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Cuba 2017

Cuba!  When I thought about Cuba a whole range of images came to mind – Ricky Ricardo (who I always thought was pretty hot), cigars, voodoo, rum, Godless Communists (thank you Catholic grade school), missile  crisis, Fidel Castro; and more recently Elian Gonzalez, boats and rafts, antique cars, and new opportunities.  It was truly a mixed bag.  And, since Obama had loosened up on travel restrictions – I wanted to see it!  I, like so many others, wanted to see it before Starbucks, McDonalds and Wal-Mart moved in.  Which, it seems, could happen any time, things felt like they were moving rather swiftly (under the current administration, perhaps not).

Allen wanted to see it as well.  And so, for this years’ February get-away, we would investigate the opportunities.  At the time we decided to look into it, individual tourism was still not allowed (that changed just prior to our trip – too late to take advantage of it).  We had to be part of a group going there for a purpose – cultural exchange, artistic exchange, educational tourism,  or like one of our friends a year or so ago, exploring the food/ dining tourism of the island.  My desire to see Cuba outweighed my aversion to being part of a tour group, and so I began my search – it had to fit our time frame, spent time in Havana but also traveled outside of the city and was not a very big group.   There were many companies offering tours, and confusing Lonely Planet with Friendly Planet, I signed us on with Friendly Planet – it turned out to be a solid choice.  They were responsive, clear about their requirements and made it all rather easy. 

We tend to take these trips in mid-February.  It is usually bitterly cold, often snow is on the ground, and the winter had ground on interminably that we were ready for warmth, the tropics and some time on the beach.  This year was a little different.  We had not had any snow since December, the weather was almost spring-like and we would in fact be gone during an unseasonable warmth-wave.  Chicago would be in the 50 and 60’s and we were heading to the 80’s.  Somehow, it did not quite feel like the escape it usually does.  But, no complaints – if winter was over in Chicago that was fine with me. 

While we would be away, a contractor that Allen knows rather well would be coming into our house and building us a new bathroom.  He would take out the Jacuzzi tub and our old vanity and medicine chest; he would completely re-tile the walls and floor, put in new furniture and furnishings, and create for us a walk-in shower.  He assured us it could be done while we were away, so we handed him our keys and told him we had absolute trust in him.

Our flight to Miami was due to depart at 8:30.  After parking and taking the train to the terminal and getting through security (I got my first pat down, unfortunately, not from the more handsome agent) we were at our gate by 7:20.  Getting there, we found out departure time had been moved to noon, within minutes it was changed to 10.  It felt uncomfortably like the beginning of our trip the year before which saw us changing our vacation site from Hawaii to Key West.  At least the delay allowed me to capture a number of Pokémon, including a few I had never seen before.

The flight left at 10 and there were no real issues.  Our hotel was near the airport and so we took their shuttle and were there rather quickly.  Check in went easily and there was time to lay at the pool catching some rays and watching the planes pass overheard, looking so close that they seemed to just barely not scrape the top of the buildings with their bellies.  After getting some sun, we decided to hit the roads and try to find a liquor store.  First we had to check out what seemed to be a farmers market across not far from the hotel, it was in fact a farmers market, but it was closing up, most of the vendors already having packed it up for the day.  We found our liquor store about 4 blocks away in a strip mall off the highway.    Hauling our gin, tonic and limes back to the hotel, we then decided to grab a bite to eat at the Cuban Café across the street.

The meal was fine, nothing too fantastic and then back to the hotel to await our 7:30 orientation meeting.  Here we would meet our tour company representative as well as the other members of our group.  At the meeting we were given (much to Allen’s chagrin) our nametags and visas to fill out.    The room we were in was not real well lit, and there was some complaints about that as people improperly filled out their forms and cursed the fact that there were no “spares”, they would simply have to cross out their mistakes and put in the correct information.  Allen and I elected to wait until we got back to our room before filling them out.  The tour rep, Cyndi, was a very pleasant, upbeat woman.  She had made this tour a number of times and gave us basic information regarding tipping, Cuban money, food, the lack of internet, expectations and a great plea for patience – Cuba did not always operate under a tight time table.  There was a lot of discussion regarding toilet paper and drinking water.

We were 14 in our little tour group, excluding our handlers.  Not a bad number.  We were a varied group, all but one of us in roughly the same age bracket and older.  The youngest, I would guess somewhere in her early 30’s, she had taken a semester of college at the University of Havana and was returning, with her parents in celebration of her dad’s 60th birthday.  There were 3 other married couples, 2 of them good friends who seem to travel together pretty often, and the third couple who split their time between Florida and Illinois.  There was a daughter traveling with her 82 year old mother (a delightfully “stereotypical” Italian mother) and another 82 year old from New York (we found it hard to believe when we were told her age) who was traveling alone and was a real globe-trotter.   
Rounding out our group was our local guide and our driver – who we would meet in Havana.  Everyone seemed to be excited and pleasant people, and there were no real “red flags” regarding any of them.  Although I would not have chosen to be part of this group prior to our meeting, they all turned out to be relatively easy and fun to tour with.

After an hour or so, the orientation came to an end.  We were to assemble the next morning in order to leave for the airport at 10:30; our flight to Havana was scheduled to leave at 1:30.  All of us retreated to our rooms, Allen and I went to ours to fill out our visa, download some sort of TSA app that, we were told, would help expedite our return, and of course, to have a few drinks.  Cyndi told us we were lucky, that another group that were also staying at this hotel, were scheduled for an 8:30 flight and so were having to get up really early – I would have preferred that trip – more time in Cuba.

The next morning, I was up early as usual and had to try three different soda machines on 3 different floors before finding a machine that actually worked and dispensed my soda.  Already the hardships of the trip were being made apparent. We had not used much of the gin, and it seemed a shame to leave it behind.  Allen hid the bottles behind an ice machine in the hotel, deciding, by the looks of it, that they did not regularly clean behind it.  I doubted we’d ever see them again, he we convinced otherwise.

At the airport we began our practice of patience.  We were there in plenty of time, had gotten through security in fairly swiftly and so had plenty of time to sit and be patient.  Originally we were to have flown a charter plane, but  since signing up for the tour, American Airlines and Jet Blue had both begun flying regularly from Miami to Havana, unfortunately, the crowds were not as large as predicted, so already both airlines were cutting back on the flights they were making.  The 82 year old that Allen had come to think of as “My Nana” regaled us with tales of her other trips that seemed rather extraordinary when thinking of her doing this alone.  She is used to more posh traveling and was a bit taken aback by how much she had to handle her luggage herself, and was not used to economy class, but she has a great spirit and was simply “going with the flow.”  She boarded before we did and had heard about Allen’s difficulties with middle seats, so as we passed her, in her aisle seat, she offered to change seats.  I let Allen deal with that, I would be fine wherever.  In fact, I did well, I was assigned a place between two young men traveling together and when I pointed out that I was in the middle, they asked if I would mind taking the window seat so they could sit close.  Not at all.  They were an adorable couple.  Later, one of them was moved to business class and that left me and his partner to share the row.  So, for me, the flight was both short and comfortable.

Arriving in Havana less than an hour after take-off, we were forced to sit on the tarmac for a good 20 minutes or so before a gate opened up.  On the flight, the stewards had passed out three different forms for us to fill out, saying they were required at customs.  It turned out they only took one from us and the other two went into the trash can.  The airport itself is rather small and needs some touching up, it was hard to believe that this was the major airport of the country; it reminded me of a poorly maintained regional airport.  After clearing customs, we made our way to the luggage carrels where we met our local guide, Gretel and proceeded to wait and wait and wait.  Allen and I traveled with carry-ons and so had everything we needed, the others had plenty of luggage.  The bags eventually started to dribble in and we were doing our best to identify and retrieve the ones that belonged to our group.  Finally, the last bag of our group (belonging to Allen’s Nana) showed up and we were ready to board our bus.

As our driver was loading our luggage, it gave us some time to note the many classic vehicles pulling up to the doors.  They were all acting as cabs, they seemed to be luring riders into their cars by simply showing up and being sure their vehicles looked clean, inviting and a fun ride.  Many were taking the bait.  Some were definitely in better shape than others, some were hybrids, borrowing parts and panels from other cars, others seemed to be on their last legs, but they ran, they had seats, and people took advantage of the chance to ride in some small piece of history and Cuban ingenuity.

