from Sandy Needham

Friday, February 24, 2017

Cuba Dispatch

"...Giddy up giddy up giddy up 409..."
There are many lasting impressions I have of Cuba in January 2017, but the old cars have a way of dominating my visual memory. If you grew up in the fifties, your life passes before your eyes as you navigate the streets. Not that I mean to overlook the cars from the forties! Some of these old gems are in disrepair; some no longer sport an identifying metal name or hood ornament; some are in such pristine shape, you want to scream with joy!

The cars are, indeed, iconic; they colorfully illustrate an historic moment frozen in time. 

Ubiquitous on the streets, as well, is the squared-off Soviet “Lada” import of the ‘70’s, including many taxis.

Just as houses and apartments have been passed down through Cuban families, these vintage cars are valuable possessions passed from generation to generation. Now that the government has made it legal for Cuban citizens to participate in lucrative tourist opportunities, any car can be a taxi, even between cities, and the beautiful old cars can command astoundingly high prices as city taxis. Kudos to the mechanics and body shops of Cuba!

My preconceived notions of Cuba sprang from my love of the 1999 documentary film, “The Buena Vista Social Club,” and a book I read in 2004 by an American woman living in Havana, married to a European business man. Her vignettes of life varied from lines around the block to buy toilet paper (under the US embargo) to listening to Castro drone on for three hours uninterrupted after a dinner with foreign investors. She also explained the strict government regulations concerning tourists, who were obligated to stay in government hotels and eat at sanctioned restaurants. Private citizens had some surreptitious ways of offering meals or rooms in their homes, which made for far more pleasing travel, if not unassailable standing with the government.

Under Obama, the twelve designated categories under which Americans are allowed to visit Cuba require no paper work and have been loosely enforced…of course, we’ll see where this goes now. Raul Castro’s rule has relaxed the tourist accommodation requirements to include open and lucrative participation by the citizenry, greatly advancing the economy though entrepreneurship and increased cash-flow.

Our arrival began with an hour’s wait in line at the airport to change our money for CUC’s – the currency required for tourist use. It is based on the dollar, even though the conversion for actual US dollars costs 10% more than other international currencies. We exchanged Euros and British pounds leftover from previous trips to avoid the loss. CUP’s are the national currency, worth far less, but effective with the alternate prices on general household needs for the native populace.

Casa Lunass living room
Our airBnb, Casa Lunass, which also functions as a citizen’s licensed “casa particular,” was a charming, tasteful place on the edges of La Habana Vieja – the Old Havana neighborhood that is a tourist destination. We really appreciated our lovely English-speaking hostess, Kenia – intelligent, friendly, and always eager to answer our questions and converse. 

Our neighborhood

Our outstanding Kenia
Painting that goes all along the stairway

This is the symbol designating homes as "casas particulars." It is everywhere!

Kenia's building is on one of the residential blocks near the Malecón - along the city shore. We meandered these streets with the locals – something I considered a privileged look at Cuban city life. It was clear that the people neither resented nor adored us tourists, as they put on an absolutely neutral front and rarely made any eye contact. I considered winning a return nod or smile in a doorway a sweet victory. Apparently, tourism is so crucial to the improved economic lives of the citizenry that any sort of hostility, much less harm of any level to tourists is discouraged, whatever that means in Raul’s regime.

Along the Malecón

The worst parts of our neighborhood were the crumbling buildings that look bombed out and the horrible condition of the streets and sidewalks. Some Brazilians we met at dinner said they had gone to the Red Cross to make a donation. They learned that one of the organization’s biggest challenges is treating people whose buildings collapse. If one survives, the government gives you another home, somewhere. We genuinely wondered at what moment some of these buildings would fall on tourists (us) passing by. There are some people living inside these!

You can see what skinny supports are holding up the stories here: 

A cafe next to ruins?

