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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.


Debra Hurlburt said...

This is great Joanna. Glad you and Loring are having this adventure. I really enjoy reading your blog. I hope you guys have a great time and we might see you soon.

Debra Hurlburt said...

Just read your other post Joanna. I look forward to seeing the pictures that go along with this. It sounds like a wild adventure. Look forward to your next installation. Hello to Loring!

susan c. dessel said...

2012/06/06 hi joanna - wonderful! david and i were in cuba in 1999, chanukah (not beach weather). if you can, do go to the large synagogue in havana. the people who work there are quite interesting to speak with. enjoy! suzi

June 6, 2012 8:56 PM