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Cuba - Colorful, Diverse, Unique

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Chapter 9 - Sunday, February 26, 2017

Arising early, before everyone else, even our B&B hosts (being a Sunday, they must like to sleep in), I was confronted with an even more vexing situation this day. There was NO WATER. Going to wash my face and shave, it was not a pleasant way to start the day. Coming downstairs I found Boris and his wife were not in the kitchen, the dining room table not set as it had all other mornings. Not knowing what to do and not wanting to search their house, I returned upstairs and tried once again to turn on water. Nada, zilch, no such luck. Back downstairs Boris emerged from their bedroom whereupon I communcated with him the lack of water. He checked upstairs and then went outdoors and, I think, tried a main valve or something, and returned thinking the problem was solved. 

Casa Blanca, our B&B

It wasn’t.

Because I wanted to try to get some internet service and use the remaining time on my wifi cards, my decision was to walk to the Presidente Hotel and use theirs. I also figured the breakfast would be delayed with no water. 

Finding a comfortable seat in the lobby of the hotel, I was able to get some connection and stayed there for about an hour. Returning to the B&B, I found my roommates and Matt had left, and by the looks of the table, they had been served and eaten their breakfasts. Now behind the eight ball, everyone else having had any knowledge of any water problem, I was forced to rush to catch up, eat, finish packing, get my luggage downstairs and out to Big Blue. But no time for a shave or washing up very much. Not a good start to our last day in Cuba, for me at least. Being the early bird and getting the worm was definitely not working out for me.

Not to mention I could not locate the others, but sure they had not left without me, it was getting me anxious. Mark and John returned after taking a photo shooting opportunity around the area. When they had gotten up, the water was running, and so, were oblivious to my plight upon my getting up. Well, anyway, even feeling rushed and stressed out,  I took several deep breaths and started to release my anxiety. We were all together, still on time and soon on our way to a few final stops before being driven to the airport.

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In a contination of yesterday’s international discoveries, this day was to include an area related to Afro-Cubans. In a narrow two block long alley is a shrine to Afro-Cuban religions depicted through the art of Salvador González. This small area is another gem, colorful, showing more of the diversity of Cuba and a very interesting and odd assortment of people’s artistic visions and creations. Simple, everyday items were repurposed into art forms. Bathtubs and wash tubs were recreated into shrines or benches and seats, part of them cut away to make them a place to sit upon, or pieces of iron remade into something fun and fanciful. The buildings, too, are lined with brightly-colored paintings, murals, sculptures and objects which depict rituals and deities. Rumba groups are known to play there every Sunday also. What an odd, creative and funky alleyway in the middle of Havana.


Note that they are sitting on bathtub benches.


Our final planned stop was to visit the University of Havana. However, we discovered that the university is closed to the public on Sundays, being chained off at the steps leading up to the campus. 

So much for that plan.

It just so happened that while we were on the street leading up to the university, a friend of Matt’s met us on the street. Apparently Brenda or Matt may have stayed at his apartment on that street in the past. We were invited up to see his place and to be served some juices (no alcohol for mixer). Following José up the stairs to his apartment, we found a very nice, cozy home. He also had rented rooms even further up the stairs for roommates. Even though Matt had stayed there before, José had never told him about his alter-ego. 

An alter-ego? Uh, yes.

José excused himself shortly after we had arrived and were enjoying our drinks and chatting. Moments later he reappeared - in drag - like drag queen, ya know.

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It was hilarious. Feathers and boas and curly blond wig, he pranced and twirled around the room, putting on a mini drag show for his US guests. And for practically the first time, young Tom who was with his father, was actually grinning and laughing after a week of looking sullen. With a lot of laughters and fun, it was gracious of him to invite us up to enjoy a few moments together with non alcoholic drinks. 

It also left a lasting. albeit, amusing, impression of our final day in Havana. 

The time had come, sadly, for us to head off to the airport to catch our flights back to Ft. Lauderdale. This too resulted in a bit of humor. Frank dropped us off at one of the two terminals serving Havana, both being a few miles apart. This airport terminal was nicer than the one by which we arrived in the city of Matanzas. Maybe too nice for where we were headed.

Not seeming right, Matt very quickly discovered we were in the wrong terminal. But, oh no, Frank had already left and was on his way home. A very hasty call to Frank, found that he was still in the airport vicinity, but our flight times were now rapidly approaching. Frank made a quick turn around, retrieved us at the curb and quickly had us at the correct terminal in short order. 

There a long slow line was forming and the ticket agents seemed to be nonchalant, even disorganized in getting passengers checked in for their flights. But you learn to not make a fuss, as things move as fast as they do and it all will be done in its’ own time. And such was the case. We still boarded in time, having time enough to breeze through Cuban Customs, get a sandwich, and buy some chocolates and then stand in line again before releasing us out on the tarmac to walk to our plane.

