2017
03.21
ET on the Bus

ET on the Bus

SYNOPSIS:  LEAVING VINALES.  TRANSIT TO CIENFUEGOS.  ABOUT SMELLS AND THE FIRST STRIKE IN THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT.  ABOUT AIRBnBs.

We said goodbye to our pink room with the red curtains draped in white wedding lace and our green tiled bathroom.  One last time we sat in our white rocking chairs on our concrete porch in front of the tidy red house perched on a small hill, overlooking the Vinales Valley.  We had hoped to sip our coffee in peace and quiet, but with overbearing Marisol, our AirBnB host mother around, there was no peace and quiet to be had.  In a high voice, compromised by laryngitis she would talk non-stop, nonetheless.  Telling us about this or that, but mostly inquiring about this and that.  What will we do, what did we do; all in fast Spanish.  Poor Celibeth, for speaking some Spanish.  I left Marisol entirely to her.   This morning in particular, as I had some food poisoning.  No coffee for me.  Just some mint tea and some prayers that I would manage the 3-hour car ride back to Havana and the 5-hour bus ride from there.  The collectivo driver showed up 20 minutes early.  That surely beats the opposite, but it cut our morning routine even shorter.  And for us travelers, that morning routine is everything…

A sturdy-enough looking white Lada was our new vehicle and the driver picked up a young German couple after us:  Anja and Christian.  I claimed the front seat, focused on my breathing, chewed some gum, said some prayers to my pantheon and hoped for the best.

The ride was uneventful.  Today, more than any other time I realized that the air pollution was everywhere.  Even cars that we hardly saw in the distance ahead of us, had filled the air with the fumes of leaded gas that now permeated the air in our car.  Of course, the windows were rolled down, as there was no air conditioning.  When we narrowed in on one of the big trucks blasting a constant stream of black soot into the air, I could only hold my nose and pray.  I made it to Havana without incident.  Thanks, Bhaisajyaguru.

This is the smell of my childhood.  I did not mind or notice it then.  But I remember that foreign visitors commented on the smells in my country.  Now I know what they experienced.  It is not only the smell of gasoline, even though that is the most constant one.   Most pungent are the smells of garbage, sewage, industry and who knows what.  It is literally impossible to turn a corner and not encounter a new scent.  One of the most pleasant surprises was the thick wafts of jasmine in Vinales.  But that was the only nice exception so far.

The Viazul bus station in Havana was surprisingly small.  Viazul is the government-run overland bus network connecting every major city in Cuba.  I had high expectations as one traveler whom I met in Mexico had praised Viazul as even better than the buses in Mexico.  Not even close!  Overland buses in Mexico are new and clean, and are frequent and comfortable.  One can buy tickets ahead or on the spot and the supply seems to match demand. 

My first experience with Viazul was in the US when I began to map out our trip.  Buses were filling up fast.  Unless you prepaid, your seat was not guaranteed.  And on top of that, my guidebook warned — if you are not there 1/2 hour in advance, your seat might be sold from under you, still.

A dirty waiting hall, filled with uncomfortable metal chairs was crowded with people.  We barely found a seat.  The air was thin.  A thick, slow-moving line had formed in front of the counter where ticket requests were handled.  When that thinned out after the departure of several buses, Celibeth got in line while I rested.  I was in no position to move around or stand in lines.  We were early.  You would think that is a bonus, but Celi, after reaching the ticket clerk, was told that she was too early!  She had to come back closer to departure time; and stand in line again, of course.  The nerve!  Only in a government-run economy can you operate like this.  Somebody could make millions here opening up a privately run bus system.  But is that even possible?

I stretched out on two seats that had become available, my back aching before long, but I had to choose between one or the other pain.  After a while a Viazul clerk came around telling me that I could not put up my feet…  For not running a very impressive operation, they surely have plenty of useless rules!  But before getting too upset, I remembered my bus trips in Mali and felt much better.  Soon, I would be riding in an air conditioned, if run-down bus, could stretch out on the last row, had space, and got to Cienfuegos in 5 hours on a reasonably well-paved road.  There are worse things in life than Viazul.  Travel in Cuba is not what it is elsewhere but it is by far not the worst.

On time, we rolled into the small station in Cienfuegos where Franz, from our next AirBnB awaited us.  We walked the 7 blocks to our centrally located home and were welcomed by our new hosts:  Reina and Alberto own a three-floor French mansion built around the middle of the 19th Century.  They rent out three rooms for six guests and employ several helpers:  A cleaner who also does laundry,  a cook (or cooker, as they called her!) who works on a what’s-needed basis, and Franz for the odd jobs.  The income from three rooms is substantial in proportion to government-job earnings.  Their rooms are adequate, equipped with a refrigerator, outfitted with a nicely tiled bath, and best of all, a fabulous roof terrace where meals are served. 

Our hosts were helpful and full of good information but they backed off after the introduction.  The feel of this AirBnB is more like an international hostel.  In Havana, we had our own apartment and saw our host Alexis only twice.  In Vinales, we were part of the family and Marisol behaved more like an overbearing mother.  Each AirBnB has its own character.  That makes it rather interesting. 

Reina made me a big cup of Chamomile tea.  That was all I could handle.  My biggest fear now was dehydration.  Two cups of tea cured that.  Thank goodness, Celibeth felt well.  I was determined to be better tomorrow.  A good-night sleep can do wonders.

Good night.

2017
03.20

Day 6-4SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT DOMESTIC CHORES AND OTHER ADVENTURES.

I realize that something awful could happen at home or in world politics and I would not have a clue.  We simply cannot connect to the internet without going way out of our path, wasting a lot of time and then having no guarantee of success.  But I feel compelled to try; at least once in a while.   

