Cuba


After our wonderful two days in Havana, we continued to sail west then around the tip of Cuba to a southern inlet on a beautiful beach at Maria la Gorda. It was a relaxing day that started with a short motor boat ride to a coral reef off the beach where we snorkeled for an hour or so. Not the best snorkeling I’ve seen but we had fun and then went back to the beach and found some chairs to soak in the sun. It was nice break and allowed us some rest.DSCF3421

Cienfuegos

Our final port of call on the island of Cuba was Cienfuegos. Once again we got our temperature taken before leaving the ship and went through an immigration office where we surrendered our temporary visas. We picked bus #6 again for our group tour and had a nice guide who on several occasions asked us what we wanted to do—indicating a very flexible agenda. This is why I think the Cubans will need to figure out some more formal and researched tours for future American audiences. They may have been feeling their way with us to see what we were interested in.

5670088876_6c9ac6b9f9_bOur first stop was the center of town—where we walked around the town square and learned a bit about some of the local buildings including a beautiful and magnificent theater. We went inside and were amazed at the restoration of this 1880s vintage theater with gorgeous paintings on the ceiling, old school chairs, and just the quaintest and classic setting I’ve seen. It was delightful. We weren’t allowed to take photographs but I googled one here and they don’t do it justice—it was one of those places where you had to soak in the ambiance in person.

IMG_4364We then made our way to an art gallery, the Sociedad Grafica de Cienfuegos. The gallery supported local artists and they share their talents with the neighborhood kids. The art was very interesting and I bought a small piece and got to meet the artist. Outside the gallery some of my fellow travelers were giving treats to some local kids who were loving the attention. One kid got some soap and had a broad smile when showing his mom his new gift. It was very sweet.

The sign in the window is an ad to sell the house.

The sign in the window is an ad to sell the house.

Along the way our guide told us some interesting cultural facts. Very few people in Cuba are allowed to own and sell their homes. He pointed out a sign on a house indicating the lucky owners who were trying to sell their abode.

We were very lucky as it turns out because our tour guide had some connections to a local artist who lived on a street of artists who were having a festival on the day we were there. So in a sense we got to hang out with locals who were having a block party. A banner across the street welcomed us to the creative zone. We were the only bus who got to go there, so this was a very special treat for us.IMG_4451

The locals were playing music, singing, dancing, creating works of art, and playing dominoes on a table in the street. One woman was working hard cleaning vegetables and potatoes that were going into the community stew pot. It was a huge black pot sitting on some burning logs right in the street. The guy behind her showed me a skull of some animal (a sheep maybe) with some meat still on it that was going to be put into the pot later.

There was also an interesting structure (for lack of better words) they created out of some kind of husks—maybe sugar cane since that is what the city is known for. It had a kind of a bulb like shape and was hanging on some poles. There were headphones attached and you could listen to music that was playing inside of it. There was some significance to this but unfortunately I could not hear our guide explain it. We shopped and explored several studios on the street that were basically the front rooms of the artists’ homes. It was a fantastic afternoon.

IMG_4472We asked our guide to skip a part of the tour that seemed boring—just a walk around of some tourist hotel and restaurant and instead opted to go back to the center of town to do some last minute shopping and explore the area. We had to get rid of the last of our converted pesos, so we helped the economy and bought some handmade jewelry, t-shirts, and dominoes games.

Final Thoughts

The Cuban people were interesting and friendly. We loved just walking around and exploring towns. The people have had to live through a lot of challenges through the last century—getting support from the Soviet Union and being in the middle of a fight between two super powers. They were living the good life for a while when supported by Moscow but have had to figure out how to survive living under an oppressive regime without financial support when communism failed in the Soviet Union. Change is coming (very slow to be sure but coming) and many of the people will probably be up to the challenges of living in a more socialistic society as opposed to a communist one. They are getting rid of some old policies but still are afraid of a government who maintains control and suppresses freedom.

Dominoes is a very popular game and the neighbors here are playing in the street.

Dominoes is a very popular game and the neighbors here are playing in the street.

Their infrastructure gets updated slowly—one building is about to fall down next to another that has been restored beautifully. The people have great education and health care but are very poor and have to work a lot to get any extra money for luxuries. They gather in public places to get Wi-Fi and as we all know, the Internet provides people with information and opportunities they need to become free. I felt very blessed to be able to see this country and visit with the people there. My hope is that someday their society will change enough to allow freedom for the people to seek God and worship Him openly, to find employment at will that allows for more comfortable lives, and to feel free enough to get rid of the Che Guevara postcards and express their opinions without fear of retribution.

