Cuba

24 October 2018

Ontario to Miami

The United States has made it difficult for an American to travel to Cuba. For about 60 years the US has had an embargo on Cuba and restricted travel by anybody subject to US jurisdiction. There are a variety of ways to go legally, all of which require jumping through some hoops. I decided I would break with my normal mode of traveling solo to go with a tour group that meets the requirements for what is called a People to People trip so I would be sure to meet the requirements. This will entail spending much of my time in Cuba meeting with groups of Cubans, rather than touring. Although the group doesn’t meet until tomorrow afternoon in Miami, since I’m coming from California it will be difficult to leave California early enough to get to Miami in time for the meeting. So I’m coming a day early.

25 October 2018

I spend a mostly quiet day in Miami and get to my meeting on time. I’m going to be traveling with 11 other people on a tour organized by Road Scholar. We meet our guide who covers the basics of what to expect. We’re each given our Cuban visa which will allow us entry into Cuba. It’s a two-part form. Two identical parts separated by a perforation. One part gets us into the country and the other lets us back out. Tomorrow morning we fly to Cuba.

26 October 2018

MIA to Holguin

I”m up early and after breakfast in the hotel, the group transfers to the Miami airport, where we check in for the flight and experience the joys of airport security…. There’s an extra step involved in traveling to Cuba. After checking in for the flight and getting a boarding pass we have to take our passport, boarding pass and visa to a “Cuba ready” kiosk where our documents are examined and our boarding pass gets a red stamp. We’re instructed to keep that boarding pass for the duration of our trip because that will be our proof we have insurance if something happens to us and we need medical services. It’s barely over a one-hour flight from Miami to Holguín, Cuba, our first destination.

The first step after deplaning is to stop at Cuban immigration. They check all my documents, take my picture along with my passport and ask me if I’ve ever been to Brazil. I have no idea what that question was about. I tell him “no”, he pages through my passport, stamps it and hands it back to me. Next stop is health services. Cuba is the only country I’ve ever been to that, even though it was cursory, and based on self-report, has done a health check upon entry. I’ve filled out a health questionnaire which I hand over. It’s examined and I’m waved on. I pick up my luggage and the next stop is customs. I have nothing to declare so I’m waved through into Cuba.

Although it’s an international airport, the airport at Holguin, on the opposite side of the island from Havana, is a small, simple airport. It’s overflowing with officials wearing a variety of uniforms. For the most part the officials are helpful and pleasant. I find the rest of my tour group outside and am directed to our tour bus which will be our transportation for the next couple of weeks but for today will just be taking us the short distance from Holguín to Gibara.

Airport to Gibara

 I’m definitely in the tropics. It’s very hot and humid. I’m bathed in sweat almost immediately.

We stop at a “paladar” in Holguín for lunch. This is a uniquely Cuban institution. There was a time, after the revolution, when all restaurants were owned by the government. Government control is relaxing slightly, however, and some restaurants are being allowed to be privately owned. They are not called “restaurants” to distinguish them from the government owned and run places to eat, but are called “paladares”.

There are still restrictions on them, however. We’re told that the government has put a limit on how much money they can earn. They aren’t allowed to make above a certain limit. They can’t become “too” popular. And although they started out in somebody’s living room or patio, now they can be larger and are in more spacious quarters, specifically designed for an eating establishment. After an excellent lunch we’re driving north from Holguín to the small town of Gibara on Cuba’s northeastern, Atlantic coast. Christopher Columbus, when he landed in Gibara, is said to have described it as, “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.”

We check into our hotel where we can exchange money. A brief explanation about the money situation, is in order here. Because of the US embargo, Cuba has no banking relations with the outside world. That means that all our ATM cards and credit cards are useless here. It’s a cash only economy. And currently, Cuba uses a dual currency system. Foreigners are required to use the CUC (pronounced “kook”) the so called “convertible peso” and this is what you receive when you exchange your US dollars, Canadian dollars or Euros. Cubans use the CUP (pronounced “koop”) the Cuban peso, which is not officially provided to foreigners. We’re told that there has been talk of doing away with the dual currency system and moving to a single currency, but the economists haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without causing major damage to the Cuban economy (beyond the damage already done by the US embargo). So, for the foreseeable future it’s a dual currency economy.

The two currencies are not equivalent. The CUC is artificially pegged to parity with the US dollar. The CUP is currently about 25 CUP per CUC (or US dollar). Or to reverse it, about $.04 US per CUP. Of course an exchange fee is charged to exchange foreign currencies for CUC. In addition, because the US embargo has caused so much economic pain for Cuba there’s an additional 10% fee to exchange US dollars for CUC. The result is that $100 US results in 87.30 CUC in your pocket, in spite of the theoretical equivalency to the dollar.

I’ve gotten around the 10% fee by exchanging US dollars with a Canadian friend for Canadian dollars. That, of course, involved no exchange fee. In Cuba I exchange my Canadian dollars for CUC and am not charged the 10% fee. I only pay the exchange fee.

Our hotel is a wonderful old mansion that’s been exquisitely refurbished: the E. Ordoño.

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Our rooms are spacious with what I estimate to be 15 foot ceilings and a balcony. We eat dinner in the hotel restaurant where we are serenaded as we eat and then head for bed to get some rest before an early start to the day tomorrow.

