Feeling Foreign – My First Trip to Cuba

April 18, 2016  •  Cuba, North America, Travel

havana-cuba-8It’s been awhile since I traveled somewhere in the world that truly felt foreign. Anthony Bourdain once described that phenomenon like this: “Sometimes when I travel, I forget for a moment where I am. When the people are friendly and English is common, things start to lose their foreign-ness. One place becomes like another: families, parents with kids, familiar western brands. I feel both at home, and nowhere in particular. But then something, some small detail, a sound, a smell of something cooking, brings things back into focus. Once again, I’m outside looking in.”havana-cuba-57My first trip to Cuba, conversely, felt foreign from the outset. Although it’s only a short 40-minute flight from Miami to Havana, we begin our check in process four hours in advance. Before arriving at the airport I couldn’t imagine why we’d need so much time, but it soon becomes clear.

The check-in counter area is crowded with Cuban-American families arriving with stacks of goods – everything from clothes and shoes to kids’ bikes and spare tires – and they patiently stand in line to have their goods wrapped in plastic and labeled with a Sharpie before paying their baggage fees and getting a boarding pass. I’ve taken things to family when I’ve traveled before, but this is a completely different magnitude of gifting. Without even seeing their Cuban relatives, I began to imagine the poverty they must be living in and I try to understand what would happen to them if they were unable to get these items from the US.

Despite having arrived so early, we actually barely make it to the gate in time to board the Swift Air (ironic name) charter flight. I decline the in-flight service of full sugar Coke and Sprite (that turns out to be a sign of what is to come in Cuba), and marvel at the Cuban man next to me who refuses to keep his seat upright during takeoff, then starts making phone calls to his Cuban contacts while we are still in the air.havana-cuba-58I know that in other countries the safety processes and rules are less stringent than the US. In plenty of countries people seem comfortable deplaning onto the tarmac and walking through a marked area toward the terminal under the direction of the airline official. But in Havana, once that plane door is opened, we are completely on our own. Off we walk, across the tarmac with no escort, nobody giving us directions about where to go or what to do, while an airport official stands next to the plane in a uniform that, while communist looking in color (drab khaki-green), includes a short skirt and black lace patterned stockings. Yes, it’s feeling quite foreign already.

Nobody likes to stand in an immigration and passport control line, but even in the most crowded of airports – Frankfurt or Chicago, for example – that process moves fairly quickly, and the officials seem to process travelers in about 30 seconds or so. In Cuba, the immigration process takes place behind a locked door – in other words, you can’t get into the country until they are good and ready to let you in. The process itself takes us about 5 minutes per person, and includes additional questioning (have you been to Africa lately? do you have another passport?), having our photographs taken, stamping of our visas and passports, and data entry. Only then does the official hit the buzzer to unlock the metal door for us to pass. Once through to the other side we enter into screening similar to the check in process in the US. Similar, that is, except the body scanners don’t actually work anymore so everyone is wanded while our hand luggage goes through a scanner that presumably works.havana-cuba-56It takes our group about an hour to make our way through this immigration and body-scan process, and we assume that means our luggage will have been unloaded and will be waiting for us when we get to the carousel. Instead, we wait for two more hours for all of the baggage to arrive, and it’s only after all of the plastic-wrapped bundles are unloaded that our suitcases begin showing up. In the press of humanity around the baggage carousel, people crowd around their bundles of clothing and plastic-wrapped bikes and people mill about carrying spare bike tires over their shoulders. One guy has an entire tray of Dunkin’ Donuts to take to family and I wonder if food were scarce for me, is that what I’d want a friend to bring?havana-cuba-59We learn later that every piece of baggage coming into Cuba is scanned and hand searched to be sure no drugs or guns are brought into the country. While I didn’t think of it at the time, it became clear to me after my time in Cuba that the Castro regime can’t afford for any guns to enter the country, as they would surely find themselves facing another revolution. The strict anti-gun and anti-drug policies feel foreign coming from not just the US, but from the great state of Colorado where hunting is popular and recreational marijuana use is now legal.

