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Bustling Havana

Chapter 7 - Friday, February 24, 2017

This was going to be another great day: discovering an obscure neighborhood brimming with color and imaginative art, a ride to a small coastal village, a boat ride, enjoying the lobby of a swanky hotel, being present at a presentation at the radio and television station, collectable cars, sloppy joe's, a long walk and a wreck on the Malecón.










Mark, John and Don outside the ICRT (Instituto Cubana de Radio y Television)

And, Raul at Fusterlandia >>>>>>>>>>


Heading out of Havana, Matt wanted to show us a very unusual neighborhood Northwest of the city in the Jaimanitas neighborhood.

And what to our amazing eyes did we see? A whole area, blocks and blocks, with multi-colored mosaics, ceramic tiles, art and fanciful creations that felt like we had wandered into a Technicolor fantasyland. Complete walls and buildings were covered in artistic creations using colored tiles and paintings. Weird, unusual, fun forms of animals, people and creatures that were conceived from the imaginations of the artists who created them.

Indeed, this outdoor fantasyland is called Fusterlandia, begun and inspired by José Fuster. The entire community around his home and studio has been decorated in José’s style of ceramics and paintings. It is totally surreal.



Visitors (there were a lot of them) roamed about the premises, up stairways to various levels where one might meet a ceramic encrusted cowboy, some crazy bird, arches, doorways and open fisted hands, you name it, it was there.

Unfortunately, having a tight schedule, Matt allowed us a limited time to take in this beautiful craziness. At an appointed time we were to meet and re-board Big Blue to continue the drive out to the town of Baracoa.


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As everyone else was in the bus and started to leave, someone realized one person was missing. Who was missing? 

Who could that be? 

OH NO - where’s DON??

I hadn’t intentionally meant to be tardy, I had simply stopped at a little place along the street where the very nice Cubans there were selling souvenirs, with every little thing I looked at (not touched), they explained about it, and me not wanting to be rude, listened to everything they had to say. That included several items, including some hats that interested me, but which I really did not want to buy. That led them to bring out more hats for me to see and try on. Meanwhile time was ticking away and I didn’t realize I had missed our deadline (and nearly the bus). Still, the Cubans were being very kind to me, so I spent my time with them, returning the consideration of listening to what they had to say. 

Fusterlandia Souvenir Shop

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But, just as I was about to consider buying a hat, Raul appeared from out of nowhere and exclaimed “DON, we are leaving!! You must come NOW!”

That abruptly ended my little shopping excursion. I kind of felt bad that I did not make a purchase from the nice people, but Raul saved me from buying something I really did not need. 



Rushing back to Big Blue, the others had a good laugh for my lagging behind and nearly missing the bus. Oh, yeah, I was embarrassed, but they all were good-natured in their ribbing me and it ended up that we all got a good laugh (and it added some excitement and fodder for a tale to tell).

Baracoa Beach scene


Bicycle Taxi in Baracoa

Pelican scupture in Baracoa

Off to Baracoa we went, a small coastal town where we enjoyed a short walking tour and then ended at the home of local residents who were friends of Matt. They led us up to their home's rooftop from where they would entertain us. Chairs around a table under shade, was a wonderful place to enjoy their meals and from where we could look out over the river flowing by their house and out to the sea beyond. Their warm greeting and hospitality made us feel comfortable and welcome. Providing us with beverages and appetizers, we relaxed, chatted and viewed out over the town and the river and bay below.

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                                                Our hosts with Matt and entrance to their home.

   

From their home we were scheduled to embark on a boat ride. When the boat came chugging up the river, a significantly smaller craft than what I had expected, especially if it were to go out into the ocean (which was pretty rough that day). A few of us had second thoughts about squeezing onto what, in my opinion, looked like an oversized rowboat with a motor and limited seating, primarily sitting on the edge of it. Normally pretty adventurous (as most of you know), to me this just was not looking very safe. If they were heading out to the ocean, which was in plain sight, it was looking like a dubious excursion at best. 

No thank you, I’ll stay on terra firma today. Mark and Raul were like-minded and so we stayed at our host’s home. They brought us more beverages and appetizers in the meantime, while they were downstairs preparing a fresh fish lunch for all of us.

 

Everyone else boarded the little boat, and to my surprise they headed UP the river, not out to sea. Obviously that would be less risky and may have altered my view of going on the cruise. But, after possibly 15 minutes, here came the little boat, back toward the bay and ocean. It turned left in the bay and then was out of sight. I hoped they would be safe wherever they had headed.

 Meanwhile Raul, Mark and I relaxed with drinks and more appetizers, overviewing the domain that lay out before us. Less than an hour passed and the boat came back toward the house. That was a short cruise!

 Apparently, the waters were a bit too much, even in the bay, and for safety’s sake they aborted and landed the crew back at the house. Those seafarers joined us landlubbers again where we soon were served lunch and more beverages. I can’t praise enough how gracious these folks were to us. An enjoyable time, again with local Cubans, giving us a more authentic feel about the people.

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Heading back into Havana, we returned on 5th Avenue (Embassy Row), passing some of the city’s most prestigious homes and foreign embassies, the Russian Embassy being notable with it’s tall tower overlooking everything else for miles around.

Having promised to attend the presentation at the radio/television station we arrived early spending some time across the street in an arts and crafts market where souvenirs could be bought. 

At the station, a few cars from the local car club were parked outside, including a 1956 Continental Mark II that reportedly had been owned by the wife of ex-president and US backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Julio and his wife with their 1959 Chevrolet

A crowd milled about outside until an announcement proclaimed the start of the ceremony. Crowding inside the lobby we observed an obvious political recitation from some school children, other announcements, presentations and a tango dance. Julio, with Nostalgicar, was present but he never was mentioned nor did he receive an award as he had been led to believe. Of course, not understanding the language, we were just observing.

Standing in the back of the crowd wearing a car club shirt with it’s logo, Fenders & Friends, I was approached by a gentleman holding a hand held movie camera. He motioned toward my shirt’s logo indicating he wanted to shoot it. 

Nodding my approval, he came in close to the logo, backed up a bit taking in more of me and scanned over me for a bit more footage. Mark and John, also with the same shirts with logos, stood nearby, but they were not included in this little documentation. We were a bit puzzled, shrugged it off and wondered if I were going to be appearing on Cuban National TV – or was there some other purpose…? Hummmm.

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Outside after the presentation, we hung out for a while where a friend of Mark’s from the US approached us. As a journalist he was recording this event and he informed us that we were standing next to a building that housed the Buick dealership in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution. 

He showed us a photo of that corner from January 1959 with armed rebels loaded in several cars passing by the dealership. Inside the building’s windows new ’59 Buicks were displayed. What an interesting documentation, and historical record of where we, in this day and time, were actually standing. If Mark’s friend Tom had not been in Cuba at the same time and shown us the photo, we would have been clueless about the location’s significance. I have to wonder how many of the old cars on the streets, now, had also passed by that intersection in 1959.

 

Having the rest of the afternoon and evening to ourselves, we returned, again, to Old Havana to visit the Hotel Plaza where Mark’s parents had resided during their honeymoon in 1938. Starting across from the hotel, we stopped in Parque Central (Park)                                                             to see the large gathering of colorful taxis/cars and horse drawn carriages, plus the passing scene of traffic, each moment presenting yet another old treasure and some surprising vehicles too. This was a very busy location as we eventually made our way inside the Plaza Hotel. There we lingered in the beautiful lobby, which probably had not changed dramatically over the years. While there we attempted to sign on using their Wi-Fi connections. My attempts were mostly futile.

