Stories from Cuba (written by Brian)

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Thursday, December 5, 2002

Thursday morning was an early morning, as we had wanted to see the Havana Harbor as we sailed in. The ships horn sounded just as the sun was rising around 6:00 am to alert other ships we were entering the narrow channel to the harbor. I woke up and headed up to the forward observation deck to check out what was going on. We had just entered the channel and the light from the old lighthouse was still visible. I walked around for a while and then went back down to the cabin to grab the camera and wake up Shell. We both headed back up in time to see the harbor as the sun was rising. The Havana harbor is quite unique, as ships must go through a narrow passage before entering the almost perfectly shaped bay. An old lighthouse greets you as you enter the harbor and just beyond lay the remains of an old Spanish fort guarding the passage and lastly a huge statue of Jesus. As soon as you pass through the channel, the harbor opens up into an oblong circle in which you can see the entire bay. As we pulled through the channel, you could see the main part of Havana from the bow of the ship. On the opposite side of the bay from the docks, the industrial lights circle the bay. The sunrise light provided just enough light to see the city, yet still hold some of it behind darkness. As the sun rose on the horizon, the full realm of the city was revealed. It was definitely one of the more beautiful ports we had been to. As we entered the harbor, the ship slowed and we made our way into the dock. Shell and I went back to bed for a few minutes and waited for breakfast to get rolling. Being the last port, we didn't have as many responsibilities so we would be able to get an early start at exploring Havana. After breakfast, we decided to go exploring with Sunny and Bill and do our own walking tour of Havana. Around 10:30 am, we got ready for the day and headed out.

As soon as we got off the gangway, you saw a Cuban and American flag standing together on the dock. It seemed a little strange but would provide a foreshadowing of events to come. After passing through the tight security we entered the city. "Old Havana" is the section of Havana that lies adjacent to the dock area and has been completely restored. The initial sight of Havana as you leave the dock is quite spectacular. The cobblestone streets and courtyards lead to refurbished buildings that accentuate the Old Spanish colonial architecture. Old churches and buildings can be seen with their original intricate stonework in place. It was immediately evident why the city has the mystique that it does. Within few minutes our friend Bill turned to me and said, "I can already tell this is a place I'm going to want to come back to". I nodded in agreement as I was already sad we only had three days here!

Our plan for the day was pretty flexible. We wanted to find some good Cuban food somewhere, and then perhaps visit a cigar factory in the afternoon and do some site seeing. We began walking around the restored sections of Havana enjoying the scenery and taking in the culture. While the initial streets we walked down were quite touristy, we still could get a decent feel for Cuba. We meandered down streets, walked past the Floridita (Hemingway's old hangout) and into an open square. While we were getting our bearings, a young Cuban walked by and asked us where we were from. We responded that we were American's and he enthusiastically approved. We began talking to him a bit and then he asked if we needed anything, we responded that we were hungry and were looking for some authentic food. He said he knew of a good "Paladir" (a restaurant that is inside someone's home) and that he would take us there. In our quick judge of character (granted this was the same group that had the Mombassa experience) we decided that he was trustworthy and so we followed him. He proceeded to take us out of the tourist section of the town and into the real Havana. The change between the two sections was truly amazing. It was as if someone had drawn a line down the middle of the two areas. Immediately, the buildings went from bright, colorful, and well kept to crumbling gray remnants of once beautiful structures. The make-up of the people on the streets quickly changed as well as we were instantly the only non-Cubans in sight. Javier (the Cuban who was guiding us) was leading us around the city it what seemed like somewhat of a maze. At one point a couple of us were wondering where in the hell we were going but then after one more turn down a street, we were at the paladir called Fenix. Javier knocked on a large door and when opened, it revealed a steep staircase leading up into the house. Once upstairs, we were lead into a small room that overlooked the street with a few tables and a small bar. The proprietor of the restaurant sat us and began to take our orders. There was no menu, only hand-scribbled selections with prices that were simple: chicken, beef, turtle, lobster and fish. Javier helped with the translations from Spanish to English. We were told that they all came with rice and vegetables and that they were good size portions. We ordered our cerveza's and debated on what to have. We decided on the turtle (I think all of us had a bit of an issue eating turtle, but we were trying to experience true Cuban food) and the chicken. We bought our guide a beer and sat back and waited for our food. The first person to get up noticed that the kitchen was just down the hallway and that two older women were in the small house kitchen fixing our food. We were definitely pleased at this point that we had achieved our first goal of traditional Cuban food. As we waited for our food we got up and went out on the terrace that overlooked the street. I began talking to Javier about life in Cuba and what it was like. His response, while not surprising, was interesting. He was 27 and had been trained as a chef but had no work. He said that there were very few jobs and that while he was well educated, he could do nothing with it. He said that the living conditions were very bad for a majority of the people as he pointed to the roofless building across the street. He said that if you did not keep your house looking nice, the government would simply come tear it down and build a hotel or tourist building in its place. He spoke sheepishly of the police as he pointed to the two, armed officers on the corner. He said that if they saw him talking to tourists or SAS students, they would detain him and potentially put him in jail for the night because they did not want him talking to people. When asked what the people thought of the government he paused for a moment before responding. He said that Fidel was indeed a national hero and that he helped the country attain true autonomy, yet there were some serious issues that needed to be resolved and that perhaps a change was in order. I was glad to be able to talk to Javier and receive, what appeared to be, straightforward answers. Going into the voyage, I had circled Cuba as one of the places I was most looking forward to as I had hoped to answer many of the questions I had about the people and the culture.

