Cuba Days 8 and 9

On our last full day in Havana it started to rain. The backup plan was to take us to an art gallery to see some Cuban art. It was interesting and some I liked. Some was very dark. But it was hard to appreciate without a little background and commentary on the history of Cuban art. I also couldn’t help but wonder how many of the works hanging on the walls had been confiscated from wealthy homes after the revolution.
splashWe were then taken to a seaside village which appeared very poor but where a retired surgeon and his wife had opened a restaurant called Julio, specializing in seafood. The house was set out over the water and on that day waves were crashing all around making one wonder how it had ever survived a hurricane. We were served a sumptuous lunch of seafood including, fish, clams, lobster, and shrimp. Appetizers includeYello_Windowd fried banana cups filled with tuna fish and calamari. As always the ubiquitous rice and beans. Desert was some sort of candied orange and cheese, not really to my taste. I left feeling quite stuffed. by the time lunch was over the rain had abated and I was able to get a few interesting shots around the village.

MosaicWe stopped on the way back at a neighborhood where an artist had covered the walls with mosaic and created sculptures not only at his own house but for many ofHeart his neighbors. It was apparentlymeant as a tribute to Gaudi. Unfortunately, a huge tour bus arrived just after us so we were not able to fully enjoy the art. This was the one place outside Havana that I saw a full fledged gift shop, albeit in someone’s front yard. Alas, still no t-shirt that spoke to me.

Angel4We then proceeded to an old cemetery that took up at least 16 city blocks. You might ask what the heck do you photograph at a cemetery? Like Valle Prehistorica this required a little creative openness and thought toward future processing. I started off with angels but then realized that about 90% of the monuments were angels and I could not possibly get them all and after all, how many angels do you need even for future creative elements. I then started in on windows and doors of the mausoleums and decorative iron fences.crosswbirds I also got some great textures for future digital artistry projects.

Unfortunately, as I was blithely approaching an interesting looking window, I walked into the territory of some stray dogs and was viciously attacked. I think the hat and raincoat and camera were just too intimidating for the dogs. I don’t think I was bitten but just scratched as the dog’s foot glanced off my leg, though for a time I was having visions of rabies shots. They did settle down right away when I told them to shoo. I iron_fencewiped off the blood with a kleenex then poured hand sanitizer over it. I later had Dr. Norm look at it and he washed it again with bottled water and more purell and kept checking it the rest of the trip. It seems to be healing up just fine.

We went back to the hotel for a short siesta then were picked up for our farewell dinner at a lovely restaurant, La Bonita, out in a Havana neighborhood. We had pork chopsbluewall2 which were delicious, not like the over lean pork we get in the U.S. There was a luscious cervice for a starter, rice and beans, of course, and flan with ice cream for dessert. And we had wine which is hard to come by and expensive in Cuba. There was a jazz trio plaundrywchairlaying and since we were the only table it seemed to be just for us. We all bought their CD, which, it turns out, is my only souvenir from Cuba, there not being much to buy in the first place and lacking quality in the second place and probably not made in Cuba in the third place.

The next morning I was all packed and had breakfast and it stopped raining for awhile so I went for a walk walkingthedogbehind the hotel. There I found some of the most abject poverty, not to mention filth, I have ever encountered. I also found some of the best street photography of the entire trip. Still, I soon proceeded back to the rich side of the hotel and photographed old cars for a while.

Three_womenAt 10:30 we were whisked off to the airport where we said goodbye to Leonel and were left on our own to negotiate the lines. First we went to the money changing line. They said, “Sorry, we have no American Dollars” then we were told Shiny_chevyto go over to another window and were taken one by one into a small room. They locked the door and  a man in a suit proceeded to exchange my CUCs for American dollars, one to one. They ran out of dollars before we were all through the line and some of our party had to exchange their CUCs for Euros to be exchanged for dollars when they got back home.

carsandarchesNext was the line for checking in for our flight. I had needed to go to the restroom when we arrived but could not find one so stood in the line for half an hour with my legs crossed. Finally, I got the counter and checked in and got rid of my suitcase and asked for the banos. Sure enough way past customs and down a narrow hall was the ladies room. I started to go into a stall and an airport worker yelled “Paper” reminding me that in Cuba you have to obtain your toilet paper before going into the stall.

Much relieved I proceeded through customs which was no big deal. ThenHood_ornament security which was not too bad though I tried to ask the woman if she wanted my computer out but she was intent on telling me to take my belt off until I finally lifted my shirt to show her I didn’t have a belt on. Then, of course, on the other side I was asked to take the laptop out so they could scan the bag without it. And then we proceeded to sit and wait for our flight which was only an hour late and that’s pretty good for Cuba time.