At this point our group is reaching the snapping point. We’ve been up and traveling for seven full hours already, without anything to eat or drink (unless you count the Coke or Sprite on the plane). Our guide tells us whatever we do, not to go outside without the group, and we’re working hard to keep our group of 60 somewhat together in the confusion when the police whisk our guide away to search his bags. Not a comforting feeling.havana-cuba-55As we wait, some of our members are getting nervous about the cash they’ve brought. Because US credit cards can’t be used, several in our group are carrying about $8,000 each in cash to pay for hotels, meals, tours, and taxes. I find a seat next to two young Cuban boys who are playing video games on their mom’s phone and wait for the tour guide to be released, still marveling at the officials’ uniforms and snapping a photo of the customs dog who looks as bored as we feel.havana-cuba-66By the time we exit the terminal, staggering through the hot sun past a very old Fiat 500, and are ready to board the bus, most of the group determines that their bags have been rifled through and searched, toiletries dumped out, and panties tossed, but somehow my husband’s and my bags appear untouched. We board the bus for the short ride to lunch, most of us ready to eat our arms we are so hungry. Is this part of the tour? Teaching us what it’s like to be hungry?havana-cuba-38The Nacional Hotel, one of the ten so-called castle-style hotels in Cuba, was built in the 1930s by mafia, like much of the building in the first half of the 20th century here, long before the revolution of 1959. Although it has decorative elements at the top and some pretty rooms inside, the main structure itself and the windows are plain, square, flat concrete. That lack of architectural flourish is depressing, and I’m reminded of my visit to Moscow a few years ago.

Our young Cuban guide Yanetsis tries to fill us in on some key things we need to know on the way. The local Cubans have been using the Cuban peso, and it takes 25 pesos to make 1 CUC. About 1.3 million people went to see the Rolling Stones last month she reveals as we drive past the stadium where the event concert took place. There have already been a million tourists in Cuba by March this year, though historically they only get that many in a full year.havana-cuba-27When asked how they feel about all of this tourism, she is quick to say that Cubans welcome the improvements in their economy that they believe tourism will bring, but she is really hoping that old town itself won’t change. That’s tough to imagine for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that many of the buildings in the old town are abandoned shells, unsafe probably even to be restored.havana-cuba-60Standing in line for 30 minutes to change our US dollars into CUC is almost too much to bear. Friends begin pooling their money so that we can all get money changed in fewer transactions, and as the clock nears noon, I worry that the officials will take a lunch break just as I get to the front of the line. Just like the immigration process, each transaction takes an inordinate amount of time, requires lots of note taking, and the official seems like she is rifling through drawers to find the right currency.havana-cuba-52While I am sweating in line for money with a few others, the rest of our group finds their way to La Baraca, the outdoor restaurant at the Nacional, with views of the ocean. I am craving a beer, but the waiters seem intent on serving everyone either a mojito or a frozen daiquiri, which to me taste exactly the same, but neither one is very good and both leave an odd aftertaste. With plenty of CUC in my pocket, I head back over to the bar by the pool and order a beer, but when I get back to the table I find that the servers are now bringing beers as requested to guests, along with wine that just moments before they said they didn’t have.

