Reflections, Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Days 11 & 12

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 or two days 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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3Day 4, Day 5, Day 6Day 7Day 8Day 9, and Day 10.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 11
Monday, Jan 2
Barracoa
This was a day mainly spent in our casa recovering from illness and enjoying our room. As I said on Day 10, this casa was clean and freshly painted. The bathroom had good water pressure or hot water, but not both. And each bathroom had its own toilet bowl brush. Nowhere in Cuba can you flush paper down the toilet. Most places have a trash can in each stall to use for this purpose.
It was about this time that I decided to come up with the Comprehensive International Bathroom Rating Scale. The ladies in our group and I consulted on what was important, and they came up with a variation of it, but after much intense study and further, ahem, experience, I have settled on the following:
1 point if the bathroom doesn’t charge money
1 point if it’s clean
1 point if it smells nice
1 point if there is a toilet bowl
1 point if the toilet has a way to flush
1 point if the way to flush doesn’t involve a faucet and a bucket
1 point if there is a toilet seat
1 point if it has a door that closes and locks for privacy
1 point if there is paper available somewhere in the bathroom
1 point if the paper is free and accessible from the toilet
1 point if you are allowed to flush the paper
1 point if there is a trash bin
1 point if it flushes itself at the proper time with a motion detector
1 point if there is a working sink
1 point if the sink water works with a motion sensor
1 point if there is soap
1 point if soap dispenser is motion sensing
1 point for a way to dry your hands
1 point if dryer is motion sensing
1 point for handicap accessibility
So here is the breakdown of what all those numbers mean:

18-20: Perfect

15-17: Near Perfect

12-14: : Excellent

9-11: : Good

6-8 ☹️: Not Ideal

3-5: Wipe everything with sanitizing wipes before you “go”

0-2: Hold your breath, don’t touch anything, and pray you don’t catch a disease

If we had a bathroom in the 9-11 range we were thrilled. We encountered more than one occurrence of bathrooms that were a 3 if you were generous in your counting. But when you gotta go, you gotta go. Using bathrooms like this are really the only time in life when I wish I were a man.
We did visit the Castillo Hotel, formerly the Castillo Seboruco built in the 1700’s. It has many steps that go up and up and up some more to a height of 40 meters (130 feet). At the top you’re rewarded with this beautiful view.
They also have free (if you buy a drink and have bought a card with login and password) wifi.
The yellow building in the foreground here is the Hotel Castillo.
Even though the Cuban government has tried to erase any positive influence by the US, if you look hard enough you can see evidence occasionally. Here is a sign on the hotel commemorating the reconstruction of the fort in 1900.
Here in Baracoa we also saw many of these kinds of signs.
You see how at the bottom it says CDR 3, ZONE 5. CDR stands for Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. If Hitler’s SS and Neighborhood Watch had a baby, it would be something like the CDR. Basically, every block in Cuba has a CDR leader who is responsible for reporting on you to the government. If you want to change jobs or improve your house or a myriad of other things, you have to get approval from your CDR leader. They can also report you for having a bad attitude toward the government. They don’t need any proof or evidence, of course. You can imagine that this can be a very bad situation if your CDR leader is power-hungry or just doesn’t like you.
Day 12
Tuesday, Jan 3
Baracoa
On this day we went back up the mountain near the Castillo Hotel we had visited the day before.  We were looking for an item on our map called an “archaeological museum in a cave.” We occasionally would ask someone directions and they kept saying it was further on and further up. We accidentally (this time) had wandered into a part of Cuba that people don’t usually see. Basically the houses were shacks. Not sure if that’s “new construction” since the hurricane, but they were very bad conditions. Finally we reached a sign pointing us to the museum. A little boy led the way, and we gave him and his friend a tip for their help. It wasn’t much of museum or much of a cave.
Our enthusiastic guide enjoyed using his limited English skills as he shared his knowledge of the indigenous people Columbus “discovered” on his arrival but who had been living there for well over 500 years already. He told us about their religion, the way they used the caves, and some of their mythology.
He also told us about an area down by the beach where there were no trees, but black sand. He said not to go there because some spots are quicksand and people have been known to disappear. They are never quite sure if the missing people have been overtaken by quicksand or if they’ve gotten on a raft to go to America, but he said be careful. The girl from our group who was with us for our tour of the cave was a bit alarmed by this knowledge since she had walked that exact area of the beach the day before.
We came back down the mountain by a different route than we had gone up. We had experienced the natural alarm clocks (known as roosters) in just about every town we had visited. And it wasn’t just one rooster; there were always a bunch of them. I knew that we had eggs for breakfast every day, but those don’t come from roosters last time I checked. And we had seen only roosters, not hens. On the way back down the hill we saw a guy training his roster to attack another rooster and it all came together. Our guide had made a comment earlier when a guy crossed the road in front of us holding a rooster (at which point we asked why the rooster crossed the road). He said the guy was going to a cock fight. And it all clicked. THAT’s why so many roosters crowing every morning. They were meant for competition, but not to see who could crow the loudest. There is no gambling, at least in casinos in Cuba, but it seems there might be an exception.
At the bottom of the mountain we were hot and tired from our long upward trek, so we went back to the Hotel Castillo for cola and Wi-Fi. But it wasn’t until we were at the bottom of the mountain that we made this decisions, so back up we went, up all those steps. Not our brightest moment, I must say.
At the bottom of the hotel steps we encountered a man begging. He was the same man as the day before, asking for the same things: a pencil and shoes. Evidently if you have a pen or pencil you can trade it for something else so they usually don’t ask for money, they ask for a pencil or a pen.
After checking Wi-Fi we came back down the mountain. I felt like that old song about “The noble Duke of York, He had 10,000 men, He marched them up to the top of the hill and marched them down again.” It was a hot day and after all our ups and downs we decided that chocolate ice cream sounded really good and we went to the Casa De Cacao.
 
We went into their air-conditioned show room that smelled absolutely amazing and saw their wonderful dark chocolate on display. They had bars of it as well as small little shapes, all covered by sheets of plastic. We tried one of the little shapes to make sure it was good. Sure enough, yep, it was great! We told waitress how many bars we wanted, and we watched her use her teeth to tear the plastic to get a piece to cover the chocolate in. I guess they didn’t have scissors or a knife. While she was busy with us, another woman came in and said something to her and showed her the middle ink-tube part of a cheap pen. We ordered some chocolate ice cream drink and sat down to wait. The waitress asked us if we had a pen they could have. This nice place of business with delicious chocolates only had one pen, and it was broken, so they were using the middle ink-tube part. Unfortunately, except for my iPad stylus which has a built-in pen, I only had 2 mechanical pencils. I offered her one, but I’m not even sure she knew what it was or how it worked, and she really wanted a pen. Their chocolate ice cream in chocolate drink was delicious, though.
This dearth of common objects was prevalent around Cuba. It’s not just that we saw no computers in use in businesses. Some places had adding machines with their receipt tape, but mostly it was just calculators in use. Restaurants generally had hand-written receipts that they gave us.
Many times we tried to break a 50 or even a 20 CUC bill, and they didn’t have change. Not just a little shops, but places like a hotel restaurant. There is just not enough cash or other resources for a business to keep money on hand that way.
Also, being in Cuba showed me how Americans see everything as disposable: cars, house furnishings, water jugs, etc. Things are used not until someone gets tired of them or when they start to look a bit worn. Things are used until they cannot be used any longer. Then if they can be repurposed as something else, they are. This is a theme I have recognized in all the developing countries I have visited.
This is how they still have running 1950’s cars running on the roads. As I stated when writing Day 5 in Trinidad, most of them are not in a condition that would be considered classic. 
They are just really old cars, beat up and run down. But they don’t get rid of them because it’s impossible to get a new or better one. So they just keep the old one running.
Click here to continue to Day 13.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 10

