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Hello From Cuba - Part 1 - First Impressions

Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:00 pm, Hotel Havana Libre

Thanks to a severe case of the Revenge of Montezuma (or Ricky Ricardo?..,) I am sitting here in the Hotel Havana Libre and I finally get around to create updates from my first 4.5 days here in Cuba. The Internet connection is definitely the slowest I have ever seen in my entire life, (15 minutes to access my messages at Yahoo..), but I am giving it a shot anyways.

Friday morning I arrived at the airport in Toronto at 5...

Travel, Cuba, Havana

Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:00 pm, Hotel Havana Libre

Thanks to a severe case of the Revenge of Montezuma (or Ricky Ricardo?..,) I am sitting here in the Hotel Havana Libre and I finally get around to create updates from my first 4.5 days here in Cuba. The Internet connection is definitely the slowest I have ever seen in my entire life, (15 minutes to access my messages at Yahoo..), but I am giving it a shot anyways.

Friday morning I arrived at the airport in Toronto at 5:30 am since my husband gave me a ride before work. The plane was scheduled to leave at 10:30 and several transfers with public transport would have taken me 2.5 hours anyway, so I decided to head there early and read a book.

Air Canada was delayed after all (due to a problem with the water supply on the plane) and we had to wait for a substitute plane from Winnipeg and finally got off the ground at about noon. 3.5 hours later we arrived at the airport Jose Marti in Havana - a reasonably modern airport. However, it took me and the other travellers almost 2 hours to collect our luggage and finally hop into a taxi.

On the way in from the airport I noticed that there was a mixture of industrial developments and agricultural areas, right up until the centre of the city, which is strange compared to Toronto, where there is no significant agriculture until way outside the city. The older gentleman driving the taxi was very friendly and explained a few basic things to me, e.g. that most of the area is industrial and agricultural. He also showed the National Sports Centre to me. Of course you see old cars from the 50s and earlier as well as beat-up Russian Ladas everywhere. Old sidecar motorcycles are also a popular way to get around.

I finally arrived at my hotel at about 6 pm where my brand-new friend Pedro (a connection through a friend in Canada) was waiting for me. I had told my friend that I wanted to really spend some time with locals to learn about Cuba, its customs, its way of life etc.

Pedro is a brown-skinned black man in his late thirties with a common-law wife and a young daughter. An extremely nice person and he´s been very gracious in taking me around and explaining things to me.

After I dropped off my suitcase and refreshed myself a little, we hopped into a private individual's car (a practice extremely common in Cuba), he paid a few local pesos and we were whisked downtown in a very old beat-up Lada which ended up picking up various other locals along the way.

Habana Vieja is a fascinating colonial city and the age and beauty of the building is astounding. Of course I saw the Capitolio (very similar to the Capital in Washington), several of the big museums, the Hotel Inglaterra and some of the bars that Hemingway frequented.

I also saw the big spider exhibit of 2 metallic spiders that are located right in the heart of downtown, an exhibit by a French sculptress that will stay in Havana until April 28 and then apparently move on to New York.

We walked around and chatted about life in Cuba and I started to learn a few things, about some of the practical consequences of the revolution (e.g. blacks have it much better today than before, and there is relatively little racism according to Pedro), and the double economy, where locals receive their salary in Pesos Cubanos, (around US$8 to $30 a month), which is not even close to enough for living, so everybody participates in the underground economy in some way.

We had a reasonably expensive meal in a downtown "Paladar", a private restaurant in a private home with a maximum of 12 seats, one of the few official private enterprises allowed. When asked about the future of Cuba after Fidel, both my new-found friend and the old man running the Paladar indicated that they thought not much would change after a future passing of Fidel. (Actually the mention of Fidel´s passing often makes people pull up their hands in front of their mouths and start to speak very quietly...).

After the meal, Pedro again flagged down a private vehicle, we hopped in and I got dropped off at the hotel, dropping into bed like a tired sack of potatoes. But I definitely had a great introduction to life in Cuba on my first evening....

