First blog post

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TRAVELING TO CUBA – MY JOURNAL OF THOUGHTS AND IMPRESSIONS

 

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Last night’s orientation was like the Keystone Kops.  Filling out the forms was a nightmare because most of the tour members terrified of making a mistake in filling out the various forms, including the visa form.  They are Europe only types although there are a few that have traveled on tours extensively.  Randy the tour director seems very knowledgeable and experienced.  He is also a travel writer.

We are at the gate for the HAV flight.  An American Airlines 737…yea.  Checked in with no overweight  Yippee.

Well, I made it.  The last 2 days have been incredibly long and tiring, but I am sitting in the lobby of the Melia Cohiba Hotel overlooking The Malecon (the Strand to us) here in La Habana.

http://www.melia.com/en/hotels/cuba/havana/melia-cohiba/index.html.

Oh, were do I begin?  At the beginning I think

As I told you, we arrived in Miami on Monday, early and got to the hotel with no problems which after the dramas with AA on Sunday was almost a miracle.  There are 3-4 people in the group who were on the same flight and they were talking about the back and forth as well.  Still don’t know why all that was happening.  BTW…turns out that the reason the upper level roadway was closed at TBIT was due to a terrible car accident.  Not sure, but Joan thinks it may have been a fatal one.

Anyway, back in Miami.  After checking in, we kind of hung around and went downstairs to an early dinner because we were starving.  I had a wonderful Asian salad and Joan had the Mediterranean one.  At one point we thought that the kitchen staff might have gone to Malta and Singapore to make the salads because they took so long to serve them.  But, it was worth the wait.  They were delicious.  At 2000 hrs, the Orientation meeting began.  Randy Keck, the tour director, is excellent.  He introduced us to a young man from the Cuba Travel Service (CTS) who took us through the intricacies of filling out the visa and customs forms.  Anyone who read the forms (date format) carefully, should have been able to do this all in 5 minutes, but alas, that was not the case.  It took over an hour because most everyone in the group was terrified of making a mistake.

A word about our fellow group members is in order here.  Joan and I are probably the median age.  I am one of the most experienced travelers, but most likely the only one who has done any independent, on my own (or with Kathleen to Mexico and Cornwall) trips.  They are not comfortable outside their cocoons.  I’ll give you a good example.  After lunch yesterday, Joan and I left the restaurant and walked around a few blocks just to see what we could see.  We saw some beautiful facades of buildings, but when you look inside, they are total wrecks.  They look burned or bombed out.  I can’t imagine any more decrepit structures in South Central or Harlem.  We also met a young man who explained that in these buildings there are apartments where 3, 4 or more families actually live.  I can’t imagine it.  He also showed us the old Bacardi HQ building.  Again, what a beautiful façade.  We couldn’t see inside, but that is probably just as well.  I think we could have kept wandering and poking around for the rest of the afternoon, but we had to get back to get on the bus.  My point of this is that when we got back to the bus some of the group were surprised that we were “brave” enough to “just walk around like that”.

OK, back on track.  The Orientation finished about 2130 hrs with the information that we were leaving the hotel at 0-dark 30 in the morning LITERALLY.  Randy had left wake up calls for everyone for 0345.  Most of the tour group is from California so there were a few groans as it meant another short night.  I hung back to talk to Randy about delivering the medical supplies to Maricel’s brother and Joan’s birthday on Friday.  As it turns out there is another tour member who also has a birthday on the same day!  What are the odds?  Doing a small celebration may turn out to be tricky, but it will be do-able.  Delivering the medical supplies should not be a problem.  Randy will ask the local Cuban tour guide to call the brother on Saturday and arrange the time and location for the drop off on Sunday.  I was asleep even before my head hit the pillow, I think.

On to Tuesday and Cuba!  We were up about 0330, before the call.  We each grabbed a quick shower, threw a few last minute things in our cases and went down to the lobby, cases and all.  The Tour Company had a bagged breakfast, but I passed as fruit salad and a muffin aren’t on the diet and I had a feeling that it might be my last chance “to be good” and as it turned out, I was right.  The trip to the airport and the check-in process were so well organized.  Two hotel shuttles lined up after being preloaded with the bags.  We climbed aboard, took the 5 minute ride to the airport and got our bags again at curbside.  We trooped into the departure lobby and gathered while Randy took our passports to the counter.  Once a Cuba Travel Service agent confirmed our visas, Randy returned our passports and took each of us to check-in.  I was a little nervous about the bag weight issue, especially in light of the fact that there had been an unannounced change to the baggage policy and the TOTAL allowable weight for BOTH checked and carry-on baggage was now 20K.  When I checked my bag at LAX, it weighted 44.5lbs so I was a soupçon over with the checked bag to say nothing of the carry-on which is about 12K.  However, I got away with it as they turned blind eye to the soupçon and never weighted the carryon.  Phew.  Since it was before 0500 by now, we got through TSA screening quickly and on to the gate.  The flight boarded smoothly and we were on our way a few minutes early.  45 later we were on final into Jose Marti Airport in La Habana.  Flying over the island was a bit of a surprise as I expected more green.  I expected a lot of green farmland and forest.  There was some, but also a lot of brown.  I can only believe that a lot of fields were plowed up or recently planted but it is also the end of the dry season so maybe they just need some rain. Their seasons are the reverse of California with the summer being the rainy season and winter the dry season.

When we landed, we parked at remote stand and walked down the ramp stairs and arrived in Cuba.  It was a short walk to the arrivals area and Immigration.  Apparently USA flights have a “special” arrival building away from the main terminal, so we were the only flight in immigration.  There were at least 12 positions open and I was the 2nd person in line at mine.  I stepped up to the officer and I guess I expected a Russian or 1980’s Chinese style officer, but the young lady greeted me with a bright smile, asked if I had been in Africa within the last month (why?), stamped my passport and cheerfully said “Bienvenidos a Cuba”.  I pushed open the door into baggage claim, which is as dreary and disorganized as almost every other baggage claim area in the world.

Once we had all claimed our bags, we walked out of customs and really were in Cuba,  The sky was a beautiful blue and it was warm and slightly humid, but not too bad as it was only about 0900.  After boarding the bus, and the buses are all new, identical and Chinese, we headed to Revolution Square. It is enormous and can hold upwards of about 100K people, I think.  This is where Fidel set the Guinness record for the longest speech ever, over 8 hours.  The reason we were there was that we would do a bit of touring as we could not go to the hotel until after 1500 because the rooms would not be ready.  After taking photos at Revolution Square, it was off to the Hotel Nacional which is a stunning old world style hotel with a knockout lobby and lovely gardens out back overlooking the Malecon and the Atlantic http://www.hotelnacionaldecuba.com/en/home.asp. Again, I noticed how dry everything was but haven’t asked about it yet.  I forgot to do so because of the huge artillery guns in bunkers around along the Atlantic facing portions of the gardens.  October 1963 anyone????  Had a very refreshing sparkling water with lots of lime juice while relaxing under a Banyan tree with some of the other tour members.  Back onto the bus and off to lunch at “Sloppy Joes” http://sloppyjoes.org/  What a cool place with photos of 1950’s “mobsters” from the US all over the place.  The food was quite good.  I had a Cuban Sandwich.  When we finished, this is when Joan and I went for our walk.

Back onto the bus and off we went to the Cemitario Colon the most popular cemetery in Havana https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colon_Cemetery,_Havana.  Oh you do know how I love a good cemetery and this was outstanding.  I would rank it as #2 on my all-time list (the one in St. Petersburg would be #1 only because I am more familiar with those names than the Cuban ones).  Remind me to tell you about the Amelia grave when I get home.

At last, it was time to go to the hotel.  The rooms, mercifully were ready and so up to a mind blowing view of the Malecon and the Atlantic.  Huge room and very comfortable.

DSCN0682

After a couple hours rest and organizing (including finding my camera that I thought I had left at home which needless to say had me really upset) it was time to change for dinner.  Unfortunately a storm moved in and the wonderful classic car convertibles that were to take us to the restaurant had to leave the tops up because it was pouring rain.  I rode in a 1953 pink Chevy.

The joy of it all was significantly mitigated by the gasoline fumesL.  In a word, the trip was a bit of a nightmare. The restaurant, La California, Is a funky place here you could poke around looking at all the old stuff on the walls.  It is a palador which means that it is a privately owned restaurant and trust me when I say, the owners are very successful.  The food was good, especially the lobster tails.  The service, impeccable. http://www.lahabana.com/guide/la-california/.

This is a good place to talk about the meals we had in Cuba.  With the exception of Sloppy Joes, all of the restaurants we ate at were paladors.  Sloppy Joes is a government owned restaurant, but also an iconic one.  Each day, for the most part, we were asked to choose among grilled fish (red snapper, always), grilled chicken or shrimp/pork.  The entrée would be accompanied by a cabbage, tomato and other available vegetable.  Dessert would almost always be flan, ice cream or both together.  When we would arrive at the restaurant, we would be treated to a complimentary mojito and then were given a choice of a complimentary drink with the meal that would be flat or sparking water, a soda (pop), light or dark beer or red or white wine.  To be honest, I drank more alcohol in 2 weeks than I normally drink in 2 years!  The only times we were not given the choices were when the meals were served family style when it all appeared on the table.  When I get home, I think will l go vegetarian for a few days because I really miss them.  We all also were served way more food than we are used to eating, but for the most part most of us cleaned our plates at every meal.  We were all concerned about waste considering the food rationing for Cubans, but we were assured that no food ever went to waste.

 

Day 2 Wednesday 11 May

It was the best of times and the worst of times.  Never was a quote so true as yesterday.  We started the day with a tour of the Old City.  The Old City is a couple of square miles inside the wall filled with 18th, 19th and early 20th century buildings.  The tour was led by a young architect named Daniel.  He had the good fortune to be sent to Zurich to study butDSCN0708instead of being seduced by the money and opportunity to stay in Switzerland, he returned home to work on the restoration of the Old City, He works for the Office of Historical City at a salary of approximately USD20/month. http://www.lahabana.com/Culture/art_architecture.php?id=Havana%27s-Renaissance

But he is passionate about the work and his passion and joy absolutely are a part of his guiding presentation.  All of us in the group agreed that we could have listened to him all day, but we only had 2+ hours to see as much as we could.  It is difficult to give the details of what he said, but let me try to do a decent overview.

