Cuba after Castro’s death: Nine days of mourning.

A few days prior to a second visit to Cuba, I turned on the TV and Fidel Castro’s death headlined the news.

“Holy Shit,” I shouted to my husband.  “Our trip just got more interesting.”

His funeral would take place during the end of our brief five-day visit.  I figured it was an opportunity to see Cuba in a different light, in a positive way.  Until I learned of the mandatory nine-day grieving period.  No celebrating, no music, no alcohol.

Mixed news and comments came from the online news regarding how these rules applied to tourists.  Absolutely no alcohol, from a few sources.  Plenty of drinks available reported others.  How appropriate, typical conflicting news coming from Cuba.

I suggested we buy a bottle or two of alcohol from the duty-free shop at the airport, just in case.  After all, the four of us traveling together to Cuba enjoy our evening cocktails.  A complementary food buffet awaited at our gate.cuba1

“This is nice, do they offer this on every flight?” A friend asked?

“This is the inaugural flight for Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.”

We also enjoyed a special bag full of goodies, including a special t-shirt marking the occasion.

Waiting for our luggage and rental car in Havana took three times as long as the flight itself.  But we easily found our way to our base for the next few nights, the famous Hotel Nacional’.  At the hotel there was no music, but conversation and drinks flowed. It hummed with energy. We ran into Jesse Jackson in the lobby.  I smiled and he naturally extended his hand, I shook it and turned around for a photo opportunity with our friends.cubajessejackson

We took to the town for dinner, a short walk to a recommended restaurant.

“What do you mean no wine?”  I expected it, but we still asked.  The food was excellent but the place was eerily quiet, not even music played overhead. This seemed true everywhere we went, including the rooftop bar at a neighboring hotel.

cuba5Starting my day with a run along the Malecon always brings a smile to my face and sets a positive attitude for the rest of the afternoon. We waited for the red hop on/off bus a little too long, and ended up taking a tok tok style wagon powered by a man on a bike.   He decided to give us a tour along the way, the ghetto tour as we later referenced it.  Everyday living up close in personal along streets and alleys.  Everyone stared and we wondered what kind of sign was plastered on the cart as they all gazed from us down towards the tires.  Although interesting, when we finally arrived at the artisan market I was ready to disembark.

 

havana3We shopped, found the historic old quarters and stumbled upon the only lunch spot in town serving beer.  It was crowded but we scored a table and people watched while waiting for food. I even bought a copy of Granma, the official communist newspaper covering the life and death of Castro.  I got it for its historical value.

We did take the red bus around town and back to the Hotel Nacional.  Along the way we passed revolution square where they disassembled the stands and speakers left over from the previous days of speeches, honoring and remembering Fidel prior to their southern march to his final resting place in Santiago De Cuba.  I wanted to witness the large masses of people in the square, but as my husband pointed out the traffic would have been a nightmare.

The following morning I ran into the vice president of China in the lobby. His security forces swept though the hallway just as I passed in the opposite direction.  I noticed one of the security guard’s eyes widen, so I stepped back as he passed straight through to his limo awaiting outside.  Li Yuanchao and his men wore small pins of Mao and the Chinese flag.  He was short and walked with determination.  I smiled at the thought of almost completely blocking his path by accident.

We left Havana for the next portion of our stay in Varadero, a beach side resort described as having beautiful water and beaches.  For lunch we stopped at a crowded roadside grill along the way. It was one of the best meals we had in Cuba and as a bonus they served cold beer.  Our all-inclusive resort seemed charming at first until we realized we had to walk a half mile to our room.  Not a big deal, if it’s a once a day stroll. But all the action, restaurants and bars revolved around the lobby.  Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Varadaro. The beaches were marginal, food bland, rooms unattractive and activities lacking.  We made the best of it and explored some nearby caves and went shopping in town.  We even ventured into another dilapidated town to see “the real Cuba” with many horse-drawn carriages one last time.

Our last evening we finally heard music, the mandatory ban was lifted the following day. Cuba without music is like sunbathing on a beautiful beach without the sun or sand.  It is a large part of their culture and when music and dance is taken away, the people seem disheartened.