After a while, our food came out. It smelled delicious from the beginning and looked good as well. They brought out the plates of chicken and turtle, a big bowl of rice and beans and the plate of vegetables. We all sat down and began to dig in. Bill and I were the first to dig into the turtle as Shelley and Sunny waited to see our reaction. Once we got past the concept that we were eating turtle, we agreed that it was quite good. It was somewhat sweet and had a unique flavor. The chicken and rice were equally as good and we truly enjoyed our lunch. After lunch we headed out to continue our tour. At one point, we had mentioned the cigar factory and Javier proceeded to tell us that we were crazy if we bought cigars from there. He said the factories were designed for tourists and the prices you paid were ridiculous. He said that he knew some people that could get us real cigars at a much cheaper price. He said that once a person had worked in the factories for ten years, they were allowed to keep some cigars they had made that were over their quotas. While they were not supposed to sell these cigars, many of these people made a profit on these cigars, as they would sell them at a fraction of the cost of the factories and stores. We agreed that he would take us to his friend, but first we would get more of a tour of Havana. We walked around the city for a while on the way to the cigar house. Javier took us to Chinatown, took us to a local store where Cubans would do there shopping and showed one of the local music halls. We also stopped by an old Catholic church (La Senora De La Carrida) that was absolutely beautiful. We were reminded that Christmas was approaching as it had a large decorated Christmas tree. The stonework and stained glass in the church was amazing as you could tell that much of it was the original work from hundreds of years ago. After the church, we headed off to the cigar man's house.

We entered the house in a little bit of secrecy but were excited that we were potentially getting a great deal on cigars. The man who worked at the factory was not home, but his son was there and worked with us. They showed us the various kinds of cigars and talked a bit about pricing. Shell and I were a bit taken back at the prices as I think we both assumed the prices would be much cheaper. With many of us all buying cigars, they began to offer us "bulk" discounts. After a bit of discussion, we decided that between the three of us (I'm counting Shell and I as one), we would each get two boxes. We agreed upon the price and concluded the deal. As soon as we were done, Javier had a huge grin on his face. As part of his commission, he would be getting some money and food. With the food rationing in place, extra food was a hot commodity and Javier said something along the lines that he would be set-up for a while. As we left the house, we shook hands with everyone and said goodbye to Javier. We decided that we should get back to the ship fairly soon as walking around with contraband in a city with a cop on almost every street corner was not a good idea. We walked back towards the tourist area and the "Capitola" (The Capital, which is an exact replica of the US Capital building). We headed back to the ship, deposited our contraband and made our next plan. At the time we did not know it, but we actually had a little luck with us as we passed through the Cuban security to get back on the ship. It turns out that they were stopping people with cigars at security and asking them for their receipt. Without a receipt, they would assume they were purchased illegally and were confiscating some of the cigars. They luckily did not search us and so we seemed to slip through the cracks. We all agreed it would have really sucked to get our cigars confiscated and thus basically thrown away our money!