This will turn out to be my experience at every meal while I am in Cuba. Welcome drinks will always be a sweet rum drink of some sort, it will be nearly impossible to get them to serve a glass of wine, and frequently the restaurant will run out of wine quickly even when we offer to pay extra beyond what our group has negotiated. I’m learning first hand about the shortages of goods in this country, and I’m not really happy about it, and I find myself complaining to my friends. Rather quickly, however, I start to feel horrible, knowing I am acting like a spoiled, entitled US tourist, and I mentally chastise myself.havana-cuba-54Lunch is served swiftly, which is always impressive when serving a group of 60 who all sit down at the same time. We are introduced to Cuban food like the Cubans really eat here (not like the fabulous Cuban food of South Beach and Little Havana in Miami): rice and rice (yes, two types), black beans, very little meat and almost no vegetables to speak of. During our week we’ll be hard pressed to find any vegetables presented other than some overcooked squash or a sparse plate of some shredded carrots and cabbage, and I begin in earnest to feel great concern for the Cubans. Given my work around food insecurity at home, I wonder how they are subsisting with this scarcity. What are the kids eating? And can you really get by on a diet of largely rice and beans?havana-cuba-53After lunch we wander the grounds for a bit, stop to see the little museum that highlights the Cuban Missile Crisis – although here they just call it the missile crisis, just like in Vietnam they call it the American War. Perspective certainly does make a difference and it’s often not until you leave the comfort of home that you see that so clearly.havana-cuba-40In the afternoon we set out on foot in smaller groups for a walking tour of Habana Vieja (the old town). This area is mostly pedestrian and operates autonomously now, one of the first things I begin to learn about how things are changing in Cuba under the new Castro regime. The money that these businesses raise is used to take care of this part of the city. Although the area is pretty and some places are incredibly photogenic, half of the buildings seem precarious to say the least.havana-cuba-17There are structures that look like we could just knock them over. Our guide explains that there is an issue with Cubans owning individual apartments, versus owning a building. While they all might take care of their own space, nobody maintains the structure as a whole and it eventually crumbles. In an extreme example, he explains that on some buildings every family puts their own water tower on the roof instead of creating a shared water tower, and eventually the roof collapses from the weight. As much as you might be annoyed by your HOA at times, Cuba would actually benefit from that sort of cooperation.havana-cuba-50Throughout the old town as we walk we see men in military garb carrying devices that look somewhat like a leaf blower, and the guide explains they are fumigating for mosquitoes to fight against the zika virus. One by one, they approach small groups sitting on the front stoop of an apartment or shop and ask them to leave so they can fog the area, but the Cubans refuse, so they move on. Still, I can smell the DDT now that I know what they are doing, and I have a strong déjà vu experience, thinking of my own childhood in Indiana where the trucks routinely fogged the neighborhoods with DDT to kill mosquitos.havana-cuba-33We wind up our tour by about 4:30 to check into the Saratoga Hotel, right across from the capitol building, which is under scaffolding and being restored, although I cynically wonder if this was just to impress Obama who visited recently. The hotel is decidedly old school, with an art deco feel, and is painted in that odd turquoise green that you see everywhere in Cuba. Do they love this color or is this all they can find?havana-cuba-15We check into our room, which is spacious, but smells dank. The windows face the park and the capitol, on a busy street, and the traffic sounds so loud through them I really think they must have been left open. But no, they are just old, single pane glass, and I make a mental comparison to the hotels in Manhattan that are virtually soundproof. As I drift into a much-needed nap – this is still the same day that started at 4am in Miami – I can’t wrap my head around why the rooms at this hotel are costing us $700 a night. The money goes to the government, and I’d like to think it trickles down to the people, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.havana-cuba-3Rested and rejuvenated, we gather for cocktails on the rooftop pool terrace of the hotel and are treated to a salsa performance by a group of dancers. I might have considered giving it a try, but seeing the talented dancers convinces me I will need many lessons before trying to keep up with them.havana-cuba-48havana-cuba-47As we watch the sunset over the city, we begin to see what looks like a small fire, but it keeps moving down the street in the distance and we realize that they are finally fumigating in the old city. Such a large cloud of DDT-heavy fog rises into the air above the city that it creates the most spectacular sunset, the sun burning dark yellow and red in the sky as it sets behind the cathedral. The winds shift, and with it the DDT smell is quickly making its way to the hotel roof terrace, so we move inside to get ready for dinner.havana-cuba-51By the time we walk to Cathedral Square for dinner, the DDT smell has dissipated and we gather at the government run restaurant tables set up in the square with views of the pretty limestone cathedral. When Columbus landed in Cuba, he claimed it under the Catholic monarchs of Spain. Later, slaves brought their Yorubu mythology, and over time those beliefs have merged with a bit of Christianity and some Indigenous American traditions. The result is the religion called Santeria, described as a syncretic religion of Caribbean origin. You’ll notice the women all dressed in white, standard attire during their year of initiation or certain religious ceremonies.havana-cuba-46havana-cuba-45While the setting for dinner is lovely, the meal itself is anything but. We had been told earlier in the day that we’d be having lobster, but it’s overcooked and dry, served without any sauce at all, alongside what clearly tastes like rehydrated potato flakes and a few pieces of carrot and turnips. Dessert is flan again, and I am learning that this will be dessert for most every meal here. I leave dinner actually feeling hungry, and find I’m not the only one. We order French fries and ice cream at the hotel bar with a nightcap, and I feel a bit guilty, knowing many Cuban people go to bed hungry often.havana-cuba-28It’s a glorious sunny day the next morning as we set out to tour a tobacco factory. There are five tobacco-growing areas in Cuba, but the best ones, and probably the best in the world we are told, are in the western part of the country where the soil is rich and the humidity hovers at the right level conducive to growing tobacco. The farmers, who are private now, plant the seeds in September, transplant the seedlings in October, and then harvest in January. The tobacco is then sold to the government, and from this point on, the cigar business is government controlled. Or at least the government is trying to control it – the black market for cigars is bustling in and around the factory we are touring.havana-cuba-7Cigars are made from five main leaves. The three filler leaves as well as the binder leaf come from plants in the sun, while the outer wrapper leaf is from a shade plant, making it more supple and smooth. Specific leaves from each plant give very specific taste, aroma, burn and strength characteristics.