Were they sorrowful because of Fidel’s death?  I’m sure some were since he was the only leader they knew.  He is portrayed as a hero in all Cuban media.  But the ban came about because people were openly celebrating in the streets.  Imagine all the income lost from tourists due to the ban.  Perhaps they should have had nine mornings of mourning.

 

Viva Havana

We booked Havana Air for our first visit to Cuba, flying from Miami to Havana for a brief 45  minute flight.  At the time of booking, I didn’t realize it was part of the new Eastern Airlines until check-in. A group purchased the once famed but defunct airline’s intellectual property including their trademarks.  The flight was full and check in slow since most of the flight consisted of Cubans carrying 8-10 bags of goods they couldn’t buy in Havana.  Fashionable clothes, shoes and food, all having to be weighed for the flight.  My husband and I carried only our carry-on, weighing less than 20 lbs.

In Havana, it took us an hour and a half to clear customs, wait for our prearranged rental car and change money.  We arrived with Canadian currency for a better exchange rate since it’s a 10% penalty for American dollars.  We also had to leave the rental company an extra $250 deposit we weren’t expecting.

Our Hotel Habana Libre, sat in the heart of Havana near the Malecon.  It’s a high-rise full of character and history. Once the Havana Hilton, nine months after it opened Castro’s revolutionaries took it over and Fidel ruled the country from a suite on the 24th floor.  The leader’s pictures and propaganda are documented in the lobby, near the bar where we sat for our first mojito.  This refreshing rum drink became my drink of choice for the rest of our trip.

car classicMy immediate impression of Havana, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.  A city stuck in time with antique cars, beautiful but dilapidated buildings, and bustling with locals and tourists. The air smelled of diesel and gas outside and cigars and dust inside the hotel. Horns and music blared on the streets. People gathered near a TV/media building to access the internet on their smart phones and tablets.  It had a good and positive vibe.

 

We had dinner just two blocks away at a local joint recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Los Amigos. It was a small place but it had good cuban food and a nice ambience.

embassyThe following morning I ran along the Malecon, a historic stone sea wall.  The United States Embassy majestically greeted me as I began my trot.  Men fished off the wall, lovers walked holding hands, and fellow joggers and bikers passed by.  I grinned and danced around dents in the pavement.  Most smiled back, while a few mimicked my movements. A stone fort-like fort restaurantbuilding turned restaurant signaled the end of the Malecon, and my turnaround point.

We spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets of Habana Vieja.  We explored shops, bars, plazas, churches, and street art.  We had an average lunch at a restaurant in Plaza De Armas. The location was great for people watching, but the food pretty bland. Stray dogs and cats gathered around the tables for scraps.  The cats didn’t mind pieces of my soggy pizza, but the dogs were a bit more picky. I didn’t blame them, since I was also unimpressed.  Hopefully they were just well fed.

20160416_142700_resizedWe checked out two random wooden boats slightly bigger than a canoe.  A local in overhauls was busy working on one of them.  With the help of a translator, my husband had a fishing conversation with him. They discussed types of fish he caught, methods used, and while laughing they exchanged fishing stories.

floridaambos hotel signstreet 1

We walked down Calle Mercaderes and Obispo, stopping to admire the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and wrote between 1932-1939 in room 511. We also visited a few places where he drank, including the famed Floridita. While having mojitos at Cafe Paris, we watched dancers on stilts perform a traditional dance.

fortfort1fort2

We drove through a tunnel arriving on the other side of the harbor at Castillo del Morro, and learned about the British invasion of Havana.  The view of the city from there was amazing.  We parked out front and meandered through the exhibits, all written in Spanish, but we figured out the gist of it.

dancersWe unknowingly chose a state-run restaurant for dinner. Although the menu looked promising the food was horrible.  I laughed myself into tears over how someone could mess up pasta with olive oil.  Well they certainly did.  A late night dance performance at our hotel saved the evening.

buildingMy morning run along the Malecon in the other direction towards central Havana provided stunning views and I had a perpetual grin for five blissful miles.  A wave crashed over the seawall and left me drenched, so I crossed the street and ran alongside a quiet stretch of buildings until I noticed large chunks of rubble on the sidewalk.  I imagined one of them falling off the building onto my head, but I took the risk.

