Wednesday, September 30, 2015

We arrive in Santa Clara, Cuba!

Thursday, September 17. An agonizingly early start today. We have a 4:30 wake-up call for a 5 AM departure to the Miami airport. Our Road Scholar tour leader was on the job and helped all of us begin our journey to learn as much as we can about the people and culture of Cuba. An hour after taking off we arrived in Santa Clara, Cuba, and by mid morning we were on the bus heading for our first Cuban experience. We drove through this rundown but surprisingly clean town to a cigar factory. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, but learned a lot about the process. Each cigar is composed of five kinds of leaves: one each for aroma, strength, combustion, glue, and the outer wrapper. Surprisingly, all five kinds of leaves grow on the same plant, just in different locations. There is an extensive training program for this job, which pays well by Cuban standards. (Note: the average Cuban earns about $25 US per month.) Each cigar is carefully inspected for quality and to be sure it draws properly. They even have a special machine for that. The cigar factory is owned by the government, like most enterprises here. In recent years, since Raúl succeeded to the presidency Fidel had occupied for half a century, some privately owned businesses have developed, but this is not one of them. Most are restaurants, called paladars, or B&Bs. The big restaurants and hotels are government owned, but it is supposed that privately owned businesses will increase dramatically in coming years, especially after Raúl steps down in 2018. (Note: Cubans don’t use last names to refer to their leaders. I don’t know why, but first names prevail.)
Our first sight of Cuba

Almost the first thing we saw after landing were many classic American cars in the airport parking lot.

Local housing

This apartment building was left over from the Russian period. 

A street in Santa Clara

Horse-drawn vehicles might outnumber cars here

I didn't know they have trains in Cuba, but they do. There is a passenger line that runs  the entire length of the island in about eighteen hours.

A restoration project in Santa Clara

The lady wearing these amazing tights was our cigar factory guide. I took this photo from the bus window and have been surprised to see this fashion statement throughout Cuba.
After a stop in the Santa Clara town square, we lunched in a local paladar, one of Cuba’s relatively new privately owned restaurants, which turned out to be very nice! We were given our first Cuban welcome drink—a pińa colada. The custom here is to serve the virgin drink to everyone and then come around with a bottle of rum for anyone who wants a little kick added. The pińa coladas were so good that when we were told we could order a second drink, most of us ordered another one instead of the water, wine, beer, or soda they probably meant us to have. This turned out to be the last time the options for the second drink weren’t specified. LOL. Lunch was a huge buffet with all kinds of vegetables, fruits and several meats, as well as desserts. We have been warned that meals in Cuba are huge even by American standards. For that reason, Road Scholar has arranged for buffets or family style service whenever possible, so we can take what we want and not waste as much food as they did when meals were plated in the kitchen. Our lunch was followed by a concert by a well-known Cuban singer, who performed with his guitar, accompanied by his son on violin. Of course, CDs were available for purchase.
A Cuban gas station

Santa Clara street

Santa Clara's Plaza Major
A statue honoring a major benefactress to the city and...

...citizens of Santa Clara

I didn't get my camera out in time for the real subject of this photo--the elaborate cake this young woman was carrying.

Local transportation

The entrance to our first paladar

The buffet table

The dishwasher behind the bar

The entertainment

Back in the plaza, this is known as the boy with the boot fountain. Water pours from the holes in his boot.

Che Guevara is considered a local hero here even though he was actually from Argentina, and there is a large statue of him at the museum/mortuary that honors him and other key figures in the revolutionary army that eventually caused the fall of the corrupt and murderous US-backed Batista government. There is much to criticize about the Castro regime, but the revolution did rid Cuba of a government that didn’t serve the majority of Cubans well at all and replaced it with a more egalitarian state that despite our usual view, has provided its people with many benefits such as universal education and excellent medical care.

