Sunday, April 7, 2013

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions


"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."  Henry Miller

The day before we leave the island, my son asks what's still on my Cuba bucket list...then dedicates himself to helping me scratch them off. "It's Mothers Day," he reminds me, grinning.
            Back in the symphony of light that is Havana, back from our around-the-island tour, in our rooftop suite - with its high ceilings and windows overlooking the cathedral, I lie, just cool enough with my Pashmina shawl over crisp sheets, wondering if team Mantansas took the playoff game...while I listen to the morning clamor of birds over the loud din of the air conditioner. Today I'll do laundry and work/play the Havana bucket list. Shop. Re-pack. Visit Margot to leave a care package for a Cuban friend. Spread love and joy...and gratitude.
            Peter and I head to Obispo to shop...and run into the ceviche place we've looked for for weeks - since an initial visit during our second day on island. It's closed. We buy a few mementos and gifts, watch as a burly local fills our glasses with freshly-squeezed orange juice, swig down the juice and a cappuccino. We shop some more, wanting to buy more art than we have space or money for, then spy a street cart - fabulous fried rice, followed by fresh coconut ice cream. We head towards the plaza, ducking into the famed Floridita Bar, known for Papa Hemingway's daiquiri[1]. There's great live music for the crowd and $6 daiquiris (most expensive yet).
            The Museo Nationale is closed for the national holiday (bummer!), but the National Theatre has free art exhibits (photographic, videos, live, mixed media), many by students, all exhibiting unusual creativity.  We walk to the Ingleterra Hotel and up to the famed rooftop, where the Foreign Press Club met for years. We do egg salad and pulled pork sandwiches, looking over the Capitol, take dozens of photographs of the square below, the Capitola, Parc Central, clear to the Malecon and the fort across. A delicious and inexpensive lunch fuels us for the late afternoon, then we taxi to Hotel Nationale (rooftop-bar hopping) only to find the rooftop closed for renovations, but where we enjoy a Piña Colada in the (Hall of Fame) bar.  The famous room is stuffed with memorabilia about the hotel and celebrity guests who gave this hotel its reputation over the years. 426 rooms, built in 1932, this historic site is a National Monument of the Republic of Cuba.

             I agree with Pico Iyer, "the whole island has the ramshackle glamor of an abandoned stage set", but it has more, so much more: $3 taxis and abundant transportation options,  music and art, mohitos and carajillo[2], beaches and sunsets. Cuba is the Land of Found Things. Everything we lose or leave behind is found and returned, Unlike visits elsewhere where things disappear, never to be found - known by me (and traveling partners) as the Lands of Lost Things - Cuba is a Land of Found Things.
            I love feeling safe - day or night, alone or with others. Having lived in the US for most of my life, where robberies, crime and violence are common, feeling safe is something I seek...and treasure. In Cuba there are no guns, freaks, violence - except for the occasional TV news story about more mass murders in the USA or US troops killing civilians in Afghanistan.
            Everyone holds hands - grandparents and niños, girls, boys, muheres, guys. It's so sweet - the hand-holding, the smiles. Children are not hooked up to machines, games, hand-helds; they play outdoors the way we did when I grew up. So much is changing. Lonely Planet is as wrong as much as it's right - as visits to Habana Tour or Cubanacan attest. Changes are happening, so if you go, watch Cuban media and bogs.
            New regulations and guidelines (over 300) from recent congresses are affecting lives, designed to renovate economic and political institutions, stimulate local entrepreneurial enterprise, increase political participation, and overcome the continuing economic crisis that a small country such as Cuba finds itself in as a result of natural and political disasters as well as a continued effort by the “Colossus of the North” to overthrow the leadership and sovereignty of Cuba, harming the global reputation of the US in the process. I feel especially glad to have seen this lovely island in this moment in time. A proud people, happy despite all the odds. Wanting freedom like all other souls.

CHE - iconic and beloved by Cubans, Latin Americans, other freedom fighters the world over - is ubiquitous throughout the country he helped to free. Like other famous Cuban characters: Fidel, Al Capone, Graham Greene, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara remains top slotted. A book by several photographers who photographed Che while he was in Cuba finds its way to my Mothers Day. As a photographer myself, I love reading the stories about Che (himself a photographer) by others who spent time with him, documenting the revolution.
            And when I begin to really get trinket fatigue in Varadero, I find a silk screen of Che's iconic image by Alberto Korda, which reminds me of Warhol's Marilyn images. I buy it and some small Cuban flags. Still, the anti-corporate revolutionary would roll over in his grave[3], knowing his image was used to sell more stuff than anything else in the country. Che T shirts, paintings, key chains, flags, books, license plates, and more...are found everywhere. Instead of celebrating his 84th birthday, the slain revolutionary hero would be rolling over. Meanwhile, we observe the changes throughout Latin America, inspired (still) by Che and Fidel.

