A Broad Abroad in Cuba
February 2016

Part 2

Please read part 1 first.

Day 3 (Saturday)

Some things I started to observe about Havana by this day:
The third morning of our visit, we got only enough coffee for one cup each. So I asked for more. Oye veh, what a mistake! I got a long speech about how difficult coffee is to get and on and on. I felt horrible for asking for more coffee. Not sure why we got more coffee those first two days. But I was really needing more coffee that morning. So we walked over and went in the Habana Libre hotel for the first time, bought an hour of Internet time each, and bought lots of coffee con leche while I posted to both my FB accounts, posted to both my Twitter accounts, and sent a couple of text messages. Internet was slow, so just that pretty much took up the entire hour. 

IMG_2262 IMG_2276 Then we headed via taxi to the Museo de la Revolución. It's housed in the former Presidential Palace - and it is a palace. Tiffany's of New York decorated the interior (yes, really, Tiffany's). Of course, all of the furnishings, save the Presidential office, are long gone, and the interior hasn't been cleaned in a long while. Most of the palace rooms are now filled with photos, narratives, and a few items representing the Cuban Revolution. It's such an incredible piece of history and propaganda - it's not to be missed. The displays are musty, they all look outdated and look as though they were done on a very, very limited budget, they try to be glorious, the items they show are, indeed, historic, they are oh-so Communist, gloriously anti-USA, there's a display that uses the term "Yankee Imperialism" without sarcasm nor irony, at times the display descriptions are incredibly cheesy and, all in all, it's tons of fun - at least that's how I felt about it. There's even a bust of Lincoln! The exterior is being renovated and looks lovely - I suspect they will do the same inside, which in many ways will be a shame, because it won't be dusty and musty anymore - it will be shiny and slick and tasteful. But I'm sure they will maintain the bullet holes. I wanted so badly to yell out the window on the second floor "Viva la Revolución!" at the tourists going by down below in old cars - but I don't want to see the inside of a Cuban prison. Off on a side hall we found giant caricatures, and I think we now know which recent USA Presidents Cuba likes and which they don't. Our pictures from this place really aren't to be missed. Trust me. Don't miss the one where I misbehaved, just for a photo for a former University of Kentucky basketball player that shall remain nameless...

Speaking of caricatures, a quick word about how Afro-Cubans are represented in art and ornaments: yeah, it's often not good

Included in your ticket for this museum is admission to the Pavillón Granma, which houses the yacht that was used to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution, bent on overthrowing the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, traveling from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956. They were ill-prepared for the journey, which took much longer than they expected, and the boat was quite overloaded with people. Batista's army attacked and killed most of the exhausted, unprepared Granma participants upon landing – no more than 20 of the original 82 men survived. Survivors, which included Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, escaped into the mountains. There are other vehicles associated with the revolution at the museum, as well as pieces of the plane of Rudolf Anderson, who died when his U-2 spy aircraft was shot down over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Granma museum is not all that interesting, IMO, and the military guys guarding the site don't like it when one sits on the steps while her husband goes up to look at the yacht. No biggy if you skip it.

We had lunch at Sloppy Joe's, a historic bar and restaurant that reopened in 2013 after being closed for 48 years. Before the Cuban Revolution, 90% of its clientele was from the USA. Prohibition in the USA back in the 20s spurred its original owner to change the emphasis from food service to liquor service, as American tourists were visiting Havana for the nightlife, the gambling and the alcohol they could not access back home. In the 1940s and 50s, it was a magnet for American celebrities (but I couldn't find a list of such) as well as tourists wanting to mingle with them. Now, it's a nice restaurant, a lot like any nice restaurant in the USA, with significantly less decadence, I'm sure. I had, of course, a Sloppy Joe sandwich (supposedly, it was invented there)! Food was decent, prices were very reasonable, service was terrific. 

We went to the Museo Nacional Palacio de Bella Artes, the Cuban art museum, right next door to the Granma museum. On the ground floor when we went was a large, interactive exhibit regarding the Cuban Five. These are five Cuban intelligence officers who were convicted in the USA of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities. The Five were in the USA to observe and infiltrate specific Cuban-American groups, two of which had planned and attempted violence in Cuba. It was the first of many references we saw for the Cuban Five throughout Havana, which considers them heroes (I don't consider them heroes, in case you were wondering - but I'm not all that crazy about those Cuban-American groups either). Otherwise, the permanent collection of art at the museum is outstanding. I loved everything on the second floor, and regret not writing down my favorite works and artists. Looking at the Internet, I found one piece I really loved: Guillermo Collazo Tejada's The Siesta. The third floor stuff, mostly by Wifredo Lam and painters like him, wasn't my cup of tea at all. It's a really lovely museum space, but the bathrooms had no running water that day - apparently, that happens frequently. The gift shop is also sad - they just don't have the resources to produce an abundance of postcards and posters of many works. Stefan enjoyed the castle made of coffee pots.

IMG_2213 At some point on this day, we found and toured a small museum funded by Mexico, celebrating itself and its relationship with Cuba. It was free - why not? We didn't entirely understand it, but it was a nice way to pass a few minutes, and the bathrooms were clean. And there was the doll at left, which I adored, but there was no gift shop with replicas of her, which I TOTALLY would have bought! Other countries proud of their relationship with Cuba are Ireland and Bulgaria, but Mexico and Cuba definitely have a very special relationship I wasn't aware of, as expressed in this museum and various plaques around Havana. 

