Havana, 19 January 2003

 

Greetings, all, from the land of Revolution.

By the good graces of Fidel ("The Bearded One") ETECSA (Cuban ministry of telecomm) and a lucky guess at which dimly-lit building to enter, we have returned to offer a follow up to our previous Mexican Text Postcard.

Travel in Cuba cannot be summed up in any concise way. This is a
marvelously complex and idiosyncratic land with friendly people, food
shortages, endless supplies of rum and music, infrastructure meltdown,
incomperable natural landscapes, and so much more.

Our first hours in Havana were marked by an early crisis: our arranged transport from the airport failed to meet our midnight flight and when we finally got ourselves to the guest house in downtown Habana Vieja ("Old Havana") where we had made reservations, no one was home. Nothing like being homeless in a spanish speaking communist country at 1 am to really wake you up to creative communication techniques. Michael shamelessly banged on other doors in the soviet-style concrete block apartment building and finally found a woman (dressed in nearly nothing) willing to take us in
(for all he knows, his broken spanish may have grossly miscommunicated the general need, but in any case, she unlocked the door and let us in.) Luckily,
she ran a legal "Casa Particular" (private home licensed to receive
foreign tourists) but her accomodations were full at the moment...
nonetheless she assured us it would be no problem and cleared out her
own bedroom for our use (despite our - frankly halfhearted - protests).
A half hour later we were asleep in her bed while she returned to
slumber on a neighbor's couch (presumably delighted for some additional
income: the $25 nightly charge is $8 more than the average Cuban monthly
salary, but still considerably less than typical state-run hotels).

The next day we were moved to the official guest room once the previous
guests checked out, where Michael spent three days recovering from a flu he
picked up in Mexico. He was occasionally able to drag myhimself out into Havana's bustling streets to meet up with Kristina and Linette, friends from San Francisco travelling here at the same time. We explored various tourista spots all of which featured bad food, lots of rum, and fabulous live music. With the assistance of some new Cubano friends we made along the way we even made our way to a non-tourista local comedy club (El Club Crocodillo) featuring stand up routines, ventriloquists, and audience-participation singing/clapping. Yes, we were the only non Cubans in sight and no, we had not a clue what was being said. The obvious rules of the house (for us at least) were a) join in on the uprorious laughter even if you don't know why; and b) drink lots of rum. Well, we did what we could to go with the flow. The obviously wealthy Cuban crowd enjoying show contrasts sharply to everything else we've seen in Cuba, where a consistent level of poverty stands as proof to the prevailing socialist system.

We spent an insightful afternoon at the Museo de la Revoluccion, where
we were struck by the many handsome pictures and charismatic speeches by
young Fidel and Ernesto "Che" Guevarra. It seems clear that sex appeal
is necessary for a successful revolution.

The hassles of touts on the street wanting to become "friends" while
offering off-the-record accomodation, food, and cigars soon wore thin,
and several days later we headed east to the charming
countryside town of Trinidad (Sancti Spiritus Province). There we spent
five days leisurely strolling the cobblestone streets marvelling at the
surrounding hills, colonial architecture, and marvelous aqua-blue water
(Playa Ancon) nearby. Here we confronted, in a whole new way, the
reality of Cuban cuisine- that it blows. Every paladar (privately-run
mini-restaurant) and Casa Particular serves 3-times more food than any
human can eat, consisting of a tomato and cabbage salad arranged exactly
the same way, followed by salty grilled (generic) fish or baked lobster,
joined by deeply fried flavorless plantain chunks. How every chef in
the country has arrived at the conclusion that tomato and cabbage salads
should invariably look this particular way remains a mystery. How a
country with so much arable land can produce only three vegetables
(tomato, cabbage, cucumber) is an infuriating curiousity. How a country
with food shortages can overfeed its tourists is simply outrageous.
Nonetheless, we found time and again that our hosts and guides have been
delighted to meet us and talk to us about their lives, homes, families,
frustrations, and ideas, while kindly tolerating our halting Spanish.
This generosity of spirit has made the food questions and occasional
hassles of tourist travel much less unnerving.

