JULY 2017 • 17
TUMBLEWEEDS • JEFF BERG
What I Did on My Spring Vacation
ere is what you will find in 2017 Cuba: Warm, friendly people; a crumbling infrastructure that is just now being tended to; a government that supports the arts a lot; free schools; no McDonalds; no Walmarts; people who like beer, but ask for paper, since it is something hard to come by; no guns; very little Internet; beautiful architecture; history; zillions of ’50s American cars, most of which now have diesel engines; little crime; lots of litter; poverty; little toilet paper; few toilet seats; no credit cards; and no visible racism between the Afro-Caribbean people and the those with more Spanish blood. My interest in Cuba came about when I used to read about Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Not sure when that was, but I recall that Castro was always made out to be the “bad guy,” since he didn’t bend over and kiss the behinds of U.S. politicians. Back in those days, it wasn’t often mentioned that Cuba was run by a corrupt man with numerous ties to the U.S.-based Mafia. I’m not a fan of Fidel, but what he did is pretty amazing. I had long wanted to visit the country and the first opportunity came about in 2016. I saw an ad for an outfit called International Expeditions (IE) and one of the several trips they offered to Cuba (in general, you still can’t go there as an individual directly from the U.S.), presented the opportunity to sail around the southern part of the country on a small passenger ship, the Panorama, which is flagged in Greece. Opportunity knocking, since I like small ships, although the fellow travelers can be a pain in the rump, I really wanted to go. After begging for pennies and selling the car, house and cats, it was possible. That was in 2016. Imagine the surprise when it was easier to get into Cuba than it was to get out of the States. And there were no cops, soldiers, guard dogs or people in riot gear with large weaponry at the airport. It took about 20 minutes to claim baggage and head for the bus to the hotel. After a mechanical failure on the ship, our marvelous guides, Boli from Ecuador, and Martine, a local from Cuba, rearranged the whole trip, via bus, complete with hotels. The plan was for the ship to be repaired and meet us in Havana at the end of the tour. When IE offered a free return to Cuba the next year, we went back in March. We toured the French-influenced city of Cienfuegos and later took a bus to Trinidad, a beautiful place, marked by amazing architecture and cobblestone streets. There were still no men (or women) with guns, no soldiers, no armored cars, no drug-sniffing canines, and no Burger Kings or shopping malls. We took a side trip to Presidio Modelo, where Fidel and his brother Raul were held as prisoners for almost two years. We went to a farmer’s market, were treated to some beautiful music by a small choir, state sponsored, had good food; even though I am a strict pain-in-the-ass-vegetarian, I was al-
Street mimes in Cuban cities will sit completely still in various historical costumes. Sometimes they will intentionally startle a passerby, work for tips. This gentleman’s chest has a hole in the top for coins. (Photos by Jeff Berg)
ways accommodated wherever we went, although I never want to see cabbage again! We saw art, vendors, a laidback atmosphere, old cars, horse-drawn carts, improvised busses, and took another side trip, this one to the small museum that told the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was supported by the U.S. Government (CIA) and was a dismal failure. Here, they told both sides of the story, with the Cubans being the heroes of course and the invaders being the bad guys. They even had the remains of one of the U.S. planes that was shot down. Four airmen from the Alabama National Guard were killed during the clash. And read about Operation Northwoods, sometime … We later went to one of the country’s national parks, located near Juventad Island, which was/is seen an “island of youth.” The area was green and jungle-like, and offered some wonderful time near the clear, clear water of the sea just off the island. We also visited a small school nearby, where the student-teacher ratio was, well, shall we say, small. A day or so later, we boarded busses for the trip to Havana. The boat, Panorama, being rather slow, made the voyage around the west end of the island to Havana, which is on the northern coast, without us. Along the way, we stopped at a tobacco farm, had lunch at one of the island’s first organic farms, (oh, the joy!) and got good views of the countryside. When we arrived in Havana, which is much different than most of the island, we went to the former home of author Ernest Hemingway and later were reconnected with the ship, which had docked at Havana’s rather rundown harbor, just off downtown. We also visited with a gentleman who was a car restorer, business being brisk. He was quite proud of his recent acquisition, a 1963 Chevrolet that was almost like new. On the last day, our guides had arranged for all of us to be taken in ’50s American cars (operated as taxis) to Revolutionary Square, in the western part of the city. It was unbelievably fun to ride in a ’56 Pontiac for 30 minutes — a convertible, no less. Since the ship was docked close to downtown, we could disembark in the evening to explore the semi-cosmopolitan environs of Havana’s city center. It was teeming with live mu-
sic at several outdoor cafés and this is the only place that we saw anyone in uniform. Some bored-looking, gently armed police officers strolled the area, mostly chatting among themselves. We toured more of Havana the next day, which is nothing like you think it might be. It is alive and friendly and very safe and without the usual trappings of an American city. Mimes, made up in complete body paint, so to speak, dotted the area, depicting different historical figures. One, decked out as a pirate, sat motionless for the 15 minutes I observed him, until another tourist happened by and he raised his cutlass to gently tap her on the leg. She dropped a peso or two into his treasure chest. In the evening, on the first night, we could have attended the huge and garish Tropicana show in Havana. We had gone last year and it was fun and interesting, but one visit is enough unless you are really into that sort of entertainment. We also walked from the ship to a delightful venue that had musicians who played music much like that in the famed documentary film, “Buena Vista Social Club.” The next morning was an easy return to the States, although I don’t think anyone was ready to come back. And again, it took longer to go through U.S. Customs and Border security then it did to get out of Cuba. So, what of Cuba? It’s been in-
Remains of the prison where Fidel Castro was held in the 1950’s.
teresting to tell people about these trips. Some are awe-inspired. One friend even made immediate arrangements to go himself, and others give the look like I am a pariah of some sort — how dare I visit that human rights-disregarding haven of Commies? My impression of Cuba was thus: It has problems, many of them. The infrastructure is just now getting much needed attention and the Russian influence abounds, with horribly ugly concrete apartment buildings and water towers all over the island. Cuba is in poverty, but making strides to overcome that. As Martine, our 2016 guide said, “Cubans are lazy.” They get free housing (although one cannot buy a house or car, they are handed down through families); free food — each Cuban has a ration book, which allows for a set amount of food per person, per month; free education, including university; and free medical care, said to be some of the best in the world. One passenger on the Panorama took a wrong step and twisted her ankle and her glowing report back about the Cuban hospital is another whole article. My wife received a bite from a mostly friendly, but overstimulated feral cat, which a nurse treated in minutes, much more successfully than when my wife was bitten by one of our cats and ended up in the hospital for two days. You also can’t drink the water. One of the main problems is the two different currencies, one used to pay employees, the
other for everything else. But there a lot of good things — very friendly, very real people; the tremendous support of the arts by the government; and the loosening of some of the strict control by Raul Castro (lots of excitement about who will replace him when he retires in early 2018). There are many startup businesses, sponsored by the government, and tourism — although not as big as most thought it would be — is helping the financial issues facing the country as well. I think it is a country in transition. The country is still suffering because of the idiotic U.S. embargo, but it has survived, since other countries, besides Russia, don’t have the same dogma. Cuban politics aren’t that much different than ours if you really think about it. “In Cuba we have one party, but in the U.S., there is very little difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class.” — Raul Castro Viva Cuba! Jeff Berg is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe. While living in Las Cruces, he was senior writer for the previous owner/ operator of Desert Exposure. His newest book, from a real publisher, “Alone in the Dark — A History of New Mexico Movie Theatres” will be released this fall. He watches “The Simpsons” every Sunday.
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