Inside a building entrance in our neighborhood:

Returning to Kenia’s at night, the streets were very dark. Just an occasional street light is in place and actually giving out its low-wattage illumination. After noting by day the manholes without covers, the broken sidewalks and the smeared dog doo everywhere, we had to watch every step. At least we never felt afraid of robbery or assault, as these streets with figures lurking in the dark are safe even though they don’t look inviting. However much money the government is gleaning from all this tourism, they are not spending it on infrastructure in this neighborhood of Havana.

We took the double decker, hop-on/hop-off bus tour early on to get a feel for the city. Unfortunately, there was almost no information given over the speaker, so we had much to ask and look up. I was curious about how, in my first in-person look at Communism, some people lived in slums and some in beautiful mansions. That’s when Kenia explained about houses being passed down in families. If a person was renting an apartment at the time of the revolution, it then became theirs.

Central Park

Morro Castle on the Malecón, a 16th century fort
This is the José Martí Memorial on Independence Square. José Martí was a Cuban journalist and poet who advocated internationally for Cuban independence from Spain. He was killed in battle in 1898 in the Cuban War of Independence. After his death, one of his poems was adapted into the highly patriotic Cuban song, “Guantanamera.” The United States joined the Cuban War of Independence effort during its last three months via the Spanish-American war…waged in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines against Spain. Teddy Roosevelt and his famous Rough Riders were a part of the action in Cuba.

The island was under United States control from 1898 to 1902, when full independence was granted. The US’s influence was extensive until the 1959 Revolution. Baseball, for instance, is Cuba’s favorite sport!

Opposite Martí's tower and statue in Independence Square are these representations of Castro and Che Guavara. We thought Fidel looked more like the Ayatollah of Iran than himself...not sure where the artist's hat choice came from, or is that a halo?!

The bus tour took us to the other side of town where some beautiful mansions line the street. 

The gigantic Colon Cemetery has 800,000 graves. It goes on for blocks and blocks.

Here's a building advertising Zumba "Dance Therapy" and Salsa classes.

The difficulty the people suffered over decades procuring goods is improving, though the stores are nothing to write home about. There are not lines around the block to buy some rare commodity anymore, but the windows of clothing stores displaying their "fashions" on manikins are pretty depressing. 

Professionals who got degrees and government jobs currently make around US$20 per month. Physicians in the excellent healthcare system make up to $50, and less educated workers make between $8 and $15. Of course, most of the underpaid professionals, such as Kenia, and anyone else who can arrange it, work in the tourism industry now. Our former agricultural engineer waiter earns more in a couple of evenings than he used to in a month. Kenia makes around $2000 per month renting her two rooms for $30/night, and the “taxi” she found to drive us and two others to another city makes $240 in one day’s round trip. Looks like someone is going to have to respond to these changes if the government expects to have working professionals!

Havana Cathedral
The city buses are not for tourists and do not accept the CUC, so we usually just walked and walked and walked or took taxis. The touristy part of Old Havana is mostly beautiful, with some lovely hotels, churches, restaurants, parks and plazas.

A stunning modern sculpture

A gorgeous Moorish, Andalusia style building

Plaça scene with Afro-Cuban women (who dress very much like their Brazilian counterparts)
Pristine bank building, courtesy of Canadian investment

Verdant park
La Habana Vieja street

Trendy, inviting bar

The Ambos Mundos Hotel in La Habana Vieja has a nice rooftop bar and a wall of Hemingway photos commemorating his time there (similar to a couple of walls we saw last August in Key West). We had to wait in the lobby to ride the elevator up because, apparently, the rooftop bar was full. Some people ahead of us went up after the elevator emptied into the lobby, then it was our turn. Our familiarity with the Third World was helpful in Cuba precisely at moments like this: there were three occupied tables and twenty-eight empty tables in the near-deserted rooftop bar. Wh-what?? What I mean to say is, we’re accustomed to some things making absolutely no sense!