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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3Day 4, Day 5, Day 6Day 7Day 8, and Day 9.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 10,
Sunday Jan 1,
Going to Baracoa, going near Guantanamo Bay Naval Base
Today we had another long travel day. After about an hour and a half of travel we stopped for a bathroom break and a look at a map of the area we would be covering in the day. Included was the area around the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
This whole area is the Guantanamo province of Cuba. I have zoomed in on the area beneath the black word “GUANTANAMO” on the map.
This dotted area is the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base. You can see that even in cartography (map making) in Cuba the political messages are strong. Even with very limited knowledge of Spanish, if I tell you that E.U.A is Spanish for U.S.A you can tell what the basic message behind “Territorio ocupado ilegalmente por E.U.A.” means.
Then we went to a beautiful area for whoever in our group wanted to swim. We saw this brick beachfront property for sale. “Se Vende Llama…” means “For Sale, Call….” The house needs a bit of work, but the view would be beautiful.
Homes are rarely for sale in Cuba as most are state-owned. A few, however, have started to be sold by private individuals. Another one we saw in Trinidad looked like this.
Housing is different in Cuba. If you are necessary to the government, you get a house. If you have the money and ability and can get the proper permits, you can build your own house. They provide homes for athletes as well. As of 1970 and going forward, they needed more houses, so professionals were allowed to give a year or two to the government to build houses, and then they get one of the houses that they have built.
It is strange that, unlike some developing countries we’ve been to, most of the buildings in Cuba are completely finished. That does not mean, though that they are in good shape. A lot of them are beautiful old structures with gorgeous ornamentation, but the roofs are bad, or they are in a general state of disrepair. Also, we’d be walking along a city street and 2 of the 10 structures on the street would be shells with old bricks or piled-up concrete pieces in them. And I’m not talking about areas that were hit by Hurricane Matthew. Other times we’d walk by a large building and the entire bottom floor would be empty except for a single desk.
You can see from the “beachfront property for sale” picture that the area is very dry. The villages in the area around Guantanamo sometimes go a year or more with no rainfall.
You have to obtain a permit to visit relatives or friends near Guantanamo because some people try to escape to the Naval Base there since it’s American soil. There is a (very small) Cuban army installation here to keep an eye on the base, and in most of the areas you are not allowed to take pictures. If you as a tourist do this, they’ll take you away, take your camera, end your visit right then, and kick you off the island. Our guide knew a nice spot, though, where we could see the base in the distance and take a few pictures. In the distance is Guantanamo Naval Base. One of the ladies on our trip had a nice camera and we could see the US flag when you zoomed in on her pictures.
Reportedly, they have to use desalination to supply water on the base because the Cuban government cut of their water supply, and as I said, the area is very dry.
After we ate lunch at a tiny home restaurant which had amazing fried taro root chips, we started our trek over the mountains. This road, La Farola Viaduct, is another of the 7 Wonders of Cuban Engineering like the little tunnel outside Havana mentioned on Day 2. Many times the government had promised this road, but only The Revolution actually built it. Batista’s regime had started it, but was finished in 1965, so The Revolution takes full credit for it. It is a two lane road going through the mountains, like many I have been on before. The only difference is that on this one the concrete-with-rebar-inside guardrails in spots were in disrepair or missing. These spots are suspiciously in curves where it would be easiest for a vehicle to misdirect and go over. I suspect some have tried these routes and taken the guardrails with them. Luckily our bus driver was very skilled and got us to Baracoa safely. The views were amazing, though. 
Baracoa is a rainy little town, mostly isolated from the rest of Cuba except for that mountain road and an airport. It was heavily hit by Hurricane Matthew in early October and is still being rebuilt. Many of the attractions were closed or wiped out because of the hurricane. It is an area of cacao farms (though Matthew must have liked cacao because he visited a lot of them and took the trees with him), black sand beaches, high mountains, and rain.
Baracoa is the oldest settlement in Cuba, founded in 1511, and Columbus visited here in November, 1492. They have a monument to him which we visited.
We checked in to our casa, and unexpectedly (since a hurricane recently came through) it was our nicest one yet. Everything was freshly painted, and though the beds were still not comfortable, the linens, etc, looked like they were less than 10 years old. You see, the owner’s brother lives in the U.S. He was a medical doctor in Cuba and traveled to many different countries as it is common for them to do. He defected while in Venezuela and then came to America. He is now a nurse practitioner in Miami. I imagine from the looks of the casa that he has brought some plastic-wrapped packages to his family here in Cuba on his visits back home. American citizens are now allowed to visit family in Cuba. We somehow missed getting pictures of our room in this casa. The shower-head-water-heater was the same as usual, though, and this one made a shocking impact on my husband when he reached up to adjust it, so he got a picture of it.
 
During our orientation walk Vince got sick and left his lunch in the street, and I got queasy. We suspect it was some food we ate at the tiny home restaurant. Maybe the octopus and fish? So we ended the day with Vince alternately visiting the bathroom and watching Steven and I eat cheap pizza.
Continue the journey to Days 11 & 12.
Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 9

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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3Day 4, Day 5, Day 6Day 7 and Day 8.

Day 9

Saturday, Dec 31
Santiago
Cuba is a very racially diverse combination of Spanish descent, African descent, and native descent. In Cuba, according to their constitution, women have equal rights as men and all the different races have the same rights. This was not true until The Revolution. Then they passed laws and regulated racial diversity so people had to hire a certain quota of the different races. It seems on its face to have worked. However, at one of the casas when I tried to give my passport before Steve gave his the lady of the house said in Cuba the man’s name has to go first. Also, I have found some statistics online that say the racial equality in jobs is not as they claim it to be.
Political opposition is illegal and there is only one political party: The Communist Party. They do have elections and everyone is expected to vote. They can either vote yes or no. Anything else written in is disqualified. So the results always look like a resounding win for the person the Communist Party has put forth as their “candidate.”
Until a few years ago there was no privacy or freedom of speech. After The Revolution, the state security department listened in and you might go to prison and never come out just for one small statement like saying at the market “I don’t like to wait in these long lines.” Now they can speak freely, at least about some topics. There were a few things nobody wanted to discuss in public. In spite of more freedom of expression, there’s still no alternative or change. People have the choice to either be quiet or leave (if they can afford it or find a way).
15 yrs ago it was a crime for the Cubans to carry US dollars. The penalty for being caught with even $1 was 7 years or 11 years in prison. This is not the case now, but as I said, they still have a 10% tax US dollars at all the money exchange places.
Americans are allowed to visit Cuba under certain circumstances. One of the reasons we chose Cuba for Vince’s Spanish immersion trip is that we think that Cuba is going to either open up totally to America and be changed by it, or shut back down like it was between 1961 and very recently.
We rested much of the day, knowing it would be a late night since it was New Year’s Eve. In the late afternoon we went to the square to get some Wi-Fi.
The plaza was starting to fill with people bustling about, waiting to buy things in the shops that ring the plaza. There were workers setting up for the program to be presented that night. We walked through the beautiful Catholic church on the square (there’s always a Catholic church on the square).
We also “met” one of the Chugito mascots walking around greeting people.
Notice the 26 on their head bandanas. That is commemorating the (unsuccessful) attack on the Moncada Barracks I told about yesterday.
We had a beautiful New Years Eve dinner with our group.
Then they went salsa dancing and we went to pack and then headed back to the square aka the Parque Cespides to watch their midnight flag ceremony. They raise a large Cuban flag at midnight and their tradition says that if the flag catches the wind it will be a good year. If it just hangs there it will be a tough year. It reminds me a bit of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day.
This being Santiago, the place Fidel called home and where he declared The Revolution won, they had a special program honoring him. All throughout the square were banners with pictures of Fidel to honor him.
 
