Cuba: Racing Towards An Uncertain Future

DSC_0252

A week in Cuba, I thought, would leave me with a clear picture of where Cuba is now and where it will be in the future. But just like those classic American cars, it’s hard to know what’s underneath the surface.

My wife and I went to Cuba to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We travel extensively, and had our eye on Cuba for some time. Like many after the December 17, 2014 announcement of renewed diplomatic ties, we wanted to see Cuba before it changed much. After visiting, I think people needn’t worry that it will soon resemble an Americanized vacation spot. Change will not come quickly.

This is the first communist country I have visited. I’ve been to former Soviet-block countries that had been communist, including Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. I was expecting Cuba to be somewhat like those, with many drab, utilitarian buildings. I was expecting there to be police everywhere, and have a sense of being monitored. None of that was the case. We felt free to move about, without the sense that we were targets.

We felt completely safe during our entire visit, even when in dark and seemingly dangerous areas. We were told that the sentence for petty crimes was 10 years in prison. We started to wonder if that would help in DC with the recent spike in crime.

We traveled with the tour group insightCuba on a trip centered around the Havana Marathon on November 15. There were about 100 US runners in our group. The race turned out to be just a small part of the overall experience.

Let’s start with Havana. It is a sprawling city, home to 2.1 million of Cuba’s 11.3 million people. Its roads are narrow and rutted. The old American cars are all over the place. The ones in good condition ferry tourists (at higher prices), while the older ones taxi locals. Pedicabs are also used extensively. Overcrowded busses move people longer distances. People walk. Cuba reports a low unemployment rate, but it seemed many were either unemployed or underemployed. You’d see many young people on the streets late into the night.

Can you imagine a place where the only billboards are from the government, touting the revolution? That is how Cuba is.

Cuba is just now starting to experience the Internet, but not widely. It was easiest to spot where the few WiFi spots were at night, as you’d see the glowing screens of people on the street. Internet access costs $3 an hour, but to put that in perspective, the average wage of Cubans is $20 a month. So it is a luxury item.

 

Cuba still uses 2 currencies. The national peso for locals and the CUC, or convertible peso. The CUC was initially intended for tourists, but is now used as a more valuable currency by locals too. Cubans who have access to CUCs, via the tourist economy or relatives abroad, can live a decent life. Those who do not are left scrambling, as the $20 monthly wage does not cover necessities for the full month.

We visited with a theater group in Pinar del Rio and a dance group in Havana. These young people in their 20’s had the same spirit, energy and aspirations as you would see in the US. Their optimism made me feel good about their eventual future.

In all our contacts with Cubans, they were welcoming to Americans. Clearly they like tourists coming and spending money, but Cubans are generally warm people. We saw a spirit of great national pride, optimism and ingenuity. They are determined to make the best life they can in the situation they find themselves in.

And that situation is not easy. Their homes are crumbling. Water and electricity cannot be counted on. There is not enough housing, so there can be 3 (or 4) generations living in small quarters. They are limited in their travel options.

But there are also strengths to the Cuban system. Education is very strong. Healthcare is provided at no cost and there is an extensive system of local clinics close to residents.

When a tourist walks through a market or past taxis or pedicabs, the Cubans are aggressive in offering their services. We never felt hassled though. While not desperate, the Cubans clearly need the money tourists bring. We had both cab and pedicab drivers offer to wait for us to shop or dine, so they would be assured of the return fare as well. A roundtrip pedicab ride of $10 is half a month’s wages in a government job. It is substantial.

I don’t think Cuba is going to change substantially anytime soon. The infrastructure is not capable of supporting substantial growth, since there are problems today. A Starbucks that doesn’t have access to water intermittently during the day is not going to do well. And at best, they could only sell to tourists, as Cubans are not going to be buying $5 lattes anytime soon. There are limited dining options today, so 2000 visitors off of a cruise ship would have nowhere to eat. There are not many shopping options either. We ate at one of the nicest paladars (private restaurants) in Cuba, and the entrance to the building looked like this: IMG_0220

 

 

 

We visited the western province of Pinar del Rio, the area where tobacco is grown. The government directs where it is grown, what pesticides to use, when it should be harvested. Farmers turn over 90% of the tobacco to the government, to be used in the branded cigars. The remaining 10% they can sell themselves, without any brand. We bought some of both kinds, will have to compare.