We left the airport, making our way on what seemed a rather circuitous route that often passed by crumbling and severely deteriorating buildings, on narrow, poorly kept streets and what passed as highway.  The day was bright, the sun was warm, and we were on our adventure.    Before heading to the hotel, we made a stop at the historic Plaza de la Revolucion, the classic, iconic site of many of Fidel Castro’s speeches and the site of numerous political rallies and parades.  It was here that Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis celebrated mass on their visits to Cuba.

Towering over the plaza is the Jose Marti Memorial - a 360-foot tall tower (its observation deck is the tallest point in the city) with a 59-foot tall statue of Jose Marti at its base.  The National Library and many other government buildings are located in and around the Plaza.  Opposite the memorial are the offices of the Interior Ministry and the Communications Ministry.  The facades of these two buildings hold matching steel memorials to 2 heroes of the revolution – Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.  The building with Che’s image also has the quote “Until the Everlasting Victory, Always” and Camilo’s “You’re doing fine, Fidel”. 

We wandered around the plaza, taking pictures and admiring the lines of cars that were parked to the side of the plaza.  The drivers were offering rides to those who cared to pay for one and allowed people to take pictures with and inside the cars.  I am not, by any means, a car person.  I can recognize that a car is older, but identifying any one brand or type was beyond me.  I kept hearing people pointing out what kind of car we were looking at, but it went over my head.  However, getting up close, it was easy to recognize that the paint jobs, often the interiors and occasionally the hood ornaments were not always original to the car.  In some cases, it was blatant that hard tops had been cut off and made into convertibles – some more successfully than others.  But it was fun and like many celebrities, from a distance they looked good.  There were also a number of Soviet vehicles, boxy, small things that did not garner the attention the older American cars did.


After some time wandering the plaza, we were herded back on the bus and taken to our hotel.  We were staying, as do many, many tourists to Havana, at the iconic landmark - Hotel Nacional.  The hotel is a classic 1930’s luxury hotel.  6 floors tall and  sprawling, topped with 2 ornate towers that would seem to give a great view of Havana Harbor, the seawall over which it is built and the city (though I never made it up the towers).  It reflects a mixture of styles including Moorish, Roman and Art Deco.  Built on the site of an old gun batter from the 1790’s (there are still 2 huge cannons and parts of the battery that are part of the grounds).  The hotel itself was the site of several bloody sieges in the 1930’s and the infamous gathering of mob leaders in 1946 called the Havana Conference, attended by the likes of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and other mob notables.  It was also the site of one of the larger Cuban casinos, closed after the revolution though its Parisian Nightclub still remains open and active.  It has hosted many celebrity guests including Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Carter, and of course, Ernest Hemingway.   It has been declared part of a World Heritage Site.    Although well maintained, this grand dame of a hotel shows its age and former glory, but that made staying there all the more interesting.

The hotel is surrounded by elegant lawns and gardens a number of patios and two pools (though one of them seems to be under eternal shade and goes un-used.  Getting off the bus, we were each given a bottle of water and told to use it for tooth brushing and drinking.  We were told our luggage would be taken to our rooms and in the meantime we would gather on one of the patios facing the ocean and discuss Cuban money, our schedule for the next day and drink our welcome mojito.  It was a beautiful setting with a bright warm sun, offset by a gentle breeze. 

While waiting for our drinks to arrive, I went over to the front desk and exchanged money.  The money situation in Cuba is sort of interesting.  In 2004 Cuba quit accepting the U.S. Dollar (in retaliation for sanctions) for retail exchanges and required that dollars be converted to Convertible Pesos (CUCs) with a 10% surcharge, making each CUC cost 1.15 U.S.  This is the official currency for tourists, and although the Cubans also use the CUC they also have their own Cuban Peso (CUP).  We were warned not to let them give us CUPSs as change for our CUCs because the CUP is not worth as much.

After our mojitos arrived and were drunk, Allen went to the room and I followed Cyndi up to the Business Office of the hotel to purchase Wi-Fi.  She was spending a lot of time explaining the cost structure; make sure to log out when not using it so as not to use up the time, etc.  She continued this explanation as we stood in line to make the purchase – all in earshot of the attendants at the desk.  When it was our turn, the attendant explained how just a month before, the Wi-Fi was free for all guests – Cyndi was surprised and racked it up to the ever-changing Cuban reality.

When I finally got the room, it was to find out that although my bag had been delivered, Allen’s had not.  The concierge went to hunt for it, telling us to just wait in the room, it would soon arrive.  Half an hour later he came to tell us that the bag had been left on the bus and it would be delivered later (we got a call from Cyndi saying the same thing).  Nothing to do but wander the grounds.  We explored the back lawn some more, it comes to an abrupt end at a cliff edge, looking down we were viewing the costal road way and the water just beyond that (along the coast is a wide walkway).  Not a sandy beach by any means, simply a cliff like drop off.  The water came in multiple shades of blue and was truly beautiful.   It took us a little while, but we eventually found the entrance to the pool area, which seemed to be closed and was being set up for a private affair (maybe a wedding?) and the fitness center which doesn’t open until 10 in the morning, closing at 9PM. 

Wandering through the hotel run rum and cigar stores we found some rather inexpensive rum, but we needed sodas.  For this, we decided to walk into the town.  The driveway of the hotel is long and beautiful; we cross the street into the neighborhood and begin looking for a bodega or grocery store of some sort.  We roam and look, not seeing anything that might be considered a commercial enterprise.  Finally, one of the locals directs us to what seems a small home doubling as a bar or restaurant.  He points us to a counter with a cooler behind it.  Someone comes to help us and we point at the green cans of what we take to be the local cola.  We got 4 of them.  They do not seem to carry Diet Coke or any other foreign brands, but I was warned by Cyndi (another Diet Coke addict) that this would be the case and that the local “diet cola” was not too bad.  I never found out.


Back at the hotel, we purchased a bottle of rum and played with the Wi-Fi (which keeps cutting out and is very, very slow).  The internet and Wi-Fi is both rare and expensive in Cuba, and it was possible to recognize the hot-spots in the city as we passed them – there would be sizable gatherings of young people with phones and lap tops gathered around whatever building was connected. 

Our room was nice, though the two single beds are smaller than usual and do not allow double occupancy – It turned into my Ricky Ricardo experience – sleeping in separate beds.  The room was nice though, and our window offered a view of the swimming pool and the ocean beyond.  The bathroom was sizable and Allen immediately began his collecting of shampoos and soaps, forcing us to use the small bottles of the same that we brought with us.  And yes, the bag was eventually delivered to us.

After having a drink or two and watching some CNN (one of the few stations in English) we headed down to the dining room for dinner.  It was a buffet affair that was definitely catering to tourists – a pasta bar, pizza, egg rolls, fried rice, stews and salads.  A bounty of selections, but little of it indigenous.   I ate way too much and felt stuffed the rest of the night.  As we were making our way back upstairs to our room, we ran into Cyndi and joined her out on the back patio for drinks and conversation.  We learned of her work as a guide, of the different companies she has and does work for, and the story of adopting her son (she showed us his picture – he is now 26 and a gorgeous man).  She has had quite a storied life and we were both honored that she shared it with us.

Our first full day in Cuba started well.  We indulged in a buffet breakfast and then boarded the bus for a trip to the Old City.  All of us were on time and that boded well for the rest of the trip.  We were deposited at a small square and walked a couple of blocks to one of the hotels in the city.  It was a grand hotel, newer than the one we were at, but at least 60 years old.  Well kept, lots of marble and a large Arts Deco statue in the lobby.  We were led to a conference room of sorts where a woman and man were fiddling with a Power Point presentation that they could not get to work.  We sat and watched them work for a while and then finally, the woman gave up and proceeded without it.  She was a representative from the Office of the Historian.  She was telling us about the massive effort to restore the buildings of Old Havana in hopes of attracting tourism and new investment as well as improving social services for the local residents.  They are doing all this while preserving their World Heritage Site status.

