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Hola from Cuba!

Hola from Cuba!

Plans for our usual independent style of travel to Cuba changed when, in November, our president once again imposed tighter restrictions, including the requirement to be under the auspices of a US-based tour company.

We worked with Cuba Travel Adventures Group, based in Tiburon, CA, to plan a trip which included our must-see places and experiences, while keeping us in legal compliance.

This arrangement has given us opportunities for much greater insight into Cuban politics, history, culture, and daily life. We’ve had in-depth discussions with a former Diplomat who is now a professor and interpreter; a well-known artist; an American woman who owns a Havana book store. We’ve done the typical tourist things like visit a rum factory and Hemingway’s haunts, take a salsa lesson, and tour Havana in a classic convertible; but also visited a local winemaker who has turned his house in a poor neighborhood into a wine-making lab. We’re dining at the best restaurants in Havana, and spending evenings at a variety of musical venues. The large and elegant private home where we’re staying in Havana is filled with amazing art and music.

Perhaps best of all, once our wonderful guide Ernesto got to know us, he has introduced us to his family and friends.

One night after dinner we joined friends, uncles and cousins to watch the last inning of the National Championship baseball game. Another night we were warmly welcomed into the family home (three generations) of friends, for a delicious meal and dominoes ---a very popular game here. John and I won, by the way, beginner’s luck! Ernesto’s wife LizBetty and three-year old daughter AnaLucia joined us for a weekend in the Vinales Valley, which added much to our enjoyment of that excursion.

Cuba has had its economic ups and downs. After the revolution in 1959, most of the wealthy left with much of their money. The communist/socialist system provided basic necessities for all citizens, with the aid of other communist countries. The collapse of the communist block in Eastern Europe in 1989 resulted in the loss of those economic partners, and Cuba entered what they refer to as Periodo Especial. Many government jobs were abolished; rations were reduced and the infrastructure suffered. In the 1990’s, looking for new ways to generate income, the government began building hotels and encouraging international tourism and investment, as well as beginning to allow limited free enterprise. Today the country is moving slowly and cautiously to find the balance between providing the social services citizens have come to expect, and allowing private businesses which encourage more individual productivity and income for the government through taxes. Each person receives a monthly ration card which allows them access to staples like rice, beans, eggs, coffee and sugar at ration stores; all health care, education (including university) and even burial services are free. We’ve heard several people refer to Cuba as the “all-inclusive island except the rum”.

We’ve visited three organic farms, all of which use very similar methods---a backyard garden which grows produce for a nearby restaurant, a somewhat larger one which provides for a restaurant and the community, and a large-scale cooperative which is experimenting with incentives for higher productivity such as profit-sharing and higher pay based on seniority. A theme we’ve heard repeatedly is that government workers---who receive about $25/month salary, have little incentive to work hard. The saying is that ‘We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Most enterprises which are not government-owned are required to sell a portion of their goods---80% for the vegetable and tobacco farms we visited, 90% of the coffee, 100% of the sugar cane--- to the government at a set price.

Horses are used extensively, for riding and for pulling various types of carts. We’ve had several opportunities to ride through the countryside using this slower mode of transportation. At one particularly grand farm we visited, the wealthy owner of a guava-juice-producing company bred beautiful horses prior to the revolution. The government has continued using the farm for breeding the cross between the quarter horse and pintos brought from Spain, adding ecotourism to help pay the bills.

Havana’s glorious colonial past is evident throughout the city. Grand buildings which have been renewed to previous elegance stand next to those whose crumbling facades are waiting to be refreshed. Her vibrant history calls out from every corner!

Country highways as well as city roads are shared by tractors, horses, horse and oxen-drawn carts, bicycles, cars, buses, and trucks---and it all seems to work!

Last night we attended a show at the world-famous Tropicana Night Club, where as many as 200 dancers and singers in brightly colored elaborate costumes filled the stage and moved up and down stairways to tall platforms surrounding the area. It was quite an extravaganza.

We were told rum and coke came with the ticket---little did we know they meant a small bottle of coke and a large bottle of rum!

The overall impression we get so far is that Cuba is a country of joy. Many houses are brightly painted in purples, pinks, blues, turquoise and greens. Music is everywhere, and it’s almost impossible to keep from tapping our hands and swaying our shoulders to the rhythm. People call out to others in happy voices as they walk down country roads or ride by on horseback.

Tomorrow we leave this city of lively music and art to spend the next 20 days exploring the island to the east of Havana---onward to more adventures!

John and Susie Jennings

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