Background: We are going on a humanitarian mission to Cuba. We thought originally that we would be doing “good works,” but we will be sightseeing as well. The group is being led by Rabbi Arthur Starr and his wife Linda. We met them on the Grand Med voyage last spring. We will visit Jewish welfare agencies and synagogues in Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, bearing gifts of soap and vitamins, school supplies and dental supplies. We also sent a contribution to Arthur who will distribute cash to all of the organizations.
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Today’s the big day! We were to meet our group of modern-day pilgrims at the Miami airport at 1:00 p.m. Of course, we had to be early, so we left home at 10:30 figuring we would get there at noon. And that’s how it worked out. The only glitch was that we parked at the extreme end of the garage before we realized that we were at the wrong end of the terminal. By the time we figured this out, we were already in the terminal. We continued to drag our bags from one end of Terminal D to the other. The group actually met at the beginning of Terminal E. One hundred pounds of luggage. What seemed like one half mile.
Things got better once we found the right spot. We were met by our friends Barbara and Marvin who joined this trip after we told them about it. By now it was about 12:15 and we thought we should get lunch since dinner was going to be late. While D was in line waiting for our food at Burger King, Barbara came to tell him that the group was lining up early. [It might be the only time the group is early for the next week.] He rushed back to find that MA had dragged everything to the line. He gave her the burgers and fries while he held the rolling duffels upright; they were so
packed that they tipped over if left to their own devices.
After we were finally checked in on our charter and the bags were tagged, we headed to the security line. Although we were told we were on a charter flight, it was actually an American Airlines flight, one of six heading to Havana today. Once through security, however, there was a moment of panic as D could not find the car keys. He went through the carry-on bags as did MA. D even went back to the security area without luck. Naturally, MA had not brought her keys making it imperative that the keys reappear. On the third rifling of the carry-ons, the keys were found, victims of gravity which had taken them to the bottom of everything.
Boarding and take-off were on time and we arrived in Havana around 4:00. Once we climbed down from the plane, we crossed the tarmac to the terminal where we had to show our passports before we could claim our luggage. We were using the rolling “jet skis” we got on the Grand Mediterranean cruise last Spring. Their salmon color and Grand Med insignias made them easy to spot as they came around the carousel. We proceeded to the exit where someone checked our bags against our claim checks and then headed for the tour bus which will be our second home for the week.
We finally left the airport around 5:30 after waiting for one of our group who got held up at Customs. Unlike the rest of us, she was born in Cuba and emigrated when she was 7 or so. Be-cause she was a native Cuban with an American passport, she was detained in line for a while.
When we arrived at the hotel, we gathered in a large room to get our keys. The keys were slow to arrive [and slower still to distribute], but the free mojitos calmed the crowd a little bit. It was almost 6:20 when we got to the room and we were due back downstairs at 6:30. We were late and then went to the wrong meeting place. Even so, we weren’t the last to arrive.
Our first informal gathering was for a presentation by a local expert on the Cuban Jewish community. Maritsa, who is not Jewish, gave an overview of the history of the Jews in Cuba ex-plaining how they came in waves usually prompted by strife and anti-Semitism in Europe. At one point, following the Spanish Inquisition, the Jews were referred to as “the Portuguese.” Later, they were “the Polocks.” But they were vital to the country and were never overtly discriminated against; indeed,after the Revolution of 1958, those who wanted to leave were flown to Israel at no cost. Ninety percent of the 15000 Jews left after the Revolution, most before restrictions were placed on what they could take with them.
Currently there are but 1500 Jews in Havana. Even so, Havana has 3 active synagogues. The number of Jews has doubled in the last decade either through better records or because the people are no longer hiding their religious identity. We saw the same sort of thing in Sevastopol in 2009. There were no synagogues in Sevastopol, but there was an active Jewish community center which we visited. Still, there are fewer than 100 young people under the age of 21
Twice while we were in the meeting room, it went completely dark. Where was Moses when the lights went out? He was with us! The presentation was followed by a group dinner in the hotel. We sat with our friend Richard who is also here because of us. He was really interested in seeing Cuba. He brought lots of stuff for donations [We were supposed to bring 15 pounds apiece but most people seem to have exceeded that].
Dinner was included in the price of the trip and the hotel package. We were served smoked salmon as an appetizer, followed by baked fish and flan for dessert. The salmon was not as salty as we get in the States and was pretty good. The fish was dry and strong-flavored and best forgotten, but the flan was wonderful.
Because Cuba does not have diplomatic relations with the US, we cannot use US currency or credit cards. We must exchange our dollars into CUC, the convertible pesos which have replaced the original pre-Revolutionary Cuban peso. The rate is controlled by the government, naturally, so changing money is easy since everyone has the same conversion rate. Our understanding is that we will exchange the CUCs one-for-one for dollars so there is not a second discounting or commission. Even so, the original exchange nets the government a thirteen percent profit.
As dinner concluded, D took his US dollars and some Canadian dollars Richard had brought and tried to convert them. The US currency presented no problems, but the Canadian was not accepted by the cashier because she did not recognize his older bills it as legitimate; she said it would have to be changed at a bank. Since we are in the “executive’ section of the Hotel Nacional, Richard was going to try the desk for our floors. If he is unsuccessful, we have offered to cover him for the week.
Once we were finally in the room, we unpacked, took our evening meds and divvied up some of our goodies for tomorrow’s visit to a Sephardic synagogue. This synagogue has a senior center, so we are taking sugar-free hard candy, vitamins, calcium, toothbrushes and toothpaste and Dove soap. We have enough to fill a tall kitchen bag
Monday, January 30, 2012
Havana is a strange mix of traditional and modern in many ways. Partly because of the embargo placed on the country following the 1958 Revolution, American cars cannot be imported, but they can be driven. The result is a number of 1940s and 1950s automobiles in varying stages of repair. Some are bright and shiny and others are no more than rust on wheels. Nevertheless, Cubans who own these relics are proud of them and many use them as taxis. Perhaps we will ride in one before we return to Florida. Here’s a thought – how many 2012 cars will be running fifty years?
