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Touring Cuba: for better or worse

by Fred Steinberg
photo credits:
Jean Wheeler, Mike Rosen and Sandy Goodman


True confession: I am not a tour person. I do not appreciate rising at 6:30 a.m. to have my luggage outside my hotel room door by seven. I hate the long bus rides and repetitive lectures by overly enthusiastic tour guides who think I am interested in native fauna and insects that could sustain me if I needed to live off the local land – something I occasionally thought of abandoning the bus to do. I cringe at the call of “everyone out for stretching exercises.” I don’t enjoy having group dinners at 5:30 so the tour guide and bus driver can get an early start on enjoying the local night life, to which we are not invited, while I am forced to listen to Ma and Pa Frickett of Little Shoot, Wisconsin regale me about those pinkos in Washington who are trying to ruin their lovely little soy bean farm. (I find out later that their lovely little farm has 2,500 pigs that are polluting a great deal of the drinking water in the Northeast part of the Badger State.)

And I especially abhor the almost daily stops at one of our tour guide’s cousins carpet factories or “tchotchke” shops and being served cup upon cup of milk tea so sweet that my arm goes into spasms which makes cousin Roberto think I am bidding up the price of the lovely orange, fuchsia and yellow throw rug his seven year old daughter hand wove “especially with you in mind.”

But things being how they are, there is no other legal way than an organized tour for an American citizen to get to Cuba, other than possibly being arrested as a terrorist in Afghanistan. And while that may hold some appeal in comparison to having to endure another bus lecture on how to prevent dengue fever, the treatment you’d get from a US Navy Seal team at Guantanamo  would not exactly be fun either. And remember, Guantanamo lacks the 1959 ambiance and colorful giant murals of Fidel and Che which give the rest of Cuba its signature beauty.



But I have long had Cuba on my bucket list. I enjoy Cuban art, culture, food and music. And I wanted to see a country that looks relatively as it did in the fifties and maybe spot my father’s 1955 Oldsmobile.

According to US State Department policy, approved Cuba tours must be educational, religious, humanitarian or cultural in nature. Our recent tour fell under the broad “Sociology” category which can best be interpreted as: The local tour guide took us to wherever she damned pleased – usually places where she had a boyfriend. This included strange choices such as a Leper hospital (one of the very few in the world left operating – in the non-surgical sense); an abandoned sugar plantation with a 19th Century sugar press which three of our rather elderly group volunteered to operate, only to have one of them collapse to the stone floor with a double hernia; a 1950 pharmacy where we paused to watch them fill prescriptions and the Joy of Life Club Senior Center  where the welcome drink was a Geritol Mojito and where we were entertained by a resident band known as the Santa Clara Dementia Players. Two couples on our tour decided to stay at the Joy of Life Club and enjoy the nation’s well-loved free medical and elder care. And it was here we saw a demonstration of “Quimumbia” – a Cuban cross between baseball and archery whose goal seemed to be hitting a pointed “pelota” at the one good eye of a local Center resident.

In Havana we stayed at the famous Hotel Nacional which has been excellently maintained, much like it was when built in 1930. Its dramatic History Hall features photos and caricatures of former guests from Lucky Luciano , Meyer Lansky, Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner to the Duchess of Windsor (nee: Sloan Wallace Simpson), Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne and Winston Churchill. The hotel was built on the site of the Santa Clara Artillery Battery and its cave contains two giant 19th Century cannons, historic photos and revolution memorabilia. The hotel hosted the famous 1946 Mob Summit attended by Luciano, Lansky, Vito Genovese, Alberta Anastasia and other Mafia notables which established gambling in Cuba. That summit was dramatized in the “Godfather Part II” film.

Our stay at the Nacional featured three excellent lectures by local academics and officials on Cuban foreign relations, geo-political history, architecture, economy, religion and society. The speakers were generally quite forthcoming regarding the general poverty, lack of adequate housing for most citizens and the country’s inadequate transportation system. One glaring example is that public water is only available every other day and unless you have the room and the means to build a water tank or cistern, you are without fresh water half the time. Each of the speakers proudly commented on the excellent free medical system, opinions that were positively reflected by most Cubans we spoke to, one of whom made the argument that the reason not many middle and lower income residents would not want to emmigrate to the US was the lack of a comprehensive national medical system.