27 October 2018

Gibara to Puerto PadreWe’re up early, eat breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet and board our bus. Our first stop is a People-to-People connection, meeting the owner and workers in a Cuban rum distillery. (Bacardi, the most famous Cuban rum, no longer has any presence in Cuba, though that is where it got its start.) The distillery we’re visiting is in an old sugar mill built in 1910. We’re given an explanation of the distillation process and given a tour of the distillery, including the laboratory that tests every batch to ensure the purity and advertised alcohol content, the distillation tanks, the storage room where the casks are stored for aging, and the bottling room where the finished rum is bottled, the bottles sealed and labeled and prepared for shipment. At the end of the tour we’re allowed to taste-test the finished product and have a question-and-answer session.
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_35A7692There is little mechanization. After being distilled, the rum is pumped to a holding tank above the bottling room. Otherwise everything is done by hand. The rum is gravity fed through a hose with which a worker manually fills each bottle on a table in front of him. Another worker feeds empty bottles to him and takes the full bottles to another worker who manually caps and seals each bottle. The bottles are then carried to another table in front of a worker who manually applies the labels.
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From there we travel to the town of Puerto Padre; another small, rural and poor town. It’s the birthplace of Emiliano Salvador, however, known as the father of Latin Jazz and Juan Pablo Torres, a well-known trombone player. There we go to the town cultural center for a Latin Jazz concert, followed by a question-and-answer session. I was surprised to learn that the musicians have been together for many years and are paid by the government to play. Playing jazz is their full time occupation. And it shows. They really are quite good. I buy a DVD they offer for sale after our concert.

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This area of Cuba is very rural, with lots of agriculture and open space. We travel to an ecological farm for lunch, using the farm’s products, and then a tour of the farm with an explanation of the techniques used for ecological and organic farming. Lunch included a roast pig. I wandered out to an area behind the house and found two men manually turning a spit with a whole pig skewered on it, over a pit with live coals. It looked just about fully cooked. I asked them how long they’d been turning that crank and they told me they’d been at it four hours. I asked if they weren’t bored. The man turning the spit just laughed, shook his head and shrugged. I simply cannot imagine turning a spit by hand for four hours. I would be bored out of my skull.

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From there we returned to the hotel in Gibara, took a walking tour of the town then went to a nearby paladar for dinner. My impression of the town is that it’s a shadow of what it used to be. I was surprised that the road that ran right along the coast was mostly empty,

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but there was the occasional classic American car.

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The bay of Gibara —

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Much is pretty dilapidated, but the people seem curious, friendly and happy to see tourists (which was very obviously what we were)

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_35A7711and some areas are renovated.

I’m engaged in conversation by several friendly locals, one of whom was wearing a shirt with some English language humor. When he saw me looking and laughing he stopped and talked, and when he found out I can speak Spanish he asked me what his shirt said. He could read no English. (It said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I didn’t want to come.”)

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Children are children everywhere.

Tomorrow we leave Gibara to return to Holguín so we pack up before going to bed.

28 October 2018

Holguin to Santiago de Cuba

After breakfast at the hotel we board our tourist bus and head back to Holguín. We’re traveling in a very rural area and the lack of development and poverty is very obvious. I been through rural areas in other countries before where horses, oxen and mules are used as work animals. I’ve never been in one, however, where their use is as common as it is here. It’s not just the occasional work animal in a field. All the roads are filled with horse drawn carts.

Much of the time the cart is a work cart used to haul produce, building materials, etc. Occasionally, they’re transporting people.  I try getting pictures from the bus but the results are not that great.  I’ll have a few pictures later on.

We ride back to Holguín in the air conditioned comfort of our modern bus (made in China), in stark contrast to the Cubans all around us in horse drawn carts. Many of them seem happy to see us and wave at us as we go by, however.

Once we arrive in Holguín we head for a unique shop in town that has found and rescued typesetting equipment from the early 20th century, most of which was made in the United States.

 

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The equipment has been repaired and restored and is used to create flyers, announcements, print books of poems, and other artistic projects.

They also make their own unique and artistic paper, some of which is simply framed for decoration and other pieces are bound into blank books or used for their special printing projects. The owner walks us through the process of making unique, custom paper and answers our questions.

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A slurry is made in the tub with the ingredients for the paper which is scooped onto the fine mesh screen in his left hand.

The water is drained then the screen is turned upside down, allowing the sopping wet paper to fall onto some absorbent material where it will dry into a paper sheet.

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Different materials can be added to the paper to give it a unique appearance.  Samples are up on the wall over the sinks.

From here we go to a school of the lyric opera where we gather in a rehearsal room to watch a presentation from an upcoming production. There are some truly talented singers and would create an excellent production on stage.

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I was intrigued with a piano on the patio outside the rehearsal room.  It looks as if it’s seen its last days.

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It hasn’t been discarded yet, though.  Why not I have no idea.

Then we go to the Loma de la Cruz — the Hill of the Cross, so called ever since somebody erected a large cross at the top. Though there are stairs leading up the hill we opt to stay on the bus and ride to the top, from where we have panoramic views of the city and the surrounding countryside.

 

We visit the home of a local family of authors and artists and view their work. Since the government seems to support the work of so many, I ask if they make their living from their art and they say they don’t. The Cuban government is still involved in what they do. If the government accepts their manuscript for a book, it is the government that publishes, distributes and sells the book without charge. But the government also keeps all profits (or absorbs the losses) from the book sales, except what the family can sell themselves. But, for them, that is just supplemental income. They have regular jobs in addition.

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From here we go to another farm where we have lunch at the farmer’s paladar and talk about their farm and farming.

The land they farm has been in the family for several generations and, since they own the land they’re farming they say they are free to sell their crops on the open market. The government does request that they sell the government some of their crop to help the government feed people who are hospitalized, students attending school or other government programs that provide meals.

In Cuba all medical care is free to all from cradle to grave, and education is free through the university level. When students move from high school to the university (or trade school) they’re allowed to specify the field of study they’d like to pursue. They’re tested in that field and, if they pass the testing they’re admitted to the university in their province. If that university doesn’t have a program in their chosen field they’re provided with room and board and enrolled at the closest university that does offer that field of study. Cuba invests heavily in education. They have so many physicians that they send many to Venezuela and receive heavily discounted petroleum in return.  One of the difficulties, however, is that so many choose to attend a university, there is a shortage of people attending trade or vocational schools to fill needed positions in those areas.

