November 17th to 24th, 2013
Tauck Cuba: Connecting People to People
(click on picture to enlarge)
This long-awaited trip turned out to be much more that we could ever have dreamed – Six full days immersed in the people and culture of Cuba! Because we have traveled with Tauck many times in the past, we knew that we would have a safe and wonderful experience, and they did not disappoint! This journal will be more “wordy” than most because there is SO much history to share, but we hope that you will learn as much as we did about this struggling and hopeful island nation and some of their amazing people.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17th -- This was the obligatory travel day, but since we are lucky to now live in central Florida, we just faced a 4+ hour drive to Miami. After checking in at the Hilton Miami Airport, we just had a short time to relax before our 4:00 “briefing” with our fellow travelers. The Miami Tauck representative expertly led us through introductions, an overview of what to expect, and the completion of LOTS of paperwork, including our Cuba “visas”. We were treated to complimentary drinks and so many wonderful hors d’oeuvres that we didn’t need dinner! The twenty other travelers from around the country seemed very congenial and as eager as we were to experience something totally new and different. We relaxed by the pool for another hour and then headed to bed early since we had to get up at 4:30 AM (!) for the 5:15 meeting in the lobby the next morning.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 18th – Our bags were picked up at 5:15 – then we met our group in the lobby for a “bagged breakfast” (ham & cheese croissant, muffin, fruit cup, banana, etc.) before we boarded the bus at 5:45 for the short drive to the airport. We met our Tauck Tour Director, Wendy Rodriguez, at the airport and she made sure that the check-in process was well-organized and we were all at the gate in plenty of time for our 8:30 flight. She was assisted by “Marcos” - another Tauck tour director who was along to learn the updated itinerary. The “charter” plane was a Sun Country 737 with a variety of passengers headed to Havana – many to visit relatives. The flight took just 45 minutes and we were amazed on our arrival that the airport was so small. We waited in the “VIP” lounge where snacks were provided while our luggage was gathered. Thanks to Wendy and Marcos, the paperwork was completed and we were able to easily clear customs as a group.
The bus with our driver “Eddie” and our local guide, Jorge Diaz, was waiting for us outside. Everyone marveled at all the vintage cars in the parking lot and on our drive into Havana. Our first stop was at the “Plaza de la Revolucion”. This huge square (which actually was built before the revolution!) was flanked by a memorial tower honoring the 19th century Cuban patriot Jose Marti. Two government buildings honor Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegas, who were thought to be the #3 and #4 people involved in the revolution after Fidel and Raul Castro. After more vintage car ogling, we headed to our next stop – The Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana. It is housed in the former Presidential Palace (build in 1920, but not well-maintained, unfortunately). The tour was quite interesting, including many photos and war relics. In addition to tanks and weapons, we saw the turret of a US U-2 plane shot down by a surface-to-air missile during the Cuban Missile Crisis and part of a B-29 shot down during the Bay of Pigs.
Our lunch stop was at the famous and recently re-opened “Sloppy Joe’s Bar” -- a favorite of Hemingway’s (the original is in Key West). It burned down over 50 years ago and has just been restored, with the “longest bar”. We were treated to delicious pina coladas, sandwiches, potato straws and fruit, as well as the tasty light local beer.
During our drive to the hotel, we gawked at the many buildings that date back to the 30s, 40s and 50s with beautiful architecture – but are in bad shape from neglect (click to see video). We arrived at 2:00 at the beautiful Melia Habana Hotel along the water in the more modern outskirts of Havana. We were treated to a “welcome” rum punch and finally had a chance for some free time before the scheduled late afternoon lecture and our Welcome Dinner.
The 5:30 Lecture on “US-Cuba Relations” was given by Camilo Garacia Lopez-Trigo and it was outstanding. His background as a Cuban diplomat and his current graduate studies in political science definitely fueled both his passion and his knowledge on this subject. His obvious bias was understandable. I will outline just a sample of the historical highlights from his talk and how they have affected US-Cuban relations, in his opinion.
· 1898 – The USS Maine exploded in Cuba’s harbor during Cuba’s war with Spain. US occupied Cuba from 1898 – 1902. The Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution was drafted in the US. (The US had 5 naval bases there, which the Cubans considered “illegal occupation”…)
· 1902 – 1906 “Republic Times”. The first president was Tomas Estrada Palma
· The US had multiple occupations of Cuba in the early to mid 1900s.
· 1940s and 1950s brought a huge mafia influence and lots of corruption (Meyer Lansky et al)
· Jan. 1, 1959 – The Cuban Revolution. Che Guevara left Cuba as well as 200,000 Cubans who mostly went to Miami.
· April, 1961 – Bay of Pigs Invasion
· February 7, 1962 -- Economic Embargo and the Torricelli Act (prohibition of imports)
· 1996 – Helms Burton Act – Prohibits any ship from entering the US 6 months before or after being in Cuba. (Reason they are not on the cruise line schedule)
· 1997 – Diplomatic “Interest Sections” replaced the embassies (my research says 1977).
· “The Cuban Five” – An important political issue today: 5 Cubans were imprisoned in the US for “espionage” after infiltrating anti-Cuba groups in Miami.
· Changes in the past few years: Cubans are now allowed to buy or sell a car or home and more than 300,000 Cuban-Americans have been able to visit and provide financial support to their families in Cuba.