I love this poem: "Guevara" by Nadja Tesich, (translated from Serbian)
If the death comes
may it be welcome
others will replace me
he said once.
His beautiful face
killed by US mercenaries and CIA
Bolivia, La Hugaera.
Yet his face
is all over America Latina
next to Christ
in every peasant hut.
Che never died
in death he grew
and grew and grew.
Latin America moves
is moving
will move
with his face
in front.

            I celebrate Mothers Day with my son, walking Habana Viejo and checking off my Habana bucket list. He reminds me how quickly we went from first discussions of Cuba in January to here mid April. We're good at realizing dreams and making things happen!
I lie here, wondering what the next will be...
            As we wait in Jose Marti Airport for our quick flight back to Cancun, we share a last Cuban coffee (with a shot of Havana Club), wondering when the embargo will be lifted, when the US will believe in freedom enough to allow its neighbors to have it, unfettered by a mean, obsessive bullying.
            Imagine a place where everyone's basic needs are met: housing, food, education, healthcare.  Where corporations are NOT persons, do not rule. Where the Internet has no Google and the people have no Apple. But receives an A+ in sustainable development practices and is the largest per capita producer of organic food in the world with the 2nd highest literacy.  
            Like none of the other eighty-four islands I've visited or lived on, Cuba is really big. HUGE. Flora and fauna remind me of tropical islands the world over, but the lack of commercialism (especially overt corporatism), stunning colonial towns, and the cheapest ice cream on the planet, keep it singular.  Its Architectural eclecticism is well-known. Mudéjar, baroque, ecclesial, classical and neo-classical, art nouveau, art deco, and modernist styles create a vibrancy, town to town - nestling in mountains or sprawling around picturesque bays. Cuban architecture enlivens the cities - as fields and orchards, mountains and beaches, do the landscapes in between. The music and dance fill local culture. (Did I mention the baseball?!!) But it's the people who light up our island time, playing music, dancing like they were born to, laughing and smiling as they go about their simple days - this is the magic of Cuba.


[1] The 'Papa Hemingway' is made with grapefruit juice instead of lime...and delicious!
[2]  Dark Cuban coffee with aged Cuban rum - yum!
[3]  Che's remains were moved to his mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba, from Bolivia in 1997.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions

and a little about freedom

Forget about it! Seriously, for those of us used to fast (or relatively fast in the US[1]) connections through broadband wireless connections, Cuba is a nightmare. Many hotels have public-use computers and offer internet...when it works. We pay up to $8 per hour at the Parc Centrale and spend an hour building frustration as one photo loads to Facebook. Good thing they have great mohitos! The next day at a small hotel around the corner, we're waiting, waiting (remember dial-up?), before being bounced off a few times; then the entire system shuts down. We give up and enjoy the rest of our journey, almost entirely internet free. Made it difficult to post to my Cuba blog, but after a week or two we begin to really enjoy the lack of email, communications, work and social media. I love all the transportation choices. Easily accessible and inexpensive, travel in Cuba is a treat. But internet - Nyet!
            Although internet use has jumped 60 percent in the last 2 years, to about 3 million users - close to a third of the population. Cuba's population remains largely cut off from unfettered access to the Internet, and there is no broadband. Agonizingly long waits to open an email or photo hamper both government and entrepreneurial business operations.
            Imagine the internet without Google or a country without Apple - thanks to the US embargo.  The US is clearly making things worse for all Cubans, the internet now the new battlefield in the 50-year-old fight against the Cuban government.
            Every Cuban we meet has a cell phone, and apparently the technology works great and is tied to the local MN currency. Telephone density is about 25% (seems like more). Unfortunately, AT&T is unable to operate there, so I use my iPhone only for notes (my own rum diaries), camera (over 2200 shots), games (I'm a solitaire junkie), etc.
            Cuba blames the United States embargo* for denying access to underwater cables, saying it must use a satellite system and is limited in the space it can buy. Over a year ago a fiber optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba was to provide download speeds 3,000 times faster than Cuba's current Internet (and capable of handling millions of phone calls simultaneously), but it's not fully operational yet.
            Access to satellite television is also severely restricted, but we enjoy fabulous Cuban baseball - without commercials! And the music, dance, and arts on TV are amazing!
*OK, let's talk embargo, a US policy which confuses the world (Cuba is listed as a state sponsor of terrorism - really?[2]), hurts Cubans with increased poverty and lack of access to goods and services, hurts other countries (and ours) by denying trade, is opposed by every other nation on earth and in the UN (except Israel). It's bad enough we've taken Guantanamo as a spoil of war and now torture and kill people on Cuban soil who have never even been charged with a crime. For twenty years, nations all around the world have been calling for repeal of this horrible US policy. For a country that gives lip service to "freedom", we act against it for millions of innocent people.
            Obama opened up Cuban travel for people-to-people tours (and other classes of licensing), but following a speech by Marco Rubio, approvals this year have clamped down, and 140 licenses have been withheld (there go more American jobs). What used to be a six to ten-page form is now over 100 and has gone from complex to ridiculous. Nothing will be done in this election year, but most people feel that things will definitely get worse under Romney.
            With over 300 new government guidelines, designed to stimulate enterprise and dramatically shift employment from government to private sector, lots of changes are underway in Cuba
  • 22% of workers are now in private business, and that segment is growing exponentially.
  • 163,000 farmers have just been given land in an attempt to expand domestic agriculture and more for export.
  • Cuba is also the largest per capita producer of organic food in the world and
  • received an A+ in sustainable development practices[3]. Yep, there's no Monsanto on this island!
  • Cuba enjoys the 2nd highest literacy rate[4].
Its Olympians compete for and win gold medals. Its baseball is as good as it gets.
          We've all heard about Cuban doctors. They're flown to hotspots like Haiti, tsunami areas. Bush refused their offer in New Orleans, but many countries all over the globe have gladly accepted offers to send doctors, train medical personnel, and more. At this time, 26 of over 125 medical students from the US have recently arrived in Havana. Cuba covers 100% of their tuition, books and supplies, housing, food, and money for incidentals. While we're worrying about a huge dearth of doctors in the US' future, we don't even consider educating or helping student doctors or nurses. Cuba does.
            In a small port city, I am approached by a young man, offering me US$10,000 to help bring him to the US. Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans who set foot on U.S. territory are allowed to remain. I listen to his carefully-crafted plan more as research (and with concern) but clearly will not participate. There are a few who want to leave, to seek new shores and new opportunities. But most live contentedly under policies that both restrict and most countries.