He considered Santiago to be his hometown and they are quite proud of this. During the program, they had ballet, African style music, Caribbean music with a few dancing the salsa, opera music, speeches, and a video of Fidel speaking. At one point they did a very enthusiastic call and of response of “Viva la Revolution! Viva Fidel! Viva Raúl! Fatherland or Death!” The 2,000-3,000 people in attendance all knew what to expect and shouted along. This was very interesting to me. For some reason, I thought the Cubans would be less enthusiastic about their support for Fidel and his Revolution. However, if they are critical of what has happened or if they want something different, they keep those thoughts to themselves and yell their “Viva Fidel” along with everyone else. I will deal with this topic a bit more over the next few days.
At midnight they raised the flag and it hung still, but within a minute or so it caught the wind and the people cheered.

After greeting a few people with Feliz Año Nuevo we went to our casa to bed. Tomorrow was another day of travel.
Proceed to Day 10.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 7, Sick in Camagüay

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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3, Day 4Day 5, and Day 6.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It

Day 7
Thursday, Dec 29
Camagüay

After feeling sick for all day on Wednesday, I decided I needed to go to the doctor.

This was a day we could sleep in but in spite of that we awoke early to birds chirping in the courtyard and roosters having a crowing competition and we couldn’t get back to sleep. I gathered the necessary items and went to the nearest “square” to get Wi-Fi and download some past prescription details from my Walgreens account. I had no idea how Cuban medicine worked, but I had heard good things about it and knew I needed something or I would be quite sick in a few days.

After about 20 minutes of trying, I got about 5 minutes of decent Wi-Fi and took some screenshots of past prescriptions to help me know what to ask for at the pharmacy. Based on what my primary care doctor usually does, I decided to try to get some prednisone to calm down my asthma, and some penicillin to combat the sinus infection. When I arrived back at the casa I had to wait for the water delivery men who was using the front stairs to pour water from about 10 approximately 10 gallon jugs carried on the back of a cart into her 3 approximately 3 gallon jugs. I suspect this water is what they drink, but we only drank bottled water with intact caps.

I also still wanted to find a store to buy a skirt to replace mine that had disappeared in the laundry in Trinidad, but the lady who served us breakfast at our homestay offered to do some laundry for us, so I thought I might be okay without one if needed. The top priority now was getting me well.

After a bit of a walk and passing the pharmacy twice without knowing it (see, I told you it is a confusing town) a nice Cuban man walked us the 1/2 block to the “international pharmacy” (the Cubans use a different set of pharmacies). With Vince’s help I asked the nurse in white to buy some prednisone and penicillin. She looked at me with a puzzled look and asked if I had a prescription. When I said no she said I would need to see a Doctor to get one. I was trying to figure out what to do with that information when she asked where we were from. Upon hearing we were from the States she said with our travel insurance papers they could call a doctor to come to our casa or there at the pharmacy to consult and determine what I needed.

We decided that the pharmacy location would be best and Vince and I were taken to a back room and waited for the Dr to come while Steve went to the casa to get our insurance papers and my passport.

We talked with the nurse in whites (including the standard old-style nurses’ hat) until the female doctor came, about 5-10 minutes. She was also dressed in whites.

Nobody washed their hands; I don’t even think there was a sink. She listened to my chest with cheap stethoscope, looked in my ears with clean but reusable covers (a different cover for each ear) for the old otoscope which she plugged into the wall (she had to jiggle the connection because the wall socket was loose). The nurse took my temperature under my arm with a glass thermometer, and the doctor asked about my symptoms. Vince got to use a different set of words on this day, but he did fine. I sure was glad for his Spanish skills. I showed the doctor the list of meds and vitamins I take daily. I told her about my migraines, my hypothyroidism, and my asthma. She said I needed to get lab work and chest x-ray done. I was expecting a long travel and a longer wait for results but they both assured me it would be very quick. The doctor tore off a rectangle piece of dot matrix printer paper, stamped it, and hand wrote the order for lab test and x-ray. We then waited for about five minutes on Steve to get back with the insurance papers. While the doctor waited at the pharmacy, the nurse walked us 3 or 4 confusing and busy city blocks to the clinic where the blood test and X-ray would be taken. She gave the papers to the appropriate people and we waited. Within 5 minutes it was my turn at the lab.

We went into the lab room where the lab tech opened a fresh lancet which she used to prick my finger. Then she pipetted some blood from it and smeared some on 2 slides. There were sinks here, but still nobody washed their hands. No gloves had been used up to this point, and none were used now. There was also no sharps container anywhere to be seen, but there was a biohazard sign on the inside door.

After the labwork was drawn, the nurse walked us across a beautiful courtyard to the radiology department. There they told me to take off my bra but leave my shirt on as there was no robe, and they showed me the bathroom to do this in. The sticker for designating the right side of the X-ray (versus the left) was old and dirty. It had obviously been in use for a while. They used a clean and working but not at all new x-ray machine for one front-facing X-ray and I went back into the bathroom to change. The x-ray machine looked like it was old, probably from the 1980’s. Remember how I said in an earlier day’s blog that the USSR used to help out Cuba but that fell apart when the USSR fell apart? I got the distinct impression that their medical equipment was from this time period. I’m quite sure with the looks of the age of the machine that I received a larger-than-normal-by-modern-standards dose of radiation. I did notice there was no TP or TP holder in the bathroom, but it was clean with a clean sink and a bar of soap. Nobody had yet (to my knowledge at least) washed their hands, though, or used any hand sanitizer.

We waited in the courtyard for the X-ray print to dry. Nothing was digital. They gave me the print of the film and we crossed back to the lab. We heard the click-clack of typewriters (not a computer was seen anywhere the whole time) as we waited. After a short time the nurse got the lab results (also handwritten on a plain small piece of paper) and we went back to the pharmacy to see the Dr who was still waiting on us there. The Dr said according to the lab work I didn’t have a virus, and my bacterial numbers were within normal limits, but elevated somewhat. She explained that the lab work meant I wasn’t very sick yet but would get sicker. And the chest X-ray (she held it up to see in the sunlight) showed some spots from my asthma. She assured me several times that they had the medicine I needed, which made me think that often that’s a problem they deal with.

She prescribed a cough syrup, a substance similar to Vicks vapor rub, and amoxicillin tablets after asking about any drug allergies and checking the package insert to make sure the amoxicillin wouldn’t interact with my thyroid meds.

The nurse told me a couple of pressure points that were good for pulmonary problems, though the Dr didn’t seem to really think that was important. They gave me great instructions, checked to make sure I understood everything, and gave me a handwritten copy of the prescription and instructions. The doctor also gave us her card with a phone number should I need any more care for the rest of the trip until I went home. After all that, a well-dressed lady came and checked paperwork, forms, passport numbers, etc, and left.