Camilo’s talk lasted 45 minutes and was followed by another 45 minutes of lively Q&A and discussion. [At the end of this travel journal I will attempt to summarize more of the complex political history from my post-trip research for those who are interested…]
We then moved to a hotel restaurant where our “welcome drink” was “Mohitos” – tastier, and not as sweet as those I’ve tried in the past. First they served large plates for 4 of “salad” (tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce & corn), followed by more shared plates of fried yucca, plantains, cod croquettes, rice & beans, etc. The main meal was assorted grilled meats serve Brazilian style from large skewers. Some were overcooked and others were tasty. Dessert was a tiny crčme brulee. Sleep came early after a very long day!
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 19th -- Today we were able to sleep in until 7:00 – then had a quick buffet breakfast and coffee before meeting the bus at 8:30. We drove to Old Havana (Habana Vieja) and there met “Daniel” – an energetic young architect in charge of the restoration in the historic district. Our first stop was a visit to the amazing scale model (1:500) of Old Havana (click to see video). Since becoming a UNESCO site they have received some funding to work on targeted restorative projects. He then walked us to one of the oldest plazas in this 500-year-old area where we marveled at the renovations completed in just the past three years (with before & after photos). Old Havana’s population used to be 40,000 and now has swelled to 70,000. Metropolitan Havana is 2 million and the entire country of Cuba is 11 million. The growth in the old city has complicated the relocation of families that have crowded into the apartments – sometimes with 3 generations sharing one room! We could have spent all morning with Daniel because he had SO much to share! On our walk back to the bus we encountered many locals performing for “tips”. Paul especially enjoyed the attention of two lovely costumed ladies!
Our next stop was at Havana’s Jewish Synagogue, where we thoroughly enjoyed a performance by an independent troupe of contemporary dancers – “MAL PASO” (means “bad step!”... click here to see a video) They’ve been together less than a year, but are thrilled to have been invited to perform nine shows at the Joyce Theater in NYC next May. After the performance, we had a lively Q & A with them (Jorge translated). They dance ~ 6 hours a day and often give 5 local performances a week. Our group then split up, with some staying at the Synagogue to see the Holocaust Museum and the rest of us walking to the local farmer’s market. The market was small –mainly seasonal fruits and vegetables – but also some freshly cut up chicken and pork – with NO refrigeration (!). The prices, in Cuban pesos, were very affordable.
Cuba has a two-tiered monetary system – basically for the “haves” and the “have-nots”… The average Cuban is extremely poor and receives a ration book that allows for some free monthly items at their local grocery store: 5 lbs. sugar, 5 lbs. beans, 5 lbs. rice, and 1 lb. chicken. Also, children under age 8 get 1 liter of milk per day. The average Cuban uses the CUP -Cuban peso, while tourists and the wealthier Cubans use CUCs (pronounced “Kooks”) – or Converted Cuban Pesos. All other foreign currency has been removed from circulation. One CUC is the equivalent to 25 regular pesos. One CUC is about the same as one US dollar, but there is a 13% fee to convert. The average wage in Cuba is for a professional is 20 CUCs a month and doctors make just 25 CUCs a month. It is referred to as the “upside-down pyramid” because those working for tourists (guides, drivers, bell-hops, bartenders, etc.) tend to make more than the professionals because of tips. It is expected that they will revert to just a single currency in the next year or so….
Our packed itinerary continued with a stop at the famous “Hotel Nacional”, built in 1930. It is well known for its Mafia connections in the early years and was also a favorite with the rich and famous. History has it that 400 Mafia big-wigs came here for meetings, paid all the staff and then sent them home, replacing them with their “own people”….. The lobby and historical bar have not changed since the 30s, and the grounds were still lush and beautiful. Wendy did tell us that the rooms were not well-maintained, which is why we aren’t staying there.
Next we headed to lunch at restaurant “El Aljibe” – a large, pleasant place with live music. It is known for its roasted chicken and black beans & rice, which we enjoyed with plates of starters similar to last night – all served family style. Dessert was delicious coconut ice cream.
After lunch we visited a PolyClinic where we had an interesting presentation followed by a discussion with two of the staff about health care in Cuba. Healthcare, like education, is free to all, and falls into three levels. The primary level is the PolyClinic (served by up to 24 satellite doctors’ offices in each region). They have an emergency dept. and ICU, and can provide minor surgery, endoscopy, ECGs, ultrasound, opthamology, dental care, Social Work, Rehabilitation, and pre-natal care. (Specialty maternity hospitals do the deliveries.) They are open 6 ˝ days a week (with a smaller round-the-clock staff) and the focus in on short-term treatment and prevention. PT is provided by the Polyclinic or in the patient’s home. Chronic conditions are provided by the local doctors. Prescriptions for chronic care are not free, but are offered at an affordable subsidized rate. In cases of emergencies, patients can be stabilized in the Polyclinic before being sent by ambulance to the hospital – or they can call an ambulance themselves. The hospitals are the second level, providing serious acute care, major surgeries, etc. Research institutes are the top tier and possess the most advanced diagnostic tools and treatment (including nuclear medicine – but no robotics)
Next we returned to the hotel for a welcome 2 ˝ hour break before boarding the bus to go to dinner. Until a few years ago, all restaurants in Cuba were government –owned. Now privately owned and operated restaurants, called “Paladars” are permitted and usually are housed in large homes. They are thriving and quite popular with Cubans and tourists alike. Our Paladar – “La Moraleja” – was charming, with incredible service. Their menu is HUGE, and we were free to choose an appetizer, a main course and a dessert, along with wine. Paul and I both tried their special appetizer of marinated seafood and vegetables. Then Paul had the lobster with a Greek salad and I had a delicious lamb shank with a side salad of seafood and greens. This was served with a warm baguette, butter and tamponade. We had lemon ice cream for dessert. When we arrived back at the hotel at 10:00, everyone was ready for sleep!