Jon Rick Photography | Cuba 2016 Days 1 - 6

Cuba 2016 Days 1 - 6

April 15, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

The following blog postings are emails I sent to family and friends during the Grand Circle Foundation trip to Cuba that Judy and I took April 2 - April 14 2016. Photos from the trip will be linked (someday soon) for each day's blog.

Remember, these are reflections written by an old guy with questionable hearing between the hours of 6 PM and Midnight each day of the trip. What you see is what I think I heard and the impressions that developed as the trip unfolded. Actual facts may vary; consult Google or some other more authoritative source to straighten me out when I stray from the facts!


Cuba Day 1 - On Our Way!

Here we go again, on our way to Cuba in the morning (5AM in the lobby). We just met our fellow travelers; all seem nice, most are well traveled and the company (Grand Circle Foundation) seems to have its act together. So we’re excited to get going.

We drove down from Sun City Center this morning, stopping in Naples for a nice lunch that Linda Cummings and her friend John put on for us, then drove across Alligator Alley to Miami, arriving about 5 PM.

As is our custom, we’ll be writing journal entries each night and, if possible, posting them via email. But the outlook isn’t good, at least at first, since Wifi outside of Havana is spotty at best and probably non existent most places. So we’ll send an email when we can but don’t be alarmed if you don’t hear from us. 

And if you’re getting this email, you’re on our list, which means we’ll be bugging you with details of our travels and travails. We don’t want to be presumptuous so let us know if you’d rather not be bothered. No offense will be taken!


Cuba Day 2 - Camaguay

So here I am sitting outside in Plaza Maceo, about a block from our hotel, getting ready to send this message, most of which I wrote earlier this afternoon. We've just walked back from dinner and here I am in Camaguay's wifi hot spot . . . The only one in town as far as I know. One hour costs one Cuc (pronounced kook). 

Kids are running around the statue of Maceo and the adults are spending a fun Sunday evening with family and friends. 

Contrary to what I wrote earlier, dinner tonight was at a privately owned restaurant. Because the building is owned by a family member, operation as a private establishment is permitted. Nice buffett meal featuring meat and produce brought to the restaurant daily by nearby farm cooperatives.

Here's the rest of the message that I wrote before dinner:

It's 4 PM on a hot, sultry Sunday afternoon. We're in our room, thankfully air conditioned, idle until six when we'll do some more touring of downtown Camaguay and then have dinner. We've already seen  several plazas that define the historic (I.e. tourist) district. We visited an interesting art studio/home of a man-and-wife artist duo. And we had a very nice lunch in a pleasant courtyard restaurant. I haven't tried the helado (ice cream) yet but the cerveza is great, proving once again the universal truth of world travel: everywhere you go ice cream and beer never disappoint. I have high hopes for Cuban ice cream. 

What we've seen so far in Camaguay says "we're open for tourism."  The streets are clean, the buildings, contrary to reputation, are freshly painted and the hotel and restaurant staff bend over backwards with friendliness. Our hotel had a three-piece Cuban band singing Guantanamera (what else?) for as we entered, just like they do on your upscale cruise ship. The bellhop demonstrated the remote control used to operate the air conditioner mounted near the top of what must be a fifteen foot ceiling. Our chambermaid brought us a single lily to grace our habitation. 

The ride into town from the airport told a slightly different story with many small houses in obvious need of repair or at least a coat of paint. But while no one appeared rich or even middle class I didn't get a sense of abject poverty, just people who live with a lot less stuff. And the streets were clean. 

Every once in a while I have to remind myself that all the folks with whom we've interacted so far in Cuba, including our guide, Yolaidys, are employees of the Cuban government. The water bottles and soda cans sold here would past muster in any U.S. supermarket, complete with nutritional and content labels and even English language descriptions. Both were bottled by State entities. 

Yoli promises to give us lots of opportunity to ask questions and get straight answers, and I believe  her. We are scheduled to meet lots of Cuban people to fulfill our person-to-person mission. So I'm hopeful we'll get a good feel for Cubans' view of the world over the next 12 days. 

But still, just as our younger generations' world view is not shaped by memories of the Communist threat, Cold War, Bay of Pigs, etc. younger Cubans know nothing but life under the socialist Castro brothers. So it will be interesting to see how things work out in Cuba and the U.S., and how the relationship between us and them develops.  

