Monday, November 26, 2012: Fly from LAX to Miami, Florida via HoustonCuba has been on my bucket list for decades. It was the last country in the Americas for me to visit. I jumped at the opportunity to legally visit when Debbie my travel agent at Cruise Specialists sent me a brochure earlier in the year advertising the Tauck Cuba People to People Cultural Exchange. Their after Thanksgiving 9 day tour fit nicely in my schedule after my Horn of Africa Trip and before Judy’s December 11th birthday, so I signed up.
My scheduled flight to start by trip to Cuba was not until 13:30 so I had a normal eight hour’s sleep and was able to finish my last minute packing without the customary early morning rushing around. I had elected to drive since it was a relatively short trip. It was my first trip to the airport in my 2012 Miata and I was happy to discover that my bag fit in the truck. The 2012 Miata’s have a larger trunk than the 1990 Miata I used to own.On the morning news I heard that as part of the 405 Carpool Lane project that Sepulveda was going to be closed at 09:00 for the day. I was concerned that it would affect the 405 traffic so I left for the airport at 10:15. The traffic was not as bad as I expected and I was parked in the Parking Spot garage before 11:00. Check-in was fast but the TSA Security check point was slow and not very well organized. They had removed the full body scan and didn’t seemed to have the staff to hand check all the people that triggered alarms passing through the x-ray machine. It took me thirty minutes to clear security which was unusually long for the United Premier Terminal at LAX.
I still had over an hour to kill before boarding my flight so I spent some time in the United Club and then at 12:30 I checked out the lunch options. The food concessions at United’s Terminal 7 had changed and where Wolf Gang Puck and MacDonald’s had been there was construction and just some shelves of very expensive sandwiches. It appears that the food concessioners are setting their prices to match the prices of the food sold on the flights. The days of people purchasing a cheap MacDonald’s hamburger and carrying it on the flight is gone for at least at Terminal 7. I decided I would buy my lunch on board – at least the drink would be free.During my food investigation my departure gate was changed and I didn’t catch the change until I realized they were boarding another flight at what I thought was my assigned gate. I got to the correct gate just as the flight attendants were going on board. When my group was called and I boarded I was presently surprised to have a vacant seat next to me in Economy Plus. The aircraft was an ex-Continental B-737-824 with Direct TV installed. I hate those aircraft because one you have to pay almost $8.00 to view a movie and two if you don’t want to watch a movie there is no music channels or channel 9 flight following options which I usually listen to on flights. Before takeoff they announced that Direct TV was not operating on the aircraft. I dug out my iPod and listened to a book-on-tape.
We landed in Houston ahead of schedule and stopped at a Wendy’s in the airport for a quick sandwich before my flight to Miami. The Miami aircraft was also a B-737-824 with Direct TV. On that aircraft the Direct TV was working. Next to me were a father and son speaking Spanish. They paid for the TV so the son could watch a soccer game. We arrived early in Miami and I took a shuttle bus to the Marriott Residence Inn for the night.Tuesday, November 27, 2012: Meet with the Tauck Tour Group at the Hilton Miami Airport Hotel
I didn’t get a full eight hours sleep because I did not fall asleep right away at 01:00 since it was only 22:00 Pacific Coast Time. I was able to fall asleep by 02:00 but I woke at 08:30 to enable me to get the free breakfast the Residence offers. After breakfast I packed and did some work on my computer and transferred all my African pictures off my camera. It was soon noon and check-out time at the Marriott.I took the Marriott airport shuttle to the airport and then took the Hilton shuttle to the Hilton Miami Airport hotel where I would join the Tauck tour group. At check-in I was handed an instruction sheet from Tauck informing me that the Tauck Director would have a Hospitality Desk open from 15:00 to 17:00 and there would be a mandatory briefing at 18:00.
At 14:00 I went for a walk. I discovered a shopping mall about 30 minutes away and stopped in to purchase a wall charger for my cell phone to replace one I had been using that had broken a wire. I returned to the hotel at 15:00 and checked-in at the Tauck Hospitality Desk. The Tauck Director, Ulla Salafrio, informed me that there would be 25 people on the tour. It was a bigger group than I have been used to traveling with.At 17:45 I went to the Cove Meeting room for the mandatory briefing. Ulla and a couple from Phoenix, Arizona, Mary & Dennis Schumer were the only ones there but the bar was open and snacks laid out. Ulla handed me an envelope with the information and paperwork we would need on the trip. Panic set in when I reviewed the paperwork and discovered that it had my 2 year passport numbers on the Cuban Visa and that passport was with UTS obtaining visas for my January return to Africa. Ulla told me she could fix it after the briefing.
