She felt a little nervous about this, ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’ And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I have been quite remiss in writing my Cuba blog. In fact, I had not realized it was incomplete until I logged in to begin my Cape Town blog! I hope my memory is strong enough to pull off this post! Much has happened since I left Cuba. The travel restrictions that were loosened have been returned to their previous status, once again making it more challenging for Americans to visit. Please don’t let this hinder your visit. Go through the paperwork and red tape and visit. We must continue to grow relations with this country.
I arrived in Cuba after a really long overnight flight from Rio and the first thing I noticed that Cuba’s airport really needed my help. They have some fantastic opportunities for process improvement. Of course it didn’t help that everyone traveling there had WAY too much baggage. I checked into my hotel and immediately made my way to the beach where I found so much of what you hear about in Cuba. First, the old cars were everywhere. I am pretty sure I took pictures of 1383 cars this afternoon. It is much like the first penguin you see in Antarctica or the first elephant in South Africa. The first is so novel. The millionth is nearly as novel. Second, I found the friendly and quite lovely people. I was asked out within 10 minutes and despite only finding about 5 words in common, I managed to escape the date. On a side note, I was quite comforting to see that taxi drivers in Cuba share the international signal of honking at you to see if you want a cab. You know, in the event that you were walking along and forgot you didn’t want to walk and in fact, wanted a ride.
The second day was the start of my People to People Tour (one of the official ways Americans can travel to Cuba). We first traveled to Revolution Square- the political center of Cuba, where we historically saw photos of Fidel Castro giving his five hour speeches. It was interesting to talk to different Cubans and get their take on these speeches and his leadership. It was as varied as we see in the US these days. We learned a few things about Cuba on this ride. They do not have access to international banks and therefore cannot borrow money for infrastructure improvements. Yet someone, they grow. After over a week in Cuba, I failed to see how their economic model worked. They have 100% literacy and homelessness is illegal. Everyone has jobs. They import most of their food and continue to develop. I can’t make the math work. After Revolution Square, we went to the Fine Arts Museum for some Cuban art. It was a highly entertaining visit as you could see the very direct influence of artists around the world on Cuban Art. A fellow traveler and I had a good time pointing out the Dali, Monet, Max and Picasso influences. Continuing the People to People path, we popped into Old Havana where we went to a lecture by a professor about the growth of Cuban culture through music. It is a beautiful mix of African and European influence.
Cubans have an interesting way of looking at their past and it varies from person to person. The 1990’s are called the Special Period. This is the time of great poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union when they lost nearly everything. Despite nearly starving, some credit Castro with saving them, while others critique him for his methods. On day three, we headed out to Las Terrazas, a national park and biosphere reserve. The area was reforested after total decimation. Most importantly, we found that Cubans love to drink. At least one drink was served at all three meals and most included Vitamin R (rum). We visited coffee farms, a women’s house turned restaurant complete with chickens under feet and a man who turns recycled paper into art. That night was a trip to the Havana Club, a dancing and singing show staring musicians trained by the Buena Vista Social Club. This is definitely not my thing and I would have much preferred stabbing bamboo sticks into my eyeballs. I think what bothered me the most was that all of the female dancers had the same shoes. Minus one. Couldn’t let that go.
The next day in Havana included a trip to Hemingway’s farm and an organic farm. In Cuba, organic is cheaper than non organic. We also got to go cigar shopping today and see how they are rolled. Being unemployed as well as a non smoker, I didn’t come back with a boxful! The best part of today, though, was a vintage car ride through Havana. We rented a bright pink 1957 Ford convertible and breezed around town for a bit, hitting the forest of Havana (who knew?), the necropolis (a massive cemetery) and the Fifth Avenue of Havana (restaurants and really big mansions).
After all of these days in Havana, we were finally getting out of town for a few. This also meant more time hearing our guide’s perspective on Cuban history and the role the country and Castro have played on the world. At one point, we watched a documentary (used loosely) produced for the Cuban people to honor Fidel Castro. I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure that they gave Fidel credit for ending apartheid in South Africa. We also covered a very different view of Bay of Pigs.
First stop on the journey was Cienfuegos, a beautiful coastal town. The highlight for me was the number of Cubans shouting cheers to me as I marched down the street in my Chicago Cubs World Series Champions t-shirt. You could feel the history here, the ghosts of pirates were everywhere. Sadly, we could not stay for some old fashioned piracy and so we moved onward to Trinidad.
In Trinidad, we stayed at a beach resort that included nightly entertainment, entertaining mostly in how really bad it was. This just made it even more enjoyable. That and the open bar where really grumpy men begrudgingly poured you drinks- quite a departure from the friendliness we had seen everywhere else.
Trinidad is a perfectly preserved colonial town whose first important economic activity was piracy and smuggling in 1514. Nearly everything in this town is original and beautifully maintained. While in Trinidad, we visited a potter whose family has had their pottery shop for hundreds of years, pulled off an impromptu zip line adventure (for $10!!!) and hit a nightclub built into the side of a cave.
The las day was then spent in Topes de Collates, a beautiful mountain area with coffee farms (farmers have to give 90% of their product to the government) and plenty of places to hike. As homes are only $5000 here, our group strategized buying one and building and adventure resort, complete with rafting, zip lining, hiking, rock climbing, basket weaving (we were a diverse group) and cooking classes. As I spent most of the drive dying to jump out of the jeep and go hiking, I was quite pleased when we stopped to do just that. It was a perfect way to end my stay in Cuba.
I really enjoyed my time there and highly recommend it to everyone. We don’t know how long we will be able to visit this amazing country so don’t hesitate. I can’t imagine not being able to visit, but don’t wait for the candle to blow out.
Off to South Africa (via Florida, California, Alaska and Paris which don’t earn blog posts).