It was about 3:00 pm by this time and we all decided that we would head over to the Revolution museum and then grab dinner. Shell and I had to be back by 8:30 for our Barrios exchange program so we had plenty of time. We caught a taxi to the museum and spent a good hour and a half touring the museum. The museum, like the War Remnants museum in Vietnam, was quite interesting as it was very one sided and very nationalistic though it did provide some great information about the revolution. It was neat to follow the revolution as they laid the museum out in a time line that started with the tumultuous times in the early 20th century and followed it to the point in which Castro and his forces took control of Havana. It's pretty amazing that the Revolution started with 82 people in a small village and progressed over several years until they finally reached Havana. Outside of the museum they had several military relics including the "Granma", the boat that was used by the original 82 revolutionaries to sail from Mexico to Cuba. They had tanks, jeeps and supposedly, some of the wreckage from both a B-29 that was shot down during the Bay of Pigs and the U2 plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the museum, we grabbed a couple of rickshaws (the bicycle kind) to take us to the restaurant. It was tons of fun riding in the rickshaws around the streets of Havana while trying to take pictures of each other. We arrived at "Hanoi", a "Vietnamese oriented Cuban" place. The food was cheap and was pretty decent, not great, but not bad either. We toasted to our first day in Cuba with mojitos (a famous mixture of Rum, mint, sugar and lime juice). After dinner we walked back to the ship and got ready for our Barrios exchange.

We didn't know a lot about the exchange, but we assumed (and hoped) that it would be a chance for us to get out and meet with some of the local Cuban people. We piled into the buses and some of the Cuban students acted as our guides. The students were full of energy and tried to turn the bus ride into a variety show. I think most of us were tired from the day and hoping for a quick minute of rest before we reached our destination but oh well! The bus traveled down the streets of Havana and we soon realized we were definitely going into a "real" Cuban neighborhood. We passed one of the baseball stadiums and ended up at a community center. When we arrived, there was a large contingent of Cubans, including children of all ages waiting for us. We all took a seat and tried to listen to the students on the PA system as they were talking about what was going on as well as introducing the "CDR", who is like the mayor of the community. The acoustics in the building were terrible and with all of the side conversations, it was almost impossible to hear anything. After a few minutes of getting organized, some of the Cuban moms and their small children began doing a dance together. Then some more small children came out in boy-girl pairs. We were all amazed at the ability of the kids to dance. As in Brazil, it was as if dancing was somehow born into them! After the small kids danced, a group of teenage kids performed several dances as well. Some danced the salsa and did several group dances as we and the other Cubans looked on. After their dances were over around 9:30, the parents left with their children and we had what was supposed to be a Q&A session. The CDR came to the stage and one of the students translated for the session. He talked to us about the community and what they were doing to better the community and what life was like. Of course, he got in the obligatory reference to the embargo. After some time of talking they opened it up to questions in which they instructed us to ask "anything" we wanted. A common theme for our time in Cuba was that the Cuban officials encouraged us to ask "any question you want". It soon became obvious that any responses during these events were as canned as the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. One example was when one of the SAS people asked the CDR if he could change one thing in his community what would he change. His response was basically that his community was perfect and that he would not change a thing.

After the Q&A session, the university students attempted to get all of us up dancing. As you might have guessed, getting a bunch of rhythmically challenged Americans up and dancing was quite the challenge! Their initial attempts were quite unsuccessful as only a few people bravely got up to dance. However, after a while, most all of us were up trying to "shake a leg". It was quite amusing watching our group try and Salsa dance though! A Cuban student even got Shell to dance with him.

