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Education in Havana, Cuba

February 13-20, 2017
Written February 13 +
Index to this very long diary:
- Monday: Flight over
- Tuesday: City Tour
- Wednesday: Two Museums
- Thursday: Bus to Vińales
- Friday: Cemetery and jazz
- Saturday: Walking in Havana
- Saturday: Hemingway's home
- Sunday: Self-tour Havana
- Monday: Wander and fly home
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,

d170313_02_packed.jpgMonday was a long day, starting with the 1:30 am wake-up alarm.  Nonetheless our travel crew was up, dressed, packed, and ready for the airport shuttle by 2:45 as required.  The car wasn't as timely, but we had left plenty of time for an airport run on dark and quiet streets.  The "normal one hour" became an easy 40 minutes.

d170313_04_papers.jpgAirport check-in was pretty painless, given it was an international flight and all.  We had pre-ordered our visas and they were waiting as promised.  Bags were weighed and handed over to the ever-friendly Southwest agents.  Even TSA security check was painless enough, although, like our driver, they showed up for work five or ten minutes after we were ready for them.  Our last Tampa duty was filling our paperwork (health cards and customs declarations) and some more waiting.
d170313_08_landed.jpgThe hour-long flight was completely uneventful and by the time the sun was coming up we were landing in Havana.  The Cuban capital's airport is still small, with air stairs instead of fancy air side concourses.  The immigration process was only slightly intimidating, with the agents a combination of officialdom gruffness and Cuban friendliness.  Bags eventually arrived, after giving us plenty of time for arrival pictures.

From there it was one more airport stop for money exchange.  $USD500 got us 435 "CUC", a special convertible Peso that would replace any use of dollars or credit cards during our stay.  Then we squeezed ourselves and all our bags into a yellow cab and rode for about 45-minutes into town.  The areas we passed reminded each of us of our own histories in developing countries as we passed buildings in need of repair on roads needing the same.  But, there were cared-for monuments, clubs, and schools as well and the morning sun colored things in pleasant light.

d170313_10_martas.jpgd170313_12_breakfast.jpgOur arrival was so early that our apartment was not ready, so we had a first stop at the owner's apartment a few bocks away.  Marta Vitorte is a small business owner who runs two tourist apartments and a B&B.  She offered us breakfast on the veranda of her 14th-floor apartment/B&B as we waited for our own place to become available.

d170313_18_project.jpgd170313_16_sea.jpgd170313_14_view.jpgThe view from up there was spectacular.  We looked out over a once-glorious area toward the Florida Straights with Key West just over the horizon.  Below us we could get our first views of the grand houses of the early 20th Century that have started the 21st as rough remains, with a handful of restorations scattered around.

d170313_40_livroom.jpgd170313_44_view.jpg By now our apartment was ready, almost, and we went there to wait some more as the current tenants stayed until the last minute to turn over the tenth-floor unit.  Our two-bedroom unit is freshly remodeled and should serve as a good base for our Cuba week but its best attraction really is the city view.

d170313_14_presidente.jpgOur first excursion was a walk over to the El Presidente hotel, a gangster haven in the 1920s and 1930s and still a pretty elegant building.  Our round of drinks was close to 26 CUCs, or about $30. We expect this will be the high end of our price range during our stay, but we were still getting our tired heads around all the new things we needed to learn.

From there we started our street walk, with the nominal goal of finding a supermarket to fill our apartment kitchen with necessities like bread, milk, beer, and rum.  Along the way we would see what we would see.

The purpose of our visit to Cuba was education and person-to-person exchange.  That requires that we need a record of the educational exchanges we have, so retired teachers Marianne and Chin stopped at an art school near the El Presidente to see if any classes or classroom visits were possible.  The friendly receptionist could not offer anything formal, but she did send us up to the second-floor art display area of the Casa de las Américas.  The art pieces were all contemporary and not to everyone's taste, I'm sure.  This American-inspired globe of cockroaches was a particular source of conversation.  Person-to-person indeed.

We continued our street search for a market.  We used a mixed technique of both looking at a map (my job) and asking random strangers.  The best part was that along the way, we could see some of the bits of Havana tourist life that show up in tour guides: elegant homes; 1950's cars; handicrafts market; and colorfully-painted buildings.

The market search was less successful, although we did find the Gallerias Paso Mercado we had been aiming for.  Once there, we discovered that pickings in markets are pretty slim, something we had read about, but not really considered until faced with the limited store selection.  We left the Mercado, burdened with crackers, a small rum bottle, and nine-liters of water, so Peter hailed a taxi for our return.  We tried to stop at a fruit market along the way, only to discover it was closed (Monday?  Too late??)