After 6 days of travel we had to not only take care of the internet and laundry, but of our digestive systems as well.  We utterly confused our AirBnB hosts when we ordered breakfast in two stages:  8 AM coffee and juice.  9 AM food.  But by noon we were on track in all of our domestic departments.  Some of our laundry had dried before we even had hung up the rest of it;  it was yet another gorgeous, warm and sunny day.

Today, the Western Union office was open for business but only one at a time.  The police officer who had guarded the office yesterday was doing crowd control today.  When we arrived nobody was in line.  But the time we finally got our turn, 10 minutes later, a sizable cue had formed behind us.  You can’t be in a hurry around here.

The Western Union clerk almost did not exchange our money as neither one of us presented our original passports.  I carry a copy at all times, Celi only had her driver’s license.  We got away with a warning this time.  But everyone seems to have their own rules.  In Havana my passport copy did not even raise an eyebrow.

Wifi cards were our next item on the agenda.  There is one telecommunication office in town selling these cards and the line in front of it had already formed when we got there.  What took them so long inside, one by one again — was anyone’s guess.  Government workers just don’t have to work fast, I guess; same old story everywhere. 

Some of the tourists in line did not take this pace very well.  Two Australians in front of us got really grouchy and three French ladies in back of us became outright rude.  It’s Cuba time!  We tried to cheer them up; but to no avail.  Five computers to do internet — google seems to be blocked in large parts — are all that is available for this entire town of 10,000…  Somebody should start an Internet cafe around here!

Once again, the central plaza was a public wifi zone.  Once again, it took me nearly an hour before I was able to connect.  This is getting really, really old.  I can easily live without the internet for a week, a month, no problem.  But what about the people “out there” who expect me to be in the know or respond, once they send something? That is the problem.  In so many ways, we have put ourselves onto a leash in the Western world.  I am sure Cuba is only a few short years behind fully catching up; for better or worse. 

Celi went for another salsa lesson.  She is getting really, really good.  She would prove within hours how you capture the Cuban heart(s) when you know how to dance salsa.

Before sunset we took a taxi to the most famous viewpoint in town.  Two guys had invited themselves to share our taxi with us, one of them immediately moving in on Celi. He would have given just about anything had she agreed to spend the evening with him…  The Horizontales des Jasminez Hotel is one of the fanciest places in town.  An Olympic-sized pool floats atop the valley and the views from there are the postcard views you will see of Vinales; nothing short of spectacular; except for the sun which was setting in the wrong direction, making that postcard picture impossible for us to take.  People were sipping drinks and snapping photos.  A mime was performing his act at the terrace. 

After we had sipped our own mojitos, chatting with Katie from Spain and her Cuban boyfriend, we headed for the banjo where the mime happened to take off his makeup.  One look at Celibeth and he was a goner!  Before you knew it, the two were salsa-ing along the terrace.  He was the most gorgeous, skinny, tall young man you could imagine.  And an artist, a musician and a master dancer on top of it.  And to nobody’s surprise it was Celi now, who turned into the smitten one! 

After a lovely dinner in town, she headed for the Central Plaza where the mime was waiting for her.  And that’s where the official story ends.  I headed home to write my blog.  What a boring alternative!   But I have no regrets.  My wild and crazy days are over. 

Good night.

2017
03.19

SYNOPSIS:  TOURING THE UNESCO VALLEY AND MEETING PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD.  ABOUT EXCHANGING MONEY IN CUBA.

You can rent taxis or horses or if you want an entire horse carriage, to tour the 11×5 km Vinales Valley.  Or you can opt for the $5 budget version and use the hop on – hop off tourist bus that circles some of the attractions all day long. The problem is that there is only one bus circling and before it returns you are stuck at a particular site for 1.5 hours. Most of the time that is no problem.  In some cases you have to rush a bit; in others, you can sit and have a drink or two waiting for the bus to come your way. That’s what we did today.  Vinales is a UNESCO site for its unique natural beauty but also for its vernacular farm architecture; palm leaf thatched barns and huts.

We were in desperate need of changing money and had been told that Western Union was open even on Sundays (as some place should be in a town of thousands of tourists in need of CUC).  However, when we arrived at the Western Union office it was roped off and guarded by a police officer.  A sign in Spanish indicated that no money had arrived that day…  This seemed like a bad joke if we had not already experienced something similar in Havana.  One day we needed money and were turned away by one bank with the explanation that they had run out of money.  Another bank down the block still had some… 

This was bad!   We had some money left, but were not sure how far it would last us given that the various tourist stations all required entrance fees.  I looked around and spotted a guy who looked like a “wheeler and dealer”.  Indeed, within a minute we had an agreement on the exchange rate and he was calling a friend to bring the money.  Would it have worked?  We don’t know.  Our bus was leaving and I was not about to waste 1.5 hours to find out.   We had to pinch a bit tight today.

CUC is the standard currency required for foreigners.  Euros get the best rate, but US dollars are standard, too.  However, in response to the US embargo, $ are hit with an extra 10% exchange fee and locals much prefer CUC over any other currency as payment.   But in a pinch I knew people would take $$ over not getting paid.

I am pretty open talking to strangers, especially on my trips, but Celibeth has a gift talking to just about anyone, anywhere and making friends with complete strangers in minutes.  In a town of merely 10,000 inhabitants, in a town with thousands of tourists who can only do so much around here, in a town with only 1.5 main roads where all the happenings concentrate by the end of the day, thanks to Celi, we seem to meet “friends” and acquaintances everywhere.   

