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Published: November 30th 2011
I am the most daunted that I can remember by writing a travel blog about my parents’ and my week in Cuba. The decision to go came about five months ago, and when I think of why we decided to go, for me it was mostly curiosity about the people, a keen interest to see the dancing and hear the music, and wanting an adventure. My knowledge of Cuba when we signed up to go was limited strictly to the following: Cuba is communist, they have a dictator named Fidel Castro, who is sick, and his brother Raul is now in power, we have an embargo against them- the details on that topic were fuzzy, we had an embarrassing failed attack on them at the Bay of Pigs, then there was that missile crisis business, but Cuba was more of a side note there as the big players were the US and the USSR, and that Americans are the only country who has travel restrictions to Cuba.
With such little to work from, it became clear that more information was needed, and so I dove into numerous books after Spanish classes in Mexico each night. Reading Yoani Sanchez’s Havana Real
proved a serious eye opener. She is a woman who blogs on the daily life of Cubans in Havana, and the picture she painted was one of strong and bright people living under a suppressive government with many daily struggles to survive. Reading articles in the US news and then checking her blog to see what her reaction to changes in Cuba were, started to frame how I was viewing Cuba and my upcoming experience. I went on quite a rollercoaster of emotions of how I felt about Castro and the revolution, and the more I read, the more confused I became. For instance, I look over to my mom and share that Fidel said that all things that are basic to the people would be inexpensive and books are necessary to the people. That softened me for a moment, until I thought about the censoring of what is available, the push and pull that was going on inside has yet to really stop, but it did make me excited to go and see what I could for myself and to ask questions.
Being in Mexico at the time afforded me an unusual circumstance where
I was able to talk with Mexicans about their views on Cuba. They shared how grateful they were for being Mexican because of the freedoms they have that they understood were not in Cuba, from their own experiences in Cuba or through information provided by friends who went. Other books tempered my guilt about going to Cuba, and therefore putting money into a dictatorship, and made me frustrated and confused about the US policies and lobbyists. Then came a note from our tour group that reminded me that if I went in looking for the bad, that is all that I would see, so I decided to stow all the information I had collected and see what there was to see and experience in Cuba.
Leaving from Mexico City for Havana went rather smoothly considering all the hoops we jumped through with tourist’s cards and taxes, and we settled onto the flight with only a little anxiety. Not long into our two-and-a-half-hour flight, it became clear that the Mexican tour group in front of us was getting rowdy on duty free booze. Their acting foolish was far from calming, but it did show us that messing around
on a Cuban flight will cause a strict reprimand from the attendants, and the two main culprits were held back at the end of the flight, I can only guess that their fate was to be sent back to Mexico or to a holding cell to sober up. Customs went remarkably smoothly, which was a relief as we were warned it might take a long while since we were Americans.
The half-hour drive from the airport to the hotel allowed us to see the lush country side and the fantastic billboards that I had read so much about- here the revolution and solidarity were advertised instead of Coca-Cola. We had intended to meet up with the son of our Mexican school’s director who attends film school in Havana, but his bus broke down and so we made our way out into the city to orient ourselves. Our hotel was located in the heart of Old Havana, which means that we were able to stroll about the colonial plazas and down to the ocean front passed houses in various states of repair. We passed artists selling their colorful work, and one door framed a group of people in
white dancing around and singing to a beating drum; it was a warm welcome to someplace that had an instant appeal for all of us. The “new” Havana, which dates back to what our Cuban friends call the American Period, is desirable to live in due to larger apartments and better building materials, but the pay off is the distance from cultural life that is really based in Old Havana.
We met many different Cubans and had a truly exceptional group of travel companions, a total of 15 Americans and Canadians with whom we shared our week in Cuba. Our group was composed of Fulbright scholar, Wharton Business School professor, US Agriculture Economist, lawyers, teachers, and one twelve-year-old girl. The questions that were asked were each answered by our various Cuban friends with frankness.