Back "home", while others took naps, I waited for Marta and "tech support" to explain the wifi internet access our apartment features.  It's complicated.  And it is not free.  And it is apparently unreliable.  Marta was most apologetic about the whole thing, but we remember the 1980s in Silicon Valley, the 1990s in Ukraine and the early 2000s in Western Europe, where public wifi was unheard of and internet access was even more of a challenge.  Hopefully, we will figure it out.  (If you were reading this while we are still in Cuba, something had worked.)
 Dinner was across the street at VIP Havana, a very nice restaurant that served us too much of an excellent Paella. Then some looking out at our night view and bedtime, 20 hours after we had started the day's journey.  A long day.

We booked a city tour for Tuesday, thinking a brief overview of Havana would be useful.  The tour ended up useful enough, but not very brief as we were out the entire day.  When I looked at the 271 pictures I took, I was torn on which memories to document and which to allow to fade.  Here are the keepers, too many - as usual.
d170314_03_revsq2.jpgd170314_04_revolutionsq.jpgOur tour "bus" was a yellow mini-van with 724,995 kilometers (450,491 miles) on it.  All eight tourists, the guide, and the driver fit, but just barely.  Our first stop was Revolution Plaza, site of monuments to Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the tallest to José Marti.  This is the plaza where Fidel Castro would conduct his hours-long speeches to huge crowds of loyal followers.  Even empty and gray like today, there seemed to be a reverence for the place.

d170314_05_cigars.jpg The next stop was also a standard requirement: the government cigar and rum store.  We were given a quick introduction to the various famous cigars and which famous person smoked which.  We bought an "Al Capone" example for brother-in-law Ruben.  We also sampled a little rum, but we had been sampling all along in our trip, so it was nothing new.
After another short bus ride, we disembarked in Old Havana where we would spend most of the day walking around.  A private train car from 1900 was our first stop and it looked good enough to use today, except the tour guide said Cuba's rail system is in great disrepair, so few people choose train travel nowadays.  This is just another reminder of old glory days, I suppose.

Then we turned the corner into Plaza de San Francisco de Asisi.  The old tower-topped shipping terminal was on one side and an ornate commercial building was on another.  More signs of earlier prosperity.  The cathedral itself, with its asymmetric towers, covered the non-commercial side of the square.
By the door of the cathedral this bronze fellow, El Caballero de Paris, has been the source of good luck for visitors for years.  To earn the luck, one must contort to hold the beard and finger while placing one foot on his.   That is the cause of all the shiny places!

Elsewhere along the square, Marianne found her first art gallery, one where the back wall was an impressive art installation all by itself.  When Marianne asked the docent about on of the pictures, she was brought over to Barreiro, the young artist responsible for the work.
As we walked from one plaza to another, the guide would point out a few parts of the old city.  Here she is showing parts of the original city aqueduct, built between 1565 and 1592.  It was the complex aqueduct that enabled Havana to build up as a New World cosmopolitan center at a time when North America was little more than wooden farming huts.  It is easy to understand the Cuban pride in history.

Around behind the cathedral, we stopped at the Friar Hotel (Hotel Los Frailes) for a break and a chance to see one of several ornate, old world hotels in the area.

Our next stop was Plaza Vieja. (It was originally called Plaza Nueva --- in 1559.)

d170314_65_woodstreet.jpgd170314_66_pavers.jpgNext was a short walk over to yet another plaza - whose name I have already forgotten.  More of those details that I will research over time.  The important feature here was the cobbled street in front.  It was made from wooden blocks, ostensibly installed for the arrival of a Spanish King in order to quiet the noise of the royal carriages.  Good plan, except he never showed up. 
Along one of the roads out of the square were murals "painted" in different colors of sand - no paint at all. (See right.)

By now we tourists were pretty hungry and met with another mini-van for a trip under the harbor entrance to the Casablanca section of the city.  The drive emerged among the fortresses that guarded the entrance to Havana harbor and from which cannons are fired daily at 9pm.  We didn't make one of those ceremonies, but everyone says we should have.  The problem is that there really is way too much to do here.  Next trip.d170314_75_marianne.jpg

Our lunch was in a restaurant hidden behind a small yellow house.  The place was filled with foreign tourists, something we have learned to expect on our organized tours.  The setting was quaint, the music was lively, and the food was Cuban traditional.  We all felt properly refreshed and ready for more sight-seeing.

The restaurant also featured pets!  There were the ubiquitous chickens running around and this intrepid tortoise, "jumping" from his perch in the garden to explore under the tables.

d170314_80_market.jpgd170314_81_marketin.jpgFrom lunch, it was off to the huge harbor-side market, filled with anything a tourist would need to buy.  We wandered for a half-hour and picked up one or two small things, a fraction of a percent of what was on offer.