Inside the factory we are not allowed to photograph anything, even though this is fascinating to watch and I’d love to be videoing. It looks a bit like any sweatshop that you’d see, but the workers don’t seem unhappy, and the supervisors don’t seem to be treating them badly, at least in front of us. But then someone in our group gives one of the workers a US-Cuban flag pin and we notice that the supervisor takes it for himself as soon as we turn away.havana-cuba-2They work at a blistering pace. Three leaves are stripped of their center vein then folded into their left hand. The binder leaf is prepped also and inserted in the middle of the other leaves. A supple wrapper leaf is laid out and smoothed before the other leaves are rolled into it very precisely. Watching them form the tip of the cigar is mesmerizing, the workers turning and trimming the tobacco leaf several times very precisely while each time using a small amount of vegetable paste to seal it perfectly. When they have laid ten cigars into one of the trays, the top of the tray is added, and they use a hand held knife called a chaveta to slice the ends off evenly before placing them into the press. I’m surprised to find they only spend about 20 minutes in the press before they are ready to be packaged and sent for inspection, and then air cured before they are ready to sell.havana-cuba-63These workers each make about 120 cigars a day, despite that tedious and very meticulous process for shaping the ends, and quality control removes only about 1% in their inspection for flaws. I’m even more impressed with their output when someone in our group tries her hand at making one, and barely has rolled the outer wrapper onto the cigar in the time her “co-worker” has made a full tray of ten. She hands it to him to finish, and he gives her a souvenir cigar in return.