The others arrived and we sat at a U shaped table. Ulla handed out everyone’s envelopes and had us introduce themselves to the group. Six were from California, four from Pennsylvania and the others were couples from Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Massachusetts and one lady from Vermont. They were:
- Mr. Joseph (Jerry) and Jan Schumb, Kihei, HI
- Mr. Christopher (Chris) Schumb, San Jose, CA
- Dr. David Schumb, Oakland, CA
- Mrs. Elizabeth (Liz) Sheppard, Mill Valley, CA
- Ms. Susan Arnold, Middlebury, VT
- Mr. Elliot Young and Vedrana Grgas, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
- Mrs. Martin (Marty) and Judith (Judy) Schwartz, Princeton NJ
- Dr. Albert (Buck) and Suzanne Frederick, Chestnut Hill, MA
- Mrs. Cecile Natt and Judy Zon, Bryn Mawr, PA
- Miss Mary Kopa, Wayne, PA and Mrs. Judy Duffy, Clarks Summit, PA
- Mr. Douglas (Doug) and Susan Kish, Brevard, NC
- Mr. Charles (Chuck) and Karen Northrop, San Francisco, CA
- Dr. Dennis and Mary (Dr. Mary Kass) Schumer, Easton, MD and Scottsdale, AZ
- Mr. Lloyd and Susan Hendricks, Columbia, SC
After the meeting I talked to several of the people and retired since we had to be checked out by 05:00 in the morning.Wednesday, November 28, 2012: Fly Miami to Havana and tour Havana
I awoke at 03:30 to shower, shave and pack. At 05:00 a porter picked up my bag and I went down to breakfast. I sat with the Judy and Cecile. It was a quick breakfast since we had to be on the bus by 05:15.It was a short ride to the airport but flight check in was a long multistep process. First we lined up behind a desk that checked our paperwork, then we went to the check in counter and had our luggage weighed including our carryon and then we told them our body weight. They also checked our paperwork and issued a boarding pass with the luggage tag fixed on the back. After that we had to go to another station and pay a $33 fee. From there we passed through Immigration and then security and finally we could go to the gate. The security check had the full body scan but they still did a quick pat-down after the body scan.
The airline was Sky King, a charter airline founded in Sacramento, CA in the early 1990’s but after a bankruptcy it moved its headquartered to Florida where they mainly fly to Cuban cities. The plane we flew on was a B-737-400 painted all white. The seats were comfortable. My seat mates were Elliot Young and Vedrana Grgas. Vedrana was originally from Croatia and we talked a little bit about my proposed trip next year to visit the Balkan countries. Elliot was originally from New York City.The flight took ninety minutes and arrived on the scheduled time of 09:00 at the Havana Airport. There was no sky bridge at the airport so we had to walk to the Arrival Terminal. There we passed through Immigration where they took our pictures and took half of the visa. Next we passed through a security checkpoint where I set off the alarm and had to be "wanded". From Security I had to go to another desk for another paperwork check. Following that we were ushered into the VIP Lounge where we gave an agent our luggage tag. She retrieved our luggage and took it to be x-rayed. The VIP Lounge had free sandwiches and drinks (Rum, beer, Coke and juice). When everyone's luggage had been x-rayed we were led outside to retrieve our luggage and board a bus.
On the bus we were told that it was too early to check in at the hotel so we rode to the Museum of the Revolution and then Revolution Square.The airport parking lot had been full of new Korean and Japanese made cars but at the museum and the square we saw a lot of 1950 era cars. I got some good pictures. The old cars in excellent shape were used as Taxis. There were a lot of old Russian cars and the old American man cars that were not taxis were not in great shape but there were a lot of them on the road.
The Museum of the Revolution was an interesting mixture of indoor and outdoor displays of the rise of Castro and the demise of Batista. The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista. It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban revolution. The museum was designed by the Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and the Belgian architect Paul Belau and was inaugurated in 1920 by President Mario García Menocal. It remained the Presidential Palace until 1959. The building has Neo-Classical elements, and was decorated by Tiffany & Co. of New York.The museum has the pock marks of the bullets shot during the March 13, 1957 by a group of university students who stormed the Presidential Palace with the aim of executing dictator Batista. The assault failed and most of the young attackers got killed. . The inside tour was of three floors and included, a Chapel, Hall of Mirrors with a beautiful painting on the ceiling, Flag Hall, Presidents Office (where we were shown the closet stairway Batista used to leave his office and hide from the students) and Council Ministers’ Office on the second floor and the Liberation War period, and Che Memorial on the third floor.
To the right side of the lobby was a mural that Isabel warned us that we might find offensive. It had large cartoon caricatures of:
- Batista saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION”
- Ronald Regan in a cowboy outfit saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”
- George Bush Sr. dressed as Caesar saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO CONSOLIDATE OUR REVOLUTION”
- W. Bush with a Nazi helmet saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE”.
