S: CUBA ~ November 2011
1: Cuba November 2011
2: For a long time, Cuba has held a special place in my imagination - not just from hearing the stories about the place where my mother, Zeida, was born, but also because of the curiosity to learn more about a country caught in a time warp. After decades of revolution and socialism, Cuba is an enigma - economically poor, but culturally rich; visibly deteriorating, but architecturally magnificent. The socialist economy, in which two official currencies circulate, is dysfunctional, yet in a country of few material possessions, Cubans are ingenious when it comes to conjuring miracles out of nothing. I know that the end of the US embargo will change things for the better in Cuba, but I wanted to see Cuba as it is today...before the ugly side of commercialism makes it just like all the other Caribbean islands on the cruise ship itineraries. So when my mother, after always saying she had no desire to return, announced that she did in fact want to go back one last time, we started making plans. My cousin Pepín, who has traveled back to Cuba numerous times in recent years, was invaluable when it came to the planning, as he has many connections. Even better, he also agreed to join us on our trip. One of the first steps was to apply for our visas. While it is not illegal for Americans to visit Cuba, it is more challenging if you want to travel directly from the US. However, the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, DC will issue visas to Cuban-born American citizens to visit family. As a descendant of my Cuban mother, and Gavin as my husband, we also qualified. After putting together Zeida’s application and documents showing maiden name and married names, to included: diplomas, marriage certificates, birth certificates, USA Naturalization Certificate, and current passport; we sent off everything plus a hefty processing fee. Zeida worried for weeks that they were not going to let her back into Cuba. Pepín kept assuring her that they wanted her money more than anything else, but the government had to ensure that she was not an anti-Castro activist or someone who left Cuba illegally. Eventually after about 4 weeks all the visas arrived and we were set to go.
3: We were fortunate to be able to take a direct charter flight from Miami, a perk reserved for authorized travelers. We lined up for hours at the baggage check-in then, ironically, as though it were any other domestic flight, we went through all of the US security processes and boarded an American Airlines plane for the 45-minute flight to Havana. After we landed we walked across the tarmac still wondering whether Zeida would have any problems entering Cuba after more than 50 years. One by one we passed through passport control where we completed lots of paperwork, had our pictures taken, and ended up on the other side of a closed door - we were in! A distant relative of Pepín’s met us and helped us pass through customs without so much as a second glance. Knowing that we would be unable to use our American credit cards, ATM cards or even traveler's checks, we had to bring the money we would need in cash (US Dollars), which we strategically hid in various places. As with everything in Cuba - you wait and our next wait was for the car Pepín rented – a Spanish SEAT Ibiza. Once we finally had the car we drove east of Havana along the coast to Varadero, the resort capital of Cuba..... | Jose Marti Airport, Havana
4: A curly-tailed lizard basks in the sun outside our villa | Upon arrival at our Varadero resort - the Meliá Las Américas, we were greeted with strong Mojito cocktails. Pepín’s connections once again proved beneficial as we were given the "Owner's Villa," a bungalow overlooking the beautiful Caribbean sea.
5: The world famous Varadero beach with sand as fine as icing sugar and clear turquoise water | Raul, one of the "beach boys," spread the word to the other "beach boys " that we were the "American's with the Cuban mother" - that and a generous tip got us reserved beach chairs under an umbrella in the 1st row closest to the water each day.
6: Sunrise on Varadero Beach
8: Our resort was located next door to "Mansion Xanadú" which was built in the 1920’s by U.S. millionaire Irenee Du Pont. The mansion is now a bed & breakfast and the original 9-hole golf course is part of the Varadero Golf Club. | Mosaic inside the Mansion
9: Colorful evening entertainment!!!
10: Hotel Internacional in Varadero - one of Zeida's old stomping grounds. The beach is in one of the nicest sections of Varadero because it is protected by a cove, but the hotel, like so many other places, has not fared well over the years. | Water Tower
11: One evening we took a trip into the town for some shopping and vintage car watching | A Coco-Taxi
12: Zeida bought a snack from her childhood - Cucurucho de Maní- a long thin paper cone of freshly roasted peanuts sold by street vendors who sing a song as they sell. "El Manicero” - the "Peanut Vendor" is based on a street seller’s cry, and it is one of the most well known pieces of Cuban music.