An old joke in Havana states:

In Cuba, all economic plans are over-fulfilled.
All plans are fulfilled, but the stores are empty.
The stores are empty, but people have what they need.
People have what they need, but they all complain.
They all complain, but are all Fidelistas.



[1]  While some of the world enjoy internet speeds up to 200 times what we scrape by on in the US, we sell off our best speeds to the highest bidders, the rest of us left with poor and expensive service and speed. Like Cuba. For many low-income Americans, Internet access is a luxury they can't afford. In Sweden, Norway, and France, Internet is a human right (like healthcare, elder care, wholesome and labeled food, etc). I've been complaining for 15 years about how bad US Internet service is...compared to places I've been...because here it's not about enabling citizens and businesses; it's about corporate profits. 
[2]  Afghanistan, which sent terrorists to the US is NOT on the list, but Cuba, a small peaceful island which never attacked us IS. This political act was ushered in generations ago, and continues to this day, despite reason and the passing of time.
[3]  Rio Earth Summit
[4]  United Nations

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions


Cuba is a land of transportation choices. People walk, bike, horseback to work or shop. Pedi-cabs (large, roofed tricycles, with peddler in front and two or three riders in the back - aka bicitaxis), horse-drawn carriages (coches de caballo, hold two to three), horse carts (hold up to ten), coco taxis, government taxis, independent taxis, busses of all kinds, trains, and planes carry Cubans and tourists throughout the island. There's a transportation hierarchy. Walkers probably want a bike. Bicyclers long for a motorcycle. Cars are a premium, being at the top of the personal transportation chain.
Our favorites are pedi-cabs. The drivers are all fun and funny, taking special pride in their bikes, their music, knowing the neighborhoods. I still remember the darling rasta guy with his tweaked out cab, the roof like a Cuban flag, reggae blasting from front and rear speakers. We develop good rapport with peddlers, ride close to the street action - people walking, biking...coco taxis, and hear  what's happening in town, what beach not to miss, what bands are at the House of Music tonight. 

Horse-drawn carriages are fabulous and more expensive, and I love the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestone streets. In Varadero we walk to a coche to our taxi to the bus station. In Cienfuegos we share a horse-cart with a trio of Britts, sailing around Cuba. We head back with them to the yacht club, where they pay the driver $10. Later over a cold Crystal, the driver (invited in for a beer by the sailors) asks us for $10 more - highway robbery for the two kilometer trip! The bartender kicks him out.

American automobiles are everywhere and, for the most part, in impeccable condition. (where do they get those parts?) We ride in a '49 Chevy, a stunning '51 Pontiac Chieftain, a cool-blue '55 Bel-Aire, a '58 Edsel Corsair (remember those?), a classic '59 Cadillac Eldorado. In Viñales Valley we take off in an old Soviet Lada, with a ruskie driver...who drives like an Italian.

Under relaxed regulations, many of the old classics are used as taxis. Cabbies can be negotiated to fifty cents per kilometer, and often offer a flat fee. This is half that of newer government taxis, with rides costing $1.00 per km. The newer taxis also have air conditioning and English-speaking drivers. One driver refused us because he was polishing his '52 Oldsmobile, and wouldn't drive in his dirty shirt, sending us around the corner.