Across the street we saw a nice line up of vintage convertible taxis including two Model A Ford replicas, a 1932 Ford with rumble seat. Outside the front of the museum were the remains of the old city wall of Havana.We rode from the museum to Revolution Square, one of the largest city squares in the world. The square is dominated by the José Martí Memorial, which features a 358 ft. tall tower and an 59 ft. statue of Martí. The National Library, many government ministries, and other buildings are located in and around the Plaza. Located behind the memorial are the closely guarded offices of former President Fidel Castro. Opposite the memorial on the far side of the square is the famous Che Guevara image with his well-known slogan of "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) that identifies the Ministry of the Interior building and an image of Fidel Castro on another building.
Next to where the tour busses parked was a street bordering the square lined with many beautiful 1950 era Taxi convertibles and a few “Coconut” Taxis. The “Coconut” Taxis are three wheel motor scooters with a round yellow shell that resembles a coconut. I took more pictures of the cars than the monuments and statues.It was then time to check in to the Melia Habana hotel. But first we had lunch at the La Scala Restaurant in the hotel. Lunch was a salad and pizza and I finally got to my room at 15:00. It was a 5 star hotel and I had free Wi-Fi in the room.
At 16:30 we met in a hotel conference room to attend a presentation by PhD Camilo Garcia Lopez-Trigo, a graduate of the Institute of International Relations in Havana in 1991 and a former Cuban diplomat on the subject of the Cuba-U.S. relationship. Camilo had lived in New York City when he was assigned to the Cuban delegation to the United Nations.He told us of the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 by John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State. In 1848 the U.S. attempted to buy Cuba from the Spanish. During Cuba’s second war of Independence in 1895 the U.S. became involved in 1898 when the USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. After Spain surrendered the U.S. was granted control of Cuba. The U.S. military governor of Cuba drafted a constitution that included an amendment by US Senator Platt that guaranteed America’s right to intervene in Cuban domestic affairs. It also forced Cuba to lease in perpetuity to the US a naval base at Guantanamo Bay and required the Cuban government to: "maintain a low public debt; refrain from signing any treaty impairing its obligation to the United States; to grant to the United States the right of intervention to protect life, liberty, and property; validate the acts of the military government; and, if requested, provide long-term naval leases.
In 1902, following the elections of 1901, Cuba was proclaimed an Independent Republic under official protection of the U.S. During the next three decades the relationship was rocky with many interventions by U.S. military and business interests that eventually lead to the “Sergeants Revolt” and the overthrow of the government by Batista in 1933. Batista backed several presidents and served several terms as President himself. When he ran again in 1952 he did not win but he simply decided to take over in a bloodless coup. On July 26, 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro lead a group of revolutionaries in an attack on Moncada Barracks and the Cuban Revolution begins. They are captured and imprisoned but were released in 1955 and they fled to Mexico. They returned in 1956 and force Bastia to flee in 1959.A U.S. embargo on Cuba begins, in 1960 prohibiting all exports to Cuba. In response, Cuba strengthens trade relations with the Soviet Union and the following year the U.S. ends all diplomatic relations with Cuba and closes the embassy in Havana in January 1961. In April, a group of Cuban exiles invade Playa Giron on the Bay of Pigs. The Soviet Union began to install missiles in Cuba in 1962 and despite Castro’s desire to fire them at the U.S. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agrees to remove them after he negotiates with President Kennedy.
During the next thirty years there were several programs to allow Cubans to leave for the U.S. The Cuban economy limped along with Soviet aid until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.In 1992 the U.S. implemented the Torricelli act which forbade foreign subsidiaries of US companies from dealing with Cuba, prohibited any ship that has docked in Cuban harbors from entering US ports for 180 days, and called for a termination of aid to any country that provides assistance to Cuba. The act did not bring down the Castro regime so in 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act that allows the USA to penalize foreign companies that invest in Cuban properties seized after the Revolution. The Helms Burton Act also deprived the US President of any discretionary power to end any aspect of the embargo. The bill permits Americans with claims to property expropriated by the Cuban government to sue for damages foreign corporations or individuals that "traffic" in such property. The US also denies entry to the executives and major shareholders, as well as their immediate families, of firms found to be "trafficking" in expropriated property. The legislation also restricts US aid to independent states of the former Soviet Union if they provide assistance for intelligence facilities in Cuba, but also provides waivers for humanitarian aid or aid to promote market reforms and democratization. It reaffirms the embargo under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The act has severely hurt the Cuban economy but the regime is still in power. President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011, allowing for more educational, religious, and cultural programs.
Camilo also told us about the “Cuban Five” which is a very emotional issue in Cuba. The five men were Cuban intelligence agents caught spying on Miami's Cuban exile community. The men were sent to South Florida in the wake of several terrorist bombings in Havana masterminded by anti-communist militant. The five were convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the United States.In the Q & A after his talk Camilo told us that because of the Helms-Burton Act there are limited things a President can do to ease the tensions between the countries. It would require an act of congress to change the provisions of the Helms-Burton Act which severely restricts the Cuban economy and interaction between the countries. Cuban’s don’t understand why the anti-Castro lobby is still so effective since the Cubans that fled in the 1960’s are are dead or passed the age of retirement.