At some point, we also saw a large group of people getting their hair cut on the street.

We walked down various streets, then down the Paseo de Marti, which goes all the way to the waterfront. It feels a bit like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. There are a few artists showing their work, but no buskers. And I think we got there at just the wrong time - we suddenly realized we were the only tourists among the people around, and some of the people sitting on the walls seemed to be eying us in a not-so-friendly way. It became not-so-nice Ramblas. We continued to walk, not sure where we were going, and then a group of teens came up behind us, throwing a baseball, hard, around us and over us. I felt like we were being set up, I'm not sure for what, so I pulled Stefan over to the side of the walkway, and we sat on the wall to let the boys go by - and maybe I imagined it, but they seemed to  hesitate just a bit and then, indeed, did move on, throwing the ball the whole time. I was a little stunned at how dicey things had suddenly turned. We looked down the walkway and could see a tourist, older and whiter than everyone else and wearing some kind of flowing comfy thing that I love to wear myself - and therefore sticking out as though she had a big flashing light on her head. I thought, gads, that's how WE look!

It was nearing 5, and Stefan once again forgot that I was brain dead at this time of day. I don't know why he forgets that, and seems surprised that I suddenly can't make decisions and am unreasonably grumpy around 5. Plus, I was feeling like we still were in the wrong place and it was overdue to get somewhere else. 

IMGP1560 We got off the paseo, and walked up and down a few streets, all of them residential, some of them questionable, and sometimes amid a lot of buildings in ruin. Somehow, we found a little block far from any primary tourist points and walkways, with restaurants and art studios up and down the small block. We chose La Farmacia (La Farmacia is on Facebook and on Twitter). It was "our" bar. The food was delicious and affordable, and the daiquiris are amazing, and the customer service was ALL THAT. And it's off the beaten path - not many tourists pass by. Stefan got this incredible looking pork dish that had something in the bowl with the pork, in a sauce of vinegar and garlic and salt and I don't know what. We couldn't tell what it was. So we asked the waitress. It's malanga, a tropical root vegetable from South America, and it's like a potato: it's great baked, mashed or roasted. We fell in LOVE with malanga. LOVE IT. According to the Interwebs, "The Central American root is likely one of the most hypoallergenic foods in the world. Anyone with extensive allergies should be able to tolerate Malanga flour." Come on, Porlandia, get into a Malanga craze so I can buy some! And get this: after asking the waitress about it and her giving some basic info and writing the name in the back of my Lonely Planet Cuba, she came back later and said she'd talked to the cook and she started to give us cooking tips for it. How freakin' nice is that? Cuba, sí! 

Had to tear ourselves away at last from this beloved bar. Found a taxi to take us back to the Habana Libre, where we stopped by the convenience store outside the hotel, which did have beer this time (hurrah!). We also bought cookies. We sat on the porch of our guest house and I reveled in our day. We saw about 25 people sitting in a circle in the courtyard down below and next to our apartment. They were quietly talking. I think it was meeting from the Baptist Church. It was a nice night to talk about stuff...

On this night, at long last, we heard the 9 p.m. cannon! I was so excited to finally hear it! Our guide had told us that, every night at 9 p.m., at one of the historic forts across from Havana, a cannon was shot off to mark the end of the day. It was then, in times long past, that the now-long-gone city gates were closed, and men used to use the cannon as an excuse to say, the next day, "Oh, sorry, honey, I was outside the gate when the cannon sounded! I couldn't get back in!" My old Lonely Planet guide says the cannon shooting ceremony is really cool, but most tourists don't go see it. We thought about it - but it's a lot of money for a round trip taxi ride to see a cannon shot and some people marching.

IMGP1448 IMG_2209 I'll say at this point that Cuba has some lovely publicly-viewable and/or public art that make for terrific viewing and photos, like giant chihuahuas in one of the squares (at left) or tile decorations on buildings or massive wall paintings or this sculpture of a modern family or these people talking or Sancho Panza or one of the fathers of Cuba, Martí (TONS of images of him everywhere) or whatever this is or this fascinating bust of someone or this intimidating hole in the wall or whatever this is or whatever this is... I just love public art. Well, most of it... I think the image at right should be the new logo for Kentucky Fried Chicken! I'd wear that t-shirt!

I know some people back in my home town of Henderson, Kentucky that think it was a waste of money to build statues inspired by the wildlife prints of John James Audubon, who lived our town for so many years, and to put them all around our little town. I think it was a brilliant idea. Marvelous. And when I win the lottery, I'm paying the artist that made the woman on the chicken at right in Havana to make another one and I'm paying the city an obscene amount of money to put it right on the river front or in front of the court house JUST to piss you people off.

(that was for you, Carol)

Day 4 (Sunday)

We slept until 8 a.m, the latest we ever slept. This time, our breakfast had a special edition: honey. Stefan didn't want it, but I poured it on my fruit and my butter-laden toast. I thought it was delicious. It made me think of Papaw, my paternal grandfather back in Kentucky, who loved to take a bit of peanut butter on a plate and pour corn syrup on it, mix it all together and eat it.

