Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Cherry hand pies

July 30, 2016

- Steph

On being tourists in Cuba

May 23, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba.

I often wonder why certain trips turn out better than others. Why was traveling through Oregon on the motorcycle such a magical experience? Why was our trip to Mexico somewhat lackluster in comparison? What did we do differently? What should we adjust for future trips?

Planning our Cuba trip felt like a particularly high-stakes proposition. I had dreamed of going to Cuba for years, piling another layer of expectation onto the task. And Cuba is unquestionably on the cusp of huge change, so while we can return to Cuba in the future, we’ll never again see the Cuba of today, defined in large part by more than five decades of Castro brothers' rule and the U.S. embargo.

One of the first decisions we made was to stay in Havana for most of our trip. Our logic: We cared more about experiencing Cuban life and culture than about seeing all the sights. But when we talked to others who had visited Cuba, they vigorously questioned this decision. Havana is dirty and full of tourists, they said. Viñales is magical. Trinidad is a beautiful colonial town. We struggled with how much weight to give their opinions (the most common first-timer trip to Cuba is an eight-day journey to Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad).

As with our Oregon trip, this was a case where we felt like we got it exactly right. If we had to do the trip all over again, there’s very little I would change. So why did we have such a great time?
  • If anything, we set our expectations too low. We expected the food to be bad, the streets to be dirty and filled to the brim with tourists. Knowing that I wouldn’t be happy with a diet of rice and beans, I spent a lot of time researching where I wanted to eat, and we ended up eating really well. Expectation successfully exceeded. Were the streets full of tourists? Yes in Habana Vieja, where we stayed for the first three nights. No in Habana Central, where we stayed for the next four. But Cubans live and work in even the most touristy areas. Habana Vieja was hardly a sanitized tourist zone.
  • We were admittedly nervous about how well our Spanish would hold up after three years of neglect. And the first day in Cancun, I could barely form my mouth into Spanish words. But I could understand much of what was said to us, and by the last days of the trip, we were successfully chattering in Spanish. And this is one of my favorite parts of traveling in Latin America — our Spanish is good enough that we don’t feel constantly stymied by a language barrier. We don’t feel like every conversation is transactional (which is easy when consistently ordering things, buying things, arranging things, etc). And I think this was also one of the biggest differences between us and other tourists. Obviously plenty of Americans and Europeans speak Spanish, but plenty don’t. I had to translate for an American guy in our casa as he tried to arrange a 5am taxi pickup. Even though plenty of people in Havana spoke English, we would have felt so much more detached from the place if we hadn’t spoken Spanish.
  • One consequence of living in Argentina is that we’re intimately familiar with what it’s like to live in Latin America. If someone in an official-ish capacity in the U.S. tells you that something isn’t possible, there’s a good chance that asking five more people isn’t going to change the answer. In Cuba (or Argentina), if someone tells you something’s not possible, go ask someone else. We met some other tourists who were frustrated by the fact that they didn’t have a working phone to make restaurant reservations. Get a phone card, we said. Tourists aren’t allowed to buy phone cards, they said. At which point, we burnished the phone card we had successfully purchased (we shared the code with them). Had we been denied a phone card at one store, we would have known to simply go to another.
  • Even though tourism to Cuba is growing rapidly, the number of Americans who have gone independently is still comparatively low. By law, U.S. citizens are not allowed to go to Cuba simply as “tourists” (i.e., no sitting on the beach) and up until earlier this month, any Americans on a “cultural” trip had to go as part of an approved tour group. We didn’t want to go as part of a tour, and hence we knew that all the planning would fall to us. By contrast, many other tourists were at the mercy of their tour guide. We talked to one couple who said their guide “didn’t know what to do with them” while Obama was in town. That sort of follow-the-leader tourism isn’t for us, and we were glad we got to carve out our own trip.
  • I’ve been making a conscious effort to slow down when we travel. On our first big trip together, we visited five countries in 17 days. Granted, we had a fantastic/amazing/unbeatable time, but some of my best memories from that trip were long nights sipping sangria in Barcelona, or lazy mornings in our hotel room. We could have skipped an entire destination (Prague, clearly) and still had a great trip. Now as I plan a trip, I try to focus on the overall experience and not worry about whether I’ve squished in every little sight (we didn’t see the Museumsinsel in Berlin, but, honestly, I’m fine with that). The downside is that if we don’t like a place, it can feel like we’re there for too long. But the upside is that if we do like a place — like Havana! — we really have a chance to soak it in. Most travelers we met spent between two and four days in Havana, and after hearing their impressions, I’m glad that we spent longer. If we had only stayed in Havana for two days, we easily would have been overwhelmed by the tourists and jingueros. But once we settled in, we were able to get past a lot of that and out into the less-touristy areas of the city.
  • And finally, we’re not naive. We met one American tourist who had no idea that Obama was arriving in the Cuba the same day as she was. We listened to another American tourist rant about the fact that she had paid $5 to a ride a public bus that only costs a few cents. I could only shake my head at some of these people and wonder, “How did you end up in Cuba?”