Our first stop was the Mural de Prehistoria created under the supervision of the artist Leovigildo Gonzalez, who from 1961 to 1965 reportedly directed 25 artisans with a megaphone from the ground up to outline and painted this 200 x 300 feet monstrosity.  Some seashells, a couple of dinosaurs, and two humans who look more like the outline of people in a crime scene, cover the cliff in gaudy colors.  By now, this cliff has been repainted numerous times, presumably because wind and weather faded it away.  What it looked like in 1965 is hard to tell.  One can only hope that it was done a tad more tastefully than this neon-color version.  We could have climbed the nearby mogote (a mesa-like rock outcrop), but we opted for the ground.  A nice restaurant with seating for at least 100 was setting up for a lunch crowd.  The coffee machine was broken and for us, there was only booze or soft drinks. The wait staff reminded me of East Germans.  No need to be friendly.  No need be of service.  They get paid no matter what…  The 1.5 hours went slowly.

The drive through the area, all part of a protected National Park declared part of the UNESCO in 1999, was worth the $5 all by itself.  Various crops are planted in fields of red and ochre earth, stunningly beautiful mogote punctuate the flat land, and a mountain range of undulating bulges flanks the valley.  Ox carts, horseback riders, bikers, American Oldies, and numerous tour buses carting around day trippers, share the road. 

Our next stop was one of the highlights of the day:  Cueva del India.  It was the highlight however, for everyone else in the valley too, and throngs of tourists poured into the narrow mouth of this natural cave of stunning formations.  The entire valley is made of limestone, which over millions of years has been carved out by water.  The caves are a good indicator of this process.  This particular one has a river going through it and tourists line up for a 10-minute boat ride after about a 1-km walk.  The line for the boats had backed up more than half way into the cave.  The wait was between 1/2 and 1 hour.  There was no escape. 

Celibeth had been apprehensive about this cave exploration all day.  To be boxed into a narrow path between hundreds of humans in a humid, oxygen-deprived environment, was not an appealing thought to either one of us.  But Celibeth made time fly by for everyone by engaging in conversation with the MSG-poisoned man from New York and his family in front of us, as well as with the two couples from Tennessee behind us.  The New Yorkers had come in a boat!  They were retired and traveling the world.  Wow!  The guys from Tennessee were real goofs and between talks about sport teams, movies, trashing Trump along with the one Trump supporter among them, they had a ball. 

45 minutes later we boarded a boat, polluting the already thin air even further.  There seems to be little concern and no regulation.  It was great fun though. 

The next bus approached shortly where a couple from London latched on to us.  The next site supposedly was to observe production at a tobacco plantation.  However, I deduced this from the time table and nothing else.  We had gotten no information.  The bus driver spoke only Spanish and was of no help.  Most everyone was wondering about what to do.  But when we got out, the London couple and a few others followed us, expecting us to know…  There was nothing.  No sign, no farm, no guide.  Everyone stood in confusion.  I decided to approach a guy in farmer’s boots indicating by sign language and a few internationally known words like “tobacco” that we needed help.  He agreed to lead us to a tobacco farm.  And he did.  What would we have done without him?!  A cocky guy named Michael explained the tobacco farming process to us. 

Cuba has only two tobacco producing areas; Vinales being the more famous of them.  Farms are privately owned, but the government has the right to purchase 90% of the crop every year.  10% is at the farmer’s personal disposal.  Very good cigars (but without label) can be purchased at discount prices here.  At this point in the year, tobacco plants are only about 2 feet high.  They will eventually grow to a height of 5-6 feet.  That’s when the fun of harvesting, drying, and rolling begins. 

The London couple, Simon and Sarah, stayed with us. We took the next bus and headed on foot to the Botanical Garden, one of only two sights in town (the other being a modest local history museum).  The garden had been started by two women over 100 years ago.   It was a pleasant, shady spot.  After a tour through the gardens we enjoyed a pina-colada at the small bar, chatting with the Brits. 

Simon was only one in a row of guys who from here on out I will call “the Smitten-Ones”. Whether it is a taxi driver, a bar tender, a fellow bus mate, or another tourist, Celibeth makes these guys heads spin.  Her extraverted nature, her vast knowledge of pop culture, songs, and some Spanish vocabulary, has something for everyone.  That she is tall and blond and carries herself like a movie star, does not hurt around here. 

Between sight-seeing and dinner, Celibeth squeezed in an hour of salsa lessons.  With two years of lessons way back at home, she had a basis for looking really good at this.  Salsa, rumba, chachacha and other dance forms are the heart and soul of Cuban music.  Music and dance are everywhere.  It is what makes Cuba so appealing.  People always seem to be at the edge of breaking into song or dance.  It must be the tropic climate. 

A small restaurant in a side street was to serve as a quiet place for dinner.  It did, until Jesus turned up.  He was a guy with a guitar who sat at our table entertaining not only us but soon the entire restaurant as he and Celibeth were singing American and Cuban duets.  I filled in some harmonies and used the toothpick holder as a percussion rattle.  We were almost good enough to go on the road with this act. 

This was a long day!  And so I say good night.

2017
03.18
Gas Supply Car

Gas Supply Car

SYNOPSIS:   DINNER WITH ROY AND HELEN.  SUCCESS AT THE INTERNET.  MOVING ON WITH A COLLECTIVO.  ABOUT OUR AIRBNB.