I left the meeting wondering what the Miami based anti-Castro lobby expected to achieve. Their property has been lost for so many years that in many cases they wouldn’t want to return. I went to sleep wondering if had been worth the effort to attempt to bring down the Castro regime.Thursday, November 29, 2012: Art in Cuba
This was my first morning in Cuba. After two nights of less than eight hours sleep I slept until 07:00. We had a choice of two restaurants in the hotel to eat breakfast. I selected the VIP Bar on the 9th floor which was just one flight of stairs from my 8th floor room. It was pretty much a standard hotel buffet breakfast bar. I was not impressed with the texture of the bacon and the fact there were no whole oranges but I filled up and returned to my room to check my email and get ready for a 09:30 departure.Our first stop was the home and studio of Jose Fuster, one of the most celebrated artists in Cuba. I was not prepared for the sight as the bus drove close to his studio. The houses had walls alone the sidewalk and a large arch over the gateway covered in colorful bits of tile. Even the street names were in colorful tile. When we arrived at his studio we were greeted by the sight of many arches, geometric shapes and figures of people all covered in colorful tile. Fuster’s son met us at the entrance to the three story studio. I noted that there were two late model Japanese cars in the yard. The son told us that over a dozen men assist in the creation of the display. I counted at that moment at least four men on the various floors applying cement to walls and railings and imbedding pieces of tile. Another man was breaking tile in different colors into pieces the others would apply.
I walked upstairs to visit a room where the tile was created. Many 6x6 tiles had colorful scenes and some were hanging on a wall for sale. In another room was Fuster’s oil paintings, and one of etchings. He is called a visual artist with the paintings alone the style of some of Picasso’s and his tile style from Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. After touring the three floors of his studio and taking dozens of pictures I wandered around the neighborhood.Across the street was an artist with a display of wooden VWs and figures of musicians. His house had a fence decorated by Fuster as did all the houses in a two block area. Many had the house walls decorated in Fuster’s style.
Our next stop was the Institute Superior de Arte (ISA). It is an impressive set of brick domed buildings built on the grounds of a former Country Club’s golf course. The ISA teaches college level classes in art, theater, dance and music. The ISA guide told us that it is highly selective and as an example only 15 students were selected from 400 applicants this year. We toured the various art classrooms and workshops which covered a wide range of specialties from paint in various styles and mediums to ceramic and metal sculptures.I was impressed in some areas but overall it impressed me that the artists are morbid tortured, unhappy souls. There were no displays of landscapes. Many works were colorful but many were dark, bloody and gloomy.
From ISA we went to lunch at Don Cangrejo’s, a seafood restaurant on the coast. We were greeted in the yard in front of the restaurant by a large ceramic tile crab. It was raining lightly so we had to eat inside. I could see that they normally setup tables overlooking the sea wall.The meal was delicious. It started with a family style dish of crab balls, olives, cheese, and fired fish fingers. The main was a medley of clams, calamari, fish, shrimp, mussels, crab, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and beets. Drinks were a rum mojito and wine or beer. Dessert was a scoop of peach ice cream with a nickel size creme burlee.
During our lunch a jazz band with an outstanding female singer performed. She sang several Nat King Cole songs, “Mack the knife” and “When the Saints Come Marching In”. Al and Suzanne Frederick danced to one of the songs and then Judy Zon and Mary Kopa did the Mummers Philadelphia New Year’s Parade dance to the “Saints”.After lunch we visited Casa de la Cultura in Plaza de la Revolution. There are a number of neighborhood culture centers around the city where people of all ages can take extracurricular classes in art, music, dancing and theater. We visited a ceramics lab and a knitting class and then were treated to a special performance in the theater. It started with a young girl around eight years old singing a ballad, a group of younger girls doing ballet and then an old man singing a ballad, followed by a younger man singing a salsa tune with a couple dancing in back of him and ended with six couples dancing what they called a casino dance where they jitterbugged and changed partners in a circle similar to square dancing but in more of a circular pattern.
After the performance we visited the Center’s Art Gallery. They had some nice pieces on display. I thought they were better than in the ISA. We returned to the hotel and left for dinner at 18:30.Dinner was at the La Moraleja restaurant which is not government owned. I had a very nice Greek Salad, braised lamb with ice cream for dessert. We were sitting at three tables with the Schumb family occupying one of the tables. The wine was flowing freely and they started telling family stories in louder and louder voices which really drowned out cross table conversations at the other tables. It dampened the spirit of the dinner. Isabel, the Tauck Director, was sitting at our table and when we could converse she had some interesting stories to tell us. She has worked for a number of different tour agencies including Grand Circle and OAT. She mainly works the Panama Canal and Costa Rica Ecology Tours.
