KyForward’s VP Carolyn Richardson was among the group of Lexingtonians who went on a recent 10-day Commerce Lexington trip to Cuba, experiencing the sights, sounds, history and customs of an island so close to U.S. shores – but a world away in so many ways. Her journal provides insights into the mysterious place it has become for many Americans. This is the first of two parts.
By Carolyn Richardson
Special to KyForward
Day 1- Miami – and staring down Isaac
It was a beautiful day in Miami – a cloudless sky with humid temperatures in the 90s. Our Commerce Lexington group began to gather at the Airport Hilton to start our cultural, people-to-people adventure to Cuba, anxiously awaiting the meeting that evening at which we would receive our documents and airline tickets to Cuba — or begin rescheduling flights back home. Isaac, at that moment a tropical storm churning away in the Caribbean, was headed right for Cuba.
An interesting dynamic was occurring. Most of the 60- plus travelers were calm and hoping we would not be cancelled but cell phones were ringing throughout the group and a role reversal was in progress. Adult children were trying to convince their parents to get on the next plane home. Most had spent entirely too much time that day watching The Weather Channel and other weather related web sites, all of which were doing what they do best, creating a 24/7 story to keep you on the end of your seat. Most of those calling thought we were being foolish and taking an unnecessary risk. It’s really true…..”what goes around comes around!”
Having been through a number of hurricanes and tropical storms, I thought it was going to be fine to go. I also did not believe that Chamber Explorations, our tour company, would unnecessarily put us in harm’s way. From all reports, it appeared that Cuba would remain a tropical storm. We were going to be better off and safer than the folks on the Gulf Coast.
At the meeting and after a long explanation regarding the process for making the decision, we were told….”It”s a go.” Because the storm was probably going to be the worst around the “Cuban Keys,” it was decided to rearrange our schedule and remain in Havana until Tuesday and then head to the Cayo Santa Maria area. We picked up all our documents, asked all our other questions, and then went about enjoying our evening in Miami.
Day 2- Miami and Havana – and off the grid for eight days
(Photo by Carolyn Richardson)
All flights from the U.S. to Cuba are by charter out of Miami. We were told that checking in would be an interesting experience, since some Cubans are now allowed to travel there for limited periods of time. They arrive at the airport with suitcases filled with clothing, shoes and food, boxes containing new TV’s, microwaves, car bumpers, tires, portable air conditioners, and hundreds of other items we take for granted. They have all these items shrink-wrapped by special machines located in the check-in area.
Regular baggage is limited to 44 pounds per person, including carry ons. All overage is charged $1-2 dollars per pound and is allowed until the plane reaches weight capacity. We were even asked our weight at check-in, a fairly unpleasant experience for most of us. At least, they didn’t make us get on the scale!
Once on our charter, we settled in for the short 50-minute flight to Havana and a brave new world without any internet, WiFi, or cell phones. Off the grid for 8 days was a bit difficult but we did survive without incident. Despite Isaac, the weather was clear and the flight uneventful.
The Havana airport resembles most island airports, although the difference was apparent. In addition to the usual group of airport personnel, there were a dozen or more military personnel (with holstered handguns) around the plane watching both the baggage and the passengers unload.
Inside the airport we lined up to go through customs. In order to travel to Cuba we had to travel under the license of our tour company and we each had documents to prove our association with this group. This was in lieu of the usual “visa” that you get when traveling to other countries. Because we were part of the group, our trip through customs was not difficult, although the officials were very stern and all business.
After collecting our luggage, we followed our Cuban guide out of the airport to awaiting buses. There were hundreds of Cubans waiting outside to meet their relativse and many waved to us or smiled as we passed. There were two very nice, modern buses and their drivers — ours for the duration of the trip. About 30 of us were assigned to the “Orange” bus and 30 to the “Blue” bus.
Our Cuban adventure had begun!
Day 2- Afternoon in Havana – and a different view of history
The dome at Hanana's Museum of the Revolution, which once served as the at the presidential palace. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Before checking into our hotel we began our tour of the city with a stop at the Museum of the Revolution. This museum is housed in the former presidential palace which was home to Cuba’s leaders from the 1920’s until 1959. The interior was designed by Tiffany’s of New York City and is quite ornate. It now contains many documents, artifacts, weapons and planes from the revolution. There is an extensive display of the 1961 historic Bay of Pigs confrontation between the CIA- trained Cuban exiles and rebel forces. This event has defined US-Cuban relations for over 40 years.
Anti-American propaganda displayed in Havan's Museum of the Revolution. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Most interestingly, the display depicted an account of the Bay of Pigs that is quite different from what we believe happened.
Following our tour of the museum we headed for our hotel, the Melia Havana Libre. Located in the center of the city, it is a somewhat modern hotel with a large lobby and mostly English speaking employees. Only within the last two years have Cubans been allowed to enter any of the hotels if they did not work there. Most Cubans have never seen a room or eaten in any of the hotel restaurants. Unlike most hotels around the world there is no WiFi, and internet connections are only available in their business center where downloads were very slow and expensive.
