When I was in my twenties, living in Alaska, I had an epiphany.
Sounds trite, I know, but this was a realization that pierced me to the marrow of my bones. At the time, the oil market had collapsed and the state-funded research institute where I had a job that I absolutely loved had not been included in the budget for the next year. Most of my friends were planning their exodus to other states. My grandfather had just died. The house I shared, which had a life and legend all its own, was evolving into a new phase that wasn’t compatible with my idea of a sane place to live. We all have an inner control freak, and mine was FREAKING OUT. The ground felt as though it was shifting beneath my feet.
It was unsettling, it was completely beyond my power. I couldn’t stop or steer the change, so there was nothing to do but embrace it.
Everything continues to change. Doors open, doors close. Wait long enough, and something you thought would be forever beyond your reach is suddenly dropped into your lap. Cuba has been off-limits to most Americans for over half a century, but US restrictions started easing a few years ago, and in January the door cracked open a little wider, in preparation for a lifting of the trade and travel embargo before the end of this year.
Karel and I weren’t initially planning to travel abroad in 2015, but when we heard the president’s overtures toward Cuba, we realized that this little country, just 100 miles off our coast, would soon be overrun by tourists. If we wanted to see it before it was transformed into an amusement park, now was the time.
For the moment, the legal way for Americans to go to Cuba is via a licensed cultural and educational exchange tour. This means traveling with a group and guides on a prescribed itinerary focused on Cuban people, history, culture, and natural resources. Karel and I opted for a two-part tour that started with four days in Havana, followed by six days visiting a couple of the smaller cities, Viñales and Trinidad, with stops at National Parks, farms, and other cities.
I feel I should clarify a few things before I continue. For those of us who grew up in the US, our belief in our freedoms is part of our DNA. We can say, think, and do what we want, worship as we choose, or not, pursue all opportunities, live anywhere, do anything. Sure, there are some cultural and racial biases, but we’re always striving to overcome those. So, whenever we encounter barriers and limits and doors that are closed, we assume they must be the other guys’ fault. We can’t go to the beach in Cuba, or smoke Cuban cigars because of Castro and his communist regime, right? Wrong! It is the United States that has imposed these restrictions on its own citizens. Please adjust your filters as you continue reading.
This doesn’t mean Cuba would have been a fun place to visit in the sixties. The early days of communism were brutal and extreme as Castro confiscated assets and eliminated dissent. Hundreds of thousands of well-heeled Cubans fled their country for good reason. There was a moment when the US was ready to recognize the newly elected regime and establish friendly relations, but Fidel Castro had a vendetta against the United States because of our past interference; he was also showing himself to be increasingly extreme and paranoid in his policies. The exiled Cuban community in Florida opposed friendly relations, and they had mustered up a great deal of clout in Washington. The result: no Cuban cigars for you.
Cuba has not been closed off from the world, but any ship or plane that visited Cuba was prohibited from going to the USA for six months, which put a huge damper on trade. For three decades, the Soviet Union supported the Cuban economy, but when that support ended circa 1991, famine ensued. Then Venezuela stepped into the gap, but that support has faded due to economic problems.
The Downside of Tax Evasion
Interestingly, Castro did offer to compensate property owners for confiscated property, based on the reported value on tax returns. As tax evasion was rife before the revolution, that was pennies on the dollar. Perhaps Greece and Italy should institute a lottery system in which the government randomly selects property to be confiscated, with the owners paid the amount declared on their tax returns, then immediately sell it for market value. Maybe that would eliminate some of the tax fraud that is bringing down their economies.
There is much debate about whether Cuba could ever get along without a strong trade partner, but there’s little doubt that Fidel Castro’s attempts at managing the economy in accordance with Communist ideals didn’t help. The sad result has been immense suffering and privation for the Cuban people.
Frozen In Time
The silver lining is that Cuba has been, in some ways, frozen in time. In the 1950s there was a strong connection between Cuba and New York City (thanks, I strongly suspect, to the Mafia), and the vestiges of those ties lingered, post-revolution, through my childhood in Queens. I remember the tobacco shops, where I could beg an empty cigar box to hold my school supplies; the old men in Panama hats and loose-fitting Caribbean shirts, smoking out on the stoops; those cars with their fins and chrome and clouds of exhaust.
Upon arriving in downtown Havana, I was instantly transported to my childhood. The city and the people not only have the same, early ‘60s aesthetic, the very tempo of life seems to be tuned to that era.
I spent most of my life traveling mainly in my imagination, with the help of books and movies. Now that I’m getting to go places for real, I’ve discovered that I harbor preconceptions about how a particular place will look and feel. Sometimes, that has resulted in disappointment, even though I realize (duh) that my notions were based on a version of a place that hasn’t existed since the 1930s, or perhaps Victorian times. As a wise friend once told me, there is no sin but our own expectations.
