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Cuba, October 2010

 

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Cuba Journal—Pamela McCorduck

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On October 23, 2010, my brother-in-law, Lee, led a group of 22 to Cuba. The group included my sister, Sandy, and me, and a wonderfully diverse cluster of others who had various reasons for wanting to visit Cuba. Because of the embargo against Cuba, Americans normally cannot travel there except on humanitarian or other specific missions, but Lee has a license (issued by the U.S. Treasury Department) to send groups on such missions legally. Though I suspected this was a bit of a travel figleaf, I toted about twelve pounds of children's books in Spanish in my luggage. Others brought medical supplies, since we would visit both a city clinic and a city primary school in Habana (their preferred spelling). Sad to say, this is no figleaf—the need is very, very great.


October 23, 2010

A first—our luggage is checked for explosives as we arrive at Jose Martí Airport in Habana from Miami International. Sandy's passport is confiscated, and then mysteriously returned—they really want Lee's. Why, he's asked politely, is he back so soon? He explains the mission, and his passport is returned. Visas are loose-leaf, so this is a sign that the Cuban immigration computers are working. Dozens of enormous, plastic-wrapped packages of food and medicine (so marked) tumble on to the carrousel. Striking to see how many employees are hanging about—a full-employment scheme, I presume. This does not translate into efficiency—about an hour for us to get past all hurdles, and we're at the midpoint of our group—half yet to come. Immense amounts of checking and re-checking documents—one part make-work, one part fearfulness.

The Habaneros gathered to meet their lucky American relatives have such eager looks—but they must stand behind a fence that looks horribly like a cage. Always this separation at international airports, but this seems somehow more desperate; brings back memories of flying into Warsaw in 1974.

Outside, the vintage cars appear, some body cannibalizing apparent. The taxis, on the other hand, are new Skodas, maybe Brazilian cars that I don't recognize. Our bus is relatively new, a Chinese make.

The signature of broken-down countries: you wait, and you wait, and you wait. The people's time is the most expendable item. Forty-five minutes on the bus already, waiting for the others. Señor Chavez's petroleum is being burned lavishly for the a/c.

Later. We finally left the airport two hours after arrival, minus two of our number who'd "lost" a box of medical supplies and had to fill out vast amounts of paperwork to get the search underway. Coming out of the airport on my side of the bus is a long wall full of revolutionary slogans: OUR LEADERS ARE INVINCIBLE (pic of a younger Fidel), OUR WORK WILL BE ETERNAL, and on and on. You wonder why the populace needs this kind of pumping up (and we will see these slogans on billboards all over Cuba) though God knows we hear the same crap during elections in the U.S. Many ultra- patriotic slogans, which is what made me think of our elections.

The countryside is green, but the huts look barely habitable: all cinderblock or poured concrete. As we get close to the city, we see higher buildings, most of them 1950s International Style, paint peeling or gone, very dispiriting. At last into Habana Vieja itself, much of it built in the late 19th century, I'd guess, Colonial baroque, with long arcades to shade the sidewalks. We'll hear (and later see) that there was a great influence from Sevilla and other parts of Andalusia during this period. Most of these buildings are in pitiful shape, but were fortunately built in the days when construction was done well. Despite the neglect and the facades eaten away by pollution and sea air, they still stand and beg to be restored. Like post-war Western Europe in the late 1950s, Eastern Europe in the 1970s.

The Hotel Telegrafo is a charming old building on the Prado, restored with some wit, and if my room is a tad Eastern European, it's clean and habitable. The toilet runs continuously, which in Santa Fe would drive me mad at the wasted water, but on a Caribbean island is—well, running toilets will be my Cuban soundtrack, as it turns out. Later on I'll say to anyone who'll listen: tens of thousands of doctors, but no plumbers, no locksmiths. Ah, Cuba. Ah, Communism.

Late in the afternoon, a Cuban economist has been engaged to give us a "no-holds-barred" talk on the Cuban economy. On the one hand, I've read a lot, so I'm fairly well prepared, but at the end of the tour, I'll have seen and learned much more, and would have been grateful for another hour with him to have some things explained. He's very good—covers a huge amount of material; isn't afraid to say that the government made a mistake in this case, in that case. The take-home message is: let us, Cuba and the U.S., begin by working on problems of mutual interest, like oil spills in the Gulf, like weather prediction. Then we can think about normalizing our relationship. His figures are surprising. Tourism constitutes a huge income stream for Cuba. But the educational system has made many young aspire to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Not enough people have been educated for the tourist industry; "not enough people who want to mix mojitos for a living." If things normalized to the point that tourism could meet actual demand, not enough hotel rooms, tour buses, guides exist (a statement Lee concurs with completely). I was amazed that tourism is already (and has been for the past decade) so economically significant for Cuba.

