Day 4 in Cuba started out with a buffet, and amazing cafe. After a great meal, we headed down to a conference room in the hotel. We met with a former Cuban Foreign Services Scholar, who brought the group up to date on Cuba – US relations from the colonial period to present times. I had just read Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, which is as much a history of Cuba as the Bacardi family and company, but from a capitalist perspective, so it was interesting to notice the discrepancies between the two accounts. For instance, the speaker implied that business owners fled the country out of guilt/fear prior to the revolution, and failed to talk about the confiscation of their assets. However, when directly asked, he provided an account that was more inline with what I had read in the book. There was lots of talk about, “Terrorist groups in Florida.” He also said that Cuba was not changing from Socialism to Capitalism, but something new. He said, “Cuba has to adapt.” He thought that it would be a slow process, but Cuba has to change. A member of our group suggested that when the embargo is lifted, people will get rich, everything socially and otherwise will change. He presenter said, “we accept this challenge…we have been preparing for this.” Later he added, “Cubans need to work harder to have more.” “We are going to face new realities, and I’m optimistic.” The presenter kept talking about Cuba embracing at least some degree of capitalism, but he never once used the word capitalism unless someone else used said word in their question. I got the impression that Cuba will try to hold on to its socialist ideals for quite some time. I think that longer term, it will likely look more like Canada, or perhaps a Sweden. Controlled capitalist, but with strong social concern, for instance socialized medicine, nationalized industries, etc. That said, it may be hard to resist the fast money that American tourism will offer.
After the foreign services presentation, we got on the bus. After hearing that we had another giant of a day, our American guide introduced our Cuban guide. “She’s your guide, shes our guide, shes Ms. Cu-baaa!” Nilda told us about the day’s activities as we headed to the Muraleando neighborhood community project. The manager of this project was very genuine and very enthusiastic. His passion was contagious. He described some of their art as, “tangible poetry.” He definitely did not need a translator. The project is called El Tanque, because they petitioned the government to take an old water tank in a trash heap, and turn it into an art gallery. They cleared out a junkyard, and now they have a beautiful community center. They’ve also beautified and improved the entire neighborhood. The female singer pictured below had just won a caribbean talent show. I have her CD, so I’ll try to update this post with more details about her later. The statue is of a local character, who we got to meet. The teeth are real dentures. The bench is dedicated to an old woman who used to sit there daily, waiting on her love (it is assumed that she was referring to a potential future love).
After saying our goodbyes, we took a walking tour though Old Havana with a local architect. Both he, and his wife, were architects in Havana trying to save and restore old buildings, so it was a very enjoyable and informative walk. It was also our first chance to wander the streets, so even without the great commentary, it would have been a great time. I don’t recall the architect’s name, but I thought of him as a Javier (Bardem), perhaps you can see why.
First, notice the box of Virginia apples. I do know that they don’t grow apples on Cuba, so perhaps it was some kind of aid? I didn’t get to ask about it, as that pic was taken during our free time wandering. Next, notice the shotguns. Does your grandpa ever tell you that Obama/Clinton/etc is going to take away your guns? In Cuba, they really did. This museum displays the shotguns confiscated by the government. I saw a bunch of Browning A-5s. I was with our Cuban guide at this point, who is from Pinar Del Rio (the country), which makes her a guajira (country girl). I thought she might know about hunting. She said that it is difficult to get a permit to own a shotgun, but some Cubans do. However, most harvesting, of say boars, is done by trapping. The interwebs shows me that there is quail hunting in Cuba, but I couldn’t tell you if Cubans are allowed to do it. The architect was particularly candid about his thoughts on Cuba. He said his grandparents were for the revolution, when it was still about getting rid of Batista. When it became communist later, they regretted it, as they were a wealthy family. Eventually, his grandfather took his own life. The architect also said that he would not be able to live as well as he does without his two brothers sending clothes and money from Miami. He was a very interesting guy, and I wish we had more time with him. The picture of stone above is so you can see the coral in it. The cigar is a Romeo y Julieta #2. These were my walking around sticks while I was in Cuba, as they were 3.4 CUCs (less than $4 American), and easily found in Tubos for portability. I never had a draw or construction problem, and the flavor was great. Maybe a little one dimensional, but they were prefect for my purposes. I really just grabbed a few by chance, but ended up having one whenever I had 30-45 minutes.
We hit Cafe Del Oriente for lunch. Apparently, its the place to see and be seen, as the Castros can often be seen there, and other high level officials. The welcome cocktails and food were great, but the atmosphere and music were just incredible. It was a nice respite from the heat and the walk.