It was Sunday, and we could hear the shoutin' Methodist preacher at the church next door - yup, in Cuba, they still shout. We walked to Habana Libre and got a taxi driver for our ride to the forts across from Havana. There are two ways to get there: via taxi in a tunnel that goes under the waterway that leads from the ocean - the straits of Florida - to Bahía de La Habana, or a ferry that crosses the water. The taxi driver was obviously highly educated - we could just tell. I wonder what he trained to do at university... He told us he was oh-so-excited that President Obama was coming to visit in March. I think every taxi driver we had after that told us how excited they were about Obama coming, and the excitement was genuine.

IMGP1583 The taxi driver drove us in the tunnel under the waterway and told us that there was an annual book fair happening at the forts, but that the fair had devolved from an event about literature and literacy to a big festival of beer and soccer magazines and bouncy houses and boy band concerts. We really wanted to see the historic forts, so we followed the advice of my old guidebook and went to the Foraleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña first. It was only when we got near the entrance that we realized the insane amount of people at the festival. It was claustrophobic, even scary, at times. And it was incredibly hot. The fort is impressive, but it was filled with trash and lines of people trying to get into any pavilion that featured comics or publications from Mexico. All of the historic exhibits were closed. All of the restaurants were closed. We never did manage to get a good photo of the MASSES of people, the crazy crowds, to show you just how bad it was. I did manage to get past a long line of kids wanting dinosaur stickers and books to see the United Nations booth, far inside one of the barracks halls, where I picked up some publications, most of them a few years old, about various development activities in Cuba.

We spent most of our time at the wall to look back over the water at Havana. To our delight, here came an old-fashioned schooner sailing out to the straights! I had commented earlier in our trip that Havana really needed to have some schooners sailing up and down, to give that true pirate-feeling - someone heard me! 

We left that fort, crossing what was a dry moat but was now filled with beer vendors and food vendors and port-a-potties and a growing number of people, passed a steady stream of even more families crowding to get inside, and Stefan went to take photos on a far wall outside the main entrance while I sat and watched the line of people leaving  - not nearly as many as the amount still stuffing inside. And every now and again, I could see foreign tourists amid the crowd. Gads, it's like we have a big strobe light on our heads. We walked over to the Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes del Morro, the fort right on the point, looking out over the ocean. On the way, we were absolutely overwhelmed by the heat and crowds and craziness of people at a massive outdoor "fun" space created between the forts for the festival. It was all the usual stuff you would see on the midway of a big county fair, sans the rides. It was burning hot. I was heart-broken to see horses offered as rides for children, walking in the burning hot sun, absolutely baking. It brought back memories of the last circus I went to - I was probably 10, and my maternal grandfather took me, and I was appalled at the performing elephants and horses, and the horse rides outside - I had to fight off tears, because I didn't want to disappoint my grandfather, but I knew it was my last circus ever.

IMGP1597 We arrive at the other fort, which inside, wasn't as crowded as the other place, which was good, because it's a much smaller space inside. I had to pee badly. Painfully. I'd drunk two sodas earlier because it was so hot, and now I was paying for it. But there were still too many people and the crowds and the heat ere - yucky. We walked around the side of a wall, and suddenly, there were no people at all, and I thought maybe we were in a place we weren't supposed to be. And then there was an older Cuban woman that turned the far corner of one of the old stone walls, walking toward us. She looked at us, and said, "Baños?" I replied "Sí!!!!" And there they were, right around the corner, just a few steps from the massive numbers of people. And there was no line. And they were really nice - clean, with running water. I left more change than I needed to - I was so happy. We walked up some steps to reach the wall around the light house, and met a lovely couple from Scotland, who were just as overwhelmed by the crowds as we were. We laughed about having a true local Havana experience, one most foreign tourists never see. And we meant it - no, we wouldn't have chosen to tour the forts that day had we known the book fair was happening and what the book fair really was, but we were here and this was the experience that was there, and it was fascinating to see so many working class Cubans all in one place, obviously enjoying themselves on what for them is a very special weekend. Stefan and I sat on the wall and looked at the ocean and the young lovers taking selfies everywhere. Just like at the other fort, all of the bars and restaurants in the forts were closed, so we ate at one of the food stalls - burgers. I didn't finish mine, because I don't think it was fully cooked, and while I like medium rare burgers, I don't like RAW.

We decided to head out and try to find the Jesus statue, and then walk to the ferry back to Havana that was supposed to be at the end of the road leading to the statue. It was a three kilometer walk back through the book festival madness between the fortresses, back passed those poor, poor horses, and then out to the parking lot for the festival, which was in a field outside of a historic and still used army fort. We also walked past a building that said it was the La Cabana de Che Guevara - it was closed, and there were goats feeding outside of it. Supposedly, the Observatorio Nacional is nearby, but we didn't see it.

On the street, we saw a guy with a Jawa motorcycle, and I couldn't stand it anymore - what the hell is a Jawa motorcycle? It's not a Star Wars tie in... the rider, VERY nice guy, said it was made in Czechoslovakia. But he wanted to point out that his speedometer and headlight were made in Germany. I was happy to know that my Spanish skills aren't just for ordering in restaurants or negotiating with taxis - I can also talk motorcycles!