A pretty awful dinner in our hotel, but Friendly Planet (the humanitarian organizers of this tour) say that they always have hotel dinners the first night; people are exhausted. Which turns out to be true. Though some complain, I personally am loving the Cuban attitude toward a/c: only as needed, and then light. We'll sweat a lot in the next week, but at no time will we shiver until I arrive at Miami International and nearly catch pneumonia waiting for my connection to LaGuardia.

 

October 24

I haven't yet memorized everyone's face, so I ask to join a couple at breakfast. Very cordial, and then I think to ask if they're with the group. Yes, but not the group from the U.S.A, instead a German group. I apologize for intruding. "But you're wearing a German tee shirt," the man says, which is true—I have on my Karl Valentin Kunst ist schön tee. In the event, I sit with two women in our group originally from Germany, but now in the Bay Area (who will, in the week, become some of my favorite companions). The Friendly Planet rep who should be leading the tour with Lee has a sudden medical emergency, so Lee must get her to the airport, and on to a plane back to Miami if possible. It turns out to be possible (planes run every hour on the hour during the middle of the day between Miami and Habana—this is one very porous border) but it will mean that Lee is sole leader, which is a lot of responsibility. Lee has been in the travel biz for forty years, so not much really fazes him.

We pile on to the bus and visit Morro Castle, really a fort, with a pretty view of Old Habana across a natural channel. Then to the Plaza de la Revolución, a big, wide, open Tiananmen Square sort of place with an enormous, slightly Chinoise tower at one end, and two high-rises at the other, each of the high-rises with a gigantic sculpted wrought-iron portrait of revolutionary heroes, maybe ten stories high each, one Che, the other a general whose name means nothing to me. The catchphrase of the day—of the week—is "after the triumph of the revolution." So this was all built "after the triumph of the revolution." Luckily the truly ugly Soviet-style museum of Jose Martí is closed to the public for some special ceremony (no one has bothered to inform the guide) and I'm not sorry to miss it. The best thing about the Plaza are the vintage cars that collect there, reminding Sandy and me of our adolescence when riding in such cars with boys was the ultimate thrill.

When we're taken to a cemetery next, I think oh boy, this is really bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but in fact it's quite interesting, the rich of old Habana determined to outdo each other with their monuments. Then to the Hotel Nacional for a pit stop and the first rum drink of the day. Meanwhile, we've been driven along the Malecón, the seawall and drive, which must once have been lovely. Now most of the structures are in desperate need of repair. Luckily, the country is too poor to pull them down (as, say, Malta is doing with much of its best old architecture) and I have reason to believe that as money comes available, they'll be refurbished, and not torn down for high-rises. Apparently, post-revolution for twenty years or more, nobody cared about Habana Vieja, the oldest, the historical part of the city, and when a building fell into disrepair, it was simply abandoned or torn down. Between the action of the sea, and the high water table, this happened often. But ten or fifteen years ago, people woke up to their architectural patrimony, and a great effort is underway to preserve the old buildings. The fifties International Style buildings, by no means as easy on the eye, will perhaps also be preserved. I hope so, even though they're embodiments of a bad time for Cubans. There's surely nothing quite like this collection of them anywhere—the apartment houses, the once-glitzy hotels.

Driving through the Vedado district, you see how wealthy some Cubans once were, how graciously proportioned were the houses built at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. Sugar wealth, rum wealth, and not widely shared. The Hotel Nacional, where we will have our final dinner at the end of the week, is right out of the California Spanish revival, could be in Santa Barbara or San Diego. Here I decide the Cuban national motto should be "But only one is working…" which seems to be true of toilets everywhere we go.

Back to Habana Vieja and another little walkabout. I learn Habana, the name, is derived from the indigenous peoples' name for the spot (though there seems to be some dispute about that). I also wonder how the habanero chile, the hottest of them all, is named for Habana, when the Cubans never add spice to their food. Alas. [Some research: Wikipedia says that although this chile originated in the Yucatán, and plays a big role in food in that area, it was often traded in Habana, hence the name. Carmen's "Habanera" in the opera refers to the rhythm of that song, which was in fact imported from Habana, and picked up by Bizet.]