A smooth take off and we were soon high above, peering down at the island nation of Cuba, a land of such variety, cultures and history that offered us friendships, hospitality, wonderful food and memories of an excellent vacation discovery.




At last, at the right airport terminal.

But wait, there’s more. 

Arriving in Ft. Lauderdale was going along smoothly - until we went through the baggage check. There a carry on bag of mine aroused the attention of onne of the agents. Oh so close and now this. Taking me aside so that he could open and check the contents,  Nothing dangerous, explosive, illegal or otherwise of any concern was found.

I wiped the sweat from my brow.

Whew! 

I was now safely back in the USA.


Cuban International Influences


Chapter 8 - Saturday, February 25, 2017

This was to be our last full day in Cuba.

And we still had plenty to see and do

Starting out in the morning we rode Big Blue to Havana’s Chinatown, our first international themed destination. I was expecting to see more Chinese people, but scarcely saw any.  Still the Chinese influence was visible in other ways, some of the colorful architectural facades, the writing, art, Chinese lanterns, restaurants and a large gateway leading into the area. But mostly it looked like the rest of Old Havana.










Not far from Central Parque, Havana’s Chinatown seems out of place. In other city’s Chinatowns, there is a distinct look and feel of being Chinese. In Havana’s version on this block and a half strip, there are several restaurants, but other nationalities’ cuisines are also present. It is possible that the Chinese have assimilated into the Cuban population so that there are not the obvious visual appearances of being Chinese. There are Cuban hostesses – some with a hint of Chinese ancestry – in Chinese style dresses adding to the fun of the area.

 A Bit of History of Chinese in Cuba; Havana once had one of Latin America’s largest Chinese communities dating back to the mid 19th century when Cantonese contract or indentured workers were brought in to work in the sugar cane fields. Many stayed and at one point Havana had a thriving, vibrant Chinese-Cuban community, at the time the largest in Latin America. 

                                                                                                                                                                                           

Today the Barrio Chino may not have as large a presence as in its’ past, but is still a popular tourist destination. Not far away, we stopped at Parque Curita, which was at a very busy intersection. People were getting group rides to mutual destinations in communal taxis, other taxis and older vehicles were all around, including horse drawn carriages, bicycle taxis, a street vender selling onions and another offering frozen flavored drinks.  

Across from the park, looking up at the buildings, laundry was being hung out to dry from balconies (a very common sight wherever we traveled), and in the park a theatrical group were performing a skit and dance as people crowded around watching their performance.  Across the intersection was the large Chinatown gateway, where traffic was constant either entering or departing from the area.

Beyond the Chinatown gateway lay Fraternity park, a good sized, tree lined, restful place. Lying along side the Capitolio building, this “Plaza of American Fraternity” commemorates the unity between all the American nations and was completed prior to the 1928 VI International American Conference. A ceiba tree was planted in the park, known as the Tree of American Fraternity. Each chief of mission representative brought soil from their native country, adding theirs with the others enriching the total from ALL American nations. 21 countries were represented including Calvin Coolidge who was, at the time, the only sitting US President to ever visit Cuba. (President Obama, since, has also visited as a sitting US President in March 2016).

Tree of American Fraternity to the right. Capitolio building in background.

We walked through and across that park toward the Saratoga Hotel where we would reconvene with everyone. From there we went into the Saratoga, rode the elevator to the top where we lingered with several drinks, taking in the views across Havana and the Capitolio building, now under renovations. This was the capital building years ago and, as can be seen, was modeled after the United States Capitol building. Peering over the edge of the hotel, we could see a constant flow of traffic on the streets below while out across the roof tops, laundry was hanging out to dry and in the distance the blue ocean shimmered in the mid day sun.

 


After cooling our heels and having a few drinks at the Saratoga Hotel, we then continued on to our next international themed destination, this time of Russian influence.

Nazdarovie is a Russian restaurant up several flights of stairs overlooking the Malecón.  Nazdarovie is named for the popular Russian toast, like “Salúd”, “To Your Health”, “Cheers”). Old Soviet era political posters extolling the virtues of hard work and the common good hung along the walls on the long climb up to the restaurant, helping put us in a Soviet Russia frame of mind.

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Our table was on a balcony overlooking the mostly deserted Malecón. That day a marathon routed along this street had closed it to its’ usual busy traffic. But above, from the balcony we had particularly good views out to the sea and up the Malecón. While relaxing with our drinks (Green Russians), out in the sea, a huge cruise ship lie anchored offshore. Continuing to gaze out at the sea, we watched as a cruise ship departed the Havana harbor and sailed off into the distance. As the one cleared the harbor and sailed away, the one in waiting weighed anchor and steamed up to and into the harbor. Obviously Havana is a popular cruise destination, helping account for the large presence of tourists in the city.

 

This lunch, by far, was the most fun. All of us, (having already had a few drinks under our belts) feeling carefree, laughing, joking, taking pictures (and me a short video of all of us at the table), were in elated moods. This was our last lunch together and after a week of mutual adventures and discoveries, we were all feeling very good (those Green Russians packed a wallop).