I signed two papers and we were almost done. In all, for the consultation, lab work, and chest x-ray, it took about 2 hours, part of which was us talking about how medicine works in the US, and I’m sure she would have worked quicker had we been more quiet and less distracting. I walked out with an interesting experience and solutions found. The medical people were all competent and kind. They were not well-supplied, and they worked with old equipment. Everything smelled of disinfectant and was clean, though everything badly needed a fresh paint job. It would have made me feel better for me had they washed their hands or used sanitizer, and it would have made me feel better for them had they worn gloves and had an easily accessible sharps container.

The Cubans are quite impressed with their level of medical care. From what I understand, medical care is all free (though we all know nothing is ever really free) except prescriptions which are affordably priced. Each primary care doctor is responsible for the people on certain blocks, so there is no choice in who your doctor is, but Cuba doesn’t seem to care too much about providing its people with choices, so this is not surprising. They do have the highest numbers in the world of per capita number of doctors. These doctors are actually one of Cuba’s main exports, which sounds strange, but Cuba sends its doctors to other countries and the other countries pay Cuba for their services. Our doctor this day had spent some time in Ghana. A favorite destination of these doctors is Venezuela who (until recently at least) trades oil for them. They also have a good amount of “medical tourism” in which people from other countries travel to Cuba for cheap plastic surgeries and such. It was strange to have a doctor spend 2 hours on me, waiting for me while we did the lab work and x-ray.

Happy with the experience (me for getting help, Vince for his successful use of Spanish, and Steve because it all had all gone smoothly) we went back to our casa to rest and do Vince’s quizzing. I took my new meds, and we enjoyed the cool A/C and rested.

We did notice our laundry along with some others was in the “dryer” in the courtyard of the house.

At about 4:00 Vince was finished with his studying and it was starting to cool off, so we went to visit some art galleries and get dinner. We went back to the town square with the Martha Jimenez sculptures and behold, there was the man with the newspaper sitting next to his statue. His name is Norberto Subirat and he is now 83. He loves to talk and told us (through Vince interpreting) all about his son who lives in Rochester, NY. He is obviously a religious man and said God helps him to be strong enough to come meet people. He has visited his son in the States before and hopes to do so again. When Steve told him that he is a pastor the man jumped up and gave him a very warm hug and, looking a bit surprised, said he felt the Holy Spirit of God. He was very warm toward us, talking a lot about God. Steve slipped some money in his pocket and with a “Dios le bendiga” we left him there to greet other people and went to dinner.

After a dinner we wandered about looking for another artist’s shop that our guide had pointed out, but after much wandering of the confusing streets, we gave up and went to a square to get on the internet and check on the kids and emails.

Click here to continue the journey to Day 8.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 6, Trinidad to Camagüay

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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5.
Day 6
Wednesday, Dec 28
Trinidad to Camagüay via Sancti Spiritus and Ciego De Avila
Just outside of Trinidad we visited a tower with a beautiful view.
This tower also had the obligatory market common to all tourist sites in Cuba.
Cuba is a beautiful country between (literally between) the mountains and the Caribbean.
On the way to Camugüey we visited the Sanctu Spiritus, another of the 7 oldest cities in Cuba. There we visited an open-air market where they were selling meat, beans, rice, and fresh veggies. Remember everything grown in Cuba is organic. There were many (organic, I guess) flies around, enjoying the foods, especially the meat. Vendors were counting money with the hands that they had just picked up the raw meat with and I’m sure they would soon pick up the meat again with all the germs on his hand from the money. There were no sinks visible anywhere in the market.
This market didn’t surprise me, as many places the world-over have similar open-air markets. It did surprise me in a nation that is so proud of its level of civilization (because of The Revolution, of course) and its self-proclaimed second-to-none health care system (also to be credited to The Revolution, of course). Cuba is a paradox of a nation. When traveling in Cuba we were inundated with their message (propaganda) that they are the healthiest and best-educated nation on earth. Then we’d run smack into something that looks exactly like what we have seen in Africa or rural Mexico.
The 1990’s were a period which Fidel and his government called the “Período Especial.” Basically, between the time of The Revolution and the fall of the USSR, Russia propped up the Cuban economy. When the USSR fell apart, their support of Cuba fell apart too. Fidel rallied the people by saying everyone should work together and expect hard times. This is what was called the “Special Period,” but it doesn’t sound very special to me, just really bad. Supplies were lacking, especially meat, but also soap, electricity, etc. With the drop of supplies, prices soared, and basic necessities were hard to obtain. Looking back on the dates, it was during this “Special Period” that I had a professor in college who was convinced and tried to convince us, his students, that Cuba was a great place to live. I didn’t believe him then, and I wouldn’t believe him now. They do not grow things that could be easily grown such as the carnations at Che’s burial site, various fruits, etc. Instead they import them at very expensive rates. China and Venezuela are now Cuba’s main allies and economic support now since the USSR came apart, but Venezuela has been having their own troubles, and Cuba is in a recession as a result.
After visiting the market, we took a quick 10 minute stroll through the heart of town. A block over from the open-air market we saw a sign for the Provincial Center of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Microbiology. They would be well served to go inspect that market.
After lunch we also visited the Pauyet jewelry shop in Ciego de Ávila. There they make jewelry and other sculptures with silverware. I have never seen anything like their beautiful work. They are basically modern-day silversmiths. We saw where 4 of them were actively working.
When Steve found and bought a cross figurine for 30 CUC’s he took it back to the workshop and with Vince’s help asked who made it. We got to meet the artist and Steve got a picture with him. The cross now sits in his office.
 
They have national brands of water, cola, gas, and many many other things. We did see both Coke and Pepsi, but they were not actually made in the US.
However, there are obviously still good flowing in from the US. American brands of clothing were some of the most obvious. Also, our tour bus had a clear spot in the tinted windows so the driver could see the side mirror. This was in the shape of the Apple logo. When we asked our driver about it he said they just liked the shape. All those plastic-wrapped items at the airport eventually make their way into the homes and streets of Cuba.
 
Someone on the tour asked why sometimes Cuban people would be dancing or enjoying themselves and police officers would call them aside. As it turns out, they are checking people for a criminal record and if you have a record they make you leave. This is their way of keeping tourists safe and keeping shady characters away from them. I guess once you have been guilty of one thing it is assumed you’re always guilty (or will soon be) thereafter. Their way of preventing trouble, demonstrations, protests, etc, is to arrest people ahead of events they might object to.
After our long day of travel we checked into out homestay, which was very nice this time with an eating area, a fridge, a courtyard, etc.
After giving our passport info to the lady of the house, we took a bicycle rickshaw orientation tour seeing all the different “squares” which are not square at all.
The town of Camagüay was intentionally designed in 1528 to confuse foreign invaders, pirates, etc. Now it is equally successful in confusing tourists.
A symbol for this town is the tinajón. There is a legend that if you drink from one you will not leave Camagüay. In history these huge clay pots, some about 4 feet in diameter, were used to collect water for future use, similar to the function of our cisterns. Here is an example in the courtyard of our homestay.
 

During the orientation, our guide pointed out various restaurants, art galleries, bars, and other attractions that were either good, bad, or overpriced.

Outside the art gallery featuring the works of Martha Jimenez we saw some statues made by her that feature local people. One was a man pushing a cart full of tinajónes.
 