After I returned from the synagogue last night, we were met by Roy Junior (Roy Senior had picked us up from the airport) and his beautiful girlfriend Helen.  Roy Junior was 8 the last time, Celibeth was here.  Today, he is a handsome 23 year old with lots of ambitions and dreams about opening his own translation and tourism business with Helen.  Between the two of them they can speak four languages fluently!  We had a good time with them, eating out.  I missed all of the fun these guys had afterwards at a bowling alley, but work is work.  At last, my efforts connecting with the internet were crowned with success.  83 emails had piled up…    

This had been a long day!  Sleeping in a dense urban area in Havana is not easy.  The noises of the day continue until deep into the night.  Particularly the rooster, who so nicely blends in during the day, becomes a big nuisance as he starts his day around 4:30.  By 5:30 he is in full swing and no ear plug can block him out.  Some people seem to have transplanted an entire farm onto their rooftop.  The rooster is in the company of several chickens, rabbits, cats and dogs…  All on a roof top only 16 feet from us.  When the roof, or any concrete balcony for that matter, is mopped, a blast of dirty water gushes down a small pipe smack onto the street below.  From the fourth floor and aided by the wind, this crates quite a “rainfall” down below.  Nobody seems to take offense though.  But after observing what is going down there, I will surely be more careful walking down the streets from here on out.

Weeks ago when I had mapped out our trip, I booked overland buses to take us from one city to the next.  Already, three weeks ago, two of the buses we needed were fully booked leaving us stranded.  But not quite.  Where there is no bus, there are alternatives: Expensive taxis or competitively priced collectivos; share-taxis that pick up their customers at home and deliver them door to door.  I had to put my trust into our next AirBnB hosts who assured me that between 11 and 11:15 a collectivo would appear at our Havana home.  By 11:25 AM it really did. 

No American Oldie, but one of the more plentiful Russian rust-buckets showed up.  Along with two Polish tourists who had been traveling for one year (!) — this was their final week before turning back home    we made it to our next destination, Vinales.

A four-lane highway connects Havana with Vinales Province.  Only a handful of cars, if that many, are in sight at any given time.  That allows for horse-drawn carts and street vendors to share the road.  People were selling anything from strips of onions, to roasted chicken, to entire geese.  People also hitchhike along the highways waving Cuban Pesos in hope to be picked up.

The most curious stop we made was about 1/2 hour into the trip when the driver got off the road and onto a rocky, unpaved driveway, wound his way up the hill and turned into the front lawn of a renovated private home.  Three other collectivos had already pulled up.  The drivers were waiting for something.  But what?  There was no coffee, no bathroom.  A blue American Oldie pulled up, the trunk popped open and revealed about 1/2 dozen of gasoline canisters which were evenly distributed between the three collectivos at hand via a metal funnel.  Was this a black market deal?  Was this an unofficial collectivo “gas station”?  There was nobody to ask.  But when later in the trip I found out that 60% of the gasoline nationwide is stolen, I think I got my answer.

Twice we were pulled over by police checking the papers of the driver.  What were they looking for?  Somebody without papers?  Somebody without a taxi license?  Years ago, Cubans could have been in trouble if they were seen with foreigners in the car.  These police guys had no interest in us.  A friendly hello or a nod our way — they did not even ask for our papers.  What was this all about?  Again, there was nobody to ask.  But it seems that transporting foreigners takes special licenses no question associated with special fees.  The government is siphoning off what it can.

Vinales is a tiny village — so small, that it hardly shows up on a map.  But it has great significance as the center of this National Park, a UNESCO natural and cultural monument.  A drive to our new hosts took us along rows of small, colorful, neatly painted and nicely kept up houses.  Each of them had a small yard around the property and as if required by law, sported a minimum of two rocking chairs on tidy stone or tile porticos.  We read that over 250 families rent out a room in their homes to the multitudes of tourists who flock to this quaint little town in the middle of this majestic valley flanked by mountains, the signature feature of this region.  From our new home we have a view of this magnificent skyline.

Casa Juan and Marisol is run by mama Marisol and her daughter Yudi as an AirBnB.  Neither one of them speak English.  Thank goodness for Celibeth, who can communicate with them and most of all, make them laugh.  We were welcomed with a delicious fruit-mango drink.  Our room is spic and span clean with two comfortable beds and red, as everything else in this house.  We have to get used to the fact that we are living with a family.  Quite a bit of attention is lavished on us along with a bit of pressure to do this or that or the other thing…  A definite change to our last AirBnB run by Alexis.  There we had an entire flat for ourselves with kitchen, bath, fridge, and balcony.  Alexis would be minutes away had we needed him but he stayed out of our affairs.  We loved that place, smack in the center of old Havana.  We loved our balcony.  Every morning we watched Old Havana “TV” right outside our flat.  There was never a dull moment in that street.  This casa here in Vinales is a few blocks away from the action, but the village is so small, location hardly matters. 

One can definitely see the tourist dollars hard at work in Vinales.  This entire village radiates an air of prosperity.  The density of tourists on main street is a bit overwhelming and the line at the tourism bureau never seems to get any shorter.  But as long as this is a mutually beneficial symbiosis, who is to complain?  Marisol cooked us an absolute feast tonight!  That is the upside of living with a family — you have the option of having meals.  It is no cheaper than eating out, but certainly more plentiful and more personal.  And your money goes directly to the people.  Especially in Cuba, that is something I like. 

With a full stomach and a complimentary mojito, I will say:  Good night.

2017
03.17
Tomas and Celi setting up

Tomas and Celi setting up

SYNOPSIS:  HOW WRONG TURNED INTO RIGHT.  ABOUT PEOPLE AND PROJECTS AND PRAYERS.  ABOUT THE DIGITAL WORLD IN CUBA. MY CONFESSION.