The Old City was founded by the Spanish in the mid1700’s.  The buildings there are outstanding examples of 18th and 19th century colonial architecture and account for less than 20% of the total.  Early 20th century architecture accounts for about 70% and post revolution less than 10%.  Prior to the revolution, the Old City was a vibrant community with various families owning each building and, in most cases, taking loving care of their home and business properties.  When the revolution came in 1959, many of these families sold out or abandoned their properties and fled to mostly Spain or the US.  Those who stayed were required to sell their properties to the government for rock bottom prices.  While Cuba does not have any eminent domain laws, the effect of these low, low prices was the same in my mind.  In any event, the government then divided the buildings into apartments, if they were not already done so, and resold the apartments to families.  The government retained ownership of the land.  Now here is the real issue:

The government owns the land.  A family owns their apartment.  But … No one owns the actual building.  So over the years as roof leaked and plumbing or electrical issues arose, no one accepted responsibility for the repairs.  The apartment owners said it was the government.  The government said no, it is the individual apartment owners and nothing got done.  This issue remains unresolved today and meanwhile the buildings deteriorate.  Additionally, with salaries so low, instead of a single family living in the apartment, their children, grandchildren and now even great grandchildren live there.  To accommodate the numbers in a small space, many have subdivided the space horizontally by adding a mezzanine when the ceiling height allows for it.  These mezzanines are not up to code by any means but no one stops it.DSCN0732 - Copy

All of this helps me understand the very strong resistance of many early Cubans in the US because the Cuban government appropriated their property and they refuse to have anything to do with Cuba, or allow the US to have anything to do with Cuba, until they are guaranteed return of the property and compensation for it.  Sixty, Seventy years ago, I understand, but it has been a long time and in the immortal words of John Lennon “Let It Be” but that is just my opinion.  If Jews and Europeans could learn to work with Germany and Asians and Americans could learn to work with the Japanese after WWII, why can’t Cuban Americans and the Cuban government at least be willing to talk occasionally?  Good God, even Israel and the Arab states talk once in a while.

But back to the restoration.  The Office of Historical City is a quasigovernmental agency.  They get seed money from UNESCO as the old city is a World Heritage site.  Then, they also get some money from the government, mostly from businesses outside of Cuba, mostly from Europe like Benneton.  For instance, if if Starbucks wants to open a store in the old city, they must agree to very strict rules.  The store must be on the ground floor of one of the existing buildings, the façade of the store is strictly detailed.  The size of the exterior branding is limited and the interior design is also detailed in the contract.  In addition, the company (Starbucks) would have to agree to invest in various projects in and around the old city.  Some of the projects might be funding a school or taking (financial) responsibility for a building restoration or any one of a number of projects determined by the OHC.

Another challenge in the restoration is that because there is no eminent domain, the OHC would have to buy back all the apartments that currently exist and relocate the owners with a buy back clause guaranteeing that they could return to the new apartment.  But here’s the rub.  The existing apartment might have 20 or more people living there but the codes for the new apartments might only allow for a family of 4 depending on the size.  Many buildings have more than 20 apartments and to meet the restoration requirements the renovated building might only have 10-12 apartments.  What do you do with the other families?  Also, many people have turned part or parts of their homes into small businesses.  How do they earn a living while the building is being restored?  And, this is nothing compared to the heritage restoration requirement classifications which I don’t remember exactly.  Needless to say each building has a classification that determines to what extent the building’s exterior and interior can be changed.  I suspect that if I am reincarnated and return 100 years from now, there will be extensive progress but an overwhelming amount will remain.

But, once they finish the Old City there is the rest of Havana to renovate and I suspect, the rest of the country as well.  Cuba seems to be a microcosm of what greed, corruption due to the previous regime and inertia on the part of the current regime can do to destroy a country.  Circumstance beyond their control, like the demise of the Soviet system also impact on projects.

Here is the other thing…. The Castro government has focused on education and health.  Good things to focus on without a doubt, but at the expense of living conditions????  And let’s say I earn a college degree or even an advanced degree.  What good is it when I can only find a job that pays USD20/month which is way below the poverty level?  I know that American students face the same problem of a good education, but at an incredible financial cost and still can’t find a good job, but USD20/month?

I am sure that I will learn much more about Cuban life as the days go on, but for now it is time to leave the old city and move on the Ernest Hemingway’s house.  I guess you have to be a Hemingway fan to truly appreciate it, but I am not one of them.  His books are fine, but … Anyway his house is a house, his pool a pool and his boat a boat.  Now those of you who are fans, don’t get irritated with me, but I would most likely have reacted the same to Beethoven’s house and there I am a fan.  However, in the parking lot, they did have a DSCN0816Mojito stand that, I am told, is the only one in Havana that uses fresh sugar cane, in that you can watch the man pressing the sugar juice from the cane and then pour it into your glass.  I had a virgin mojito (it was 1130 in the morning and I had an empty stomach and yes I shouldn’t have the sugar, but I am on vacation in Cuba so I could have a treat).

From there we went to lunch at a “bohio”.  Bohio’s are farm “cooperatives” for seniors and the disabled where they can work but get free meals.  All the food served is from the farm.  We ate in a lovely pavilion where Joan and I shared a delicious lamb stew and a rice and veggie dish.  Here was the problem for me.  I don’t do reptiles.  I really don’t do reptiles.  As we started from the main house to the pavilion, I caught sight of some “reptily” thing in the arms of one of the workers.  I immediately turned around and refused to go any further.  I wasn’t sure what it was but I wasn’t moving.  Thank god for Joan who told me to close my eyes and she led me past it.  OK fine, I had a real mojito at lunch to calm my nerves, but then as we were leaving the pavilion to go back to the bus, Randy said that we might have noticed the pet alligator on our way out, but now there was a pet python.  That was it.  No way.  Un uh, nope.  I am not leaving the pavilion unless the thing is totally removed.  Randy went to ask the person to hide from me so I could leave which he did and I left but the damage was done.  I was shaking and queasy with horrible cramps for the rest of the day.  I was dizzy and light headed and I am sure that the mojito was not the cause as I only drank a few sips.  While I am physically recovered, I am still shaking a little as I am typing hours later.

From the Bohio we moved on to the Museo de los Artes in Cental Havana for a concert in a conservatory of advanced degree music students.  They were 8 vocalists and musicians who sang Cuban and world music including some samba and folk songs from Cuba, Desafinado from Brasil, an Argentine tango and Summertime from Porgy and Bess.  They were outstanding.  The leader of the group was a woman in her mid 40’s or so and obviously a professor.  She was able to roll up her hands into kind of an open fist and blow through the opening in such a way as to make music.  Extraordinary.  The students are all also professional performers in various clubs around town both individually and as a group.  After their performance, we had a chance to ask them questions about their lives and careers.  Of course they were shy but Elio our local guide eased them along and provided translation.  I wish I hadn’t been so chicken and had asked them if they had any questions for us, but by then all I wanted to do was get back to the hotel and die quietly.

I got my wish.  As soon as I laid down I was out cold for 2 hours.  Best 2 hours I could have had because I woke up feeling rested and calm with no nausea or cramps.  So off to dinner.  I am so happy I was able to make dinner because it was wonderful.

La Bonita is a new restaurant, only 7 months old. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d8865868-Reviews-La_Bonita-Havana_Cuba.html. It is very upscale but worth whatever the price.  We ate on the patio at table for 4 which made interacting with your tablemates so much easier.  We ate with Vernon and Patricia who are delightful, interesting and well-travelled.  We all had the most delicious filet mignon with DSCN0817flan and chocolate ice cream and coffee.  I would not have changed anything on the plate.  It was the first meal that I can honestly say I enjoyed almost as much as Cornwall, but not quite.  However, the best part was the jazz quintet that played nonstop for the entire time.  They were really wonderful and the best possible accompaniment to an idyllic dinner.  Tomorrow is the cigar factory tour (yuck) and the flea market.  We will see what the day brings.  I am hoping to find inspiration for Joan’s birthday dinner tomorrow.

 

Day 3 Thursday 12 May

Another day of surprises and people to people interaction.  Let’s see.. we started off this morning going to a well-established cigar factory in Havana.  The factory was built in 1844 and originally only rolled H. Upman cigars.  Today they roll for over 20 companies including Upman, Romeo and Julietta and Cohiba.  The lobby to the factory is stunning and very baroque.  Victorio was our guide and very open to questions, not only about making cigars but also all aspects of working conditions.  The factory was very noisy so it was hard to understand but as best as I would hear there are 500 workers of which 40% are women.  The workers are on duty 8 hours/day Monday – Friday and 4 hours on Saturday.  They are expected to roll 170 cigars/day.  On average, it takes 9 months of training to become proficient, but if you can learn faster, you are released to the line.  I am not sure if trainees are paid, but once on the line the pay is very high, more than most of the professions.  No one asked or questioned this until after we left, but I told those who asked that it seemed to me that while it might not seem fair, these are highly skilled workers and that it seemed to me that if the government needs hard currency and cigars are a major export, it makes sense to me to hire the best people, train them well and pay them very well.  That made sense to the others.

Anyway, workers in this factory have some form of worker’s comp, but not with the same paid days off as we are used to in California.

The process used to make the cigars is identical to the process when the factory opened.  The only “update” I could see was the material used for the molds.  It looks like a plastic rather than wood.  Some of the presses are, in fact, the same ones from 100 years ago. Where the tobacco is grown and its age will affect the aroma and strength.  The younger the better or so I think I was told

When we entered the production area, we were first shown the process of selecting the leaves to use for each type of cigar.  I didn’t catch most of this, being at the back of the group, but we were all given leaves to feel.  They are so soft and pliant, like a fine fabric you might choose to make a garment.  The smell is sweet and pleasant.  WE then gathered around a woman who was wrapping cigars and the process was explained.  While he was explaining, Victorio lit up a cigar that might have been a Cohiba, the finest in the world.   He passed it over to one of the tour group so we could all try it.  No Thank You! Aside from the fact that the smell and smoke were making me nauseous, the idea of sharing a cigar with 28m of “my closest friends” didn’t appeal.