We were welcomed with our first Mojito, the now famous rum drink. It would not be our last!
Once we had our room keys and had retrieved our luggage we lined up to get our money exchanged to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Cuba operates on a dual-economy, which means that all foreigners use one currency (CUC), while Cubans use the Cuban peso (CUP). Hotels and banks are the only places that you can exchange money. No US currency, credit or debit cards, or traveler’s checks are accepted for any purchases
There was about a 15 percent dollar to CUC charge for the exchange. Not a great deal, but everything was very inexpensive so we all felt we were getting more than our money’s worth.
Our rooms were clean, large and with great views of the city and the water. That evening we enjoyed a wonderful meal of grouper, shrimp and squid and of course another Mojito, at a lovely waterfront seafood restaurant. Tired but happy, we all were then ready for a good night’s sleep as we ended our first day in Cuba.
Day 3 – Havana – quality of life low
The Cuban Literacy Museum in Havana. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Our first full day in Havana began with a visit to the Cuban Literacy Museum to learn about the national effort to educate rural farmers and their families. In 1960 Fidel Castro announced in his speech to the United Nations the campaign to make all illiterate Cubans literate with one year. Over 100,000 young volunteers, mostly in their teens, left school to live and work along with their students in the countryside. Some 15,000 professional teachers oversaw the technical and organizational aspects of the campaign. The government provided all the teaching supplies all volunteers and workers. Each was given a standard grey uniform, a blanket, a hammock, two textbooks entitled We Shall Read and We Shall Conquer and a gas lantern, so that lessons could be conducted at night after work.
According to the government, over 700,000 Cubans became literate by the end of 1961. They also claimed that the country’s literacy rate increased from 60 percent to 96 percent. All levels of education in Cuban are free and once you have completed your education you must give two years back to the government.
Regardless of how successful or not this program proved to be, your level of education does not always provide a better life. Today many doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals are taxi drivers, tour guides, bartenders or hotel workers in order to receive tips in addition to their government salary in order to provide a better life for their families. Almost everyone in Cuba works for the government and has a standard salary.
Doctors, regardless of speciality, are some of the highest paid in Cuba, making about $40 per month. Everyone receives a monthly ration book that allows them to purchase milk, bread, eggs and other essentials to provide for their families. Most salaries are in the $20-25 per month range. Most Cubans do not own cars and either walk or ride a bicycle to work. Within the last two years the government has allowed a very limited number of individuals to be licensed to own their own business, but details on how these licenses are obtained were sketchy. So despite the level of literacy, the quality of life in Cuba is very low.
The Cuban Literacy Museum was political in nature and more propaganda-laden than factual. This was one of the required government tours that was again meant to enlighten Americans and other foreign tourists.
Day 3 – More Havana–rum, monuments, art and food
Stacks of rum barrels, which age from one to 15 years, at the Bacoy Rum Factory. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson
Our next stop was the Bacoy Rum Factory, established in 1878. We saw stacks of oak barrels holding the rum from 1 to 15 years. Although it was still fairly early in the morning, we had to visit the tasting room and sample the various flavors of rum and the famous rum-laden “flaming coffee.” Not a bad way to start the day.
The Colon Cemetery, founded in 1876, was our third stop, famous for its many elaborately sculpted memorials. There are over 2 million buried here and more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. Parts of the cemetery are public and parts are privately owned, although the government is responsible for the upkeep and renovation of all the grave sites.
We toured the beautiful privately owned section where many famous Cubans leaders are buried.
Loading the buses once again, we took the short ride to Old Havana for a walking tour. We saw the Cathedral de la Havana built in 1848 and under continuous renovation along with many of the local businesses. Much of this area is crumbling and renovation cannot begin to keep up with the need. However, there are a number of small hotels and restaurants in the area that are very modern. We had lunch at Printemps, a lovely restaurant where we were served fresh seafood, black beans and rice and fresh fruit and salads. We were all ready for an opportunity to sit down and relax for awhile. Meals are leisurely and on “Cuban time.”
Following lunch, we drove to a very unique and interesting neighborhood and the home of Jose Rodriguez Fuster who has created over a period of over 10 years a unique work of public art, decorating over 80 houses with ornate murals and domes designed to suit the personalities of his neighbors. In addition to his public art work, he has participated in many exhibitions and is considered a cherished part of Cuban culture.
There is no way to describe his work except in pictures. Not sure he would like our planning and zoning rules and regulations.
Dinner this evening was also in another Old Havana restaurant with a wonderful meal of lobster and pasta while being entertained by a local Cuban band. Mojito’s were again the “drink of the day.” Following dinner we went to the Carl Marx Theatre for a Cuban opera. This performance was very political and was being presented in support of a troupe of young people whose performances had been closed down because their leader was paying them higher wages than the government was paying musicians. The public outrage forced the government to let them perform this one concert in Havana. It was packed and considered a huge success. The students were very talented and the show was quite well done. We had no way of knowing whether or not this group would continue to be allowed to perform after that night. Our attendance was not part of our planned itinerary and was a last minute event. I’m not sure it would have been allowed as an official part of the tour.