From the market, we left the tour and set out on our own.  We paused at a bakery to pick up a loaf of bread and then at a fruit market for limes. I think we paid inflated tourist prices, but that seems to be part of a two-tier pricing system in Cuba. Certainly, locals making few tens of dollars per month could not afford the prices we paid.
Shopping for food has been surprisingly difficult. There are no well-stocked supermarkets that we could find, just tiny shops for one small thing or another.  Apparently there is a thriving black market, where there are wider selections of foodstuff, but we had not found the hidden locations.  This might have been good for our diets, but instead we headed to tourist restaurants and bars, such as the Cervecaria de la Muralla on the right.   Again, plenty here at tourist prices few locals could pay.   A difficult system for them and yet they do not seem to resent the rich foreign tourists at all.
On the way back to catch a ride back home, Chin, Marianne , and I stopped to look at the Hotel Raquel. (Do check this link!)  This old-world gem has been wonderfully restored and shows the elegance of a bygone era.

For the ride home, we flagged down a blue and white 52 Chevrolet.  There are hundreds of vintage cars plying the taxi trade in the streets of Havana.  (I will add a post-script gallery of some pictures, as soon as I get time.)  This one, like most others, is not a detail-perfect restoration, but rather an artful combination of old parts, new parts, and plenty of imagination.  Selected correctly, they are surprisingly comfortable over the often-crumbling roads.  And it's fun.
Back home, we rested.  Peter showed more initiative than I felt and said he was heading out for an evening stroll.  Not wanting to miss anything, we all joined him.  We made it down to the Malecon (seawall) not far from us.  The waves were breaking over the low wall, ready to catch the unprepared.
Wet or not, it was a nice end to a nice day.

d170315_02_taxistart.jpg Marianne and I started the day with breakfast at the Hotel El Presidente.  Our Airbnb apartment had a good enough kitchen in which to prepare breakfasts, but shopping for ingredients has stymied us.  The one "super market" we had found, had a limited selection and we did not determine the pattern of all the small shops and markets.  Some sell one thing and some another.  Some are open mornings, others all day.  Offerings vary day-to-day.  We have learned that this is a fact of life for Cubans, who struggle to make the most of the low-priced "peso" goods in state stores, while supplementing what they can from free-market stores that accept the convertible currency "CUCs."

d170315_03_sign.jpgThe day's goals were museums and two museums are about our limit.  Chin and Marianne chose the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución), since all the guide books recommend it for first-time Cuba visitors, and the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana), for their sampling of contemporary and modern Cuban art. 

First, the revolution.  The main building has two types of displays, first the grand building itself and then, prominently, the regime's "propaganda" concerning the Castro-led revolution of the 1950s.  Clearly the revolutionary story is more prominent, starting with the lobby bust of Jose Marti.  Just above and to the right are bullet holes from the March 1957 student insurrection.  The balance of the building is quite elegant, from the domed central atrium, the early presidential office and The Golden Hall, a replica of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors.

Most of the displays dealt with the Castro revolution, from statues of leaders, blood-stained clothes of the revolutionaries, a full-size diorama of a Che Guevara encampment, and a replica of Fidel's ubiquitous army cap.

Much of the display space is devoted to critical descriptions of the American history with Revolutionary Cuba, from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion through the 50-year history of opposition by American administrations.  I probably need to research more of the American side.  Later.

The outside displays of the revolution are larger and perhaps more interesting.  Largest is the boat "Grandma" that Castro used to sail from Mexico back to Cuba to start his armed rebellion.  There are also displays of battles, from the delivery truck used to transport combatants in the March 13, 1957 student attack to parts of the American B26 shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Supposedly, Fidel himself used this mobile 100mm cannon to disable the MV Houston, the CIA-led invaders' supply ship.

All that sobering retelling of history had worked up an appetite, so we crossed the street to Cha, Cha, Cha, a nice bar and restaurant.  Just look for the four-story yellow building.

d170315_38_artes.jpgAfter lunch, Marianne, Chin and I headed to the nearby Museo de Bellas .  No photos were allowed, so I had a chance to simply stroll through the displays of modern and contemporary Cuban art.  I believe our little group's impression was that it was a generally dark collection, not the lively and spirited emotion one might think of a vibrant Latin-American country.  I suppose the period had a surplus of problems.

d170315_41_capital.jpgd170315_40_esplanade.jpgFrom there, we walked down the promenade, past the Capital building, toward the Saratoga hotel where Peter was waiting for us. The Cuban capital building was built around the turn of the 19th Century as a replica of the US Capital, one more sign of the long connection between the US and Cuba.

