Having Nothing is Living Free, 5

And we come to the end.

It’s hard to come to the end of a magical journey, almost as much in this review a year later as the actual trip. On this date a year ago, I returned home from my voyage to Cuba and my life has never been the same. What did I learn from those few days abroad?

Cuba is a beautiful place. The countryside, the beaches, and the centuries-old architecture possess stunning allure. Indeed, some of the sights are unique to this small island nation.

But most memorable are the people. The histories of both our countries, the US and Cuba, run parallel and continue to tantalize and twist around each other, like sensuous dancers that move synchronously across a dance floor, matching minute moves, but never touching, so close it’s impossible at times to tell which is leading and which is following.

Our local guide pointed out the common traits of the Cuban people—pragmatism, survival skills, resilience, rebelliousness, creativity, passion, motivation and compassion. These characteristics arrived in Cuba with the African slaves and by necessity through 500 years of history were infused into the entire population.

The music and art of Cuba are recognized worldwide. Cubans excel as well in medicine and medical research. This small country is highly educated with an admirable literacy rate. Talented people devote their lives to advancements in their various fields.

When I was young, five decades ago, almost everywhere I traveled with my parents we found trinkets and cheap souvenirs stamped with the words “Made in Japan.” It was common knowledge that anything manufactured in Japan was cheap, substandard, and not durable.

That is not the case today! Products in the world market today which originate in Japan are highly regarded as top quality items. What brought about this change? A system which relied on input from the Japanese people. Ideas were prized and when they worked together, the people pulled their image to the top of a pyramid of quality.

It was the people who mattered.

Though a beautiful place, Cuba has many problems. My biggest impression from the tour was that her people are her richest resource. Working together, they will find answers to their many problems.

Given the talent, education, resilience and determination evident in the people I met, I have confidence they possess what it takes to solve the problems that plague Cuba.

If only we would allow them to do that.

There is a deep chasm that separates the way Cuban people relate to visitors—even visitors from the US—and the way our respective governments relate to each other. Sadly People-to-People relate much differently than Government-to-Government. Traveling can teach a traveler much, like the fact that there are multiple sides to every historical event. No country, people, or system of government is totally good, or totally bad. We should accept what works for the good, embrace change, encourage each other, and move forward together. After all, in light of the current global coronavirus pandemic, it may well be that Cuba’s medical community will discover the answer. We need their friendship as much as they need ours.

May our future together as neighbors and friends be bright.

 

 

Having Nothing is Living Free, 4

Havana!

The next few days we immersed ourselves in the life and times of Havana, Cuba. Our first stop as we entered the city was the fortress of La Cabana. From there, we got our first views of the Havana skyline, and the harbor that various nationalities have lusted over for 500 years.

It was a surprise to realize that we parked above and walked over the entrance to a tunnel that ran beneath the entire harbor, taking traffic from one side to the other. I saw cars entering, but had no idea what I was looking at until the bus turned onto this road and we drove The Tunnel. From the other side, we caught a glimpse of the opposite shore, one we’d see often in the next few days. There were fortresses on both sides of the harbor entrance to protect early Havana from pirates.

We revisited places along the harbor several times on our driving tours. It was fascinating to see the variety of warehouses, ships, and people involved in the daily life of the harbor. One particularly interesting visit was to a cigar factory which took harvested tobacco shipped in on trains and produced some of the renowned Cuban cigars. Not that I’m a smoker, but I had several requests to bring back samples, so it was interesting to learn about this part of Cuban life, history, and trade.

 

Our accomodations in Havana were at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel is renowned for attracting world famous visitors, and for good reason. Its opulence is evident in every detail.

Exploration of four historic plazas in Havana, (Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza de Armas) filled a whole day, as well as visits to art shops and museums and excellent cuisine at some local paladar restaurants.

Of course we had to see Ernest Hemingway’s famous house.

Spread over several acres, the grounds included his boat in dry dock, a dry swimming pool, landscaped gardens, and an observatory tower. Climb the stairs and view his room at the top, more books and a telescope. Turn around and look out over Havana.

We visited Colon Cemetery, at least a small portion of it, since it is the 4th largest cemetery in the world. The architecture and sculpted tombs inside present a picture into ages past. Interestingly, the name Colon refers to Christopher Colombus who actually anchored on a coastline of Cuba in 1492, not North America.

And we couldn’t leave Cuba without a ride in a Classic Automobile caravan. (I know this is what you’ve been waiting for. . .) We were able to view much of Havana that our bus would not have been able to get through, from fancy housing districts, to beautiful parks. And we ended up driving along the Malecon Boulevard back to Hotel Nacional.

A walk along the Malecon that evening was in order, to experience the special aura that calls to Cubans everywhere.

As the sun sets over the Havana skyline, it’s a challenge to distill all the impressions into something meaningful to take home, but the journey is drawing to a close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having Nothing is Living Free, 3

(The third part of a series recapping my 2019 tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel-of-suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

From Cienfuegos we took a day trip cross-country to Trinidad, a historic colonial city, ca 1514. On the UNESCO world heritage list, downtown Trinidad offers a walking experience much as the residents in the 16th century would have found.

Very rough cobblestone streets paved with rounded fist-sized stones set into the hillside and multi-storied buildings with tile roofs were typical in Trinidad.

My favorite excursion was ascending the bell tower of an old monastery, no longer used as such.

The views across the surrounding terrain were extraordinary.