The presenter did not speak English, so Gretel was translating as she went on.  It was an interesting exercise for me – seeing how much Spanish I was actually understanding.  However, there were times when Gretel was giving more information than the presenter.  In Cuba, you must go to school and pass all sorts of exams in order to become an official tour director.  In exchange for the education, people had to give two years of service to the state after completing their education (men also had to do an additional two years in the armed forces).  So, Gretel knew much of what the presenter was trying to impart to us and felt no compunction about ad-libbing.  I am sure it would have been all the more interesting if the power-point had been working, but as it was, I found myself nodding off at times.
One interesting tid-bit I learned was that when the revolution occurred, those who were renting apartments or houses, were made owners of those domiciles.  The state will not take them away.  So, those people living in the Historic District are given two options.  One is that they can choose to relocate to a new construction elsewhere in the city, and the state will give them a home.  Or they can choose to keep their places in the city, but will be temporarily relocated while their building is being repaired and restored and then they can move back in.  Interesting.

After the lecture, we were herded a few blocks away to the Havana Club (a brand of Rum) Rum Museum.  To call this a museum was definitely a stretch.  Our museum guide spoke broken English, but there was not a whole lot to talk about anyway and his voice did not carry very well.  He pointed at pictures on the wall of sugar cane fields, depictions of slave workers, of loading the cane, and then to a scale model of a cane plantation and rum factory.  We were led up catwalks that were along the walls of the dark room we were in and the guide would point to some pictures and give a very confusing narrative of what was going on.  He then pointed to the model and pointed out 2 or 3 of the buildings, the vats and the rail road track running around the whole thing.  The highlight of his presentation was to turn the train on and let it circle around the diorama a couple of times while lights in some of the buildings came on.  There were old casks, labeling machines and other equipment from old-time rum making.  Finally, the main point of the tour, we were led through a door and into a large, old bar, with huge mirrors behind it, two bartenders and a large display of the various Havana Club rums and, of course, the gift shop.  To one side of the bar was a hand cranked cane squeezing machine where 4 foot pieces of sugar cane were fed into one end, the handle was cranked and the cane was squeezed for its sap – later to become sugar or rum.

It was 10:30 in the morning, and they offered us all a shot glass of anejo (aged) rum.  Well, why not?!  We wandered through the store a bit, sat in the lobby and waited for people to get through the gift store.  In the lobby were two women dressed in plantation era dresses (ala Gone With the Wind) who were flirting with the tourists and accepting gratuities for pictures taken.  


Once we were all re-gathered, we again boarded the bus and were taken to a ware house district along the waterfront.  We were set free for about 45 minutes in the Artisans Market – a huge warehouse housing hundreds of seller booths where a person could buy all the Cuban kitsch they could carry.  There were a large number of art dealers, selling paintings, posters, original art and copies.  Most of the booths carried magnets, t-shirts, leather goods, pens, tourist glasses, etc.  Pretty much a souvenir mecca.  Allen and I always look for an indigenous mask from the countries we visit, but there did not seem to be any here.  There were plenty of hats (Che style berets were very popular as were Cuban straw hats) dresses, shirts, sandals and salt and pepper shakers, hand carved figurines and China (Russia?) made gee-gaws, but no masks.  The other thing we always look for is a magnet, but the ones we saw were badly made (just a bit of magnet glued to the back) and so we passed.  We managed to walk down all the aisles with Nana in tow in the time allotted.  Once were back to the bus, it seemed only Allen and I had not purchased anything – snobs!

One member of our group was a real shopper.  I don’t think she passed up buying something at every stop we would make.  It became a running gag throughout the trip.  She was the 82 year-old traveling with her daughter - and her daughter seemed as amused by her buying habits as the rest of us were.  I don’t know how she got everything back to the states, which is probably why she kept buying bags of one sort or another.  She was really a delightful woman and was never the “slow one”, though a couple of times, we had to wait for her to make her purchases.  She was a lot of fun and had a great sense of humor.

Walking and riding through Old Havana gives a real sense of the former glory of the city.  Beautiful boardwalks along the shore, a harbor shockingly empty of small boats (boats were / are hard to purchase because they were so often used to sail to Miami) but now hosting cruise ships.  Like other places once colonized by Spain, there are the forts, canons, big walls, etc. in the Spanish style.  Also apparent was the faded glory of pre-Castro luxury hotels, casinos, the mafia and the swinging 20’s.  So much of it is falling apart and in disrepair.  Crumbling buildings standing next to restored buildings – all testament to the various faces this once grand city has worn.

From the Artisans Market, we were driven to Cathedral Square.  One of the 5 main squares in Old Havana, Cathedral Square is the site of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception.  The area was originally swampland that tended to flood during the rainy season.  It was drained and used as a naval dockyard.  Once the cathedral was built (1727) it became the site of some of the city’s largest mansions- their former glory still apparent in the their wide doors and windows, grilles and huge gates with thick pillars.  These days the square is home to the Museum of Colonial Art and a number of restaurants.  We were heading to one of these restaurants for lunch.

I asked our guide about Christianity and how it fared under Castro.  She said he did not shut the churches (as I had thought); however, you could not be a party member and a Christian at the same time.  You had to make a choice.   If a party member was known to have joined the church, he would be cast out of the party.  These days, she tells me, people find the party too filled with meetings and bureaucracy and so unpopular.  More people are returning to the church, though many have chosen to practice Santeria instead.

El Zaguan is a small restaurant, with just a few tables.  We were sat at the longest of the table, sort of like nice picnic tables, the benches attached to the table, preventing us from pulling them out and so had to climb over the benches in order to be seated – easier for some than others.  We were given a complimentary mojito and then a choice of roasted pork, Ropa Viejas or chicken fajita (throughout the trip, the fajitas were very different from what we expected – more pieces of chicken in a gravy with onions and peppers).   

Ropa Viejas is one of my favorite Cuban dishes, and I was looking forward to eating it in its country of origin.  Perhaps I am used to a more “Americanized” version, as everywhere I ate it in Cuba, it was a bit more bland than I expected, less vinegary, but still pretty darn good.  Most of us ordered the Ropa.  As would become a standard practice throughout our stay there, we were offered a squash soup of some sort – usually pumpkin and varying a lot from place to place – sometimes very thick, sometimes very soupy, sometimes spicy and other times not – but always flavorful. 

The meal went well, despite some confusion for the waiter as to who got what, but we helped get it all worked out.  The meal ended with a sweet potato flan with toasted coconut – very tasty.  After eating, we hiked back to Cathedral Square and given a brief history of the church itself.  It is considered the best example of Baroque architecture in Cuba.  Constructed from blocks of coral cut from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, one can see the preserved fossils in the church façade.  The Jesuits began construction in 1748 and it was completed in 1777 – 10 years after the Jesuits were expelled from the island in 1767.  Most of the artwork in the cathedral are copies of Roman works and the interior, though beautiful, is also a bit austere when compared to other churches of its age.

After being told about the Cathedral and Plaza, we were set free to wander for ½ an hour.  We wandered the square, took in the faded glory of the surrounding buildings, walked through the cathedral.  It was easy to see what a grand plaza this might have been and could be again.  There were not many vendors of any sort in the plaza itself, but there were a few gift stores in the buildings surrounding it.  There were also a few more women decked out in the white, hooped dresses of a more plantation period and an older woman sitting at a small table, it looks as though she would tell your fortune if you asked (and paid).  Having explored the plaza, we then headed down a side street to a bar that claims to be the birthplace of the mojito and a former haunt of Ernest Hemmingway (Hemmingway’s’ presence was touted throughout Havana as much as he was when we visited Key West the year before).  It is a small bar, and it was filled when we got to it.  All the walls, both exterior and interior were covered with the scribbled signatures of visitors to the site.  If you are into Mojito’s, apparently this is the grail site.  On our walk there, a street person selling 4 page “newspapers” stops Allen, Allen was not able to get rid of him until he gave the man an equivalent of 1.50 for the paper.  It really had neither news nor much else of interest.