- Steph

Cuba: Propaganda Billboards

May 22, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba.

There is no corporate advertising in Cuba, except the signs directly on storefronts.

There is tons of political propaganda, however. Images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos are ubiquitous. Along the roads there are large billboards.

These are some of the signs we saw in Havana and driving to Viñales.

"Fatherland or death!"
"Health for all"
Fidel Castro in guerilla uniform with a rifle
"We continue in combat" – with Fidel Castro and the Granma,
the boat in which Castro's band landed/crashed in Cuba from Mexico.
"Only human will can save the world"
Fidel, "Fatherland or death, we will prevail!"
"The Party, a secure guarantee of the unity of the Cubans"
"This is the party of all the battles"
"Let's take care of nature"
"Faithful to our history"
"Revolution: A daily feat yesterday and today"
(with Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos)
"The Revolution will continue forward"

- Ben

Cuba: Vinales

May 8, 2016
Start at the beginning of our trip to Cuba. This continues from Havana.

On Friday, we went to Viñales, a tobacco-growing and cigar-rolling town 2.5 hours' drive from Havana. We went with a state-run tour group, not our usual M.O. (Steph had commented that "we get to be sheep" that way.) But we didn't want to take too much time away from Havana by staying overnight, the return bus left too early, and it seemed too risky to rely on finding a taxi driver willing to drive all the way back at night.

As it turned out, other than the excessively tourist-trap bits (like the first stop at a little shop where the tour guide turned into a cigar salesman), the excursion was fantastic. Our guide was a native Habanero, he spoke excellent English, and he repeated each part of his tour in both languages, which was good practice for us.

We learned that the word guajiro - a person from the Cuban countryside, as in the song Guajira Guantanamera - originated as a mispronunciation of the English "war hero" after the 1898 Spanish-American war in Cuba. (The internet says it originated in a native word for "squire," however, so who knows.)

We also learned that Viñales was named for grape vines, strange considering that there are no grape vines in Viñales (or wine production in Cuba at all). Apparently at some point in the 19th century, the Spanish did try to grow wine there. It didn't take long to realize that was a bad idea in the tropical climate, and they switched to tobacco, but the name stuck.

Casa Garay rum factory. Che Guevara and [19th-century Cuban hero] José Martí on the wall.

We stopped briefly at a rum factory, then visited a tobacco farm, where we learned about the crop, drying the leaves, and rolling cigars. Agriculture has been slightly liberalized over the last decade, but tobacco farmers are still required to sell 90% of their crop to the government at fixed prices. For most crops, it's 50%, but tobacco represents the "third-largest source of hard currency for Cuba," according to wikipedia.

We stopped at the mural de la prehistoria, a fairly mediocre giant mural supposedly depicting the evolution of life. The most interesting part by far were the DIY piña coladas. They're served without rum and and you're supposed to add as much as you want. Our guide said the proper technique was to pour in rum, take a sip, pour more rum, take a sip and so on. After a good lunch (Steph was happy that she got to eat all the vegetables because the other tourists were unwilling to eat raw vegetables), we took a boat ride through the Cueva del Indio, a cave with interesting geological patterns that the guide pretended were images of animals.

There were some very interesting moments on the excursion observing the local prejudices. There were "Indians" dancing in loinclothes for the tourists at the Cueva del Indio, and our guide assured us that "these are not real Indians, because they are beautiful, and real Indians were ugly." It's really interesting to see how colonial stereotypes still persist long after Spanish rule, and to compare the natives' experiences between different countries: In the U.S. the natives that survive still have somewhat distinctive sub-cultures, and are usually called "native Americans" rather than the misnomer "Indians"; in Argentina they were almost entirely annihilated and the little that is known about their culture comes from early colonists' accounts and the archeological record; in Cuba there are a few self-identified Taínos in the east, but the prevailing culture seems to have maintained the colonial attitude towards them. At the cigar factory, our guide reiterated several times that certain jobs were only available to women because of their "delicate hands." We were shown the different ways that men and women are supposed to hold cigars. And we were pretty sure he said - in Spanish and not in English - that black people aren't allowed to work in the cigar factories, with the reason being something about "artists." As Orwell said, even in socialism, some people "are more equal than others."