And yes, there are lots of cool old American cars at taxi stands. 

And lots of Soviet era Ladas too. 

Now you know why we beat the Ruskies: Cool rules; Blah loses. 


Cuba Day 3 - Art Crawl

Today,  so far (I'm again writing at 4PM) we've visited five or so art studios (I'll have to check the photo log for an exact count) and talked with the artists and their family members. 

Here's the list:

- Martha Jimenez who does bronze sculptures and traditional watercolor paintings with a self acknowledged feminist leaning. The big deal here were four bronze sculptures in the plaza outside her studio including one of a man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. Sitting next to the sculpted man was the real-life 83 year-old man who served as the model, reading a newspaper with his legs crossed in exactly the same way. 

- Pepe, who makes leatherwork sculptures, particularly masks, that are quite original and nice. We bought a mask with a tobacco motif that we will hang with a painting we picked up from a guy in Tampa who painted a work using tobacco juice showing a woman's hands rolling (what else?) a Cuban cigar. Pepe's eleventh grade daughter tended the store. 

- A woodworker whose sculptures can move in ingenious ways, sometimes in a NSFW manner. 

- An artist whose paintings use ideas from from the pre-Columbian era, Spanish architecture and elements from traditional African religions, some of which people still practice in Cuba today. We bought a fan the artist has painted to our specifications. 

- A father and son pottery demonstration in the workshop and gift opportunities in the adjoining store. Their workshop is located in the outskirts of Camaguay and gave us an opportunity to see more typical activities, houses, etc.  

Actually, Camaguay lives up to its third-world status: lots of small, pretty basic houses with lots of people on the streets walking, biking, motorcycling, riding in pedal bikes, horse-drawn four seat taxis and metro buses. Many houses have rudimentary shops in the front yard. Lots of people in small groups having animated conversations. And, based on my through-the-bus window observation, everyone seemed to be if not happy then at least in a good frame of mind. 

Speaking which, one person we met today said, paraphrasing, "Is everything perfect here in Cuba today? No, of course not. Plenty of mistakes have been made. But you will find us Cubans smiling and with a positive outlook all the time. Because if we don't then, well, we might as well be dead."

The speaker was one of 11 Peditaxi pedalers we employed to take us to the various artist shops and several architectural and historic sites around town. Two to a cab with the guy pedaling his legs off to take us fat Yankis over an easily walked course of less than a mile. 

I don't know about you but I'm embarrassed to take advantage of cab pedalers.  Exploitation and all that. But after our two-hour tour one our group asked the pedalers to tell us their occupations before becoming cab pedalers. Almost all came from a trade: electrician, carpenter, etc. One, the spokesman quoted above, taught English at a local university. All, without exception, said money was their motivation. They make more pedaling than they could in a traditional trade. Why? Pedaling is a semiprivate business with tip income available. Trade salaries are strictly dictated by the government. 

Our English teacher said, "in addition to money, this job gets me outside, interacting with native English speakers and thus enabling me to improve my English and learn about other cultures."

And while the art crawl was interesting and most of the art quite good, the real story is again one of entrepreneurship: individuals using their talent, tenacity, marketing instincts and hard work to build a business that provides a better income for themselves and their families. 

Here's our taxi pedaler whose name , Juri, is pronounced "Judy". (Spanish does some weird things to "r"). Imagine the fun he and Nana had with that!
Here's the evening update. After nap time Judy and I walked back to the artist studio to pick up our customized fan. Across the street Resturante 1800 was holding happy hour with a four-piece band plus a fifth gal dancing.  The dancing girl danced around the open air dining area for tips. Just to give you an idea of my reaction, drinks cost 3 Cucs (about 3 bucks) for the two of us and I tipped the dancing girl 5 Cucs. 
Then at dinner (traditional Camaguay chicken soup and lamb stew) two obviously classically trained musicians performed for us: violin and guitar and singing. Really great Cuban music. Yuli our guide got up and danced and sang along. Before they were done they had us all singing "I can't help falling in love with you."  