We re-gathered as a group at the Plaza de Armas.  This is Havana’s oldest square (laid out in the 1520s).  It was originally named after a church that stood in the square, but was given its current name (Square of Arms) when the governor used the site for military exercises (late 1700’s).    In the middle of the square there is a small park dominated by a marble statue of Cespedes – who initiated the wars of independence and is called the Father of the Homeland.  The street on the west side of the plaza is made up of wooden blocks.  Supposedly, this was done so that passing carriages would not disturb the sleep of the governor who lived in one of the mansions off the square.

The plaza is surrounded by baroque buildings, one of which is now a city museum and a 16th century fort.  The entire square is surrounded by big and shady trees.  All over the square are different book vendors.  Filled with ancient magazines and books, posters and old military memorabilia as well as party pins and patches the offerings were fascinating and very eclectic.  There were lots of old, leather bound books in a variety of languages including English and Russian.  Many of the books, according to their copyright dates came from the last century.  We only had a half hour to wander, but it would have been very easy to spend a good part of the day just going through what all was offered at these tables and bookcases.  I kept wondering why the books were not more decrepit since they spent so much time out in the tropical weather.   I did buy a small book – a history of Cuba, I thought it would be interesting to get the Cuban perspective.  It was informative, though sometimes difficult to read due to the awkward translation.

From the plaza, we re-boarded our bus and taken back to the hotel where Allen took up a lounge chair next to pool and I joined him after taking some time in the fitness center.  Then it was time to get cleaned up, dressed and join the others for a dinner away from the hotel.   We were walking to the Café Laurent, a paladar (privately owned restaurant usually in the restaurateur’s home) several blocks from the hotel.  It was a pleasant walk and took us through the local neighborhoods.  The restaurant was located on the top floor of a 4 floor building.  Some chose to take the ancient elevator to the restaurant, the rest of us climbed the narrow and bit steep stairs.  The Café exudes a 1950’s feel, minimalist in its furnishings, the back wall covered with old newspapers.  The balcony seemed to be closed that night, and long, lacy curtains covered the many windows that look out of the building.  Brightly lit, starched white tablecloths, polished glasses and shimmering silverware covered the tables. 


Wandering through the building (looking for the bathroom) I noted that the bedrooms and other private areas of the home had shut doors, though the bathroom was dominated by a large Jacuzzi tub (for 2).  After being seated, we were brought our complimentary mojito, told about our entrée choices.  Dinner started with squash soup with bread and some sort of chopped ham spread (deviled ham?).  This was followed by a plate of appetizers that I could not readily identify, but seemed to be fish, so I skipped it in fear of shrimp.

Almost everyone at our table ordered the shrimp dish offered – I asked for the meatballs.  When they came, there was some disappointed looks on the faces of those who received the shrimp dish.  The shrimp were the very small pink shrimp often found in a can.  The meatballs were rather dry and flavorless.  It was truly surprising given that this was supposed to be a very special treat in our dining experiences – and later, on the review sites, it surprisingly got rather gracious reviews.  They served us each a plate of various deserts – and these, at least, were not disappointments.

We had actually been fore-warned about food in Cuba, by the friend who made a food tour a year or so earlier.  Food tends to be rather limited in kind and quantity and the cooks must make do with what is available; and availability is consistent.  From our own experience, the limits do not seem so severe, but they are indeed limited.  I suppose this might explain some of the disappointments, but really, we were not there for the food as much as the experience.

On our walk back to the hotel, I stopped at the bar we had found the evening before and bought some lime sodas (we didn’t want the caffeine).  I took them to the room, thinking Allen would soon follow, but he did not.  I had a soda and rum, he was still not there, and so I went looking for him.  I found him with Cyndi and the others.  Allen went to change into shorts and Cyndi, Nana, Rosemarie and her daughter Margaret took a table at the far end of the lawn.  I ordered a daiquiri, and when he joined us, got one for Allen as well.  We had a pleasant couple of drinks (gave Rosemarie some more ribbing about her shopping habits) and then we broke up and retired to our rooms.

I slept late into the next morning, not getting out of bed until almost 7:15.  One of the joys of not having dogs to attend to and take for their 5 AM walk.  This morning it was raining, hard, sheets of rain blowing in from the water and bending the palm trees in the courtyard.  The heavy rain did not last terribly long, but everything was soaked, and by the time we ate breakfast and boarded our bus, there was still rain, but gentle and without the driving winds.

Our destination this morning was a cigar factory.  On the way there, our guides touted that this was the best of the factories, allowing us close up viewing of the process of cigar making.  Wending our way through residential and business streets we finally came to a large warehouse, unmarked by any signage telling us what it was, but were assured it was the cigar factory.  Our guide stepped out to consult with the managers there, she returned to the bus and informed us that there were no tours at this time, as the rain had poured into the factory and they were in the process of cleaning up.  We were off to another factory, but were turned away from there as well.  Finally we went to a third building, it seemed to be located in a very residential part of the city.  Here we were allowed in, with assurances that this was a very, very good factory and that the tour would be enjoyable.

We found out later that there were only 3 cigar factories in all of Cuba, all of them located in Havana, and so, in effect we had seen all three, if only from our bus windows  for two of them.  All the tobacco grown in the country is brought to these three factories that make all the various brands and types of cigars in the same place.

Entering the lobby of the factory, we were greeted by the factory guide and a uniformed guard of some sort who would spend the entire tour walking behind us and watching what the workers and we were doing. 

The guide led us beyond the doors of the lobby and into the factory proper.  We were in a really large concrete building with 4 levels.  Two of the floors were dedicated to cigar rolling; the bottom and top floors were dedicated to tobacco storage, grading, packaging and shipping the finished cigars and the employee dining room and locker rooms.  As we were coming in, a number of the employees were heading to and from the dining room.  All of them seemed happy and animated, talking to one another as if they had not just spent the past several hours working next to each other.
We walked from the bottom floor to the next level on steel steps, making way for those coming and going.  We entered a large room with windows all along one wall.  There were rows and rows of long tables throughout the room, where up to 6 people were working.  Each cigar maker had their own space at the long table marked out by a small, shelved, wooden box filled with different kinds of tobacco- a different type of tobacco on each of the 4 shelves.  Their only  tool was a knife.  It seems each person has their own knife and each was unique in shape and size, but everyone wielded them with precision and familiarity.  We walked down the aisle with rows of tables extending out from either side of the aisle.   

At the far end of the room, on a dais, sat a desk and chair.  This is where the reader sat.  There is a long tradition, still alive today, of someone reading the newspapers and various books aloud as the workers made their cigars.  It is one of the reasons that the cigar workers were and are celebrated as the more knowledgeable people among the working class.  The books that are read after the newspapers are suggested and voted on by the workers and tend to cover a variety of topics and novels.  Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, there was no one reading – and I am not sure why.

The workers seemed to not be bothered by our presence, and even to enjoy it and in some way show off for the curious.  We were able to literally stand behind and view the work they were doing over their shoulders.  Our guide explained how people came to work at these factories – because it was a better paying job, many passed on their positions to family members or friends.  It seemed so Chicago – you had to know somebody to get in.  Rookies spent several months learning the skill of cigar making, constantly having their work evaluated and measured to the exacting standards required.  As they got more proficient, they were allowed to work with higher quality tobacco and create the legendary (and expensive) cigars of Cuban fame.

Each type of cigar had its own size and shape requirements.  Each brand and type of cigar had particular “formulas” for their creation – blending distinct types, grades and ages of tobacco to create a particular brand and type.  All this bending and shaping was all done by hand.  The workers would take different leaves, roll them together, cut excess and blend those cuttings back into the body of the cigar.  Watching these workers, it was amazing how precise they seemed to be in this blending of leaves, all of it by hand and sight… no machinery involved other than their knives.  As each cigar was completed, they were placed on shelves in another wooden box that sat beside the working space of the table.  On occasion a person would come with calipers and measure the width and length of the cigars.  Once they passed this scrutiny, the cigars were placed on a different shelf in the box.  If the cigar did not pass muster, it was given back to the worker who made it and he had to either cut it to the proper length or dismantle it and begin again.

Each worker is allotted 3 cigars a day for their personal use, but many of them ended up selling these to people (tourists) outside the factory – not legal, but an accepted practice.  They were not to sell or offer to sell them on the factory floor, and when workers would speak to us, the guard tended to listen a bit more closely, I’m guessing to prevent bartering.  However, one woman, who I had been watching make cigar after cigar did indicate one at her table and in signs and gestures, indicated that it could be mine for a price.  I passed, but it was kind of fun.