We made some friends on the Viñales tour, a couple from Greece living in London. On the bus back, we sat in adjacent rows, right behind the guide, and had a really interesting conversation. He told us stories about the ways people string together income in odd ways; about how the authorities tolerate the black market; about recording foreign TV and movies on [illegal] satellite dishes and selling them on hard drives; about the importance (and uneven distribution) of tourists' tips (which can make the difference between a good living as a tour guide and a crappy one as a school teacher). He shared his hopes for the future, very much wanting change and expecting to be able to use U.S. dollars as street cash at some point soon. We talked about Cuban history, and how Cubans perceive the U.S. invasion in the 1989 Spanish-American war.

One of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation was the way he saw the Cuban-American exiles as the real enemy. He had no anomosity toward Americans as a whole, or even recent American governments, but the exiles to him are living in the past, making unreasonable demands for their property lost in 1960, and are responsible for maintaining the U.S. embargo long after the Cold War ended (and he's undoubtedly not alone in this view). He also saw it, correctly, in partisan terms: Democrats are more friendly to Cubans in Cuba and Republicans are more friendly to the Cubans in Miami. I asked our guide if he thought there would ever be reconciliation, and he wasn't optimistic. The narrative he told - "they left 50 years ago, now three generations have lived in that house and the exiles say it's their house and want it back" - reminded me of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and The Lemon Tree.

Altogether, despite the silliness of much of it, the organized tour was very worthwhile, especially for those unofficial conversations with the guide.

- Ben (photos by Steph)

Cuba: Havana, part 2

May 3, 2016
Driving through Habana Vieja

Read about our first few days in Havana

Thursday morning we went to the Museo de la Revolución. Watching the movie Che before the trip had given us some prior context. I was particularly fascinated by the Bay of Pigs exhibit – in U.S. history it's presented as a ridiculous operation with no chance of success, probably intended by the CIA to fail so Kennedy would be forced to order air strikes and Marines. But the way it was presented in the museum (and probably the way the Cuban government actually saw it at the time), it was a large-scale invasion by foreign-backed troops and an existential threat. There were battle memorabilia, maps of troop movements, and lists of the dead. (Crazy fact: the CIA devised and/or carried out 638 assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. He wasn't wrong to be paranoid.)

Another interesting lesson from the museum: quite a few years passed between the revolution and the implementation of full-scale Communism. Initially the revolution included a variety of anti-Batista factions, including many people who thought they were fighting to restore democracy. Castro played to these hopes with his rhetoric, while cementing his power and purging the non-Communist elements in the early 1960s. (Factions of his guerilla forces actually continued to fight against his regime after he took power.) It wasn't until 1968, for example, that Castro nationalized all the small businesses in the country.

Bullet holes at the former presidential palace, now the Museo de la Revolución

And unlike the Soviet Union, Cuba did not eliminate private property. In fact, most Cubans own their homes, after 1960 and 1984 reforms converted tenants into owners, but apart from limiting "exchanges" of homes, buying and selling homes has only been legal since 2012. Cuba has built very little new housing since 1960, and now has a deficit of 1.5 million homes. This was one of the ways the Cuban people were stuck in time for decades – if you happened to be renting a good place in 1961, you (and three generations of your family) stayed there for 50 years, and similarly if you were assigned to be a sugar farmer in the countryside in 1962, your kids and grandkids are probably still sugar farmers in that town.

Exiting our casa in Habana Vieja
Bicycle taxis

We went back to our casa particular (in Habana Vieja) to check out and move to a different one (in Central) for the rest of our stay. With my large backpacking pack propped on my lap, and Steph carrying a smaller backpack and shoulder bag on hers, we took another bicycle taxi across town. The bicycle taxis there are all constructed basically in the same way – rider in front of a two-passenger bench, fixed-gear, no brakes (slowed by counter-pedaling), covered with a tarp pulled over a welded frame – but some are more decked out than others, with side mirrors, bells/horns, music, etc. Other than our slight liberal discomfort of having another person pedaling so hard to move us around, it's a pretty good way to get around Havana.