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Since we were on our own for dinner, we headed up the street to a place also visited by Mark’s parents, Sloppy Joe’s, a restaurant and bar with a long history. 

Brenda had joined John, Mark and I and there we passed the time with several drinks. 

Service at this place was disappointing, as they had only two waitresses on the floor. As it grew later, we decided to stay for dinner, having…sloppy joe's! Their version of this American classic was not bad, but not “sloppy” and as tasty as we would serve.

You can have any rum you’d like - as long as it is Havana Club...

Night had fallen long before as we departed Sloppy Joe’s and chose to walk at least part of the way back to Casa Blanca. Walking  streets through areas that looked a bit rundown, other people were out and about, local children playing, but we were feeling no danger as we continued our long walk until we reached the Malecón. There we saw a nasty accident between a newer car and a very early 50’s Chevrolet, the poor Chevy having been hit really hard in the left rear quarter. It was hard not to feel very sorry for the owner, since such damage would be a real challenge to repair.

With a fair way to go before reaching our B&B, we walked up to a hotel area in hopes of more easily finding a taxi to take us the rest of the way. A Russian limousine, a Chaika, (perhaps this was one used by Fidel Castro) drew our interest and while we would have taken it, the owner, paying us no heed, seemed disinterested, not seeing an opportunity. But, then another man approached us offering us a ride. We thought he, then, might own the Russian car, but in trying to communicate he told us (in limited English) he knew us and had given us a ride several days before. We, all associating him with the limousine, were having a hard time following how he knew us (he knew enough details about us that we questioned our memories). Being friendly and persistent, he finally got us to remember and realize he did not own the limousine, but rather the 1950 Mercury parked ahead of it.

OH! Yeah!

Then we knew and understood.

This was the same driver who drove us home the first night in Havana after the musical entertainment on the Malecón. All smiles and laughing at finally understanding and remembering, we loaded up in the old Merc and headed to Casa Blanca.

A long day had passed. We experienced more of the life of Cuban people and culture, enjoyed some great scenes, food, drinks, history.

 The next day, Saturday, would be our last full day in Cuba.

 What discoveries lie in store for us?




Returning into Havana from Baracoa on 5th Avenue, Embasy Row


At the intersection behind this car is where the rebels are shown in the 1959 photo.

This truck (above) is a taxi also.


Havana - Where History Abounds

Chapter 6 - Thursday, February 23, 2017

                                                                                        We were in for a busy day! 

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Bellies full with our breakfasts, we headed back to Old Havana area again where we explored a couple of public squares and where we learned more of the city’s history, including about buildings around the squares, churches, fountains and more.

Starting at Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, dating back to the 1500’s, this plaza is near the harbor and where a market once thrived in addition to the church built in 1608. The market was moved to Plaza Vieja (not far away) when the pious monks complained about the noise. Other notable buildings surround the square which also has the Fountain of Lions (Fuente de los Leones). At the opposite end of the plaza was a modern sculpture, La Conversación. 










Plaza de San Francisco de Asís

Nearby we were introduced to El Caballero de París, the sculpture/statue of a well-known street person who roamed Havana during the 1950s, engaging passersby with his philosophies on life, religion, politics and current events. Commonly held belief is that the old fella was a bit “touched”. It is rumored that if you now touch the old man (statue) it will bring you luck. By the looks of the worn spots on the old guy, he has been touched frequently. 

 

Evesdropping on "Le Conversación"

On the streets next to the plaza there were many, many old car taxis in use or waiting to be hired. They were colorful and distinctive, both the ones parked and those passing by on the street. It was fun to see them and try to identify all the various makes. 


Little yellow and green Coco Taxis were seen buzzing about also.


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Stunning Pontiac and Mercury at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba

Along a side street from the plaza, we walked a short distance to the Plaza de Armas, just as a group of school children were leaving a museum. As their teachers guided them, they very orderly walked across to the park and sat together enjoying each other and their lunches. Animated and happy, the kids were having a wonderful time.

The Plaza de Armas is well known for its’ open air book market where almost every book written about the Cuban Revolution was for sale. 

Additionally there were many other collectible items offered as in any flea market, such as coins, broaches, posters, pins and the one thing that John wanted most - license plates. He collects them and he hit pay dirt with a good selection of Cuban plates which he bought.


 


But, just across from this park, we saw an incredibly colorful display of vintage cars, all convertbiles. These too were for hire, but it appeared more people were interested in looking than getting rides. As is the case with most of these old cars, modifications have been made. Name plates on some may be incorrect, interiors not original, tape or CD players and some other “modern” touches installed. Most have been converted to diesel engines.


In contrast to the brightly painted cars were a row of horse drawn carriages also waiting for fares. There was a lot of activity all around, in the park and outside where we enjoyed inspecting the cars.

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Our visit to Cuba was not all about cars. This was primarily an educational, people to people trip. Matt had already shown us some of the outlying life near Matanzas, with traditional Cuban music and song, hospitality, food and sharing friendships. 


Matt had another special meeting arranged for us, but this time not out of the city. He had befriended a singing group that has developed quite a reputation in and outside of Cuba who were to perform a private concert for us. The performance was not to be in a concert hall or auditorium, rather it was in one of the member’s high rise apartments. 

Matt joins the women’s choir, Ensemble Vocal Luna, singing “Java Jive"

The group, Ensemble Vocal Luna, is an all women’s choral group of 14 singers with middle and upper levels of musical education. Their varied repertoire includes a wide variety of composers, styles, and genres of world and Cuban music. They have participated in several internation events and shared the stage with important Cuban and international choirs.

This was a real treat to be able to sit in the living room and listen to their music and stories (translated through Matt and Raul). All but one song were sung in Spanish. “Java Jive” they sang in English accompanied by Matt.What a great feeling to have been invited into this home and for them to share their talent with us. Wouldn’t it be nice if leaders in this world could get together like this and then try to find common ground on which to build peaceful relations?

Before leaving, we enjoyed the views that looked out toward the ocean and, after leaving, walked across the street for lunch at a small boutique restaurant, Noah’s Ark. 

Back across the street, two Chevy’s awaited to transport us to our next destination, the restoration shop  Nostalgicar.

 







There we met the owners Julio and his wife. We learned that Julio primarily restores 50’s Chevrolets in this shop, up to 1960. He had been invited to the US several years ago and met with several government officials who had heard of his work in Cuba. Initially he hated the work ethic in the US, where people worked so much they had little time to spare for family. However, after several visits and working with US companies like NAPA, he soon found himself in that same boat of work, work, work. He jokingly told us he is a capitalist in communist Cuba. His small staff work their magic on cars without the aid of more sophisicated equipment, much work done by hammering and forming a piece by hand. He believes in restoring to original specs, including keeping standard gasoline engines. If one sees a well restored Chevy in Cuba, it probably was done in Julio’s shop. 

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There is a website that tells more, but he did tell us how the name Nostalgicar came about. Apparently Susan Sarandon, actress, was riding in one of his restored Chevy’s and he asked her what came to her mind while enjoying the ride. She thought for a moment and replied “nostalgia”. And so Julio and his wife ran with that and created a memorable nameplate for their business - NOSTALGICAR.

Julio also informed us that the next afternoon, he had been invited to attend a car show and presentation at the radio/TV headquarters. He asked us to consider coming also, to which we were eager to agree. It was one more thing to work into the next day's plans, but Matt was confident that it could be done. With that, we continued on to our next stop, Revolution Square. 