Despite purchasing a wifi card and spending an entire hour at a wifi spot, I have not yet managed to connect to the internet or figured out how to make a phone call.  Yes, we are in a different world, but it’s also me, who is just too computer/phone illiterate to overcome the hurdles an American phone is putting up trying to prevent me from accessing any insecure connections in a country not served by US phones.  Ughh!  

And here is what you already figured out, my “confession”: This blog is not rolling out in real time. Technology got the better of me.  When this blog will roll out, I will already be home.  But…  I did write the blog, as always, as I went.  Day by day if possible:  In the mornings before Celi woke up, on the bus, on the road, and at night, until I would zonk out.  It’s all I can do under the circumstances.  I hope you understand.  But back to our day:

The computer situation is way different from the Cuba I encountered 15 years ago.  Most Cubans have cell phones that function as mini-computers.  There is no wifi at private homes but most of the luxury hotels that cater to foreigners, have wifi access and make it public in their lobby-bars, as long as you consume something.  The government is providing wifi hotspots through town, typically in public parks.  Especially young people congregate there and facebook and email as everywhere else in the world; almost – there is no google!

It was precisely that lack of access to google and my lack of Spanish that got us into a mixed up situation not uncommon for people even with access to all the information; as we were told later.  Factoria, fabrica – it all was the same to me.  This morning we were scheduled to meet with art conservator Tomas Aquilino Lopez Sanchez at the Factoria de Artes.  Well-known, in fact world-famous by now and listed on my Havana map, is however the FAC or Fabrica de Artes de Cuba.  One is located in Old Havana, the other one is in Vedado, two districts and a 20-minute taxi ride apart from each other. 

We headed from Old Havana to Vedado in a cool, Havana-style, American Oldie taxi and promptly were overcharged triple.  The Fabrica (FAC), indeed an old factory, was closed and deserted.  The doorman had never heard of Tomas and we could not make a call.  We paid him one of our CUCs to make a local phone call.  Tomas was waiting at the Factoria…   Back we went in another taxi, once again paying double the local price.  We had no alternative.  But as if to compensate us for this rough start of the day, a drop-dead gorgeous, tall woman entered the courtyard.  A person actually affiliated with the FAC who gave us her card and invited us to a fashion show when we will return to Havana.  The FAC is a place where fashion, music, visual arts, performing arts and all come together in nightly events.  It opens from 8 PM to 3 AM.  That says it all.

Tomas was recommended by a friend of a friend of a friend; so it goes when you go to Cuba.  He works as a conservator and curator in a government-run art gallery in a three-floor colonial building that had been built by a New Jersey printing company.  When American businesses got expelled after the 1959 Revolution, it had become a bank and eventually fallen into disrepair.  By 2009, the government had restored and refurbished it and it was opened as a gallery.  Sponsorship for the arts in the US pales in comparison to Cuba.  It is a phenomenon I remember well from East Germany.  Cultural institutions never had to worry about funding.  They only had to worry about crossing the red political line.  It was the price to pay, and which situation is better or worse, is debatable.

Two Cuban artist-collaborators, Jose Toirac and Octavio Marin, had put up a show of artifacts on honesty based on the legend of Diogenes, who had walked around in ancient Greece with a lantern day after day and when asked, replied that he was looking for an honest man.  The show is entitled:  Diogenes Y La Luz.  Obviously a difficult task then and now.  These artists had sifted through Cuban history and picked who they considered honest people; rich and poor, famous and ordinary, past and contemporary ones.  If we had just strolled through the exhibit, we would have missed nearly all of the well-conceived artistic and political messages.  The exhibit was highly conceptual.  With Tomas as our guide, the depth of their artistic thought opened up to us.  The exhibition was a phenomenal commentary on Cuba and a testimony to these artists’ intellectual and artistic prowess. 

Not only were we blessed with Tomas as a guide, but he joined us for lunch and patiently answered the dozens of questions we had about life in Cuba.  Not enough.  When he heard that Celibeth was working on an art installation, he connected us with El Ojo del Ciclon, an artist’s studio in which local artists, visitors, students, and guests gathered daily.  That place was something else.  An artist had taken an old corner house and instead of hiding the decay had turned it into a Gesamtkunstwerk.  Graffiti, collages, sculptures, a decorated old car, a “bedroom”, piles of prints and paintings for sale, there was no end to this KunstkammerHaunted House crossover.  We could not have pictured a more fitting environment.  They would help to complete her project.  This was more than we could have hoped for. Thanks, Tomas!

It had been a long day and we headed home.  Celibeth had made plans on going bowling that night.  I decided to give the internet one more try.  But before dark and while Celibeth rested, I went for another stroll.  As if guided by a divine hand, I turned a corner only a few blocks from our home and found myself in front of the Jewish synagogue of Old Havana, Synagoga Adath. 

It was Friday night. 

I had no head cover and a big camera dangled around my shoulder.  A definite no-no for an orthodox and even conservative congregation.  I entered and quickly seized the situation:  The Sabbath service was in full swing.  Before anyone took notice of me I snapped one picture and quickly stowed the camera in my backpack.  Women were seated separately from the men.  That indicated a stricter than Reform congregation.  I peeked into the women’s section.  Several women were without head cover.  I should be OK.  And so I entered.  The back rows were filled.  I had no choice but to sit in front of everyone; a bit of a conundrum as I don’t know what I am doing.  A glass divider in front of me allowed me a glimpse on to the women behind me.  I mimicked as well as I could what they were doing:  Get up, sit down, turn around, nod.  I even knew some of the songs. 

The synagogue was a two-story modern corner building with two floors.  I suspect that it is more of a community center with a store, a child-care facility (I saw two strollers) and perhaps a few other facilities.  I will have to google that. 