Our first day took us to an after-school program for boys and girls of a poor neighborhood in Old Havana. The students wanted to dance, sing, and play with us, which immediately helped create a bond within our group and warmed us up to life in Cuba. With limited resources, the program’s director is clearly making a difference in these
Concert at the after-school program
The guitarist is a retired engineer who volunteers to work with the students on music. The three played us their own pieces that they wrote!
student’s lives, as they cultivate interests in music, art, journalism, ecology, and more. This place was an excellent introduction into the discipline, heart, ingenuity, and dedication that we saw as attributes of Cubans. We then zipped over to Hamal Alley where we learned a bit about the religion of Santoria and appreciated the wonders of a local artist.
On our walking tour around the city, we could see the progress of renovations, a key word in Havana. After being named a UNESCO site, which comes with symbolic aide but not hard cash, Cuba has been working to slowly repair the buildings in Old Havana. This meant that families have to be moved from their homes while repairs happen, free of charge to the families, and then only a few families can move back in because once restored, all of the creative living spaces that had been invented are gone. The “displaced” families are again provided housing somewhere in Havana. The renovations are slow to come, and so one sees old facades held up by scaffolding, waiting while the vines grow until money can be found or until that building is high enough on the waiting list to
be renovated. These shells of buildings are boarded up and cement blocks and guards prevent access to the buildings. This is done because sometimes people from other provinces come to Havana, squat in the buildings, and have a child there, which entitles them to a home for three in Havana. All I could think is that we have parallel situation on US borders.
Up until a few months ago, Cubans were not allowed to sell or buy houses or cars. This law has now changed, but is granted by paying a lot of money in taxes, 4% by each of the seller and buyer, but they seem happy to have the freedom even if most do not have the money to act on it yet. Previously, they were allowed to trade houses, but that was rare and very heavily controlled. Space is so limited in the city, many families live three generations in one home. Again, Cubans rose to meet the challenge in a creative way by using lofts. Lofting became popular in Old Havana where the high ceilings of the rooms dating from colonial times allowed for such separation and therefore more privacy. This phenomena became
Naturlist selling goods relating to Santoria
called the “barbeque” though, as it is brutally hot for inhabitants in the summer.
We also soaked up the wide variety of people sitting on stoops, playing soccer in the squares, strumming guitars, or looking at book titles in the market. We passed the “hot corner” in front of our hotel composed of men of all ages talking heatedly about sports. The vendors selling their sculpted wood, used books, and art were warm and inviting and so easy to talk with, that I felt myself pulled more into Cuba. After a filling meal, we headed to see the ceremonial cannon firing and were delighted to see that most of the people there were Cubans, who when they are in Havana from other provinces insist on seeing the cannon firing, much as visitors to New York want to see the Empire State Building. The ceremony was a lot of pomp, but the view of Havana from across the harbor at night was spectacular!
The joke around Cuba, is that in order to survive, you have to have fe, which is faith in Spanish. But, the fe really stands for familia extranjera, which means family abroad.
"Fear es only a name, a little nothing in your heart. Nothing anyone has seen, but everyone talks about its power. Some say that it does not exist, others that it is certain. Conquer your own and help others in need conquer their own."-- all of the translations from Spanish are based on my 8 weeks of Spanish over the last three years, so beware!
Without money coming from family abroad, it is a real challenge for people to live. There are two currencies in Cuba, and the average Cuban salary is 12 convertible pesos per month, and the convertible peso is tied directly to the dollar. So, money is very, very tight. This lack of money has caused professionals to leave their work and take jobs in the tourist industry, a movement we had read about prior, but confirmed on our visit. This meant that our waiters were likely engineers, our chambermaids former teachers, our taxi driver was an architect, and so on. When I asked a friend what the government was doing, if anything, to stop the trend, the answer was preventing people from leaving their work and not allowing them to enter into the tourist industry. One person we met, finished his teaching degree of five years, taught for two years of service to repay the government, and then went unemployed for six months in order to be able to qualify for a job in tourism. The worst part is, he is a teacher in his soul and wants to be in the classroom, but finances make that impossible.
A bit before this woman and I started chatting about life in the neighborhood
On an up note, the Cuban medical system is excellent. I was really interested to find out that Cuba has some American medical students from poor parts of the country. Cuba has invited them to attend school and funds their training, and then encourages the students to return to the needy communities they came from in the United States. The year(s) of service paid by Cubans after their funded education appeals to me in that it does cause interactions among people who may not have had the chance otherwise.