The workers have to meet a certain daily quota if they wanted to remain employed there, and we were told that there was a bonus for exceeding their quotas.  Despite this pressure, none of the workers had an appearance of being pressured.  They laughed, they talked, some smoked while they worked (cigarettes usually) and there were even a few openly drinking from pint sized rum bottles.  All in all, it seemed a somewhat convivial place.  It was just so extremely fascinating to see so many working with their hands, creating valued objects out of leaves and how precise they could be with only their training, a knife and their eyes.  Unfortunately, it was forbidden to take pictures in the factory, it would have made for a riveting You Tube video – the precision and almost mechanical work of the hands.  It was literally spell binding.

By the time we left the museum, the rain had stopped and the sun was out.  We were lead a couple of buildings away from the factory to what looked like a private home whose entire first floor had been given over to become a cigar store.  It was very big, and we waited outside as another tour group completed their shopping and made room for us.  We were assured by Gretel and Cyndi that this would be a good place to buy cigars and other souvenirs offered.  We made our way in and looked over all the offerings – cigars of every type and brand.  I knew I wanted to buy some, but, not being an aficionado, I was not sure what kinds I wanted. I had heard of Romeo and Juliet as well as Cohibas, so I started there.  I ended up buying a 5 pack of cigars, each one different, all in a wooden cigar holder (not being cigar folks, we ended up sending 2 of them to Allen’s brother Meredith along with the case.  The other three remain, as instructed by the cigar people, wrapped in newspaper, in a baggie at the back of our fridge.)

From the factory, we went to the edge of Old Havana to experience the Cuban collection at the Fine Arts Museum.  The museum contains an interesting collection of Cuban art since the 17th century.  There is religious art, imperialist, socialist propaganda, modernist works and everything in between.  Our museum guide (as translated by Gretel) spent most of his time explaining the works of Rene Portocarrero and Wilfredo Lam.  It was the art done during the time of the Revolution that most captured my attention.  The great contrasts of what was at the time and the hopes for a new Cuba.  Some real contrasts between reality and idealism.  There were also many interesting sculptures and a special exhibition tracing the history and the incarceration of the Cuban Five in the U.S. in the late 1990’s.

Our time in the museum was relatively short, but we were on a schedule (another reason to not like guided tour groups) and left there to take lunch in another local restaurant  Cuba Pasion (all I really recall is having pumpkin soup again at the beginning of the meal and that the meal was big – too much).  From the restaurant we were heading to the Christopher Columbus cemetery (Colon Cemetery)


The cemetery is a miniature city of mausoleums, crypts, family chapels, vaults, sculptures and ornate gravestones.  It has been named a Cuban National Landmark and is one of the most important cemeteries in all of Latin America.  Established in 1876, it is over 140 acres large.  At the center of the cemetery is the main chapel, modeled after Il Duomo in Florence.    The funerals that take place here are like a factory line.  They get the casket in; quickly say some prayers and then the casket is taken out for the next one in line.  Not, I suspect, the most consoling of funeral rites.

There is also a 75 foot high monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of 1890.  And the cemetery is host to two monuments for baseball players.  The first was erected in 1942, the second in 1951 for members of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is called the Christopher Columbus cemetery because when Cuba was a Spanish holding, Columbus’ remains were brought here and were meant to be interred in the cemetery.  However, when Spain was chased out of Cuba, they took Christopher with them.

Our cemetery guide was an older woman, rather stocky, whose movements and attitude seemed to have been based on Zelda from the movie Poltergeist.  It was fun just watching and listening to her.  One very interesting tomb had quite the story.  It was dedicated to a woman and her baby, both having died while the mother was giving birth.  They were buried; legend has it, with the baby at the feet of the mother.  The grief-stricken father, for some reason, insisted on the grave being opened after some time underground.  When they opened the tomb, the baby was in the arms of the mother.  In an act of wanting to honor this miracle, the father built a grand tomb with a statue of a woman holding a baby standing over the grave.   There are three large brass rings attached to the tomb – rather like door knockers. The father, for the rest of his life would come and knock on the tomb, calling out and then listening for a response from within – it never came.  The father’s strange behavior soon had locals following his lead, coming to the tomb, knocking three times with each ring and touching the baby statue while making a wish and then leaving the tomb without turning their back to it until reaching the road running in front of the tomb.  Zelda demonstrated how to properly do all this and invited each of us to take part.  The ass of the baby is rubbed to a sheen with all the hands that have made a wish at the tomb.  As I was walking away from the tomb, Zelda reminded me not to turn my back to it, as I was about to do.  Cyndi claims that the superstition is real and that she has had wishes granted made at the tomb.  So far, my wish has not appeared.

From the cemetery we were bussed to the neighborhood of Jaimanitas – a fishing town just outside of Havana.  We were there to visit “Fusterlandia” the home and surrounding neighborhood of the “Picasso of the Caribbean” – Jose Fuster.  Inspired by the public works of Gaudi and Brancusi Fuster began, in 1975, decorating his studio in colorful mosaic - crude, childlike shapes and bright colors.  Once he was done with his studio, he asked neighbors if he could decorate their homes and businesses as well.  Some agreed, and so his work continued.  Today, his artwork coats the neighborhood.  It is all rainbow-like, strange and fantastic.  Tables, statues, whimsical towers and odd creatures are all made in tile and invite viewing, touching, climbing and fun photos.  An incredible creation – whimsy at its most enchanting.  Part of the fascination of the place is that people continue to live in the house that is daily invaded  by tourists – though they are only allowed into the gift shop part of the house- though they are free to climb all over it.


Back at the hotel, after helping Nana hook up her Kindle (she didn’t trust the plugs), open her water bottle and figure out how the hot water worked, I went to the fitness center while Allen relaxed.  That night we ate at another paladar – La Casa Restaurante.  It was another home restaurant, well appointed with a band in the corner, but the room was too small for a band and it made conversation difficult.  Again, we started with a complimentary mojito and pumpkin soup.  I had the rabbit (good, but not enough of it) and Allen had the fish, which he claimed was a little rubbery.  It was fine, and when possible, the conversation was enjoyable.

After dinner, I had hoped to go wander Old Havana, but according to some down-loads I had brought with me, there seemed to be some gay bars not too far from the hotel, and we thought it would be fun to go to them.  Gretel confirmed that she had been to a particular bar just down the street a few blocks, and so Allen and I headed out. 

Well, we ended up walking for about an hour, up one side of the street and down the other and found no gay bars.  There were other bars, some small restaurants and some hot spots along the way, the street was far from deserted, but we did not find our gay bars.  There was a point, as we passed one corner that a guy motioned toward us and pointed down the side street, as if inviting us to follow him, but this was a foreign land (known to be very safe at night – but why take chances) so we decided not to risk it.  Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, and just 10 minutes after making it to our room, all hell broke loose from the skies and a torrent fell.  We looked at each other, thankful for not having been caught in the storm.  No gay bar, but we were dry.

That night, we packed most of our bags, as we were heading elsewhere in the morning.  We tried sharing one of our twin beds, but it was not going to work – too small and it tended to droop in the middle – it would have been murder on both our backs – so Lucy and Ricky slept separately again.  I was up very early in the morning and finished the little packing that I needed to do and then waited for Allen to arise and loading the bus.  Allen actually had us in the lobby much earlier than was his usual routine.  It struck me as curious and funny.

After breakfast, after our luggage was stored on the bus, after taking what had become our personal seats (we always sat in the back of the bus, Allen’s Nana joining us), left our hotel and made our way to Finca Vigia (lookout farm) about 15 miles from  Havana.  This is the Cuban home of Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway is as celebrated in Cuba as he is in Key West, and like his home there, this too has been turned into a museum.  The house (where he lived about 20 years) is situated on a hilltop and from the rear veranda and the tower Hemingway’s wife had built for him as a place to work, there are excellent views of downtown Havana.

