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Feasting in Cuba, Day 2

February 25, 2016

Feasting in Cuba, day 2. February 7, 2016: Religion, Art and Architecture

This is part two of my account of our trip through Cuba in early February, 2016.

Part one was posted February 19

Our fabulous tour leaders had planned a full day for us, so we woke early and went to the hotel buffet dining room for breakfast, which was excellent. The eggs were fresh and delicious, which is saying a lot for me, because my eggs at home are always fresh and delicious. Some days I take the eggs right out from under the hens for my breakfast omelet, so you know these Cuban eggs must have been something special.


Breakfast dessert



Because we were not “tourists,” but part of a sanctioned “People-to-people” group with certain obligations, we had a packed itinerary scheduled for our first full day on this wonderful island. Fortunately, we had excellent planners who worked hard to make our days interesting, and they had found knowledgeable local guides to give us a running commentary as we visited the sights. Mary, our guide for the day obviously was proud of the Cuban education and medical systems, and she happily recounted all the benefits of living under Fidel Castro’s benevolent leadership. The educational system is excellent. All children are required to attend school until age 15, and then anyone can go on to the university or to any type of school they wish, for free, including medical school or law school. The medical care also is excellent and free, or costs a very nominal fee (a dollar or two for prescription meds).

Mary did not discuss any of the downsides of Castro’s benevolent leadership. We got that later from other Cubans, who informed us that while medical care is, indeed, free, and of good quality, drugs and equipment are in very short supply. Doctors are forced to diagnose diseases without much in the way of MRI machines, X-ray machines, and in some cases, even blood pressure cuffs. All basic drugs, including aspirin are dispensed by prescription only, but good luck getting any. The sad truth is that the US is partly responsible for the lack of supplies. Our embargo has done its damage, not to the powers of the Socialist government, but to the people. Lifting the embargo will not make Castro’s life any easier—he already gets everything he needs—but it will  make life easier for millions of Cuban people and will save and extend the life of many. Something as simple as a few X-ray machines will make an enormous difference.

I’d like to take a minute here to discuss the situation for medical doctors and other professionals in Cuba. Castro’s brand of Socialism ushered in an upside down economic pyramid. Nearly everyone, from truck drivers to farmers to college professors and doctors work for the government, and the professions with the most prestige earn the least amount of money, while the laborers, particularly the farmers, earn the most. Our tour bus driver earns about $1.50 per day, plus tips, which, judging from the generosity of the people in our group, can be quiet substantial. Doctors earn a whopping $1 per day.

You read that right. One. Dollar. Per. Day. You may well ask how anyone can survive on that kind of salary.

The short answer is: they can’t. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone got food ration tickets courtesy of the Kremlin, and as long as they kept the funds coming, the Cuban people were able to exist, albeit on a limited diet. However, after the Russians stopped sending aid in 1991, during the “Special time,” the situation got terrible. People literally starved, and nearly everyone was forced to find a second job, many in the tourist industry, many in the black market. Farmers slipped out a little extra something here and there so they could have a little nest egg. College professors drove taxis or tended bar in the evenings. When our host, Roberto, lived in Cuba, he supported himself by selling his paintings to tourists at the Havana market, earning far more than his regular job as a biochemist in a laboratory paid. I was astonished to discover that the beautiful hand embroidered dresses that I bought in a street market for my granddaughters had been made by a practicing medical doctor.



Things are getting better as the government is beginning to allow some free enterprise, and the people are discovering that a good way out of poverty is to start a business. Restrictions are still very tight, however, and it is evident that Cuba has a long way to go before it can be considered a land of plenty.

On our trip out from our hotel this day, we got our first lesson in Cuban bureaucratic sloppiness, or maybe greed. Our hosts had made arrangements months in advance for us to see Hemmingway’s estate a few miles outside of Havana. They had paid the admission for all 18 of us, and had verified that we would be arriving on February 7, 2016. We rode the considerable distance to get there, only to discover that it was closed for “maintenance.” Welcome to Cuba! On our first full day, we learned the reason why Cuban guides are always saying, “I hope you have a good visit without too many problems.” They know their country well.

All tours and accommodations are arranged by the government tourism agency (no free enterprise here), and the people who run it are not overly anxious about making a good impression or even about keeping promises. If some bureaucrat decides to close an attraction, it does not matter that people have paid to see that attraction. You just have to get over it. They will promise to make it up to you—we could go to see Hemmingway’s place in a week or two (after we had left the country), and if we did not choose to take advantage of the later date, then, they are sorry but they cannot refund any money after we have refused their generous offer.