There are many newer cars all of which are imported because Cuba has no auto industry. We have seen recent model Japanese, Korean and European imports and there are many Russian and Eastern European ones as well. Our guide, Manuel, told us yesterday that all of the tour buses are now supplied by China. Ours is relatively new and quite comfortable; we have no complaints with old Number 743.
The city itself is also a mix of the old and new. Many buildings date from the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The architecture is beautiful to see, especially in juxta-position. Of course there are newer buildings, including some really luxurious-looking high-rise hotels on the ocean, but many date to the Fifties. Buildings from after the Revolution tend to be rather stark in the Soviet style we have seen in Prague and especially Budapest. Havana is a city of vibrant colors and concrete monoliths, beauty and decay. In this, it is reminiscent of Lisbon and Budapest – it is dilapidated. Bare spots adorn most of the stucco finishes; there is a layer of grime on most buildings; and renovation projects dot the city but seem abandoned. It is vital but depressing at the same time.
The people are also an interesting mix. Skin tones vary from almost European white to African brown. This is the result of conquests by the Europeans and slavery of the blacks from Africa. Over the years [centuries, really], there has been so much mixing that roughly half the population of Havana is mulatto [mixed], one quarter is white and one quarter black. There is no overt discrimination by race but there is some based on economics. We heard this same thing in Mexico 40 years ago. What seems to be prejudice is explained by the fact that Cuban blacks have not taken advantage of the education system to the same extent as the other segments of society. Hm… where have we heard this before?
Our first stop today was at a cigar factory. No photographs were permitted which is a shame. It was fascinating watching workers, sixty percent of whom were women, preparing and producing what are arguably the world’s best cigars. In the factory we visited, all the work is done by hand.
We first saw workers stripping the leaves from the central stem which bisects each leaf [We also watched Marvin as he sat at one of the stations and tried his hand at it]. Next we watched as other workers rolled the inner “filler” of the cigars; they used differing proportions of assorted types and colors of tobacco as supplied by a supervisor. Each brand and type of cigar has its own distinctive combination.
The “rollers” placed their finished cigars in frames which held ten cigars and put each frame in a press atop other frames. When there were five frames[fifty cigars], the worker would take them to a supervisor or inspector. If there were no problems, the filler was sent to the “wrappers” who applied the final layer, a single leaf which surrounds the filler. Once these were done to everyone’s satisfaction, they were sorted by color so that all of the cigars in a box looked alike.
The final step had a worker applying the neck-band to the cigar. Using a template, the worker was able to place the band at the right spot on each cigar. Finally they were boxed and then the boxes were sealed and decals applied, all by hand.
When we left the factory, we walked next door to the company store where there were cigars from the factory available for sale. Prices started at about $8 for one up to hundreds of dollars for boxes of 25 cigars. Some of our group purchased samples with the understanding that the cigars were to be consumed in Cuba since they may not be brought into the US. [wink, wink]
We drove to the Plaza San Francisco adjacent to the Church of San Francisco. Manuel began our walking tour of Old Havana here. In this area, there are four plazas in close proximity, each a little different from the others. Many of the connecting walking paths were pedestrian areas which made this a very walkable tour. Of course, much of it was paved with cobblestones, so we had to walk carefully, and there were many places where renovations and public works projects had to be avoided.
The biggest and most diverse of the plazas was Plaza Vieja, the Old Plaza. Buildings here span three centuries and are in varying degrees of renovation, but almost all of the facades have been cleaned and painted. There were galleries, retail stores and even a school on this plaza; we watched the children playing during what seemed to be their physical education class.
We took a drink and toilet break at the Hotel Raquel, named for Rachael in the Old Testament. According to Manuel and Arthur, each room is decorated in a style to reflect a specific OT character. Despite this appearance of “Jewishness,” the Hotel Racquel is government-owned and has no religious connection. It certainly is not Kosher, but there is a mezuzah on the front entrance.
We continued walking and passed a group of street musicians as we made our way to the Hotel Florida where the sign on the front said “Hot l Florida.” This was our designated lunch site for today. We were seated at three or four tables in the atrium of the hotel. It was quite lovely. There was even a large bird cage in one corner where the inmates were visited by a couple of friends who flew in to say “hello.”
Lunch could have served as dinner. We began with our choice of high-test or alcohol-free mojitos which MA said they were okay but not as good as the “welcome drink” at the Hotel Nacional yesterday. Lunch started with some anonymous soup. We were given a choice of chicken, fish or ropa vieja which is a shredded meat dish and is perhaps the national meal. Our ropa vieja was accompanied by salad, rice and beans and ice cream. We had passed a high-end chocolate shop on the way which only Manuel had entered. He bought an assortment of milk and white chocolate which he forced us to try after the ice cream. We all agreed that lunch was far superior to the dinner we had last night.
We walked some more on the cobbled streets through the last of the four squares. It was inter-esting to observe that the plazas were not visible as we walked down the street and could only be seen as we entered them; then they opened up as if by surprise.
Our first stop after lunch was at Havana’s Sephardic center. When we first entered, we were face-to-face with a display about the Holocaust. While there were the standard pictures and text about the Holocaust in Europe, there were also exhibits explain the effects of discrimination which led to the waves of Jewish immigration; this information dove-tailed with yesterday’s remarks. We left the Holocaust display to meet with the president of the organization.
She told the group that there were no rabbis in Cuba and that the weekly Sabbath services were conducted by an Ashkenazic laymen who belonged to another of Havana’s three synagogues. The center has outreach programs for seniors, especially, as well as a gym with exercise equipment which apparently is open to members of the community at no charge.
As if we hadn’t done enough for one day, we piled back in the bus and drove to the suburbs to visit the studio of a local artist named Kuster. His work is very much in the style of Antonio Gaudi, the well-known Spanish artist of the early Twenties. [Gaudi is best known for designing the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona as well as for his tile mosaic work] Kuster’s tile mosaics cover his entire studio property and it looks like nothing more than Gaudi-meets-South-of-the- Border. It was surreal. To add to the phantasm, much of the surrounding neighborhood is decorated with Kuster mosaics. It is indescribable. Of course, we were encouraged to purchase paintings and tiles, but most resisted the temptation.