So to lunch. Sandy and I like to sit next to each other on the bus, but try to sit with others at meals. By the luck of the draw, I sit with Joe the butcher and his girlfriend Julia from Asheville. Joe will prove to be a fabulous resource since, as a half-Puerto Rican kid growing up in Brooklyn, he was sent every summer to his grandfather's farm in Puerto Rico. He hated it then—no kid likes to work his summers away—but later was grateful: he's fluent in Spanish, and was very agreeable about identifying every crop we passed, or telling me that the land had no obvious reason to lack cultivation. The restaurant, La Mina, sits beside a pretty little enclosed patio, full of blossoming flowers. Sevilla! 

La Mina Restaurant is my second experience with "But only one is working," and the toilet attendant hands out measured pieces of toilet paper for the solitary one that does work, measures that are far from adequate for extravagant Americans. And here comes another socialist irritant: you can't get small change, except by accident, for the toilet attendants. The bar here won't change even a single peso, and the hotel claims never to have change.

A further excursion on foot through Habana Vieja (to judge by the buildings alone, tumbledown now, Cuba was once so very rich) winding up at the Rum Museum. Three p.m. and I've already had a taste of Sandy's Cuba Libre at the Nacional, a beer for lunch, and now, fresh o.j., sugarcane juice and rum. Perfectly delicious. A tour through the Rum Museum, which is a bit like a tour through a winery, though I learn that Havana Club (which is the brand promoted by the state once the Bacardi family left) still ages its rums in white American oak "shipped through Canada for reasons we all understand," says the guide.

Later: a hilarious dinner with Sandy, Lee, Pam-the-FBI-lawyer and Leslie-the-court-investigator, Californians both. We tell ridiculous travel stories from toilets in Vietnam to embracing the chimps in Rwanda, a delight. Dinner not so much—though we're in one of Habana's fancier restaurants atop a fifties skyscraper, it's tasteless chicken, the inevitable rice, the inevitable steamed veggies. Lee says later that finding good food in Cuba is very hard. Pam is a vegetarian, and I'll watch her struggle with that all through the trip. Cuban restaurants have heard of vegetarians, but don't really know what to do with them yet.

Arriving back at the hotel we spy a performance taking place outside the Teatro Nacional in honor, we learn, of Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban dancer. Very accomplished singers/dancers, showing their skills in a pastiche of styles from jazz dancing to flamenco, singing familiar (American) songs, ending with John Lennon's "Imagine." Then to La Floridita for a nightcap daiquiri, and so to bed.

I love it that Cubans are too poor (or sensible) to over-air condition. I'm comfortable everywhere I go.

 

October 25

Not even 4:00 p.m., and already it feels like a long day. We took off this morning somewhat before 10:00 a.m. (posted as 9:30, but this is Cuban time) in a fleet of vintage cars for Ernest Hemingway's finca, or country house, outside Habana. Our driver tells me proudly that our 1955 Pontiac still has its original engine, but that somehow fails to reassure me. Original shocks too, or anyway, the ghost of shocks past. Now we see how Cubans live outside the city—very simple one-story concrete houses for the most part, a few apartment blocks right out of Warsaw. The finca is reasonably interesting. Though we cannot go inside, we can look through the windows into light, airy rooms filled with books—and to the consternation of the animal lovers, mounted heads, animal skin rugs. It wouldn't have been my choice to live, but Hemingway loved it—quiet, close enough to the sea where he loved to fish. A swimming pool, a tower where he actually wrote, with a view to the sea. Then to the village of Cojimar, where he set The Old Man and the Sea, and kept his boat. A simple fishing village, but as we've learned, not too much fishing any more. (We were seldom offered fish for a meal, and I take it that fishing is much diminished in Cuba. Our guide says this is because people were hijacking the fishing boats, demanding to be taken to Florida, and this scared the fishermen. We're left to interpret this as we will. At home, I find an article from the New York Times written two years ago by Roger Cohen, who states definitively that fishing is prohibited in Cuba. Think of that moment when the Soviet Union collapsed, and people were going hungry in Cuba—but they couldn't fish from the sea around them to feed themselves!)

Osmín, our guide, says papers have recently been declassified that show that the U.S. government put some pressure on Hemingway to leave Cuba after Castro came to power. Could be. But my sense is that Hemingway was such a contrary guy that this would've made him dig in his heels. Many photos at the finca, and later at a bar in Cojimar that Hemingway frequented, of an older Hemingway, a young Fidel. Who knows? The house was left to the Cuban government and is now a public monument.

