Passage Note #59A - Cuba
Chuck and I went to Cuba for 12 days in March 2014 for my birthday. We went on our own as independent travelers contrary to America’s closed policy and visited Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad.
Wow!! Just one big WOW!! What an amazing excursion - seeing the decaying grandeur, experiencing the people and their lives, and needing to navigate our travel in a totally new and different way. Cuba is so enigmatic - we came home with many more questions than we had when we originally left. This plucky little country - long the only socialist country in the western hemisphere and one that has so successfully managed to fend off and defy American power - is on the brink of major change with the fast approaching thawing of relationships. We were lucky to go when we did. Cuba is a photographer's paradise but even so capturing some of its essence is difficult, for it remains elusive. What follows is a good attempt.
“Hello My Lovely Enemies!”
So quipped the jocular young Havana artist with a broad smile and dark twinkling eyes as he welcomed us to his studio on the riotously colorful street known as “Callejon de Hamel” in an Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Roberto had light brown skin like fine cocoa and wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with a single white star in the middle, a beret cocked to one side atop his longish black hair; he held the stub of a lit cigar between his fingers. A Che Guevera knock-off, he could have been a parody of himself. The gallery was filled with sculptural assemblages made from all sorts of flotsam and recycled objects exemplifying the clever repurposing that all Cubans excel at out of necessity in a country where resources are non-existent and replacements impossible.
This is the same non-expendability of things resulting in vintage American cars - “Yank Tanks” - rumbling past in the street just outside -- the familiar photographic cliche of Cuba. These iconic automotive dinosaurs of the 1950's, the envy of car collectors in the U.S., are kept alive with duct tape, bondo, bailing wire and clever mechanical skill in impromptu repair shops on just about any street curb. These are the only cars that exist other than the boxy Russian autos imported during a bygone Soviet era and many a resourceful Cuban has taken the opportunity to exploit them as “taxis” for tourists with themselves as charming chauffeurs. And, astonishing to us, the streets of Havana Viejo are packed with tourists from all over the world - tourism is a vibrant and thriving business in Cuba for all but Americans.
We had arrived in Havana just the day before as independent travelers, entering into forbidden Cuba - the “crocodile” at our toes a scant 90 miles from the Florida Keys -- illegally in the eyes of our own country. The political schism between the two sadly continues, 56 years after the Fidel Castro/Che Guevara led revolution. So Cuba has remained off-limits for folks like us for half a century by an embargo and travel restrictions imposed by the US government. We flew from Panama City where Jacaranda was moored, wallets filled with enough European euros calculated to get us through our 12 days of exploring since we would be without a money source once we got there. Our credit and ATM cards would be useless; our American dollars penalized to the point of being unusable.
We had been welcomed into our “casa particular” - the equivalent of a Cuban bed and breakfast - in the late afternoon by spinster Victoria and her sister Marguerite. Casa Victoria was their family home in a crumbling 10-story apartment building overlooking the sea along the famous El Malecon in a once-tony residential area of Havana Viejo. We had entered the building, not from the once elegant main entryway and fancy foyer - which was all boarded up - but through the ignoble back door from the dirt parking lot where our airport taxi had dropped us off. We gingerly stepped over a pump sitting on the ground that pushed water up to the upper floors from a hole in the sidewalk, opened the door into a shabby service entrance and took a small elevator to the sixth floor.
Exiting the elevator we rang a bell outside the apartment and walked through a double set of wrought iron security gates to the door where our hostesses were standing. Our welcome was warm and enthusiastic. After proper introductions and chatter in spanish (no english spoken here), the sisters ushered us into one of three bedrooms set aside to host tourists. It was airy and spacious, a sea breeze billowing the curtains of the open window with a view to the imposing 16th century Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro at the Havana harbor entrance below. It was near sunset and we were anxious to hit the fascinatingly foreign streets for our first walk, heading around the corner toward the ocean and El Malecon - the landmark promenade that forms the edge of the city with the limitless blue expanse of the Gulf of Florida, the U.S. lying close beyond the horizon.
