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Published: April 22nd 2015
CUBA The crop circles
were the first things we noticed when the Aerogaviota flight descended through the clouds. These weren't like those mystical, other-worldly, elaborate patches of trampled wheat or corn that randomly appear on European farmlands and that cause people to speculate about their origin: maybe aliens did it or maybe just a few clever, artistic tricksters with boards strapped to their feet and too much time on their hands. These were... well...crop circles. Just big old patches of circular land where crops once grew. Nothing spectacular in its own right but it was the bright red earth beneath, a kind of color that could be recreated by mixing equal parts of beet juice and blood with copious amounts of puréed red Crayola, that caused a heightening of the excitement we felt. We, three, were going to love this place. Just beyond the expansive farmland at the Jose Marti International Airport - a sprawling five-terminal airport complex - in Havana, Cuba.
The last of our 82 blogs, titled A Dream in Retrospect
, was published in February 2009. We had just wrapped up our world tour and had returned to the normal. After four years of globe trotting, re-adjusting
was difficult. Things that once seemed important now seemed trivial. Buildings that were once towering, appeared small. Traffic seemed lighter, people fewer, things more expensive, governments less innovative and the air almost too fresh for our lungs (all probably because we lived in China immediately prior to returning to the beautiful Caribbean). It was only two of us then. Ty had not yet wiggled his way into our world. But now here he was, with his nonstop commentary and million questions and eyes bright with the curiosity of a budding adventurer. We knew that look. We could tell, especially from his level of animation and with only four blank pages left in his passport, that our three-year-old son - the joy of our lives - had been well bitten by that most unusual of bugs: wanderlust.
From then to now, we churned our way through the Caribbean archipelago and made the odd trip to Europe and the US but, somehow, never felt the urge to blog. But, within seconds of entering Cuban airspace, we instinctively knew that we would be limbering up the old typing thumbs, dusting the cobwebs from the abandoned mental lists of adjectives and mind-numbing cliches,
shaking the lazy shutter bug syndrome and preparing ourselves to share our adventures in the land of Fidel and Che, exploding cigars and 'frozen' cityscapes with the world.
The relic-on-wheels that would serve as our shuttle bus was impressive simply because it still moved😊 We smiled at the duct tape that held the steering wheel together, simultaneously thinking that the whole bus may well be held together by the sticky tape and that the inventor of duct tape could never have imagined the many "life hacks" it would spur. Immigration was a breeze. With Ty in a stroller, we were ushered to the front of a line and were soon amidst the crush of Cubans crowding the arrival gate waiting for their loved ones to exit. Philip, a talkative, jolly and rotund Italiano-Cubano, who had also boarded with us in Nassau, Bahamas, waited patiently while we exchanged Euros for pesos (Euros because exchanging USD attracted a 10%!p(MISSING)enalty) and then we shared a cab bound for Havana Vieja ("Old Havana").
We got a lesson in money from Philip. Cuba has two currencies: pesos and pesos. 'Pesos' or COP are the money Cubans earn as wages. One peso is
equivalent to 0.004 USD or stated the other way around, USD 1 = COP 25. The other 'peso' is tourist money or Convertible Peso or, as Cubans affectionately called it, 'CUC' ("kook" for English and "koek" for Dutch). CUC 1 = USD 1. . To further complicate things, the exchange rate is 1-to-25 when exchanging CUC for COP and 1-to-24 when going from COP to CUC. Philip cautioned us to be ever mindful as prices would always be quoted in 'Pesos'. We made mental notes sure that this info would come in handy soon.
The drive to town was surreal. It was glaringly obvious to us that many moons ago, this island's development was already light years ahead of its English, Dutch and French Caribbean counterparts. Equally apparent was that something sudden and dramatic had occurred, effectively time-capsuling everything. The cars, 'Classicos', were just that: classics and they made us first- timers exclaim "oh" with every new one that came into sight. 1937 Chevys with eyebrows and flared tails reminiscent of the original Batmobile justled the busy Avenues with flattened Fairlane convertibles and brilliantly-restored, brightly-painted Pontiacs. These weren't show cars; just regular daily transportation, some crammed full of passengers.