The Che Guevara Memorial and Mortuary

Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Santa Clara, Los Caneyes. This is the word for the round dwellings that the original indian inhabitants of Cuba lived in before Columbus arrived. Unfortunately, these original peoples were almost entirely eradicated by the European invaders, either by disease or by being killed off. Columbus may be celebrated as the “discover of America,” but he was NOT a nice guy, it seems. The hotel, however, is quite charming, with a sort of sophisticated country air. The rooms are a bit primitive by our standards, but perfectly adequate, very clean, and laid out in individual pods of six units per round building. We are told to remember to brush our teeth with bottled water, but were pleased to discover that the rooms contain both 220 and 110 plugs, so we can charge all our devices with no need for converters of any kind. I guess they sort of said that in our pre-trip information, but not in a way that most of us understood clearly.

The entrance to Los Caneyes

Looking up

The dining pavilion


After we settled in a bit, I went to the desk to change some US dollars into Cuban money, and on the way back enjoyed the ambiance of the grounds, including the presence of a couple of roosters and their attendant chicks and chickens. Not too sure I’m going to like that rooster presence come morning.

This guy with the mane seems to be rooster in chief

#2 rooster

Along the way to our cabin

The common porch in our building is a shady retreat

The center of our building, surrounded by our rooms

We dined at the hotel’s buffet, pretty good for a government owned facility, but not as nice as our lunch was. After our very early start today, we were all glad to head to bed for some catch-up sleep.

Trinidad de Cuba

Friday, September 18. That handsome rooster and his gang were even more trouble than I feared. They started crowing by 3:30 this morning. Rooster soup for dinner sounds like a great idea. Barbara hardly heard the din because she always travels with silicon ear plugs with the brand name of Mack. She has two pair with her and has kindly given the spare pair to me. I look forward to better nights ahead!

Our objective today was a tour of a small old colonial town, Trinidad. This is a very old town, dating from the early 1500s. We were told to wear sturdy shoes for the cobblestone streets, which are charming, but make for difficult walking. Some of the special features of the old buildings, many of which were home to the region’s wealthy sugar barons, are 18-foot ceilings and very tall windows and doors, designed to keep the rooms somewhat cooler than the newer low-ceilinged rooms that replaced them in later centuries. This older style is much prized in Cuba today because few people have air conditioning other than what the architectural design can provide. Intricate tiled floors are another beautiful feature that has survived all these years. I’m sure most have needed restoration, but they really are lovely. A word of explanation about housing. Following the revolution, the Castro regime effectively nationalized all property in Cuba, but Cubans who did not flee were allowed to remain in their homes and even pass them on to other family members. They were also allowed to swap homes. When Raúl came to power, he began to allow these homes to be sold. While Cuba has not had a real estate market as we know it, they have had a form of private ownership despite their communist/socialist form of government. There are government owned apartment buildings in Cuba, but there is also private ownership.
Public art. We drove past this mosaic on our way out of Santa Clara.

We drove through a lush valley surrounded by mountains

This man was driving a horse drawn cart filled with bags of something. Maybe rice?

The town of Trinidad. Note the long windows and doors.

Bicycle taxis

Cobblestone streets throughout the town

An example of the old tiles found in many of the houses here

Demolition/restoration. Trinidad is a World Heritage Site and a tourist destination. Restoration will continue to be important here.

Old cannons like this one are often place at the street-side corner of buildings to protect them from traffic.

School children in Cuba wear uniforms. Different colors define different grade levels and are the same throughout Cuba.

We walked past the local church, which, unlike many Cuban churches, is still active, if under-attended. Churches here are open until noon only, allowing the priests to enjoy leisurely afternoons. 