Each cigar is sent to quality control to be checked for the air flow and then returned to the roller for final pressing.  Once pressed, all cigars go to the humidor room.  The humidor room is kept at around 65 degrees F with a tightly controlled humidity.  The temperature and humidity are constantly being tweeked to account for changes in the temp/humidity throughout the day. 70% of these cigars are put through a QC process and then as a final check, the “tasters” will feel, smell and taste 3 cigars from the batch for a final QC check.  Once passed, the cigars have the label affixed and then are boxed.

Cigars may be kept in the fridge for up to a year.  In a proper humidor, they can last up to 4 years.  As the tour was wrapping up, I asked Victorio about fire safety as it is an old building and many people smoke in the building.  He said there were measures in place, including a no smoking in the building requirement, but no one pays any attention to it!  I fear that one day it will burn down and workers will be killed.

After the tour we went to the factory store where there was an opportunity to buy the cigars and to buy rums.  Pass!  But, it is interesting.  For those who bought cigars in a box, the price tag was removed and exchanged for one at a lower price as there is a USD 100 limit on the number of cigars entering the USA.

Before moving on to our next stop in the Miramar district, I think it is appropriate to talk about some of the interactions I have had with people on the street.  It is apparent that poverty is the overriding fact of daily life for most Cubans.  You only have to look at their housing and clothes to realize this.  It cannot be hidden from view.  It is openly discussed both on tour and when you speak with random people on the street.  Today this is a result of 2 things; the first and foremost being the US embargo,  This not only affects trade and interactions with the US directly but also worldwide as any trade transactions will pass through bank and the US threatens banks that deal with Cuba.  However, until 1991 and the collapse of the USSR and its Eastern European “partners”, the impact was minimized on a financial basis because the Soviets poured money into Cuba, although the cultural impact of the USSR was minimal in that there are almost no Soviet style buildings or culture  here in Havana.  In fact, the most obvious one, is the old Soviet embassy where the fencing and barbed wire were designed to keep the embassy staff in the compound, rather than keeping others out!

Everyone I have spoken with so far is so happy with the changes in US policy.  Everywhere I have been, you hear “We love Americans”.  Is this the truth?  I don’t really know, but the body language is so open and real that I have to believe it.  I am looking forward to getting outside Havana to see if it is different.

OK, back to the tour.  Miramar is the Bel Air, the Turtle Creek and the Georgetown of Havana all rolled into one.  It is where the elite of the elite live along with many, if not most, of the Ambassadors who do not live in the Embassy compound.  I have to say US Ambassador DeLaurentis has really nice digs.  We were driving through Miramar on our way to the Jimenez neighborhood, and the home of Jose Fuester, a renowned painter and mosaic artist.  http://havana-cultura.com/en/visual-arts/jose-fuster.  He has become a one man neighborhood renovation project.  He started with his own house and as he progressed neighbors asked him to also create the exterior art and designs of their homes.  The result is an ongoing upgrading of an area that was the backside of Miramar.  It was a place no one wanted to go to or acknowledge existed.  Today it is a major stop for tourists and generates jobs and income for the neighborhood.  It has also become an artist colony drawing artists of all kinds to its environs.

Words are inadequate to describe the result of his works.  It is an adult Disneyland on steroids.  Many say that he is heavily influenced by Antonio Gaudi, but I honestly see more Dali and Miro or maybe Picasso.  What do you think?  He has paid for all of this by himself.  He believes that to accomplish things you need 3 things:

  1. Talent
  2. Perseverance
  3. Boundless generosity

He has all 3 in abundance

After our stop in this visual Wonderland, it was off to lunch at a new restaurant in Central Havana in another renovated area full of artists.  Lunch was at El Figaro, a new restaurant.  Here we had a meeting with Pedro Medina, a national baseball hero who was the catcher for the Cuban National team and Los Industriales, Cuba’s Yankees.  http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Pedro_Medina

It was an interesting exchange.  He is now a professor of baseball teaching training techniques to the next generation and developing the next generation of players.  One way they are doing this has been to announce that each of the 16 provinces will have a provincial team.  The teams will compete against each other annually for the Cuban championship.  Cuba needs to counteract the flow of top players to teams outside of Cuba, mostly to the US by defection and Japan by contract.  Following an OK lunch of pork chops and outstanding strawberry ice cream, we went out into the neighborhood.  Most of the group went to see the barber college which is helping to spearhead the neighborhood under the auspices of Carmillo who has the talent, perseverance and boundless energy in abundance to help the neighbor grow.  Again, the focus was on art and cuisine.  Every building seems to have an art gallery and a restaurant.  I chose to poke around in the galleries.  The art is not to my taste, but it is high quality.

From here we went to the crafts market situated in an old terminal on the pier.  It is humungous and cavernous and way outside my comfort zone.  Most of the wares are trinkets for tourists so I went out the back to the pier and walked down to a microbrewery where I was able to sit at a table by the sea and relax with a double espresso and watch the world go by.

Since I am sitting here watching the world go by, it might be a good time to “talk” about Freedom of speech.  Many of the tour members are surprised, dare I say stunned, by the openness that Elio and others have shown in talking about the problems they face in their daily lives and the failures they see in their government.  After my trip to Russia in 2012, I am not as surprised.  It is not that I expected it here, but rather I am not surprised by it, particularly with the local tour guides.  During the Special Period, following the collapse of the USSR, there was much less freedom to speak openly.

This is a good place to explain the Special Period because all aspects of life in Cuba today are still reeling from this.  Basically, there are 4 periods in Cuban history today:

  1. Pre-Revolutionary (Colonial and Dictatorships of the XXth century)
  2. Revolutionary beginning in 1959 with the over throw of Batista by Fidel Castro
  3. The Special Period beginning in 1990 with the collapse of the USSR and the strengthening of the US embargo. Within 2 years, the economy had shrunk by almost 70% and exports even more.  During this period the US has also tightened sanctions on any country that trades with Cuba.
  4. The future. No one knows what will happen, but there is great hope and optimism that the embargo will be eased or even removed.  BTW, Cubans refer to the embargo as a blockade.

With the retirement of Fidel and the ascension of his brother, Raul, there has been more transparency in the government apparent to the Cuban people according to Elio.  Before Raul, Cubans used humor and jokes as a way to “discuss” deficiencies in their lives and government.  When Raul came to power, one of the first things he did was to initiate a series of Cuban style Town Hall meetings in which Cubans were encouraged to let the government officials know what was wrong and what they wanted to see changed.  I can imagine that initially people were very reluctant to speak up, but apparently with time they became more open.  Now we have to remember that open is a relative term and I doubt that anyone is openly critical in a way we are used to, but “baby steps”. Elio is a very open type of personality and has been honest with us about his feelings and opinions but I have to wonder if he would be as open outside the confines of a tourist bus or one on one.  Still it is refreshing.

Elio also mused about who will follow Raul.  As he put it, Cuba needs a LEADER, not just a president.  Apparently, there is a woman that he thinks has all the qualities to be a leader who can make the tough choices about investment in Cuba as, hopefully the embargo is eased and lifted. She has fought for sex education in the schools.  The programs have been successful in that the incidence of HIV infection is very, very low especially for a 3rd world country and the same for teenage pregnancy.  But her biggest mark has been in the area of gay rights.  There is still a long way to go in this area, but her leadership has helped to make change in this area.  However, there is one big drawback to this woman.  She is Raul’s daughter, Mariela, and as such would most likely be unacceptable to many inside and outside Cuba, especially in the USA.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariela_Castro.  This is a Wikipedia link so…

While I am thinking about this, a band has started to play.  Oh they are wonderful and DSCN0862remind me so much of Pink Martini.  Some of the other patrons got up to dance.  A perfect Cuban experience for me.

It is typical here that the band will try to sell their CDs to tourists so I have to buy one, well actually I bought 2, because they remind me so much of Pink Martini.  As it turns out, the lead singer, knows the music of Pink Martini well, so when I told her she reminds me of them, they performed a Pink Martini song, Amado Mio, for me.  It was one of those special, personal moments that can happen on a trip that are so meaningful to one but no one else.

Well, it is time to get back to the bus.  Tonight is a free night in that we are free to do whatever we want and go wherever we want.  Joan and I talked about it on the bus back to the hotel, but we are just too tired to be too adventurous, so we are going to have a rest and then walk across the street to a place the Elio has recommended.

We got to the restaurant called HM7, but it is not the one on the ground floor that we thought it was.  It is up on the second floor and I almost died because it is very posh and upscale. www.habanamia7.com.   I had already decided to pick up the check since tomorrow is Joan’s ??th birthday.  Oh where is the AMEX decal on the window?  Remember, no US credit cards are accepted in Cuba.  We checked the menu and decided to give it a whirlDSCN0865.  I can hardly explain how lovely the ambiance and the art on the walls were and how excellent the service (of course we were the only diners as it was only 1830).  We each had a lovely glass of Chilean wine, a Cabernet for Joan and a Chardonnay for me both of which were poured very generously.  The meal was sublime having been perfectly prepared.  Now came the real shocker.  I had asked the hostess to bring the bill to me only and when I looked at it, it was 46 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).  Basically, that means USD 46.00!!!!!!  That meal in a similar location at home would have been at least USD 46.00 PER PERSON.  The wine was only 5 CUC per glass.  Amazing!

I might as well mention the currency thing here as I am talking about prices.  Much like China in the 1980’s, Cuba has 2 levels of currency, the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) used by foreigners and the Cuban Peso (CUP) which is used by Cubans.  Foreigners basically cannot use CUP and Cubans cannot use CUC, but they can convert CUC received by foreigners into CUP.  Also, foreign currency must be converted into CUC and back to foreign currency inside Cuba as it is unacceptable outside the country for any reason.  While the exchange rate between foreign currency and the CUC is not all that favorable, prices in restaurants and things to buy are very reasonable.