 


Stops in Havana at Revolution and Old Havana Squares (the latter a World Heritage site); the Fine Arts Museum; the 16th Century Havana Fort and the 1925 Ambos Mundos Hotel, which features the room Ernest Hemingway used for seven years in the thirties during his first visit to Havana, were tour highlights. Other first-rate stops included the colonial cities of Trinidad and Santa Clara; the Bay of Pigs and Che Guevara Museums; a performance by the Cienfuegos Gospel Choir and the Benny More Art School in Santa Clara where we saw a ballet danced by two 12 year old students that was outstanding.

During our visit to the Fine Arts Museum in Havana, where its art historian tried to compare this fine local showcase to The Louvre, six of us quietly left for an unauthorized visit to the “Museo de la Revolucion” next door, which proved to be a trip highlight. Located in the grand colonial splendor of the former residence of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, it features armed vehicles, memorabilia, photos, documents and bullet holes from Castro’s revolution and is highlighted by what the Cubans call the Wall of the Cretins, “honoring” Batista and three American presidents – Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush – for their (unintended) contributions to the success of the revolution with four giant cartoon-like murals.  

In general we felt very controlled and would have preferred less talk and more walk. On our last afternoon, for example, one stop was cancelled at the last minute and a few of us had to do a great deal of convincing of the tour guide to be let off the bus in the center of Cienfuegos to wander the town square and take the two mile walk back to our very visible and more than adequate waterfront hotel.  It was in the town square where I spotted my oldest running car – a beautifully maintained 1939 Pontiac sedan. All privately owned cars in Cuba date back to the fifties and earlier when importing autos was legal. Now virtually all of those cars run with Russian Lada engines and as one taxi driver told me: “ You don’t have to worry much about getting run down, as few of our cars are capable of going over 35 miles per hour.” 

The food on our tour was, shall we say, “interesting.” Some traditional meals of fish, chicken, beans and rice were on target and an outdoor pig roast was excellent. On the other hand, an Italian meal consisting solely of plain spaghetti and pizza was rather strange. But it could not top our farewell dinner at one of the now numerous “Paladares” (privately run restaurants usually in beautiful old houses recently allowed under President Raul Castro). Here we found the chef in full white regalia presiding over a large turkey (not a customary Cuban dish) flanked by two large platters of potatoes and rice. He obviously had little experience in carving a big bird and proceeded to hack it with a large cleaver while sweating profusely – which I suspected was his way of flavoring the meat. On the very plus side, most meals (lunch and dinner) started with a drink (usually a mojito) and featured South American wine or local beer. Bucanero, a wonderfully smooth, dark Cuban beer, became a favorite of mine and Mary Jane and Sandy Goodman, two close friends I joined on the tour.

Given severe US government restrictions on tours to Cuba and a great deal of paperwork demanded by both governments, our tour company, Road Scholar (nee: Elderhostel), did a credible job. While it was difficult to decipher just who was constantly changing our itinerary, it certainly wasn’t Road Scholar or our US-based guide, but most likely our local guide under instructions from her superiors with the Cuban government tour agency. It often seemed as if we were stretching a four day tour into eight days, due to unnecessary stops and long bus rides. Our tour guide seemed to think that silence was to be avoided like the local water, so we would get vital and useful lectures on topics such as how to best buy a live chicken and why secondary school students wear blue scarves (I think to protect their necks from sun burn). Occasionally she would run quizzes on the bus. Particularly exciting were quizzes such as to guess how many tables there were in the restaurant where we would stop for lunch and remembering what the eight different colors of Cuban car license plates meant. (First prize was a week in Mali courtesy of Road Scholar. Second prize was two weeks in Mali.)

But for now, organized tours are the only legal way for US citizens to get to Cuba. One would hope and expect that soon Americans will be able to visit Cuba in the same unaccompanied way that citizens of most other countries can. And that would be the best way to go.


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