Cuba As I See It, Days 14 & 15

Posted on
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, Days 11 & 12, and Day 13.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 14
Thursday Jan 5
Havana
 
We awoke to realize that our casa had a nice view of the rooftops of Havana. We were on the 3rd floor, but with the height of their ceilings, that was quite high. You can see that some of the buildings were very beautiful and in good repair.
Most were not maintained so well.
I noticed that they still use a lot of antennae here.
On closer inspection you will see that these old buildings are really beautifully ornamented, but they are mostly in very bad disrepair. This is how all of Havana was. The whole place stank of mold and garbage. This was also a common sight.
We tried in vain to get free Wi-Fi in a few of the many squares in Havana, but for some reason, it’s harder to get Wi-Fi in Havana, even with a card, than it is in other places. We went to a hotel, paid their exorbitant price for Wi-Fi, and went to get some lunch.
Crossing the street in Havana is somewhat like playing Frogger. As often as not, there are no signals telling when to walk and not. Many places there aren’t stop lights even for cars at these very busy intersections.
After lunch we went on a classic car tour. Riding in a 50’s Bel Air, we drove around Old Havana.
In general, these old American cars are in a lot better shape in Havana than they are in the rest of Cuba. We saw a lot of beautiful classic cars here.
We saw the capital building, El Capitolio, currently being renovated. It is built to be a copy of the US Capitol which I’m sure is quite irritating to “the powers that be” in Cuba.
We got out at Revolution Plaza where Fidel gave a lot of his looooong speeches.
Here is Che Guevara and his famous quote “Hasta la victoria siempre” (Always until victory).
And here is Camillo Cienfuegos with his famous quote “Vas bien Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel). Cienfuegos mysteriously disappeared in an airplane. He was starting to have some conflict with Fidel, and they are still not sure what happened to him. Maybe he secretly came to the US and lived a long and happy life. Whatever the case, the words he said to Fidel during a speech are still used as a stamp of approval to all that was done by The Revolution.
We saw where Raul Castro’s office is, and the building where the Propaganda Department, I mean Ministry of Communications, is.
We passed the US Embassy which officially reopened in 2015. It was nice to see Old Glory flying proudly.
We passed the Hilton Hotel, or what used to be the Hilton Hotel. Hilton finished construction in 1958 and the Cuban government took it over and nationalized it in 1959. This, as you can see was a very bad investment. Now it is called the Habana Libre Hotel.
We also passed the José Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, an area with a statue of José Marti, a national hero who helped free Cuba from the Spanish (there is a José Marti Street in EVERY town we visited, and we flew into the José Marti International Airport in Cuba, and visited the changing of the guard at José Marti’s grave, right next to which Fidel is buried), holding Elian Gonzales and pointing accusingly at the American Embassy.
Remember Elian Gonzales? He’s the little boy who was the subject of a custody battle when he was 6 and his mother died in a boat escaping Cuba to Florida with him, and his dad, remaining in Cuba, petitioned to have him returned to Cuba. He is reportedly a student at university there now. There is a sign on his birth home proclaiming that he survived the Cuban-American mafia in Miami.
Our tour ended at the Hotel Nacional, a famed hotel with a lot of history involving American celebrities and the mob. There is now no gambling in Cuba (except for over those poor roosters I mentioned before, I guess) but it used to be a big casino.
One of the many pictures they had on display was a very large on of Hugo Chavez, former dictator of Venezuela, who they seem to think was a wonderful leader.
Reportedly they built Las Vegas because The Revolution ruined their plans for gambling in Havana. This Hotel Nacional was also the headquarters of operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis and they still have trenches on exhibit from those days.
They also have on display two of the biggest cannons I’ve ever seen. They are from the period when the Spanish were defending the island from attack. This hotel is absolutely beautiful, but it is still dealing with issues similar to the rest of Cuba; I went in the bathroom which was clean, but there were no paper towels. They did, however, have a roll of toilet paper in a dispenser there by the sink to dry my hands on, which was strange. We caught a classic car taxi back to another plaza where there also was not Wi-Fi.
In Havana the old American cars, at least a lot of them, are in good shape. Some of them are downright beautiful. A lot of them are being used as taxis, and the convertibles are being used for the classic car tours like we took.
 