Left of the women’s section, through a milky glass, I could see the shadows of the men.  The rabbi was towering above them all, his voice leading the about 15 men in the pews.  We were only 7 on the women’s side.  About 30 minutes of prayers and songs passed when the men gathered in the women’s section, which doubled up as a community room featuring several dinner tables.   The rabbi gave a rousing speech that seemed of interest mainly to him.  Some men dozed off, others’ thoughts obviously drifted, a few stared into the far distance.  Only one of the women seemed to follow, nodding here and there.  Despite the rabbi’s passion, he could not even elicit a smile from anyone. 

After the sermon was over, the rabbi blessed the sabbath and we all lifted a small glass of kosher, super-sweet wine.  At that point, everyone got up and lined up in front of the two small bathrooms.  I guess it was time for a cleansing of sorts.  The Challah bread was brought in and put before the rabbi and it was clear that the actual ceremony and celebration of the evening was just beginning.  But I thought it was a good moment for me to slip out. 

As agnostic as I am, I am always moved when I have these spiritual chance opportunities during my trips.  I feel assured that somebody out there is watching over me. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

2017
03.16
CUCs and CUPs

CUCs and CUPs

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT PEOPLE, PRINTS AND PLAYAS.  ABOUT 82-4-10 AND A FEW OTHER SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS.

It is the fifth time Celibeth has been in Cuba.  The last time was 14 years ago, but people here remember her fondly.  The first few days in Havana we connected and will connect with a few of them.  There was Roy, an uncle of a friend and taxi driver (on a need-to-be basis), who picked us up from the airport.  Of course, he could not just drop us off at our AirBnB but a stop-over at his small suburban house was obligatory.  There, his wife awaited us with a stack of old photos, remembering Celi’s last few visits.  A small wooden calendar was dragged out of nowhere; a present Celi had left 14 years ago. 

Presents, particularly those left by visitors from abroad, mean a lot to people here; more than to us in the States.  No matter how insignificant these presents are, they represent novelty items that are not available and they indicate that Cubans may be isolated, but not forgotten, and that they have connections to the world “out there”. 

Roy prepared a delicious specialty coffee for us mixed from 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot chocolate and 1/3 milk, with sugar of course.  Their teenage son Roycito, had turned into a successful graduate student who after studying English for 5 years at the university was not only fluent, but well on his way to a successful career in the tourist industry.  He was a fountain of useful information. 

In the evening, we expected more visitors:  Gisela, an English teacher and her partner Harahy, who works in a government office.  For two days of work per week she makes $12, or Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) per month!  Our chins dropped.  We were unable to ask further questions about this inconceivable price-canyon; we had just paid $25 for a taxi from the airport!  How could this work?  Was that $12 a bonus payment above and beyond her base salary?  Was it because she was a government worker?  What was her base salary?  We don’t know.  But when today, we picked up a few bananas, onions, and a couple of tomatoes from a street vendor and were asked to pay a mere 10 Cuban Pesos (CUP)  for it (about 40 cents), there seemed to be at least one possible explanation:  These two currencies exist in two parallel universes.  I am sure we will learn more about this as time goes on.

Today, Roy picked us up to drive us to an artist couple who lives in the small beach town of Guanabo.  Single-family homes with yards and swimming pools next to the beach made a prosperous impression.  But the roads in town were so riddled with potholes that our old Lada almost lost some of its underpinnings… 

Since we were interested in meeting contemporary artists, these two had been recommended to us by Heine, the owner of a translation business and yet another friend of Celibeth’s.  Janette Brossard and Norberto Marrero are internationally known print-makers.  They have gallery contracts in Switzerland; had artist-residencies in Massachusetts, and are represented in various places.  Their work is breathtaking and their printmaking techniques are impeccable and innovative.  Rather than trying to explain their work, I recommend you google it.  My biggest discovery at their home and studio was a technique I had never even heard of: Collagraphy.  It involves a combination of collage making and traditional print-making.  It took looking at an actual template for me to fully grasp the gist of the process.  Whereas Jannette focuses more on portraits and people, Norbert incorporates a lot of dark, surrealist humor in his two and three-dimensional works.  Recurring themes of multi-headed dragons, decapitated kings, drowning damsels, helicopter-winged creatures and more, interact in curious scenes; some of which convey deep subliminal and even political messages. 

Art in Cuba has been less restricted than in many other socialist societies I am familiar with.  Art Schools promote a wide range of styles and media and foster innovation on all levels.  Havana boasts a lively art scene and numerous art galleries.  We will explore a few of them.

Our way back to Havana took us along the North coast of the island.  From the autopista one can spot some of the turquoise blue ocean, sandy beaches, and resort towns that dot the coastline.  Roy stopped at Playa Santa Maria where Celi and I indulged in an hour long swim, riding the waves. 

A delicious seafood lunch was our reward at a cozy thatched-roofed restaurant where we made the brief acquaintance of an ex-Cuban couple who had returned to Cuba for the first time in 57 years!  Visibly moved, the man recounted his reunion with a tree in the nearby park which he used to climb as a boy.   A salsa band entertained with some of the Cuban classics familiar from the movie Buena Vista Social Club.  Listening to this foot-tapping music near that pristine shore, one can see where the idea originated that Cuba is paradise.  Sipping a Mojito at the same time does not hurt this notion, either.  One can almost forget that the world is riddled with problems. 

