|The final month in Santiago went by in a flash. While we loved the serenity of our vista, the kindness of the people, the authenticity of the city, and the endless summer vacation of our lives there- it was time to move on. We were getting a bit “shpilky” (i.e. antsy) to see the rest of the world.
Fortunately, we didn’t have much time to wallow in these feelings, as we were fortunate enough to have many of our closest friends and family come visit us. The earlier part of our stay here brought us my step brother Elliot, Gillian’s mom and dad (Bill and Carol), and our friends Matt and Jenny. This last month we had Peter’s sister (Marianne) and her wonderful daughter (Sophia), Peter’s parents (Bill and Bittan), Gillian’s brother and sister-in-law (Bo and Erin) and their adorable daughter (Eden), as well as two of Peter’s best friends, Norm and Peter Imlay (aka Uncle Pete). Uncle Pete stayed with us for the last week in Guatemala, and is with us for the first week of our travels to Cuba.
While ready to leave the country, we were not expecting such a warm sendoff. The hospital staff had a goodbye party in the sala de education. We had a fun pot luck at Las Milpas and even our family in Antigua made us an incredible goodbye dinner. Annika’s Guatemalan BFF, ChloeAnn, printed and framed a picture of the two of them that Annika keeps with her wherever she goes. With Annika in tears Alex spoke these wise words:” You know, we are going to be pretty sad and miss some people pretty much, but soon, we will be in Cuba having so much fun it won’t be so sad anymore.” He was spot on.
Part one of our travels was a two week stint in Cuba. (actually, since we can’t legally go to Cuba, this part is not for real, just random musings of what we would have seen and done, had we actually gone there.....which, of course, we have not.......capiche?).
Havana is an incredible place. Amazing architecture, and buildings that speak of an era of affluence and relevance. Ornate facades, stately columns, opulent designs. Unfortunately, neglect and, most relevantly, poverty, have left these buildings exposed to the ravages of time and the elements. The fronts are dirty, with peeling paints, cracking balconies, and boarded up windows. Clothes are hung to dry by impoverished Cubans on balconies that were intended for guests of Martini parties, and lookouts during romantic breakfasts on tablecloths.
Every street would be frightening to walk down, with run down buildings and loafers that give it the charm of crack houses.....except that all the streets are like this, and that it is supposedly quite safe. Crime is rare here, aside from the obligatory pickpockets and hustlers. The people are incredibly warm and welcoming, the weather warm and soothing, the music endemic and soulful, and the rum sneakily strong.
Annika and Alex are, again, finding that they don’t blend in easily, but taking their fame in stride. Local women walk up, as in Guatemala, to touch their hair and marveling “Que bonita!”. Like Brad and Angelina, the kids still are able to smile and allow their adoring fans a cherished moment of their time.
After Havana, we rented a car and drove around the country. It’s a surprisingly large island (>800 miles long), with few radio stations (though we were able to occasionally tune in some rock station from Florida!). Uncle Pete joined us for the first part, going west, and experienced some amazing things with us: a riverboat tour of a cave; sudden, torrential rains; a water spout ( ie tornado over the ocean); beautiful beaches; and the mass migration of the land crabs. The crabs cross the roads in the tens of thousands (literally) at dawn and dusk, and are hard enough to cause flat tires. I had to swerve a bit to avoid some, and some didn’t make the migration, but no flat tires (phew).
The next week and a half were spent touring Cuba’s countryside and incredible beaches. We were a bit concerned over having enough $$, as we can’t access any money here (can’t use ATM cards, travelers cheques, or credit cards based on US banks). But one thing they do have (though incredibly rare and slow) is the internet. 15 minutes of searching online and I found a UK based travel agency booking hotels in Cuba online. We ended up enjoying 3 incredible days at an all inclusive Melia on an amazing beach ‘cause....we’ll we had to save money, right? The kids loved the “power of the wristband”- simply ask for anything and show the wristband, and you will receive. Alex loved it, though was dismayed that his wrist band didn’t work in the gift shop. We all OD’d on Pina coladas and had a grand time in the turquoise waters.
The rest of the time in Cuba was spent living in Casa Particulares, which are private homes with rooms to rent. These are all state sanctioned and have strict requirements (cleanliness, AC, x many Sq Ft, etc). Universally run by lovely people and cost between $15-30 per room.
Some amazing experiences were had along the way: kids swam with dolphins, we cooled off in a desolate and incredible series of waterfalls, we explored old colonial cities (Trinidad was the best in Cuba by far), snorkeled, visited a crocodile farm, and relived the ever popular “this is my side of the car” arguments. We finally ended up at the far East side of the Island, Santiago de Cuba.
All in all, a great experience and a fascinating country.
For the most part Cubans are friendly and easy to talk to. Staying in someone’s house makes the chatting that much easier. Miguel, a 70 year old professor with a twinkle in his eye and our first host, was happy to talk about anything but asked that we please not ask him anything about politics. He said, someday when Fidel is dead maybe we can chat.
We are currently living in a casa that could quite easily be mistaken for a crack house on the outside. Surprisingly, it is owned by a surgeon and his wife, a dentist. The good news is that a poor son of a taxi driver was able to become a surgeon for free under Fidel’s system. The sad news is that after 25 years of making $20 a month this surgeon got fed up, quit and now spends his days renting rooms to make money because it is more lucrative.
The following facts are what we have learned from our friends here. ..
People are not allowed to voice any dissent to the one party (still called the Revolutionary party even after 50 years- I suppose the Establishment Party doesn’t have the same zealotry), to do so invites jail time and police brutality. As such, we couldn’t really have any political discussions with people, as they were very guarded with their words (except one outspoken dissident we met who was just given his political refugee card by the US and is leaving in 3 months- he had some choice words)
People make, on average $12-20 per MONTH here, regardless of what they do. Those who make the most are the waiters and musicians, who get tips.
People still have ration cards, which allows them a certain amount of staples for almost nothing.
The best beaches, which have the great tourist resorts, are off limits to Cubans. They legally cannot go there.
Though there are some (few) places with internet access, these are off limits to Cuban nationals.
All TV, radio, and print is regulated by the government
All problems in Cuba are publicly blamed on the US embargo. The people are told that they don’t have access to the internet because it is owned by the US. ( THere is plenty of expensive internet in the hotels for the tourists)
People own the houses they live in, but are not allowed to sell them. They can trade houses with others who feel like trading. - Hard to trade up though.
There is no property tax and all rents were nationalized so that to is either non existent or very minimal. ( couldn’t quite figure that one out)
They say that the health care system is good here though we met a fellow traveler who broke his ankle in Trinidad and they couldn’t find an x-ray machine in the whole city. , Literacy is approaching 100% due to emphasis on education (except, of course, political science)
No one knows where Fidel lives or anything about his personal life - not even the name of his spouse.
This is not a capitalistic society so there is no advertising. The only billboards are propaganda billboards. “ One hour of embargo costs Cuba the equivalent of school supplies for 100 schools for the year” Many singing the glory of the revolution and fighting for socialism. We even saw one that had Hitler and Bush together with some other evil dictators.
Professionals are not allowed to leave Cuba period. Non professionals have a slight chance but only if someone in the country they want to visit will vouch for them and assure that they have a job.
Outside of Havana and Santiago horse and carriage seem to outnumber cars. Highways ( patched paths of cement) are clogged with horses and bicycles.
That’s it for now. We are off to Ecuador. Hope you are all fantastically well.
Peter, Gillian, Annika and Alex.