I have to say, I have never been so happy to return to American soil. Cuba was warm, Cubans were friendly, the colors were amazing, the photography was outstanding but all the time something was just a bit off. And I guess that’s why I travel, to get out of my comfort zone. But it is also, oh, so nice, to snuggle back into it when I get home.


Cuba Day 7

PineapplesI have to say up front that I had 350 images to sift through this day, more than any other day. I loved most of them and it was very hard to choose which to share.

manwfanWe met in the lobby of the hotel before breakfast to walk the five or six blocks to a traditional market where the meat was being butchered before our eyes and all manner of fruits and vegetables were for sale. Everyone was goingyellowboots about their business and not paying much attention to the crazy American photographers.  I think I have enough good photos from there alone for a show by themselves.

StudyBack to the hotel for lovely buffet breakfast then into the van for a trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house. I did not realize that he lived in Cuba
 for over 20 years. He left for Paris after the revolution expecting to come back but never made it. They havlivinge kept towerhis house as a museum just as he and his wife left it. The rooms are filled with books, and art, and animal head trophies adorn every wall. While they do not allow you to go into the house, all the windows and doors are open for viewing the rooms. At the top left is his library, below that the living room, notice the bull fighting poster and the well stocked bar. On the right is his tower room where he could go to write, take a nap or spy on the women at the swimming pool with his telescope.

CojimarWe then went to the village of Cojimar where Hemingway used to dock his boat and where he got the inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea from an actual incident that happened there. We had a huge lunch which started with a honey mojito (by this point in the trip our slogan was “drink it fast before the ice melts” and I was already taking Cipro and Imodium to counteract an episode the night before, so what the heck). The drink was followed by two rounds of appetizers, a main course which included chicken, beef, fish, and lobster, vegetables, rice and beans. Rice pudding was served for dessert. I tried it but only confirmed that I stmusiciansill do not like rice pudding. Down at the waterfront we were serenaded by musicians. The old man in the wheelchair had a sign that said “I have ailment Parkinson’s,” possibly an asset for shaking the maracas. He still sang well though. We walked along
 the sea wall and sat in the shade for a bit then back to the hotel for a quick siesta.

CruisinAt 4pm we were loaded into three old convertibles. A pink Chevy, a red Ford, and a Turquoise Buick. I was riding in the Chevy which was probably in the worst condition but we had hands down the best looking driver.driver We went first to see the Christ of Havana statue. At 60ft it is the second largest statue of Christ after the one in Rio. Interestingly, the statue was commissioned by Batista’s wife in 1958 and was completed a week before the Revolution.
sunset1Next, we hopped back into the cars to visit an old fort built between 1763 and 1774 by the Spanish. Here we had a marvelous view of an amazing sunset and we even got to see a cruissunset2e ship leaving town. The cars dropped us off at another American café, very
 similar to the first (where we had lunch the first day in Havana) with a similar menu. Even though I wasn’t hungry I had a tuna sandwich, two beers and some cheesecake.

Cuba Day 6 – Transfer to Havana

On Wednesday we arose at 5:00am. I was prepared to forego breakfast but Lionel said “No, it’s paid for, they have to give it to you whenever you want.” Fortunately, my housemate had a translator on her phone because I would not have known how to say 5:45 in Spanish. We left for the airport at 6:15 and were all checked in with luggage checked for our flight to Havana and through security by 7:15 though the flight did not leavInglaterrae until 8:35. But at least it was on time. We were in Havana with luggage in hand by 10:15 and picked up by our new driver Lasero, who did not speak English, but who drove a very similar van to David’s and he whisked us away to the Hotel Inglaterra on the border between Central Havana (dating to the 19th century) and Havana Viejo (old Havana, dating Opera_houseto the 16th century). Our hotel was just next door to the very ornate Opera House and just a block from the national capitol building which was having its dome restored.

Havana is to Santiago as Portland is to Eugene, Seattle is to Spokane, Dallas is to San Antonio, Dublin is to Galway (sorry east coast people, I can’t think of any good analogies). Both are big cities but Santiago was much more intimate and manageable. The buildings in Santiago are mostly two stories, in Havana more on the order of four or five. The streets are wider in Havana and the traffic much, much heavier.