13: El Manicero - the peanut vendor | Cuban rhythms lead to dancing in the marketplace
14: Matanzas is the province and the city where Zeida grew up. It is known as the "City of Bridges," of which there are seventeen crossing the three rivers that traverse the city. It is also called "La Atenas de Cuba" ("The Athens of Cuba") for its poets. | Valle de Yumurí and the Bacunayagua Bridge leading into Matanzas province
15: Parque Libertad in Matanzas has a bronze statue of the poet Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba's bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century. | The Teatro Sauto opened in 1863 and is still one of the finest theater venues in the country and has attracted many famous performers to its stage. Zeida belonged to a club called "Amigos de la Cultura Cubana" that had a monthly program that brought dancers & artists from Havana to the theater. | The Casino Español - a former high society ballroom where Zeida went to dances is now a library | Pepín & Zeida in front of the Casino Español
16: One of the most fascinating places to explore - the Museo Farmaceutico. Founded in 1882 by the Triolett family, this antique pharmacy was the first of its type in Latin America and continued to function until 1964 when it became a museum.
17: Beautiful amphora and Limoges porcelain jars full of potions and elixirs that are stacked high in beautiful floor-to-ceiling wood cabinets
20: The original patient prescription register from the 1800's
26: Daoiz 62 - the street and house where Zeida grew up.....now very run down. We could tell how sad it was for her to visit and to see how it has changed. Despite smiling for pictures, she wanted to cry and couldn't wait to leave. | The building was owned by my great-grandfather who lived in the upstairs while the downstairs was shops and a auto repair garage. Zeida remembers playing with a big safe in the shop when she was a child. When her grandfather passed away, Zeida's parents moved into the upstairs along with her mother's father. Her father then built the home downstairs that they moved into and a sep | separate home in the back was built for her sister Ligia, husband Pepe and their children Pepín & Diana. Her brother Enrique and his wife moved into the upstairs.
27: The current owners were home and when they found out it was Zeida's former home they opened their doors to us and happily let us tour the home. What was once a large home, now houses several families. | One of the current residents and her daughter
28: Abra de Yumurí - where the river dissects two mountains | Pedro Apostol Church in Versalles, commonly known as the Versalles Church. | Target-shooting entertainment
29: The city and bay of Matanzas, as well as the Yumurí Valley can be seen from the Ermita de Monserrate Church
30: Our hostess Cary took us to a local market (no tourists here) where she shopped for a few last minute items for the lunch we would have at her home later.
34: Pepín arranged visits and home cooked meals at a couple of different houses of friends of his. The first family we visited was Pepe (a university professor), his wife Cary (she ran a gallery featuring the work of local artisans), and their daughter Gezy. Cary took us for a tour of Matanzas, and we came back to their house that was filled with the wonderful aromas of the delicious lunch that Pepe had stayed home to cook for us. | Fricassé de Langosta - small Cuban lobster with no claws | Yuca con Mojo - cassava root marinated in citrus and garlic | Mixed salad with the largest avocados we have ever seen
35: Gezy, Pepe and Cary outside their home in Matanzas
36: Cathedral de San Carlos Borromeo - built in 1735, it is the seat of the Catholic Church for Matanzas province. My mother's sister Ligia married Pepe here in 1946 and Pepín was baptized here, with Zeida as godmother. | Interesting gear near the Cathedral | Matanzas street life
40: Our second visit to a Cuban family was to the town of Cárdenas, which is known for is "Coches" (horse drawn carriages) and old architecture. | Cárdenas | We ate lunch at the home of Valentina whose mother Iraida, was the former maid of Pepín's family. Because of the color of her skin, Pepín's father in an endearing way used to call her "Prusia" after the darkest kind of blue.