Back to Habana Vieja for lunch at La Bodeguita del Medio, for the best meal yet—as usual, pork, rice, and black beans, but prepared with skill (and probably lard). Another Hemingway hangout. (It will turn out to be one of the best meals of all.)

From La Bodeguita we walk to a storefront clinic in Habana Vieja, where an impossibly young male doctor shows us a big chart, all about the approximately 3000 people the clinic serves—how many have chronic, non-contagious diseases, what those are, how many infants are vaccinated (100%), how many cases of trauma, etc. Everyone who comes into the clinic can see this. Our loot, which we collected in the hotel bar this morning, has indeed arrived at the clinic, which is a pleasurable relief, me becoming such a cynic these days, convinced that most philanthropic donations end up on the black market.

The clinic is small, neighborhood-friendly, only three rooms, plus the reception area—a doctor and two nurses, one in a white uniform and starched cap that you never see in the U.S. any more. I see no obvious supplies. One of us, an emergency room doc in L.A., asks in Spanish what they need, so later groups can be more specifically helpful. "The government gives us everything we need," the doc says in a friendly way. The nurse behind him is shaking her head: we need everything. Everything. A European married to a Cuban surgeon tells us later that this is what the doctors are instructed to say, but in fact supplies are desperately short. Hello, Michael Moore?

We march on to a primary school on a lovely old square, Plaza Vieja. The school has kept the old façade, but inside is open to the skies, so very bright and airy. Each classroom surrounds this courtyard and opens on to it. A place you'd love to come to school. At the far end, away from the street, little ones are taking their afternoon naps on cots, so we visit sixth-graders doing mathematics (by means of a DVD shown at the front of the room, led by a teacher—it took me longer than it should've to figure out the DVD is a substitute for the books they don't have) and then to the computer lab, where kids are playing old games on fifteen-year-old computers. The principal is a short, lively woman, her assistant a tall, gangly coal-black woman wearing a tee-shirt that, in spangles on the front, spells out SEXY. It's a welcoming place, and I'm glad our loot (also delivered) is going to such a good home. As we make ready to leave, I go to shake the principal's hand, and she grabs and embraces me, a big kiss, thank you!

After a much needed nap, we walk back to Plaza Vieja for dinner at La Bodega Restaurant, and even the guide is a bit embarrassed to offer us what he calls "the usual." This time I have fish and rice rather than pork and rice. Okay, but I'd be happy for more black beans. Dessert is a perfunctory jello, which everyone leaves.

The music I would find more appealing if my eardrums weren't splitting. Old, cranky, and hate for my ears to hurt. The dancers are very good, though. In the final number, all twenty of the ensemble are blasting away, and I try very hard to pick out the lines of melody (if any) to follow which line is speaking to which. No luck. Home at 11:00 to hear we'll be leaving at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow—yow!

The walks through the dark streets are treacherous—you can stumble on a missing cobblestone or just find yourself sunk to the knee without warning in a hole on the sidewalk. I sometimes curse American lawyers, but they've saved us from these kinds of hazards. I wish I'd brought my flashlight, sitting in my carryon. Doors in the graceful, if crumbling, facades sometimes open, and you get a glimpse of the soul-sucking white light of fluorescents on gray concrete in the stairways, a rat's nest of black electrical wires winding their way up. It chills the heart, even when the temp is 85F and maximum humidity.

One of our group, Bill from New Jersey, carries a heavy daypack wherever he goes. I wonder about this until one evening I see him pulling little toys—plush hand puppets—out of that daypack and making the children he gives them to simply ecstatic. I watch this more than once, and finally tell him I have a fantasy, that children in future years will speak about the kindly American who distributed toys even when it wasn't your birthday, and other children will shake their heads, say "this is a legend, like Santa Claus."

 

October 26

Every night I've come home to a menagerie of towel animals: swans in the sink one night, the bedspread made into a lake for them; tonight towels and spread both charming elephants, along with fervent notes from the chambermaid, hoping I'm enjoying myself. I tip her well, but she probably wants to be sure I don't forget. Some others tell me they find the notes a little high-pressure.

Today a day in nature. We drove out through Miramar and Siboney, both once extremely rich areas. Miramar is a wreck—the fine old houses all have bars over every window and door, and not the ornamental kind. Siboney remains elegant, since most of the embassies have moved there and maintain the properties.

Anyway, to Las Terrasses, a nature preserve, much of it reforested coffee plantation. Real reforestation began perhaps thirty years ago, and now the forest is returning to its lushness. But there's much uncultivated land en route to the preserve—odd, because there are still food shortages. (Joe assures me that the land looks to him cultivatable.)