It was finally time to return to the hotel to get ready for tonight’s dinner and show at the Tropicana. We stopped a few blocks from the Nacional so two people could stop at a store to buy water and perhaps other supplies; we continued to the hotel to rest and dress. We had to leave the hotel at 7:30 In order to be at the nightclub on time for our reservation. Although our dinner was served starting at 8:00 pm, the show itself did not start until 10. Once finished dinner, we had time to kill when we got to our assigned tables. We ate with Arthur and Linda [and others] and had a good time. Arthur is one of the best story tellers we know. Dinner was chicken [MA] or lamb [D] with mashed potatoes, salad and ice cream. Forgettable but not regrettable.
For the show, we were assigned to three long tables which were perpendicular to the stage. Although we were off to one side, we were in the front group of tables on our tier. We were lucky enough to garner the front seats at the table, all the better for picture and video purposes. Barbara and Marvin were opposite us and shared our goodies with us. What goodies? Well, the show included two drinks of our choice plus a welcome glass of Champagne. In addition, each group of four [i.e. each table] received a full bottle of Club Havana rum. Richard and his group [which means mostly Richard] drank about half a bottle; we didn’t even open ours up and instead carried it out at midnight and gave it to Jorge, our bus driver.
The show at the Trop was non-stop for two hours. It combined Vegas showgirl costumes [and lack of costumes] with singing and acrobatics. There were at least two dozen dancers who rotated on and off the stage with barely enough time to change costumes. In fact, some of the girls looked like they forgot the bottoms of their costumes. Although it wasn’t topless, it was an exciting show. If there was a downside to two hours of loud Latin music it was that the show was so long. Even so, we were glad we spent the extra money so see it. When will we get another chance?
We got back to the hotel late and had to be up early for another jam-packed day, so we went straight to bed.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
We had another busy day ahead of us today. We started with the largest Jewish cemetery, one of only two in Havana. The cemetery was founded more than a century ago and is now owned and run by the State as are all cemeteries. The first memorial we visited was the Holocaust Memorial. It looks like most of the other grave sites in that it is the same width and length; the monument is more recent than many of the other grave markers and in better shape, of course, and it ap-peared to be the most visited memorial in the cemetery. It was also the first Holocaust memorial in the western hemisphere.
Unlike members of other religions, traditional Jews do not place flowers on graves as a remembrance. Flowers wither, die and then decay leaving no memory that the grave was visited. Instead, Jews place stones on graves as a sign of respect. The stones will not disappear the way flowers do and serve as a permanent reminder and remembrance. [We saw this in 2008 at the cemetery in Terezin, the concentration camp in the Czech Republic.] The pile of stones on the Holocaust Memorial numbered in the hundreds; the stones on the other graves numbered in the tens.
As we followed Manuel through the cemetery, he explained some of the peculiarities of the place. There were several grave sites which had monolithic markers designed to indicate that the de-ceased had died suddenly and unexpectedly; one such was a tree with the limbs cut off while another was a column which ended in an angular top as if it had been sliced. There was the grave of a movie producer which stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because it was so modern and dramatic in appearance.
All of the grave sites had above-ground markers more or less the size and shape of a grave. The impression was that the deceased had been buried at or above ground level, but they were, in fact, below ground. These markers were instead of head- or foot-stones and seem to be a local custom. Some of these markers are being renovated with new plaster and white paint and more are in the planning stage. There is no money to make these repairs and the two-man crew which acts as caretakers is hard pressed to make any improvements.
The emotional highlight of the tour was the group visit to the grave of the grandfather of our Cuban-born companion. Tears flowed from her and her friends as we gathered to pay our respects. When everything was said and done, she gave the caretakers money to fix his grave and repair the fallen headstone. Manuel will return in several weeks to take a picture of the repairs and e-mail it to her and to the rabbi who may forward it to all of us.
We took a secular turn for our next stop, the Cuban home of author Ernest Hemingway. The house sits on a large tract of land with non-native trees from all over the world. When Hemingway died in 1961 of a self-inflicted shotgun blast, his widow bequeathed the estate to the Cuban government with the stipulation that it become a museum. The house is one of Cuba’s most popular tourist destinations. So many people visit that tourists are not permitted to enter the house in order to preserve the house and its contents.
Ours was one of a half-dozen buses this morning and more were sure to come later. Nonetheless, the house and its contents, from books to bathtub, can be photographed through open doorways and windows. It is full of books and mounted animal heads, reminders of Hemingway’s two hunting expeditions in Africa. D took pictures while MA waited on a patio below the house. The stairs leading from the path to the house were steep and uneven and the doors and windows crowded. MA decided that she would see just as much from the pictures as she would if she ventured up the tricky steps. When D returned, we meandered to the gift shop like good tourists.
Our last morning stop was at a crafts market not far from San Francisco Plaza. Instead of being the typical outdoor market with handicrafts displayed on tables, this one is housed insidea government–owned warehouse. The vendors have identical cubicles in which to display their wares. The merchandise ranges from magnets to masks, papier-mâché to paintings. We were able to find boxes and masks to add to our collections as others in the group also did their best to encourage the Cuban economy.
We drove back to the Miramar area for lunch. We began with appetizers which reminded us of bitterballen on HAL cruise ships. Even though there were three different offerings, they all tasted pretty much the same. Everyone had roast chicken as an entrée and it was wonderful. It was accompanied by the Cuban standard black beans and rice as well as plantains and French fries. We each had watermelon juice to drink, something we learned about in Jakarta. Dessert was ice cream again, flavor undetermined.
We went to the Patronato next, our last stop in another busy day. The Patronato is the largest synagogue in Cuba; in fact, the street sign at the corner refers to it [in translation] as “The Grand Synagogue.” We began with a presentation by Adela Dworkin, a Cuban-born Jew who has never left the country. She is president of the Patronato. The room we met in was small and stuffy and more than one person fell asleep. Others talked during her remarks, regrettable but predictable.
