HAVANA - In Cuba, I can tell you from my current trip, it's almost impossible for a tourist to walk down a street and not get into a conversation. Whether in Spanish or in English, these chats begin the same way: "Where are you from? Oh! The United States! My father" - or mother, or brother, or son, or uncle - "is in the United States!"

Everyone eventually gets around to El Bloqueo - the blockade - as Cubans call the American trade embargo, now almost as old as the revolution itself.

That embargo continues to put the kibosh on travel; in Havana, you won't find lots of Americans on vacation. American tourists who go to Cuba without U.S. permission can be prosecuted and fined. How often that actually happens isn't clear, nor do we know how many Americans go anyway, and get away with it.

All this began to inch toward change April 13, when President Obama lifted restrictions that had prevented Cuban Americans from freely visiting their relatives in Cuba and from sending money to them. When will the rest of us get to go? That may change too, possibly this year.

A current Senate bill would allow Americans to go to Cuba legally - as we can to every other country in the world. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.

In April, members of the Congressional Black Caucus returned from a Havana visit to ask President Obama to allow travel to Cuba. Then, Obama announced that the United States would seek "a new beginning" in its relations with the country.

All this means that American tourist travel to Cuba is looking more possible than it has in nearly five decades.

Cuba's Revolution turned 50 years old on New Year's Eve, and Cubans celebrated. But the main reason wasn't that dictator Fulgencio Batista fled from Fidel Castro's advancing revolutionary army just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1959. No, Cubans were just doing what they traditionally do on New Year's Eve - eating a big dinner and having the traditional midnight celebration, in which people throw bucketfuls of water out their windows and doors.

I didn't expect that, but after four trips to Cuba as a journalist, I shouldn't have been surprised. Cuba is never what an outsider expects. It is, in fact, the only country I can safely call "unique" and not be accused of cliche. For good or ill, there is no place quite like it.

Earlier trips had taken me across the country from Santiago de Cuba in the east to the province of Pinar del Rio in the west, but while it was always interesting, Cuba made me sad - because of its nice people and poor living conditions. I vowed not to go back "unless things changed."

Last year, they started to. The ailing Castro stepped aside for his (not much) younger brother, Raul. America elected a new president. I went back and, sure enough, there had been changes since I'd last seen the island - just not ones I expected.

Cuba is the biggest of the Caribbean islands - a long, thin scimitar of tropical greenery, sugar-sand beaches and picturesque Spanish-colonial towns. It lies on the U.S. doorstep, only 90 miles from Key West.

It was Spain's richest colony and almost one of ours. Even Thomas Jefferson contemplated annexing it. In the 20th century, it became an American playground, controlled by corrupt dictators and Yankee mobsters. That ended in 1959.

So did a lot of things, as Fidel Castro's revolution put Communist principles into practice. Today, most of Cuba looks shabby and poor, but Cubans don't act poor. And in many ways, they aren't.

"History will absolve me," Castro once said, and while several hundred thousand Cuban refugees may well disagree, he did make good on his biggest promises: health care and education. Both are universal. Both are free.

Clinics dot the island. So do schools. As a result, Cuba's child-mortality rate is lower than in the United States. And its literacy rate - 99.8 percent - is higher than ours.

More shops had opened since my last visit, and there were more goods in the shop windows - goods people might actually want, such as nice-looking shoes, small washing machines, stylish clothes. The prices were high, given that most Cubans work for government salaries that are a fraction of ours. But the people looked better dressed, better off than they had.

True, lots of people were still trying to earn extra money. There were still old men peddling English-language copies of Granma, the almost-newsless government newspaper.

And there were still people in costumes, posing for snapshots and hoping for tips - young street performers on stilts, women in turbans and quaint ruffled skirts. There were almost no beggars this time.

The old Soviet Union had supported Cuba by buying all its sugar, the island's main crop. When the USSR went, so did Cuba's economy. As the island struggled to get back on its feet, Cubans endured all sorts of shortages, from food and gasoline to toiletries, even soap.