Our first stop is a kind of ideal village, meant for the original forest workers, but with "the divorce from our trading partner," which means the collapse of the Soviet Union, the village is largely unsustainable. A few people work and live there still, but the young have mainly gone away. We visit an artist's studio, very pleasant, then walk over to Maria's Coffee House, and have, hands down, the best coffee I've ever tasted—certainly as good as any I've ever had. Maria has been growing, harvesting, and roasting the beans for many years, and now retired, looks down on us from an open window. I yell up to her: "¡Maria! ¡Me gusta mucho tu café!" and she grins at me happily, blows me a kiss. It's coffee that tastes the way coffee smells when it's being roasted. Gerlinde, Renate and I compare it to German coffee, but none of us is knowledgeable enough to say whether it's the bean, the roast, the blend, or what. Above us, once or twice, eco-tourists go zipping by who've been observing the top of the forest canopy via a kind of suspension cable.

Next, to a pretty set of waterfalls, where we can swim, but I do not, nor do most of the group. Lunch is at a country house, quite delicious, even if it's "the usual." I'm becoming a connoisseur of rice, beans, and pork, which in Cuba still tastes like pork. Cheryl-in-New-York-publishing, Sandy and I get going on old-time movie trivia, but Cheryl beats us effortlessly—she knows them all.

Finally to the site of the coffee plantation itself, high up, overlooking the 1800 ft. high mountains (well, hills). A concrete lesson in how horrifying slavery really was—the places the slaves slept, the work they did, the shackles they had to endure. You shudder.

Back in Habana Vieja, Sandy and I go to the folk art market, a couple of piers on the waterfront that have been converted to a market. We'd declined to go the previous day—just too tired, and dubious about what goods might be available. But the group that did go raved, so off we go. It's great fun—not because the folk art is so great (the quality range is vast, and I bag a tee shirt, she gets some costume jewelry) but because it's a chance to talk to Habaneros—me to them in Spanish, them to me in English. They're thrilled we're from the U.S., hope relations will be cordial between our two countries eventually. Do we like Habana? Do we like the Cuban people? We say yes, of course, and it's true that our interactions here have been extremely pleasant. The taxi driver home—a 1955 Olds 88—asks many questions: they are so eager that we be happy in their country.

Drinks with Gerlinde and Renate (the best mojitos in town, in my studied estimation, at the Parqe Central Hotel) then a pretty good version of P/R/B in a lovely setting on the Cathedral Square. We're in a dining room upstairs and look out through fine old French doors onto the gracious square, where late in the meal, a band and a couple of dancers start up. The dancers are excellent, and I realize, as the woman lifts her arms, that she's a trained dancer—only trained dancers hold their arms that way. It's all so pretty. Old Havana will be a very special tourist destination one of these days.

 

October 27

I turn 70. My beautiful sister greets me with a big kiss, a happy birthday, and I love you. That's very special and precious for me.

The rest of the day is to laugh about, and laugh we do over dinner. Here's why. Since we were cheated out of our cigar factory visit yesterday (the electricity had failed at the factory, and no one knew when it would be restored) we delayed our major journey southeast for an hour's tour around a different cigar factory, the Panagras factory in Habana Vieja, the country's oldest, established in 1845, and just a short walk from our hotel. Not a thing has been changed since 1845, except for installing electric lights, and the "reader" now reads over a public address system. (This is a wonderful tradition. Cigar-making is so mind-numbing that from the beginning workers often paid out of their own pocket—for sure in the New York City cigar factories—for someone to read aloud to them while they worked—the newspapers in the morning, a novel chosen by the workers in the afternoons. The tradition still carries on in Habana.)

A painstaking, extremely dull job is making cigars. It takes at least eighteen months of training, and the work is highly specialized—those who separate and grade the leaves don't roll them; those who roll don't do finishing; the banders don't do quality control. Workers are in rows at wooden tables, and appear to sit on the same armless chairs that were installed in 1845. Sandy and I both think the place is a firetrap, five stories with narrow wooden staircases. The workers are allowed to smoke as many cigars as they want on the job (though most of them smoke cigarettes) and get a break on the rejected cigars to take home and smoke or give away. They get bonuses for exceeding quotas. Even with all these perks, the average worker leaves after 8 – 10 years because the work is so boring, readers notwithstanding.