At the Saratoga Hotel, we found Peter in the bar.  This is not an unfamiliar type of place for our foursome, so we took advantage and ordered a round while we planned the rest of our day.  Peter and I went up to the hotel roof, where we were treated with a spectacular vista.

d170315_44_ontobike.jpgd170315_45_chinpeter.jpgWe decided on one more swing through Old Havana and opted for bicycle transportation to get there, with strong, young men providing the power. The five-minute ride cost us five CUCs for two vehicles and was a real bargain for our tired feet.   The carts were surprisingly comfortable, perhaps because they went slowly around the rough potholes that the old cars simply bounce in and out of.

Along the way, we saw one of the poorer parts of Havana, with rough and crowded housing and streets filled with people shopping, chatting, and watching kids play.  As poor and crowded as the area was, it did not have a threatening vibe.  In fact, wherever we have gone in Havana, we have not experienced anything other than friendly people.  Even beggars are no more numerous than in our own California cities.
d170315_60_barscene.jpgOur goal for this Old Havana excursion was the Bodeguito del Medio, one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite haunts for mojitos. It was filled to overflowing with tourists, but it seemed like that's what was to supposed to be happening, lots of folks having fun.  Peter also managed to make friends with a local whose bearded face and huge cigar has appeared on magazine covers throughout the word.  Tourism celebrity.
Then there was one more walk, to the outer edge of the Old City, where taxis waited for business.  We chose a vintage car ride this time and were assigned a 57 Chevy, a fun end to the day.  (Only four days later, I have forgotten what we did for an evening meal, so I won't add food pictures.  Phew.)

d170316_01_map.jpg d170316_02_waiting.jpgThursday's plan was a day trip to Viñales, a town west of Havana famous for cigar tobacco, mountains, caves, and general tourist attractions.  We started at The El Presidente hotel at the 7:45 appointed hour and encountered the first of several waits for the day.  Whenever we were forced to kill time, the tour organizers were properly apologetic, but still ...

We got on the bus at about 8:45 and settled into our comfy seats.  Then there was one more hotel stop to pick up guests and we were off.

The drive itself was interesting.  After leaving our last hotel, we passed by several of the old beach villas, where the wealthy had lived prior to being expelled by the Castro regime.  (Bus window pictures didn't work.) Our guide Susanna said some had left caretakers in the homes, as if the expulsion would be very temporary, and a few did even return, but most were eventually taken over by the state, like much of the private real estate in Cuba.  Nowadays, there are efforts to restore the grand homes, but there is far more work to be done than money to pay for it.

About an hour out, we made a coffee stop.  This reminded me of the old days in Brazil when I would travel to the power plant I worked on.  That two was a two-hour drive, with one required morning stop for cafe con leche, coffee with milk.  (Brazilians pour more milk than coffee, Cubans the inverse.)

Farther along, we saw uneven limestone mountains off to the north, and a pair of these long, flat dams that provide electricity and flood control.  In the town of Pinar del Rio, we stopped at a cigar factory and waited in more lines.  Susanna told us to wait for the stop at the tobacco farm, rather than purchase at the state-run factory, and I was glad to get out there as soon as possible.  The small town itself, was cute enough however, with an empty downtown, colorful colonial buildings, and a church that looked in better repair than most we had seen.  At least from the bus window.

The next stop, with its share of waiting too, were the "Indian Caves".  The local mountains are riddled with hundreds of caverns where water has dissolved the limestone.  This particular cavern was only explored in the 1980s and is now a full-fledged bus tour stop.  As we waited, we saw a few nice flowers.  (so far, rare for this visit) and could watch a worker squeeze sugar cane.  We passed on the juice.  (I could remember the "caldo de cana" juice in Brazil tasting like sweet muddy water.)

d170316_20_tocave.jpgEventually, Susanna led our group up stairs to the entrance to Indian Caves.  Inside, we were led through a few hundred meters (yards) of soaring caves with fascinating rock formations. The path was an easy walk, with a concrete floor and plenty of lighting.  The exception came at one point where the ceiling came down so low I almost had to crawl through, pushing my camera bag in front of me. After the path, we were placed in small boats for an exploration of even more caverns.  The pictures don't really do it justice, so you will have to go yourself.

d170316_37_bull.jpgOut on open and dry land, we were dropped off at the ubiquitous trinket market.  So far, we have managed to avoid purchases, but I'll bet we will weaken, sooner or later.  We also passed on the droop-horned bull ride.
d170316_39_food.jpgIndian Caves hosted our lunch, a decent offering of traditional foods: pork, chicken, beans and rice, and carrots.  Since it was now almost 3:00, we were all pretty hungry.

By now we were in tobacco farm country, where Cuba grows its best cigar leaves.  We passed fields of tall plants and of fields with leaves starting their drying process.

