Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Last day in Cuba (for now)

Mama, Carmen's son's girlfriend, Carmen and Maria

Scott and I with the family
On this our last morning in Havana I did my blog entry for Day 9 and Scott went to the Bank to change some more money. We brought Mexican pesos with us and have been changing them into C.U.C.s as necessary. It costs a little more to change American dollars. He also stopped at the Infotur office to tell Dariana how much we enjoyed the concert and to thank her for all her help. She was delighted that he stopped in.
We'll get to see her again in April. For a number of reasons we have decided not to take the boat to Cuba but to fly back again when our oldest son Josh and his family come for a one week trip starting April 12th. And perhaps earlier if Larry Barns decides to visit.
All of Carmen's family and friends turned out to say good-bye (her son, boyfriend and uncle all met us down at the taxi). We have enjoyed staying there and getting to know them so much.
However I don't feel comfortable having my son's family there next month. Of course, to say hello and have them all meet. But there is a real danger of fires in this crowded center city and if there were one, everyone would probably perish. Carmen's apartment is on the 3rd and 4th floors. The 4th floor where we stayed has only one exit - a steep staircase to the living room. Carmen's apartment has only one exit out and that it a very steep narrow staircase down 2 flights. There is no other exit from the building (the two ground floors have a separate exit). I even checked out the roof (the 5th and 6th floor apartment shares the same single staircase with Carmen) - no way off. I realized this immediately and decided to take the risk but wouldn't with my grandchildren.
This is a common problem in the old section of Havana. Carmen acknowledged it, but they just live with it. Some people may not think of these things but my grandfather was a career fireman and I was brought up to always look for exits and plan a way out in an emergency.
Carmen arranged a taxi to the airport and we checked in for our flight without a problem. There were 20 or so booths for immigration agents so we passed right through. That was the end of "easy". All 20 exits from immigration dumped out into chaos. There were only two customs lines and although some people, including ourselves, went to the end of the line, everyone else just pushed in directly to the center. Tempers flared, including my own, and it was a miserable 40 minutes before we managed to get through.
Then our flight was not listed on the screens. And there wasn't a gate number on our boarding pass. We tried to talk to officials but they all refused any responsibility or ability to help. Finally an experienced traveler took pity on us and brought us into the "VIP" lounge where they suggested that our plane had not arrived yet and eventually, when it did, the flight would appear on the screen with a gate number.
So we thought about having some lunch. Again, chaos. There was one cafe serving food for all the gates. Two large lines had formed both ending at the same place with one woman taking orders. There was no menu anywhere but we watched what people had when they left and it was a choice of chicken or pork with rice and salad. I guess they originally had sandwiches but those were gone by the time we got close.  The food was actually pretty good!
Hours later our flight finally arrived on the screens. Another line awaited us to board the buses which took us out to our plane on the tarmac. It was very hot. What a relief to land in the very modern air conditioned Cancun airport!
But this was really the only negative time in our trip. Cuba is so worth visiting! Come soon before MacDonald's arrives.  The people, architecture, music, scenery, lack of traffic (and antique cars)...all unique and wonderful.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Day Nine

The living room at La Viglia, Ernest Hemingway's home in
Cuba for 21 years.

Looking from the living room to the dining room. Notice
the huge number of magazines on the rack to the right and
all the stuffed animal heads from his time in Africa.

A view of the living room from the opposite direction

A guide explained this was where Hemingway "rested". His
"matrimonial room" was next door (with twin beds). That's
one of his typewriters on the bookcase. He wrote "For Whom
the Bell Tolls" and the "Old Man and the Sea" here.

The view from the house looks over Havana and you can see
the ocean beyond.

The room at the top of the tower - according to Wikipedia
his wives used this as a study rather than Hemingway.

