Cuba, Habana: People to People trip, Oct. 2016

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I’ve wanted to visit Cuba for a long time.  I love the music and the food, and the old repaired/modified cars fascinate me.  I find Cuban people to be smart and industrious.  In short, I wanted to learn more about Cuba’s culture and the country which has been unavailable to people of the US since 1960.  Having lived through the Cuban/US missile crisis, Bay-of-Pigs, etc. I’ve always been intrigued by this island only 90-miles from the US.   With the trade and travel restrictions being relaxed I knew I had to go soon before it changed forever.

Our daughter-in-law, Megan, is entirely responsible for making this happen. She did an amazing job that made the trip exceed all of our expectations.  Megan has been taking Spanish lessons for several years and through her Cuban and travel agency contacts she learned how to navigate the system to get us People-to-People visas. She also secured the lodging and events necessary to uphold the particulars of our visa.  While you can hire translators, Megan was our designated interpreter.  She did a fabulous job of translating and engaging many Cubans to give us an authentic, amazing experience.  It was a stress free experience considering I don’t know any Spanish.  We got to see and do everything we wanted to within the confines of a 1-week visit.

I have to admit that as the date approached I was somewhat apprehensive about the trip.  This was surprising to me as I’m a seasoned traveler having visited many countries.  People told me that they heard about unsavory experiences . . . robberies, panhandlers, prostitutes, bad water, shortages, trouble getting around and trouble communicating.  As it turned out while there are shortages, our entire experience was positive.  People knew we were from the US, but they were friendly and helpful. We were comfortable wherever we went, but we didn’t go anywhere that a smart traveler would avoid.  We mingled with the people of Cuba, visited their landmarks, etc.  For me it was taking a step back to my youth. It was like the 1950’s in Pittsburgh. . .soot spewing from the steel mills, kids enjoying a pick-up ballgame in alleyways, people gathering on their front steps and street corners to converse with their neighbors.  Perhaps because of the nostalgia the trip was beyond my expectations, one of the most interesting experiences of my life.  And incidentally the restrictions on bringing tobacco and rum back to the USA were lifted two days before we left.

We never felt threatened, including by the police and military, who stood around in pairs here and there but were low key.   Images, statues and references to the three main revolutionaries: Fidel Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guavero, and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere but we didn’t see any demonstrations or speeches.  When we asked our driver when the revolution ended he simply replied “It’s still going on”.

building-crumbling-1_img_0283_1024The population of Cuba is about 11 million, and 25% of them live in Habana.  The city is like a faded rose.  You can imagine how beautiful the colonial architecture (in Havana Vieja/Old Town) was back in the early 1900’s.  But many of the facades are broken and falling down.  If you look through a broken window you might see the beautiful building is completely collapsed inside.  I would say that half the buildings are beyond restoration…what a shame!  While once majestic, beautiful architecture like you would find in major cities, the buildings are now dirty and in disrepair. Many structures have been converted for multiple family use.  Clearly they have no means to restore them. See the photos below. None-the-less, we loved walking and driving around and taking it all in.

The Miramar area is where many of the Embassies are. Again, the buildings in this area, while mansion-like, are dirty and in need of repair.  We visited Marina Hemingway, and our driver pointed out the difference between Cuban boats (small and old) and American/Foreigner boats (er, yachts!). We were only able to find a food market to visit at the Marina.  Food markets from our perspective are scarce. The market we visited, while sizable had very little food to sell. Entire rows were populated with the same item, over and over again.

hotel-national-_img_1042_1024The first three days we stayed in a bnb in Centro Havana, on the sixth floor overlooking Malecón (infamous sidewalk in Havana) and directly on the Ocean.  It was operated by two retired sisters.  They were delightful, providing us an amazing breakfast and being most accommodating in every way.  Their home again reminded me of my home in the 1950’s, not fancy but very neat and clean.  The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we stayed the last three nights, is iconic.  It’s considered a monument of Habana;  it’s classy, well kept. . . just what you would imagine a top 1950’s hotel to be.  There were a few upgrades since it was built around 1930, but all in keeping with the original building.  Imagine many coats of paint on the woodwork, old style but good quality bathroom fixtures, old but well-kept furnishings, period elevators with brass mailboxes, etc.  It was built to resemble The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida.  There is a beautiful outdoor garden to the rear overlooking the water.  We were told the best hotels in Habana are: Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Hotel Saratoga, Iberostar Parque Central Hotel and Iberostar Miramar.

