Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Cuban Adventure - October 2016 #TLLBLND

My  trip to Cuba all began a couple years ago when my husband joined a social club in San Francisco, "Wingtip". Soon after he was accepted into the club he heard of an annual trip to Cuba for its willing members.  Sean and I looked at each other and immediately agreed "We're in!".  California Building Bridges is the non-profit that organizes trips to Cuba for Americans as a Cultural People-To-People exchange. The process of receiving travel information, submitting personal documents for a travel visa, and a nominal deposit for our trip to Cuba began in February 2016. To be firmly placed in the correct context Sean even had a linen suit made through Wingtip for this unprecedented family vacation.
The next touch point I recall was a conversation with the founder of Wingtip, Ami Arad, who emphatically stated "There is absolutely no reason why you can't smoke a Cuban cigar with every meal." At this point I knew the possibilities would be endless. NOTE: As you read this article, please take note of the hyperlinks for greater insights.
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A direct flight from the United States to Cuba is not available at the time of our departure from the west coast, so off we flew to Miami for an overnight stay. October through April is high season for travel and off-season for hurricanes. We spent a few hours having dinner and walking around South Beach at the recommendation of a fellow passenger on the flight over. This place is like no other. Ten-foot long Python snakes are on display along the restaurant lined promenade, a guy riding up and down the crowded street with a Ring-Tail Lemur on his shoulder, spirited celebrations of life was at every corner and some folks unusual clothing displays (or lack there-of) I cannot mention for this publication...
The next morning we boarded  American Airlines from Miami to Jose Marti Airport in Havana Cuba for a 40 minute flight. The distance from the Florida Keys to the island of Cuba is a mere 90 miles. The weather is hot and humid as our group of 13 walked from the foot of our airplane on the tarmac into the tiny airport. We were warmly greeted in Spanish by a uniformed airport official. Immigration was swift and without incident. Once you pass a brief interview, passport is stamped and have your photo taken, you are buzzed through a solid door one person at a time to retrieve your luggage at the turnstile but not before passing through a metal detector and submitting your visa and declaration paperwork to a woman seated at a folding card table.

Now the adventure begins!

We lodged at the Melia Cohiba Hotel, a Spanish hotel chain for seven days along the The Malecon Highway which follows the shore and seawall known to the locals as "The Sofa". The seawall is five miles long and took 20 years to build. The hotel is first-rate. Large impressive front lobby, friendly knowledgeable staff, currency exchange, gorgeous swimming pool, and two bars. Clean, comfortable rooms, efficient plumbing, clean towels daily, plenty of hot water, a morning buffet with a wide variety of tasty dishes including good Cuban coffee, make yourself Mimosas, and of course a Habanos cigar retail shop and smoking bar with nightly live entertainment is right across the hall.
Be ready to bring additional bath soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and basic over the counter medicines.  There is no gift shop in which to stock up on basic toiletries. This is true for the entire island.  These items may be left behind when you return home and greatly appreciated, so bring the BIG bottle.

Our group travel was arranged through an air-conditioned bus every morning after breakfast to visit the sites on our daily itinerary including lunch and dinner at various State run and privately owned (Paladar) restaurants. You can always flag a yellow taxi for a ride throughout Havana, but the best ride is in a 1940's or 1950's American convertible: Ford, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Plymouth. In the 1950's per capita, more Cadillac cars were imported than anywhere else in the world. Always ask how much for the ride before entering the taxi.

All were good, Paladars had better quality and preparation of their dishes than State run restaurants. Pork is the meat of choice among Cubans. Beef, chicken, lamb, veal, rabbit are also served as well as many fish dishes including lobster and octopus which I thoroughly enjoyed. All meals began with a "Welcome" cocktail, almost always a Mojito. Cuba Libre, Daiquiri and Pina Colada served in a hollowed pineapple are ubiquitous. Cocktails are generally light in alcohol which can be a plus. You can make many stops throughout the afternoon to find relief from the heat with an icy libation and not be "over-indulgent".

