Friday, May 31, 2013

The Last Day. Saying Goodbye

The final day on the Island began like all the others, an early breakfast, then checkout, then a leisurely pile onto the bus for a couple of stops before our afternoon plane ride back to Miami.

We stayed in the neighborhood, traveling to Lazaro's home. Not necessarily known outside of Cuba, Lazaro is an artist who medium of choice is papier mache. He papers everything, his home, including the walls and ceilings as well as the commode. On Saturdays, he teaches local children how to do art. Not just papier mache, but other art forms as well, all of this taking place at a table outside his front door.

We watched the kids, some of whom we'd met a few days earlier, craft what turned out to be gifts for us, the visiting Americans, signed by the young artist and Lazaro, too. Several neighbors came out to watch us, including a cantankerous old guy who tried to pour water on us from an upstairs apartment. He claimed it was an accident, however. Taking pictures I had a very good vantage point of what really took place and it was no accident, but it was laughed off by all as a harmless prank from a bored old man.

Our final meal was taken at a restaurant/club right across the street from our hotel. It was a Jazz Club featuring live music and good food to night time visitors. The music was canned since we climbed the four flights of stairs in the afternoon heat.

Have I said there is usually no air conditioning and no elevators in most of the very tall buildings? Everything is a walk up, and then they want you to dance, this rant courtesy of the lazy American in me.

The food was great especially when washed down with one last authentic mojito.

It was time to return to Jose Marti International Airport, customs, security checks, paying of all exit fees, passport checks and boarding of the plane. Takes a few hours of mainly standing line to be seen. Once the plane took off, we were back in Miami within 45 minutes.

Following another round of US Customs, more really huge lines, we were free to disperse and become faceless Americans in our own country again.

As I write this, I've been back four months to the day. I have hesitated to write this last entry because I'm not ready to put my Cuban Adventure to bed, just yet. The memories and pictures have sustained me, keeping alive the good times and helping me figure out how to make my next trip even better.

Better, because I know that I will be returning at my first opportunity. I hope that when I do the United States will have relinquished its animosity and lifted the ban, normalizing relations. We are family, after all.

Cuba represents more of our history which should be told and experienced by all of us. “A history without holes,” as Dr. Faya described it.

Afro-Cuban-American History without Holes.

What a concept.

Us with Lazaro
Marie and Me

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Batista Before Castro

The man who ruled Cuba before Fidel Castro took power, was named Fulgencio Batista. Batista was mulatto, meaning he had some African in him, and most historians say he got it from both sides of his family. When he came to power by winning the presidency, Batista became the first nonwhite to govern the Island.
Batista and Eisenhower

Although he was completely backed by the powerful United States, government officials, rich Americans, as well as American mafioso, who partied in Cuba, never hesitated to apply the “one drop rule” to even Batista himself, despite his position as head of a nation.

So, in his own country, when dealing with the Americans on any level, Batista was relegated to second class or no class societal position. And no where was that more apparent than the country club in Miramar.

Because he was Black, Fulgencio Batista could not be a member of the club. A club whose membership included The Kennedy Clan, JFK and Jackie honeymooned and regularly vacationed there, as did many criminal mafioso types like Lucky and Meyer Lansky the American gangsters. The Kennedys and Lucianos and their ilk were good for the Cuban economy despite their very visible bigotry. Batista laughed all the way to the bank, while looking the other way as his people struggled to make ends meet.
Batista talking to Richard Nixon

Under Batista, the average industrial Cuban salary was the eighth highest in the world despite rampant corruption, prejudice and inequality. The country's GDP (gross domestic product) was equal to Italy's at the time, thanks to the massive influx of US dollars and industry, both legitimate and illegitimate. The illegitimate consisted of prostitution, drugs and gambling controlled mainly by Americans, who based their operations out of the Hotel Nacionel de Cuba. In the year before John Kennedy became president he said about Cuba;,

at the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned nearly 40% of the Cuban sugar lands, almost all of the cattle ranches, 90% of all mines and mineral concessions, 80% of all utilities, 100% of the oil industry and provided two thirds of all imports to Cuba.”

Russian Embassy
There are many foreign embassies in Miramar. Probably the most visually dominating is the Russian Embassy. It is the only one that really sticks in my mind with its cross-like architecture.

