On life and love after 50 newsletter
Tom P Blake
Seniors explore Cuba Feb 14 - 22 2016
Greta, my life partner, and I traveled to Cuba for one week on a people-to-people educational exchange tour.
Greta and I departed LAX on Valentine’s Day and flew to Miami. That night, the tour group gathered in a Crowne Plaza Hotel conference room for an initial briefing by a representative of HIA Travel (Chicago-based), the company that organized the trip.
There were 43 alumni in our group from colleges across the USA, including 14 who booked reservations through five different University of California campuses. Greta, a graduate of UC Irvine, was the only person from her school.
Other universities represented were Rutgers, Michigan, Purdue, Miami, DePauw, Cornell, Indiana, Kansas and Colorado College.
Traveling with us: Vivian, a bi-lingual Cuban guide, Simona, a tri-lingual guide from Italy, and Ernesto, a wonderful Cuban bus driver. Four of the women shared rooms; one traveled alone. There were 39 couples in the group and five single women (no single men). Other than their spouses, most people did not know each other beforehand.
All of us were seniors age 60 to mid-80, except for one younger couple, who were traveling with the wife’s parents. Most were retired. All had interesting backgrounds and histories. There were two scientists, five doctors, a dentist, teachers, nurses, and one guy who used to own a deli.
On Monday, February 15, group members had to arrive at the airport four hours before departure because processing of visas and paperwork for travel to Cuba—even with an educational group-- takes time. We flew on a chartered American Airlines 737 from Miami to Santa Clara, Cuba, which is located in the central part of the country.
After landing, bus driver Ernesto drove us for three hours to the Hotel Memories Paraiso Azul, a huge resort on Cuba’s north shore. The resort reminded me of the old Club Med’s of 40-50 years ago. The members of our group were gradually getting to know each other.
At the hotel, currency was exchanged for the Cuban tourist peso, called the CUC. Credit cards are still not accepted in most places in Cuba. There is a 12% fee for exchanging American money. The Cuban people are required to use a different peso, called a PUC, which is valued at only 4% of the CUC. The dual currency system there is screwy and confusing.
For the first three days, we were on the bus a lot: day one, 3 hours (after 5 hours getting to Cuba); days two and three, 8 hours each.
On day three, our bus passed through farmlands and small towns to the historic city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, we were invited into the private home of Mata, a well-known Cuban painter. He and his wife served coffee as we viewed his paintings. One woman purchased two of Mata’s paintings.
Also in Trinidad, we were entertained by an Afro-Cuban band in a club. Afro-Cuban music is popular in Cuba, mixing the African heritage of Cuba with the Latin America heritage. Many of our group danced onstage with the band’s vocalists.
That night, we arrived in the city of Cienfuegos, located on the south coast of Cuba. Dinner was served at a private home that had been converted into a restaurant. For all of our lunches and dinners, the first item served was the Cuban drink, Mojito, a popular rum concoction with sugar, lime and mint leaves.
When Greta and I went to our room at the Hotel Jagua, we had difficulty getting the door to unlock.
Our guide Simona came up to help and pointed out to us that we were occupying the room in which Fidel Castro had slept on August 18, 1960, which indicates how old the hotel was. The ghost of Fidel Castro, who is still living, didn’t appear that night, but in the morning, the shower doors were wet as if someone had taken a shower during the night (and it wasn’t either one of us).
The following day, on the anticipated five-hour bus ride to Havana, the bus got a flat tire. Luckily, we were near a truck stop that served ice cream, soft drinks, beer, and rum. It took three hours to change the tire. Three young, shirtless, Cuban men appeared out of the night, and were able to help get a replacement tire on. They did not want tips but were given some anyway. Not one person complained about the wait. In fact, the group made the best of the inconvenience. A couple of bottles of Havana Club rum were shared, which, of course, helped the cause.
An interesting thing happened to me during the stay at the truck stop. A few of us struck up a conversation with a Cuban man. He said he was born during the Cuban Missile Crisis in September, 1962, and that his mother could see the U.S. Navy warships from the hospital room in Havana.
I told him I had been in the Cuban Missile Crisis, also in September, assigned to a Naval warship, but had spent most of my time in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So there we were 53 years later, meeting at a truck stop, both having been on opposite sides of the standoff, not too many miles apart. We bonded like brothers. We exchanged email addresses. When he said good-bye, he had tears in his eyes. (OK, I admit, I did also).
Five days later, in Miami, I received an email from him.
The bus made it to Havana, but was whisked away for servicing.
Our hotel in Havana for five nights was the majestic, 21-story Melia Cohiba, which was opened in 1995. We were 100 yards from the ocean. There were other high-rise hotels nearby. The room assigned to Greta and me was on the 13th floor. Each morning, between 4:45 a.m. and 6 a.m., I could hear a rooster crow from the neighborhood down below.
That rooster crowing among big hotels represented Cuba to me: relatively new buildings mixed in with the old neighborhoods, side-by-side. Hens and roosters roaming free. As Havana grows with tourism and new hotels, the locals want the old buildings to be renovated, retained, but not torn down. Keeping the charm of historical Havana is a top priority to the locals.