In tourist areas, Cubans can rent out extra rooms as casa particulars, their equivalent I guess to Airbnb. In a small town with many such places, I asked our guide how guests find one to stay at. When a bus from Havana pulled up, I soon found out. The owners of the rooms were there to greet the visitors, aggressively marketing themselves to somewhat bewildered guests. As a marketing professional, I admired the sales efforts of putting themselves in front of their potential customers.

In experiencing Cuba first-hand, our group of Americans spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it would take to improve the living standard for the average Cuban. There is the need for tremendous investment to repair or replace housing. Electricity, water, transportation all need extensive upgrades. Employment opportunities must be enhanced, and not only in the tourist sector. Cubans need to be able to raise their standard of living. Being able to export their goods to the US market would be a big plus. But that opening will probably only come when their government moves to allow greater freedoms. The history between the US and Cuba is so complicated that I know it will take time to deepen ties. I do believe that people-to-people experiences now possible can help move that process forward.


Cuba Day 7 (November 20, 2015)

 

 

There was one thing on my Cuba bucked list that we hadn’t accomplished, a visit to the iconic Che metal figure on the building in the Plaza de la Revolution. So Ellen and I got up early and took a Coco-cab (sort of a motorcycle with a shell on top) there.

DSC_0254

Our driver waited for us while we took about 10 minutes to take pictures. We were glad we went out there.

DSC_0248DSC_0251DSC_0253IMG_0251

Back to the hotel for breakfast. I emptied and repacked my suitcase, as there needed to be room for rum. The bus took us to the airport. Check-in and emigration was easy. We did our duty-free shopping. Nothing left to do but wait for our flight.

And this time, everything went smoothly. A one hour delay out of Havana. Luggage immediately arrived in Miami. No problems with immigration or Customs. A burger! for dinner at a TGIF at the airport with Margaret. Easy flight to BWI. Overnight at a hotel there, then home Saturday morning.

I am writing my impressions of the trip for NBC4. Once that’s published, I’ll link to it. This was an experience, not a vacation. Overwhelming too, because while we were there, we were exposed to the people and lives of real Cubans. It was amazing. And a little overwhelming.


Cuba Day 6 (November 19, 2015)

 

Today, we return to Havana, but not without some fun along the way. After loading up the bus, we went just a few blocks to a cigar factory. We can now attest, when they say Cuban cigars are hand-rolled, they are. Workers have piles of tobacco leaves from the 3 parts of the plant and combine the filler, the binder and the wrapper to create the cigar. They make about 150 a day (and can take home 12 a week).

 

We traveled by bus next to Las Terrazas, an artistic community in a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. We had a local guide tell us the history, where the trees had been clear-cut at one point to create charcoal. The area then had over 1 million trees planted and managed ecologically. We had lunch at a restaurant there.

We then went to the outskirts of Havana and watched the Compas Dance Company perform. Mostly young women, it was another time when the spirit of the Cuban people provided hope for their future.

DSC_0209DSC_0211DSC_0224DSC_0232DSC_0234

We returned to the Hotel Plaza, where we had been for the start of the trip. It wasn’t easy to return, because the hotel is not in the best shape. Our hotel in Pinar del Rio was much nicer.

 

There was a farewell dinner, but many chose other options. Ellen and I decided to make this our special anniversary dinner. We ate at La Guarida, perhaps the nicest paladar in Havana. We took a pedicab there, enjoying the bumpy ride. The paladar is on the 2nd floor of a building in pretty bad shape in a not-so-nice neighborhood. You had to walk up marble stairs with iffy handrails to get there. But once we made it, it was all worth it. We had a meal that would have been delightful anywhere. We started with cheese ravioli. Ellen had suckling pig, I had snapper in a delicious sauce. We had dessert and coffee/tea, and the meal came to just 85 CUC including tip. We ate leisurely, as our pedicab driver was coming back to meet us in 2 hours.

 

Almost all in the tour were ending the trip with a night featuring the Buena Vista Social Club band. Legendary Cuban performers take turns singing songs, walking through the crowd. Our Cuban tour guide had told them it was our anniversary, so about half-way through, we were brought flowers and they announced we were there celebrating our 30th anniversary. We were surprised and very honored. The concert ended at 11:30, and we walked home for our last night sleeping in Cuba.

IMG_0225IMG_0227IMG_0228IMG_0235IMG_0248

 


Cuba Day 5 (November 18, 2015)

Today was a full day!