For a complete picture, we stopped at a working tobacco farm.  There, the barn was filled with leaves drying from the most recent harvest.  I liked the pictures these regular-irregular patterns make.
d170316_46_explain.jpgd170316_49_lightup.jpgThe farmer explained growing in Cuba.  The land belongs to the government and they provide fertilizers and equipment, what there is of it.  The farmer and his small team then do all the work.  For this, the farmer gets some money, depending on quantity and quality, but more importantly, keeps 10% of his crop for "personal use".  The blue-shirted worker rolled a cigar for us and offered tasting, kind of like wine tasting I guess.  (Marianne tried, but I missed getting a picture!)

Driving out of the farm, we had a nice view of the surrounding hills.

d170316_50_explainer.jpg In the farm and on the bus, our guide Susanna talked about tourist things, of course, but she also talked about life in Cuba.  It's hard.  It seems everyone has an official job, where they make just a few dollars a month, but qualify for education, health care, government housing, and some small amount of cheap food.  For everything else, they need a different source.  Her regular job is as a lawyer.  Tour guide is her second job and it is the tips that provide the majority of her cash income.  She said everyone does this, from teachers waiting tables to doctors driving taxis.  It is hard to see how this will all end up.

d170316_56_chindrink.jpgBack on the tour route, we stopped at the "Prehistoric Paintings".  Paintings, yes, but not prehistoric.  They were painted in the early 1960s, in a prehistoric style, in order to draw tourists to this relatively poor and isolated part of the island.  They also specialize in Pina Coladas, as strong as one would like.

Our final stop before heading home was a viewpoint overlooking the Viñales Valley and its limestone ridges.
Tour books say the hotel is a perfect place to sit and watch a sunset, but staying this far away from everything might be a bit too peaceful.

Back on the bus, and we made it home just before 9pm.  Another long day.

This was another day that started out unplanned, except for a first stop at the Hotel Nationale for breakfast.  Marianne and I walked and enjoyed a vigorous walk and a ten-minute rain delay while we waited out in the lobby of the Hotel Victoria.  (Another of the nice-looking hotels we have run across.)

d170317_02_sign.jpgd170317_03_fronthotel.jpgThree or four more blocks from the Victoria was the Hotel Nationale, perhaps the grandest of the old Havana hotels.

As time was short, we headed immediately to the lower level restaurant where we worked our way through a very generous buffet (13 CUCs), while listening to well-played violin and guitar.  A civilized way to start the day.

After breakfast we wandered around the hotel.  The main lobby is truly grand and even the elevators had old-world charm.  Next to the elevators was a placard noting that the  International Air Transport Association (IATA) got its start in this hotel in 1945.  The view of the hotel from the back side shows the massive size of the building.

Farther out in the gardens are cannons that guarded the entrance to Havana Harbor in the late 19th Century.  Next to the old canons are newer bunkers that were used during the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis to watch for invading Americans, who never came.

From the hotel, we grabbed a taxi to the Havana Cemetery, an 80-acre landmark.  The five CUC entrance fee allows all the walking around one would ever want to do.  Each of us wandered off into different sections and here are my pictures:
The northern entrance, followed by an avenue lined with elaborate crypts of the wealthy sugar barons, or so I was told by Juan, the impromptu guide who lured me in. Recognize the symbol of Bacardi Rum?) There was also a large set of vaults for the firemen of Havana who have died in the line of service.  They are still interred there, at least for the first two years after their passing at which point the family needs to come up with alternate plans.

d170317_26_amlegion.jpgd170317_27_warheros.jpgTwo contrasting sites are just across the Columbus Circle part of the cemetery.  The stark, black granite is the American Legion burial ground and the large white mausoleum is for the soldiers of the late 50's revolution.  Only this later one shows up in the guide books.  (I have been unable to find the back-story of the American Legion here in Cuba.)

The cemetery and its chapel are still in service.  While we stood there, considering going in to visit, the newest cemetery addition was brought in.  Consequently, we stayed away.

From here on, Peter read the map for us and concluded we were not too far from the shopping gallery where we knew we could get water, so we headed down the Paseo. 

d170317_32_market.jpgAlong the way, we saw one of the small local markets that seem to pop up and disappear in various nooks and crannies.  We are not sure how people survive in this sort of a system, but shopping must be a full-time job for at least one person in every household.
Half-way to our goal, we stopped at the Friendship House for a quick drink and toilette stop - important traveler pauses.  The old center of communist friendliness served cheap drinks on a very pleasant veranda.  We were all glad we had ventured inside the unmarked entrance.

Finally, we made it to the beach street and the Galerías de Paseo.  We went up to the Jazz Cafe Bar and Restaurant on the top floor and learned about a show that evening, one we would hit several hours later.

