Cuba: Travels through a Closing Door (Part 2 of 3)

The time leading up to our trip to Cuba was full of uncertainty. I felt like I was slowly marching toward a closing door. You may remember in 2014, Obama loosened up travel restrictions with Cuba and airlines could then fly directly from the United States. Under those rules, there were 12 allowable reasons to go to Cuba. We bought the plane tickets back in May 2017. In June Trump backed these allowable reasons down 5. Thankfully, the reasons for our travel were still allowed, however these were the events leading up to our October 2017 trip:

Late 2016: US embassy staff and at least one Canadian began to notice symptoms

May 2017: US expels two Cuban diplomats for failing to protect its diplomats

August: US says 16 employees have been treated but attacks seem to have stopped. A Canadian diplomat in Havana is treated for hearing loss.

Early September: US says attacks are continuing and 19 staff members have now been hurt

29 September: Washington pulls out diplomatic staff, warns US citizens not to visit and says 21 embassy employees now injured

3 October: US expels Cuban diplomats from Washington

Over the summer, the United States’ relationship with Cuba deteriorated more. In August there were reports of a “sonic attack” which led to Trump recalling 60% of the U.S. diplomats in Havana. Throughout all of this, it seemed quite possible that our door to Cuba was going to close. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the United States warned Americans not to travel to Cuba. The choice that I made for my daughter and I was that there was no logical reason for the Cubans to attack Americans, nothing I could find indicated ill will against Americans from the Cuban people (certainly no reports of violence against travelers), and frankly the whole thing seemed so bizarre and unbelievable. Needless to say, I was skeptical of it in this age of multiple truths and manipulation.

In a later blog I will write out some of the technicalities of traveling to Cuba along with travel advice. For now I will focus on the experience and what Cuba is like. In my description, I’m going to tell you what I saw. There was a lot that I found heart-breaking about Cuba. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in, the warmest people I’ve ever met, one of the safest places I’ve ever traveled to, but this excellence is subdued by many complications.

As a business owner and a capitalist, it was so obvious to me that if relations between the U.S. and Cuba were better, Americans and their wealth would be flocking to there. This may or may not be an “all good” possibility, but to the extent that this would create a better life for the Cubans, I long for it … and so do they.

As I tell you about Cuba, I can’t help but point out the things about Cuba that make me sad. I tell you them out of an implicit criticism of two governments that must bury a 60 year old hatchet. I will go into this in my final blog, but I do not believe that communism will last in Cuba or anywhere else in the world. America needs to start thinking about an imminent new future with its island neighbor. I will go into this late and offer my two bits. Also, as I tell stories, I’m going to leave out names and I’m not going to post pictures of anyone we talked to or the license plates of their cars. Cuba is a dictatorship and I don’t want to put anyone at risk – I’m not that worried about it, but you never know. I am not going to shy away from criticizing the Cuban government. Instead I’ll refer to people as “our driver” or “tour guide”. Also, this will be more about our activities and in the next blog I’ll talk about Cuban food, music, etc.

Havana

Before traveling to Cuba, I had heard that it was a land lost in time. This is true, but more accurately, it’s a land lost in time plus 60 years of decay. Havana (particularly Old Havana) is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to. Its buildings date back 500 years. The old part of the city has a lovely European feel to it with very narrow streets (often too narrow for cars) that are paved with cobblestones or bricks. The buildings seem to be mostly build in the 1700s and 1800s. Here is a picture of Fyetka looking down one of those streets.

Among the sad things about Havana was that it seems that more than half of the buildings were abandoned or condemned (I would guess 60-75% of them). At times you’d come across this beautiful old building and the old wooden door would be busted in. I couldn’t help but peek inside and see giant Greek columns, grand staircases, mosaics on the floor, and then look up and see the sky where a roof should be. I’ve seen this in other Latin American colonial cities.

Old Havana is thankfully an UNESCO World Heritage Site which I hope will prevent further decay. Although I see it as American hubris, I couldn’t help but think back to cities in America that have undergone what is euphemistically called “gentrification”. I would love to see investors pour a bunch of money into Old Havana to restore it back to it’s former glory. Instead, what we witnessed were lower income persons living in the shell of an opulent past. This was a typical sight in Old Havana.