41: We were treated to a delectable meal of langosta, yuca con mojo, rice and "Frijoles Colorados" - a stew of red beans. Lots of laughs with warm, friendly people. | Ria, Iraida - aka "Prusia," Zeida & Pepín | Valentina and a friend | Urbano (Iraida's husband) & Robert (Valentina's brother)
43: Our third visit with a Cuban family was the family of Myrna, who is the daughter of an old neighbor of Ligia, Pepín's mother. Another wonderful meal in the company of good people. | Ria, Maria Ester (Luisi’s mother), Zeida, Pepin, Myrna (Lissette’s mother), Reynaldo (Myrna’s husband), Luisi (Lissette’s husband), Lissette, Gavin | Lisette, Luisi & their beautiful daughter, Liztemily | Liztemily with her "Abuelo "(grandfather)
44: La Villa de San Cristóbal de la Habana The original name of Havana | The Hotel Nacional is living history. It is where mobsters, politicians, and all the big name Hollywood stars used to stay in the 40s and 50s before the revolution. It is a beautiful landmark to those bygone days.
46: Our visit happened to be on Thanksgiving day, so we had an unconventional, but delicious Thanksgiving Feast that we will never forget - Cuban Sandwiches on the patio of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba!
47: Havana is a beautiful and vibrant city where history's hand has left its mark on every corner. La Habana Vieja or Old Havana still holds vestiges of its colonial Spanish origins evident in its plazas, cobblestone streets, fortresses, palaces, and cathedrals. A hint of the days of Capitalist grandeur can be seen in the architecture of the Capitol, the National Theater and the dilapidated remains of the grand old homes that once housed the city's aristocracy. After half a century of a punishing US embargo, the loss of Soviet subsidies and a failed communist economic system, the city is in desperate need of a face-lift. But it is the wonderful people that keep this city patched together. Happy faces look down from balconies and there is music and dancing everywhere. Strolling through the streets of Habana Vieja makes you feel like you have stepped into a place frozen by time, but so enjoyable that we were in no hurry to speed up the clock!
48: Cathedral de San Cristóbal
50: A colorful cast of characters....
51: "Papa" Hemingway's Hangouts Ernest Hemingway, the celebrated American novelist, was affectionately known as "Papa" to the Cubans, who claimed him as one of their own. Hemingway loved Cuba and spent a great deal of time drinking Daiquiri's at the Floridita and Mojito's at La Bodeguita del Medio. During his stay at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls." | Graffiti covers the walls, bar and almost every surface of the interior and exterior of La Bodeguita del Medio - most of it commemorating a visit to Cuba or saluting Hemingway. | Hotel Ambos Mundos
52: Plaza de Armas - laid out in 1519, it is the oldest plaza in Havana and is home to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generals (the former Governor's residence), one of Cuba's most majestic buildings, where peacocks strut the courtyard. Stalls selling antique books and small Soviet made items surround the plaza.
54: La Giraldilla - a weathervane and the symbol of Havana stands above the tower of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest colonial fortresses in the Americas. | El Templete is a small neoclassical temple-type structure, built in 1828 to commemorate the first Catholic mass to mark the founding of San Cristóbal de la Habana in 1519. A local custom is to walk 3 times around the large Ceiba tree planted at the entrance of the temple, while making a wish. | Calle Enna - the shortest street in Havana
55: Plaza Vieja was the site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas - all witnessed by Havana's wealthiest citizens, who looked on from their balconies. | Edificio Bacardí - the former headquarters of the famous rum company
56: “Bicitaxi” - a rickshaw-like bicycle taxi to the Capitolio was a rough ride on bad paving. | El Capitolio was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
57: Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas Cigar factory where Cohiba cigars are rolled | Fuente de la India - a marble fountain with a sculpture of an indigenous girl seated above four dolphins – a famous symbol of Havana. | Gran Teatro de la Habana – the oldest operating theater in the Western Hemisphere and an outrageously beautiful building inside and out.
58: Plaza de San Francisco de Asis – a seaside plaza with an impressive church built in the late 16th century. The English used the church for worship during the year in which they ruled Havana. When it returned to Spanish rule they chose not to use it as a church. It is now used for concerts.