The country club frequented by JFK and the mafia guys is there too, however it is no longer a country club. Castro turned the club in a school. It is now the premier art school in Cuba. The education is free for Cubans and only $500 per year for foreign students and there is a waiting list to get in. The curriculum spans 5 years of study before obtaining a degree.

To accommodate the growing student body, newer buildings were constructed on the grounds, near the famous golf course, which, while still pristinely maintained, is no longer used for golf. 

Where JFK and Jackie stayed

One of newer buildings

 The newer buildings are also an homage, if you will, to womanhood and birth according t the architect. The domes on top were purposely built to resemble female breasts, hallways and corridors shaped to mirror fallopian tubes leading to a central courtyard called Vagina Square. The entire design is tribute to the Orisha, Afro-Cuban deities of Santeria.
The old golf course at Miramar Country Club

Driving through the area reminded me of many American upscale suburban neighborhoods. It felt very comfortable to me. The differences to me appeared to be the number of people on the streets walking or waiting for public transportation. US suburbs don't have that as even poor people have cars here.

More to come...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Basilica at El Cobre, Cuba's Most Famous Church

One of my favorite photographic subjects is churches. Old churches have character and sometimes tell stories that parishioners or members won't necessarily tell you. I saw many churches in Cuba, unfortunately there was no time to photograph them or inspect them properly. If I could change anything at all about my tour, it would be to tell our governments to allow for more photographic exploring.

Our return to Santiago from our day excursion to Bayamo took us to El Cobre, Cuba. El Cobre is a tiny town about 20km to the west of Santiago. Cobre means copper, as in copper mine. The mines were the reason for the town's existence in the 1800's, built and controlled by the Spanish. We rolled into El Cobre just after dusk. It was also raining. Our bus actually stopped along the roadway up to the church so that we could try and get pictures. The photos that I took do not tell you the full story of just how beautiful this place, this church is. As we parked at the top of the hill, near the church, we could also see the nearby copper mines, which were within short walking distance.

Basilica de Nuestra Senor de Caridad del Cobre
The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Caridad del Cobre is undoubtedly the most famous church in all of Cuba. The color of the building is yellow, bright yellow. The pinkish-white of the photos is due to the time off day and coloring of the sky. Since we arrived after closing, I am unable to show you the Virgin del Cobre, the Black Madonna, who carries a cross of diamonds and is dressed in yellow, with a crown sprinkled with diamonds and rubies.

According to legend the Black Madonna appeared one day to save the hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked the nearby coppermines. She appeared to them with Jesus in her arms, according to the story. To mark the miracle a church was built on the spot and has become a must stop for religious pilgrims. Every year there is a massive pilgrimage by the faithful up the hill to the Basilica. Even Popes make this journey, it is said. The last papal visit came in 1998.  The Madonna, who is also the patron saint of the island is symbolized by the sunflower. All along the roadway to the Basilica were stands and peddlers selling the giant flowers as well as wooden statues of the Madonna and child.

La Catedral de San Cristobal
We visited the La Catedral de San Cristobal twice during our stay. It is located in Old Habana on the main square. The Spanish started to build the church in 1528 but it wasn't finished until 1815. The reason it took so long was that there were many natural disasters earthquakes in 1816 and in 1847, which caused a lot of damage. The building was restored to its original magnificence in the 1920's. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The heat comes early when you're away from the water in Cuba. With the heat of the day comes bugs and a little bit of warm weather inspired laziness. We were at the end of a two hour bus ride. It was time to get off the bus and to explore.

Our first stop in Bayamo was at the Casa de La Trova, a combination hotel, bar and restaurant. It is the longest standing establishment in the inland city. Unlike Santiago and Havana, Bayamo is not situated on the Caribbean Sea, and one would think that it was safe from marauding pirates, from back in the day, as a result. That was not really the case because the pirate hordes would simply land at or near Santiago and then follow the river inland to the next settlement, to plunder at will.

At Casa de La Trova, we were greeted and seated in front of the house band after a request that we try the house drink, which looked like rum laced fruit punch, with real fruit chunks swimming in the glass. At all establishments in Cuba that we visited we were given the choice of our drinks with or without rum. In other words, they make them virgin or without alcohol and if you want the rum or the vodka, or whatever, then it is added at your table in front of you. At this time of the day, I drank out of politeness. I added the rum because it is Cuba after all and everyday brought me closer to when I would no longer be able to drink real rum.