When we left the restaurant, it was such a lovely evening that we decided to watch the sun set from the Malacon.  Joan decided not to cross the highway as there are no traffic lights, but I went.  First of all, it is weird watching the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean.  This is the DSCN0891wrong ocean from my perspective!.  But the colors made it all seem so right.  There is a big rock wall at the edge of the beach where you can sit.  Locals say it is the longest bench in the world.  Where I was sitting, there were 2 fisherman below me cleaning their fish, oblivious to anyone else.  Couples of all ages were strolling along hand in hand and musicians were playing all up and down the Malacon.   It was one of those magical evenings.

When I got back to the hotel, I noticed an older couple walking to the elevators.  I noticed them because he was wearing a pink seersucker suit.  We all got in the elevator together and I mentioned to the lady that her husband was very dapper, not only because of the suit but the ties, shirt and pocket handkerchief in the pocket were all perfect.  She said he was always like that.  But here’s the thing … Apparently, they were childhood friends but for some reason lost touch when they were still children.  They somehow reconnected last year after more than 60 years and are very much in love.  I wish I knew more but they got off on the 5th floor so there was not a lot of time.  It was an awwww moment.

Day 4 Friday 13 May

Joan’s Birthday and so much more ahead of us.  We left the hotel at 0830 this morning heading to Cienfuegos.  We will make a small detour to the Bay of Pigs for lunch and a tour of the Bay of Pigs Museum.

One of the nice things about long rides on a tour bus is that the local guide has a lot of time to talk about issues and life in the country.  Elio is one of the best at doing this.  We covered a lot of ground on the ride to the Bay of Pigs which was about 3 hours.  Let me kind of list what we covered and Elio’s opinions and thoughts about them

Racial issues – Cuba is a melting pot, but unlike many Caribbean, Central and South American countries, the Spanish did not kill of all of the indigenous Indian tribes.  However, like the USA, they did import large numbers of slaves from Africa. In Cuba today it is almost impossible to find a “pure” Hispanic, African or tribal person.  Throughout the generations, mixed marriages and births have been common so people here only refer to themselves as Cuban without any racial, ethnic or national origin modifier such as African Cuban.  No, people are just Cuban.  Is Cuba without any racial tensions? No, but it is rare because almost everyone is mixed.

Religion – Prior tom the revolution, Cuba was, of course, a Catholic county as is evident by the number of churches throughout the country. But with the move towards communism and throughout most of Fidel’s presidency, religion was banned.  Naturally, the older generations still practiced but did so kind of on the QT.  Religion was not taught to the younger generations.  During this period the churches did remain open and were never destroyed or used as storage facilities as happened in the USSR.  However, with the collapse of communism in Europe and the advent of the Special Period in Cuba, 2 things happened.  First, Pope John Paul II convinced Fidel to loosen up on the practice of religion.  Second, people naturally turn to their god in hard times.  They need and want comfort.  The same is true with change.  All change is scary and when it is negative, people often look to the church for solace.  One sign that religion now has government approval is that schools now close of a week at Christmas.  I suspect that it also has to do with less religious reasons such as giving workers and students a break without too much cost.  That is my opinion, giving something of value to the people but at very little cost to the government.

The advent of the Special Period brought rapid negative change. Raul has tried to manage it, but to do so change has had to become a part of the daily life.  Every day there are new laws and regulations and the cessation of old laws and regulations.  One of the most common phrases that Randy and Elio use is “We are not sure.  We have to check and see if there has been any change in the regulations”.  And, like all places, the application of the laws and regulations is not consistent.  For instance, we did not need to show our passports to check into the hotel in Havana, but will need to do so in Cienfuegos, they think.  Cubans have a shorthand that I suspect most tourists adopt to describe all this change “DWI” – Deal With It.  I love it and both Joan and I have started using it.

But we are now on our way to the Bay of Pigs and truth about what happened here needs to be discussed.  I agree with Elio that truth is personal.  We believe what we read in the papers and hear on television about our own governments’ “take” on issues based on our personal prejudices.  Certainly the truth behind the Bay of Pigs invasion is very personal in both the USA and Cuba.  I am not going to repeat the history behind Bay of Pigs.  There is so much out there but here is a pretty good link http://www.britannica.com/event/Bay-of-Pigs-invasion. I will mention that JFK inherited the plan to invade Cuba from the Eisenhower administration.  I will also mention that many of the participants were backers of the Batista regime who had lost everything when Fidel nationalized so much.  Some (many?) were former members of Batista’s secret police.  In Cuba, while I can’t say for sure that the “people” supported Fidel, they also were happy to see the end of the Batista dictatorship.  This was not a case of “better the devil you know…”  But here’s the thing, from my perspective and mine alone as I do not have all the facts.  In 1962, both Castro and JFK were relatively new presidents.  Fidel was still on the fence between the East and the West vis a vis the Cold War.  JFK was, frankly, a weak president at this point who relied heavily on the advice of the CIA and its director, Allen Dulles, the Joint Chiefs and the NSA.  These agencies were heavily invested in the invasion plan and convinced JFK to move forward with the invasion against what I believe to be his better judgement.  Needless to say, the invasion was a complete fiasco from the American perspective.

As we approach the Bay of Pigs, I am struck by the pastoral setting.  Well, maybe not pastoral but rather serene as we are on a bay with beaches.  Much of the area is similar to what I remember Sanibel Island to be like in the 1950’s.  Small, little guest houses lining the beach.  Most of these are bed and breakfast paladors that are immaculately clean.  The accommodations are basic, Spartan even, but wonderful for getting away from it all.  The good and bad news is that getting there is not easy as there is almost no public transportation.  A rental car or taxi (very expensive) are the choices, but the sandy DSCN0923beaches, warm calm water are worth it.  We had time to walk on the beach and wade in the water and yours truly was first in.  I could have stayed all day.  Might have to rethink Cornwall in February/March and think Bay of Pigs instead.  Nope, Cornwall still beckons.   They have much better butter and jam to say nothing of the scones!

When Randy was able to drag us off the beach and out of the water and on to lunch, we were treated to a lovely family style lunch with fish and lobster along with a cabbage salad at Hostal Enrique-Dalia.  www.enrique-hostal.tuars.com. They  has a small surprise DSCN0932celebration for Joan and another tour member, Margie, who share the same birthday.  The owner of the hostal brought in a huge cake with candles showing the 2 ladies celebrating their 25th birthday!  We all sang Happy Birthday and were treated to the Spanish version as well.

Following lunch it was on to the Bay of Pigs Museum.  It is very understated.  All of the exhibitions are weapons, uniforms and battle plan maps.  All of the information is in Spanish.  This is a big missed opportunity from a people to people perspective.  If there was also English, more Americans would take the time to better understand the Cuban perspective, although the museum is focused on the 3 days of the invasion.  More background would also be helpful.

One thing this stop brings into focus is the fact that it is so very difficult to get people to look at this type of exhibit with an open mind and to accept that there can be more than one valid point of view.  Is one right and all the others wrong?  No, but unfortunately compromise and discussion of issues often loses out as positions harden and then history is written further hardening the positions.

We are now off to Cienfuegos.  The ride through the countryside is striking in the poverty one sees.  It is very reminiscent of the drive from the Sofitel Denarau to Nadi Airport in Fiji.  People living in run down houses that are more like shacks than houses, although in Cuba they are more likely made from cinder block or similar materials rather than wood and thatch.  People along the road are poorly dressed and more often than not are bare foot in Fiji, but nor here in Cuba.  A lot of that is cultural, but Cubans are very proud of who they are and take the best care they can.

I am struck by the number of horse drawn carts and “sulkies” we see as we drive along. The :sulkies are much larger than the racing variety.  Joan has remarked that it reminds her of Amish Country seeing all the horse drawn vehicles.

We have arrived now in Cienfuegos which was founded by the New Orleans French and seems to consist of a nice town plaza with lovely 19th century buildings surrounding it.  Like many buildings in Cuba, the facades of the buildings have been freshened and renovated, but the interiors continue to decay.  The exception here seems to be the “Teatro”, a magnificent 19th century theater that is still in operation.  The seating is reminiscent of the old west in the US and they have hosted many stars in the 19th century.  Today it is used for local productions.  Cubans are very appreciative of the arts of all kinds and all genres.  But overall, honestly, to my mind there is no there there here in Cienfuegos.

Our hotel, the Jagua, is nice, especially on the ground floor with a huge lobby, some nice shops, 2 bars and a nice, big pool. http://www.gran-caribe.com/english/cienfuegos.asp. The pool backs onto Cienfuegos’ Malacon.  The rooms are very basic, but have wonderful balconies.  Access to the rooms is from an outdoor corridor so you have an ocean view from the corridor and a bay view from the balcony. Also, it appears the maids are all well trained in towel sculpture.  We had a magnificent swan in our room.

Next door to the hotel is a magnificent Moorish style residence that has now been turned into a museum and palador restaurant and bar.  Joan and I were way too tired to explore the inside and walk up 3-4 stories to the bar, but were not too tired to attend the dinner outside on the grounds.  The setting is hard to describe.  The tables seemed to be created as stone pedestals with sculptures in the middle.  The place settings were “mats” of DSCN0998rectangular glass.  It was all out under enormous trees and the piece de resistance was a roast sucking pig turning on a spit over an open bed of very hot coals.  The sides were served buffet style and I honestly don’t remember what they were becausDSCN0997.JPGe I was focused in the pig.  It was so wonderful.  There was a problem though as at least 1/3 of our group keeps Kosher and there was no other meat/fish option.  Note to Havana Tours, if pork is the focus of the meal you have to have another choice, chicken is probably the best option in this situation as shell fish is also not Kosher.