The following day, we headed out as a group to Hemingway’s home, and while he is not my favorite writer, his home was beautiful and his place in Cuba is important. What grabbed my interest that day, was a visit to the Soviet era housing development Alamar. Alamar is a drab concrete city built by the people who eventually were given the apartments when they were completed. While the plan included cultural centers to be built in Alamar, this did not come to fruition, so the 100,000 people living in this “suburb” of Havana are dependent on inconsistent public busses to travel to town.
the center of Alamar is a rather substantial farm that is working to feed the community. The man in charge of the project is a delight. The farm has been successful on many levels, trying to encourage a healthier diet for the community through providing organic fruits and vegetables. There is a challenge of finding people interested in the necessary work of agriculture, which the government is trying to change by opening up more spots in university concerning agriculture. This man says that Cuba has Reagan to be thankful for, since the policies that became so harsh under Reagan have forced Cubans to become experts in crisis and have forced them to be organic farmers since they cannot import nasty chemicals! He was clearly proud of the success of the urban farm, which has support from many countries especially Germany. It was a treat being in that positive space for a few hours with a man who takes great pleasure in feeding his community and working the earth. A challenge around food in Cuba, is that farmers fear that their land may be reincorporated by the government, and so they are unwilling to diversify or invest much in the land.
This means that while the land is capable of producing certain goods like citrus, few farmers want to or are able to invest four years into waiting for their first harvest.
The afternoon took some of us to the rum factory, where we leaned about sugar and rum production and had a bit of aged rum. The artisan market on the pier near to the rum factory was filled with more paintings, leather, and woodwork. From the pier, we also had a view of the harbor. In my readings, some descriptions had painted an image of the vibrant place the harbor once was, but now, with the embargo, there were only a few ships to be seen.
We dined at a palador, which means a family-run restaurant. This type of restaurant is a recent freedom as most are government owned. The restaurant had a beautiful rooftop view overlooking the harbor entrance and so we had a nice view of the cannon firing from a new angle! We tucked in to our first black beans of the week and prepared ourselves for a dance class! As I chatted along with our guide, she guided me
into a house and up a very steep and very rickety set of wooden stairs (I so regret that I do not have a picture to share!) and up onto the roof of a building where a busty woman and a hodge-podge band awaited. Thankfully for some, the event started with a mojito, and then the next thing you knew, we were dancing the son, salsa, and cha-cha-cha in the moonlight under the stars! We were not asked to learn the rhumba, but we were given quite a show by a 75-year-old woman who knew how to dance!! Her light stays with me even now!
Though I doubt our guide could have really prepared us for what was to come, our visit to the Convento Nuestra Señora de Belén was a complete surprise. What I understood was that we were going to this beautiful building that had been a convent and was now a place for the elderly people of the community and the site of a pre-school. When we walked in, the 675 people who come to the convent daily stood up and gave us a round of applause and shouts of welcome. We were then
To give you an idea, the before picture was taken in 1993, so leaps and bounds have been made, though much more is needed!
ushered onto the stage so that we could have a good view of the crowd. A woman from the community sang for us, with everyone joining in on the chorus, and then we were presented with a handcraft from some of the women there. I do not know if there was a dry eye in our group! When one of our group asked “Who are the kids here?” every person threw their hands up in the air and started to laugh and then their two eldest members, who are over 95, stayed standing. The space was full of energy and it was clear that the people appreciated having a place to be together and that the people who run the center respect and care for the community. As we left and I went to sign their guest book, the director wanted to show us all Jimmy Carter’s inscription from his visit a few months before. He too was impressed, which is no surprise.