That evening we had one last dinner with our group.
I finally ordered a Cuban Sandwich.
I had seen only 2 different menus with a Cubano sandwich, but one of them was out of bread. The sandwich was cheese, ham, and roast pork with mayonnaise on toasted bread. It wasn’t all that good compared to the great food we’d been eating for 2 weeks now. I also tried cheesecake which was an insult to cheesecakes everywhere. It tasted more like sugarless custard with guava jelly on top.
We then attended a musical performance by the Buena Vista Social Club. It was a very high quality performance with great percussionists, but we were so sick of hearing the same 5 songs over and over again that it was kind of hard to enjoy.
Havana is very different than the rest of Cuba. That’s like saying New York City is very different than rural Iowa.
Here the hotels are nice, plush even, even though they are all old. The others we saw throughout Cuba, even the nicest ones, were more along the lines of a Red Roof Inn except with better views.
Everything was also more expensive in Havana. There are a lot more tourists there, many of whom have absolutely no desire or plans to see the rest of Cuba. They are there for the rum and the beaches.
In Havana there is amazing beauty next to horrible desolation and decay. The whole city (except the nice hotels) stinks of mildew, car exhaust, and unemptied trash bins. On the way home from the musical show we saw about 6 cats gathered around one set of trash bins and dogs were equally wandering the streets.
We went to our casa for one last night in a foam Cuban bed. We were very much ready to go home.
Day 15
Friday, Jan 6
Havana to Mexico
We awoke, very anxious to be on our way. We shared a taxi to airport with one of the ladies from our group.
Near the airport is this sign.
This is referring to the American embargo, or blockade. This sign calls it the “longest genocide in history.” I’m not sure how the embargo is a genocide, but that’s what the Cuban government says, anyway.
We got our luggage wrapped to prevent theft.
Their TV’s in  the airport were playing a celebration of Cuban athletes at the 2016 Olympics. Every Cuban Olympian was featured whether or not they won any medals.
When we checked in they offered us an upgrade to first class for very cheap so we took it. Just so you know, first class on Cuban Air consists of bigger, more comfortable seats, a cloth napkin, and 4 finger sandwiches. Oh, and a few choices of drinks, but still no Pepsi or Coke.
After journeying for 15 days in Cuba I haven’t at all figured out the Cuban version of communism. There are still very much the haves and have-nots. There is a ton of propaganda and control of access to information. Everything goes through a filter and comes out with a different spin on it.
Cubans say they are allowed to be critical of the government but yet there are times when they will say they can’t talk about certain topics such as national heroes or the communist party. They still use a lot of nonverbal communications: sign language, whistles, facial expressions, talking with their eyes, and the list goes on.
I can’t really say we enjoyed our time in Cuba. It really was quite rough, and staying in the casas as we did, there was no way to get a reprieve from the roughness. The people were friendly and helpful, and the landscapes were stunning. The infrastructure was crumbling and the resources were spotty.
The best way I know to describe the country is as a paradox: the beauty of the landscapes contrasted with the reality of scarce resources, the beautiful old ornate architecture in a state of disrepair, the message that The Revolution is wonderful next to the reality of its restrictions, the propaganda that America is evil contradicted by the friendliness of the Cuban people toward Americans.
The reason for our trip was dual: 1) to immerse Vince in Spanish as much as possible to teach him the language better and give him more confidence and 2) to see a view through a closing window into a rapidly changing culture. Both of those things were successes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Cuba As I See It.