Day 5 Saturday 14 May

After another buffet breakfast (the Cubans have learned from the Europeans to have a large buffet breakfast offering), we left for Trinidad, Elio’s favorite city in Cuba.  I’ll be honest, it didn’t speak to me, but it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.  Maybe I was tired and I know I was a bit cranky, but it didn’t do it for me.  However, it is a World Heritage site, having been founded in 1514, only 22 years after Columbus arrived in America.  As Joan put it, it is a place where time has stood still almost in the 16th century.  It is a place that exudes old world charm but is a microcosm of the challenges of change for Cuba.  There were no paladors 10 years ago, now there are over 500.  These paladors are successful because they are inherently incentivizing. As Elio says, Communism kills incentive because you get paid no matter how hard or how well you work at your job.  The privately owned paladors provide incentive because they have to provide high quality and high service to remain open.  Many of the paladors we have visited have learned this lesson well and will continue to attract tour groups and success.

The big question remains, though for Trinidad, as to how to manage progress while remaining a place where time stands still.  When the Spaniards first came to Cuba to settle, they chose Baracoa as the first site for the “villa”, or settlement and capital.  However, shortly thereafter they moved the capital a little ways away as Baracoa was swampy and bred disease.  Santiago de Cuba became the new capital.  But the passage by ships through the straights between Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic was rife with pirates so the capital was moved again, this time to the permanent location in Havana.  Havana provided a straight shot for ships to/from Spain and reducing losses.

Trinidad is a very colorful city.  The building facades are bright colors.  A highlight of our trip has to be the trip to a ration store in Trinidad.  It is impossible to understand the impact and devastation caused during the Special Period without seeing the challenges of daily life.  One of these challenges is waiting in line, sometimes for a very long time.  Another is rationing.  Every Cuban family has a ration book called La Libreta that lists the number of adults, children and infants in the family.  The amount of rationed food is apportioned by the government based on the numbers as well as age and any chronic health conditions that require a special diet, like diabetes.  There is a chalk board that lists the quantities allowed of the rationed foods along with the CUP prices.  The prices are artificially low but the quantities allowed are also   ridiculously low.  I don’t remember the exact amounts but it is something like 7 pounds of rice per person/month, 1 pound of beans and small quantities of sugar, eggs chicken and fish to name a few.  The amounts DSCN1006and prices can change as often as the Brasilian cruzeiro vis a vis the USD back in the 90’s, or almost as often.  The inside of the store is depressing and the shelves are bare of goods.  Elio told us that he knows someone in the service sector who makes decent money, especially in tips, so he has put his children as a part of the parent’s family for rationing purposes to help out the parents get more food.

From the ration store we walked a couple of blocks to a very unpretentious house which is the main location of a Santerian Temple in Trinidad.  Santeria is the 2nd largest religious denomination in Cuba.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/santeria/. For instance, you must be baptized a Catholic before joining the Santerian church.  Many Santerians also attend mass regularly, receive last rites and are buried in Catholic cemeteries.  Many Santerians also use homeopathic remedies.  The artifacts of the religion combine those of the Catholic Church with many of those from Africa, Nigeria to be specific where the religion has its roots.

It is important to note that Santeria is NOT any form of voodoo or other similar Caribbean religion.

After lunch at we returned to Cienfuegos.  After getting back to the hotel around 1600, Joan and I went back to the Moorish residence next to the hotel. It is called the Palacio del Valle.  We walked through the public rooms and then up and up a very narrow spiraling wrought iron staircase to the roof top bar for a drink.  The views from up there are breathtaking.  The only drawback is the fact that there is almost no shade.  It seems to be getting hotter and more humid every day so we were lucky to find a table under cover of one of the small turrets which reminded me of a gazebo.  Apparently this residence was created by the owner for his wife and while it is a significantly smaller scale, the locals refer to this place as Cuba’s Taj Mahal.  It is interesting the amount of Moorish influence on the architecture in and around Cienfuegos.  If it were Trinidad, I might “get it” as 16th century Spain was heavily influenced by the Moors.  But Cienfuegos?  This was influenced by the French from New Orleans.  Hmm this is strange and must remain one of the many mysteries in Cuba.

Dinner was on our own, but as neither of us was in the least bit hungry, we allowed inertia to set in, or was it the 2 mojitos?   At any rate, we opted to try and get on line from the lobby.  Internet access in Cuba is spotty and heavily controlled by the government.  They do this by blocking internet access unless you buy an access card for 2CUC/hour.  The cards are only available at certain hotels geared for tourists or the Telepronto (ETECSA) locations.  This system seems to serve 2 purposes – limit internet access to tourists and generate revenue to the government.  I tried my hotspot first.  No luck.  Then I tried the card and Presto! The world opened up and I was able to check e-mails and be back in touch.  I must say that the speed is excellent.  At 2 CUC/hour, one doesn’t spend much time surfing the web or Googling unless there is an urgent need to find out the score of last night’s NBA playoff game which is the focus of the San Francisco contingent, but for doing emails, “Perfecto”.  Once our hour was up both Joan and I opted to have a drink at the patio bar and do post cards.  When we bought stamps at the front desk, we discovered that the concierge at the Melia Cohiba had scammed me by telling me that it was twice as much to send a card as it really is!  Oh well, this was a time to become very Cuban and apply the philosophy of Deal With It (DWI) J

Day 6 Sunday, 17 May

This morning the sky is cloudless and blue, blue.  Of course it also means that it is going to be hot, hot and humid, humid, but I had no idea at this point just how hot and humid it would be.  I have been very diligent in applying sun screen and so far, so good.  Also, because of strong breezes, I have had no insect bites.  All of this is about to start changing.

Following another huge buffet breakfast, we boarded the bus for the drive to Camaguey.  Randy has warned us it will be a long day and the day when I will finally meet Maricel’s brother Ruli when I deliver the ostomy supplies to him when we reach the city of Florida about 30-40 minutes before reaching Camaguey.

As we head east and inland, the scenery begins to change.  Gone are the dense forests we have been seeing.  Instead, we are seeing green farming country.  Unlike Cornwall with its beautifully manicured pastures, here we are seeing pastures that are much more in their more natural state with taller, un-mowed grasses.  The cows are different too as Brahmin cattle were introduced into the herds many years ago.  Apparently Brahmins adapt better to the Cuban conditions of heat and humidity than the more traditional American breeds such as the Longhorn. We are also seeing large herds of goats.  The cattle herds don’t seem DSCN1089to have any calves, but there are plenty of kid goat in the fields.  The fields are mostly worked by hand using machetes.  There is huge potential to develop the agriculture as an export industry, but the needs of the home market are so great that most of the output is consumed locally in Cuba.  Also, and this is the bigger issue, these are small family owned farms that are not conducive to large scale production methods.  And even if the farmer wanted to mechanize, the equipment and petrol are in short supply making it virtually impossible.  So the age old question remains, how to increase production while maintaining family farms and how do you keep the next generation down on the farm after they have earned their degree?

Another aspect of the agricultural landscape we are seeing is sugar cane.  Sugar can has long been Cuba’s #1 export commodity. For more than 30 years following the Revolution, the USSR and Eastern Europe bought almost the entire annual sugar cane output in Cuba.  However, with the demise of the Communist regimes, Cuba lost its market for sugar cane and the US embargo (or blockade as the Cubans call it) makes it virtually impossible to find new markets for the sugar cane.  Since the collapse of the USSR, Cuba has, by necessity due to a lack of fertilizers and chemicals, become very organic in its farming.  Over 25% of the sugar cane is grown organically. Here’s another problem.  It is cheaper to import sugar from Brasil than it is to produce it locally.

Sugar cane is an interesting crop in that the time frame to harvest is very short, even though the growing time is 8-9 months.  It must be harvested by hand in order to cut the cane as close to the ground as possible.  Then the grower only has 72 hours to get the crop to the mill so that the sugar can be pressed out of the cane.  This means the grower must plant a manageable amount of acreage and constantly have various fields in different stages of growth.  The cane produces 2 products at the mill, the pure sugar and molasses.  The molasses is used to make rum or as it is affectionately known in our group – Vitamin R.  Trust me when I say I have had no vitamin R deficiency on this trip!

Unlike the cane fields in Hawaii, Cubans do not burn off the cut stalks and leaves because they believe it changes the composition of the soil and the quality and purity of the sugar.  Makes sense to me.

Interestingly, in Cuba, sugar mills are secure areas much the same as a military base and so tourists are not allowed in.  This is too bad as I have never been to a sugar mill.  It also makes no sense since the technologies used are from the mid-20th century and are all from the USA.  Hopefully this will change in the future.  Everything else seems to change so why not.

While we are on the subject of farming, it is interesting to realize that Cuba grows very little corn.  Unlike the Central American and other Caribbean countries, Cuba does not have a corn culture.  Their staple is rice.  They eat it steamed or with black beans.  Cubans prefer long grain white rice, but because of the US embargo, they are required to import the shorter Chinese or Japanese rice.  As we are driving along we are also seeing rice paddies.

Because it is so costly to grow, harvest and mill sugar cane, many farms are now diversifying to grow vegetables and fruit.  It is noticeable the shortage of veggies here.  Part of that comes from basic Cuban cuisine and diet but also because they do not have the ability to grow vegetables year round.  I think that will change as diets improve and a greater effort is made by the government to encourage vegetable planting and eating.  Also, some bright university type will hopefully come in and teach greenhouse agriculture to expand the growing seasons.  I am not an agronomist but it seems to me that some veggies could be grown in some kind of climate controlled environment, although it might be way too expensive.

In the late morning we arrived in Sancti Spiritus.  This is the home of the Antonio Nunez Jiménez Foundation. This is an organization dedicated to environmental sustainability. http://www.cityfarmer.org/NunezUA.html.  The current president of the foundation, ddressed us and explained that they work with farmers to teach them the best organic, environmentally friendly and sustainable ways to work their land, the best crops and the best methodologies.  They also farm 8 hectares as well as oversee 15 farms where they test their theories, including the best way to plant, diversify and rotate the crops to extend the growing season.  They also work cities to create as many roof gardens as they can in the belief that we must teach people all sorts of ways to protect and sustain our environment and how everything is interconnected. The mission is to teach people how to grow their own organic fruits and vegetables.  One aside here that caught my attention.  In spite of the embargo, they import much of their chicken from Perdue Farms!  Sancti Spiritus now has a true farmers market where they all meet in the town square on a quarterly basis to exchange seeds and plants.