If a driver owns the car, a taxi license is $350 per month. If renting a government car, he pays $25 per day. In either case, the driver is fully responsible for the care, upkeep, and fuel. Venezuelan gas is $1.20 per litre, and the old cars are gas-guzzlers. Lack of emissions control adds to the smog of Habana, and without air conditioning, windows are down, and riders suck up fumes. Still the classic old American cars are fun! And photogenic. Roberto, Andres, Carlos, and Duano take such pride in their cars. Drivers are fitted out with fake Rolexes and diamond ear studs, and their cars are decked out with the latest Argentine video players (yea, like that's a good idea), blasting Latin music videos from dashboards. Often drivers can't find a casa or a street, can't read a map, but they are often brother or uncle to our casa owner, and hey, we negotiated a great price.

After a week in and around Havana, we take an overnight train (tren Français) to the other end of the island. Not without great effort. Taking a pedi-cab to the ticket office, we are herded into a small, hot office (for foreigners) where two women hold court...but don't speak a word of English. A translator is called, and after about ten minutes, we begin to understand the process. The overnight train goes Tuesday not Monday, despite the schedule on the wall. We flash our passports, and tickets are hand written. Our passports are checked five more times - confirming our trip at the station, standing in line, getting through the gate, boarding, and again once we're seated. And we're not crossing ANY borders. Hmmmm.

Told to arrive at five pm, we spend two and a half hours in the station, an architectural wonder, filled with food stands and a growing crowd inside. Baseball playoffs on numerous TVs keep everyone sane and (with the hometown Habana Industriales winning) happy. At 7:27 sharp we pull out, leaving Havana, with a view of the sun setting over the Capitola. I settle in with a good book[1] and a nice local red wine. Before long my Cuban seatmate offers me a plate of chicken and rice. Children play in the aisles until lights-out at eleven. In the morning someone gets on with baskets of warm banana bread for fifty cents a loaf. Plains like Texas, with miles of cattle and bilious white clouds, pass does the morning, along with horses, goats, fields of corn and yucca, mango orchards. The advertised twelve-hour trip takes seventeen. Thank gawd for air conditioning!

Busses are great bargains. Just look for Cubanacan, Cubatur, or Havanatur travel agencies (in any town or most hotels) for trips, tours, events, activities, maps, and hotel to hotel bus trips. Even though we stay at casas, agents always know a hotel closest to our casa or the heart of town. Like Viazul busses (booked at bus terminales[2]), these are a fantastic ride - punctual, safe, new and comfortable, air conditioned, with a bathroom at the back. Inexpensive, we ride five hours for about $10, passing fishing villages, shrimp farms, cactus fence posts, a rodeo. Drivers stop at roadside stands for fruits, vegetables, coffee breaks.

Viazul terminals swarm with cheap food - $1 pizza, .50 sandwiches, .10 helados. Viazul ('v's pronounced 'b') busses are Yutong state-of-the-art Chinese-made. Local busses (Astro metrobusses) are even less expensive (crowded and less comfortable), but the prices are about one tenth and paid in MN. We pay $1 for a journey we taxi'd two days before for $40. Warned by locals, we don't even attempt trucks (camiones - hot, crowded, standing-room-only, high-walled with no visibility).

In Havana, Varadero, and other larger cities, tour busses (usually double-decker) are available. Passengers can get on and off all day long for five-dollar day-pass. A great value, they allow tourists (especially) to see and stop at various sites, beaches, venues...and then get home easily. We meet a local medical student who claims one of the best days of her life was riding the jump-on, jump-off bus in Varadero - a birthday present from her husband.

We take a Viazul bus from Santiago to Baracoa and are amazed. On a grey day, suddenly - sunflowers. We roll through the mountains of the revolution, trying to imagine how Che and friends pulled this off...all the way to Havana. Interest peaks as we close in on Guantanamo and find that Guantanamo is a thriving Cuban city. The bus rep (sideman to the driver on all busses)  tells us over the years (since the US took the land and port)[3] fewer and fewer Cubans have been allowed on base, where there are only two Cubans left working, the others all being retired. Near the check-point for the US Guantanamo base, he comes back to ask me to put away my camera. If they see a camera, the bus will be unloaded and everyone checked. "Just one," I plead. "Not going to happen," he insists.

Once we clear Guantanamo, it turns into the road to Hana...on steroids. This road was built in only three years in the 60's and connects Baracoa to the rest of the island. Men blow kisses along the route. We cross rivers, watch gossamer clouds hang over thatched huts. We stop at a magnificent lookout nearing the end of the island and are mobbed by sellers of Baracoa products - coffee, coco, and chocolate. The dark chocolate bar is fantastic! The coco-ruchos - far too sweet for my taste. The coffee belongs at Noble. The far East point of Cuba was discovered by Columbus. Having been cut off from the rest of Cuba for generations, Taino indians and people of native descent abound here. A trip to Baracoa allows a rare adventure...and a different taste of Cuba.

Cubana Airlines flies us to and from the island. New planes have replaced the old Russian ones, but cola is still topped up with plenty of Havana Club for farewell cuba libres.

[1]  Havana Lunar, Roberto Arellano
[2]  Ticketing nightmares at every Viazul station - long waits for hand-written tickets. But great for people watching and baseball playoffs on big screens
[3]  Seized in 1905 as one of the spoils of war (Spanish/American), Guantanamo base is a real stickling point for all Cubans, especially since we began torturing prisoners and denying them due process. In protest, Fidel has refused to cash the US rent checks since the start of the revolution.