As we walked along the ribbon of concrete abutting the seawall, frothy sprays of seawater leapt into the air and sprayed our path. Men and boys stood on the green slippery rocks beyond the fortified wall fishing with crude hand-lines. In the near distance the sounds of a jazz trumpet filled the air. Young lovers snuggled together in the shoulders of the wall. A young group of giggling girls posed for souvenir pictures of innocence and friendship. Next to the pedestrian boulevard was a wide street sprinkled with colorful vintage cars leisurely going their way.
Two older couples, carefree and happy, strolled toward us and the sight triggered a sudden and strange deja vu in me. Like a flash I was abruptly inserted into the middle of an old faded black and white 8mm family movie my cousin had shown me on a recent visit to her home in Texas. Just for a weird few seconds everything before me turned monochrome except for the two of us who stood out in bright technicolor like one of those old colorized Hollywood films. Coming toward me were not two local couples but my grandparents and their friends, dressed in the finery of the 1950’s - long skirts and hats with little veils, clunky black shoes, suits, thin ties and fedora hats. They were strolling along the same sidewalk - the same sea wall with the same sea spray being thrown into the air. Behind them were the same buildings and high rises that were now before me - the exact same cityscape.....and the exact same cars moving down the street. The sameness was eerie. My cousin had said she wasn’t sure but she thought it was a home movie of their vacation in Havana. I now knew it to be so. Nothing in the setting had appeared to have outwardly changed since they had gone there so long ago in pre-revolution Cuba to enjoy the fancy hotels and casinos and sparkling nightlife.
I had read that “the Revolution of 1959 had pushed the pause button” in Cuba and this personal experience made it visibly concrete for me. “Fidel Castro had since redefined this playground of the rich and famous as a place of ‘equality’ under a communist doctrine.”
We resumed walking toward our destination at the far end of El Malecon - the Hotel Nacional where notables like Frank Sinatra and other entertainers and celebrities once stayed, sitting majestically on a bluff overlooking El Malecon with an expansive view of the sea. It is now owned by the state but remains one of the finest hotels in Cuba with its History Bar and pricey touristic Tropicana Nightclub, Cuba’s famous cabaret show since 1939. If you don’t stay in a casa particular like our Casa Victoria which cost about $30/night, your only other choice is to stay at state-run hotels which are all in beautifully restored buildings and very expensive ($200+/night). There are no middle priced options. We climbed the hill to the grand entrance of the Hotel Nacional, walked through the elegant lobby with its glitter and pedigree, and found our place at a small table on the lawn where we partook in an iconic tourist ritual - drinking a frosty mojito - the island’s signature drink of white rum, mint, sugar and lime - while watching the sunset color the city and sea a soft rosy pink.
The next day Victoria and Marguerite sat us at their dining room table and served us an ample breakfast from a small kitchen piled high with fruit wrapped in newspapers and from which two pet parrots squawked their good mornings. We sat with a newly arrived Israeli couple, guests in the second of their three rooms. The dining room, like the rest of the apartment, was nicely furnished with simple antiques and was fronted by an expanse of windows facing the sea before which hung a jungle of potted plants. On one wall was a breakfront with family photos positioned among lots and lots of china tchotchkes - trinkets, along with the furniture, that were indicators of the wealthy lifestyle the family must have once enjoyed. In one corner of the adjoining living room with its plush old couches was a TV and a playpen for Marguerite’s grandson who she babysat while her daughter and son-in-law worked at their medical practices nearby. Victoria led me into a side porch to a computer - they owned one because doctors are the few individuals allowed to have email addresses - and asked me to translate an email she had received from an American woman who had stayed there the previous year. This was a relatively well-off family as we were to later realize from staying in other casa particulars throughout our Cuban travels.
