Thursday, April 30, 2015

Wrap-up Cuba

 When we tell people about going to Cuba, we are frequently asked the following questions:

Why did you go to Cuba? We both wanted to see Cuba before the embargo was lifted by the United States and the flood gates opened to both US tourists and businesses. As it turned out we returned just a few weeks before the embargo formally ended.

Jon Showe
Meylin Bernal
How did we get there? To shorten a longer story, we were invited on the trip by a friend we met in Costa Rica. Through friends of friends, Barbara met Jon Showe, an expert on Cuba who regularly leads trips.

Jon arranged for us to go on a People-to-People cultural exchange between the US and Cuba. He also arranged all of our visas and flights between Havana and Miami FL.

Thank you Jon and Meylin for taking us on a most memorable trip.

Did you have any hassles getting in and out of Cuba? Other than having to fill out more than the usual amount of paperwork, it was surprisingly easy, thanks to Jon and his contacts.

Did you see any of the old vintage cars?  It's pretty hard to miss them as vintage cars are everywhere. As far as American cars go, time stopped when JFK broke off political relationships with Cuba (after JFK received his last shipment of 2000 high quality Cuban cigars). Most American cars date from the 50's and early 60's. They  are maintained in surprisingly good condition as the embargo prevented Cuban mechanics from ordering any needed replacement parts from the USA. Consequently, Cubans were left to figuring out their own ingenious solutions to keeping these cars on the road. That said, it's not uncommon to see a frustrated owner trying to get their stalled vehicle moving again. Tip to Cuba travelers: if you hire a vintage taxi, try to get an open air convertible to best avoid exhaust fumes.

What impressed you the most?  To me personally, it was the buildings and architecture. Havana and other parts of Cuba are a visually stunning array of grand old colonial buildings, art deco, Soviet style apartments, and rural thatched roof buildings.

How were the people? For the most part they were very warm and friendly. The exception was disenchanted government workers who could not find the energy to do a good job or be bothered to help you.

How were the arts and cultural setting?  In a word - spectacular. Music and dancing were everywhere and hard to miss. The art scene was so rich that Sandra, an artist from in our travel group, wanted to stay on for several years and even looked into renting a home in Havana.

How was the food? Mostly the food was very good in the private paladors, but only mediocre in the government run restaurants. The typical Cuban diet relies heavily on rice and beans with some plantains and other fruits and veggies on a catch-can basis. Although many of the private paladors are working hard to improve local cuisine, generally Cuba is not a foodie destination.

Were all did you go? We basically spent about half of our time in Havana and the other half in the country (see the interactive map below).

What where your favorite places?


To me in terms of history, beauty and culture, Havana lists ranks up there with the other great cities of the world, such as:

San Francisco


This well preserved colonial town is a real treat to visit. It harkens back to the time Sugar was King of the Caribbean. Despite pressures from modern culture, it has retained it's charm and beauty. 
How much did it cost? This trip is unusual for us as it's the only fully guided tour either Peter or I have ever been on. Consequently, it was pricier on a per day basis than any other trip we have been on. That said we both believe it was well worth the cost for the expert guidance and introduction to Cuba by Jon and Meylin.

The conundrum that is Cuba.  One reason Cuba so fascinating is it's many contradictions. At our first trip planning meeting, Jon told us we would return from Cuba with more questions than answers. When he first made this statement, I thought he was just joking or being dramatic, but now after returning from Cuba, I understand and agree with him.

Cuba affords a natural comparison between the USA style of democracy to the Cuban style of socialism. In Cuba  all citizens receive an excellent education, good medical care, and money for basic necessities. Cuban culture and arts are well supported and encouraged. Sounds like utopia? Maybe for some but not others. The downside of Cuba's socialism is a stagnant economy where many highly educated people can not find suitable employment. It's not uncommon to meet a former university professor or medical doctor who is driving taxis for tourists because it pays better. Every year Cuba loses many highly trained professionals who defect to other countries for better opportunities.

Furthermore, the standard government pay people receive (over 80% of the population is employed by the government) is simply not enough to subsist on. Consequently, a lively black market for all kinds of goods flourishes just so people can support themselves and their families. Other than the underground economy, the Cuban style of socialism does not motivate people to work harder or to even do a good job. Shop keepers are not paid sales commissions so they care less if they make sales or not.

"Agricultural Reform" broke up large plots of land and redistributed it. As noble as this sounds, most would be farmers are not motivated to work their land as they get paid the same for not doing anything. So they migrate to the cities where they do as little as possible and let their fields go fallow. To reform agriculture, the government then instituted an new policy so that a farmer could keep the crops from half their land to use or sell, but the crops from the other half had to be sold to back to the government at controlled rates. So the farmers tended their own plots with care producing abundant crops, but neglected the plots targeted for government controlled markets. The strange outcome is that while Cuba has fertile fields going fallow, it has to import food that they could mostly grow themselves.

