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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Museum of Fine Arts, Hemingway's house, the restoration workshop, dreaming of a return...


A few  more things I just want to make sure to mention: first, the art museum and the Biennale. As I said before, we didn’t really get to see much of the Biennale. I know if I’d really wanted to, I could have found the time, as we did have a couple of free afternoons. But we were so busy most of the time, and everything was so interesting, that I didn’t have the inclination. What I did find out, from Hoji, was that much, maybe all, of the outdoor art we saw was part of the Biennale. And there was a lot of it, along the Malecon, the Prado, and probably some things we walked by but didn’t notice.

The  Art Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes), which is actually two different museums, Cuban art and foreign art, was wonderful. We spent two hours there, and didn’t see everything. And that was just in the Cuban part. I’m not sure I could have spent much more time that day, aside from the fact that they were closing, but would love to have the chance to go back. There were an amazing number and variety of Cuban artists. None of whom I was familiar with.  I'm  embarrassed to admit it. Wilfredo Lam, whose name at least seems familiar to me, is supposedly the most renowned.   Sadly, they seemed to have less than a dozen postcard reproductions, and none of the works I was especially taken with.  But I was able to find some of them online. A current exhibit featured an artist named Abel Barroso. His pieces, in wood, were described as tactile sculptures. There was a series of pinball machines, which seemed to have working parts, each of which had  a politcal theme. And a Monopoly board, also political, with wealthy countries occupying what would have been the Boardwalk and Park Place spaces, poor ones on the ones that would have been Baltic, etc. And houses and hotels on some of them. I clandestinely took a picture of the Monopoly board.

I have barely mentioned Hemingway, and he figures largely in the Cuban psyche. There are photos of him with Fidel, and I believe with Che. We went to the bar he used to hang out at in Cojimar, now a restaurant, and had lunch there. Later that day we went to his house, on a hilltop overlooking Havana, with a beautiful view. I was surprised, though, that it wasn’t near the sea. Hoji said that he’d become so famous by then that he was hounded, and so perhaps needed a place where he could get away.

The house can only be viewed from outside. When I’d read that I was disappointed, but then wasn’t expecting much anyway, anticipating that it would be overrun with tourists. Yet I was really mesmerized by the place, partly because it was Hemingway’s, partly because it was beautiful, elegant but not ostentatious, and partly, I’m sure, because I was reading Islands in the Stream and it seemed so close to what he was describing. Besides, I always like homes where famous people have lived, and especially the everyday parts of their existence, the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, bookshelves. Not being able to walk inside the house didn’t matter; you could see everything through the many doors and windows.It was airy and bright, filled with books, of course, but also art, and game heads mounted on the walls. 

On the grounds is Hemingway's boat, Pilar, and four graves.  I am sure they are of his dogs, especially due to the names, but I joked that perhaps they were Hemingway's four wives! 

At the Hemingway home we ran into a National Geographic tour group ( I know because they were all wearing National Geographic name badges.) Loring noticed a man wearing a Folsom’s Air Service t shirt. This is a small flight service in northern Maine that flies people into remote places.  I don’t think we’ve ever run into someone with a t shirt from there before. When I asked where the couple was from, they said New York. Turns out the woman was from the same area of the Bronx where grew up.

I want to mention one more place we visited, the restoration workshop school for teens in Old Havana. It is b a trade school, that trains kids in skills like woodworking, stone work, tiling, metal, and glass. They do  actual restoration work while enrolled, and then, if I understood right, are guaranteed jobs when they graduate. Some go onto more academic work in the field, too. Free education is available to everyone in Cuba, but you have to qualify academically for upper level study. We watched them working on restoring a set of stained glass windows, wrapping small individual pieces of glass in copper, so intent on their work they hardly paid us any mind.  The student population is about 1/3 female. Although much of Havana is still in disrepair, some of the buildings and squares have been beautifully renovated, and it is wonderful to see young people being trained in these skills and using them to improve their city.

I have to look up again some of these other tours, the National Geographic  one these folks were on, and a couple of others I’d looked at. I can’t imagine they would have been better, or even as good as ours. All the places we went, with the exception of the very commercial and not very informative rum museum, were very interesting. That is the one visit, of about 15 or more places we went, that I would suggest they drop. Our guide Hoji, was great, too, and we all agreed that even though he does this weekly, he does not do it at all by rote, and really seems to enjoy what he does.

*(Note: I did go back and look up some of the other tours. There's Road Scholar, which used to be Elderhostel, and Insight Cuba. Those are in the $3000 to $4000 range. National Geographic around $5000. Ours was about $1500 and seems to me to be fairly comparable They probably stay at fancier hotels, but ours were plenty fancy for me. And I would probably prefer to stay in casas (bed and breakfasts.) Although in reading after our return, am not sure those are legal for Americans. 

 I keep daydreaming about going back, organizing a trip of my own with the organization we went with, with a small group of friends and like minded travellers. Anyone interested? I am serious enough that if I hear back from a few of you, I may truly do it. 













Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The things we carried, down, and back, and our encounter with Boston Customs.



On the porch, back at home

We’ve been home two days now. I still feel like there is a lot I haven’t recounted. I am going to try, now, to describe our arrival back in the U.S. and encounter with customs in Boston, and then go back to describe several experiences, our “Hemingway day” as Hoji described it, the wonderful Havana Modern Art Museum, some info about handicrafts and souvenirs, and a brief bibliography of  the Cuba related books we read enroute. And whatever else comes to mind as I am writing.

Our arrival home: We had been given all the information about what documentation we needed from the Canadian company that arranged the tour, had it all approved by them, and received from them a detailed itinerary that described each day of our tour (Loring was studying water resources at every place we visited, and the week we spent in la Boca we were both doing preliminary research.) We were told it was a “do-it-yourself visa, for which no official approval from the U.S. government was needed. There was a self –proclaimed “affidavit” that we needed to have notarized. I had a letter from my employer saying I taught for them, and a resume, and Loring wrote himself a letter on his own letterhead, which the agency had also said was absolutely fine. This is a relatively new visa, perhaps a year old, and I had also located and printed the proper page of the U.S. regulation itself.

All seemed well and good. All of us on the trip had the same documentation, except for Evelyn who was on a different educational visa in order to do research in the Cuban archives.

Well and good, that is, until we arrived in Boston. “So, you’ve been to Cuba?” said the agent, quite friendly.He seemed interested, not suspicious, but said to excuse him, he hadn’t dealt with this before and had to check with his supervisor. Another agent came along, said she had spoken with someone who’d been to Cuba before, again really friendly, and asked if the country was as beautiful as she’d heard. I think she was also the one that said she thought things should open up in the near future. Or maybe that was one of the other various agents we spoke with in the next half hour or so.

I was still more concerned that they might take our souvenirs than that they’d hit us with a fine. Although the supervisor did say, you know, you could have your passports taken away. He wasn't threatening, though, just seemed surprised that we were doing this.  Our passports and all the papers we’d carried, (having been told by the Canadian agency that they never checked anyone, anyway) went thru several sets of hands as we sat in the office. Maybe I was just too tired to be worried, but I felt more curious than anything else. What really puzzled and continues to puzzle me is that no one at customs, excepting that one woman, and not even the supervisor, seemed familiar with the visa.  I am wondering if the others in our group encountered any problems or just sailed through. We did indicate on our re-entry forms that we’d come from Cuba, not just Toronto. I would have been much more worried about lying. But the travel group conducts tours every week, most of them about 24 people in the group, mostly Americans.

Anyway, the supervisor eventually decided that we were right, said they’d just had to research it, gave us back our passports and all paperwork, wished us well. The crazy thing is that they never looked at our bags at all.