The black market for selling cigars is vast, starting inside the factory itself. Workers are rationed five cigars per day for their own personal consumption, but many try to sell them, even though they can be punished if caught. I am lagging behind the group at one point in the tour when I hear one of the cigar inspectors whispering to me. As I turn around, he’s holding his bundle of 5 cigars and he flashes me a quick note that says “10 CUC”. Given that he might make only 20-30 CUC in a month, it’s a big deal if he can sell them for 10, and I’m starting to understand how people survive in Cuba on such low government wages.havana-cuba-49Out on the street there isn’t even an attempt to hide the black market cigar sales, and the prices are highly negotiated, right outside of the government controlled shop next to the factory. Our guide repeatedly warns us that we will be getting poor quality if we buy these, making comparisons to buying medicine or milk on the street from someone you don’t know. I can’t help but think she is the mouthpiece for the government, and many in our group negotiate a purchase anyway. Although the police occasionally make sweeps through these areas and arrest the sellers, others simply replace them and the sales continue.havana-cuba-43 havana-cuba-41With a better understanding of the how the black market is keeping Cubans alive and our cigars in hand, we head to the Museums of Art and Revolution in the center of Havana, where a knowledgable guide takes us briskly through the museum. In a short one hour tour he manages to cover everything from Cubanism to how the revolution is reflected in the art, and it’s a great visual way to learn about the history of Havana.
havana-cuba-39By early afternoon we are back on the bus, traveling to the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. Developed by a New Yorker, the streets are named like Manhattan, and prior to the revolution, this area was home to some of Havana’s most upscale residents. The original owners of the large homes fled to Florida at the start of the revolution, and today many embassies can be found here. Our guide calls it the Beverly Hills of Havana, and I guess if I really use my imagination, I can envision what it must have once been like, but today it looks rather run down like the rest of Havana.havana-cuba-62Our lunch destination is Club Habana, a beach club with a long and distinguished history serving the well to do in Cuba. Today it’s primarily frequented by expats, and we assemble in a pretty dining room for lunch. The meal here actually seems a bit more upscale, although the shrimp salad appetizer has a texture that worries me and I pass on that. We are served a generous portion of meat at this meal, unlike the other plates of mostly rice and beans, but I am unable to identify if it’s beef or lamb – or even something else. The “salad” is sadly just some shredded cabbage, but I eat every bite of it plus my husband’s as I am now two days into our adventure and craving vegetables.havana-cuba-37I can’t even face another flan and I move it over to the guest on my right when they set it down.havana-cuba-36After lunch we visit Fusterlandia, the art enclave of José Rodríguez Fuster, which looks like Gaudi on acid. I’ve never seen so much tile mosaic in one place, and after wandering through the place for 20 minutes I need a break and head outside for some fresh air and water. The next stop is another artist studio with some of the strangest modern art I’ve seen in a long time, although we aren’t allowed to photograph any of it. There’s a sculpture of a head with flash drives coming out of it and a painting of a gun that has a screaming head for the end of it. Every piece seems to be loaded with a political message, but perhaps none more so that the urinal that is really a an anatomically correct model of a woman’s naked body.havana-cuba-67Afterwards we head back to the center of town for a vintage car rally with our group. I was naïve about the vintage cars in Cuba, thinking I would see these incredibly preserved models.havana-cuba-35Instead, most are just old shells of the cars and the engines have been replaced with Hyundai 4-cylinders. There is the occasional restored beauty, but that’s rare. Our driver tells us that the government owns his car and employs him as a mechanic to maintain it and a driver to shuttle tour groups around. Still, it’s a pleasant way to see the sights for an hour or so, even if a bit hokey.havana-cuba-44After cleaning up back at the hotel (and a short walk around the neighborhood to see the Gran Teatro de La Habana lit up a night), we are heading to dinner at El Litoral Paladar, and I am anxious to try our first meal in a private restaurant. As a chef, I’m interested to learn about the restaurant industry here, which has been changing like other aspects of their economy. After the revolution, the government seized every business to run, and workers were then placed into jobs by the government for very low wages. Although private restaurants may have existed illegally in the past, it wasn’t until the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic crisis in Cuba that the government was forced to relax the rules, legalizing these establishments.havana-cuba-31Beginning in 1993, Cubans could run private restaurants in their own home, as long as they had no more than 12 seats and the staff included only family members. Then in 2010, as the economic model in Cuba continued to evolve, these laws were relaxed further. Today the paladares offer a wide range of dining from a simple home cooked meal to a more elaborate fine dining sort of experience. Much of what the meal is like depends on how and where the paladar can find ingredients, and I can’t stop thinking about the chef I met in Tortola recently who explained how difficult his five year stint as an executive chef at a hotel in Cuba was because of the scarcity of food.havana-cuba-61Our food at El Litoral Paladar is better than what we have had from government run restaurants, and there are more choices. Roasted peppers stuffed with a savory tuna salad, crawfish, tender chicken rolls, shredded beef and peppers, and the first actual lettuce I have seen. It’s still hard to get a glass of wine, and I find myself wishing I could develop a taste for a Cuba libre or mojito, which they seem to serve in mass quantities.havana-cuba-29After dinner, as we head to see street opera, it seems none of us have researched what it actually is and we find ourselves dreading it. La Opera De La Calle, was founded by a Cuban opera singer who wanted to give his unemployed students an opportunity to perform, and it turns out that this is an experience not to miss in Havana. Although they perform in the run-down warehouse called Teatro Arenal in Playa, their high-energy show mixes all genres of song and dance, ranging from actual opera, to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and songs from “The Lion King”. The hour long performance weaves a story of the history of the revolution that leaves us teary-eyed and giving a standing ovation as they wrap up the evening with John Lennon’s “Imagine”.havana-cuba-30The show was once open to the public in a paladar in Miramar, but sadly was shut down by the government after charges of “self-enrichment”. I can’t even begin to understand how or why enriching oneself is disallowed, and I’m reminded again of how foreign communism is to me. Today the show is government controlled, is only open to foreign tour groups like ours. The run down facility offers no food or beverage service like the former paladar did, and has only one bathroom with no door. Still, it’s absolutely a highlight of our visit and we are still buzzing about it as we gather at the hotel for a nightcap and some French fries. Once again I have that uncomfortable feeling that comes with knowing that as I sip on sparkling wine and nibble on fries, Cubans all over this country are going to bed hungry.havana-cuba-26In the morning as I sit down to breakfast I find myself reflecting about the contradictions I keep seeing in Cuba. The coffee here rivals Italy, but the food couldn’t be further from it. Through the hotel window I see the Capitol building renovations across the street from what looks like a former grand glory of a building, but today resembles a bombed out shell of a building in a war torn country. The Castro compound we passed near Miramar is large and I’m sure opulent, yet the apartments of the average Cuban are anything but.havana-cuba-64We’re traveling by bus this morning to reach Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula outside of Havana. Hemingway moved to this house with his wife Martha in 1939, first renting it, then later purchasing it after the royalties that came with the success of For Whom The Bell Tolls. In 1960, after US-Cuban relations