I didn’t know what to expect concerning the economy.  I’d never been in a communist country before.  Cuba operates on a dual currency basis.  The Cuban Peso (CUP) is for internal use only and is also called Moneda Nacional ($MN).  It cannot be exchanged.  The other currency is a Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC, which is exchangeable.  One CUC is around 26 CUP (MN).  Fun fact, CUPs have portraits and CUCs show buildings which is how you can easily differentiate the currencies.

We were advised to take Euros for exchange because Pounds and Dollars are not wanted…..boy was that good advice……and take enough for your whole trip.  We exchanged for a LOT of CUCs before we left and took a LOT of Euros as well.

The surprise to me was that it is a completely cash-based economy.  Imagine no credit or debit cards, no ATM’s, no checking accounts, no US based cell phone availability.  There were lines more than a block long to get into Western Union or a bank, or the telephone company.  Everybody was hustling.  We were told a cigar roller’s wages were about 22 $MN a month, a teacher 26 $MN and a doctor gets about 36 $MN per month, which is equivalent to $1 to $1.5 USD per month! Of course, the citizens of Cuba enjoy free healthcare, food and housing provided by the government.  People go to special government locations to pick-up their monthly allotment of food.  They supplement this with purchases from farmer’s markets, etc.    In addition to their salary, many Cubans hustle to earn extra money.  People sell water, etc. from the front steps of their homes to tourists, etc.

While most Cubans now have cell phones, the internet remains hard to come by.  In 2008, Raul first permitted Cuban locals to have access to cell phones.  It was only in 2015 that he opened the first public wi-fi spots in 35 locations.  To be granted access, you must buy an internet card that allows for just one hour of connection time.  Most hotels sell access cards where they have hot spots. But you would be walking the streets and come to an intersection with a hundred (younger) people standing and sitting around in the street with their phones…. all on the internet.  They knew where the hot spots were.

thumb_img_1055_1024OMG THE CARS!!!  If you know me, you know I’m an old car fan and I’ve restored several of them.  I was in awe of the way Cubans have kept the old 50’s US cars on the road with little or no access to US parts.  Just look at the photos below. I had seen photos of the Habana cars but before we went I thought there were only a few.  To an old car lover it’s mind boggling.  I would estimate that in the Habana area 30% to 35% of the cars are old US cars mainly from the 50’s.

A lot of them are taxis that the drivers use for their livelihood.  Many are held together with miscellaneous parts and bondo.  But while they wouldn’t be of the same quality as collector cars in the US, some look pretty good from 25 at least feet away.  I would guess that 50% still have the original engine but the others do not.  For example, we drove around all week in a 1956 Chevy Special completely rolled and pleated inside, but with a 5 cylinder 2006 Mercedes diesel engine and a 4 shifter on the column.  How did he do that?  And our driver’s other car was a 1953 Chevy Belair with a Mercedes diesel engine.