After we finished tearing it up, we headed back to the ship. Despite the slow start, the evening had ended pretty well as a large number of us had made our way on the dance floor. We said goodbye to our community hosts and headed back to the buses. The event had turned out to be OK yet was definitely not quite what most of us had expected. We were bummed that the acoustics in the building were so bad that you could barely hear anything that people were saying and we were also bummed that we didn't really have much time to interact with the people in a small group situation. We did have a good time though and it was fun seeing the community come together.

By the time we got back to the ship it was about 11:30 pm. Some of the students we knew were heading out for a nightcap. After some prodding, we decided to join them. We headed to a rooftop bar that we had heard about which was close to the ship. It was atop one of the museums and had a great view of the Havana harbor. We ended up sitting outside with one of my work-study students, Heather, and her boyfriend, Bryan. The view was awesome as the lighthouse; the fort and the statue of Jesus were lit up directly across the bay. After some time, our friend Andrew and a Cuban student, who was hanging out with us, joined us outside on the deck. It was funny watching the Cuban student hit on Shelley despite her valid attempts to indicate she was married. Around 1:00 am we started to head back to the ship but were then convinced to go to another bar with the group. We met a few other students we knew and began looking for a bar. Most of the establishments were closing by this time but we did find one place that was open so we decided to head in. While we were hanging out, Shelley had a Jamaican looking man approach her who was obviously quite taken with her. He spoke no English, but it was obvious he was interested. At one point, he began to braid some of Shelley's hair trying to attempt to create a single dreadlock. It was very amusing seeing him go at it with her hair although I don't think Shell was enjoying it as much as we were. Once completed, he motioned for a hug and a kiss on the cheek, however when Shell went to give him a kiss, he quickly moved his head to try and get one on the lips. We gave him enough money for a beer (about a buck) and then headed back to the ship. On our way back to the ship we bumped into some people in the courtyard across from the ship and talked to them for a while. One of the students on the ship was from Evergreen, and her friend, also from Evergreen was studying in Cuba so the three of us hung out for a while and talked about the homeland. Finally, around 2:30 am, we headed back to the ship and crashed.

Friday, December 6, 2002

Needless to say, we slept in a little after our late night outing. As we boarded the ship last night, we had heard that the Fidel Castro meeting was a go. We would be leaving around 4:00 pm on buses and we should not be late. Knowing this, we decided to take it easy during the day and just walk around town a little. We went and had lunch at a restaurant close to the ship, watched a Cuban band play while we ate and then went to the outside market. The market was on the waterfront, along the channel. They had all kinds of arts and crafts and artwork. It was fun walking though the markets as the people were not too overbearing and they had some cool stuff. If we had some more money we may have come back with some of the Cuban art we saw. They had a whole section of artwork, mostly oil paintings.

After walking around the market for a while we headed back into town and then back to the ship to get ready for our briefing with Fidel. We had heard that past "briefings" had gone up to five hours so we were prepared for a long night. From what we had heard, we were to be bused to the governmental assembly hall where we would be given a snack and then have our briefing. After the briefing, the government was providing a dinner and party afterwards for all of us (both SAS and Cuban students). We gathered all of our cameras and eventually hopped in the bus for the event (after waiting for nearly an hour to get on one). After about a twenty-minute bus ride, we arrived at the government building. We went into the building, grabbed our snack (a small sandwich and can of pop) and went into the assembly hall. The hall was a huge auditorium like room. The main seats sat staggered up from the stage to the raised back area of the room. There were two balconies on either side of the main seating that went even higher and looked like the "upper deck" of a sports stadium. By the time we arrived most of the seats were taken. We walked around for a while and then discovered, to our luck, that the first few rows had been reserved for faculty and staff. We found a seat in about the third row and got ready for the big event. We sat around for about half an hour before the briefing began. At one point, everyone saw Fidel come out from the side of the stage and everyone rose and gave him a standing ovation. Contrary to most of his public appearances, Castro was dressed in a suit rather than his usual green fatigues. I think several of us were a little bummed not to see the fatigues. Before the briefing began, a Cuban choir sang several songs. After the choir, Dean Lewan got up to introduce Fidel.