We walked around the Jesus statue a bit (it's big - but not that attractive), then down the winding road, trying not to get hit by the few speeding cars that were going up or down, passed a lot of trash and a guy asleep on a wall next to his Pioneer sound system (major status symbol in Cuba), to the ferry station in Casablanca. The ferry back to Cuba, for pedestrians and bicycles only, was supposed to be free that day, but we got charged because we're foreigners. Whatevs. Also, it is QUITE a jump from the pier to the ferry - yikes. There's a train station there, for the only electric railway in Cuba. The railway was built in 1917 by the Hershey Chocolate Company!

The ferry was not scenic - everyone stands, and there's few windows. With a crowd, it was a bit claustrophobic. It took only 10 minutes, and that was a good thing for me. The ferry dropped us at Habana Vieja, right next to the massive, crumbling ports and outside of a little cafe that was nothing special, but all of the retractable walls were open, so we had the feeling of being outside even if we were inside. It was a really nice way to end the day, just drinking beers, eating mediocre pizza, watching people getting off the ferry and the cars passing by. We couldn't see the water, because of a big metal temporary wall along the road. I loved ending the days just sitting and doing nada.

I told Stefan that the teenage girls of Cuba were making me sad: slouchy, pouty, thick makeup, constantly taking selfies. There were no goths, no punks, no grunge girls, no sporty girls, no skateboard girls, no I-don't-need-to-pretend-I'm-grownup girls - no alternatives, no "I'm going to be different than what music companies and pop stars tell me to be" girls. And every young guy is a metrosexual, teen-boy-band wannabe. No rebels. It made me sad.

Which brings me to my list of things I wasn't seeing in Cuba, and was surprised not to be seeing:
We also saw only two pharmacies, both historic but still working pharmacies in old town. Given the Cuban health care system, I thought there's be lots of pharmacies everywhere, like Germany.

So much of this severe lack of things is because of the long-term embargo of the country, lead by the USA, which, because of the Helms–Burton Act, extended the application of the USA embargo of Cuba to apply to foreign companies, threatening them with legal action for undertaking certain financial ventures in the county. It's created a fear of many foreign countries regarding investing in Cuba, because of the severe financial penalties the USA would attempt to apply. The consequences have been devastating to the Cuban people - and probably entrenched the Cuban government. But this all going to change soon, with the incredible thaw that's been happening. I'm no Castro supporter, but I do support the people of Cuba. I love this country, and want to see all the people there have the opportunity to prosper - AND TRAVEL.

IMGP1639 It was getting to be Jayne's-brain-shuts-down time, so I suggested we head to the Hotel Sevilla on Unli Animas, next to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Granma Memorial. It had gotten my attention every time we passed it, with the row of classic cars outside, and the music coming from somewhere inside. We walked in and there was an open patio in the back of the vast lobby, open to the elements, Roman villa style. There were only two other tables with people there, but the music from the band was incredible. We sat down, Stefan ordered a Cuba libre (rum, cola, and ice), but switched to Cristal beer immediately after. I downed three daiquiris (not as good as La Farmacia) while I completely, utterly grooved on that band. Man, if I could sit in that bar once a week, drinking daiquiris at 5, listening to that band, I could get through anything the week threw at me. Unlike all the other places we saw where bands were playing, it wasn't crowded at all. I gushed to the singer (at left) on her break, in my drunken Spanish, how awesome she and the trumpet player are. She was gracious (and probably terrified). Here's a video that I hope gives you an idea of their awesomeness. A group came in and sat at the table near us, and one of the women asked Stefan for a light (that happened constantly - lighters are hard to come by in Cuba), and she, and her group, turned out to be from the USA, from New York City, in fact, and they had been to Cuba before. They gushed about how much they love it and how much they love to return. They visit a farm whenever they come - they do some kind of agricultural work, and I should have asked them more questions, but I was tipsy and didn't want to get into it.

Oh what a happy girl I was when we got home. But then Doña Berta got all aflutter about our ride back to the airport, and then I got all aflutter. I went back over my paperwork, and it looked like it was all arranged. Spoiler alert: it wasn't. It wasn't clear in the paperwork, but in fact, a ride back to the airport was NOT included in our booking. Good on Doña Berta for following up!

Day 5 (Monday)

I was trying to keep track of our daily expenses, and doing a little math, and by my calculations this day, we were spending, on average, a wee bit less than 100 Cuban pesos a day, not including what I paid for our travel coordination, guide and housing. That's actually really good - I'd read that it's good to budget 100 Cuban pesos per person, and we were hitting that for the two of us. We weren't skimping on anything at all. I really wanted to buy some Cuban crafts, but there was so little available, and what was looked cheap and kitschy. I had to stay away from the book sellers, because I would have gone crazy buying antique books - I know my addictions, and that one makes suitcases oh-so-heavy.

IMG_2417 This day, we didn't leave our own neighborhood, Vedado, at all. We were entranced with the crumbling grandeur of the houses of this neighborhood, some of them almost palaces, and we wanted to see more of them, up close. Vedado is a very green, walkable neighborhood, and it's skipped by most tourists. We followed the tour recommended by my guidebook, for the most part. But first, we went to a bank to change more money, and then stopped by a small outdoor market we'd passed almost every day but never stopped at. As usual, we were disappointed in the offerings - it all looked so kitschy.

