Friday, December 3, 2010

My Trip to Cuba

Looking toward the west of Havana from a hotel rooftop.
by Paxton Quigley

So, here I am in Miami International Airport
waiting to check-in on a chartered Sky King plane to Cuba with 13 other Americans, who will be touring with me and about 150 Miami Cubans, who are legally visiting their families. We are told to pay an extra $12 to have our suitcases plastic-wrapped because sometimes the Cuban baggage handlers will break open the baggage and confiscate your belongings. This is my first introduction to Cuba: the people need clothing and other basic personal items.

Flight only takes 45 minutes and when we go through passport control, three
people on our tour have their passports taken away and are pulled aside for questioning, but are then released, except for the woman who nervously waits for nearly 20 minutes while her passport is “reviewed.” My second introduction to Cuba: I am entering a totalitarian country.
Aerial views of Havana.
The chaotic baggage claim area is small and filled with so many people and hundreds of huge plastic-wrapped suitcases and duffel bags stuffed with what appears to be clothing and other household items that overseas Cubans are bringing into the country. It takes more than an hour and a half to get out of the area. We then have to exchange our dollars for the “convertible peso (CUC),” which you get at the rate of 80 centavos for each U.S. dollar. We are not allowed to have the real local currency, the peso, except in change for CUC. (I later learn that only 30% of Cubans have access to CUCs)

Arrive in Havana and I’m already hearing Salsa music in my head!
But, the tune changes because I see streets lined with only decrepit buildings—some that are just shells of buildings. In America, these buildings would be condemned and uninhabitable. It shocks me, saddens me. And makes me angry that a city has been ruined!

Historically, Havana was modeled after Barcelona, Spain, and it is an architectural paradise. I can see that the homes and buildings were once beautiful and in some instances, ornate edifices in shades of pink, blue and yellow with huge porticos to shade the people from the hot, sunny Cuban days. Once in a while there are a few exceptions to the falling structures where the government has redone some buildings mainly for government administration, museums or for tourist establishments and hotels.
Our guide says we are entering a “Fellini-esque Reality” and we’re going back in time.

Finally, we turn down The Prado, a grand avenue with a wide center walking area, and soon stop at our four-star blue hotel, The Telegrafo, which is one of the oldest hotels in Havana, but was redone with a third floor added by the government in 2001.
The Telegrafo is well located in Old Havana and is a block away from the Capitol and the magnificent European-style Opera House.
Across the street from our hotel, is the new 5-Star hotel, The Parque Central, with an enormous plant-filled lobby atrium, bar and restaurant, a roof-top pool and an in-door health club. It’s a lot nicer than my hotel and I wish I was staying there. Nice people at the Telegrafo, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Check into the The Telegrafico and am happy to see that there’s satellite TV in the room, although I’m told that the ordinary citizen doesn’t have access to international cable TV and only views four Cuban channels and can’t have an email address unless you’re a government official, physician or artist (painter, actor, writer, dancer, etc.) But, some people—especially people who work in tourism--are able to get email addresses through their contacts at hotels.
Group goes out. After 6:30 p.m., the streets are dark. And I do mean dark: It’s a bit frightening to be in a city where there are almost no street lights. I look up in the sky and see a quarter moon and think that it would seem so much safer if a full moon was shining. Two teenage women beggars come up to our group. One even touches my shoulder asking for money, but I don’t respond. I feel bad for them, but I don’t want to get involved. Relieved they disappear into the darkness.

Also, we can never say the name of the president of Cuba. Apparently, the secret police are all over the streets and can listen in on conversations and lip-read, but we can say the initials “F.C.” so that no one can discern who we are talking about. It actually sounds comical, but I take the warning seriously.