I also marveled at the woman who was our host. At every stop we were greeted by a spokesperson who literally hustled us for drinks and CD's made by the groups entertaining us. The music was uniformly priced at 10 CUC, leading me to believe that this was an island-wide state run hustle, allowing the people to make money off tourists. The crowd consisted of several different tour groups each of whom spoke a different language. Undeterred, our host greeted and spoke to each group in their language. She never missed a beat delivering her spiel in Spanish, English, German and French, switching effortlessly between the different tongues.

My brain gets tied in knots just trying to go from English to Spanish even though I also speak French and a little German. One of the things that bothers me about the United States is that we Americans only speak English unless our parents recently migrated from somewhere else. In America, there is no proximity of cultures or languages. Even if you learn another language in school, there is no place to practice it and thereby become proficient.

Our tour continued down the block toward the restaurant where we would take our noontime meal. On the way we stopped at the town square to learn the history of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, and to view from the outside, the only hamburger joint that we would see in Cuba. The square was dominated by a statue of the great man, a sugar plantation owner, who after returning from a visit to Spain, promptly assembled his slaves and told them they were all free. He also asked them to join him in revolution against the Spanish. It was the start of the 10 years' War, in 1868. In 1969 Cespedes became President of the Republic of Cuba.

Cespedes was deposed in 1873 and died in 1874, killed by the Spanish. The war ended in 1878 with agreements of liberation of all slaves and Chinese who fought with the rebels. Spain refused to free all slaves and also refused to grant independence, which would come later as a result of the Cuban War for Independence.

We continued our stroll down to our lunch destination, one that our guides told us would be an adventure, as in “we don't know if this food is gonna be any good,” kind of adventure. It wasn't bad at all. We had beans, rice, meat, coffee, mojito, water and cerveza. A satisfying and filling lunch on a veranda, complete with chickens and roosters adding sound effects to our foodie adventure. 

More museums ringed the pedestrian walk way, including a wax museum that was closed to the public, unfortunately, a pottery school and exhibit space where we watched young people work in clay, smiling at us, but refusing to talk or engage with the nosy Americans.

More walking down narrow cobble stone streets, past a radio station to find our bus, seeing obviously a couple of same sex couples, unobtrusive but out in the open, and flirting briefly with a butch woman who ran a state store and who tried to entice us to join her. No time for fun, the bus was there waiting for us on a wider street than those we'd just traversed, and it was raining as well. It was a quick springtime shower, not enough to wet us down or to turn on the windshield wipers.

Time to go home to Santiago.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On the Road to Bayamo

Our road to Bayamo began in the early morning, just as the sun began to chase away the fog from the mountain tops which ring the city of Santiago. Our guide told us the trip would take a couple of hours to reach our destination, so there was nothing to do except sit back and watch the scenery unfold through the window.

Barely underway, we were stopped at the first checkpoint outside the city, waved over by a police officer who apparently was not very familiar with the traffic rules that he was hired to enforce. Our driver, angered that he had been waved over, argued a bit, then jumped back onto the bus to locate his rule book for driving in Cuba, then jumped back off the bus to confront the policeman. What came next was an argument in Spanish that moved way to fast for this language challenged American to follow. I can only tell you that our driver did most of the talking, while the policeman stood there like a little kid being chastised by his principal for some grade school infraction.

The discussion, if you want to call it that, ended as abruptly as it began when the policeman apologized to our driver, who turned and jumped back onto the bus and took off, still a little huffy that he'd been stopped in the first place. Trust me, traffic stops don't happen like that in the states. Saying anything other than “yes sir” in the right tone of voice, to an American cop will usually land you in handcuffs,

During my stay in this country, I saw many police, where ever we went. We were surrounded by officers and what I would call “rent a cops,” the cop wannabes charged primarily with crowd control or running after shoplifters. They don't wear guns or tasers or mace, at least not visibly. Yet I had no doubt they were there to serve and protect.

Guarapo, drink squeezed from sugar cane
Things settled down to road trip rhythms once we got past the checkpoint, and the scenery changed from city to rural in the space of a city block or two. We traveled past fields banana trees and sugar cane, two of Cuba's biggest crops. Bananas were in short supply in the cities, more plentiful in the country, where they are grown. Abel, our guide stopped the bus to buy us fruit, tangerines and bananas, and guarapo, a local drink that you won't find anywhere else in the world except next to a sugar cane field.