So, on to the bus, and along the autopista that is only partially completed because the Soviet Union collapsed partway through the construction process. We turn off for a pit stop (yes, only one is working) and carry on to lunch, which is creditable enough—though I take one bite of the lukewarm hot-table chicken and suddenly recall dear old Morocco and the stomach problems from hot-table food there. No thanks. Sandy has arranged for a special rainbow-colored drink in honor of my big day, which I get to drink to "Happy birthday" sung to me in Spanish. (I haven't mentioned that every meal save breakfast is accompanied by live music. Cuban males must shoot out of the womb with a guitar in hand. Audrey, the LA emergency doc, keeps track: "Fifth time today for Guantanamera!")

To a national preserve to embark onto boats that will take us to an island where a mock Taino village has been set up. The ride through the waterways out to the lake is delicious, but the Taino village is a bit minimal and touristy: at one point a group of three, decked out in cheesy costumes, sings and daubs paint on us, then one waves a conch shell at us to part us from our pesos.

From this to the crocodile farm, which is interesting enough, especially when the elderly crocs are tossed food. Primitive creatures! After the triumph of the revolution, the Cuban government wanted to bring this near-extinct species back because they're native to the wetlands that are being preserved too, and are unique to Cuba. The animal lovers are ecstatic.

The ride so far has been through some of the most boring, unvaried landscape known, and I'm grateful for my Kindle. We leave the farm at about 3:30 and head for the Bay of Pigs, which is totally undistinguished except for its odd moment in Cuban-American history. We drive on. And on. At about 6:15 we stop for refreshment, except horreurs! The rest room is locked because a key broke off in the lock. Sometime. Earlier. None is working! Three hours without relief, aiiiieeee. Lee just loses it with Osmín the guide, who should have checked this out. "In forty years in the travel business, I've never had to tell clients they'll have to pee in the bushes!" he yells (he tells Sandy and me later). Osmín acknowledges that a toilet exists on the bus, but "only for emergencies." "This is an emergency," Lee tells him. So—we push on. (Despite this, Osmín really is a pleasure—a not-quite-fortyish guy who seems to be on top of most things otherwise; tells us anything we want to know; and has a sweet equanimity about him that's very endearing. "Would you like to travel someday?" we ask. "Oh, yes," he says with a smile, "but I'm young; they wouldn't let me go.")

At about 7:40 we arrive at our hotel in Trinidad de Cuba, exhausted. It looks pretty nice, but: my phone doesn't work ("oh, the lines are being fixed in that area," says reception—well, yes, but Sandy and Lee, who are nowhere near me, have no cord at all on their telephone). The a/c only works when the key card is in a slot, except it really doesn't work then either. As a woman alone, with no phone, I won't be opening the windows. Even so, the very amplified Latin music is pounding through the walls and closed doors. At least it drowns out the perpetual leaking toilet. No hot water either, and a bathtub that looks as if it's been on hard duty since the 1930s. No shampoo. Lee says there's a lovely little hotel in town, but too small for our group, alas. We spend dinner laughing over more travel stories, including one I never heard, when one of his employees woke up in Kenya to find a cobra on the bedside table.

The dining room is a Soviet-size cavern, serve yourself. We're extremely fortunate that most of our fellow guests go off to play Bingo, including the Latin Kings of Loud, so we can have this actual conversation. Return to the room and just as I'm falling asleep, it occurs to me to get up and see that the window is latched. No. Whoops. Fix it and sleep, a year older than yesterday.

 

October 28

A beautiful day all day (in fact, we were blessed all week with the weather—seven days of sun, one rainy patch near the Bay of Pigs, but we were in the bus) and shampoo and bottled water appeared in my room when I came home, which disposes me more kindly to our hotel. Another elephant-shaped towel, which seems to be a Cuban custom, plus earnest note in English.

We began the day with a train ride on an old line once used to haul sugar cane out of the Valle de los Ingenios, the Valley of the Sugarmills, which we traversed. The steam locomotive was built in San Francisco in 1908, and belches smoke all the way. After ten minutes we must stop and take on water, a fifteen-minute pause, which might be five if someone thought that fixing the leaky water pump was worthwhile. The iron floor beneath us is full of holes, giving me pause as we cross some high trestles, not only because between my feet I can see down—way down—but also because I wonder about the state of the trestles, probably last inspected well before the triumph of the revolution. But we're all in a good mood: the vistas are lovely, on one side green meadows reaching off to the blue massif of whatever these mountains are, on the other, green to the sea. Not much sugar cane grows now; a losing proposition for the last century, given that the Europeans developed sugar beets after WW I, and Americans developed corn syrup and aspartame later. After an hour and a half of leisurely and very enjoyable riding we arrive at the village of Managa Iznaga. On this site el patrón originally built a startlingly tall tower, the better to look down on his slaves as they worked the cane fields (and also to show off, says Osmín).