Hemingway wall

View 1 from Ambos Mundos rooftop bar
View 2 from Ambos Mundos rooftop bar
The lobby wait afforded us some time to connect to the ever-elusive internet. The system in Cuba is to buy an internet access card with scratch-off sign in and password numbers, good for one hour each. These cards are available from 1.50 CUCS to 4 CUCS, depending on where one buys them. We went to the very blue hotel near our place on our first night to purchase cards, but the desk was out of them. We asked the man on his laptop next to us at the bar where he got his card, and he said he bought it previously; that the hotel desk clerks buy all the cards for themselves and their relatives to sell for 4 CUCS in the plazas. We were fine in Havana because Kenia has WIFI and just charged us 2 CUCS per hour to sign us in and out. It was a great convenience to use from her apartment, especially since Newton did some checking into work emails every morning.

Over my years as a ballet obsessive, I've been aware of the influence of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It's founder and director, Alicia Alonso - partially blind since age nineteen and now aged 96 - is an international ballet legend I had the great privilege of seeing live on a New York stage. The island's ballet training has benefited from the experience and rigor of the Soviet Union's rich tradition combined with Cuban athleticism and rhythm. No wonder there are so many internationally acclaimed stars from this tiny country! I thrilled to the dancing of the late Fernando Bujones for years at the New York City Ballet. José Manuel Carreño and Carlos Acosta have carried the banner forth, along with countless others. There is one more thing about Cuban ballet that almost makes me cry: ballet is not an elitist art in Cuba, separated from the popular culture. The art of ballet is subsidized, along with performance tickets for the populace, so just as taxi drivers know the best baseball players, they also know the names of the ballet soloists. Imagine. Here is the Gran Teatro where this cultural miracle takes place:

In the twenty years since Ry Cooder assembled that incredible group of classic Cuban musicians and deemed them "The Buena Vista Social Club," three of the originals have died, including my favorite, Ibrahim Ferrer on the piano, with his unmistakably Andalusian face. While we never found the incomparable music equivalent of that amazing film and album (which has sold 12,000,000 copies!), we did savor all the music and dancing we happened upon. One small problem drove us crazy: some musicians take a half-hour break every twenty minutes…plenty of frustrating quiet time nursing a beer! That might be considered fair in a workers’ land, but I also believe musicians get genuine pleasure performing and connecting with their audience, driving the rapport in the groove of a great set.

This group caught our attention with the ‘Buena Vista’ sound. We installed ourselves in the little bar immediately, only to witness an Afro-Cuban number (good music, but closer to Afro-Brazilian, which we hear all the time). Then with our rapt anticipation came, wait for it... “Hotel California.” We left.

I could have watched this graceful man dance for hours. Turns out he is Argentine!

And here are Cubans dancing!

And the lovely old ones:

I bought a clavé instrument: a resonant block of hollowed wood struck with a wooden stick (Percussionist Nephew, Brad, it's for you!) Its typical beat is described as 1-2, 1-2-3, but the second '1' comes up slightly sooner and has Latin rhythm's sort of hold...less than a dotted note...before the 2-3 beats.

We headed across town to the Vededo neighborhood for live jazz. The taxi had to install the back seat before it could actually be a taxi, but the driver was sweet and got us there unscathed, running to a cash machine to get our change. We heard some really wonderful jazz at La Zorra e El Cuervo jazz club: intimate, crowded, the piano a little too miked, but such lyrical jazz – quite gorgeous (and no breaks!).

Our favorite food in Havana was at the #1 TripAdvisor restaurant, Habana 61. It has an elegant interior, great service and menu. Otherwise, we had decent, if not exciting meals. It seemed pretty clear from the start that the more native places could be out of many items and not always meeting a high standard of cooking skills. The Sloppy Joe pub felt like Irish-Americana and was filled with tourists only, but reliable for food. The pretty “Five Corners” looked better than it tasted, but we did appreciate the visual sophistication. In general, vegetables, which appear regularly on menus, are particularly grey and tasteless; mojitos…generally good!

