Cobblestones in Cuba
When the Los Angeles World Affairs Council group landed in Havana, we felt like we had been dropped into a different era. American hot rods, tuk-tuks, horse drawn carriages clacking across cobblestones, people spilling out into the street to escape the heat, Afro-Cuban music flowing out of every doorway, men on the corner arguing baseball, women selling peanuts in paper cones and sweet coffee in the parks. This is a country that has been almost shut off from the US since the embargo went into force in 1962, and today Cuba looks like a country that needs to catch up – fabulous colonial buildings, some sheathed in scaffolding, stand abandoned in central Havana for lack of funds to maintain them. But Cubans are inviting and engaging people, and we were quickly enveloped in the rhythms of Havana.
On the first day we checked into the Parque Central in downtown Havana, a comfortable Spanish-run hotel that became the social hub for our group to meet, relax and enjoy a mojito or cigar. Our local guides were Nelson Romero and Jorge Perez, who tirelessly answered every one of our questions, while giving us personal insights into what life is like for ordinary Cubans from the challenges and triumphs they themselves have experienced. Our group quickly warmed to them.
The first leg of our tour was lead by the American Cuba expert, Dr. Joe Scarpaci. He introduced us to Sabina, a 62 year old Afro-Cuban entrepeneur who had a thriving frozen fruit business. She lived in an old building in the Republican section of Havana which she had almost lost to a developer – the building was in a shocking state. Ceilings sloped down to expose soggy, collapsing wooden supports making the space feel more like a sweltering humid cave than a cozy abode. Still, it was hers and housed her business, as well as a Santeria shop run by her daughter, and sheltered several of her family members. We later met an 81 year old grandmother in her two story walk-up. She is a seamstress who sews new elastic waistbands into worn out undergarments. She receives 22 pesos each month from the State, roughly $.80 USD. She welcomed us into her home to talk about her life, her work and the trouble she has with her grandson's girlfriend.
The food was better than we had expected, given the economic difficulties from the embargo. We dined on hotel rooftops, in cozy, historic paladars and artist studios. One of the most memorable dinners was on the penthouse terrace at Café Laurent overlooking the Malecon, the busy oceanfront road where Cubans gather in the evening. We had shrimp, freshly-caught fish and a guava desert as the sun went down. One night we found our way to Hemingway’s favorite bar and paid the elevated tourist price for daiquiris. On another day our guide Jorge took us to his favorite spot in Havana, a State-run microbrewery on the waterfront, where we drank a deliciously cold amber beer served in a tall plastic tube with a spout at the bottom.
Because this was a “people-to-people tour” as sanctioned by the State Department, we had a series of meetings and talks with Cubans from all walks of life, including informative lectures with Dr. Rosa Lopez, a political analyst with the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations, and Dr. Ricardo Torres, a professor at the Center for the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana. We learned about the Mariel Port project planned between Cuba and Brazil, a billion dollar endeavor to expand the capacity of international shipping vessels from the 350,000 handled by the shallower Havana Bay to nearly 1 million vessels annually. However, with the current embargo in place, any vessel delivering to this port would have to wait six months before it could travel to a port in the United States. When both experts were asked about whether poverty existed in Cuba, the answer was a straightforward “No.”
But both experts conceded that the current system is unsustainable, and talked about how Cuba wanted to see an end to the US embargo, or as they called it, the blockade.
Shortly after the lecture, I bumped into a man from the UK who was struggling to make an international call from the hotel, grumbling “How do they expect people to invest if you can’t make a bloody phone call?” So while Cubans want to do more business with the outside world, they still have a long way to catch up with their own infrastructure and telecommunications networks.
Whatever about the resentment towards US government policy that maintains the embargo, at a personal level everyone we met was very friendly to us as a group of American visitors, especially Californians. And the locals were particularly helpful in times of need. On the first day, at the very first stop on our tour at the Hotel Nacional, one of our travelers lost his footing and fell onto a large white rock, cutting open his lip and chipping several teeth. Our entire group was deflated, assuming the man and his lovely wife would have to fly back to the US. They weren’t reckoning with Cuba’s renowned medical expertise. Our tour manager hailed a taxi and rushed them to the Tourist hospital, where the Cuban medical staff quickly started treating his injuries, removing the tooth fragments from his lip and stitching him up. They then began working on his chipped teeth. His wife showed the doctors a picture of her husband smiling which the hospital staff used to find the closest match with pre-made porcelain teeth. Within four hours the man was back at the hotel, stitched up and with repaired teeth, eating gazpacho soup for dinner. The total cost for his emergency room care, oral surgery and cosmetic dentistry? $130 USD.