Cuba As I See It, Day 8, Camagüey to Santiago de Cuba via Bayamo, Fidel’s Grave

Posted on
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 6 and Day 7.
Day 8,
Friday, Dec 30
Camagüey to Santiago de Cuba via Bayamo
 
Much of this day was spent in travel, so I’ll give you a few pieces of information about Cuba before I start telling about what we saw.
As I mentioned yesterday, doctors often go overseas. In fact, Cuba is one of the first places to send doctors and other help to international emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak, hurricanes, etc. This is a way for The Revolution to be seen in a positive light internationally. After working overseas for 2 years they can often buy a car and set themselves up for a good life. In Cuba you can work for 20 years, even as a doctor, and not be able to buy a bike. I have heard of some doctors who stopped practicing to get involved in the tourist business. They can make a better living cooking food and doing laundry for tourists than they can employed by the State as a doctor.
According to the Cubans, people want to leave Cuba, and they find various ways to do so. Some leave to study and stay, some marry someone in Europe to get European citizenship which they then use to get US citizenship. The great desire is to move to the US. The US is the promised land. What the Cubans we talked to didn’t seem to know is that (at the point we visited, though it has changed since we arrived home) if they could get to American soil, even at an embassy in Venezuela or the base at Guantanamo or such, our government would allow them to stay. And if they stayed on American soil for 366 days they were eligible for a green card and then citizenship. Their medical professionals were even more welcome and catered to. Since we arrived home to the US, Obama changed the policy to match that of other Latin American countries.

On the way to Santiago we stopped in Bayamo, one of the 7 oldest cities in Cuba, founded in 1513.

Here Perucho Figueredo composed the Cuban national anthem, El Himno de Bayamo, in 1868 during a battle with Spain. The original song has 6 verses, but only the first 2 are included in the anthem. The last 4 were insulting to the Spanish and are not considered part of the national anthem. Our guide sang it for us.

 
Here are the lyrics:
Spanish lyrics Translation
First stanza
¡Al combate, corred, Bayameses!,
Que la patria os contempla orgullosa;
No temáis una muerte gloriosa,
Que morir por la patria es vivir.
Run to battle, people of Bayamo!
For the motherland looks proudly to you;
Do not fear a glorious death,
For to die for the motherland is to live.
Second stanza
En cadenas vivir es vivir
En afrenta y oprobio sumidos,
Del clarín escuchad el sonido;
¡A las armas, valientes, corred!
Living in chains is to live
Mired in shame and disgrace,
Hear the sound of the bugle;
Run, brave ones, to battle!

While our guide made a few arrangements he left us to listen to some music, and some of our group joined them in dancing the Salsa. This is an example of all Cuban music. The tempo, rhythm, and style is very consistent between songs.

 

Since our guide was not with us, they used Vince as their interpreter when they wanted to talk to us. They kept calling him Louie, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then, toward the end of the day, our clever guide made the connection between his “Louisiana, Crawfish Capital” shirt and realized that’s why they thought his name was Louie.

We saw a lot of countryside on this day of travel. In the countryside the farm animals often wander around free: chickens, horses, cows, goats. I did see a few tied up (including a pig on a leash) or penned in, but mostly they roam free. On this day we saw many sugar fields, lots of fallow land, and only one small herd of mixed horses and cattle.
These 2 lane roads we traveled, highways I believe they call them, were very rough. Much of the road was more patches than pavement. In a couple of spots there was only gravel and no pavement at all.
After a long day of these rough roads, we arrived in Santiago de Cuba. It is the second biggest city in Cuba with a population of a little more than 431,000 inhabitants.
We first visited the Plaza de la Revolution with its gigantic 16 meters tall (52.5 feet) statue of General Antonio Maceo, a native son of Santiago. He was a general in the 10 Years’ War (fighting from 1868-1878 to end slavery) and the Cuban War for Independence (fighting from 1895-1898 for Independence from Spain). This monument was erected in 1991. It consists of 23 “machetes” coming out of the earth to symbolize March 23, 1878 when he issued his “Protest of Baraguá” protesting his disagreement with the Pact of Zanjón because it didn’t end slavery. The statue of his body is intentionally positioned with his back in the direction of the USA, even though he didn’t seem to have a problem with the USA and in his Protest he stated “The great spirit of Washington, Lafayette and Bolívar, liberators of oppressed peoples, accompanies us, and is one with us, and we believe that we will accomplish our work of regeneration.” And I never did figure out why Fidel’s picture is there, except that in Cuba Fidel’s picture is EVERYWHERE.
Then we visited the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, created in 1868 as a place to bury the victims of the War of Independence.
This cemetery is very old with many wealthy families buried there, mostly before The Revolution. According to Lonely Planet, “Names to look out for include
Tomás Estrada Palma (1835–1908), Cuba’s now disgraced first president;
  