Another of the statues was 4 chairs, 3 of them filled by women gossiping and the empty one for someone else to join in. I try not to be a gossiper, but I joined their party on this occasion.
These people have all died, but the other one is of an old man who still lives and occasionally comes and sits next to the statue of him reading the local newspaper and he talks to people. According to our guide he has Parkinson’s Disease and doesn’t come meet people as much any more.
 
Camagüay is a beautiful clean town with a lot of artwork, cathedrals, shops, etc. Remember how awful Cuban TV is their expensive Wi-Fi is only available in the squares? Main Street USA may have died but the main streets downtown in Cuba are still vibrant and very much alive.  The shops, however, are not well-stocked. I only saw 1 store (with home goods) that was adequately stocked by American standards. Most had lots of empty floor space and sparsely-filled shelves.
By the time we ended our orientation tour it was about 7:30 and we were very hungry. On our guide’s suggestion, we ate Italian food at a place whose menu was in Spanish with a tiny bit of Italian but absolutely no English. We ordered two pizzas to share: one with only cheese, and one with what was supposed to be sausage but looked like hot dogs. We were very hungry, though, and it all tasted very good.
After eating we returned home. At this point I was getting sick, my asthma was kicking up, and I was starting to get what felt like a sinus infection.
Click on Day 7 to continue the journey.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 5, Trinidad

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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3, and Day 4.
Day 5,
Tuesday, Dec 27
Trinidad
We spent part of the day on a boat going to an island that was deserted except for about 40 friendly iguanas, countless hermit crabs, and a furry little animal whose name I’ve forgotten but he reminded me of a groundhog.
Our guide was not allowed to go on the boat with us. He didn’t have the proper license to go on a boat, as it seems the government is concerned that its citizens might hijack boats and head north with them and everyone on them. This actually happened in 2003 as reported here. Cuba normally doesn’t do capital punishment, but they made a special exception and suspended their moratorium on the death penalty for this case.
We took a 1952 Chevy taxi to the marina and back. The driver’s grandfather bought the car new and it has been in the family ever since. These classic cars are abundant but usually not in very good shape. They mostly need new paint jobs and the interiors are falling apart. The door handles and window cranks 1/2 the time don’t work. They are not what we think of as classic cars. They are more just old cars. And they spew this awful exhaust into the air.
 
There also is a lot of smoking in Cuba. I should not have been surprised by this in a country known for its cigars. So between the cars smoking and the people smoking, the air quality in Cuban cities quite literally stinks.
That night we went out to eat at a marvelous restaurant called San José. It was the best restaurant meal by far on the whole trip. Their $2.00 milkshake was amazing and their non-alcoholic piña colada was splendid. One of the ladies in our group was celebrating a birthday, so they brought out a cake with a sparkling firework on it. It was very nice.
After dinner we walked back down to the square to try to catch some Wi-Fi, and we noticed there were crowds and music everywhere. We figured it was just a busy night in a busy town. As I have said before, because of the lack of internet, horrible TV, and infrequent A/C, the town squares are quite lively places, and the music scene (though I tired of the same type of music over and over) was quite vibrant.
Then on the way to our homestay we saw a nice new Mercedes and soldiers on the street corner (who we did NOT take pictures of because we like our freedom and our cameras), so we figured there was a big shot in town, maybe someone from the national government. Like I said on another day, some things are common to all cultures. While we were on the sidewalk chatting with the girl sharing our casa, we heard and saw a police escort, lights and sirens and all, coming through the streets, then a bunch of people running a race through the streets followed by an ambulance. Vincent asked some of the other folks on the street what was going on, and they said it was the anniversary of the liberation of Trinidad on Dec 27, 1958 during The Revolution. So I guess that’s why it was such a bustling night.
To continue the journey, click Day 6.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 4, Trinidad

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.
Click here for Day 2 and Day 3.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 4,
Monday, Dec 26
Trinidad
Today was our first full day in Trinidad.
We wandered the streets of the non-touristy part of town where the locals eyed us with suspicion.  (We did this in several smaller cites that we visited. We never felt really unsafe, just not quite welcome.) Then we went to the public square and stood in line at the ETECSA (telecommunications) shop to buy Wi-Fi cards.
During the time of Fidel’s rule there were no computers allowed in the homes or smart phones. There is really no good answer to the question of “Why Not?” The only answer given was, “Just because.” This is still a common response and still common question that applies to many situations. There are a few older computers in the private homes now (probably checked as luggage in those plastic-wrapped boxes I mentioned on Day 1), but still no internet access in the homes. The only computer I saw in use in a casa was being used as a giant MP3 player. There are also not computers in schools. If they need to write a research paper they use the printed encyclopedias at the library or they can go to the telecommunications office (where we bought the Wi-Fi cards) and use their computers for a fee.
Some jobs require smart phones, so a few people have those now, too. The only internet available to private citizens is the Wi-Fi in hotels and public parks, and they have to buy access to that. It costs them 1/2 a CUC an hour, which sounds really cheap until you realize that the average Cuban has a take-home pay of 10-30 CUC’s per month. As non-Cubans, we paid 2 CUC’s per hour.
After waiting in line for an hour and 15 minutes in the hot Cuban sun, we were each allowed to buy 3 of the 5-hour cards.
Not wanting to wait in the long hot line again during our trip, both Steven and I bought 15 hours each. We had to show our passport, or at least a copy of it. Also, at every homestay site we had to show our passports and sign their book. Our hosts then only had a few days to report we had been there so they could be taxed the appropriate amount. Every time I pulled out my passport here was a definite feel of Big Brother watching.
After we got the Wi-Fi cards we checked our emails and texted our kids. We tried to FaceTime, but the Wi-Fi wasn’t up to it. In fact, the Wi-Fi was really awful. It was very unpredictable. Sometimes it would let us on, but about half the time it would give us an error message. That is, if we could get it to even bring up the login page it would give us an error message. Then, if we did manage to finally get on, it would intermittently and randomly kick us off, so we’d have to start the whole frustrating process again. We did manage to check emails and text the kids an average of every-other-day or so throughout the trip, though, and Steven even managed to do a Facebook Live video once or twice on the trip. In my opinion, this is a very purposeful decision by the Cuban government. The average Cuban cannot afford to spend time fact-checking what the government says, and the infrastructure is much too unreliable to coordinate any uprisings or share much information. Social media is a totally untapped resource.
While we were trying to take care of some email business, Vince played a game at the local chess club. This was my idea as he does enjoy chess, and I thought it would be a good chance to try out his language skills. Then we realized that people don’t talk during chess games. Though he lost he said it was a good game.
While sitting in the town square we met Enzo, a 1 yr old boy, who liked to put leaves in Steven’s hat. Some things are common across cultures, and child development is one of them. His mother and father were very nice and gave us directions to a few places in town.
 
