I’m delighted we had the opportunity to spend time in the Cuban countryside. What a contrast to city life in Havana. Talk about a time warp! Mass transportation in the rural provinces is standing in the back of an open-air-truck. Buses are few and far between. More Cubans seem to rely on horses and buggies than automobiles.
We arrived back in Havana in the late afternoon. After being in the countryside, the streets here seem congested; bicycles were everywhere, along with cars, motorcycles, buses, pedicabs and Cocos, the three-wheeled taxis. As a city girl, I felt right at home!
We had an hour before dinner and Stacie Kellner and I decided to check our e-mail. That is easier said than done. Cuba has the Internet, but it takes an armload of patience to use it. Sometimes it’s working and sometimes it’s not. After an hour, we finally gave up. The attendant told us to check back tomorrow - maybe it would work then. Cuban citizens have computers but they do not have access to the Internet; too much information for a communist country.
No trip to Havana would be complete without a visit to the Hotel Nacional. Made famous by the Hollywood crowd and visiting heads of state, the Hotel Nacional, overlooking the Bay of Havana, is a wonderful example of Art Deco architecture. From the Hotel Nacional we strolled along the Malecon, the seafront promenade that winds for several miles along the bay and connects this area, Vedado, to central Havana.
Next on our agenda was the Palacio de Belle Artes. This particular art museum offers a complete overview of Cuban art from the 17th to the 21st century and features works by Wilfredo Lam, Agustin Cardenas and a wonderful contemporary artist, Manuel Mendive. I’m definitely not an art connoisseur, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chronological display of works that beautifully illustrated the development of Cuban art. With all of Cuba’s financial problems, the government did not hold back on expense on their art museums.
Even though much of Havana seems to be in need of major repair, there are some lovely areas of the city. Most notable is Miramar, where the city’s richest inhabitants lived before the revolution. The glamour of the past can still be seen in some of the villas that line Avenue 5, the main street in Miramar. Another upscale area of Havana is Cubanacan, where many of the foreign embassies are located. Everyone wanted to know where Castro lived. Apparently his address is not for publication, due to the extreme number of assassination attempts over the years (more than 600).
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Cuba. I particularly enjoyed Havana with
its amazing architecture, vintage cars, wonderful museums, outdoor cafes, great restaurants, friendly people and the mojito (a Cuban specialty: rum, water, sugar and crushed mint leaves).
There are subtle changes taking place in Cuba today. Paladares, privately owned home restaurants, are becoming more and more popular. In Havana we ate at La Guarida and La Fontana, both paladares and both excellent. The wine list is very limited and very expensive, but considering all wines are imported, it’s understandable. We also ate at several state-owned restaurants: El Aljibe, served family-style, had wonderful chicken, and La Ferminia was very classy and served continental cuisine.
The tourist industry is also flourishing in Cuba with Canadians and Europeans flocking to the resorts in and around the beach community of Varadero. New resorts and hotels are being built and the government is actively courting foreign investors. Jobs associated with tourism are prized. The women handing out toilet paper to tourists in a four-star hotel make more money in tips in a week than a worker in a cigar factory makes in a month. Tip money is most likely in convertible pesos, which definitely increases your buying power.
As I reflect on my week in Cuba, I find it difficult to understand all the restrictions put on Cuban citizens. Cuban citizens could not stay at the Park Central Hotel, they cannot legally own a cell phone, they cannot have the Internet, they cannot eat in certain restaurants.
Our guide, Manuel, explained that communism is based on equality - if one Cuban can afford a nice dinner or can stay in a nice hotel or can own a cell phone and others cannot, life is not equal. Hearing it put in such simple terms makes it easier to understand why so many people left Cuba during the revolution.
Freedom is a wonderful way of life, and many or most Cubans have little idea of what that actually means. The part of Cuba that has my utmost respect is their educational system: 97 percent literacy and great universities. They also have a wonderful health system that takes good care of the entire population.
Right now, Cuba is in a time warp. Little has changed since 1959 and until Castro is gone, little will change.
Redlands resident Ilene Cox is the owner of Redlands Travel Service.