CUBA February 5-12, 2016
A trip to exceed our expectations!
Our tour was a "People to People" photography tour with Road Scholar. It was lots of fun to go with 12 photographers from our Madison photography group and 2 people from Virginia. Our road Scholar guide was Essdras Suarez, an experienced leader and photo journalist who negotiated with RS and Cuba tourism to take us to place that were very visual in nature. He also gave us lots of good tips on capturing the moment. His young Cuban photography assistant, Joel Hernandez teaches photography at the Univ. of Cuba in conjunction with the private photography school there in Havana. The Cuban guide Alejandro made arrangements and kept us on the prescribed government path. Our schedule was very full each day, although we had a few free hours to wander on our own. He provided some history and took care of any problems like taking our elderly Virginia women to the hospital because she became very dehydrated after having Traveler's diarrhea. All turned out well and she said she was well attended to. Cubans all have free medical care.
We had a full size bus to ourselves, so one seat per person. Lots of shots through the bus windows. Tourism is the main economy right now and the government has invested in many of these buses, big and small. They are made in China and were very comfortable. Our bus driver was very skilled. In many places there was no turn around at the end of the narrow streets, so he backed the bus up for several blocks.
We stayed at the Capri Hotel in Havana, 2 blocks from the well known ocean walk, the Malecon. A good share of the city buildings are in dire collapse, with only a brick or cement shell standing. Some are being re-built or repaired, others are finished with colorful paint jobs. Walking down the street we sometimes encountered dirt, bricks and other rubble being thrown down from an upper floor with not much regard for anyone passing below. At one time it was a very beautiful city judging from the architectural details that can still be seen on some of the walls. There were many bill boards of a political nature which we couldn't read, but were translated as supporting the socialist idea. One was quite explicit - EMBARGO with a large prominent rope and noose at the end of the word. The people we met, nonetheless, were happy to see us.
There were people around all the time. We wondered why there were so many men sitting around. No regular jobs? Education and health care is provided and maybe subsidies for housing. No one needed much or expected much, possibly there is not much incentive since supplies are not very available. Small personal items -soap, toilet paper- were in short supply. One woman in Trinidad asked if we had any shampoo to give her. In the small streets of Trinidad bread was delivered by the "street crier" hawking loaves of bread, or frosted "sheet" cakes. We would see many people casually and hurriedly eating bread and a bit of ham as they walked along. Garlic and onion braided into long ropes were also available everywhere. Trinidad is an old historic city. People were sitting on their door steps doing whatever needs doing - peeling garlic and even shaving. Their front rooms were often small shops of trinkets or other handicrafts such as hats. We did not see where a drug store or grocer might have been, although there were a few meat counters in a Dutch-half door opening or sometime it was a place to get something to drink. We ate at the high-end restaurants and found the food to be very good. The prices were 12 to 20 CUCs (one CUC is worth about the same as one dollar).
Late afternoons there were groups of men playing dominoes on a table on the sidewalk. No one minded being photographed. Some people did expect to benefit from being photographed and even dressed up to play some iconic part, such as the cigar smoking farmer with his burro, for the purpose of making a few CUCs but others were quite naive about that possibility. The small kids however were learning to put their hands out and ask for caramellas. There were skinny dogs all around and in the middle of the night the roosters would strike up their rival crowing. In the old part of town the streets were of cobblestone which didn't deter some bicyclists, or Cowboys on small horses, or wagons of all varieties being pulled by horses. There was a large water tank truck that drove by and a few cars on occasion. In the newer part of Trinidad, where asphalt had partly smoothed out the cobbles, there were motor cycles, old cars, modern taxis and many pedi cabs being pedaled by strong legged guys. The guy we rode with had a very old bike where the chain kept skipping so badly on any slight upgrade that he had to get off and push us up the hill! These people are extremely resourceful, nothing goes to waste, a small piece of wire could be the key to fixing something. The old 50s cars in Havana were a merger of many different car parts - whatever fit and worked was used. Some of the better painted and working cars were being used as special taxis in Havana. Dave and I rode in a lime green 1948 Chevrolet convertible which had always been in the drivers family. It was fun to spot an old model which was like what we drove in our teenage years. I had a 1955 Chevy and Dave a 1957 Chevy.
Where to house tourists is a challenge now that tourism is being encouraged. There are no big hotels in the smaller towns so people have been granted government licenses to run Casas Particulars in their homes, like our B&B's. Our hostess appreciated the extra money, although we hear the intake is split at 80/20 with the government taking the bigger share. She had to record our passports and the tour guide had to sign the page when we left. Our group stayed in several of these in the old part of Trinidad. Our host family had 2 rooms available, and from what we could gather they are pretty much full all the time. They provided breakfast and a couple of dinners. There was plenty of food served, pork, chicken, beans and rice, and fresh vegetables which we avoided so as not to get travelers diarrhea. Even so, 4 in the group had intestinal problems including me - Imodium and Cipro kept us going.
One people-to-people contact event which we really enjoyed was the Danza Combinatoria, a young dance performance group based in Havana. They were most energetic and very acrobatic. They have toured in several countries. They have a small studio in which to practice and perform. They are not supported by the government so some days they perform 3 or 4 times a day for tour groups which helps to support their program.
Another impressive event was our visit to Casa Cultura Communitaria. A neighborhood center near Havana. They were extremely proud of their community effort in cleaning up the dump site and trash around the neighborhood. They then built the community center on the site where the dump had been. They saved useable and interesting trash and with help of the community artists created beautiful public art work for their neighborhood. They also teach classes in music and art in a very systematic way. The teachers and instrumentalists of the community gave us a music and dance program, but 2 kids, 5 and 7, stole the show with their dancing which they had learned in the classes there. There was lunch with the musicians and artists and the opportunity to buy some of the paintings and wooden crafts made by their artists. They supported their activities with their art sales and music performances and got no help from the government.
We also saw a lively dance performance by the Santeria religious group. The early African-Cubans mixed their religion with Spanish Roman Catholic worship of Saints in order to retain their traditional religious belief under the Spaniards. It became know as Santeria and the “Saints” represent the African spiritual emissaries of their god Olofi. They were most animated and energetic in their dance steps which set their colorful broad skirts flying into a blur.
A very memorable visit near Trinidad was to a humble little family home at the side of a beautiful valley which used to be the setting of the sugar fields. Now the family tends the cows - all owned by the government- that roam the valley. The man of the house is the cowboy and had a couple of saddles on his porch rail. Our photographer leader Essdras had made friends with this family on previous trips and now visits them with some of his groups. It is not a sanctioned tourist stop! But Essdras has some say in route planning. Grandma, Mom and the 1 year old were there. They graciously invited us into their 2 room house. The cooking box near the open window like wall was burning wood which made everything smell of camp fire smoke. The walls were single boards, poorly fitting together, and the floor was dirt. The bed had mosquito netting, the clothes were hung over the pole across the ceiling. Outside there were chickens and turkeys- one chicken walked through the house while we were there. They graciously allowed us take lots of pictures. Grandma had lovely lines of many years of living a not so easy life. It was fun to see the baby react to a glittery ball which Essdras brought.
There were many other nice experiences but these were the most memorable