60: Paseo del Prado - a shady pedestrian boulevard filled with local artisans and lined with ornate mansions imitating styles from Madrid, Paris and Vienna. Unfortunately all have seen better days. El Prado was the first paved street in Havana.
62: Calle de los Mercaderes and Calle Obispo are lined with cafés, galleries and boutiques. | This beautiful stained glass doorway (most likely Tiffany) was part of the Crusella's & Company, which produced soaps, hair tonics and perfumes in the mid 1800's. | Cigar aficionados flock to this smoky cigar shop on Calle Mercaderes.
63: Habana 1791 Perfume Shop and Laboratory
64: School children head home from classes with their daily bread ration. | Unusual mailboxes | Simón Bolivar - otherwise known as ‘The Liberator’ after freeing two cities from the Spanish Empire in the 1800's and subsequently earning him hero status amongst Cubans. | Santa Barbara Chango - In Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion, the Orisha (god) Chango is synonymous with the Catholic Saint called Santa Barbara.
65: The streets of Habana Vieja
66: Life may not be easy for the average Cuban citizen, but it sure is colorful and interesting...
68: Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, situated on the eastern shore at the entrance of the bay of Havana. | Castillo De San Salvador De La Punta, situated on the western shore at the entrance of the bay of Havana. | The Malecón is a broad promenade, roadway, and seawall that stretch along the coast in Havana. The promenade has become a favored walkway for lovers, local children, and Cubans of all ages.
69: Coffin Building - there are many theories about why the balconies look like stacked coffins. One says its because a child of the architect died. | Years of neglect and erosion from the sun and salt-air leave the buildings faded and scarred as if from battle.
71: The Malecón
72: Our tickets for a table right in front of the stage included a bottle of Havana Club Rum with Cola mixers, a glass of champagne, a cigar for the men and carnations for the ladies. | No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to the world famous Tropicana Nightclub where in the 40's & 50's the most famous singers and dancers from the U. S. used to perform and all the famous movie stars would visit. First opened in 1939, this open-air dinner theater is the real deal - glamour and nostalgia - a "paradise under the stars." Tall trees rising over the tables and through the roof in some areas turn the theater into a lush tropical forest. Once the show begins, the theater becomes a spectacle of light, vibrant colors and gyrating flesh as scantily clad showgirls, known as "Las Diosas de Carne" ("Flesh Goddesses") parade across the stage and dancers perform on catwalks among the trees, all accompanied by live Cuban music.
77: This dramatic "jungle" number is a love story between a couple who are captured by natives. At one point in the performance she does a swan dive from the top of the catwalk into his arms.
79: Human chandeliers
82: Bullet-ridden truck used in the attack on the Presidential Palace in 1957 | The Museum of the Revolution at the old Presidential Palace – the palace was also the site of an unsuccessful assignation attempt against former president Fulgencio Batista in 1957. The museum houses a documentary and photographic account of the Cuban Revolution, including the yacht Granma that ushered Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 81 others from Mexico into Cuba and world history in 1956. It is one of the holiest shrines of the Cuban Revolution or depending on your perspective "a lot of propaganda," to quote Zeida. Unfortunately we did not get past the anti-American employee in the lobby who, in a show of authority, would not let me bring in a purse that doubled as a camera bag. Ironically we could see numerous other visitors carrying larger purses and camera bags, which we pointed out to her. Not wanting to kick off another Cuban Missile Crisis, we ended our dispute with a refund and a few carefully chosen words in Spang-lish! | The domed ceiling and interior was decorated by Tiffany & Company
83: The Ministry of Interior building is identifiable for its huge Ernest "Che” Guevara image with his well known slogan of "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until Victory, Always) | Plaza de la Revolución – The plaza is where many political rallies have taken place and where Fidel Castro and other political figures address Cubans. The plaza is dominated by the José Martí Memorial, which features a tower and a statue of Martí. The National Library, many government ministries, and other buildings are located in and around the plaza. Located behind the memorial are the closely guarded offices of former President Fidel Castro. | The Ministry of Communications with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos, another Cuban Revolutionary. It says, "Vas bien, Fidel" (You're doing fine, Fidel)
84: Antonio Maceo Monument - he was the second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence. | The oldest tree in Havana | The US Interests Section - although Cuba and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations, the Interests Section functions as a de facto embassy. | The University of Havana where Zeida studied. Fidel Castro was also a student at the same time.