We are told that there is a saying in Cuba, “When you are young and believe in the Revolution, you have a heart. If you’re over forty, you don’t have brains.”
Walk a block to the famous restaurant, El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway used to eat. It’s a real tourist-trap and the bar is jammed with foreigners. The main dining room is quite beautiful and the meals are very expensive. At this hour, no one is eating dinner. We then return to the hotel and board our bus to go to Santo Angel restaurant, which is just across The Plaza Vieja (Old Square), where we listen to a group playing wonderful traditional Cuban music and eat Arroz con Pollo. We are told not to eat any of the fresh vegetables, but some of the more adventurous people ignore the warning. (Many of the people on the trip do get sick.)
The exquisite Plaza Vieja and surrounding blocks have been totally restored by the government and the area’s Spanish architecture is truly elegant. The houses, some of them dating back to the 17th century, are two stories high, with high ceilings and wooden balconies. They also have porticos and wide corridors closed with blinds, on top of which are typical crystal arches that are still very well kept.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Look out my window. A little grey but, so lucky that the weather is in the 70s because the week before it was sweltering. It's drizzling. Gotta take an umbrella. Instead of the bus, we spend the next three hours touring Old Havana walking between the four main plazas that comprise Cuba’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Other sites, which we won’t see are in the cities of Trinidad and Santiago).
Start at Plaza de Armas, the site of the oldest Spanish fortress in the Americas, the Placio de los Capitanes Generales, which is the massive seat of government.
Return to Plaza Vieja. Wow! What a gorgeous place. It’s perfectly restored — It almost looks like a movie set.
We lunch at the Hotel Ambos Mundos Roof Garden restaurant, which has wonderful views of the city and the ocean. Many of us order filet mignon, which is not very good.

We are told the Cubans can’t have meat—only pork, chicken and some fish. The cows are only used for milk and if a cow is killed, there is a very stiff prison sentence of 20 years. Before the Revolution, there were 11 million cows; now there are only 2 million. We all wonder where the filet mignon came from.
So, we continue to wander the streets and enter a new, beautiful, 25-room, 5-star hotel, The Hotel Raquel, which has a large wooden mezuzah on the front door and caters to Jewish tourists. The art nouveau building, which dates from 1905, was built as offices and a warehouse for cloth and other merchandise, which was largely controlled by Jewish Cuban businessmen.
It’s quite a gorgeous lobby with a large stained glass oblong dome.
The restaurant’s name is Jardin de Eden.
One of the oddities I notice are the cars, which have different colored license plates. I learn that in “Cuba, you are your license plate.” So, the socialist idea of egalitarianism certainly doesn’t exist here.

The government’s color-coding of license plates copied from the former Soviet Union, is one way the authorities keep tabs on the people and their cars. Now, the government owns most of the cars, as it does everything else.
The blue plates with letters and numbers indicate when and where the car or truck can operate and whether the driver can use it for personal, as well as professional use. Executives at government-run companies (all companies are owned by the government) with carmel colored plates have more flexibility and can use their car to come and go from their house to work.

Military vehicles have mint-green ones, and olive-green plates are for vehicles issued by the Ministry of the Interior, including F.C.’s fleet of armored Mercedes 280s. Black plates are for foreign diplomats, who don’t have to obey traffic laws. But it gets even more complicated because the last three digits on diplomatic plates identify the rank of the driver.

Cuban government ministers and heads of state organizations have white plates and also drive as if they have diplomatic immunity, although technically they don’t. Rental cars have maroon plates and foreign journalists, Cubans working for overseas companies and religious leaders have neon-orange one’s.
A beat-up 1952 Pontiac on the streets of Havana.
Another one, a 1959 Ford sedan, restored to its original beauty.
We are on our own for dinner tonight and we have the option to visit one of Havana’s private restaurants called “Paladores,” which are Cuba’s experiment in private enterprise. Paladores are independent state sanctioned family-run restaurants in beautiful (usually) homes situated in the “tony” Miramar area.

