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People to People in Havana

Author: vagabondginger
Date of Trip: November 2014

I’m a very visual person and what I learn through my ears tends to make less impression in my mind than what I see. That being said, my first impression of Havana was that of deterioration and decay, much more shocking than I expected. But then, one should never go anywhere with expectations so little by little I looked beyond the ruin and admired the restorations going on. It will take a long time to bring this grand city back to it’s former glory, but Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and so renovations are moving forward to retain that status.

Deterioration isn’t a word just applied to the buildings, as the deterioration of U.S. and Cuba relations has been just as debilitating. The 1959 Revolution brought in Castro’s Regime that replaced free enterprise with a socialized communist system backed by the Soviet Union. This led to the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 1960 and the 1961 Bay of Pigs failed attempt by the U.S. to overthrow Castro paved the way to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Tourism dropped drastically but was slowly building back up through the 1980’s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a severe economic downturn as Cuba lost billions of dollars which the Soviet Union had been giving the Cuban government. Many hoped things would change then, but it did not. Communism continued on for Castro and the Cuban people.

The number of U.S.visitors to Cuba continues to rise even as the 5 decade embargo remains in place. Some travel illegally from other countries, but I went legally under a People to People License issued by the Treasury Dept’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that allows for educational and cultural “purposeful” travel. It required full compliance with a detailed tour itinerary, engaging in activities that fell within the scope of U.S. policy and record keeping of this for 5 years following the trip. Not the way this “Independent Traveler” usually likes to travel.

To start our agenda our local tour guide led 13 of us Americans on a walking tour around the plazas and streets of the Old Havana, then following lunch we visited a Boys and Girls Club and were entertained by the children. That night we attended the 9PM Cannon Firing Ceremony, a tradition dating back to when Havana was a heavily fortified walled city and the cannon firing at precisely 9PM announced the gates would be closing for the night. Lots of soldiers in 18th century uniforms marching around leading up to this, it’s hard to believe they still do this every night and how many people come for it. Inside this fortress I got a look at Che Guevara’s office.

On the next day we were off to an Organic Farm and ate at Ajiaco paladar which is a privately owned restaurant using food grown at the farm and the Cuban stew was delicious. Then we went to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) where he lived from 1940-1960. The house cannot be entered but we peered thru the windows to see the thousands of books he had, his typewriter, his many mounted trophy animal heads and walked the grounds to see his boat. That night we were introduced to some Latin salsa dance steps and I put on my own usual spin of a bump and grind mambo cha – cha – cha. I’m just not a good follower.

The following day we visited the beautiful restored Belen Convent that now houses a day care center and a community center for the elderly. We also went to the Escuela Taller Workshop where young adults are trained to do restoration work. Then following a paella lunch we went to an African Cultural Center. After that I was able to just wander the streets around the Capital building admiring all the colorful old cars and then went in search of some of Hemingway’s haunts. There was the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he had a room for awhile before he bought his house, then I had my photo taken with his bronze statue leaning on the bar at the Floridita, but mostly I went there for a Daiquiri and got to talking to a Cuban American from NYC who was visiting relatives. Then I went to the very popular bar La Bodeguita del Medio also favored by Hemingway and lots of English speaking tourists from all over. The thing to do is to sign the wall and there was live music but because the place was so hopping many of us got to dancing on the pedestrian street outside. People to People is what it’s all about!

Back to the tour the next day we went to the Museum of the Revolution which used to be the Presidential Palace. Of course it was quite interesting and outside was the yacht that brought Fidel and Che from Mexico to Cuba to launch the revolution and some relics of the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis. Castro is seldom spoke of and rarely does one even see images of him, whereas Che is really quite the hero and his image is prominent all over the city as well as on every kind of souvenir imaginable.

We then went to contemporary artist Jose Fuster’s studio in Jaimanitas. He was inspired by Picasso in his paintings and by Gaudi with his mosaics. It was quite the visual experience and looked like Barcelona’s Parc Guell on steroids! It has now spread beyond his place to the neighbors walls as well. Although Casa Castro is also in Jaimanitas there was no chance we were to see his heavily guarded compound and it is unlikely there are any mosaic tiles spreading to his walls. That afternoon was a 2 hour lecture that I suffered through because it was required. Back on my own I once again went to the Malecon, the 4 mile long seafront promenade where the locals hang out day and night. There are many, many old and colorful American cars from the 1950’s here serving as taxis They are seemingly immortal and true miracles of popular mechanics. I met an English speaking owner of a pink 1953 Chevrolet Convertible and he let me sit behind the wheel for some photos. It was his grandfather’s car and a real source of pride for him. Parked next to him was the owner of a red 1952 one and he wanted to get in on the act of having me sit in his car for photos too. People to People, it’s a good thing.