IMG_4494With President Obama’s visit and the new policies to open relations with Cuba, we’ll wait and see if some of our democratic values will take hold in our southern neighbors. In the meantime, I would encourage Americans to visit now under the People to People program. And one note of interest, the Cubans also refer to themselves as Americans, which makes sense—so when there, you may want to be more specific when explaining where you are from.

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1 Greeting Cienfuegos

Our Cuban cruise continues. Santiago, our first stop is located in the Southeastern portion of the island. From there we sailed east and around the tip then west to Havana which is located not far as the crow flies but a long way via boat—toward the Northwest portion of Cuba. As we moved along in the early evening I saw a bunch of lights on the coast and thought…that must be Guantanamo Bay, and a minute later it was confirmed via announcements in six languages over the ship’s speaker. 
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Day at Sea

As we sailed for a day, it was relaxing on board and some of the options besides sitting in the sun, swimming, and having delicious daiquiris included a variety of lectures on the Cuban culture as well as their fauna, which we joked about but my dad attended and said was in fact interesting. At night, we were so far out to sea we experienced rough waves which had us rolling and cringing a bit, scared a bit and thinking about the collision last summer.

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Mom and Dad in front of the church in San Francisco plaza. The Mexican doggie sculptures were on display.

Havana

The following day we docked in Havana. As we stepped out of the terminal, we crossed a busy street and started our walking tour in the San Francisco Plaza. We were treated to a beautiful display of large sculptures of Mexican Chihuahuas—all painted differently—similar to many projects I’ve seen in the states—in Michigan they did Bears and my Aunt bought the blue Shakesbear which sits on the shore of Walloon Lake. But I digress…shakesbear1

Our guide, who was wonderful, took us to four different Plazas in the city. Each had its unique charm. As we approached one plaza there were some gentlemen sitting on chairs playing instruments. Throughout the city there were dancers, singers, human statues, artists, and other performers. A number of entrepreneurs were selling crafts, art, tchotchkes, and photo ops with little dogs.

Hemmingway's Hotel

Hemingway’s Hotel (tall pink building)

We passed by the hotel where Hemingway stayed and came to a plaza filled with people selling antiques. It was fun to check out the old books—encyclopedias, titles by and about the revolutionary leaders—as well as old cameras, stamps, vintage movie posters, and more. We had a chat with one young man who told us some of his relatives were in the states and never wanted to come back to Cuba.

Another plaza was home to a cathedral and had a huge human size nativity display. I recently talked with people in my church small group and prayed for a group heading to Cuba. These people had challenges ahead, including prohibitions against bringing bibles with them and stories of homes being bulldozed because the owners had meetings with more than a handful of people in attendance. I did not see evidence of Christian oppression out in the open because of all the open churches celebrating Christmas, but there are still many policies and obstacles to freedom to overcome for the people of Cuba.

The longest cigar in the world.

The longest cigar in the world.

In any case, we loved Havana. Later in the day we took a bus tour and visited a cigar store where they showed us how they rolled the leaves and we bought some contraband to bring home. The cigars were actually expensive so we only bought a few. After suffering through a bratty display of rudeness from a teenager and his obnoxious family who were berating our guide for taking us there to shop, we headed through the city catching a glimpse of our new embassy, stopping at a huge open area where massive crowds would gather to hear speeches, and then on to some museums.

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The Museum of the Revolution. Some hard core war machines dotted the lawn.

The Revolutionary Museum

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The US President’s depicted as “cretons.”

We couldn’t get into the art museum—for some reason it closed early—but we did get to see the museum touting the wonderful exploits of the revolution. It was a so-so place—pretty low tech but some interesting displays. It was heavy on the propaganda but did state some facts about how bad our CIA was back in the 50s and 60s. I didn’t really appreciate seeing three of our President’s displayed as dictators and Nazi’s but their policies of blocking Cuba from participating in international trade earned them a place on Cuba’s hate list.

Flea Market

cuba painting

The piece I bought was an acrylic painting on some sort of linen. Beautiful colors and you can see the clotheslines, water tanks, and the Capital building in the back. It was done by a young girl with lots of talent.

Our guide let us off at a flea market for some quick shopping at the end of the day. I had to laugh at the hypocrites who yelled at our guide earlier but who now wanted to go shopping. We bought a few t-shirts and then I spotted a ton of beautiful art all along the outside walls of the market which was located in an old train station. I bought a piece by a local that represented the colorful houses you see throughout Cuba.

On Our Own

We spent the next morning walking around the city on our own and had the best time of the trip. We stopped in a tiny museum that housed arms—a collection of Castro’s rifles and more. We were drawn into the place because there was a DuPont sign above the door—presumably because of the company’s early beginnings in the gunpowder business. One of the museum guides did not speak English but did a pretty good job of telling us about some of the displays—writing dates on her hand and using some non-verbal language to explain what we were looking at.