El Rum Rum, great lunch, celebrity visits abound
El Aljibe-State run, but a fantastic Habanos cigar shop next door
Cafe Laurent-winner Quality Crown, London 2016
Rio Mar-dine over the water and watch the fishermen in the rain
El Divino another great lunch, fabulous views from the deck
Restaurante Cafe del Oriente-State run, elegantly appointed
La Guarida-historic beautiful building, Hollywood celebrity visits

Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso-Farm to table food, Vinyalas Valley

Cocina de Liliam-good food, great appetizer bar
Mediterraneo-1st Cuban farm-to-table restaurant
La Fontana-spectacluar decor
El Templete-State run

The island of Cuba is lush, tropical with fertile ground. The largest crops are tobacco for cigars, sugarcane for rum, plantain, rice and corn to replenish the earth between crops.  So much farm-able land is untouched  because it is still worked manually. Young people prefer not to work with iron trowels pulled by oxen and choose instead to find jobs in the city.  Only in the last few years the government has found ways to bring in large farming equipment such as tractors to lease to farmers to reinvigorate farming. Bulls are feeding on the side of the highways chained to trees as you drive the country side. They are State owned for farmers to use as needed. Organic farming is a buzz-word frequently used with visitors and to be commended. However, with the lack of resources to import fertilizers and pesticides, organic farming by default has been the only method used for decades.

This is a multi-layered and difficult subject to discuss in brief. Citizens pay no taxes. Many citizens squat in empty apartments and houses in full disrepair paying no rent. Medical care is free to everyone including plastic surgery.  Education is free to all citizens through the university level. Unemployment  is only 4%, the government finds jobs for everyone no matter how small the task.  Whether you are a waiter in a restaurant or a doctor, the government salary you receive is CUC$20 (Cuban Convertible Peso) per month. All Cuban citizens are issued a food ration book regardless of your economic status for basic food staples: sugar, coffee, rice, beans, eggs, milk, etc. There are current discussions underway for the government to begin instituting taxation among their citizens to pay for all the social programs offered and importation of basic goods a small island needs but after three generations of no taxation there is the fear of civil unrest.  Many citizens find ways to earn other forms of income to live more comfortably.

The internet is widely available. Many young people are seen hanging around hotel lobbyies on their cellphone to access email and text messaging.  Facebook is popular as well as Instagram.  But I was informed that one never knows if their information is being tracked and so discretion is front and center.  Cubans are familiar with American movies that are bootlegged and passed around on flash drive memory sticks.

Every citizen is given a free education through the university level.  Men are required to attend military service for three years, that can partially be offset with education and one year of prescribed employment at the behest of the state regardless of your field of educational degree. Women may attend military service voluntarily. There is great emphasis by the State on education in the Arts as well as medicine.

This is where Cuba shines.  At the present time the biotech industry is growing at a record rate financed by the State. Cuban biotech companies are on the forefront of developing medicines to cure lung cancer and diabetes.

The Cuban people are very proud of their heritage, the struggles they have endured and survived due to ever changing subjugation from other nations. In 1958 the US government placed a strict embargo on all shipments of good to the island nation. The embargo includes all foreign nations delivering goods to Cuba.  A freighter bound for Cuba is prohibited from visiting a US port for 180 days. You have several generations of citizens that have no other concept of life other than the restrictive one they currently live and are extraordinarily industrious to provide for their family's daily needs.  One afternoon we passed a large government style building. In this building houses the organization for the protection of gay and lesbian rights headed by the daughter of sitting President and Prime Minister of Cuba Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro.

Cuba is rich with artists of all types, from brightly painted canvases depicting classic American cars in Havana sold on the streets, to very fine jewelry silversmiths with both modern and traditional designs, to a jazz music scene where young musicians jam improvisational jazz beats, or the by-gone classics performed by famed Buena Vista Social Club.  The most popular club in Havana has found a way to meld this into one venue, Fabrica de Arte Cubano (The Art Factory).  A multi-story building displays art pieces on the walls, to performance art, great live music, artisanal food and fresh cocktails. This I believe is the future.  The state provides many opportunities for its people to be exposed to the arts. Education is free and there are many art academys throughout the island.  Performance ticket prices are heavily subsidized so for a few Pesos anyone can afford to visit live theater performances, the opera, the ballet or symphony. It is not a highbrow affaire. Curiously enough I was fascinated by some of the works were are privileged to visit that the Cubans have a romantic view of the American gangsters of the 1930,s.  Al Capone and Meyer Lansky to name a few are frequently the subject of the art piece.