After lunch, we had a tour of Casa De Africa, with an Afro-Cuban religions specialist, and then saw a show. The actors were excellent, and as always, we were blown away by the quality of the production, and that it was just for our small group. However, some school children wandered over, as the museum is right on the street, and they joined in the dancing. The dancer in blue is the Yorùbán/Santerían orisha Yemaja. I thought she stole the show. She pulled me up to dance with her. My wife thought it was fitting as she is the patron deity of women, especially pregnant women. After Casa De Africa, we headed to a hotel for lessons in making mojitos, and dancing salsa.
I lost the mojito contest, but I had lots of rum, and maybe instead of the loser, we can say I was runner up. Then we learned Cuban style salsa, which involves a different count and a post. Or at least thats what I remember. I’m not a great dancer, but I learned the basics, and had a great time.
We drove back to the hotel along the Malecon, and with a few hours to burn, I opted for another Romeo y Julieta #2. I also tried Bucanero Malta, which at first I thought was malt liquor, but when I saw our bus driver Havi drinking it, inquired, and found out its more like sugarcane root beer. It had an interesting and very unique flavor I can’t quite describe. I thought it went well with the cigar, and was a welcome change of pace from the 14 or so rum drinks I had that day. I also threw in a bonus bathroom cigar selfie. How often does one get to enjoy a bathroom cigar?
We had dinner at Cafe Espanola. It was a good meal in a very interesting place. Afterwards, we enjoyed some jazz in the lobby, and called it a night.by rsiv with no comments yet
Day three started with another breakfast buffet, and this time, having figured out how amazing Cuban coffee is, I had some cafe con, and sin, leche. Why pick a favorite? We said goodbye to Cayo Santa Clara, and headed off for the day. The first stop, was the Remedios Baseball Stadium.
We brought some gifts, and got to play a little ball. We did have a good conversation, but I think playing was everyone’s highlight. I scored twice, got tagged out, and flew out. I have some video I may figure out how to upload later. The Cubans were great hosts, and made the game interesting. For instance, my pregnant wife grounded one to the shortstop, who paused before throwing to first, to make it close. She was thrown out, but just barely. Everyone had a blast, and it was still pretty early in the morning. Next we headed to a senior citizen community center.
Below, one of the seniors teaches us quimbumbia, a baseball-like game, and then my dad gives it a shot.
I have to admit, the senior center didn’t look like the most fun activity on the itinerary, but between the music, dancing, quimbumbia, dominoes, and handmade crafts, it really was one of my favorite stops. The seniors also had an interesting perspective on Cuba. We got to hear what they, and they’re parents thought about the revolution. We also asked about how their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were doing. They all seemed pretty pro-revolution, and said that had always been the case. It was interesting that all of their kids and grandkids had good jobs. Doctors, nurses, professors, and musicians, many of whom were living abroad. This was one of the only places I really didn’t hear any negative opinions about Cuba at all. One wonders why. Perhaps consequences were greater for criticism in their time.
At Santa Clara’s Casa de la Cultura, Melodias Antillanas played traditional music on 100 year old instruments, and seniors taught us the Danzon. The building was beautiful, and the musicians were excellent. The seniors were very spry, and everyone had a great time. At the end, there was a dance competition, and my parents won. We brought some clarinet reeds as a gift for the group, and the clarinetist was so appreciative, he took his reed off of his instrument to show us that we had brought his favorite brand.
Then we headed to lunch. It was probably our most touristy lunch, but good none the less. HB (Pelo Pelota) was able to order pear juice. I had a cerveza y mojito.
Then we stopped at the Che Guevara Memorial, before heading to Havana, and our hotel, the Melia Habana. On the long drive, our American guide, was teaching our Cuban guide how to use her new touchscreen laptop. She was particularly interested on how to listen to music. She had a black and white flip cellphone, which she made several calls from. She said she texted a lot, but I only saw her make calls. I was surprised she had access to so much technology.
