Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Should You Visit Cuba?


No, you shouldn’t, if you’re a U.S. citizen. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba and has imposed economic sanctions on the country that make it illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba. It is possible to get a “license” for a limited number of people to travel there for people-to-people programs, however the books say they are hard to come by. The one couple we ran across that was traveling on such a license had been required to make what they called a ”large donation” to a U.S. based artistic group to get their license, and their “mission” was to drop off some artist aprons at some kind of a co-op, which took all of one hour. So if you’re willing to pay the price, you can go legally.


As a result of these sanctions, we did not go to Cuba. Anything in this blog about time spent in Cuba is a fictitious account, and all of the people mentioned are figments of our imagination. All of the photos are the product of a search on the internet for the appropriate pictures and Bob’s talents with Adobe Photoshop, which allows people to be inserted into the original photo.


We came to the conclusion that Cuba is fairly challenging for any visitor, but particularly for one from the U.S., so we decided we would tell folks that if they think of themselves as ” intrepid travelers”, they might enjoy such a trip; if not, they should not go. On the other hand, because of its’ history as a 1960’s style revolutionary state, and due to the U.S. policy of economic sanctions and isolation, Cuba has been almost frozen in time. The revolutionary billboards, the streets named after national and international socialist heroes (Che, Salvador Allende of Chile, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for example) and posters regarding “evil U.S. presidents” (all Republican, by the way) seem almost more out of a commie version of the book “1984” than they do real. This unique island nation will clearly be hugely different when the current regime changes, and/or the U.S. takes steps to remove the economic sanctions that have contributed to this unique culture.


We are so glad we imagine that we went, it is perhaps one of the more fascinating destinations we’ve not visited.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Cuban People


The Cuban people are almost universally friendly to visitors, though a large reason for this friendliness is clearly economic, and almost anyone coming into contact with a foreigner will try to make some money from the interaction. For example, if you stop while walking, you will almost always be approached by someone who will try to help you with directions or by taking you to their cousin’s Palador restaurant, always with the expectation that you will give them some small amount of money. By far the majority of these folks will back off immediately if you say no thank you, but a few will stick around way too long, and it’s the latter type that makes you tired by the end of the day. This behavior is clearly the result of economic challenges. We’re told the standard monthly wage is $25 a month for everyone (remember this is a socialist society by anyone’s standards); doctors earn the same thing that cab drivers do. Even with highly subsidized food, medicine and housing, this wage is not enough to live on. Everyone has to have some means to supplement their income, and tourism is the largest source of this. We were just plain ripped off twice during our 9 day trip (the car rental and the “Good Samaritan”) a higher level than we’ve experienced on other trips and often felt there were surprise fees or charges showing up in our transactions.


On the other hand, after Cubans asked where we were from, they seemed genuinely pleased to hear we were Americans and this often resulted in a conversation about relatives they have in the States. If you have ever heard the Jimmy Buffet song “Everybody has a Cousin in Miami”, this is the origin of that title. One example of this interest is that one fellow asked several people in a crowd of tourists where they were from and got replies from three different countries including the U.S.; it was almost comic how fast he dropped any interest in the folks from other countries in order to talk to us.


The Cuban people are mix of those who seem to have accepted their revolutionary economy and those who seem ready to leap into an entrepreneurial economy at the slightest opportunity. At some time in the no- too-distant future the economic realities will change, and as is often the case, there will be some winners and losers in this change. We can only hope that some improvements that the revolution brought to people’s lives in terms or equality, education and health care are not lost when some of the deprivations and controls are removed. It will be fascinating to watch, and our visit while Cuba is in the “before” condition will give us a valued perspective that most other Americans won’t have.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Visiting Cuba, With Cash


Cuba is not cheap. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the only currency that can be used by a tourist and can be bought for the equivalent of $1.25 per CUC, if you use something like the Euro or Canadian Dollar for the exchange. If you try to use the U.S. dollar there is a roughly 20% surcharge on the conversion. Prices are often close to what you would pay at a U.S. hotel or restaurant. Gas is about $6.00 a gallon.


