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A Broad Abroad in Cuba
February 2016

Cuba, sí! For my 50th birthday (well, a month later), I went to Cuba! My husband and I had originally talked about going to Chilé and renting motorcycles to celebrate my half century, and I still want to do that someday, but I realized that, right now, I'm just not in shape for that. And with USA-Cuba relations changing so rapidly, I wanted to see Havana now, before the hoards of tourists show up, and write about it. I also have a lot of professional interests in Cuba regarding the work of the United Nations and NGOs, particularly regarding women's empowerment, domestic violence, Internet access and literacy, and on and on - but I'll write about that elsewhere.

Using guidance from Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree community, as I've done for so many trips before, I booked our flights, our guest house in Havana, and a guide for the first day in Cuba. We used a 15 year-old Lonely Planet guidebook - that was a bit of a mistake, as some crucial info was outdated, particularly ALL public transport info, but it was mostly okay. I had bought it when I lived in Germany, thinking I would be going to Cuba from there at some point. 

Highlights of our trip before the details of such, for those that don't like to read travelogues and just want the key points to help them on their own trip:
The downsides:
We had six full days in Havana - and it was one day too long. I wish we'd spent one of those days visiting the countryside, or made our trip one day shorter. But other than that, I wouldn't have changed a thing.

And did I get it right, to go now, when it's more difficult and more expensive for people from the USA, than to wait a year, when things are going to be easier and probably cheaper as the embargo lifts. If I had any doubts of that, I had none on the last day, when TWO cruise ships spilled their vast numbers onto the streets of Old Havana, and our quaint historic town was overwhelmed with hoards of tourists. A taste of things to come.

IMG_2325 Some businesses I strongly recommend if you go to Cuba:
Some tips if you go to Cuba - based on our experience in February 2016 (and these may not be valid in a year - things are changing fast!):
I did a lot of research once I was back in the states to find an NGO working to help the situation for dogs and cats in Cuba, because the situation for them is heart-breaking. I found 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 that 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.

If you want to skip my detailed narrative regarding my trip (sniff), you can just look at the photos:
The Travelogue:

So, really, why Cuba? Well...

I've heard about Cuba all of my life. I've never had any desire to go to any part of the Caribbean save one part: Cuba. I'm a history nut, and for 50 years, Cuba has loomed larger in the history of the USA, for me, than any other country in the Western Hemisphere, by far. Its history is deeply intertwined with that of the USA, with Teddy Roosevelt and yellow journalism and the mob and movie stars and Nixon and Kennedy and Cuban-Americans and even now, regarding Guantanamo. It's "that Communist country", that "Soviet satellite" - but I just knew it couldn't be all bad, because Ricky Ricardo, Lucy's husband, was Cuban, and he was on TV every day when I was a kid, and he didn't seem like a bad person. I don't like modern jazz, but I melt at Cuban jazz - even before Buena Vista Social Club became such a phenom in the USA. I do not romanticize communism, and I'm repulsed by suppression of the individual, oppression of any people, censorship and imprisonment for dissent - that's the dark side of Cuba I don't deny and that I absolutely deplore. But I also have to respect and admire volunteer-driven Cuban literacy programs and the country's health care system. I also am amused at how this little tiny country just holds on and on, in the most dire of circumstances, and sticks it to the most powerful country on Earth. Maybe it's because it's forbidden fruit. Maybe because I don't know many people at all that have been to Cuba. Maybe it's because I watched the Conan special from Cuba and laughed hysterically and also thought Havana looked amazing. Maybe I want to shock people by saying, "When I was in Cuba..." I just don't know, exactly, the answer to "Why, Cuba." When people asked my Mom back in Kentucky why I went, she said, "Because it's there." As I said earlier, I wanted to see this Cuba, before it gets over-run with tourists. Maybe the end of the embargo will transform the island for the better, rather than taking anything good away, and lift so many of its people out of poverty, and give so many people, particularly the marginalized members of Cuban society, particularly Afro-Cubans, much more economic opportunity. Maybe all the change will be for the better. I hope to return in a few years and find out.