These are the things I carried back: two crocheted tops, no sign of made in Cuba anywhere. One set of claves, (rhythm instruments I bought for Max in the Havana crafts market, as soon as the guy showed me how to hold and play them, he and another guy came up behind me and sang “la Cucharacha.”) The first week I held off all the sellers with my little speech that I was American and we weren’t allowed to bring anything home. The second week, as our tour comrades were buying rum and cigars and all kinds of obviously Cuban products I loosened up and bought a few things – two domino sets, two sets of earrings, a small inlaid box with the design of the Cuban flag but very subtle, not in color. 

  There were some great t-shirts, lots of Che designs,, including one in the form of a Warhol multiple image, one that said Cuba in Coca-Cola like script. ( Cuba is one of the few places in the world where Coke isn’t available, and yet a cuba libre is rum and coke, and they all call the cola here coke.) I finally found Loring a t shirt he didn’t feel nervous about bringing back – it said Cuba, but so stylistically that no one in our group even recognized it. Of course no one else will, either!

Also, in the Havana used book market, I found some old (I think) cigar decals. And, we discovered an amazing children’s book that showed the history of the revolution. It was made of stamps that you put on each image, like some books I’d had as a kid. (not of the Cuban revolution!)  We kept seeing the same book at different stalls, and eventually realized that it was a facsimile. But they had copied all the pictures and pasted them in individually, so it was quite effective. When I told Hoji about it, he said he’d had it as a kid. I wonder if they’d reprinted it years ago, or just more recently, and that his was an original copy. He would have had his about 20 or 25 years ago, so way after the revolution.

The book was actually one of the things I had been concerned about bringing back through customs. But I thought I could make a case of it being an example of propaganda. Just as glad they didn’t look at it, though.

So that's what we carried back. What we carried down was pencils and play dough and tiny bottles of bubbles, and stickers. I always bring stickers, kids always seem to love them, and those I just handed out on the street. Most of the people in our group brought things to donate, some brought huge amounts, in duffle bags. Medical supplies and school supplies and I don't know what else. I felt like we ought to have brought more. Those we just gave to the administrators at some of the programs we visited, and watched as they carefully sorted and recorded them. It was probably better to donate them to the staff, but I would like to have been there when things were distributed, not so they knew who they came from, but just so I could see what they really wanted and appreciated. 

I will stop here, for today, feeling nearly caught up. There are still a couple of events and places we visited that I want to detail, and will hopefully do that in the next day or two.





Last mango in Havana (sorry, I couldn't help it!)




At Havana airport, Sunday am.
Last mango in Havana!

We are on the road back home, about to board our plane to Toronto. Yesterday developed not quite according to plan. We reached Giselle by phone late morning, and asked how to get to her university. She told us it was difficult to find and that she would come by bus to get us, at 6:30pm. She really seemed to want to reciprocate for our taking her to dinner for cooking us dinner, which was great. We relocated to Casa 1932, where we’d spent our first night, and now planned to spend our last. Giselle arrived a bit early, which was fine. Luis apologized that it was casa policy not to allow guests past the parlor room, which was fine. It’s a wonderful room, also serves as the breakfast room. Giselle was mesmerized by the place, said it looked ike a palace. I had the feeling she’d never seen anyplace like it.  Well, it is a bit unusual, with all the antiques and collectibles, and also, I imagine, somewhat sumptuous for the average Cuban.

  I have not been able to understand the class differences that exist here, the poverty of some, the middle class-ness of others, and the seeming wealth of still others.  There are teenagers using cell phones on the Malecon, families strolling and eating ice cream, others congregating and drinking rum. And the families frolicking in the ocean in la Boca did not seem at all poor.  I know those in the tourist related industries make a good bit more in tips, and others receive money from relatives abroad. But it still doesn’t seem to explain the discrepancies.

Well, back to yesterday evening. Giselle seemed to really want us to not just come to her place, but to stay overnight. She said that her university was very close to the airport. She was also worried about finding us a ride back to central Havana late at night. We discussed various possibilities – that we have dinner together in town, and that Luis find a room for her in a casa nearby, and that we stop at her home on the way to the airport early in the morning, that we have dinner and send her home in a cab, etc. We eventually decided, especially as she said the airport was very close to her, that we would stay with her at her apartment, although we had already paid Luis for the room ( and would have done so even if we hadn’t already.)
So Luis called us a cab, who turned out to be the same driver who had driven us to la Boca last week. I always call this guy, said Luis, because he shows up on time.

 Once on the way, the driver explained that the airport near Giselle was not the international one, but an equal distance in the other direction. In oither words, we were going totally out of our way and aside from cost, it would be a one and a half hour drive in the am.

 But that was just the beginning of the problem. When we eventually arrived at the University, the guards at the gate said we couldn’t enter. Giselle talked with them for 15 or 20 minutes, they made a call or two, but eventually she realized that the policy was firm. We never did understand whether it was because we were from the U.S. or just because we were foreigners .Giselle thought it was because we were American, and muttered something about the stupid government. (hers, not ours.) In retrospect, it wasn’t at all a surprise, So we had to quickly say goodbye to her there, giving her the plastic bag we had compiled for her full of toiletries, toothpaste, deodorant,, my Dr. Bronner’s still half full bottle, and all the small hotel bottles we’d taken from the Telegrafo and the Hotel Raquel. Plus a University of New Haven t shirt that had been a freebie when we were touring colleges with Carolina. We'd seen a lot of U.S. t shirts here. That actually reminds me of a story I haven't recounted yet, an incident that occurred at Hemingway's house. (which I also don't think I have described, and so will recount at the end.)

Then, back to Havana and Casa 1932 in our cab. We had the driver call ahead to Luis to let him know we were coming back. Although when we arrived Luis told us he had just given the room to someone else. He was teasing us, though. At that point, it didn’t really matter, we were in “ whatever” mode. We had wondered if we had to redocument, by signing in Luis’ official book (we’d already signed in, then signed out when we left with Giselle) but that didn’t seem necessary. We gave Luis back the five Cucs he’d returned to us, for an early morning light breakfast(juice, coffee, mango, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, guayaba) that we then had, as originally planned, at 5:30 am this morning before our cab man picked us up at 6am.
Our last event, our last night in Havana, after a delicious dinner at the casa, was to stroll the Malecon, along with, it seemed, everyone else in Havana. A wonderful end to a wonderful sojourn.

We are now onboard, about to take off for Toronto. It is disorienting to hear, not English again, but French! 
I shall finish and post the rest of this account upon our return home.






Culture Tour Part 3, and some musings...


Saturday afternoon, Sitting on the roof deck of the Hotel Raquel.

 Our group had its final dinner last night, in a well known restaurant where, apparently, everyone who is anyone, and a lot who aren’t, have to go when in Havana. Hemingway has,of course, been there. Perusing the photos on the walls, I saw Mohammed Ali, Woody Harrelson, Harry Belafonte, Hemingway’s son, his nephew, all in signed photos. The less well known sign there names directly on the walls, on which there is barely an inch of space to fit one in, even up high on the walls. We had, as usual, too much food, all delicious. After dinner the group convened briefly in the lobby of another hotel, where I assume Hoji is known, as we didn’t have any drinks, just talked, posed for a group picture, and began to say our goodbyes. Some have already left, a few are staying here another night or two, the three women friends are going to Trinidad and la Boca and the Casa Sol y Mar that  we recommended highly to them. We also gave the info to Hoji, at his request, since he wasn't familiar with la Boca, and may want to refer other folks there. I feel glad that we are giving them some more business.

 Some of us came up to the roof deck here last night. Great view of the city, If you go to the Hotel Raquel, even just for a drink, make sure to go up there. We ran into some of the group again this am, but who knows, may still encounter them again. We have extended an open invitation for people to visit, and perhaps some of them will.