The biggest difficulty for a U.S. visitor is that none of your credit or ATM cards work here. We were able to use a Canadian travel agent and pre-pay our hotels, airfare and base car rental, but everything else required cash. We’ve included a couple of stories about the challenges this caused. As a result you end up carrying a LOT of cash around with you. While we came home with some cash in our pocket, primarily because we got much of our car deposit back on the last day, we really feel we didn’t take enough, in hindsight. All sorts of things from auto accidents, flat tires, to health issues could have cropped up, which we frankly were not prepared to handle without a credit card. We never ended up skipping activities we were interested in because we didn’t have enough money, but we spent more time worried about the “what if’s” than we wanted to while we were trying to have fun. And frankly, if we had run out of money before the end, we haven’t a clue how we would have solved the problem.


To make matters worse, we never saw any paper money larger than $20 CUC, which meant we were always carrying around big wads of money, and counting our large piles of it for every purchase. All of this added to the normal stress of travel that is inevitable with any but the tamest of foreign travel.

Headed Home


Our last full day in Cuba was mostly comprised of an 8 hour drive back to Habana, which was blissfully uneventful, and a great Paella dinner on a terrace at a hotel in Habana Vieja. Sunday we were up at 2:30 a.m. and off for the airport at 3a.m. We had 3 different flight patterns home (Adrienne via Houston, Matt and Mackenzie via Phoenix, and us via LAX) and due to long layovers in Mexico City got home late. Cathryn and Bob won the prize, getting home at 1:30 in the morning, 27 hours after we got up.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Couple of Days at The Beach


After leaving Trinidad we drove 4 hours to Cayo Coco on the north coast of the island where we had booked 2 days at an “all inclusive” resort. We had modern rooms with all the amenities, a beautiful pool and beach, and all the food and drinks we wanted.


There wasn’t much of Cuba here, but it was a nice break from the challenges of traveling in an wildly different culture. We mostly took it easy during our stay, though Matt, Mackenzie and Adrienne went on a two-tank scuba diving trip one morning. Adrienne, who has previous Caribbean diving experience, described the dives as pleasant, swimming along sandy bottoms with a line of coral heads and a moderate level of tropical fish. She said much of the coral was in bad shape. As folks who get most of their dives in the 50 degree waters of Puget Sound, all agreed, however, that there is no such thing as bad warm water dive!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Now, This is More Like It

Today was as good, as yesterday was bad!


Today we meandered the streets of Trinidad looking at the old colonial city,


the small ruins of a church high on a hill, town squares and parks, and Mackenzie and Matt drove to the beach for a while. After dinner all 3 of the kids went out for salsa dancing while we went to bed at our usual hour. We hear Adrienne with her somewhat lighter hair is a major hit with  the men here in Cuba. IMG_5369

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Day to Forget, An Evening to Remember

(This is a long post, and we thought about skipping it altogether given that it is pretty negative. But in the interest of full disclosure we’ve left it in. Once in awhile there are some bad travel days, and this was one of them.)

Today was frustrating.  We’ve learned Cuba is more expensive than we understood from reading a guide book in advance, and many “small” expenses such as taxis, museum/tour entrance fees, drinks and bottled water all have been more costly than we budgeted. As a result, we’ve begun over the last couple days to worry about whether we brought enough cash to cover expenses which were not pre-paid (airfare, hotels and rental car).  We’re in “cash only” mode on this trip as our credit and ATM cards are no good due to the lack of formal economic ties . . . a situation we’ve never faced before and had forgotten how dependent we are on the flexibility we have with ATM, credit and debit cards.