As usual, just like for most trips by plane, whether for work or fun, we were up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready and drive to PDX for our 6 a.m. flight. Such is life on the West Coast. We were all packed up before we went to bed - just had to grab our luggage and the food I'd prepared for the flights, because airplane food is so expensive and usually so bad, if it's available at all, and we would have no time to eat in Salt Lake City. I said goodbye to Lucy and Max, who were terribly confused at our middle-of-the-night activity. I had one small suitcase and a large purse as my carry-ons, and Stefan had just one suitcase - but with an empty small daypack inside, in case we accumulated too much stuff whilst in Cuba (we did). I packed my Tevas (hiking sandles) to wear most of the time, flip flops to wear around our apartment, and wore my hiking shoes for the trip there. And I counted on being able to wear outfits that I brought at least twice, so I could keep what I packed to a minimum. Someone's already commented on my "cute dresses" in my photos, so I guess I chose well; I just get so tired of seeing me in shorts and t-shirts all the time in warm weather photos...

The flight to Salt Lake City was uneventful, but at the SLC airport, Stefan immediately went to find a smoking room and I started looking for my passport - and couldn't find it. I'd had it to get on the first plane back in Portland. Panic ensued while I looked and waited for him to finish his cigarettes and get back so he could watch our things while I sprinted back to our arrival gate. It turned out that my passport had, somehow, fallen in our food bag. Ugh. I hate travel panic. I've never lost my passport before. Ugh. It took me two hours to calm down.

The flight to Mexico City was relatively uneventful - just the usual way-too-crowded seats (airlines should be ashamed of themselves at the way they have packed people together on planes). Glad I brought the food from home - we had no time between take off in Portlandia and landing in Mexico to ever get food. I kept reading my 15-year-old Lonely Planet Cuba book, and was getting nervous, with all of its dire warnings about Americans going to Cuba - in contrast to what Americans say now on the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree community, including a guy from Portland I met via the group who went in November and assured me it was easy peasy. I was anxiety ridden by the time we landed in Mexico, envisioning me being turned away from our flight and men in dark suits and dark glasses whisking me away.

I had thought the three-hour layover in Mexico City would be too long, but it turned out to be the perfect amount of time for me to get some Mexican pesos, for us to stand in line for our boarding passes and then find out we couldn't get them until we got our Cuban travel visas at another place in the airport, for us to get those travel visas (you have to fill it out correctly the first time - if you don't, you have to buy another one!), for us to have a late lunch, for us to stand in various lines and for Stefan to smoke several times. By the time we were done with all that, it was time to leave for Havana! No Pope-related delays whatsoever (he came to the Mexico City airport later for a final mass and departure). The AeroMexico gate staff were stunned that I already had my State Department form filled out - I downloaded it from their web site! No form, no admission to the flight!

At some point, I realized I was wearing the same shirt that I wore for my passport photo. It's this shirt I bought back in 1996 for a cross country road trip, and it's a perfect travel shirt - a bit over-sized, and quite multicolored so that, if you spill something on it, it's hard to see the stains. I so regret having my passport photo taken in it, because it seems like, every time I show my passport, I realize I'm wearing that damn same shirt at the time.

The flight to Cuba was somewhat better than the previous flights because the seats were bigger and the flight was shorter. I was completely anxiety-ridden until we took off, waiting for men in uniforms to come drag me off the plane. I kept imaging someone or something preventing me from this dream trip. On the flight, we realized alcohol was free. Oh, how I wish I could have imbibed! But I was just too nervous, and wanted to have all my wits about me until I was past immigration in Havana. Stefan passed up drinks as well. I was really sick of being in the middle seat by then, as I had been on every flight that day, especially with the two Russians in front of us decided to push their seats back as far as possible and get really drunk. Jerks. Our flight was full of Chinese people going to Cuba to catch a cruise, and the woman in our row wouldn't move to one of the many empty seats throughout the plane, which would have given her an empty seat next to her and, therefore, one next to us. I was so tired of feeling so crowded.