But Havana is just as I pictured it, based on those fleeting glimpses from old movies and newsreels: dirty, colorful, saucy. It has a relaxed feeling compared with modern cities. The streets are busy, but not jammed, and traffic is orderly. The sidewalks are brimful of pedestrians, shoe-shine boys, vendors, and hustlers. An aroma of cigar smoke floats past on a riff of salsa music. There are tourists, yes, but the natives outnumber them, twenty to one.
We were on an educational tour, so we plunged immediately into some of the historic sites, including a visit to the home of Ernest Hemingway, where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. A refreshment stand at the museum parking lot was serving up fresh-pressed cane juice, liberally spiked with dark Cuban rum. Then we toured an organic farm and restaurant, where we had the first of many multi-course meals.
We stayed at the iconic Habana Libre Hotel, formerly the Hilton, which opened just one year before the revolution and was intended to be the city’s most luxurious hotel. It was beautiful, mid-century modern, and ahead of its time in the amenities offered. On the other hand, only two of the four elevators were functioning, and not very well. No doubt, parts from the defunct lifts had been used to keep the other two going. Sometimes the cantankerous machines had to be manned by hotel staff—the poor workers had to sit with their finger pressing an override switch continuously for hours. During busy times, it was wise to allow an extra 10 or 15 minutes to get to the lobby.
The Cuban School of Economics
It didn’t take long for Havana to reveal another face, as we rode past crumbling buildings along the waterfront on our way to the old fortress. Signs of decay are everywhere, with many buildings completely uninhabitable. The old quarter of Havana is being rebuilt, but we were stunned to see photos of the original buildings in a state of almost complete collapse, just a few years ago. The original townsite had been almost totally abandoned and had nearly disappeared by the time the government decided it would have value as a tourist attraction. The photos were reminiscent of all those war scenes in Eastern Europe, but here the agent was neglect and decay, not bombs.
Cuban citizens are allowed to own up to six domiciles, which they can live in or rent out; however, it is illegal to force a renter to move out for any reason. If a tenant falls behind, the landlord has no incentive and no money to pay for maintenance and repairs. Their only recourse is to let the building fall into such a state of disrepair, it becomes uninhabitable, and then hope they can scrape together enough money to start over once the deadbeat tenants abandon the place.
On the other hand, we didn’t see many signs of overcrowding or a housing shortage. The inhabited homes we visited or just glanced into as we passed by all seemed spacious and well-cared for, at least in the cities. In spite of high poverty levels, Cuba has had zero population growth for a decade. Low to zero population growth is often correlated with prosperity, but in Cuba this is obviously not the explanation. I’m just speculating, but I believe this is largely because of the high level of education among the people. Cuba boasts a literacy rate of 100%, and educated professionals are the country’s chief “export.” In exchange for oil and other resources, Cuba sends doctors and teachers to its trade partners. These professionals are paid by their host countries at a higher rate than Cubans at home, plus a living allowance, while they work abroad for a few years. The host nation gets their much-needed skills and knowledge, and Cuba gets oil or food or other raw materials. A win-win-win.
If you want to see some of the basic principles of economics in action, I highly recommend a visit to Cuba. The country has been a living experiment since it was first colonized.
The government has been gradually liberalizing its policies, allowing Cubans to travel more, allowing some private enterprise, and permitting the open practice of religion. A widely practiced religion is derived from African beliefs that were brought over by slaves and merged with certain Roman Catholic notions; the resulting hybrid faith is known as Santeria. We visited the home/sanctuary of a Santeria priest and learned a little about the symbolic use of colors, deities, and symbols. Some of the practices include animal sacrifice (the sacrificed animal is then cooked and eaten by the attendees) and what many would describe as magic—it really bears no resemblance at all to Christianity. After leaving the sanctuary we watched a colorful street dance enacting a Santeria parable.
Havana is the original party town, and no visit would be complete without taking in a show. Buena Vista Social Club is still going strong at another famous, historic hotel, La Naćionale. If you want to stay up all night, there are still many clubs offering music, dancing, and risqué entertainments, although gambling is strictly forbidden.
On the morning of the fourth day we bid farewell to roughly half of our fellow tourists. The nine of us who remained headed out of town to Viñales, in a region of beautiful limestone karsts. Once again, the way the world has changed was cast in stark relief against the backdrop of the Cuban time machine. The highway was good, and traffic was at levels not seen in, say, upstate New York, since the 1920s. Besides the classic cars, there were plenty of horse-drawn carts and even oxen on the road. We often saw groups of people standing on the shoulders near exit and entry ramps, waiting for any motorist with an empty seat to give them a lift. Most of the land was under cultivation, and there was no suburban sprawl.
In Viñales we stayed with families in private homes. Our hosts didn’t speak much English, but we enjoyed watching the life of the neighborhood from the front porch. Just across the road, some girls were practicing the choreography to the latest pop music video, complete with hip action and hair swinging. It was very entertaining.