Adela told stories about some of her trials and tribulations as head of the congregation, dropping names and make wry comments throughout. She knew her audience and kept everyone entertained. Cynics that we are, we figured she was just priming the pump for more donations.
Arthur gave Adela our gift of cash as he did yesterday and will do several more times this week. We went upstairs to visit the pharmacy and met the pharmacist who talked about the program. She was emphatic in telling us that she did not need any more Tylenol or ibuprofen and the shelves full of Costco brand pills attested to it. The pharmacy is available to anyone with a doctor’s prescription [for those medications] regardless of religious affiliation. Manuel, whose wife is a pathologist-in-training, says he has referred non-Jews in need of assistance to the Patronato pharmacy.
Dinner was not included in today’s program, so we asked Manuel to suggest a restaurant where we could get good local food. Richard joined us at Vista al Mar [or Vistamar as stated on the menu], but Barbara and Marvin had already agreed to eat with his cousins. We ate by the pool which was built into the breakwater so we could see waves crashing all evening. Two other tables were eventually filled with members of our group. In all, almost half of the pilgrims were there.
We each had the special of the night. Even though D had asked for someplace with good Cuban food, we opted for the lobster tail and shrimp. Of course, we added black beans and rice which we shared. We had a good time. With wine and sangria, the bill was under $100. This was a privately owned restaurant rather than government owned; the privately owned ones charge more but are supposed to offer better food and service. We had no complaints
Our biggest adventure so far, though, involved out getting to the restaurant in the first place. We asked at the hotel for a taxi, and, when it pulled up, we were in shock. It was a circa-1959 fire engine red Chevy convertible! We have been seeing the vintage cars for several days and knew they were often used for licensed taxis, but we had not expected to ride in one. MA and D climbed in back [and climbed is the right word for what we went through to get in]. Richard sat up front out of the breeze. We had forgotten just how low the seats were in some 50’s cars and our knees were practically in our chins. Our route took us along the Malecon, the ocean-front road which passes in front of the Hotel Nacional. MA had her hands over her head trying to keep her hair from flying about and we laughed all the way to dinner.
We went from the sublime to the ridiculous when it was time to leave. When D asked the waiter to call a cab, he was told that there was one already waiting for us. Instead of being anything vintage, it was a decrepit Russian car similar to the Lada from Eastern Europe. A four-passenger smoke bomb, it smelled of exhaust fumes but was otherwise more comfortable than the Chevy. The driver told us that most of his family left for Miami in 1960 or’61 but he stayed along with his parents. There were four family members including him in Havana and more than 20 in the US.
Wednesday, February 01,2012
We checked out of the hotel and boarded the bus after D saw our luggage stowed. We had to give the bellboy a receipt to prove we had checked out before we could leave. One person didn’t do it, but the bus wasn’t stopped. No harm, no foul
The drive to Cienfuegos was uneventful. We had our first real experience with the Cuban highway system which will be discussed later. We stopped about halfway through the 4 hour trip for drinks and toilets – and a gift shop. The rest stop was close to the Bay of Pigs, but there were no signs pointing to it. A picture would have been nice. Richard and D were approached by an old man who insisted on giving us some fresh mint and showing us sugar cane and finger bananas. Then he almost forced us, but politely, to try the bananas. They were delicious so he handed us each a second one. When we offered a tip, he simply pointed to his shirt pocket as if there were something wrong with touching the money; of course, in Cuba there might be.
As we drove, we became aware of just how agrarian Cuba is. We saw fields of black beans as well as sugar cane, rice paddies and a huge citrus plantation. Manuel said the plantation was the largest in the world. We took his word for it.
When we finally arrived in Cienfuegos, we parked on the main square, probably called Plaza Mayor as so many are. We were in front of the Teatro Tomas Terry. Named for a leading citizen of Cienfuegos who had immigrated from South America, it was built after his death by his children to honor him and his love of the arts. The father had always wanted to build such a theater but had never beenable to.
The theater had a huge stage area, as deep as it was wide and lots of fly space [ceiling area]. It must have been used to stage opera’s at least some of the time in order to make use of
all that space. There were three tiers of boxes on the sides of the auditorium and plenty of seating in the orchestra and balcony. Each seat had T-T-T written on both the front and back of the seat to signify the Teatro Tomas Terry. Duh.
In addition to having electricity added since it was built a hundred-plus years ago, there are now floor fans in the ground level. No production schedule was available, but we did see signs promoting a show outside the theater and also in shop windows in town.
We took a group walk through the Plaza and to a nearby hotel where we had a light lunch for a change. We had pre-ordered sandwiches so they would be ready in a timely fashion. Our basic choices were cheese, ham and cheese or chicken. All came with the Cubannational salad of tomatoes, cabbage and cucumbers and French fries. Two drinks [beer, soda, bottled water] were also included. MA ordered cheese and D got the chicken. Both put tomatoes and cucumbers on the sandwiches and enjoyed every bit of them. Ice cream was served for dessert as it has been at every meal so far.
When lunch was finished, we were given 45 minutes to wander, explore, shop or generally amuse ourselves. After about 10 minutes of this, MA decided she would rather sit down. We saw another member of the party doing the same thing, so the ladies talked on a park bench while D took pictures of the buildings on the square and pictures of a Cuban flag flying by a statue in thepark. He noticed an old car in front of the theater and went to explore. The car looked familiar, like the 1956 Oldsmobile his family had 55 years ago. He saw the owner sitting on a bench in the shade and asked in fractured Spanish, “Que ano” which he hoped approximated “What year?” Sure enough, the owner replied that this was a 1957 model. The body of this 55 year-old car was in perfect shape [It was a super 88 model for anyone who cares] and the engine had been replaced with a newer Mercedes engine [year unknown]; the owner proudly made the point that it was really fast, but they agreed that it was also really heavy to steer. The ’56 Olds in D’s family had been nicknamed Shermie because it drove like a Sherman tank.