Cubans have been allowed to rent out rooms in their homes for decades, and given the lack of hotels in Cuba, it's the primary accommodation option for most travelers, especially independent travelers. We decided to hedge our bets by booking two different casas and we're glad we did. The hosts at our second casa were much friendlier, the decor was much nicer, and we enjoyed staying in Habana Central, the more residential and less touristy neighborhood west of Habana Vieja. Breakfast at both our casas was similar and pretty good: coffee, guava juice, a plate of fruit (pineapple, guava, papaya, and banana), eggs, little pancakes or ham and cheese sandwiches, and bread with butter. Neither place offered consistently warm water for a shower, but that's typical in Havana.

Another interesting face of Cuban-style Communism is that, while individual apartments are privately owned, the shared spaces in a building are owned by the state, which lacks the incentives a private owner might have to keep the place maintained. In our second casa, for instance, the apartment, on the fifth floor, was modern and beautifully decorated inside, but the stairs were uneven, there were no stairway lights, the electric box by the front door had exposed copper wires snaking all over the wall, and the water pipes visible on adjacent roofs looked ancient. (Part of the generally decrepit state of infrastructure is also the result of the U.S. embargo making it very difficult to import building materials.)

El Capitolio, modeled on the U.S. Capitol
Thursday evening, we walked down the Malecón, the picturesque boardwalk along the coast. Nacho had told us it was nicknamed "the longest sofa in the world" for all the socializing and canoodling that it invites.

We stopped for cocktails at La Torre, a bar/restaurant on the top (39th) floor of the FOCSA Building, Havana's tallest (built in 1956 – other than government buildings, there weren't many, or any, skyscrapers built in the city after the revolution). As expected from online reviews, the drinks were just OK, and we skipped the food, but we did get a cool nighttime view. We passed the Hotel Nacional again, and the parking lot was full of SUVs (Chinese-made Jeep clones), not a common vehicle type in Havana, probably for the press and Secret Service that would be escorting President Obama on his visit on Sunday.

For dinner we went to Cafe Laurent, an excellent seafood restaurant. (At a table nearby were a dozen Americans visiting for a bachelor party. We appreciated that we had made it there before that becomes ubiquitous.) Then we went to a jazz club and listened to some really great music.

On Friday, we went to Viñales, a tobacco-growing and cigar-rolling town 2.5 hours' drive from Havana. (Stay tuned for more on that day.)

That evening, we met up with friends we had met on our Viñales tour. We tried to see a salsa show at Casa de la Música, but decided from the line that the scene was too much of a "meat factory," and went instead to Gato Tuerto ("one-eyed cat"). The music was not good, but we shared a cigar and a bottle of Havana Club rum and had a good time. (In Cuba, people order bottles of rum to the table the way we order a bottle of wine. Somehow, even at 40% ABV, we weren't that drunk afterwards.)

On Saturday night, we went to the Fabrica del Arte Cubano, a former cooking oil factory turned into an incredible multi-media art/club space. It feels like one continuous flow of art exhibits, but the walls are nearly soundproof, so you can walk out of one music area, into a theater (playing a Cuban art film), through hallways of art, into another music space, and with each portal the setting completely shifts. (The schedule for the week we were there is still on their website.) My favorite performance was by an incredibly talented band, Jazz en Trance, led by the saxophonist Denys Carbo, who engaged the audience in harmonizing with the musicians: he would have half the room learn a little riff or clapping rhythm, and the other half learn a different one, and would cue the choruses with his hands, sometimes back and forth, or together, or fading one into the other, in sync with the musicians on the stage. The show was actually recorded – you can see me in the audience at 10:54 (in the white shirt), and singing with the crowd at 12:27:

One of the installations featured 50s-style photos, simultaneously retro and futuristic, of the Havana skyline with corporate logos superimposed on buildings and billboards – Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Google – like any other Western city, but surreal in a place where no such advertising exists. The photos made you wonder: Do you miss it? Would it be better? There were definitely many tourists in the crowd, but it was mostly young Cubans. We waited in line outside for an hour and a half to get inside, and it was well worth it.

From the exhibit "Hotel Havana," by Nelson Ramirez and Luidmila Velasco
On Sunday, our last day, we went to the Castillo de los Tres Reyes (Castle of 3 Kings) fort across the harbor. It was built to defend Havana from pirates, who threatened Spanish shipping, and sacked the city several times over the centuries. It wasn't particularly interesting, or well-maintained, but the sea was choppy that day, and the city was right across the water, which made for great views from the ramparts.