Solidad Espeleologica is the name of this project (  On May 17th, students from California universities will come to Sancti Spiritus to study with Solidad Espeleologica

Another project has been to work in Vietnam by providing the seeds and teaching the farmers to how to cultivate coffee.  Almost all Vietnamese coffee has had its origins in Cuba.

One of the unique things they do is to run an animal shelter for dogs.  It is the only shelter in Cuba that does not euthanize the dogs after 72 hours.  However, what fascinated me was that they also are cultural anthropologists.  Their founder, Antonio Nunez Jimenez, was actively involved in proving that the indigenous Indian tribes of Cuba were decedents of the tribes found at the origins of the Amazon in Peru and Ecuador.  They first proved it by DNA testing and then empirically by recreating a possible trip in canoes up the Amazon to the Orinoco river and then into the Atlantic near Trinidad and Tobago.  They then island hopped up the Antilles chain of islands to Cuba and the Bahamas to prove that the Indians could have done this 7,000 years ago.  This is very reminiscent of Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage of Kon Tiki.

It was then off to lunch at a palador named 500 in honor of the fact that Spiriti Sanctus is now over 500 years old.  Following lunch we re-boarded the bus and off to Camaguey and hopefully meet up with Maricel’s brother to deliver the ostomy supplies. I say hopefully deliver because cell access is a challenge in Cuba and very, very expensive.  It is USD3.00/minute and even 1 second is charged as a minute so needless to say Ruli does not have a cell phone.  Elio has spoken with him and given him an approximate time for when we would be going through Florida and Ruli will go there and wait for us, for however long he has to.  This is one more example of the daily challenges Cubans face.  There is no way to call or text to let someone know that you are running early or late so they stand there waiting and wondering if they have missed you and if they are not at the appointed place when you arrive, you wonder if they haven’t gotten there or if they have left.  It is all so 1980’s and while I might rant and rave about how I hate the intrusion of cell phones and texting, I truly appreciate that they eliminate this kind of uncertainty.  However, I digress as usual.

OK, we are back on the bus and are driving through cattle county and if I am not mistaken this is where we passed the old King Ranch.  Of course today, it has been broken up into many small farms.  We are all struck by how green everything is, especially when compared to the area around Havana.  Randy and Elio popped in a DVD entitled “Power of Community” about how Cuba dealt with “peak oil”. I think it was interesting, but honestly most of the bus, including me, dozed off because we were all in a post lunch stupor and the DVD was full of charts and graphs, zzzzzzz.  We didn’t doze for long because things had begun to change.  Remember how I mentioned the weather at the start of today?  Well, it changed.  The sky had darkened and big rain drops began to hit the windshield.  Not to worry, yet. Within a few minutes we were driving through an incredible downpour.  Naturally, this slowed traffic to a crawl and Yuri, our brilliant driver,  was having difficulty seeing.  On the bright side, literally, I could see that the storm was moving quickly and I could see that it would clear.  Within 5 or so minutes the storm was behind us and the sun came out.  None of us could find a rainbow, but we certainly tried.  On and on we drove until we were about 25kms from Florida.  Wham, a second storm hit and hit with a vengeance.  Let me mention here, that the roads in Cuba are in good condition, for the most part, but here, East of Cienfuegos and Spiriti Sanctus, they are all one lane in each direction.  Naturally, now traffic slowed to a crawl as buses, cars, overloaded trucks, farm equipment like tractors and horse drawn carts all tried to move along the highway safely.  Passing in these conditions is impossible.  I could feel my anxiety rising the nearer we got to Florida.  At last, we reached the town and as we crept down the street we kept looking and looking for Ruli.  Remember, none of us know who exactly we were looking for.  As we DSCN1205neared the other side of town, we could see a woman in a red and white stripped dress jumping up and down and waving both arms to stop us.  Eureka, we found them.  The woman dashed out into the torrential rain and hopped on the bus.  I was by Yuri with the bag of supplies.  It was Maria, Ruli’s wife, but the poor thing was dripping, soaking wet.  We hugged, I gave her supplies, and she gave me a photo for Maricel and poof it was over.  Maria got off the bus, the door closed and we were on our way.

The rain didn’t let up until we were almost to Camaguey.  This was propitious because Camaguey presents a real challenge to anyone trying to navigate the streets.  The streets are poorly maintained and cobblestoned in many places.  They are twisty and turn-y and terrifyingly narrow.  These streets were definitely not designed for a modern tour bus.  They were designed to accommodate a horse and carriage. Yuri deserves all the credit in the world to be able to maneuver the bus around corners in Camaguey.  When we arrived at the hotel, we really weren’t at the hotel because the entrance is on a pedestrian street, no vehicles allowed.  So this meant that we had to walk up the street, around the corner, down a street and around another corner and halfway down the street was The Hotel Colon.  What a treat for the eyes.  The hotel was probably built as a men’s club.  The carvings on the walls and staircases were exquisite.  The building was 2 stories, no elevator and the ceiling on the 2nd floor was a stained glass window that ran the length of the building depicting Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492.

The hall porters loaded our bags at the bus onto to oldest, most rickety carts imaginable (and oh, by the way, the porters were no spring chickens either).  The pushed these incredibly rickety carts from the bus along the same route we took and then humped the bags one at a time into the lobby.  The rooms are laid out along the halls in no discernable pattern to the numbering system, with many tucked away down short hallways. Randy warned us that the rooms were small, but Joan and I were pleasantly surprised to find that ours was enormous.  OK, there were no windows and we were located behind the hotel bar, but hey, it was more than large.  The next challenge was actually getting into the room because the doorway was designed for a 7 foot Twiggy.  We kind of sidled in and flopped on the beds.   The hotel did have its charms.  No two rooms seemed to be quite the same.  Some were large, some small.  We had a bathroom scale in ours but no one else did (and I hid ours so we wouldn’t know how much weight we had gained).  Some had windows, some didn’t.  Every room had its own quirks.

Time was short so we all basically dumped our bags and reassembled in the lobby to go on a tour of some of the main plazas or squares of the city center.  Camaguey is an old colonial city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The winding alleys and forked streets leading from Plaza to Plaza make you understand why Camaguey is known as the “City of Squares”.  But really, the main highlight of the tour was to travel around the city in “Bic-taxis”.  DSCN1228These are bicycle taxis that are a bicycle hitched to a 2 wheel carriage (cab).  They are about the size of the late 19th century London black horse cabs (think Basil Rathbone in the old Sherlock Holmes movies).  Swap out the horse for a bicycle and change the black to fantastic designs by some of the best artists in the city and you have the bic-taxi.  We dashed about the twisting and winding streets to beat the rains.  Our driver was actually a 1st year psychology student at the university.  Like   most people in Cuba, he has a job to help support himself while he gets his education.  Frankly many people work 2 jobs to make ends meet.

Our last stop was the Plaza del Carmen which is the location of the Martha Jimenez gallery.DSCN1285 http://www.martha-jimenez.es/  She is a wonderful and talented artist.  I particularly loved her bronze statues around the square that depict typical neighborhood life.

After dinner, we got on the bus to go back to the hotel. Everyone was exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep, but no.  Hotel Colon is the noisiest hotel ever.  Every sound echoes everywhere and to add to the issue there was a large French group that liked to party.  No one slept very well as a result of it.

Day 6 Monday 16 May

There is something about the early morning weather that just screams it is going to be a really hot day and a really humid day (It was).  I discovered this when I went to a small walk around the neighborhood before our 0830 departure time for the day’s sightseeing and interactions. The character of the pedestrian street was totally different this morning as compared with last night.  There is a hustle and bustle about it, with people walking with a purpose rather than just strolling.  I assume many are off to work.  I strikes me as I am walking along that the streets and sidewalks in Cuba are incredibly clean even if they cobblestone, brick or in disrepair.  There is very little trash in the street on the sidewalks. Cubans are very respectful of each other and would not disrespect each other by throwing trash in the common areas like the streets.  This despite a dearth of trash cans.  There are also street sweepers who manually push a broom up and down the streets getting rid of residual trash and grime.  Personally, I think that sometimes hard work and elbow grease produces a better result.  The manual push broom does a so much better job than those big honking street sweepers used in US cities.

It is also apparent that you don’t see many people on the streets with mental disabilities.  I saw many, many people with physical disabilities but only 1 person the entire trip who was noticeably mentally disabled.  Elio was unable to explain why.  He readily said that there are many Cuban veterans with PTSD and that this is an area on health care where Cuba is not as good as she could/should be, but he had no idea why they were not as visible as in other countries. My theory is that it may have something to do with the close sense of family in Cuba.

A recurring theme for me is how optimistic Cubans appear to be.  I don’t see them as happy like Bhutan, but rather they see that some restrictions have eased recently and things can and do improve. Right now, with discussions between the USA and Cuba in progress, Cubans see the possibility of the embargo being eased and maybe even eventually removed. A lot of this will depend on the outcome of the US elections in November.

Seeing this, I really have doubts that large infusions of help like building large hotel complexes will be the answer.  Maybe setting up a factory to manufacture brooms would be more appropriate.  Another indicator is that the people on the street look healthy.  They are not dirty.  There are people who are thin, not hungry thin, but naturally thin from genetics or working out.  There are people who look overweight from the Cuban diet which relies heavily on rice and beans.  Growing more vegetables and having wider access to them would help dramatically.

After departing the hotel this morning we went to the Casanova Pottery shop.  This is a family owned studio that is famous for making “tinajones”, traditional huge clay pots used to capture rain water in the past because Camguey had little access to water in the colonial days.  The pots are all hand thrown.  The son showed us how to prepare the clay and then demonstrated how to make a beautiful, decorative pot using a “foot-powered” wheel He did this in about 5 minutes.

Then his father took the same amount of clay and using an electricity powered wheel made 6 or so different pots, vases and candlesticks in the same amount of time.  That was really mind blowing to watch him creating one item after another, almost like magic.  The father then invited one of the ladies, Randi,  from the group to take these items and put them together as a sculpture.  I have to say that she is very creative and the sculpture was really nice.

