Lasting Impressions of Cuba


“Anarchy is like custard cooking over a flame; it has to be constantly stirred or it sticks and gets heavy, like government.” ― Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Anarchism as a social movement in Cuba held much promise for the working class during the 19th and 20th centuries. I won’t go into the sordid details, you can read the history here Anarchism in Cuba.

Yet, what I would like to discuss are my lasting impressions of Cuba. First, Che is everywhere. Forty-five years after the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara — the Argentine doctor who led the 1959 Cuban Revolution alongside Fidel Castro — his portrait is the most reproduced image in Cuba.

His face appears repeatedly on murals, water tanks, billboards, and even plates, t-shirts, coffee mugs, beach towels, and bikinis. While extraordinarily popular as a figure of revolution where children are taught to see him as a hero from a very young age, his image is used to promote commercialism in Cuba. My impression is that he has become a pattern and a design to sell to tourists, and I think they have gone too far and misrepresented Che. Would you buy a bikini with Che’s face on the butt of a bikini bottom?

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Cuba is More than Havana


“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
― John Muir

Walking through a small art gallery in Havana, I became mesmerized by this painting. Is this in Cuba? I have to go there! As we discovered, it was Viñales and we visited after we left Havana.

Ron and I both enjoy traveling through cities, but we are really country people at heart and prefer mountains and lakes to oceans and cities. We read that Viñales is the gateway to the Sierra de los Organos Mountains and the Viñales Valley. The valley’s steep limestone hills, called mogotes, draw many rock climbers. We hoped to report excellent climbing conditions to our son Cory, who is a rock climber.

The Viñales Valley offers Cuba’s best hiking, caving, rock climbing, horseback riding, and cycling. Just down a hill from our casa particular, we entered a magical world with trails leading in all directions. The rights to roam and climb are relaxed in this part of the world, so we were free to explore as we tramped under fences, through farmers’ tobacco fields, and climbed steep mogotes to view mystical vistas.

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Part II: Renting a Guagua or Waawaa We Go!


Life is similar to a bus ride, or in the case of Sandy’s Cuban family, a guagua ride. (pronounced waa waa)
The journey began when Sandy rented a guagua to take us to Havana for an evening of entertainment. You see, her extended family is so large and no one owns a car, so it was impossible to treat them to an evening of fun in Havana without renting a guagua.

Thirty dollars bought Sandy an evening with a guagua driver and enough room for the entire community to go to Havana to watch the cannon ceremony.

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The History of Airbnbs in Cuba


When President Obama’s administration opened the door to improve relationships with Cuba, Airbnb announced that it would offer accommodations to guests from around the world. Airbnb started by licensing U.S. travelers’ accommodations in April 2015, and last April 2016 the U.S. Department of Treasury granted special authorization to allow the company to advertise accommodations in Cuba to non-U.S. travelers. Today, Cuba is the fastest growing market in Airbnb history.

Since we are U.S. citizens it is difficult, if not impossible, to use our U.S. based credit and debit cards in Cuba. We knew we would have to exchange our dollars for Euros before we arrived in Cuba because U.S. dollars are not accepted and we would be charged a hefty 13% commission if we exchanged dollars for CUCs.

Overlooking Havana from our Airbnb balcony on the malacon.

Cuba is predominantly a cash society. Even though Cuba is one of the safest countries we have visited, mainly because the people are petrified of the government if any tourists are harmed, we didn’t like the idea of carrying around large wads of cash.

Therefore, Airbnb was a great option because we could pay online in full with our U.S. credit cards. We stayed in two Airbnbs, one in Havana and the other in Trinidad. Now, we’ve stayed in Airbnbs all over the world, and Cuba’s Airbnbs are a little different.

Reading some of the reviews, I noticed that some people were surprised when they rented an Airbnb in Cuba because the water was not reliable, toilet paper was scarce, the internet was advertised but not available in the house, and the owners lived in the house with the guests.

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Part I: A Day with a Cuban Family in the Barrio


“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
― Plutarch

When Sandy took us to meet her large extended family in Marianao, Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. We had only been in Cuba for one day and I had no understanding of life in a communist country. My understanding of communism was that everyone in the Cuban society received equal benefits derived from their labor. I thought that it was a classless society where the government controlled everything and where wealth was redistributed so that all are of the same social and financial status.

NOT. SO. 

We arrived in Marianao surprising Sandy’s family because she had told them that she would visit the following Monday. The matriarch of the family, wrapped in her worn cotton dress, limped to the door and showered hugs and kisses on Sandy. Then, she showered us with hugs and kisses, too!

She is 97 years young and still going strong thanks to socialized medicine in Cuba. She lost a leg many years ago, but she received a plastic leg that enables her to walk. All medical care is free in Cuba…or so we thought. The matriarch’s daughter showed us a plastic bag filled with medicines for her and her mother. She said that she has to pay for them, and that medicine is dispensed on a sliding scale depending on the finances of the family. Since she is a teacher, she has to pay for the medicines.

