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.|
|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.|
|The entrance to our first paladar|
|The buffet table|
|The dishwasher behind the bar|
|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|
|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|
|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.