A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: amikulski

Where We Stayed: Viñales

Villa Benito

Some casas particulares are a room and bath in a house, whereas others feel more like a mini-hotel. Villa Benito, where we stayed in Viñales, was one of the latter. It has 3 rooms with private baths, each accessed from the common courtyard.

I shared this room with DD1.
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The courtyard was very photogenic.
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We spent time there during the apagón to have some light and breeze that weren’t currently in the room itself. Our hostess promptly brought us delicious mango juice.
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As the sun started setting, the family hooked the house up to a generator, so we didn’t have to sit in the dark.

The night we stayed, people from our program were staying in all three rooms, so we were all at breakfast together. Our hostess may have hung back a bit for that reason. She didn’t converse with us much, but she was kind and attentive to us at breakfast. She had a spread of coffee, juice, fruit, ham, cheese, and bread, and cooked eggs to order for anyone who wanted them.

If you’re ever in Viñales, Villa Benito is a great place to stay!

They are listed at this website: http://villa-benito-vinales.maxicuba.com/en/about.html
Email: [email protected]
Cell phone: 53-52446361

Posted by amikulski 00:30 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba vinales casas teens Comments (0)

Where We Stayed: Havana


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Our group stayed in casas particulares (AirBnB-type accommodations) in the Vedado neighborhood. The family that hosted DD1 and me seems to work primarily with educational exchange programs, but if they ever take independent travelers, this can be a positive review for them. And if you’re an Alandis traveler assigned to Alfonso’s place, you’ll know you’re in good hands.
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The setup here is basically an apartment in part of the house, with a living area that goes back into a kitchen and bath.
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Upstairs there is a study area and bedroom.
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There is AC in the bedroom and fans in the living area.

The arrangement that Alandis made for us included breakfast every day and several dinners. I don’t have pictures of the breakfasts, but every day we had a tasty breakfast sandwich with delicious Cuban coffee and juice. We were also fed very well at dinner! For example, one night we had ropa vieja with fried rice, freshly made potato chips, and veggies.
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Alfonso and his family are also just great people. We will forever be grateful to them for driving us through my mom’s neighborhood and to my cousin’s house.

Posted by amikulski 18:08 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba havana casas teens particulares Comments (0)

Havana, Part 3

Religion, African Influences, Cars, Food, Colón Cemetery and the Journey Home

sunny 88 °F
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Day 8: Religion and Cars

We started the day with a talk about religion in Cuba. The speaker covered the many religions of African origin, including Santería,
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The Abekua religious sect whose celebration we had walked through a few days prior,
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And venerating particular saints.
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There was also talk of other religions that are neither African nor Catholic, such as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

The talk did not bring up that religious practices had been restricted at times after the Revolution, such as Christmas being banned from 1969 to 1997. It was more about what you see now and the origins of it.

Our next stop was the Casa de Africa museum. It covered the horrors of slavery.
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It also contained more contemporary artifacts, such as baskets, animal carvings,
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And religious items, including Santería and Abekua.
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Going back to my days studying Latin-American literature, they have Fernando Ortiz’s desk.
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After touring the museum, we went to the courtyard for a performance with singing, drumming, and dancers.
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The young lady was wearing yellow in honor of Ochún, the Santería deity that is syncretized with Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.
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The man and boy were dressed in red in honor of Changó, who is syncretized as Saint Barbara.
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It was a fun performance to watch! The dancing was very joyful.

We then had a lunch break and walked around Old Havana some more.
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We tried to walk to the Capitol and got partway there before the heat and the need to head back to the group made us turn around.
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We also saw some political and poetic statements about Puerto Rico on the back of a bici-taxi.
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(There is a famous poem about how Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird: https://ciudadseva.com/texto/cuba-y-puerto-rico-son-de-un-pajaro-las-dos-alas/)

Our next activity was visiting a classic car garage. It was featured on the show Cuban Chrome, which was filmed with the cooperation of a Cuban classic car club.
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After coming home and watching the show, I spotted a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of the garage in episode 6, when Alberto and Dayán buy a brake part from there.