deteriorated and illness and depression set in for Hemmingway, he returned to the US, eventually committing suicide in 1961. His property is now a museum and has been well preserved, everything just as Hemingway left it.havana-cuba-24The house still holds all of his books, his dogs’ graves flank the large pool, and his beloved boat Pilar is dry docked in the back. Crowds flock here to see the place, and out front there is a touristy little bar offering rum drinks made from guarapo, fresh pressed sugar cane juice, and other fruit, as well as a little souvenir stand and a gorgeous old 1955 car. It’s easy to see why he loved this house, perched high on the hill above Havana.havana-cuba-23havana-cuba-22On the drive back to town, our guide tells the story of how she believes Fidel Castro saved her life. She’s only in her 20s, and I’m marveling at her as she explains how she had a hole in her heart as a child that her mother could never have afforded to treat. But thanks to the free healthcare for everyone that Castro provides, she was treated, had surgery, and recovered for a year in a hospital in Havana, all provided by the government.havana-cuba-6She goes on to talk about how every neighborhood has a doctor and nurse who stop in and treat the residents. She’s clearly proud of this system, and I begin to think that maybe I have it wrong, that maybe communism does work in some ways. I’m wondering if indeed their healthcare might even be better than in the US where sadly I know many still don’t have access to decent healthcare.havana-cuba-21We arrive at Starbien Paladar for lunch, and I can tell as soon as I sit down that it’s going to be a great meal. Wine is available immediately and the appetizers are high end: beef carpaccio, ceviche and agnolotti that are stuffed with broth and spinach. My swordfish is served with a turmeric-citrus broth and accompanied by two big wedges of really flavorful, ripe tomatoes. My husband’s pasta with seafood looks like something you’d be served in Spain or Italy, and the table is served a large bowl with a wide variety of sautéed vegetables. Dessert is ice cream, thankfully. I eat every morsel, but can’t figure out where they get their ingredients since this is about the only place we’ve been that offers such variety.havana-cuba-14I don’t usually like touring with large groups on a bus, but on this trip I take advantage of every minute to ask questions of our guide. I’m interested in how people are placed into jobs in a communist country; the very idea of not being able to self-select is so foreign to me. The guide explains the system of testing in schools, where students are given a score made up of 50% of their high school grades and 50% of the grades they score on compulsory tests in math, Spanish and Cuban history. Students are ranked, and then starting at the top students select what they want to study and what field they eventually want to work in according to the government expressed needs – everything from doctors to cigar factory workers. After hearing the explanation, I don’t have such a negative feeling about the process. It sounds like if Cuban kids study hard, they will have opportunities – even if it’s not clear to me what they will be paid to work those jobs.havana-cuba-34Everywhere we drive we see images of Che Guevara, a popular martyr and symbol of the revolution, and yet almost none of Fidel Castro. (There is one odd likeness of him on a building in Plaza de la Revolución, but it really looks more like Osama Bin Laden to most of us.) The guide explains that in Cuba they can’t make a monument of someone when they are still alive and since Guevara already died for the cause, he’s honored everywhere. I find the history around these revolutionaries fascinating, and vow to read more about them when I get home.havana-cuba-32The bus drops us at the famous Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana, a large handicrafts market where many of us are hoping to buy local art. There is an astonishing amount of stuff, reminding me again of the abundant artistic spirit of the Cuban people.havana-cuba-13We pass through stalls at a breakneck speed, narrowing our choices down to three paintings, before finally negotiating the price of 30 CUC for an impressionist-style oil painting of Havana complete with an antique car. It’s really well done, and I know that something like this in Montmartre in Paris would cost five to ten times as much.
havana-cuba-20Back at the hotel, one of the guests in our group has lured a local group to come to the hotel and perform an impromptu happy hour concert for us. He pays them 600 CUC, 100 CUC for each member of the band, and I think that’s probably what they make in four months from their government-sponsored job. The more I ponder this, the more I think that the government wages are perhaps just a token, like the hourly wage for restaurant servers in the US. Just as they make the rest of their income from tips, maybe the government is perfectly fine knowing Cubans make most of their income needed to survive from black market activities.havana-cuba-18
Our final dinner is at El Aljibe, and our guide tells us they are famous for the sauce that’s served with the chicken, which she has unsuccessfully tried to recreate at home. The group immediately taps me, the chef, to crack the code when we get there, but I’m disappointed to find it’s nothing other than a simple pan sauce from the drippings, and it’s highly over-salted. It’s served with the standard sides of rice, black beans and fried tarot root chips.havana-cuba-19The salad is the typical small plate of shredded carrot and cabbage, and the portion they serve for the whole table is less than what we would put in a lunch salad for one person in the US. I don’t really see why this place is so beloved, and I’m actually a bit concerned about the large poster displayed prominently at the front door demanding justice for the five Cuban heroes that are jailed in Miami. Did the government put that there? Or does the family who runs the restaurant have a bone to pick?havana-cuba-12After dinner we make our way into the famous Tropicana Club. We have great tables near the front and the waiters bring a welcome glass of champagne for everyone along with a full bottle of rum for every four people.havana-cuba-10That’s a lot of rum – clearly more than we would ever drink in a 90-minute show – and I’m pretty sure they just refill those bottles for the next night’s performance. The rum on its own is quite good, but I can’t fathom how everyone is drinking it mixed with the overly sweet Cuban cola.havana-cuba-65While the Tropicana was opened in 1939 as a combined casino and cabaret venue, it was the Floridian mobster Santo “Louie Santos” Trafficante Jr. who really dumped money into it and made it a success. But the revolution took its toll on the Tropicana, beginning with a bomb in 1956 and ending with the government take over and nationalizing of the casino, and under pressure the mob fled Cuba. Trafficante himself stuck it out, hoping to work things out, but was eventually arrested because of his ties to Batista and was interned in Havana.havana-cuba-11The show is quite good, with a variety of acts like you would expect from a cabaret, and the costumes are elaborate. The open-air venue fills with smoke from the cigars they handed out to the men as we entered, and everywhere I look there are dancers moving about. Today, mostly foreign tour groups like ours visit the Tropicana, but it’s a fun show and the whole experience seems like a throwback to the Hemingway years in Cuba before the revolution. havana-cuba-9As we board the bus for the airport the next morning, we are learn that our charter flight is leaving late, and we will miss our connection in Miami, so we book a hotel and another flight to Denver for the next day. At the airport, the process to get out of Cuba includes passport control and security scanning, and the body scanners still don’t work. Any art we are carrying is inspected to ensure we aren’t stealing a national treasure, and we must pay a fee of 3 CUC for each piece. Still, the process to leave takes about half of the time that it took to enter Cuba, and we have time for a coffee and a Cubano sandwich at the small counter in the terminal while we wait for our delayed flight.havana-cuba-5As I sit on the plane, and look through my photos, I have such mixed feelings about our visit. I wanted to hate the whole idea of communism; I wanted to think our policies and government are superior. But the people actually seemed happy. Our guide was so proud of their free healthcare and education. Maybe things are better in Cuba than I had given the Castro brothers credit for. Maybe the revolution and the resulting nationalization of Cuba really were an improvement over the previous regime. Maybe I’ve been too quick to judge. Maybe.


