Mr. Sympatico Goes to Cuba

posted April 2012

Every winter for many years, I have proclaimed repeatedly,
“I want to go to Cuba.”

I have only partially succeeded, making it to Cuba, KS, and Cuba, NM.

But, a good friend of mine, Mr. Sympatico, went there this winter.
I got to see his photos and hear from the old horse's mouth about his journey.
He thought so much of the country and the people
that he will probably return next year.

Mr. Sympatico was sufficiently inspired to write a travelogue -
8 pages, 4000 words - which I found thoughtful and heartwarming,
insightful and informative.

Mr. Sympatico prefers to remain incognito since
- in our land of the free -
it remains illegal to spend money when travelling in Cuba.
Technically, it is not illegal to visit there.

An American tourist, however, can get in real trouble with our government
for using money in that neighboring country.
Go figure.

Mr. Sympatico's story goes like this --

Lars and I are sitting in the departure concourse at Cancun International waiting to board Cubana Air for our flight to Havana. It’s incredibly hot and crowded but we’re not complaining! We’ve survived the complexities of the system and sit with our boarding passes and Cuban tourist cards, ready to see a whole new country. Eventually a bus shows up outside; we all crowd aboard for a short ride to our waiting plane. As I’m going down the aisle of the plane to my seat I see a beautiful stewardess plant a kiss on an acquaintance boarding with us. As I go by I ask, “A little kiss for me too?” She say’s, “Why not?” and gives me a sweet little kiss. I already like Cuba!! Then we’re over the waters of the gulf but only for 30 minutes or so; then the lush green of Cuba! I’m amazed as we fly over miles of mountainous country; heavily forested with no sign of humanity. We’re flying just inside the north coast and I’m seeing pretty little inlets and bays and many mangrove islands just offshore. After a time I start seeing farming below as we begin our descent into Jose Marti airport.

We land just at sundown and begin the long process of entering the country. It seems that several other flights have landed with us and the lines for immigration and customs are long and slow but we finally emerge from the bowels of the beast into the main lobby thinking we we’re home free. We’d been told we had to change money at the airport and I guess everyone else was told the same because the lines in front of the money exchange were very long and slow. After 45 long minutes we’re finally getting into a cab which we’re sharing with a couple from Austria and headed into town. Through some very lucky happenings I’d gotten in touch via e mail with Rodrigo, a man in Havana who has found us a family home for our stay in the city. We’re welcomed by Lisbeth and Dario and shown to our large comfortable bedroom. Their home is in a suburb of beautiful tree lined streets and elegant old homes. We’ve arranged to have dinner with Rodrigo and he picked us up about 9 pm. and drove us to a restaurant which serves, as he says, traditional Cuban food. Rodrigo is very full of energy and our conversation goes non stop for two hours; Lars and I asking questions and he answering. His English is good, thankfully, because the Cuban Spanish has me totally lost!! Yikes! He asks me why I’ve come to Cuba. I tell him that I wanted to see the country before things changed; before the country was overrun with Burger Kings and Walmarts and all the other trash of modern America. He tells me that this will never happen; that the Cubans value very highly the culture that they have and don’t want it spoiled by the mindless consumerism that has taken over the US. I think Rodrigo works for the government in some capacity and he is very dedicated to the socialist ideal. I comment on his idealism and he tells me that Yes, he’s an idealist but also pragmatic. “I know what can and can’t be done.” I ask him if tourism is now the country’s largest source of income and was surprised to hear that it was only 4th. (Cuba had 2.7 million visitors in 2011.) Number one income source was from human resources. Thousands of Cuban doctors, engineers, technicians and other trained Cubans were working in other countries. The Cuban government pays them but charges the host country for their services. He said there were some 15 thousand doctors in places like Venesuela and Bolivia. Their second largest source of money is that sent by Cubans in the US to their families all over Cuba. Number three is their natural resources; oil and nickel. Our meal was delicious and generous; fish, chicken, and pork with rice, black beans, fried plantains, a salad and a dessert for $3.50 a plate. Rodrigo invites us to meet his community development group in the morning. Another great opportunity to rub elbows with the people!! Back in our “casa particular” (their term for these private homes renting rooms) I talk with Lars about all we’ve learned tonight. Not for the last time do I realize how much Lars’ excellent Spanish is going to add to this trip; allowing us to have meaningful conversations and to really communicate!