85: Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón was founded in 1876. Named for Christopher Columbus, the cemetery is noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials. It is estimated that today the cemetery has more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. However, with more than 800,000 graves and 1 million interments, space in the cemetery is currently at a premium and as such, after three years remains are removed from their tombs, boxed and placed in a storage building.
87: The curious grave of an ardent domino player, who had a fatal heart attack when she misplayed a double-three domino and lost the game.
89: The main chapel located in the center of the cemetery
90: We took a day trip from Havana to Pinar del Río, stopping in Las Terrazas and Valle de Viñales along the way. Las Terrazas is a small lakeside resort known for its artist’s studios, and coffee plantations. | Secadoras - terraces for drying coffee beans and a giant wheel for grinding the beans | The restaurant was roasting pork to make Lechón Asado - it smelled amazing!
91: Sweet smelling Mariposas (ginger flowers)
92: Sierra del Rosaria biosphere reserve in Soroa has a hillside garden that features over 700 different species of spectacular orchids.
94: The surrounding botanical gardens have many different varieties of flowers and vegetation. | Coffee Beans
95: Palmiche Tree | Giant Sago Palm | Pink Ginger
96: Valle de Viñales with its very unique steep sided "pin-cushion" hills called Mogotes are a geographical phenomenon found in Cuba and China.
97: Cueva de San Miguel is a small cave where runaway slaves hid in centuries past. | This guy gives the term "hot pants" a whole new meaning!
98: El Palenque de Los Cimarrones - the restaurant at Cueva de San Miguel is a series of thatched huts representing Orishas - Afro Cuban deities. The food was exceptional! | Moros y Cristianos (black beans with rice), yellow rice with Chorizo (sausage), Yuca and Lechón Asado (roast pork) | Guava paste and cheese for dessert
99: Guarapo (sugarcane juice) hand pressed by our driver Miguel was a tasty treat | Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian) is named for the aboriginal Guanahatabey who once lived here. A subterranean boat ride through the cave takes you past stalagmites shaped like a champagne bottle, a skull, a crocodile, and a sea horse.
100: Pinar del Río is where the world's finest cigars start out. Peasant farmers, also known as Guajiros, cultivate the expansive tobacco plantations of Cuba’s westernmost province.
101: The planting of the tobacco
102: After harvest, tobacco leaves are cured in Bohíos (thatched huts)
103: An over-pass to nowhere
104: Freshly rolled cigars
105: Cigar box labels
106: Beautiful floral arrangements at our Havana Hotel
107: Delicious Cuban food and drink was not hard to find | Cafecito Cubano | Table top dispenser for Bucanero Beer | Menus at a Paladar (small private owned restaurant) - handwritten because there is no guarantee of the availability of ingredients. | Pulpo (Octopus) at an Asturian (an area of Northern Spain where my family originated) restaurant | Fricassé de Langosta - small Cuban lobster with no claws | Chicken with Frijoles Negros | Stuffed Plátanos Maduros (sweet plantain bananas)
108: Cuban Economics There are two official currencies in Cuba, the "Cuban peso", which is only used by locals and holds no value outside of the country; and the "Cuban Convertible Peso," known as the CUC, that was introduced by the Cuban financial authorities to take foreign currencies out of circulation, and offer an alternative that is in almost all senses on par with US dollars. It replaces the dollar as currency where previously dollars were quoted in places such as hotels, restaurants and so called 'dollar shops', and is the new "tourist" currency. This has created two economies in Cuba where workers are paid in pesos that will only buy them food and items in state run shops, which often have empty shelves. The average Cuban does not have access to CUC's and the shops, hotels and restaurants that take them, unless they can earn them through tips in the tourist industry. In Cuba you will find highly educated professionals such as doctors, lawyers and professors working as waiters in the resorts where their CUC tips allow them to support their families beyond what peso wages and a ration card offer. | Ration Cards One family explained to us what rations they received per person, per month from the government: - 5 pounds of rice - 3 pounds of white sugar and 1 pound of brown sugar - 10 ounces of beans - 4 ounces of coffee - 10 ounces of fish or chicken (not both, but what is available) - 8 ounces ground soy - 8 ounces mortadella (cold cuts) - 10 eggs - 1 pound of salt every 3 months - Cooking gas (however, it is no longer available) In addition: - 1 liter of milk per day for children up to age 7 (after age 7, none) - Children between the ages of 7 and 14 receive: 12 liters of soy yogurt, 1/4 liter of oil, additional 10 ounces of meat (but not mortadella or soy), 1 hamburger bun per day These rations subsidize an average salary that is the equivalent of 10-20 CUC a month (approx. 12-24 US Dollars)
109: Politics & Propaganda | Fidel's Bunkers - fearing a US invasion, Castro had a network of bunkers built across the island. The mounds mostly face the sea to the north and the missile shaped protrusions are breathing tubes. Some locals still believe the US will attack any day.