No trip to Havana would be complete without a trip in the Havana Co-co taxis. Laden with bottles of water and tired from 10-12,000 steps of walking, we enjoyed a life-threatening ride back to the apartment.

d170317_48_sunset.jpgd170317_49_indinner.jpgBack at the apartment, we rested, while the sun started to go down, a signal for us to get ready for the evening's activities.  We had dinner reservations at Mediteraneo, an Italian place not far that had received good reviews in the guide books and websites we had seen.  Of course that meant it was crowded, but the food was good and, as always, the service very friendly.

d170317_58_us.jpgBest of all, it was an easy walk over to the Jazz Club.  We arrived just as the band was warming up and, even without reservations, a table was created for our party of four, right near the stage. Everywhere, people have been accommodating.

The show was spectacular.  The leader played a variety of saxophones, with a quick piece on a flute thrown in.  The lead guitar (orange pants) played amazingly complex pieces, with fingers flying, and the bass guitar was not far behind.  The drummer was also wicked quick and imaginative.
Another great Havana day, even if it was a late evening for us old-timers.

d170318_02_bakery.jpgMarianne and I decided to try the El Presidente hotel's breakfast again, since it was close and easy. On the three minute walk back, we stopped by a little bakery and surveyed the offerings.  We bought small muffins and a tiny cheese cake to bring back for an apartment snack.  This bakery's offerings look quite nice, but have ended up a bit dry.  Just not what we are used to, I think.

d170318_04_acrepair.jpgOut in front of the bakery, two mechanics were cleaning the shop's air conditioner.  They had taken it completely apart, down to the last nut and bolt, and were reassembling it as we left.  In a land where imports are difficult, Cubans have had to become experts at long-term maintenance.  (The more famous example is the fleet of 50- to 60-year-old cars roaming the streets.)

d170318_09_pork.jpgd170318_06_market.jpgd170318_08_carrots.jpgWe also made a stop at a small "farmer's market" just across from the apartment.  Marianne and Chin had surveyed this space a few days earlier and it had hardly anything, but on this Saturday morning it was bustling.  There was not a great deal of variety, but enough for simple meals.  The butcher was carving up a pig as we watched, but when I took a picture, the market security guard told me that was not allowed.  (Maybe this was one of the tolerated black market shops we had heard about.)

Back at the apartment, our intrepid tourist crew made separate decisions.  The other three decided on a visit to Hemingway's suburban home, a tourist destination I passed in favor of a photo shoot.  Marianne's story:
d170318m_02_sign.jpgd170318m_04_house.jpgGoing out to see Ernest Hemingway”s estate, Finca La Vigia,  “the lookout house”, turned out to be a very worthwhile excursion.  It is located in a small working class suburb of San Francisco de Paula, about 10 miles outside of Havana. The house, grounds, and Hemingway”s dry-docked boat, Pilar, have been beautifully maintained, giving an opportunity for Hemingway fans to get a glimpse of the famous writer's hideaway.

Although one can’t go inside the house, the open doors and windows provide an adequate view of his furnishings, art, and hunting trophies mounted on the walls. Three books: Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Movable Feast were written in his tower room, with a view out over the lush landscape and Havana in the distance.

Nice House and office tower, with a view.

Backyard with pool, dog graves, and boat

I took the time to simply wander around our neighborhood, taking pictures of two subjects: buildings and cars.  I had been interested in the homes and apartment buildings because they are a diverse collection of ruins, ornate villas, and construction projects of varying finality. I believe our neighborhood buildings date from about 1900 through the mid 1950s.  Reportedly, after Castro's revolution, the wealthy left Cuba and their houses were often then subdivided by the state and assigned in the communist approach to free housing.

A few years ago, under Raul Castro, private ownership became possible and houses are starting to be purchased and restored to their earlier glory.  However, it would seem that there are far more needs for rebuilding than there is money to accomplish it.  But it is starting.  (I will put up some sort of slide show of buildings, as soon as I can.)
I wandered up in hills above our area a bit into the region that holds several foreign consulates.  A few, such as the one from Germany, are completely rebuilt and open for business.  Some others are being redone and quite a few sit empty, as if diplomats left just a few weeks ago.  The picture on the right is of a particularly large complex, taking up an entire block, with a grand old house on the front and a series of serviceable structures hidden behind.  I suspect this was an American facility, but I not been able to confirm that.  It would be a nice place to restore, once American-Cuban relationships improve. (Old building slide show here.)

d170318_13_cars.jpgMy other photography subject was cars.  Not just any cars, of course, but the famous Havana fleet of mostly 1950s American classics.  Since we arrived, we have been snapping shots of these rolling museum pieces, but on my free Saturday I sat down by the Malecon (seawall) and clicked for almost an hour.  The 50- and 60-year-old cars were not rare, but rather constituted at least half of the vehicles that passed.  Some were bright, shiny, and colorful convertibles, showing tourists the sights, but many were plain old chargers providing taxi service for both locals and tourists.  Locals generally share taxis on more or less fixed routes, whereas tourists like us take single cars to a desired destination, just like taxis anywhere.  (Car slide show here.)