The garage owner talked about how in the early years of the Revolution, these cars were thought of as a curse: nobody wanted to hang on to them because the embargo made it impossible to buy parts from the US. However, as the years went on, people began to see the value in these cars, especially for tourism. The challenge for parts has remained, but they can get parts from classic cars that aren’t on the road or put in a different motor. Our host family actually joked about the classic taxis being authentic on the outside but not the inside. The 2 cars in the garage, however, have original motors.

One is a Dodge Kingsway with a V8.
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The other is a Plymouth Belvedere with a V6.
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Outside the garage, other members of the car club had lined up with their vehicles. We got in a Hello Kitty-themed Chevy Bel Air. They allowed us time for pics, including behind the wheel.
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I got pics of some of the other cars that transported our group, including a Chevrolet Impala
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and a Chrysler Windsor. After coming home, I spotted this one on "Cuban Chrome. It is the car that Alberto and Dayán have painted a deep pink just before a friend's wedding. It's red now! I noticed their signature "Azúcar" personalized plate. Then I paused the show to compare the official license plate on their car to the one in my pics. They matched!
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You can see the sticker for the car club featured on "Cuban Chrome."
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I also snapped pics of these other cars from a distance:
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Now it was time to ride! Our driver had a playlist all set up: it started with “Barbie Girl”—a good fit for his pink car!
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We first drove past Colón Cemetery,
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and the Chinese Cemetery.
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Then we went to el Bosque de La Habana, a park where it’s hard to believe that you’re in a big city. We had a few minutes to walk around.
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I also took more car pics.
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We got back in our cars and continued along La Quinta Avenida, home to many embassies. We were busy identifying flags and trying to take pics from a moving car, but we succeeded at spotting Canada,
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Italy,
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Venezuela, and
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Zimbabwe.
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We then drove down the Malecón
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And turned on Avenida Paseo,
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To finish at Plaza de la Revolución, with the José Martí monument,
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the José Martí National Library,
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and the likenesses of Camilo Cienfuegos and Che.
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Interestingly, the buildings that display those likenesses predate the Revolution.

Day 9: Food and Family Remembered
This morning, our group visited 3 different produce markets: one government market, one military cooperative, and one for private vendors. We were not told which was which because our assignment was to figure that out and look for differences among the three. I was able to deduce which was which from the signs, but there were other clues.

Our first stop was the private market. Notice the reference to “oferta y demanda” (supply and demand) on the sign.
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This place had the widest variety of items, and the produce looked to be of decent quality.
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DD1 and I each bought ourselves a delicious baby banana. Total cost: 20 pesos (about 8 cents US).
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However, it tended to have the highest prices. For reference, tomatoes were going for 100 pesos a pound. This is quite cheap by US standards—less than 50 cents—but not so great in the Cuban context if you’re earning a government salary.
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The second stop was the government market. It had the emptiest shelves.
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I guessed its identity because it had signs for price norms.
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Also, Che stares at you from behind the meat counter.
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Tomatoes here were cheaper, at 80 pesos a pound.
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The third market was the cooperative. I spotted 2 prices for tomatoes by the pound: 70 pesos and 80 pesos.
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In terms of variety of items, it seemed like the middle ground of all the markets.

Today was also International Day of the Woman. I received more well wishes for this occasion in Havana than I had anywhere else in my life! It was also recognized on signs at the private
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And cooperative markets.
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Next, we went to a cooking lesson at Restaurante El Idilio. Because there were about 25 of us in our group, we all took turns at the two stations.

DD1 and I first did the bar station, where we prepared a San Francisco mocktail. It is orange, guava, and pineapple juices with a splash of grenadine.
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The other station was making frituras de malanga. From what I’ve read online, malanga is similar to taro, but not identical. It was crowded—and hot!—at the stove and counter, so we stood back and watched as other group members grated the malanga, added spices, formed the fritters, and fried them up. Here’s one on a plate along with another appetizer, a mini chicken and cheese pastry puff.
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The restaurant supplemented our handiwork with some tasty dishes! I’ll share more on that later.