Cuban cigars within cigar culture are puros. The three components in a cigar are: wrapper, filler, binder.  Cuban cigars use only cuban tobacco leaves in all three components.  During our trip we toured the H.Upman cigar factory. They make several brands of cigars here including Cohiba and Partagas. Unfortunately no pictures are found in this article as picture taking is forbidden while touring the factory. It is quite a labor intensive production. Cuban people dream to work here because the pay is higher than other manual jobs, you get to smoke at work, take some cigars home and if you work the cigar rolling assembly line, your job function is rotated so boredom does not set in and quality does not suffer.  Families will have several generations working here. You should definitely venture out to Humidores Habana. This is a humidor factory, all handcrafted using re-purposed woods in many cases. Their designs are legendary and auction for thousands of Euros.  A recent masterpiece is a nearly 5-foot tall replica of the Bacardi Building in Havana Cuba.
It is said the best Cuban Rum is produced on the eastern side of the island in Santiago de Cuba because the sweet quality of the sugarcane grown in Santiago makes the best rum.
We had a cigar and rum pairing lecture from world renown 
Fernando Fernandez Millian. His passion and romance for cigars and rum is inspiring. We learned that to enjoy them both together you must include a glass of water. Pour your favorite Cuban rum, light your best quality Cuban cigar and alternate a puff of cigar, a sip of rum and a swish of water to cleanse the palate and then begin the cycle again.

California Building Bridges created an itinerary so fantastic that we met some wonderful and talented people everyday:

Rosanna Vargas-ROX
Her modern high quality silver jewelry designs made our gift shoppers and souvenir hunters very happy.

The Merger
A collaboration of local highly trained and skilled artists create images that stimulate the eyes and the soul. No piece is signed by the actual artist but signed by the group instead.

Jose Fuster
Not only a talented artist and professor but a generous neighbor. His gallery by day is also his residence by night. I defy you to find one square meter of property that is not covered in mosaic. His home is a wonderland of color and expression.  Several decades ago a neighbor asked if he would create his mosaic work in her front yard.  Today Fuster has a team of 17 volunteers dedicating their time to decorating all the homes in his neighborhood.  At this time there must be 30 or 40 homes in a once dreary fishing village covered in brightly colored Pablo Picasso-esque mosaic designs.

Luis Copperi
Your online portfolio is thought-provoking, emotional and intense. We are looking forward to your visit and exhibit in Sonoma, California in early December 2016.

Carlos Varlea
You are known as the Cuban Bob Dylan. Your music style and lyrics are categorized as political and poetic. It brings me back to my childhood memories of America in the 1960,s. We were treated to a fabulous intimate concert in the personal residence of talented Cuban artist Kadir Lopez. Your music has one foot firmly planted in the past and the other foot running to the future. You clearly have a love for American music with the songs you chose to sing for us that night. I applaud your courage, passion and strength with your words to work for a more successful Cuba while maintaining its heritage and personal identity. We welcome you to Sonoma, California for a concert in December 2016.

I cannot conclude my story without thanking the people that made our day-to-day travels so brilliant.  To Jesus, our bus driver everyday who was always flexible with an ever-changing schedule, who showed old school chivalry in helping the women off the steep bus steps, and who in the middle of an alley with nothing but his wits to guide him saw the telephone line strewn from  building to building before crashing through it and being able to back all the way out with inches to spare on either side. He also entered into the university in the 1990,s seeking an aeronautics degree but had to abandon his dream because of the Russian collapse and is now a first rate tour bus driver.  We wish him and his family well.

To Yani, a beautiful young women who gave to us all her knowledge and history of Cuba and unashamed willingness to share your stories of personal family struggles living in Cuba that we could never imagine. For indulging vibrant, curious, fun loving San Franciscans of all our wishes, and answering all our crazy questions towards a life altering vacation. We all love you Yani and hope for a bright future for you and your husband.  See you in the United States one day!

Finally to Kriste from California Building Bridges.  You were our center of the universe having spent many trips to Cuba and guiding us without incident, always making sure every stop ran smoothly and great shopping advice. Alex and Leticia, you guys are equally responsible for an unforgettable look at Cuba behind the curtain, which really is now only a sheer veil.

Many of us will return soon because Cuba is an elegant woman with much love to give and receive back.

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FIDELCASTRO passed away at the age of 90 on November 26, 2016. While his people have enjoyed free education and healthcare for all they were plunged in over 50 years of poverty. He instituted an agrarian society yet today there exists nearly no modern farming equipment, only hand pulled trowels led by oxen litter the countryside unable to effectively feed its people. 

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