Like waterfronts anywhere, the Malecon offers a wonderful place to just sit and look out to sea.  Key West is about 100 miles due north and I can imagine the good old days when Hemingway and others shuttled between watering spots in Havana and Florida.  Maybe that day will come again.

d170318_20_drinks.jpgAs for our own favorite watering hole, it may have been the veranda of the El Presidente Hotel with Ivan pouring one of the local rum-based favorites: Pina Colada, Mojito, or Caipirina (Brazilian actually, but common here too).  Marianne, Chin, and Peter enthusiastically told me of their time at the Hemingway house.

Peter and Chin had made reservations for a Cuban music show at the Hotel Nationale, so Marianne and I were on our own for dinner.  We opted for "Eclectica", a pleasant place doing European-style food in an elegant old home.  The service was a friendly crew of young people learning to cater to foreign tourists.  Our impression remains that these establishments are well outside the reach of local Cubans, and Eclectica was almost outside our own budget.

Marianne woke up early and I woke up earlier.  We puttered around the apartment and then decided to head out to the Hotel Nationale for a buffet breakfast.  Initially, we were feeling lazy, and I was loaded with camera gear, so we went over to the nearby hotel taxi stand for a lift.  As is usual practice here, we asked what the fare would be to our destination.  The driver said 10 CUCs, about $11, and we tried to get him down to the normal 5 CUCs.  He wouldn't budge and we wouldn't either. 

d170319_02_hotnatpatio.jpgWe headed out on foot, thinking this city is filled with taxis of all ages, colors, and degrees of repair.  Surely we could catch one for our short hop.  Wrong.  Sunday morning Havana is pretty empty and we did the entire half-hour walk without seeing an appropriate taxi.  Lesson learned: taxis know the market.  At least we arrived at the Nationale hungry.  After a quick breakfast, we checked the patio scene out back.  Nice view out to Key West.

Now refreshed, we kept with our initial plan of walking back to the apartment. We took the long way, along the Malecon, a few hundred meters to the US Embassy, complete with the Cuban protest grounds in front and a field of flag poles. In the old days, before the current opening, the US used to project propaganda on the face of their building and the Castro regime raised a field of Cuban flags to block the message.  Nowadays, the country relationship, if not completely open, is at least less Cold War-ish.  Better

d170319_09_oldnewish.jpgWe continued the beautiful morning walk, looking out to sea and back to the houses that enjoyed the views.  The most prominent residence in this part of town is the huge, multi-story residence of high-ranking government officials.  I wondered what living there would be like.  I expect it includes a fair amount of Orwellian thought control as one would know neighbors owed their place to regime loyalty.  Very Soviet.

Back home, our crew decided on a self-guided tour of Old Havana.  By now, we were comfortable about getting around and a quiet Sunday seemed like a good time to visit places that were quite crowded just the day before.  It was a fun and relaxing walk.

This elaborate shop was the Johnson and Johnson pharmacy, dating from the early 1900s.  (No connection with the American pharmaceutical firm.)  Interestingly, the shop still sells drugs, but their selection is down to just a dozen or so items, a far cry from their former offerings.
We also had an impromptu music lesson.  This shopkeeper enthusiastically took on the task of teaching Chin and Marianne how to play local percussion instruments.  His instructed beat (thump-thump, pause, thump-thump-thump)  seemed easy enough to follow during his lesson, so Marianne and I ended up with five thumpers and rattles.  Back at the apartment, we struggled to match the morning's lesson.

Our next stop was the roof bar and restaurant of the Ambos Mundos, or as everyone calls it: "Hemingway's Hotel."  We rode the same elevator Ernest must have used to get to his fifth-floor room and were treated to a wonderful sixth-floor view at the top.

Sitting, considering a drink, hunger struck and we ordered both lunch and afternoon drinks.  The setting was special, the server cute and friendly, and the musicians willing to play requests.  What more could one want for a Sunday lunch?

Satisfied with our self-tour, we took a cab back to the Hotel El President where Chin used her internet card to check in for Monday's Southwest Airlines flight.  I did the same back at the apartment.  Back in America, the Southwest practice of opening up check-in, and good seating priority, 24 hours ahead is pretty straight forward.  Here, where internet is sporadic and requires one-hour-at-a-time cards (2 CUC each), I had worried, but all things worked out.  That's the way it seems to be here, worry first and then relax.
 d170319_42_nightagain.jpgThe large lunch meant we did not need dinner, but a nightcap seemed in order.  We crossed the street to the VIP Havana and enjoyed an evening drink on the patio.  This is a nice way to travel.

Back "home", the city skyline sparkled, as it has every evening.  I think this is a part I will miss after our return tomorrow.

d170320_02_lastsunrise.jpgWe were greeted by the same bright sun rise, as we have been for a week.  I will miss this view, morning or night.