This building was in decent shape, but you could tell the inhabitants were not. You can see the building to the left has collapsed – from what I can tell it was beautiful. The one to the right looks like it’s still in good shape. This picture was taken along Paseo de Marti which is a tourist attraction, so the ratio was more like two good buildings for every one abandoned one. Here’s another building on that same street:

I love this building with it’s beautiful Moroccan architecture. This building was obviously inhabited, but you can see that the left balconies have collapsed. I think that the building on the right was abandoned. Again, the capitalistic American in me would love to see investors come in and restore these buildings.

In America, when it comes to developed areas, there are many places that we go where they have never looked better. Generally things are new and most buildings are being used (obviously there are parts of the country that are exceptions to this). In Havana, there were hardly any buildings that were at their peak condition. I absolutely loved the city of Havana, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to grow up and live in a city where there was obviously an era of great growth and wealth.

The Cubans themselves are lovely people and we felt very welcomed to be there. On more than one occasion, people expressed to us sadness that the momentum of the “Cuban thaw” was reversing.

Havana is one of the safest major cities in Latin America. This is probably one of the notable benefits of a militarized communist government – there’s always plenty of policing. Some of you may know of that weird brooding instinct you get when you know that you are in a bad place in a city. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like the hairs on your neck are standing up and you know you have to get out of there. I’ve gotten that feeling many times, but I never once felt it in Havana. There were times when Fyetka and I were walking down those narrow streets at 11:00 at night. Although us two gringos were like lame gazelles on the Serengeti, I never once felt at risk.

As I had said earlier, I really wanted Fyetka to meet Cuban kids. I had her bring a Polaroid camera to give away pictures. One of my favorite moments was when we came across a group of kids and we quickly went through a how cartridge of film. I regretted not having more with us.

These kids seemed to be Cuban middle-class, but it’s hard to tell. I’ve been in places in Latin America where there are groups of homeless kids living together or where none of the kids have shoes. That’s definitely not what these kids were. For days Fyetka kept talking about these kids. Unfortunately the rest of the trip (though ready and equipped with film), we didn’t come across a group like this.

I had a big smile on my face to see my daughter in the middle of them like this. It was interesting to me that they didn’t care about pictures on my cell phone. People did have smart phones in Cuba, but they weren’t common. I didn’t see any iPhones, I saw a few Samsung, but mostly they were phones I hadn’t seen before.

In the background you can see an old castle-like structure. I couldn’t find a date on it but it was probably from the 1600s and now serves as a police station.

Havana has lots of feral dogs, cats, and chickens. Fyetka fell in love every day with an animal and begged me to let her take it home. It’s the only time I ever felt grateful for the embargo, “Sorry baby, you see 60 years ago …”.

After this we walked to the seawall, broad sidewalk, and street called El Malecón. Sometimes you’ll see pictures of old cars driving along the coast in the city – those are possibly from here.

Havana is also famous for the old American cars you see driving around. I would estimate that 20% of all cars are the classic ones which they call “coches clásicos”. One man told me that they are quite expensive to buy (about $25,000) and very expensive to own.

Probably half the cars are Chinese ones that we don’t have in the United States, maybe another 10% are Italian brands like Fiat, and then you see a lot of Hyundai’s. I saw one fairly new post-embargo Chevy. I asked the driver how that got here and he said that people will smuggle American products from Mexico because it’s a luxury item to them. We could find Coca-Cola and Sprite in most places, but it was $2.00 for a can – which read “Hecho in Mexico” (“Made in Mexico”). Otherwise the soft drinks were the national brand. In a later blog, I will talk about an interesting experience with Dove products at a higher end store.

Again, I absolutely loved walking around Old Havana and wished that I had a good camera with me. It’s an incredible photogenic city.

Viñales

This was the most beautiful part of Cuba we saw. Viñales is a region in the far western part of the island. It is famous for it’s lush mountains and rolling green hills.

I would have loved to do more hiking and climb some of those mountains. The drive to Viñales took about 2 ½ hours. If you stay on the beaten path of Cuba, you can see that the government does what they can to give it the appearance of maintenance. The highway from the airport to Havana is is excellent condition. The highway from Havana to Varadero (a more touristy area) is in excellent condition. Viñales is definitely an attraction, but not as many people go there. The highway was in rough shape and for much of the trip, our driver had to weave around potholes and didn’t usually go faster than about 40 mph. Because of the difficulty of repairing coches clásicos, our driver drove very gingerly over bumps and when going uphill.