Revolution Square, by its’ name should be apparent that this is a place commemorating the Cuban Revolution. Dominating the park is a tall structure, which unfortunately we did not go into. 

But outside it was bustling with visitors and what an assortment of old cars! Bright, vibrant colors that would make a peacock jealous. We did not spend a very long time there, but had a great time photographing the cars, some from the 20’s (and definitely not in BLACK).

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But, as much fun as it was to get up close and personal with many of these cars, we had more grave matters to pursue and rode on to our next stop, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, the Cristopher Columbus Cemetery. This was founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, Cuba. It is noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials, mausoleums, vaults, and chapels. It is generally recognized as the most historically and architecturally important cemetery in Latin America. Home to over a million interred bodies including politicians, musicians, writers, artists, military heroes, and religious figures from both Cuba and around the world.

Two monuments were of note, as told by our cemetery guide. One is the 75 foot tall monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in Havana’s May 17th, 1890 fire. It is huge with symbolism abounding in its’ entirety. In the second famous tomb rests Amelia Goire de la Hoz, or “La Milagrosa.” This woman was buried alongside her child in 1901, and Cuban women now come to her grave to pray for safe and healthy pregnancies, returning with gifts and donations when things go successfully. The popularity of this ritual makes her grave by far the most frequently-visited in the cemetery.

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We ended our visit to the cemetery at the Central Chapel located in the middle of this massive cemetery.


Our day still not complete, our last stop of the day was at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This historic luxury hotel is located on the Malecón in the middle of the Vedado district. It stands on Taganana Hill overlooking the sea, and offers a view of Havana Harbor, the seawall and the city. Inside was very busy and outdoors, on the well groomed grounds, patrons were enjoying the afternoon with cocktails and conversations. Inside we headed to the bar and had ourselves mojitos to drink as we looked around at pictures and posters depicting all of the famous celebrities that frequented its’ halls over many decades. Some of those characters were notable for their not so legal endeavors or of connections to questionable enterprises.

A walk outdoors on the grassy lawn, turned into a rout, as, just then, the heavens let loose with a downpour, everyone scurrying for cover. This then gave some of us the chance to browse the Cuban cigar shop inside where many customers were in pursuit of purchasing from several brands of the famous rolled tobacco.














As the rains had slackened and, in its stead, evening was falling upon us, Big Blue carried us back to Casa Blanca. There we had a little time to freshen up before heading out to dinner and a special treat thereafter.

El Cocinero restaurant held our dinner reservation on that Thursday evening. Located in a an old factory, which still retained its’ brick smoke stack, this place held some nice surprises. From the moment of our arrival, it was apparent that it was a very popular spot.  Climbing a narrow circular staircase to the second floor we dined indoors, where I enjoy a delicious filleted lobster tail (and maybe a Cuba Libre, or two). Outdoor dining on the second floor was another area, while atop the building was an open air bar that incorporated the interior of the smokestack as the bar. Spectacularly, inside the stack were tiny muticolored lights that ascended up, up, up inside. It appeared like sparkling little stars as they merged into the darkness within.

But the real surprise was that this was attached to an art gallery, performance space and very, very popular night club combined into one. Coming out of the restaurant, immediately next door a swarm of people, most young, were  queuing up in line, arriving by the dozens in taxis. Through Matt, he told us we would be going into the party also, but then led us down the street, past a long string of people, around the block, down another long line of people and stood in the long, long line, hoping to be admitted. 

After a long day, and not much of a night person with little appetite for “clubbing”, I would rather have just gone back to the house. However, having little time to bemoan my misery of possibly standing for hours in a never ending line, and certainly not being attired in hot spot “party” clothes, Matt came and hustled us OUT of the line, back around the corner right up to where the bouncers/guardians of the gate/tickets takers were standing. And just like that, we were all admitted to enter. (We think some $$ was exchanged to gain us an early entrance). 

Well, OK, that went rather well. Inside we were sold a modestly priced ticket, which allowed us to get drinks for free, until we left, whereupon we paid for our beverages from our punched card. That whole concept and process actually worked out very nicely.

Inside were several levels, nooks and crannies, conversation places, art, living art, music performances, dance floor. And extremely active. This was a huge space where we wandered around observing all sorts of curiousities, notable some of the human “living art” (no, no nudity), just bizarre and fascinating. Some were masses of people in some form of costumes moving as a unit, others were individuals encased in weird and crazy contraptions or outfits, and two who moved about the premises appearing to be some sort of elastic, stretchy kind of thing.                                                                                                                                                                    They contorted and convoluted up stairs and around the gallery like a sticky mess of taffy.











This beauty was a part of the “living” art, walking about in the gallery, seeming like one of the patrons, but she often stopped, posed for no one in particular and used this cubby hole to apply makeup. All part of the art exhibit, whether stationary or moving about.


Yea, kinda bizarre, and yet pretty darn artsy too. Though I can’t claim to understand the meanings behind some of the “art”, I did appreciate their efforts. 

Not everywhere in the huge spaces were hectic, there were quieter areas where people could take in some other modern art, but more tame in tastes. Young people enjoyed themselves on a dance floor, including the young man in our group Tom, who, during most of the trip look sullen and seldom smiled. On the dance floor, he must have found his niche for how relaxed (and happy) he appeared there. 

A little of this kind of night life went a long way, and after a few drinks and observing all the curiousness, we had had enough to end what had been a very busy and excellent day. 

Though I did not, at first, feel at ease with the night club scene, it too was worth the experience. 

What surprised me were all the young people who dressed up and were out enjoying night life in Havana. For all apparent appearances, this could be a scene from New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo - any large city around the world. Night life, music, having a good time are not limited to capitalist countries.

In the future though, I think I had better get me some new duds for clubbing.



Oldsmobile cruising along the Malecón


They are not all pretty and shiny



Having Fun In Havana

Chapter 5 - Exploring Havana, Cuba

Day 4, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

After dinner the night before, there was one other event that Matt had arranged for us and that was to be entertained by a young group of musicians who performed for us on Havana’s Malecón. These enthusiastic young men put on quite a performance for us and passersby, with rumba, salsa hip shaking rhythms as well as some rock and roll tunes. It all created a mellow mood to cap off our first evening in Havana. Wrapping up the evening, we all hailed a taxi for a ride back to Casa Blanca, our B&B. The taxi that transported us was a 1950 Mercury and it’s proud owner very happily told us about his ride including that it was powered by a Land Rover diesel engine. Though the back seat springs were mostly sprung, we had a blast on the drive. Several days later we would cross paths with this car again.

Mark Nowery, my traveling companion, had a very special personal interest in visiting Cuba, and particularly Havana. You see, his parents honeymooned there in 1938, having taken some home movies of several locations around the city. As well as the movies, Mark’s mother had kept a detailed (and entertaining) diary of their memorable time there. From the movies, Mark had  reproduced several still pictures of sites his mother and father had visited. It was Mark’s intention to locate these monuments, buildings and sites and visit where his folks had also set foot 79 years before. It was fun to find those places and imagine what it might have been like all those years ago. From the old pictures and Mark’s new ones, he could compare any changes that had occurred over the years. I enjoyed this nearly as much as Mark. Among other things, Mark’s mother wrote of another young couple they chummed with including the night life and hot spots they frequented in Havana. Helping relive those moments in 2017 with our group was well worth it and fun.