We visited a farm near Viñales and got a demonstration of how cigars are rolled, then went for a short hike into the national park. On the way, we skirted a large pasture at the foot of the limestone karsts, where farm life was in full swing, including a rambunctious herd of piglets chasing each other around and playing with a stick. Some trail guides had brought their horses to the pond for a bath and rub-down. The only sounds were the animals and the birds. I know the farmers work hard and don’t have much, but in that moment it seemed to me a good life, and wholesome. It made me feel happy.
The next morning, we had planned to visit some of the beautiful caves in the limestone mountains, but the electricity was out; there wouldn’t be much to see, without lights. Oh, well. Considering that so much of Cuba’s infrastructure has been patched and coaxed along with duct tape and paperclips, it’s astonishing that we didn’t run into more problems like this.
When Cultures Collide
We moved on to a tour and lunch at another organic farm. As the waiters brought platter after platter heaped with food, we began to suspect that the Cubans were trying to kill us, after all—by overfeeding us. After two days in the country, we had seen the poverty firsthand. The extravagance at every meal for us just seemed wrong, so I asked Jorje, our guide, what’s the deal?
Jorje assured me, first of all, that any leftovers would be put to good use, with kitchen leftovers going to the workers to bring home to their families, and the table leftovers used to feed the animals. Nothing was wasted. He then explained that it’s traditional in Cuba to offer guests more than they can eat, as a sign of good hospitality, and told us a funny story. Jorje had made arrangements for a friend of a friend from China to spend the night at the apartment of a woman he knew in Havana, and continue to Viñales, where he would meet Jorje the next day. Being a good hostess, the woman served dinner, and when the Chinese fellow cleaned his plate, she brought out more, and then another, and another, until he finally declared defeat. Jorje checked in with the woman by phone the next morning to make sure the man was on his way, and the woman said, “That friend of yours is a little guy, but he eats like an army!” When the man arrived around lunchtime, Jorje offered him food, but he cried, “No! I won’t be able to eat for days. That woman stuffed me until I was sick.” In China, good manners require that a guest eat everything that is placed before him. The poor man made a valiant effort!
Our tour director, bless his heart, made sure that our cultural and educational itinerary included some first-hand experience of the marine ecosystem, which meant we spent an afternoon at the beach. Beautiful!
After a couple of days in Viñales, we had a long day traversing Cuba to reach the city of Trinidad. On the way, we stopped at Cienfuegos, a historic city which now has some of Cuba’s most well-developed tourist infrastructure.
Trying to Have It Both Ways
At last, we arrived in Trinidad, a well-preserved colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage site. The city sits like a crown, high on a hillside between the sparkling ocean and the Sierra del Escambray. If the clocks in Havana stopped in 1959, the ones in Trinidad froze a hundred years earlier—the place is a living museum, with deliveries made by horse and cart and all business and movement conducted at the pace of a leisurely walk.
Trinidad was at the heart of Cuba’s lucrative sugar trade, as well as a market (illicit, of course) for pirate ships. To run the plantations, the landowners imported so many slaves, they were vastly outnumbered, and they chafed at any attempts to regulate how slaves were treated. These aristocrats paid the price when the slaves revolted.
Our guides had arranged a special treat for us for dinner. When we arrived on the private terrace of our hotel, we were greeted by a young musician, Yenis Torres Jimenez, who serenaded us with a range of classical, traditional, and avant-garde guitar music. Then she passed her guitar over to Karel and sang with me. She had played in a cover band at a nightclub for a while, so she knew plenty of tourist-pleasing popular songs, including many that Karel and I know well. We had so much fun, we asked if she could come back again, and we were delighted to make music with “Jenny” all three nights that we were in Trinidad.
Trinidad was a great place to learn more about the pre-revolutionary history of Cuba, as well as the ignoble events of the 1960s, when the US tried to meddle in Cuban affairs. On the lighter side, we toured the beautiful countryside, took a close look at another coastal ecosystem (ahem), and watched salsa dancing out on the city steps at sunset.
The American Tourists Revolt
On the eve of our final day, we were told the itinerary for the following morning would be a visit to a local rum distillery. All nine touristas voted unanimously to nix that plan; we much preferred to go for a hike in the nearby nature park to sampling rum at 10 a.m. Poor Jorje! He had to scramble a bit, but by morning the arrangements were re-arranged and we got our wish.
And then it was over. Our departure was from the nearby city of Cienfuegos, which has a busy schedule of one, yes one, flight per day. The airport hadn’t even opened when we arrived, and it had a banana republic atmosphere about it. After a while they got things rolling, but we still had a couple of hours to kill once we were through security and in the terminal, so we bought snacks and scrutinized the offerings in the souvenir shops.
Even here, with a captive market of ignorant tourists who would be gone in an hour, never to be seen again, the store clerks were kind, honest, and helpful. One clerk cheerfully helped me pay for an ice cream by patiently sorting and counting my leftover pile of loose change; another got me a better exchange rate on a purchase by fetching the manager to approve a transaction in Euros.
Once again, I remembered being a little girl in a world where everyone was nice to me, and I felt safe. One more thing that, in Cuba, hasn’t changed.This entry was posted in Cuba, Vacation 2015