But wait, there's more: I'm gonna be sick in the morning for one or more of three possible causes:

1. Hangover from the shot of Santiago Cuba rum at the salsa bar (50 cents), which I'm told by our guide is the traditional salsa drink. 

2. Turista from the single ice cube floating in the rum

3. A splitting headache from the seven piece salsa band: two guitars, bongos, a trumpet that needed no amplification but got it, two really loud singers and a base player whose every note makes your spinal column vibrate with a sympathetic oscillation. 

And did we dance? For sure. Where were Bernice, George and our Sun City Center dancing buddies when we need them? But the rum took care of missing dance steps. We probably looked as silly as we did this morning riding around in that peddle cab. 
Enough already. It's 11:30 and I it's time to send this, leave the plaza and get to bed.
Subject: Cuba Day 4 - Home on the Range
Culture in the morning, rural life in the afternoon but again the overarching subject is one of economics and living the Cuban life. 

Let's start with some facts as given us by Yuly, our guide. 

It is impossible to live on the salary paid by the state, even with free education, free health care and monthly rationing coupons. Outgo exceeds income. 

The workforce breaks down something like this:

- 40% work in government jobs. If your education trained you to be an electrician you will be given a job as electrician at the standard wage scale. 

-40% are "self unemployed."  This means that an electrician who is dissatisfied with the job and wages can quit and become, for example, a pedi taxi pedaler. These individuals are part of the private economy. 

-20% fall somewhere in between, holding down state and private jobs. 

Those with the highest income are farmers. Farmers can gain access to land as long as they make productive use of it. If not, it reverts to the state. Thirty percent of what they produce goes to the state for resale in state grocery stores. The balance can be sold at market prices to individual or private restaurants that are becoming more prevalent and larger in size. 

Sixty percent of Cubans have relatives living abroad, Miami being the largest concentration. This is a major source of cash and goods that make possible a more comfortable life and can provide capital for private enterprise. 

The bottom line: since the exit of the Soviet Union Cubans have become incredibly resourceful, innovative and, yes, entrepreneurial to make ends meet. Is it an ideal lifestyle? No, of course not. Life here is hard and, I'll bet, not many of us Norte Americanos would do very well in this environment. 

By the way, the preceding was jotted down on the margins of a map by a hard-of-hearing old guy in the back of a bumpy bus so it's subject to revision and correction as we go along. 

What's that have to do with the two dance companies we visited this morning?  One was the Camaguay Ballet, world renown and second in Cuba only to Havana. (Fifteen Cubans currently dance with the Boston Ballet.) These are paid professional dancers, ages mostly between 18 and 25. They've been through the Cuban education system, including 8 to 10 years of ballet training before winning a spot with the company. Acceptance is highly competitive; pay is determined by skill level. There is apparently opportunity to earn more when performing in ballet events, especially abroad. Dancers can move to other companies, especially foreign outfits, to earn more. Not too different from major league sports. 

The second group is newer and does modern dance, but the same situation applies. Dancers in the modern group are fully qualified to do traditional ballet and vice versa. 

Someone asked the modern dancers if they had friends or knew of people who had left the company to escape Cuba while performing abroad. The answer: at least one dancer leaves on every trip. Five did so on this company's last trip. "It's just something we've come to expect and it's something we just live with," the company representative said. 

We donated music CDs recorded by Ted Rihl, a friend and neighbor of Judy Merrill in Sarasota. Ted was a music professor and remains a very talented pianist at age 85. Both companies indicated they would give the CDs to their choreographers for possible future use. 

We visited the King ranch in the afternoon, an hour-and-a-half's bus ride east of town. The King family established the sprawling ranch seven years before Fidel took the land and distributed it to Cubans. (If I heard correctly, at that time 70% of Cuban land was owned by Americans; 40% of Cubans were landless and hence homeless.)

Today, due to a variety of factors including the post-Soviet "Special Period", the ranch operation is a tenth or less of its peak and seems to be mostly a tourist attraction today. 

We visited a nearby village where a few residents work at the ranch but most of the village's men work in agriculture and the women are housewives. It Is dangerous for me to generalize, but it seems to be a subsistence and barter economy: "You have extra rice from this month's ration? How about trading for some of the bananas I have growing in my backyard?"

Again, resourcefulness and survival skills. 