It is sold at little stands positioned near the sugar cane fields. The liquid is squeezed from the sugar cane and usually poured and served over ice. We took ours without ice because of the cholera scare pervading the country. It was very sweet, but it is also very perishable and cannot be bottled. Which is why you will never find it anywhere else in the world. According to Abel, guarapo begins to oxidize as soon as it is poured, losing its bright green color and good taste, making it undrinkable.

Guarapo can be considered fast food, but like everything else in Cuba, fast is a misnomer when compared to “fast food joints” in the US. The guarapo man literally squeezes the sugar cane in front of you and pours it into real glass, not plastic or styrofoam. And you don't drive off with one hand on the wheel while the other holds the drink as you try to keep from spilling it. No, you sit there and finish the drink, and once the glass is empty, you return it to the stand. The person at the stand then washes the glass to be used by the next customer, as you resume your travels.

We made other stops along the way, primarily to replenish our water supply, as we drank only bottled water, which was necessary because of the cholera outbreak. For this reason, we also only ate fruit that could be peeled such as oranges or bananas. Actually the cholera scare was over before I got there, according to state officials. However everyone was still being cautious and we were no exception.

We traveled on through many nameless small towns, people-watching people, who watched us back. My unintentional masquerade as a Cuban national remained intact until I opened my mouth to answer the questions directed at me. It wasn't just a city thing. Always when approached, I was never greeted in English or with the question of nationality. I was always addressed in Spanish first, assuming I was one of them, apparently working or traveling with a bunch of tourists. I was never mistaken for a tourist. The question that always followed my halting explanations about my nationality remained, “But your family is from Cuba, yes?” To which I explain in the negative, leaving them puzzled and sometimes disbelieving in my wake.

I've been working on family genealogy for a number of years now and none of the distant strands that came together to form me passed through Cuba. At least so far that I can find.

It was hot by the time we got to Bayamo and La Trova, the city's oldest establishment with most of the day still in front of us.

More to come...

Monday, March 4, 2013


As Americans, we are taught that healthcare, like everything else about the United States, is the best of the best in the world. The theory of American exceptionalism that conservatives and tea party aficionados claim as their own, has actually been around for as long as, well, as long as the United States of America has been in existence.

However, it is not until you step outside the country that you understand that American exceptionalism in most instances is political propaganda designed to keep citizens content and under control.  Frankly, America's healthcare system sucks.  America's healthcare system is designed to benefit insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and health care facilities and doctors in that order. The patient, namely us, don't even figure into the mix except as the main source of revenue. Heaven help you if you can't pay or need a procedure that the insurance company, not your doctor, considers too costly. The only option is to die.

The advent of the Affordable Health Care Law, otherwise known as Obamacare seemingly signaled the end of this backward, top-down system. But big money makers like this take a long time to die in the USA and healthcare as we know it is still hanging on despite the fact that most citizens favor a single payer health care system more like what is working in Cuba, except that nobody pays for healthcare in Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba

CastroCare is state run healthcare and everyone has it. It is free. Clinics are situated in every neighborhood and I was told by the doctors at the clinic that there is a physician and at least two nurses for every 150 families. All minor stuff, checkups, exams, minor emergency care, babies born, are done at the clinics. Major medical procedures and life threatening emergencies are done by bigger hospitals nearby. It should also be noted that Cuba encourages the use of natural remedies, accupuncture as well as other forms of what we would call alternative medicines.  Doctors in Cuba don't just find a big pharma created pill to treat anyone and everyone. If a cure can be affected naturally, it is the one used. When doctors finish their rounds at the clinics, they make house calls. For real!

Much of the daily procedure done is preventive medicine. In other words, if a diet change is needed or a young girl needs instruction about birth control, or she's had a child and the baby needs to be breast fed. These things are handled by the clinic personnel, who then follow up when necessary.

It should be noted that Cuba has one of the lowest teen birth rates in the western hemisphere. Much lower than the United States. Their health care system seems to be built around what is good for the people and grounded in reality instead of pseudo scientific/religious beliefs, put forth by out of touch xenophobes and religious fanatics.