Half of our group goes to “La Cocina de Lilliam,” a softly-lit large garden with about twelve large tables, whose owner, Lilliam Domingues is the chef. Some of us order fish, but I try “Ropa Vieja,” a traditional Cuban dish prepared with lamb (not beef) simmered so long its falls into shreds. It reminds me of my mother’s brisket and is quite good. Most people order mojitos, which are absolutely wonderful, but I try a nice Chilean ride wine.
The service is slow, as is in all Cuban establishments, so two friends and I go into the house where Chef Lilliam’s 75-year-old husband, welcomes us. He invites us to look around the living room, which is filled with art-noveau and art-deco pieces and explains that the house was built in 1934 and his family are the original owners. It’s a wonderful space and I feel that I’ve been thrown back into another time.
After dinner, four of us decide it’s time to go dancing and we’ve heard there will be salsa dancing at the nearby Karl Marx Center, so our waiter calls a cab and soon we’re at the center where the doors are locked and we’re told that there is no dancing tonight. But about five blocks away there’s another place called Yonny’s, where there’s dancing.

Since the taxi has taken off, we decide to walk through the dark residential streets and soon find Yonny’s. It’s 11 p.m. and the band hasn’t started yet, but will begin at 11:45, so we sit around drinking and hearing loud canned music. At 11:45, there’s still no band, so since I’m the only one in the group who speaks Spanish, I ask when the band will begin. The word is the band will begin at midnight. By 12:15, I ask again and I’m now told the band won’t be playing tonight. We laugh saying that this is another “possibility” in Cuba. We hire a gypsy cab for 5 CRUCs that is so rickety that I’m fearful it will fall apart as the driver zooms along The Malecon (the roadway and esplanade that stretches for miles along the coast line) at 50 miles an hour!
Exiting an old, red taxi.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We’re out the door at 9 a.m. for a quick walk along The Prado Promenade, which was started in 1772, and see the Moorish-style Inglaterra Hotel, the 1919 Capitolio building, which is modeled on the U.S. Capitol, and the Bacardi building, which is a wonderful example of tropical Art Deco architecture. As you probably know, Bacardi Rum was produced in Cuba before the Revolution and was world-renown.
The Bacardi building.
Initially, the family was pro-Revolution, but when the Che Guevara wing went pro-Soviet Union, the family left the country and now manufactures its products in Puerto Rico. The well-preserved beautiful building houses government offices and a lovely ground-floor café, but we don’t have time to try the food or drinks.

Our bus driver takes us through the streets of dilapidated Havana and we pass a movie theater—one of only ten in Havana. Before the Revolution, there were 300 theaters. It costs 15 cents to see a movie. Most people copy DVDs of American movies and we are told that the Cubans are really the “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
We soon enter the restored Parque Almandares that runs along the banks of the Rio Almandares, a wonderful tropical forest right in the heart of Havana. We leave the bus and walk along the river and I feel as if I’ve left the city to find quiet and solace.
It’s here where we get a chance to discuss the Cuban economy and political situation. For example, Cuba imports 80% of its food that it rations to the people and unbeknownst to some Americans, various foods come from the U.S. since the hurricane badly hit Cuba a few years ago.

But, all of the food must be paid in cash. Some of the U.S. imports include chicken legs, rice, apples, mustard, ketchup, and paper for newspapers, but Cuba is buying less and less because of its monetary crisis.
Local fruit/vegetable market.
Tourism is the mainstay of the economy and revenue from tourism reaches well over US $1.7 billion. But, tourism has resulted in a two-tier economy and those people who work in tourism make far more money than in any other industry.

Currently, Venezuela is Cuba’s biggest trading partner receiving oil (gasoline costs approximately US $7.00 a gallon) in exchange for technical support in the fields of education, health care, sports, and science and technology. The Cubans wonder what will occur if Hugo Chavez is not re-elected in 2012.
The lobby and hotel suite at the 5-star San Felipe Hotel.
The Cuban under-group economy is enormous. It is the world’s greatest swap meet and barter system, and recyclable economy. Everything can be fixed. For example, in any given neighborhood, everyone knows who can repair a spring mattress, a toilet, electrical wiring—you name it.

When it comes to hybrid cars, Cuba is way ahead of us. Their cars are made up of all different makes of cars and they can even fashion new fenders. There’s no Craigslist or any advertising in Cuba, so everything’s done by word of mouth. Even though most Cubans don’t own their apartments or homes (by the way, rent is free, there are no taxes and people only pay for electricity), they swap their residences.
Cubans receive a ration card every month that is valued at $20.
There’s a saying in Cuba: “We pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us.”