We checked in, got a welcome cocktail (I don’t think I’m mentioned it yet, but almost everyone we went, we got a welcome cocktail), and headed to La Casa Del Habanos, the state run cigar bar, that is found all over Havana, in our hotel in this case, and also overseas. This was the only time I ran into any rude Cubans. A security guard, or police officer, or some person of authority was not happy that I took a picture of the outside of LCDH. He came over, and pointed at a 3 or 4 inch square sign of a camera with a slash though it that I had missed (did you notice it in my pic?). I looked at him incredulously, and asked, “Sorry?” That seemed satisfied and walked away. On my mom’s trip 3 years ago, she was made to delete a picture she had took at a hospital. That said, that was the one and only encounter I had in Cuba that was not pleasant. LCDH is also where David taught us to play dominoes in Cancun. Also pictured above is one of the Canadian friends I made. He is a BOTL, so perhaps some of you may know him. He said his name was Herschel, that he was a lawyer from Toronto. He and his friends gave me some great advice, so thanks again Herschel and Larry. After a quick smoke (unfortunately, many (but not all) of my cigars were rushed) we went out on our own for the first time to Vistamar for dinner. I hope you like pictures of mojitos in front of the ocean…
The dinner was superlative, the drinks outstanding, and the cost was insanely low. I had off-menu lobster at the suggestion of my Canadian friends. What a way to start our stay in Havana.by rsiv with no comments yet
1.) Colibri Tranzpack. I throw a few ronsons in this case, along with a budget cutter, and sometimes a punch. Its a tight fit, but it works. This saves you some money in country, and also ensures that you have the necessities as soon as you land. Before I had this, I often was reduced to using a normal lighter when cedar sticks were not available.
2.) Cigar Caddy. At home, I use a lock and lock, with a drymistat as a mini/travel humidor. The cigar caddy has foam to protect the cigars, and is a lot more packable. I went with the 10 cigar version, which usually fit in my wife’s purse. I was averaging about 2-3 cigars a day, and not buying daily, so the 10 cigar size was perfect for my needs, but CC offers larger and smaller options.
3.) Phrasebook and Spanish App. Check out my post, and load it/save on your phone in case you don’t have service. The App works without a cellular/wifi connection, so you can always communicate. I used the app several times, and can’t recommend it enough. For example, I wouldn’t have gotten the ear at the pig roast without looking up how to say, “La oreja, por favor.”
5.) Travel wallet. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve used one, but I do recommend it for an American in Cuba. When you can’t use a credit card and can only bring cash, the travel wallet is a must. I kept about 100 CUCs in my pocket (walking around money), and another 400 or so in the wallet. That way, you don’t pull out too much cash at any one time, but you can cover dinner, a painting, a round, or a box. It also gives one peace of mind just to know you’ve got enough for whatever.by rsiv with no comments yet
On our second day in Cuba, we awoke to an amazing breakfast buffet. My pregnant wife filled a bag with pastries to snack on throughout the day, and we were off. On the bus, our guide said we had, “a giant of a day.” We didn’t think anything of it at the time.
I expected the rum and cigars to be excellent, but I was not aware of how good the coffee would be. Espresso, cafe con leche, or americano, it was always surprisingly good. Add some Cuban whole beans to the list of things I’ll order the day the embargo ends.
I got a few mosquito bites the night before, but this is why I didn’t get eaten alive.
Our Cuban guide told us about the day’s events as we cruised down the causeway.
Our first stop was La Imprenta, a local print shop that was in the process of changing from a state run enterprise to a privately owned collective. Essentially, the shop was petitioning the Cuban government to allow it to privatize, with the end goal of increasing the salary of each of the employees, who would be equal partners. This was an example of how the Cubans seem to know that Communism has failed, and that they want something different, but what they want is not exactly or not always American-style capitalism. The government is allowing privately owned businesses that operate for profit, and this one just one of many examples. The restaurants were the first businesses to privatize (illegally, and then legally), and they seem to often be more capitalist in the way Americans think of capitalism. This print shop showed us that there is already a range of private business possibilities in Cuba on a socialist-leaning to full American-style capitalist spectrum. It makes one wonder what the future holds for business in Cuba. The manager was an interesting guy. He clearly wanted to improve his employees’ salary and quality of life. He also wanted to maintain the soul of his work, and not update the machinery or automate any processes. Its a romantic notion, but I’m not sure how it will work out long term. I hope they’re still doing well when I return.
Our next stop was Proyecto de Arte Por la Costa where we met with Madelin Perez Noa and her husband, Leo. They discussed their art and their community outreach in Caibarien, the fishing village in which they reside. My wife learned to make recycled paper, that they later use for art projects. My mom bought my future child his/her first toy. After the tour, the demonstrations, and some discussion, we got back on the bus and headed to a sugar museum.