Friday, August 31, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions


One sultry afternoon we hire Ray and his '46 Chevy to taxi us to Finca Vigia (lookout farm), Hemingway's estate from 1939 to 1960...and Cuba's most popular national museum. Ray is Italian-Cuban, so we're there in minutes. Ciao bella! The estate is fifteen acres of old growth tropical banyans, bamboo, ferns and flowers, pathways with garden seating, lead to a swimming pool, where I imagine Frank and Ava cavorting with other guests of the Hemingways. The renown author crossed from Key West to Havana in his boat, Pilar. It sits now in a covered storage on the 'farm', which I circumnavigate slowly while remembering his love of fishing. Climbing a tower of four stories (with an incredible Havana view), I arrive at his famous writing room, where an old typewriter adorns a small rectangular desk, not nearly as elaborate as the curved inlaid wood one in his study in the main casa - which is large and sprawling, with a huge party terrace, separate cocina. His books, stuffed game animals, clothes, art, and memorabilia are throughout the home as if Ernest had just gone into town for a mohito on the rooftop of the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It was here in this oasis that Hemingway penned four best-sellers.[1] I imagine living here years ago...and muse that even I could write a best seller here. 

Cojimar was another of Hemingway's haunts, a small fishing village and inspiration for his story of Nobel fame, the Old Man and The Sea. Now the town is made famous by the writer's tale. As we taxi downhill towards Cojimar, I glimpse the young boy, carrying Santiago's fishing gear, walking down this very street towards the cafe and the small boat, harbored in the ocean's crook, by the seawall. We order a Crystal[2] at La Terrazza, the restaurant/bar where Ernest stopped after a day on the water. There a large wall mural depicts the story of the huge marlin, battled by the protagonist. I walk to the square, where a bust of Hemingway stands, as a young boy skips by, carrying his just-caught shark.  Like the famous hotel, Finca Hemingway, and a few 'Papa' bars in Havana, Cojimar is made famous by an American writer who lived and wrote twenty years in Cuba, over fifty years ago.

Like the other eleven World Heritage sites in Cuba[4], Viñales is on everyone's 'don't miss' list, so we head off to the Valley. Passing small farms and a large lake, acacia and date palms. goats, pigs. and cattle, we spy an old Chevy just off the highway. It looks like it's been there waiting for parts for fifty years. The road is excellent, with two lanes on each side of a landscaped divide. We pass corn, bananas, rice paddies, grains and processing plants. vegetable gardens and screen houses, fields. Orchards of citrus and pine. Mango groves line the road, and we arrive in the quaint town of Viñales a downpour. As we disembark, we are mobbed by a throng of casa owners and tour drivers, hawking theirs. Ignoring them (we have reserved ahead for a casa), we dodge flash flooding in the streets, ducking under a stranger's porch, where we are immediately invited in to wait out the rain. The casa particulares we look for is across the street, which has become a river, but within moments, we are settled in, and the sun is out. We lunch a block away at Casa de Don Thomas, another architectural gem, built in 1822, now the best restaurant in town. The waiter speaks fluent (university) English and dreams of going to Great Britain.

Viñales Valley is exquisite - Mother Nature showing off. A national parc, declared a World Heritage site in 1999, the valley is a geological wonder, framed by limestone hills and mogotes[5], so lush and fertile it also grows the best tobacco in the world and is dotted with tobacco fields and drying houses. We visit one on our valley tour with a Russian cabbie in his ugly Lada. Later, strolling around town then hiking to the top of a knoll, we take our cameras for a tour of the amazing vistas throughout the area.

Duano, son-in-law of the señora of our casa, piles us in his classic '49 Oldsmobile, and we head out of town to the beach at Cayo Jutias, fifty kilometers away. En route we drive through a beautiful caves valley, observe thatched houses, horse and buggies, oxen pulling plows and carts, old cars, bicycles, rural people. There's a causeway to the island, where we are charged $5 (tourist price) for access. It's overcast by the time we arrive, and Manuel's coconuts are welcomed as we dodge another storm, heading back within a couple of hours.

Back the next day from the sprawling beauty of Viñales, Havana feels like an old friend, City on the bay, where we spend a few more days, exploring the neighborhoods, shooting historic buildings and old cars, enjoying the music and dance in the parks and squares. The habaneros are sweet, seem happy. We begin to wind down from our busy lives. Like so much in Cuba, Viñales provides a breather, a break, a proverbial hammock to enjoy the passage of a time that has slowed to the pace of the 50s.