 

Our first stop today was the Vinales National Park. The topography was pretty awesome, mountain formations that erupted out of nowhere.

DSC_0115

We hiked through tobacco fields, learned about tobacco farming, plants and harvesting. We learned that tobacco farmers turn over 90% of their crops to the government for the creation of branded cigars, but can age, ferment, flavor and sell the remaining 10%. After having bought 3 Cohibas for $45 in Havana, I bought 12 cigars from the farmer that are better for $30.

DSC_0120DSC_0123DSC_0133DSC_0134DSC_0143DSC_0147

We had lunch at el Palenque de los Cimarrones, which was entirely touristy and unremarkable. In fact, we were stuck in a bus traffic jam getting out of the parking lot.

 

We stopped next in the town of Vinales. Our tour guide gave us the assignment of going into a casa particular (think AirBnB) and talk with the owner and go into a local store and price in the local currency. Cuba has 2 currencies, the CUC which foreigners use and the local peso. Well, that was the plan. The CUC is now a hard currency that is pegged to the dollar and is used by Cubans for anything more than the basics. It’s complicated, I’ll maybe do a blog entry solely on currency and inequality issues.

 

Ellen was a little reluctant to enter a casa particular, but I thought it might be fun to use the little bit of Spanish we’ve learned from taking a class. We picked one at random and walked in. We spoke with the owner, who was very nice. Her room was already rented for the day, but we learned its price of 25 CUC per night and that she really likes her telenovellas. She asked where we were from and told us she has had US guests from New York, DC, Miami, and Texas.

We went into a grocery store that sold things priced both by CUC and pesos and got a sense of what locals pay.

I had wondered how the casa particulars market themselves. And we found out when a bus from Havana pulled up. The owners were right there to meet the bus, delivering impassioned pleas to bewildered travelers. I liked the one-to-one sales efforts!

DSC_0177

DSC_0180

For dinner, the tour group was going out to a paladar, but we decided to go on our own. Walking past the hotel, one of our fellow group members, Hillary from Austin, ran after us to scout where we were going for a smaller group that was looking to break away. We had researched in Moon and had a couple places in mind. They were on our street, but we had some difficulty finding them, as the street numbers went down and then back up again. A local took on the task of “helping” us find the paladar. The one we were looking for was closed, but we found one further down the street. We were gone so long that the others had gone to the group dinner, so it was just the 3 of us. I didn’t have small Cuban bills, so I tipped him $3 for his “help.” After sitting down to dine, the local came back in to “check” on us. He told the restaurant we were his friends. He left, but came back again maybe 5 minutes later, again looking for his friends. At this point, we think the restaurant owner came to check that we didn’t know him and escorted him away. Our waiter told us he was loco.

 

The menu had appetizers for 1 CUC each and main courses for 4.50. We had 3 appetizers, 3 main courses, 3 drinks and it cost us 26.40 CUC with tip. We had a great conversation during dinner and felt we had our most authentic Cuban meal of the trip.

 

We found out that the tour group had dinner at the paladar right next to ours. Except they had been there 1 ½ hours and didn’t have their dinner yet. We win! We walked back to the hotel with Hillary, had a drink and then went to bed. Still before the group got back to the hotel.


Cuba Day 4 (November 17, 2015)

 

We left Havana today! About a 2 hour bus ride to Patio de Pelegrin, a small community with arts opportunities for the citizens. They gave us a tour, showed us their paintings (we bought one) and served us lunch.

DSC_0045DSC_0041DSC_0050DSC_0048DSC_0039

Back on the bus for another half hour or so to Pinar del Rio. Our hotel is nicer than the one in Havana, more modern and reliable. We went with the Insights Cuba guide for a walk, just to see the stores and buildings. Such a different pace than Havana. We visited a theater/singing/dancing group of kids in their 20’s. We enjoyed the performances.

DSC_0094

The town was interesting to people watch. Even an ATM!

DSC_0051DSC_0083DSC_0065

 

Dinner was with the group at a convent. Yes, with nuns serving and clearing the dishes. It was really fun.

I’ve been a little under the weather today, so we went straight up to bed when we got back at 9:30.


Cuba Day 3 (November 16, 2015)

Rainy morning to start the day.

 

Now with the race over, Ellen and I have the same itinerary, a people-to-people emphasis. The group is also down to only 19 people who are on the full 8-day tour.