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Margarita’s Ashes: A Cuban Burial Story


“Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens’ claws.” ~ Jim Morrison

Havana’s Colón Cemetery is the second-largest in the world taking up 56 hectares, as well as the final resting place of over two million souls. One of these souls is Margarita, Sandy’s Cuban mother-in-law.

Most tourists visit the cemetery for the historical significance and the funerary monuments, ornate sculptures, and mausoleums. We were privileged to visit the cemetery in search of Margarita’s ashes. Yet, the search led us to an unexpected discovery of how the poor are buried in Cuba.

The varied architectural styles of the graves are a fascinating reflection of the golden age of Cuba. Now, many of the graves are in a state of disrepair because the families fled before the revolution and abandoned the graves of their loved ones.

Those who can afford to decorate the graves of their loved ones embellish the crypts with fresh flowers and small tokens of remembrances. For those who can’t afford the upkeep of the graves, the story is quite different.

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Happy Trails!


“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett

 

We are off island for a grand journey to Cuba, Mexico, and then the United States. It has been a busy week. I won’t be posting from Cuba, but when we get settled in Mexico, prepare for a hundred shots of the old cars of Cuba. On my first date with my husband, he picked me up in a 1950 Chevy! And it got better…on our second date, he picked me up in a 1956 limo. We are old car lovers.

Here is a review of our past week.

Robinson opened his Island Cafe restaurant. It used to be the American Cafe and Hotel. We wanted Robinson to name it Robinson’s Crusoe, but he felt more comfortable calling it the Island Cafe and Hotel.

What a change paint makes! The restaurant used to be off white with red plastic chairs and blue plastic tables. Now, it is so chic!  Continue reading

How Reading Helps a Community


“We read to know we’re not alone.”
― William Nicholson, Shadowlands

I had many photos to accompany this post, but I received a call this morning telling me that it is against Nicaraguan law to post pictures of Nicaraguan police in uniform. I had no idea! So, I deleted my Facebook post with the pictures of the police reading to the students and I deleted the photos on my blog post to respect the privacy of the officers and the Nicaraguan law.

Our tiny police force on Ometepe Island consists of 14 police officers in Moyogalpa. They receive a pittance of pay and often work long hours without money for office supplies, gas for their vehicles, etc.

When they helped me recover my phone which was stolen from my house by my 15 yr. old friend, I repaid their kindness with a bag of office supplies for their bare bones office.
The other day my police buddy called me to ask if he could come to my house to talk. He mentioned the word “molestar” and I feared we were in trouble. Instead, when he arrived, he introduced me to the new officer and asked if I could give him a notebook and a pen.

I sighed a big sigh of relief because I realized he simply said on the phone that he didn’t want to bother me. “No quiero a molestar.”

I had him make a list of office supplies the police force needed…a very simple list with notebooks, pens, a scissors, and stapler. Then I purchased the supplies and took them to the office. I also went to the gas station and bought a voucher for gasoline for their vehicles.

The officers were very appreciative and asked in return what they could do for me. I asked if they could come to my elementary school library and read the children a story. I think it is important for the police to be role models for their community and I can think of no better way for them to help me develop a culture of reading than to start at the elementary level.

Yesterday, they picked me up in their police truck, and we went to the La Paloma Elementary School to read to the preschoolers. I had to laugh as I rode in the police truck because the neighbors were all freaking out! I know I created quite a stir!

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Moving Day in Nicaragua


“Settling into a new country is like getting used to a new pair of shoes. At first they pinch a little, but you like the way they look, so you carry on. The longer you have them, the more comfortable they become. Until one day without realizing it you reach a glorious plateau. Wearing those shoes is like wearing no shoes at all. The more scuffed they get, the more you love them and the more you can’t imagine life without them.”
― Tahir Shah

I can’t imagine life in Nicaragua without Nicaraguan ingenuity. My Scottish sister friends moved to their new house on Ometepe Island and they needed to move their belongings.

I know you are thinking, hire a moving van or rent one, right? The problem with that is that the only professional moving company that we are aware of is in Managua. We know that because when House Hunters International filmed us, they had to hire the only professional company in the country to move our belongings from our house, so they could film us “pretending” to view our house to buy.

How in the world did I explain this to our Nicaraguan friends and neighbors, who are only familiar with horse cart moving, when a giant moving company truck pulled on our sandy beach path?  My response was, “It’s Hollywood,” and that seemed to satisfy their curiosity.

The Scottish sisters hired Wilber and his trusty old horse to pull their belongings in a repurposed cart to their new house. They were concerned that Wilber’s old horse might have a difficult time pulling a heavy load and the repurposed cart was heavy, too.

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