One cannot describe Cuba without paying homage to its stunning beaches. Uncrowded, scenic, safe, stretches of sand invite to water which is crystal clear and perfect for swimming, diving, snorkeling, surfing...depending on location. During our first week in Habana, we walk to Parc Centrale and take a $3 bus to Playas del Estes, a few miles of beaches about thirty minutes out of town. Heaven - a cool bus on a hot day, driving along the coast, and arriving at a dune, which we hike over to a turquoise sea on a sandy beach: Santa Maria. The beach chairs with thatched umbrellas are $2 - more than the cost of a cold beer, .50 less than a mohito. Salad and fries are another $1.85 (with tip). The band is sweet.

Outside Trinidad, we discover Playa Ancon, another treasure, sprawling along the coast. But our favorite beach is Varadero - 13 kilometers of eye-searing aqua along a wide swath of powder white sand. One of the best days of our month is a day spent under a shade tree on Varadero Beach, swimming, reading, playing a bit of volleyball, swimming again, re-applying.

Varadero is in a special 'touristic zone', and until last November there were no casas particulares allowed, only hotels. Nor could Cubans enter the zone unless they were working. Now they come to enjoy the beach like tourists. We stay in the central part of Varadero, away from the big hotels where Canadians and Europeans hang, and where a boom market keeps the government construction at breakneck pace. Our room is a block from the beach - in the central part where the beach is nearly empty, except for a few locals. Every night features a mind-blowing sunset, and from Hemingway sites to Viñales Valley to all the beaches and valleys, we are awed every day by the sheer beauty that is Cuba.

[1]  For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, Islands in the Stream, and The Old Man and The Sea, for which he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.
[2]  Fabulous Cuban beer
[3]  (pronounced 'Biñales')
[5]  Round-topped rock formations, over a million years old, feature caves and underground caverns

Thursday, August 9, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions from a month in country


We learn about jinteros[1] our first day in country. The evening after landing in Havana, Peter journeys out for a bottle of rum ('ron') to mix with a couple of colas and limes found in our room's fridge. There's a large rooftop with great vistas over Habana Vieja, so it must be happy hour. Margot tells him there is a shop around the corner, but between the casa and the shop a pedi-cab peddler stops to ask if he wants a ride. When Pete explains he is just going around the corner, the young Habanero offers to take him for free. "I'm going that way anyway." Blocks away, heading past Parc Centrale, he tells Pete his friend has rum at better prices than the shops. But the ride would still be free. An hour later Pete returns back to the casa, leaping upstairs for money, since the pedi-driver will not release his $20 rum without payment of $10 for the ride. Grateful he wasn't knifed and burgled in the seamy section of Central Havana where they ended up...and that he only overpaid by $27 for his first bottle of rum, he remembers the blog warnings about jinteros and street hustlers. Kathy and I get a good laugh out of it all.

And by mid-morning two days later, we find ourselves hustled as well. We are heading up to Obispo Street when a lovely young family (couple in their twenties, pushing a baby in a stroller) greets us with the usual "where you from?" We stop to chat and, being two abuelas[2], play with the baby. The young man mentions that his uncle (of Buena Vista Social Club[3] fame) is playing a gig at that moment, and Kathy perks up. A professional musician herself (and conga player), she takes the hook. The restaurant is only a few blocks out of our way anyway. The music IS great - traditional son[4]. Naturally we order a couple mohitos...then a couple for the couple. Alex takes my hand, leading me to the dance floor for some salsa, after which Alex's 'grandfather', famed BVSC piano player, joins us at our table. Naturally we buy him a mohito and fall into a discussion about Afro-Latin rhythms. Later, eager to continue our original plan to get up to Parc Central, we call for the check, "la quenta por favor", only to realize we are being charged four to five times the normal price. It was then we groked the hustle was on...except for that brief moment when first approached on the street. Clearly the couple gets payment from the establishment, but they then have the nerve to double down, asking for money for formula for the baby, who can't breastfeed because of the mother's medication...
It's a $40 hustle...and worth every peso.

It's the last time I get hustled, quickly learning the drill - say "no, gracias", don't make eye contact, and pass right by. A few days later a young man volunteers to take us to hear some great music (hadn't we heard this before?), and when I spot a contemporary dance troupe (free) in the plaza, I go my separate way. Kathy finds me minutes later, her guide having been stopped by a young policewoman for "talking to tourists" (read: hustling tourists). Then there was the gent in Plaza Delores who invited me to dinner. When I tell him I already have plans, he hands me a piece of paper with his name and address on it. "Come by later," he whispers. I'm telling the story to Kathy and Peter over dinner, and we all crack up when they ask "quanto questa?" Lonely Planet is right - Cubans have honed the hustle to an art form.

Kathleen, unfortunately, never learns, continuing to be coerced into begs, bribes, and outright hustles for the duration of the trip. She also gets us front row seats at numerous music venues, sits in with some of the bands, and buys all the performers' CDs. Live music is everywhere in Cuba - on every street corner, at each venue. As ubiquitous as jinteros and twice the fun, the Cuban traditions of Son, Salsa, Rumba, Changüé, Guaguancé, and Timba reverberate for weeks. Guitar players strum along cobblestone streets; bongo players sit on the wall along the Malecon; wandering minstrels play in parks and public squares, in restaurants and paladars[5]. A woman pulls out her guitar on a bus to Trinidad. A classically-trained flamenco guitarist makes dinner at an 'Italian' paladar palatable. Each makes my sojourn enchanting. Collectively, they make up the rhythmic undercurrent of Cuba.

