Monday, March 21, 2016

Cuba 2016: Day Two

On day two of our Cuba trip we had the luxury of sleeping in a little.  The Wife and I slept like logs, hardly moving at all throughout the night.

We had breakfast and met at a small hotel conference room.  We were going to meet with a university professor and I prepared myself for a dry lecture by some political officer.  Instead we got a very interesting lecture by a retired political science teacher.  He was currently the publisher of a magazine about human rights and other potentially subversive articles.  He was surprisingly open and honest about the problems Cuba was experiencing and how the Cuban-American relations have changed over the past few years.  I left the lecture with a better understanding of Cuban history and the impact of the embargo on the Cuban economic and societal structure.

After the lecture we boarded our bus and headed to a Cigar factory.  It took a couple tries to find a factory which we could get into without a long wait.  Pictures were not permitted in the factory - security was fairly high.  We watched as five types of tobacco leaves (harvested from plants grown under two different conditions) were combined in secret formulas to make the different types of Cuban cigars.  We learned that the cigar rollers were often read to to occupy their minds (Romeo and Juliet and Montecristo cigars are named after their favorite stories).  Interestingly enough, you could not buy cigars at the cigar factory.

Next stop was a typical food market where we had a a few minutes to see the produce.  They had a nice variety of fruits and vegetable.  It reminded me of a smaller version of what I saw in Guatemala when I was growing up.

The fresh food prepared us for lunch.  Lunch was at a Paladar.  A paladar is a restaurant in someone's house.  Paladares were one of the first steps taken when the government loosened the restrictions on privately owned businesses in Cuba.  I had the pork plate which not only was very good but it was so much that I left some of my meat uneaten on my plate.  Fortunately I had room for the ice cream with sprinkles that was served for dessert.
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Our purple chevy convertible.
After lunch we were to visit a Jazz club to learn about the musical influences of Cuba but there was an electrical outage and that visit was canceled.  Instead we were taken to a craft market.  At this point, the Wife and I along with another group member we'd befriended left the group and, with the help of Gm, hired a chevy convertible to take us around.
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The city of Havana from El Morro on the other side of Havana Bay.
We got in the car (a purple convertible with white interior) along with the owner who was driving and his son (Elvis), who knew English, and drove up to El Morro, the ridge across the bay from Havana where two forts were located.  We visited a large statue of Jesus, Che Guevara's house, the wing of a downed American military plane, and an old fort that once protected Havana from pirates and corsairs.  From the vantage point of the fort you could get great views of the city.  The weather was perfect.

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Che Guevara sculpture in the Plaza de la Revolución.
After El Morro we went to the Plaza de la Revolución.  In the middle of the plaza is a monument dedicated to José Martí who helped free Cuba from the Spanish.  The monument is a tower you can climb up.  I started up the stairs at the base to see if  I could go inside the tower and climb to the top when a whistle blew.  I looked around and saw a guy at the top of the stairs.  He blew the whistle again and said the monument was closing.  Darn.  They wouldn't even let you up to the top of the base.  For future reference the tower closes at 4:30PM.

I took a few pictures including the large sculptures/murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.  We talked about Cienfuegos with Elvis.  There apparently are conflicting stories about how his plane disappeared.  While it probably was an accident, the schools blame the US for shooting his plane down.  In a hushed tone our guide suggested it was Castro who arranged the disappearance.  There would be a few slightly twisted explanation of historical events told by all of out guides.  When the stories were anti-American you could tell our guides were embarrassed.  We lightened the mood by turning these situations into jokes so we all could laugh and smile a little.

After the Plaza we drove past the capital building, the large cemetery of Cristóbal Colón, and old Havana before our car dropped us back at the craft market.  We walked though the market briefly and bought a few items (most of these not for ourselves).
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Our ill fated Coco Taxi.  Poor Coco.
We met back up with our tour mate and walked over to a cluster of taxis to get back to out hotel.  On a whim we chose a coco taxi.  A coco taxi is basically a moped with a big spherical enclosure.  The three of us squeezed into the hard fiberglass seats and off we went like the breeze - slow and steady.  We had our driver stop briefly so we could take a picture of some Che graffiti before we sat back and watched the people and cars along the malecón.  It was relaxing despite the high pitch whine of the coco taxi engine.  That is, it was relaxing until the engine started sputtering and died.
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Waiting on the malecón wondering how we would get back to our hotel.

The coco taxi died about half way to our hotel.  Poor coco (poor coco is one of our little inside jokes).  We got out and leaned on the sea wall as our driver tried to bring coco back to life.  Even another coco driver couldn't help.  We were debating if we should start walking when a yellow Model T ... yes ... I said Model T ... pulled up.  The Model T was a taxi and we jumped in and rode in style to our hotel.

Despite the coco incident we had a great time on our own in our purple convertible.   We liked it so much that we convinced more people in our group to hire cars the next day.  If I ran Insight Cuba, I would include an old car rental on all tours.

This night dinner was on our own.  We'd been given a list of paladares and Gm had said he would help us with getting a reservation and transportation.  We talked amongst ourselves and decided to go as a group (a group of fifteen with the other seven doing their own thing).  This made Gm's job easier.  Our bus driver volunteered to pick us up and took us to a paladar in old Havana.  We were on our own getting back.

The paladar (Las Terrazas at El Gijonés) was very good but, again, a bit too froo froo for my tastes.  Our table was on the roof with views of the city.  A group of musicians wandered the area playing music.  For some reason "Stand By Me" was a very popular song for Cuban restaurant musicians.  We all smiled when they started playing "Jumping Jack Flash" - The Rolling Stones would be playing a free concert a couple of weeks after our trip (a week after President Obama was having his visit).

Despite having had a good night's sleep, we were beginning to slow down.  A few of our group went to La Floridita, another one of Hemingway's favorite bars, but we'd had enough.  We got in a taxi and headed to the hotel to bed.

Pictures can be found in my Cuba 2016 Flickr Album.

To Be Continued ...

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