Cruising along Havana’s Malecón

Previously I mentioned The Malecón. What, you may ask, is The Malecón? Briefly, it is a wall and roadway along the sea that extends for several miles along the city’s coast line. This is a favorite roadway to watch the cars cruise, especially the old ones. It also is perfect for strolling, sitting on the wall, for musicians to perform, all while affording great views of the city and the sea beyond.

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Our Bed & Breakfast in Havana, Casa Blanca (White House), was in a nice old home owned by Boris and his wife (whose name I have forgotten). Though the house had seen grandeur days it still held its’ dignity quite nicely. The hosts prepared simple breakfasts for us including a selection of fresh fruits, an omelet, meat, bread, juice, coffee or tea. The table was always set very early when I arose before everyone. 

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I would sit in the front living room where I began writing down some of my stories. The first morning, sitting there alone, Boris asked me if I would like a cup of expresso with sugar. "Why yes, thank you”, I said. He then went about making it and brought me an expresso in its’ small cup. 

I sipped it whilst writing on the laptop. And so it went for the next several days while we were in Havana, me up early, writing, Boris bringing me a cup of expresso. Though I will dispute it, John and Mark, slow risers that they were, thought I was a bit too energetic when I would return to our room to rouse them. Imagine, a little cup of expresso having that much power. Really!?


Matt had full days planned for us and a early start each day was needed to fit in everything. Frank, our driver with his 1948 Ford taxi, would be outside waiting with Big Blue and Raul, our other guide, would also be at the curb waiting for us. After we were loaded in the taxi, we drove up the street to pick up the rest of our crew and then we were off to explore each day.



Is this where the 3 bears slept?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Oh geez, the first morning in Havana and it was raining. Not such a good sign for us who were looking forward to staying dry while in Cuba. After breakfast Matt took us to an ration store, where Cubans could buy food stuffs with their CUP currency. There were no products displayed on shelves as in our supermarkets, instead there were long counters around the room where customers went and ordered what they sought from a clerk. It was a very plain room and not many buyers. It was notable to us that in one corner were two very large vats from which was dispensed vinegar or dry wine. I guess customers would bring their own containers and have them filled with either liquid. Interesting...

Right next door was an open air market - MUCH busier than the ration store. In addition to fruits and vegetables, sweets, etc, there was an open air meat market. A cute scene was a cat waiting by the meat counter for any tidbits that the butcher might let slip for the kitty.

As the rain let up, we headed off for a brief peek into Cuba’s largest arts/handicrafts market, which gave us a taste for coming back to buy some souvenirs. Up the street we walked to the Depósito del Automóvil, a collection of automobiles from 1905 on. Until a proper museum can be built these cars are stored here and curated by Eduardo and his wife. It was a very interesting place getting to look at the really old cars, some trucks and Harley Davidsons too. 

Loading back into Big Blue, our next destination was to visit the Cathedral Square area. Walking with other crowds of people down a narrow street, we soon emptied into the square dominated by the huge cathedral on one end. This was a very busy, popular destination and a must stop for visitors. It was colorful and busy all around. A short walk led us to our lunch stop, Doña Eutimia down a little courtyard. Crowded and obviously very popular, Matt had reservations for us, which let us pass by eager diners who had arrived without having a table set aside for them. Here we enjoyed a few rounds of mojitos and maybe another Cuba Libre for me. I remember ordering albóndigas, which is served in Cuban style differently than in Mexican style. Here it was a meatball meal, whereas the Mexican style is as a vegetable & meatball soup. Either way, it was delicious.


Wadling back outside, our walking tour led us through Plaza Vieja, dominated at one end by a huge rooster statue riden by a person with a huge fork. I can only imagine the significance or meaning of it, but it was a fun piece. Having made good use of old war supplies, the park utilized cannon balls as part of the decor and boundary lines of the park. At other places along our tour, the Cubans had planted old cannon barrels in the pavement as barriers in the streets. It was an ingenious way to make use of weapons of war. 

As we passed on, a group of young boys were kicking a soccer ball as spectators looked on. Such activity always brings smiles to people’s faces. This park, as most of them in Cuba that we saw, would be great places to just sit and people watch all day. All sorts of people and happenings were ongoing throughout the day.

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Walking down more side streets, crowds of people venturing to their own places, we stopped at a silk screen/print shop, where we were shown some techniques on cleaning a silk screen and where we were free to search through prints that were also for sale. That wrapped up our touring for the day, as we again boarded the bus (Big Blue) for the return to Casa Blanca, our B&B. 

Having several hours to spare, Mark, John and I walked a short distance to the Malecón where the sea was restless and was sending waves crashing into and over the wall. From where we observed, a particularly forceful wave slammed into the malecón wall, the force of the water so violent that it blew up through the manholes and curb drains, erupting upward and outward blowing water and rocks across the Malecón roadway. Luckily no cars happened to be driving by at that moment, but it did slow them down as ones coming along braked for the high water now draining back into the drains and to avoid the rocks on the road. 



With storm clouds out over the water, the skies had darken, but other than a few drops, the rain kept out to the sea. Soon, however, the beginnings of a rainbow began to emerge to the East. In sight with huge old cannons, the sea pounding against the Malecón wall, dark skies and the birth of a rainbow, this day left a lasting memory in my mind. The afternoon was rapidly drawing to a close as we peered out across the sea and the heavens above. The brilliant sky, now cleansed by the rain and strong winds, cast colors of the setting sun upon the remaining clouds.

Wandering back to Casa Blanca, as we passed by El Presidente Hotel, a park across the street from the hotel presented a mystery for us. This park had several statue bases, including a larger central one that were distinctive in that all the statues had been removed and inscriptions on the bases were removed. No one we talked to could shed any light on the missing monuments. Would it be possible these had been pre-revoluntionary presidents or other capitalists who were seen as detrimental to the new Cuban regime in the early 1960’s after the revolution? I wonder.

That evening we returned to Old Havana for dinner at another upstairs restaurant, El del Frente. We were crowded around a table with little room to spare between other tables, but the drinks and the dinner were exceptionally good. Back on the street we strolled a few blocks to an ice cream/sorbet/gelato shop and each chose his own unique flavors to enjoy. My choice was guanoabana, a tropical fruit with tureen de mani, which I believe is a peanut. It only seemed appropriate to try something different and do as the Cubans do. It was very good.

Brenda looking lovingly at her sizable tropical beverage

One of the places that Mark’s parents frequented on their honeymoon in 1938 was the Floridita, a bar/restaurant that was up the street. We went there next only to find it extremely crowded as the patrons drank, talked and listened to a small band. On the walls were pictures of past decades and the patrons who stopped by in their day. If we had found a photo of Mark’s parents that would have been an amazing discovey. It was obvious from the old photos that people once dressed their best more often then than in the current day and age. Being well dressed seemed to convey a more gracious feeling.

Due to the Floridita being so overly crowded, it did not take long for us to alter plans. The Hotel Inglaterra was across the Parque Central. There we went to the roof top bar to have a night cap and to enjoy the views. Just as we were feeling comfortable, the clouds let loose and down came the rain. Quickly running for cover we managed to stay dry under the bar canopy, but then called it a night and headed out to close our night. With the rain not quitting, we hired a cab (but a boring modern model, not an old one) to take us to the B&B. A lot had been packed into the first full day. 

The following days were to offer us even more to discover. 

Mark and Brenda checking out photos 

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School kids on their way home. Capitolio building in the background








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And On To Havana

Chapter 4

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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This day would be our last in Matanzas, but the adventures would continue here and later on as we drove to Havana.