Next we visited some local shops and markets where we bought some percussion musical instruments (a güiro, and some maracas) and a wooden crocodile to add to Vincent’s collection of wooden animals from the places he visits. Unfortunately, a flight attendant on the Cuban Air flight on the way home managed to crush the musical instruments while they were in the overhead bin.
I thought about buying some artwork, but 99% of the subject matter was either classic cars, provocative women, or Afro-Cuban people, some quite offensive to my American sensibilities. I was not interested in any of these, so we bought no artwork.
Then we got a soda and sat outside the Casa De Musica, listening to a band play music.
They had a trumpet as well as the requisite guitar, and Latin percussion instruments (such as bongos, güiro, claves, maracas, cowbell, etc.) The beat of the rhythm was 1, 2&, 3, 4&, or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8&. Cubans are quite proud of their music, but after a while all the bands and songs sound alike. There is not much variety.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 5.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 3 – Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Santa Clara

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.
Click here for Day 2.
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 3,
Sunday, Dec 25
Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Santa Clara
Did you know that one of the places Columbus landed in the New World in 1492 was Cuba? As we all know, Columbus didn’t really discover it, and it wasn’t new. There were already native peoples living in Cuba. According to Columbus, “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” Cuba is indeed beautiful with its beaches and mountains. 7 of its current cities were founded between 1511 and 1514, some of the oldest cities in our hemisphere: Havana, Trinidad, Sancti Spritus, Camaguay, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, and Baracoa. On our travels we visited all 7.
On this day we traveled to Trinidad, a dirty city with cobblestone streets draining to the middle instead of the edges. Since the main way people clean  their floors is to pour water on the floor and then sweep it out into the street, these streets are always wet.
On the way to Trinidad, we visited the place in Santa Clara where Ernesto “Che” Guevara is buried along with 29 other warriors who were fighting with him in Bolivia when he was killed. Fidel lived on to govern Cuba, but Che died as a martyr in 1967. His remains were discovered, exhumed, and moved to Cuba in 1997. I have read and heard that Che and Fidel had started to have major disagreements and that’s why Che was in Bolivia and not Cuba, but of course that was not even hinted at, much less spelled out, here at the Museum of Che Guevara. According to their presentation, Che, Fidel, and Raúl were always the best of friends who always agreed on everything during The Revolution and he was in Bolivia spreading the wonderful Revolution to other places that needed and wanted it. His family settled and remained in Cuba after his death. His wife remarried which upset some people there. He is such a fixture in their memories that they didn’t want her to move on. His youngest son now gives motorcycle tours of Cuba, rather capitalist of him, I think. Che’s picture and quotes are very common in Cuba, as I mentioned in my comments on Day 2.
Also in Santa Clara we visited a memorial involving some train cars that Fulgencio Batista was using to supply his troops. Batista was the dictator overthrown by The Revolution. The revolutionaries tried to shoot the armored train with guns and used Molotov cocktails but that didn’t work. They finally got ahead of the train and destroyed the tracks with a bulldozer causing the train to derail. When Batista heard this train had been derailed he immediately left Cuba. There is a large memorial set up with train cars and a bulldozer.
We arrived in Trinidad to find our casa quite dirty, and Vince’s room under construction. We told our guide, but there was really nothing he could do. They have some interesting ways of handling electricity in Cuba.
 
You see, our tour was going backward from the normal direction. Usually the groups fly first from Havana to Baracoa and then wend their way across the island back to Havana. However, Hurricane Matthew visited Baracoa in early October and left a lot of destruction, so our tour company canceled all those plans and had us travel by bus over several days from Havana to Baracoa and then fly back to Havana at the end. That way the accommodations in Baracoa would have the maximum amount of time for recovery and construction. However, this also left the company making last-minute reservations all along the way for our group instead of having them made months ahead. Also remember that we were traveling around Christmas and New Years, peak season for tourism there. So we got to experience a little more authentic experience in Trinidad than we would have preferred.
Also at our casa in Trinidad we experienced for the first time another special thing about Cuba. Their hot water heater for the shower is often attached to the shower head.Also, you may or may not know, some of the electrical outlets in Cuba use 220V. So you have choices when it comes to water: cold, hot, or electrifying. Steven experienced the latter when he reached up with a wet hand to adjust the setting.
We arranged to get some laundry done and gave the bag full of clothes to our guide since we were not sure of the reliability of the people at our unfinished casa. He said he should be able to have someone do it by the next evening. It came back nice and clean, though a spot on Steve’s shirt didn’t come out, and I was missing one of only 3 skirts I had taken with me. I never did get the skirt back. Someone in Cuba has a nice brown skirt.
On the Trinidad orientation walk our guide told us where the bank was, where to eat and hear good music, where to buy water, cigars, souvenirs, wifi cards, etc. But we really didn’t know where we were or what we were looking at, so we had to try to remember where things were. We did have maps and lists of possible activities at each of the cities we stayed at. The cities were generally safe, and we had with us the only fluent Spanish speaker (besides our guide, obviously) on the trip, so we were not too worried. Our guide made reservations for those of us who wanted them at a rooftop restaurant.
Dinner for me was a very nice chicken vegetable soup. Dessert was a “mango marmalade with cheese.” I was expecting something special with cream cheese, but this tasted and looked like apricot baby food with Cheddar cheese slices in it. I usually finish all my food, but this I left uneaten.
People were continually asking where we were from. Everybody was very kind when we told them we were from the US. I guess not everyone in Cuba is angry at the “Yankee Imperialists.” At this restaurant we met a fan of the Boston Red Sox. He knew the batting lineup and had a favorite player. Baseball is quite popular in Cuba and the national brand of Cola, Tucola, has the silhouette of a batter hitting a ball.
Things are gradually starting to change in Cuba, mainly since Raul came to power. But nothing is changing very fast. Over the next few days I’ll mention some of the changes.
While he was alive, no real details were given to the Cuban citizens about Fidel’s activities, his relations with other heads of state, etc. Only the news that Fidel wanted to be published was published. As you can probably tell from my writings, the propaganda machine is still alive and well in Cuba. The press is very limited, and I don’t think this has changed much. When the state is paying you and you would at least lose your job for publishing something else, you say what the state wants you to say. They used to make tour leaders and drivers stay away from tourists, because they didn’t want Cubans to get a view of what goes on outside of Cuba. At least that has changed. As I mentioned on Day 2, the media is very controlled (and boring), and outside or opposing views aren’t allowed in the media through newspapers, TV, or documentaries.
Another thing that has changed in the last 5-6 years is that Cubans are now allowed to stay in hotels. We are not staying in hotels, but, as I mentioned on Day 1, instead we are staying in their equivalent of B&Bs. These are not at all cushy places, though. Most have A/C. Most are clean. Rarely do they have furniture besides just the beds. The only mirrors are small ones over the sink (with one exception in Havana). Sometimes there is an extra area to relax, and there’s always a place to eat their provided breakfast. Sometimes there is soap. There is usually a skinny thin towel, but never washcloths. Sometimes there is a blanket. Sometimes there are both a flat and fitted sheet. The pillows are generally similar in material to a cheap (but slightly larger) throw pillow. The owners speak (if you’re lucky) broken English. I would not recommend staying in these places except maybe to people who enjoy camping.
Raúl finally allowed people to speak their opinions, at least to some extent, once he came to power. The government listened to the criticisms and made a list of 313 items to change, but even by Raúl’s estimation, only about 20% have even been started to change. He seems quite displeased with this in his speeches, but I’m not sure who he thinks is to blame since the government controls all aspects of Cuban life. People are very used to not speaking their mind or even thinking critically of the government. They are told constantly in every way possible that communism works and capitalism doesn’t. As I have shown and will continue to do so (probably to a nauseating extent), The Revolution is the best thing ever and should be celebrated and mentioned at every turn (quite literally when it comes to the road signs).
The street signs in Trinidad have a top name and a bottom name. The top name is the pre-Revolution name. The bottom is the new name celebrating some revolutionary figure. I think every city has a José Marti, for example.
The sidewalks in these old Cuban town tend to be very narrow and further constricted by electric poles and steep steps to the homes edging out part of the sidewalks.
There is often only room for people to walk single file and the locals do not ever step off to let you pass. You have to play a game of pedestrian-style “Chicken” which I consistently lost and then stepped into the street. Add to this that in some cities the cars and motorcycles are quite aggressive and do not give way easily to pedestrians. Plus remember the pooper scooper comment from Cienfuegos. So just walking around the in cities can be quite an adventure.
The towns also have a lot of rooftop cafes, patios, rooms, etc. because that is a good place to catch the breeze, especially in the evening.
They also have lots of steep stairs to get to them. They don’t waste space by making the steps of normal steepness. No, they save space and make the steps very steep instead. And they often don’t waste money on making the handrails go the full length of the stairs. They especially seem to save money at the very top where there’s nothing else to brace yourself on. Also at the top they’ll often even out the space of the steps to the height of the floor by giving you a smaller-than-normal step, like an inch high or a taller-than-normal step just to throw you off. So with this you have the opportunity to miss that first step and trip down the stairs. Also, the steps are usually tile which becomes slick when wet. In some places there were window air conditioners just over the stairs dripping their condensation on the stairs at a constant rate so they were always slippery. I never fell, but I am not the most graceful of people, so these things were quite worrisome to me.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 4.