We were not terribly disappointed at not seeing the Hemmingway estate, for by now we had learned to roll with the minor upsets that make their regular appearance in Cuba. As an alternate activity, we took a tour of Havana in vintage cars. Our ride was a beautiful purple and white 1956 Buick convertible. The ragtop was tattered, the radio and windows were missing, the suspension was loose, much of the interior was rusted, but she was spacious and glorious, and she moved like an elegant dancer floating down the pothole-ridden street. We had to keep the top up for the first part of the trip due to the rain, but later, the sun came out and we got the glory of driving around Havana in free-air style.

buick ride


creepy forest

Our Buick took us first to Revolution Square, a huge area dominated by a 358-foot tall tower that is vaguely reminiscent of the architecture of the Third Reich. There are statues and pictures of Revolution leaders around the square, as well as housing for government agencies. This is the place for political rallies and where Fidel Castro gave his famously long speeches (one lasted over 7 hours) to the millions of Cubans who gather in the square to celebrate important Revolution anniversaries.

tower pic

After leaving the square, we rode around the swankier parts of Havana, then on to El Bosque de la Habana, a park-like area on a pretty river with lovely old Banyan trees and streams of vines that look exactly like curtains. The place felt mystical and creepy to me, as if there were spirits lurking around. I understood why when I learned that this was a sacred place. Practitioners of Santeria come there to perform religious ceremonies, dances, and sacrifices of small animals. The belief, a blend of African witchcraft and Catholic saint adoration, is the religion of about 11% of the population. It resembles Voodoo in many ways, including spell casting, sacrifices, and fortune telling. During our time in Cuba, we saw several women dressed in all white, acolytes of Santeria. A couple of them sat at a restaurant next to one of the large Catholic cathedrals, smoking huge cigars and offering to tell your fortune for a small fee. Just like in America, they have found a way to blend Capitalism and Religion.


Here is where the Santerias hold religious ceremonies, including casting spells and sacrificing small animals




This is the cathedral. I didn’t get a pic of the fortune tellers because I did not want to be rude.


I was glad to get out from under my creepy feeling at El Bosque and go to lunch at Il Aljibe Paladar, a beautiful open-air restaurant famous for its grilled chicken. I had had chicken the night before, but I could not pass up the primo dish of the restaurant. It was, indeed, very good, and so were the black beans and rice that are served in every single restaurant at every single meal except for breakfast. We also had the obligatory boiled yucca, which is about as tasteless as it sounds, and plates of papaya, pineapple, and chopped cabbage. We were beginning to learn that even though Cuban farmers grow an astonishing array of fruits and vegetables, only a limited few make their way to the plates of tourists who eat at the restaurants. We never did figure out why.

After lunch we went back into Havana to El Callejon de Hamel, (Hamel alley), a narrow alleyway pulsing with visual and performance art dedicated to the African culture that is so important in Cuban life. The buildings lining the alley have been completely covered in paintings by the internationally renowned artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona, who we had the pleasure of meeting. He is a very quiet, serious man, so quiet, in fact, that I did not hear a single word from him. He stood by quietly while a man dressed in what looked like very dressy, very colorful pajamas informed us about Escalona’s work, speaking as confidently and quickly as a traveling medicine show hawker. The man, who I figured was Escalona’s handler, ushered us through a frenzy of music, color, drumbeats, and twirling dancers, down into a cellar-like room, the walls of which were completely covered in paintings by Escalona.

art scene

He shut the door behind us, lit some cloyingly sweet incense that immediately filled every corner of the room, stood in front of the door, and started talking. The room was so small we were all packed in tightly. Trying to take shallow breaths, looking around at the paintings of skulls, weird faces, totems, and strange animals, I immediately began to feel a little anxious, especially when I noticed that Mike had disappeared. He had escaped even before the door had closed, and I wondered what kind of trouble he might be getting into out amid the writhing dancers and the drumbeats. Suddenly, I came to the horrible conclusion that I am far too white, too Western-centric to appropriately appreciate this important artist, this culturally important place, and I shouldered my way out of there in a suffocating panic, abandoning my companions to another thirty minutes with the loquacious guide, the macabre paintings, the closed room full of overpowering, sweet incense.

Interestingly, my companions had diverse reactions to the event. One of the African American women in our group had the same alarming reaction that I did and escaped as quickly as she could, as did my friend who had been a missionary in Haiti for 30 years and had had enough exposure to Voodoo to last him a lifetime. Nearly everyone else calmly enjoyed the educational merit of the afternoon. Some of the lily-white members liked the ambience and paintings enough to purchase one. It just goes to show that everybody is different.