IMG_2391 It was really humid, and I had a migraine I had to get under control first. We began our tour with Havana University, quite near our guest house. It is beautiful and worth a visit, but, like most places in Vedado, it hasn't been upgraded since well before the revolution - it would be a great place to film a movie set any time before the 1960s. The views from the front of the university are spectacular. I had watched Soy Cuba ("I am Cuba"), which I had recorded off TCM months before and watched a few weeks before our trip, and I recognized the front of the university from that movie. We were looking for the Museo Antropológico Montané, which according to my guidebook, has "a rich collection of pre-Columbian Indian artifacts," and given how the pre-Columbian people were completely wiped out by the ancestors of the current residents, and my interest in pre-Columbia culture, I wanted to see it. I wasn't expecting anything too grand - just a few rooms with dusty items under glass - but we couldn't find it. It is somewhere on the campus of the university, off the main square, but we couldn't find any sign for it.

We gave up and walked on, past a big hospital and near Revolution Plaza and down the Avenida Paseo, to get to the Necrópolis Cristobal Colon, a massive, incredibly ornate cemetery with about a million remains. Before we got to the cemetery, we passed a long closed car dealership, and what looked like an abandoned effort to build a park. We also found a memorial to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and sat on a bench nearby while I explained to Stefan who they were.

We asked two police officers standing a few meters away if there was a restaurant nearby - I was needing something to drink, and at first got the usual reaction to my Spanish: "Que?" This became a joke for Stefan, ala Faulty Towers. I work SO hard to sound good when I speak Spanish - but I guess I just sound super awful. Of course, when I speak English in England, Scotland and Wales, I get the same reaction in English... the guy suddenly realized that there was a cafe right outside the entrance to the cemetery, so off we went. Near the entrance, we passed a fire station (bomberos!) - the first and only one we'd seen - and we should have stopped and met them, but we didn't realize we wouldn't be coming back this same way. Just as the officer promised, there was a cafe right outside the cemetery entrance and we stopped for drinks, to pee and to people watch. We shared a table with a woman from Finland, who would be walking back the way we came. A group of bicyclists, I suspect European, stopped for refreshments as well mid-ride. The bathrooms had no running water - after you went, a woman would go in with a large bucket of water. The cafe was named after where it is - 25/12. Many restaurants are named this way, which makes them really easy to find!

IMGP1710 IMGP1723 Then we walked over to the cemetery, paid our admission and began our own tour. I don't think Stefan enjoyed it much, but I was absolutely mesmerized. It's a city of the dead: it has streets, and many of the massive mausoleums look like grand houses from the outside. All of the graves are raised. Some family crypts are simple, massive marble slabs, and those buried there get a little marble stand on top. There are common graves for baseball players and umpires, for sailors, for journalists, for Japanese Cubans, and, of course, for firefighters. And the cemetery reminded me of something I'd noticed throughout Havana, on various memorials: being a Mason used to be quite the status symbol. It's a peaceful, beautiful space, worth an hour or even two of your time. On a really sunny day, take an umbrella. I took so many photos that I created a photo album just for these images - it was really hard to choose just two for this travelogue.

We walked out, back to the 25/12 Cafe right outside the entrance, for a bathroom break. I was not feeling well. I had felt fantastic in Cuba up to this point, in every way, but something I ate, probably that questionable hamburger at the book festival, had given me major tummy trouble which, at that exact moment, was turning into a major bathroom problem. Ugh. And in a bathroom with no running water. Ah, memories of my illnesses in Kabul... working and traveling in developing countries! So glamorous!

Just a block on our walk down Calle 12, we got fished into a restaurant bar, with the waitress promising pizza. We ordered sodas and took photos of the baseball memorabilia all around (and the Christmas decorations), and our pizza arrived - flatted pieces of bread with tomato sauce and a bit of cheese on them. We were starving and ate them, but when the bill came, I threw a fit - amazing how much better my Spanish gets when I'm angry. I threw down a five and said firmly "Absolutamente no más!" and we walked out. Stefan said he saw the waitress take the fiver and walk over and kinda throw it down to some guy at another table. Whatever. We didn't get killed.

This is a good example of how our 15-year-old guidebook was, at times, woefully outdated: for the area outside the cemetery entrance, it says, "Several art galleries, cinemas, shops and cafeterias now grave this lively corner of Vedado." Nope! It's a rundown area with many places entirely shuttered. What I just wrote about is all there is now.

We walked all the way down Calle 12 to the Malecón, at the ocean - almost three kilometers. It was gently downhill and worth the walk, to see the incredible grand and decaying homes and palaces. I wondered if it would all be renovated as the embargo lifts and people get more income, or if some developer would start mowing it all down. If they will keep and restore most these grand homes, even if they stay apartments rather than single family homes, it will drastically affect tourism and investment in the country, in a great way. But it helps long-term, not short-term, and developers and governments only want short-term gains. We turned right at the Malecón, and saw fisherman here or there, many of them with no fishing poles - they would throw their lines out into the water and hold the line in their hands. The Hotel Habana Riviera was in the distant, a typical 1950s Las Vegas-style hotel. It reeks of the ghosts of Vegas mobsters. Famous guests include Abbott and Costello, Steve Allen, Mamie Van Doren, William Holden (OMG!!!), Nat King Cole and, of course, Ava Gardner. I think this is where the Cuba meeting in The Godfather II was imagined. We also came across the bicyclists from earlier - they stopped in front of us and, when we got to where they were stopped, we realized one of the riders, an older woman, was suffering from heat exhaustion. It was, indeed, really hot.