Guides Simona and Vivian surprised the group the next morning by having 11 old American convertibles, each a different color and make of car, and all with tops down, pick us up at the hotel and drive us around Old Havana. Our caravan turned many heads around town.
Tom and Greta in a 1956 Buick Special
During lunch, driver Ernesto appeared and gave us the thumbs- up—the bus was repaired and ready to go. The group applauded him. He had become an important part of the cameraradie that had grown among us. He was a very careful driver. I can’t tell you the number of times he had to stop or slow down for cows, dogs, goats, people, horse and buggies, bicycles and motor scooters.
The meals on this trip were incredible.
Everything was fresh—tropical fruit, black beans, rice, chicken, seafood, and pork. Most wines were from Chile. Cuban beer was great. Bottled water was served with all meals and was always available on the bus. You even brushed your teeth with bottled water. I have to give lots of credit to HIA travel for putting together such a fascinating itinerary with exceptional guides.
That afternoon, we were driven to the home of Ernest Hemingway, about 40 minutes outside of Havana. Doors and windows of the house were open but tourists are not allowed inside. However, one could see nearly the entire home by peeking in the openings. Hemingway is considered a hero in Cuba. On the grounds, we observed juice being compressed through a wringer by two young men out of sugar cane sticks.
On day six, we had a tour of a cigar factory where 17,000 cigars are hand-made daily. We were told, “Absolutely no photos in the factory.” However, before we left the floor where the cigars were rolled, our factory guide winked at us and suggested a quick picture with our cell phone camera would be overlooked. Here is the photo:
Each U.S. citizen can bring a combination of Cuban cigars and rum worth $100 into the states. Greta and I spent about half of our allotment on both in the cigar factory gift shop. By the way, Cuban souvenirs and trinkets are very inexpensive in Cuba.
Our group, being on an educational tour, enjoyed lectures by two college professors and other experts. We learned about Cuban history, the revolution and overthrow of Batista, and how Cuba is embracing the free world, but faces many challenges along the way. We learned about the heroes and villains; Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro are highly regarded here. Batista is despised.
Places visited: elementary school, senior nursing home, eco-friendly community and two highly-regarded Cuban dance studios. Some members of our group brought gifts and essentials with them for school children and seniors. Items like pencils, pens, toilet paper, are greatly appreciated. One night, we enjoyed Cuba Libres (rum and Coke) and a one-hour salsa lesson from six young men and women atop a hotel overlooking Havana.
Speaking of toilet paper, it is in short supply in Cuba. Some restrooms along the highways have no toilet paper so locals carry their own. Even Simona carried extra in case any of our group needed some. And many toilets in public places have no toilet seats---you can visualize for yourself.
At the University of Havana, one young student gave us an informative talk and a walking tour of the campus. Education in Cuba is paid for by the government, all the way through college, including medical, law, and engineering schools.
On the day before we departed, we took a 1 ½ hour bus ride from Havana to the Pinar Del Rio, the most western province to an eco-friendly socialist community called Las Terrazas, established in the 1980s, that provides housing, food, and medical care to more than 1200 people. All of the food for the people is organic, grown on the land, which was replanted after the forests were depleted by logging 50 years ago.
A five-course lunch was served at a vegetarian restaurant at the community with unique entrees like banana soup, black-bean soup and fruit/vegetable soup.
After the group members checked out of the Melia Cohiba Hotel at 8 a.m., the bus headed back to the arrival city of Santa Clara. On the way, we passed sugar cane fields and fields of corn. But much of the land between Havana and Santa Clara, while having a rich, fertile soil, has not been developed. Our guide explained that because there are no communities where farmers could live, this land goes uncultivated. You see no John Deere farm equipment in Cuba, only old tractors left behind by the Russians when they departed in 1998.
Our final stops before going to the airport were at the Che Guevara memorial and just a couple of miles from there, the actual train wreck and bulldozer that Che used to dislodge the tracks, causing the derailment in 1958, of the train carrying 400 loyal Batista soldiers who were onboard. (This is the story our group was told by our tour leaders; I've have heard other versions). Guevara’s loyal band of 20 revolutionaries either killed or took prisoner all of the soldiers.
The train derailment was the catalyst for Batista to flee the country two days later.
And then, within one mile from the airport, the engine of the bus starting making a noise that sounded like something had blown: a tire, muffler, gasket, or piston rod. We all looked at each other and said, “Oh no.” But, Ernesto was able to ease the bus to the airport.
By the end of the eight days together, many friendships had been formed among our group. A few (12 or so) became ill on the trip with gastro-intestinal problems, lasting for a day or two.
Tour guide Vivian took advantage of time on the bus to educate us on all aspects of Cuban culture and history. Her English was near perfect and her demeanor friendly. And tour guide Simona always looked out for our well-being and reminded us to recycle everything. And while rare, she told us to be careful in a couple of locations for pickpockets. As always while traveling, being vigilant is important.
Greta and I found the beautiful people of Cuba very welcoming of Americans. They seemed to be thrilled that we were in Cuba and that relations between our two countries are warming. And in the rest of our group, all seemed to feel the same way.
It was truly a wonderful learning experience. We all hoped that Ernesto was able to get back to his family in Havana that night.
For more in-depth coverage, and lots of photos, go to this website and click on the yellow 'Cuba 2016' box.
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