Cuba As I See It, Day 2 – Havana to Cienfuegos via Bay of Pigs and Giron

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These observations are simply that: my observations. As the title of my blog indicates, this is “As I See It.” If I am offensive in anything I say, I apologize. That is not my intent. If I am incorrect in any information, I also apologize. I am not an expert, simply a traveler who visited the country for a few days. I hope you enjoy my views.
Each day I will tell you what we did on one day of the trip, but I will also give some observations about other topics that span the length of the whole trip.
I advise you to start at Day 1 and work your way through. As I go along I will refer back to things I’ve pointed out and discussed on earlier days.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It

Day 2 – Saturday, Dec 24
Havana to Cienfuegos via Bay of Pigs and Giron

We awoke, packed up, ate the provided breakfast of fruit, eggs, bread, guava juice, orange juice, and coffee. It was delicious. I don’t know if this was legislated somewhere or if it is just the custom, but each of our homestay accommodations all across the island served us the same breakfast: eggs cooked to order, fruit, and bread, with coffee, juice, and sometimes tea. There were a few variations such as the kinds of fruit (guava, papaya, mango, or pineapple), whether there was butter or honey or milk or none of the above, the kind of fruit juice (guava, papaya, pineapple, orange), etc, but the main components were always the same. There was also what looked like raw sugar and if they had milk it was warmed for the very strong coffee. At this particular casa there was no butter for the bread. We met several other tourists, some in our group, some with another group by the same tour company focused on salsa dancing. We found out later that immediately  after Fidel’s death and during the national time of mourning, these trips were somewhat hampered. But more about that will come later.

