Trip to Cuba

by Julie Brenton (November 2011)

Cuba: Woody and Julie Brentonís Trip, Nov. 1Ė6, 2011. Julie and Woody own Villa Orquidea in Tankah.

Our house smelled from rotting chicken when we got home on Sunday evening. Our kids, who had been taking care of our cats while we were gone, couldnít figure out where the smell was coming from.

We were in such a haste to leave, that we hadnít really planned well. Of course we knew about our trip six months in advance, because we had to get new passports, with lots of pages in them. The travel agent had to find a Cuban tour guide, and get official permission for our group, because the United States wonít allow travel to Cuba for its citizens, unless itís on a cultural exchange or humanitarian mission. But, because of Hurricane Rina in the Mexican Caribbean, our plans could change at a momentís notice. Rina was gathering up speed and headed right for our house in Tulum then would be headed to Cuba next!  We were concentrating so much on this that we forgot the little things, like raw chicken left in the refrigerator that needed to be thrown out!

We had taken out trip insurance, so in the event of a natural disaster, we could cancel our trip, and get a refund of what we had paid up front, which were the plane tickets, hotel room, food for the week, excursion bus, and tour guide, etc. We were glad to pay for insurance but luckily we didnít need it. Hurricane Rina went out with a little puff, and some rain.

We flew to Miami the day before and took a chartered Delta flight to Havana with our group from the Des Moines Art Center the next day. The flight to Havana only took 45 minutes, but our group needed to be there three hours ahead of time. The Havana airport was small and our group sailed through Customs and Immigration.

We had the same bus and driver throughout our trip which took us to our hotel, the Parque Central, about 20 minutes away. Once we were there, we noticed that there were many tour buses, built in China, of the same type parked at our hotel, which was well located in the colonial Habana Viejo.

The lobby was beautiful, albeit smoky, from the smokersí lounge located nearby. We took our luggage to our rooms instead of using a porter because our guide said it would be faster. The rooms were large, with king-sized beds, flat screen TVs, and large marble-and-tile bathrooms with both a bathtub and separate shower. The bed used a typical ďMexican-style mattress,Ē that was hard and low to the floor. The furnishings were nice and it even had a stocked mini bar.

During our time in Havana, we learned that this hotel is considered one of the best in the city. Nevertheless, it did have a series of small issues. One of the things that a person learns rapidly is that Cuba is, in Havana, returning to the tourist business. The country has gone decades without this source of foreign exchange and is now working very hard to restore this industry. So, in places, it was a little rough around the edges. Interestingly during the week that we were there, we learned that the Mexican government, which is a partner in everything, changed partners for the management of the Parque Central to Iberostar from Spain, a name I think we all recognize.

We took the bus to a paladar for dinner. A paladar is a personís home where the family cooks the dinner and serves it. We had always heard that Cuban food is bland so we were cautiously optimistic. They brought out plain, white bread in a basket first, then some wine or beer. Since we had 20 people in our group we had three tables. The service was slow but it was raining. We were outside under little palapa-like areas; it was pretty and we were happy to be there.

The rest of the food was served to mostly our table while the others were left waiting! But, because the food was so boring, it didnít seem to matter that much. Everything was so plainóno spice. Chicken, yucca (like boiled potatoes), beans, rabbit, sliced avocado, black beans and a little iceberg lettuce. If you came for vegetables or fruit you would be disappointed. The fruit served may be an unripe banana. The servings were quite small. One could easily go on a diet here and lose weight, because there is nothing to get excited about here food wise. The best thing to eat was the flan served for dessert. It tasted very much like what we are served in Tulum so thatís a good thing. Iíll not mention food again, since itís not worth talking about in this piece. Better save up your calories for when you get home! One bit of good news is the wine; there is plenty of South American wine at reasonable prices.