We're greeted by village women who want to sell us needlework, pretty to look at but tedious to do, and I consider buying. When the lady gives me a price for a round table cloth and six napkins ($30) I know it's trivial for me, important for her, so do not bargain. The frugal me says, ah, but you should have; the rich Americana is full of pity and thinks this is an easy and direct way to set up a woman and her family for a month. This may be the first place that people beg us for soap and shampoo. I understand the word—savon, soap—but don't get it that the government can't supply this.

We have a delightful lunch in Tower Guy's hacienda, built by Pedro Inaga in 1795, us lucky enough to be on a north-facing veranda to enjoy the cool breezes.

Then back to the town of Trinidad de Cuba, a town that thrived on the sugar trade once, but died thereafter. The happy benefit for us is that it's a town that time forgot—the vernacular architecture is very appealing, very south-of-Spain. It's slowly being restored, one- and two-story dwellings with wrought iron grilles across the floor-to-ceiling windows so old ladies can sit in rockers and watch the passersby. A work in progress, but with great potential, judging by what's been restored so far.

Since we left the Bay of Pigs and the Zapata Peninsula (so named because it's shaped like a shoe) I'm amazed at the number of horse-drawn conveyances—for agriculture, for people moving, for carrying goods. The distances are huge, so you only see bikes in the towns, but the horse-drawn vehicles are everywhere. An unexpected step back into the 19th century. (I have a little conversation with our driver, who admits that this great variety of vehicles makes driving even more difficult on these very narrow roads. I tell him how grateful we are for his cautious driving.)

Dinner at a privately owned restaurant, which is to say, in the back of a private home. It's technically illegal for us to be eating there since it isn't state-owned, but the food is very good, home-cooked, and la patrona has brought in the neighbors to help out. Unfortunately the walk from where the bus must park to the restaurant, perhaps a quarter of a mile, is through dark, hilly, cobblestoned streets, and Lee says regretfully that he can't use this restaurant again, just because of liability issues.

A lively discussion over dinner since Cuba has just presented figures to the UN saying the embargo constitutes a kind of genocide. As Cuba is not embargoed by any other country in the world, I find this wildly unpersuasive. I'm not defending the embargo—I think it's ridiculous, vindictive, and thank you to the Miami ex-pats for their fanaticism—but genocide? (And the embargo nevertheless permits Cuba to import almost half of its food from the U.S.) The embargo is to Cuba what Israel is to the Arabs, a wonderful excuse, even scapegoat, for self-inflicted wounds, economic and in human rights. Tomorrow we'll visit the mausoleum of Che Guevara, whom I hold most responsible for this massive suffering. Ah well, letting off the Castro brothers? Not quite.

Our hotel, by the way, is a joint venture, not with Albania, as I'd thought, but an international consortium. Interesting to know why the place is so badly maintained. Maybe not enough ROI.

 

October 29

Early morning, we leave Trinidad de Cuba for Cienfuegos, a 19th century city, also built on sugar, enjoy a little stroll about, including a hotel that has two out of three working—a certain improvement. The city is very regular, even unto classical columns on the arcades. Since it has a refinery, it feels more prosperous than other places we've been. People beg us for soap again, and one of our group learns that a bar of soap is $2. If so, no wonder they beg. On the seafront, we visit a sugar baron's fantasy, a four-story Moorish/Venetian palazzo that simply beggars description. It's adjacent to a fifties International Style hotel which was once run by Batista's brother.

From there to Santa Clara and the mausoleum of Che. A film en route is hagiography, failing to mention that our hero was less than successful in most undertakings—he never finished medical school; when they came down from the Sierra Maestra, someone else really gets credit for the guerrilla strategies. As minister of economics and commerce, he managed to drive out of Cuba even the industrialists who were sympathetic to the revolution, and hence the Cuban economy into the ground. He was undistinguished in the Congo guerrilla efforts (that he was there hints to me that, by then, even Fidel might've had enough of Che as chief economist). When he went to fight with the rebels in Bolivia, he took a fatal bullet in a total rout. He'd failed to see that the peasants didn't support this rebellion, and even if they had, the local rebel leaders weren't interested in sharing power with an interloper, even if he was the legendary Che. In short, an idiot in the literal sense. But oh, that beret, that beard, that motorcycle. Thus are legends concocted. The mausoleum is an elaborate, communist-style concrete bunker, with a ten-times-larger-than-life statue outside, the brilliant hero in fatigues, holding a rifle.