The service was slow at the restaurant and it was close to 22:00 before we returned to the hotel and since we had an early departure scheduled for the next day I went right to bed without updating my journal.Friday, November 30, 2012: Farm Day (or as I would call it “Cigar Day”)
We rode out in the country southwest of Havana on a four lane highway to the city of Pinar del Rio. Along the way we stopped at the Las Barrigonas rest stop. There were several busses already there and more arrived following us. Las Barrigonas was a brick shelter with clean rest rooms and arts and crafts for sale. Near the building was a farm with a several pigs a cow and a donkey hooked to a cart. As we were returning to our bus the farmers rode off in the donkey lead cart.When we arrived in Pinar del Rio I noticed that the taxis were not the 1950’s era cars but were three wheeled bicycles with a double size seat over the rear axle and a roof over the driver and passenger.
We toured a Cigar Factory set up for visitors, no photos allowed I guess because it showed each step in selecting the crushed tobacco, forming it in the size of the cigar, compressing it, and then wrapping it with the outer leaf. From Pinar del Rio we rode north stopping on the way at Hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines one of the most renowned hotels in Cuba. It has a stunning view point of the Viñales Valley UNESCO site. The valley is surrounded by lime stone mountains with spectacular cliffs full of indentations and caves. The parking area was full of tour buses of Europeans. There were a number of tables with arts and crafts displayed and a saddled Ox. Doug Kish from our group climbed on for us to take his picture.Leaving the vista we rode past the village of Viñales to a tobacco farm. As we drove into the farm we saw a turkey slowly wandering around the yard. In the back of two white farm houses there were two oxen hooked to a cart and a group of farm workers on a break.
When we got off the bus we were ushered into a tobacco barn for a presentation by the farmer, Benito Camejo, who was out of Central Casting. A handsome man with a bushy mustache (for those of you that know my neighbor Gary Wales that restores and shows Bentleys he reminded me of a young version of Gary, you can also see his picture if you ‘Google’ his name). As he sat talking to us he rolled a cigar and lit it up. He then led us to his house for a cup of either Cuban coffee or rum or a mixture of both. I was the first to have just the rum and he took a liking to me and led me to his garage to see his 1953 Chevrolet. It still has the original engine but the carburetor has been swapped out so he could burn diesel which is significantly cheaper and as I understand easier to get. I learned most of the old cars have converted to diesel because gasoline is about $7 a gallon. He also showed us his tobacco crop and told us how he transplants the seedlings from a wet area next to the river to fields next to his house. He also showed us his coffee bushes and fig tree.From the farm we headed back towards Viñales and stopped at El Estanco II, a tobacco processing plant where they remove the stems, grade and size the leaves then ferment the leaves and bundle them up for shipment to a cigar factory. We were given a briefing on the process. I found the process of fermenting the tobacco leaves interesting. They stick a thermometer in a compressed bale of tobacco until the temperature no longer increases and the leaves no longer feel slightly sticky to the touch. Another interesting fact is they bundle up the removed stems and use them to control insect pests.
We ate at lunch at Palenque de los Cimarrones in a valley out of town between mountains full of caves. The restaurant was a symmetric structure of open log cabins joined by halls, with roofs made of leaves taken from the royal palm tree and displayed as in an ancient African village. The restrooms were in round structures with murals on their sides. We were serenaded at lunch near a cave. The lunch was family style. It was Susan Hendricks’ birthday and somehow the guides were able to have a birthday cake baked and served for the occasion. After lunch I decided to walk through the cave.Near the entrance were two life size figures of a slave fighting a runaway slave hunter. Runaway slaves hid in the caves. At the entrance were a couple of local performers. One of them was a fire eater and he entertained me. The limestone cave was narrow in many spots and had deep crevices branching off of the path. There were also carvings in the limestone of snakes and rats. At the other end of the cave was a stage for band concerts and a bar constructed of limestone. Outside was an ancient sugar cane press which I noticed was manufactured in Buffalo, NY. I walked back towards the restaurant but the bus had started to leave and picked me up on the way.
We returned to Viñales and spent an hour walking around the town. It was set up for tourists and several of the European Tours were already there. It had showered as we approach the center of the city but soon the covers were removed from tables of arts and crafts. In the city center there was a beautiful little church and a statue of Jose Marti dated 1895. After our tour of the town we boarded our bus for a two hour ride back to our hotel.Dinner that night was on our own in one of the six restaurants in the hotel. Our choices were:
- Sabor do Brasil
- Miramar (Buffett)
- Vedado Restaurant (where we ate breakfast)
- El Bosque de la Habana (Lobby Bar)
- La Scala (Italian Restaurant)
- Bella Cubana (Fusion Asian Restaurant)
Saturday, December 01, 2012: Literary Arts in Cuba (or as I would call it Hemingway Day)After a breakfast of a fried egg a link sausage and two Danish rolls we met for a presentation on the life of Ernest Hemingway and his relationship with Cuba. We were supposed to visit Hemingway’s home but they are filming a movie on his life and the home was closed to visitors. Sharon Stone was scheduled to be in the movie and was staying at our hotel although I never saw her.