We slept late this morning. Lisbeth served us a breakfast of fresh fruits, cheese, ham and the wonderful strong Cuban coffee. It’s served in very small cups and has the strength of espresso, but it’s not at all bitter and is laced with cane sugar; a very fine start for the day! We sit on the balcony overlooking the street and soak up the moist tropical air. Lisbeth introduces us to her 10 year old son. I ask her about the size of Cuban families and she surprises me my saying that one or two children is the norm! This is totally unlike the rest of Latin America where the birthrate is disastrously high. Lars and I walk a mile or so along beautiful tree lined streets to the city park where we’re to meet Rodrigo and his compadres. They are a group a 20 or so from all walks of life and ranging in age from 20 to 40 or so. They meet on a regular basis to plan community and social development projects. They spoke around the circle, introducing themselves. Lars and I did the same. They were all very sweet and sincere and I loved them immediately. They were of all different shades of skin color and facial features. Race is such a non issue here unless it would be the super white of my Montana winter legs. But that’s not true either. In everyother Latin country I’ve traveled in, I’ve been stared at as though I’m from another planet; not here though. The other thing is this: everyone we’ve met has this great sense of self esteem. I think it’s because they’ve been taught from 1st grade on that in this country everyone is equal; each person’s occupation is important. This group is working to help the socialist ideals succeed. They all spoke of what they were doing and trying to do. It was very moving. They so want to help Cuba down a road that is good for the people. When it was my turn to speak I said, “I just want you all to know; and I hope no one here is with the CIA(this brought a laugh)that there are many Americans like Lars and I who do not agree with many things that our government does; especially those things it does in other countries.” The meeting ended with all of us holding hands in a circle and each speaking of the good things that were happening. My emotions swelled and I told them that I could feel the love that they had for each other and for their country and that it was very beautiful. I remember the same swell of emotions watching the young Massai warriors dance in Kenya. My culture has nothing that compares with this depth of emotional commitment. And again I see that these people are fully aware of what a great culture they have; what a rare thing this is. Many of the Cubanos that we met have relatives living in the US. (there are some 1.7 million Cubans in the US) From them the Cubans have learned a lot about things up north and aren’t very eager to import our way of life.

After another slow morning with wonderful Cuban coffee on the balcony, Lars & I walk a few blocks to a money exchange and then tried in vain to figure out the city bus routes to the long trip bus terminal to buy tickets for our trip to the south coast. After much walking and waiting we finally gave up and caught a cab. We bought our bus tickets and then walked a mile or so to catch the city bus to the capitol. The guide says, “city busses are very crowded and seldom used by tourists”, this sounds like a challenge!