Cubans are concerned by the new ruling that 1 million people will lose their jobs by March, 2011. Some people hope that a micro-lending system can be formed.

Many people are trying to get Spanish passports, so that they can leave. There are even a few people who convert to Judaism, so they can go to Israel under the Israeli law of “the right to return.” But, everyone lives on Hope or getting out. There’s another Cuban saying, “Viven soñando con aviones,” which means, “they’re dreaming with planes.”
Our discussions are terminated, since it’s time to return to the bus and go to the cigar factory, which I first wasn’t interested in seeing. But, it’s a fascinating place to watch how Cuban cigars—the Cohibas, the Romeos and Juliets, the Monte Cristosare hand-rolled almost exclusively by women.

It’s tedious work and to keep alert, the various factory rooms play radio soap operas. Unfortunately, we can’t take photos. There is a tobacco store on the ground floor of the factory and many tourists are buying cigars.

Apparently, the American government turns a blind eye to bringing in a few Cohibas.
Lunch in the roof garden of the Sevilla Hotel, formerly owned by the Biltmore Hotel chain when it was the prohibition-era playground for American tourist from Al Capone to boxer Joe Lewis to pro-Cuban Revolution journalist Herbert Mathews. And of course, everyone is drinking mojitos.

And finally, I get a chance to dance! There’s a terrific Cuban combo and one of my friends and I salsa dance in between food courses.
Palacio de Bellas Artes de la Havana.
Go to the modern Palacio de Bellas Artes de la Havana, which has a very fine collection of Cuban art from colonial to contemporary times. Modern Cuban art is well-known throughout the world and many of the artists show their work in foreign galleries, as well as museums.

By the way, the artists (including dancers, writers, musicians, etc.) travel freely and have foreign bank accounts. The Cuban government prizes its culture and is able to keep many of its artists because they receive exceptional benefits, including nicer apartments or homes and new cars.
Ana Dominguez Rivero, a well known Cuban actress I met who will be portraying Stella in A Street Car Named Desire at the Teatro Buendia.
After our visit to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, we return to our hotel and a group of us decide to walk on a pedestrian-only street called Calle Obispo that has numerous shops where only Cubans with CUCs can buy various items from furniture to toys. Since it’s late in the day, the street is crowded.

One of the most popular places is an ice cream store where there is a long line of adults and children. Coppelia is the national brand of ice cream and like everything else, it is state-owned. It is very inexpensive for the ordinary citizen to purchase and people really love the ice cream. The line is so long that even though, I too, like ice cream, I wasn’t willing to wait.

Calle Obispo.
After about an hour’s walk, we return to the hotel and prepare for dinner at El Aljibe, an outdoor thatched roof restaurant in the residential area of Miramar. We have the usual chicken, which I’m tiring of and I’m really missing vegetables. We return to the hotel and on the hotel’s terrace, a small combo is playing music.

A few of us sit down and I’m up dancing. First, I dance with my dance partner, but then a Canadian man, who is sitting with a group of Cubans asks me to dance. He is a fantastic salsa dancer (he told me he instructs in Canada) and now, I’m really dancing Cuban Salsa and my friends tell me that I really look good dancing. I hate to sound corny, but I’m in heaven.

Unfortunately, I only get to dance one dance with the Canadian since his “date” arrives and all eyes turn to her and her dancing. (Sorry I didn’t take a photo of her, she was really sexy).

Perhaps, this is a good time to mention “prostitution.” Although it is illegal in Cuba, there are certainly female and male prostitutes in the Old Havana area. Three of the men in our group all say that they’ve been “hit upon” when they’re walking alone in the late afternoon or at night. The youngest man, a 26 year old, says he has been approached by both males and females. Twenty flights a week leave from Spain and I’ve read on Google that 200,000 Spanish male tourists arrive yearly. I also learned that it is easy to obtain 14- and 15-year-old girls and boys for as little as $10 or less. I asked a few Cubans, who I meet, who were not willing to talk about the subject.