The local school holds about 20 1st through 4th graders. There are 2 full time teachers plus a librarian, a nurse and security guard to protect the school's computer and TV. Older kids are bused to a boarding school; they come home for weekends. 

Judy and I brought gifts for kids that I attempted to hand out, asking their name, age etc. as I went along. It soon turned into a mob scene with the little kids being pushed away by woman crying, "Por mi bebi." In retrospect we should have given the toys to the teacher to use in the school. Yuly said she fears that distributing gifts in this way runs the risk of teaching kids to expect handouts. Lesson learned for next time. 

So here we are at the plaza wifi hot spot, although a front went through this afternoon with some much-needed rain so it's actually cool here this evening. The jazz venue we'd hoped to go to tonight isn't open. Rather than a repeat of rum and salsa dancing we decided to turn in early. We aren't getting any younger, you know. 

Music Presentation to the classical ballet troupe
Modern dance
Our village hostess and her home
Subject: Cuba Day 5 - The Special Period
Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. What do you call it when:

   - The Soviet Union falls apart and stops supporting your country, cutting off the flow of consumer goods, weapons and money;

   - The Soviet Union cuts off your supply of petroleum products:

   - The Soviet Union stops buying your only export crop, sugar;

   - The market price for sugar crashes on the world market anyway;

   - Your main enemy, USA, enacts an embargo that includes not just the US but, in theory, its allies and trading partners. (Those sanctions are strengthened several times in succeeding years)?

You call it the "Special Period" and tell your people to suck it up and try to innovate survival techniques. 

Today we left Camaguay by bus for Remedios, a town to the west and north I'm guessing maybe 150 - 200 miles. It took five hours. 

On the way Yoly answered questions we had been invited to submit yesterday. She also played a video called "Peak Oil", produced in 2004. The video described the Special Period pretty much as described above. It went on to say, "Watch out, world. The planet is going to run out of oil sooner or later. You can learn how to cope by using Cuba's experience when it ran out of oil."

Cub's response to the Special Period oil vacuum included:

- Moving to small farms worked by hand using oxen and horses;

- Substituting organic procedures in place of petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides. Everything is organic in Cuba;

- Importing 1 million Chinese bicycles and building 500,000 more;

- Converting trucks to buses and introducing pedicabs and horses drawn taxis;

- Decentralizing education, employment and health services to reduce commute times and oil consumption ;


Can you imagine implementing that sort of regime in the good ok' U S of A? I don't think so. 

All of the changes were planned and executed by the central government. Some would argue that a free enterprise economy would have fared better. But with no friends (Hugo Chavez, Fidel's buddy in Venezuela, jumped in with oil after awhile) and no products to export to earn hard currency it was indeed a special period. 

The questions to Yuly raised issues of gender equality (the state has eliminated it) racial inequality (ditto) and the education system (free but performance based. If you want to do college prep in grades 9-12 you must have a 92% average leaving Grade 8). 

But she retuned to the fact that State jobs don't pay a living wage, that everyone must scramble to find other sources of income and that funds flowing from Cubans abroad help make up the difference. 

Upon reaching Remedios we had a nice lunch at our hotel, a modern facility on the town plaza. We met a local guide who took us to his family home where he gave a detailed description of the annual parranda, which in this town is a competition between Remedios's two neighborhoods to see who can build the best ornamental displays. Artists design the structures, the State bureau of the arts provides funding and local citizens do the construction. Think the Rose Bowl parade with illuminated displays at night. Costumes and fireworks get involved. (Fireworks are set off in the middle of the square that is packed with revelers. Get burned? Get patched up at the hospital and come on back.) Even though it's held on December 24 it has no religious significance. 

Turns out our guide is an artist who designs award winning paranda structures and his services are in great demand. Is he loyal to his home neighborhood? Are you kidding? He works for the highest bidder in Remedios and any other town that will hire him. 

I had a blast conversing in my broken Spanish with our guide's wife and his 90-year-old father. They got a big kick out of showing me their garden and helping me find Spanish words and so did I. 

Tonight? I'm beginning to sound like a broken record but there's Salsa on the square at 10. Fortunately, Yury, who apparently knows everyone in Remedios, ran into a dancing instructor buddy who's giving us Salsa lessons at nine. I'm worried about Nana though. Even I can see he's a knock-'em-dead hunk. I may have met my match. We'll see. 