This is our last day in Cuba. Soon we will go over to Casa 1932, where we spent our first night and will spend our last. We spoke to Giselle, who had invited us to have dinner with us tonite. She said it would be too hard for us to find her place, so she is going to come get us at the casa.

This morning we walked one more time around the old Havana neighborhood, which is getting to be familiar. We visited two museums, one at a university which does artistic restoration, among other things. Some interesting paintings, but more interesting, the stories behind them that the woman who guided us through told us, about the painters, whether they were Cuban or had lived here. One portrait was particularly striking, and she said people called it the Cuban Mona Lisa. I aksed if we could take a picture. She said, officially, no, but if we stood here, indicating a specific spot, we would be out of range of the security cameras! And of course we did.  Next we went to another museum also on the grounds of the University, but only a couple of rooms were open, and not particularly interesting.

Wandering further, we came to the Ceramics Museum, whose lobby we had stopped in on our first day. In the courtyard and upstairs there was an iimpressive array of modern ceramics, in a beautiful setting, a serendipitous find, which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting here. Again, like at the art gallery, no entrance fee, just a tip to the guide.

There is a wonderful view of old Havana from the rooftop where we are now sitting and drinking a couple of Buccanareos. When there is a breeze it is comfortable, well at least tolerable, but when it stops, as it now has, it is barely so. We may have to head indoors to the quasi air conditioned lobby soon, and before long will head over to our casa.

I have learned a little more about the Jewish connection with the hotel, and am hoping to learn a bit more before we head out. The day bartender, Wilbur, is Jewish and if he is available we may be able to chat with him a bit.  What I do know is that the building was originally a mercantile buiding housing textiles, then later became a bank and one or two other things. When the historic center was being restored, the city historian realized that there was nothing in the city commemerating the Jewish population, and decided to use this building for that purpose, as well as making it a hotel. It has only twenty five rooms, a lot of art by Jewish artisits, and, interestingly, a dinner menu featuring traditional Jewish dishes, things like borsht, potato latkkes, marinated fish, chicken soup.  We did have breakfast here this morning, a large buffet like we have had previously at the Telegrafo. No Jewish dishes at breakfast, though, except possibly for one pastry that could have been an interpretation of rugelach.

We went searching for one of the synagogues yesterday afternoon, and found it. There are apparently two active congregations here. We entered the building, saw two glass fronted rooms. One was clearly the synagogue itself, the other adjacent one a room with tables,. About 30 people sitting at them, some with glasses of wine. I took a picture of the synagogue side, and a man immediately came out to us from the other room and said no pictures were allowed. He said we could come back this morning at 9, or this evening at 7pm. But we don’t have time, and I am not particularly interested in attending a service. It would, though, be interesting to talk to some memebers of the congregation.

On our way out, we encountered a man who said he was the cook for the temple. We talked for a while, he said if we were staying longer he would cook us a good Jewish creole meal.  He told us about his ailing 93 year old mother, whom he lived with and cared for. He asked if we could give him a small donation to help with her medical care. I had a hard time believing a man in his 60’s wearing a yarmulke, on the grounds of a synagogue, could be scamming us, and we did give him a few pesos, about three dollars worth, which he said he would use toward a new pair of eyeglasses for his mother, which he said would cost about ten peson/dollars. 

I don’t want to think it was a total scam, and so I won’t. I have no doubt that many people truly need the money or items that the hope to get from foreigners. What I don’t like is being taking total advantage of, being told a story that isn't at all true. I don’t think I’ve written about the two familes that did indeed try to scam us on El Prado a few days ago. The first was a couple with whom we stopped to talk after they asked where we were from. They told us about themselves, and that it was their anniversary but had no money to celebrate so this was their celebration, sitting on a bench on the Prado. Loring is much more of a skeptic, and I am quite gullible, so he had them pegged long before I did. They eventually told us about their two kids, and how one of them was diabetic but that they couldn’t afford to get the insulin he needed. And could we come with them to the international pharmacy and purchase it for them, and they could see they were using it for bona fide purposes. This is where I began to get suspicious. And Hoji, smiling the next day when we recounted the story, said, oh, the anniversary story and the medication story, two of the most commom scams. That at least made me feel better that I had eventally said no to the couple, that I was very sorry, but that we had made our donations as a group to various organizations, rather than to indiviiduals. But I had continued to feel bad as I said no, wondering all the time if their story was  true.

The second incident involved a young couple and a baby. As soon as I related this much to Hoji he said, did they ask you for money for powdered milk? Indeed they had.

I wonder sometimes if it matters how people ask the more well off to help them. Does it really matter if they are clever enough to fool us, if they are truly needy?  Is it important for me to feel appreciated and acknowledged when someone receives the benefit of my largesse? No one want to be taken advantage of or deceived. But who determines the morality in a situation?   I always think  back to the moral dilemmas and stages of development we studied in grad school. What about the man who steals medication that he can’t afford that will save his wife’s life?

Well, on that note I will stop for now. It is becoming increasingly hot up here, and it’s time for us to move on, either to the lobby and to perhaps get some info from Wilbur on the Jewish community here, or onto Casa 1932, our home for the last night of our Cuban sojourn. We haven’t been that successful at finding internet access here, so it is entirely possible that this account will finish and be posted online after our return home, tomorrow.


Culture Tour Part 2


Next morning, Saturday, poolside at Las Jazmine Hotel

It’s about 7:30 am, depart here at 10 am. Breakfast is already being served, but I am hoping to catch up a bit more first. There is a dog here, at my side. Also around the place are a number of cats and a number of chickens, all roaming freely around. It’s amusing to see them all together. Loring thinks that part of the dog’s job  is to keep the chickens from hanging out at the pool area. I think he's right, the dog just chased away a loudly clucking hen, as if he knew what I was writing.

I am going to attempt to record some more of our adventures, in no particular order:

The elderly center is in what what once a convent. It serves the population of the Old Havana section of the city, about 500 people come every day. They also have a day care center on site, for the kids of the center’s employees. We got a brief glimpse of some of the kids as they moved from one room to another, holding hands in boy-girl couples.  Etiquette and proper behavior of boys to girls is part of the center’s goals. The boys apparently pull out the chairs for the girls, too. That part I could do without, but it was interesting to see and hear about. And they were awfully cute. I asked if there is any interraction between the kids and the elderly, and the woman said there was some, mostly on holidays and special occasions, and that they were hoping to do more. 

In one area of the courtyard are a number of exercise machines, for the physical therapy use of the elderly. They looked a bit incongruous in the colonial setting. The center also provides a host of other activities. But on this particular morning, hundreds of folks were gathered in the courtyard, listening to the music of an excellent band, from, of all places, the University of Michigan. Some people were sitting in rows of chairs, others just milling around the courtyard, sitting, standing, chatting, dancing. They were as curious about us as we were about them.  They all looked quite healthy, a contrast to some of the folks at my mother’s independent living facility. But then, perhaps the people with more serious physical and mental health issues were at different facilities, and this is not a residence, but a drop in day program.  I didn’t have a chance to ask whether there are facilities more similar to our assisted living centers. I think most older people live with their younger relatives, sometimes there are three or even four generations living together. I wish we’d had a chance to see a more typical day, but on the other hand, it was an absolutely delightful experience to see hundreds of people enjoying the music, socializing, dancing, ogling us as I guess we were ogling them.

In complete contrast to the center is the home-studio and entire town of artist Jose Fuster. I had read and even seen a You Tube about him after reading in the itinerary that we’d be meeting him. He’s been described as the Cuban Gaudi. A big difference, though, is that while Gaudi, while he did design public places like the  Parc Guell, worked largely on private commission for wealthy clients whose homes weren’t open to the public. (some are, now, as museums.)  Fuster, in contrast, created an immense outdoor ceramic space on his own property that can be seen from outside and around the neighborhood. And he has expanded into several streets of the town, at the request of people whose houses and walls he has mosaiced.  I asked if  he ever ran workshops for aspiring mosaicists, but he doesn’t. His son said that they often do classes for neighborhood kids on weekends, but don’t have time for more than that. Well, it’s best that he gives back to his own community, which he certainly does. He’s exhibited all over the world, but I only saw one place in the U.S. mentioned, at a synagogue in Minnestota. Perhaps he’s Jewish?