Thursday, November 11, 2010
This a.m. going to ride across Havana Bay and join everyday commuters on a dilapidated (what else?) ferry to the island city called Regla.
Visiting Our Lady of Regla Church, a church built in homage to the Black Virgin and the religion is called Santeria. A very similar religion, Candoble, is practiced in Brazil. It merges the Yoruba religion from Africa with Roman Catholicism. Some of the people dress in all white clothing and wear yellow and green bracelets.

Those who follow the religion also have altars at home, but many of them still consider themselves Catholics and go to church. It has predominantly been a religion of the black population, but recently there are a number of whites, who consider themselves Santerianos. Also, a number of European tourists are attracted to Santeria and pay thousands of dollars to go through a ritual conversion. As one Cuban explains, “it’s another way for Cubans to make money.”
Our Lady of Regla Church,
Next, we travel to Ernest Hemingway’s home, the “Finca La Vigia” on a hilltop in a village, San Francisco de Paula. As part of Cuba’s tourism plan, the home was recently preserved as the author left it in 1961. Government is even constructing a building that looks like it could sponsor Hemingway seminars or writing workshops for Hemingway buffs. (I’m certain most Cubans don’t know about Hemingway, nor care about him) Quite a lovely house and even has Hemingway’s animal trophies. It’s rather a dark place and it reminded me of the Hemingway home in Ketchum, Idaho where he committed suicide.

When I lived in Ketchum, I had the opportunity to go inside the home, which is not open to the public, and I find a similar type of, shall we say, “dark feeling” in both homes. Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar, is in fine condition and the once-beautiful pool is in disrepair. The only thing I find disturbing is the museum store’s Hemingway memorabilia, which includes Hemingway mugs, pens and other assorted trinkets. I’m sure Hemingway is turning over in his grave, or perhaps, laughing.
Ernest Hemingway’s home, “Finca La Vigia.”
The living room.
First floor study.
Second floor study.
Hemingway with Castro in the second floor study.
The once-beautiful pool, now in disrepair.
Hemingway's boat, El Pilar.
Graves of Hemingway's dogs.
Hemingway memorabilia, which includes Hemingway mugs, pens and other assorted trinkets.
From the Hemingway estate, travel to La Terraza restaurant in the fishing village of Cojimar — one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts. Some of my friends drink mojitos and a few eat the paella, which they say doesn’t taste like paella. I have fish, which isn’t good. I’m sure the food was better in Hemingway’s time.
The village of Cojimar-- one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts.
Return to Havana for a Santeria experience with a “limpia” (cleansing) ceremony to get rid of bad energies and spirits, which is performed by four women in a 10 by 10 foot room on the first floor of a dilapidated building that looks like the inside of the building was bombed out.

The ceremony starts with one of the women reading a prayer book that asks Christ for help for her aunt who died last year. Prayer lasts for about 25 minutes and I’m getting bored. Women singing and swaying and soon (no surprise to me—I was waiting for it to happen) one of the women goes into a trance contorting her face and body. She whips around her neck so violently that I think she may break it. Another woman smears oil on her neck and arms and then she is given a bottle of rum, which she begins to drink and then all of a sudden she takes a big gulp of the rum and sprays it out of her mouth. The rum goes everywhere and one of my friends promptly gets up and leaves.
The cleansing ...
Then, the rest of us are asked to stand up and “dance” with the women, who are wailing, flailing and singing. One of the women points to me to come to her and we do a shoulder-to-shoulder bump dance and then she puts her hand on my forehead and then spits some rum on my face and then says, “okay, you can go.” Apparently, I don’t have a lot of bad spirits and I’ve been cleansed. I instantly leave the crowded hot rum-smelling room.

Now, I have to say that I’m usually rather nonjudgmental about other people’s rituals since I have a Masters in anthropology from the University of Chicago, but I totally think this ritual is absurd and I think the women are faking it. But, perhaps, I’m wrong.