Casas particluares vary in quality but the hosts are very concerned with your comfort and how you like their country and are very conscious of their role as ambassadors. The wonderful advantage about staying in them is that you get pretty up close and personal with "everyday" people and the rhythms of how they live. There is a sense that you are part of their family - briefly sharing the experiences of their lives whether waiting anxiously for news of the birth of a first grandchild (Viñales), to fretting over the late verbal development of a grandchild (Havana), writing down recipes for cuban food specialties, watching the proud singing performance of a daughter (Cienfuegos), or helping to search for a runaway puppy (Trinidad). Another advantage was eating delicious - always delicious - traditional everyday meals. Breakfast was uniformly coffee or tea, fruit (sweet fingerling bananas, papaya, pineapple, guanabana) two eggs, fresh juice, bread, and sometimes tortillas (ham and cheese sandwiches) which we saved for our lunches. We could elect to specially order dinner too - a choice of chicken, fish, lobster or pork with salad, soup, beans, rice, malanga chips, plantains, and fresh fruit.
We knew our traditional method of travel relying on wifi and favorite websites was going to be impossible since internet was virtually nonexistent in Cuba. So before leaving Panama City to embark on the trip we had emailed a Cuban travel coordinator living in Havana named Jorge who we had found on Tripadvisor to help us with our travel plans. This meant we were now in Jorge’s network of contacts and he would set us up at casa particulars in each of the cities we wanted to visit, arrange our transport, tours, and anything else we needed. He was a goldmine and although we doubted it many times along the way, he did make the trip go like clockwork.
On day two, Jorge met us at Casa Victoria to discuss our plans for the trip and introduce us to Elena, our english-speaking guide for a Havana Viejo walking tour. Elena was a beautiful young woman with a disarming affability and charming smile. We walked the streets as she explained the sights to us. We saw food stores called bodegas with their scales, and blackboards listing available basic commodities (sugar, beans, eggs) at artificially subsidized prices purchased through government ration books. We saw uniformed school kids called “pioneers”, the country’s indoctrinated future socialist leaders, walking home from school wearing identifiable bandanas around their necks. We saw men carrying pest extermination equipment on their backs going door to door to fumigate living spaces as mandated by government health laws. We stopped into a boxing gym and met an old coach sporting gloves held together with shiny packing tape who asked us to email a photo I took of him to his daughter in Miami. Cigar smoking women on third story balconies lowered baskets for a delivery. We got glimpses of life through decrepit laundry draped courtyards. People climbed into bicycle taxis with chains that had to be put back on their tracks every five minutes.
We saw examples of “creeping capitalism” resulting from Raul Castro’s new privatization laws and economic reality put in place when he took over from brother Fidel in 2011. This was manifested in small discreet private enterprises - from vegetable carts plying the streets to "businesses" hiding behind half closed doors of street level living rooms: a hair salon, " cafeterias" selling homemade sandwiches and drinks, massage parlors, the old man shining 60-year-old black cooking pots for their owners, sales of handmade crafts such as African dolls and woven baskets, and artists offering their paintings, often a mix of African vibrancy with images of revolutionary heroes and the old American cars.
We oogled at the once-sumptuous colonial architecture crumbling before our eyes (there are thousands of historically significant buildings but only a handful have been restored as hotels and museums by the government). Most of them are decrepit and occupied by residents. Some of them are supported from imminent collapse by wooden posts; some are without roofs and have trees rooted in the walls. Palacial gems, corporate buildings, banks, and democratic government icons have all been commandeered for the peoples’ residential use rather than kept for the original “high-minded” purposes which their decadent capitalistic architecture symbolically suggests. We walked through parks where men argued about baseball on a specially designated corner, women sold flowers in colonial costumes but made more money from posing for photographs, and a book market flourished. Narrow crowded streets opened on to beautiful plazas with touristy beer gardens, diners sitting at outdoor tables, and dry water fountains with a monument or sculpture. We passed a few of Hemingway’s favorite bars and the gorgeous original Art Deco headquarters of Bacardi rum, since relocated to Bermuda. We saw more incarnations of beloved Ché than you ever thought imaginable.