Our tour guide arrived and we left to head for Cienfuegos. We passed through a tunnel which is one of the 7 Wonders of Cuban Engineering, constructed by France and bought with sugar. To be honest, the description was much more impressive than the tunnel. It was less impressive, for instance, than the Baltimore harbor tunnels and certainly less impressive than the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Virginia Beach.
There is only one era you need to know to tour Cuba: 1959-1961. Everything is referred to as either “before The Revolution,” “during The Revolution,” or “after The Revolution.” As their version of the narrative goes, before the Revolution was bad, during the Revolution many heroic and amazing feats were accomplished, and after the Revolution things were wonderful. We also quickly learned that according to their rhetoric (billboards, slogans, and speech), “The Revolution” is not only an event but a force that actively does very positive things. When I mentioned this to my second son, who has done some research on Cuba, he asked which of the revolutions of Cuba I was talking about. I informed him that (with the exception of one person, José Marti, a hero of the fight for independence from Spain who the more recent revolutionary figures piggyback their fame to) there is only one revolution that matters: the one happening from 1959-1961. It doesn’t even have a name except The Revolution.
We were allowed to take pictures of anything except of police and soldiers. We were warned that if we took pictures of either, they would take our cameras and send us home. We saw both soldiers and policemen (with the exception of 1 woman, I only saw men in these roles). The policemen were often only armed with a nightstick. They never bothered us and we certainly didn’t bother them.
Sugar used to be the main industry in Cuba, but now tourism is. There were 11 of us in our group, 2 Australians, 2 Italians, 6 Americans, and 1 Chinese (who is studying at an American university). The variety of nationalities created an interesting way to get different perspectives on the things we were seeing. Several of the people on the trip have been all over the world to places ranging from Africa safaris to Iran to Antarctica. We met people from all over the world during our time in Cuba.
After The Revolution only one new sugar factory was built. All of the others are from before The Revolution and I don’t think many improvements have been done since then. Between 1961 and 1989, the Soviet Union traded their oil for Cuba’s sugar. With the Fall of the USSR in the 1990’s sugar prices dropped and Cuba destroyed many of its sugar factories, though I never did figure out why they would destroy them. It’s possible that when they said “destroyed” they meant that they simply stopped using them. I’m not sure how many are functioning now, but it seems that most of them still sit in a state of disrepair. We saw a lot of sugar fields during our travels.
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We did see a few other crops growing, and some personal gardens in the rural areas, but not many large fields of anything but sugar. Because of government regulations (and also, I suspect, a lack of resources to do otherwise) all of the food grown in Cuba is organic, and many of the farms still use oxen, horses, or mules to tend the fields. We saw some tractors in use, but mostly in the cities hauling things in wagons. Much of the land lies fallow, not being used for any production of food. I am not sure if this is purposeful because I know growing sugar is hard on the soil, or, as I suspect, it’s simply bad management. In our entire time traveling the island I only saw maybe 2 or 3 very small herds of cattle.
Our tour bus was state-owned. It was pretty nice with padded seats and air conditioning. It had seats for 15 people, and there were 12 of us. I think these buses are made in China.
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People stand by the sides of the roads holding out money, trying to catch a ride. You see, there are a lot of these exact same tour buses in Cuba, and it is illegal for them to be empty. So after our bus had taken us on this several-day trip from Havana to Baracoa and our group caught a plane back to Havana, the tour bus driver would drive back to Havana and pick up people all along the way, selling them tickets for the trip. The bus is tracked by GPS and he must carefully record everything. Of course the ticket money goes to the government. If he is caught with an empty bus or doesn’t sell tickets properly he will be in trouble and lose his job. Jobs related to tourism are some of the best as they receive tips and therefore often make more money than the average Cuban. There are doctors who change professions to work in the tourism industry because they can make better money.
There are no traffic jams in Cuba, but it’s not because of the great public transport (remember the tourist buses?) or the splendid roads. On the roads there are farming tractors, oil trucks, bicycle taxis, bicycles, tour buses, horse-drawn carts, Russian Lada brand cars, Peugeots, Hyundais, etc. and 1950s American cars and Jeeps on the patched or cobblestone roads. I did not see any regular types of pick-up trucks, I saw only three 18 wheelers, and minivans or other vans are rare. I did see several of what we would consider livestock trucks hauling people who were jammed in wall-to-wall. I guess that makes the tour-bus option look downright plush.
Until 2011 you had to have a special reason to have a car made after The Revolution (1959-1961). Government officials, doctors who needed to travel, and others with special permission were the only ones with newer cars. That is why there are so many 1950’s cars still running in Cuba. There was no way to get a newer one, so they just kept the old ones running.
These vehicles will start to pass another vehicle on the 2 lane road with no shoulder and not very much room to pass before possibly going head-on with another car. Nobody slows down, and it feels like an intense game of chicken. But I never saw a wreck the entire time we were there. The roads in the cities are generally pretty good. The rural roads, though, were often patched until there are more patches than road. We hit a few areas where the main highway-type roads were gravel.
Cars are exorbitantly expensive, about $18,000 for an old Russian Lada.
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A 1950s Ford truck that you can make some money hauling stuff with but is in bad shape would be maybe $30,000.
If you charge someone for a ride without having the proper license and you get caught, you will be in trouble. If you do that, you have to agree between you that, should you get stopped, the passenger will say you are friends and you are just taking them to their destination for free. There are taxis, but they require a license to operate. They are often the 1950’s American cars.