We landed in Havana, and it was almost 10 at night. I was in Cuba. I must have had the goofiest smile ever on my face. We got off the plane outside and then crowded around a tiny opening in a sliding door to get into the building to the security check point. I felt quite prepared, because the Havana airport web site has an English section that has very detailed, specific info about arrivals (impressive!). We looked for the Assistur counter, to buy health insurance for our stay in Cuba, but it was nowhere to be found. We'd been told repeatedly, in our book and on the Thorn Tree, that we had to have insurance or they wouldn't let us into the country - but there was nothing. Nada. So we chanced it and got in line for immigration and, surprisingly, neither of us got asked for proof of insurance. I wasn't thrilled about not having insurance - I would have much preferred to buy it - but there seemed to be nothing to do about it. The airport border guards were almost all women. When the immigration lady handed me back by passport, I wondered - did she stamp it? Later, I found out: no, she didn't. Stefan got a stamp, but I didn't. There had been an unleashed dog out on the tarmac with us as we deplaned, and of course, I was worried, but it turned out to be a dog that seems to be taken care of by an employee - I saw them together in the building later.

The customs agents were almost all women as well, wearing sand-brown uniforms, with the tiniest skirts or shorts ever - not sure which - and many were wearing black lacy fishnet panty hose. I felt like I was in some fetish porn movie... and I did not want to be.

We got through customs just fine, then went out to the crowded lobby and found our driver, Victor, no prob at all - just as Rena at Experience the Real Cuba promised, he was standing with a little sign with my name on it. Yes, it's a chaotic airport, at least for arrivals, but honestly, I've seen way worse (Delhi! Kabul! Dubai!). Then we stood in the long, long, painfully slow line outside to get Cuban pesos, while Victor sat oh-so-patiently nearby - he's obviously seen this before. The line was beyond slow. It took more than an hour. No one was in a hurry. I had a nice chat with a woman in front of me who is the clone of Lis M___ - Stefan agreed, and we remained freaked out by her the entire time in line, because her mannerisms were the same as Lis's as well. When I wasn't talking to Lis clone, I also tried not to stare at some of the women around me, dressed in clothes I haven't seen since Kyiv - I call it the anything-goes-to-be-sexy look. All I could think is, how can you wear panty hose, even fish nets, in this heat?!? I also watched cars go by, and I was, at first, disappointed: most of the cars passing by were newish Chinese and Korean cars. But later, as we were leaving the airport, I saw a row of classic cars in the parking lot, and we never stopped seeing such - I mean, come on, who doesn't want to see those classic cars in Havana?! Our driver took us in his 1980s Lada, a Soviet car that's about as well made as you think it is, spewing gasoline, to our guest house in Havana. We just stared out the window, barely speaking, because WE ARE IN CUBA OH MY GADS WE ARE IN CUBA!!!

I was surprised at how many propaganda billboards we passed along the way, glorifying the revolution. I had wanted to see that as much as the cars! I'm spellbound by political propaganda posters... the memes of the past... It was too dark for photos, sorry. We went by Revolution Square, all lit up and looking beautiful, and Victor started pointing out various points of interest, which I so appreciated. We got to our guest house, Doña Berta met us at the door, we went up to the third floor to her apartment, and almost immediately, we went to bed - we were just too dead for anything else. Thankfully, our room had air conditioning, and the bed was comfy. And it was so, so good...

Day 1 (Thursday, our first full day of touring)

We were up at 7:30 a.m. I couldn't believe how well I had slept! Our room had a full sized bed, a twin bed, and a bathroom of our own. Not much of a view, but honestly, I didn't care - I don't vacation to sit in my room, just to sleep there! There were two Chinese students in the other apartment-within-an-apartment, there to attend classes at the nearby university, but we rarely heard them and saw each of them only once in our entire week. Our breakfast, every day at 8:30 a.m., was pineapple, bananas (usually), toasted bread, butter (just two slices!), eggs, blended juice, strong coffee and warm milk. Our guide arrived soon after we finished breakfast. Eddy is very young, in his 20s, and trained as a mechanical engineer. He was also very well-trained as a tourist guide, a profession he much prefers to the one he formally studied for. I had read up as much as I could on Cuban history via my 15-year-old Lonely Planet guide, and that really helped in understanding what he was telling us - and he pretty much told me all the highlights I'd read in the book - impressive!