The house is a wooden structure, surrounded by patios and verandas.  It is rather light and with windows all around it, quite airy.  We were not allowed into the house, but the windows and doors were open, allowing us to poke our heads and cameras into the house to view and take pictures.  His 9,000+ book library is located here.  This is the place where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls as well as The Old Man and the Sea.  The house was filled with personal items as well as trophy heads, posters of his books and movies, fishing trophies and other, more mundane items like kitchen tools, clocks, chairs, etc.  It was pretty interesting, and really, seemed a rather nice place to live.

Because he liked to get an early start at writing each day, and so disturbing those that were trying to sleep, his wife had the 2 story tower for him to work in.  He preferred to work in the bedroom, so he gave the office atop the tower over to his cats (it was here that he started collecting cats, who were eventually moved to Key West – no cats roam the Finca).    However, there are dogs – descendants of the dogs he use to keep here (up to 40 of them), and similar to the cat cemetery in Key West, there is a dog cemetery here.  The grounds included a pool, a cock-fighting ring, and his famous fishing boat – Pilar.


There were quite a few tourists on the grounds beside our group, and going up and down the tower on the one narrow stair way caused for some interesting maneuvering – and not much of a rail to keep anyone from falling.  Many of the other tourists were Asian and German.  After touring the house and grounds, looking through the gift shop, we re-boarded the bus and headed to our next destination  -  an organic farm.

The drive was taking us through the district of Alamar on the outskirts of Havana.  The area was started as an expansive social housing project in the 70’s.  The buildings are Soviet-style pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks that remain home to hundreds of thousands of Cubans.  Driving through the narrow streets, shared by pedestrians, buses, cars and even horse carts, I was amazed at the drivers’ ability to squeeze by so many obstacles hurting neither those he passed or our bus.  Passing the housing units, some in better shape than others, some of them even crumbling apart, we were able to look right into the homes we passed from our bus windows.  All of it, excepting the tropical foliage, brought back memories of Central Asia, as much of their housing and buildings were much the same.  It was a very stunning flashback for me. 

Among the buildings in Alamar are communal gardens, called “organoponicos”, where residents grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for their personal consumption and local sale.  The farm we were visiting was one of the larger ones, and one of the first.  The man who built this farm was a community activist and organizer (as well as a farmer) who realized early on the need for Cubans to re-claim organic farming practices because of the lack of man-made fertilizers (part of the embargo).  He does his best to spread the word and practice throughout Cuba as well as the world.  As I understand it, Cuba has become very adept at organic farming and conservation, and producing numbers that are staggering compared to our own organic farming practices.

The soil is Georgia red and quite sticky.  To prevent muddying our shoes, clothes and eventually the bus, we were given plastic shopping bags to tie on over our shoes.  There was some irony to using these polluting plastics to protect us from the organic.  Other tourists, maybe not so wary, were walking around in both tennis shoes and some bare-foot.  I don’t know how they cleaned up the mud at the end of their visit.

The daughter of the founder was giving us the tour, pointing out which plants and flowers acted as insecticides or kept away the scavenging birds, pointing out which herbs were medicinal and how they farmed the way they did.  Her words, especially when she began to talk about the global vision of her father, struck me as rather familiar, and it took a while, but I finally asked if she or he had ever done a TED talk?  He had, several of them, she admitted, and asked how I knew.  I explained that I listen to them regularly, and that many of the phrases she was using had been used by the TED talker.  She seemed delighted that I had caught that.

After touring the garden, we were taken to lunch in the coastal fishing town of Cojimar.  Our restaurant , Bodega Las Brisas, looked out on a small plaza and fort built on the coastal point.  The plaza is dedicated to (who else) Ernest Hemingway, who used to come to this town and even lunch in the same restaurant we ate at.  It seems that the  ‘old man’ of the Old man and the Sea was based on his fishing guide from Cojimar (Hemingway is so revered in Cuba that he is one of the few American authors taught extensively in school).  I had the chicken fajitas (not bad at all, but not what I think of as fajitas) and Allen had the paella that he claimed was rather good.

After lunch, after wandering around the tower (we could not get in, as it seems someone lives in it and is not amenable to people tramping through her house), after taking pictures of the coast, we began our hour long drive to our next destination.  We were driving along the Via Blanca, a coastal highway that is quite a scenic route.  The coast is a stony one, with lots of sea grasses, all level with the road.  We pass through a number of villages as well as more industrial areas.  It was noted how few boats we see.  That is a result of the many who tried to sail to Florida – as a result, boat ownership seems to be rather heavily regulated.  To keep us entertained, the guides played a compilation of Conan O’Brien’s visit to Havana, it was rather entertaining and it was fun to see some of the very sites we had been at over the last couple of days.


We stop in the city of Matanzas, called the “Venice of Cuba” because of the 17 bridges that cross the 3 rivers that flow through the city.  The city is known for its poets, culture and Afro-Cuban folklore.   It is also known as the birthplace of the music and dance traditions of danzon and rumba.

We have stopped here to visit the Tradition Alleyway.  After walking several blocks from where the bus dropped us off, we come to what actually seems like a cobbled street, with square, concrete homes facing out onto the street on one side of the street and the backs of other buildings on the other side.  Some of the buildings were painted in bright colors – blues and yellows, greens and white.  The wall on the other side was painted with a block long mural.   As we walk up the alley, we are heading to a group of about 5 or 6 people 5 musicians, with drums and percussion instruments, and another tall, gangly black man dressed in red pantaloons and vest, sporting a red floppy cap, lace around his shoulders and at his elbows.  Almost a troubadour look to him.  There is also a group of women, three I believe, who are standing in the doorway of one of the buildings, watching us approach and watching the “band”.

They are playing some sort of rhythmic song as we approach, singing about God knows what.  The troubadour is doing a rather spirited dance in his bare feet, shaking the staff he is holding.  We gather in front of them and watch the dance.  After it is over, we are invited, to study the mural.  It is a visualization of the mythology of Santeria – the Afro-American religion of Caribbean origin and the history of the city. 

Santeria is a melding of Catholic, Voodoo and African native religions into a whole new set of beliefs.  The mural tried to depict how the African religions were suppressed, how they then took up the appearance of Catholicism and their many saints, imbuing each saint with the representation of one of their native loas (gods).  There were several representations of some of these loas outside their guise of a saint, most of them having round bulbous heads, fangs and scary horns.  The image brought to mind the native mask we had bought from Puerto Rico.

The narrative of the speaker, translated through Gretel, was at times difficult to follow in detail, but the general gist of the story was fairly clear.  We were told that Santeria is still very much alive and they were now going to show us one of their Santeria dances.  It was more of the same as our arrival, only after about an 8 minute dance with the troubadour spinning around, stomping his feet, running about, spinning and moving flowingly about, with the band playing and all of them chanting/singing. 

After his solo, the troubadour began to invite people from our group to join him.  2 or 3 at a time, he gets us to join him and attempt to follow his swaying movements and circling dance.   One of the first people he invited was Allen, and the look on Allen’s face as the man approached him and reached out to invite him into the dance was of a man who suddenly became aware that someone intended to stab him.  He refused the invitation and slowly backed away – it was hilarious.

Finally, with almost everyone dancing, he then had us form a Congo line by grabbing the shoulders of the person in front of us, and to this line, he slowly added all those who were not yet dancing (except Allen!) and had us snake around the street until he slowly led us through the door of one of the buildings.  As we entered, we stopped dancing and looked around – we were in the belly of their beast – the gift shop.

We looked around; the ladies who had been standing in the doorway were now ready to assist us in purchasing whatever we may want.  Mostly, they had hand painted wooden and clay symbols and images, magnets, drawings and healing oils.  There were also a number of carved African images; I was hoping to find a mask – but no such luck.  We saw what there was to see and as we made our way out, the troubadour had removed his hat and was holding it out to us in hopes of receiving a tip.  I think most everyone from our group was generous that way.


We left the Alley and returned to our bus and drove the rest of the way to the town of Varadero.  There was one more stop along the way, a short one at a roadside rest stop.  It was a collection of small shops and a restaurant and bar.  It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere with incredible views of the tree covered hills and valleys, with the ocean off in the horizon.  We were on a hill and looked down on a long bridge that spanned a mountain valley and was actually quite a striking scene.  Beautiful.  Some of our group had a drink from the bar; others wandered through the various shops looking at the souvenirs.  There were hand made items as well as the usual kitsch.  I don’t recall what it was, but Rosemarie did manage to find something to purchase. 