From Holguín we travel to the town that will be our next overnight stop: Santiago de Cuba, the capital of the province with the same name. Fidel Castro was born here and is buried here. We go first to the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery where he is buried in a site of his own design,

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along with many other important Cubans. He chose to be buried next to José Martí the author and philosopher whose writings formed the philosophical underpinnings of Fidel’s revolution.  This is the resting place of José Martí.

Our guide informs us that the cemetery has decided that a good way to get money out of tourists visiting the cemetery is to charge them for taking pictures. One picture or a hundred doesn’t matter. If you take a picture you’re asked for 5 CUC. Our guide will have a discussion with the person charged with collecting our money to see if she can make a small “donation” for the group so we won’t be charged individually. She is successful.

Our cemetery guide explains that the large ornate plots are family plots. Families with money can buy a family plot and erect an impressive monument.  They can then bury multiple people there.

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You may recognize the name on this monument.

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The “common people” who can’t afford a family plot are buried in unmarked common graves.  Those graves are tracked, however, by a numbering system so record is kept of who’s buried where. Because space is very limited, the deceased individual is allowed to remain in their grave for two years, after which they are exhumed. The family is advised of the date and time of exhumation. Either the family or, if they are not emotionally prepared for the next step anybody substituting for the family, is responsible for cleaning the bones of the deceased which are then placed in a smaller box which is stored and the space the body used in the grave is now open for somebody else.

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There are monuments, this one to those who are “the fallen in the insurgency”.

We watch the changing of the guard ceremony at the gravesites of Fidel and José Martí, which occurs every half-hour.

We are led through a small portion of the cemetery.  And then it’s back on the bus to be taken to our hotel, the Meliã, a large, very modern building where we have dinner.

29 October 2018

This morning, after breakfast in the hotel, we’re taken to San Juan Hill, made famous (at least in the United States) by Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up this hill in the Spanish American War in 1898.  It is better known in Cuba as the site of a major battle in the War of Independence to free Cuba from Spain.

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Although the assistance of US troops is mentioned on plaques on San Juan Hill, the only monument to Teddy Roosevelt is a small, humble obelisk, across a busy street from San Juan Hill, at the intersection of two residential streets next to a traffic sign, that, translated, says “Yield”.

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From San Juan Hill, we go to Parque Céspedes in the center of old Santiago de Cuba, first to visit the Diego Velazquez House Museum.

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This house is the oldest house still standing in Cuba. It was built in 1522 on the main square and served as the official residence of the island’s first governor. The museum is full of period furniture and decorations. As many original components as possible are in place.

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I was surprised to hear that the large, heavy wooden doors swung on small, simple hinges. Basically two connected screw eyes. Apparently that was the typical Spanish hinge of the time.

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We cross the square to visit the cathedral.

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Around the square there are both American classic cars

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and Russian cars.

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There is also the occasional truck that is being used to transport people.

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After lunch we get back on the bus to travel to the El Morro Fortress.

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The harbor of Santiago de Cuba has a very narrow opening and the El Morro fortress protected that opening making it almost impossible for any attacking ship to enter the harbor. _35A7936During the Spanish American War in 1898 the United States Navy used that narrow opening to their advantage. Only one Spanish sailing ship could navigate that opening at a time and the US Navy set up outside the harbor, engaging the Spanish ships as they tried to leave and won a decisive battle for the US, destroying much of the Spanish fleet.

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After touring the fortress, we ate lunch at a restaurant located just outside the fortress. This afternoon we had a People to People presentation.

Then it was back to the hotel for a lecture by a university professor on the history of US / Cuba relations. He effectively presented the Cuban perspective and we had a lively discussion as, after his lecture, our group asked questions and made comments. We weren’t done with our discussion when the group leader cut it off and we went to a local paladar for dinner, after which it was back to the hotel and to bed.

30 October 2018

Santiago de Cuba to GuantanamoToday, after breakfast in the hotel, we travel to the province of Guantanamo.

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The man at the far side of the picture was cutting the grass in front of the sign.  He had a scythe attached to the end of a pole and was swinging the pole back and forth to cut the tall blades of grass by hand.

To be clear, there is a province of Guantanamo with a city of the same name and a bay known as Guantanamo Bay. The US base in Cuba is on Guantanamo Bay. We would not visit, nor get within sight of the base. The US base is surrounded by a Cuban military base and is not accessible by land.

Cuba does not want the US base on their island and is resentful of its presence. At one stop on our trip we were at a local hotel that had a large map of the province of Guantanamo with the cities and various landmarks labeled. At Guantanamo Bay the map said (in Spanish), “Area illegally occupied by the United States.” We were told that the US regularly sends a “rent” check to the Cuban government for a few hundred dollars and that none of those checks have been cashed.

Our first stop was a People to People connection at the Tumba Francesca Pompadour; a dance group with a French/Hatian background. The Tumba Francesca (French Drum) style of dance, song and drumming, was brought to Cuba by Hatian slaves who were brought to Guantanamo in the 1790’s. It has a very strong connection to its African roots, and traditional French court dancing (a pretty interesting combination). The Tumba Francesca is on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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After a presentation by the Tumba Francesca group we cross the street to the Casa del Changüí where we watch a presentation by this cultural group who play a style of music that is a fusion of Spanish and African rhythms and percussion instruments.

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After each presentation we have the opportunity to talk to and ask questions off the performers as well as the opportunity to buy DVD’s of their performances.

My eye is caught by a car in a parking lot.

And by a large sign on the top of a building as we drive by in the bus.  Difficult to see because it was just a quick shot out the bus window but it says, “Socialismo o Muerte” — Socialism or Death.