After that the son invited me to make a pot from scratch.  The final product wasn’t all that great, but at least I made the pot without it collapsing in on its self.  The whole experience DSCN1362really felt like a scene from Ghost (without Patrick Swazye!) and I guess the fact that they played “Unchained Melody” in the background might have had something to do with it.  Unfortunately, neither Randi nor I could keep our creations because it takes 3-4 weeks for the pots to air dry and then another 1 – 1/5 days in a kiln to fire.  But we did get small “tinajones” from the father and son for being good sports.  Note to anyone who wants to do pottery.  Cut your nails.  It will take a lot of scrubbing for me to get all the clay from underneath my nails.

Camaguey is also a center for dance, including classical ballet.  We were privileged to visit rehearsals of the Ballet Company of Camguey.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpVQxEZdXIs and were treated to a presentation of “Solitude” a part of the concert style performance they are preparing for June.  The prima ballerina of the company did the performance for us which was stunning.  The most revealing exhibition though was an opportunity to observe 3 of the younger ballerinas in rehearsal of a Divertimento.  We could watch the teacher as she watched the girls perform and how she patiently corrected their steps and postures.  She was so gentle with them.  However, what DSCN1417was so telling was that they create this breath taking beauty with nothing.  The floor of the rehearsal studio was warped and spongy.  There were gaps in the boards.  The dancers do not have access to ballet slippers so they have a studio that can make them.  The 3 student ballerinas were obviously wearing hand-me-down slippers that didn’t fit.  One girl had slippers that were too small and the other 2 were dancing in slippers that were way too big.  Their ability to dance under these conditions is amazing and, frankly, dangerous. It was yet one more example of thee shortages Cubans deal with daily and how well they adapt and overcome the conditions.  Dancers are not accepted into the company unless they have attended 9 years of training at the national ballet school in Havana.  Their prima ballerina has also studied with the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg.

The pulse of Camaguey is very different from Havana and Cienfuegos.  There are many more horse drawn vehicles and bicycles then we have seen before.  There are also many fewer cars.  Part of this is probably the layout of the city and the narrowness of the streets, but I think it is also indicative of the lack of support from the central government.

As we ride around the city, it seems to me that housing is marginally better the further east we have come.  In most cases they are truly awful on the inside, but the outsides of many places are being worked on and repaired, even renovated.  The interiors seem to lag behind.  I think there may be a couple of reasons for this.  One is the extensive amount of DSCN0729.JPGwork, including electrical and plumbing that require supplies that are not available.  So the focus is making the exterior in line with the character of the city and then being able to move in and work on the interiors as time and supplies permit.

I have seen incredible poverty in many locations around the world and while there is absolutely no denying that Cuba is one of the poorest countries in world, Cubans have outstanding health care and are highly educated with a 99% literacy rate.  And while most houses should be condemned, they are better than the refrigerator boxes that housed people in Soweto in South Africa or the favelas of Rio.  They are also far better than the huts with no walls that are the homes of the Land Dyaks in Sabah, Borneo.  I have never been to Haiti, but I shudder to think what their housing conditions are like.

Following lunch, we had a “free” afternoon to explore the streets and squares of Camaguey.  Unfortunately, this afternoon is the first day of the oppressive heat and humidity so I took a nap.  Joan went out but came back pretty quickly as did most of the others because it was just “too darn hot”

This evening started with a visit to the gallery of Jose (Pepe) Gutierrez who is a renowned leather sculptor. DSCN1440https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=es&u=http://www.ecured.cu/Jos%25C3%25A9_Guti%25C3%25A9rrez_Cabrera&prev=search

It is impossible to describe the uniqueness of his work.  He can take a piece of leather and translate it into a statue of incredible beauty.  His “sculptures” of people always have a face front and back to reflect on the fact that all people have more than one face or side that they show to us.

Following dinner, we were treated to a ride back to the hotel in vintage cars.  One of the cars was a 1922 Ford convertible touring car decked out with garlands of flowers.  Joan and I rode in a 1955 Ford Fairlane sedan that was driven by the only female owner/driver in the area.  There is one of the tour members, Elizabeth, speaks some Spanish and because she DSCN1454.JPGand her husband rode with us we were able to talk to the driver.  She is more than 70 years old and has driven her car for about 50 years as it was her father’s car first.

Women is Cuba seem to have more equality than we do.  It is not just a legal thing, it is a real thing.  They earn equal pay for equal work.  They are also treated with dignity and respect in spite of the machismo of the Cuban men.  I learned not to take offense if some calls me “mi corazon” or “mi amor”.  It is the same as the Brits using the term “Love”.  I have to put it in context.  If it is done in the States, then it is offensive to me because it is done with a complete lack of respect for women, but in Latin Countries it is a sincere way to show respect and caring.  I even discovered that it is a 2 way street and women say the same to men.  Even I did it!

Day 8 Tuesday 17 May

This morning we were late departing Camguey for Holguin due to problems “on the ramp”.  I am looking for the correct delay code!  Seriously, because of the fact that there were 2 groups departing simultaneously, porters had a lot of bags that they needed to carry around on the carts 3 blocks to the coaches.  While there are some things that might seem “better” done manually, “slepping” bags is not one of them.  It would be really helpful to the porters if there were an easier way to move the bags back and forth from the front of hotel to the back without having to tie them onto an old, rickety cart and push it 3 blocks along a cobblestone street.

Once we were on our way, Elio explained to us that in 1979, the Cuban government decided to split the existing 6 provinces into 16 on the grounds that it would allow the provincial governments to provide better, more targeted services to the people.  Holguin is one of the new provinces created from the old Oriente provence.  Holguin is important because most of the important people in Castro’s life, except Che Guevarra, were born here.

Elio also explained the health system to us.  The goal of the Cuban health care system is prevention.  They see illness as a failure of the system.  If a patient is ill they go to their neighborhood doctor.  If the doctor is unable to cure the patient, the patient is referred to the local hospital and if that doesn’t work, then the patient is referred to a research hospital.  Doctors live in their neighborhood.  This way they know their patients and what is going on in their lives.  This allow them to treat the total patient and have a better handle on who they are and what might impact on their health.  These doctors have office hours in the morning and then visit their patients who are in the hospital in the afternoon.  Again, this is a critical piece of the care as all records are paper and the interaction between the doctor and the hospital and the patient is critical in maintaining the complete medical history

While the patient does not have a lot of choice in the family doctor, they have the ability to bypass the doctor and go directly to the hospital, but the hospital will always check back with the neighborhood doctor to get a complete picture.

There are long waits for services because of the lack of medicines and equipment caused by the embargo.  When we drove past the “pharmacias”, the lack of medicines is apparent.  The shelves are basically empty.  Maybe it is just my paranoia, but it seemed to me that the shelves might have been artificially empty to some extent, but most likely not.  Priorities are set based on the urgency of need, with the more critical need moving to the top of the list.  Cubans are also very open to alternative medicines such as herbal, acupuncture and therapies.

Cuba is developing medical tourism programs to bring doctors from 3rd world countries to teach them medicine and medical techniques to improve the quality of health care in their countries.  Cuba also sends approximately 1,000 doctors abroad annually.  Mostly they go to remote locations in Africa and other 3rd world areas, but they also go anywhere there is a disaster.  I believe they even offered to send doctors to New Orleans following Katrina.  I can only imagine Bush’s reaction to that!  Cuba deployed 106 doctors to West Africa to assist in the Ebola crisis, including 5-6 who contracted Ebola, survived and returned to West Africa.  This medical “tourism” is a primary source of hard currency income for the government.  It actually produces more revenue than sugar cane and normal tourism.  It also benefits the domestic Cuban medical care as it exposes Cuban doctors to illnesses that are eradicated in Cuba through mandatory vaccination programs.

All careers in Cuba are chosen by the students when they graduate from High School.  Schooling is mandatory through high school (aged 18 years).  Once they choose a career, students then go to university or trade school.  They can change their career, but only if they have maintained an above average GPA (4.5/5.0) in all courses during the time they are studying the original choice.  To help students make the “right” choice, there is extensive career counseling during the senior year of high school.

During elementary and secondary school, all students wear a uniform that is paid for by the parents.  The uniforms are the same all over the country based on the grade.  So all 2nd graders in Havana, Holguin, Camaguey and everywhere else in Cuba wear the same uniform. All other grades wear the same uniform, but one that is different than the other grades.

Another interesting aspect of Cuban education is that there is mandatory cultural education.  Not only does this include history, but also an intense focus on the arts.  In addition, all towns have cultural centers where anyone, of any age can go there to learn about painting, dance, playing a musical instrument or sing.

Some in the tour group have questioned why there are very few pictures of Fidel in Cuba while there are a plethora of photos and tributes to Che.  The reason is that because there is no “Cult of Personality” in Cuba and as Fidel is still alive and Che isn’t, the photos are tributes focusing on Che.  When Fidel dies, this will change.

Elio feels that Raul Castro has made a difference in dealing with the hardships of the Special Period.  He has allowed the privately owned paladors and has allowed then to grow.  It is also a source of revenue for the government as while citizens do not pay taxes, the paladors do.  The palador owners must also pay the Cuban equivalent of Social Security and retirement taxes for their nonfamily employees.  This makes jobs in paladors attractive to their staff.

He also has approved overseas travel for doctors and other special groups of scientists and cultural icons on a case by case basis.  And, he has approved the private buying and selling of real estate.

Elio also believes that the dissidents are supported by the US government on a Quid Pro Quo basis so it doesn’t feel that these movements are 100% Cuban.  Basically, his feeling is that the US supports the dissidents if they will allow US investments in Cuba if they are successful.  He told us that he would support the dissidents if he believed they were truly Cuban and free from outside interests.

The drive to Holguin has been very long and we finally arrive at the Playa Pesquero Resort in Guardelavaca, a beach resort area outside Holguin.  The resort is government owned and was originally built to cater to the Canadian tourist market.  Canadian “snow birds” really enjoy coming to Cuban beaches and often stay at the resort for 2 weeks.  The resort is government and has 1,000 rooms in many, many buildings.  Truthfully, I got lost every DSCN1515.JPGsingle time I tried to go back to my room.  The pool area is enormous, but the beach is the real draw.  It is stunning with crystal clear water that is about 80 degrees F. This is an all-inclusive resort.  All meals and cocktails are included, but my favorite place was the 24/7 coffee bar with any kind of coffee drink you could think of.