Sloppy Joes
"5 Esquinas Trattoria" at five corners
5 Esquinas at night

The Museum of the Revolution is an interesting place. The building is the former Presidential Palace of all the presidents through Batista.

Most of the museum is dedicated to Castro’s revolution and his actions leading up to it. There were so many bitter references to the United States’ repeated efforts to thwart the revolution, I felt I should duck and hide. There is even a wall of these ‘cartoons’ poking fun at the “cretins” Batista, Reagan, Bush and W. Bush. Looks like Obama’s opening up relations with Cuba saved him from this wall! 

It reads, "Thank you cretin for helped us to STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION."

These are bullet holes in the palace walls from the Revolution.

The children's choir sang several numbers, including "Guantanamera" and, ironically, "God Bless America." I guess no hiding is necessary at the moment, unless Trump gets around to reversing those Obama actions.

Che Guevara is the dominant icon of the Revolution, almost like the Jesus of Cuba! His arrestingly handsome image is everywhere, far beyond images of Fidel. I followed his early story back in 2004 with the biographical film, “The Motorcycle Diaries.” It recounts Che’s middle-class life as a young Argentine medical student traveling over much of South America. He is played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Che was radicalized towards Marxism by the poverty, hunger and disease he witnessed. He was very much against the economic exploitation of Latin America by the United States and was targeted by the CIA for years. Che eventually went to foment revolution in Bolivia, where the CIA finally killed him.

It reads, "Gentleman without blemish and without fear."
Kenia explained that one of the biggest movements of the Revolution was universal education, compulsory till age 16. The country has 47 universities. This system has resulted in universal literacy, surpassing all of the Caribbean and Latin America. Also highly rated is the health care system, which endows the island with the lowest infant mortality rate and longest life expectancy in the region.

We also asked Kenia about religion under the Castro regimes, having noticed the churches are in good condition. She said religious training was rare when she grew up (she’s probably 35-40 years old), but the attitude towards religion has relaxed nowadays. I asked about repression of speech, and Kenia said that, more recently, it is not uncommon to hear some critical comments of the government on television news. Thank you, Kenia – who travels to Canada every year (allowed!) – for your wonderful company, helpful information and perfect English!

After three days in Havana, we headed for the city of Trinidad (not the Caribbean country, Trinidad and Tobago). The driver made great time on the mostly straight and flat road that passes miles of trees and sugar cane fields. 

Billboards proclaiming the ethos of the revolution, while seeming a bit anachronistic at this point, dot their way across the landscape.

Reads, "History, Honor, Commitment."

Reads, "Cradle and Flagstone of Distinguished Patriots."
The man grows with the work that comes out of his hands

Reads, "The Revolution Will Go On."
Kenia had arranged a casa particular in Trinidad for us, but that woman had rented the room and arranged another place in town for us. The second woman led us from the original address to her rather tasteless-but-recently-renovated home several blocks away while we dragged our suitcases. Our three days in Trinidad went fine, but this woman was no Kenia; she was new to the gig and had some attitude. I asked for the breakfast eggs to be cooked in butter. I knew that an oil I had already tasted had disagreed with me. The cook insisted that was no problem, then delivered the eggs cooked in an even more rancid version of that oil. I was sick all day. We decided to buy breakfast the next two mornings. 

We were witness to a street festival just outside our door that went on for all of our three days. While passing the set-up phase, we thought it would be fun to sample some local preparations later. When the booths were humming with activity (or blasting deafening music), we were bombarded with the smell of that rancid grease every time we left the house. We decided, as in Havana, to seek out the restaurants for tourists – of whom there were many in town. We recommend:

La Redaccion – with a newspaper, journalistic theme.

Restaurant San José – where we had the best sweet potato fries ever.

Sol Ananda – in a beautiful house. A rowdy British group of fourteen, all of whom are the crew on a private yacht, entertained us at high volume with their singing and shenanigans (we colluded with them). They presented us with two glasses of wine when they left to compensate for the commotion!