At Fuster's we were also served a wonderful lunch of epic proportions, served in the courtyard on mosaic tables. He has quite a few staff people, cooks and servers and mosaicists who now do the actual work which he still designs. I don't know how often groups go there, fairly often I imagine, nearly once a week just on our company's tours, but we were the only ones there that day.

Other places we’ve been:

The cigar factory we visited in the city was fascinating, even though it was a commercial enterprise with a store and very expensive cigars, from about $7 to $12 dollars a piece, at the end of the tour. We didn’t buy any but a lot of the people in our group did, Hoji, our group guide, assures us that people bring back all kinds of things, including cigars, all the time. We don’t have any desire to bring cigars, although we did try smoking one this am, more about that later. But the factory was much more interesting than we’d expected. 

We watched workers separating the leaves from the stems, rolling the interior leaves and then the outer presentation leaf, separating them by color – the Americans like the lighter color ones and the Europeans the darker, (or was it the other way around?) and each thought the taste of the one they preferred was better, although our guide assured us that there was not difference in taste, merely in appearance. One man was separating cigars into seven or eight different piles according to shade, although I couldn’t really discern much difference, and they were boxed further on according to shade. I thought it would make more sense to have some variation of color, which would indicate that they were handmade and individual, but that[s apparently not the case. To me, the boxes and labels were the most interesting part, and I asked if there was any possibilitiy of obtaining any. There wasn’t.. The room in which they were boxed was decorated with paper chains made from labels. That would have been my perfect souvenir.

The worker are assigned one job, with which they stay, to assure the highest quality. They are expected to meet a certain quota, and then are paid a bonus for any quantity above that. They all seemed relaxed, clearly working hard but didn’t seem overworked, chatting with each other as they rolled. It was great to watch, and we all regretted that photography wasn’t allowed.  We asked our guide if the work was regarded as a good job, and he said no, it was very hard work, although each worker gets to take home some cigars, which I think they tend to sell rather than smoke. He was surprisingly open about criticizing the government, an especial surprise since he was a tour guide at a government run operation.

This morning, one of our visits was to a tobacco farm, in an area about two hours from Havana where we stayed last night. Several tobacco growers have government permission to give tours, and sell their own handmade cigars with the tobacco left over after the government takes the tobacco they use for the five government run factories, including the one we had visited. We saw the drying sheds and had the process explained. A gentleman rolled a couple of cigars for the group to share. Most of us did try, and were surprised about how mild the smoke seemed. I hadn’t known that you don’t inhale the smoke, which can make one sick and even hallucinatory. And this is the tobacco left over after the government takes what it uses for the exports. So are those expensive ones even milder? 

The stem line is removed from every leaf, which we had seen at the factory as well, apparently because it has too much nicotine. It is used sometimes ground into cigarette tobacco. I don’t know how much of the Cuban population smokes cigars, or how regularly. You certainly see many people smoking, cigarettes and cigars, and many women smoke cigars as well. I’ll  try to ask Hoji.

Still at the tobacco farm, we were taken to the farmer’s house and served delicious coffee. Some of the nicest moments have been at places like this, where though it is clearly a place for tourists, it is also 
someone’s home, and one gets a glimpse into everyday household life.

I haven’t yet mentioned the dance lesson we were brought to one night. I expected a somewhat hokey event, and this was anything but. Only six of us, half the group, went. It was at a community center and the woman who runs it is the person who gave us the lesson. We were a little concerned to see there were more dancers and musicians than there were of us, and felt a bit intimidated. But once they served us the ubiquitous welcome drink, this time a cuba libre, we loosened up a bit. I certainly did, couldn’t stop moving. All of us danced. The dancers, aside from the teacher, were a young boy, a young woman, and a woman in her 80’s.We learned rhumba, cha cha (called cha cha cha here!) and a couple of other steps. Toward the end the older woman and her husband, a member of the band, danced together. It was pretty amazing.

Oh, and I don’t think I mentioned the visit to the Buena Vista Social Club. Loring and I had watched the movie a couple of nights before we left home,. I knew of it but hadn’t ever seen it before. It is about a group of elderly Havana musicians whose music was rediscovered when American musician Ry Cooder came to Cuba and recorded them, and then later filmmaker Wim Wenders returned with Cooder and made this documentary. The original members are now dead, but this is the so to speak Buena Vista Social Club next generation, and they mostly seemed to be in their 70’s and 80’s. Another experience for which my expectations hadn’t been that high, and which was extraordinary. It was a long show, with musician after musician performing, some singly, some together, and a couple of very sexy young dancers. They repeatedly sang to members of the audience, got people up on stage to dance, and led a huge conga line dancing through the room.

The audience, which seemed to be a mix of Cubans and tourists, not entirely tourists as I’d expected, was wildly enthusiastic. Many of them seemed to know the songs. One couple was there on their honeymoon, were brought up on stage, and sang and danced with the group

One of my main images  of the evening is if several teenager boys who were outside the club, with their faces pressed against the window,  who were singing with the musicians all night long . Periodically I’d glance at the boy at the window right behind me, and we’d smile at each other. When I returned from dancing around the room in the conga line, he gave me a big thumbs up. I went up to say hello on our way out and asked him his name. It is Frank. He asked me where I was from, and I told him. He said, USA, nice country.

I didn’t think the evening’s entertainment could get any more internse. But when we left the club, a block away on the Plaza Vieja, one that has been beautifully restored, there was a huge group of costumed people looking very Carnival-like, with amazing costumes, some on stilts, and lights all around. A few of our group stayed a few minutes to watch, but before long all except Loring and I had left to walk back to the hotel, not far away. I was entranced and we stayed perhaps a half hour longer. What was most intriguing was that they were filming, and would shoot for maybe a minute or two, then stop, get some direction, wait a while, then shoot again. So there would be this intense burst of music and dancing, then a break when all was calm, then the same brief burst again. It had a super surreal feeling.Freeze frame after live freeze frame, with music. 

 I could have watched for much longer. We concluded that they were filming some kind of promotional piece for the country. I asked Hoji the following day if he knew anything about it. He and his girlfriend, Laura, had left the Buena Vista earlier than the group and had also seen them filming. He also thought it was a promotional piece, and that it was somehow connected with the Art Biennale, which is here this month.
We have been coincidentally coinciding with Biennales this year, first the one in Venice last May, which was setting up when we were there, and now this one. There is art in many places on the streets, along the Malecon, at various places around the city. One building along El Prado Boulevard is covered with huge ants, very impressive!  There is a whole schedule of events, but I haven’t seen it and we have been too busy, anyway, to schedule much more in.

Well, we are just about back to Old Havana now on our bus. Our previous Hotel, el Telegrafo, apparently never confirmed our return reservations. So we are going to a different Hotel,the Rachel, for this last night of our group. Since we had packed and taken everything with us overnight, it’s not really a problem, maybe even an advantage, to stay at one more place. The Rachel is mentioned in one of the Cuba books I read, about Jews here, and so I am actually quite interested to see it.

 I don't think I mentioned before that the Telegrafo, where we stayed most of this week, has that name because the first telegraphic communications were broadcast from there, in the early 20th century. The building had been renovated in about 2000. The dining room, where we had a sumptuous breakfast each morning, looks much like it did in the early 20th century. It's quite modern, ac, hairdryers, little shampoo bottles, and the towels, and bedspreads(!) folded into swans and other configurations, a different one each night. It would have cost us about $150 a night if we stayed there on our own. Like the meals, much more expensive than we had expected.  I am glad we got to stay at several hotels, as they were included in our program, but have to say I much prefer the casas particulares (like b and b's that also serve dinner), for about a quarter of the price.