OMG THE MUSIC!!!  I’ve always liked Cuban music.  It ranges from salsa to Afro-Cuban jazz.  It seemed like half of the people either sang, played an instrument or both.  See the photos below.  I would spend half the day wandering the streets in Old Town going from bar to bar having a cerveza in each (wine is somewhat limited as it all has to be imported) and listening to the band until they went on intermission.  It reminded me of Nashville.

music-omg-2_img_0737_1024I was surprised to discover a type of guitar I had never seen before.  The Tres is a guitar-like three course chordophone of Cuban origin.  Its sound is a defining characteristic of the Cuban sound.  It has six strings: two strings each tuned (in “C” major) to “E”, “C” and “G” with the two “G” strings tuned an octave apart.  More recently some musicians are tuning the Tres a step higher (in “D” major) to “F”, “D” and “A”.

grocery-national-store_img_0265_1024The food was also special; we ate at some excellent restaurants that a tourist would never find.  While Fidel was in power restaurant signage was prohibited.  Most Cubans never ate out, as their monthly stipends covered their food need.  Today there are some signs, but it’s still not usual.  Instead, we relied on our driver and the sisters to give us good recommendations that weren’t in the US tour books.  We were never disappointed.

cigars-_img_0565_1024CIGARS!!!  While I’m not a smoker, I might now know more about cigars than most cigar smokers.  We toured both a tobacco farm and a cigar factory.  See the photos below.  The rolling factory had 550 workers wrapping for 9 hours a day.  That is a lot of cigars!  They plant the (tiny, tiny seeds) tobacco early in the year when it is drier and it takes about four months for the plants to mature.  Thus there were no plants drying in the barn when we were there.

They strip the middle vein out of each leaf before rolling.  This vein contains 90% of the nicotine and would make the cigar way too strong.  The position of the leaf on the stalk makes the taste stronger or weaker therefore they can make different types of cigars by using different blends of leaves.  It takes about five leaves to make a ½” blunt.  After rolling and putting on an inner wrapper, they press the cigar in a mold for several hours, then put on the outer wrapper, “fermented”, so it is smoother and flexible.  All by hand.  I couldn’t believe how smooth and exact in size they all were since they are all hand made.  When ready to smoke the end is cut off then dipped in honey before lighting.  Some of the commercial cigars are flavored with rum, cinnamon, etc.

donky-cart-img_0912_1024As I mentioned we were on a “People to People” Visa so we could get to know Cubans and they know us.  We took along a lot of candy, NFL caps, baseball cards, pennants, little league shirts with team logos, etc. and handed it all out, mainly to the children playing in the streets and parks.  We got to know three Cubans quite well: the two sisters who ran the bnb and our driver.  Perhaps the most important thing I returned from Cuba with is that several Cubans who we grew to know well told us to “kiss the ground” when we got back to the USA…. I did.

La Yuma, The American,

Ralph

10/16

 

Places to See:

  • Havana Vieja –  Old Town, great for walking around and listening to bands
  • Viñales- The “Grand Canyon” of Cuba
  • A tobacco farm in Viñales- Where most cigar tobacco plant leaves come from.
  • La Fortaleza- Canon firing ceremony every night at 9p
  • Revolution Square- Where Fidel addressed the people of Cuba
  • The “Forest of Habana”
  • Beach Tropicoco
  • Fusterlandia- a neighborhood modeled after Antonio Gaudi of Barcelona.

 

Things to do:

  • Buena Vista Social Club- a Cuban show that has been playing for 70 years!
  • Tropicana- Famous Cuban Cabaret
  • Revolution Museum (not terribly impressive)
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Cuban)
  • La Finca Vigía – Hemingway’s home in Cuba
  • Partagas cigar Factory

 

Where to eat:

  • El Gijones – located on Paseo del Prado.
  • Los Dos Hermanos – Named after Fidel and Hemingway.  Only open for lunch.  We had Cuban sandwiches.
  • La Fontana –  We ate the most amazing seafood carpaccio here!  Great food!
  • Paladar Vistamar- A wonderful restaurant in Miramar, in the second story of a Cuban house, directly on the Ocean.  Great food and views!
  • Many tapas restaurants/bars in Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas and on the pedestrian street Obispo, all in Old Town.

 

My favorite thing to do by far:

Havana Vieja –  Old Town, walk around, listen to bands, and check out the old cars.

 

See my previous post for even more photos.

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