Heather, Juan and Scott
Our last full day in Havana Carmen's friend Henry arranged for 6 hours with his friend Juan. The four of us headed west for a variety of stops. Our first one was Hemingway's home "La Vigilia" where he lived for 21 years. He bought it in 1940 after his marriage to his 3rd. wife, Martha Gelhorn and lived there with his last wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway. It was expropriated by the Cuban government after Hemingway's suicide in 1961 in Idaho. After being somewhat neglected for a long time, it is now preserved as a museum and looks just the way it was left (as seen in photos taken at the time). It's a lovely modest comfortable home and reflects his (and I assume his wife's) personality - full of stuffed animal heads, magazines and books, and a relaxed atmosphere. His two typewriters were a shock as they are so small!
Then we were on to Fusterlandia - a complete opposite experience. The artist Jose Fuster moved to a poor neighborhood called Jaimanitas in 1975 and began decorating his studio with tiles. Then, inspired by Gaudi, he asked his neighbors if he could do the same for them. It has created an artist's community there and more prosperity for all, as it's a popular tourist attraction. The reviews had compared his work to Gaudi or Picasso but to me it was more like Disneyland, but very creative and an enormous amount of work.
Next we visited the Hemingway Marina. It was much nicer than I expected with surprisingly clean water and lots of side tie spaces. Boats from the St. Petersburg, FL - Habana Yacht Race, resumed for the first time since the revolution (the race had taken place almost every year from 1930 to 1959), had filled the place for the week before we arrived. The last of the boats had left that morning. We walked down one of the canals and talked to several boats. One was from Vermont and it was their first trip out of Lake Champlain! In another boat we met a couple we had known in Cartegna, Florida and the Maine GAM. Last was a family with young children from Moscow, Russia in a 40 foot Nauticat (picture below).
We had an excellent but expensive (for Cuba) lunch at a nearby restaurant - fresh fish and octopus.
Scott had been trying to set up a authorized visit to the huge Medical School nearby through a friend of Carmen's but that hadn't worked so we went anyway. He managed to talk to the Admissions office and it was very helpful.
Last we drove through small neighborhoods, stopping to watch some kite boarders and then Juan took us to his neighborhood and showed us a series of parks along the river in Havana - very lovely. Altogether a fun day with two charming young men. We particularly had long talks with Juan. He served in the military as do all men in Cuba and had many stories about that time and his too brief athletic career as a pro soccer player. That ended when he badly broke his leg. He studied computers at University but the pay is so poor, he has to work as a taxi driver to support his family - 2 young sons. But he enjoys himself still for sure! Henry works as a mason and that's how we got to know him as he was repairing Carmen's balcony during the week we were there.
We weren't very hungry after that big lunch so we walked around the historic district, stopping at a few spots for a drink. El Dandy was the first one and a fun arty kind of place. At the Plaza Vieja we had a few appetizer plates with some wine sitting outside. The service was the worst we'd experienced in Havana! But we're on Latin time here and what's the rush?

A view over some of Fusterlandia from the top section of Fuster's studio.
Another decorated house nearby with matching car.
I loved this picture of Granma, Castro's boat that brought
he and fellow revolutionaries over to Cuba from Mexico.
A detail from one of the walls.
A Nauticat 40 from Moscow, Russia
The view towards the Marina from our restaurant
Another view - there were several water slides but we didn't
actually see any one swimming.
We do love to take pictures of food - from left to right:
fried fish, rice pilaf, salad, black beans & rice (rice morro
or black rice) and stewed octopus.
Our lunch spot Bar El Laurel Restaurant
Two kite boarders enjoy the high winds off the coast
An enormous banyan tree in one of the parks along the
Almendares River in Havana.
A view of the river and park land
This young lady was posing for photos on
this very pink car.
Scott, Henry and Juan pose outside of Casa Carmen
Another shot of Scott, Heather and Juan.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Day Eight - Cuba

We watched a music video being filmed. You can see Scott
in the background watching the dancers inside the bar through
the window. Outside camera men are shooting a young
singer on his motorcycle.

