"Support for the Cuban People"
On December 14th of 2018, my wife (Bea), daughter (Sophia) and I landed in Havana around 9 pm after two long flights from Missoula to Minneapolis to Miami and a very short 90 mile hop from Miami. Prior to 2014 when President Obama expanded the exceptions to the ban on travel to Cuba, this was not legally possible for most Americans. As per the new regulations, we traveled to Cuba on the "Support for the Cuban People" license. This meant our stay in the country required that we engage in a full time schedule interacting with the Cuban people. In other words, a beachfront resort owned and run by the government was out of the question. Our trip took us to Havana, Trinidad and Viñales
My wife, Beatriz Padron, is an American born Cuban. Her parents and grandparents came to Florida during the time of the revolution and soon thereafter settled in Puerto Rico. I consider myself very fortunate to have visited the island with her for many reasons, not the least of which is that Spanish is her first language.
After checking into our Airbnb, we spent our first night in Trinidad attending a pre-arranged "experience" through Airbnb: a mixology class titled "Taste and Make the Best Mojito in Trinidad". Our mixologist professor, Yosney, was knowledgeable and delightful. We, along with our new friends from China, Kai and El, did indeed learn how to make the best mojitos we've ever tasted and there is nothing similar about them to the ones you find in American bars. Interestingly, we learned that the drink dates back to the 16th century and was essentially the drink of the pirates that was used to fight scurvy. Disney World should serve mojitos on the Pirates of Caribbean ride if they really care about historical accuracy.
We spent a lot of time walking around Havana even racking up over 10 miles of walking one day. Walking in Havana, particularly old Havana, is hard to describe. It is enjoyable but far from relaxing. One must be careful to avoid dog/cat/hog feces or, on occasion, step over a dead kitten or a ripe lamb skull. Pedestrians do not appear to have the right of way on the narrow cobblestone streets. I cannot count the number of times I jumped out of my skin for being honked at. Many of the Airbnbs we stayed in were very modest but comfortable. The moment you step outside the building, however, you are headlong and deep in the third world.
People in Havana (and everywhere else in Cuba) are incredibly friendly. I can honestly say I have never felt more safe in a big city than in Havana. I wouldn't hesitate to stroll down the darkest alley at any time of day or night. Of course, this is probably because the entire city seems to be under constant surveillance via a noticeable camera grid. There are eyes everywhere and the government does not tolerate crime. Nevertheless, the relentless offer of "Taxi?" heard every 10th step became so tiresome that it began to feel like criminal assault! And then the ever present "Where you from?" is a seemingly innocent question. From some, the question represents a sincere desire to meet new people and practice english. From others, it is an attempt to open a conversation in which you will be told about their family's "Paladar" (private restaurant often found in someone's home), salsa class or some other such thing. The other consistent offer received is to buy rum or cigars (black market) at "50% off because it is THE LAST DAY of the 500th year anniversary of the founding of Havana". It was the "last day" every single day we spent in Havana. Two more nights of this and we knew we would be ready to get out to see the countryside.
Postcards from the Past
I have a cherished collection of postcards that my grandmother sent to my great grandfather when she visited Cuba in July of 1927. I spent some time trying to find some of the buildings depicted. I managed to find only the one shown in the postcard above but, as luck would have it, this was the very hotel in which she stayed (as described in her writing below).
Miguel is a knowledgable young man with a family including a wife and twin girls
We also learned of a different honeybee in Cuba that lives underground. They described their harvesting techniques and how to make the "Rebel Libre".
This older gentleman used an axe to chop down a small tree with the vitality and vigor of a teenager
Music is like air in Cuba. And dancing occurs with nearly the same frequency as breathing. Our first night in Havana we strolled down the street and quickly stumbled upon two live music venues not to mention the music in the streets. Music drifts out of almost every door you pass. It was no different in rural Cuba. Here, a duo at our lunch spot in the Viñales region was pleased to take our request of La Negra Tomasa.
Bea y su caballo Ranchero
The Valley of Silence offers a welcome auditory relief from Havana
We stopped here to drink some refreshing coconut water through a bamboo straw inserted into a coconut
Miguel showed us a hummingbird nest populated with two babies
Typical bathroom in rural Cuba
A freshly tilled field for planting tobacco
The Viñales region was undoubtedly the highlight of our adventure in Cuba and we were sad to leave
It is advisable to tell friends, family and business associates that you will have minimal access to the internet while in Cuba. It isn't because the internet isn't available. Rather, it is just royal pain the neck to get online. At left, one can see a very typical WiFi hotspot in Havana. In our experience, there is no way you are getting on the internet anywhere in Cuba without a "tarjeta de WiFi". Each of these scratch-off cards costs about $2 for one hour of access. One must be extremely careful to lightly scratch off the lengthy password. We ruined more than one card by scratching off the numbers. The WiFi signals are broadcast in very specific places, usually public parks and hotel lobbies, where you will see groups of people huddled together staring at their devices. The internet is more trouble than it's worth in Cuba. Real life is better off without it anyway.
Rumba is a form of Afro-Cuban music and dance that originated in Havana. It has a very evident African element to the sound and the movements of the dancers. Rumba appears to be intermixed with the Santeria religion, a syncretism of Roman Catholicism, the Yoruba religion from Africa and the indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean. We attended a Rumba ceremony at Callejon de Hamel which is also a permanent art installation.
© Bill McDavid