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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22nd “The Day of Tobacco”

Today, of all days, we did NOT get our wake-up call and hadn’t set a back-up alarm.   I woke with the sun at 7:30 and we scrambled to get to the bus by 8:00!    We had a 2 ½ hour drive (with one rest stop) to the eastern part of Cuba where we saw the beautiful Vinales Valley with its unique limestone outcroppings (click for video).   Instead of mountains rising, the land around them sank, and the only other place this can be seen is in China.  We visited the Francisco Donatien Cigar Factory in Pinar del Rio -- one of only a few in Cuba that allow tourists to tour – but no bags or cameras were allowed.    The process was fascinating:   Step #1 – Workers remove the rest of the central vein from the leaves; Step #2 – Leaves are sorted, staggered in piles, and rolled into the initial rough cigar.   These are placed in slotted trays identified by the worker;  Step #3 – The final outer leaves (from a different tobacco) are rolled tightly onto the cigar and the completed trays are put into a hand-turned press and rotated and pressed for 20 minutes; Step #4 – The cigars are finished by forming the tip and cutting the ends;  Step #5 – Each  cigar is checked by a “smoker machine” to determine proper draw.  (If not satisfactory, it is returned to the worker for correction.); Step #6 – Final inspection and measurement to determine size and length for labeling and packaging.  Mostly women work in the cigar factories.   They get a good salary (20 CUCs monthly if they meet their quota) and a good lunch.   They also get a free cigar each day, which many save and sell on the black market.

Our next stop was a visit to the home and fields of a farmer who grows tobacco and other crops.  Benito Camejo (dubbed by Wendy “The Marlboro Man” for his rugged good looks) told us about the entire process – planting the tiny seeds, transplanting at 28 days, harvesting, drying and “fermenting” the leaves in a thatched building, etc.   He rolled a cigar with ease, presented it to fellow traveler Romeo who he nick-named “Santiago” – then provided more of his handmade cigars to all of the men.    We were treated to coffee with rum and a bottle of rum was passed around for all to share “Cuban Style!”  We were free to wander around and enjoy the dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys etc. before it was time to head for lunch.

Just a short distance away we were treated to lunch at “Finca Paraiso” – an organic farm.   We were warned that the many fresh dishes would be overwhelming, and they did not disappoint!  Everything was delicious – tiny bananas, taro chips, plantain chips, guacamole, micro-greens with fruit, cabbage, yellow beans, black beans & rice, kale, peppers, acorn squash, hot taro, corn tamales, and a suckling pig!   Dessert was a very unusual pickled orange rind. Paul enjoyed a short break with a Cuban coffee laced with local rum and a cigar rolled by the Marlboro Man.

Our final stop was a tour of “El Despalillo” where the tobacco leaves that are delivered from the farms go through a lengthy and complicated preparation process.   The huge packages of leaves are dampened, hand sorted, and 40-50% of the central vein of each leaf is removed (these are used for fertilizer, insect repellent or perfume) The bundles are then dried in special indoor sheds for 3 to 30 days, depending on size.   The odor is strong of ammonia, which is released in this process.   The “aging” of the leaves lasts up to four years before they are shipped to the factories to be made into cigars.   Any tobacco waste is made into cigarettes or pipe tobacco. Click to see the sorting process. Most of the women working here have done so for many years.   They get an hour for lunch, a ½ hour break and maternity leave.   However, the work is tedious and there are no fans.   Per the manager, “they are used to it”… She started there at age 20 and after 12 years was promoted.  She is now 55.   We did notice that most of the people in the surrounding small town seem bonded and happy.

This long day of travel was especially enjoyable thanks to Jorge, who filled the hours on the drive to eastern Cuba with LOTs of interesting facts, stories, and hilarious jokes.   He doesn’t hesitate to make fun of his country, in spite of the obvious love and devotion he has to Cuba.  He talked about the economy, the 50-year-old US embargo (which is apparently blamed for ALL the problems by the socialist government), recent increases in investments by countries such as Spain (especially the Melia hotel chain) and Venezuela, and day to day issues faced by average Cuban citizens.   For example, he and his wife (an anesthesiologist making just 25 CUCs a month) live in an apartment and only have water every other day.   Therefore they, like many others, have 2 cisterns on their roof so that they can take advantage of gravity to take a shower on the alternate days.    Water is not potable and has to be boiled, and the children drink powdered milk because bottled water and regular milk are extremely expensive.   Luckily Jorge (thanks to generous tips) can afford to occasionally treat his family to a nice vacation, which his son refers to as a “fun capitalist time!”    Interestingly, Cuba’s three main sources of income are hiring out doctors, pharmaceuticals, and tourism – in that order.  