We left the hotel with the intention of visiting Hemingway’s old haunts in Old Havana but it was raining so the guide changed our schedule and dropped us off at the Havana Club Rum Museum. At the museum we were assigned an English speaking guide who took us on a tour of the museum. She explained the differences between the white and dark rum and the distilling and aging process. One of the rooms had a detailed model of a Sugar Mill including a model railroad with model trains. It was very impressive. She then led us through he distilling vats and aging barrels. After the tour we had a sample of the seven year old dark rum and saw a $1,200 bottle of rum in a glass display case.We boarded the bus and rode out of town to Cojimar, the small fishing village east of Havana where Hemingway fished and found the inspiration for his novel “The Old Man and the Sea”. His house is in the area but set back from the road so we didn’t even drive by. The rain appeared to be letting up when we arrived at the old fort on the sea wall across from a bust of Hemingway. We got out of the bus to take pictures but the rain increased and we quickly got back on the bus.
Next we stopped at the La Terraza de Cojimar Restaurant where they have a table roped off in a corner with a view of the sea that was Hemingways favorite table and where he dined with Gregorio Fuentes, captain of Hemingway’s yacht “Pilar”. It was in this restaurant that Hemingway met Cojimar’s fisherman. The restaurant’s walls were covered with pictures of Hemingway and paintings of the sea and fisherman. It was very colorful.On the drive back to Havana we stopped for lunch at Divino’s Restaurant. The restaurant was already decorated for Christmas and we were greeted by a large statue of Santa Claus at the door. I had salad and fish for lunch. When we left the restaurant the rain had stopped and I was able to take some pictures of a nice four door 1931 Ford sedan.
Back in the city we got off the bus at san Francisco Plaz and started our walking tour of Old Havana. First stop was the old fort of La Real Fuerza. We then walked up the narrow streets to Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote many of his short stories. We took an elevator to the top floor where we were served a Mojito and had great views of the city. The open rooftop bar had pretty art decorated panels on the walls.After a crowd of European tourist left the area we were able to visit Hemingway’s room which has been setup as he used it when he stayed there. A typewriter with pages from a short story is in a display case on the standup desk he used when he wrote. The closet has one of suits and tie hanging behind a glass door. A model of his yacht Pilar was on display on top of a bookcase. A case displayed cards, poker chips, dice and a small roulette wheel.
On the way out the lobby was full of European guests checking in and out with their luggage. We were then on our own to explore Old Town Havana. I walked up the narrow streets and visited several shops. Of interest was the restored Johnson Drug Store with a display from floor to ceiling of ceramic jars used to contain drugs. Along the way I walked through a large open market with arts, crafts and clothes for sale.At the end of the walk was another Hemingway hangout the Floridita Bar home of the original daiquiri. Inside was a spot where Hemingway liked to sit and pictures were on the wall of him with famous people such as Errol Flynn, Castro and Mafia Dons.
We returned to the hotel before 17:00 and had a rest before leaving for dinner at 19:00 to dine at El Tocororo a privately owned restaurant until recently only open to foreigners. It had plaques on the wall from various tour groups and a great jazz band. Dinner was delicious.After dinner we rode to the Tropicana Night Club where we took in the show. It was spectacular with dancing, singing, many costume changes and lots of colorful lights. It ranks with the best Las Vegas shows.
It was a great way to spend Saturday night in Havana.Sunday, December 02, 2012: Spirituality in Cuba
Our first visit for the day was a tour of the Colon Cemetery founded in 1876. Named for Christopher Columbus, the 140 acre cemetery was noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials. It is estimated that the cemetery has more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. The cemetery was entered through a massive stone gate called the “Gate of Peace” in the form of the Arc de Triumph with three arches over openings. We were met by a guide that showed us around the cemetery describing the many large mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. He pointed out several notable people’s graves, the Chapel of Constante Ribalaigua, a friend of Ernest Hemingway and founder of the Floridita, famous Hemingway bar in Old Havana. Ribalaigua is credited with having invented the famous daiquiri drink. The most impressive grave site was the 75 foot high monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890. We were impressed by the clean condition and massive size of the sites, many dating back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It indicated that there was once great wealth and taste for the arts in the history of the nation.We toured the chapel in the center of the cemetery between funerals, which go on all day, and then visited the very popular grave of La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One). The story goes that when Amelia Goyri de la Hoz died in childbirth in 1901, she was buried with her stillborn daughter placed at her feet. When the tomb was opened a few years later, the baby was found in her arms. Amelia is now considered the protector of pregnant women and newborn children. Pilgrims paying homage must not turn their backs to the tomb upon leaving. We saw many woman visiting the grave and laying flowers on the tomb in just the few minutes we were there.