Driving out there was an experience unto itself. I would estimate that over the course of our journey, we drove past about 300 people waiting for a taxi. This was not one big group; usually individuals or two people (at most five). As we drove by you could see the sudden hope in their eyes sparkle and then fade when they saw that there were already passengers in the car. I asked the driver how long they wait for a cab and he said 3-5 hours, sometimes giving up and coming back the next day. The thought of not being able to get to where you need to go (and having multiple options to get there) is outside of our American experience. I can’t fathom the frustration. Because of this, it may be of little surprise that as you venture into the Cuban countryside, it is more common to see people traveling by horse drawn carts than it is by cars.

This is a picture I found online, but this is a common sight. When we were there, I couldn’t help but notice the patent back step of using converted car axles for the horse drawn carts. I wonder if the Cubans thought of it that way, taking new technology and using it in an old manner. This constant sight always felt like a synecdoche for Cuba as a whole.

Animals are used for a lot of labor in Cuba, especially in agriculture. The highways are lined with horses and sometimes cows or goats who are tied up and munching away to keep the weeds down along the road. You would also see people with machete’s whacking away at the grass. There was a lot of agriculture as we drove out there. Unlike in America where you see irrigators and farming equipment, we didn’t see a single tractor. I don’t know if this is the case throughout all of Cuba. We saw a lot of horses hauling product and a lot of oxen yoked together for plowing and other farm labor. This picture (also not mine) shows what was a common sight:

We saw this guy (below) riding an ox, but he was hamming it up for the tourists..

The last point of observation driving out to Viñales was the ever increasing propaganda. As we drove, it seemed like the technology and way of life got older and older, but the propaganda billboards got newer and newer. Here are some common sites:

Other signs would say things like “With Fidel, a better future is possible”, or “Always revolution” with a picture of Che Guevera. Or it would say “mother country or death” or some phrase about the revolution. My impression was that it was a desperate attempt at persuasion in the poorest part of the country. There was an inverse relationship between the amount of propaganda and the economic conditions – in the more well off area of Varadero, there were hardly any Fidel or Che signs. I couldn’t but wonder if the people waiting five hours for a taxi in the shade of one of these big signs ever questioned them. How could they not with all that time on their hands?

One of the sites we saw in Viñales was the Cueva del Indio (“Indian Cave”). Our driver said it was called this because Indians used to live in the cave. The poured concrete sidewalk throughout it suggests that archaeology may prove difficult. The cave was absolutely stunning and preservation aside, the sideway made it very easy to get around.

This path meandered through a long well-lit corridor and dead ended at an underground river.

A boat would swing around and pick you up, taking you deeper down the cave to a waterfall that roared deep into the darkness.

The boat then (thankfully) spun around, took us back the way we came and further underground until it opened up into the bright light of the Cuban jungle.

We were the only tourists in the area and somehow around 20 Cubans supported the whole operation. For lunch, our driver took us to a very tranquil restaurant at the base of one of the lush mountains, where we were the only customers (something that happened many times when we were there). The restaurant seemed to have 5-6 people working there and I couldn’t help but think, “What if we hadn’t showed up?” Granted, we were traveling during the “shoulder season” (i.e. the fall and spring … which by the way, quick travel tip: always travel during the shoulder season).

After lunch we went to a smaller cave that had a bar built into it.

It was so peaceful, I would have loved to just hang out in there. Regrettably there were no customers.

For the next leg of our day trip, we ventured even more off the beaten path into an agricultural area. As we went out there, we went even further back in time and saw more and more thatched roof structures. The structures were made of long wooden posts and covered with dried out palm branches. I asked the driver if they were for animals. He grimaced and said that people live in them too and that they are also used to dry tobacco.

We eventually got to the end of the road which dead-ended at an organic tobacco farm – a phrase with a bit of an oxymoronic clang.

We then continued on horseback, through the rolling fields of tobacco, potato, sugar cane, until we arrived at a shade grown coffee farm. By this point there were no modern objects in sight. There was one thatched roof structure that served as a place for the workers to rest, there were no cars, or electricity. Many oxen and horses were tied up, ready if needed for work.