And everywhere life is lived in the busy atmospheric streets - outside in the open - people socializing, laughing, playing music, dancing, playing domino games and stickball.
Lunch was at Paladar Doña Eutimia which became our favorite eatery - a stylish little crowded cafe off Cathedral Plaza with an excellent menu of black beans and rice, ropa vieja, pulled pork sandwiches, malanga and fried sweet plantains. Elena took us next door to Taller Experimental de Grafica de La Habana where some Cuba’s most cutting-edge artists produce engravings and lithographs of fine art quality on 17th century machinery. We met and watched several of them in addition to meeting a group of art students from Pratt Institute in NY who were there taking a week-long workshop. We walked back to Casa Victoria along a park-like pedestrian boulevard called El Prado (returning on Saturday to see the sidewalk art display) and observe people who had gathered to trade, or more lately, sell apartments. The sound of a bagpipe wafted from a third floor balcony and we looked up to see a man playing an instrument draped in a Cuban flag.
On another day, Jorge arranged for a driver and guide to take us further afield than Havana Viejo. With Dania, a bright activist educated in the Soviet Union who was more interested in giving us political discourses rather than sightseeing information, we visited the house, studio, and neighborhood of Jose Fuster, a well-known artist who created a mosaic wonderland that was a combination of Gaudi, Watts Towers, Nikki de St. Phalle, and Isaiah Zagar. We passed sanitized resorts near the beaches of Miramar that looked a little worse for wear. We even saw a shopping mall. We drove through a once upscale area of individual colonial homes where embassies are now located, overshadowed by the tall, imposing and sterile Russian Embassy tower, a grim example of Soviet architectonics.
Cuba has a strong African soul. After discussing Santeria, Cuba’s main religion of African origin, she took us to the river that runs through a large forested Havana park to the site where ritualized chicken sacrifices are performed. We watched as a family walked to the edge of the water carrying several doomed birds and spoke to a young santero (Santeria priest) who arrived on a motorcycle clutching his squawking offering. Disapprovingly, Dania said she thought it such a waste when they could have eaten the poultry instead, food being as scarce as it was.
We ended the day at Callejon de Hamel, a lively Afro-Cuban neighborhood where we delighted in the colorful surroundings and art (sculptures, bathtubs cut in half used as canvases and benches, and painting/street art on every surface). We returned on Sunday to watch the weekly Santeria drumming and dancing performance. We thought it was for tourists’ benefit but were pleasantly surprised to see many locals enjoying it as well. Roberto the artist came over to us to sell a music CD and started a discussion about race relations and discrimination which he understood to be a major problem in the U.S. It was an interesting departure from the usual topic of American capitalism, decadence, and consumerism. To illustrate his premise that there was no such problem of social mixing in Cuba, he pointed to the top of an apartment block that had two water tanks on the roof. One was symbolically painted black with white lettering that read “White Water” and the other was painted white with “Black Water” in black lettering. We were not in Cuba long enough to form our own opinion about the matter other than to indeed superficially notice a certain color blindness among the social groups we saw.
We were excited to find out that the Cuban National Ballet was performing and immediately purchased two tickets for about $25 each. Unfortunately the classically ornate Gran Teatro de la Habana was undergoing restoration so the dance was instead held at the starkly utilitarian Teatro Nacional (1950’s), a pillar of Havana’s cultural life located in the monumental Plaza de la Revolution. We stood outside the building people-watching before we entered and were astounded to see so many many student-aged young adults and families with children - far more a percentage of the audience than ever in the U.S. But how could they afford a ticket we wondered? We subsequently found out that cultural performances such as this one were either free or at a cost of 25 cents for Cubans. The acclaimed Ballet Nacional de Cuba had been founded by ballerina Alicia Alonzo in 1948. The controversial Alonzo, the legendary doyen of Cuban ballet, was now 93 and entered the great theater hall escorted by two beautifully sculpted young men supporting her at each elbow, bowing to a thunderous standing ovation before taking her balcony seat to preside over her “Giselle”. I had seen her once before when I lived in Florence, Italy in 1995. Marc Greenside and I attended what was one of her last performances where, virtually blind at age 75, she entered the stage held aloft by two strapping male ballet dancers and danced with her arms and hands instead of her feet.