IMG_2037 We walked two kilometers (more than a mile) to Revolution Plaza (Plaza de la Revolución), passing by an impressive political painting on the side of a government building on the way. It was a gorgeous day, and I was exuberant. There were classic cars everywhere full of tourists, and I could hear Elvis singing "It's Now or Never" pouring from the sound system from one of them. I was overwhelmed. I could have gotten on a plane right then and come home and been satisfied. The photo at left is a photo I have DREAMED of having taken for years. We took SO many in the plaza.

It was super hot, so I asked if we could go somewhere for water. He took us to a bus station, where we got to see a dusty model of a camello or camel bus - Eddy told us the name, and Stefan knew what they were. These used to be the mass transit buses of Cuba, massive beasts, pulled by semi trucks. Now, Cuban buses are as modern as most cities in the USA that have mass transit.

Then Eddy flagged down a car for us to head to La Habana Vieje - Old Havana - and we snapped phoIMG_2050tos along the way - obligatory photo of chickens in the street, and official Cuban political propaganda graffiti, of course. We were dropped off at El Capitolio Nacional, which is being completely renovated to eventually house the Cuban parliament again, as it did before the revolution (it was housing the National Library of Science and Technology for the past several years). Unfortunately, we couldn't go in - I really wanted to see the 49 metric ton 17m bronze statue of "an effeminate Jupiter" my old guide book talked about.

We walked into Old Town and it just FELT SO GOOD BECAUSE I WAS IN HAVANA. We passed La Floridita, Hemingway's favorite bar for Daiquiris, now overrun with tourists. We snaked our way up and down the streets, buying a map of Havana from the tourist office and passing by and through plazas, restaurants, charming little boutique hotels, hidden gardens and, still mostly, housing, using just a block away from a tourist street. People live in La Habana Vieje, and it felt a bit intrusive to be walking up and down the streets of their homes. UNESCO and UNDP are undertaking massive amounts of restorations and improvements in the area, in anticipation of the flood of tourists, and that's providing much-needed repairs to the historic area and employment to local people.

IMG_2109 There's a statue in Havana that one is to grip and stand on in a certain way and thereby receive... I dunno. Luck? Fame? Who knows. I grabbed. I stopped for sugar cane juice along the way - much less sweeter than I was expecting, and as delicious as I'd hoped for. We also stopped at the oh-so-charming Hotel Frailes, for mojitos and chatter (I paid - instead of tipping our guide, I got him drunk and fed him). It's a monk-themed boutique hotel and a bar. We studied the map, got more advice from Eddy, drank too much, and then, more sight-seeing and, as the afternoon got later, it was time for an early supper. I was tired and hungry and not thinking and just kept saying yes to whatever the waitress wanted to bring us. Our bill was almost 100 American dollars, which for three people, with alcohol, isn't horrible, but it was more than we were expecting, so we took better care the rest of the trip regarding food. But I have to say: the food was delicious. They served me a bean soup that I am still dreaming about.

Speaking of food, the food in Havana was good or great for most of the rest of the trip - we'd been warned that the food was not good in Cuba, but we enjoyed most of it - and we ate at a few official restaurants, not just paladars, which used to be the name for small family-run businesses, but now seems to mean anything more like a really nice restaurant in the USA or Europe and catering specifically to tourists. As Eddy warned us, indeed, sometimes the service at government-supported places wasn't great, but we found the food was good and, quite frankly, sometimes, we liked them better than paladars, which seemed, at times, unreasonably expensive.