There are also trains. If you want to have some torture, try a Cuban train. Putin supposedly signed an agreement with Cuba to give them some more and newer trains, but if it happened no one has seen them in operation. Here is a YouTube video of a “fast” Cuban passenger train. The one we saw was going much slower.
There are no ads or commercials, but political billboards abound. For example, this one is near Giron and the Bay of Pigs and celebrates “The First Grand Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America.” I apologize for the quality of this picture; it was taken through a bus window.
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 All over the cities and countryside are these reminders of what The Revolution does for the people and how great the revolutionary figures were. I cannot emphasize enough how pervasive this message is. The most common visage on them is that of Che Guevera, though Fidel and Raúl Castro also make appearances. I’ll tell more about Che on a later day. It got to the point where my husband said, “I’ve seen so many pictures of Che that I think I could draw his face, and I can’t even draw!”
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After Fidel’s death in November, 2016, people were respectful with no demonstrations or opposition, at least none that was reported by the state-owned media. The time of mourning was 9 days. They didn’t play music or dance or serve alcohol during that time. Some of the tour groups run by our tour company focus on dancing and partying, as I mentioned above. Their activities were very much restricted during this time. Until January 6 (the day we flew out of Cuba for Mexico) there was a period of “controlled happiness” with some restrictions on dancing etc. No restrictions on playing music or serving alcohol were evidence, though. Of course, I also do not know what the normal amount of those things is, so maybe what we observed is less than normal. Fidel willed that nothing be named after him after death. We’ll have to wait and see if that is honored or not. Since there a pictures EVERYWHERE of the other revolutionary figures, that would be one way to set him apart from them.
We ate lunch at a tiny restaurant near the Bay of Pigs called El Butty, a delicious lunch of crab, octopus, or pork with cucumbers, tomatoes, and squash. They have several international flags hanging but no US flag. The owner asked if we would send him a US flag.
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We visited the Bay of Pigs, a beautiful area where the land is very rocky and rough. It would be very hard to walk on, much less run on to invade. The water for quite a ways out is shallow, so it would be impossible to bring a boat up to shore. Whoever decided to invade there wasn’t making a good decision, unless they landed in a spot with different terrain than what we saw.
We visited a museum in Giron near the Bay of Pigs that celebrates the Cuban victory over the Yankee Imperialists there. If you judged solely from their presentation you would think they had defeated the whole of the American armed forces, taken huge numbers of prisoners whom they then treated very well, and suffered very few casualties. The museum also celebrated some of the major accomplishments of The Revolution and Fidel in particular. It showed pictures from before The Revolution of really poor living conditions and malnourished children. It also told about Fidel’s “Alphabetization” project whereby in 2 years they wiped out illiteracy on the whole island. The two most commonly cited pieces of evidence for the greatness of Cuba are their education and health care.
We saw the Palacio Vallo a beautiful house in Cienfuegos. There was an owner of several plantations who didn’t resist when, during The Revolution, the state took away all his land, so they let him keep this place to live. He is dead now, so it has been converted into a restaurant and club.
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We also saw a yacht club. I’m not sure who belongs to that club, but there were some beautiful boats there. Some people are doing quite well for themselves, evidently.
We checked into our casa for the night, and had a couple of hours of downtime.
Since there was an old and small, but functional TV in our room (complete with rabbit ears) we decided to see what their programming was like. We found they had four or five stations. One was a music video made of different angles of video of the person singing. One was some kind of drama that was just ending. One was a talk show of some sort. And the one we watched titled “Fidel in History” was how great Fidel Castro was and all the good things he had done. This particular episode in the many-part series focused on the literacy program we had also heard about in the Giron museum. There were, of course, no commercials. I can totally understand why in Cuba there is a lot of live music and dancing, why the town squares are always busy, and why people sit on their front stairs talking to their neighbors. They usually have no air conditioning, and their TV is worse than awful.
We ate dinner at a place whose name I’ve forgotten but I liked their emblem for personal reasons: they had great initials.
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They also had very good food. We were quickly learning that Cubans serve good food in large portions. The only problem was that they often would only have a few of the items listed on their menus. Or sometimes they’d give you a several-page menu to ignore with an attached index card-sized piece of paper telling what your options really were.
After dinner some of us went to a 10:00 Christmas Eve Mass at the cathedral on the town square. Christmas was cancelled between 1959 and the Pope’s visit in 1998 but now it can be celebrated. Having been there for both Christmas and New Years, I can tell you that New Years is a much bigger deal there. Neither Vince nor I had been to a Catholic Mass before, but Vince fully understood the Spanish homily and liturgy and I enjoyed the folksy music. Their version of Silent Night played on guitar was especially nice.
We got turned around on the way to our homestay and wandered the city a bit at almost midnight, but Cienfuegos is a safe and clean city with one exception: there are no pooper-scooper laws or at least if there are they’re not enforced very well. There are a good number of horses on the street and lots of stray dogs around so you need to use a flashlight to not take a stinky souvenir home on your shoe. This we learned the hard way.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 3.