Dinner that night was at the buffet restaurant with the biggest number of choices you could imagine.  After days and days of limited choice, it was mind blowing.  I won’t go into details, but I will say that the crispy duck was wonderful as were all the fresh veggies of every description, including wonderful brussel sprouts.

Day 9 Wednesday 18 May

This morning Elio was musing on dancing.  For Cubans, dancing is a shortcut to get to know someone.  You see someone you’d like to get to know and you invite her to dance.  OK, this works well for the guys, but I don’t have a handle on whether a girl can see a guy “across a crowded room” and ask him to dance.  He thinks online dating a very strange way to “meet” someone.

We are on our way to Gibara, a fishing village about an hour away from the resort.  When we arrived in the town, we made a stop at one of the few places we would be able to use the banos.  The fact that there was an extraordinary view of the Atlantic made it special.  This vista reminded me so much of the Maine coast.

I haven’t talked about the banos situation.  They are all very clean, but normally there is only one ladies and one gents at any location, sometimes only one shared one.  This makes for pretty long lines (DWI, Betsey!).  Unfortunately, sometimes the tank does not refill automatically making it impossible to flush.  But the most lasting memory will be the ever present attendants.  These ladies wait outside the rest rooms with toilet paper and expect a tip for giving some to you before you go into the toilet.  All of us had brought our own paper, you still have to give a tip.  The tips are normally 1CUC ($1.00), but often we would tip a lot less.  To us, this felt like an annoying scam.  But here in Gibara, I changed my mind.  I was last in line and began to speak with the attendant.  Between her elementary English and my very elementary Spanish, I learned that her husband has cancer in his neck and she uses her tips to get some medicines that she normally doesn’t has access to (black market?).  My heart aches for her as it has throughout the trip when you have a chance to observe and interact with Cubans.  How they survive day to day is hard to imagine.  One can only imagine what a difference lifting the embargo would make.

From here we went on to meet with the fishermen.  The fishing center here has 300 fishermen and 2 fisherwomen.  They have 22 boats with motors and 36 without.  DSCN1553.JPGWhen I say boats, I am referring to a vessel the size of a row boat and definitely more than gently used.  Normally, there is only one fisherman in each boat, but sometimes 2, especially if the boat does not have a motor.

They use a 220 gauge line that are approximately 100 meters long.  They tie hooks to the line as well as plastic bottles they use as buoys.  The buoys lie flat in the water until there is a fish on the hook when the bottle becomes vertical.  The problem is that there are no places to buy the lines or hooks in Cuba, so the fishermen have to make their own.  Randy, our tour director, tries to bring the lines whenever he visits, usually 2-3 times a year.  Again, one is struck by the hardships of getting through the day.

The fishermen have divided the fishing grounds into quadrants that each fisherman has a right to fish so they don’t overlap.  They also carry cell phones to use in emergencies.  If they dial 107 into the phone the Cuban equivalent of the Coast Guard uses GPS tracking to come to their assistance.

The catch consists of all kinds of fish from red snapper to marlin.  If they catch a marlin or swordfish or other large sport fish, they have to tie it to the side of the boat and hope they can get it back to shore before a shark comes along.  To help make ends meet, women and children are now shrimping by diving from boats.  The government takes 90% of the catch and the fishermen keep 20% that they can use and sell privately.  I know the numbers don’t add up so you guess whether it is the government or the fishermen that are being shorted.  If you guessed the government, you get a gold star.

We now re-boarded the bus to go to the local cultural center located in a former private residence with a beautiful open air courtyard.  We were treated to a performance of local music by a trio of arts teachers.  One was a pediatrician in her “normal” life, one a physical DSCN1567.JPGtherapist and the 3rd a music teacher.  Two of the singers also played guitars while the 3rd kept the rhythm using 2 sticks called clave, one of which has a hole in it to create the sound.  She also used small, egg sized and shaped maracas made of willow tree root.  Here we learned that the cultural centers have almost no access to instruments or instrumental “accessories” like guitar strings, reeds for woodwinds and a piano is virtually out of the question.

Following our people to people discussion, we went to lunch a a wonderful palador that not only has an excellent restaurant, but also grows all of its own produce and raises its own livestock organically.  They even have ducks and turkeys!  But, they also have snakes which freaked me out so I was unable to eat.  After lunch, I walked around the neighborhood a bit and was able to kind of poke my nose into people’s houses and watched them as they were working to repair their homes and saw one woman working at an old pedal operated Singer sewing machine.

Once everyone had finished lunch we headed back to the resort so we could get a few minutes of beach time before the farewell dinner at one of the specialty restaurants.  Given the fact that the temperature was in the 90’s as was the humidity, the clear water of the beach was super refreshing, if incredibly salty.

Dinner was low key because, while everyone really is ready to head home, no one wants the experiences to end.  It has been such an eye-opening opportunity and I think that everyone has come away with a new understanding and attitude towards Cuba and life there.

Day 10 Thursday 19 May  Last Day

We got a scheduled late departure this morning.  It was nice to be able to be able to get going at a leisurely pace.  We started with a drive to the mountains for a view of the city of Holguin from above.  On the way Elio told us what he likes about what he has heard about the USA.  He likes the idea of social security and retirement.  He also likes the idea that you can have an unlimited future if you work hard.  He thinks that there must be a way to mix the best of both Cuban and American worlds.  He also likes the idea of “don’t mess with me”; that if you do, you will pay the consequences.

What he doesn’t like and admittedly doesn’t understand is the way local, state and federal laws can be in conflict.  He thinks this is very confusing.  He also really dislikes the fact that money equals power and that a powerful minority can overrule the will of the majority.  He used the NRA and the Cuban lobby as examples of this.  He has a point.

When we got to the lookout point on the mountain, it was stiflingly hot and sticky.  It was kind of fun that there was a wedding party up there taking their wedding photos and the views were smashing, but it really was too darn hot.  All we wanted to do was get back on the bus and into the ac.

We then went to another cultural center.  This time we were treated to a dance performance by 11 and 12 year olds.  After the performance, they did some more dancing, with all of us as their partners.  It is humbling that an 11 year old dances so much better than most of the adults. After they took pity on us and let us sit down, we had a Q and A session.  Most of the girls want to be doctors or actors when they grow up.  The boys all wanted to be baseball players, except one who wants to be a basketball player.  The girls all love history and there are no subjects they dislike.  The boys like science and hate civics.  These kids are just like 11-12 year olds anywhere, sans the cell phones.  They are genuine, real and honest.  They haven’t yet learned to dissemble.  We also discovered they are incredibly knowledgeable about American pop music and our artists.  I didn’t know most of the singers they mentioned but among the group members at one or two would know who they were talking about.

Following a nice lunch, our last meal in Cuba, we re-boarded the bus to head for the airport, or so we thought.  You should have heard the groans when we learned we had one more stop.  We were all hot, enervated and crabby and ready to get on the flight home, home being the operative word.

This last stop turned out to be in a black light theater.  It was my first experience with a black light theater.  I found it magical.  They performed part of play they do for children that teaches not to judge people by what they look like but rather to get to know who they are before forming an opinion.  It was the story of a lion fish family that moves into a coral reef and how frightened all the other fish are of them.  The main roles were played by DSCN1661.JPGhuman puppets.  I tried very hard to get pictures but they just didn’t come out.  I will try to see if I can “fix” one or two of them.  Personally, I am glad we made this last stop, but now it was time to head to the airport.

Holguin Airport is very small.  It apparently has 2 terminals, a domestic one and an international one.  We only saw the international one.  It has 4 gates with one large common gate area.  All flights are parked at a hard stand.  It looks like there were only 4 international flights that day; 1 to Santo Domingo, 1 to Manchester, UK, one to Toronto and our flight to Miami.  None of the flights overlapped which simplifies the boarding process.  Unfortunately, the ground handling agents were poorly trained.  It took my check-in agent 20 minutes per passenger to process us and then the gate agent was unaware of what gate checking a bag meant.  I wanted to do this because the only handle on my carry-on bag had broken and it would be hard to carry it up the ramp stairs.  Thank god for big male tour members!

The flight to Miami was easy.  The flight was less than half full so we had plenty of room to spread out and when the flight attendants served the drinks and we all said we also wanted more red snapper…not!  After landing,  We all cleared CIQ and scattered.  Joan and I were the lucky ones as we were headed to the in airport hotel whereas everyone else had to take shuttles to their hotels.  I am surprised that more people don’t know about the Miami Airport Hotel.

A few days after returning

As I sit here at home, I am still trying to assimilate all the experience of Cuba, but things are still swirling around in my head.  Cuba truly is a land of contradictions, a place that needs large infusions of hard currency and trade, but at what cost?  Will modernization change the character of a proud country?  They are incredibly poor but highly educated.  They exist on a high carb diet that is lacking in vegetables, but they are healthy and active in organic farming.  They are a 3rd world country that has many of the aspects of a 1st world one.  As I said, contradictions.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that after being in Cuba, I truly believe the embargo should be lifted,  Should there be compensation for the people who lost their property following the revolution, probably.  But the embargo is not hurting the government of Cuba.  It is hurting everyday people.  People with great pride in being Cuban and who are not asking for a handout, but rather want a chance to feed their families, buy clothes for them and have an opportunity to have some of the small “luxuries” the rest of us take for granted, like consistent electricity and air conditioning.  Is that too much to ask?

There are some things that I won’t miss from Cuba like the heat, the humidity, the swollen ankles from the heat and the mosquito bites as well as the horrific public transportation to the lack of choice Cubans face every day.

But, I will miss the cleanliness and lushness, the no sense of being in a police state and the sense of a simpler time and place.  But, mostly, I will miss the people, their openness, their ingenuity, their sense of family and their honest warmth.  Cuba is a special place, made special by its people. who are not defeated by the extreme challenges they face on a daily basis.

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