A few of my friends want to escape the building and we board the bus to return to our hotel. The others stay for an additional hour and later they tell me that they really liked the ceremony. Go figure. Six of us go to the Parque Central Hotel and have tapas. More mojitos--better than any I’ve had in the U.S. Tapas are just okay and we decide that the food in Cuba is mediocre.
Friday, November 12, 2010

9:30 a.m. We hear a lecture from a woman, who has a degree in chemistry from a university in Czechoslovakia (when Cuba had relations with the Soviet Union, a number of Cubans were educated in the Soviet Union bloc). She’s discussing the Cuban health care system and in particular, “natural medicine.” I am particularly interested because I own a natural food supermarket in Palo Alto, Ca. and I’m also on the board of trustees of Yosan University, a Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture California state-approved school.

Cuban life expectancy is very high: men=78 years old, women=76 years old. As you probably know, Cuban health care is basically free, but unfortunately, it often lacks needed medications. So, what happens is that a doctor will give a prescription to a patient and if that person knows a Miami Cuban, it can be brought into Cuba. Doctors earn $40 a month. Remarkably, the ratio of patients to doctors in Cuba is the highest in the world: 200 to 1 (In U.S. it’s 390 to 1). Three levels of care: 1) family doctors in each defined community; 2) “poly-clinics,” that have more extensive care; 3) hospitals. When a person is very sick, you can go straight to the hospital.

Natural medicine and all of its modalities are a major part of the Cuban health system that was started after the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba. These modalities were brought to Cuba by visiting doctors from China, Chile and Brazil. For example, in many of the major parks, every morning people do Tai Chi or Chi Gong. The system incorporates acupuncture, yoga, magnet therapy, flower therapy (Dr. Bach), mud therapy, an advanced kinesiology procedure, homeopathy, herbal medicine, etc. In a way, I think they are more sophisticated in their medical thinking than we are in the U.S.
After the lecture, we board our buses to go to the sprawling 140-acre Cristobal Colon Cemetery, the fourth famous cemetery in the world (Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is considered the most famous). 800,000 graves, 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults, and people are buried on top of each other because of lack of space. I’m wondering why I want to spend time in a cemetery, but I soon learn that it’s so famous because of its outstanding architecture. It is quite an incredible site and actually an outstanding art tour.
One of the most interesting mausoleums is the 75-foot-high monument (no other monument can be taller than this one) to the firefighters, who lost their lives in the great fire in May, 1890.

All other firefighters, who have died in fires are also buried there. There’s also a monument for Cuban baseball players.

Funerals and burials are free and close family members of the departed are driven to and from the cemetery by state-owned vehicles.
Lunch — group of us are so starved for vegetables that go to Chinatown to a restaurant, “Tien Tan,” (Boulevar del Barrio Chino, Cuchillo No. 17 e/Zanja y San Nicolas) that’s supposed to have good vegetables. It does. Bok choy and porcini mushroom dish is delicious and so is the assorted vegetable fried rice. I hate to admit it, but so far this is the best food I’ve eaten.

Most of the group has Cuban beer, (the best beer is Cristal), but I’m having a Coca Cola that’s “Hecho en Mexico.” Cuban version of Coke certainly isn’t the same as the “original.”
Lunch at Tien Tan.
Coca Cola that’s “Hecho en Mexico.”
Five of us go to visit the conservative Templo Bet Shalom, the largest synagogue in Havana. There are three synagogues in the city and another three in other cities in Cuba. At the time of the Revolution, there were 15,000 Jews living in Cuba; today there are 1,500.

There is really never been any anti-Semitism in Cuba and interestingly enough the Cubans called Jews “Polacos” because during and after World War II, many Jewish Polish people came to Cuba.
Templo Bet Shalom, the largest synagogue in Havana.
The synagogue was rebuilt in 2000 with money ($1 million) donated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). There is no formal rabbi, but a few years ago a rabbi from Santiago, Chile, came and taught a number of the members Jewish ritual and prayers, so that Friday night and Saturday services and holidays can be performed. Synagogue has both a Sunday school, a Hebrew school and a women’s group.