Cuba turned to tourism, forming joint partnerships with foreign developers and building strings of high- quality beach hotels, starting on Varadero Beach, a long, sandy peninsula east of Havana. By 1996, tourism had replaced sugar as Cuba's biggest industry, and it is still growing.

Last year - despite punishing hurricanes that destroyed crops and homes across the island, canceled flights, and damaged hotels - Cuba counted 2.3 million tourists. That's more people than live in Havana, a stunning total for a country with a population of only 11.4 million.

U.S. passports used to list Cuba, along with Libya and Iraq, as places where "transactions related to travel . . . are generally prohibited." Today's passports are less specific; what the rules boil down to for most Americans is this impossibilty: We can go to Cuba - we just can't spend any money there.

Other nationals can, and clearly they do. There were vastly more tourists this winter - not just the ubiquitous Canadians who are 35 percent of Cuba's visitors, but big, noisy tour groups of Italians and French. And there were more restaurants, more sights, and more pricey shops to keep them busy.

But the veneer is thin. Venture one or two streets off the restored main drags, and buildings are crumbling, even when they're occupied, and windows are boarded. Facades are cracked or shored up with scavenged lumber.

And there are still shortages. Cubans I talked to said that eggs, fruit, and potatoes were hard to get this winter in the aftermath of last year's hurricanes.

Despite it all, Cubans dance, laugh, sing, flirt, joke, and chat up tourists. It's a mistake to assume that their friendliness is just a facade, or that, underneath, they all secretly loathe the regime.

One thing that hadn't changed was the sound of everyday Cuban life - people talking in the street or calling from one balcony to another; the clip-clop of horses' hooves; stray dogs arguing over scraps; even the occasional crow of a rooster. And music - music is everywhere.

It's impossible to walk down a street - any street, restored or in decay, in any town - and not hear pulses of Cuban music, mostly live, pouring out of house doors and hole-in-the-wall bars. That, it seems, will always be the same.

About Traveling to Cuba

The pitfalls

Cuba is a short, easy trip by air from Miami, major Canadian cities, and many countries in Central America and the Caribbean. But for ordinary Americans, getting there is still the hardest part, because of U.S. policy.

American tourists who go to Cuba without U.S. permission can be prosecuted and fined. Many Americans traveling on their own go through a third country - often Canada - meaning they buy a round-trip ticket from the United States to another country, then buy a separate round-trip from there to Havana.

Travel for educational and some other purposes may be approved. For details, go to the U.S. State Department's Cuba Web page, http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1097.html.

Also, you can visit the Web site of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs/cuba/cuba.shtml.

Money

Cuba allows U.S. currency to be changed into Cuban convertible pesos, but special fees add up to a 20 percent penalty. Credit cards, debit cards, and travelers' checks on U.S. banks don't work in Cuba because the two countries have no banking connection.

For Americans, the options are, essentially, money-laundering - opening a credit card or bank account with a non-U.S. bank, getting travelers' checks in foreign currency from a non-U.S. bank, or carrying another country's cash. Whatever you decide on, convert U.S. dollars into another currency before you get to Cuba.

Where to stay

The most interesting places to stay - especially if you want to meet Cubans - are the "casas particulares," private homes with government permits to rent rooms to tourists. Rates are controlled and last winter ranged from $25 to $35 per room for one or two people. A place to start looking is www.casaparticular.info, which links to 700 sites and Web pages.

If you decide to risk an independent vacation, the best overall travel deals are all-inclusive Canadian tour packages. As of this spring, one-week packages at dozens of four-star resorts on Varadero Beach, east of Havana, were going for as low as $1,000 in Canadian dollars. That covered round-trip airfare into Varadero, all meals plus snacks, all beverages including beer and wine, and more than a dozen activities ranging from salsa dancing to deep-sea fishing.

Dining there

Cuban food is not spicy and, unless it's at a fancy restaurant, not very exciting, either. Typical meals in Havana run $8 to $14. "Paladares" - private homes permitted to serve food to guests - are cheaper and often better than restaurants.

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