Havana was so intoxicating that we could have spent every one of our 12 days in Cuba exploring this city alone. However, we did visit three other places: Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. There is a big difference between Havana and NOT Havana. Our transportation was by bus on empty highways. The driver made frequent unscheduled stops - to procure some cabbages and lettuce for for himself from rural gardens, pick up people, talk to another bus driver, let a father out for a bathroom break for his young daughter....an hour or two late ...no matter. The nearly deserted roads were now and then peppered with billboards glorifying the Revolution. We saw people hitchhiking, conspicuously holding up a fistful of Cuban paper money above their heads to let a passing driver know they had the means to pay for the ride.
Viñales - The Heart of Tobacco Growing
Tiny Viñales is a simple agricultural town with small pastel colored houses lining the streets filled with machete-wielding guajiros (farmers) and horse or oxen driven carts. It is located in “one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings” (LP) - Valle de Viñales - a UNESCO World Heritage site characterized by limestone karst cave systems and dramatic rock monoliths known as mogotes. Guajiros driving oxen-driven ploughs through rust-colored tobacco fields followed by snowy white egrets make an iconic scene.
We did a morning walk out to these tobacco fields, watched the harvesting at a finca, saw a cigar rolling demonstration, toured a secadero (tobacco drying house) and hiked through a large cave called Cueva de las Vacas. The following day the neighbor of our casa particular picked us up in his ’57 Chevy Fairlane and toured us through the caves and landscape of Viñales National Park and out to the Valle de Silencio for a sunset view from a unique agricoecological farm.
Cienfuegos - The Pearl of the South
Cienfuegos was colonized by the French rather than the Spanish and that has made all the difference in its singular character. Lonely Planet says Cienfuegos “has long seduced travelers from around the island with its elegance, enlightened French spirit and feisty Caribbean panache. If Cuba has a Paris, this is most definitely it.” It is also famous as the home of Benny Moré, Cuba’s legendary Afro-Cuban musician.
There are two parts to this city - the central Unesco World Heritage Site with its grand colonnaded neoclassical buildings arranged around Parque José Martí and Punta Gorda peninsula which juts out into scenic Cienfuegos Bay with some extravagant mansions such as Palacio del Valle and “some of Cuba’s prettiest buildings.”
Our casa particular was located on El Bulevar, Cienfuegos’ main shopping street. It was operated by affable Tony, a retired engineer from a concrete facility, and his family. He spoke excellent english and told us how he was discriminated against because he is a devout catholic: many years ago he had lost his job teaching at a university because he got married in the church. He invited us into his kitchen to view a video of his musician daughter singing on national TV.
Trinidad - The New Orleans of Cuba where Sugar was once King
Trinidad was a real favorite of ours!
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Trinidad is a “perfectly preserved 19th century sugar town” with an exciting live music scene that heats up at night on the sweeping steps next to the church off the Plaza Mayor. This classic alfresco venue is the Casa de la Musica and the 10 pm salsa show is packed with corona beer and mojito drinking locals as well as tourists. The “New Orleans of Cuba” has the feel of a European village / Mexican Pueblo Magica and there are plenty of places to listen to the country’s other eclectic music genres like son, trova, and rumba. The fact that it is overrun with tour buses and tourists doesn’t detract from the enchanting atmosphere of its cobbled streets, colonial style mansions, and picturesque pastel houses and towers.
A dining highlight for us was dinner at paladar Sol Ananda - more house museum than restaurant - in one of Trinidad’s oldest houses (1750) on the central square. We ate in the master bedroom in front of a sumptuous antique bed while a salsa band played in front of a handsomely carved wardrobe near a bedside table.