Bet Shalom serves meals after services and it has a well-stocked pharmacy, which serves the poorest Jews, as well as people in the surrounding neighborhood. Also, it has a recreational center for kids, which is well-equipped with computers and other hi-tech games. Apparently, most of the kids don’t want to leave and go home!
Templo Bet Shalom's sanctuary.
Meet the president of the congregation in the synagogue’s library, Adela Dworin, an 84-year-old woman, who was a born in Cuba (her father came from Pinsk, Russia) and was trained as a librarian. She is wonderfully, energetic, humorous, intelligent and can tell a good story. Speaking of stories, she relates the time when the Castro invited leaders of all religions to a meeting. She asks him, “you’ve been to all of the churches, why haven’t you come to our synagogue?” “I haven’t been invited,” replies the President. Dworin answers, “Why don’t you come for Channukah?” “What’s that?” he questions. Thinking very quickly, she responds, “It commemorates the Revolution of the Jews.” And he says, “I’ll definitely come!” And he does. There are photos to prove it in the building’s lobby.
Seem to be in a whirlwind. Visit The Servando Gallery to see the work of 32-year-old Ibrahim Miranda, who has shown his works in galleries and museums throughout the world, including MoMa, NY, Fundacao Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn Museum, NY, etc. He gives a short lecture in English about his work and I fall in love with his long and narrow collages and acquire two of them, which I will frame in New York. By the way, you can bring any Cuban art duty free into the U.S.
32- year-old Ibrahim Miranda and me at The Servando Gallery.
We go to the infamous 5-Star Nacional Hotel, which was built in 1930 by the Mob and sits on a hill overlooking the Havana Bay. Frankly, compared to the newer 5-star hotels, the Nacional has lost its luster and I’ve heard that many of the rooms are in need of refurbishing.

When we arrive there’s an art exhibit going on near the bar with many glamorous dressed Cuban women, including the artist Ibrahim Miranda. These women and men are part of the privileged class and certainly not purchasing their clothes in Havana. We go to the bar, we order mojitos. Many photos of famous people, who’ve been at The Nacional, presented in the bar. They range from gangster Bugsy Siegel, Winston Churchill, Eva Gardner, Naomi Campbell, Steven Spielberg, Johnny Depp, Hugo Chavez, etc. Dinner at an outdoor garden restaurant in the hotel. Food is probably the worst we’ve had our whole trip which surprises us because we’ve been told the hotel’s food is one of the finest in Havana. Yeah, right!
Nacional Hotel, built in 1930.
Three of us go to a club off The Malecon for Cuban jazz. Arrive at a huge building, which is practically dark inside and carefully climb up two flights of stairs to a club that is filled with Cubans eating and drinking. (There’s an entry fee of 10 CUCs per person with one drink, while Cubans pay far less) Since I’ve had two mojitos at the Nacional, I order juice.
At midnight a terrific six-piece band with horns, guitar, electric piano, drums and bangos plays hot Cuban music, but there’s no dancing. Stay for the first set and leave, although more Cubans are arriving. Like most clubs, this one stays open until 4 a.m.
Saturday, November 13, 2010

Going outside of Havana to the Province of Pinar Del Rio to the Las Terrazas (The Terraces) biosphere reserve. For me, this is probably one of the most interesting projects that the Cuban government has done that represents successful reforestation, rural sustainable development and the concept of socialism. Community is similar to the Israeli Kibbutz system.

The terraces were built in 1968 to reduce soil erosion and to encourage reforestation and restore the eco-system that had been destroyed by 19th Century French colonial tobacco plantation owners. It also provides homes, apartments and work for the destitute families in the immediate area, who chose to resettle here. A beautiful resort hotel and restaurant, The Moka, was built for tourists. And, the food is really good! Also, guests can live in homes in the community and share their way of life. More than 72 bird species — an extraordinary haven for bird-watchers.
Las Terrazas (The Terraces) biosphere reserve.
1,000 adults and children live communally and equally share all income. They have a communal council that solves local issues, as well as a kindergarten, primary and secondary school and medical services.