We got back with some time to spare before our next event, so we headed out towards the Cementerio Colón, which was walking distance from our casa. This cemetery is renowned: I once saw it on a list of the top 5 to visit in the world. It is also where my mom’s family has a gravesite, so I came prepared with its address. Yes, graves there have an address. First, there is an expediente, or record, number. Then there is a quadrant, street number, and cross streets. The expediente numbers are not marked, so without an employee to help, you are relying on the quadrant and streets. That narrows it down, but there were still at least a hundred graves in that vicinity, packed so close together that you have to walk sideways between them. They aren’t always lined up evenly, either, so it isn’t always easy to make a plan that passes by each one. Also, many of them are not well marked: the engravings can be hard to read. Add to that temps in the high 80s with plenty of humidity, and finding the family gravesite was no easy task. DD1, another from our group, and I made our way around the perimeter of the area with no luck.

DD1 and I continued weaving our way thorough the rows beyond the perimeter while our friend walked around nearby. A grave sweeper talked to DD1 and looked around a little himself. I was getting ready to give up and put our flowers on some random grave when a security guard walked by. The grave sweeper told him that we were running around like crazies looking for some grave. I then showed him the full address that I had written down. He must know the system for the expediente numbers by heart because he led us right to it. Turns out I had walked right past it, but one of the individual markers had tipped over and the engraving at the foot of the grave was hard to read. The security guard had chalk to rub on the name plate and make it easier to read: you can see the difference.
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I was so happy and relieved to find the grave after thinking that we wouldn’t. We set my great-great aunt’s marker upright and put the flowers there because it had a holder for them. The other individual marker is for my great-grandmother.
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I took a photo of a larger memorial that is near the grave to help provide a landmark for anyone looking for it in the future. Gracias in advance to the Society of Office Building Employees and Similar!
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My hands were full with the cemetery map and family grave address, so DD1’s assignment was to take pics of cool memorials in the cemetery.
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We ended our food-centered day with a farewell dinner at the Hotel Nacional. As we waited to board our bus, I took some "golden hour" pics of the church that was our meeting point, as well as a view of the Martí monument in the distance.
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I will share food pics in a later entry, but the Hotel Nacional building and grounds were full of photo opps.
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Day 10: ¡Hasta luego, Cuba!
We woke up, finished our packing, and enjoyed breakfast with our hosts. Then it was off to the airport. Our flights went smoothly, though we were delayed in Tampa because of storms. Between the delay and the time change—we sprang ahead that night—we didn’t get in until 5 AM. We slept when we could on the planes and bus, but we still needed sleep when we got home.

In all, I think this was a life-changing trip for both of us. I'm so glad we went!

Thanks for reading! I will follow up with descriptions of where we stayed and ate.

Posted by amikulski 17:59 Archived in Cuba Tagged museums food cemetery cars cuba havana teens Comments (0)

Excursion to Viñales


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Day 6: Tobacco and Horses

This morning we departed Havana early for Viñales. Our rest stop was interesting because it was named after the barrigonas (big-bellied) palms in the area.
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The ride took about 3 hours over some roads with lots of potholes: I now understand why our host dad says that the trip is better by bus than car and that he hopes improvements are made soon. The roads also got narrower as we turned off the Carretera Central, Cuba’s main highway.

Viñales has become a popular destination for its mogotes, unique limestone formations that are a UNESCO site. We could see them from the bus as we were approaching.
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We stopped at a tobacco farm surrounded by mogotes,
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where they explained the process of growing tobacco,
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drying leaves,
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and rolling cigars.
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We also learned the difference between Habanos and puros. Tobacco farmers sell 90% of their crop to the government. This gets made into cigars in the government factories. They are identifiable with the Habano label that goes around the cigar. They also add some preservatives to extend the life of the cigar. The 10% that the farmers keep can be made into cigars for their own consumption or for private sales. They are rolled at the farm, have no preservatives, and are not labeled. These are puros, named that way for the lack of preservatives.

According to the farm, the difference between Habanos and Puros is important for US tourists: they are prohibited from bringing home the former because they are government products but are allowed to bring home the latter because that is considered support for the Cuban people. Tricky. However, there are differing opinions online about the legality of this, and the Department of the Treasury does not mention any distinction between factory- and farm-rolled cigars. To them, they are all prohibited as of 2020: https://ofac.treasury.gov/faqs/769

So if you’re a US citizen thinking of buying cigars, it is most realistic to accept that they could be confiscated and buy at your own risk.