We packed up our five suitcases and left them in the apartment while we headed down to Old Havana again.  Our flight was not until 6pm, so we had arranged with Marta to leave the rooms empty except suitcases and then pick them up at 3pm.  She agreed to that, as she has agreed with anything else we have asked for.  We will certainly give her good Airbnb reviews!

Downtown, we headed toward breakfast at the Ambos Mundos.  The breakfast buffet was ... good enough.  Pleasant service and a nice view make up for any less-than-perfect food. We had arrived late in the dining period, so some items may not have been as fresh as they started.  It's all OK.

d170320_16_killtime.jpgd170320_19_taxichoice.jpgFrom there is was wandering and indecision, as we had more time than ideas.  The streets were quiet and wandering was nice enough, but my heavy camera/computer bag was wearing me down.  Marianne and I rested, but then called it quits and headed to a taxi stand.  We were given a choice of a newish yellow cab or a not-new-at-all 50's convertible.  For no specific reason, we opted for yellow.  As luck would have it, there was a heavy downpour on our short trip to the  apartment, so  Someone must have been looking after us.

d170320_20_loadedtaxi.jpgd170320_21_taxiride.jpgPeter and Chin joined us at the El Presidente as agreed and we rested just a little more.  Killing time is harder than it seems.  Just before three o'clock, Peter and I went to the apartment to bring down the suitcases while Chin and Marianne arranged for a taxi.  We had just finished dragging our bags down in the small elevator when the wives arrived with a new yellow taxi.  We filled the trunk and headed out to the airport along a more modern highway than we had been seeing.  Good almost-last impression.

d170320_22_wait.jpgd170320_24_stillhappy.jpgAt Jose Marti International Airport, we discovered the growing pains from all the new US connecting airlines.  Some American carriers use Terminal 3, a modern-looking facility that also serves European flights. However, Southwest, United, and Alaska Airlines leave from  Terminal 2.  This seemed like an old Soviet facility, small, low-ceilinged, and plain.  Since we had arrived early, there were also lines for the not-yet-opened Southwest counters.  No matter, we stayed cheerful through it all (confrontation with a line-jumper not withstanding.)
 d170320_28_swandalaska.jpgOn time, we walked out to our red and blue plane.  This simpler boarding is a bit nostalgic for those of us above a certain age.  Kids, believe us, this is the way all airports used to be.

The flight was straight north, just over an hour.  Immigration and customs at Tampa was remarkably efficient and even friendly.  With the new emphasis on "protecting our borders", we had worried a bit about delays, but there were none.  Thanks.

Bags showed up, the arranged driver showed up, and we were on our way back "home" to Indian Rocks Beach.

Overall Conclusions (John's Version anyway)

Coming back from an unusual trip, people ask: "How was it?".  My simple answer is always: "See the diary."  That's good for far more facts than most folks are really interested in.  But there is another, more personal, level of how-it-was.  Here is a John-specific answer.

First, I do not like traveling places for the first time, a control thing or an uncertainty thing.  However, I do like going back somewhere and recognize I must go first before I can go back.  So, I admit I did not like the unknown and uncertain parts of going to Cuba - the first time. 

That said, I have to admit it was both pleasant, predictable tourism and unlike any other place I have traveled.  The standard-good parts included friendly people, good hotels, bars, and restaurants, easy city transport (taxis), and a good bus tour or two.  I would recommend it all.

The most unusual aspects was that Cuba struck me as a Disney World environment, with little mixing between guests and the normal population.  The financial difference between visitors and residents was just too large to foster encounters in restaurants, bars, tours, or even taxis.  Everywhere, we were foreign guests being cared for by working locals.  Maybe this is the case in almost any third-world country, but the idea of a 20 CUC ($20) monthly salary for most people just never became comprehensible.

Would I go back?  Not soon, but maybe in a few years, to see how the situation changes.  In the meantime, there are plenty of places I need to re-visit.

Stay tuned, even now.

John and Marianne

Post-Script - Cars and Buildings

I found myself taking lots of pictures of two subjects: cars and old buildings.  There really was no reasonable way to put on this page, but I did create slide shows for anyone really interested.

The cars are mostly 1950's American "iron", in various stages of repair.  Many are brightly painted and intended for carrying tourists, whereas others are simply local transport.  Almost all are patched together by very imaginative owners.

The buildings are a legacy of the exodus of wealth after the arrival of the Castro regime and are mostly from the neighborhood around our Airbnb apartment.  When the owners left the country, the state took over and assigned the spaces to state workers (i.e.: almost everyone).  Now, people can buy their houses and some are showing signs of restoration. The city must have thousands of old buildings worth restoring, but far less money than is required.

(click for cars)

(click for buildings)


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