A picture's worth a thousand words. Here's 2k:

And here I am in a saner moment talking Spanish with words rather than wiggles
Cuba Day 6 - Judy: "I can't wait to see what you say about today"
What can you say about a day in which we rode in the cab of a steam engine and drank fresh sugar cane juice laced with rum . . . all before noon? Let me try to (briefly, I hope) summarize. 

First stop: the Carmen neighborhood workshop where parranda floats and statues are constructed. Starting from drawings by our new friend Roaldi the artist, panels as long as 40 or more feet wide and 15 feet high are constructed and painted with the design. Light bulbs are added - tens of thousands before they are done. The panels are mounted on the float frame and the fixed tower (95 feet high). The lights are operated by a clever rotating set of contacts - someday I'll show you a picture. 

As I said yesterday, the amazing thing is the dedication and ingenuity put into the yearlong effort. The cost is about $35,000, 75% provided by the State. Oh, and the fireworks? Each of the two neighborhoods fire them off for an hour, starting at 9 PM and alternating until 7 AM. That's 10 hours of swish bang, ooh and ash. 

Things might be tough in Cuba but they still know how to have a good time. 

Next, the steam engine ride. Judy and I were among the five of our group who got to ride in the steam engine cab. What a rush! The train took us to a sugar mill, taken out of service in 2002 and now a museum holding more than 50 steam engines, all manufactured in the US before the revolution. The museum also includes a tour of the actual sugar cane mill where the trains' loads of sugar cane were processed into sugar and, later on, turned into rum. Hence the pre-noon libation. 

Poor Cuba's sugar exports now account for less than 60% of its total production, that total being much less than the 1970s. But the rum: that's where the export opportunity lies.

Next, a print shop that used to be a State run shop but now operates as a cooperative. What does that mean?

- Decisions are made by all 12 employees; 90% agreement is required to set the budget, decide which clients to serve and all other aspects of the enterprise. 

- All employees share equally in the net profits. There is no tax on profits.

- The State bank provides working capital but has no say in the operation of the business. (I have never met a bank anywhere that couldn't step in and take control when things aren't working, but maybe things are different in Cuba.)

- The "boss" is elected by the workers. The current administrator  says he is kept on based on his ability to forge consensus decisions among the workers. His family has been active in the business since the time of his great-great grandfather. The machines date back to the 1920s. 

- There is no such thing as ownership of the business so growing profits and doing an IPO to get filthy rich is off the table. 

I wonder how that business model would work in the US. 

Lunch (local crab claws, fish and pork plus fruit and veggies) was at a paladar, another private restaurant operation. 

The last official activity was a visit to the Drivers Club, a bar where the members own vintage US cars. Most of the cars you see in Cuba are from the fifties with some from the forties. The car Judy and I got to ride in was a 1929 Model A pickup, just like brother Dave owns. 

As this activity was winding down Judy and I struck up a conversation with Roaide. He has pretty good English (he spent time at and did a commissioned mural at Case Western 15 years ago or so). One thing led to another and before we knew it he invited Judy and me back to his house for coffee. His 90 year old dad brewed and we chatted in the garden (Yoly joined us and helped to bridge the language gap). Roaide presented us with a book (in Spanish), a compilation of letters written by a home town artist in the thirties. 

Yes, there's more. Walking back to the hotel Roaide stopped to say hi through an open window to a friend of his. The friend turns out to be a carpenter, spelunker and collector of historical artifacts including the skull of a bird that lived 3,500 years ago. Even more interesting is that the friend is the president of the local CDR - the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. CDRs were established right after the revolution to spot and keep track of dissenters. Yoly tells us CDRs today serve to keep track of the wellbeing of neighbors and is staffed mostly by retirees. Of course I don't know how this works in practice but I'm not sure I want the little old folks of Sun City Center to be looking out for my "needs."

That's it. Nothing more to do but have dinner in the hotel (we're on our own tonight) and go to bed. Except for dancing salsa and drinking more Santiago rum beforehand, of course. I wonder if my dancing girl friends will be back . . .

Judy at the throttle 
1929 Model A
Afternoon coffee in the garden with new friends



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