The farm also sold honey, coffee, and rum made with a small guava fruit that only grows on that part of the island. That rum would fall under the prohibition mentioned in the link above so again, buy at your own risk, but the honey and coffee would be fine.

Next we went horseback riding. It was my first time ever in a horse! DD1 only had ever done a 5-minute pony ride about 10 years ago, so it was her first extended ride.
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It was a little scary at first, but fun. We did a half-hour loop on the farm and passed through a pretty place called el Valle del Silencio. No pics to share because DD1 and I felt too uneasy about letting go of the horn of the saddle to take a picture!

After the ride, we had an enormous family-style lunch at Finca del Paraíso. The restaurant has beautiful views of the mogotes. They also have gardens surrounding the restaurant.
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After lunch, we went to our casas particulares in the town of Viñales. When we arrived, they were under an apagón that was supposed to last until 7 PM. The lack of electricity made our room warm and dark, so we spent time in the courtyard.
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The sun kept going down and there was still no power, so our casa and the one next door started up generators. Regular power came on at around 8, just in time for our group dinner at 8:30.

Day 7: Caves
I woke up at 2 AM feeling hot and not hearing the air conditioner in the room: another apagón. I splashed some cold water on my arms and neck and eventually fell asleep, so I don’t know how long it lasted. We had electricity when we woke up for the day, but it definitely gave us an idea of how hard it must be to work around the apagones, especially for those who live outside of Havana. Our host mom says that people in the provinces have to deal with them much more because the government prioritizes the capital. She had heard that people in the provinces could expect outages of up to 14 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Our first stop was at the cave tour, la Cueva del Indio.
The caves in Viñales were used as hideouts for cimarrones, people escaping slavery. They weren’t turned in by the tobacco farmers nearby because they weren’t enslaving people. The cimarrones built settlements called palenques inside the caves. By the early 20th century, some people had the idea to make the caves a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, they did not see the value to the palenques and other artifacts from the settlements, so they cleared out all evidence of human habitation. What’s left is just the natural structure of the caves. It was impressive, though.
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The first part of the tour was done on foot, but then we reached a river and took a boat ride the rest of the way.

The tour guides pointed out interesting structures in the limestone, like one that looked like a skull.
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We also had the opportunity to try guarapo (sugarcane juice) freshly squeezed with orange and star fruit.
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The one time I had tried guarapo before was many years ago in Miami, and it was just plain, without any fruit juice added. It was too sweet for me. I thought I’d try it mixed with the fruit, and I did like it better: it had a more complex flavor instead of just sweet. DD1 liked hers as well.
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Our next stop was the Mural of Prehistory. Many of us thought this was the Cueva del Indio and directly translated into English and thus thought we were going to see indigenous cave paintings. We were wrong on 2 counts.
1. The painting is on the outside of the cave, not in it.
2. None of it was done by indigenous tribes (some of the painters may have indigenous ancestry somewhere, but no more so than any other Cuban).

So what it is? It’s a cooperative project, originally painted in 1960. Leovigildo González Murillo, a Cuban painter who had studied under Diego Rivera, provided the artistic vision, but many locals helped in the painting. Locals also help with periodically touching up the work. The mural itself depicts the prehistory of that part of the island, including indigenous peoples, hence the name.
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Rumor has it that the Cueva del Indio bar has the best piña colada on the island. I would need more research to fully confirm this, but I can tell you without a doubt that it was really good!
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FYI, they are made virgin, and adults can add rum if they wish.

All around us, we had the scenery of the mogotes. We also learned that the red tile roofs seen throughout the region were introduced by settlers from the Canary Islands.
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After lunch, we headed back to Havana.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by amikulski 23:37 Archived in Cuba Tagged horses caves cuba vinales teens mogotes Comments (0)

Havana, Part 2

sunny 85 °F
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Day 3: Dos gallos con salsa

For the past two mornings we heard a rooster crowing: it wasn’t something we had expected to hear in Havana. We asked our host mom about it, and she said that a lot of families raise chickens in their yards for eggs and meat because of the economic situation. She also said that some families have pigs and keep them in the bathroom at night and let them wander the house in the day. They’re basically a pet, until it’s time for slaughter. With the price of pork at 1200 pesos a kilo, it makes sense for some people. (To put this in context, we heard that the salaries for government jobs top out at about 11,000 pesos a month, and that retirement pensions are about 4,200 pesos monthly).