We immediately met a woman who quite surprisingly spoke some English (it didn’t seem to be as common down there, just with young people). She was very cheery and gave us a tour of the coffee farm. It always amazes me that the indigenous people of the Americas figured coffee out. You take the red ripe berries, extract the bean from inside, dry it out, roast them (which by the way, Cubans roast the snot out of their coffee – it was literally like little charcoal pieces you could draw with), grind them up, boil the grounds in water, filter the grounds, and then you have a very bitter drink. Let’s face it, although I have lots of coffee every day, it is an acquired taste, so how did anyone acquire it in the first place?

After the tour, some of the worked retrieved two fresh coconuts from a nearby palm tree. He hacked at them with a machete until there was a small hole from while we could drink the fresh coconut milk. As we sat there, I chit-chatted with our tour guide. She explained that she was quite happily divorced and had moved to the country with her young daughter. When I was a kid, I was always attracted to the foreign kids or those whose parents were from another country. It would drive me nuts when my friends parents would talk about things they didn’t want me to hear. For the first time in my life, I had the great privilege of doing this with Fyetka, who didn’t know that I spoke a little Spanish until we got in the taxi after landing in Havana – I guess it just never came up. In Spanish, I spoke more openly with her about my divorce and asked her if there was a stigma about divorce in Cuba. From beneath that thatched hut, she exclaimed, “It’s the 21st century!” As an oxen farts in the distance.

We rode our horses back to the parking area where there was this big water tank with paintings of revolutionaries on it.

We then went into this other thatched hut where this man showed us how cigars are rolled. A skill that Fyetka already knew from school. Just kidding.

At first this guy seemed kind of annoyed with us. Possibly because people from our country assassinated the national hero of his country – the man imposingly displayed in three different images behind him. Thankfully my Spanish is good enough for joking around. He asked me if I would like to smoke a cigar (dipped in honey) during the presentation. I joked, “No thank you, but my daughter would. She smokes them all the time, and it’s a real problem.” He softened up after this. I then started telling Fyetka about who Che Guevera was, which seemed to please him. He told me that they actually like Americans a lot at the tobacco farm because they are always very curious and respectful about it and best of all, we always buy cigars. He told me this after I bought a bunch of cigars … for Fyetka of course. He may have just been blowing smoke up my skirt, but I heard that this a lot down there: we spend money and tip well.

On the drive back to Havana, I could help but imagine a better future for Cuba. Perhaps giving independent capitalism a try. Cuban throughout its (post European) history has been a Spanish colony, under a Cuban government that was very much a puppet of the United States, and then under a dictatorship. I’ll go into the history a little more in a later blog, but to me, Cuba hasn’t been independent and free since Columbus.

It was a lot of fun talking with our driver all that time in the car – the chatting definitely helped bring my Spanish back from the dead (he didn’t speak much English at all). I told him that the next day we were going up to Varadero and he told me that it was his favorite place in all of Cuba. I asked him if he could drive us up there and suggested that he bring his wife and two sons up and they can make a day trip out of it. He jumped at the opportunity and was adorably excited for the little road trip.

Varadero

In the morning, the driver met us in Havana along with his family just as planned. Fyetka sat in the back with his wife and two sons and the dads sat up front. We took our time going up to Varadero – which was the most modern place we went in Cuba. Our first stop was at the Puente de Bacunayagua, Cuba’s highest and most grand bridge.

You could tell that it was a point of national pride. Our driver told me that it stood over 100 meters high. I asked him, “Did you know that in the U.S. we still use feet and miles?” He was astounded more than I would have guessed. By the way, America IS the only country still using old imperial units of measurement … well us, Liberia, and Myanmar:

Yup, that’s it. Of course you’ll still find those old units in other countries (particularly the English speaking ones) if you are getting a pint of beer or gallon of gas, but we’re still that last holdout. So yes, it was a huge 100 meter bridge. As we were there I assumed that it was a modern bridge and that it was meant to illustrate that the communist Cuban government can do impressive feats of engineering. Nope. The bridge was built from 1956-1959. Yet again, a poignant reminder to the Cubans that development froze 60 years ago.

The next stop was the Cuevas de Bellamar, which is one of Cuba’s largest caves at 750 meters long. My camera flash wasn’t powerful enough to capture it, so here are some pictures from online:

At the cave there was a ten year old boy who fell head over heels for Fyetka. Cubans generally speak a fast style of Spanish, but this kid was like a verbal machine gun, “I’m so excited to at this cave, my whole life I’ve wanted to come to this cave, I love this cave, where are you going after this, where are you from?” Then, whispering in my ear, “Tell your daughter I think she’s beautiful.” Fyetka was looking to me with wide eyes, “Dad help me.” “Sorry sweetie you’re just going to have to wait it out, we’re in a cave.” I told here this was like that squirrel scene in Disney’s Sword in the Stone.