People lining up to buy flowers - Cubans live in lines! If
there is a really big one, say at the bank, when you arrive
you say "Ulitima" and the last person in line identifies
themselves. Then everyone knows where you are (sometimes
they aren't really lined up). You can then go get a coffee
or find a place to sit down - and come back nearer the time
when your turn is up!
Today we decided to visit several museums and after discussion, picked the Museum of Art and the Museum of the Revolution. On the way there we saw a large crowd gathered and joined them. It was a film crew for a new music video for a popular Cuban singer. He was on a motor cycle in front of a bar being prepped by a "style" person and a few camera men. Signs were posted around saying by staying you were agreeing to be photographed. Scott managed to get himself over in the midst and watched dancers practicing their routine in the bar. I assume the singer was going to join them. He was throwing kisses to the crowd - very cute guy! It was obviously going to be a long time before anything more happened so we headed on.
The streets of Havana are busy with pedestrians, bicycle cabs and few cars (compared to any other city in the world). Lines form in front of the few produce, bakery and meat stores. Alex in Viñales showed us one of the farmer's ration books. You are issued a book for the year and each day can receive (and sign for) your ration of bread and other basic commodities. Foreigners can't buy at these stores. Then there are higher price but still Cuban national stores that sell in pesos to Cubans (and C.U.C.s to foreigners) other products. Then there are the C.U.C. stores that sell things you can't buy anywhere else - a very small variety of things - at higher cost.
The Museum of Art is very modern and interesting. It's huge and contains work from about the 1930's. I didn't see anything old. The newer works were by far the best (for us) and very varied in style and media. There were lots of political statements and installations, especially on the first floor. There is another National Art Museum that is under renovation and I assume contains the older works. I took a few pictures and then was advised it was forbidden.
By then it was time for some lunch and we headed down to the Cathedral Plaza. On the way we stopped to talk to our favorite Infotur advisor  Dariana to thank her for getting us the tickets to the Buena Vista Social Club and Viñales. Scott had seen a notice about a concert that very evening at the Cathedral and wanted to know more. She got to work. It took a half hour and at least 10 phone calls before she finally found out that the concert location and time was changed. It was now at 7:30 pm at the Iglesia de San Francisco de Paola - or at least it was a good chance it was going to happen then. She asked us to let her know what happened and Scott stopped in on our last morning to tell her how amazing the concert was and to thank her again!
We had lunch sitting just behind the Santaria practicioners stands in the beautiful Restaurant in the historic Casa de Marques de Aguas Claras, right in front of the cathedral. It's an amazing people watching opportunity and the food was quite good too.
The Museum of the Revolution is in the old Presidential Palace inaugurated in 1920. Former President Battista's office was there but he wasn't, lucky for him, when a group of young students fought their way in, attempting to kill him. The bullet holes are still very evident. Outside is a collection of vehicles, planes, artillary and the famous boat "Granma" that brought Fidel and his compatriots over from Mexico to restart the revolution.
Inside are many, many rooms with black and white photos and exhibits documenting the revolution and the people who participated. Even their clothing is preserved. To be honest this collection could really use some updating - it doesn't look like a single thing has changed for 50 years. It's a fascinating and riveting story and could be reorganized for better effect. But it was well worth the visit.
After our usual rest at Carmen's we headed out for the concert. First we checked out the location and indeed it was planned there for 7:30. We had time to walk across the street to the fun brewery visited several days before for lunch - this time for a beer and brochettes of pork & shrimp. The concert was fabulous! Really great. First there were two chorus groups from Florida International University, each presenting 3 or 4 pieces. Then a group of musicians from the Cuban National Symphony under the direction of a Argentine composer Martin Palmeri presented some of his pieces - with a concertina soloist from Buenos Aires. These were great but his Misatango, a Tango Mass from Buenos Aires with the full chorus and soprano soloist that followed was outstanding. We have SO lucked out seeing this, the Acosta Ballet and the Buena Vista Social Club review.
This gentleman was specializing in onions
but he also had cucumbers, a few tomatoes
and peppers.

A butcher but with few products to sell - one
forlorn chicken hangs up, mostly it's pork
that's available.

The very charming and helpful woman at the Infotur agency,
Dariana Valdes. She spent a lot of time with us on several visits.

One of the evocative pieces on the ground floor of the Art
Museum - memories of the sugar cane workers.

There was a big exhibit on the sufferings
of Cubans in solitary confinement for long

I loved this colorful imaginative painting - it's the last photo
I got to take as a guide reminded me that photos were forbidden.

A look at a produce market. There is a limited variety of
vegetables available.

Another street vegetable vendor. This one
had bananas - one stalk, very green, And two
of the few squash we saw during our visit.

A typical apartment lobby!

A nursery school having their lunch break.

Santaria practitioners waiting for clients.

I don't think Scott likes my taking his picture,
perhaps he's dying to dig in.

These colorful women are looking for customers for a photo
opportunity - they cuddle up to the men mostly.

The Havana Cathedral, construction was begun by the Jesuits
but completed in 1777 after they were expelled from the
island in 1767. It's a great example of Cuban Baroque
architecture and perhaps the only example with a asymmetrical

I couldn't find the placard for this sculpture
but love it's relaxed attitude.