Story of my Life, Travel

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

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.
screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-8-07-05-pm
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.
screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-8-11-19-pm
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.
screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-8-25-40-pm
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.
img_0399
 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!”
screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-8-45-07-pm
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.
img_0401
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.
screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-9-05-34-pm
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.
img_0420
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.

Story of my Life, Travel

Cuba As I See It, Day 1 – Arrival In Havana

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 blog post 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 1 – Friday, Dec 23

Mexico to Havana

First let me give you a little background.

My son Vince’s Gap Year goals included a Spanish immersion experience. We looked around at Spanish-speaking countries all over the world, considered things to see, accents of the people, and kinds of different available options from missions work to typical tourist experiences. One of our friends had traveled to Cuba and really enjoyed it. Our research told us it was pretty safe, and we figured that this was a window in time in a quickly changing political environment and would be a good cultural experience as well. So we decided to go to Cuba.

We knew from the travel company and our own personal research that none of our American credit cards would work anywhere in Cuba. Also there is a 10% tax on changing American dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos, CUC’s, the currency for tourists.

On our trip to Nigeria earlier in the year we had taken a lot of dollars and changed them to Euros on our layover in London.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-7-31-57-pm

We had to have enough money in cash for the three of us for the whole 15 day trip including enough for any emergencies that might happen.

A friend whose husband is from Cuba helped me out with some advice as soon as I told her we were going to Cuba. Having been herself, she advised to have a service at the airport wrap in plastic any bags being checked. Otherwise we would arrive in Cuba to find empty suitcases. The baggage handlers at the Cuban airports will for free empty your bags for you and keep your stuff. Our research ahead of time also told us we could carry-on a bag weighing less than 52 lbs plus a personal item. With this knowledge we had decided it would be best to only do carry-on luggage with all our money secured in our suitcases.

Also, when we went to buy our tickets in the spring of 2016 we realized there were no commercial (non-charter) airlines with flights from the US to Cuba. We would need to go to either Mexico or Canada. Since the point was to have Vince practice Spanish, there wasn’t much point in going to Canada. By the time we actually flew, several different American airlines had flights to Cuba, but our tickets were already bought so we stuck to our plan to fly to Mexico and spend a few days, then fly to Cuba and come home by the same route.

Upon our arrival in Mexico, we changed some money into Mexican Pesos for our use during our time in Mexico.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-7-48-36-pm

Before we left our hotel in Mexico, Steven got out some Euros and put them in his wallet with the Mexican Pesos we had been using. Then we went to eat one last lunch in Mexico before our departure. During lunch Vince looked at some of the items for sale by souvenir vendors at the hotel and wanted to buy a handmade wooden turtle for 600 pesos (18.8 pesos =1 US dollar). Steven paid for it and we ate lunch. When it came time to pay for lunch he realized his money was wrong. He still had all his pesos. He had paid the vendor in Euros (1 Euro=22.67 Pesos, and 1 Euro = 1.06 American Dollars).  He had paid over 600 American dollars for a small wooden turtle. He rapidly went with Vince as his interpreter and explained to the vendor what had happened. The man pulled the Euros out of his back pocket and traded them for the appropriate amount of pesos. He had known all along about the mix-up but wasn’t going to point it out unless we realized the mistake and came back to him.

It being 2 days before Christmas, the Mexican airport was very busy. After asking around, we connected with the man at the airport who had our visas to enter Cuba. The Cubana de Aviacion (Cuban Airlines) baggage check line was one of the most interesting things I have ever experienced. Everybody was checking multiple huge bags, all wrapped in plastic. I recognized several TVs still in their boxes. For example, the lady at the next booth from us checked 4 new car tires, 2 air compressors, a Stanley power tool set, and several other things wrapped in plastic that I couldn’t recognize.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-7-45-50-pm

So after watching this, we reached the front of the line. The man quickly told us we were not allowed to take more than 10 kg (22 pounds) each as carry-on. He told us we had to check our (unwrapped, money-containing) suitcases on the spot or pay a large fee to check them at the gate.  My husband pushed as far as he could and finally determined we would just have to pay the fee at the gate because there was no way we were going to check those (unwrapped, money-containing) suitcases on the spot, and we didn’t have time to go to a private spot, rearrange the money and then wait in line again. The man became very frustrated and with no small amount of indignation insisted that he would see us again.

As we left the gate the frustrated man informed us our flight was delayed from 3:35 to 4:20. We might have had time to switch around the money, but we were committed by this point.

Going through security we lost a small pair of pliers and 3 bottles of sunscreen, but otherwise things went smoothly. We found a table to reposition our money so it was in our backpacks instead of our suitcases. Then Vince realized he wasn’t holding his passport like he should be. Obviously, being in Mexico and headed to Cuba, this would be a problem. After about 10 minutes of panic, we realized he had put it in his backpack. Tragedy #2 avoided.

With our hearts still racing we checked a boarding pass and headed to gate B14. On the way we found a luggage store where they couldn’t wrap our bags in plastic but instead sold us some straps with combination locks. Hopefully that would keep our bags safe should we need to check them at the gate.

We arrived at gate B14 but nobody from the crazy baggage check process was waiting there. The notifications and announcements at that gate were for a totally different flight and no one could or would tell us where our flight was leaving from. The screen simply said the flight was delayed with no gate designated. The gate agent also told us that the screen often gave incorrect information. We waited until about 4:10 (for our flight now scheduled for 4:20) and started doubting that B14 was correct. We asked the gate agent, kept looking at the screen and between the three of us, even with Vince’s Spanish skills, could not figure it out. Finally we went back to security and a friendly security agent (they do exist!) called for someone from Cuban Air to come help us. But of course nobody did. At 4:35 the security guard asked if he could see a boarding pass. As it turns out, our gate was A9. The seat assignment was B14. In our stress about checking the bags and the misplaced passport, Steven had looked at the boarding pass and thought the large B14 was the gate, not the smaller, tiny even, and totally unlabeled A9 which turned out to be the gate assignment. We ran to A9, hoping we had not missed our flight. Arriving at A9 I immediately recognized several people casually relaxing in the waiting area who had earlier been checking those massive amounts of baggage. About this time we also realized we had been reading the screen wrong. What we thought was the destination arrival time was actually the estimated departure time. So our flight was now actually designated as leaving at 6:30. Tragedy #3 avoided.