[from additional research:  Hiring out 40,000 Cuban doctors to 60 third-world countries in Latin America (30,000 to Venezuela alone in exchange for oil), Africa and Asia brings more than 6 billion dollars in revenue yearly to the Communist Cuban government.  They are sent to posts in remote areas lacking doctors that local physicians will not serve.   Brazil is scheduled to hire 4,000 Cuban doctors because they have 700 municipalities where there is no doctor living there (and everyone is guaranteed free health care).  Salary figures are not made public, but in Brazil the doctors will earn $4250 per month, although the Cuban government will take 2/3 of their salary.   However, that is a HUGE increase over what they earn in Cuba.   Cuba also provides some humanitarian medical missions for free – for example in Haiti after natural disasters.   I did not find facts about the pharmaceutical exports, but Jorge told us that because Cuba was not able to import vaccines and medications from the US, they began to manufacture their own.    Tourism brings in $2.5 billion and money sent from relatives abroad (most spent in stores owned by the governments) brings in an additional $2.5 billion.   Nickel, the country’s fourth most important commodity brings in $1.1 billion a year.]

Most of our group slept on the 3+ hour drive back to the hotel.   It was too bumpy to write in my journal, so I enjoyed a rare chance to do some crossword puzzles!   Back at the hotel, we were free to eat at any of the hotel’s five restaurants, complements of Tauck.   After a rest, we decided to try the Cuban-Asian Fusion restaurant “La Bella Cubana.”   It was lovely, but the service and food was less than perfect.   The only dish worth mentioning was my salmon “mandarin” with an orange-ginger sauce.    The dessert – a cross between flan and crème brulee was also good.

 

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23rd “Cuba’s Spiritual and Cultural Side”

It’s hard to believe that we will be heading home tomorrow.  Our first stop today was the famous Colon cemetery, named after Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” Cuba.   The world’s largest, it covers 138 acres.    Our tour guide, Andreas, was amazing.  He spoke perfect English and provided us with a 30-minute tour packed with the highlights of the cemetery’s history, traditions, and inhabitants.     To accommodate the 1.2 million graves to date, they quietly exhume the remains (bones) after two years and place them in a central bone vault within the family plot. The picture on the right shows five family members in the same vault.  Now that the Catholic Church allows cremation, that option is sometimes used to make more space.   Burial plots are owned and passed down to family or friends.   If a plot is sold, the remains are removed to a common burial area.   Some popular gravesites are those of Catalina Lasa and Pedro Baro and Hemingway’s favorite bartender and the eventual owner of La Floridata Bar.    The most visited gravesite belongs to Amelia Goyri de Adot - a woman who died with her baby during childbirth. Legend has it that the baby was buried at her feet, but when the body was exhumed two years later, the baby was in her arms and both bodies intact, so the grave was sealed to this day.   She is referred to a La Milagrosa (The Miracle Woman) and the grave is visited all day long and festooned with flowers and hundreds of stone plaques of thanks from around the world.   The ritual (that apparently began with her husband, who visited her grave every day) consists of knocking 3 times on the grave, touching the statue of mother and baby while making a wish, and then backing out of the gravesite.

Next we traveled to the Muraleando community project.    This area had once been a very poor neighborhood, with high crime and tons of rat-infested trash piles.   Over the past few years that all has been hauled away and replaced with 2 baseball fields, a playground, and small parks.  The walls are being decorated with murals by local artists and an old cistern has been turned into an art gallery where local artists and craftsmen sell their creations.   The adjoining building provides areas for children’s workshops and women’s classes. Thirty women and up to 160 children are involved (80 just in painting!) in art, music (guitar & singing), dance, crafts, ceramics and movie-making.   Camillo  (Che Guevarra’s good friend) was born in this neighborhood.   We enjoyed watching the smiling, well-behaved young children drawing, the older children taking a formal art class, and a rap performance by “Mario MC”.   This young man told us his story of growing up with a bad crowd and spending several years in prison.   He now is involved in music and teaches rap to local young people. Video of his music.   We saw the obelisk with plaques of over 20 countries representing people who have visited here in support of the project and  were all invited to touch our country’s plaque and wish for world peace (video).

