It's been a string of firsts for Carew Papritz.

The Green Valley author decided the only way to promote his book “The Legacy Letters” – which focusses on celebrating legacy and living life to its fullest – was to do “first-ever events.” So he held the first book signing on top of Mount St. Helens, delivered a book via drone in Green Valley, and did the first modern-day whistle stop train book signing tour.

But then he set his sights on his biggest first of all. After five months of planning, he spent five days in Cuba last month, becoming the first American author to hold a signing in the country since the death of Fidel Castro.

“I think this is the one I'm most proud of because it was so difficult,” Papritz said.

He got the idea after seeing offers for direct flights between Los Angeles and Havana. Some Internet searching found Cuba Libro, Havana's only English book store — a possible place to hold the signing.

But getting everything in place was a tricky proposition. Normal communication methods, such as email or even Facebook, are not as effective in Cuba because the Internet has only been on the island for two years. Then the store owner had to dig deep into who he was, why exactly he was coming, and what agendas he might have to avoid running afoul of political authorities.

She also naturally wanted to read a copy before signing off. Sending a file via the Internet was a no-go, so he tried mailing her a copy of the book in January. Months went by and it didn't arrive. So Papritz had to resort to finding an online travel forum, made contact with a Chicago couple planning to visit to Havana, and overnighted them a copy to have it hand-delivered. The copy he mailed at the beginning of the year? Still hasn't arrived.

Papritz, a long-time proponent of childhood literacy, had also gathered 400 books from Continental School, Washington state and California that he wanted to donate. But a Cuban government wary of someone bringing in books to have others resell them would only allow him to bring 40.

But he was able to bring a collections of letters from Continental School to give to the students of El Chacón Elementary in Havana. Unfortunately, school was out that week but he made arrangements to have them delivered.

With all these hang-ups, a week before the trip he still wasn't sure if it was going to come together.

But it did, and the book signing brought in more than 30 people. He was told it would have been double if it hadn't been pouring outside (Cubans hate doing anything when it's raining, they told him). Everyone who came was interested in talking with him about the book and his life, he said. Papritz also discovered that in a place that still refers to Ernest Hemingway as “Papa,” being a writer is a big deal.

“It's just the sheer 'wow' we have an American author again,” he said.

But their 'wow' was equally matched by Papritz's, who, like many, was blown away by the colorful classic cars on the road.

“It's time travel, time stopped there in 1958,” he said.

During his five days in country, he soaked in a little of post-Castro Cuba. He found most of the people spoke English; Cuban schools started teaching it after ties with Russia were cut. The bookstore he held the signing in was in a private apartment, which is not anything strange. Bookstores, restaurants and other private businesses are located in apartments because having money to own business real estate is still a distant concept.

Incomes are still low; a doctor will make $80 a month, he said. In the restaurants, beef is at a premium, while pork and seafood are cheap and plentiful. A lobster dinner, with appetizers and drinks, would cost $50. But if you are American, you need to pay for everything in cash.

Above all, Papritz said he sensed a vitality among the Cuban people, whom he found to be uniformly pleasant and well-dressed, no matter their economic condition. He compared the island now to when he went to Prague in 1980, when it was once again open to Westerners.

“I think it's like a dog with a collar that doesn't know it can run around the neighborhood,” he said.

However, the country is still getting used to the new reality, not to mention entertaining tourists. When he was flying out, there was a long delay at the airport simply because they didn't have enough baggage handlers.

Papritz said he hopes his small footnote in history is part of a wider breaking down of the walls between the United States and Cuba.

“If I could be that one more American that adds to this sense of hope and happiness between these two countries, I'm inspired,” he said.

David Rookhuyzen | 547-9728