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Cuba 2018 viaje A La habana, trinidad y viñales

"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

Most of my life I never envisioned seeing this stamp in my passport
The Malecon at night with the Morro Castle guarding the entrance to the Havana's port

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.

Trinidad

A long trek

We learned the hard way that when you pay per person in Cuba there will never be an empty seat. The three of us crammed like sardines into the backseat of a minuscule and indescribably uncomfortable import.

A tight squeeze!
Bienvenidos!
Like Havana, Trinidad is a city over 500 years old and it is full of colorful architecture amidst cobblestone streets. It is much more quaint than Havana, however.

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.

Taste and Make the Best Mojitos!

Photography

The bulk of my photographs in Cuba were shot with an iPhone simply for the convenience but I carried my DSLR at times as well.

Back to Havana

After two nights in Trinidad, it was time to make the long trek back to Havana. Once again, we crammed into a wheeled sardine can. This entire trip was conceived due to Sophia's participation in the "Montanans" choir at Montana State University. The choir was invited by the Cuban Archbishop to perform a series of concerts in Havana over Christmas. So, we planned our trip with some extra time on both ends of the concert schedule. Once we dropped Sophia off to meet the choir, Bea and I checked into a different airbnb where we spent two more nights before heading off alone to Viñales.

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.

It is not unusual to see trees growing right out of the side of buildings
Let's just say there are a lot of would-be code violations.
Crumbling sidewalks are typical
Hogs feed on the sidewalks of Habana Vieja

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.

Hustle and bustle with a camera in hand

Central Park
El Capitolio is just one of many magnificent structures that can be seen in Havana.
Postcard from my grandmother

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).

"...this hotel..."
My southern belle grandmother trying to converse with Cubans must have been quite a sight

Hotel Plaza

This character seemed to think she belonged in the photo so here she is.

A Havana local
The park is still there but the fountains have changed

We ended the day with a sunset drive in a Bel Air convertible and a visit to the famous Floridita Club. Note to self: pick a convertible with a stereo next time.

Along the Malecon with the Morro Castle in the background
Plaza de la Revolución

Viñales!

We were very excited to get on the road to the rural valleys in Western Cuba we heard so much about. Viñales has been referred to as the Napa Valley of Cigars.

Off to Viñales
Relaxing ride. We did not pay per person for this one. Much better!

Change of plans

We were scheduled for a horseback ride through the valley on the afternoon of our arrival but the weather had other plans. A storm dumped huge amounts of rain all afternoon and into the night. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule until the following morning. We stayed in another airbnb at Finca Rojas. The foul weather ended up being a disguised blessing because we would likely have not otherwise had the opportunity to spend hours with our host, Alfredo, a lifelong, multi-generational tobacco farmer. We drank his rum and smoked his cigars while sitting in his drying house listening to him talk over the rain about the process of growing tobacco and making cigars. Those who know me best know that I don't have a strong history with cigars. Alfredo took the time to teach me how to smoke them without ending up in the hospital as I did once before. But that's another story.

Alfredo

Our next excursion began on another Finca (farm) near Viñales. We saddled up and set out with Miguel as our guide.

Miguel is a knowledgable young man with a family including a wife and twin girls

Puro, amigo?

Coffee

We learned of the different coffee beans they cultivate and how the process them

Honey

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

The lumberjack

Music

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

We explored a cave along the way

Looking towards the mouth of the cave

Miguel showed us a hummingbird nest populated with two babies

Typical bathroom in rural Cuba

A freshly tilled field for planting tobacco

Some scenes materialize as if they are part of a movie set staged to depict a history long passed. But this is just part of everyday life in rural Cuba.

Just a passing farmer on his way to work

The Viñales region was undoubtedly the highlight of our adventure in Cuba and we were sad to leave

Seis noches mas en Habana

Loaded up in an old Chevy and ready to depart for the big city again

WiFi Hotspots

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.

una tarjeta de WiFi

Christopher Columbus Cemetery

We spent several hours with a highly knowledgeable guide, Rubén, touring the Columbus Cemetery on another Airbnb "experience". Christopher Columbus is not buried here but I never thought a cemetery could be so interesting. Rubén gave us the colorful history behind so many of the gravesites. Our only regret is that we didn't allot more time for this tour or have more time to spend with Rubén in a social setting.

The entrance to the cemetery looking from the inside out.

I could spend days in this cemetery with my camera experimenting with remotely triggered flashes

Droves of people come from around the world to this particular grave in order to perform rituals believed to grant wishes
We were told that many statues and other art in the Columbus Cemetery contain a degree of sensuality that is uncommon in other cemeteries.
Look closely at this grave and you will see it is a large domino. All over Cuba you will see the game of dominoes being played with great enthusiasm. This woman was known to be extremely competitive. During the last game of her life, she slammed the winning domino down on the table and taunted her opponents only to suffer a heart attack at that moment. The positioning of the dominoes carved into the stone depict the exact positioning of the pieces in her final game.
We found this gravesite to be the most touching of all we visited. This dog's master passed away before the dog. The dog spent every remaining day of her life at the grave mourning her master until she too was memorialized at her master's feet. The deceased left specific instructions that she did not want her grave cleaned because she wanted the natural deterioration to illustrate the fleeting nature of life.

"Where the souls go".

This structure is located in the center of the cemetery. The closer the grave to this site, the more important the person (the more money they had).

Things get ugly the further down you go in this painting

Rumba!

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.

A rumba ceremony in the midst of an art installation

Aromas

Havana is overwhelming and confusing to the olfactory sense. A wretched stench of sewer mixed with diesel fumes is chased by the intoxicating relief of aromas wafting out of a Panaderia

Worker in la Panaderia

Night Club

The music never ends but the band in this latin jazz club, Zorra y El Cuervo, didn't start until 10:30 PM. Still, it was well worth the wait.

Enter the phone booth and descend the stairs

Loved this guy's solo on the Congas!

Feliz Navidad!

We spent Christmas in Cuba. The only gift we ever heard about being exchanged was a grown daughter who planned to give her mother a dead chicken so she could make a soup. But for the occasional Christmas tree or Santa Claus, there isn't a whole lot of fanfare attached to the holiday. There's plenty of music and dancing though... just like every day.

A Christmas tree sits outside a church at the cafe where we ate Christmas Eve dinner

Percussion Class

We spent Christmas morning in a cuban percussion class.

Our teacher

A demonstration

Batter up!

Baseball is a MAJOR thing in Cuba.

At one point while walking in Havana I saw two men arguing so intensely I thought one of them might actually murder the other before my eyes. I asked Bea what they were arguing about and she said "Oh, just baseball. It's not serious. They're just teasing". I fear what it might look like when someone actually gets in a serious argument!

ART

Like music, art flows into all senses of your being everywhere you travel in Cuba

A mural we encountered
Michael
A mural by Pablo Kalaka

Retrospective

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain

We would definitely go back to Cuba and would recommend other Americans consider making the trip. Next time, we'll plan to spend more time in the countryside with less of the bustle of Havana. Under current regulations, I wouldn't suggest anyone expect it to be the most relaxing experience as the "full time schedule" requirement of the US Government serves as a bit of a cloud overhead. If I was forced to describe Cuba in a single word it would be "intense". We were ready to come home at the completion of our 12 day trip. But it didn't take long to sense a pleasant haunting of such an interesting place where we have cultivated a new set of friends and connections in the bigger world.

Gracias, Cuba!

Created By
Bill McDavid
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© Bill McDavid

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