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Posted October 19, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By James Zambroski | WAVE 3 Investigator
Matanzas is a seaside town of about 20,000, located about 2 hours east of Havana. Tourism and agriculture are the prime employers. Culture and architecture are other notes of interest in this community. Many of the stone and masonry buildings erected by the Spaniards in the 18th and 19th centuries are still used as housing.
Another footnote in history: Matanzas province (county, if you wish) is the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a counterrevolutionary attack that unsuccessfully sought to overthrow President Fidel Castro in 1961. It’s about an hour south of downtown.

The Southeast Christian Church Master’s Mens choir spent the day at the Seminario Matanzas, the nation’s only accredited training facility for clergy. This non-denominational school educates future Cuban clergymen on a beautiful Spanish architecture campus on a hill overlooking the city.

About 200 students come here. Many commute; some live on campus with their families. They are charged $5 a month for tuition, room and board. The school gets no government funding, existing, flourishing, really, with the support of churches like Southeast as well as foundations, grants and private benefactors from around the world.

The choir was also the guest of honor at the dedication of a community theater/community center next door. In sweltering heat and humidity—about the only thing air conditioned here are tourist hotels and buses—the choir sang for about 300 community church members and neighbors, some of whom watched through windows from the street. The choir wowed ‘em by singing many songs of worship in Spanish.

The men of the choir changed into their seafoam green, three button shirts and kakee slacks inside Havanatur buses—our ground transportation provider. Havanatur keeps the buses stocked with bottled water, which they sell at a buck a piece. And we drink it, well, like water. You have to—it’s the tropics after all.

We traveled to Matanzas in three motorcoaches. Along the way, we stopped at Mirdor Debacunayagua, a roadside rest that featured three small shops and an overlook so high in the hills that the circling turkey vultures seemed at eye level.

The specialty drink at this place is non-alcoholic Pinya Coladas. Made from fresh coconuts (taken from a pile next to a thatched roof cabana) coconut milk and sugar, the drink is—forgive the indiscretion—heavenly, a treat on a broiling hot day. The only nod to technology is the blender foaming up the concoction.

We were entertained by a six piece band. The choir was so impressed with these local musicians that they joined in for a song or two of their own. It was great.

We were sumptuously fed lunch and dinner buffet-style by the kitchen staff at the seminary. Platefuls of pork, chicken, fish, tamales, meat balls, rice (hot and cold—served in Cuba like grits in the South with every meal) along with homemade desserts.

As always, the beverages included canned soda, bottled water, but no ice. A malted, bottled beverage that tasted like molasses with carbonation was popular. And as ever, the Cuban coffee, a thick espresso drink that just pops your eyes wide open.

While the choir practiced for their late afternoon performance, photographer Scott Utterback and I paid a seminary employee $20 to drive us to downtown Matanzas. He dropped us off at a park, saying, or rather signaling, that he’d return in 30 minutes. We agreed on the time by flashing our fingers-5, 10, 15, 20 and so forth.

We got stares, but no one approached us. If there’s poverty, it doesn’t seem rampant, or at least desperate. We were not swarmed by waif-like children, for example. There is decay, but no more so than one might see in the West End of Louisville. There are motor vehicles—older cars, some Russian made Ladas, motorbikes, three wheeled trykes and bicycles.

People seemed tired, old, sad and hot. The younger generation paid us no mind. Clothes were neat, clean, modest for the most part. There were few t-shirts with printing. As many women wore dresses as slacks. The men, at least downtown, if not in the neighborhoods, kept their shirts on despite the oppressive heat.

No one spoke, save a young man who approached our tour chaperone and commented on the size of Utterback (he’s 6’2” and weighs 275 if an ounce). The young man said that Scott could “flick him like a flea” if he wanted to.

We decided just to ask crowds if anyone spoke English. Almost immediately, a man said he did and after a little persuasion, the non-chalance of his male companion and our assurance that it was for American, not Cuban television, he agreed to an interview.

He told us he was 24 years old and studying agronomy at the university, hoping for a job with the government when he graduated. He has a 5 year old daughter, whom he said was beautiful, living with him. They both reside in an apartment with his mother, a retired school teacher. The family does not own a car.

We asked him what he loved about Cuba. Almost immediately, he said is was the beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of the people. This was not someone reciting the party line. He told us he liked meeting tourists because it stimulated an exchange of ideas and that he wished more would come. He did not seem intimidated by some sort of Big Brother.

There were few shops, at least where we were, and no street vendors. We were told it was because it was Sunday. The streets were crowded, though, with folks just out for a stroll. Cuban jazz blared from loudspeakers in the park.

There are no sidewalks along side streets, which are incredibly narrow, but vehicles pass because there’s no on-street parking. Cars don’t belch smoke, but they honk constantly, shooing pedestrians or hurrying up stopped vehicles.

People sit on their door sills. The apartment building are about four stories and were built centuries ago, side by side, wall to wall. The front doors open either into the front room or to an inner courtyard.

Today we interviewed our first government official. Digna Guerra Ramirez is the Presidenta de la Asociacion Cubana de Coros. She met Sunday morning with Melanie Wood (a story in herself, the female director riding herd on this 100 member, all male choir) to go over the repertoire for this week’s performance with the Cuban National Symphony and Choir.