Eight km. east is yet another Unesco World Heritage Site - the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) where Trinidad’s huge sugar fortunes were amassed during the early 19th century by French plantation owners fleeing the slave rebellion in Haiti. More than 50 sugar mills were built and the area produced more than a third of Cuba’s sugar. We took the tourist train to reach it but since it no longer uses the antique steam engine, the tour had lost a lot of its charm. The focus of the excursion was to visit the village of Manaca Iznaga where there is an old hacienda owned by one of the wealthiest men in Cuba back in the day and its famous 44m-high bell tower with beautiful valley views, originally used to keep an eye on the plantation slaves. Still it was a nice outing for the day.
The End of the Journey
Our visit ended back in Havana with our guide Elena. It was a happy accident that on our last day in Cuba we met in the street as we were looking for a place to have lunch. She led us to one of her favorite places - to an unmarked building with a gloriously decaying facade, through a splintered once-elegant carved wooden door, up a grandly curving white marble staircase, where, at the top, we turned to reach a thin balcony lined with open apartment doors overlooking a small courtyard crisscrossed with drying laundry. Half-way down the balcony was a sign for a paladar. Not only would you never find this place on your own, but you may think twice about ever eating here. But this was turned out to be the quintessential image of an old-fashioned paladar I had formed in my mind after reading about the true Cuban experience - not a cafe but a small bright room in the couple’s living quarters where wife Elvis turned out delicious meals from their tiny kitchen, husband Heri tended the “bar” and their two young daughters occupied themselves with toys on another side balcony. We had a long leisurely meal and sixteen year old daughter Natasha showed us her book of photographs of her in various costumes and poses made for her 15th birthday. Elena explained most girls of some means elect to either have a book like this (which costs a shocking $300) or an expensive party for their Quinciniera. Elena had had a party when she turned 15. The paladar was surprisingly a bit expensive and when we chided Heri that he must have a very good income he laughingly replied - “I am a very poor man because I have three daughters”.
At the risk of ending our journey account on a sour note, I feel compelled to report that we fell victim to a scam - something that is warned against in all the Cuba travel guides in a country where jineteros (“tricksters”) are plentiful and pernicious. One of the pitfalls of any travel anywhere is encountering people who want to cheat or take advantage of you and some countries are worse than others. Chuck and I were mortified that we got suckered in to going to hear a special music performance at a Havana bar with a nice enough looking couple and their 9 year old son. We got savvy too late when we entered the bar and noticed there was a tourist couple and a local seated at each table. At our “friend’s” suggestion we ordered a round of non-alcoholic drinks and didn’t ask the price, knowing that fruit drinks were cheap. When they asked us for money for milk for their son, we requested the bill which was outrageous. The couple would no doubt get a handsome kickback from the bar. Instead of giving the couple money, we insisted they take us to a store and we buy them the powdered milk which we did...one bag, not two as they requested. Maybe we let our guard down because they were a family - and we wondered if the son was a jinetero-in-training or merely a prop. In the end, as seasoned travelers, it was only our pride that was hurt.
Twelve days was hardly enough time to scratch the surface of this fascinating country and we were disappointed to not be able to get to the southeastern part of Cuba or to snorkel in the Caribbean sea at reputedly pristine beaches (albeit at all-inclusive touristic resorts that are as far away from the real life of the country as you can get).
Cuban life is poised for change as I write this Passage Note. After the diplomatic doors squeaked open a crack under Clinton and shut again under Bush, the Obama administration has been flinging them open since January 2015 with newly established diplomatic relationships and even direct air flights from the U.S. With an ease in travel constraints, visitor numbers are expected to skyrocket and everyone is gearing up for the influx...even Che Guevera’s son who has recently established a motorcycle touring company to see the island.
We feel fortunate to have visited when we did and would love to go back, maybe next time legally.