 

First stop today was a health clinic. We met with the director and head nurse and got an introduction to the Cuban health system. This clinic served 31,000 residents, providing primary care (all for free). If more specialized or severe care is needed, there are then centers and hospitals.

DSC_0937DSC_0943

DSC_0941Next was the grand cemetery. More an outdoor art museum than cemetery, Everyone in Havana can be buried there, but they only leave bodies in the graves for 2 years. By then the humidity has reduced what’s left to bones. The bones get boxed and moved to another area. Our guide told fantastic stories of love and loss, in such a dramatic (and accented voice) that even if you didn’t understand him, you loved the theatrics.

DSC_0977DSC_0972DSC_0961DSC_0951DSC_0971

Lunch was in a palladar, then we toured an arts and barber community project.

 

Ellen and I then went to the Museum of the Revolution. In Baptiste’s former presidential palace, it told the story of how the Castros came to power. There was some English, which served to remind me that history is written by the victors.

 

 

DSC_0034DSC_0033DSC_0016DSC_0012DSC_0028

DSC_0003

A short rest at the hotel, then to dinner with 4 others from the group. We dined on the roof of a building with a view of the old city. A cannon sounds at 9pm, a vestige of when the old city would close its gates.

 

We took cabs to the Tropicana. A dancing/singing show, it had the outrageous costumes and glitzy staging that you might expect. The show went from 10pm – midnight, at which time we found our taxi driver who had waited for us and went back to the hotel.


Cuba Day 2 (November 15, 2015)

Race day! Up at 4:30 for some carbs and water, back to sleep until 6. Our hotel is just 2 blocks from the start, which is always a great thing. Left the hotel just after 6:30 and milled about at the starting line. Promptly at 7, we were off!

IMG_0080IMG_0082IMG_0087

On this trip was a high school classmate of mine. Had brunch with Jon Kirn about 6 months ago and mentioned this trip. He had never run a race before, but here he is!

IMG_0088

The race starts (and finishes) by the capitol, which looks much like the US building. We were soon along the malecon, the sea wall that Cubans hang out next to. The waves were rough, so there was a lot of splashing over the sea wall.

IMG_0095

IMG_0096About 1.5 miles into the race, I could tell that the humidity was going to be a huge factor for me. So I walked through the water stops. The water was delivered in plastic sacks that you bit the end off of. Much more efficient delivery than cups filled with water. Also, more liquid! Each sack held 250ml of water.

 

We passed the US Embassy near the end of the malecon, it was something to see the building and the US flag flying. Hills started around mile 5, which I was okay with to start. But I began strategically walking the later hills and at one point around mile 9. But only a little to recharge, and then back to running.

IMG_0093

The Cubans along the course sat on their front lawns or up on their balconies and watched, but there wasn’t any cheering. That was okay, there was so much to see and absorb along the way, I didn’t miss the signs and bands and cowbells that US races have.

IMG_0176

Insight Cuba hired Jenny Hadfield from Runners World as our running coach on Facebook and she was here with us. Around mile 11, I saw an Insight Cuba sign, then realized it was Jenny rooting us on. She had helped coach me through preparing for the heat and humidity, so it was uplifting to see here there. Jenny took this picture.

IMG_0785

I pushed through the last 2 miles and was happy to return to the capitol and finish the race. I timed it at 2:38:05, which was fine with me given the conditions.IMG_0182

 

The race featured a mixture of Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Americans and a few other noticeable nationalities. There were about 5000 runners this year, a record for the number of Cubans and foreign nationals who ran here. It was an incredible experience to see Havana through the streets, so I’m so glad that Ellen encouraged this as the selection for our anniversary trip.

I was able to clean up and take a taxi with 2 other runners to join the companions for lunch at an organic farm outside of Havana. After getting back to the hotel, Ellen led me on a walking tour of old Havana and we did some souvenir shopping.

DSC_0933DSC_0918DSC_0908DSC_0906DSC_0904DSC_0901DSC_0889DSC_0885DSC_0934

DSC_0875

DSC_0895

There was a dinner celebration for the whole tour group, with most of the runners going back to the US on Monday. At each table were 2 Cuban runners. We occasionally had a translator, and otherwise used some Spanish and some English to communicate. It was a special exchange, to talk and share as runners and citizens. It was warm, friendly and uplifting. The race organizer spoke at the dinner about the special bond between the Insight Cuba groups and the Cubans. Maybe there is something to this people-to-people exchange idea.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45 other followers