We made it passed, and I was really hoping to make it all the way back to our hotel, but even stopped at a tiny cafe for a rest and sodas, I couldn't make it. I was brain dead and my legs were done. Of course, any time you really need a taxi in Havana, there are none around. We started walking away from Malecón to a more inner street and came across a Lada taxi. It's driven by Juan Diaz, and I want to HIGHLY recommend him as a driver! His email is, and his number is (+53) 05 296 7379. I wish we'd found him earlier - he is delightful. He was so happy to tell Stefan of his time studying in Germany long ago - in East Germany, of course. We really, really liked this guy. He drove us passed the newly-opened USA embassy - I was stunned at how closely we could get to it.

We got beer and chips at the Havana Libre convenience store. We loved that little store, even when they were out of Cristal. They had such a weird selection of things: A1 steak sauce, Pringles potato chips, cookies, and cartons of sangria right next to the cartons of milk. We went back to our flat, I took my second shower of the day, we ate, we drank, we napped in the air conditioning. We also met a Chilean couple who were staying somewhere nearby, as arranged by Doña Berta, and were talking in the living room with her. They were super nice. They had been bicycling all over the country, for 20 days. I asked them what their favorite city was, and they said Trinidad, no question. My prediction is that bicycle tourism is going to explode quickly in Cuba, as adventure tourists look to get away from the hordes of tourists soon to descend on Havana.

We got up at 7, and walked around some streets we hadn't seen yet. We felt completely safe. We saw the India Embassy, in one of the once grand homes of Vedado, and inside some homes that were lit from the inside. There were lots of bars and little food bars everywhere, far more than we realized. We passed a paladar which looked super expensive - I'm sure it was, and there were massive xx buses outside. We were hungry, and decided to have our first supper out, but weren't seeing anything that looked enticing, at least to me. We stopped at the very questionable-looking Restaurante Wakamba near our guest house, and it turned out to be a very good, cheap meal with excellent service. Stefan said it was one of the first places outside of Germany where the waiters know how to properly serve a beer and how to stand with proper posture - he was super impressed. And I have to say one of our waiters was the most handsome Cuban African men I have ever seen in my life - GET THAT MAN A MODELING JOB. There is nothing special on the surface of this place, and it's not the best food you've ever had, but it's a good, cheap meal, Cubans eat there, I highly recommend it.

Day 6 (Tuesday)

It was our last full day in Cuba. I was really sorry I hadn't booked one day trip to go farther outside of Havana, to see the Cuban countryside, maybe even an actual Cuban farm. Had we done that, we would have had something to do every day, no question. But now - what would we do today? There was nothing left to do, as far as I could tell. And with a 15-year-old guidebook, we knew we were missing out. Also, I wasn't feeling great, for all the reasons you can imagine. I medded up, put on shorts and a t-shirt for the first time, and looked over all the UN publications I'd gotten at the book festival whilst Stefan showered. I also thought about how incredibly Spanish-feeling Cuba is, far more than Mexico. What amazing explorers that country used to have. But also what amazing destroyers of indigenous culture.

Stefan suggested we go to the Museo de Decorative Arts in Vedado, one of the very few rich people houses that has been preserved. It is the former residence of the María Luisa Gómez-Mena viuda de Cagiga, Countess of Revilla de Camargo, it was designed in Paris and was built between 1924 and 1927 in a neo-classical style. It has much of her furniture, dishes and sculptures, as well as items from other houses from the same era. It gives you an idea of the elegance and luxury that upper class families once enjoyed in Cuba - and like all such houses anywhere in the world, the opulence can be a bit disturbing. My favorite parts: the staircase (I love me a grand staircase!), the hidden doors we found (they just look like parts of the wall) that lead to bathrooms or provided a way to escape a room unseen, and a photo on the wall that, we think, shows a guy with a metal detector finding a big collection of items hidden behind a wall (during or after the Cuban Revolution? I guess we'll never know). You have to pay a HEFTY fee to take photos inside, so just Google the name of the museum to see all of what we saw. Unfortunately, there were two big buses of elderly French-speaking tourists there at the same time we were, and the guides were super focused on keeping us all from misbehaving. According to the reviews I read online, if you go when it isn't so over-run, the guides are actually super nice and helpful. We walked around outside, looking at the once grand pool and gardens.

We walked to the bank near Habana Libre for one last money exchange - we were afraid we couldn't make it for the next 18 hours on the pesos we had - and then decided to go back to Old Town one more time. I asked a taxi how much, and he quoted a ridiculous high price. We walked off. Then another guy approached us, much cheaper. As he drove us on Malecón to old town, and as we passed a gas station, we saw a long, long line of ADV Riders getting gas, obviously foreign given their lovely dual sport bikes. I think I squee'd. We really, really would love to return to Cuba and do a motorcycle ride. Obviously, it's not impossible to import your motorcycle!