In Trinidad, La Trova[6] (where tourists stumble over salsa lessons by locals, to multiple bands) and House of Musica (with its outdoor amphitheatre, son of son, African rhythms, and full moon) are trip favorites. OK, and the dance-off Andri (son of a Puerto Padre casa owner) and my son have one late afternoon after too much rum. It is a riot of salsa, bootie-shaking, dirty dancing, breaking, hip-hop, and timba...on testosterone. When Andri wins, he takes his wife to the dance floor, and we all are wowed.

Then there's the art. Street artists, like musicians, draw, paint, sculpt, print, mime, dance, and origami in every plaza and park, every famous square. Galleries and shops exhibit oils, watercolors, acrylics, charcoals, stunning photography. We enjoy watching artists create at 'taller' experimental studios, honing their craft. They invite us to play. The art is colorful and fun, looks Picassoesque. Or maybe late Gauguin. It's Cubaism. It's political satire. It's revolutionary.

I stroll into a sidestreet gallery in Baracoa, at the far eastern end of the island, and am transported. Cubaism, flavored by local native Taíno history and the culture of the revolution (Che ala Baracoa). The student introduces me to Mildo Matos, the artist, and for the duration of my stay, I photograph artists and their work, interviewing them in studios and shops.

In a socialist country where peoples' basic needs are met (food, housing, education, healthcare, childcare), art, music, dance, and culture flourish. I wonder what my country would be capable of if so many weren't scrambling daily to pay the bills, if we weren't all in debt to banks, landlords, student loans. If our market fundamentalism hadn't worked to create systemic inequality, burdening the 99% so deeply. The freedom to create is palpable and insistent.

[1]  "Welcome to the land of the jintero or tout, a profession raised to an art form by the Cubans." Lonely Planet, Cuba (6th edition)
[2]  Grandmothers
[3]  Rent the movie: Buena Vista Social Club
[4]  Son - a Cuban music style, made popular again by the Buena Vista Social Club
[5]  Paladars are privately owned restaurants, fairly new to the revolution, and almost always better than government ones.
[6]  Every town has its Trova, providing a mixture of popular national music along with traditions of the province.

Friday, July 13, 2012


When first considering Cuba travel, it was to research a cookbook. In the first week that pipe dream flies out the window. This is a land that lives on sugar, from tropical fruits and fruit drinks, sodas, sweet cocktails, sweet pastries (fried dough and sugar), ice cream, sugar-water, coco-ruchos[1]. Seriously, the sugar load is everywhere. On the streets, in the casas and restaurants, in shops, on carts. It carries a deep history too, a history of slavery, so important to the early sugar years of Spanish and US sugar barons[2], later the Russians. The revolution destroys racism along with classism, and Cuba enjoys a very mixed society today. Meanwhile I'm jonesing for some greens, veggies, a potato chip...anything unsweetened.

Beyond the sugar fixation, I am underwhelmed by my experience of Cuban food. It is usually over-cooked, over-salted, unimaginative, and boring. Maybe it's a lack of food choices[3]; a Cuban friend loads her luggage with spices and cookware when returning home. Still, being a cook, I'm sure I can turn out different and better-tasting fare from the same ingredients. It's the sameness that bores me. Same same same, everywhere: pescado, pollo, or pork (fried or grilled, overcooked, oversalted), with shredded cabbage and a slice of tomato and cucumber (salad), hard white rice, dull beans, coffee. Nearly everywhere.

We get in the habit of ordering breakfast at the casa (usually $3), and for the most part it is very standard fare: a plate of fresh tropical fruit (banana, pineapple, mango or papaya), a 'tortilla' - flattened overcooked scrambled egg, bad Cuban bread (wanna be French baguette that misses by a mile), and strong Cuban coffee (espresso or with hot milk). I start saving part of my dinners for breakfast or take to the street, where for $1 cuc I can usually find a great cup of joe and a pulled pork or grilled jamon y queso sandwich. There is the exception, but we'll wait for Trinidad.

We duck into Cafe Neruda on the Malecon one afternoon, the Chilean poet being one of my favorites. The overcooked fish and overcharging (three times) compete with the bad food and dull service. Two thumbs down. Pablo, a gastronomist and foodie, would roll over in his grave. We had been warned (thanks, Conner[4]) to check all bills carefully, as overcharging and mistakes are 'normal'. We receive two correct bills during our entire stay! We also learn that 'enchilado langosto' is NOT a lobster enchilada; $3 fried chicken and fries down on the port can be a great choice;  .50 pizza at the bus station is a steal; and sometimes taking that handout on the corner is worthwhile - as in Al Medina, an Arab restaurant right off Plaza d'Armas, where a plate of falafel, dolmas, pita and hummus, fish ceviche, salad, and a mohito are $6.50. The amazing D'Gala trio serenades as well.