Before the bus dropped our group back at the hotel for the evening, we stopped at the El Morrow Castle and watched the cannon fire a round. This is part of the original fortifications surrounding the city. Like many old cities of that era, it was walled. This cannon firing, a local tradition at 9 PM, was to notify the citizens that the city gates were closing. Both locals and tourists lined up for this free event. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance while costumed Cubans paraded through the park with old swords and muskets, like the military of old. The cannon was then fired and everyone left.

The next day, we began our tour of art galleries, museums, and buildings under restoration. Habana Viejo is the original colonial part of the city. The old area of the city along with the city's fortifications were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. There are many buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in the area. Fifty years of socialism have resulted in some of these buildings being in significant disrepair. Our guide told us that somewhere in old Havana, a wall of a building collapses every three days. Many of these buildings are homes to multiple families, as they were broken up into tiny apartments right after the revolution.

On the other hand, the city seems to be in a frenzy of restoration of these buildings as the government recognizes the desirability from a tourist attraction standpoint. In the old part of the city, a major portion of the roads are closed so pedestrians dominate traffic, making an environment somewhat reminiscent to this author of Venice. The restored buildings are outstanding. Drink a beer, restore a building! Habana Viejo images:

The art museums and galleries are too numerous to describe. The quality is very high, however, especially considering the nature of Cuba. Interestingly, thriving artists, because they sell their art around the world, are some of the most successful individuals in the country. Many of the galleries are located in individual homes, which adds interest to the experience.

Because politics is such a dominant theme in Cuba, much of the art provides interesting political commentary. One artist has had some of his work locked up in his apartment since the '80s, as it does not pass muster with the censors.

Our guides were wonderful; one was from Argentina and lived in the U.S. and the other was a local Cuban guide, who spoke excellent English and was educated in Cuba. Both had extensive knowledge of art and humanities, as well as politics, history and general interest. We got the idea that our tour was very special  and that we had the inside knowledge about Cuba.

The old 1950s cars we saw being driven all over Cuba symbolize Cubaís isolation from the world as a whole, and the effects communism has brought their culture. American foreign policy has also been a challenge for the country and its transportation. The more Cubans know what theyíre missing, from the Internet and by talking to outsiders, the more is interpreted in their art, which can have all types of political symbolism.

Right now Internet contact is through a transponder on a satellite. Bandwidth is similar to Playa Wireless and much, much more expensive! At our hotel it was $38 for 5 hours! There is hope that Raul and Cesar Chavez will finalize a deal for a fiber optic cable from the island to Venezuela, allowing real connectivity at a reasonable price.

Interestingly, citizens are well educated in the arts and artists are generally in the wealthier section of their society, able to restore these old cars for their personal uses. The artistsí studios we visited, although sparsely furnished and in need of repair and restoration, are palaces compared to homes of more typical Cubans who live in subdivided houses. One of the artistís cars:

I am told by people who know such things that this is most closely a 1955 Corvette. Restoration in Cuba is not like restoration in the United States!

The best place to buy art for people not wanting to spend a lot is Taller Arte Experimental, where many print artists have their work printed. The print techniques are mono prints, serigraphy, wood and linoleum block prints, etc., and even include vintage printing equipment. We were able to go through several folders of prints by different artists in the gallery upstairs. Some of the pieces we purchased were noteworthy, although not more than $200 USD, bought with Convertible Cuban Pesos. They issued us facturas for this art that we had to submit at Cuban Customs on our return flight to Miami.

Some in the group had bigger budgets and were able to purchase art directly from the artists, in the artists' homes or their Havana gallery. A lot of the artists we visited also have galleries abroad, such as in Miami, Los Angeles or places in Europe. It is possible to see the art in Cuba, but purchase it in the U.S., or purchase it in Cuba and have it mailed from Cuba to the U.S. or Mexico without a problem.

One of the highlights of our trip was going to the house of Pamela Ruiz and her artist husband, Damian Aquiles, and son. She is an American married to her Cuban husband. Their son is a Cuban-American, born in the U.S. but educated and living in Cuba.

Their house is large and has elegant 12-foot ceilings with highly decorative crown molding and beautiful, old Cuban-tiled floors. The walls have an incredible patina of multi-leve