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Cuba, Final Days

March 8, 2016

SC gazebo

Day 8, February 13, 2016

My stomach prevented me from enjoying the day to the fullest. No breakfast, white rice for lunch, while everyone else was enjoying a spectacular meal in an open-air restaurant. I was glad to crawl on the bus and sleep for a long road trip to the southern coast. Our destination was Cienfuegos, where we would stay for the next 2 days. On the way, we stopped at the museum commemorating the Bay of Pigs invasion, a collection of rather sad looking artifacts of war and many enlarged photographs of the battle that took place.

Cubans have not learned the art of subtlety. Every display contains phrases along the lines of: “Cowardly American Imperialists and their Traitorous Puppets,” and “Brave Patriots who stood victorious against the aggressors.” You get the picture.

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The Bay of Pigs Museum. Not much here except some pictures, posters, and Revolution slogans

 

Cienfuegos is a fairly new, beautiful town situated on a beautiful bay. Settled by the French in the 1890s, it is called “The Pearl of Cuba” for good reason. The thing that impressed me most about this town, aside from the long boardwalk along the bay where everybody congregates, is the incredible midcentury modern architecture of most of the houses there.

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House that looks like a boat. Notice how the people use their roofs

 

When I think of midcentury modern residences, I tend to think of cheap derivatives of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, the kind of low slung tract houses that sprang up all over the United States after World War II. Those homes have never appealed to me, but the houses all over Cienfuegos are simply beautiful, whimsical, clean, and decorative.

There also is a good deal of beautiful French Colonial style architecture here. Obviously, this town has been inhabited by some very wealthy people. They did not mess around with cheap design.

 

blue house

love the colors

 

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Downtown Cienfuegos

 

I was curious about the fact that there are so many single family homes in Cienfuegos. People own their houses here, but ownership can be precarious. After the Revolution, Castro nationalized all property owned by foreigners, supporters of Batista, and anyone just too wealthy for the good of the cause. This might have been a problem for his brother, Raul, who happened to own a great deal of property. According to local legend, Raul balked at the plan to dispossess the wealthy (which would include him), until Fidel reminded him that, being the leaders of the government, they both would be better off because they would own ALL of the property they confiscated. I don’t know if that is a joke or not, but it does have some substance. I heard a sad story from one of the locals about a family who owned a beautiful house in Cienfuegos. It had been in the family for generations, but the family was not particularly gung-ho about the Communist party. A high-ranking Communist official decided he liked the house, and the next thing you know, the original owners were out in the street, and the government official owned it. This happened, not just after the Revolution when things were topsy-turvy and everything was shaken up, but only about 10 years ago. My advice to you is, don’t go trying to find a way to buy property in Cuba, even when trade restrictions are lifted. Any purchase may not “take.”

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You have to wonder who owned this before the Revolution. It now belongs to the government

 

So who does own these beautiful middle class midcentury modern houses? Native Cubans whose families who did not get in Castro’s way, were wealthy enough to own a home prior to the Revolution, but not so wealthy as to spark any suspicions (Raul and Fidel excluded, of course).

Now that Raul Castro is running things, his pro-business sensibilities means that the Cuban people are able to turn their residences into Bed and Breakfasts. Many have added rooms onto their houses so they can rent out several rooms. It’s a good thing for us because we had hit yet another snag: the hotel where we had reserved rooms suddenly announced that the 3rd and 4th floors (the floors where we would be staying) had no water and they therefore could not accommodate us. By now, of course, our guides were used to being in crisis mode, and after a mad scramble, arranged for us to stay in private residences. It turned out to be one of the nicest parts of the trip. Our hosts were kind, thoughtful, and very happy that we were sharing their home. They brought out the best they had to offer, including some wonderful sparkling cider to toast the occasion of our visit.

Even nicer was the fact that dinner our first night in town was hosted by Alicia and Felix, the parents of Roberto, who live in Cienfuegos. It was a treat to be invited into their home for a wonderful rooftop dinner. Roberto had been buying up fresh produce from the farms we visited, and this night he pulled everything together into an amazing paella. Since it contained seafood, thus making it off-limits for me, Roberto’s sweet stepmother, Alicia, cooked arroz con pollo especially for me. Mindful of my still delicate stomach, she was careful to make it mild and soothing.