We moved on to the old section of the city and met a restoration architect who gave us an eye-opening tour of the beautiful old buildings for which Havana is famous. There is a frenzied effort to restore the old city, but the buildings are in such bad repair from years of neglect that most of them are uninhabitable. Havana is losing an average of two a day—they are literally falling down. We learned that even though the buildings are dangerous, dark, and condemned, one-half of Havana’s population still lives in them. There is no electricity or plumbing, the roofs are caving in, the balconies are falling off, but still, people live there. The government is trying to relocate people to other, safer housing, but there are yet not enough places to house them all. There is just a desperate scramble to try to stabilize things as quickly as possible.balconies 2


We hope these balconies will be repaired before they completely fall down


old havana ruin

It’s falling apart, but several families live here


And yet, despite the urgency, things are moving excruciatingly slowly. It takes years for the government to restore a single building. Some buildings have been bought by private investors and refurbished for business use, and even though it is difficult to get the permits to do this, once things get over the government-imposed hurdles, the restoration or renovation happens quickly. One gorgeous building in Havana’s old square has been under construction by the government for 10 years. Our guide told us that some Americans are begging to get their hands on it, promising that they can completely finish it in two years. I am hopeful that some American historical preservationists will come riding in on their white horses one day soon and wave some American greenbacks around until they have done their magic.

Americans to rescue

This building has been under construction for 10 years. American developers  say they can get it fully refurbished and occupied in 2 years.


It was incredibly frustrating to see these gorgeous buildings falling apart. Literally, stones fell off as we walked by them, but Castro’s government seems incapable of doing what it takes to preserve and restore them. Yet, we also have to be thankful for the Revolution even in this instance, for if it had not occurred, only a fraction of these grand old ladies would even be standing. In the 1950s, Batista’s government decided to modernize the city, and they began tearing down some of the most beautiful structures in town in order to put up hideous concrete, supposedly mid-century modern style buildings that actually had no style at all. In one section of town, we saw a model of a beautiful 400-year-old monastery that had been demolished to make room for such a pitiful excuse of a building. Batista had plans to systematically “modernize” the entire city, but fortunately, the Revolution came along and stopped the progress. Once again, we have to murmur “Viva la Revolution,” even as we dodge falling bricks.

By the time supper rolled around, we were getting pretty tired from our activity-packed day. It was a relief to sit on the back terrace of the hotel, drink mojitos, and order dinner from the bar. This also was an eye-opening experience. I frequently eat at Old Havana restaurant on Main Street in downtown Durham, NC, and I love the “authentic,” “classic” Cuban sandwiches served there. The “Santiago” is my favorite. It is a slab of smoked pork on “authentic” Cuban bread, slathered with mustard, drizzled with mojo sauce, smashed flat and grilled, and served up with a dill pickle and fried plantains. Yum.

This evening in Havana, Cuba, at the venerable old Hotel Nacional, I discovered that the truly “authentic” Cuban sandwich consists of a slab of pork stuffed inside a dry roll. Period. Real Cubans do not have the luxury of imported mustard, mojo sauce, and kosher dill pickles. There is no such thing as “authentic” Cuban bread, as so many Cuban Americans claim. We got bread at every restaurant we ate, and it all was slightly different. This notion of “authentic,” is an affectation contrived by Cubans who moved to Miami and began experimenting with the exotic ingredients afforded by an affluent culture. What we know as “classic” Cuban fare has been entirely invented by American-Cubans and does not exist in Cuba. So get off your high horse, Cuban-Americans, and quit saying that Miami is the place to get authentic Cuban food. You just made that up.

It was still cold and rainy, so after supper, Mike and I decided we would rather stay in and watch the Panthers play in the Super Bowl than join the rest of the group at the reenactment of the cannon battles at the Morro-Cabana fort on a nearby hill. I have to say, watching the Panthers lose in Spanish was just as disappointing as it would have been in English, but we did not regret our decision to stay in and go to bed early. I hear that the cannons were loud, the night was chilly, and the rain was wet.

I hope you are enjoying my recollections of Cuba and you will stay tuned for Day 3. I’ll get around to it in the next few days.





From → Cuba, food, travel

One Comment
  1. The real fun at the fort was not the cannon, but the people marching in white uniforms with fake rifles, back and forth, for 20 minutes or so beforehand, and the singer dressed in white who ennobled the event with his song. When all that was accomplished, the cannon was an afterthought.

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