Another group of school children gathers near the church

Restored building

The local museum

Tourist wares

We went to a fairly new privately owned bed and breakfast where the owners’ son met us and told us about his family’s enterprise. It is in a very old house once owned by a sugar baron. The last surviving member of that family was a very elderly lady for whom the house was way too much to maintain. The current owners are a husband and wife singing team who, when we visited, were in Scandinavia on tour. They saw the possibilities of the house for both a performing venue and a hotel so agreed to swap the small house they owned at the time for this one. They have been restoring it while renting out four rooms at something like $35/night to bring in funds. We were able to see one of the rooms with its private bath, the living room, dining room, beautifully redone kitchen, and the delightful patio. The decorative painting on the walls in the living room is original, only partially restored because it has become impossible to find anyone with the skills needed to do the work. Personally, I liked being able to see both. The restoration was lovely while the original lent it authenticity.
This is the owners' son, a recent college graduate with a degree in business. The parents are singers. I suspect the son  is handling the business aspects of this venture, which also includes a riding stable located in the countryside.

A long stick topped with this haughty fellow was hanging on the entry wall to greet us. I don't know what this is, but I love it!

The intricate original ceiling. Since warm air rises, these high ceilings were intended to trap the heat, leaving the rest of the room a bit cooler. The house was not air-conditioned, but fans helped the ceilings do their work.

Ceiling detail

The original paintwork in the living room, partially restored. This  was obviously the home of wealthy people.

One of four rooms for rent in the house.

The other side of the same room

The very nice en suite bathroom

Hats are essential in Cuba

A corner of the charmingly remodeled kitchen

Just off the kitchen is a sheltered corner of the patio containing supplies for more of the ongoing restoration

More hats!
The main part of the patio features tables for outdoor dining

I loved this pieced mat. There were several in the house, some used as floor mats and others as chair cushions. Easy to wash with plenty of uses, these are locally made.

A desk with a new laptop and a very old typewriter is a perfect symbol of the transitions Cuba is experiencing. 

The owners

A poster and a guitar tell us more about them

An unrestored corner of the living room.

We walked back through the town to a paladar where one of our choices for lunch was Cuban lobster. I ordered that, expecting it to be small and was amazed to get a tail the size of a Maine lobster with a very similar flavor. It was a bit over-cooked, but really a terrific surprise.

Secondary school students

I love the tile on this facade

We saw horse-drawn carts everywhere

These musicians entertained us at lunch

Cuban lobster!

Classic American cars are everywhere, too.

Trinidad street scene

A beautiful example of an old Spanish tile floor

Still in Trinidad, but away from the town center, the streets are paved and the houses are a little newer
After lunch we went to a pottery that has been in the family of the potters for many generations. The grandfather was working on the wheel and amazed us as he threw out pot after perfectly formed pot as quickly as if he were a machine. Once he finished his ball of clay, he asked for a volunteer to try the art. Our brave volunteer was Joan, from NC and on the tour with two of her adult children—Mark and Alana. Joan is pretty amazing. She was a psycho-therapist and only after retirement took up singing and acting. Her kids say she is fearless and untiring, and the rest of us can see that is true. She HAS tried her hand at pottery in the distant past, although not, she says for a very long time, and that helped her produce a credible pot that even looked like a pot. Our tour leader, Carole, said she did FAR better than any other volunteer she has ever seen. Better her than me. I would have had it all over the floor, I’m sure.
These look like wind chimes but are not. Very pretty, however.

A sample of the many pots for sale here.

Grandpa, the master potter

...and Joan, the talented novice

We drove back to Santa Clara and arrived too late to get much rest before we were off for another paladar meal, this time a beautiful plate of cold salad fixings including shrimp. I can’t say how surprised and delighted we have been with the food in Cuba!
The countryside outside of Trinidad

This tower was constructed by a sugar baron so he could keep an eye on his slaves.

Sugar cane. Cane has been the major crop in Cuba from the beginning. It was the reason slavery was introduced here,  contributed to the great difference between rich and poor here, and also encouraged foreign ownership of land and over-dependence on imports for food since it was a far more valuable crop. Sugar is also the basis of rum production, making that drink cheap and readily available here. Cuba has few if any drug users, but many alcoholics, we were told.

Gorgeous countryside

An after work gathering spot along the way

It rains a lot here. This striking thunderhead means another tropical shower is on the way

This was every bit as delicious as it looks!