 

Hello From Cuba - Part 3 - Hiking Vinales And Exploring Nature

Hotel Havana Libre, Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:54 pm

On Sunday it was gorgeous. The cold front had finally passed through, the rain was gone and we had a beautiful warm sunny day without any humidity.

My hostess is also a guide for the National Park System and Vinales is a nationally protected natural habitat. She had a tour planned through a side valley of Vinales (Valle del Ancon) with 3 participants, an older couple from Germany and me.

The tour was fabulous, we go...

Travel, Cuba, Havana

Hotel Havana Libre, Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:54 pm

On Sunday it was gorgeous. The cold front had finally passed through, the rain was gone and we had a beautiful warm sunny day without any humidity.

My hostess is also a guide for the National Park System and Vinales is a nationally protected natural habitat. She had a tour planned through a side valley of Vinales (Valle del Ancon) with 3 participants, an older couple from Germany and me.

The tour was fabulous, we got picked up by a local in a taxi and went about 20 minutes outside of town and got dropped off at a local primary school, which had several communist slogans painted on the outside. Political graffiti, paintings and message boards are extremely common in Cuba. Although there is no western style advertising, there are plenty of political slogans (a collection of a few of which I will summarize at a later point).

This is a very strange experience when you come from a Western capitalist country like Canada, and then you see all these political slogans about Communism and defending the Revolution. Truly fascinating indeed, a completely different world.

On our 3 hour trip we walked through local fields, were told about local wildlife, special birds (the Cuban Tocororo, Turkey vultures and other birds. We also heard about local farming which still takes place with human labour, manual ploughs and oxen. We were introduced to crops such as Malanga (pureed and given to babies), Yucca, various types of sweet potatoes, corn and yams.

One of the highlights was a 20 minute walk through a limestone cave through one of the Mogote hills. We saw some interesting stone formations and even strange pale plants growing inside the pitch-dark cave. Our guide had illuminated the cave with a strong flashlight for the 4 of us and it was a pretty easy walk with no cave-dwelling animals in sight, only one political slogan spray-painted in the cave (apparently this was a hideout for the revolutionary army at some point..).

After exiting the cave, we ended up in an uninhabited small valley completely surrounded by mountains and we ran into a local farmer of 60 years, whose leathery face and slim body gave him the appearance of an 80 year old man, evidence of many decades of sun and hard work.

He had a flock of turkeys (with 61 young chicks), a dog and some fields of corn and beans. And he generally spends most of his days working manually in this little valley, completely isolated, sometimes staying overnight in a single hut made from the wood and leaves of the royal palm tree, Cuba´s national tree. No radio, no TV, no sanitation, no kitchen, just a wooden bed with a blanket in a hut with an earthen floor. Again a reminder of how different life can be in this country....

Then we crossed over a small mountain range and back into the Valle del Ancon, where we saw a Casa Campesino, a traditional farm house/museum, which had also been visited a few years ago by Fidel Castro. Next to the farm house is a beautiful river that exits from a cave and 3 young cuban teenage boys were swimming and jumping into the water and having a ton of fun. The entrance to the cave is also surrounded by wasp-hives (if that word exists), so there are tons of wasp dwellings hanging down from the rock formations.

We took the taxi back into town and I had another 3 hours or so before my departure with the Viazul bus. 2 local teenage boys, Rider and Rigo, approached me (truly in the style of the underground economy), offered me to rent a bicycle for $3 and to take me to a Paladar or private restaurant. I thought, why not, they seemed pretty decent. So I took the 3rd bike and rode up with them into the hills above Vinales.

There they introduced me to a local family and the lady of the house served me with a complete vegetarian meal for $8.00. Afterwards I rented the bike for $2 for 1 hour and I rode around Vinales and outside of town a bit to take some photos of the Mogotes. The bike tour, even though extremely short, was a great way of exploring the town and surroundings.

