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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

Those who can still travel to Cuba find a living past

Posted July 18, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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Miami Herald

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IMAGES ON CUBA: Tobacco is grown in the western province of Pinar del Rio in fields called vegas. Mogotes, or large limestone hills, surround the fertile soils and the whole valley is a World Heritage site. GEORGIA TASKER/HERALD STAFF

Sweet-smelling tobacco leaves drying in barns thatched with royal palms; Meissen and Limoges china in a palacio that seems so middle-of-nowhere; porticos and pilasters of Neoclassical architecture; an armada of 50-year-old American cars; mangy dogs; Guantanamera; everywhere the same frozen image of the handsome, devil-may-care Che Guevara and marble busts of the dour intellectual Jose Martí.

Memories of Cuba cling to me like lint.

Traveling under the license of a religious/humanitarian organization, I joined a group that brought clothing and other items, but also sought out botanical gardens as a special interest. Such academic and cultural trips no longer are possible; on June 30, the window closed when the U.S. government instituted new travel restrictions. Current licenses issued by the Department of the Treasury will be allowed until they expire.

Yes, I was quizzed at the Jose Martí airport about the cameras I carried, but no, I wasn’t detained. Some things veered off the itinerary, such as a change of hotels for unknown reasons. But snags occur in other countries, too. The trip began in the westernmost province of Pinar del Río, where no automobile horns or early morning lawn mowers jar you awake. Dawn delivers the sun silently by coloring the huge limestone outcroppings called mogotes the same red as the soil.

IMPOSSIBLE TASK

Cuba is 776 miles long and impossible to see, much less comprehend, in a week. Hemingway spent 21 years at it. My taste was a mere miniature of rum, flavored with lime and mint.

Ironies abound. There are Mercedes Benzes and Volvos now showing up in Havana, there are discos and five-star hotels (full of European products). But outside the capitol, there are horse-drawn carts and bicycles, crowds waiting for rides at carless intersections in the countryside.

The Cuba I saw is adrift in time, yes, without the conveniences that most Americans take for granted. But it also has been unscathed by the worst changes that recent times have wrought—the constantly chattering plastic-wrapped culture of the post-modern world.

And that is the magic of Cuba today: It is idiosyncratic, elegant yet down-at-heel, and achingly authentic.

Oxen plow the small farms, unless there is an old tractor in the area. Farming is organic, a transformation that took place during the economic collapse of the ‘‘special period’’ when Russia pulled out—leaving Cuba with only a fraction of the oil and petroleum-based chemicals needed for huge farms.

STRUGGLING LIVES

Farmland was given back to farmers; urban gardens were begun, and still exist today, in part to deal with unemployment as well as hunger. Without meaning to, the country showed sustainable agriculture can work, although it came with food rationing and undernourishment. Housing shortages are critical, with many families jammed into the old apartments of Havana. The average wage is $10 a month. Tobacco is recovering from the collapse, but 70 of 156 sugar mills have closed, and most sugar now is used to make rum.

In the tiny town of Viñales, two sisters run a family botanical garden as a local attraction. Plastic fruit decorates the gate and old machine parts serve as plant containers. With absolutely no grass anywhere, which is the custom, the garden exudes great charm with its red dirt, black chickens, orchids, coleus, scattered amaryllis and multitude of fruit trees. The sisters graciously serve fruit at the end of the tour.

By the time I reached Havana, I had walked the cobbled streets of historic colonial Trinidad, listened to the famous choir from the town of Cienfuegos and drunk mojitos on the roof of that town’s architectural fantasy, Palacio del Valle, sugar-spun with sugar money. It sits next to an awful ‘50s motel financed by reputed gangster Meyer Lansky and Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

In Havana, I was awestruck at the many glorious buildings in Habana Vieja, as well as the crumbling and overcrowding of others near the harbor’s famous five-mile walk, the Malecon. I had a drink at the Floridita, where a life-size bronze of Ernest Hemingway leans on the bar . I joined the crowd and swayed to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club at the stately Hotel Nacional, but couldn’t keep from yawning at the feathers and ‘50s fantasies of the Tropicana Cabaret.

Before the new restrictions went into place, tourism to Cuba was on the rise, reported online Granma, the Cuban Communist Party publication. It estimated 100,000 U.S. citizens toured Cuba in the early 2000s. During my March visit, I encountered a few Americans, but many more Canadians.

In 1990, the country had only 310,000 tourists, according to a paper by Maria Dolores Espino given in 2000 at a meeting about Cuban economics in Miami. By 1999, 1.6 million tourists arrived. That year, according to the study, Canadians led the pack, followed by Germans and Italians . U.S. tourists accounted for 62,345, but other estimates put the number at 153,000 legal U.S. tourists and 28,000 illegal U.S. visitors.

What changes the new restrictions will bring to the people of Cuba is something only time will tell.

The visitors on our trip had no political agenda. They simply wanted to see the island, its nature and gardens, its people and culture, before they are developed to look like every other destination resort. With Europeans and Canadians still investing in Cuba and visiting it, change seems inevitable.

Member Comments

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On August 14, 2004, eugenio and donna wrote:

please can someone help us find our family members in havana cuba my husband is worried about his family he has not heared from them in many years if you need our address here it is     mr &mrs; planes 1562 brinckerhoff ave utica new york 13501 we really aprecate any help thank

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On August 14, 2004, eugenio and donna wrote:

please can someone help us find our family members in havana cuba my husband is worried about his family he has not heared from them in many years if you need our address here it is     mr &mrs; planes 1562 brinckerhoff ave utica new york 13501 we really aprecate any help thank