We visited the house of “Rebecca” who has single-handedly held the Cienfuegos Jewish community together. She hosts Friday night Sabbath services in her own home. There is neither synagogue nor community center for the group of seven families. There is no rabbi here or anywhere in Cuba, so the 25 Jews in Cienfuegos have to make do. They hold services just once a month and have twenty participants or more each time. Arthur is jealous of the attendance rate, but it shows the commitment of this hardy group. Unlike their American co-religionists, they cannot take their Judaism for granted. For the High Holidays in the Fall, they combine with others from central Cuba. Since none of them drives, according to Manuel, getting to Santa Clara an hour away is difficult; getting to Havana is impossible.
Some of our group were astonished that none of these Jews knows Hebrew. Rachel explained that religion was tolerated but not encouraged with the coming of the Revolution in 1958. When she was born in 1959, it was essentially already too late. Her remarks to us, made in her crowded living room, were in Spanish with Manuel translating. Even though Rebecca’s husband is not Jewish, their son is and he will eventually become a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandment. Arthur is hoping to perform the ceremony when the time comes.
After a very busy day, it was finally time to check into the Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos. The hotel reminded us of the Acapulco Hilton which we visited with the D’s family in 1969. All of the rooms have balconies and the hallway from the elevators forms a second balcony. With the doors open, there is a wonderful breeze which blows through the room [and slams the door!].
We ate dinner as a group tonight under a tent by the hotel pool. There was the standard Cuban salad of tomatoes slices, cabbage and cucumbers; a Cuban specialty of ground meat and spices in a tomato sauce which reminded some folks of a Bolognese sauce; rice, of course; canned vegetables; and ice cream. Manuel said this is second only to ropa vieja as a typical Cuban dish. After dinner, we were treated to a fashion show [and sale] which some found fascinating and others found dull. When the show was over, we and Richard had a drink by the pool before calling it a night around 10:30.
Thursday, February 02, 2012
We were up early for an 8:30 departure. We piled in to the bus for a ninety minute drive to Trinidad. Once again, we were witnesses to the general degeneration of the infrastructure as the roads were rough even in the towns. Trinidad is mostly shabby and run down. Like Havana, it could use several coats of paint. The buildings are decaying and many, if not most, could best be described as “ramshackle.” However, Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site mostly because of its Plaza Mayor.
We traveled the mean streets of the city until we came to a pottery factory. We could see workers painting and sanding finished pottery pieces in the back of the shop [okay, one man painting, another sanding] proving it was a working facility. Offerings on display included masks, bracelets, old cars, pitchers and wind chimes. One mask in particular caught our eyes – it was on display on the walkway leading to the shop and we took it down and bought it along with several bracelets. We swore off buying any masks since we have already purchased three.
Once everyone was shopped out, we climbed back in the bus for the short drive to what Arthur calls the “pregnancy clinic.” As far as we can tell, it has no Jewish connection and there was no mention of a Jewish presence in Trinidad, but we are here to have a positive impact. The clinic is certainly a worthy cause. The patients in the facility have all been referred by their own doctors because they present high-risk pregnancies. Some of the risk factors include age and impoverished living conditions.
On average, according to the clinic’s director, the women stay just one month. At the time we visited, there were about 25 women ages 14 to 38 who were being treated, all at no cost to them. The staff numbers about 25 also. The staff doctor visits twice each week and all of the town’s obstetricians visit on Tuesday. As a result, the women see a doctor as much as three times a week and more often if needed. No deliveries are performed at the clinic; patients are taken by ambulance to the local hospital five minutes away and the clinic offers no post-delivery care. We noticed that the waiting room had many posters about HIV/AIDS prevention. We were told that that family planning is encouraged by the government and that abortion is performed pretty much on demand. With no input allowed from religious groups, there is little official objection. Condoms are also available for very little money. Someone mentioned that eighty condoms could be bought for a dollar, but that might not be an accurate memory.
From the clinic we walked to a former grand residence which has been turned into a museum. There was very little of interest for most of the group [except for the gift shop] because there was no English explanation on the meager displays; many sat down and waited patiently for the tour to continue. The museum was like most of the buildings we have seen with bare stucco showing both inside and out where the paint has worn off. The most interesting aspect of the grand entrance was that Jewish stars had been painted where we would expect crown molding on one side of the room; Manuel says that it might indicate that the owner was a converso, one who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism.
Literally across the street from the museum were two restaurants, one of which was privately owned and the other which was government owned. Each could accommodate about half of our group, so we split up rather hastily to place orders which were to be ready at 12:45. The big shoppers all flocked to the privately owned restaurant which left many of us [including Barbara, Marvin and Richard] to try our luck at the other. We all ordered sandwiches and then wandered off.
We climbed up a half-flight of steps to see the plaza better. MA found a place to sit with Phyllis [with whom she sat in Cienfuegos yesterday] while D went to take pictures around the plaza and in the church. The church had a ramp up to the its entrance but no steps and MA thought it was too steep. All of the decorations in the church were carved from wood. It was both plain and ornate at the same time. D also ventured through a small vendor market, but not the main market, while we waited for 12:45 to arrive. Finally, we went to the restaurant just to get out
of the sun and sit somewhere. The six of us sat for a while talking until a waiter finally came to ask what we had ordered. Even with pre-ordering, the food came out in waves rather than simultaneously.
MA had another cheese sandwich and D had a Cuban. When in Rome and all that. Of course, Manuel had told us that there was no real Cuban sandwich in Cuba; the Cuban sandwich [ham, pork, cheese and pickles] had been created by refugees in Miami. Regardless of its origins, it was pretty good. We added black beans and rice and had a nice, quiet lunch accompanied by a guitar playing singer who murdered just about every song he tried.
Next door, in the other restaurant, our companions did everything but the hora. There was live music there, too, but it was a jazz/samba group with a singer. The place was rocking and “our people” were dancing in the aisles, literally. Most of them had opted for bigger meals and, apparently, more alcohol. They had a really good time. The only negative was that the rest of us had to wait for them for about half an hour before they samba-ed their way out to the street.