At 4 pm I hopped back on the Viazul bus and went back to La Havana (Havana). At 7:30 or so I arrived at the Viazul bus station and I ended up taking a "Cocotaxi", a yellow 3-wheeler type of scooter taxi with a rounded yellow roof partially covering the 2 seats in the back and the driver in the front.

The Cocotaxi driver was initially fixing his vehicle since a tire had blown out and he was changing the wheels. The ride took about 20 minutes to the hotel and was definitely an experience. He then inisted on inviting me for a drink and I told him immediately that I was not interested in any funny business, that I was a married woman, only here to study Spanish and not interested in romance. (Romantic approaches by Cuban men and women of foreigners are very common here).

He said no problem, he just wanted to talk and we sat down for a conversation that was reasonably pleasant for a while until he started to make the moves on me, some very verbally explicit ones by the way. I never felt physically threatened, especially since he was about as short as me, but I definitely got annoyed with him and he apologized at the end for his behaviour.

Nevertheless that brief experience taught me to curb my friendliness and my openness a little bit with the locals, since things can be very easily misunderstood in this culture....

Another lesson learned....

For the entire article including photos please visit
http://www.travelandtransitions.com/stories_photos/hello_cuba_3.htm

 

Hello From Cuba - Part 4 - Bureaucracy Galore - The University Of Havana

Hotel Havana Libre, Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 7:20 pm

Yesterday I had to sign up for my Spanish course at the University of Havana. The Campus of the University is an astoundingly beautiful collection of classical buildings and a Cuban tank graces the entrance to the library.

At 9 am all the foreign students, about 40 of them, met in the Edificio Varona and we were shepherded by various professors into a very antiquated lecture hall. (By the way, of the 5 or 6 washroom st...

Travel, Cuba, Havana, Alma Mater, University of Havana

Hotel Havana Libre, Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 7:20 pm

Yesterday I had to sign up for my Spanish course at the University of Havana. The Campus of the University is an astoundingly beautiful collection of classical buildings and a Cuban tank graces the entrance to the library.

At 9 am all the foreign students, about 40 of them, met in the Edificio Varona and we were shepherded by various professors into a very antiquated lecture hall. (By the way, of the 5 or 6 washroom stalls in the women´s bathroom, only 1 or 2 have toilets in them, no toilet seats, and no running water in the sinks. Again a sign of rather run-down infrastructure...)

There they told us about the program, but only in Spanish, which was okay for me, since I speak Spanish, but about half the group was completely lost. We then had to do a quick written placement test to assess our existing Spanish skills and then the bureaucracy began.

We found out that we needed the following documents:

- a copy of our passports

- an official copy of the hotel guest card and/or a copy of the licence of the private Casa Particular

- 200 CUC (Convertible Cuban Pesos) in cash for a 2-week course or more for other courses

- 40 CUC for changing our tourist visa to an academic visa (in fiscal stamps which we had to obtain abuot 5 km away)

- 2 passport photos

- 25 CUC in cash to expedite our academic visa if we are in town for only 2 weeks.

I linked up with a bunch of foreign students and we headed off together on our quest to fulfill the Cuban desire for Burocratismo. We first obtained cash at bank at the Hotel Havana Libre, then got the passport pictures done (to be ready for pickup 3 hours later), then searched for the other bank on Calle 23 that would provide us with the 40CUC stamps for the academic visa. With extremely long lineups everywhere, this took us about 2 or 3 hours.

Then we got really hungry and we were approached by a local "Jinetero" (restaurant tout) who promised us a complete meal with main dish, salad and side dish for 6 or 7 CUC. We walked with him, only to find out that the wait at the Paladar (private restaurant) would be about 45 minutes to even sit down, not including food preparation time.

So we walked up Calle 21 and a private restaurant owner approached us for a meal and we gave in and came inside. It was a beautiful colonial villa, except that the guest room with is obligatory 3 tables and 12 seats was in a dark small dingy room completely without windows.