We get into the taxi in Miami for the ride to the Fort Lauderdale airport and our driver asks if we are going to Cuba. When we tell him we’ve just returned, he begins to tell his family story, and doesn’t stop talking until we are out of the cab 45 minutes later.

His grandfather had bought land and built a structure that he made into three houses for himself and his sons. The remaining space he made into a market where his family worked. While not wealthy, they were getting by.

After the revolution, his grandfather watched the government take the shop across the street from him from the owner, then force the owner to work there for very low wages. His grandfather refused to suffer the same fate, so he knocked down his store and made it into another house instead of giving it up to the government.

His father had a truck that he had built himself in Cuba and he was using that for jobs that were making him money. The new communist government didn’t like that and took the truck away from him. So his father built boat with a friend over a 5 year period by making a small fishing boat several feet longer and adding a roof. One night in the cover of darkness he launched it and took the driver’s two older brothers to the US. He never looked back.

Our driver said he hated it in Cuba and argued constantly with his mother, who ran the military school for children, about wanting to go to the US to be with his father. One of his other brothers in Cuba started getting into trouble, and they put him in jail for 40 days. The driver told us he went crazy because they tortured him by dropping water on his head for 40 days straight.

He finally convinced his mother to leave with him for the US, and he’s been in the US for 34 years now. But they still have family throughout Cuba and he visits them often. The last time he went he says he took 40 pairs of shoes, explaining that he has relatives there whose children have never had a pair of sneakers. He adamantly believes that the only people making money in Cuba are heavily involved in the black market, and that they are forced to steal from the government in order to eat.

He tell us that Cuban Americans send 2 billion dollars a year to family in Cuba, and he’s so agitated at this point, that I am compelled to believe him. And then he starts talking about the real face of hunger in Cuba.

Thieves cut the legs off cousin’s horse to eat the meat because they were starving. In fact, slaughtering of horses for food has been a big problem in Cuba. After saving up the $300 needed to buy a new horse, the family now keeps the horse in their living room to protect it. The driver tells us that nobody has meat to eat in Cuba.

His town there was once a large orange grove, but Fidel’s regime stopped farming it, and so they lost entirely the orange industry in Cuba. Farmers in Cuba are incented to grow only rice, beans or tobacco, plus occasionally onions and garlic. He explains that it’s just too expensive to grow other vegetables, and that’s why you don’t see much in the restaurants in Cuba. He tells us there is no milk for kids, and that they are fed a disgusting soya yogurt product instead. He firmly believes that the embargo is only hurting the Cuban people, certainly not the leaders.

Venezuelan oil, he explains, is the only thing that has been keeping Cuba going since the fall of the Soviet Union, but with the oil shipments drying up, the country is already experiencing rolling power outages by neighborhood. The driver believes that Venezuela is going to topple, and with it Cuba.