We took a taxi back to our guest house and took a much-needed two-hour nap. Then we headed over to the Habana Libre hotel, just half a block away, to buy cokes and water in the little convenience store there. Not sure if I needed to, but I decided to brush my teeth with bottled water, so we kept our little fridge stocked with such. We cleaned up and then walked to the Malecon, the water front street, watching water smash against and over the wall onto the sidewalk. We also passed lots of groups of people all gathered on the steps or border walls around various hotels and phone shops along the way; they were all busily typing, reading or talking on laptops and smart phones. It's how they get Internet: they buy time at the shop or hotel, and then gather outside for access for an hour or two. 

We mozied over to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, an historic, legendary hotel that, before the revolution, hosted Nat King Cole, Johnny Weissmuller, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nelson Rockefeller, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney, and Eartha Kitt, among others. Turns out there's no public access from the Malecón, but the security guard sweetly let us walk up the private drive to the hotel. As we walked up, a man was testing his sound system in his car parked at the bottom of a cliff to our right, and at first, we walked with beautiful romantic music accompanying us. It was perfect. Then rap music broke out and ruined the moment... the hotel was, indeed, beautiful. We sat outside in the back and I imagined all those famous people over the years. We paid for our overpriced drinks and walked around the grounds - it was a lovely, but windy, night.

We left and walked slowly back towards our guest house, hoping to find an upstairs, outdoor bar along the way. Nope. Everything that was outside was right on the street, and we really wanted something a bit more protected. We ended up getting beers at a sad little cafe across from the Habana Libre, then walked home. We were DEAD. And sun-burned - we'd forgot to put sunscreen on areas other than our faces. Ooops.

Day 2 (Friday)

After lathering ourselves in sunscreen, we decided to go to the home of Ernest Hemingway outside of Havana, in San Francisco de Paula. The estate is called Finca Vigía, meaning "lookout house". He lived there from mid 1939 to 1960, and while there, he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my very favorite books, The Old Man and the Sea, which we all had to read in high school, and A Movable Feast. As depression, illness and chronic pain overtook him, Hemingway left Cuba in mid-1960, and the Cuban home that he had lived in for over twenty years. When he left in 1960, he had intended to return - but it was not to be. Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho in July 1961.

The home is maintained, in part, by the Finca Foundation, based in Boston. The home is filled with original furniture, artwork, china, fishing rods, animal trophies, guns, typewriters, and other objects collected by the author and his wives. His phonograph still works. Closets contain the family's clothing, jewelry, and personal memorabilia. Approximately 18% of the more than 90,000 books on his many shelves have writing in the margins.

IMG_2140 There were a LOT of tourists at first, brought by the massive Transtur tourist buses, but I was there for the long haul, and knew if we were patient, we might get a break in the crowds. And we did. We stood in line a few times, but just held back for others, so we could casually, slowly look through windows and doors and see things. You aren't allowed into the house, of course. I loved the estate. So many books. By the way: Hemingway loved his dogs.

I took time to sit down on the patio, far from the tourists, and write in my travel note journal. Usually, I use it just to write bullet points that I use later to write a travelogue, like the very one you are reading now. But here's what I wrote as I sat there on hallowed ground:

IMG_2172 It's beautiful. Peaceful. I'm surrounded by trees. Hemingway was here. For 20 years. How marvelous. But just outside the tree-covered estate: squalor. There was a rush of tourists for about 30 minutes, frantically taking photos, crowding around windows and doors, and then, they all left on their buses, and now - quiet. Everyone here is taking many photos. We have taken many photos. The same photos are posted again and again on the Internet. I wonder as I look at these people: have they read Hemingway? Do they think of him here, writing? Fishing? Drinking? Talking with famous visitors? Of Ava Gardner swimming naked in the pool? I wish I knew what books are on his many bookshelves, what alcohol was in the bottles in the living room on the cocktail cart. I wish I could take a bath in Hemingway's bathtub. I would like to see my red birthday toes in that bathtub. I'm going to call my memoirs Hemingway's Bathtub. I try to imagine this place with no people - with just peace and laughter of drunken guests. Anne Marino is heavy on my mind, to the point of tears. She should be here, and we should be sitting here in the shade, drinking rum from my flask, making crude jokes.