Another view of Scott, the restaurant and the Santaria
We appreciated the many historic plaques on the walls.
You can appreciate some of the lovely architecture and pedestrian only (and restaurants) streets.
A look at the outdoor exhibit of revolutionary transports 
The dome of the Museo and former Presidential Palace
The imposing marble stairway. We saw very
few elevators anywhere in the city and no
accommodations for handicap access but
unlike other Latin American countries there
are many people around in wheelchairs which
are in good condition.
Vintage cars abound throughout the city and often with
humorous young men inviting you to take a ride.
Scott managed to take one photo during the concert. That's the composer and conductor Martin Palmeri in the dark shirt.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Day Seven - Cuba

Waves crashing against the sea wall on the Malecon - Havana
Carmen usually alternates between a plain or cheese omelet or fried eggs but this morning she surprised us with hard boiled eggs. This always comes with cut up (cold) vienna sausages and sliced tomatoes. Since her guest Don bought tons of fruit a few days ago, we've had a plate of pineapple and papaya - Yeh! Then there is hamburger type rolls with cheese and ham, sometimes toasted. So, no starvation for sure. Most mornings we've had the company of one or two other couples staying in the front rooms (very noisy as they are on the street). This morning we had an interesting conversation with a French couple (she from France and he from Lebanon) that are working in Dubai. They love it there!
As we've thoroughly explored the old historic part of Havana we decided to head west along the Malecon to Vedado. We started at the Castillo de San Salvador and walked along the ocean for miles. It has been very windy this last week and waves crashed up on the sea wall and sometimes over into the street. Later the sea side of the street was closed to traffic for quite a ways. It's very dramatic and lots of people were out dodging the waves and taking pictures. The buildings along the ocean here are very varied. There are a number of abandonded older homes and apartment buildings interspursed with fancy cafes/restaurants and hotels. As we entered Vedado tall apartment buildings were numerous. Our American Embassy is on the shore and enormous - it was the original embassy before under Battista and is now reopened. We saw a number of other embassys in this area. Single family homes appear for the first time and lots of restaurants and hotels. The Universidad de la Habana and several hospitals crowd together in an elevated position in the center.
We found an excellent small restaurant with a fun band and good food. I had my first Viejas Ropas (it means old clothes but is a delicious stew of shredded beef, tomatoes and olives) - Paradillas 17, on 17th Street. Around the corner was a terrific surprise, Amore, an excellent gelato/bakery place.
We walked around the area enjoying the architecture and people. Unfortunately we could not find the National Association of Small Farmers that Scott wanted to visit. They listed an address on their website but there was no sign of them there, nor was the phone number working.
We finally had to take a bicyle cab back due to exhaution! But after a good rest at Carmen's we were ready to finally walk to the famous La Guarida Restaurant on Concordia (featured in the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate). Carmen had managed a reservation there for us on our second night in Havana and unfortunately we were so tired that night (and the reservation was for 9 pm) that we had to cancel. We couldn't get another dinner reservation so just went over to see the place and enjoy their roof top bar and a few tapas. The building looks abandoned when you go up the endless marble stairs before reaching the restaurant. Then two more flights of iron circular staircases bring you up to the roof top bar. It's spectacular! The view is 360 degrees over the city and out to the sea. The sun was just going down. We sat in the corner to watch it and had 2 rounds of their fabulous (my son Sean would drool over their drinks list) cocktails and a plate of various croquettes.
You'd think this would close the night for us. But no, we're starting to be Cuban! We took a cab over to O'Reilly 304, another famous Cuban spot. Again, no reservations but this time we lucked out and after chatting with everyone in line and the door man, the latter wangled us a small table out on the balcony. There, overlooking the street, we had our first green salads in some time, with arugula no less! This was perfectly accompanied by a basket of bread and pate. A perfect ending to a lovely day!
(more photos coming but on Scott's phone and we haven't downloaded them yet).
Waves crashing on the Malecon with the Castillo del Morro
in the background

Another view looking down the coast as the waves recede

I loved this sculpture! Notice the vintage car on the right

 A quote from a poem by Chilean Nobel Laurate Pablo
Neruda graces the sidewalk.

The historic hotel looms above this waterfall ending on the

Sorry this photo didn't come out very well but this is the
very fun band we listened to during lunch,

My Vieux Ropas beautifully presented!

Amore had not only wonderful gelato but beautiful
cakes and fresh breads.