We arrived at the hotel around eleven and of course our rooms were not ready so we checked our luggage and Lionel walked us to a very Americanized café for lunch three or four blocks away. Though we were told to focus on walking not photography, I could not resist this woman putting out her laundry. At the restaurant, which we later learned is funded by Cuban Americans, they even had a menu in English,
which was good because Lionel abandoned us to go visit his wife. I ordered a tuna sandwichWomanwlaundry because it was the only one on the menu that didn’t say it came with vegetables. Unfortunately, it did anyway. It also had three slices of bread with about a tablespoon of tuna salad between each slice. I peeled off the lettuce and made do with my tuna flavored bread. 

After lunch, we walked back to the hotel and checked into our rooms where we were presented with not only a complimentary bottle of water but one of Rum as well. I never opened mine and feared to try and schlep it back to the west coast unbroken. The hotel was, no doubt, very grand in its day but that day had long since passed. Some of our group had stayed there before and said there were improvements but not enough to justify the doubling in price from two years ago. However, my room was clean and the plumbing and electricity, including the air conditioner, all  worked to my satisfaction.

I caught up on some photo editing then when outside to Central Park and photographed old cars as they were zooming by. They also had parking areas at each end of GreenChevythe park filled with old cars now serving as taxis so I did some detail work there. While there are some newer cars from Russia and China, in Havana the old American
cars are the norm.

A few words about the old cars seems appropriate. Though they are running, none of them seems to be running well. Some have nice paint jobs but the interiors are not necessarily intact. The fumes from
these cars, many of them older than I am are atrocious. One of our group members said he saw a man pull up, grab a screwdriver to open Buickthe trunk where he had a 20 gallon jerry can with hoses running out of it. Ron pointed to it and asked “Is that your gas tank?” The man grinned and said “Si, welcome to Cuba.” Regardless of condition, the old cars are considered a national treasures. Still, I have a hunch many will find themselves on boats home if relations with the U.S. continue to normalize.

Blue_DoorAT 4:30pm we were picked up by the van and taken to Old Havana for a walking tour which ended up lasting for 2 ½ hours. I was exhausted with sore feet by the end and it was too dark for photographs. Lionel saidLightwiron “You are photographers, you need to walk around.” Well, yeah, but in the light of day please and with a rest break every hour or so. The architecture was beautiful and I would be happy to return some day to photograph more… in the light of day.

Blue_ArchWe ended up at a restaurant where we were directed up a narrow spiral staircase to a private room. I had Ropa Vieja, a sort of shredded meat dish, in this case lamb. It was served with the ubiquitous rice and beans and some very tasty appetizers. I especially liked the fried plantain basket with seasoned ground beef.

Cuba Day 5 – Valle Prehistorica

Breakfast was about the same as at the last casa though I indulged in the bread and honey since it was already laid out and this hostess did not offer onions in the “omlette” which I missed.  We had a little time for editing photos which I enjoyed.

MammothThen we hopped in the van for a trip to Valle Prehistorica, a park with lots of old statues of dinosaurs, mastadons and such. I found the texture of their sides most interesting to photograph but thought I might come up with something artistic using the more creative software and here a couple of examples using Topaz Glow. PossibDino1ilities still abound. I did some motion blurs with the horses and they almost look real but I need to take more time to work on them. I’m pretty
sure at this point Lionel was scratching his head as to what to do with us and I too was ready to leave Santiago and move on.
OrangeNext up was a trip to a car museum. Unfortunately most of the cars were victims of very bad paint jobs and far from complete restorations. BuBluet old car abstracts are one of my favorite things and the brilliant colors, though inexpertly applied did add interest to my photos.

Back to Santiago for lunch where we had our first truly disastrous meal. Some in the group had requested something light as we had been having large meals for lunch and dinner every day. First the local guide could not find the restaurant. The service was slow, the guy making out with his girlfriend on a couch turned out to be the owner, three people never got their meals, I never got my water and worst of all the restroom was out of order. Once again, the ordering was guess and by gosh. My Crepe with Jambon y queso turned out pretty well, though it didn’t seem all that light to me, at least I got food.

Boxer1Some people in the group had expressed an interest in photographing sports so, after a short rest back at the casas, we headed out to a boxing gym to do some shots of fighters woBoxer2rking out. It was interesting but not my style in the long run. Though I did get some decent shots. What I will ever do with them I have no idea.

Purple_dressWe stopped to buy bottled water on the way home and the van ran over a broken bottle. David, bless his heart, tried to get us home before the tire went flat but didn’t make it. We could see the Cathedral from where we were and offered to walk home but Lionel, said no, just wait. As always, Santiago offered up some colorful images while we were waiting.