She said trips like this are helping to bring Cuban and American people closer together. She said citizens of both countries have a love of peace in common, etc. She is an important reason this trip is possible; we’ll have more of our interview with her during the WAVE3 News series we’ll broadcast later.

Tomorrow, Scott and I must report to the Centro de Prensa Internacional to receive our work permits. Two passport photos and $60 bucks each should do it. Our visas allow us to enter the country; working here as journalists requires more paperwork.

After that, we’ll join the wives of the choir as they reach out to the children of Havana, visiting numerous in-home churches and delivering gifts, supplies, and, of course, Bibles.

By the way, we’ve had great success with the gifts we’ve brought. I purchased about a dozen baseballs before I left. Gave one last night to maintenance man who scrounged up an extension cord for my lap top. Saw him later chattin’ it up to fellow employees. He told me (as best as he could, I understood as best as I could) that he has 10 children. Five boys and five girls, so I’m guessing the ball might be used.

Incidentally, all you folks who hit me up for cigars before I left—fergedddaboudditt. As of June 24, the export of even a single cigar is prohibited. They even officially ask you at Customs if you have any cigars. Lie about that and your goin’ down town. Naahhh.
October 16, 2004, 7:30 p.m.
Exactly 12 hours after we left Louisville at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, we checked into the Horizontes Las Terrazas hotel, a government owned resort in the suburbs of Havana.
Nearly 100 members the Southeast Christian Church—vocalists from the Masters Mens choir, their wives and a few support staff—are here for a one-week concert tour and outreach mission. The men will perform with the Cuban National Symphony and Choir, among other venues. Their wives will visit schools, hospitals, clinics, children and families, all supporting the First Christian Church of Alamar, our host.
Christian congregations here in Havana meet in 22 homes. They gather as a group to worship once a year at Christmas; last year, about 800 members participated. Christianity has been permitted in this communist land since the mid-1990;s, although with restrictions. There are few traditional churches.
Southeast is here under a special religious license issued by the U.S. government. Photographer Scott Utterback and I were granted a seven-day journalist’s visa by the Cuban government. We, along with most members of the group, paid our own way. An interesting financial note—since there is a total trade embargo on any commerce with Cuba, we are required to carry hundreds in cash to pay hotel bills, meals, etc. There is no currency exchange—dollars are the currency of record and there are no American bank ATM machines, traveler’s checks aren’t valid nor are credit cards. Money belts and fanny packs are the bank of choice.
The trip, while exhausting, was uneventful. Security at Miami was strict; all of us were required to remove our shoes; several were patted down and everything inside our carry on luggage was inspected by hand after being put through x-ray machines. One of our female travelers came under extra scrutiny after a bomb-sniffing machine singled out her luggage. Turns out, she was carrying a chocolate and nut pie—a favorite of one of our hosts—something about the ingredients, says TSA, occasionally triggers the device. Her husband’s heart medicine also set off a drug detector. He showed documentation of his cardiac condition and was let through. Another passenger had the inside of his baggage wiped with a special cloth, which was fed into some kind of super duper deteco machine, all for naught. But out of nearly 100 passengers, it was a no-hassle travel day.
Interestingly, at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, we passed though customs without a peep. After we exited our prop jet charter flight from Miami and walked about 200 yards to the terminal, we lined up in several single file lines to be briefly interviewed by immigration authorities.
“Do you speak Spanish?” “Have you been to Cuba before?” “What is your purpose here?” “Enjoy your stay.”
The bus trip to the hotel took about an hour. Three things stood out as we traversed several neighborhoods: the U.S. embargo has put a hurtin’ on house paint and roof repairs. There are few street lights and very little electric grid infrastructure—no towers blinking on the horizon—and almost no stop lights. Mass transit busses were standing room only and we did notice 50’s vintage automobiles on the highways. There are many interstate-type highways, incidentally.
Our accommodations are spacious, if plain. Scott and I each have a suite—a living room with attached kitchen, complete with microwave, refrigerator and utensils. Private bath, two single beds and a balcony. The floors are 1950’s style terrazzo; there’s no glass in the windows, rather they shut with cranked wooden louvers. The single beds are firm, clean and do have linen. A Samsung air conditioner is keeping the room cool as I write this. Internet service is available in the lobby for a modest fee.
Tonight our Alamar hosts fed us buffet style outside, next to the pool in an open air bar. The meal included baked fish fillets, boiled potatoes and vegetables, hot and cold rice, soup, mixed vegetable and shredded cabbage and cucumber salad with oil and vinegar dressing. Rice pudding for dessert and a local favorite cake. Cuban wait staff bussed tables and kept our water glasses full (bottled water and soft drinks, along with wonderful Cuban espresso coffee. I had four—thus, I’m up after midnight typing away.) It was fabulous.
Sunday we are traveling to Matanzas, a town about 1 1/2 hours east of here. It is the home of a Cuban seminary where all religious denominations, including Catholics, are trained. The choir will inaugurate a new theater with a concert Sunday night.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on October 21, 2004 by selena

    Thank you for this article! I really needed it. Thank you!

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