The impact of the US embargo was clearly evident in the absence of American brands in Cuban stores, whereas European companies like Nestle, Adidas and Paul & Shark were displayed prominently. However, there was no escaping the American-made pre-embargo era classic Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobiles dominating the roads, outfitted with Soviet diesel engines to keep them running. They line up polished and shining in front of every tourist gathering spot. As a group, we decided to hop into convertibles to drive out for a show at the Tropicana Club. Founded in 1939, the cabaret and former casino had attracted travelers, artists and famous entertainers from around the world who wanted to catch a glimpse of "Las Diosas de Carne," the beautiful showgirls in tiny sequined costumes and heavy headdresses who performed elaborate and enticing numbers. We settled in to take in the two hour performance, which featured dancing, acrobatics, live singing and contortionists. For the final number, dancers came down into the audience and pulled guests up onstage. I don’t have a Bucket List, but dancing on stage at the Tropicana seemed like one of those things you shouldn’t let pass you by. So I didn’t.
We also visited a number of art galleries around Havana, and were surprised at how some of the paintings were clearly critical of the current one-party system and the revolutionary mythology that dates back to the 1950’s.
On the fifth day we departed Havana and headed southeast to Trinidad, nestled near the Caribbean Sea. A sleepy seaside town, it is the fourth of the seven cities founded by Diego de Velasquez. We wandered along ancient cobblestone streets between Spanish Colonial buildings from the 1500s. The chandeliers in Trinidad were particularly stunning and with every building we entered, our cameras were pointed at the ceiling to capture the design and detail of the classic lighting fixtures. This town, more than the others, truly relies on horses as the roads are blocked to vehicles and hazardous to wheel casings and axles. We lunched at Sol Ananda, which offered a delicious plaintain soup and Mushroom Green Curry, served with antique china and silver cutlery from a colonial ship. One of our members who writes cookbooks said this was her favorite dish of the tour and one she hoped to recreate after she returned.
Later, we met with photographer, Workers Union rep and entrepreneur Julio Munoz in his family home, which he had converted into a bed and breakfast. He spoke of his family’s immigration from Spain to Trinidad, where they had acquired several properties and businesses which were lost during the Revolution. Munoz is known as the “Horse Whisperer” of Trinidad, and as he spoke a beautiful copper mare and her two week old foal were lead calmly into the living room. Many in our group were horse enthusiasts and having these beautiful animals in such an unusual setting was a welcome sight. The foal’s little legs struggled on the smooth Spanish tiles, but Munoz’s easy manner kept both animals calm.
The final destination on our trip was the beautiful town of Cienfuegos. Many of the buildings here had been restored and housed several galleries and performing arts programs. We enjoyed a performance by the Cuban Choir, a group started 58 years ago that performed American Folk Songs, classical pieces by Felix Mendelson and traditional Cuban standards. With so much infusion of music and art on this tour, many in our group were beginning to express their own artistic talents, taking up instruments, singing, dancing. A few were called to join the choir in a final song, and soon everyone in our group was on their feet, singing and dancing along.
A few hours later, our group had gathered at the rooftop bar of our hotel to sip our last mojito or smoke a final Cuban cigar. One of our local guides had met up with a violinist from the Cuban Chamber Orchestra, a young man named Fidel who looked like a cross between Johnny Depp and Chris Cornell. It was our final night in Cuba, and as the nearby clock tower struck twelve and Fidel’s music played out around us, we couldn’t all help but feel truly blessed to be right where we were.
A very special thank you to Aida Mollenkamp who provided several of the photos featured in this post. You can hear about her experiences touring with the LA World Affairs Council by visiting www.aidamollenkamp.com.