Through the doorway into our Matanzas B&B, Hostal Cocteles Y Suenos (Cocktails and Dreams)

The Cuban Lady Liberty, part of the statue in Matanzas' Liberty Park breaking free of her chains.

Having gotten an early start, we had loaded everything into Big Blue and drove a short distance to Liberty Park, got out and began a guided walking tour of one of a poorer sections of town, La Marina. 

Our guide pointed out important aspects of this neighborhood that has begun to see some renovations and revitalization of the impoverished area.

Many buildings in this section really were in serious states of decay, but there is a pride in its’ residents showing in street art, a small city park, an area where concerts and music are performed and enjoyed.                                         

On several occasions, small trees and other vegetation could be seen growing out of the concrete upon the buildings. Despite the run down look of things, it was fascinating, colorful, and scenic.

Our La Marina tour ended at a bridge crossing the Rio Yumuri, where we lingered a short time watching as many “old” cars passed by.

Since we were going to go out of Matanzas into the country again to visit friends of Matt’s, we walked back to the Liberty Park area, as cars and buses and other vehicles whizzed past, everyone off to their own destinations. Initially we were to visit a museum but time contraints prohibited that. Passing through the park an older woman approached us begging for some money in return for some small bracelets that were displayed on her brown, frail looking arms. Sadly, she did look in need, but we were advised not to give. Elseshere around the park, people were seen sitting on benches having conversations, looking at the statue, watching the passersby, waiting for a bus or taxi or going about their daily lives.

Passing through the park to load up in Big Blue, a lone man went about his job - simply broom sweeping  in the park








Look for the dog on top of the building.

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When asked about this crowd of people, our guide told us it was a wake for someone who had passed away.


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Our drive out of town revealed more of the countryside as we ascended slightly in elevation. Our hosts greeted us at the end of the lane leading into their property. There stood a thatched roof pavilion at the top of the hill from which we had nice views back toward Matanzas.

 Our host was tending to the roast pig which was to be our lunch entree. We watched as he basted and seasoned the roast.

 

Beverages were offered and, not surprisingly, I had a Cuba Libre. As we enjoyed our drinks we strolled about the property, enjoying the views and some docile cattle in an adjoining pasture. A windmill pumped water into a bathtub water trough. We were amused by the tactic of one young animal that chose to drink from the source, the pipe from which the water flowed, instead of sticking her head into the water trough from which the other cows drank. A germaphobe bovine?



Lunch was soon prepared and laid out for us. The pork being accompanied by sweet potato, taro root and other tasty Cuban dishes. Also, accompanying our meal was Fiesta Campesina, a band with whom Matt had befriended, and who played and sang traditional Cuban songs. 

    


The food, the views, our gracious hosts and the music and song created, for me, a very relaxed, mellow mood. It was nearly dreamlike to sit back, listening to the entrancing melodies in such a pleasant, country setting.

Having a schedule to keep, the time soon came for our departure and with final farewells and good wishes, we began the drive on to Havana. Along the way we stopped at an iron span bridge and used it as a photo opportunity for its’ settng and blooming lily pads in the San Juan River below. 

    

The ride into Havana, nearly an hour distant, went quickly and as we neared this capitol city, more and more colorful old cars were apparent upon the highway. The old fortress, El Morro, dating back to 1589, sits at the entrance to the Havana harbor and would become our first stop to visit. Along the roadway sat or cruised many vintage cars, most in vibrant colors and were a great juxtaposition with the fortress in the background.                                        

With limited time to spare, we did a far too short tour of El Morro, but it did include a long climb up a narrow stairway to the very top of the lighthouse. This enabled us to look over to the city, the harbor and cruise ships, as well as out into the sea.






One can only imagine the history this monument to time has witnessed, from Spanish galleons, soldiers, battles, storms, right into the present day with huge cruise ships passing by bringing in friendly foreigners to visit this ancient city, while outside its’ walls colorful mechanical carriages have replaced those once handsome horse drawn carriages of long ago.

 

I do wish we had found time to return for more exploration of El Morro, but that was not to be. Having a dinner reservation within a couple of hours, we hastened on to our Bed and Breakfast in Havana. This was a large, rather elegant home owned by a couple (Boris and his wife) where John, Mark and I would stay in a 3 bed room with our own bathroom. Matt took an adjoining room and later on two other rooms down the hall were occupied by other guests. The rest of our group stayed at another B&B several blocks away.

With little time to rest, we soon departed in Big Blue to our dinner destination located in a rather shabby looking building that had seen much grander times. Still, a long spiral staircase led us up to the upper floors which, though old, were well preserved and hectic with activity as patrons waited for their tables to be readied. This night we dined outside, overlooking part of the city. 


This building was undergoing renovations but amidst the obvious construction, a bustling business continued as diners enjoyed their evening. 

Having enjoyed an elegant dinner, we returned to our B&B’s for a restful night in preparation for our first full day exploring Havana, Cuba.




Matanzas, Cuba "The City of Bridges"

Chapter 3

Sunday, February 19, continued


As time ticked away, our group standing with checked luggage all around us, we feared something serious was afoot with Brenda.

So what happened to Brenda? Obviously she had been retained, but for what reason? 

Finally, we saw Brenda at the far end of the huge room being checked through the scanning area. Thank goodness, though we all were wondering what the hold up was, we also were relying on Brenda to maneuver us through the final passage out of the airport. We quietly did joke, a bit, about why Brenda might have been delayed, but were cautious not to arouse any attention that might cause us to be singled out for any perceived subversive comments.

Brenda approached our waiting group, but could not freely talk about her being delayed. As we all started to finally pass toward the exit point and hand over more papers, another Customs official approached Brenda and a conversation between them ensued. Brenda waved us on, motioning us to go on without her. 

What is happening? Brenda is a seasoned Cuban visitor, why are they scrutinizing her?

Passing on through and then outside, we met Matt Smith, the trip organizer, but still no Brenda. Without too much more delay, however, Brenda did emerged to join us and began to relay the reason for her being detained. Apparently, as she was being checked in, the same Customs woman who admitted the rest of us to proceed was troubled by something she read in Brenda’s papers. That officer called in another, superior, who then took Brenda out of the line and to an area where she was questioned about her travel purpose, where she was going, etc. Still not satisfied, the Customs people took her to a separate office and asked further questions, including the contents of one of the suitcases that contained the drum set. (I don’t think glaring lights, harsh and intense interview tactics, torture or threats were employed). The Cubans were concerned and, I suppose rightfully so about contraband or illegal items being brought into their country. As Brenda believed, after her initial interviews, she had satisfied them, but the last minute being pulled from line, seemed unnecessary and maybe a bit extreme. But, this is not our country, and I would suppose all extra security concerns on the part of the Cubans was warranted.

Once the full extent of Brenda’s unfortunate singling out was known and we were free to truly begin our Cuban adventure, we gathered with Matt and our local guide, Raul, who helped us proceed to our transports on to the B&B in Matanzas.

Old cars? OH YEAH! 

It really is true about all the old cars, Ramblers, Fords, Pontiacs, Dodges, Buicks, Cadillacs and a lot of Chevy’s, plus more. Newer cars are plentiful also, but not of American makes. 


Matt had arranged for two old cars to drive us into the town of Matanzas, one a 1955 Chevrolet, that the owner, Pachito, has lovingly restored, but with a Toyota diesel engine (and a few other modifications). The other car was a ’53 Chevy that carried the rest of our travelers.