marinaWe drove a half-hour outside of town to the Hemingway Marina.  The drive was along a beautiful neighborhood and the Marina itself was pleasant but quiet without much to do. A restaurant back along the Malecon had decent local cuisine and live music. By now we started to me musicrealize if we ran out of pesos we’d be screwed since our American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba.  For me, becoming stranded and cashless became a big fear and we budgeted accordingly.

hamelA drive through Chinatown proved there really weren’t any Asians left in Cuba as they fled at the first mention of Communism.  An a cute artistic area with Afro-Cuban roots called Callejon de Hamel was full of murals, rumba, Santeria, cafe’s, and culture-seeking tourists.

We visited the historic Hotel National for a hotel national
mojito or two and awaited the firing of the canons at 5:00 each day, except Sunday.  Well our visit was on Sunday, but we did learn about the missile crisis and the history of who stayed there including Lucky Luciano, Frank Sinatra, Vladimir Putin, and Winston Churchill.

The following day, we left Havana for a three-hour drive to Cienfuego’s for a few nights. Next week I’ll blog about our experience there.

Pirates, the Pope and the Crown

I find the colonization and trade patterns of the new world extremely fascinating.  I recently learned a few fun and interesting facts, somewhat generalizing some history below in the sake of making it simple.

spanish flagThe pope acting on behalf of God granted Spain the entire western hemisphere, with the exception of Brazil which he bequeathed to Portugal. In the late 15th Century, just a year after Columbus “discovered” America, one man increased Spain’s real estate 80 times it’s size.  The Spanish couldn’t possibly defend such a huge chunk of land so they ignored anything north of Virginia, allowing French and English  settlements along the east coast in North America.

Spain also had huge problems securing land and precious goods in the Caribbean. The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese all wanted a piece of the action, each dominating  and conquering different islands throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jamaica, Haiti, and Nassau were all strategic and sought after seaports. Since the royal navies were engaged in what seems like constant warfare, they encouraged, financially supported, and legally backed privateers. Robbing enemies boosted the colonial economy and helped finance their war efforts.

So what’s the difference between a privateer and pirate?

privateersPrivateers were licensed to attack enemy ships for a percentage of the plunder. They were like private contractors who profited during times of war.  In periods of peace, they became desperate and turned towards piracy, capturing and looting any ship they could.  Pirates is a generic definition referring to anyone who uses the sea to commit theft.  So privateers are basically legal pirates.

spanish galleonBetween the 16th-18th century Spain was often a target of theft since they manipulated and controlled trade routes.  By the early 18th century, Spain had three highly armed treasure fleets with 30-90 vessels. Two of these fleets sailed every spring across the Atlantic from Seville, Spain to the new world.  The ships hulls  were filled with soldiers, weapons, wine and European goods needed in the American colonies.  The New Spain fleet sailed to Veracruz, Mexico and loaded gold, silver and goods from a third Manila Fleet bringing porcelain, silk and other products back from Asia. The Tierre Firme fleet headed to Cartagena, Columbia to collect millions in silver and other goods from various ports.  The two ships met up in Havana, Cuba and sailed together through the Straits of Florida back to Spain loaded with treasure.

treasure fleet 2Hurricanes were also a threat to these fleets, the worst occurring in 1622, 1715, 1733 and 1750.  The remains of the 1715 fleet is one of the most sought after among treasure hunters.  The fleet departed Havana on July 24th. The first five days were uneventful with the six day bringing large swells and early signs of a tropical storm.  By 2:00 am on July 31st, a hurricane hit at full force destroying the entire fleet with the exception of the Grifon, which is believed to have survived the devastation by defiantly staying one-half point farther northeast than the rest of the ships.  The fleet had no chance and were smashed against the Florida shoals, south of Cape Canaveral.  In total, over seven hundred lives were lost, eleven ships destroyed and more than 14 million pesos of registered treasure submerged.

Seamen also had to deal with diseases such as scurvy, the plague, malaria and typhus. Their ships often corroded from the salt air and it was difficult to get replacement parts. This is still true today, and living in the Bahamas a personal nuisance.  Our golf carts and boats are constantly breaking and corroding due to the harsh saline environment.