We were greeted with some guarapo (fresh pressed sugarcane juice), which was surprisingly good and complex. We got to operate a hand car, and learned all about the history of sugar production on the island. After the tour, we boarded a steam train for lunch.
The train stopped and we disembarked for lunch.
After lunch we got to see a palm climbing demonstration. The climber was very proud of his work, and ability to harvest 100+ trees a day in his prime, but was sad that it was a dying art. After the meal and the demonstration, we got back on the train and headed back to Remedios. This time, we rode in the engine. Hanging off a moving train while branches go by, trying to get creative pictures is not particularly safe. I survived, unburned, uninjured, and this is the result:
In Remedios, we took a bicitaxi (pedicab/bike rickshaw) though town, into the main square, and to Remedios Cathedral. We got to speak to members of the church, and the taxi owners. With the help of my SpanishDict app (which works without a cellular connection), we were able to have an interesting conversation with a driver who’s brother left for Miami. I won’t get into the specifics, but lets just say it may be challenging for Cuba to create opportunity and wealth while also discouraging its newly upwardly mobile from immigrating to the US. Also, notice the baseball shrine in the Cathedral. They are quite serious about their baseball.
Despite our giant of a day, we got back to the hotel in the afternoon. I managed to get some beach time in, and then as it started to rain, I had my first real cigar of the trip, and Monte #4.
The cigar was not the cleanest most pristine stick I’ve ever encountered, but the taste and draw were superb. The view and company was even better.
After the cigar, we met my parents at the bar, and then we headed to dinner at the hotel.
The mojito was made with HC tres anos. It was great. Before I left, I read a book about the Bacardi family and company, and the history of Cuba. As far as I know, Bacardi does not make a three year old rum, or even an aged white. Maybe if Havana Club and Bacardi have to compete for the American market in the future, Bacardi will match its offerings.
Dinner was excellent, but the real surprise was on the apéritif and digestif table. Bourbon! I asked the guides about it, and they were unsure how this was possible. I had a glass poured and thought about how I was missing the derby. That evening I didn’t have much time to reflect, as I was exhausted.
by rsiv with no comments yet
Links to each post (the trip is broken down by day) about my Cuban Adventure are provided at the bottom of this post (Suggested reading method, open each post in a new tab, start the playlist provided below, light a cigar, pour some rum, and enjoy).
About a week ago, I got back from Cuba. It was the trip of a lifetime. Let me start my explaining how and why I went. Three years ago, my mom got to travel to Cuba as part of a medical delegation. It was not a tourism trip, but she did get to have dinner at a Paladar (privately owned and run restaurant, an example of capitalism in Cuba, and the first such business to be privatized in Cuba), go to some museums, and tour old Havana. She had a great time, and I was very jealous. I found out about legal travel to Cuba via People to People trips, and did some research. A&K seemed to have the best reputation and itinerary, so for my 30th birthday, we booked a trip. The journey began with a short flight to Miami.
While in Cuba, there were amazingly talented musicians everywhere. In order to get the full Cuban experience, please enjoy this playlist as you read my Cuba posts:
I’d also like to add that P2P trips are not tourist trips per say. Essentially, you’re committing to a mandatory full schedule of educational excursions. It was not a relaxing trip compared to say a typical beach vacation. The pace seemed fine for people of all ages, but if you just like to lay around and recharge while on vacation, this trip is not for you. Everyone in my group had an amazing time, and I’d love to go again. If you found my blog by searching for Cuba P2P trips, book with A&K. You won’t regret it. I hope y’all enjoy my posts.
At our introductory meeting, you could already tell it was going to be an amazing trip. Open bar, enthusiastic guide, comprehensive to do and not to do list, and informative Q&A. We also heard from our first P2P contact. A Miami native of Cuban descent spoke about the diaspora in Miami, their values, beliefs, politics, etc. It was very informative and enjoyable. One could also tell that the other travelers were going to make the trip that much better. My wife and I were the only couple in our 30s, but there were a few others between our age and my parents’. However, most were about my parents age or older, but all were very fascinating and asked great questions. Another unexpected advantage of going with A&K is the quality of your traveling companions. The next morning we headed to the airport for the flight to Cuba. It was a very normal airport experience. I was mistaken for a Cuban by an old Cuban gentleman, which made my day.
Above is our first view of Cuba. On the flight, I made a friend (for legal reasons, lets call him a forced acquaintance). He sat next to me, and was quite a character. He was an American visiting family in Cuba. He brought a bottle of Rum from Barbados, and proceeded to drink about half of it on the very short flight. He smoked an e-cigarette until the flight attendant chewed him out. He had the long fingernails of a guitar player, but I started thinking perhaps they were for snorting as opposed to strumming.