Our group spent the morning at a community center doing service learning with children from the Pozitos neighborhood of Marianao. Together we upcycled egg cartons into decorative mobiles.
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Interesting side note: the director said that in the special period of the 90s, egg cartons were like gold. Everybody kept theirs so they wouldn’t have to pay the 1 peso fee to get a new one. She said that even though they are in a difficult situation now, people currently are more likely to toss their cartons and pay for new ones rather than keep them.

The kids were a bit shy at first, but we talked to them a bit. The ones at our table reported that school lunches were free, but the food was bad, and one said that his teachers were a pain. One played street hockey and the other baseball. I didn’t take pictures to protect their privacy.

José Martí, Cuba’s national hero who was also a poet and essayist, is everywhere in Cuba, including the fence of the community center.
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The center also had turtles!
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We had a nice lunch at the center, and then we were invited to watch part of a party/initiation rite for a secret society of Abekuá, a religion of Bantu origin. We walked through the yard where people were waiting for those going through the initiation to emerge from the temple building. There was a lot of people, a lot of drumming, plenty of empty beer cans, and a dead rooster (sacrificial, I’m guessing) in the corner. Pictures were not allowed as it was a religious ceremony. After we got back to the center, the directors explained that we were the first large group of foreigners that had ever been invited to witness such an event at that temple. It was cool that they let us observe and that we saw something that very few foreigners get to see.

Then we went to a dance studio in Old Havana called La Casa del Son for a salsa class. Our group had Adrián and María as our instructors. They taught us several combinations that they named by number, so we had to remember which sequence went with each number. After some individual practice, they brought in other dancers so that every student had a teacher-partner. It reminded me of the moments in Dirty Dancing when the dance teachers went into the crowd and chose resort guests to dance with them. My partner, Cobá, was helpful, and all of the teachers were positive: they high-fived us every time we went through a set of sequences. No pics here because we were busy dancing!

Day 4: Beach, Neighbors, and Family

Today the group made an excursion to Santa María Del Mar. DD1 and I were excited about this because it is one of the beaches that my mom regularly visited with her family.

Our host family was concerned about pickpockets and advised us to leave our phones at home. This was great for protecting valuables, but it meant that we had no camera. A friend graciously agreed to share her pics of that day, so credit to V here.

The beach was beautiful! It must have been amazing to have this as a regular outing spot growing up.
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There was a Portuguese Man of War that had washed up on the beach, though, and some people spotted more floating on the water. I’m not sure if that’s seasonal, but definitely be careful if you go.
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The stretch of beach that we were on was fairly undeveloped. There was a hotel and some food stands near the access point. Once on the beach, there were umbrellas and chairs for rent and vendors selling snacks, coconuts (with rum added if you wish), hats, and sunglasses. We even saw some folks who had arranged for a table and dinner set up on the beach. The only thing missing? Bathrooms. We tried going to the hotel, and security said the restrooms were only for guests. When I asked if that held even if we bought a drink, he referred me to their gift shops in the other building. Once there, we bought drinks and asked an employee about restrooms, and she was nice enough to take us to one for employees. Incidentally, we also tried to get lunch at the hotel cafeteria and were again turned away by security. It’s weird because most hotels I know of in other countries are happy to let non-guests pay to eat at their restaurants. Eventually I spotted a restaurant a little ways down that may have had facilities.

After the beach, we met up with our host family. First they drove us through the neighborhood where my mom lived as a teen, Casino Deportivo. We went by a park that she knew
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and a place that was a market when she lived there.
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I had my mom’s address with the cross streets and description of where it was along that block. We went there and saw that the house numbers weren’t anything close to what she had written down. We double-checked our cross streets and deduced which house must have been hers.
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Our host dad mentioned that some parts of the city had houses renumbered as part of urban planning efforts, so that maybe that’s what had happened on this street. There was a man on the street, about 30 years old, so my host dad asked him how long they had had these house numbers. The guy said it was a long time, but when my host dad followed up asking if the numbers went back to 1959, he wasn’t sure. He said that the family across the street had been there for a long time and suggested we ask them.