In case you ever wondered how many photographers Flat_tireit takes to change a flat tire the answer is 9. One to take the picture and eight to watch. It’s also helpful if you have a couple of Cubans, one to supervise and one to do the actual work. It turned out David had never changed a tire before but he got through it in spite of all the “help”.

Our farewell dinner in Santiago made up for lunch. A private restaurant in an old home with lots of wood paneling which had no doubt been very grand in its day. I had the lamb and it came with real potatoes, yeah! The flan was the best I have ever had. Lionel and Dr. Norm sprang for wine to test whether Chilean or Spanish wine is better. I preferred the Spanish but don’t tell Lionel. In general wine is hard to come by in Cuba and relatively expensive when you find it.

Cuba Day 3 – Cayo Grandma

Blue_wallI awoke this morning to gunfire, which I thought was odd as Lionel had assured us there were no guns in Cuba. Then I realized it was the 21 gun salute for Fidel Castro as his ashes were interred in a private ceremony just outside of Santiago, his home ciPink_doorty.

After breakfast on the rooftop terrace, I took the back way to Parque Cespedes and caught a few interesting shots in the neighborhood before meeting the group in front of the cathedral for a trip out of town about a half hour to the Punta Gordo Marina.

 There we boarded a catamaran for a short trip over to an island called Cayo Granma. Granma was the name of a boat in which Castro and his troops returned to Cuba from exile in Mexico to embark on the revolution against Batista.  The boat is on display in Havana and not only this island but an entire province have been named for it.

 The IslandFishermen, we were told, was badly damaged by hurricane Sandy and the houses were mostly small and Bananamanin bad repair (to put it mildly). People were out and about working in boats, doing laundry, and perhaps visiting neighbors. Children were riding around on bikes and trikes, dogs wandered everywhere, but there were no cars. One fellow jumpeLaundryd up and insisted on posing next to a banana tree. I offered him a tip which, of course, was what he was hoping for.

As I said to one of my colleagues, it was a target rich boyonbikeenvironment.We were told we could walk around the island in 25 minutes. For photographers, maybe more like an hour or two. I went around one way then started back the other way and saw many things I had missed from the other perspective.

ElCayoAt noon, we adjourned for lunch at a state owned restaurant. It was very high class and seemed to be catering to tour groups. We all had a seafood plate with lobster, fish, shrimp, and calamari. And two bottles of water, still no cerveza allowed.
manonbikeWe returned to the Parque and walked back to our casas for a siesta, regrouping after two hours to explore new parts of Santiago including the Plaza de la revolution which had been the site of a speech by Raul Castro the previous evening. My guide book describes the Plaza as “soulless” and I think that is an apt description. I found phobustrucktographing the passing cars, buses, trucks being used as buses, bicycles, and motorcyles much more interesting. We then adjourned to a waterfront park but the light was mostly gone so we vowed to return closer to sunset another
day. Then on to dinner at private restaurant outside of town where we had a big plate of barbequed chicken, rice and beans, flan and two cervezas for a mere $10 CUCs

Cuba Day 2 – Remembering Fidel

Saturday, December 3 was the day that the caravan carrying Fidel Castro’s ashes was to arrive in Santiago. Because of traffic and road closure concerns we decided to go with the flow and focus on people photography as the masses thronged to Plaza de Marte and Parque Cespedes to say farewell to Fidel.

TerraceFirst was breakfast at the casa. I went down at the agreed upon time and my hostess pointed back upstairs. I looked suitably confused and she called my host out and he said “Your breakfast will be served on the rooftop terrace.” So back up the narrow, steep concrete stairs; then up an even narrower and steeper set of metal stairs where I found this lovely view of red rooftops, the harbor, and the neighbChaguitoor’s laundry. I was served a variety of fruits, juice, cheese, tea and what they called an omelette which was really just flat scrambled eggs. I
was offered bread but was still deluding myself that I could stick to my diet and had refused. That didn’t last long, of course.

SonOur group congregated at 10 am and walked up a pedestrian street toward
the plaza. Mostly I photographed signs like this little guy who is apparently the mascot for some store chain as I saw him everywhere. I tried googling Chaguito but the answers all came up in Spanish. Son, I am told is the Cuban term for Salsa dancing so this place, it seems is a dance studio.

waitingThere were some crossed signals bElNinoetween our local guide and our photography guide and some of us spent a lot of time waiting for a rendezvous that never happened. I arrived at the Plaza at 11am. It was hot and shade was scarce. Fortunately, I had a hat and most people were lining the streets so seating was not that hard to come by. Many people were Iriswise to have brought umbrellas for shade. And yes, the people photography was exceptional. Though in truth, I am not a people photographer so I can honestly say this was without question my least favorite day of the trip.Umbrellas
The parade finally passed by around 1 pm and didn’t last long at all. It consisted of a couple of vans and an army truck full of jPropagandaournalists and a jeep pulling a little trailer with a box bearing Fidel’s ashes covered by a Cuban Flag. The national anthem (I guess) was sung and some people cried, some people held up signs saying Yo Soy Fidel which I later learned means “I am Fidel”, which I interpreted to mean theYoSoy spirit of Fidel lives in me. Some high school kids also had it painted on their faces. Flags were passed out and some brought their own.  There were also posters of Castro to be had. I kicked myself later for not grabbing one for posterity.