We then headed back to Old Havana to the huge “Mercado San Jose” – a massive market with hundreds of local vendors.   We spent an hour here enjoying the lively entertainment, local art and crafts. Dancers in the market.   Lunch was nearby at the beautiful “Café de Oriente” where we were treated to a gourmet lunch, starting with a beautiful salad topped with a large piece of smoked salmon.   We had three choices of entrees.   Paul and I both chose the Mahi Mahi, which was delicious with creamy risotto.   Those that chose the chicken or filet mignon were equally pleased.   We realized throughout the week that almost all of the restaurants we visited served Frontera wines from Chile, and they have been surprisingly good.

Our final visit for the day (and the trip!) was the “Casa de la Clutura” – a center that has been in existence since before the revolution.   At least one is located in each of Cuba’s 15 municipalities to provide free programs and workshops in dance, music and visual arts.    These are amateur programs for children age 5 to adults and are held throughout the year – usually after work or school – and sometimes on weekends and during the summer.   They put on regular shows for the public.    We were treated to a wonderful dance performed by four 10-11-year-old girls (video), followed by a group of talented young men (ages 16-26) singing and playing a variety of instruments (video).    Afterward we had a Q & A with the performers, thanks to Jorge’s translation.    It should be noted that at each of the local community programs, Wendy gave them a donation from Tauck and it is nice to know that we were part of their needed support.

After returning to the hotel, we had less than two hours before it was time to leave for our “Farewell Dinner.”    As the bus pulled away from the hotel, it stalled several times and finally pulled into a parking lot across the street.   We groaned, thinking we’d have to wait for another bus to arrive… but after looking out the bus windows, we saw Tauck’s THIRD SURPRISE of the trip.  (The “bus trouble” was expertly faked by Eddie!)   Waiting for us were eight beautiful vintage convertibles and we rode in 50’s style all the way to downtown Havana (Wendy even provided the ladies with beautiful blue scarves)!    Complete with Ooga-Ooga horns and 50’s songs on the CD player, the trip was a real blast from the past and a lot of fun! Video of the ride to the restaurant.

Vintage cars are seen throughout Havana (Must see video).   The “Almonderos” are private vintage cars that operate as taxis, going to and from central Havana.  With gas prices at $7.00 a gallon they need passengers to help fill the tank.   They charge 1 CUC per person each way for the public. Drivers call themselves “magicians” – not mechanics – for the ingenious ways they are able to keep these old cars running….

Our Farewell Dinner was held on the rooftop of the Parque Central Hotel overlooking Old Havana.  We enjoyed mohitos and a great 4-piece band that played for us the whole evening (video).  After a parade of appetizers –grilled tuna, shrimp, chicken, etc. – we had a starter of prosciutto brochette with red and black caviar.  Entrée choices were grilled tenderloin, chicken or salmon.   We both had the beef which was tasty – served with grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes.   Dessert was cheesecake with fresh fruit.   Happily, the wives of our local guide Jorge and our driver Eddie were included in the dinner – a fitting thank-you for the six long days their husbands took such good care of us!

The return to the hotel signified the end of our tour.    Then it was time to pack, get some sleep, and prepare for a travel day tomorrow.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24TH -- Travel to the US and home

After a quick buffet breakfast, we left at 7:30 for Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.   Once again, thanks to Wendy, Marcos, and Jorge – the process went smoothly and we were able to wait in the “VIP Lounge”.    This time our charter was an American Airlines 737 and once we reached Miami, we were on our own.    The lines for customs were really busy, but we were able to get through without incident and catch a taxi to the hotel where we had used the “Park and Fly” option to leave our car at a very reasonable rate ….. Then it was homeward bound with lots of great memories!