Here's some recommended books to help understand modern Cuba:
Havana Nocturne
by T. J. English
Cuba Rising
by Jon Showe

by Levitt & Dubner

Would you go back? Most definitely. Cuba is a fascinating country and we are curious what impacts the improving relationship with the United States will have. Hopefully, Cubans will be able to improve their economy and standard of living without the pitfalls of over-commercialization or environmental damage.  Many Cubans believe the US will invade Cuba with troops after the Castros are out of power.  When we heard these concerns, we just smiled and shook our heads. Yes, we agreed Cuba would be invaded, but not with the military. The invasion will be from tourists and businesses (McDonalds, Starbucks, Monsanto, etc). Our fervent wish for Cuba is they will have the wisdom to properly choose who they let in to do business with.  For example, Cuba currently has the healthiest reef systems in the Caribbean because they do not have many golf courses nor do they use modern fertilizers which damage corals and reef fish.

PS - next time we will bring more baseballs for the boys, hair barrettes for the girls, and small soaps/toiletries for adults.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Havana Revisited Cuba

We return to Trinidad in the morning to pick up an art piece that was packaged for travel.
Town square

street vendor

While waiting in the bus, Cookie spots a young father and his son. She gets one of the remaining baseballs and offers it to them. The boy looks a bit bewildered as he is too young to understand what it was, but the father is delighted.
Father/son w baseball

Colorful corner fruit stand

The bus follows along the southern coast on our way back to Havana. Along the way we stop by a small village medical clinic where we were to donate our OTC vitamins and pain meds as they are difficult for Cubans to obtain. Unfortunately, the clinic is closed but the village women come running and are delighted with the Costco sized meds.

Just outside of Havana we spot what looks like UFO's on towers. Jon and Meylin explain they are concrete water towers built by the Russians for the Cubans.
Coastal resort by the mouth of a river

Meylin gives village women OTC medications

Russian built UFO water towers

The next stop is at a lunch cafe built in a traditional manner with a thatched roof. Here we take a break and pick up sandwiches for munching on the road.
Lunch stop

with Locomotive engine in the landscaping

and a light and airy inside.

Back in Havana we are again staying at the Hotel Saratoga. Later in the afternoon, we join the group for happy hour on the roof.
Entrance to Hotel Saratoga

Meylin greets us

Beautiful afternoon in Havana for happy hour

Swimming pool on the roof patio of the Saratoga

Pano of Havana
Dinner is at the paladar La Guardia. It's an amazing place and walking into the lobby reminds me of a post-revolution movie set for Dr Zhivago. The restaurant sits on the second floor of a crumbling palace. The "lobby" is a decaying ballet studio or ballroom.  The old marble stairway is covered with centuries of grime and we wonder where we are being led. Jon and Meylin reassure us that we're in for a real treat as this paladar is a favorite of Hollywood directors and producers. They are right. The food is top notch and the chocolate desert a favorite.

Marble staircase up from the "lobby"

Best dessert of the trip

Sunset over Havana from the terrace

The next morning we are greeted with sun and beautiful white fluffy clouds. {Sigh} finally a great day to take pictures on our last day in Cuba.
Morning sun on Havana
As part of our People-to-People exchange, we attend a lecture by a retired economics professor in an office building. He mentions Canadians are the largest group of foreign tourists visiting Cuba. Let's see - if I were a Canadian would I suffer through winter or take a quick hop down to Cuba?

We then return to Havana Veija and the Plaza de Las Armas to search for an old map of Cuba at the Sunday book market. Although we don't find what we are looking for, we had great fun hunting as one vendor quickly refers us to another. Not only do we meet several of the vendors, but also a number of European tourists. 
Office building for lecture

Sunday book market

Havana Vieja

Lunch is at Paladar Los Mercaderes. It became a favorite of Sandra and Adam's when they stayed behind in Havana while the rest of the group explored the countryside.  It's one of the few restaurants in Cuba where you can get a salad made of organic veggies. Us Californians must have our salads.
Waiter at entrance

Jon and Sandra enjoy a laugh together

Leslie gets the specials from the owner

After lunch we have a some free time to wander around Havana Vieja before boarding the bus.
The old stock exchange building from before the revolution when Cuba was capitalist

The bus takes us to the industrial section of the harbor and drops us by a large warehouse that's been converted to an International Market containing row upon row of vendor stalls.
Warehouse home of the International Market

This warehouse contains hundreds of vendor stalls.  At first, it's a bit overwhelming, but then we quickly realized many of the vendors were selling the same items.
Inside the International Market

Sandra shops

Peter and I get a kick out the coconut milk sellers

An intense chess game takes place just outside

while a Mexican hairless trots by

and taxi drivers swap stories waiting for fares.