Overall we run into very few exceptions to dull food - an overpriced veal parmesan (billed as veal picatta) at an 'Italian' paladar in Varadero, a perfectly-cooked $12 lobster dinner at Dona Eutemia's in Habana Vieja (their traditional ropa vieja[5] is superb as well). We take a horse wagon to Aché, a paladar in Cienfuegos, and are treated to the best grilled chicken 'complete' meal anywhere. This great experience (from service to food) is capped off with melt-in-your-mouth coconut flan and an introduction to carajillo - a rich Cuban espresso with Havana Club aged rum (anejo). Maria's lobster dinner in Puerto Padre comes with side dishes like beets and carrots, really beautiful rice and beans, camarones and fried bananas. Yum!

We enjoy another memorable culinary experience in Trinidad[6] at Casa Chocolate Y Dailanis, 608 Frank Pais.  Definitely our best casa of the entire trip, for space, comfort, location, and value. Better yet, the husband (Chocolate) is a chef, formerly of the fancy hotel on the hill. His kitchen is stocked with herbs and spices, cookware, knives, food processor, fish steamer, pressure cooker, and other tools of the trade unseen in previous cucinas. His pride and creativity serve up each morning and evening, as we enjoy all our meals there.

Our first dinner consists of delicious fish soup, camarones a la casa (shrimp, cooked delicately in a magical garlic/herb/tomato sauce), luscious rice and beans (we peek into the kitchen midday as he is seasoning the beans), mashed sweet potatoes (a welcomed relief from fried yucca), long-bean and tomato salad, little eggplant divines, fruit salad, tiramisu, coffee - and all in portions large enough to provide lunch the next day. $7.00

Breakfast is just as delicious: huevos suprema - eggs, gently scrambled and perfectly seasoned with red peppers, green onions, and bacon, fruit plate (mangoes are going off in Trinidad), fruit smoothie, yogurt, ham and cheese plate (sandwiches for later), and the second best coffee in Cuba. [The best at a little café near Guantanamo, where the bus stops for a quick break. The espresso is so fabulous, I buy one for the driver. Fifty cents.]

On our last night there, Chocolate pulls out all the stops with a large whole parrot fish (caught that morning on the bay at La Boca), cooked to perfection...and all the sides, chocolate helados, and coffee. After lucking into Chocolate's cooking, I almost revive the idea of an island cookbook, but the revival is short-lived. Still he remains our favorite, just as his casa is.

Let's not forget the coppelias - state-run ice cream parlors, available in nearly every town, where ten to twenty cents (in local currency) buys a scoop of creamy coconut, dark chocolate, fresa (strawberry), and a few seasonal choices of delicious helados. We remain on the lookout for them throughout our trip. And are reminded of them at the Cancun airport on re-entry, where a Hagen Daas is $7.50 per scoop!

Trinidad remains one of my favorite places, in memory as it was in experience. Time stopped around the mid 1800's in this beautiful classic Spanish colonial town. Bicycles carry men, women, children, as do pedicabs and cabarello carts. A motorcycle. A rare car, banned from the centre. Mostly people walk, talk, greet neighbors. A horse waits, cart filling, while men (Chocolate joins in) load it with chunks of cement, old bricks, debris from the house shell across from our casa. A remodel is underway, probably a new casa particulares. Above the rooftops -  the Sierra del Escambray mountains, a sprawling sea on the horizon, clouds dancing. Mango trees dangle hundreds of ripening orbs. A tangle of electrical wires compete with fluttering laundry on tiled rooftops, as a man releases dozens of birds just before sunset. They circle and return.

Early morning, a man peddles by. "Pain, pain calliente," he sings as door after door opens along the narrow street for his hot bread. A horse-drawn cart passes slowly, with chunks of pork and whole chickens loaded on the back. A pedi-cab features pineapples, stalks of bananas, papaya the size of footballs, baskets of mangoes. Another has tomatoes and cabbages. On the street, food is delivered door to door. Neighbors come out to greet each other, welcome the day. Children walk to school in their red and white uniforms, laughing, happy.

from CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries)
~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions

[1]  A confection found in Baracoa made of grated coconut, fruit or chocolate flavored, and sugar-sweetened so severely it can't be eaten.
[2]  By the 1880s over 80% of sugar exports went to the US, and large island plantations were owned by Americans.
[3]  Citizens line up for their food rations: arroz, frijoles, huevos, sugar, alcohol, tobacco...
[4]  Conner Gorry, former US writer, now living in Cuba. Writes for the government, Lonely Planet, her own blog (Here is Havana: and has a fab iPhone app, Havana Good Time, which works even when not online. Two thumbs up!
[5]  Ropa vieja is arguably Cuba's national dish. Spanish for 'old clothes', it's a well-seasoned shredded beef dish, popular throughout the country. Think pulled pork. Served over rice or chickpeas, or in a bun.
[6]  Lovely colonial city, tucked between the sea and mountains, founded in 1514.