Varadero is host to the most famous beach on the Cuban mainland and the site of our all-inclusive hotel the Melia Varadero.  It is a nice place with an interesting layout.  The lobby and atrium are circular, with 7 arms branching out from the circular center.  Rooms are located in each arm.  Sort of a star-fish shape, it boasts a number of bars, restaurants, buffets,  a spa, workout room, pools and lovely grounds as well as the usual resort activities that go on (karaoke,  workout times at the pool, dancing demonstrations, etc.).  The view of the ocean and its many shades of blue water were incredible, the shore is once again rocky until there is an abrupt transition to white sand.  Very beautiful.  Down the street from the hotel is a mall of some sort, it was pointed out to us as we approached in the bus.  It is also located next to the only golf course in Cuba, lush and huge.

These sort of resort hotels have existed long before Americans were again allowed to travel to Cuba, hosting all the other countries that did not have a travel ban.  However, it is only recently that Cubans themselves were allowed to stay at the resorts, though the cost is usually prohibitive.  All of these sort of places are joint ventures with the state.  The state maintains a 51% interest in them. 

One thing really struck me on our trip to the hotel – how little wildlife we have seen.  There even seems a dearth of birds.  I think I saw 2 or 3 lizards “in the wild” throughout the trip.  Very odd, given it is a tropical island.  Once I got to thinking about it, the lack of fauna is really striking.  Another striking omission are billboards along the roads or in the cities.  Nothing advertising goods or services.  There have been a few but they are all about the party, continuing the revolution, support of the party or saluting Castro. 

We got set up in our room, Allen immediately taking the nicely packaged 4-pack of shampoo, cream, soap, etc. and putting it with all the others.  He wanted to walk to the mall, and I would join him in the lobby in a few minutes.  Exploring the bathroom, I saw only one towel.  I called the hotel and asked for another.  I waited 15-20 minutes for them to arrive and then called again.  By this time, Allen was back at the room wondering when I was coming.  I explained the situation to him.  Soon, a maid and supervisor showed up with more towels.  Inspecting the bathroom, she pointed out to me that there were in fact 2 of them, one on top of the other.  I felt like a real fool.

The supervisor was with her I think, because these are state jobs and they do not look kindly on such errors.  I felt bad for her and embarrassed for me.   To top it off, Allen was telling them that there were not soap or shampoo – that there had not been any when we arrived and would they send some more up.  She showed up a little while later with a small bottle of shampoo and a tiny bar of soap – not the nice four-pack Allen had been expecting.  I think she was on to us.  I just did not want her to be in trouble.

We visited the hotel rum and cigar store and I bought a couple of cigars.  Cyndi had mentioned something about sitting outside, smoking cigars and drinking.  I wanted to have the cigars just in case.  We both agreed that as long as we weren’t inhaling, the cigars would not cause us to begin smoking cigarettes again.

We hit the buffet and sat with Allen’s Nana, Rosemarie and her daughter and two couples from our group.  After dinner, we went to find Cyndi out on the grounds, but were not able to locate her.  We decided to party without her.  We sat outside on the patio and had a lovely evening of rum, cigars and great conversation and laughter.  We hit the bed about 11:30 that night.


There were some in our group who spoke about skipping the Friday morning trips, but decided that since they were not able to alert our guides of their decision, they would show up.  Friday morning, I was up early, hit the fitness center and the breakfasted with Allen and his Nana.  When it was time to board the bus, all were present and accounted for.  We were heading to the Danzon Club of Varadero.

We were ushered into the club house by our guides.  It was a medium sized room with several rows of plastic chairs set up for us.  We were met there by 2 couples (looking to be in their mid to late 70’s) and another woman.  The woman explained Danzon to us in Spanish as Gretel interpreted.  It is the official national dance and musical genre of Cuba (it has spread and is popular in Mexico and Puerto Rico as well).  The music is written in 2/4 time and the dancing is a very slow, formal partner dance with set footwork around syncopated beats, with dignified pauses, allowing the couples to listen to instrumental passages by the musicians.  It seemed perfect for the elderly, which may be why there are less and less people taking part.  The speaker laid out the usual concern about not attracting more youthful participants.

After explaining all this to us, it was time for a demonstration.  The narrator introduced the couples and then hit the play switch on her boom box and the couples began their dance.   They were dressed in longer dresses and ties and jackets, the men sporting hats.   It was indeed slow, and the couples seemed to enjoy themselves, maintaining an air of purpose and gentility.  They were definitely not going to break a major sweat. 

The women were also carrying fans.  The narrator had explained to us that there was an entire code of sorts in how and where the fan was held.  During the pauses in the dance, the women would signal to the men in the room by holding the fan just below the eyes, below the chin, how they moved the fan, etc.  These differences would indicate how interested (or not) a woman was in a man, how she was feeling at the moment and for flirting.  It was really rather interesting.

After several dances, we were invited to dance with them.    Allen resisted the lure of the aging vamps and he and his Nana stood in the back of the room, watching as the rest of us, one or two at a time, were brought into the dance.

I have never been a man of rhythm.  The woman who brought me up was doing her best to show me the steps.  As we moved, she would count – uno, dos, tres – uno, dos, tres over and over again.  I guess I was clumsy enough that she switched to counting in English – it didn’t help.  But, I was having fun.  She then paired me with Olivia, but being with a younger woman was not helping either.

After dancing with Olivia a while, my original partner re-took me and the music became faster, turning into a disco rhythm.  This led everyone into a more free-for-all.  My partner was having me twirl her and doing some tango-like movements.  We were doing Congo lines, odd steps, disco movements – just having a lot of fun, and working up a sweat – the oldsters keeping up with the rest of us.  There was one point, and I didn’t realize it was happening, that my senior partner and me were in the center of all the other dancers being watched and applauded.  Allen would later remark that he imagines that was how my dad would have done it… and I was touched.

After the dancing was over, we thanked and hugged our hosts and headed back to the bus.  All of us were in a very good, light hearted mood after the dancing workout.  We were taken to the outskirts of Varadero, to the home and workshop of artisans Mariela Aleman Orozco and Marilin Martinez Barrio.  It was a two story house, the lower level must be where the living was done as there were closed bedroom doors, a living room to the front of the house and we passed through a kitchen to the stairs taking us upstairs.  There we were met by Mariela in a room in which many dresses, shirts and other fabric arts were hanging around the room and a large table covered with magazines and folios upon it.  The artist spent the first 15-20 minutes establishing her credentials as a real and acknowledged artist and fashion designer.  She showed us magazines she had appeared in, materials from fashion shows in which her work had been featured, and had us watch a 5 minute video of some sort of fashion show in which she was the featured designer.  All of this was being translated by Gretel.


Okay, we have established she is a real live artist.  Now she was going to show us how she created her fabric designs.  It seems she discovered a process of printing on fabrics, using squeeze bottles of her special dyes, folding the cloth for certain effects, using found objects and leaves and such to create both bold and subtle patterns in the cloth that she would later turn into clothing, bags, even shoes.

We were led out to her rooftop patio that was covered with long dye splattered tables, there were also boxes filled with her dye containers, leaves, jewelry and other objects she would use to make designs, clothes lines ran the length of the patio, clothes drying in the sun.  

She demonstrated 4 or 5 different techniques for achieving the results she wanted, and after each demonstration, she had me help hold up a finished cloth or piece of clothing that was created with that technique.  I hammed it up a bit, doing a Vanna White with each sample, including a sun dress that I thought would look better on me than any model.

After her demonstration, we were invited to sit on the benches that paralleled the tables.  The tables were cleared, music was started, and 5 models appeared from the house, wearing dresses made by the artist and using the tables for a runway.                    She really had some lovely stuff, and I was awfully tempted to buy one of her shirts, but did not want to spend the kind of money she was asking for it.  Rosemarie, of course, found something she could not live without and she and several others all bought shirts, skirts or scarves.  While the women were shopping, I wandered downstairs to the front, very small patio area and watched some lizards wander around.  There was also a workshop down here for the artist in residence.  His medium is wood work and there were a number of very lovely boxes and humidors.  I did not need a humidor, but one of the med did, so all in all, the artists did rather well from our small group.