Packed inside, we first stopped for lunch at a hidden away little place overlooking the bay, The Bella Vista Restaurant. Under a canopied, outdoor table we enjoyed our lunches, the view, sangria and my first Cuba Libre (rum & coke) in Cuba. 


Matt proceeded to inform us of life in Cuba and how we might best understand and adapt to the culture. He explained the currency we would use (for foreigners) the CUC and the Cuban peso or CUP, primarily used by the natives. Matt would exchange our dollars for CUC’s upon arrival at our B&B in Matanzas. Everything is paid by cash only. There are no ATM’s, credit cards or use of travelers checks. We only used CUC’s. 

Among other things, we were cautioned about the antiquated plumbing system and that we would need to dispose of toilet paper in a small wastebasket, not flush it as we are accustomed. That does sound offensive to us, but when traveling, one adapts or deals with the consequences (which we did…).



After a wonderful, relaxing lunch and then riding along to Matanzas, the sight of old 40’s and 50’s cars driving along with modern cars was pretty incredible. But as Brenda and Matt told us, wait until Havana, there will be even more of these treasures in daily use.

 It was quite an experience, as we might exclaim, "oh, look, a ’52 Chevy, oh! a ’56 Dodge, wow, a ’54 Pontiac, oh, man, look at that ’57 Ford Fairlane, gee, a ’48 Chrysler, oh, oh, oh, a ’59 Chevy, a ’55 Chevy, another ’56 Chevy, look at that ’54 Oldsmobile, a ‘58 Mercury", as well as vintage Russian Ladas and more. And so it went. But, by far, the Chevrolets were the most prevalent wherever we went.



The city of Matanzas, a shipping port, is a step back in time much earlier than the automobiles. According to Raul, our guide, Matanzas is called the City of Bridges, for the seventeen bridges that cross the three rivers that traverse the city (Rio Yumuri, San Juan, and Canimar). For this reason it was referred to as the "Venice of Cuba." It was also called "La Atenas de Cuba" ("The Athens of Cuba") for its poets. Matanzas is known as the birthplace of the music and dance traditions danzón and rumba


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Scores of buses were everywhere, as public transportation is very common, but old and new vehicles also crowd the streets. Unlike most cities in the US, this is a very old one with ancient buildings, in what appears to be various stages of decay, but that have incredible details, many with balconies overlooking the crowded streets below, iron work, huge doors weathered over the decades, many without windows, only shuttered doors and windows (being in tropical climate and having been built long before air conditioning, this is common for older parts of the cities). Yes, air conditioning is in use, and our B&B’s had it, even if the rooms in the homes had only wooden shutters. We would close them at night and turn on the a/c to remove the stickiness of humidity, allowing us to sleep more soundly.

My photos, I hope can convey a sense of the ages of things in the cities. Although the streets are narrow, cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, bicycle passenger carts, motor bikes (some with sidecars), pedestrians and horses and carriages, all scurried about over the narrow streets. Having arrived on a Sunday afternoon, traffic was not nearly as hectic as it would become the next morning on Monday. Then it became very, very busy.

Culture shock is what I felt but not in an uncomfortable way. Seeing dilapidated buildings, narrow streets, bustling with activity, a throwback to another time, all mixed together with cars of several eras, horses, bikes, buses and people was exciting and, yet, not threatening.

I am not sure what I had expected of the Cuban people, but, despite their governmental policies, I would say nearly no one looked in despair, downtrodden or suffering. These citizens appeared to be content and, as in our country, busied themselves with their daily lives. They were polite, no threatening looks, thoughtful. 

Our B&B in Matanzas was a house built in 1904, one of many along the street where all the buildings are continuous, no spaces between homes, no green lawns with trees.  Doorways, mostly weathered and worn, opened into homes that might contain a small business in the front from which a vendor would be selling merchandise, jewelry, a beauty salon, flowers etc. Only in a few areas did we see buildings that had plate glass windows stocked with merchandise, more like what we have in our country.

The three of us, Mark, John and I shared a room with a private bath, Kevin and Tom, father and son from New Hampshire, shared the adjoining room and Brenda had another room. Matt stayed at another place nearby. Our hosts were a young couple with two young boys who lived in the rear portion of the house. He had more English speaking experience but communication was not a problem. 

After arriving, and getting settled in we went on a walking tour of our area. The old buildings, some crumbling or in what I would call disrepair, were fascinating. Streets were narrow, some were two way, others one-way and alive with activity. There were many, many buses, trucks collecting garbage, bikes, motorbikes, horse carriages, and other motorized vehicles called Coco Taxis, bicycle taxis, and pedestrians galore. Children might be playing in the streets or coming from school in their smart little uniforms, people sitting in doorways, all busy with their lives and hardly paying notice to we Americans. Raul and Matt, in our walking tour explained things about the area, places, customs, etc.





We soon found one of the many bridges by which this city is known as The City of Bridges. Next to the first bridge we encountered, was a very old stone building that contained fire engines. Raul arranged for them to open it up and show us their vehicles. This little treasure was a working firehouse with firemen (bomberos), but also was a museum with a very small collection of old engines; including an old steam powered one.

Concluding our short walking tour and introduction to Mananzas, we return to our lodging and prepared for and walked to dinner at Restaurante Romantica San Severino. Housed in an old home, the staff were vere attentive, our meals delicious and our beverages tasty and plentiful.

Across from the restaurant was a park where we could use our purchased wifi cards and attempt to connect to the internet. That resulted in mixed reception, sometimes on, sometimes not. The cards had numbers on them which, when entered, enabled one to connect (maybe) and were good for an hour each. From the park we walked back to our lodging and along the way passed a bakery, it’s aromas having reached us before we passed by. We peeked in the open doorway and saw several young men rolling out dough for loafs or buns, but continued on our way, the scent of fresh baked bread lingering in our nostrils, returned “home” and turned in for the first night in Cuba.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Matanzas comes alive.

The next morning, our hosts had prepared breakfast, which was waiting for us. Being the early bird, I was up but waited for others to arise before starting to eat. It was a simple meal of a small plain omelet, lots of tropical fruits, bakery fresh bread, juices, coffee or tea and usually a meat. Most of our meals were similar to this at both the places we lodged. 

Following breakfast, Matt and Raul told us the day’s itinerary. Outside awaited our carriage that was to be ours for the duration of this visit to Cuba.  Our driver, Frank, has a 1948 Ford that he lengthened by a meter to become a bus/van taxi. This work he did himself with help from friends. He called his truck Big Blue (Grande Azul). The engine a diesel, he had a/c, tape deck, and other improvements. We could slide the rear windows, which allowed us to photograph as we drove along.

Before coming to Cuba I had no pre conceived notions about the country or it’s people. Other than Fidel Castro, Communism, the embargo, Guantanamo and a romanticized past, and the tips that I read, that was the extent of my knowledge. It was good to come in with few expectations. To what I have witnessed, here and other places I have traveled outside of the US, the people are what make up a nation and it is they that leave the lasting impressions on travelers.

Outside it was very, very busy on that Monday morning. Shops were opening, children were on their way to school, painters painting a building, buses, cars, trucks, bikes of all kinds and the people were all going about their daily lives. The amount of hustle and bustle was just not what I might have expected. It was good to see all the activity, but caution was needed if stepping out into the street as rapidly moving vehicles just might tag a person if not being attentive. 

After seeing more local sites, we boarded Big Blue and headed East out of the city to the small town of Limonar. Where we visited was very rural and the first stop was a place where they restored old cars. Not having all the fancy, time saving tools available to us, one man was scraping paint off of a ’55 Chevy - with a huge bowie-like knife! One can only imagine how time consuming that process might be but how much more quickly a power sander would complete that work. 