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After lunch at a local paladar, we go to the home of a local artist (in the white Guayabera) who displays and talks about his work. Then it’s back to the hotel in Santiago de Cuba.

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We have some free time this evening, which I use to wander around the area with the goal of seeing not the tourist sites, but the areas where Cubans live their daily lives. The contrast is stark. Tourist hotels and sites are equal to the standards of developed Western countries. The homes of the artists and authors we’ve been to are pleasant, clean, well-furnished homes the equal of homes in the developed world.  But most Cubans appear to live in dilapidated, impoverished conditions.

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There is a notable lack of vehicular traffic.  I assume because the average working Cuban doesn’t own a car.  There are, however the old American classics.

And work trucks which do double duty transporting people when the back isn’t full of whatever they normally transport.

_35A8020And the neighborhood fruit and vegetable cart.

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Wandering around the streets you commonly see signs that require some explanation for the uninitiated.  Hanging outside hostels, B&B’s, or small hotels is a sign with a graphic of an anchor.

The color has significance.  A blue anchor, like the one on the left, means that either CUC or CUP will be accepted.  These businesses cater to foreign tourists, offer more amenities and charge higher rates.  The ones with a red anchor, like the one on the right, says underneath it “moneda nacional” — “national currency”.  They only accept CUP, have fewer amenities, charge lower rates and are intended for Cubans only.  By only accepting CUP they are taxed at a much lower rate than the establishments that cater to foreign tourists.

As I was leaving the hotel to wander around the streets, a man approached me asking about where I was going and offering to get me a taxi.  His English was marginal so I switched to Spanish, explaining I didn’t need a taxi and what my intent was.  He attached himself to me anyway and we conversed as I wandered the streets and took pictures. I asked about what kind of work he did, since what he was doing clearly wasn’t a real job.  He said that he used to work on an ambulance, but he quit that job to work (unofficially) in the tourist industry. He would station himself outside the doors of the tourist hotel, approach tourists to ask where they wanted to go and if they wanted a taxi. He would then lead them to a taxi parked outside the hotel, tell the driver where they wanted to go, then ask the tourist for a tip. He made so much more in tips from tourists than from his legitimate job, that he quit his job on the ambulance and now just works the tourists for tips.

The government in Cuba provides free education, healthcare, heavily subsidized food staples and basic items and insures virtually full employment.  But it pays starvation wages.  When Cubans are looking for a job, they don’t ask about the salary.  They ask about the “opportunities”.  By that they mean whether there is access to the means to supplement their wages, such as “surplus” products they could sell privately, tips from tourists, etc.

31 October 2018

Santiago de Cuba to Camaguey

Today is mostly a travel day from Santiago de Cuba to Camagüey, the largest (in physical size) of the Cuban provinces which is located in the very middle of the island. The landscape here is mostly flat with lots of ranching.

En route, we stop at the El Cobre Sanctuary, dedicated to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

_35A8029She is said to have appeared in 1612 to a couple of poor Cubans who had just survived a harrowing night on the water in a storm. She was on a floating piece of wood carrying a baby Jesus and a cross in her arms.  Her clothes were dry in spite of floating on the water during a storm and they credited her with keeping them alive. Pilgrims come from all over Cuba to pray to her image and ask for favors. On the way in you can stop at a small kiosk to buy sunflowers to take as an offering, souvenirs, etc.The bus climbs the hill and parks in a large lot behind the church.

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Inside the church there is a wall with paintings depicting her discovery and telling the story. There is a wall covered with the crutches of people who believe she has healed them as well as numerous offerings left by others.  She seems to be popular with athletes who leave jerseys and sport gear.

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We make another stop at the town of Bayamo where we all pile into horse-drawn buggies for a ride.

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Although the buggies for the tourists are particularly nice, I also notice, during our ride, Cubans going about their business in horse-drawn buggies. 

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Bayamo is, in fact, known as the City of horsecarts. Almost half the population is said to use horses for daily transportation. Bayamo is the second city founded by the Spanish in Cuba, having been founded in 1513.

Working horses are a ubiquitous in Cuba and horse-drawn buggy taxis are common. Much of the animal labor had disappeared from Cuba as the country mechanized. But after Russia stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy and the US continued its embargo, the supplies of fuel for vehicles of any sort as well as replacement parts grew exceedingly scarce. The fuel for animals can be grown locally when the fuel for vehicles wasn’t available. Cubans became masters at making do.

Cubans did not have a tradition of using bicycles, but, as the effects of the embargo tightened it’s grip on the economy, the Cuban government imported thousands of bicycles from China and sold them at a subsidized price to the Cuban people. Now travel by bicycle is common. 

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Even, apparently, to the point of transporting a refrigerator on the back of a bicycle.  Looking at the bicycle in the back you can read that the box contains an LG refrigerator.

There are other forms of transportation, including Tuk-Tuk, pedicab, what appears to me to be a repurposed cattle truck, and, for the little ones, a miniature buggy drawn by a goat.  (That last one is more for the children’s entertainment than transportation.)

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I was interested in the numerous apartment buildings we passed and how often I would see laundry drying on a clothesline strung on an apartment balcony (when there was a balcony).

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Dryers are not the common everyday items here that they are in more developed countries.

When we get down from our buggies, we walk along a pedestrian mall, along which artists have added artistic touches, making electric pole interesting and adding artistic touches all along the mall.

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We pass the home of Havana Club — now Cuba’s premier rum.

_35A8078We arrive at Bayamo’s main square and wait while a group of school children cross.  I don’t know who’s more interested in whom.  The children in the tourists or the tourists in the children.

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We notice that the square is strangely devoid of people and learn that the reason is that some government bureaucrat decided the square would have a cleaner look if all the trees were replace with palms.So now there’s no shady spots for people to sit and talk.  The sun-baked square is mostly deserted.