After a very long day, our hotel looked very welcoming. Isaac was scheduled to bring some wind and rain to Havana during the night and some rain and wind on Sunday. Still being called a Tropical Storm and not really creating any major problems for us.
Day 4 – Hemingway’s Havana
The entry to Ernest Hemingway's home located on a 39-acre estate outside Havana. (Photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Woke up this morning to Isaac bringing an occasional downpour and some wind. By the time we were ready to board our bus it was down to a few showers and some wind. Forecast is that by the time we leave Havana for the Keys Isaac should be completely gone and the weather beautiful.
Our first stop was Ernest Hemingway’s 39 acre estate outside of Havana. This beautiful property is where Hemingway lived for 21 years with his wife Martha. The home has been preserved and his personal belongings remain throughout the rooms. You are not permitted to go inside the house, but a wraparound porch allows you a great view of most of the rooms through the floor to ceiling windows. The property also had a once beautiful in-ground pool, now disrepair, and a special display of his famous yacht the Pilar, still in pristine shape. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
A bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway leans on the bar at La Bodeguita. Hemingway frequented the bar which is known for it's Mojitos and the writer's special daiquiri. (Photo by Carolyn Richardoson.)
Heading back to Old Havana we visited Hemingway’s favorite restaurant, La Bodeguita, home of the Mojito, his favorite drink other than his special daiquiri served at the Floridita that boasts a bronze statue of Hemingway sitting in his special seat at the bar. We made a special side trip to the Floridita later on in the week….a great experience. Again, we were served their special Mojito, purchased some souvenirs and enjoyed looking at the signed pictures of all their famous patrons . Reminded me of Sardi’s in New York City.
Lunch was at another great local restaurant in Old Havana where we had delicious seafood paella served with a salad and a wonderful ice cream sundae with chocolate and caramel sauce. We have certainly been fed well!
Following lunch we went through the tunnel to the island where the fort had been built to protect I, a huge structure with incredible views of both the ocean and the city of Havana. It provided a special reminder of the storm as we watched the huge waves crashing onto the sea walk and over the road.
That evening it was dinner at one of the newly licensed private restaurants in the home of the owner in one of the nicer residential area of the city. Beautiful rooms with ornate ceilings and dark wood paneling and floors. One of our more elaborate meals with great service and food. Another highlight of the trip.
Day 5 – Trip to the Countryside
Started our trip to the country at a wonderful small community, Vinales, in the western province of Pinar del Rio, an area known for its stunning landscape. Our first stop was the Franciso Donatien Cigar Factory. Workers hand pack and roll each cigar. They each are expected to make 150 cigars per day and when they are finished they can go home or stay on to make some extra money. They are given 2 cigars per day for their own use, but most workers sell them to tourists at a lower price than the gift shop. In fact, many of the workers were offering whatever you wanted as you stood in shop watching them….needless to say….they were not supposed to do that, but it seemed that the supervisors turned a blind eye to the transactions. You have to remember that almost all businesses in Cuba are government-owned, including this one, so there are no owners at this factory, only salaried employees at every level.
Lunch was at one of the national parks in the area where an incredible mural is painted on the side of the mountain. Right beneath the mural was a government-owned outdoor restaurant, gift shop and bar where we enjoyed another great meal.
As with many of the meals, we were served both black beans and rice and new potatoes. Green vegetables, except for lettuce, are not on the menu. Today we had delicious roasted pork instead of seafood. We were also served their signature pina colada’s and they put a bottle of rum on the table for self-serve. Rum is obviously cheap in Cuba.
A cuban farmer demonstates the process of hand-rolling cigars. (photo by Carolyn Richardson.)
Later, we stopped at a tobacco farm, visiting a where the tobacco was curing. The farmer gave us a demonstration on how to roll a cigar. He was very good and very fast. We then went into his home, talked with his family and were served coffee. Later we were allowed to walk around the property, which was only a few acres. This is a very pretty area of the island.
Before heading back to Havana, we visited a craft market in the town square and talked with some of the local residents. Then we were off for a two-hour drive back to the city and dinner in a fabulous restaurant in San Franciso square. We ate upstairs in a special room with beautiful woodwork and art. Tonight we had fresh red snapper, salad, and rice. The string quartet was terrific and had us all on our feet when they played My Old Kentucky Home. Very special!
After dinner, several of us went to the Floridita bar where Hemingway spent much of his time. Didn’t want to come to Cuba and miss a visit to this landmark. Very memorable and a great ending to a very special day.
Next: To the Cuban Keys
Be sure to check out the complete Slide show of Carolyn’s travels below