We got out and started looking for La Farmacia. I was getting overheated - I knew I was about to be in trouble. Just when I was getting scared, we found it, and I collapsed in my seat, so ready for non-stop cold drinks. I stuck with colas. Unfortunately, there was construction going on nearby, so we had to listen to a jackhammer the entire time. Not fun. Still - I love this place. We had a bit of food, and then were stunned when it started to rain! It was a light sprinkled, very pleasant to walk in. We were walking towards El Capitolio Nacional, and just as we got to Hotel Iglaterra, it started to really pour. We stood in the covered walkway in front of the hotel and watched the deluge. It felt wonderful, refreshing. It sounded wonderful. I was so happy for the poor, poor horses pulling the carriages. When it was starting to lighten up, we crossed the street and headed closer to El Capitolio Nacional, to make sure we absolutely couldn't go in - and, indeed, we couldn't. 

We walked back down Obisbo, a street we walked down the first day and that feels like the main tourist walkway, and it was PACKED. It was crowded all the way down. We were so confused. We hadn't dealt with crowds like this at all, ever. We found a artisan market that we'd seen our very first day but didn't go in, and lucky us, it not only had the first lovely handcrafts we'd seen (I bought a tile), but they let us use the bathrooms reserved for the artists! Then we walked back to the dive cafe across from the ferry port, and during the walk, we found out why there were hoards of tourists: a massive cruise ship. Oh, no, TWO massive cruise ships. Old Town was ready for them, with cars and horse-drawn carriages at the ready. We got to our cafe and just sat, drank Cristal beer and watched them - few came to our patio, we think because it didn't look all that scenic. We stayed there for more than an hour. Maybe two hours. And the weirdest part: there was this beggar in a wheel chair that had hit me up for money as soon as I came out of the bank back in Vedado early in the day. I brushed him off (even in developing countries, I give to NGOs rather than beggars 99% of the time - I'm too afraid my money isn't going to feed that person but, rather, to the mafia person or abusive father forcing the person to beg). Hours later, I was staring out the doorway of La Farmacia, about 3.5 km away, and who is there looking at me with his hand out? Same beggar dude. And then, as we sat in the cafe about 1.5 km from La Farmacia and got up to leave, who was staring right at me from the street next to the patio? Same dude. No way he was following us - but, indeed, he was working the streets that well and that hard. Wow. Give that man a JOB!

IMG_2468 IMG_2471 We strolled back down the street to find a taxi, and I asked Stefan to take one more photo of me. Our trip was coming to an end. This building where we took this photo is dilapidated now, as is the pier next to it, but I'm sure, within five years, they will be refurbished, paid for by the cruise companies, to handle more cruise ships. More tourists. This mural will be long gone then.

We found a taxi back to Habana Libre, and the Cuban music playing, the beautiful sunset... we sat in the back, holding hands, and I almost started crying. I'm almost ready to go home at the end of a trip, and I was at the end of this trip, but I also am tremendously sad to say goodbye to an adventure. I really like me on a trip. 

We walked back to our guest house from the hotel. My feet were beyond gross, because of the rain. Time for a shower just for my feet! Then I took a nap while Stefan went to look for some beer and maybe something to eat. He came back an hour later with some french fries, water and beer. We couldn't sit out on the patio - Doña Berta had done laundry and it was everywhere drying. So we just sat in our room, chatting, packing, thinking out loud. We packed up completely before bed, wanting to be able to just walk out the door for the airport at 3:30 a.m., no worries. I went right to sleep. I was exhausted. I have to say, I rarely had trouble sleeping in Cuba. I did wear earplugs some nights, but usually, I didn't need them.

Good thing Stefan packed an empty backpack in his bag: indeed, we'd acquired just enough stuff that it didn't fit in my bag. Plus, we wanted to buy some things at duty free in Mexico City. So sad that Kindersurprise, available for purchase in Mexico, is illegal in the USA... I'm sure no one ever buys some and hopes that, perhaps, no one will check their bag as they come back into the USA... no one at all...

Last day, heading home

I awoke at 2:30 a.m., on my own. As we road with Viktor to the airport, Stefan noted that we'd never done this ride in the day time, and that was kinda of disappointing - it would have been nice to see more. But I was stunned that, at 3:30 p.m., there were always people on every street, usually just two or three, on their way to somewhere. At the airport, the departure area for flights was completely different than arrivals - clean, orderly, efficient, quite pleasant. We checked in and then I sat in a waiting area while Stefan went outside to smoke two cigarettes. It was a cool, very pleasant morning after two days of such incredible heat and humidity. I started thinking about all of the airports I've been in all over the world, how many places I've been, how different they've been and, yet, in many ways, how alike. There are great people everywhere, there are bad people that can always be found among them, no matter where you are in the world. I feel so bad for people that live in fear of their fellow humans, not because of any personal trauma they have experienced first hand, but because of what they hear about, and how they have turned statistically rare violent events into things that they fear will happen to them tomorrow. I don't fear terrorism anywhere near the way I fear car accidents. I don't fear Muslims any more than I fear Christians - most Muslims don't hijack planes or bomb buildings or shoot people and don't want to murder people, just as most Christians don't blow up health clinics, don't shoot health care workers, don't molest children and don't want to murder people. Most Muslim families seem to just want to feed me, just all the Baptist families I've encountered in Kentucky. The more I travel, the less I fear all of humanity. I still fear people sometimes - usually an individual, a teen boy or a man, walking or standing too close to me somewhere that I feel vulnerable. But humans, in general? Nope.