Cuba Education and Culture Tour, Post 1


Wednesday morning, June 5th  I think  

I am going to post the rest of this account as I wrote it, not at all in chronological order and posted in several segments. Hope it isn't too confusing. Think of it as a series of ramblings, that hopefully will give you some overview of the variety of our Cuban adventures and experiences. 


Hotel Telegrafo, Havana

We are now into day 4 of our Havana sojourn, staying with our group of 12 at this hotel. Our agenda has been pretty full, and very interesting. Despite our hesitations about travelling with a group, this has been working well, and we are certainly seeing more and more different facets of Havana life than we ever would have on our own. I am now just going to try and list the various places we’ve been to, and then will have to save details for later, hopefully later today. We are due downstairs in the lobby in about 15 minutes to meet up with Hoji, our funny and knowledgeable guide.

Thus far we have visited a day program for elderly, which also houses a preschool for workers at the program, a training school for teenagers to learn restoration trades which they then use to work on restoring buildings in the city, a cigar factory, a rum museum, the nightly firing of the cannon, an organic farm, a performance at the new Buena Vista Social Club, and ceramic artist Jose Fuster’s town, home and studio, where we also had lunch served to us. More about those below.

Thursday morning, on the bus

We have just packed up and left the Hotel Telegrafo, on our way overnight to the farming area of Vinales, where there is a tobacco farm and some kind of eco lodge called Las Terrazzas where we will be staying.  There are rumors that we will staying at a different hotel when we return tomorrow, which won’t matter for us, since we have had to pack up and take our luggage with us.

Last night Loring and I met a young woman, Giselle, who is a professor of mathematics. ` Our contact was through a man I’d met in Ukraine in 2008, when I was working at the Jewish cemetery there. He wasn’t officially part of the group, but when he heard from his friend what we were doing, he came from Poland to join us. Lukas is a great guy. I have been in touch with him sporadically on facebook. Fb alerts people to friends who have been to visit other countries, and let me know that Lukas had been to Cuba. He put me in touch with Giselle, who was very eager to meet us

Giselle had met Lukas 7 years ago, on a bus. So we met for dinner last night, She is 27, has lived in Havana 8 years, first as a university student, then as a teacher. She is provided with room and board and a salary of $20 a month. Yes, you read that right. We had heard that before about people in other professions, doctors, engineers, etc. Cubans do receive free education and health care, but very little else, and exist on just a substenence stipend. Giselle says she saves enough money to buy soap, etc, each month, and sets aside a llitle to buy a pair of shoes and a few items of clothing once a year. And here we were, drinking daiquiris and pina coladas, eating stuffed eggplant and barbequed pork and ultra rich chocolate cake, spending three or four times Gisellle’s monthly salary on one dinner. We talked about Cuban society, her family, her students, her desire to visit France someday. But she was vehement about loving her country, and not wanting to live anyplace else.

What seems so skewed here is not just the differences in living style and wealth of different strata of society, much more than I'd expected, but who it is on which end of things. It is the professionals who receive the very low incomes. People in the tourist services industry, and artists and musicians, the ones who are able to travel abroad and receive foreign currency, but also local musicians who receive tips performing at restaurants who earn much more.

 I spoke to the two musicians who were serenading us at the table as we ate, and asked them if they supported themselves with their music. It’s a question I have often asked musician friends at home. In the US, the answer is usually no. These fellows last night said they did live on the income provided from their music. They asked what we wanted to hear. American music? I said no, Cuban, anything but Guantanamera. (which means, by the way, girl from Guantanamo.) It’s not a bad song, except when you hear it repeatedly, even in the course of one day.  So they played several songs I didn’t know, followed by a pretty nice rendition of Blowing in the Wind.  At least it wasn’t New York, New York or Yesterday, which we have been hearing every morning at breakfast. The first couple of days it was a pleasant surprise to have live music, provided by two women on keyboard and saxophone, at breakfast, but then their repertoire became a bit tiresome. 

Here’s a partial list of the favorites played by some of the “lounge” bands we’ve encountered. Aside from the ones I just mentioned, there’s Strangers in the Night, the Girl from Ipanema, My Way… Besame Mucho…etc. The Havana old standards, I guess. I was tempted to request something like "These Boots are Made for Walking", just for fun, even though I hate it.

It is kind of refreshing, though, to know that waitstaff, maids, and artists do well economically. And tour guides like Hogi, who will, though, continue to live with his mother or his in-laws when he eventually gets married. He is 30, his girlfriend is also a tour guide. 

Giselle told us that her students are angry, angry that they are expected to work hard but don’t expect to see any results of their hard work. I asked if her thirteen year old sister had any thoughts yet of what she wants to study. She wants, Giselle said, to be a dancer at a hotel. Her parents don’t mind the idea, because they see what the results of all of Giselle’s hard work have resulted in.  Giselle, though, is very happy as a teacher, just wishes her existence wasn’t so difficult.  Even her state -provided food is at a cafeteria a couple of miles from where she lives, which is also a mile or two from the university. So, she walks a lot, and also cooks rice and beans a lot for herself to save some of the walking.

I asked her about her name, which is not a Spanish sounding one. She said it is a common name here, in honor of Alicia Alonso, a world famous ballerina from Cuba in the 60’s I believe. Giselle was one of Alonso's famous roless, is in fact one of the world’s most famous ballets. I remember Alonso’s name, think I may have even read a child’s biography of her, but don’t remember much about her. Will have to do some google or wiki research upon our return.

Yesterday morning, we visited the Museum of Literacy on the grounds of one of Havana’s universities. It was fascinating. In 1959 Fidel made a speech at the U.N. and a pledge to eradicate illiteracy in Cuba. A one year campaign was designed where students and adults were recruited to go to the countryside and work one on one and in small groups. A curriculum was developed to give people who were interested basic reading and writing skills.  We saw a film that interviewed several women in their 50’s and 60’s who had volunteered, and for whom it remained a high point of their lives. Those women said their parents were worried and didn’t want them to go, but they persisted until they convinced them. Later yesterday, we met with a woman, a professor, from an upper middle class family who attended an American school here. She had also joined the literacy brigade, along with her mother. Her family was the only one from her school who remained after the revolution. Her own son and his family, though, live in the U.S.

For the literacy campaign, a large number of gas lanterns were imported from China, because most of the places where people were taught had no electricity, and most of the instruction took place at night, because the people were working during the day. And the lantern itself became a symbol of the campaign. The museum director, who was a member of the brigade herself, and still teaches as well as directing the museum, because she feels that is her most important role.  She stood holding one of the actual lanterns as she told us all of this, with all of us, of course, taking pictures.

 Loring said that the lantern was exactly the same as the ones the fisherman used in la Boca. I said they were probably the very same ones, seeing as many of the cars on the road are of the same vintage or older. Two things from the museum spoke most powerfully to me: one, the image of the lantern as a symbol, and its literal and figurative symbolism. The other is the concept of the volunteers, many of them children, teaching adults and children, and how empowering it must have been, for both students and instructors.

The graduation “exam” consisted of a letter written to Fidel, to document their learning and to thank him. Many of the letters are preserved in the museum’s archive, and a few were on display. One was in Braille. The oldest graduate of the program was over 100 years old, and the youngest teacher, was, I believe eleven. Actually, I think it might have been nine.

Later, on the terrace of the Hotel Jazmines:

It is about 7:45 pm, and just before sunset. Our group arrived here, about 2 hours west of Havana, several hours ago. We are staying here overnight, then heading back to the city for our last night with the group. It is a wonderful place, in a dramatic setting, surrounded by fields and palms and some strange hill formations called mogotes. They apparently occur only in several places in the world. There is a pool, which about half of us hit shortly after our arrival.  We’ll have dinner in a bit.

