Submitted by Nance Leonhardt on Wed, 03/17/2010 - 2:10pm
Cuba Blog: Days 2&3
Forgive the delay in this posting. The hotel’s “cibercafe” is only open from 9-7 and we are often out between those precious hours. Add to this the fact that uploading photos takes about 15 minutes / image, and we’re simply on “el tiempo Cubano.”
Here’s a rundown of our first 36 hours:
We arrived just past midnight on Tuesday morning. After our passage through customs, we were taken to a VIP room to await our guides who would escort us to the hotel. Cuban customs was truly one of the most surreal experiences of my life. We walked into a completely barren underground foyer with a solid wall housing several booth-type windows. We were directed to stand in line and when we made our way into the booths (one at a time) we were asked to pose for a photograph and several sleights of hand seemed to pass over our passports, visa and other necessary documents. Once “approved” we went through a door and emerged into a vibrantly colorful area with mosaic tile walls, customs agents wearing miniskirts and fishnet stockings, and more inspections of our baggage. There, we filled out additional paperwork and were then escorted to a VIP waiting area until our driver and luggage could be coordinated. It was nearly 1:30 am by the time we left the VIP area. We were so thrilled to be leaving when the customs agents (presumably) asked to detain 5 of our students for questions regarding food we had brought in our luggage. 4 of the 5 students were questioned and the 5th was made to repeat the entire entrance sequence! Shaken, we finally boarded our bus and were taken to the hotel.
Driving into town from the Airport, we were stricken by the large numbers of people assembled at street corners, talking into the late hours. The streets themselves boasted very few cars or motorcycles and densely packed rows of houses and apartments.
We spent our early morning attending a very informative lecture by representative of the Havana historical society. I was impressed by the students’ ability to rally themselves after having gotten a maximum of 4 hours’ sleep! The students were engaged with our speaker and asked some very poignant questions about race relations in Cuba and how the perceptions of America have shifted with the Obama administration. All in español -of course.
Our afternoon was spent on a 5 hour walking tour of old Havana. The city is undergoing a major restoration project courtesy of one wealthy steward. We were blown away by the grandeur of the city, the neoclassical, art deco and Moorish architecture, the vibrant sherbet colors, the cleanliness and above all, the people. Old Havana is clearly a tourist hot spot. There are boutique hotels popping up everywhere and people dressed in colonial traditional costume walk the street in hopes of providing tourists with colorful photo ops in exchange for a few CUCs (the local currency.) Among the clearly staged trappings of the city, our students spied numerous incongruencies: secret police armed and ready on every corner, street dogs lying lethargically all over the place – even in the middle of the road, neighborhood children playing baseball down a less frequented alley, hide and seek in large plazas, people domestically hanging their laundry to dry from the terraces above the urban bustle below.
Exhausted from lack of sleep and the intensity of our first day, we called it an early night and got everyone to bed by 10.
We woke by 7 to get an early start for our first destination: a former convent that now serves as a senior community center, child daycare and assisted living facility for children with medical disabilities. The route to this destination took us through part of the other 65% of old Havana, clearly in ruins. Buildings here are falling apart from weather, age, hurricanes and simple erosion. Entire corners of buildings are crumbling. People pop in and out of holes in walls that serve as their homes. The open-air market that we pass is receiving is morning delivery of meat, un-refrigerated and uncovered by a man riding a rusty tricycle.
As we approach the convent, it’s clear here that the city’s benefactor’s attentions have been hard at work. The building is pristine with beautiful landscaping, flowing water fountains and teak plantation chairs for each of the some 300 seniors assembled to greet us.
Our reception was overwhelming. Handmade cards, songs and warm smiles, hugs and applause were showered upon our group. We spoke briefly to the crowd and were then shuttled upstairs to see the children’s facilities. It was interesting that no actual children appeared to be on the premises. Our students were deeply disappointed not to be able to spend more time chatting with the seniors so we agreed that a smaller delegation of students would return later in the day for a visit, chaperoned by Mark and our guide Ludwig.
Following the senior center, we went to a cigar factory. No photography was allowed in the factory, so I’ll do my best to capture it in words. It was an amazing sight to see room upon room of people working to assemble each stage of the cigar by hand. There was one room where nearly 25 women sat in special leather chairs with benches attached to them to sort tobacco leaves. Another room housed 250 people rolling cigars by hand, another area for the banding, and a final area for packaging. It was noted that most of the workers at the factory were of Afro-Cuban descent. There was also a local news crew there producing a piece about young employees of the factory (although no one appeared younger than about 18.) Our guide explained that although there is no policy for people of different backgrounds working in different trades – generally speaking the “white collar work” in the hotel / tourist industry is carried out by people with lighter skin, while the manual labor jobs tend to be carried out by people of African descent.
We left the factory after our hour-long tour and boarded the bus for Hemmingway’s historic home. Located closer to the coast, Hemmingway’s estate is everything you’d picture it to be. Located on top of a hill, the land falls away in rolling valleys filled with banana, palm trees and tropical flowers. Dogs roam freely (as they do elsewhere) but this particular pack seems to be more welcoming and proprietary of their domicile. They rushed to greet us and escorted us around the estate, making us honorary pack members.
After Hemmingway’s house, we moved on to a nearby seaside village Cojimar and had an incredible seafood lunch of paella, fritters and bouillabase. Mark discovered a local bodega approximately 100 yards from the restaurant and took a group of us on a tour there. It was alarming to the kids (and to me) to see what the people who worked at the restaurant had to use for their own personal grocery shopping. The store was nothing more than a bare garage with a few pallets of eggs, sugar and about 4 bottles of baby formula. In Cuba, the government issues the equivalent of food-stamps to purchase the necessary items for living (1 kilo of rice / month for example.) However, as we are discovering, those stamps are only good at these bodegas and there is no guarantee that the bodega will have an adequate supply of the items you might need. You get what you get. People don’t have extra income to take a cab to the next bodega, so many rely on supplemental income from begging, performing music in tourist spots, etc.
More to come.
Besos y abrazos todos!