The Cuban bathroom attendants really wanted Mexican pesos instead of Cuban coins. Sorry, ladies! There were several Cuban athletes on their way to Mexico City on our flight - not sure why. Turned out there were some athletes from Honduras as well. They all looked so sleepy, I decided not to bother them with my questions. We so appreciate that the Havana airport has what airports in the USA do NOT have: clocks everywhere! And they were all accurate! The airport was the first place in our entire trip where I saw an Internet lounge, btw. After we got through security - where they took one of Stefan's lighters, but not the other, and also took the small facial scissors that had made it through every airport to Cuba... and before - I sat looking around at the athletes and trying to eaves drop while Stefan went to smoke more in a smoking room. He came back and said, "There are Russians already completely drunk in the lounge." It wasn't even 5:30 a.m.!!!

Our flight to Mexico City was quiet and uneventful - and we got a row to ourselves (hurrah!). And the little TVs on our flight showed commercials, in Spanish, for TV shows, movies, cities and countries, and tips for how to be happy. And the tips were pretty good! (get enough rest, do something you love every day, don't eat junk food...). The smog was awful in Mexico City - I could barely see the twin volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, poking out - as we descended, we could see at least half a dozen fires. I remembered how bad the smog could be in Austin, Texas because of the fires in Mexico.

Once we landed, the athletes all headed straight for the transfers counter, so Mexico City wasn't their last stop. We went through customs and outside the security area, and thus began our six hour layover in Mexico City. I sat in a waiting area while Stefan had some smokes, and I had to stop myself from giggling at all the people bundled up around me, freezing. Then we went and checked in for our flight to the USA. We took our time, having breakfast at Restaurante Casa Ávila, "la mejor comida española." I know, eating at a Spanish restaurant in Mexico... is that like eating at a British pub in New York City? It was, in fact, a delicious breakfast. We were surrounded by business people, mostly men, and images of Ávila, where I twice took two weeks of intensive Spanish classes at IEMA - Instituto Español Murallas de Ávila, which I highly highly highly recommend. BTW: my Spanish is much better in the mornings than the late afternoons or evenings.

Then we headed over to the food court - which we found by accident - and I bought the latest New York Times and USA Today, and did something I haven't done in years: took all the time I needed to read both from beginning to end. It was heavenly. I so miss reading print, with proper spelling and grammar and editing and citations. Although, wow, USA Today is even worse than I remember - it was like Fox News light in print. Unfortunately, Stefan was bored out of his poor mind. The only way he can be content for hours with nothing to do is to build a fire and let him tend to it. Of course, I've taken that away from him at home, by leaving the dogs unsupervised and his beloved quartz fire pit smashing into a million pieces - oh, no, don't think even Cuba has driven that horrible moment and reality from my mind. We got up and strolled into an exhibit area, which featured information and textiles representing the diverse indigenous peoples of Mexico. Then we went back to the food court area and tried to find ice cream. The best we could do some some sort of frozen treat from Carl's Jr.

My right ankle had started swelling a bit at the end of day 3 on this trip, and was always a bit swollen at the end of every day after that. So at the airport, I always had my carry on bag in front of me when I sat, so I could sit with my feet up. I had gotten so scared when my ankles were so swollen after my long flights from Portland to Ukraine back in 2014, and I now watch them oh-so-closely when I'm traveling. 

At long last, it was time to go to our gate. The flight back to Salt Lake City was awful. It is absolutely shameful how the airlines have packed us in airplanes now. It cannot be safe. Everyone was miserable on that Delta flight. MISERABLE. Even the flight attendants, the same ones we'd had on our way down to Mexico City a week before (I remembered because I found them delightful) seemed overwhelmed by the crowd and madness. I felt bad for them, I felt bad for us, and I cursed the airline executives getting new summer homes on the money they were making at our misery. We landed, and then went to the wrong gate, in another terminal, for a flight back to PDX that was NOT ours. We sprinted back to where we were supposed to be, and were the last ones on our plane. Once again, a miserable flight. Shame on all of you, and thank you, Senator Schumer, who somehow heard me say, "Airlines have taken this too far! The government needs to mandate minimum seat sizes!" to Stefan, and is now pushing for that regulation. When are people going to understand that corporations CANNOT regulate themselves?!

Back in PDX, we took the shuttle to our car in the long-term parking lot - and had a flat tire. ARGH! Stefan smoked while I pushed the emergency button. The maintenance truck showed up about 20 minutes later, and Stefan pumped up our tire using the generator himself, much to the delight of the maintenance worker. And at long last, we came home to a very happy dog and cat. We went almost right to bed, at midnight - we were wiped out.

And that's my trip to Cuba!

A reminder: please consider donating to The Aniplant Project, Inc. (TAP), a nonprofit in the USA dedicated to the protection of animals, and its primary activity is to support Aniplant (Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas) of Havana Cuba. Aniplant is not part of the Cuban government and receives no financial help from the Cuban government, but it is the only animal protection organization permitted to function in Cuba. Aniplant's HQ is in Havana, but it provides services throughout most parts of Cuba. In 2014 Aniplant sterilized over 5,000 dogs and cats in its traveling weekend clinics which move throughout the country. I've made a small donation to TAP in support of dogs and cats in Cuba, and I so, so hope you will do the same, and like their Facebook page, to stay up-to-date on their work.

Photos from our trip to Cuba:

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