On the way, this morning, we stopped at a community called las Terrazas. The government formed it in the 70’s, forming a preserve, replanting trees native to the area such as mahogany and teak offering people who lived in the area the choice of moving into homes built for them, or staying in the homes they’d lived in. Some chose to stay put, and some regretted it later. I don’t know if there are others who stayed where they were and were happy about it. There are about 1000 people who live there, a grocery store, health clinic. Coffee shop, school, day care center, plus facilities for tourists, a restaurant, two small lakes with boating, etc. I asked if the grown children of the original settlers mostly choose to leave or stay. Most stay.  It’s understandable. It’s a pleasant and thriving place. The preserve is on the grounds of a former coffee plantation. The owner’s home has been preserved and turned into a restaurant. Some of the stone  walls  of the slaves quarters remain, and you can see niches which they used as the shrines of their suppressed Santeria faith, which persisted through Christianity and is still wildly practiced. We’ve seen shrines in a variety of places.

The drying areas are reconstructed and the guide explained to us the various steps of the process, including spreading and turning the beans every few hours, and raking the pile into the middle and covering with the beans with leaves each night.  We had coffee at Maria’s coffee shop, where Maria, now in her 70’s, still lives, the place now managed by her children. Hoji, our faithful tour guide, highly recommended  a certain coffee drink, cold and sweetened, which tasted like a coffee frappe. I tried to convince Loring that he wouldn’t like it that it was too sweet for his taste, so that I could have his, but it didn’t work.

 I had noticed on the map, when we arrived, a store called Cusco, and asked what it was. The local guide said it sold handicrafts, and that we could stop there if we liked. Unfortunately, it was closed, for lunch or for the day, who knows. I was frustrated because I could see wall hangings, thru the windows, that bore a distinct resemblance to Peruvian arpilleras, the wall hangings that are appliqued and embroidered  of which I have a large collection, many with social and political themes. So there is a clear connection with these, evidenced by the Cusco name, and I would love to track that connection down, and of course obtain one or two. Mission for my next trip here, I guess.

We had lunch at another restaurant on the premises, one of the best meals we’ve had here. Huge platters of chicken and pork and rice and salad, followed by flans. Almost every place we visit has a complimentary cocktail of some sort, either mojitos or cuba libres, or a choice of those, beer , soda, juice. Today’s started earlier than usual, at our arrival at the community about 10 am, followed by a couple more along the way.
We were serenaded at our arrival, and at lunch, by different groups. That is the case almost everywhere, at every meal. The group at lunch today was two men, and they sang what Hoji described as Cuban country music. It is a style of improvised couplets, which some of our group could understand, not me, though, that referred to our group and I guess were pretty amusing. I should try to get some translation. 

I should try to give some description of the people in our group. It is an interesting bunch, twelve of us. We were lucky in that this group is much smaller than their typical group, perhaps because they offered another tour this week, for the Art Biennalle.  There are two couple, ourselves and a couple from San Francisco about our age. There are three women, friends from Colorado, who do a lot of travelling together. This is the first time in several years that all three have done a major trip together, but they have travelled in various pairs between, and there is a fourth friend who also travels with them. They are all teachers, one elementary, one high school, one college. They have done some intensive bicycling trips in the past, to places like  Montana and Kilamanjaro. I would guess they are in their later 30’s to early 40’s.  Another woman is a professor of Caribbean studies who was here once before, in 1999, and is contemplating organizing a trip for some of her students. There is a woman in her 70’s travelling with her 22 year old son, adopted from Honduras. He spent two high school years living in Honduras and speaks fluent Spanish. She has two more adopted children, one Honduran and one Brazilian. All are 22.  She had been to Cuba several times in the 1950’s with her parents, who loved the culture, but hadn’t been back until now. And there is another woman, probably in her 60’s, with her grandson, who is 12, which astonished all of us because he looks to be at least 16 or 17 and also seems more mature than a 12 year old. 

The women travelling singly all, I think, have husbands or partners at home.  The woman with the grandson is very nice (everyone is, we have all agreed that we hated the idea of a tour group, but that this has been great.)  but a bit of a puzzle. She has worked for the World Health Association and travelled widely, and a decade or so bought a house in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru, which she travels to a few times a year. She has already invited us to stay there. She always speaks to the waiters, etc in English, and I assumed until today that she didn’t speak Spanish, that she had somehow not absorbed any in all of her travels. But today at lunch she laughed at the musician’s lyrics, and explained the gist of what he’d said, and so obviously knows a lot more Spanish than I do. 

Well, time to head inside for dinner. More at some point later. They actually have internet here, although didn’t seem t owork this afternoon. Perhaps I will actually be able to post some more before we head back to Havana.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Your woman in Havana


 Here are the first two posts from Cuba, together. I am now writing from Havana, where we are sitting in the lobby of an elegant hotel (not ours, though ours is quite nice enough.This is the first time we have actually been able to find internet access, ten days into our trip. I will write again shortly to update on all of our Havana experiences thus far. 



