Last month, my mother and I went to Cuba. I've been posting on Facebook, and have gathered together postings here. I'm still processing the photos and videos. In the meantime, let me share a couple of my favorite photos, and some observations:
Mom and I on Pedicab, Old Havana, Cuba 5/23/5
Cuba Notes 1: Our Road Scholar Tour members were a good group. Seventeen tourists, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photography Instructor who was training in another Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer instructor for the increased demand in Cuba tours, and several Cuban locals as guides. Internecine conflicts were kept to a minimum and we all got on the bus on time. Mom, at 90, was the oldest of the group. I, at 60, was the second-youngest tourist (and not by much). Walking around (I averaged more than 4 miles a day) largely on cobblestone streets or barely-maintained sidewalks I lost weight.
Cuba Notes 2: Cuba is a socialist country. It s not really a Communist country, but after the Bay of Pigs (the CIA-funded invasion that failed due to a near-complete lack of support from the Cubans who live here), they had no choice but to get support from The Other Side in the Cold War. As of 1961, the Cuban Socialist Party changed to the Cuban Communist Party. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba became a client state without a state. For the embargo to have continued this long hurt Cuba AND the US economically, and just made us look like whiny bullies.
Cuba Notes 3: Prohibition was simultaneously the best and the worst thing that happened to Cuba in the last hundred years or so. The country was a part of Spain until the Spanish-American War (where we picked up the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam). Because of the disaster of Prohibition (anti-immigrant hatred mashed with Christian fundamentalist extremism attempting to solve a real problem and failing miserably), Cuba experienced a major building boom and economic expansion and the mob. Corruption was rampant and the government unresponsive to the needs of the people. We had strong unions and a post-WWII boom to build a middle class, but even after Prohibition was repealed in the US the disparity in incomes (like in the US now) led to the Batista regime and the need for a revolution like Castro's.
Cuba Notes 4: I know so many right-wingers who are off their trollies when it comes to Cuba. They just don't get it. I ve had conversations that, when crunched down, come to "We shouldn't trade with Cuba because they're Communist and don't care about their people. I m a patriot, damn it. Oh, and I hate paying taxes to our representative government and hate unions giving workers a fair wage so I m moving my business to China." To the whiny puppies who disparage of government regulations, I raise a glass of potable US tap water and say, drink some water in Cuba, Fidel.
Cuba Notes 5: I brought clothes I didn't wear. But really, I don't regret having brought a pair of long pants (in case I did anything semi-formal) or a swimsuit. Similarly, I didn't use some of the electronics, but the situation could easily have been different. Recommendation: Travel light, plan on doing laundry (either the hotel or the B&B s will do it for you, at an extra price), bring an extension cord and chargers.
Cuba Notes 6: Bring things to give out that are easy to get here but hard to get there. I bought shampoo, scrunchies, children s toothbrushes and work gloves. I also gave away one of my 16G flash drives to a techie.
Cuba Notes 7: Re: How much money to bring. YMMV. Between mom and I, we brought about $500, almost all of which we spent, roughly a third for tips (and mostly our Guides) We could easily dropped twice that on art or donations. (Yes, I brought back a couple of Cuban cigars and some Cuban rum.)
Cuba Notes 8: Our tour was educational, and most of the places we went were in desperate need of money. Often capitalistic startups in a socialist country. So bring extra money to donate, over and above whatever you re going to spend on yourself. I took addresses to see if I can send/mail stuff from the US. And bring money for tips.
Cuba Notes 9: Exchange rates vary, but when we were there $100 = 87.xxx CUC (Cuban Units of Currency, pronounced "cook" not "kook"). I had bought 100 Euros in the US, just to see what would happen. The dollar is strong against the Euro at the moment. I managed to make about a CUC-and-a-half by buying the Euros here and exchanging them for CUCs in Cuba. Further note: I took money out of the ATM in the hotel in Miami. There were additional charges of $3 for the non-Wells Fargo ATM and another $2.50 by Wells Fargo for, quoting from the statement, NON-WELLS FARGO ATM TRANSACTION FEE . So $100 of my own money cost me $105.50. It s official: Doing business with Wells Fargo is more expensive then doing business with a Communist Country.
Cuba Notes 10: Internet is slow, expensive and unreliable. The Hotel Nacional charged 7CUC for two half-hours of net.
Cuba Notes 11: Everyone is friendly and everywhere was safe. Still, it s a third-world country (due to our embargo for 41 years) and people will ask you for money, with varying degrees of insistence. Carry around 1CUC coins (if you can get them), and have your scrunchies etc easily at hand to give out.
Cuba Notes 12: Most Cubans don't speak English, but everyone I dealt with was open and able to communicate basic information fairly well. My little bit of Spanish went a long way.
Cuba Notes 13: Cubans love Americans (and hate the Russians). Perhaps half the males were wearing garish commercial t-shirts, at least during the hot daytime.
Cuba Notes 14: I saw very few sunlight-absorbing lattices in front of buildings, which you see all the time in California and other places. Speculation: Close to the equator, the sun is overhead at the hottest part of the day so a shadow-based cooling system is of limited use.
Cuba Notes 15: A few people have new cars, but a large number of pre-revolution cars are still in use, in varying degrees of repair. They get spare parts from Miami, if they can.
Cuba Notes 16: My impression, based on seven days in the country, is that Obama's initiatives in lifting sanctions, removing the Terrorist Nation designation and improving diplomatic and economic ties will be good for Cuba eventually. While I don't want to see Starbucks on every corner, I would like to be able to drink the water, walk on streets that aren't paved with ballast stones from ships in the 1500s and have better net/cell access. Etc.
Cuba Notes 17: As mentioned, with no Clean Water Act tourists shouldn't and most locals don't drink tap water. If you can twist open the cap to the plastic bottled water, you will have lots of friends.
Cuba Notes 18: There are no evictions in Cuba. No mortgages or bank fees on property transfers. The state owns everything; Socialism, doncha know. The effect is to have new and/or well-kept-up buildings next to ramshackle husks.
Cuba Notes 19: Everybody was extremely helpful, from the Road Scholar people on the phone before the trip to the Customs people coming back into Miami. But a special thanks goes out to our Photographic Instructor and Group Leader, Essdras Suarez. http://photogravitas.blogspot.com/ An excellent photographer whose advice has and will improve my photography, he kept track of us all, especially my mother. He was our go-to guy for advice on everything from how to fill out the Cuban Visa forms to how much to tip to what carousel our luggage was on. He was as good at explaining Cuba to us as he was explaining us to Cubans. He s excellent at judging a photo from the LED on the camera, and was even better with the photos on an iPad, where he could do a bit of cropping and explaining. Thanks, Ess!
On our trip, we were fortunate to have Cyrus McCrimmon, a future RS program instructor, who was also excellent.
Cuba Notes bonus Geek note: Without an internet or cell tower connection, the iPhone was confused. In Miami, the clock was right, but in Cuba (on Airplane Mode), the clock reverted to my map setting of Minneapolis and every photo and movie I took is an hour ahead.
A dog in the shade, very comfortable. Old Havana Cuba, 5/23/15
Me (and a bronze of Chopin on the bench) reflected in local guide Mario. Old Havana, Cuba 5/23/15
A classroom in Havana, Cuba 5/22/15
A potentially Pulitzer-worthy photo, said our Pulitzer Prize winning instructor.
One of a number of people in the "casa de abuelaos" - literally "House of Grandparents", to mean "Senior Center"