Returning to Havana put a reality check on this picture perfect day.  We are trying to eat much of our food at our AirBnB home.  Yesterday, Celi had secured some ham.  Today we picked up some fruits and bread from street vendors.  But we still needed water.  What should have been a stop at the corner shop turned into an hour hunt for water.  Every mercado or grocery store I was sent to seemed out of bottled water.  Finally, I spotted a whole palette of water still wrapped in plastic.  When I asked for water at the counter they shook their head.  No water.  But wait… I pointed to the stack in the corner.  No, that was not yet ready for sale!  I almost panicked  This was the fourth store out of water.  I continued up and down the narrow alleys of Old Havana until finally, a small street window leading out from a restaurant displayed just what I wanted:  Large water bottles.   By now I had ventured about 6 blocks from home.  I only had to carry the load home and master the 82 stairs up to our fourth floor apartment.  Just for the fun of it:  Lift 6 1.5 liter bottles — that is no joke.   And 82 steps are no joke either.  But I realized that if I had to climb those stairs day after day with groceries, kids, and other loads to carry. I would most likely be in good shape.  And so, I called it exercise rather than a chore. 

Only beer was missing now.  Heineken was everywhere.  But yesterday, we had gotten our hands on some German beer called Bavaria.  We were not about to lower our standards.  Celi knew where to go.  When we asked for 5 of the cans, we were told we could only have 4.  Why?  No explanation.  If we had not been on our way to a wifi spot I would have tested this rule.  Was it 4 per person?  2 per person?  What if I returned to the store 5 minutes later asking for another 4 cans?  Why was the beer rationed today but had not been rationed yesterday?  More questions than answers.

The good news is that I had a beer when I went to the balcony writing this blog.  And in all likelihood there will be some beer somewhere tomorrow should we need more.  Different countries, different customs.  I should be drinking mojito’s of course, but there will be time.  I am sure.

Good night. 

2017
03.15

Day 1 – ARRIVAL

Celi and ET Now

Celi and ET Now

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT TO CUBA AND ARRIVAL IN HAVANA.  OFF TO A NEW ADVENTURE!  HOW I GOT HERE AND WHY.  ABOUT GENERAL LICENSES AND A FEW TRAVEL TIDBITS.

The mosaic of sounds merged into a symphony loud enough to prevent me from napping.  It was just as well. 

The woman on the balcony to my right shouted something down from the fourth floor, getting involved in an animated conversation a few women on the street had started.  Kids were running after each other and calling out.  A motorbike just did not want to start properly, and a few cars were rolling by.  On almost every balcony on both sides of this narrow street some activity was unfolding:  The laundry was strung over here, a couple was smoking over there.  A plant was watered down below and a floor was swept across the street.  A dog wrestled with some old rag and a rooster was crowing. 

Through the open doors and windows across, the activities of a late afternoon were visible:  a dinner table was set, a baby was rocked, homework was done; music was blasting; a TV announcer tried to cut through.  All the while, several bags were lowered down on ropes from windows and balconies, and filled with soft round rolls by a man with a bicycle who seemed to have been awaited by many:  a baker on wheels.   

The life of all these people seemed like an open book.  I observed it with some amazement.  I was in Cuba!  I was in Havana!  For the next few days I would live in a small flat in the middle of the old city, skin-close to the locals.  As much as I was an outsider, my presence on this fourth-floor balcony made me part of this tapestry of sounds and activities, made me as much an observer as the object of observation.

It slowly sank in:  I was not in Iran as I had so hoped for this sabbatical.  Years of preparation and dreams were shattered when my sabbatical application to spend four months in Iran was vetoed by the WCC president and the school’s legal council.

I was not in China, Tibet or Nepal as I had alternatively proposed in a desperate move not to lose the sabbatical altogether; it is not yet season for travel in Nepal and Tibet and the thought of traveling to China just did not get me “in the mood”. 

Thank goodness, I was not in the hospital.  As if injury had to be added to insult, I caught a bronchitis at the end of last semester that before long had turned into pneumonia, caught just days before hospitalization, according to the Urgent Care physician I finally consulted.  A good dose of antibiotics cured the pneumonia, but strenuous travel alone and too far away, seemed a foolish idea for the time-being.

Cuba — with its warm and sunny climate, with my dear friend Celibeth Donnelly, who not only had the time, the money and the inclination to go, but who speaks Spanish as an extra bonus — seemed the best possible alternative.

And we pulled it off! 

Riding on Obama’s easing of travel restrictions for US citizens, we identified the general license applicable for the two of us:  515.564 (a):  Research and professional meetings.

We did not want to sneak through Canada or Mexico, as Celibeth had done four times in the past.  We were going as officially as possible. 

A call to my local travel agent in Ann Arbor revealed that his agency only one week prior had been authorized to even issue plane tickets to Cuba.  We would be his first Cuba clients!

A good friend, lawyer and Cuba-expert in Ann Arbor, helped us compile some additional paperwork to ease our minds; really, no further papers are required if the statutory general license applies. 

Our discovery of the existence of AirBnB in Cuba had me going for almost two days mapping out a full month’s trip, hitting as many UNESCO sites as possible — following my usual pattern of prioritizing cultural sites.  Booking accommodations with AirBnB, I hoped, would get us in touch with the locals, would allow us up-front payment via credit card or PayPal, and would keep our overall expenses reasonably low. 

Viazul, an overland bus company operating in Cuba, was another discovery.  Viazul connects all major Cuban cities. The system would be perfect if enough buses would operate.  Good for us and just in time, we found out how fast these buses fill up.  More than three weeks in advance, I booked all the buses to get us from one place to the next.  Usually, I show up at the bus station the day of my trips…

All of this pre-planning took out a bit of the spontaneity I like while traveling, but it eased our need to carry too much cash around (ongoing effects of the US embargo) and since we were two on this trip, gave us some structure we both could work with. 