FidelI feel compelled to say a few words about Castro and Cuba at this point. I want to say up front that I do not have enough information to judge Castro, one way or another, and neither, my friends, do you. Churchill once said of Russia “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…” and I feel very strongly that this also applies to Cuba today. Cuba has free education, including college and it has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Cuba has free medical care and it has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. At the same time, I saw people living in conditions that I can only describe as abject poverty. Not everyone but many. Buildings, in general are not well maintained. Cars are held together with bubble gum and baling wire. Our guide(Lionel, pronounced Lee-o-nel) was reluctant to tell us what average incomes are in Cuba. “Oh, it varies.” He would say. But he did say that if someone had a relative in the United States willing to send them $100 a month they didn’t have to work. He also stressed that money isn’t important to most Cubans, they value family relations and friendships. I have to say that during my time in the first casa I saw so many people coming and going I couldn’t keep track of who lived there and who was just visiting but they all seemed to be having a good time.

Popcorn_LadyI also saw many people in the streets hustling for money. Food carts were commonplace. Beggars with hard luck stories would hound you until you looked them square in the eye and said an emphatic no, and that might not be enough to get rid of them. I saw one fellow begging in the square and later he walked by me as I was sitting on a step. He had changed to much nicer clothes and he had the nerve to smile and wave as he strode purposefully by. They would give you little gifts and then reel you in for the kill to sell you jewelry or cigars. Free enterprise may not be the norm in Cuba but it is clearly not dead.

But getting back to Castro, what I have been able to glean from readingWomanwcat and listening is that probably many people’s lives improved under Castro from what they had been under Batista and earlier imperialistic regimes, especially minorities or oppressed majorities, i.e. women, and the descendants of former slaves.  I saw many people looking pensive or downright sad. Were they mourning Castro, worried for their futures or just reflecting on the past?

The economy of Cuba collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union and has never completely recovered. There appears to be a group of rich Cuban Americans with axes Socksto grind because they lost their property and position during Castro’s revolution who are lobbying to stand in the way of normalization of relations with the United States. A little American money goes a long way and things are changing rapidly in Cuba, as they should. Raul Castro will be retiring in 2018 and the heir apparent is of a new generation. I will be interested to see where they are in five or ten years.Boywball

After the event broke up our guide took us to a very nice privately owned restaurant for lunch. The food was good, the menu quite varied and the water was cold (hallelujah!). I had Shrimp and bacon skewers. Our guide had yummy looking pork chops. One person had a half chicken, others had
lamb. There was rice and French fries on the side.

After lunch I strolled back to the casa for a nap and to download pictures. Proving that life goes on SoccerI captured boys and girls of all ages playing with balls.

The group reconvened for dinner around 7pm. Lionel said nothing was open but the hotel and we just wanted a snack to tide us over after our big lunch so off we went. Just as we were getting there this guy comes along saying “Hey, you want cerveza? you want Mojito? You want rooftop terrace? Come with me.” So, we went with him and were taken to a restaurant on a back street. Up three flights of stairs we came to a rooftop deck and settled in and ordered beer, at which point the guy disappeared. We were told no, we couldn’t have beer unless we ordered food. We said fine bring the beer andSoccer2 we’ll order food. Reluctantly the girl brought us each a can of Cristal one of the two national beers. We still weren’t very hungry so we ordered some appetizers. No, this wasn’t enough, she was going to be in big trouble. I felt guilty and ordered an entrée. She refused to bring us a second beer. Somehow the owner got involved. Lionel had to turn on all his charm. Eventually the owner agreed to give us one more beer. The appetizers came and the girl came and told me they didn’t have what I had ordered did I want something else. I said I didn’t really want it in the first place just bring me a shrimp cocktail. Which when it came turned out to be shrimp mixed with mayonnaise, not cocktail sauce. All in all I was very happy to slink back down the three flights of stairs and be delivered back to Parque Cespedes for the short walk back to my casa.