Castro's collection of rifles.

Castro’s collection of rifles.

We toured a fort, shopped the local stores, had a quick lunch at a local restaurant, and took in the sights and sounds of the locals. I wish we had more time to make our way through more of the old city streets but alas, back to the boat we had to go. Havana was really a neat place. We only saw a small portion but it was a lot of fun walking around and experiencing their culture.

Next stop was a day at the beach!

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The old books and encyclopedia’s on the street vendor’s shelves.

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The vendor’s set up all around the Plaza de Armas in Havana.

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One of the many artistic sculptures in Cuba. This was outside one of the churches.

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Dad stands near one of the blocked off areas in Havana that run down the streets–it’s a sort of water system where the water comes from the hills and flows through the streets and you can collect water from these collection points.

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A local girl plays with the birds in Havana–and a street band plays behind her.

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Just like everywhere, neighbors chat with each other on balconies.

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This guy was selling some sort of fried chip. It tasted okay–evidently was a local favorite.

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More vendors around the plaza.

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This entrepreneur has two laid back dogs who help him earn a living–getting photo ops with tourists. Christmas was the theme this week.

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Nativity display.

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Old car, guy selling fruit and veggies off a cart, all typical scenes in Havana.

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The new American embassy in Havana.

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Tourists get rides in the beautiful old cars they have kept running.

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A strange sculpture in Havana of a young naked girl on a rooster with a fork. Your guess is as good as mine.

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Some of the vintage trinkets found in the vendor stalls in Havana. Almost bought one of the cameras!

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A little boy gets a kick out of the human statute who moves ever so slow to shake his hand.

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No shortage of performers in Cuba. Dancers and musicians walk down the street on stilts with hands out for payment.

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Sun sets over the city. A view from our ship at the port.

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A view of the city as we leave on the ship. A large park sits along the water with the capital building in the distance.

Santiago, Cuba was our first excursion port. As Americans, we were allowed into Cuba as part of the People to People program that included educational lectures and excursions as well as opportunities to meet Cuban people and learn about their culture from their stories, dance, music, and history.IMG_3792

At each port we learned that the Cubans could decide from one day to the next what restrictions and procedures they wanted to put in place to welcome us. For our first visit, we were to line up in the entertainment lounge to have our temperature taken before being admitted into their country. Their free health care system lends itself to some pretty good care for their people and some paranoia about Ebola and other diseases.

IMG_3937After getting the okay from the doctors, we boarded our buses for our first glimpse at the forbidden land of Cuba. We expected to see the old cars, and did, but I think the presence of horse-drawn carriages, and packed trucks stood out as well. I also noticed numerous women pedestrians with their children walking with umbrellas—to keep out the sun, since there was no rain in site.

We seemed to circle the same main area of town stopping first at a large square—mostly empty but surrounded by monuments and several buildings with wire framed images of their “heroes.” Our guide said the Cubans like to celebrate their heroes but I had a feeling that who they regarded as heroes was subjective, regardless of the monuments and statues littering the land. The outlines of faces depicting Castro and Guevara were on buildings here and elsewhere and the huge statue of a man on a horse on top of the hill in this square was of a 19th century leader for Cuban independence, Antonio Maceo Grajales. IMG_3827The statue is massive and there are a couple dozen large steel structures coming out of the ground at various angles that represent machetes. We didn’t’ get a lot of history lessons outside of the Castro revolution but there is a deep history with a mix of cultures in this large Caribbean country.

We were taken to what most Americans may recognize as part of our own history, San Juan Hill. Teddy Roosevelt won the day and ground here with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war (which the Cubans called the Spanish-American-Cuban War). It was somewhat nondescript but it had a beautiful view of the mountains in the background. I never thought of Cuba as having mountains but it’s a sizable and includes several mountain ranges and reefs off the beaches.

IMG_3870Part of our cultural experience included a stop at the African Cuban Institute. We were entertained by dancers and singers, and a lesson in the history of the various groups that mixed to bring each of their historical traditions together to form a unique Cuban culture. The music and dancing were fun and I was grateful they didn’t force us to get us to dance with the rest of the group during the unending song, Guantanamera—which became one of those songs that stuck in your head for days.

As we left I noticed familiar human interactions—such as a local cop scanning a smartphone with his friend, some locals earning cash selling produce out of wheelbarrows, those selling wares of all kinds from little stands, and more (not so different from our small entrepreneurs in the country and city).IMG_3842

We drove back to the ship after stopping at a “western” hotel for a break. We had a little laugh at the gift store/bookstore that sold primarily books by the Cuban leaders and anti-American stories about Guantanamo Bay and endless shots of Che Guevara, which I was to later understand was a revolutionary “hero” of the Cubans (but probably not really since he murdered so many of them).