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We continue our journey by our comfortable and luxurious Chinese tourist bus, to our next hotel in the town of Camagüey, Cuba’s third largest city, founded by the Spanish in 1514. It gets its name from the camagua tree. According to the legend of an indigenous group, all life is descended from the camagua tree.

Our hotel is on a pedestrian mall so the bus drops us off a few blocks from the hotel, the Gran Hotel.  _35a8117Another old classic, having been built in 1939 and was, indeed, built as a “grand” hotel. After dinner at a local paladar, we turn in for the night.

1 November 2018

After breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, we head off for another People to People activity, watching a flamenco dance company perform and talk to them about their work. They point out, demonstrate, and discuss, the differences between the Cuban style of flamenco they dance, and the traditional Spanish style of flamenco.

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We explore the area of the Plaza de los Trabajadores (the Workers’ Plaza) in the city center before we all pile into bicycle taxis. The front half is a bicycle and the back half has been transformed into a covered “cab” that will hold two people. The bicycle taxis are lined up in the foreground. 

_35A8123The large blue building is the Santa Cecilia Convention Center and the building immediately behind is a bank with a propaganda sign on the top with the ubiquitous saying, “Hasta la victoria, simpre” (Until the victory, always).  The words are associated with Che Guevara and come from a song written as a reply to his farewell letter to Cuba when he left to foment revolution in Africa and Bolivia.  There’s more revolutionary propaganda with the front of a building displaying Che’s face.

_35A8119The driver of our bicycle taxi (who was in his 60’s as I recall) peddles his heart out when we’re going uphill and keeps a small towel within arm’s reach to wipe the sweat off his brow.  This is our taxi and driver.  

_35A8166And this is how he repaired his front wheel.  All I can say is that it held air as long as I was in the taxi.

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We go into the cathedral on the square.

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And I explore a store packed with an eclectic collection of art and collectibles.

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For our next People to People experience we visit the studio of Martha Jiménez. She is a well-known Cuban artist, who works painting, in sculpture and ceramics and has been recognized by UNESCO for National Culture.

And we visit the art studio of a man whose medium is leather, which he forms into three dimensional objects — fish, head, torsos, turtles, etc.  Unique, and, to my eye, impressively done.

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From here we have lunch at a nearby paladar.  Just outside the paladar, in the street, are a number of cast statues.  This first group, we are told, shows three women gossiping. The empty chair represents the person about whom they are gossiping, who is obviously not present to hear what they’re saying about her.

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The next one we’re told, is of a man who’s done something to upset his wife.  He’s apologizing and she’s playing coy, just listening to him without either accepting his apology or outright rejecting it.

_35A8184And the last one is of a man reading the paper.  In this case with a friend.

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After lunch we then go to another art studio that is owned by a member of Cuba’s tiny Jewish community. He speaks to us about his work and, after his talk, I engage him in conversation, mostly about trying to survive as an artist in Cuba during what is known in Cuba as the “special period”.

When Russia stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy and the US retained its embargo, Fidel Castro gave a major speech to Cubans that they were about to embark on a “special period” during which everything (including food) would be in short supply. When people don’t have enough to eat they certainly do not spend money on art, so I talked to him about his survival as an artist during that period.

He also was being visited by a photographer who noticed my camera and we had a good conversation about photography.

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From here we return to the hotel.  Tomorrow we leave Camagüey.

2 November 2018

Camaguey to Cienfuegos

This morning we pack up after breakfast and leave Camagüey for the city of Cienfuegos.

On the way we stop to spend some time in the town of Trinidad.

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Trinidad was kind of a forgotten town for a long time. It was founded in 1514 by the Spanish who made their fortunes in the sugar plantations they established surrounding the town, and built their mansions inside the town. But, because it became a backwater, it never modernized and still looks much as it did in 1850, much to the delight of tourists (and the Cuban tourist industry).

Our first stop in Trinidad is to a paladar for lunch then we tour the town, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  One of our stops is at a Santería temple.

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For those who are not familiar with it, Santería is a mixture of Roman Catholocism and West African religious expression including trances, communication with the dead, animal sacrifices, sacred dance and drumming.  Roman Catholic saints substituted for the West African gods who were the objects of worship.  Santería was created by West African slaves as a way to maintain their African religion in a Roman Catholic controlled country.  Substituting Roman Catholic saints for their African gods made the religion more acceptable to the Spanish overlords.

And, of course, the streets are full of all manner of forms of transportation.

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After exploring Trinidad we say goodbye to the Plaza Mayor, the main square

_35A8227and one of the square’s resident characters.

_35A8212We reboard our bus and continue to Cienfuegos.  On the way into town our bus passes a billboard that graphically demonstrates Cuba’s attitude toward the 60-year-old U.S. embargo.
It shows a large fist, labeled “Cuba” smashing a hapless Uncle Sam against a brick wall labeled, “Bloqueo”.  What the U.S. calls an “embargo”, Cuba calls a “blockade”.

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We arrive at our hotel in time to check in, witness the sunset

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eat dinner, and call it a night.

3 November 2018

After breakfast at the hotel, we go in our bus to a botanical garden just outside Cienfuegos.  We tour the gardens with explanations provided by one of the garden’s botanists.

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When we leave the gardens we cross the street to the little community of Pepito Tey. The town is now named for one of Fidel’s revolutionaries, but was begun by Edwin Atkins who was an American from Boston, and at the age of 17 was exploring Cuba.  He thought the area would make a good sugar plantation so his very wealthy father financed his endeavor around 1843.

We are taken into the old Atkins mansion. With just a little imagination, it’s easy to visualize what must have been a very grand and extravagant lifestyle for the plantation owners, though the mansion is currently in a state of total disrepair.

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There are even some of the old records from the sugar plantation and a stock certificate.

_35A8285We walk down the street and visit the local elementary school.