Our stay in Trinidad was followed by a fascinating four days at Maria La
Gorda, at the far Western tip of the island in Pinar Del Rio Province.
Here we saw "tourist apartheid" in its full grandeur: no Cubans were
allowed past a checkpoint unless they were employed at the "resort."
Here we spent the better part of a day exploring the nearby "Reserva
Ecologica" full of fabulous plantlife, birds, and exotic caves with the
assistance of a guide who was like a walking flaura/fauna/geologica
encyclopedia. The next several days were unforgettable as we
ventured precariously into the world of underwater SCUBA diving.
Without certification and disturbingly little training, we found
ourselves led on our first dive to the ocean floor 25 feet below the
water's surface. The colorful corals and sponges were barely enough to
distract me from the amazement that I was actually strapped to an air
tank and freely swimming in the Caribbean Sea. The second dive on the
following day, to 40-feet below the surface, found both of us
slightly more comfortable with underwater swimming techniques and in
better control of our breathing. Here we saw another incredible array
of large and small fish, sea fans, tube and barrel sponges, and more sea
life than we could possibly absorb during the 40 minute visit to this
other world. We were flirting with disaster given our lack of
training and the rather loose monitoring of our dive master, nonetheless
the experience was more than exhilerating and worthwhile.

We've returned to Havana and will spend a few more days at the capital's
museums and monuments before the long process of returning to the
States. We'll have a few days again in Mexico during which our singular
plan of attack is to catch up on 3 weeks of sorely-missed fine dining,
with huge platters of guacamole the #1 priority! Ha, that's only partly
true. Of course we have to take care to appear to have travelled only
in Mexico as we return through US Customs, as our time in Cuba could
earn us each a minimum $7,500 fine. Oddly- travel to Cuba isn't
technically illegal: the mere act of spending money here *is*.

In addition to travelling we have both been reading up on Cuban history,
politics, the literature of Jose Marti, and some fascinating research
into cutting-edge organic agriculture taking place here. We've been
reading books about Cuba's history of colonialism, many revolutions,
etc, and that knowledge has been helpful to put the whole political mood
in context, and also help us not to look like total self-obsessed
Americans who know nothing about other countries' histories.
Erica read CULTURE SHOCK- CUBA that was enlightening as far as
understanding customs and day-to-day intangibles, and is now reading MI
MOTO FIDEL, about a guy's motorcycle trip thru Cuba that is, at turns,
annoying (he's a middle-aged crisis guy, sleeping w/every Cubana in
sight) and entertaining, b/c he has many of the same reactions to things
and places that we've had. Plus he visited in '95, right after the worst
year of the Special Period in Peacetime, during which Fidel asked the
people to bear great hardships and shortages as the economy reeled,
trying to recover from Soviet subsidies being cut off abruptly in 1991.

Now Michael is reading THE GREENING OF THE REVOLUTION about organic agriculture in Cuba. (written in part by Medea Benjamin, a Green Party pol in California) They are doing a lot of innovative work w/pest control w/biological agents, but it's the same technology as is used for bio warfare. Hrm ... Necessary work, but a bit dangerous. We've also discovered that both Fidel and the dietific "Che" were in favor of nuclear strikes against the U.S. pre-Bay of Pig, and both were dismayed when the Russians withdrew the nukes w/out consulting them. To their credit, they did a lot for medicine, education, work study programs for communist youth from around the world ... but they both seem to be revolutionaries who lusted for violence, coups, and the like, and were much better at that aspect of leadership than the building up after.

Not a day has passed when we weren't struck by the impressive
developments underway here despite a volatile and varied history.
That's it for now... stay tuned shortly after our return for a link to a
photographic website for more sights and sounds.