This will be a new experience:  traveling with a companion, but I am looking forward to it.  Celibeth and I have known each other for over 20 years.  There should be few surprises.

But no doubt, we will be in for a lot of wonderful experiences, challenges, encounters, discoveries.  As always, I hope you will join me/us.

Good night.

2017
03.14
Celi and ET in 2002

Celi and ET in 2002

SYNOPSIS:  MY FIRST TRIP TO CUBA IN 2002.  PLANS FOR 2017.

15 years ago, Roz Biederman, our Spanish teacher at WCC, pulled off the impossible:  She obtained a license to take a group of staff and students to Cuba under the auspices of the Cuban Labor Union.  And our WCC administrators supported her efforts.  I jumped at the opportunity to go, and so did my partner David.  I even pulled my son Martin out of school for those 10 days, against the protest of his father.  This was schooling through life.  In my view, that beats book learning any day.

I did not keep a diary…  You probably know that phenomenon:  you think you will never forget a trip like this because it is so special, so vivid, so different.  And yet, if you don’t keep track, a few days into the trip, some details begin to blur and a few years later (like right now), there are only a few memories left, like flashes in a big sea of darkness.

We took a bus to Toronto and went from there, through the back door, so to speak.  We were guided and guarded for the whole trip by three guys from the Cuba Labor Union.  We stayed in a rather primitive, dormitory-like house; simple accommodations.  And even though we protested — we knew that locals had about 1-3 rations of meat per month — we were served huge portions of chicken every day.  Every night we congregated on the rooftop drinking loads of $1 mojitos.  At that time, dollars were still in high demand.  None of us had a single peso of local currency.  And these union guys kept us in the dark about our daily excursions.  Keeping you in the dark seems to be a Cuban pastime, and is good old local fashion, even today.

Every day after breakfast we were loaded into an old Cuban bus and taken to some place demonstrating socialist achievements.  A construction site, a hospital, a school, a labor union meeting.  For fun, we were driven to an all-inclusive beach resort where most of our youngsters got lobster-red sunburns. 

I remember that after a few days of this, I had enough.  We did not see anything of the country, the people, the music, the street life!  It was a union award ceremony way outside of Havana, that finally broke the camel’s back.  Even though I don’t speak Spanish at all, I understood half of what they were saying in their passionate-socialist speeches.  Those were the same old socialist slogans I had grown up with in East Germany.  I just could not take it any longer. 

I told the union chief that I was leaving.  He was completely baffled.  I was miles from Havana without a map, a guide, a penny.  He could not fathom that I was serious.  Not only that, I asked David to join me — but David was too polite to leave the group.  But I convinced my son that he would have a lot more fun coming with me.  We took off.  I did not know where we were, but we would find out.  We walked to a road and hitch-hiked.  That, I remember vividly.  A bus stopped.  We offered a dollar for the ride.  That is as if you want to pay somebody $25 for something that costs 25 cents.  We were just waived to ride along without pay.  The bus filled up.  It was going to Havana.  Somewhere in the center of the old city it dropped us off.  And for an entire afternoon we roamed around.  We saw the people, heard the street bands, sifted through a book store, looked into dark hallways and strolled through dilapidated alleys.  Somehow we found our way back to our home. 

I encouraged the others to leave for a while, too.  What were they afraid of?  Communists don’t bite.  This was a safe country.  The next day, a few more people took off on their own.  The union leaders were outraged.  Sorry, guys.

On May 1, we were given matching T-shirts and led to the big May Day Parade.  Unsuspecting, and unaware of the fact that we had been made “the American delegation” we were led to the front row of the huge crowd that had dutifully assembled for this important annual rally; the most important annual rally, in fact.  As every year, Fidel would give one of his rousing speeches.  But he was getting on in years.  His speech was neither as rousing nor as long as they had been in previous years, thankfully.  I could see him crystal clear.  I wish I had had a camera like I have now.  I could have zoomed him in for posterity! 

What was much more memorable to me than Fidel, was a young boy.  A six year old perhaps, or was he only five?!  He gave a speech like I had never heard a kid give a speech before:  From memory, fast, passionate, loud, and patriotic, getting the crowd to cheer and to applaud.  He had wrapped them around his little finger.  Did he know what he was saying?  Had he just memorized what somebody had fed him?  This was outer-worldly, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian all in one.

We did a lot of things that I forgot.  But I remember the big bus that picked us up from the Toronto airport.  And I remember that at the Canadian-US border we were asked where we had come from.  The airport?  That was suspicious.  Everyone out, everyone’s suitcase out.  The search began.  Yes, we had rum and cigars.  And because we had a license that was OK.  But it took a while until we were cleared.  We were a sight the US border guards did not see too often:  20 people who did not even conceal or hide that they had been in Cuba.  20 people who had made purchases despite the embargo.  20 people, they had to let go.

That was my first encounter with Cuba.  But I could not leave it at that.  Someday I knew, I had to return to see Cuba with my own eyes and on my own terms.  This year seemed a good one.  I have a sabbatical (4 months off teaching).  And my sabbatical plan, to spend 4 months in Iran, had been thwarted.  What now?  Cuba travel for Americans has become easier since Obama’s trip to the island.   More on how you can do this in the Post-script Blog.

Why not test what that means in practice.  Why not see what has happened in Cuba since 2002.  Why not see if anything has changed since Fidel died.  And why not go with Celibeth, my friend, who loves Cuba and was on that same trip as I was in 2002?  And she speaks Spanish!

Let’s go!  I hope you will join us.