_35A8298Classrooms surround an open courtyard area

_35A8306And there are miniature items from life for the children to play with — a miniature bed and crib,

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miniature shoeshine stand

_35A8302and another bed with a hand sewn doll.

_35A8300The painting on the wall says, “There is validity in the knowledge that comes from study.”

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This bulletin board is an homage to Fidel, “Our Eternal Commander”.

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From the school we are taken to the town “bodega”.  This is the exterior of the bodega

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and this is the interior.

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The bodega is the government store where people use their ration cards to purchase staples at extremely low, government subsidized prices. Our Cuban guide passes around his ration card for us to see.

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It’s more of a booklet that records what was purchased, of what product and when. 

The ration cards limit how much people can buy at those low prices. People are able to buy more or different things if they want (and can afford it), they’ll just have to pay the going price instead of getting the really cheap subsidized price. It’s an eye-opening experience to see the “plain Jane” government store where people can buy a few basic supplies.

Behind the counter there’s a large sack of beans.

_35A8322And another of rice (from Vietnam, I noticed).

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Liter bottles of liquid detergent for $25 CUP (about $1 US) and tubes of toothpaste for $8 CUP (about $.33 US).

_35A8317On the middle shelf “MultiLav” (a multi-purpose cleaner I suspect) at $100 CUP (about $4 US) for a 5 liter bottle and $20 CUP for a 1 liter bottle (about $.80 US).  On the top shelf another kind of detergent for the same prices as the MultiLav for 1 and 5 liter bottles.

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Here there are crates of eggs, packs of different kinds of cigarettes, bottles of rum, and bars of soap.  A small sign over the door says sale of cigarettes or alcohol to anybody under the age of 16 is prohibited.

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Here there are a wide assortment of things — pots, dish towels, scrub brushes, toothbrushes, children’s school notebooks, straw hats, children’s backpacks, shoes…

_35A8329There’s a board listing foods available, when they came in and how much they cost.

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And a bulletin board with pictures and articles, titled, “I am Fidel”.

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We return to Cienfuegos and take a walk through Plaza José Martí, the main square in Cienfuegos.

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Of course I’m interested in the old cars.

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We enter the impressive Tomas Terry Theater but are warned in advance that this is another location that charges if you take any pictures. The theater is being renovated and there’s scaffolding everywhere. Although it’s a beautiful, ornate theater, I decide there aren’t any pictures here that are worth the photography fee I’ll be charged (especially with the scaffolding up) so the lens cap stays on my camera.

We go to listen to the performance of another musical group for our People to People connection and talk to the performers, then go to a paladar for lunch.

Dinner this evening is on our own. A number of us walk down to the ocean with the idea of eating by the water. I bring my camera and take a few pictures as we walk.

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_35A8357This sign on top of a building says, “Che.  Man without defect and without fear.”

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Pay phones on the outside wall of a building.  I can’t remember the last time I saw public, pay phones.

_35A8358This sign says, “We will never renounce our principles”.

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A lady with very limited English skills approaches us on the sidewalk and offers us the menu of a nearby paladar. It looks good so we head for it, across the street and on the other side of a vacant piece of land.

It turns out that we must be some of their first American tourists. They seem to cater primarily to Cubans and none of the staff is really fluent in English. They are, however, very friendly and work hard to understand and accommodate us.  (And they give us a menu with prices in CUC, not CUP.)

After a very good dinner we ask them to call a cab for us, since it’s now late and it was a long walk to get there. They say they’ll find out if that’s possible. Talking to them, it later becomes clear that they’re concerned that if they call the cab, we’ll try to make them responsible for paying the cab. I explain (in Spanish) that since we’re American, none of our cell phones work in Cuba and, even if they did, we didn’t know a number to call for a cab. We just need them to make the call and we’ll be responsible for payment.

With that, they make the call and we go downstairs where our cab arrives in short order. The only problem is that we asked for a cab that could accommodate 7 people. The hatchback that arrives can comfortably accommodate 3 — one in the front and 2 in the back. A third person could squeeze into the middle in the back for a total of 4.

We decide we’ll make it work and two wives sit in their husbands laps in the back taking up two seats for 4 people. One more person squeezes into the back seat and one sits up front with the driver. We now have 6 in the car. The 7th person starts walking but we call him back, open up the hatchback and he curls up with the spare tire. We ride like that back to the hotel.

Our Cuban guide later told us that we traveled “like Cubans”.

4 November 2018

Cienfuegos to Santa Clara

After breakfast we leave Cienfuegos and travel to Santa Clara. It isn’t a long ride and we have time in the morning to go to the Museum of Decorative Arts.  We see the museum

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and are then serenaded with a selection of troubadour music. After a question-and-answer with the singer, and an opportunity to buy one of his CD’s we walk to a senior citizen’s club and I take some street scene pictures along the way.

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Our tour group is mostly retired senior citizens but the Cuban group is even older. Many of them are in their 80’s. It’s very entertaining as they show us some of the old dances they did when they were young and now they try to keep them alive, teaching them to school children. They drag us into the act and dance with us. I’m one of the ones pulled onto the dance floor. I protest that I can’t dance but that makes no difference and I do what I can.

Afterwards she insists that I did well. I tell her she’s more kind than honest. That gets a good laugh.

They also teach us a game they play knocking a wooden peg up into the air then hitting it with a 50 cm. dowel before it falls back to the floor. We have to guess the number of dowel lengths we hit it but if we guess more than we actually hit it we get no points. So we try to estimate one less than the actual number.

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After playing the game we have a question-and-answer session. We learn they are all receiving pensions. It used to be that men retired at age 60 and women at 55. Now men retire at 65 and women at 60. Their retirement pension is about 60% of what they made when they were working. When the group goes on a field trip somewhere the government provides a doctor and a nurse to accompany them.

