Explore Cuba with a Soap Opera Legend
Actor and travel author Thaao Penghlis reveals why adventurous travelers must visit this complex country.
While actor Thaao Penghlis is best known for heating up the screen on General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, his love of travel has taken him to some of the world’s most exotic locations – and led him to write the travel memoir Places: The Journey of My Days, My Lives.
Inspired by the United States’s renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, we asked the seasoned explorer to give his insights about what travelers might hope to experience on the island of cigars and sandy beaches.
The first time I traveled to Havana it was more of a spiritual mission, visiting churches in pursuit of experiencing “faith” in a communist country known for cigars and repression. A place where God was usurped by dictatorship. I was hell-bent on excavating Cuba’s religious core, to see where hope and prayer slept.
Most churches in Havana are Roman Catholic, filled with statues of martyrs. There was a lot of sadness in those churches. Not much revelation. I was especially intrigued by the Santería religion. Its roots stemmed from Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean by the Lucumí people in the late 18th century.
During my brief stay there I orchestrated a session with a Babalao, a priest whose religion studies nature and the universe. Their primary function is to assist people in finding, understanding, and being in alignment with one’s individual destiny. Sounded good to me. I had been transported by car to the outskirts of Havana where the police (secret or in uniform) were always visible, even stopping or following us by car.
Sometimes you have to embrace blind faith, take risks, and just go for it. I didn’t know what to expect, though I suspected the experience would be otherworldly. Or old-worldly. In the end, it was both. In a private backyard surrounded by an abundance of plants, all sacred to the rituals, I was stripped and cleansed with herbs in front of a “shrine of worship.” The shrine was overflowing with deities. Apparently this was considered a sacred space with a “born again” objective.
It was overwhelmingly sensory, so much so that I was aroused. It didn’t seem to embarrass them as much as it did me. I tried to forget about my nakedness and aroused state and just tried to be in the moment of whatever was happening there. This couldn’t be further from my work on a soap opera soundstage or from the beauty that surrounds me in my Hollywood Hills home. I started getting into the trippy nature of it all—until a chicken was sacrificed as part of the closing ceremony. It was shocking and stunning, and I had to face away from the deities when the animal made its transition. It was harsh. And it wasn’t yet over.
At the final stage of the ceremony, I was instructed to turn around as the priest dropped three open coconuts at my feet. How they fell would reveal the outcome and intent of this secret ceremony. All three turned up white and were touching one another.
The priest smiled and said, “It is a good omen, when the spirits have sent you kisses.”
A strange euphoria eventually set in, which apparently signaled that the cleansing was successful.
During that trip, I also spent time in Havana with artists I met along the way. The simplicity in the way they lived, surrounded by poverty, their passion and love flowing freely, offered a stark perspective to what I see and experience back home. I sat with these artists sharing an entire bottle of vodka while they told tales of Castro’s Cuba, and I told tales of life in Hollywood.
I gifted my host a watch as a gesture of thanks. His guests were amazed at my generosity, and frankly, I thought nothing of it. It was a gesture of appreciation — and ultimately a betrayal of my ignorance that a gift to a new friend in Cuba could cause havoc. Police soon stopped him on the street. Curious about the quality of his watch and where he would have obtained such a fine piece of jewelry, they accused him of stealing and smashed his wrist against the wall. He let out a loud cry, and they arrested him. He was eventually discharged. All this commotion took place because he had been given a gift he himself could not afford.
Despite the roadblocks of that first trip to Cuba, I was eager to return to Havana when the travel siren once again called my name. I had planned a trip to the Middle East last summer, but ISIS and other factors steered me away from the region, and I found myself Miami-bound.
Havana was under a great deal of construction this time, to finally restore much of the city’s great architecture. I visited a number of its landmarks including the Museum of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Museum, and the International Museum, fairly limited in its collection. The Revolutionary exhibit was a fascinating collection of newspaper clippings, photographs, and artifacts from the 1950s.
One of the highlights of my journey was a visit to Hemingway’s house, located nine miles from Havana in a small suburb called San Francisco de Paula. Hemingway purchased the home in 1940 and lived there for 20 years. Surrounded by tropical fruit trees and palm trees, the house is stunning. Over 40,000 people visit the house every year and everything remains pretty much as he left it. On the bathroom wall remains the scribbles where he recorded his daily weight. And his typewriter sits at his desk. I was enthralled.