Sitting at the beach in La Boca, Cuba. It is our third day here, our fourth in the country. We arrived Friday night after a long trip via Toronto. Stayed the first night in a casa particular, Cuba’s version of a b & b, which includes breakfast and also dinner if desired. I chose the Havana place, called Casa 1932, on the internet, because it described the place as full of antiques and knick knacks, which it certainly is.  Luis, the owner, an affable guy, describes himself as a crazy collector. His place did not disappoint. We have our last night reserved with him too, although if a room at the Telegrafo, where we are staying next week with our tour group, is available, we may decide to stay there our last night, after the tour is over. It would certainly be more convenient . But as I told Luis as we were leaving, I almost hope the Telegrafo doesn’t have a room for us, because I would rather stay with him.
The house itself was Luis’ grandparents’.  There are pictures of his parents wedding, amidst Murano glass, dolls, beaded purses hanging on the wall (truly a man after my own heart) a doll head juxtaposed, not intentionally, with a tv remote. He asks what I collect, and I laugh and say, everything, hats, toys, advertising. His eyes light up and he leads us into the courtyard which is adorned with metal signs on the walls, for ice cream, Coke, etc, etc, all looking vintage 1930’s. I would die for any one of them. As Loring points out, I might die, or at least be imprisoned, if I ventured to smuggle one home. By the Americans, that is.  We are not allowed to export anything that isn’t educational. Not that Luis would be willing to part with any one of his treasures, I am sure.
The place is wonderful, and not just because of all of his collections. It is replete with wonderful architectural details. Our room has glass half doors over the wooden ones. I read the name of them someplace, will have to track it down.  The ceilings are high, with wonderful chandeliers. The courtyard is just outside our room,   like our own outdoor living room.
We wonder about the history of Luis’ family, how they managed to keep their home through the revolution, or if that is not even uncommon.
The second morning, Saturday, we came here by private driver, a trip of about 5 hours. We stopped briefly twice, for the bathroom and for something to eat. Loring and our driver had ham and cheese sandwiches, I had ice cream.
Our home here for the week is Casa Sol y Mar, sun and sea.  The ocean and small bar, where we are now sitting, are across the street from the casa.  We have a very nice porch with rocking chairs where we can sit observing life in la Boca in between trips across the street to the beach.
But please don’t tell the authorities, the U.S. ones that is, that we are here. Because Americans are allowed to come here for educational purposes, not recreational ones. In other words, we are not allowed to go to the beach.
It isn’t as hard to come here to Cuba as you might expect. We did have to do some paperwork, fill in the blanks in a form provided by our tour group about the purpose of the trip, have it notarized, etc. The people from the Canadian company assure me that the US authorities never even look at them. We’ll see. Our official itinerary, given to us by the company, documents as as studying water facilities and environmental programs wherever we go, during our visits to come in Havana to schools, art studios, a cigar factory, a health clinic, etc. and also for each of the seven days this week that we are in la Boca. Strangely, they have given me the same itinerary, even though I have described my profession as English language teacher. And I am indeed observing, and studying, as I sit in the gentle waves and talk with small children about words in English, and Spanish, and they sing songs and dance while Loring videos them. And Loring is actually observing water systems, tanks and lines, etc. as he always does when we travel.
No one had mentioned any potential problems with Cuban customs as we entered the country. But we were held up, for close to an hour, as the customs folks scrutinized our papers. I showed them the itinerary as well as the notarized affidavit, which they discussed at great length. One man asked if I had an extra copy. They apparently didn’t have any copy machine, and so he wrote, with my help, notes about each day of the two weeks and where we would be visiting. Each time I asked if there was a problem, they said no, until they eventually let us go on our way. It was all friendly enough, but we never found out what they were looking for and why.
It remains to be seen what may happen when we arrive back in the U.S. but I am not particularly worried. What, we say, is the worst that can happen? They won’t let us back in the country?  Actually, a very large fine might be the worst.
Here in la  Boca it’s quiet. There are huge resorts nearby, in Ancon, just a few kilometers away. I have no particular desire to go there. In fact, there are all kinds of resorts, many all inclusive, around the country. It’s just we Americans who aren ‘t allowed to visit them. (and of course, most Cubans couldn’t afford to. I am not sure if they are allowed or not.)  Here, the visitors are, as far as I can tell, all Cuban. I haven’t heard a word of English, except from Loring, for the last couple of days.
Our hosts here are Joaquin and Olga. They are friendly and gracious. So far, we have had breakfast and dinner here. Olga is cooking our dinner even as I write. Tonight I have ordered shrimp and Loring, fish. The meals are delicious and sumptuous. Breakfast is many courses, a huge platter of fruit, then eggs cooked as we like, plus yogurt, slightly sweetened. Homemade juice, and of course coffee, very strong. The fruits include pineapple, mango, papaya, guayaba. The mangoes and guayaba come from their own trees. They have bananas, too, but the bananas have not fared well this season, Joaquin says.
Dinner has included soup, lentil one night, black bean the next,  a salad of carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, etc. Plantains, and rice, beautifully formed in a fluted mold. An entire fish, presented on a platter. I look forward to seeing how tonight’s shrimp are prepared.
As we sit here on the shore, a contingent of fishing boats putts and rows out to form a line along the horizon. Later at night, we can see them from our bedroom, a light marking each one, where they stay all night. In the morning people come down to buy fish as the fisherman return.
From the porch, where we have spent much time rocking and reading, there is an ongoing slow procession of vehicles and walkers. The vehicles include bicycles, horses and carts klopping by, and some cars, many of them the vintage vehicles one associates with Cuba. In Havana, men hawked rides in them, and some of the most beautiful ones were parked outside the elegant Hotel National, where we went to change money ( and where a sign in the lobby advertised that members of the Buena Vista Social Club would be playing that night. ) Here in la Boca, these are just people’s cars, maintained since the 50’s and painted in wonderful bright colors.
Crabs. They are all over, tiny orange and black ones, large blue ones.  I have to ask Olga if people eat them. The two people I have asked so far, our driver and a ten year old girl on the beach, have said no. But why? Our first encounter with them was on the road. We saw hundreds of them scuttling out of the way of the car, but didn’t recognize what they were until the driver explained. They looked an orangish brown, each body perhaps the size of a quarter. Clusters of them, dashing away from our tires. Not all of them making it.  I wondered if our driver would even have tried to swerve around them if I hadn’t been making exclamations of concern. The next day, walking along the road, we see the evidence of many that did not make it, some squashed carcasses, some mere brown stains on the pavement that I wouldn’t have recognized if I hadn’t been observing crab life and death. 
This morning, Loring notices a small black and orange crab in his open suitcase. I wonder how it got there. I ask him later what he did with it. Nothing, he says. Later, I see a quite similar one, most likely the same one, in the shower. I also do nothing.
Yesterday, we went into Trinidad, the town a few miles away. It is a Unesco protected site, and described as the most beautiful city in Cuba. I selected this area because of the descriptions of Trinidad and of la Boca. Trinidad is indeed beautiful, in the same decaying manner as Havana. There are restored, brightly painted buildings, and others of which you can imagine the former beauty. In many windows sit women and men that look as if they are posing for us.   I yearn to take their photos but don’t want to offend them. A glimpse into the interiors shows sparse furnishings, but often an ornate chandelier from a previous era.
 We hear music and follow it to a bar where a group of men are drumming. A little girl is dancing to their music in the street, and I take a picture of her, with Loring behind her. We enter the bar but the music is so loud as to prevent talking and we hesitate to sit. A sign indicates that the next band will begin in a half hour, after a break, and so we decide to stay, and order mojitos. When the band stops, we can hear a woman speaking, in English, to a group, the first English we have heard. They don’t look like Americans, and I guess that English is just their common language. They leave, and we sip our mojitos slowly and talk with the friendly waiter, who is intrigued by our Kindles. An hour later, the next band has yet to play, although we can see by their t shirts who they are. We seem to be the only customers. Finally, we decide to head on.
Every other house seems to be either a restaurant or a shop. Plus several young women approach to invite us, for a price or course, to their homes for dinner. Perhaps on another day we will accept. There are beautifully embroidered shirts and tablecloths, crocheted vests and sweaters, lots of paintings, for very low prices. But we Americans are prohibited by our own government and its Trading with the Enemy Act from purchasing anything
Loring rented a bicycle this morning , $3 for the day. He will probably keep it for the next rest of the week we are here. The roads are paved and flat, and I plan to go bicycling too, although not as much or as far. Loring is concerned, understandably I suppose, as the last time we went cycling together, on Block Island in Rhode Island, I slipped on a sandy patch on a steep downhill on a very bumpy road, and broke my ankle.  I suppose the consequences would be a bit more serious here, but I want to go on at least one excursion that hopefully will not be my downfall, so to speak.
Loring, energetic soul that he is, also goes for a fairly long swim every morning. I, on the other hand, read, and nap, and lie in the warm gentle lapping waves and talk to the local kids. I am having a lot of trouble understanding people; they seem to speak incredibly quickly. I feel better after reading one of my Cuba themed books, whose American author describes his own difficulty in understanding the locals, even after months living here.
 Loring and I seem to have switched, to an extent, our former travelling roles. In the past I have been eager to fill every moment with cultural adventures where he has been content to lie on the beach. Now,it is he who wants to schedule the next day and keep busy, where I am content to lounge around the house, at the bar, or on the beach, interspersed with reading, writing, eating, drinking mojitos, and naps. And research.


