My mother’s guilt turned over in my brain as I could not stand to leave my four children behind in school back in San Diego, but the opportunity for this trip was too much to pass up. Travel to this Communist country closed off to Americans for over 50 years held a new kind of excitement and curiosity for me. My business partner Michaela arrived in Havana prior to me, so I took advantage of my solo time on the flight to Havana by journaling and meditating. As I disembarked from the plane via stairs, heat and humidity washed over me. The 2-gate terminal, dank and dirty, was hot (no air conditioning), and voices floated through the air in a Spanish dialect unfamiliar to my Southern California ears.

The air in and around the city of Havana is clean, almost light despite the humidity. The cars — the famous cars of Havana — frozen in time — immaculately kept captivated my attention. One thing that stood out to me was the contrast between conditions of the pristine government buildings and run down apartment buildings, homes and shops. However friendly the people were, there was a sense of dense sadness, almost a desperation in people’s energies. In spite of the heaviness of spirit, Cuba has an enchanting culture: it’s lively music, savory and complex cuisine, and gracious, hospitable people.

I arrived at Michaela’s and my Air B&B and was greeted by the home’s owner, Alessandro, a 70-year old Italian gentleman who served as our host and de facto concierge. Alessandro acted as an improvised concierge and provided Michaela and I with local recommendations — one of which was the privately-owned restaurant San Cristóbal. San Cristobal, named after the owner Carlos Cristóbal, serves authentic, complexly flavorful Cuban cuisine — a delightful contrast to the bland offerings served in the state-owned restaurants. Alessandro also linked Michaela and I up with a driver for $50 per day, a contrast from the instantaneous nature of Uber, and far less expensive. One of the many places our driver suggested we visit was Club Havana, a gym and spa where Cubans are not allowed — foreign visitors only. I took advantage of the $15 massage and gave my masseuse a $20 tip. Her gratitude and surprise at the tip amount took me off guard, and I thought about the fact that most Cubans earn around $20 month.

That $20 a month salary doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of a Cuban citizen, let alone a family. I noticed the entrepreneurial spirit of the people as they worked their side hustles, an example of which was the tiny nail salon I visited housed in a woman’s apartment. The lack of modern conveniences such as wifi and means of communication struck me as I compared the level of control the government of Cuba has over its people. Very limited contact with the outside world proved difficult and frustrating when I tried to communicate with my children and my businesses, but the opposite side of the coin of that was a blessing because I could pour my energy to the experience of Cuba. My gratitude for this experience will stay with me forever, as will my gratitude for the opportunities I have in the United States to pursue my goals and dreams.