The bubble of magic can pop pretty quickly in Cuba. On a Sunday morning, I was strolling Havana’s main street where an exhibit of primitive art was on display at very reasonable prices. While I was examining a wooden sculpture of a hand holding a rose, a young man drifted into my space and asked me where I was from. The conversation about his struggle continued for a few minutes until out of nowhere four policemen surrounded us. They asked him for his ID and politely dismissed me. They took him into a car and disappeared. Suddenly, I didn’t feel safe.
When I returned to my hotel I related the incident to the concierge, and she proudly explained, “Oh yes, there are cameras everywhere on the streets, even in the trees, and when the police who are monitoring the screens see a Cuban talking with a tourist, they inform the police, and they proceed to investigate.”
“You don’t have much freedom here, do you?” I responded.
“This is Cuba, not America, sir. We have rules.”
I simply shut up when I realized there might have been cameras around capturing that conversation.
I explored a number of new restaurants in the next few days and realized a change had taken place in Cuba since I was last there. No longer were the vegetables canned. They were fresh, with a great variety of main courses, all well executed in abundance. The fish was fresh, although overcooked, but the lamb was the best I’d had anywhere. The atmosphere was full of Europeans, no Americans in sight. Service is always polite.
It was a major improvement since my last encounter, especially La Guarida restaurant, whose atmosphere and unique tasting food excelled.
One day I was drawn to the beauty of Santa Maria beach. The heat was intense, while I sat reading a spy novel. After spending an hour cooling off in the turquoise waters, I retreated to my rented chair to read. Within minutes I felt the presence of someone standing behind me. When I turned around, a military policeman in full uniform, in 100-degree heat, was hovering over me, curious about what I was reading.
“Can I help you?” I asked him.
He stared back with what can only be described as contempt. He seemed to speak no English but stubbornly stood his ground holding his rifle on the beach. That was a first. People around me began to stare. I stood up and confronted him. I hoped I was charming, because that was my intent.
Smiling, I said, “Why don’t you move on and take your job elsewhere. I am a tourist here enjoying your beautiful country, and minding my own business.”
He paused, gave me that same look of contempt and departed with arrogance and defeat, trudging in the sand with heavy boots and ammunition. Even this piece of paradise was enveloped with suspicion. It was freedom lost.
My stay was short as a hurricane was blowing through in the next few days. I had experienced one the last time I was there, so I decided not to wait for another round of vengeance. As I was leaving for the airport, I had the realization that no matter how suppressed this society was, its love of music and passion for life, no matter how poor, resonated with joy in its struggle for freedom.
I had packed in my bag a painting I purchased at a Sunday fair and attached with it the necessary documents to legally take it out of the country. As I boarded and sat in my seat, my name was called to exit the plane and be questioned by authorities. “What now?” I thought. Hair rose on my arms.
I was told to follow two guards down bleak olive green stairs, all the while thinking I was about to see a communist country in action behind closed doors. It was simultaneously intriguing and frightening.
I was escorted into a dungeon-like room where a middle-aged woman in fatigues stood and proceeded to confront me. My bag was sitting on a table. She demanded my passport. As I handed it over a $20 bill fell out. Somehow it had accidently gotten into my passport and by the expression on her face she clearly thought it was a bribe.
“Take that money away from me,” she said with disgust.
“Sorry, wrong person,” I said, jokingly. Sadly, she had no sense of humor. She stared back at me with disdain.
“This is serious. You think you can come to my country and steal our art? Open your bag.”
I was stunned.
Obviously they had x-rayed my bag, thinking the painting I had packed was a stolen masterpiece. I was slightly amused by the thought, but her tough demeanor wiped the smirk off my face. The actor in me went into survival mode, and I calmly unzipped my bag. She rolled opened my painting and an expression of shock crossed her severe face. It was a humorous painting — it reminded me of the artist Botero — in which a large woman, bent over with an exposed bum, taunted a bunch of little men with erections.
“That’s it?” she said, clearly flabbergasted.
“Yes,” I said. “What, you don’t like my taste?”
“That’s it?” she repeated again.
Suddenly, I heard an announcement that my plane was about to close its door. Irritated, she dismissed me, and I quickly rolled up my fake masterpiece and raced up the stairs. I made it by seconds and breathed a sigh of relief as I sat in my seat.
I realized that in today’s world the door that you pass through into a foreign landscape doesn’t always guarantee it will be as easily opened to you on your way out. My motto: Always be prepared for the unexpected.
As my thoughts reflected back to my experiences in a land where change seemed to have been frozen since the ’50s, wonderful and charming as it was, I looked forward to going home to the USA and the present.
But Cuba, you always and never disappoint.
Photos: Thaao Penghlis