However, we had a delicious home-cooked meal, I had roasted chicken with rice & beans, salad and a lemon soft drink, all for 8 CUC (about 8 US$). 2 of my student colleagues were from Germany and the other fellow is from Toronto as well, but originally from Poland. We had some great conversations and it was interesting linking up with a bunch of Europeans in Havana.

After a brief rest in the hotel, my friend Pedro again picked me up in the evening and I couldn´t help but tell him about my experience with the Cocotaxi driver yesterday, who had tried to pick me up, despite my clarifications and statements that I was married and not interested in any amorous activities.

Pedro explained that sexual relations in Cuba are a relatively common, easy-going thing and that it is very common for people to link up for quick "meaningful overnight relationships". He referred to the Cuban people as very "passionate and hot-blooded", I guess that explains a couple of the advances that I have been receiving so far, particularly since there is also quite a lot of sex tourism where men (and even women) come to Cuba to engage in easily available erotic experiences.

Pedro and I walked through the old town and of course along the Malecon (the seafront boulevard) and saw the beautiful Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de la Catedral where a mass was being held for the passing of Pope John Paul II.

This was very interesting, since Cuba is a Communist / official atheist country and there are much fewer Catholics today than before the Revolution. Actually much of Cuba´s religion is a mixture of Catholicism and Santeria (religious practices of the African slaves). Regardless of religiousness, Cuba has declared a 3-day "duelo nacional" (a national mourning period for the Pope) and the mass was attended by hundreds of people.

Pedro and I then had a nice meal in the "Barrio Chino" (Havana's Chinatown) for 5.60 CUC (less than US$6) for 2 people and 2 vegetarian meals and soft drinks. After a nice dinner he again flagged down a local private car driver and gave him about 1 CUC for picking us up and dropping us off at my Hotel. At midnight I dropped into bed, exhausted.

However, at 4 am this morning I awoke with major intestinal problems. Apparently my Chinese meal had not become me so well and I had serious digestive issues emanating from both sides of my body. This morning I realy felt rotten and I ended up using my own medical kit for the first time and took some Immodium.

I was unable to eat breakfast, but I made my way to the university where at 9 am our classes started. Surprisingly the placement test had put me into the level of "perfeccionamiento", the highest level and the level of Spanish in my class was indeed very high. The class consists of 7 students, a young woman from England, a young female medical student from Denmark, a middle-aged female doctor from Finland, a young male law student from Sweden, a young woman and man from Norway and myself from Austria/Canada.

Obviuosly there is a very heavy Scandinavian slant in my class and it seems everyone in the class is a hobby sociologist, political scientist, environmentalist and historian. We asked some rather tough questions about Cuban life, the political system, the economic hardships, the double economy, the situation of women and blacks in Cuba, machismo and the situation of the environment.

Some of these questions made our female professor feel extremely uncomfortable and it seemed like she was squirming under the barrage of probing political and sociological questions. She got very defensive a few times about the Cuban system and only after we discussed the good and bad aspects of European and Canadian societies did she loosen up a bit and become a bit more open and frank about the real Cuban life. It seems that to this day Cubans have to be very careful about what they say in public.

For example, she frankly admitted that racism still exists in Cuba and to this day it is still a country with a lot of machismo. However, she did not admit that Internet access and access to non-Communist media is forbidden for Cubans, she simply explained it as an economic issue. (Several of my colleagues had heard otherwise in their travels in Cuba, simply that a Cuban is not allowed to have access to the Internet). She also admitted that it is not allowed for Cubans to visit the tourist areas of the Cayos (e.g. Cayo Coco) which is exclusively reserved for tourists and Cubans have no access to that area whatsoever, a definite point of contention among the locals.

Class ended about 1:20 and my upset stomach did not allow me to intake any food. I headed back to my hotel, slept a little and have been on the Internet for the past 2 or so hours (racking up a bill of about $US 20.00 or s0), documenting my trip.

It´'ll be a quiet evening tonight since I am trying to settle down my stomach. But I am sure the adventures and the learning will continue tomorrow.




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