Well,” crowded” was too weak a term to describe this bus. I was one of the last in and the conductor had to pull my arms in so the door could close. These people ride this everyday and they are all laughing and talking and even though we’re like sardines, no one is impatient or rude. Everyone is nicely dressed and well groomed. We go for miles through narrow canyons of apartment buildings with unpainted crumbling facades. All of these were once magnificent but now some have wooden poles supporting balconeys; others look like the bombed out buildings of post WWII, but amazingly all were occupied with colorful clothing drying on the balcony railings and people lounging in ground floor doorways passing the time with neighbors. This went on for miles and this is just one of hundreds of streets just like it in this great city. I can’t keep the smile off my face. Two different women caution me to keep my money in my front pocket and keep my hand on it; and yet, I feel so safe here. I’ve never seen people like this anywhere I’ve been unless it was Costa Rica in 1971. We leave the bus at the huge plaza which holds their capitol building in it’s center; the four sides of the plaza are magnificent old buildings. Havana is a very old city, some of the buildings date from the 1500’s. The government, with it’s limited resources, has been renovating the most significant structures, but many, many remain in dire need. I’m not much of a city guy, but Havana stole my heart. Probably the only American city with anything like the ambiance of Havana would be pre Katrina New Orleans. I don’t have the skill to describe what I’m feeling here; Lars too is just as amazed! The energy of the people, the beautiful old buildings, the 100’s of old American cars all combine to create a scene that feels more like a dream. We went into a high end hotel and for $5 were able to send out messages on Lars’ Facebook. In the western hemisphere, only Haiti’s internet is less developed than Cuba’s. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Museum of the Revolution, housed in a palace built back in the 1920”s. Room after room is filled with old black & white photos and other memorabilia telling the story of the overthrow of Batista. These were incredibly dedicated and resourceful men and women who prevailed against huge odds. I’m filled with disgust by the actions of the US during this time and on up to the present day. Late in the afternoon we walk along the famed Malecon which stretches for a couple miles along the sea wall; then a short cab ride back to our home sweet home. Tonight we had a good dinner at a seafood restaurant run by the Ministry of Fisheries. Now we’re packed for an early AM bus trip to the south shore of the island for two days of birding and snorkeling. Can it get any better?!

I’m lying in bed in another casa particular digesting the finest meal yet; fish just out of the sea this morning, rice, black beans, slices of tomato, cucumbers and a five fruit platter; oh and French breadand butter, yikes! The warm surf is quietly breaking 30 feet from my window. We’re at the head end of the Bay of Pigs where that ill-conceived, ill planned, and poorly executed C I A invasion took place in1961. The C I A spooks somehow overlooked the fact that they were going up against seasoned men who’d been fighting for their lives for the past seven year. Oops! But I’m sure they reasoned that it’d just be Cubans killing each other; the kind of caper the Agency seems to enjoy putting together. We’d caught an early morning bus out of Havana and at 10:30 got off at a wide spot on the highway. We were able to get a taxi for the 40 km down here and by noon Lars had us on a bird trip into the wetlands. There were two young women from Belgium at the park headquarters who’d found a car and driver but couldn’t afford the fare so we jumped at the chance to split the cost with them. Our ride was a light blue 54 Plymouth and we wondered, not for the first time, how in the world they’ve kept these things running without parts for 50 years. This peninsula is the largest wetland in the Caribbean with thousands of square kilometers of shallow salt flats and mangroves. In four hours we saw thousands of birds representing some 36 species. We saw hundreds of flamingos and many other large birds; herons, storks, egrets, ibises, and stilts. What a sight!!

We’re up early for birds but this time in the woods. Same guide, same ride. Saw 38 species in two hours with the last two spotted being the most spectacular: The beautiful Tocororo which is Cuba’s national bird and the zunzuncito or bee hummingbird, the smallest bird on the planet! This afternoon we hired our driver to take us on down the peninsula for some fish watching. There was no beach for 40 km, just a low undercut limestone cliff. At one spot there was a rickety old ladder that let us down to snorkel. The water was crystal and there were lots of beautiful fish swimming among the coral heads. We then drove on down to Playa Giron where the Bay of Pigs invasion actually came ashore. There were concrete monuments along the road, each with the name of the Cuban who died there fighting the invaders; there were 159 in all. There was a small museum there telling the story of the battle. One wall held 8x10 photos of the 159 fallen soldiers. Cruising back up the beach in our ’54 Plymouth we encounter many horse carts of various shapes and sizes. Tonight we had another wonderful dinner. Ceceli had asked us if we’d like to try crocodile and yes, it was very good!

I walked for birds this morning and saw four of the beautiful Cuban parrots up close, wow! We got a taxi for the ride back up to the main highway where we caught the bus back to Havana to stay the night. We returned to the same house of our first two nights. Lisbeth and Dario were glad to see us and we them. We’d tried to buy bus tickets to our next destination but were told we’d have to buy them in the morning. What the woman saying this knew, and what we didn’t, was that the morning bus for Vinales was sold out.