After getting back to our hotel, Nana, Allen and I took right off to the “mall” up the street.  I still wanted to find a magnet and ball cap.  The mall had a couple of souvenir shops, a couple of restaurants, some local arts stores and clothing stores.  Nana bought some dolls for Gretel to take back to children.  There was also a grocery store, but they wanted me to check my bag, so I decided against it.  I found no magnet that I liked, nor a hat, but we made our way through all the stores that interested us.

Returning to the hotel, I visited their gift shops and struck out as well.  I had eaten a large breakfast and was not too interested in lunch, so Allen went to eat and I returned to the mall.  Got a hat and magnet (compromises, both of them) and since I had left my bag behind, I entered the grocery store.  It was interesting, entire aisles dedicated to just three or four products, half an aisle of nothing more than a particular brand of beans, across the way and equally long stretch of a single brand of canned corn.  All the aisles were similar.  It was a large store, with many aisles, but what it contained could probably have fit in a single American grocery store aisle.

As I browsed the shelves, trying to discretely take pictures, I wandered to their soda case.  Lo and behold – COKE LITE!  I had not had a diet coke since Miami.  They only had them in 2 liter bottles, but I was not complaining.  I bought a bottle and headed back to the hotel, walking on the beach rather than the sidewalk.  I found Allen sitting at an outdoor table with Nana, Rosemarie and Margaret.  I was grinning like a Cheshire cat as I showed off my soda bottle.  Allen could not believe it.  I took it up to the hotel, had a glass or two and then joined Allen and company at the restaurant where we chatted a while.

After lunch, we headed to the sandy beach.  The cobblestoned walkway and stairs that led to the beach were testing Rosemarie, but she managed just fine.  While Margaret and her mother found a place to lie in the sun, Nana, Allen and I walked the length of the beach.  Nana joined me in walking in the warm, pleasant water, but she was not going to take her shoes off or roll her pants legs up.  I am sure her espadrilles were ruined by the time we got back – her pants were certainly soaked.

Returning to the hotel area, Allen went to lay by the pool and I went and played in the waves.  It was just beautiful and refreshing.  After I had had enough, I joined Allen sunning poolside, and then before returning to our room, we stopped by the rum shop again for more cigars for that night.  Getting back to the room, Allen was sorely disappointed that they had not given us new jams and jellies for his ever-growing collection.  The price of greed.

This evening, the group was getting together for our farewell dinner at one of the hotel restaurants (it was also our opportunity to tip Gretel and our driver).  I had the veal steak, a bit undercooked for my taste, but not so bad that I didn’t eat it.  The waitress was very good about keeping my wine glass full – perhaps too good.

After dinner, we commandeered a spot out on the lawn, stealing chairs from all around and setting up a circle.  Most of us were now drinking straight rum – and smoking cigars.  The talk tended to center around our impressions of Cuba, our homes and other trips we had taken.  Allen tells me I fell asleep in my chair – a drink in one hand and a cigar stub in the other.   Also, I was told I had amused a group of people in attempting to make my way up the steps and into the hotel.  I have to take his word for it.

Somehow I made it back to our room and into our bed.  Morning came way too early.  We had to have our bags outside our rooms no later than 7.  I was feeling a bit loopy and cursed my over-indulgence.  Eating breakfast helped and by the time we got on the bus, at 8, I was feeling much better.  So, I had three cigars in Cuba – a Guantanamera, Cohiba and a Romeo y Julieta.  I guess I did well.

The airport is about 15 minutes from the hotel and our flight was not due to leave until about 12:15.  It seemed to me that we were giving ourselves an awful lot of time.  We got to the airport, retrieved our bags, and secured our boarding passes without problem.  Then it was time to wait, in line, a very long line slowly making its way through the security check.  From the time we entered the airport to the time we reached our gate, nearly 2 hours had passed.  Leaving only 2 more hours for our scheduled departure.

The airport is not a very big one, and the cushions that once covered the steel benches were no longer there.   We passed the time talking with Cyndi and Nana, reading and my journaling.   It got to be noon, our plane was at the gate, but we were still not boarding.  I was getting a bit nervous, but then, at 12:05, they announced it was time to get on the plane. 

The flight was not too crowded at all.  Allen and I had all three seats in our row to ourselves.  We were in Miami in less than an hour.  Customs and immigration was very quick – most scheduled flights were due later in the afternoon, so the lines were very short.  After helping her retrieve her bag, Nana, Allen and I joined Cyndi on the curb to wait for our hotel bus.  We were staying in the same place we had on the first night in Miami.

At the hotel I helped Nana print out her boarding pass for the next morning – some ungodly hour.  As I was helping her, Allen took our bags up to the room.  While I was at it, I also printed out our boarding passes.  When I got to the room, it was Allen’s turn to wear a huge grin.  He showed me our bottles of gin and tonic from our stay here a week ago. He was right!


After cleaning up a bit, we went to the hotel bar for a sandwich.  After eating, I stayed behind to take care of the bill while he took himself to the pool.  As I was sitting there, Nana came to the restaurant and immediately made a bee-line to the bar and cashier.  Just as the waitress was running my credit card, Nana insisted on paying for our meals.  I went to the bar to see why they were all staring at me and discovered what she had done.  The waitress handed me my receipts, showing the charge-back for my meal.  It was really, really sweet of her, and totally unexpected and appreciated.  It’s really a blessing to meet such nice, generous people.

I joined Allen at the pool for a while, finished my book and then went to the fitness room.  In the meantime, Nana and Allen spent some time talking pool side.  Back in our room, Allen is not feeling too well and so we were going to stay close to home.  We spent the night watching TV, drinking our  gin and reminiscing about the week we just had.

The Sunday flight home was pretty uneventful.  Everything was running on time and the plane was full, but not uncomfortable (there were a lot Asians on this flight, a tour group of some sort, and the leader was being asked to translate for some of her group).  We were back in our house by about 2 in the afternoon.  We unpacked, did laundry, answered emails and shopped for groceries.  Allen was still not feeling real well.

Our bathroom turned out to be truly amazing!  It turned out better than we thought it would.  The contractor had chosen to correct some our bad choices, and he was so absolutely right.  The fact that he gutted the room, and did all the work in just a week was amazing.  And the work was superb.  It was only lacking the shower doors; those would be put in the following weekend.  Which was all right, we just used our old tension bar and curtain.  He had done all this construction work and really kept the dust to a minimum.  We are still marveling at how much we like it.

Our only “downer” for our return occurred when I went to pick up the dogs and bring them home.  We had asked the boarding staff to cut the nails of Monkee.  She did that when I got there, but she cut one nail just a little too short and Monkee, who was in no pain about it all was bleeding like a stuck pig.  The boarder put some sort of powder on it, hoping to staunch the bleeding.  It seemed to have done the trick, but as we drove home, I noticed that she was getting blood all over the blanket and my seat.

Taking her into the house, she immediately began running all around the house with excitement – leaving a blood trail wherever she went.  I called the boarder and asked what we might use to stop it.  She was genuinely concerned and even offered to make the half hour trip to come and attend to it herself.  I told her that was not necessary.  I asked what powder she had used.  Alum, she said.  The same stuff as in the styptic pencil I use when nicking myself while shaving. 

I grabbed that styptic pencil, ground it up and tried to apply it to her claw.  It slowed it down, but it was not fully stopping it.  Finally, I remembered the Visine I had and used that on her paw.  It was actually working.  We had to give it several coats, and Allen held her still for a while, and eventually, we got it stopped and I mopped up the floors.  We ended the night watching the Oscars.

I would love to go back to Cuba.  It is an alluring place.  I would not want to go with a tour group again, - not because our group was bad or unpleasant – far from it.  I just prefer the freedom and choices of creating my own agenda.  Given what we had experienced, I think I could put together an itinerary which I hope would also include some out -door adventures.  But, it needed to be seen, and seen soon, before the Starbucks, McDonalds and other generic entities take over.  I am sure it will not be too much longer, and for that I feel some sorrow.