They join us for lunch and we sit at two tables. The Cuban guide translates at one table and I translate at the other. It seems that everybody has questions for them and I’m so busy translating I almost can’t eat my lunch until one of the Cuban senior citizens notices, says something, and the questioning stops for a while so I can eat.

After lunch we take a picture with both groups together and say good-bye. I don’t know which group enjoyed the encounter more.

From here we go to the Che Guevara memorial and mausoleum which is just outside the town. The mausoleum is closed, but we go to the memorial, which is like a museum full of photos, documents and memorabilia of Che’s life. Che (whose real first name was Ernesto) shares top billing with Fidel Castro as Cuba’s biggest hero.

After the Cuban revolution Che spent some time in the nascent Communist government in Cuba then went on to other countries to spread revolution. He was captured and summarily executed in Bolivia. We’re told that his hands were amputated and sent to Cuba to prove his death. When his body was exhumed and sent to Cuba one of the ways they knew it was Che was the exhumed skeleton had no hands.

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We return to our hotel which is just across the street from the Parque Leoncio Vidal.  I take some pictures around the square.  Our hotel is the Hotel Central, the yellow building in the picture.  The building dates to 1929.

_35A8449Most of the buildings seem to date from the same era.  The tall green building to the left is the Hotel Santa Clara Libre.

_35A8442If you look closely at the facade you can see pockmarks in the columns.  That’s left over from Fidel’s revolution — the pockmarks were caused by bullets.

_35A8445Although most of the buildings have been restored (except maybe for bullet holes) and are beautiful, this one appears to have been abandoned for a very long time.

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We have dinner and prepare to leave tomorrow for Havana.

5 November 2018

Santa Clara to Havana

After just one night in Santa Clara we board our bus for Havana. We’ve been traveling from the eastern end of the island to the western end and this will be our last stop for this trip. At a rest stop I get pictures of a couple of classic cars. 

We get to Havana in time for lunch, and while walking to lunch I see a couple more classic cars parked by the side of the street.  They really are everywhere.

After lunch we tour Old Havana — the historic section of the city.

Havana is a port city with a very large harbor. When it was founded in 1515 there was no quick or easy way to get from the eastern side of the harbor to the western side so the city was founded on the western side only and, as it grew over the years, all growth went further west. Only recently has a tunnel been built under the harbor so travel is quicker and easier now and the eastern side is being developed. Old Havana is all on the western side.

For our first stop after lunch, we go by bus to the Colon Cemetery, officially the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón. This is a massive cemetery; one of the biggest in the Americas and we just see a tiny piece of it. It is considered a National Monument. As in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, we get a cemetery guide who takes us by and tells us about some of the famous people buried there with huge, magnificent structures over their graves.

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One of the graves he takes us to, isn’t of a famous politician or military officer (though the cemetery contains an abundance of those) but a woman who died in childbirth in 1901: the Señora Amelia Goyri de la Hoz. The baby also died. The story is that she and her baby were buried here, the baby placed between her legs as was the custom at the time. Her husband, who was heartbroken, would visit her grave several times a day. Whenever he came he would “knock” with one of the large decorative iron rings on the corners of the burial vault so she would know he was there.

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He would visit with her then place his hat over his heart and walk away backwards so he could see her for as long as possible. A sculptor, José Vilalta Saavedra, later sculpted a marble statue for the tomb of a woman holding a baby in her left arm and her right hand touching a large cross.

In 1914, the husband wanted to see her one last time so the body was exhumed. Her body was discovered uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity in Roman Catholicism) and instead of being between her legs, the baby was in her left arm.

She became known as “La Milagrosa” and the focus of a huge cult in Cuba. Thousands of people come to her grave site where they leave flowers, “knock” with the large iron ring, touch the statue (usually on the baby’s bare bottom) and tell Amelia their wish in the hope she’ll grant it. When they leave they walk around to the other side of the tomb and leave walking backwards.

We then explore as a group some of the old plazas.  Our first stop was at Revolution Square.  Much of it was closed, apparently for some reconstruction, but we parked nearby and walked to where we could see some of it. The side of a multi-story building made a good canvas for a gigantic image of Fidel Castro (below). The writing says “Vas bien Fidel.” That’s a takeoff on a well known statement Fidel made to Camilo Cienfuegos, another revolutionary hero. Fidel said, “Va bien Camilo” which means “it’s going well, Camilo”. Saying “vas bien, Fidel” would translate to “You’re doing well, Fidel”

And an image of Che Guevara on another nearby building. The saying under Che says, “Hasta la victoria, siempre.” Which translates to, “Until the victory, always.” A well known and frequently quoted statement made by Che to Fidel during the revolution.

This is also a huge memorial to José Martí, whose statue can be seen in the bottom left corner.

From there we go to the Plaza de Armas in Havana Vieja (Old Havana — the historical district) and the surrounding area.

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The Hotel Ambos Mundos (“Both Worlds”) is famous because Ernest Hemmingway lived there for 7 years in the 1930’s.  The hotel has a display wall of Ernest Hemmingway pictures and his autograph._35a8521_35a8518

This is the Catedral de San Cristóbal and the plaza surrounding it.

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Cuba is famous for its cigars but I very rarely saw Cubans smoking them.  Most of the time when I saw cigars they were being sold to tourists or people were hanging out in tourist areas with a cigar in their mouth (usually not lit), posing for pictures from tourists, then asking for a tip.  This lady, however, was just walking through a plaza with a cigar in her mouth._35a8509

From here we go to our hotel, an elegant old hotel — the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in 1930. _35a8741The hotel is full of pictures of the famous people who’ve stayed there, people from all over the world including many from the United States; politicians, entertainers, musicians, sports figures.

We have dinner in one of the hotel’s dining rooms and call it a day.

