Sunday, February 24th
This is my last installment about the events of my trip to Cuba. (Sorry! There’s still more to come about my opinions!)
Our last full day was Sunday, February 24th. We started the day with another lecture by Massimo, our Nat Geo guide. Titled ‘The Economy”, Massimo’s talk and slides were mostly about cigars and cigar production. Don’t tell anyone but he lit a cigar in the conference room of the hotel to show us how (a big no-no even in seemingly rule-less Cuba).
Maybe cigars are a big yawn for you, but like everything else in my life, once I learn about something, I am always fascinated by how little I know! I have never in my life thought about smoking a cigar and so I never thought, at all, about cigars (though I know they smell good). Now I find that there is a whole culture of cigar smoking. I just didn’t know!
The export of cigars is not a huge industry for Cuba – but it is one of which Cubans can be proud. Like their rum. Every country should have a special expertise that can give them cachet in world consciousness, and for Cuba, cigars can definitely be their very own.
Since I have returned home, just this afternoon in fact, I was digging around for some information on the economy of Cuba. I was startled to learn that the number one export of Cuba is nickel (No, actually I knew that). What was startling to learn is that the #2 export is oil. (Yep! Venezuela’s oil. Bought from President Chavez at a subsidized price and then sold on the world market at the market price! A discovery with interesting timing: Will Chavez’s successor continue this? )
The 3rd largest export is pharmaceuticals and bio-technology. There is no qualitative judgment implied in these statements – just interesting facts.
Following Massimo’s talk, we boarded our trusty bus, ably piloted by Julio, and went to visit a community group called “Muraleando.” This time we are in a neighborhood that has been transformed by the power of art. Murals, sculpture, mosaic – these elements have transformed a run-down barrio into a neighborhood for residents. The group has also converted an old unused water tank into a headquarters! Granted, not everyone considers murals and art made from trash to be an improvement, so imagine what was here before.
We were treated to a tour of the neighborhood, and then a performance of song and dance at the headquarters. One of the members of the group is a rapper – he told us the story of how he fell in with the wrong sort, ended up in prison, and now raps to tell of his life. There was also a female singer, part of the group, with her musician husband and various and sundry other individuals who seemed a motely group, but were making something special together.
The musical performance, of course, required dancing and audience participation! I strategically placed myself where I would not be required to join in. Kill joy? Maybe. But it suits me better. And allowed me to take pictures of everyone else!
We also got a chance to peruse the artistic out-put of the members of the group. Cuba’s investment in the arts means we have seen excellent quality in music, dance and art at each of our community stops.
Following the community project, we drove to visit the home and studio of the artist José Fuster in Jaimanitas. This is the fantasy brainchild of a single artist. We had lunch in the artist’s home (hosted by his son – dad was off somewhere being famous) and to a one, we felt like we were in a wonderland inspired by Gaudí. I cannot describe the place with words, but fortunately I have lots of pictures to show you! (Food was good, too! Rice and black beans accompanied by other Cuban dishes, including a stewed lobster.)
After lunch, headed to our final event of the trip (Plaza de la Revolución), we stopped for a couple of minutes to watch a kids’ baseball game. That brought back memories! Same parents and coaches taking everything too seriously; same kids – being kids!
Back on the bus, we arrive at our final stop. Some of us get out of the bus to look around, planning a walk back to our hotel with Massimo. Others get their pictures and opt to return to the hotel on the bus. It was hot! I envied them, but really wanted to walk a bit. Sunday afternoon is a good time to find families out on the street.
Our walk basically covered the streets on a direct walk back. Highlights were a “mall” – the picture does not help you to imagine the noise in that place. Wow. What a din! Contrast that with the Jesuits’ seat – a quiet and dignified temple – with a very old air about it but actually only dating from 1909. Massimo, ever the intrepid guide, took us into a veterinary clinic.
Whoa! Some really strange looks. We actually even went right into the operating room to see a spaying going on. More than I want to take in on a Sunday afternoon. If I hadn’t been so cowed by the first non-smiling faces I had seen in Cuba, I might have taken pictures of the people with their pets.
After the vet clinic, our group started coming apart. One part went on ahead, and Gerry and I lagged behind waiting for the group with Massimo. Massimo’s group apparently decided to go off in another direction when they emerged and found everyone gone. Gerry and I got left in the middle – with neither group. We made it back just fine, and I got to see what Zoe told us was called “Jurassic Park” – the park where everyone comes to show off their old cars. That park is right next to Parque Central (Sound familiar? Yep! Same name, and location, as our hotel). Lots of good photo ops and no one to slow down by our constant stopping.
That evening we met in the lobby to go up to the roof on another side of our hotel for our final reception. We had a beautiful view of the Bacardi building, and the drinks and food flowed smoothly. Short speeches by our fearless leaders, and we headed off to dinner at El Gijones (the former American Club).
What a riot! We get to travel to the restaurant, not in our bus, but four to an old convertible. Since I had ridden in one the night before, I knew what it was all about. FUN! It was a great ride, and we really enjoyed yelling back and forth to each other between cars and trying to take photos – all of which capture the movement – many capture the fun, too – but I think you might have to have been there.
Following dinner, we were off to another club, La Taberna, to hear the Buena Vista Social Club, or something pretty close. I never was too sure exactly who the group was – though I think some of the members were actually in the original group.
The music was good, but the place was a huge tourist trap and the musicians were at floor level and therefore hard to see. I couldn’t really get into it. Others did though, and seemed to be having a wonderful time. I stuck it out because I was too lazy to want to go get a cab back to the hotel. The bus was waiting for us. I waited for it.
Monday, February 25th.
This was our last morning. Of all the things I really wanted to do; only one remained! We had some extra time this morning, since we did not need to be on the bus until 9:45. We’re all packed. We’ve eaten breakfast. We had an hour to kill. There is time for a walk on the Paseo del Prado.
The Prado starts right at the corner of our hotel and extends down to the harbor. It is similar to La Rambla in Barcelona (not the way it was in October 2012 when we were there, but the way it was back in 2002 when we were there with the kids). On a Monday morning, there wasn’t much to see in the way of street entertainment, but it was still a beautiful walk.
We passed two gym classes. I thought it was pretty telling that the Cuba schools had to use public spaces as gyms for their students (until I saw a private school from my neighborhood here in San Juan having gym class in a public park yesterday). I kept thinking about the Cuban government’s involvement in culture and sports (as well as education and health-care), and my internal jury is still out on that one. I saw how good culture and sports can be with government support. Is that really how I would want my tax dollars used? That is the part I am not sure about yet.
The Prado was clean, shady, and cheerful. The buildings to either side may have been falling apart (the schools included) but the walk itself was quite pretty. As we neared the end (of the Prado and our time allotted) we could see the lighthouse in the harbor. Very picturesque!
A brisk walk back to the front of the hotel, and we’re on our way to the airport. We have plenty of time to reverse the document procedure, pay our exit tax, and then wait. Our flight is late (nothing unusual about that, we’re told!)
We said our goodbyes in the Havana airport knowing that once we were off the plane we’d all split up to maneuver customs and immigration on our own. Gerry and I waited for Cindy. It was her first time using global entry, so we walked her through it. (Oh, we’re so experienced! It was our second time!) Once through, we did finally say good-bye. We had no checked luggage so we headed off for our next flight. Not a peep from customs.
We did not have the long layover I thought I had booked for us, so it was a short hour and a half wait for our flight to San Juan. Both of us got upgraded to first class and it was a pretty routine flight home.
That’s it! That’s the whole trip, blow by blow.