Saturday, day eight

I am sitting once more on the porch of our casa at Sol y Mar. It is our last day here, and half way through our Cuban sojourn.  I had tried to post the previous entry a few days ago, at the small booth down the street here that says telephone, internet. But the woman in the booth said there is no internet, that we would find it in Trinidad or at one of the big hotels.
We’d already been into Trinidad twice, about a ten or 15 minute ride. It is an interesting place, full of colonial architecture, some restored, more of it decrepit. But two trips had been enough. Nor did I have any desire to go to one of the resorts. So both of these posts will have to wait another day or two.  I am guessing, but not sure, that there is internet access at our hotel in Havana.
Our cab arrives to take us to Havana at 1:30. The rest of our group will be arriving between 6 and 7 pm at the hotel tonight, where our tour begins with a welcome dinner. I have mixed feelings about the tour, not  being a particular fan of group travel. But many of the places we’ll be visiting do sound interesting, and like places we couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t know to, visit on our own. There are a couple of schools, a home for the elderly, a crafts workshop, a ceramicist’s studio. And of course a couple of Hemingway related sites. Some I am sure are part of a regular tourist circuit. The part I am least looking forward to is the tour bus. There are up to 24 people in our group, and it sounds as though their tours usually do fill up. I wonder if all, or most, will be from the U.S.  We have run into very few tourists here in la Boca. We met a very friendly woman from Singapore, originally, but who has lived in Australia for many years, married to an Australian. We’ve seen a few other non-Cubans, but haven’t talked with them. One bizarre experience: We were sitting in the restaurant down at the other end of town a few days ago, the only customers, when two young women came in. They posed for each other, passing the camera back and forth, striking silly looking poses against the wall, at the bar, eventually at our table, just inches away from us, seemingly oblivious of us, the waiters, and how ridiculous they looked.  We eventually decided they had to be very drunk, but even that didn’t explain how dumb they were acting. They never cracked a smile, just struck these ridiculous poses as we watched and laughed and shrugged our shoulders.

Most of the visitors here are Cuban, and there are lots of them, mostly families. There are plenty of couples, but even most of them seem to be part of  larger family groups.  Olga says they are from nearby towns, Santa Clara and Cienfugos, within an hour or so from here, and day visitors from Trinidad. Most of the beachgoers look well off, and we wonder if they are of the elite of Cuba. We still don’t have a full picture of Cuban society, and to what extent there is a class system. From what we read, people don’t own houses, but rent them from the government. We know that education and health care are free, and good quality. But we read there are lots of shortages, of food, and also basic supplies like school supplies, aspirin, etc. In Trinidad we saw only one grocery store, and stopped in to buy some cookies. There were drinks of various kinds, and lots of rum, but at least half the shelves were empty.
Here, families walk up and down the street eating ice cream, holding beach balls and tubes, etc.  Olga and Joaquin seem well off, and we have read that the casa owners are, because of the income their business brings in. But we don’t know what they eat while they are serving us these sumptuous meals. Are they having the same thing? Are we insulting them when we can’t finish the huge quantities they provide us with? Ever since the night we both ordered fish, and were served one large fish to share that Olga said is called pardo, we have ordered the same thing each night. It is better than the lobster, the shrimp, that I ordered other days, and better than the crab I had at the restaurant with the posing tourists. Olga had said that they don’t cook crab here, that perhaps they would in Trinidad. (But we never had the urge to go back to Trinidad for dinner,) They did, however, serve it at the restaurant here. It was ok, but overseasoned and sauced, as most things here are. I think that’s one of the reasons the pardo is so good, the sauce is only on the outside of the fish, and the flavor of the fish itself is what dominates.
I wonder how much of the time Olga and Joaquin have guests. I have read that casa owners have to pay a monthly tax of $300 per room, whether or not the room is inhabited. Yesterday, they asked us to sign the guest register. It went back to   2009, or maybe even further, and there probably were about   50 entries. I don’t expect many people stayed a whole week as we have. Although there were several entries that said people had planned to stay a couple of days, but liked it so much that they changed their plans and stayed longer.
Dee, our Singaporian-Australian friend, stayed a few days, not at our casa, but at another one down the street, off the beach. A couple she had met also was staying at a casa away from the beach. For us, one of the delights has been sitting on the porch and watching the world of la Boca go slowly by, and walking across the road and into the water when we get too hot. The view is exquisite, the ocean and the mountains behind, frames by flowering trees and exotic plants and the thatched roof of the small bar and the thatched umbrellas around it.
It’s about 10 am. Right now there are three kids walking by, each with a mango or two in his hands. They look more like visitors than locals to me, but I am not sure I can always tell.  There Two men and a woman are sitting at the bar, their bicycles propped against the table next to them. Here come three young men, one of them holding a rum bottle that looks nearly empty. Now, a guy with a wheelbarrow, with loaves of bread and maybe some cookies.
Speaking of umbrellas, I wish I had brought one, not for the rain, for the sun. It does rain here, and did, torrentially, last night. But the little rain during the day hasn’t impeded us at all. There are many people, though, who carry umbrellas, or rather parasols, to guard against the hot sun. They look quite picturesque, and I wish I had one for myself.

No one but us sits on the beach. It is not an expansive beach, and at high tide there is hardly any sand at all.  But there are nice little niches where one can lean again the rocks comfortably and read. It  is crowded from late am to early pm, then empty for several hours, except perhaps for us, then busy again in late afternoon. Everyone who is there is in the water, just bobbing around in the gentle waves. Everyone except Loring, that is, who goes off for a swim a couple of times a day. One of the first days, a little boy exclaimed, look, he put his face in the water, he’s crazy!  Yesterday, though, I looked up to see a little boy swimming right beside Loring. It seemed he felt comfortable enough trying with Loring next to him. 
Most amusing, though, is the number of people in the water holding bottles of rum. One man, with whom I guessed were his wife, daughter and son in law, and a couple of grandkids, seemed, not surprisingly, to get quite inebriated as time went on. First he and apparent son in law were drinking together. By an hour or so later, only he was in the water, and sounds of what I took to be lack of approval from wife on the shore. The other relatives were no longer to be seen.
Not that I haven’t been drinking my share of mojitos, not in the water although it doesn’t seem a bad idea. Mojitos originated in Cuba, although I have yet to learn where and when. Dauquiris apparently come from here as well. Loring’s request for rum with club soda and a lime, though, has been met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to incredulity. So he has switched to ordering it straight.
Loring has just returned from what was his last bicycle ride here. He has gone out for an hour or two every day, exploring around la Boca, the beaches at Ancon, where the resorts are, and into Trinidad. I joined him one day, which was very pleasant, about as nice as bike riding can be, flat on a decent road along the ocean. With plenty of places to stop for a dip.
  Along the way we came across a man at a small groomed beach, with a sign saying “free” written in bleached white coral, and on the other side of the path, also in coral,”Che.” When he hailed us to stop, free, I said perhaps later in the day. I am sure he never expected us to actually come back, but we did. His name is Eduardo, he proudly showed us a page from a French guidebook that described the beach and mentioned him. I asked how he made any money if the beach was free, and he said he just charged 50 cents for watching our bikes. (that didn’t really need watching.)  He was apologetic when I gave him a three dollar bill, saying he didn’t have change, and shocked when I said we didn’t need any change.
I can’t say why, but I had wanted to stop at his beach, and pay him, rather than to go to one of the equally nice, actually free beaches along the way. I guess it just pleased me to give someone something for having taken the initiative to groom a small section, call it free, and che, and decorate it with lots of dead coral. It didn’t feel like a con at all. Or maybe it was just that I thought he never expected that we would actually come back and stop.

I have only two complaints about Casa Sol y Mar. One, they serve enormous portions of food, more than I can eat. I have truly thought about asking them to serve me less, but somehow have not gotten around to it. Two meals, breakfast and supper, have been more than enough to see us through the day, with an ice cream some days for lunch, lots of water and club soda, and perhaps a mojito or two. There is always a fridge full of soda, water and beer, and we have kept a tally on a paper on the refrigerator door. We don’t even know, haven’t asked, what the price of the meals is. I am guessing about $5 for breakfast, perhaps $10 for supper, probably more for the lobster and shrimp. That’s what the books have indicated, and what Luis charged us for breakfast in Havana. The room itself is $30 per night, as was the Luis’s Havana casa. That charge is by the person, by the way, not the room, in other words would have been $15 for a person travelling alone.
Back to my complaints: the second one is that the water in the shower is too hot! The cold water, that is, warmed naturally by the sun, it is hotter than the hot water, and too hot in the afternoon to rinse off in!
So, too much food, and too hot water, those are my complaints so far about Cuba, from a tourist’s perspective.