6 November 2018

We start our day (after breakfast) with a lecture on architecture in Cuba. I was prepared to be bored, but ended up being fascinated. The professor used architecture as a window into Cuban politics, social structure and some of the issues that flowed from the revolution.

In 1960 Cuba passed the “Urban Reform Law” part of which stipulated that nobody could be evicted from their home for any reason. A major aspect of the resolution was “social justice”. The wealthy had long run roughshod over the poor to enrich themselves and the revolution was about a “power to the people” movement to protect the masses from the rich. Multiple businesses were nationalized so they could be run for the benefit of the people and no longer would the Simon Legree be able to capriciously evict people for his own enrichment.

The problem was that if every apartment dweller owned their own apartment, who owned the roof and had to pay for its repair? So the most favored apartments became those on the bottom floor because it was the farthest from the leaking roof.

If I choose to paint the exterior of my apartment fluorescent pink and my neighbor chooses to not paint theirs, etc., pretty soon the exterior of the building is a hideous hodgepodge of colors and peeling paint.

With nobody in charge of the overall maintenance of a building with multiple residents the daily average of buildings that collapse in the city of Havana is now 3.1 units.

These problems are recognized and efforts are underway to remedy the problems but the challenges are significant.

After the lecture we return to Old Havana, explore and have lunch.  First to a couple of plazas that are close to each other — the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís and the Plaza Vieja. We’re given some time to explore on our own, find somewhere we want to eat lunch, then meet back up with the group after lunch.

Across the street from the Plaza de San Francisco is the Sierra Maestra Ferry Terminal._35a8562_35a8564On one side of the plaza is the Basilica de San Francisco de Asís._35a8555On the other side of the plaza is this building but I don’t know what it is.  I thought it looked like a grand old building, though._35a8568As we walk we find the remnants of the Havana aqueduct, constructed between 1565 and 1592._35a8572The Plaza Vieja is (to my eye) an odd mix of modern sculpture and colonial era buildings.

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 My roommate and I wander the streets and I keep my camera busy.

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If you look carefully, you can see what I presume is the lady of the house watching the street scene from behind her drying laundry._35a8596This is Havana’s Russian Orthodox Church.

 

And, of course, there are lots of classic cars cruising the Malecón.

 

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After lunch we travel to Finca La Vigia — Hemingway’s home. The home has been preserved as it was when he lived there. This is the front exterior.  Although we are not allowed to enter, the windows are all open and we can photograph the interior through the open windows. And in a tourist scam, the accommodating attendants inside the house will take your camera and go through the house taking pictures with your camera. When the camera is returned you’re asked for a “tip”.

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This is the view of Hemmingway’s “front yard” taken from the front of his house._35a8647And this is the view from the back of his home._35a8667And the back of his house.

A tower, separate from the house was built with the top floor intended as a place for Hemingway to write. _35a8648That, too, is cordoned off but the accommodating attendant will allow you inside to photograph…. And ask for a “tip” when you’re done.

Out back is Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat, the Pilar. _35a8680That too is off limits. But an accommodating attendant will…. Need I continue? I’m sure you know how that story ends.

Hemingway would have baseball games with the neighbor children here and one of those “children”, now, of course an old man, is here to talk to the tourists.

We return to Havana where we have the evening on our own to find a paladar for dinner and use the evening as we choose.

7 November 2018

After our breakfast buffet in the hotel we have another lecture, this one on religion and religious beliefs in Cuba. Cuban beliefs are presented as being very eclectic. Not nearly as strongly Catholic as most of Latin America and very tolerant of a wide variety of beliefs from the amalgamation of Catholic doctrine and African religions that is Santeria to mainline religions to anything and everything else.

We’re told that Cubans will believe in whatever is convenient at the time. 15% consider themselves religious. 15% atheist. And 70% a form of “popular religiosity”. Cuba is the second largest “spiritist” country in the world with 600 “spiritist” associations.

I didn’t think of this in time to ask the question (or make the comment) but it seems to me that the Communist party has, to a great extent, become the object of veneration in Cuba instead of a religion.

From here we travel to the Fine Arts Museum of Havana where we tour part of the museum and learn about Cuban artists, their work and their stories.

We lunch at a paladar then go to watch a performance by one of Havana’s dance companies. This one is not government supported. The director of the program takes in dancers, some who have formal training and some off the street. Their dance is an eclectic mix of break dancing, hip hop and classical dance.

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They have performed in Cuba and even traveled to Europe. It is impressive to see and to know that many of these kids have come off the street with no previous formal training.

We return to our hotel and have some free time.  Behind the hotel is a display of one of the fortifications Cuba installed (some underground) during the 1962 missile crisis in case they were attacked by the United States.  I tour that.

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Part of the display is a large map showing the locations of the missiles and Soviet troops, the different kinds of installations and the range of the two different missile types.  Pretty much the entire United States was within missile range._35a8746

I also take a picture of a display along the Malecón and the classic cars cruising or parked along the street.

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Tonight is our “farewell dinner” and our guide has arranged for a number of classic old American cars to transport the group to the paladar. We stop to take pictures of the group around one of the cars and enjoy the experience.

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After dinner it’s back to the hotel to pack and prepare to fly back to Miami.

8 November 2018havana to miami

After breakfast at the hotel we check out and head to the airport. One of the lines we go through is for an official to check documents before passengers are passed on to Passport Control. I notice that anybody with a foreign passport is waved through with barely a glance at their passport. Cubans however have their documents minutely scrutinized. I guess that, although there are lots of Cubans flying out, apparently who can leave is still pretty tightly controlled.

From there we go to Passport Control where my passport is, again, checked, both halves of my Cuban visa are collected and added to a pile of visas and I’m though to the waiting area for the 1 hour flight to Miami. It’s been a good trip. I’ve learned a lot and I hope you’ve enjoyed traveling with me.

 

 

 

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