We hurried back to Cienguegos, behind schedule but in good spirits. Because we didn’t leave until 2:30 or so, we didn’t get to the hotel until after 4:00. Most of us had signed up for a sunset cruise with open bar which was scheduled to depart at 5:00. There was not much time to decompress and change [for those who did]. It was funny to see Manuel in shorts and sandals instead of his company polo shirt.
The cruise was really just another excuse for most of the folks to drink. D and Barbara may have been the only sober people on the boat. The trip was only one hour, a big circle around the Cienfuegos lagoon. Between the shortness of the cruise and the slowness of the bar service, there was enough time for two drinks, but several people went around adding more rum to the drinks. MA enjoyed a couple of mojitos while D drank virgin pina coladas.
Because we were a bit behind schedule, Jorge, the week’s driver and pathfinder, took us to the marina, but we walked the three blocks back to the hotel; some walked better than others. It was 6:15 when we returned and we were expected to attend an a cappella performance before supper. We assembled in a room by the pool and were enthralled by the voices of the young people in the choir. There were perhaps fifteen members, both male and female, in their late teens or early twenties. They were so good that we bought their CD when the performance was over. [We have no idea if any of the current singers are actually on the CD, but we feel confident they will sound as good.]
Dinner tonight was in a restaurant next to the hotel. Formerly an exquisite house, it was designed in the Spanish/Moorish style with lots of keyhole arches and windows. The interior is equally ornate. Like the a cappella singers, this, too, was magnificent.
We again ate with Arthur and Linda and several others. Tonight’s main course choices included lobster and who cares what else. There was the usual salad and rice, too, and ice cream. Even though the lobsters arenot Maine lobsters, they are still lobsters. Enough said.
Manuel had arranged another surprise for us for after dinner, a salsa exhibition by the pool. We seem to spend a lot of time by the pool. It was breezy and getting cool and very few people were there when we arrived. We watched some of the dancing but left early. We have the photos to prove we showed up, but we think many folks didn’t make it. There were supposed to be salsa lessons after the performance, but we don’t know if anyone stayed that long. We returned to the room so we could pack [again]. We had to have the bags outside the room by 7:30. It was another short night.
Friday, February 3, 2012
We made our fifth humanitarian visit today. We drove from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara, about an hour away and on the route back to Havana. The Santa Clara Jewish community has only 11 families [or was it only 11 people?] according to Arthur; either way, it is vibrant and
thriving. The leader is David who has single-handedly revived a moribund congregation. There was no synagogue or community center until he was able to secure donations to buy a dilapidated house and restore it.
Arthur and Linda have seen it progress over the past several years from a shell to an almost completed synagogue center. There is no ark yet to hold the torah, but we were shown where it was going to be placed. For that matter, we don’t know if they even have a torah yet.
There is still finish work to be done, but the old house has clean walls and paint; a new kitchen; a meeting room; working bathrooms; and a rooftop patio. It stands out in the block because it is so well cared for. We met in what will become the synagogue, the first room in this shotgun building.
Arthur hopes to officiate at the bar mitzvah of Rebecca’s son in the completed synagogue. David explained a little about the building with Manuel once again giving a line-by-line translation as he had done at Rebecca’s.
Arthur gave our gift which David immediately handed to the congregation’s treasurer. We had already brought our individual donations in as we entered. We finished this visit with everyone singing traditional Hebrew songs.
Our next stop was the Jewish cemetery of Santa Clara. It was in the poorest neighborhood we had seen yet, surrounded by hovels and poverty outside the city. Once an overgrown disaster
with broken and vandalized graves, it now has a wall surrounding it and gates to prevent further damage. Arthur said that David was personally responsible for the restoration of this cemetery where his father is buried.
This cemetery also has a Holocaust memorial, one that is more elaborate and artistic than the one in Havana. It was built with donations and designed by a non-Jewish artist who studied about the Holocaust before beginning his design. There are railroad tracks in the earth before the stone monument. [ Manuel may have said that the short lengths of track came from Auschwitz; something in the memorial was] The tracks blend with two converging lines in the stone as if the tracks continue until they reach a Jewish Star at the top of the stone. To the right are hands clutching at barbed wire, all carved as well. There is text in Spanish on the left of the tracks. Naturally, there are stones of remembrance in front of thememorial.
The visit was made all the more memorable when Michel, one of our group members, told of his surviving the Holocaust as a youngster. He didn’t speak of his experiences but of his parents who died in Auschwitz in 1943. He was brought to tears as he spoke of their deaths at age 42. Other participants were also in tears and even Manuel’s eyes were leaking. This may have been the emotional high point of the trip.
As an aside: Manuel has become “the” local Jewish heritage guide. He is not Jewish even though he knows as much or more than many of the Jews on the trip. He stumbled onto the specialty by accident when he guided groups of Jewish tourists on other missions and decided to learn more. He is non-religious but says he could become Jewish if itweren’t for the physical.
We had a few minutes to wander through the small cemetery where, for unknown reasons, the genders are on opposite sides with trees and grass separating them. Some of the raised memorials had only a few stones on them, but some had many, and there was an unfinished gravesite for a member of the community who had died relatively recently.
We escaped to the bus to avoid impending rain and drove to the Che Guevara mon-ument. Although Che was an Argentine, he met Fidel Castro while Castro was in exile in Mexico. A revolutionary by nature, he joined the Cuban rebels and became the third highest ranking member of the Revolution. A doctor by training, he preferred the action of active revolution and left Cuba in the mid-1960s to help organize rebels in Bolivia where he was killed by Bolivian forces in 1967.
The monument to Che was placed in Santa Clara because it was the site of the last battle before the Cuban dictator Batista went into exile. Che led the Revolutionaries in the Battle of Santa Clara. There were no more battles in the Cuban Revolution and Fidel became the leader of Cuba in January, 1959. [While we were there, Fidel made his first public appearance in months when he announced the publication of his 1000-page memoir which tell his story up to the time he became PrimeMinister.]
Che is still a national hero in Cuba. His image is the one seen most often on billboards and T-shirts with his picture are in all of the souvenir shops. The monument has the largest statue of Che in the world and is a must-see for all tour buses in Santa Clara. We were not required to visit
only because, as a religious mission, we had another stop there.