View from Nazdarovie
President Obama was due to visit that afternoon. We didn't know exactly when he was arriving, but we expected him to drive along the Malecón to visit the U.S. Embassy. We went to a Soviet-themed restaurant Nazdarovie for lunch and ate Russian food on their terrace overlooking the Malecón. We did see a motorcade of several black Mercedes (among the very few modern luxury cars we saw in the whole city) with a police escort driving to the embassy, but it wasn't him (maybe the ambassador or others in his large entourage). The weather had been dry and hot up to that point, but it started to rain, a drizzle at first, then pretty hard, so we went back to our casa. Air Force One landed a little later (in a torrential downpour), and we watched on Cuban state TV as the Obamas disembarked and went sightseeing.

(Back home, I watched the press conference that Obama persuaded Raúl Castro to participate in the next day – the first open-question press conference Raúl had ever done, reportedly – and it's quite a thing to watch.)

A playground near our casa in Habana Central
For dinner that night, our last in Cuba, we had tried to make reservations at five restaurants and they were all closed or booked. Fortunately, there is a wide selection of excellent restaurants in Havana now, and we got a table at a place called Starbien. Despite being a government-owned restaurant (as opposed to a private paladar), the food and service were both excellent. A review we read online had complained about the flourescent lights, but they seemed to have replaced those, and anyway we sat outside on the terrace, under an awning to shelter from the rain. At the table next to us were a bunch of Italian journalists in town to report on Obama's visit. We finished off the evening with glasses of rum and smoked a cigar we had bought in Viñales.

The former stock market building
Bomb shelters on the lawn of the Hotel Nacional
Steph had researched the customs regulations very carefully. They may have changed again, but at the time, we were allowed to each bring home up to US$100 of alcohol and tobacco. So of course we had filled up a box (labeled Ron Santiago de Cuba) with $199 of rum (for ourselves) and cigars (for Steph's father and grandfather). (Our luggage consisted of a hiking backpack, so we couldn't put it in our suitcase.) Despite the new legality, we were a little worried that it wouldn't make it all the way home: Maybe a Cuban airport employee would take it, or a baggage handler in Cancun or SF; or maybe the U.S. customs officials wouldn't know the rules and give us trouble; or maybe, despite wrapping them in newspaper and clothes and labeling the box "Fragile" all over, a bottle would crack. We met another American at the airport who took one look at our box and said "Well, looks really sketchy." It all turned out OK: no one stole our box, U.S. customs didn't even look at it, and we now have a great selection of 6-12-year aged Cuban rums. Back home, we taste-tested them against Bacardi (which used to be Cuban but moved to Puerto Rico when their factory was nationalized in the revolution) and El Dorado 5, and they're all comparable in quality. But we paid a fraction of the American retail price for the equivalent products.

This was our first trip in years (except backpacking in the wilderness) where we were completely offline. The internet in Cuba is still scarce, slow, and expensive. Very few if any casas particulares have wifi. There is cellular infrastructure that offers limited mobile internet, but roaming with our American phones would have been prohibitively expensive, and it didn't seem worth the hassle of buying a Cuban SIM.

Before we left, we (mostly Steph) put together a very comprehensive custom Google map of Havana landmarks and restaurants. Our plan was to bring an old iPhone, keep it in airplane mode, and load the maps offline. The Google Maps app supports this for most of the world – but if you try to download maps of Cuba, it says "This area is not available offline."

So we converted our high-tech maps to low-tech paper: we numbered each marker, printed the list of titles and descriptions (Google Maps' printing feature doesn't include descriptions, so this involved a little code to convert KML to HTML), sliced up the maps into 8 printable sections, and wrote the numbers on the maps by hand. This took up most of the day before we left, and all our maps and research filled a manilla envelope. How anyone did this before the internet – hand-annotate huge fold-out maps? Wander around aimlessly? – is a mystery.

One consequence of traveling offline – and of the dearth of newspapers in Havana (the state-published ones like Granma are more propaganda than news, and there are certainly no foreign papers for sale) – is we were, for the first time in months, completely disconnected from the U.S. presidential campaigns. The Florida and Ohio primaries occurred while we were away, and we had no idea what happened. We didn't really miss it, except my cellphone-fueled habit of constant news- and Facebook-checking is like crack, so it was unsettling to go cold-turkey.

See you soon Cuba

Continued: Viñales
See also: Parques de las Almendras

- Ben (photos by Steph)