 Along the way into the rural landscape we passed many cows and horses, several tied by a rope to a fence  (which was cleverly devised by having planted small trees in a straight row and attached the wiring to that). What a pitiful sight. The animals looked pretty emaciated, although the grasses were plentiful all along the roadways. Interestingly, we passed a few billboards announcing a cattle breeding company producing super cows (vacas). By the looks of the scrawny cows we saw, their genetic breeding program might need to be beefed up a bit.

Then further into the countryside, we stopped at the home of a musician friend of Matt's whose family hosted a lunch for us. This included a traditional pork stew, Caldosa, cooked in a large caldron over an open fire. Included were fried banana chips and plantain and an unending supply of bootleg rum which they referred to as “rat poison”. I can vouch for its' being non-poisonous as I did imbibe a fair amount at the urging of our hosts. Who was I to refuse their hospitality and graciousness? 

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When asked if anyone would like to help with the stew, I jumped in and mashed cooked vegetables which were added back into the soup to help thicken it. Working by that hot fire, got me thirsty. 

Time for a bit more rum, I’d say. 

And so I did.

Our traditional country Cuban lunch was outstanding (and not just because I had lent a helping hand). We ate, we drank, we ate, we danced, we drank, we ate, drank, drank, drank, danced…After a bit I was moved by the sultry salsa rhythm which beckoned me to move my groove with one of our hosts. 

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However, in representing an authentic feel of Cuba and part of its’ culture, the best entertainment was by our muscian host and Matt. Matt sang along in both Spanish and English as our host strummed his guitar and sang. It was dreamlike to sit back and listen to the music. There out in the countryside home of this modest family who welcomed us and shared a part of their lives with us, captured an essence of being Cuban. Music, as we found out, is a significant part of thier lives. This was the first of several instances where we were privileged to hear and appreciate the melodies of this Caribbean island.


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Regrettably, time did come for us to part ways with our new Cuban friends. They left us all enriched with their graciousness, sharing, hospitality, music and song, traditional foods and friendship. It had been a decidedly memorable early afternoon.

With more places to visit, Matt soon had us load up in Big Blue and on to another small town, where we strolled about, met several locals, one very engaging and philosophical man who came close to expressing deep political feelings concerning our current leadership in the US. Obviously, this little village seldom sees Americans, or most likely other foreigners, so having an audience to express himself had to have been meaningful for him. Having little time for deep discussions, we strolled on, discovering a little Guarapera shop that dispensed sugar cane juice. For a few CUC’s several of us tried this sweet beverage after having seen it being squeezed from the cane. Tasty and sweet.  












On our return to Matanzas, I believe I might have dozed off after the considerable intake of rum that afternoon. Over the whole week in Cuba, it is possible that I drank more than I do in a year. But, I never had a hangover, headache or felt upset. This certainly was not the demon rum referred to by pirates and drunken sailors.

After dinner we were dropped off at Liberty Park, the wifi hot spot where we tried to connect to the outside world. Again, I met with only sporadic success, before we walked several blocks back to our B&B. 

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Along the way we passed the bakery again, but this time I poked my head in the door as the young bakers were rolling dough, listening to music and having an enjoyable time with their work. Through Raul, who translated, we were allowed to come inside, see the ovens and the baking and baked bread while I video taped some of their work. Following me outside I showed them the short video as they crowded aroung me. To my surprise they offered me a freshly baked roll which was soon devoured by our group and me. 

This ended an outstanding day, experiencing more of the Cuban culture, food, drink, dance, music and fresh baked bread. 

The delicious aroma of baked bread followed me home and into sound sleep.






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Next, Cuban county music, roasted pork and on to Havana.


Arrival in Cuba

Chapter 2

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matanzas, Cuba

Our trip had been months in the planning, starting with signing up with Matt Smith and his tour company, Detours with Matt. Matt, from Austin, TX, has traveled extensively in Cuba and has made many friends and contacts over the years, which was to our advantage in experiencing Cuba on a more personal, people to people note. For those traveling to Cuba there are twelve travel categories by which one can pursue a trip there. Ours was “People to People - Educational Travel” and when asked, that was the answer we were to give. Over the weeks prior to our trip, Matt had sent us travel packets that included tips on traveling in Cuba, what to expect, cautions, the money, passports, visa, weather and their sensitive plumbing (a disposal issue to which we are unaccustomed, and which required us to flush our established hygienic habits).

Another pre-trip item to consider was the gesture of offering gifts to Cubans. Many items, some very common and easy to buy in the US, are difficult to procure in that country, and Matt suggested several products that we could bring into the country and not raise suspicions. Toiletries, OTC medications like painkillers, multivitamins, muscle ointments, clothes and shoes, acoustic guitar strings and other music supplies, school or office supplies, useful household items, totes, backpacks and things you might donate to thrift stores. New or lightly used items would also be acceptable. Matt suggested giving gifts only to those people we met and liked, not to random strangers.

With gifts in mind, Mark and I had gone shopping for small things that we could pack and offer after we arrived in Cuba. We brought t-shirts, mine with Route 66 themes, while Mark’s included Arizona themes. Also we brought pencils, small sharpeners, pens, colored markers, toothpastes, toothbrushes, tote bags, and Mark included RainX for auto owners along with micro fibre polishing clothes. For fun, we also bought colorful little wrist bands that we thought the children, especially, would enjoy. We thought about bringing other automotive things, like wrench sets, but considered the weight, cost and possible confiscation and opted out of that idea. I also brought a newer pair of sneakers that I had seldom wore. Upon arriving in Cuba, we let Matt decide how and to whom these gifts might be distributed.

Matt’s travel itinerary for us included visiting two cities, Matanzas and Havana.  

Both are on the northern shore of the island (as marked on the map to the left) and are about two hours apart. Matanzas being to the east was our first destination, flying into Varadero, the airport serving Matanzas. There would be nearly 3 full days in Matanzas and surrounding area, and on the afternoon of the 3rd day we would be driven to Havana. In both cases we were to stay in B&B’s and would be taxied in old vehicles. Additionally, Matt had engaged a local guide, Raul, who was with our group the entire time. His translations and knowledge of the places we visited was extremely helpful, all while being charming and and a fun guy to boot. We all shared a lot of laughs with Raul who had other common interests with us Yankees.

Sunday, February 19, the day of departure had arrived and we were all thrilled to begin our Cuban journey. 

After a restful night, we were up and had enjoyed the Holiday Inn’s breakfast before the Inn’s shuttle returned us to the airport. There we picked up our Cuban visas and proceeded to our departure area. 

Holy Smokes! There were a vast multitude of people awaiting their check in through the TSA lines, that appeared, at first blush, to be time consuming. That, thankfully, was not the case. Many in these lines were going on a cruise (high seas), as Ft. Lauderdale is a major cruise ship port. But those long lines did not hinder our quick movement through the process. At the Southwest Air departure gate, we reconnected with Brenda, and took the hour or so waiting time to complete the several pieces of documents required to enter Cuba. With each other helping understand and clarify how to fill in the information, and especially with Brenda’s help (she has made this trip nearly 6 times), we felt confident that what we would present to Customs Officials was correct and not cause for any delays. As we waited, the remaining duo in our group, father and son, Kevin and Tom from New Hampshire found us and introduced themselves. As we waited, Brenda explained that she also had extra luggage that contained a drum set (disassembled) for one of Matt’s musician friends in Cuba. This had presented no conflict in proceeding through the US security and to the departure gate. Hopefully there would be no “special” searches in Cuba.

