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Published: June 14th 2017
Apologies in advance for typos... These have been composed in haste offline for these few times we are able to upload... Wifi access is limited and spotty at best here. Greetings from the Pilgrims--we are safe and well.
June 12, 2014
Up bright and early, we rose at 5:45 a.m. to grab breakfast and meet our guide for our flight to Havana, Cuba. Getting through the airport was worrisome to us, but a breeze because our guide new all the secrets to quickly navigating the visa process and security. We were at the gate and filling out customs forms well ahead of our boarding time. The flight took about 40 minutes and we exited the plane into a different world. The heat and humidity hit like a wet blanket, but we were out of the airport quickly without having to wait for any checked baggage to arrive. Outside, we met our driver, Jorge, and we're happy to jump into a luxurious minivan of Chinese manufacture but brand still unknown. We rode into Havana and straight to a neighborhood called Lauton and to a cultural center called La Muraleando. The installation was also referred to as El Tanque as it was constructed in and around an old railroad water tank that, up until very recently, was literally covered in garbage. Members of the community came together to seek the government’s permission to open up a neighborhood arts center on the site. We were given a grand tour by Michael, who showed up various forms of art including traditional murals, murals of tile and other recycled materials such as sinks, springs, bathtubs, toilets, license plates, typewriters, irons, etc. Over a fulfilling meal of tuna pasta, pork, beans and rice inappropriately dubbed “Christians and Moors,” terra-root (sp?) fritters, sweet potatoes (Bonita), fried plantains, and a dessert of flan, we were entertained by a group of local musicians who aren't, by trade, musicians. They were wonderful and enthusiastic. Many of them serve as teachers in the art school of subjects such as painting, ceramics, filmmaking, and music. After the concert, we were into the interior of El Tanque to see various works of art for sale, proceeds from which entirely fund the center with 50% going to the artist and 50% going to the center.
From El Tanque, we continued through the streets of Havana toward Revolution Square, where we stopped to absorb this historic place and snap a few photos. It was at this point that we saw a billboard featuring the revolution in a positive light. Our driver mentioned that there weren’t any other forms of advertising in Cuba. Billboards featured topics such as pro-education, pro-healthcare, and pro-housing, the three key ideas behind the revolution.
As we worked our way from Revolution Square, we asked some questions, somewhat tentative as we had a guide, Ralph, an American of Cuban descent; and Jorge, our driver, a native Cuban. In the awkward climate of U.S.-Cuba relations, we weren't sure how open either would be to discussing topics of a somewhat controversial nature that we sought to learn more about. Refreshingly, both agreed that within the walls of our Chinese escort vehicle of unknown brand, our conversations could be open and forthright and that no feelings would be hurt. It was at this moment we were once again so very thankful that the Pilgrims were able to be ourselves.
Next, it was time to check in to the hotel, the Melia Cophiba. This luxury hotel was one of the first allowed in the 1990s as Cuba sought alternative forms of revenue as the Soviet Union began stopping Cuban subsidies. This Spanish hotel chain agreed to relinquish 51% ownership of the structure to the Cuban government. This is the standard rule for any outside investment in the tourism industry.
Later, after some relaxation in our hotel, with beautiful 19th floor views overlooking the Atlantic and the Malecon, Cuba’s sea wall boulevard, we met up with Katy (pronounced Cat-ee with no H) for a 1-1/2 hour walking tour though Old Havana. We saw buildings, fortresses, and a cathedral in various states of repair and disrepair, dating from as early the 16th century. The area is now a UNESCO site and, building by building, is slowly being restored. Within some of the historic buildings were multi-family dwellings,
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