Ever since I watched the missile crisis unfold on television, I have been intrigued by Cuba. When a travel brochure from the University of Michigan arrived, I jumped at the chance to spend a week with fellow alumni on a “people to people” cultural tour.
Cheers rose up from the Cubans on board when our Sky King flight landed at José Marti Airport. At baggage claim, shrink-wrapped bags marked “heavy” rumbled down the conveyer belt. Bounty brought from America included tires, flat screen TVs, toys, and a microwave.
Drug-sniffing dogs and sober faced soldiers greeted us. While we waited for paperwork to clear, we met our Cuban guide Vivian, a delightful young woman from the Ministry of Tourism. She instructed us not to wander off, not to photograph military personnel, and most importantly, not to speak out against the revolution or we would be sent home. On the bus ride into Havana, we passed huge billboards of Fidel and “Ché.” I was not in Colorado anymore.
Our first two stops, Revolution Square and the Museo de Revolucion, began a history lesson from the Cuban perspective. The museum displayed a turbine from the American U2 spy plane shot down in what they termed the “so-called October crisis.” As we exited, caricatures depicting “dictators” covered the wall. Three American presidents, George H. Bush, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, were drawn next to Cuban president Fulgencio Batista.
Vivian described downtown Havana as “the last virgin city.” She said, “There are no drugs, no guns, no homeless people, and it’s quiet.” She worries about westernization. “We want to maintain Havana’s charm, but the idea of development and progress is creeping into Cuba.” On our walking tour, I saw the charm, but not much progress. Colonial mansions stood besides crumbling buildings. Exposed wiring, staircases to nowhere, and broken windows contrasted with the city’s opulence. Renowned architect Miguel Coyola told us restoration is a priority, but few funds are available.
The next three days in Havana flew by in a blur of lectures and tours. We visited a Jewish temple, an elementary school, and the University of Havana where Professor Juan Triana explained the complexities of the education system. He emphasized that Cuban education, like healthcare, costs nothing. All was not serious study in Havana. Our tour immersed us in the arts with visits to the National Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebony Contemporary Dance Troupe, and La Lavanderia, a cooperative for emerging artists. At dinner, gifted musicians entertained us with rhythms of the island. One evening, our guide arranged for Afro-Cuban dancers to teach us to salsa at a rooftop bar.
When news came of Argentine president Hugo Chavez’s death, the Cuban government banned all public music and dancing for three days. Citizens lined up for hours in Revolutionary Square to sign the official book of condolence. That night, we ventured to La Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite Havana bar, for a glass of locally made rum. It was eerily silent.
The next day, we toured the government-owned Tabacacuba Cigar Factory. Inside this three-story building, 600 workers produce some of the finest cigars in the world. Seated at long wooden tables, they process and package the famous Cohiba, Partigas, Diplomatico, and Romeo and Juliet brands. Each worker’s quota is 600 cigars per day.
Cubans love to take tourists on joy rides. With the wind in our hair and exhaust in our lungs, we rode in a 1952 Ford convertible. Our driver took us past The Malecón where young lovers strolled hand in hand and through Miramar, the “wealthy” neighborhood. After the revolution, Cubans left Miramar in droves. They expected to come back when “things settled down,” but Castro gave their homes away to revolutionaries.
Next on our itinerary was Las Terrazas, a 5,000 acre biosphere reserve. Reforested forty years ago with more than eight million trees, it is home to 167 families who live and work in a “social experiment.” At the commune’s organic restaurant, the vegetarian lunch was our best meal of the week. Chef Tito Gudas, who promotes the “slow food” movement, said, “Cubans eat too much fat, sugar, and fried foods with rice, meat, and no vegetables. I want to change all that.” I truly hope he does. I found dining in Cuba a culinary contradiction. Every dinner started with a mojito and ended with a cigar, but, instead of fresh produce, fish, and meat prepared with zesty Latin flavor, we were often served a bland buffet of beans, rice, and “Goodyear” textured pork. We ate the same “salad,” a mix of shredded cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers, every day. Vivian explained, “Restaurants cook what is available in the government warehouse.”
Of the restaurants we frequented, twelve were government-operated and three privately owned paladares. In 1998, Cubans were allowed to open their homes as restaurants, but under strict guidelines. Menus at the paladares offered more variety with items such as brick-oven pizza and grilled lobster enchiladas. Food shortages are common in Cuba. Milk comes from Argentina, not local dairy farms. If a rancher butchers his cow, he must share the meat. Vivian told us her family receives a monthly ration of six pounds of rice per person. She registers at the government-owned store to buy staples with her monthly pay of 25 CUC (the equivalent of $25). All Cubans, regardless of status or profession, receive a similar ration and salary.
Read the full story in the June/July issue...
If You Travel to Cuba:
Documentation: Travel requires a Cuban visa, mandatory health insurance, and a license granted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Weather: Average temperatures from May to September are in the mid to high 80s.
Currency: Foreigners use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) while citizens use the Cuban peso. Cuban currency is not part of the international currency exchange and is not available outside of Cuba. A 10-13% fee is charged for exchanging U.S. dollars, credit cards issued by U.S. banks cannot be used in Cuba and traveler’s checks are not recommended.
A tax of 25 CUC must be paid in cash to Cuban authorities upon departure from the airport.
Language: Spanish is the official language of Cuba.
Shopping: Americans are allowed to bring back only “informational” products such as books, posters, film, artwork, photographs, and music CDs. Cuban cigars and rum are subject to seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Technology: Cell phone usage in Cuba is not reliable. SIM cards can be purchased locally, but lines are often long. The best option is to make long distance calls from hotel rooms.
Food and Water: Tap water is not safe to drink. Meals are served at government-owned restaurants or privately owned-paladares.
BIO: Freelance writer Joey Porcelli loves to eat, watch movies, and travel. Author of Rise & Dine: Breakfast in Denver and Boulder, The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range, and Take30: The First Three Decades of the Denver International Film Festival, Porcelli teaches memoir at the Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities. She is working on her first novel.