After the introduction, Fidel came to the mike and began his speech. He started out with a general welcome and said that he was pleased that the Semester at Sea program continued to come to Cuba as he hoped it would help build relationships for the future. Castro spoke in Spanish so we all (at least those of us who didn't speak Spanish) had little ear pieces that we put over our ear from which we heard the English translation. He spoke for about 30 minutes and then opened it up to questions. Surprised at how quickly we got to the Q&A part, we thought that perhaps we would be able to get a lot of questions in. Little did we know that we were about to experience what even Fidel himself acknowledged, that he can be a long winded speaker that seems to carry on forever! The first question was about his relationship with religious groups, particularly the Jewish community (the question came from a Cuban student). The moment he began his answer with "When I was a small boy" we knew we were in trouble. After about 40 minutes of rambling and taking us down several different paths he finally came back to the original question and answered by saying that he had a good relationship with all religious groups. The next question was not really a question, but rather a request. One of the students asked Fidel if he would sign the passport of his friend. He agreed and the student (one of the students that we actually knew quite well) went up and had his passport signed by Mr. Castro. It was pretty funny and I think Fidel even got a chuckle out of it. The next question by a SAS student provided its own entertainment. Again, when the student prefaced his question by saying, "Please do not take offense to my question", we knew we were in trouble. The student basically asked, in an eloquent way, if Castro had ever tried to assassinate John F. Kennedy in retaliation to the numerous assassination attempts on his own life. After a short pause in which I'm sure he thought to himself, "I'd better be careful with this one!" he began his response. Again after a series of tangents and round about stories he finally came back to the question in which he finally basically stated that no he did not ever attempt to assassinate Kennedy (although he did say he believes that Lee Harvey Oswald DID NOT act alone). The last real question was a question from one of the American students at the University of Havana about the practice of not allowing Cuban's stay at many of the hotels in Havana. Castro stated that because tourism is one of their primary industries that certain hotels had been deemed "export" goods. He stated that since these hotels were designed for tourists that it did not make sense for Cuban's to be filling up the rooms. He also stated that it would not be fair to all people since only a few people in Cuba could actually afford to stay there. His second point was quite interesting because it was an example of how dedicated they are to the concept of equality. The fact that everyone in the country could not afford these hotels meant that nobody was allowed to stay there. The last "question" turned out to be another request. One of the SAS students who had literally had his hand in the air for the entire three and a half hours was given the opportunity to ask his question. Initially a student in the Cuban sectionwas selected but they all gave way to the SAS student who had also been holding a Cuban flag during the process. The student's request was to get a hug from Fidel. After a moment of consideration he agreed and the student came down and got his hug from Fidel. Everyone cheered as Fidel walked back towards the stage for his departure. An interesting note was that none of us had gone through any kind of security before entering the building and then Castro simply walked up to a person and embraced them. A bit different from the security-laden entourages that accompany President of the US.

Everyone gave a standing ovation as he left the stage. The briefing had lasted a little over three hours, which wasn't too bad at all for Castro briefings! The event had been very entertaining, despite the many yawns from the crowd as Castro rambled on and on.

Overall, Castro was a fairly charismatic and engaging person. While he definitely lived up to his reputation of being long-winded, it was impressive that a 76 year old man could stand up there for three hours and respond to questions (although sometimes in a very strange fashion). Unfortunately, none of the questions asked addressed his future and what was to be set in place once he died.

After the briefing, we were bused to a separate building for our dinner and party. There were a dozen or so buffet tables with a variety of dishes. There were no places to sit or tables to eat on so everyone was simply standing around eating their dinner. They had some bars set-up as well and were offering beer, Rum and pop. It is safe to say that Cubans enjoy their rum and they produce it very well. When asking for the equivalent of a rum and coke, I got basically half rum and half coke (at least the Cuban equivalent). After everyone had began to finish dinner they had a live band playing some traditional and modern Cuban dance music. People began dancing everywhere. The main stage was packed and people were dancing all along the reception hall and even down by the empty pool. It was fun to watch everyone dancing together and enjoying themselves so much. We hung out just off the main stage and talked to several students. It wasn't until around 1:30 am that the band finally ended and everyone began filing out. We hopped on the bus and were shuttled back to the ship. By this time, we were absolutely exhausted and were looking forward to getting some sleep.