A pleasant hotel for lunch, then back to Habana, which feels like home after our excursion. We've been moved to the Hotel Saratoga instead of the Hotel Telegrafo, which certainly is a step up, when I finally figure out how to turn off the a/c. For the first time in Cuba, a room is just icy.

Later. A pleasant dinner at the Hotel Nacional, to be followed by a cabaret show at 10:00, but since we must be on the road at 8:30 the next morning, I take a taxi home. I hear later that the show was pretty good, especially the costumes, but it lasted for sweet forever.

My Spanish somewhat more burnished, I take great interest in the political slogans as we go back out to the airport. Most are predictable: 52 YEARS OF REVOLUTION (oh, come now); FATHERLAND OR DEATH (a fave of Fidel); SOCIALISM OR DEATH. EIGHT HOURS OF THE BLOCKADE COSTS THE CIRCULATORY SYSTEMS OF 40 INFANTS. SERVE THE REVOLUTION. THE BEST HOMAGE TO THEM [pics of Che and the general whose name I can never remember] IS HARD WORK DAILY. Others counsel that revolution requires sacrifices from all. Alas, so did the kleptocracy that preceded it. Sometimes the sentiments were so complicated that my Spanish wasn't good enough to translate by the time we'd whizzed past. I have to wonder how effective these signs can be after all this time (and disappointment). It's not in human nature to sustain fervor of any kind indefinitely. Perhaps they're just wallpaper by now. On the other hand, I appreciate no commercial billboards polluting the countryside.

The usual pandemonium at the airport, but eventually we clear paperwork, get on board, take off, and arrive at Miami, a forty-minute trip from one distinct culture to another.

Random observations: I loved a kind of traffic light I've seen nowhere else: countdowns. In red, when you're stopped waiting for the light to change, 10 seconds to go, 9…8…7…etc. In yellow, when the light is about to go red: 3…2…1. And in green: 40 seconds to go, 39…38… For those who love quantification, a small genius of an idea.

Despertador is wake-up call in Spanish. The Cubans not only speak so fast you can barely follow them, but they also drop final consonants, especially the letter "s": mucha gracia, buena noche.

What to say about Cuba? Eastern Europe 1975 tropical version is one quite fair description. As a tourist destination, not yet ready for prime time ("only one is working"). Sometimes appalling poverty. It might seem easier to endure in the warmth, but hunger, lack of basics like soap, uncertain rules (Raúl just changed them again) are no fun, no matter what the ambient temperature. Everywhere we went, the domestic animals were skin and bone, and often sadly diseased. One ardent animal lover with us collected our leftovers from lunch and dinner, and distributed them to strays. I was dubious about this, but she has a generous heart. Impossible for this tourist to tell whether life in the city or in rural Cuba is harder, easier.

I stared and stared at the exquisite seascapes that usually surrounded us, especially in Habana Vieja. Something struck me as odd, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I eventually realized that nowhere else in the world I've ever been did I see a waterfront without watercraft of any kind. Roger Cohen remarks on how, during the warm evenings, everyone sits on the seawall facing away from the sea, as if the possibility of escape is too painful even to consider. I saw this too, but thought at the time that because the sea was so dark, there was nothing to look at. More fun to visit with your friends. But Cohen could be right. I couldn't for a moment defend the Batista regime, but if you didn't like it, you at least had the option of leaving. Now, Cuba is a beautiful, crumbling, tropical prison.

I don't know what the solutions are to Cuba's grave problems. Surely socialism has made some things better for some people, but the middle class has been wiped out, and no matter how good their training, those many doctors will have a hard time practicing medicine without sutures, rubbing alcohol. (Before going, I read a superb article on the Cuban medical system by Laurie Garrett in the July/August 2010 Foreign Affairs.) Lee tells me that Cubans are eager for joint ventures, but on very undesirable terms to investors—the Cubans fear for their economic independence (such as it is: being hitched with Hugo Chavez can't be that much fun). Foreign investors in tourism really have no idea how unprepared the infrastructure is for an increase in visitors of any magnitude. A serious chicken and egg problem.

And I couldn't help thinking about the grievous income disparities in my own country, wondering whether we aren't begging for our own rebels to come down eventually from our own Sierra Maestra. Well—eventually. There's the human problem.

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