The cemetery has more than 800,000 graves and 1 million interments, space is currently at a premium and after three years remains are removed from their tombs, boxed and placed in a storage building. The cemetery ranks right up with the most impressive in the world such the ones in Paris and Buenos Aires.Our next visit was to the area called Muraleando Mercado de San Jose. Muraleando means mural-making and what started out as art classes taught in the street because there was no local room to teach, the classes grew into a community beautification project where trash areas were cleaned up and metal sculptures installed and murals painted on the walls. Even Charles Schulz’s estate has contributed by allowing pictures of Snoopy to be painted on the walls. The community gained permission from the Government to turn an old concrete water tank into an art studio and in front of the tank they built a covered stage where we were entertained with the talents of the local musicians and a ‘rap’ artist.
The music became a group dance where the locals had us dance with them. It was great fun and followed by a showing and selling of their art work. Of course I had to buy a small print of a painting by the young lady that had asked me to dance with her.From the community center we boarded our bus and rode to the Arts and Crafts Market that occupies the old warehouse space along the seaport docks. There I was able to purchase a few small art objects for the grand kids. We then rode to the San Francisco Square where we had the official Group Photo taken in the archway of the cathedral.
We had lunch at Cafe de Oriente on the square. It was very elegant and we had the whole top floor with a jazz trio serenading us while I had a delicious seafood lunch. After lunch we had the choice of staying in Old Havana or returning to the hotel. I choose to return to the hotel to catch up on my email and journal.At 17:30 we departed to the Belle Arts Museum to attend musical performance by six local music teachers called the Groupo Vocal Elé. They sang a number of songs in Spanish and English. Their rendition of ‘Summertime’ was outstanding.
Following this surprise event we rode to Casa Espanola for dinner. The meal was a traditional Cuba meal with beans and a potato quiche.It had been another memorable day on my visit to Cuba.
Monday, December 03, 2012: Education in CubaOn our many trips back and forth to and from the hotel would pass by a beautiful old three story mansion on a corner which Isabel called the “Green Tiles” house. Well, we finally stopped and visited the house. The house had been owned by a wealthy lady with a lot of land holdings in the country. After the Revolution she had to give the State all her holdings but could keep one house to live in. She chose this beautiful house with a large lot and water fountains and reflecting pools in the backyard. When she died the house passed to her niece as her only living heir in the country. When the niece died she had no heirs and the property was turned over to the State.
The government restored the house to its former glory and it was then used by the Havana Revitalization Works as an office, reception and briefing room. We were lead up to the third floor past beautifully decorated rooms to a large room where we were given a presentation on “Restoring the Memory - Approach to Cuban Architecture and Havana Revitalization Works”. The presenter was a female architect from the Havana Revitalization Works. She traced the history of architecture in Cuba through its history, the influence of wars and the renaissance influences in fortress, the Spanish-Arab influences in houses, the colonial period, the cathedrals, convents, neoclassic buildings, and the period from 1902 to 1958 which included the ‘Capital’ building which is a replica of the US Capital and the Casinos and hotels. She then described the damage to the buildings caused by strong storms over the years.That background lead to the establishment of the Revitalization Works – Cultural and Touristic Infrastructure. She talked about and showed us before and after pictures of the projects her department has undertaken and some of the artists that perform the work including the National School of Arts, the Mills Farm in central Havana and the Green Tiles house. In the Q&A following her presentation she talked about the funding which comes from tourist fees and how the US embargo hampers the funding by reducing the tourist trade.
After the presentation we were given a tour of the house. Fabulous!We then rode to the famous Hotel National. The New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White designed the hotel, which features a mix of styles. It opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans and the hotel has had many famous and important guests.
The hotel was built on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797. Part of the battery has been preserved in the hotel's gardens, including two large coastal guns dating from the late 19th Century. There is a small museum featuring the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters in the hotel to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attack. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a World Heritage Site and a National Monument, and it was inscribed in the World Memory Register.At one end of the long ornate lobby I entered the ‘Hall of Fame’ which has a panorama of the famous guests that have stayed or visited the hotel since it was built. On the walls are large collage of famous peoples photos grouped by decade. In addition there were individual photos of famous people and even a full size bronze statue of Nat King Cole. At the other end of the lobby was a bar which also had pictures on the wall of luminaries. Our side in the back was a beautiful view of the harbor.
I didn’t visit them but a number of rooms that have been occupied by the famous have been zealously conserved, several having been declared historic (those of Nat King Cole, Compay Segundo, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, María Felix, Johnny Weismuller, the Mafia bosses, Bola de Nieve, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Agustín Lara, Jorge Negrete, Mario Moreno, Stan Musial, Paul Casal, and Errol Flynn). On display in each are photographs and a biographical profile of their celebrated former occupant.Out front as I waited for the bus to arrive I saw a beautiful 1957 red Chevrolet convertible pull up to pick up a passenger. Outstanding condition!