The buildings were solid stone and ornate and the architecture styles changed as we passed different communities. Spanish colonial. Gothic. Baroque. French neoclassical. Art Deco
. Massive doorways; decorative window accents, pastel shades, balconies overlooking the street. In some places, most buildings appear abandoned; in dire need of repair. In other places, there were meticulously renovated mansions and townhouses offering a glimpse into what it was really like, back then.
Something did happen here. As a matter of fact, many things of great significance did. The Spanish landed in 1492 and began its conquest in 1502 virtually eradicating the local Taino (Indian) population with their guns, diseases and enslavement. Imported African slaves replaced the indigenous people. By the first half of the 19th century, Cuba was booming as a valued part of the Spanish empire. The Ten Years War started in 1868 as local Cuban landowners started to retaliate against the brutality of the Spanish. Many local heroes arose during this period like Jose Marti, Maximo Gomez and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. Marti and Gomez continued to press for greater reform even after the Spanish made a few concessions in 1878. General Antonio Maceo, Marti and Gomez returned to Cuba
...almost like stepping back in time
in 1895 and started the second War of Independence. In 1898, the U.S. started and won the Spanish-American war and for the next sixty years, American influence was dominant - casinos, brothels, hotels, the American mafia and a booming opium trade, many American tourists, American automobiles and the establishment of a naval base at Guantanamo. Under the brutal dictatorship of American-backed military dictator - General Fulgencia Batista - the locals were being further impoverished, tortured and killed while U.S. conglomerates flourished. There arose significant opposition to the Batista regime by one Fidel Castro and a small group of rebels including his brother, Raul. A failed overthrow attempt in 1953 landed Fidel in jail for a year and he left for Mexico after, where he formed a small band of guerrillas - the 26th of July Movement - including an Argentine doctor, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Over the next six years, Fidel and Che fought the establishment. One story tells of him in a group of 68, landing for a raid only to find a much stronger, and well-prepared enemy. Only 12 rebels escaped including Raul and Fidel but the group was separated from each other without knowledge of who was alive
or dead. They eventually regrouped in the watershed battle for the town of Santa Clara. General Batista, on the morning of the Santa Clara defeat, was in Havana where he oversaw the erection of a giant statue of Jesus overlooking the habour and, immediately thereafter, he fled with a rumored $60 billion to the Dominican Republic, then under the control of his dictator pal, Rafael Trujillo. Fidel assumed political and military power and immediately sought to blunt American influence by further aligning with the Soviet Union, a move which led to (a rumored 200) assassination attempts by the U.S. including making his cigars into bombs and an invasion attempt at the now famous Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). When these attempts failed, the US imposed trade and travel embargoes, attempting the bring Cuba and Fidel to heel. To counter, Fidel caused the Soviets to erect nuclear missile sites in Cuba - the Cuban Missile crisis - and the U.S. agreed to stop trying to assassinate him. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was left to fend for itself. Many Cubans fled to South Florida and those that remained faced severe rationing and hardship - a situation that
exists in many places in Cuba today.
On the Northeastern corner of Parque Central - a vibrant, tree-filled promenade in the heart of Old Havana, just past the most imposing and ultra- impressive 'Capitolio'
which sported a massive dome ringed by renovation scaffolding, Hotel Plaza's doors opened to timeless opulence - towering ceilings, glass etchings, arches, stained-glass skylights and mosaic marble floor tiles. A friendly face and warm smile accompanied the room keys. The room itself was clean and comfortable; the AC retro. Ty jumped from bed to bed while Shanna and Vibert gazed out of the window down to the dusty street below where pedal and motorized taxis weaved around Classicos and where Cubans went about their daily activities. Yes!
We were, most definitively, going to love this place!
Oh, and by the way, the taxi ride was 20 pesos
Tot: 2.656s; Tpl: 0.065s; cc: 31; qc: 140; dbt: 0.1267s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.8mb