Adding to our complementary cocktail list, in Trinidad we twice enjoyed drinks that we were told were peculiar to that city—the canchanchara (Fizzy with lime, honey, and rum over ice. Served in a special goblet.)

On the return trip to Cienfuegos, I saw things I’d missed before.

Many fields and yards were fenced by prickly cactus—the kind my father had that grew fast with very sharp and prolific needles.

I suspect it was trimmed with machetes. Densely grown it would make an effective barrier to keep in livestock like piglets or chickens. It would also keep out unwanted intruders.

The following morning we packed up again for our last cross-country journey. We headed east from Cienfuegos along the Caribbean coast.

We stopped at the Playa Giron (“Bay of Pigs”) museum and learned about that effort from the Cuban perspective. The US planned invasion failed due to the fact that the plan was leaked and printed in the New York Times; the expected assistance from the locals did not materialize because life for the rural folks had already become much better than it was before the revolution; and the expected assistance from the US Air Force never came. The invasion failed and the Cuban revolution stood.

We drove along the coast of the bay to a cluster of cabins and businesses. During our lunch there, a park ranger told us about the Zapata Park Conservation efforts, and afterward we enjoyed a walk on the beach or a dip in the bay.

Twenty-three percent of Cuba is protected from development and Zapata National Park is the biggest and oldest of Cuba’s natural sanctuaries, founded in 1937. The ranger explained its mission: Conservation, Preservation, and Protection. There are over 5000 square km in this preserve, including swamp, coastline, bay area, and coral reefs. Cuban and American crocodiles interbreed here and have developed a new intermediary species. Five hundred green and red Cuban parrots were released to the wild. A thriving coral reef is preserved in the bay itself.

There are 52 animal species unique to Cuba, including three species of tree rats.

Zapata is the surname of the owner of the land with Spanish ancestry, from the 16th century. It does not refer to the shoe shape of the area, or the translation of the word, “shoe.”

From there we traveled on to Havana. Closer to the city, the cactus fences changed to stone fences.

The narrow road became a 6-lane highway, though traffic was still light. Solitary people walked at random places along the road, tended grazing livestock in the roadside ditches, or rested in the shade.

A modern and bustling city, Havana presented a marked contrast to the easy-going countryside we had experienced to this point.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 2

(The second part of a series recapping my tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel of suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

Los Caneyes hotel was unique in my experience. Named for some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cuba, the Caney people, the lodgings spread across several acres. Footpaths connected buildings that housed about four suites each, as well as smaller cabins that were single rooms. My room was one of these small cabins with twin beds, an air conditioner with Celcius degrees, remotely operated, a shower (no tub), and an ironing board with an umbrella hanging on it. The cabin stood beside a solar water heater set between two other cabins. I noticed my water was hot even early in the morning. Each structure in the facility was topped with palm-thatched roofs.

We dined in style with a buffet dinner. At dinner, a young man played clarinet continually, quite well, good old familiar show tunes. Later in the evening, there was a fashion show around the outdoor pool.

Tall, long-legged, black Cuban girls in 7-inch stiletto heels paraded around the pool area in swim and beach wear, as well as one young man for men’s beach fashions.

At the far end of the pool, a band struck up tunes—fully live tonight with guitar players, singer, uke, banjo, maybe a keyboard, drums. They performed long after I retired for the night.

The next morning I woke early—before 4:00, and rested until the alarm went off on my phone. Though it was still dark out, birds chirped and roosters crowed. It sounded like small bantams. I packed my bags and set off on an early morning walk. The lodgings at Los Caneyes were fascinating with all the thatched roofs. Most of the group buildings had a central courtyard around a statue of some figure significant in aboriginal stories, or perhaps Santeria saints.

There were several dead tree trunks with faces carved in them.

Ornamental plants, including a variety that I have enjoyed in my own home since I was in grade school, provided attractive landscaping. Blooming bushes, mimosa trees, song birds, plants growing out of tree stumps, palm trees, begonias, bougainvillea, and ficus trees with massive exposed roots lined the paths.

After breakfast, we loaded the bus and headed into Santa Clara. Our first stop was the Che Guevara monument. It was a lovely place, very tidy, free of charge, and our guide filled us in on Che’s story, which ended badly at the hands of a US CIA sting operation in Bolivia several years after the revolution.

Che (Ernesto) was born in Argentina and educated as a medical doctor. As a young man he traveled through much of Latin American, which changed his perspective on life. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution to free the people from tyranny. A guerilla commander as well as a physician, he orchestrated the conquest of an armored train, derailing it in Santa Clara and acquiring the arms inside. That was a turning point in the revolution.

He laid siege to a hotel in downtown Santa Clara, and bullet strikes are preserved on that building where many of Batista’s officers sought refuge. Two days later they surrendered, having run out of ammunition. This was a significant victory for the rebels, the beginning of the end for Batista.

Around the square below the historic hotel, a goat pulled a cart for children’s rides. At a nearby club for Abuelos (grandparents) they danced and played games, told us the story of fan language, used by young women to signal young men at dances, under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

We drove to the airport to fetch one lady’s luggage that had been lost and on to Cienfuegos over rough pavement, swaying back and forth.

In Cienfuegos, we attended a string orchestral concert by Concerto Sur Cienfuegos that was delightful with a variety of classical, popular, and Cuban compositions. Before it was done, they had us all up and dancing with their dance leader.

We headed back along the coast to our hotel in downtown Cienfuegos where dinner was served in the rooftop restaurant with windows and balcony door open.

Another ensemble provided music from the indoor balcony in the dining room.