The B&B in Varadero was much nicer than the one in Havana. Although we didn’t see them, there were some modern resorts like what you’d see in highly touristy areas of Mexico or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

That night we decided to have a nice dinner. As we were walking down the street a man handed us a flyer for a restaurant off in the middle of the park. In Cuba, you are constantly recruited to go to restaurants. We walked through a beautiful lush park (Parque Josone) on a stone walk way, up a stone staircase, to a stone restaurant at the top of a little hill cal La Campana.

We were greeted by men in tuxedos eager to serve. We walked in to find that we were once again the only guests.

They served huge portions. We had a five course meal of fresh lobster for $15.00. We also got two Coca Colas ($2.00 each) and two deserts. Total $23.00. I saw that there were 8 people working there, three of them in tuxedos. This happened a lot where the business owner side of me was having a hard time making it all add up.

The next day we woke up early to go snorkeling at Coral Beach, but the waves were a little bit too rough for Fyetka’s abilities.

Besides there was a pile of nine 8-day-old puppies on the beach. Thus far I’ve had a strict, “Please child, don’t pet that feral animal” rule, but this time I made an exception. The mama dog was very sweet and nice and she seemed healthy enough, though very skinny.

After this we went to one of my favorite sites in Cuba, Saturno Cave. It is this wide mouth cave where fresh water collects at the bottom and you can swim there. As you go down into the cave it takes awhile for your eyes to adjust and you feel like you are going into Gollum’s layer. But as you get used to the darkness you can see the crystal clear water and can see 70 feet to the bottom of the pool of water. Here are some pictures from online (again, my camera flash wasn’t strong enough):

I loved that giant stalactite, you could actually swim behind it to the left and then jump from it and dive into the water. I was really proud of Fyetka for really going for it down in there. She probably wouldn’t have gone swimming down in there a year ago, but she had a blast.

At this cave we met a lovely German couple who spoke perfect English. By this point it had been about five days since I talked with another adult in English and I found it oddly comforting. That evening we went back to Varadero and played on the beautiful beach.

Whenever I see my kids do things like this (collapsing the sand wall), it always brings me back to being a child myself and doing the same thing. I couldn’t help but imagine Cuba before the European and indigenous children playing on the beach and collapsing sand walls.

Back at our B&B, we relaxed as we surfed through the four channels on the TV. Of course all in Spanish, one seemed to be from America. I rememeber hearing about this years ago, that Cubans can pick up American TV stations – what a tease that must be.

Back in Havana

It was nice to come back to Havana and to feel like we knew our way around (at least through the old city). As we were buying some art, I started talking to a young man who said that the day before the United States announced that if Cubans want to apply for a visa to come to the U.S., they have to apply in person in Columbia. I couldn’t independently verify this, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It certainly speaks to the reality that it’s important to most Cubans that they have a good relationship with the U.S.

When I’m home, I am a total news junkie. I could literally read the news all day long if left to my own devices. By this point in the trip, I hadn’t read the news for an entire week. As I was talking with him, it dawned on me that I had no idea if there were going to be new problems trying to get home the next day. It seemed totally within possibility that they could completely cancel direct flights from the United States. I then thought about if we were going to be hassled about our travels. I found the odd and ironic feeling that I no longer feared the non-free country, but it was the free country that felt more threatening.

As it turned out, traveling back to America was just as uneventful as going to Cuba. We came through the Atlanta airport where customs is very high tech and totally streamlined. You do the passport check and picture taking at a computer kiosk. It prints out a piece of paper, you take it to a guy, “Where are you coming from?” “Ummm … Cuba.” “Welcome back.” And that was about it. We had to go through security again just like everyone. It was a this point that I realized that I forgot to empty our two 32 oz. Nalgene bottles of water (so yes, the Havana airport let us board with 64 ounces of liquid … oops).

It was in the security line at the Atlanta airport when I knew I was back home in America (see feet):

It was very nice to come home. After a week of Cuban food, I told Fyetka she could have whatever she wanted … her choice: Panda Express.

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