The Message of Christmas

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This Christmas post starts with a very un-Christmas-y story, but stick with me for a minute, and we’ll get there.

2 Samuel 18 relates a little-known story that I find interesting.  The context is a war in which King David gives orders to Joab, the commander of his army, not to kill his traitorous son, Absalom.  Joab disobeys and kills him anyway.  Ahimaaz, a minor character but the son of a priest, is a messenger.  (Since they didn’t have texting or twitter or Facebook on their cell phones back then, messengers carried news around, to, and from, battlefields.)  The story plays out like this:

19 Then Zadok’s son Ahimaaz said, “Let me run to the king with the good news that the Lord has rescued him from his enemies.”

20 “No,” Joab told him, “it wouldn’t be good news to the king that his son is dead. You can be my messenger another time, but not today.”

21 Then Joab said to a man from Ethiopia, “Go tell the king what you have seen.” The man bowed and ran off.

(Perhaps Joab was afraid that David would “kill the messenger” and didn’t want to endanger a priest’s son, so he decided to send a foreigner instead.)

22 But Ahimaaz continued to plead with Joab, “Whatever happens, please let me go, too.” 

“Why should you go, my son?” Joab replied. “There will be no reward for your news.”

23 “Yes, but let me go anyway,” he begged.

Joab finally said, “All right, go ahead.” So Ahimaaz took the less demanding route by way of the plain and ran to Mahanaim ahead of the Ethiopian.

24 While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates of the town, the watchman climbed to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked, he saw a lone man running toward them. 25 He shouted the news down to David, and the king replied, “If he is alone, he has news.”

As the messenger came closer, 26 the watchman saw another man running toward them. He shouted down, “Here comes another one!”

The king replied, “He also will have news.”

27 “The first man runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok,” the watchman said.

“He is a good man and comes with good news,” the king replied.

28 Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, “Everything is all right!” He bowed before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise to the Lord your God, who has handed over the rebels who dared to stand against my lord the king.”

29 “What about young Absalom?” the king demanded. “Is he all right?”

Ahimaaz replied, “When Joab told me to come, there was a lot of commotion. But I didn’t know what was happening.”

30 “Wait here,” the king told him. So Ahimaaz stepped aside.

31 Then the man from Ethiopia arrived and said, “I have good news for my lord the king. Today the Lord has rescued you from all those who rebelled against you.”

32 “What about young Absalom?” the king demanded. “Is he all right?”

And the Ethiopian replied, “May all of your enemies, my lord the king, both now and in the future, share the fate of that young man!”

33 The king was overcome with emotion. He went up to the room over the gateway and burst into tears. And as he went, he cried, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son.”

David knew that Ahimaaz typically carried good news.  This time, though, Ahimaaz ran off without knowing what to say.  Being an excellent messenger, he knew the best route to take, and he arrived, but without the message, before the other, more official runner got there.  When asked about what he knew, all he could say was that there was a commotion, a tumult, a hurly-burly, according to different translations.

Now to the topic of Christmas. I told you we’d get there. The amazing message of Christmas has been proclaimed down through the ages.  The prophets foretold it for thousands of years.  Isaiah 9 declares:

2 The people who walk in darkness
will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
a light will shine.
3 You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest
and like warriors dividing the plunder.
4 For you will break the yoke of their slavery
and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
5 The boots of the warrior
and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
They will be fuel for the fire.

6 For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen!

Then, angels carried many messages to let people know what was happening.  Mary got the news in Luke 1.

30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!

31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.

33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

An angel told Joseph in Matthew 1.

20 …“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Then a host of angels declared in Luke 2.

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Christmas is a great opportunity to fulfill Jesus’ command in Matthew 28.