After customs, the group got the bags, and headed for the door. Our guide was overburdened, so I offered to roll his bag for him. He accepted. As I walked toward the exit, I was stopped by security. They asked me to wait. I did. They asked me to step into another area, and I complied. Then they asked me to open my bag. I explained that I could not, as it was padlocked, and not mine. They were not at all happy about this. Then I looked over, and my buddy from the plane was also being searched. I was starting to think the trip might be over before it had begun, or at least, that my accommodations might change. I kept my cool, as I had done nothing wrong, and eventually, our guide came back, and was able to explain the misunderstanding. As it turns out, he was carrying some blank canvases as a gift, and customs simply wanted to provide him with some documentation so that he could get completed works out of the country at his time of departure. When I finally got back to the bus, which I had held up, there were many jokes about how perhaps I shouldn’t dress like a narco, and ¿Cómo se dice, “its not my cocaine”?
We headed to our first P2P experience in Cuba. It was a children’s theater in Santa Clara, and we got to see a show about the many different cultures and dance styles in Cuba. The theme of which was about equality. It was also our first experience with Cuba’s infrastructure and ingenuity. There was a big rain storm, and the power went out. The teachers managed to get their apple macbook hooked up to some speakers they powered via a battery, and the show went on despite the outage.
It was an interesting experience, and the kids were talented. It was a good way to get the group participating and dancing, as its hard to turn down a cute kid, especially when you don’t speak the language. After the theater, we headed to the Melia Buena Vista Cayo de Santa Maria. Its an all inclusive hotel that is out on an island, which is connected to the mainland by a long causeway/bridge. Since we had still not exchanged any money, it was nice that everything was included. We settled into the room, walked down to the beach, grabbed a beer from the mini fridge, and then hit the bar.
I ordered a double of Havana Club seleccion de maestros neat. Our guide came, and explained in detail the genesis of said bottle, and suggested all the other guys on the trip have a glass. Then we moved on the the Santiago de Cuba Once. It was a little sweeter than I generally prefer, but I found it to be a fine after dinner drink, and great compliment to a cigar. I grabbed a couple Monte #4s, and a few Joyitas (mini-panatelas) for a quick smoke.
That night we had an amazing dinner, which somehow, I don’t have any pictures of. I was seated next to a lady from Annapolis. We started a conversation about our favorite Caribbean islands that spread to our whole side of the table. The consensus seemed to be that I had to try St. Barths, and St. John. My vote was for Barbados. After a leisurely dinner with plenty of rum, we went to see some dancing. I lit up one of the joyitas, and polished off a glass of Once.
As we watched the show, I kept thinking about how amazing the cigar and rum was, and about how crazy it was to be in Cuba. The group was great, the guide was great, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was overwhelmed. I remembering thinking, “Wow”, to myself. Not my most eloquent or articulate moment, but as I said, I really was overwhelmed by the experience. At about 11:30, we called it a night, as we had a very early morning.
Author’s Note: I have a lot to write, before I forget. I intend to edit and add links as I go. This is a work in progress as long as this note remains. Thank you for your patience, and check back for updates.
Cuba Trip Navigation (Suggested reading method, open each post in a new tab, start the playlist provided in day 1, light a cigar, pour some rum, enjoy):
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=1912 (intro, flight, children’s theater company, Cayo de Santa Maria, wow)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=1964 (print shop, Proyecto de Arte Por la Costa, sugar museum, steam train, bicitaxi, beach)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=2170 (Baseball, senior center, danzon compeititon, Havana, Vistamar paladar)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=2300 (foreign services presentation, Muraleando neighborhood community project, architectural walking tour, Casa de Africa, mojito and salsa lesson)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=2451 (cigar factory, tobacco farm, jazz club)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=2694 (Las Terrazas, Dinner at Fuster’s house)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=2997 (Hospital, Finca La Vigia (Ernest Hemingway’s home in Cuba), Tropicana revue show)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=3155 (cemetery, Almacenes de San José, Sloppy Joe’s, Yank Tanks, Hotel Nacional, Jazz Club)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=3366 (cigars, flight to Miami, Little Havana)
http://bonvivantva.com/?p=3483 (flight home, souvenirs, wrap up)
by rsiv with no comments yet
Hola amigos!by rsiv with no comments yet