Taberna La Botija – every evening this place has great music and a snaking line out the door. We only managed a drink later one night when the line had disappeared.

I found the range of housing much more equitable among the populace, as if many of the units were built after the Revolution.

Trinidad is popular with tourists, particularly for its nearby beaches. When we procured a “taxi” one day to go to the famous Playa Ancón, the driver insisted he always takes his family to the quieter beach next door, Playa Maria Aguilar, which is where he dropped us. It was a lovely, mostly deserted beach alongside one of the many “all-inclusive” vacation resorts, which was also very quiet. 

Getting a beer was a challenge, but no one could prevent our enjoying the sunset.

Main square, Trinidad
In Trinidad, our never-ending quest for internet became trickier. Our casa had none. We waited in line for half an hour at a sort of bank on the main plaza to buy cards, but the WIFI in the plaza was so erratic that very little was accomplished. We kept thinking we had more time on a card if the internet stopped, but usually had to start over with a new card the next time. The Iberostar Hotel on the plaza allowed use of their WIFI with the purchase of a drink at their bar, but again – very erratic intervals of functioning internet. We started buying more cards at a time. By the end of the trip we had purchased thirteen cards and received only about eight hours of connection, between us.

Popular steps/plaza, Trinidad
Our novice hostess told us we had to be out by 9:00am for the next guests. We managed to move that to 10:00. Another “taxi” was available on the plaza when we were ready to travel to the city of Cienfuegos on the Bay of Cienfuegos. 

This town, “one hundred fires,” is named after one of the stars of the Revolution. It has a different look from Trinidad and feels more tranquil. The housing ranges from two-three storied townhouses in pretty good shape to some nicer free-standing houses. The remaining, well-maintained mansions serve other purposes. The main thoroughfare, Paseo El Prada, is porticoed in the center of town, like Bologna!

Once again in this town, the recommended woman for a casa particular had rented our room and sent us – luckily this time – just two doors over to stay. The accommodations were fine and the breakfast very good. I got a big kick out of our Hieronymus Bosch-type shower curtain!

Our first lunch was a trek we took by taxi all the way to the end of the main street by the bay. The Palacio de Valle is quite an elaborate Moorish-inspired palace...beautiful, with food - just OK. The dining room was full of Japanese tourists. We had a fun “bicycle taxi” ride back.

There is a closed-off ‘mall’ street in town for shopping, though the only well-supplied stores (including the grocery stores) offer tourist souvenirs, rum and cigars.

Another walkway over several blocks that ends by the water offers shopping stalls and shops. 

Me picking out some lovely crochet
We bought seed and wooden jewelry, a pretty crochet sweater, shoes, and a baseball and mit for our Spanish friends’ children in Natal. 

Of course, Newton bought some cigars for gifts and these handy cases to keep them fresh.

We liked the restaurant Casa Prada on the Paseo El Prada enough to go both nights we were in Cienfuegos. It has a rooftop bar and grill restaurant with good live music. We drank mojitos and listened until a table was available in the fancier restaurant below. There was a prix fixe menu that was fantastic both nights. The educated waiter was another great source of information and discussion.

An extraordinary find was the charming little restaurant, Las Mamparas, also along Paseo El Prada. This seems to be a simpler place for locals and tourists, but the colorful décor has a charming sophistication that belies the surprisingly low prices for surprisingly delicious food.

We tried to buy internet access cards at this hotel with the bluest blue fountain I had ever seen. The saturation of color in this courtyard made me dizzy! No cards available.

Here is the "triumphal arch" in Cienfuego's plaça commemorating the independent nation of Cuba in 1902.

A taxi was arranged to get us back to Havana for our last day. Kenia had no vacancy, but had pre-arranged for us to stay across the street in an unofficial casa particular, owned by a kind and dignified older woman who probably is happy to accommodate some overflow from time to time from Kenia’s. She was deaf, so communication was limited, but she spoke some English, which added to her educated bearing. I would have loved to hear her story…a wealthier family who stayed behind?