Emilio Bacardí y Moreau (1844–1922) of the famous rum dynasty;
 María Grajales, the widow of independence hero Antonio Maceo;
and Mariana Grajales, Maceo’s mother;
11 of the 31 generals of the independence struggles; the Spanish soldiers who died in the battles of San Juan Hill and Caney;
the ‘martyrs’ of the 1953 Moncada Barracks attack;
M-26-7 activists Frank and Josué País;
father of Cuban independence, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819–74);
and international celebrity-cum-popular-musical-rake, Compay Segundo (1907–2003) of Buena Vista Social Club fame.”
The biggest attractions, though, are not any of these. You see, this graveyard is the resting place of both José Martí and Fidel Castro.

José Marti was a poet, philosopher, and revolutionary who lived in the 1800’s and helped Cuba become independent from Spain. His name is used all over Cuba by the government. Every town we went to seemed to have a José Marti street. The airport in Havana is the José Marti International Airport. Every 30 minutes the guard is changed in front of his grave. We were allowed here (and only here) to take pictures and video of the soldiers. Here is a video of that ceremony. (Note in the background the big rock. We’ll come to that in a minute.)

Fidel Castro is buried within 50 yards of José Marti, his ashes beneath a huge stone with a simple “Fidel” lettered on it.

We were there 26 days after Fidel’s ashes were buried there on Dec 4, 2016. He died on Nov 25, 2016 and there were 9 days of mourning, 4 days of which his ashes traveled in a caravan from Havana to Santiago.
Reportedly, Raúl Castro is respected but not “loved and popular” like his brother was. More likely, he just doesn’t control the narrative as much. Fidel was charismatic and gave many long speeches. He was also a micromanager who surrounded himself with people who wouldn’t disagree with him. He was very powerful and, as often happens with powerful men, he had many many mistresses along with two wives.
From what I can gather, Fidel originally did some good things for the country such as in the areas of health care and education. (He also had many people executed at the same time.) Not much has been done to continue improving, though, and much of the rest of Latin America has caught up, even in these areas of education and medicine. People in Cuba generally look well-fed. Between all the smoking and people carrying extra weight, I imagine they have a high prevalence of heart disease.
After visiting the cemetery, we saw the Moncada Barracks that Fidel and Company attacked on July 26, 1953. They badly lost the battle, but it is still presented as a great place because it was the first engagement of The Revolution. The 26 of July Movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio) is another name for The Revolution, and the number 26 is on many things throughout Santiago.

We also visited the San Pedro de la Roca Castle that has guarded the entrance to Santiago de Cuba Bay since 1638. We were there just as the sun hit the horizon, and we watched them fire a cannon which they do at this point every night. This castle is very high an d has a beautiful view of the water and the Sierra Maestra mountains where The Revolution started.
 
Are you getting tired of hearing about The Revolution? Yeah, after a few days (hours?) we were too. Sorry about that. I’ve tried to represent how it is presented in the rhetoric.There are museums all over, about 98% of which celebrate some component of The Revolution. That’s part of the whole experience and that’s what the Cuban people live with day in and day out. It is especially prevalent in Santiago where Fidel attended Jesuit school as a boy and where he declared The Revolution victorious from the City Hall balcony there. They are quite proud to call him their own and have him buried there. For an American like me, though, it all got very tiring.
We checked into our casa which had a nice upstairs room with a private patio and eating area. However, there were no blankets, only sheets, so we kept the A/C turned to low. It was January but quite warm, even at night.
The man of the house was a doctor, but besides renting rooms he was also a taxi driver with an old 50-something beat-up Chevy functioning as his taxi.
Then we went to eat. The food here wasn’t very good, but it was food and we were hungry.


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

Posted on
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.


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

Posted on

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.