The next day we went out of the city to Las Terrazas, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. We walked thru the ruins of the earliest coffee plantation, met a local artist and visited with a doctor at a community medical clinic and finished at some small waterfalls of Rio San Juan where people like to swim. Back in the city I always did a walk along Obispo Street and through all the plazas in the evening before settling at the hotel bar. Aldo and Jorge were the bartenders there and both spoke English so they were my best People to People encounters as I learned much about Cuban life from them and they learned a lot about American life from me as well.

On our last day we went to a recording studio and to the Fine Arts Museum. We also did a quick trip over to the stunningly beautiful Nacional Hotel, built in the 1930’s with Mafia money and a signature place for Al Capone and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and others to stay.

We drove past the huge Cristobal Colon Cemetery and I would have loved to have wandered around this place for a couple of hours – said to have 2 million graves. Christopher Columbus was rumored to be buried there for a time. Columbus really got around even in death as I saw his tomb in the Dominican Republic and Seville, Spain.

Our group stayed at Armadores de Santandar Hotel right across from the ferry terminal. It was a beautiful hotel and my room was very comfortable although my window looked out on a shantytown kind of hidden away. Breakfast was served each day at the hotel whereas the majority of our other meals were at state run restaurants. Most of the food was not seasoned as spices are too expensive to import and was quite mediocre with lots of white rice and beans and chicken, shredded meat or fish, but always ice cream for dessert. The embargo led to shortages and the Cuban people have been on ration cards since which allows them to buy rice, a few eggs, beans, cooking oil & chicken (fish has gotten to be too expensive for them). Most people only make about $25 a month and do whatever they can on the street to supplement that income from filling lighters, shining shoes, giving haircuts, etc. The few that work for themselves must pay a large fee to the government for a license. All Cuban people have free health care and free education.

The public toilets have no seats, no toilet paper, no soap, no hand dryers or towels as they are too expensive. All of us brought what we could to give out to the schools and to the locals. They need everything and are happy with anything you give them. The people may be poor, but their culture is very rich.

Cuba is a cash society and as an American I could not use a debit or credit card anyway. I had my bank give me Canadian money before I left and converted that to CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). 1 CUC (kook) is equivalent to 1 USD. A Cristal or Bucaneros beer was 2 CUC and a Mojito ran anywhere from 1 to 3 CUC. The Cuban people are able to buy things at their neighborhood stores using the old Cuban pesos known as CUP which is worth much less. Cuba of course is very famous for their cigars and their rum but their coffee was also very good. Bottled water is a must. Censorship continues in the press, TV and Internet for the Cuban people.

The U.S. Embargo really doesn’t matter much anymore as Cuba trades with China and other countries. Cubans can buy far more far cheaper from China and even we know that. The embargo was put on to punish Castro for not giving his people basic human rights, yet we do business with other Communist countries. It seems to be a political game and not only are the Cuban people pawns, so are we American people being denied to be able to freely travel there. But I am glad I got to go on this People to People trip and I am glad my first impression was not my lasting impression. I used to book this trip and flying out of Tampa, Florida but there are other tour companies helping Americans to travel legally to Cuba. I chose this one as it seemed to be the cheapest and I was very satisfied with their service.

Update – Dec 17, 2014 – As I was just finishing this trip review President Obama came on TV to announce that the US and Cuba will work to re-establish diplomatic relations. Knowing how our government works I can only hope that they can come together on this and the embargo can be lifted as well in the near future.

It should ease travel restrictions, a U.S. Embassy will again be present in Havana and Americans who want to travel to Cuba may be able to use debit & credit cards. If I had been able to travel independently on this trip I would have moved more around the island and seen some of their beaches, but changes should be coming and I may go back. Interestingly, the Cuban American I met in the Floridita bar that evening said to me: “Mark my words, something will change in US/Cuban relations by the end of the year”.

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