Our next visit was to an Art Museum where we entered the side to a long room with a band set up at one end. We sat on folding chairs on each side of the room. We were introduced to Cuban Folkloric Dance. The group was from a family of three men and three women. There danced what I considered a very wield gyration and I didn’t think the movements were in sync with the rhythm of the music. They looked like they were on drugs. I was not impressed. At one point they performed a mating ritual where the female danced with skirt which she would raise teasing the male who had a handkerchief he would flick at the raised dress. If she didn’t like him she would drop her skirt if she liked him she would encourage him to get closer.During the dance the female dancer tried to get Buck sitting next to me to dance the man part. He declined and told her to pick me. I gyrated with the handkerchief and turned my back to her and flicked it between my legs. I felt silly since I still didn’t sense the correlation between her movements and the rhythm of the music. Chris came to my rescue and took the handkerchief and enabled me to sit down.
After the mating dance we all paired up and danced a sort of a square dance where we danced up and down and then in a round. Finally it was over and we left for lunch.Lunch was at the El Aljibe Restaurant, an open sided thatched roof building. It was a good lunch and a popular place full of tour groups including a group from the Hemingway movie crew. (No star actors included).
After lunch we visited the Santovenia Senior Home, a catholic run home since 1886. We toured the various areas of the home. One wing held males another wing females and across the rear small apartments for couples. In the middle was the chapel. We were shown the common facilities like the Physical Therapy room. Our host was one of the women living with her husband and we visited her small apartment which had a patio and a garden in back.We returned to the hotel and prepared for our farewell dinner. At 18:30 we gathered in the hotel lobby to board the bus and were told the bus had broken down. Isabel then told us she had ordered taxis to take us to the Saratoga Hotel for dinner. I was elated and boarded a 1957 blue Ford convertible with Cecile and Judy. The driver took our picture and then Isabel jumped in the front seat. She confessed that the bus was not disabled and the surprise was to give us a ride in the old cars we had been drooling over all week. The driver told me he had replaced the Ford engine with a Hyundai diesel and that almost all the Taxis had diesel engine replacements. We had fun on the way to dinner passing some of our colleagues or being passed ourselves.
Our farewell dinner was at the roof top of the Saratoga Hotel in the center of the city. It was a clear night and we had spectacular views of the city. I sat with Dennis and Mary and Isabel. It was a delicious meal and a fitting end to our visit to Cuba.Back in the room I read an email that informed me that my youngest daughter Robin was going to arrive in Miami to attend the Art Basel Miami Beach at the same time I was scheduled to arrive.
Tuesday, December 04, 2012: Return to the USI arose early to pack and have my luggage ready for pick up before I went to eat breakfast. We departed for the airport at 08:00 for a 25 minute ride. Check in was a little confusing because another large group was checking in at the same time. I was motioned to be first in line at one of the counters but the agent had not set up his system so it took me a little longer than those in the other line. I was assigned a window seat. Immigration and Security went fast. Some of the group carrying pictures in a tube had to show the contents of the tube. Once inside the Departure Hall a man with a Tauck sign directed me to the VIP room overlooking the hall. We gathered in the room and waited until one of the group noticed people lining up at our assigned gate. I hustled down to the hall and the line started growing to be the length of the hall. I got in near the front with several of the members of our group.
The flight on a World Atlantic B-737 charter took off on time and landed ten minutes early at Miami International. I hurried off the plane to try and get through Immigration and Customs to meet Robin when she landed. I don’t know the layout of Miami International but I think we parked as far away from Passport Control as possible. I walked as fast as I could passing by everyone from my plane and finally arrived to find the Passport Control Hall full of passengers from other flights. It took me forty minutes to pass through Passport Control. My bag was just coming off the carousel and then I had a ten minute wait to pass customs. Robin had landed and was trying to contact me but cell phones are not allowed in the area. Finally I was able to talk to her and we agreed to meet at the Hertz rental building.We met all right and used her iPad to direct us to her small hotel in Miami Beach on 18th Street. She checked in and I found a parking lot. We then had one of her staff join us for lunch. They had meetings to attend so I left them and drove to a Residence Inn in Coconut Grove to spend the night.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012:I went to the airport early with a plan to take the first flight to the west coast that I could. Finding a gas station near the airport was more difficult than I expected and I had to drive around side streets before I could gas up. Them I could not believe how complicated and long the route was to get to the Rental Car turn in lot. I was not a happy person and then to top it off when I got to the United check-in counter I found the first available flight to LAX was not until 15:00 and there was no longer a Red Carpet or United Club at Miami so I had to kill time in a bar near my departure gate. The flights home went off without a hitch and I was home for dinner. Trip over!
I highly recommend the tour for everyone.