It was time to return to Havana. We stopped at a rest stop along the way for sandwiches which came on rolls in the shape of crocodiles. They looked good and tasted better. There was no time for carousing today and we returned to the Hotel Nacional around 3:00.
The drive was uneventful but bumpy. The roads back were still far from smooth and perfectly horrible in places. Jorge did a masterful job of steering around the roughest spots, but it
was still another rock-and-roll ride. Once again we were treated to the sight of the local livestock grazing on the shoulders of the road almost all the way to Havana. There was almost no trash visible on the roads or in the cities we have visited. There were also no road signs except political ones exhorting the populace to support the Revolution. The fact that the Revolutionaries have become the entrenched Establishment was not lost on us, but we don’t know how the average Cuban feels. Manuel is very apolitical; he gives facts but not opinions.
Registration at the hotel was much smoother this time. We discovered, though, that our AC was so loud that we not have been able to sleep. We asked to have it fixed or to have another room. Others wanted new rooms because they wanted twins or kings and hadn’t gotten what they wanted. Talk about spoiled. There was some confusion because the hotel was pretty well booked, so D went back to the room and fiddled with the fan controls. Voila! The noise stopped. Before we could say that we had solved the problem, we were reassigned. From small room w/ a queen and a tiny bathroom to a triple[!] with a larger bath and a better view. We could invite a friend to sleep over.
The group was scheduled to attend Sabbath services at Bet Shalom, the official name of the synagogue usually referred to as Patronata. We were to be the guests of the congregation at dinner following the services. We left the hotel at 5:45 for the short drive to the synagogue where services were set to begin at 6:00. Manuel had double-checked the time because sun-down has been changing with the lengtheningof daylight.
Most of the group were present. Richard and two other non-Jews chose not to attend; we think they were afraid of looking foolish, but we’ll never know. Richard said he had a stomach problem [and, indeed, he spent Saturday in the hotel]. The service was conducted in both Spanish & Hebrew, of course, yet several members of our group acted surprised when the siddur, the prayer book which guides the service, did not have any English. Then, one of them wandered to the front of the synagogue taking pictures after the service had begun! The leader of the service had to admonish everyone not to take pictures even though Arthur had told us that on
the bus. The service lasted an hour.
Dinner was the ever-present roast chicken w/ rice and ice cream. We were done by 8 and back at the hotel by 8:30 Six of us sat outside on the Nacional’s patio for a while and several had a night-cap before heading off to bed. We were entertained by a psycho who claimed he was Canadian and who prattled on for more than fifteen minutes on every subject from his prostate to the local beaches to hot stock tips. He was definitely three bottles in by the time he found us.
Saturday, February 4, 2012
We had a late, leisurely breakfast this morning. There is absolutely nothing planned until dinner tonight. We met Barbara and Marvin around 10 and grabbed a taxi to the crafts market which we visited earlier in the week. Richard claimed to be under the weather still, so we left him to watch Spanish-language television and CNN.
Even in a Mercedes taxi, it was a tight fit with MA, D and Barbara in the back seat, but we arrived at the market quickly and without incident. We were able to see more today, especially the artwork, than we had on Tuesday. The art defied our expectations. Even though it was “mass produced” art, there was no repetition from stall to stall. Some of the subjects were the same [figure studies, Havana, old cars, etc], the styles varied greatly. We saw some paintings that we really liked but had no space for.
We took time out for a non-alcoholic drink and sat and talked. Behind us was the lunch counter and behind that was a man grilling chicken quarters over a wood or charcoal fire in anti-cipation of the lunch rush. The cooking was obviously staggered so the birds would not all be ready at the same time. There was a real skill involved as the cook went from group to group to check on them.
We managed to buy more tchotchkes before we headed out. Both D and Barbara
took the time to exchange money at the crafts market so as to avoid the line at the hotel.
We started walking toward San Francisco Plaza where we began our walking tour the other day. We took a short cut and found the pedestrian path connecting San Francisco with Plaza Vieja, our intermediary goal. We wandered through watching the tourists, both individual and in groups [like ours the other day]. We left the Plaza Vieja and continued toward our real goal, Obispo Street. Even though we were fairly confident about our route, D asked someone at the Hotel Racquel [the Jewish-themed hotel] and got confirmation that we were on course. Once we got there, D thought wewere supposed to turn right for the Floridita but MA said we wanted “the Hemingway Hotel” which was different. MA was right and we realized that we were about 100 feet from our destination.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos was the home of Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s. His quarters have been preserved as a museum open to the public for 2 CUCs. On the sixth floor is a rooftop restaurant where we ate lunch. We skipped the educational aspect of the hotel. Lunch was really a whole meal and would have been more than enough for supper. It seems that we have done nothing but eat and ride in the bus, but there were lots of steps in ther somewhere.
Lunch was excellent and plentiful. MA got shrimps and garlic while D had seafood a moda – a stack of snapper, ham, cheese, lobster tail and shrimp. We did not know when we ordered, but the lunch included a fish soup starter and rum raisin ice cream for dessert. The bill was 43 CUC per couple, under $50 for a full dinner. We enjoyed the food, the breeze and the company. The view from the roof top was spectacular. We could see all the way to the end of Osbispo street fifteen blocks away [where the Floridita is]; the Spanish fort across from the Malecon; Morro Castle; and the big statue of Jesus wrapped in scaffolding which is next to the fort. The statue was begun before the Revolution and was allowed to be finished. Now it is undergoing renovations.
We walked down Obispo toward the Malecon to find a taxi. Of course, we had to stop along the way. First, there was a bagpipe band in from of Hotel Ambos Mundos, so we stopped, listened and took pictures. Then we had to walk down the cobblestones through a gauntlet of booksellers who everything from The Little Prince in Spanish to old copies of Life to a first addition Hemingway. We bought The Little Prince as a present for our pool person’s daughter.
Once at the Malecon, we squeezed the four of us into a three-passenger Lada for what was, luckily, a short ride to the hotel. We started the packing for tomorrow’s checkout and departure.