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

We have been commanded to take the message to all, this message of God coming to humanity, the message of salvation, the message of Christmas.

When I was in nursing school we studied the effects of change and stressful life circumstances on health and illness.  One of the things we did was to take the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.  It is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness.  Among items like divorce, change of job, and pregnancy, is Christmas.  Why Christmas?  I thought the point of Christmas was joy and peace, not stress and possibly illness!

In an American Christmas it’s easy to get distracted.  It seems that every Christmas I overcommit myself.  I come up with great ideas, things that would be nice to do for people, positive activities.  I plan handmade gifts, snacks for the neighbors, holiday activities with the kids, and other wonderful ideas.  Then as the clock ticks away and the calendar pages turn, I become frantic, pressured, and generally a grouch.  I lose my peace and forget the message.  I forget that these were all my idea and I can forgo them just as easily as I conceived of them.  I feel out of control when I’m really not.

Christmas is not about getting a list of things done.  It’s not about getting the best bargain on a gadget on Black Friday.  It’s about peace and joy and love.  If we get overcommitted and distracted by the hullabaloo of the season we get grouchy and short-tempered and impatient, and usually this gets taken out on those closest to us, the ones that need us most.

So this Christmas I’m trying not to overcommit.  I plan to keep my peace and joy.  I want to remember the message I should be taking to the world, the message that Jesus came to save us from our sins.  When someone looks at how I live out Christmas I want them not to see a commotion, a tumult, a hurly-burly, but instead I want them to catch a glimpse of hope and peace and the eternal message of our Savior. And with that first in mind, how can I not have a heart full of peace and joy and love?  So full, in fact, that it overflows to those around me and the true message is delivered.

 

 


The Truth About Santa Claus

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I love Christmas.  I have a Christmas tree and stockings and traditions and lights and all that other Christmas-y stuff.  I even have a Santa here and there around the house at this time of year.  I don’t mind that the celebration for Jesus’ birthday has all these things added onto it.  As long as we remember the reason for the season, and as long as that’s not co opted by extraneous negative stuff, it’s okay with me.

However, there’s one Christmas tradition I’ve never taken part in: I’ve never convinced my kids that there is a Jolly Old Elf that magically flies across the sky and brings them presents on Christmas Eve.  I have told them from the beginning that Santa Claus is fiction.  We joke about it, and I call the UPS man Santa Claus since I do most of our Christmas shopping online.  I teach my kids that St. Nicholas of Myra is a historical figure coming from what is now Turkey.  They don’t expect gifts to magically appear under the tree out of thin air.  They know that I do the shopping, and that I have a budget, and they hand their Christmas lists directly to me.

They seem to be surviving just fine, and I see no signs that they’ll be scarred for life. My husband and I were both raised this same way and I think we’re both okay in the mental health department.

But why not indulge the fantasy?  Why not have a little fun and let them believe in something fun and friendly and magical? Why not?

The answer is because at some point all Santa-believing children realize that the magic isn’t real.  Whether it happens when they see Mommy kissing Santa Claus or when they find the presents from Santa hidden away in the closet on December 15, they will have a moment of truth when the fantasy crashes down around them.

You see, I want my kids to trust me.  I want them to believe what I say.  But mainly, I want them to believe me when I tell them that there is a REAL miracle worker.  The story of Jesus, the God of all creation, come to Earth to save my soul, is absolutely true.  My God has power above all others, He really does give good gifts to his children, and He is all places at all times.  I don’t want them to think He is a myth just like Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

So at our house the kids write out Christmas lists, hand them to me, stay away from the basement while I’m Christmas shopping online, and wait for the UPS man to bring the Amazon boxes to our front door.  They know I wrap them and they appreciate the gifts and the givers.

Because the true magic of Christmas has nothing to do with a fat man in a red suit.  The true magic of Christmas is that the God of all creation was born a human and gave us the best gift anyone could ever give: the gift of salvation.  And I want my children to believe that forever.