Women get full and complete health care, as do men. The inequality of being able to buy Viagra but not birth control does not happen in Cuba.

We were told by doctors during our tour that Cuba does not have a drug problem nor alcoholic problem. In answer to our questions we were told that putting kids on drugs like Ritalin to control behavior or adults on sedative type drugs is also not done, mainly because there is no need for them. This is an official state mandated answer, and we made note of it as such. We were also aware of the official party representative in our midst who toured with us throughout the clinic, quietly watching us as we observed them. It was amicable and understandable given the on going adversary situation between our two countries.

We were told by our tour guide that doctors in Cuba make around $1600 per month, which doesn't begin to compare with what doctors consider a living wage in the US. Our tour guides also requested that we not breach the conversation with monetary questions and so we didn't. 

Neighborhood Clinic in Santiago de Cuba

Monday, February 25, 2013

Suffer the Children

A moment of honesty here, I don't suffer children well for any length of time. I am child-less by choice in my personal life, and while I have many, many younger relatives, nieces and nephews produced by my three sisters, as well as great nieces and nephews produced by my nephews and nieces, I prefer living with dogs instead. I love my young relatives, but I love sending them home to their parents even better, when I've tired of their company.

My siblings and friends who are only now enjoying the freedom that I have always had, seem to act as though being happy your kids are no longer in the house, is a guilty pleasure, rather than the nature of things. In other words, you have kids, they grow up and they leave and you get your sanity and life back. I don't see any reason to feel guilty about that at all. It is the way the universe works, right? So while, I do like little people, my philosophy has always been, if you choose, give birth, raise them until they are aged 3, then send them off to boarding school until they turn 18, when it is time for college. Painless child rearing, but not what a “parent” should do. I fully admit that I'm not “parent” material. Just wish others would be more honest with themselves instead of treating their offspring like an acquisition, a designer handbag or something that matches their latest pair of designer jeans.

At least publicly, the children of Cuba seemed well loved and cared for. Many of the cultural events that we attended in Cuba were put on by children, students mainly from what we in the US would consider middle school. Since I've spent my entire life avoiding organized kid stuff, Disney world performances, I was not exactly thrilled, but resolved to put on a good face and enjoy the moment.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the various performances and programs we observed and took part. I had fun, actually. We were treated to song and dance and instrumental music, from a quintet of young women singing an old black gospel hymn to welcome us, to an orchestra made up entirely of guitars. We met the quintet at a school with a music and performance curriculum. The students were selected from all over the city to sharpen their skills with the future intent of teaching or performing. The overall intent is to preserve Cuban culture and pass it on. The school, like all schools was state run and also free for students and parents.

The Orquestra de Guitaras was a neighborhood culture club, so to speak. State sponsored but put together as a result of a neighborhood banding together to teach, and provide practice and performance space and a built in audience. For instance, the only requirement to joining the orchestra was that the child have a guitar. The lessons are free, done by volunteer directors who teach the kids to play the instrument. in three weeks. Most of them don't read music so all songs are memorized. The special performance was nothing short of amazing.

Without exception, even the street urchins, who begged for money or whatever we would give them, were squeaky clean and didn't smell, as Marie remarked. They were pushy but polite as they hustled us. After all, we were tourists there with spending money to burn. Our tour guides cautioned us on the first day that giving to the people was our choice. We needn't feel guilty because all children in Cuba had state provided free health care, free food, and free schooling.

I noticed that the kids always asked for money, but the adults always asked for items like pens or soap or paper. We were told that this was merely a conversation starter in the hopes of getting other items that could in turn be sold on the street for a high price. I ended up giving away small items such as my extra pens and pads of paper and the soaps, shampoos and other courtesy toiletries from the hotel. I was traveling without my computer and had loaded up on writing materials which became dead weight when it became apparent that writing longhand and pictures proved difficult.

There was no quiet time built into the tour to pause and write, or to write at night, so I resorted to mental notes, scribbled notes and many many pictures to jolt my remembrance for when I started to write as I am doing now, after I've returned from my adventure. In my past professional life, I was a news reporter during the time when cell phone cameras and recorders as well as other modern conveniences for documenting life, did not exist. I had to rely on my camera and my memory in order to get the story and get it right. I found and was pleasantly surprised that I have not lost that skill in my older years. My powers of observation are still intact and functioning properly.

More to come....