Saturday, December 7, 2002

Today was somewhat of a sad day as it would be our last day in Cuba as well as our last day in any port on our journey. We decided to take it easy and enjoy the beaches of Cuba. Again, we slept in a little, as we were still exhausted from the two previous days. We grabbed a taxi around noon and headed out to Playa Santa Maria, which a couple of students had recommended the day before. The weather was not cooperating too well as it was pretty cloudy and somewhat chilly, but we were determined. It was about a twenty-minute cab ride to the beach and we arranged for the taxi driver to pick us up from the beach at 5:00 pm. The beach area was nice as it had several little restaurant/bar huts on the beach and the views were great. The beach was fairly deserted due to the weather so we had our choice of spots. The surf was pounding against the beach as six-foot waves were continuously breaking and crashing. We grabbed some beach loungers and then went to get some lunch at one of the small huts. We sat under their canopy and enjoyed our seafood lunch and beverages.

After our meal, we decided that we at least had to get into the ocean even though it was cold and huge waves were everywhere. We hopped in and while it was a bit nippy at first, the temperature became quite pleasant after a few minutes. We began playing in the waves as they would throw us around like rag dolls. We would try to swim out but kept getting pushed back by the barrage of waves. Many times a wave and come flying back to shore would pummel us. We felt like little kids again just frolicking in the ocean. After about an hour we headed back to the beach and enjoyed lounging around on our beach chairs. While the weather was somewhat chilly, we still enjoyed relaxing at the beach. I think we were both in a state of denial that our voyage was actually coming to an end. Within a few hours we would get on the ship for a last time and then our next step on land would be the US!

The rest of the afternoon was filled with napping in the lounge chairs, more ocean fun and a walk up the beach. At five, we packed up all of our stuff and found our taxi driver. Our same driver was there, waiting for us and we headed back into Havana. He was a really nice guy who spoke a little bit of English. With Shelley's bit of Spanish she remembered, the two of them were able to converse a little. We did some last minute shopping in the dock area and then Shell had to head back to the ship for some work issues. I went back into Havana for one last walk around. I met up with our friends Sunny and Bill and hung out for a few minutes and then headed back to the ship. We knew to expect a crazy night as many of the students were coming back on the ship after one final party. We spent the rest of the night hanging out and were able to go up to the top deck and watch as the ship left the Havana harbor. Seeing the statue of Jesus, the lighthouse and the lights of Havana were a perfect way to leave our last port. While we were sad that this was our last port I think that we understood that this was something that would stay with us forever.

Final thoughts on Cuba

For obvious reasons, I think Cuba was the country in which everyone had so many preconceived images, yet really knew very little about. It's ironic because Cuba has as rich of a history and as many stories to tell as any other country. The one common preconceived image that turned out to be true was the beauty and allure of Havana. Pulling into Havana at sunrise was magical and it was quickly easy to see why the city has its reputation. As you walk around the city and see the architecture and buildings you see how magnificent the city must have been two hundred years ago. On the human side, the people of Cuba are warm, friendly and intelligent. Everyone was eager to talk to us and seemed to hold no animosity against us. While many of their responses were canned party line rhetoric, they were sincere and seemed to want to rebuild the bridge with the US. It also became clearly evident that the US embargo against Cuba is not only politically ignorant, but humanitarianly devastating. Cuba poses no threat to the US and yet we are stopping the supply of food to millions of people. Seeing Fidel Castro was incredible and was definitely one of the things that made us realize just how lucky we were to be on this voyage. While he tended to ramble in circles when asked questions, he still seemed very sharp and stood up on stage for over three hours. For a man of 76 years, that's pretty impressive! It will be interesting to see what happens to Cuba once El Presidente passes. With their highly educated population and superb healthcare, they could be poised to do great things with just a little freedom.