We set sail that afternoon for a rough ride around the island passing Guantanamo Bay in the evening. We could see a number of lights on shore shining on the compound and base as we headed east before turning north and west toward Havana, our next stop. It would take us some time to get there as Cuba is quite large. During sailing hours our crew offered a number of lectures and fun sessions on food, cigar rolling, dancing, and more.

Next post covers our wonderful stay in Havana.

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This is the first post in the story of my family’s trip to Cuba. The secret, mysterious land just off our coast has been one of the few places closed off for Americans. And when you suddenly tell Americans they can now go somewhere they couldn’t before, it becomes a lure, a top-of-the-bucket list desire.

Hell Cuba, meet Mrs. American tourist.

Hell Cuba, meet Mrs. American tourist.

For my parents and me, it was a free cruise we had been given as a result of the ship/tanker crash we survived last summer while visiting Greece and Turkey. As we boarded that very same but now fixed ship in Jamaica, we were a bit wary but noticed a few upgrades, including the deck off our nice room. The food still was not so great and the cruise line’s staff and crew were disorganized, but almost everyone was very pleasant and kind and willing to serve with a smile.

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The new American Embassy in Havana

My trip started off at an ungodly hour for me on December 24. I paid for a seat upgrade so I could get on early and sit in an exit row with some more room. But with some “turbulence” occurring near our Hub destination we sat and sat and watched the clock go past our now missed connections. Finally arriving in Charlotte and winded from a sprint to my connection gate, I headed back to the help desk and was told I missed the last flight to Jamaica. Fort Lauderdale and a lonely Christmas Eve was in my near future. One of my favorite hours of the year are usually spent with my family in Christmas Eve services so this vacation was starting out not so good.IMG_4155

Another super early morning got me on a very empty flight to Montego Bay where I landed safely and met my parents at the port. We had a nice Christmas day afternoon on board in our old boat—hoping we would avoid any collisions his time.

Our trip was scheduled to take us to Santiago, Havana, Maria de la Gorda, and Cienfuegos. Overall, the trip was interesting, the seas were really rough, and we ended up sailing past Guantanamo at night and going all the way around this very large island nation (or more accurately, this archipelago of islands nation).

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Cubans are working hard and smart–giving taxi rides and tours in the old colorful cars.

The Cubans are just getting ready to become a destination for tourists. They have a lot to do to prepare for a rush of Americans (if they want to keep up the tourist trade from our countrymen). The lack of Internet access, luxury hotels, and more organized tours and sites won’t live up to most standards in the long run but at the moment the mystery of the destination and having the cruise boat as a home, provided the comforts the first adventurers need. We overhead many people saying they were glad to get to Cuba before the Americans came and ruined it.

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They love to show off their revolutionary “hero” or mass murderer if you will, Che Guevara.

Many people envision Cuba as a place out of time. I would say that is somewhat true. The cars are vintage for sure and there were lots of people using horses as transportation, but beyond that and the items found at their “flea markets,” it was very much like visiting a somewhat poor Caribbean country. When the Soviet Union ended, so did the rich support Cuba was getting. And while they have excellent health care and a nice education system, most people are poor. But not necessarily unhappy. The politics are complex and we got a balance of truth and propaganda—certainly seeing the “evil” portrayal of American politicians and the CIA and their hurtful policies during and after the revolution.

I was surprised at the overwhelming presence of books, postcards, monuments, etc. of Che Guevara. Of course the people can’t speak out against him but on the surface the memory of him is honored and celebrated everywhere. He was a monster in disguise and has a most impressive PR agent—in the form of El Jefe himself who is sliding into history as we speak.

The people were nice and it was a pleasant experience getting to know their culture—a mix of native Indians, Spanish, and Africans who have combined their cultures to form the unique culture that is now Cuban.

Next post, I’ll talk about our first port stop in Santiago.

Dominoes is a popular game played all over Cuba.

Dominoes is a popular game played all over Cuba.

 

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A view of Havana at twilight as we leave port.

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Vintage cars and food sold on wheelbarrows and rolling carts can be seen everywhere.

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Colorful buildings dot the streets. Some are slowly being renovated and some falling apart. A slow process.

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Ahh, such a wide range of interesting topics to choose from at the bookstores.

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Public pay phones. Look like big alien helmets.

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Our ship, the Crystal has been fixed. The bow looks new and sturdy once again.