Exquisite setting. Appears to be a paradise for any tourist, who wants to get away. I could imagine myself staying here for a week or two and writing and having lazy days. But, for some of the residents, it’s too isolating and a few of the young people do leave for the city. It’s certainly a place I would recommend for Americans to visit.
Return to Havana in the late afternoon and one of my friends is meeting some Cuban people and has asked me to join them. Unfortunately, I cannot give you their names for fear of reprisals. I’ll call them Roberto, Alicia, and Rosa. Roberto, who is 42 years old, is an economist, but hasn’t worked in more than three years. He worked for a number of years for different companies and his last job was a brief one with a foreign company, but the employer left Cuba and he never got paid. Roberto doesn’t want to drive a taxi or be a waiter and since he is not a member of the Communist Party, he can’t get a job that suits his educational skills. His wife, Alicia, 35, is very pretty and looks French. She, too, does not work now. Rosa, 64, is Roberto’s mother and they all live together in their own eight-room, eight-bathroom house in “fashionable” Miramar. They cannot rent out rooms as some home owners do because the taxes are too high to pay to the government. Since Roberto and Alicia don’t work for the government, they don’t receive the government salary of $24 for each individual every month. Rosa receives $3 from the government because her former husband died. She tried to repeal this amount of money, but was denied. How do they live? I’m not exactly sure, but I assume that they, like so many Cubans live off of the underground economy and also, they have a relative in U.S. that sends them money.
Like many Cubans, they hope things will change in the near future. They have Spanish passports and they plan to go there and see if they can get temporary work so that they can make money to return to Cuba. If they leave permanently, they will lose their home to the state. They don’t want to lose their home.

At 6 p.m. my friends invite me and others to an American Rock and Roll Concert. Cubans love American 60’s and 70’s ROCK music. My friends have 4,000 CDs!
There’s a Cuban Beatles’ club with 350 members. It’s so much fun and the live band and dancing goes on ‘til 11 p.m. It ends by everyone throwing up their hands singing, “We are Americans!” Cubans love the U.S.A.
American Rock and Roll Concert at a Cafe Cantante. One of the best nights I’ve had in Cuba!
Back on the streets: Musica de Cuba.
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Today is a free day, so I sleep in. After breakfast, a group of us walk around the city revisiting places and taking photos. One of the buildings we enter is a totally reconstructed gambling casino that is on The Prado. The main room has beautiful murals and a spectacular ceiling. There’s no Las Vegas casino like this one! Today the building houses administrative offices and the main room is used for “matrimonias” (weddings). What a terrific place to get married! The guide also takes us up on the roof to see a view of the city.
A totally reconstructed gambling casino that houses administrative offices. The main room is used for weddings.
Last night together is spent at the Café del Oriente, another stunning restaurant with beautiful marble floors and dark wainscoting on the walls situated in Plaza de San Francisco.

Like all of the other restaurants, it serves tourists. I have become tired of Cuban cuisine and choose a delicious tasting pasta with porcini mushrooms with a Chilean red wine.
Café del Oriente, by day, in Plaza de San Francisco.
Monday, November 15, 2010

Today we are leaving Cuba and once more, I meet my new Cuban friends for breakfast at the Parque Central. They tell me that no Cubans can really eat there because of the prices. Our breakfast for five people comes to about US $45. I give Alicia some of my clothes and money.

At noon, we board our bus and head back to the Cuban International Airport. Interestingly enough, the one woman, who had a difficult time with her passport when she arrived has difficulties again when she departs and waits another 20 minutes before her passport is returned. Fortunately, I have no problems and when I return to Miami, passport control and customs are easy. It’s so wonderful to be back in the United States.

Postscript: I have learned so much about Cuba and the Cuban people. I feel sad for them, but the people on the streets appear to be happy—perhaps, it’s because of the Cuban culture, their music and their hope.

Interestingly enough, when I saw a friend of mine a few days after I returned, he asked, “What happened to you? You had a make-over? You look younger.”

Hmmm, I thought, Perhaps it was the Santeria “cleansing” that has anti-aging properties? Only the spirits know!
Paxton Quigley lives in New York City and is an author of six books. Her most recent book, Armed & Female: Taking Control was published this October.

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