We learned from our Cuban friends that what Cuba has to export are doctors and teachers. This export leads to major shortages within Cuba itself, which has various ramifications. Beyond the drain of teachers
into tourism, the teachers sent abroad has created many problems in Cuba. As a teacher in America, I know that our system is imperfect, and I wish to preface what is to come with that. In response to the lack of teachers, teacher training has been reduced to one year of training, and televisions have become a teaching tool used in Cuban classrooms. This was intended to be a training tool to allow teachers with little formal education in teaching to enter the classroom quickly, but the televisions and their lessons stayed and are used all across the country. For elementary students, instruction in music, art, and English is given through lessons on television, for students in secondary and high school, instruction given through the TV expands to math, science, geography, and so on. Teachers who are more proficient in the content than those being delivered by through television do not have the freedom to forgo the lesson on the TV and teach for themselves, everyone must use the television. This includes teachers who were trained for the full five years and have been teaching for any length of time. The Cuban government is also trying to encourage retired teachers
Used book market
The road here was "paved" in wooden bricks, which were put down to soften the sound of horse hooves and life since the governor's home was on the square.
to return to the classroom, but these teachers will also have to use the videos and televisions. Parents are aware of the deterioration of their child’s education, but the solution is not clear.
A morning visit to New Havana allowed us to get a sense of the different architecture, and to see some of the lavish homes of wealthy families before the revolution. From the Hotel Nacional, the site of the famous mobster gathering, we were able to see the monument to the USS Maine and to the US intersection office, not embassy. The monument once had a large gold eagle on top until the revolution when that part was removed, but the rest of the monument remains intact. During Bush’s terms, the US office used electronic signs to broadcast Cuba’s human right’s violations, a little rich of us seeing as Guantanamo is only a few hundred miles away..., and in response, Cuba hoisted enormous Cuban flags that blocked the building from view. Aren’t politics grand? When Obama took office, the signs were turned off and so the flags came down.
A visit to the Museum of Literacy was the closest I felt to
being fed a party line. This was the only place where I felt like we were not given complete information. She informed us about the year of literacy where the literate youth went out into the country following Fidel’s victory to teach those who had not been allowed formal education, a goal I support! We were shown a film about the volunteers and how gratifying the experience was for them, and I can imagine it created cohesiveness in Cuba that did not exist before. What I was able to relate it to was Freedom Summer in the USA. What I guess made me question the information we were given, is that she touted how in one year, illiteracy was eliminated across Cuba, but she did not offer a definition of literacy.
We were able to eat lunch at an artist’s home and studio, which was unlike any place I have seen! He takes some inspiration from Gaudi, and so tiles and fantastic colors surrounded us! What a treat! From there, we visited Revolutionary Square, where Fidel made so many of his famous and lengthy speeches.
Our last two days in Cuba were spent outside
of Havana, a welcomed change for us all as we looked forward to seeing what life outside of the busy city was like. We buzzed around from one sight to the next, seeing an old coffee plantation, visiting a tobacco farmer, taking a boat ride in a cave, riding a bull, and seeing a mural of prehistory that was only impressive, to me, for its size. Our interactions with people in the country were fewer, which makes sense as there are fewer of them, and the comparisons of city and country parallel those in the US, life in the country was of a more tranquil than that lived in Havana. It was on this jaunt out of the city where we learned that there are two things in Cuba that are sacred: tourists and cows. If you kill a tourist, it is 25 years to life, if you kill a cow, it is 13 years in prison as all of the cows are government owned.
Our final dinner was enjoyed at one of Hemingway’s old favorites, sipping on a classic mojito, and hearing the pervasive group of musicians playing, once again, Guantanamera, under the hilarious direction of
As we walked up the street and saw this scene, a Cuban friend laughed that it exemplifies Cuban optimism
one of our group who had a particular distain for the song. Cuba has certainly worked its way under my skin and has raised many more questions than I think it answered. I am grateful for the experience I had and for the people who I met.
When I asked a friend there what would happen if the embargo were lifted tomorrow, he paused for a moment and then said, that though a great deal would change, other problems that are not visible because of the embargo would become apparent. The embargo is a catch-all, but that other challenges exist now and will need to be identified and dealt with once the embargo is lifted. I do believe from what I saw and experienced, the Cuban people are suffering due to the embargo. I am so hopeful that when the embargo is lifted that Cuba is able to control how it opens itself up to America instead of America, and American corporations, stomping their way in. Returning home through Mexico gave all three of us pause about what will be gained and what will be lost when the embargo is lifted.
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