For History Buffs, here are some random facts from my post-trip research:

CUBA – First inhabited by Native American Indians – Discovered by Columbus in 1492 – Colonized by the Spanish in 1500s – Slaves shipped from Africa 1526 – Ten Years War of Independence 1868-78 – Slavery abolished 1886 – Second War of Independence led by Jose Marti 1895-98 – US War with Spain 1895-98 (Spain cedes Cuba to the US) – Cuba become independent 1902 (but Platt Amendment keeps it under US protection) and Tomas Estrada elected 1st  president – US occupies Cuba after Estrada resigns 1906-09 – Jose Gomez Elected President 1909 – US forces return to Cuba 1912 -- Gerado Machado establishes a dictatorship 1924 – Socialist Party established 1925 – Machado overthrown by Batista 1933 – US relinquishes right to intervene in Cuban affairs 1934 – Batista retires and Ramon Gray San Martin becomes President 1944 – Batista re-takes power 1952 – Castro leads unsuccessful revolution 1953 – Che Guevara and Castro lead the next revolution 1956 – US withdraws military aid to Batista 1958 --  Rebel Army overthrows Batista and he resigns and flees the country Jan.1, 1959 (Fidel Castro’s column enters Santiago de Cuba, Raul Castro starts mass executions of captured military, and diverse urban rebels seize Havana) – Che Guevara and  Camilo Cienfuegos arrive in Cuba Jan 2, 1959 – Fidel Castro becomes Premier of Cuba Feb. 16, 1959 – All US businesses and property in Cuba are nationalized Feb 5, 1960 –US imposes embargo on all exports other than foodstuffs and medical supplies – Oct 19, 1960 -- Cuba aligns itself with USSR, sets up a Communist state with Russian backing and allows them to deploy nuclear missiles 1960 – Operation “Peter Pan” to transport 14,000 children of parents opposed to the new government begins Dec. 26, 1060 – Bay of Pigs Invasion 1961 -- Cuban Missile Crisis 1961 – Cuba expelled from OAS 1962 – All  private bars and restaurants are closed 1968 – OAS lifts trade embargo – 1975 -- Fidel Castro elected President 1976 – “Mariel Boat Lift” allowed 125,000 Cubans to leave for the US 1980 --Collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused severe economic hardship for Cuba beginning an era known as “The Special Period in Time of Peace”– “Helms-Burton Act” extends the US embargos against Cuba to foreign countries 1996 – Ban on transactions in US dollars and 10% tax on dollar-peso conversions 2004 – Raul Castro assumes presidential duties 2006 – (He has four years left in his second and final term)

Probably the largest “hot button” topic in Cuba recently is the US Embargo – now more than 50 years old.   The effect on the people and Cuba’s economy was quite evident during our tour, so we left with a lot of questions regarding why this has continued for so long.   We learned that they are many groups in the US (especially in Miami) who have a vested interest in continuing the embargo since they lost all of their property when they fled.   We also know that many are opposed to lifting it because of human rights issues. (There were over 6,000 political detentions in Cuba in 2012 – one of the highest in the world per capita.)   I also learned in my research that the US is Cuba’s second largest food supplier since exports began following a hurricane in 2001.

I will let the reader decide and here just list a few of the main Pros and Cons regarding the Embargo.

PROS for Keeping the Embargo: 1. Cuba has not met the conditions required to lift it.   2. Ending it now would make the US look weak.    3.  Opening trade would only help the government, not regular Cuban citizens.  4. It will be a necessary bargaining chip when a new leader takes power.   5.  Cuba has not demonstrated a willingness to negotiate in good faith with the US.  

CONs against Keeping the Embargo:   1. It has failed to achieve its goals.   2.  Cuba does not pose a threat to the US.    3.  The US should not have different trading and travel policies for Cuba than for other countries with governments it opposes.   4. Lifting the embargo would put pressure on Cuba to address problems that it had previously blamed on US sanctions.    5.  It is detrimental to the reputation of the US.

Hopefully a few of these issues will stimulate you to research further such topics as the Politics of Cuba, Cuban-Russian relations, etc.   The encouraging news is that positive change is happening.   For example, in hopes of one day being able to attract cruise ships, Havana is moving their commercial port and refineries to another part of the island and completely rebuilding the main harbor area for tourism.   A lot of the future will depend on who assumes power when the Castro regime is over in four years.