Enrique, our driver that we got at the Habana Libre, overcharged us for the trip to Fina Vigia. But I decided not to care, not to be angry. We had wanted to try to take mass transit here, but my guidebook is horribly out of date in regard to mass transit information - who knows where we would have ended up. Also, it was a really fascinating ride to the estate and back, seeing the other Havana, the one most tourists never see. And it was my only chance on this trip to see banana groves, since we didn't book a day trip to anywhere outside the metro area. It's my first glimpse of true jungle. Stefan saw a camello during our ride back, but I didn't.

We went back to Old Town, and wandered along a line of used book sellers. I bought Mi Escuela, Libro Segunda de Lectura, Serie de Libros Cubanos de Texto - a second grade reader, in Spanish, from 1941 and produced in Cuba. I bought it because I LOVE old text books, and I can actually read it! We strolled around, and saw a banner at Iglesia y Monasterio de San Franciscode Asisi for a De Vinci-related exhibit that had Stefan very excited - but the room where the exhibit is housed was closed for renovation. Sad trombone sound... There was also a concert going on inside the church, so we couldn't go in. So, instead, we walked around back of it and strolled the grounds, and found a tiny Orthodox church behind the church - it's all tree covered and a good place to take a break from the hot sun, providing a feeling of seclusion in the middle of a busy city.

We found a local dive for a terrific, inexpensive lunch. There was a mix of locals and tourists - it was perfect. We noticed a lot of places put specials and their prices on the wall where such is easy to see - it made choosing and ordering way, way easy. 

Then we went to the City Museum, housed in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, on the Plaza de Armas. There's not a ton to see, and what there is to see really isn't all that fascinating - the building itself is why you pay to go inside. The most interesting thing was the three sarcophagi for cholera victims, that were recovered from the sea, where they had been dumped oh-so-long ago. The bathrooms are - some of the most disgusting I've ever seen... But the guides at the museum were plentiful, were super, duper nice, and so happy about President Obama coming for a visit in March. The last and only USA president to visit Cuba while in office was Calvin Coolidge, who traveled there in January 1928 (I didn't know this - found out after I came back to the USA). Former President Jimmy Carter visited in March 2011 (I knew that).

We left the museum at 5, and my brain was dead. When I'm on vacation, my brain checks out between 4:30 and 5. I am DONE. If I've walked all day, I have trouble forming sentences around this time. I can't make decisions. Questions that require decision-making almost bring me to tears. All I want to do is sit and drink something and relax. We went to two different cafes, but neither had coffee, and both seemed more closed than open. We tried the Oriente Cafe, which had no coffee - but did have Cuban cola and beer. So I started with cola and then switched to beer. And I got my second wind. We stayed there until nightfall, just drinking and talking and people watching. It was a sweet evening. We left after two and a half hours and headed to the waterfront, and took a really old Chevy to Habana Libre, where, sadly, the convenience store was out of Cristal beer - "mañana." Only Heineken, which Stefan LOATHES. So we went back to the sad little bar across the street and got three cans to go. We sat on the porch of our flat, eating Pringles and chocolate cookies, and drinking our beer. I looked in our guidebook for a possible day trip out of Havana, to give us an experience in the countryside, but could find nothing. We could have gone to the Habana Libre and paid for Internet access and looked for something more up-to-date, we could have emailed the woman who organized our trip, but ultimately, we decided to forget it and just stick to Havana for the rest of the trip.

And we were in bed before 10 - which is our usual. Because we're old.

I realized that I was really glad we were staying in Vedado, rather than Old Town. Before the trip, I was disappointed, but I think, for our first trip, it was best - Vedado is very quiet, and it is nice to get away from most of the tourists at the end of every day. Plus, it's pretty. Since we weren't interested in going dancing at night, it really was best for us. My LOL moment came when I found out that our guest house was not only a few doors down from the Methodist Church, but we were just around the corner of the Baptist church as well! Between the Baptists and the Methodists... just like my childhood...

And this is continued in part 2.

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