We ate a quick dinner, knowing we probably wouldn’t be able to eat dinner later (and we were correct). Meanwhile, Steve used up a portion of his very limited international data plan on his phone to research the airline’s baggage policy. As it turns out, our previous information was totally wrong and you really are only allowed one carry-on item weighing less that 10 kg (22 lbs). Our backpacks (our “personal items”) each weighed more than that, and certainly our 30 pound suitcases did.

While we were eating they changed the gate to A5. It was about 5:30, and they changed our departure time from 6:30 to 6:37. We quickly finished our burgers and headed to our new gate. Steven approached the gate agent and profusely apologized for the earlier misunderstanding with the man downstairs about the bags. He explained the situation with the money, and the gate agent understood our predicament, though he said his colleague had warned him we would be coming. He called someone who waived the gate bag-check fee and he told us to leave them at the bottom of the jetway. We could pick them up at the luggage carousel with all the other crazy checked luggage. Grateful for his help, we lined up to board the plane.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-7-57-29-pm

In the jetway we crossed paths with the agent who had tried unsuccessfully to make us check our bags. Steve tried to apologize to him, but he wasn’t receptive, so we kept moving. At the bottom of the jetway we placed our bags and started to walk away, but one of the employees standing there said we could take them on with us. We certainly didn’t argue. We found our seats and there was plenty of overhead space.

Our plane was an Airbus 320 of European origins. No Boeing for them.

There were no in-flight magazines. The laminated safety cards had Spanish, English, French, and Russian. They were wrinkled and looked about 20 years old. The “no cell phone use” image was a picture of a cell phone similar to what I had in college in the mid-90s.

The peanuts they gave out were made in Colombia, and the cola and lemon-lime soda were also what we would call generic. (I soon learned that this soda, called Tucola, is the national brand of soft drink. At some places you can get imported Pepsi or Coke that is manufactured somewhere besides the US, but it is more expensive.) They also offered orange juice and peach nectar. We landed at 8:00. The landing gear sounded like someone was hand cranking it. As soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off the passengers jumped out of their seats, grabbed their bags and started pushing and shoving their way forward in the aisles. People were doing everything but climbing over the seats to get ahead in the line.

Once the line started moving and got to our aisle a nice lady behind us stopped the push and let us out. They were loading a bus to take us to the terminal and we were the last ones to fit on the first bus, standing on the stairs, actually. Being that close to the doors, when they opened we were the first ones out, and we arrived at the immigration lines ahead of the rest of the passengers. I always get nervous going through immigration and customs anywhere but the US, though I’m not sure why. I’ve never had any problems.

Steve got through pretty quickly at the immigration desk and he moved on to the security checkpoint where they X-rayed his carry-on baggage and made him walk through a metal detector. I was next and handed over my passport and visa. The agent typed my passport number into the computer and waited and waited. Finally he handed back my visa and asked me to write my passport number on it. Now remember, he still had my passport. I had the number written on my customs form, though, so I carefully rewrote it on the visa. It didn’t at all match the number already written on the visa. He took it, typed it in again, waited a minute, stamped my passport, and I was through. After further thought, we remembered that between the time when we applied for the visas and the time we left for Cuba I applied for and received a new US passport as mine had less than 6 months on it, and we had read that can be a problem sometimes. So I guess he was having me correct my passport number on my visa.

Somehow I set off the metal detector, and they had to scan me with a wand. The agent with the wand was dressed in street clothes. The wand didn’t detect anything so I was through. Vince’s quiz cards and power strip got the attention of the X-ray, and they pulled them out of the backpack to scan individually. Though some of his competitors might disagree, they decided his quiz cards were not dangerous, and they decided the power strip was indeed a power strip and cleared him to continue on.

There were nurses in white uniforms and nurses’ caps behind some tables, but they waved us past. I’m not sure what they were checking.

We walked past the baggage claim area which was piled high with large boxes of TVs, other electronics, a stroller, and on and on. Everything was wrapped in plastic. Since we were allowed to carry-on our luggage, we didn’t have to wait. We heard later that some of the people on our tour waited for 2 1/2 hours just for their luggage to come out. There was a large crowd of several hundred people waiting to greet people who had arrived. There were mixed among the crowd people holding up signs with various names. We found a woman named Daniella holding a sign with not our names but the name of our tour company. She was waiting on us and some other people arriving. We asked her if we should change money and she said yes, this was a good place as the exchange rate was better than most other places in the cities. We got in the line with probably 10 people in front of us. Someone had told us in Mexico that it would take a couple of hours just to exchange money. Standing in that line and placing our bodies to shield what we were doing as best we could, we used my large touristy hat to count out the money from our backpacks that we wanted to change.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-7-29-16-pm

As we waited, the line behind us grew and grew and by the time Steven came out with the Cuban tourist currency, (Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUC’s, pronounced kooks) the line was probably 75-100 people long. The money-changing process had taken us 15-20 minutes total. Finding a spot behind a pole and again using my hat, we counted the money and divided it among us to carry. I have heard from some that Havana is a very safe place, but I also heard different accounts from the locals. By this time it was 9:30 and we were ready to leave the airport. Daniella had arranged a taxi but we needed a bathroom so we went there first. Neither elevator was working so we took the “stairs,” which were actually an escalator which, from the litter and dirt on them, looked like they hadn’t moved in years.

We found Daniella again and she informed us our taxi was 3 minutes away. He arrived, helped us with our bags, and off we went to our homestay location for the night. A process that could have easily taken us 5 or 6 hours had taken us less than 2.

Our taxi driver was very nice and spoke with Vincent in Spanish the whole way to Old Havana. They discussed what various buildings were as we passed them in the dark. We passed the Plaza of the Revolution where Fidel Castro gave many of his speeches. The architecture in Old Havana reminded me a bit of the older parts of New Orleans with all the wrought iron accents. There was also beautiful ornamentation on the buildings. We passed the Capitol building, which is currently being renovated, and the Grand Theatre, which is absolutely beautiful. But we knew we would be coming back to Havana at the end of our trip and we could see the things in daylight then.

We were scheduled to stay not in hotels but Casas Particulares. These are the Cuban equivalent of B&Bs. I am told (and believe it from what I saw) that they are much nicer than the average Cuban home. I also heard that they are nicer than Cuban 3 star hotels. They are maybe, if I’m generous, the equivalent of a 2 star American hotel. Most were clean. All had a private bathroom. None were anywhere near nice or even adequate by our standards.

We arrived at our homestay for the night and the owner greeted us and showed us to our rooms. The ceilings were high, maybe 14 feet, with beautiful crown molding. The furniture was very old, but in good shape. Little did we know, this would be one of the nicer places we would stay. It  had furniture including a mirror. Most of the others had either no furniture or just a small nightstand. I will include a picture of each homestay location (though I think we missed taking them of one or two).

The tour guide had left us a letter telling us when to be ready in the morning for the start of our activities. We got settled, and I took a cold shower because I couldn’t figure out the hot water. They had absolutely awful water pressure, and we went to bed exhausted but relaxed and excited. We found out that Cuban beds consist of an uncomfortable mattress with no box springs. Some are simply made up of about 5 inches of foam. For each of them, you better not sit down too hard or weigh too much or your backside will reach the slats beneath the mattress.

To continue the journey, click here for Day 2.