Manuel offered to reserve seats for us at the opera tonight. Most of the group decided to attend although a few chose not to and a few [like Richard] were no-shows. We saw signs for the opera in shop windows in Old Havana and knew that the production was going to be Verdi’s La Traviata. Manuel also suggested a restaurant nearby which had a rooftop area. He made those reservations, too. Since twenty of us were signed up for dinner, he arranged for Jorge to drive us to dinner; the Grand Opera [Teatro Garcia Lorca?] was only two blocks away.
Eating on the third floor would not normally be a problem, but these stories were probably twenty feet high and the climb seemed endless. It wasn’t until later that we discovered there was an elevator which most used to descend after dinner. The third floor restaurant had an open kitchen in which everything was grilled over open fire not unlike the lunch counter in the craft market but, assuredly, far superior. There were eight of us at our table and we had, between us, rabbit, chicken, snapper and leg of lamb. The leg of lamb was really a leg of lamb, more like a lamb drumstick. Even though it was the lower end of the leg, it was still a gigantic serving for one person. MA and D both had the snapper which was excellent. It was the polar opposite of the fish from Sunday night. A good choice.
We arrived at the theater at 8:00 and found the rest of our group. We had to wait for Manuel who said he would meet us at 8:15. He was his usual punctual self and he led us past the ticket takers and into the orchestra section of the theater. We sat in rows 4 and 5 in the center. We could not have had better seats. Well, we could. The location was great but the seats themselves were uncomfortable and bothered our backs and knees. The seats sloped down in front which made things even worse, but we persevered and resisted the temptation to leave and go to the bar next door.
Even though this was supposed to be a joint production of the Cuban National Opera company and a visiting company from North Korea, there were no Koreans in Saturday’s performance. The music was familiar in spots, the voices and musicians good, but at three-plus hours, it was too long, especially in those seats.
We finished most of the packing when we got “home,” and fell asleep straightaway.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
We were able to stay in bed a little later today but were still up by 7:45. We finished the packing and prayed a little that nothing would break. The luggage was outside the room when we went to breakfast and 8:00 and gone when we returned at 8:30
We had three more stops before our farewell lunch today. The first was at a memorial to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed as Soviet spies in 1953. Hidden out of the way and under some mature trees, it is hard to find. Manuel said he only discovered it a few years ago. In addition to their likenesses, the memorial praises them for being heroes of communism. We didn’t stay long.
The next stop, in the drizzle, was to see John Lennon whose songs offered hope, especially in Give Peace a Chance and Imagine. Across from the park which is home to his memorial is a nightclub/bar specializing in the music of the 70s and 80s; it is The Yellow Submarine [in translation]. The memorial is actually a bronze of Lennon sitting on a park bench. Despite the rain, people from the bus took turns sitting next Lennon and having their pictures taken by friends. Those who wanted just the statue had to wait in the rain for the others to finish.
We continued to our third stop, the Museum of the Revolution. Outside, we saw a display which included historically significant cars, trucks and airplanes as well as the Granma, the boat which brought Fidel back to Cuba from Mexico. The boat is behind glass or plexiglas and is attended by armed guards.
We crossed the street and returned to the museum proper. Here we saw anti-American caricatures of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II thanking them for making the Revolution possible or for helping continue it. Relations between the US and Cuba seem to be easing, according to Manuel, who says that the Obama administration and Raul are both making an effort to ease into a new relationship.
The Revolutionary Museum was originally the Presidential Palace and was converted into a museum in the mid-1970s. We saw where a group of about 25 young people tried to assassinate Batista a year before the Revolution. Bullet holes are still visible on the courtyard walls and there is a plaque with their names at one entrance. We saw Batista’s office and the room used by the Council of Ministers, both Batista’s and Castro’s. Fidel never used thepresident’s office, preferring to take the entire top floor of the just-opened Hilton in 1959. Needless to say, the Hilton folks were not thrilled by the nationalization.
Other than actually flying to Miami, or last activity was a farewell lunch at Restaurante Café del Oriente on San Francisco Plaza. This was our most elegant meal with multiple glasses, white tablecloths and a refined atmosphere which we managed to destroy. The food was good and “our group” ate together again – D, MA, Barbara, Marvin, Richard and Phyllis plus a couple from Boca West who made a point all week of saying they were from Boca West.
The band played all kinds of music and it wasn’t long after the entrees were gone that the conga line started. Then the band played Hava Nagilah and the hora broke out. The band had learned it by recording Arthur playing it on the piano several years ago. When he played another song they did not know, they taped it so it can be in their repertoire next time a Jewish group comes for lunch.
Before we left, Arthur asked D if he would make the presentation of the tip envelopes which had been passed up and down the rows earlier. Some people gave their tips individually, but most pooled their money. Finally it was time to board Number 473 for the last time. As we drove to the Jose Marti Airport, Manuel gave last-minute instructions [If you are caught with a cigar, say it was a gift from your guide, Ramon] and Arthur had closing remarks, too. D went to the front of the bus to praise Jorge’s gifted driving and to thank Manuel for being mother, father, sister and brother to us for the past week.
And then we were at the airport, struggling to get our luggage into the terminal We were the last ones, literally, because our carry-on bag was the last thing off the bus. We waited almost patiently in line to present our passports and get boarding passes; D paid the departure tax [another money-maker for the government] while MA waited; we went through passport control; and then we sat and waited for the plane. We had to hustle from the terminal to a bus to go to the airplane because by the time we were due to depart, it was pouring. We didn’t realize there was a ramp, so we took a big step off the curb in front of the bus door. Even with D there for support, MA lost her balance a plopped down on the sidewalk. She shook it off like the trouper she is [but ached for several days after] and boarded the bus.
Another passenger had a barking dog in a carrier and MA said it was raining “cats and dogs.” Arthur heard that and laughed and D said it was not cats and dogs, it was “Katz and dogs.”
The flight home was uneventful. We stood on line again for passport control, collected our bags, were selected to have them x-rayed and we were on our way to the car and home.
What a week!