We decided to explore the Chinatown neighborhood. I used to love the Cuban-Chinese restaurants in NY City. I also had a Cuban-Chinese taxi driver once to JFK. He said that his family displayed every shade of skin from pitch black to pale, with Chinese eyes from black to blue!

While evidence of Chinese DNA is easily confirmed by studying Cuban faces, the culture of the mid-nineteenth century laborers who shipped over from China is barely evident. Since nearly every Chinese immigrant was male, the mixed descendants have been acculturated to the colonial Spanish/African influences of their predecessors from early on. As former Chinese laborers began opening small businesses, "Chinatown" was born. A Chinese gate, one pagoda-looking restaurant and two people who looked Chinese were the only vestiges we noticed.

More striking to us was the absence of tourists in this neighborhood. We got a big kick out of mixing into a gathering crowd who were witnessing their first camera drone overhead!

We returned to Habana 61 for another carpaccio of octopus - the best I ever had - and our last stroll through La Habana Vieja.

Kenia supplied our breakfast at Casa Lunass, and the three of us cherished a little more time and discussion together before we left for the airport.

Our airport lunch was a shocking reminder of government-run inanity. We were in line for almost an hour, trying to ascertain just what, exactly, was available. The hints on a posted short list and as samples in a case as we plodded by were more like moving targets that had nothing to do with what were, in the end, the choices. The understaffed workers seemed to be as clueless as we were. In the end I had my first grilled cheese sandwich in years - slightly greasy, but not bad while evoking fond memories from my childhood!

We had one evening in totally lovely Mexico City on our way home (I have a Mexican chamber in my heart). Our connection was through Panama City to São Paulo, where we enjoyed family and another exceptional dinner made by our nieces Mariana and Mayra. Our nephew, Michel, also speaks nearly perfect English and shares my passion for all kinds of music, movies and series, so we had our usual gab-fest. 

Home after a month-and-a half? Yes, it felt good. Our Cotovelo Beach ocean is completely turquoise in the Southern Hemisphere summer. It really compensates for the neighbors who show up to their beach houses only in January and play horrid high volume and typically off-key.

If you are still reading this, you are an extraordinarily curious person. Congrats, and my apologies for any slow sections!



  1. Having just returned from 10 days in Cuba on Sunday, I devoured your dispatch and wanted to add comments throughout. I went with dear friends Peggy and Malcolm on a photography based tour led by a swoony 28 yr old Cuban photographer who was the equivalent of a Spanish Adam Levine. My experience was wonderful from food to lodgings to weather, music and the people. I have over 950 pictures to cull down for my travelogue. Loved yours. Thanks.

    1. Oh, I want to see those photos and hear your report! Please let me know when I can check out the travelogue with the culled photos. XO

  2. Wonderful dispatch. I loved the cars, but was somewhat amazed at the crumbling infrastructure. Assuming 45 doesn't undo Obama's changes, Cuba certainly has a chance of recovering to the days of Hemingway. I could never understand the United States' position against Cuba once the issues around Russian missiles were in the far past. Cincinnati has benefited from Cuba regarding baseball (the best current relief pitcher in the U.S., although no longer with the Cincinnati team) and our ballet. One of our Principal Dancers is from Cuba, Cervilio Miguel Amador, and one of our Senior Soloist is also from Cuba, Jose Losada. I was surprised at your description of the food. Too bad it didn't live up to the Cuban food we get in the U.S.

  3. This was so fun and interesting! LOVED the cars and bright colored buildings / fountains (besides the falling apart buildings...) Seems like a very unique place, glad I got to hear about all of your experiences there :)

  4. Great dispatch, not long at all!! Thanks for sharing! Beijos!


Click on left arrows below for Archive Dispatch titles.

Blog Archive