By the end of our ride, the driver is turned all the way around in his seat and is yelling his story to us, and all I can think is that it’s been 34 years and he is still furious. Things must be really bad to stay angry for so long. As we gather our bags at the airport, we tell the driver that the Cuban people are really friendly, to which he responds, “Yea, they are friendly, but they have nothing.”

Now I’m pretty angry too, feeling duped by the propaganda we were fed in Cuba, and more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t see it for what it was. As relations between the US and Cuba evolve, I’m guessing I will return to Cuba, but I vow to be better educated if that happens, and perhaps it won’t feel quite so foreign the next time.


8 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Randi Lewis says:

    I have tears in my eyes as I finish your narrative. What an incredible experience; thank you Michelle for sharing it! It makes me even more eager to make our June trip to Cuba. I’ll be more prepared now, and I’ll be sure to pack snacks!

  2. Kareen Kimsey says:

    Excellent article….You hit the nail on the head in all areas. I didn’t have any interest in traveling to Cuba as I didn’t want to support the government after reading an autobiograhy “Boxing for Cuba” by Vidahl. You explain realistically what we encountered on our tour and your follow-up with the cab driver is the Cuba I had read about and made me not want to visit in the first place!

  3. Mary Taylor Young says:

    Such a powerful story, Michele! Thank you for sharing it and taking us along on your journey. I will share this with others.

  4. Antje Sliger says:

    Hi Michele,

    Generally speaking it was a good article, although I felt you started out by being too negative. I just came back from Cuba myself with the the road-scholars program. A very informed group. We were warned from the beginning about the slowness at the airport. Wear your flexible hat we were told many times.
    Your observations were for the most part, realistic, but I have to tell you our culinary experience was a different one since we enjoyed meals twice on two organic farms. The food was delicious. We too were wondering where the food came from in the paladars. I can be a judge of that as well since I am a culinary arts teacher.
    Yes, we also were greeted every time with the obligatory sweet drink, but on the other hand we always had the choice of wine or beer.
    For my part it was well worth it to visit this amazing country.Hopefully, once the Castro brother are gone there will be a change for the better.

    • Michele says:

      Antje, I do feel that since we didn’t have the chance to go outside of Havana that our experience was limited. The point I was really trying to make in the essay is that I was upset with myself that I allowed myself to become somewhat brainwashed by the communist propaganda. Our group wasn’t told a whole lot about what to expect, so my observations weren’t meant to be negative, but merely to relay how I was feeling going through those experiences for the first time. I will definitely go back to Cuba, and agree that once the Castro regime is gone hopefully there will be change to help the lovely Cuban people!

      • Antje Sliger says:

        I definitely will go back , too. You would have enjoyed the organic farms close to Mantanzas. Are you a chef in any of Denvers great restaurants?

  5. Mary Arnoult says:

    Hi Michele:
    I was with Antje on the same trip. I did enjoy seeing your photos, many places that we also visited. BTW…that is not Fidel Castro who looks like Osma Bin Laden in Revolution Square, that is Camilo Cienfuegos, a close friend and advisor of Fidel during the Revolution. He was well known for saying “All is Well, Fidel”. As Antje said our experiences with food were mostly excellent. I would say our worst meals were at one large, all-inclusive resort about 2 1/2 hours east of Havana. Serving 1,000+ guests 3 times a day tended to make the food quite “commercial”. The 2 Organic Farms, and selected Paladars all served great food. I particularly liked the pumpkin and squash. The only green vegetables were green beans. We had seafood almost every day, shrimp or white fish.

    I do agree with you about being given the party line by our guide, but I didn’t really realize it until I met a Cuban American man who helped me at the Miami Airport and “lectured” me for 30 minutes. Much like your Taxi Driver. Everything that he said was the direct opposite of what our guide told us.

    I also kind of felt that the local people are being exploited by the tourists. Our local guide kept insisting that the Cuban people love the American people, but NOT the American Government. I never felt welcomed by the local people. More like I was at the zoo and photographing the animals in the cage. I felt like I had to tip everyone for every little thing and then hopefully they would not scowl at me.

    I also would return on my own, without a tour group, but treat the experience in a different way. You know Canadians and Europeans, especially Germany and Russia have been vacationing in Cuba for years, so the local Cubans are used to tourists.
    Thanks for a great report and beautiful photos.

    • Michele says:

      Thanks for the correction Mary – our guide told us that was Fidel, so she was obviously misinformed! And thanks for sharing your experience also – it’s an interesting trip for sure!

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