110: Occasionally we saw Fidel's image, but it is the stylized visage of Che Guevara that is seen everywhere. An Argentine Marxist revolutionary, Che was a major figure of the Cuban Revolution and his name is often equated with rebellion, revolution, and socialism. Others, however, still remember that he was ruthless and ordered prisoners executed without trial in Cuba. | "We see you everyday...pure as a child or a pure man, Commander Che, friend" | "All our actions are a yell of war against the imperialists...Che"
111: "True to our history" | "53 Years in Revolution" | "All for the Revolution" | "This town and this party will never give up it's unity" | "Matanzas A town laboring, revolutionary and cultured"
112: "Work with order and discipline" | "Socialism today tomorrow and always" | "From my neighborhood defending Socialism" | "Discipline is the most important part of success" | "We defend our hopes" | "Liberty cannot be blocked, there isn't fear here"
113: "Socialist Revolution of the humble, for the humble" | "Each one do your part of your duty and no one will be able to beat us" | Mural depicting the yacht Granma, that brought the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, and others from exile in Mexico back to Cuba to oust Fulgencio Batista from power.
114: Faded and Crumbling Havana
117: A few restorations here and there
118: Windows & Doorways
120: Cuban Tile Cuban Cement tiles with their wide variety of patterns and bright hues, line the courtyards, walkways, walls and floors of Cuba. Cuban tile (also known as Encaustic Cement tile or Hydraulic Mosaic) can be traced to Catalonia, Spain, where mid 19th century technical innovation allowed for mass production of these tiles that did not need to be fired. Made from a mixture of cement, marble powder and earth pigments for color, the patterns are produced as part of the material, not applied or painted on, resulting in a tile that looks hand painted.
122: Vintage Cars There is no better example of the time capsule that is Cuba, than the rolling museum of classic American cars, some of which are in mint condition and others, on the verge of collapse. Up until 1960, Cuba was the largest importer of American cars. However, with many Cubans fleeing the island in the wake of the Castro revolution and leaving their possessions behind, and with the U.S. embargo in place for so many years, these now old American cars remain the primary method of transportation for many Cubans. Vintage Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Dodges, Chryslers, and Buicks have long exceeded their Detroit manufacturers’ intended design life. In a country where the embargo makes U.S. made parts nearly impossible to obtain, Cuban mechanics must improvise every tool and hand-make every part, often "cannibalizing" another model of car for parts. Sheer skill and ingenuity keep the fleet running. | Sleek lines, shiny chrome, hood ornaments, and tail fins!
124: Nearly all taxis are vintage cars - the one we rode in was a 1952 Chevrolet with its original transmission!
127: 1948 Pontiac Silver Streak
128: You can stand on a corner, never moving and a different car passes you by every second.
135: After the embargo, Cuba has had cars from other countries - most notably, Russian Ladas. | A rural bus
137: Adios, Cubita Bella (an expression meaning "Farewell, beautiful little Cuba")