Bob, Matt and Cathryn left early to pick up our rental cars at another hotel downtown. After waiting an hour to have an agent help us our second challenge occurred when he  informed us the paperwork our Canadian tour agency sent us electronically for the car rental (already paid) was not, in fact, a voucher, and the car rental staff didn’t know how they could rent us the cars.  This was potentially a huge problem as we didn’t have enough money to pay for the cars any other way, and our hotels in other parts of the island were already pre-paid but valueless if we couldn’t get there! It also turns out our Canadian tour operator arranged our car through a Cuban tour operator who arranged it further through a Cuban car rental company – 3 parties involved. The “Jefe” (boss) from the car rental and tour operator was called and one Jefe came to talk with Cathryn in her halting Spanish for 20 minutes while the staff person kept making more phone calls.  Finally, after more than an hour , they agreed to rent us the cars, though they said the size we’d arranged wasn’t available or was insufficient for our needs (HUH???) and we’d have to pay more for the next size up. We were not in a position to fully understand or argue, so didn’t. Finally we got to what we were afraid might be the fatal flaw to the whole car rental deal. We’d begun to worry we’d under-projected the cost of the cash “deposit” on the rental cars, which can run into the thousands in the U.S. or Europe, but can be put on a credit card slip there which is not charged unless you fail to return the car.  It turned out they “only” wanted a $200 deposit for each car and we could cover that. Almost 3 hours after leaving our hotel, we arrived back there with 2 cars, found Mackenzie and Adrienne and loaded up to leave for a 5-hour drive to Trinidad. 


Our next frustration came in the form of a female “Good Samaritan” who ended up in one of our cars to guide us the correct way to the Autopista (highway) which was not well signed or easily found in our preliminary efforts.  Half an hour later when we made it to the autopista, her “friend” who was following us in their car was nowhere to be found, and she attempted to extort $85 from us to pay her taxi fare back to Habana.  In the end, an ugly scene ensued and Bob ordered her out of the car repeatedly, with threats to call the police, which she seemed to find amusing, but she left. We think we saw her friend in their car a mile or two down the road.  Clearly a scam.


The really sad part about that story is the degree to which it altered, perhaps irrevocably, our view of the helpfulness and friendliness of some of the Cuban people.  We know they’re poor and we’re not. But now, much of the initial friendliness with which we’re met is tempered in our minds by suspicion about when they will turn the exchange into a request for money.  In fact, that has happened often in other circumstances which were more easily fended off.  Our feelings on the matter are no doubt exacerbated by the fact we spent 3 weeks in Morocco last month where we were constantly hounded by people aggressively trying to sell us products or services we didn’t want, and we grew seriously tired of it before that trip was over.  We feel a bit like we’re ATM machines to people in poor countries, not actual humans.  That’s putting a negative spin on it, but reflects our frustrations of the moment. We don’t blame them for their view, but we don’t enjoy being the target of it.

Three hours later we stopped in a small town to buy gas and get a late lunch.  The gas station attendant gave us directions to a “paladar”, a term used for either a restaurant or hotel room which is offered (often without government authorization) from a resident’s home.  We were given a menu which said a hamburger cost $30, and had to work our way through an understanding that these were prices posted in “local denomination” rather than “convertible currency” – totally separate monetary systems used by residents and tourists. This place had undoubtedly never before seen a tourist.  The paladar had no liquid offerings we could order as nothing was bottled, so we ordered only 4 hamburgers and one bowl of rice and beans.  In the end, the total cost was $6.50!


Finally after 5:00 we arrived in Trinidad, a small town about 200 miles southeast of Habana and a mile from the south coast with cobblestone roads and small, densely packed shared-wall homes. After asking directions a number of times, we found our Casa Particular, a private home which offers up to two rooms for rent to tourists, arrangements  Mackenzie made by email before leaving home.  Mila and Bury, a middle-aged married couple, met us at the door with warm greetings and showed us to our rooms, which turned out to be large, well-furnished, comfortable and clean. They served us dinner on the rooftop terrace of the home, including an “on-the-house” bottle of wine in celebration of Bob’s birthday, which they discovered when they took the required information from our passports.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Day We Saw It All


We took a  tour of the Partagas cigar factory this morning, so far the most fascinating activity we’ve undertaken. Partagas produces 25,000 cigars daily, all made entirely by hand, with 600 employees, of whom 60% are female. They make Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo and Juliet and all the other well-known Cuban brands.


