Photo by Dennis Dean[/caption] In old Havana there is a tree that’s said to be older than the city itself. It was here, though it was very young, when the Taino people would worship, venerate, and respect her as Ancient Mother. It was here too, though a little older now, in 1519 when the Spanish first established a settlement. The land was claimed, right beside her growing roots, as San Cristobal de la Habana. She provided shade for the first mass and bestowed a breeze for the first council meeting. And as she reached toward the heavens, so did a city. Becoming resilient and strong, prosperous and wealthy, devout and ideological–she soon had a home overlooking churches and plazas, statues and mansions that rivaled those of Europe. She felt the breeze of independence and briefly felt it taken away from her. As times changed, though, she witnessed the plight of the Cuban people under a dictatorship and felt the mumblings of revolution brush through her leaves. Then, in 1959, as winter drew to an end she was here still to feel the rumbling of a tank shake her roots to usher in spring and a new hope for her land. More than half a century later, the wind again sways her branches and one of her leaves falls in 2014, twirling like a Sky Dancer, landing flatly on my head. I am about to visit Havana, Cuba for a whirlwind three-day trip, and I decide before boarding a charter flight from Miami to Jose Marti International Airport, to drop the veil on my parochial American upbringing, to observe and reflect on a country that has persevered through difficult times, and embrace (not criticize) its convictions. Of course, actually being in Havana, exploring, and meeting the people, I am forced to modify this original declaration. Havana lends itself to open-minded tourists who should be curious about the political system, who want to question the state of the city, and who will dig deeper into the country’s modern-day ethos while understanding its past. And once you find yourself sharing a mojito with a local, you may be surprised to see just how open and honest they are about their lives and their country. As my journey unfolds, I find the city to be a living testament of its history and ideals, and I meet a proud people who have the strength to overcome obstacles that the modern-day traveler may not realize still exist. I am able to visit Cuba because of loosened travel restrictions on citizens of the USA thanks to a recent change in policy encouraged by President Barack Obama. Now, tour companies are allowed to operate in the island nation as long as they are licensed through the juggernaut education-based travel program called People to People. My trip is booked through Pride World Travel, a member of the IsramWorld portfolio of brands, which is beginning their LGBT-focused tours of Cuba in 2015. Because these are educational trips, Americans are still at the mercy of the Cuban government that works to organize specific itineraries for each group. If you don’t feel like going along with the plans, too bad. As long as the official government itinerary is in play, you’re required to be with your group. But as I learn during my trip, there is a leniency depending on your guide. Luckily, my itinerary is relaxed and filled with a steady stream of good food, fascinating people from the LGBT community (including my guide), and even time to relax at the gay beach.