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Roberto cooking up a storm at Alicia and Felix’s house in Cienfuegos

 

It was a lovely evening of friendship and family. We gathered on the rooftop under the stars, met Roberto’s friend, internationally known artist Richar (like Sting, he goes by a single name), and had the opportunity to buy one of his amazing paintings. Leyte and Saul had brought their children with them on the trip, and those of us missing our grandbabies passed them around for snuggles. Alicia, Felix, (I call them Alicia and Felix the joyful) and Roberto’s stepsister treated us like family. It was a wonderful experience—something I never expected to happen when I signed up for a 10 day visit to Cuba.

Completely worn out by the time we arrived back to the B & B at 11 pm, it did not matter that our room faced the street, just opposite a nightclub. I fell asleep to the pulsing rhythm of salsa. It might have seemed loud to less tired people, but it just rocked me right off to dreamland

Day 9. February 14, 2016

This was yet another jam-packed day. We drove to Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in Cuba. Established in 1514, it has aged gently and charmingly. The streets are paved with mismatched cobblestones that started life as ships’ ballast from that early time. The architecture is clean and simple. The people, like all Cubans, are friendly.

This was the first town we found to be suitable for shopping. I had seen very little shopping areas in any of the cities we had been to prior to Trinidad. Other than the occasional gift shop attached to a restaurant, I did not see a single place to buy anything in all of Cuba. There were drugstores, no grocery stores, no clothing shops, or department stores anywhere. Apparently, nobody buys much in Cuba, probably because there is very little to buy. In fact, some things are in such short supply that people sometimes prefer that visitors tip in basics like soap, shampoo, and toothpaste rather than money. Trinidad is the one town we visited that is geared toward tourism, with shops and restaurants, although I still did not see a single drugstore or grocery store—just places to buy handcrafted items like linens, jewelry, hats, and art. The little embroidered dresses that were made by a medical doctor (mentioned in a prior blog entry) were purchased here, as was a beautiful linen scarf made by craftswomen who are reviving the old, lost techniques of needlework.

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trinidad

Mike stumbled upon an old fellow who surreptitiously sold some handmade cigars to him, cautioning, “Quick! Put them in your pocket!” The government owns all the legitimate cigar factories and 90% of the tobacco harvest. The 10% left to the farmers cannot be sold in the cities where “official” cigars are sold, so if you buy a cigar on the street, you most likely are taking part in an illegal activity. The government warns people not to buy “fakes.”

Interestingly, an illegal “fake” cigar is probably much better than an official Cohiba. In the sanctioned cigar factories, chemical additives adulterate the product. If you buy one from a tobacco farmer, you get an organic, hand rolled, unadulterated cigar, and for a whole lot less money. Mike thought he was just doing the guy a favor, but as it turned out, the so-called “fake” cigars he bought for our son-in-law are better than the official ones. They were much cheaper, too!

We had lunch at a nice place, but my stomach still was not cooperating. During the course of lunch, however, I made a surprising discovery: papaya contains a substance that settles the stomach. It is the go-to remedy for Cuban mothers when their children have a tummyache. I am not wild about them, especially since I had been subject to them at every meal since we hit the island, but when I ate some on this day and found my nausea lessening, I became quite a fan! I still did not eat much lunch, consisting of the usual heavy fare, but looked longingly at the avocados growing on the tree right above our heads. Why, oh why were we not served a single avocado on the entire trip? It was all I could do to keep from standing on the table, reaching up, and picking one of those huge, tasty-looking fruits right off the branch.

avacados.jpg

Leaving Trinidad, we went to El valle do los ingenios, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, stopping at an old plantation where we drank some delicious sugar cane juice (sans rum for me, thanks), and browsed along a street full of vendors. It was interesting, but I was saddened by what I saw and heard. The plantation had been farmed by slaves, and the evidence of their hardship was everywhere, from the poor descendants selling goods in the street to the picture of the slave mistress hanging on the wall in the front room, to the worn floor where slaves squeezed the juice from the cane by trudging around and around, pushing a heavy wooden pole. I grappled with the long pole, pushing it around to get a sense of what it felt like to have to work the cane. It was not easy.

plantation tower

The plantation tower. The view from the top is magnificient. Note the linens for sale

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View from the top of the tower.

 

I decided not to post most of the pictures we took of the plantation. They were too depressing.

We had dinner back in Cienfuegos, which I did not enjoy due to the smokiness of the restaurant and the heavy food going into my sensitive tummy, but I found out some interesting information about the Santeria religion while we were there. When slaves were imported from Africa, they were deprived of their religious heritage. They ostensibly embraced Catholicism, but in reality used it to camouflage the continuation of their own by blending the two. One of the African dieties is Chango, the god of of fire, lightning, and thunder. He wears red and carries a knife or a hatchet. Saint Barbara also wears red, carries a knife, and is associated with lightening and fire. In the restaurant where we ate this evening, there were paintings of a, large, mucscular African man wearing a red loincloth, wielding a sword  and a statue of pale Saint Barbara, holding her knife, wearing a read sash. She also had visited a pedicurist who had painted her toenails red. The two images standing side by side are a reflection of the hidden religion of Cuba.