We walked the floors where workers sort, cut and roll the tobacco leaves, and the training room where 100 apprentices begin a 10-month training program each year, and about 40% successfully graduate to full-time jobs in which they must produce a quota of 50 –160 cigars daily (depending on type) which go on to pass the scrutiny of quality control inspectors. Each employee is granted 3 free cigars daily as a “benefit” and we understand those usually are sold on the streets and black market to supplement the woefully poor wages. The company employs “readers” who sit on a raised dais for a couple hours daily reading books and newspapers (local, regional and international) to the employees while they work (we suspect the selection of articles is highly censored). Of course we were sadly unable to purchase any souvenir cigars to bring home.


We had lunch in Habana Vieja, a small section of the old town which has undergone substantial refurbishment and has a large open square in which restaurants serve food at tables with umbrellas. The weather is warm (80s) and muggy, so the shade is much appreciated. This is the section of town near the cruise ship dock and where many of the tourist hotels are. While it was nice to see some restored buildings, many of them seemed to have received just enough of an update to appear more like replicas than historic buildings. This “difference” is one of the major reasons we wanted to come to Cuba before relations with the U.S. are normalized eventually. We believe that when it happens, there will be such an influx of American money and tourists to this island paradise 90 miles from our shores that what is currently Cuba will be “Cancun-ized” like parts of Habana Vieja has been.


Later we went on a self-guided tour of the Museo de la Revolucion which tells the story of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others during the Revolution leading up to the overthrow of the dictator Batista in 1959. “Granma” is displayed there, a 59-foot motor vessel  purchased in Florida which brought Fidel, Che and 78 other men to land on the shores of Cuba, after which only 15 of them survived to make it to their hide-out in the mountains. Other displays include a Soviet tank, pieces of a shot-down U.S. U-2 airplane, and lots of firearms and ammunition. It was very weird to look at all this stuff and think of ourselves as “the enemy” in this story, and to view the propaganda material that persists today in support of the view that the Revolucion lives on.


We overheard one 50-ish Cuban guide telling museum visitors the story, and she included the fact that her 93-year-old grandmother still believes the Revolution was the best thing that ever happened and the “fight” should continue, while young people think the older generation is “stuck in time” and the country should “move on and join the modern world”.  The grandmother was a black woman who had experienced very significant pre-revolution prejudice against black Cubans and has seen benefits in terms of opportunities for the repressed that came with the revolution.



It does make us wonder what is in store for Cuba’s future as Raul Castro continues to dismantle some aspects of the communist structure that has been the organizing principle here for more than 50 years.  It appears any transition might be difficult as the Cubans try to preserve the social benefits of the revolution while trying to develop a higher level of economic well being.

Wednesday night we took a taxi to Tropicana, the site of Cuba’s long-standing outdoor theatre cabaret extravaganza, in operation since 1939.  Our taxi driver, Nelson, was unusually open in answering our queries about how life works today in Cuba.  He loves his job, does not own his taxi or pay for his gas (the State does both), was cheerful and friendly, and agreed to pick us up again at the end of the show.  He also gave us his business card which says he rents out rooms as a supplemental source of income, a common occurrence here.


The show at the Tropicana . . . how to describe it?  Loud, eventually redundant-sounding music, fabulous choreography with perhaps 50 dancers who changed outrageous costumes regularly (very skimpy costumes on the lovely, slim females), and a well-designed stage set without the sort of modern pyrotechnics and whiz-bang technology people are accustomed to seeing at concerts and shows in the Western world.   It lasted 2 hours and included a bottle of rum and mixers delivered to our table.  Our guide book described it as one of the “must do” activities while in Cuba, so we did, although it cost more than $125 per person. We found it fascinating rather than spectacular, and it seemed our travel companions found it mostly unremarkable. Time for a new guide book (Frommers).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Day Wandering


We walked across town to the huge local cemetery, which we had to pay $6 each to enter but was well-kept, beautiful and practically paved in marble with trees everywhere. Latin Americans certainly honor their dead!


Next we took a taxi to a noon-time street performance of Afro-Carribean music at Callejon de Hammel, a two-block street lined with painted murals on the buildings and unusual art, where the M.C. asked for a show of hands from visitors from various countries around the world, and when we raised our hands in response to his query whether there were visitors from the U.S., said “our favorite enemies who we love!” and everyone laughed and clapped.


