All Photos and Blog by Judy K.
Go Learn (golearn.utah.edu) recently visited Cuba with Dr. Al Campbell, U Professor Emeritus in Economics. I was part of the tour group, going as a participant (not as an official U staffer).
We arrived in Havana on Jan. 31, 2015. As soon as we left the airport terminal, I felt like we were at a car show, what with all the old cars parked in the small parking lot. Driving into Havana, all we could do was wonder at the countryside and people living there. It was marvelous just being there.
Our first stop was at the Organoponico Vivero Farming Cooperative in the Alamar neighborhood of Havana. Miguel Salcides, the founder of this organic farm, met us and explained how he started the farm 18 years ago, and what his vision was (and is). We toured some of the growing areas, which include vegetables, corn, bananas, and other crops. We learned that the cooperative farm sells their produce not only in their street stand, but also to local restaurants and hotels. It was our introduction to how Cubans can own their own businesses and make a living.
We then drove to downtown Havana. Wow! So many interesting things along the way! And look at the cars! Our next stop was at the Hotel Nacional for lunch. This wonderful hotel was restored (or nearly so) in 1992, and still reflects its Art Deco heritage. We had our first Cuban meal in the outdoor restaurant. Mojitos appeared, the food was brought out, and we were serenaded by the trio playing in the restaurant. What a splendid start to our tour!
Our hotel in Havana was comfortable and in a great location near the Malecón – the road along the seawall. We had a great view from our room, of the Nacional and the entrance to the harbor. The rooftop pool was beautiful – we enjoyed a meal there one evening, watching the sun set on the city.
We listened to several of our speakers in the hotel’s small conference room, which worked out well for our group size. Marc Frank spoke of living in Cuba for nearly a quarter century, working as a foreign correspondent. Jorge Mario Sanchez, a prominent economist, spoke of housing issues, economic development for the average Cuban, and how the microenterprise climate has been built from remittances sent from families living in the US. All of the speakers talked about the developments last December regarding the US-Cuba relations, and how they viewed the possible changes those negotiations might bring. All agreed that Cuba is not ready for an influx of US tourists – the infrastructure is not in place.
We toured Havana by bus and by foot. The visit to the Viñales Valley was as if we stepped into the pages of a National Geographic – farmers using cattle to plow, horse-drawn carts hauling sacks of tobacco leaves, vehicles from the 1940’s and ‘50’s being driven on a daily basis were common sights. We visited a tobacco farm where we were shown the art of rolling cigars, and then we were invited to share a Cuban coffee. Several of us purchased hand-rolled cigars from the farmer, and many photographs were taken. Lunch was at a private farm paladar (a privately-owned restaurant) where we looked out across the Viñales valley to the mountains in the distance.
Our last day in Havana began with a visit to the Museum of the Revolution – all about Fidel and Che (Guevara) and how they were able to overthrow the Batista regime. There are uniforms and guns and all things military, along with a few vehicles, and the Granma, the boat that took Fidel and his revolutionaries from Mexico back to Cuba.
We then drove out to the medical school (Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina or ELAM), where it was explained to us how the school began, and now how many students they train. Students come from all over the world to study medicine there, and then return to their countries to aid the medical community there.
The afternoon brought a visit to the home of Fuster, an artist who has transformed not only his home and property, but also the surrounding neighborhood. He works primarily with tile mosaic, and many of the walls and homes in the neighborhood have his work attached. It’s quite the visual treat to wander around his property!
On our last fabulous evening in Havana, we went to the Café Madrigal restaurant for tapas and drinks and listened to the music of Frank Delgado, one of Cuba’s most famous musicians. He plays “nueva trova” music, which is a movement in Cuban music that emerged in the late 1960s after the Cuban Revolution and consequent political and social changes. Frank and his band were wonderful musicians, with an incredible story to tell.
So far, what we’ve experienced, is that rum flows freely at nearly every meal, and the food was always plentiful and tasty. Music was everywhere, and all of the bands were excellent. The speakers we’ve listened to have been excellent. Four nights in Havana is not going to be enough….
The next day, we drove from Havana to Playa Girón, the site where the famous Bay of Pigs invasion took place in 1961, including a visit to the Bay of Pigs Museum. It was very interesting to learn about this event from the Cuban point of view!
Then on to Trinidad, where we spent 2 nights at casas particulares, or Cuban bed-and-breakfasts. What a great experience to see and live in (although briefly) a Cuban home with the owners. Trinidad is a very colorful town that is used to having tourists visit. They have open air markets where vendors sell the same souvenirs, and women sell tablecloths and other needlework pieces, all supposedly hand-made. We did meet a local artist (Yami Martinez) who has made women the subject of her work – she uses the coffeepot to represent Cuban women. She explained that making coffee is always the first task of the day, and is truly a national habit. By putting a coffeepot in unusual settings, it is her way of putting women in nontraditional settings.
In Cienfuegos, we were introduced to the local chapter of UNEAC, the union of artists and writers. We toured a few studios, and brought back works of art, and many CD’s the musicians had cut. Some of us even got to visit a fire station we saw (one of our group is a retired fire captain, so he really enjoyed this!). We had a boat tour of the bay, and more good food in privately-run restaurants.
Along with learning about the history of Cuba and the local towns, politics and culture, we visited with artists and musicians who have managed to keep making art and music, even if censored by past government officials. We heard about how they support programs for local children by teaching them how to make art and music. We in turn, handed out supplies for the artists and these programs, and wished we’d brought more. These moments with local people turned out to truly be a cultural exchange, and a real person-to-person educational experience. More than just being a tourist, visiting the sights and sitting on the beach, this trip opened our collective eyes to the issues facing the Cuban people, and how the US embargo has affected their everyday lives. I hope this isn’t the trip of a lifetime – I’d go back in a heartbeat.