Chango. Here he carries an ax. Below is Saint Barbara. Can you see the resemblance? They both  carry sharp objects and wear red. They also both like lightening and thunder.

And because I found this and couldn’t resist:

 

Day 10, February 16, 2016

Our last day. We hurried out in the morning for one last walk around the block in this lovely town before we got back on the bus and headed to the airport at Santa Clara. The drive took us through the poorest areas we had seen on the trip—this was the first time we had seen shantytowns and ramshackle houses.

shacks

They aren’t in great shape, but they are  painted in nice colors

 

Santa Clara is an interesting mix of old, colonial architecture and not so beautiful  midcentury modern buildings like the ones in Havana that were built when Batista had decided to “modernize” the country. One of the biggest battles of the Revolution took place here. Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the Revolution did a dandy job of shooting the place up. Bullet holes adorn several of the buildings around the square.

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See the bullet holes especially in the upper right. Che shot up the town pretty good

 

I got the feeling that Santa Clara was economically depressed, even though there were plenty of indicators of past wealth.

SC gazebo

Sweet Gazebo built in the glory days

 

There were a few beggars, a rarity in Cuba, although they were not obnoxious. Richar the artist gave us a tour of the square, and we were intrigued by two women who stealthily followed us for the entire time. They never bothered us, but it felt a little odd, being so obviously followed. Unfortunately, I did not think to snap a picture of them. They haunt my memories.

After our tour, we went to lunch at an open-air restaurant, where we were served the usual heavy food. I had about three bites of shredded beef, which was not bad, just more than I wanted. For dessert, they served an excellent flan, along with the oddest thing: Milk balls. These were a concoction made of milk and sugar boiled down to a gooey consistency. It was about as tasty as it sounds.

And then, it was time to go. We were dropped off at the airport, which was nicer and much newer than the Havana airport. They actually had a snack bar and comfortable places to sit, and Hallelujah! The bathrooms were clean, the toilets flushed, and there was plenty of running water in the sinks! Our last visit to the loo in Cuba was far superior to our first (and all the ones in between). We all had a nice time visiting with each other one last time before we boarded our plane and headed for Miami and home.

It was a great trip, an adventure that we are very glad we took. We may have been coddled more than the average tourist, and for that I am grateful. The fact that Roberto, Elizabeth, Leyte, and Saul worked so hard to keep us comfortable and fed with the very best Cuba had to offer did not diminish the authenticity of the experience. I still got to drive a rattling Russian car through the back country, ride a sweet ox, drink sugar care juice at the source, toy with the idea of smoking a hand rolled cigar, swim in a crystal pool and many other, delightful adventures.

I came away feeling both better and worse about the country, the people, the Socialist government, the Revolution. There is no doubt that Cuba is a hard country, and the plight of the people is not good. But it has always been a hard country for the people who live there. Before the Revolution, there was slavery, then near-slavery under the heavy thumb of foreign ownership and a dictator who cared little for his people. After the Revolution—well, people are living under an equally ruthless dictatorship, and while they are poor and oppressed, I believe that the average citizen is better off now. They may not have internet or shopping malls or. . . oh, yes. . . that little thing called freedom. They may live in starving conditions at times, but they do have free medical care and educational opportunities, and they are finding ways to make their lives better. Resourceful, kind, and hopeful, the Cuban people were inspirational to me. I am glad I have the privilege to know a few: Roberto and Leyte, now both American citizens, and Alicia and Felix, along with all the other generous souls we came across: our hosts at the B & B in Cienfuegos, the hardworking farmers, the students and young people who look forward to a brighter future, the artists and artisans who toil long hours to make a better life. Although Mike and I have visited some of the old Soviet bloc nations that are still struggling with the legacy of Communist oppression, Cuba was our first “practicing” Socialist country. We came back richer for the experience, with an appreciation for differences of political opinions, and for the fact that we live in a free society. I am grateful for the opportunity to travel, and the opportunity to come home to a safe, comfortable, beautiful environment, and I am grateful for friendship that transcends political boundaries. God bless Cuba. May she and her people live long, live up to their potential, and someday, live free.

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1963

 

 

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2016, With our hosts, Felix and Alicia the joyful

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From → Communism, Cuba, farm, food, travel

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