That family was on their front porch, so my host dad approached them. They confirmed that the house numbers had indeed changed. My host dad explained why he was asking, and they started asking for my family’s name. I started with our family surname, then the first names of my grandparents and my mom. Then I remembered that my mom went by a nickname and shared that. Then the grandfather of the family cried out, “la hermana de [my uncle’s nickname]?”

I responded that [nickname] was my uncle!

We had a nice conversation. The grandfather had grown up on that street since he was three. He used to ride bikes with my uncle and said that he had a picture of them at a birthday party somewhere in his house. He remembered that my mom played piano and that my grandfather drove a Chevrolet. I shared some old pictures of my mom and uncle on my phone and took his contact information so he and my uncle could get in contact. (Post-trip update: my mom and uncle had a video call with him!)
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After that amazing encounter, we had another one: our host family drove us to meet our cousin and his wife. It was great to be able to meet them in person for the first time! They introduced us to white guavas, shared stories, and showed us lots of old family photos. Some had been taken in Cuba, like this one of my cousin Martha (RIP) on her wedding day.
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Others had reached them from the US. I guess I’d forgotten that my mom sent my senior picture to Cuba!
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We’re so glad that we had the chance to spend some time with them!
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Day 5: Getting Schooled

We began our day at CIPS with a talk about education. Not surprisingly, it started with a José Martí quote.
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The talk did couch things in terms of improvements that have happened since the Revolution, but it is true that there were inequalities in education before that time.
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Also, the speaker had worked for 12 years in the literacy brigades teaching older adults, so I respected that she walked the walk on the topic of education. She also just described how education is structured in Cuba, such as what grades are at which schools and college entrance exams.
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Her finishing slide reminded me of much of the perspective of I had been hearing: pro-Revolution with an upbeat, love-for-all vibe.
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Our next stop was an elementary school.
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The main lobby had a wall of pictures for Fidel,
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And some photos of when current President Díaz Canel visited their school: a study in contrasts, to be sure.
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The kids had planned dance performances for us in the school lobby, but there was an apagón when we arrived. They had found a speaker that would play—I’m guessing it was battery-powered—but every group would have to cut their performance short so that there’d be enough power for everyone. The kids adapted and gave great abbreviated performances (not sharing pics to protect the kids’ privacy).

After that, each performing child was told to find a person from our group and give them a tour of the school. My tour guide, A, was a sweet fifth-grader whose favorite subject is math. She took me by the hand and showed me all around the school, and soon one of her friends joined us to assist in the tour.

We saw the computer room, which every class visits once a week. I noticed the mention of Scratch Jr.
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This is the lunchroom.
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On the menu: pea stew, white rice, beet salad, jam and bread.
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I noticed a cardboard Granma in the Kindergarten room, though I don’t know how often it is brought down for lessons. The kids were coloring numbers at the time.
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I spotted one classroom named for José Martí’s narrative children’s poem “Los zapaticos de rosa.”
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I explained to A that I had taken a picture of the sign because my mom was born in Cuba and used to have that book. She told me that the story was in her José Martí reader and promptly took me to see an art project on “Los zapaticos de rosa”
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And a José Martí quote.
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After lunch, we visited the Literacy Museum, which is specifically about the Literacy Brigades that Castro formed in 1961.
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I am all for literacy, and the brigades were successful, but I felt like we were getting the government point of view laid on pretty thick at this museum. Maybe it felt that way because our group, along with the museum tour guide, was being supervised by some type of party official. Also, the museum told more about the politics of the brigades—e.g., how some were attacked by counter-revolutionaries—than how they taught people to read. We actually learned more about that from the speaker that morning. Fortunately, this was the only place on the trip where I felt like we received any attempt at conversion to the party line. To the contrary, everyone else was very open about the challenges people in Cuba were facing—which, at least at this moment in time, does not make for a very convincing argument.

Thanks for reading! Next I will share about our trip to Viñales.

Posted by amikulski 19:36 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches cuba school havana teens Comments (0)

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