 

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Three other diners had been seated on the balcony and overhearing their conversation, Ann Arbor, Michigan was mentioned. Since I had lived and worked in Ann Arbor, I boldly approached their table and started a conversation and found that one of them had just moved there to work at the University (of Michigan – of course). Despite that common ground with my past and Mark and John being from Michigan, they were outrageously funny and were enjoying their own company and then ours.

All smiles and vodka can do that to a person.

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Carefully making our way down the long flight of stairs, none of us stumbling or tumbling down, we next went to the Museum of the Revolution and the Presidential Palace. Some went in to visit those sites, while Raul, Mark and I ventured over a few blocks to a boulevard park that was having its’ weekly art exhibit.  








Along the tree-lined street, in the boulevard, artists were displaying and selling their colorful paintings, photography, carvings and other art as passersby would stop, admire and buy what appealed to them. There was music being played, youngsters were out on skateboards (that was something I didn’t expect to see) and other children were playing games without a care in the world.









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One small group of boys, after I had photographed them, began asking me for money. Raul, however, sternly told me NO. That is not a good precedent to set. But between Mark and I we had brought along some things that we thought would appeal to these boys - little multi-colored plastic bracelets. Raul decided that would be OK as a friendship gesture to the boys. As Mark doled them out, the boys, now doubled in size, mobbed him, each one clamoring to get one of these little treasures. Quicker than quick, they all had what they were offered and, I’m sure, quite happy to show off their bracelets to their other friends.


Before leaving the art boulevard, at one intersection a wedding party had emerged where the bride and groom were entering an old Buick, sitting on the convertible boot. The image of the groom in his sharp gray tuxedo and the bride in her bright white wedding gown trailing out across the trunk lid of the pretty pink Buick was a beautiful sight.




But our day of seeing pretty things was far from over. Only Mark and I wanted to return to the large art and crafts market so that we might find some artwork souvenir to purchase. It had been several days since we first had a quick introduction to the place and we wanted to see more.


Looking over the entire massive collection of arts, crafts, clothing and other assorted merchandise  in the massive old warehouse, we made choices that appealed to us, bought them and had them rolled up in tubes for easy transport back to the US. 

A customs certificate was required on the larger piece that Mark bought, so that he could claim it and not pay a tax when leaving or entering the US. My two little pieces were in a tube and buried in my suitcase.

Now, with our shopping complete, souvenir paintings we both liked in our hands, it was time to return to Casa Blanca and get ready for our last night in Cuba.



Atelier Restaurant, while not of a particular nationality, was in a residential neighborhood in an old Vedado district mansion. Unasumming outside, the interior had old sewing machines and adding machines as part of the decor. This added to the ambiance and eclectic but creative menu choices. Comfortably seated around a large dining table, Matt asked what part of the trip we liked the most, each expressing their favorites, mine having been taking the trips out of the cities and experiencing being in the countryside. I did like the cities also, but enjoying Cuban country hospitality hit its’ mark with me.

There is something I mentioned early in these stories. That was about the plumbing and how best to use the toilet without risking blockage (disposing of the toilet paper in a waste can NOT down the toilet).

In Matanzas, the first city, we skated by without incident.

However, in Havana, something I did not reveal before, every day presented a problem. In the mornings I had to come down to Boris and tell him the toilet was not working and he then came upstairs and pretty quickly remedied the problem. This was a most unpleasant way to begin the days, yet our innkeeper took it in stride.

 

Now then, in the Atelier Restaurant bathrooms, there was a comical reminder to dispose of the waste (toilet) paper in the basket not in the commode. We all got a laugh from the cartoons in the stalls, reminding users to heed the rules.

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 "That piece of paper is yours? Throw it in the basket!"

Hopefully, the plumbing issues will be fixed one day (soon) and a free flow of water will flush the issue down the drain.


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Our last night not quite ended, Matt wanted to take us to a Cigar Bar, where musician friends of his were to be playing in their band. While the intended band members had not arrived, others stepped in to carry on. With musical accompaniment, two women vocalists sang for us. This was more like a lounge act, with small, low tables and comfortable stuffed chairs. Relaxing with cocktails (again), I sipped my final Cuba Libré in Cuba and enjoyed the music. Starting out with just our group in the room, other, cigar smoking, patrons began taking more of the seats.

While the singers were good and we enjoyed the music, with the increased cigar smoke in the room, I, and the others, had had enough. It was time to leave, get outside for fresh air and get back to Casa Blanca.

Organizing things in my suitcase in preparation for leaving in the morning, I was satisfied that I was in good shape so that there were no delays for our departure.

Hitting the sheets, soon off to sleep, our last night in Cuba had come to a close.

 

 

Ahh, but Sunday, although the last day, still had more for us to experience.

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