We get an early taxi to the bus station where we learn the bad news. Damn, now what? To go by taxi cost $70 so we decided to wait a bit and see if there were others our predicament; and sure enough in a few minutes a young couple from Austria agreed to split the fare. We were five and luggage in a small car but we were on our way. We pass vast fields of sugar cane and bananas. These would all be run by the state as is everything else in Cuba; shops, busses, taxis, etc yet things seem to run pretty well. I wonder why everything hasn’t sunk under the weight of a bloated bureaucracy. Or maybe this is a huge problem here; I didn’t find out. Now we start seeing fields of tobacco, each just an acre or so and each with it’s own drying barn. The road wound up to the top of some low mountains and then opens a splendid view of this rich karst valley with tall limestone cliffs surrounding it. The fields are small as they once were here in America when farming was all done with animal drawn tools. We only saw only a few old Russian tractors, most of the farming was still with oxen and horse but it seemed to work very well. The taxi driver’s aunt has a room to rent and that’s where we stay. Lidia(the aunt) is a fireball of energy

and authority and wears the pants. I can see right off that her gentle spouse Juan accepted this years ago. She is also a great cook and we took all our meals there during our stay. Today another realization has bubbled up into my conscious mind: Not only is color a non issue here but so is social class structure. Since the revolution in 1960 the school children have been taught that all Cubans are equal as human beings and this is really apparent in how they interact with each other and would also account for their wonderful self assurance. The other huge thing that the revolution achieved was in education. In 1960 the literacy rate was around 35% and within three years it rose to above 90%. We drop our packs in the room and walk the few blocks to the town’s central plaza. It’s dominated by a large old Catholic church but I get the impression that the church has lost most of it’s power in Cuba which along with education would also help explain the smaller families here in sharp contrast with the rest of Latin America. There are also many venders selling from pushcarts piled high with beautiful fresh vegetables of all kinds. The Cuban’s healthy diet would help explain why there’s no obesity here and also why their life expectancy is 87 years. I also saw many people riding bikes and lots of people walking which must also contribute to their health along with the free healthcare for everyone.

We rise early for a hike in the park with our guide; park rules, no guide, no go. He was very good at showing and explaining; he helped me see several new birds. It was a 6 hour walk and a climb of 1500 feet for a great view of this strange and beautiful valley. This karst valley is actually a vast collapsed cavern. The towering limestone cliffs that surround us were once the walls and the collapsed ceiling has since been covered with rich soil. This morning in the plaza, all the school kids paraded in celebration of the 150th birthday of Jose Marti who was sort of like our George Washington. They were all in their school uniforms and clearly having a great time.

We had a mellow day touring the valley in an open air two decker bus. Toured a cavern and a tobacco farm and just enjoyed the beautiful countryside. We were abandoned by the bus at the last stop and ended up walking 2 miles back to town.

We settled accounts with Lidia this morning and hugged goodbye. The ride back to Havana was interestingly new, since we’d had fog on our cab ride up. I’m struck again by the importance of animal power in their agriculture and the few old Russian tractors look as dated as the old American cars. We got back to our casa about noon and caught a cab to old Havana via the Malecon. There was a wind out of the north that made breaking seas high enough to drench the avenue. They tell us that the Malecon is closed fairly often by the high surf. We found an open air used book market and a huge art and craft market where we bought a few gifts for our loved ones. I’m struck once again by the energy of this city and by the wonderful old buildings.