We have the afternoon to ourselves. Delphine joins us in splitting a taxi ride in one of the classic cars for a tour of the Miramar district where many of the formerly private mansions are now foreign embassies.
Vintage taxis in downtown Havana

Why do Russian embassies always look like a prison?

Venezuelan Embassy

The taxi driver takes us back the the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where we had our first meal in Cuba. At that time, I had noticed a nice coral necklace I wanted to buy. I am delighted to find the store open inside the hotel, but as soon as I walk in, the two sales ladies motion for me to leave as they are closing. I point at their "OPEN" sign and tell them in my traveling Spanish that I am leaving tomorrow and this is my only chance to buy the necklace. They just shrug their shoulders and tell me to go as they are closed.  Peter and Delphine are just as surprised as I am.  We conclude they must not work on commissions.

On our way back, our taxi driver points our the Hotel Rivera which was built by Meyer Lansky for the Mafia as part of their domination of Cuba. Between the Mafia, United Fruit, and corrupt politicians, the Cuban people where treated brutally setting the scene for the revolution. Although most Cubans tell us their living conditions have improved under Castro with free education and medical services, they they readily admit having a long way to go before joining in the prosperity of the modern world.
Hotel Presidente

Meyer Lansky's short lived Hotel Riveria

Havana neighborhood needing TLC

Before going to Cuba, I thought the vintage cars could be found here and there... but they are everywhere, handed down through a single family, lovingly maintained with catch-as-catch-can parts. Many are pressed into taxi service for the tourist trade. After our taxi drops us back at the hotel we decide to explore Havana on foot. Not far from the hotel we find a long line of vintage taxis waiting for business.
Vintage taxi anyone ?

We get a big kick out of the first one in the line - an orange 50-something Chevy with beautiful tuck-and-roll upholstery. While we are admiring it, a young couple hires it away.

We next focus on a blue and white Ford Fairlane convertible. For a CUC we take photos to our hearts' content.
I had a boyfriend with one like this

Peter as passenger and Delphine at the wheel

Now that's the way to see Havana

Moving on from the vintage cars, we aimlessly wander down a wide pedestrian mall where artists are selling their wares and a couple is dancing the tango. They are excellent dancers and we enjoy them very much.
Tango dancers on pedestrian mall

They are very good

Homes along the mall

Of all the spectacular buildings in Havana, to me the most beautiful is the Opera House - El Gran Teatro de La Havana. It is currently closed for renovations. Looks like we'll have to return to Havana some day to check it out.

Gran Teatro de La Havana
On our way back, we explore the large Hotel Telegrafo.
Long colonnade

Enormous lobby

Buena Vista Social Club coming to hotel

I continue to be fascinated by the various states of decay and renovation of the buildings.
Open shell next to restored building

It's said an image of this vine covered facade was used in a popular video game

Ahhh - classic Havana

Havana basks in the glow of the magic hour before sunset

That evening Peter joins me for short while as I have a sandwich in the hotel bar for dinner. After he leaves to join the group going to the Tropicana, I eavesdrop on a person ordering dinner to be brought up to his room for he and his wife. He looks like a famous football player I should know, but I can't quite place him.  As part of his order he wants some kind of vegetables, but with each suggestion, the waiter just shakes his head. The football player leaves muttering incredulously that he can't order vegetables with his dinner at one of the best hotels in Havana. I just smile to myself and think "welcome to Cuba!"

Peter took the following shots of his Tropicana experience. The Tropicana is perhaps the most famous of Havana's cabarets/casinos and helped to spread Cuban arts throughout the world. Once under the control of Meyer Lansky, it was nationalized by Castro's forces causing Lansky to flee for his life muttering "I know a communist revolution when I see one" (his family had fled the Bolsheviks in Russia). The days of Cuban casinos are gone, but the Tropicana still puts on a first rate cabaret show. These days with  tickets in the 70-100 CUC range, foreign visitors comprise most of the audience.

Barbara releases her wild child

All too soon, it's time to go back home. As Jon promised, customs on the return trip is a breeze. Although most of the group is flying straight home from Miami, we elect to take a shuttle to Ft Lauderdale to leave the next morning.
Nancy gets the prize for the biggest swag

Leaving Ft Lauderdale in the morning

Ft Lauderdale below

Midwestern wind generators

Rocky Mountains

Landing over downtown San Jose

Back home we pull out our booty from Florida and Cuba.
Sosabrava print

Cuban swag - including coffee, rum & cigars

David models his new backpack

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Retired and enjoying life.