The flight to Matanzas, Cuba was barely an hour. All of us sat near the front of the plane, excited to be traveling to this Caribbean nation. Our elated moods were elevated further as we descended and we caught our first glimpses of the island.

This smaller airport was not extremely busy, and we were soon inside the terminal and queued toward the Customs check. Individually, we were called forward and faced a stone faced, serious, unsmiling young Cuban woman who took our papers and checked records from her side of a little booth as we were to look forward at a small camera as she looked over the documents. At one point I had looked over the counter or turned to look around, but she instructed me to look forward at the camera. Well, OK then. I surely was not about to annoy anyone so that they would have reason to detain me. In less than a couple of minutes, I was directed to open the next door as she buzzed me in. This next room was the actual check in of our carry on bags. Our little band of travelers consisted of Mark, John, Kevin and Tom, Brenda and I. 

All of us made it through this process rather quickly and without incident.

Except for Brenda.

The rest of us proceeded to the far side of the room, waiting for our checked luggage at the carousel, a process that was  s—l—o—w as the minutes ticked away and the sporatic conveyor sat idle for long periods of time.

As we waited, there was no sign of Brenda. What had become of her?

After considerable waiting, all of us had finally gathered our luggage, including Brenda’s large suitcase containing the drum set, but we continued to wait for our complete group to gather before proceeding through a final clearance and stepping out of the airport terminal. 

But still, no Brenda.

Now what the heck happened to Brenda?


A Visit to Cuba

Preface:

As most already know, Cuban relations with the US had been severed in 1960 after a threat from Russia and Cuba on our country. In the time period since then, the Cuban people did suffer the consequences as our nation imposed an embargo on Cuba, that, among other things forbade US citizens to visit there and for US made vehicles to be delivered to that country. As a consequence, the Cubans were, by necessity, forced to keep the “old” cars of the era functional and dependable. Over the years they have used their decidedly ingenious methods to maintain these cars and trucks and which they have adoringly come to cherish. As the entry of parts were forbidden and the Cubans were forced to remain stuck in time, over the years the people there resorted to many means to keep their beloved vehicles on the roads. After all the repairs that could be done to many engines and other mechanicals, they converted to other brands of vehicle engines, retrofitting them to make drivetrains that allowed for continued use. Many of these vehicles have been passed down through family generations and have become parts of these families. Some are impressively restored, as these have become treasures to, not only them, but to foreigners who visit there. Now, still roadworthy and in daily use, are multitudes of old cars with Toyota, Mercedes, Land Rover and other makes (almost entirely diesel) engines and mechanicals. Newer cars and trucks do also share the roadways, but the mix of American made 40’s, 50’s, some very early 60’s (and some 30’s) vehicles are truly a sight to behold.

Now that relations have begun to thaw, US tourism is allowed directly and we are allowed to more easily see and experience a country that has managed to keep a heritage alive that others can now come to see for themselves. Though there are newer vehicles that ply the roads, the “old” American cars are very prevalent and transport visitors back in time.

Stuck in time, in a time warp, whatever terms come to mind, the sight of all these fantastic cars do permit everyone of us, now, to begin reliving a time that, by today’s standards, was simpler.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The pitter-patter of raindrops outside awoke me this morning. As predicted, rain had once again arrived as part of another winter storm front that had first hit California, hard, and drifted eastward across Arizona. Although a rainy start to a new journey and adventure might dampen some peoples’ spirits, this rain was welcome here in the desert, where it is typically dry and moisture is welcome to help us through a prolonged drought.

So, despite the nice shower we were experiencing, I was excited to have this day take root. Mark, my traveling companion, was to arrive by 8 a.m. and Frank to be here at that same time so that he could drive us to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. All went according to plan and by 8:30 that Saturday morning we had arrived at the airport, where the lines through the TSA checkpoints were a bit longer than I had imagined, but moved along quite quickly. Mark started his check through another security line and as I was gathering up my belongings, putting shoes and belt back on, Mark still was not through his line. 

Things were about to become interesting.

In time, Mark came through his line. However, a security check person called out, as they held up a backpack, for it’s owner. Well, wouldn’t you know, it was Mark’s. They asked Mark to follow them to a far line and asked permission to search his pack, to which Mark, of course, agreed, though we both were a bit perplexed at having to submit to a special search of the pack's contents. The security person was friendly throughout this somewhat of a setback, and when Mark asked, was told something in his belongings had set off an alert as containing something flammable.

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As Mark was asked to empty his pockets, I stood nearby, somewhat amused that our adventure was already becoming just that, an adventure. As another security person arrived, they, still very cordial and friendly, explained what was about to happen as they searched through his possessions. They found that he had many Medifast snack bars that, they explained, as with other snack/power bars sometimes set off an alarm. They knew not why this sometimes happens, but, in their duty they were required to conduct this investigation. Careful in my comments, and finding humor in Mark’s predicament, the two security people rolled with the tide and started to swab EVERY one of the 20 some bars, then testing those swabs in a device to assure the bars were NOT flammable. I had had my cell phone camera out soon after they began this search and they seemed to be quite aware that I had begun my documentation of this event. At least three police officers were nearby, but not involved in this. No one really protested or told me to cease and desist, as I was getting a kick out of this (but not being unsympathetic) and Mark, though I knew he was concerned, was also appearing to be calm and at least somewhat jovial about this delay.

 When the security officer, after completing the contents investigation, then told Mark they wanted to conduct a body search, this revealed some interesting photos, to which I found very humorus and to which everyone who views them have their own particular comments.

In due time, probably 20 minutes or so, they had completed their assessment and sent us on our way to the departing gate. As we walked away from the extra search, I commented that it was good that we had arrived 2 hours prior to takeoff. Maybe I would have been flying to Cuba and Mark would have been in some hoosegow in Phoenix (or heaven forbid, being fast tracked to Cuba at Guantanamo). I am sure, as this has happened to other good standing US citizens; they all think, “What, do I look like I am a threat or a terrorist?”

Our little episode with TSA (well, to be exact, MARK’S) actually set us (me) in a funny mode, but we both saw it as humorous despite the seriousness of the TSA’s responsibility and possible dangers of threats to everyone’s jetting off to their destinations.

As Mark also knows, photos I took were not malicious or intended to cause embarrassment or disrespect. But, it was funny to have our trip start out on such a, umm, memorable note. 

(Later on however, the tables were turned as I was singled out for my own inspection upon our re-entry into the US. Mark would get the last laugh on that count).

On our way to the departure gate, we found our third Phoenix traveling partner, Brenda Priddy, who has been to Cuba over 5 times. She is a spy photographer and automotive journalist who has had photos and stories published in several publications. The airport, although being very busy and crowded, still allowed us to catch up and, of course, tell the TSA tale of Mark’s now renamed Medi-BLAST snack bars.

Once onboard, we were fortunate enough to be able to sit together for the flight to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, where we overnighted and connected with John, from Detroit (a longtime friend of Mark’s)

The Ft. Lauderdale airport was, in my opinion, a madhouse. But after some further chaos, we finally boarded our hotel’s shuttle to our night’s lodging and waited for John’s slightly later arrival. A quick dinner and off to bed ended this first leg of our excursion to Cuba. We all were excited to experience travel into a Communist country, but especially to see all of the old vehicles that were reportedly roaming about all over this island nation.

We were not to be disappointed.

End of Chapter 1.