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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.