This is our last day in Havana. We arrived downtown with the intention of buying tickets for the “on again off again” open air tour bus but alas, our Lonely Planet Guide led us astray once more. But we did get a bus that took us under the harbor and to the massive old Spanish fort that overlooks the city. It housed a great museum of antique weapons and a small one devoted to Che Guevara. It was mainly photos of the man during various phases of the revolution and telling the story of their amazing victory against huge odds. Che went on to aid people in other countries who were under the yoke of oppression until he was murdered by the CIA thugs in Bolivia. The wealthy always have their hired killers. The CIA folks will rot in hell for many crimes but perhaps their worst was the murder of Che. Seen in a certain light it wasn’t much different than the Roman’s treatment of a certain carpenter. I walked out of the museum crying; understanding for the first time why Che is so deeply loved by so many. At the end of the exhibit there was a quote from Fidel which went something like this: “Why did the rich and powerful think that murdering Che would stop him? He lives on in the hearts of all people who search for justice and compassion wherever they are in this world.” We moved on to old Havana visiting the Humbolt Museum of Navigation which was housed in a magnificent old castle and featuring the history of sailing ships. There was a 10 foot long scale model of a man of war with a side open to view the various decks. There was an old chest with silver and gold coins and ingots recovered from a sunken galleon. Another “wow.” But yet again, the overpowering presence of old Havana is still the people living there in the amazingly beautiful old buildings; living their lives among the tourists.

As the sun went down, Lars and I sat at a sidewalk table and drank a toast to our amazing journey together. A very old man shuffled by with his cane and greeted us. Lars had some of the national currency left and gave it to him. I got up to shake his hand and he kissed my cheek and I returned the kiss; it’s that kind of country. He tottered off and as I sat down I was crying again; for the old man? for humanity? or did I see myself there, not too many years in the future? What I do know is that Lars and I connected very deeply with the Cubans we met. Much of the credit for this goes to Lars’ great language skills but I also think that a lot of communication happens in more subtle ways. Lars and I are both men without borders, ambassadors of humanity, not of nations. Nations come and go like the seasons but the human condition is the same as it was ten thousand years ago.

Lars and I saw many wonderful things; the ocean, the mountains, the country side and Havana but still we keep talking about the people. We’ve both traveled a bit and have never seen anything like this culture. In our conversations with the Cubans they seem to understand what a unique and beautiful way of life they have and they want to preserve it.

Our flight out leaves at 4pm and we get to the airport by 1 pm not knowing how long it will take to get through all the rigmarole, but the exit process was a breeze. The bottle neck occurred when we arrived in Cancun. I think that 5 international flights all hit the ground at the same time and we were in line for over an hour waiting to pass immigration. We were hoping to talk the official into not stamping our passports because we’d end up with two entries into Mexico with no country in between. The Cubans had issued us a tourist card which they stamped but not our passports. No luck with the Mexican stamp guy so we worried a bit about U S immigration in Phoenix. Lars & had big smiles as we walked down the hall with U S immigration in the rear view mirror!

All of the above was written from my notes. Now I’m back in Montana reading a history of Cuba and the novels of Leonardo Padura and a darker picture emerges. These people have lived with centuries of oppression and slavery. Castro’s revolution was the brightest event in their history but it too became oppressive in it’s attempts to implement a socialist economy. There was severe censorship of the arts, education and small business were shut down. The revolution government greatly underestimated the difficulty of managing the country’s economy and mistakes were made. Much of the country’s financial woes were caused by events beyond it’s control. The continued hostility of the U S finally drove Cuba to an alliance with the Soviet Union but when it collapsed the Cuban economy tanked. I talked with Cubans who remembered well that decade of the 90’s. “There was no soap or toilet paper and you spent all day looking for enough to eat.” And all the while the U S trade embargo ensured that no help would come from us. JFK was the guy who really got behind our aggressive foreign policy. I think he was really angry that he could no longer go to Havana and frolic with the prostitutes in the mob owned casinos as he did when he was a senator. Oh well; everyone has an agenda. Perhaps these hard times that the Cubans have endured together have been a factor shaping their culture. They must surely have had to depend on each other for survival which might partly explain their kindness toward each other. Rodrigo told us that first night in Havana that Cuba was a very complex country and that we wouldn’t understand it in just one visit. He was right. I returned with more questions than answers which should always be the case if one is paying attention.


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