Finally, an hour on our hotel balcony drinking rum while overlooking the activity on the Malecon, then off to a fabulous dinner at Paladar Huron Azul, a fancy but inexpensive place tucked away on a low-traffic street not far off the busy Vedado, a street swarming with night-life.

At night the sidewalks are eerily dark despite the crowds of people, apparently a money-saving move that leaves streetlights turned off. Despite this, we’re constantly reassured that all of Cuba is totally safe except from pick-pockets, and we find it feels true.

Saturday, November 20, 2010



Ah, Cuba! We flew from Seattle to Los Angeles to Mexico City where we met up with Mackenzie, Matt and Adrienne Friday, then proceeded on to Habana today, all without incident.

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On arrival in Cuba we were astonished by the “time capsule” and “Caribbean” atmosphere. Passing through Immigration at the airport was . . . . slow! The young female official frowned at each of us and motioned us to quit smiling while she took our photographs. She stamped lots of pieces of paper, including our “visas”, but not our passports. And she processed us one at a time, requiring the others to remain behind the red line until each in turn disappeared through a locked door, and only calling the next forward as the door clanged shut.


We rode a taxi to our hotel, which turned into a 30 minute guided tour courtesy of our friendly and talkative (Spanish only) cabbie, enlightening us to historical events, important persons and places, and propaganda about how Cuba is the most beautiful, welcoming, safe, friendly and "tranquilo” place in the world – some of which seems like it may be true! He also inquired whether we were afraid to come to Cuba because we might get home to find Obama had seized our homes and would put us in jail because we’d traveled here. Mackenzie assured him “we’re a little afraid, but we think it’s worth it since we don’t think those things will happen”.


We have three rooms in a 14-story government-owned hotel (everything is government-owned, so don’t read a lot into that statement) right on the Malecon, two of our rooms with gorgeous views of the Caribbean sea looking north, and private balconies. It took an hour to process check-in, but we had a beer (Bucanero) in the lobby while we waited and eventually were given room keys.

Dense buildings constructed in the 17 and 1800’s in the Colonial style filled with residential apartments are everywhere. Most of the buildings are clean and neat but clearly have not received any preventive maintenance in the 50+ years since the Revolution and are crumbling badly now. We’re told that when it rains it’s not unusual for buildings to literally collapse. And it’s common to see shells or facades of buildings that are no longer habitable.


Shops and restaurants are rare, and sidewalk cafes of the style common in Europe and Africa are almost non-existent. Since we don’t really understand how the economy works, we didn’t really understand everything we saw, and since we were told it is almost impossible to engage Cubans in conversations that might be viewed as “political”, we couldn’t ask. But we think we saw folks lining up at some of the rare shops to get rations of things like eggs and bread. The streets are astonishingly clean. While many people smoke, including inside restaurants and bars, cigarette butts and other kinds of garbage are very rare. People are sweeping the streets constantly (full employment perhaps?)


The city is astonishing. Many cars and taxis are American versions from the 1950s – Chevys, Chryslers, etc., many in excellent condition, but some clearly on their last leg. There are also a significant number of old Ladas from the Soviet era still chugging around. The newer cars, about half the total, are a mix of Japanese and European, while most of the rental cars appear to be Chinese. The people are oh-so-friendly and helpful. They dress surprisingly fashionably, smile and laugh a lot, try to get us to avail ourselves of their services so they can make money, but are not pushy and obnoxious about it as we’ve seen in some other poorer countries.


Saturday we walked the Malecon (waterfront boardwalk) and Prada (artists’ pedestrian mall), two of the “must-see” streets, then had lunch at one of the government- authorized private restaurants with tables on the second floor balcony of what seemed a private home. These “Paladars” are limited to 12 tables and we are told are heavily taxed, but still highly profitable for their owners compared to state-sponsored jobs.


We later had daiquiris at La Floridita, the favorite “fancy” Hemingway watering hole in Cuba, and then listened to live music at another bar before dinner at El Guerijito, a little place with waitresses dressed in skimpy cowgirl attire where the food was very good.