citizens and is worth about 12 cents in U.S. currency.
Gregg added that many of those who live in Cuba are impoverished, with over a third of the people making the equivalent of $50-100 a month.
“A lot of them have taken to capitalism,” Gregg said. “They open part of their homes as a little souvenir shop, so they supplement their income that way.”
One of the most shocking things Gregg saw during his trip was an old orphanage, which he said was active until around 20 years ago. The sign above the orphanage window stuck out to him the most.
“The translation on it was, ‘My mother and my father, they threw me out. Divine charity picked me up here,’” Gregg said. “It was like a little window, and it had an opening. They would take their kids and hand them through to the orphanage, the people that worked in there. That was one of the most striking things that I saw there.”
Another unusual sight: Each public restroom has an attendant, and anyone who uses these restrooms is required to tip the attendant the equivalent of 25 cents, Gregg said.
“No matter where you go, there’s somebody there,” he said. “Typically it’s a female, and that’s where you can get your soap and your tissue paper, if they have any.”
Gregg said he plans to return to Cuba in February to explore more of the countryside and do more of what he considers his favorite part of the trip: meeting the people.
“They’re just a very interesting, tough people,” Gregg said. “I think we have no idea how tough it can get.”