Saturday, April 8, 2017

Cuba- Should be on Everyone's Bucket List--

Trip March 20-25
Cheers to 25 years!

It has taken me 2 full weeks to start this blog, simply because the trip was so full, fun & intense.  The intensity had to do with time, not with the usual “expect everything to go wrong” warnings.  I have patiently gone through photos, trying to decide which ones tell a story, & not have it be a Trip Advisor story but ours.  This is no easy task when you are sorting through about 500 pictures many of which are quite nice, & trying to figure out what you loved because it was weird (which I am) or odd (which I also love), but also which would share our 25th anniversary in a way that could be meaningful to my family & friends.

First of all, the disclaimers: 1. I am not a cruise ship fan.  I think that I would probably have a very difficult time on one and they give me the creeps.  This is personal, and fortunately I share this dislike with my husband; but amazingly (as this is Cuba after all) there were two cruise ships (400-500 of our best friends each) in the dock (about 4 blocks from our hotel. We tried to decide how we could escape. 
( It turns out that cruise ships have been going in & out of Cuba for years. Fortunately, only one event had lots of cruise people, & the event itself was wonderful & didn’t matter how many people crossed that crowded room.  2. I have a bad back, & to have 2-3 hour delays in flights when you have to sit on a red, orange or yellow plastic chairs makes me cranky.  3. When an expensive hotel doesn’t have a bottled water for either of us, hot water, internet in the lobby, or working TV for 4 days, I can be cranky, especially when the hotel tries to pass their roof rooms off as rooms with balconies though you look out your window at only the elevated roof of the hotel and not anywhere else, and your suite is just a slightly bigger room with a couch. I like light and I like air, and we had very little of either. 
view from rooftop of man feeding his chickens

The little cupulo where drinks were prepared
view of the Cathedral from our rooftop

Stained Glass ceiling Our view from room

Elevator antique &you get trapped at least once/day
Finally, everyone discouraged us to drink tap water or even brush teeth with tap water, yet we had a 3-4-block walk to buy bottled water because the hotel did not provide it. (no grocery stores near) 4. When the concierge does not know where any of the restaurants are located that you wrote down, you are a bit annoyed at this concierge who should know the names of at least a few restaurants, even if they aren’t the ones you wrote down, and you are a bit confused about her job description.  (But you are cranky at yourself for not being smart enough to write down the addresses and phone numbers of the places to which you really wanted to go.)

With those disclaimers past, by & large this was an amazing trip.  Even my frustration with our hotel was lowered by the fact that we never had a power outage; we did have air conditioning (maybe too much), we discovered that we could have a good breakfast when we persuaded the on-site pancake maker to also make fried eggs or omelets, we found good food restaurants and fantastic food at the Hotel National despite the concierge, and one of the workers at the hotel was a continuous life saver. Thank you Tomás.   
Tomás our good Concierge & Life Saver
We had been told that Immigration and Customs would be rough, and the only rough part was the Delta Agent in Atlanta. (Yes, we have complained)  We arrived in Cuba.

Cuban Airport
The Cuban Immigration Agent welcomed us warmly, stamped our visas & sent us right on to get our bags.  (It was actually one of the easiest immigration moments I have had despite travel to many countries). We waited to change money for over 30 minutes because there are so few legal places to but even then it was not mean spirited or angry.  (Be prepared to change money at 6% if you are changing $.  It may be worth it if you can get Euros for free as they have a small exchange rate!) People expected the wait, and it was fun to “people watch” during that time.  And, the Cubans were happy to see us.  I have been many places, and you get your feelings from outside the airport about a place, and mostly they are accurate. There was a lot of joy outside this airport.

Our taxi driver made it clear to us that everyone supports the revolution (whether this is true or not, we never heard a word opposed, & from the drive in, it looked like people were pretty happy & easy going.  The old cars were fantastic looking & people were headed to baseball mounds for a good old game of the all American sport.   

He gave us a  general tour as we made our way to the hotel. Cars moving down the Havana Vieja (called Old Havana-) had a very hard time negotiating through the maize. The good piece of this is that, different from Italy, there was no speeding through these narrow streets, & pedestrians obviously had the right of way everywhere.

After our check in, we took a short walk to the old Cathedral Square.  (buying water)  We walked around the narrow streets in this area & marveled how clean everything was, how marvelous secrets like museums, fantastic old houses, shops & music & more music lay behind plain doors and dark narrow hallways, and/or dark stair cases.  
Typical street in Havana Vieja
John in Cathedral Square near Cathedral
Dancers ready for action

Beautiful old Cathedral interior
Hmmmm Read sign-
 So basically the sign right in front of that wonderful view inside the Cathedral states: "You are in a Catholic Church...No Shorts Too Short.  God Bless You!

John in the Cathedral Square

 Weather changed as we left for dinner.

Bicycle Taxi in the rain

John and Trish at the Restaurant

Van Van Bar and Restaurant deserves "Kudos"

Bar and Restaurant Van Van

Bicycle Taxi home
It is a bumpy journey (not alcohol I promise)
We had a crazy fantastic ride in the pouring rain via bicycle taxi to the Van Van Restaurant (I did write this address down), another old haunt that provided a delicious dinner, new beer options & friendly staff.  Clearly this place deserves its 4 stars from Trip Advisor.  The rain stopped & our new bicycle taxi driver loved describing  Havana Vieja to us on our drive home.

I had already planned that at least a large part of our next day—Annversary #25—would consist of the Hop on Hop off Bus.  Our hotel had never heard of it, but thankfully directed us to the “tour office”, which was a tiny little cubicle near the Cathedral.  For 1 CUC ($1) sold us a map of Havana, YES!!!!, and directed us to the Hop on Hop off bus stop.  The directions were vague but we found it.
Fort of San Carlos of Cuba

Christ of Havana

We had a beautiful view of the Fort, the Jesus and the cruise ships (gulp) And for 5 CUC pesa each ($5)  were able to see the entire city of Havana by bus.  We could get on & off & on again for nothing extra the entire day.  The plan is ride around the city once and mark all the places we wanted to see before “hopping” back on. I had my map to know where we were all day.  It took a bit over 2 hours to get through the whole trip once.  We sat upstairs & had a terrific view of this huge new & old city.  
Havana old and new

Lighthouse near Fort
Beach house on Beach Front

Hospital Garcia

Hotel National

Church of Santa Christa in Old Havana

Revolution Square Old Cars

Park Central with Music Theatre
Music Theatre turrets

Avenue of the Feet!
Forever the Revolution

Hemingway's Hotel Floridita
Supposedly another Hemingway drinking place and sleeping

Ricky Ricardo's CopaCabana?

Monument2 to Maxim Gomez


US Embassy

I loved the comments (Cuba put all the flags of the world on huge wide poles in front of the US embassy to keep embassy employees from seeing out of the windows), (the Hotel National is where the US mob + Frank Sinatra regularly met and sang before the Revolution…) (Hemingway used to drink here, and here, and here—most notably the “Floridita Bar” –come drink a daiquiri the same way Hemingway did--- or here, this was really the place that Hemingway really drank---come have a great drink with us, & oh by the way, did you know that Hemingway was a spy for Fidel?)  Lots more.  Buy the time we were ready to get off & on, we had mapped out a few places for the rest of the day. I could go on and on and on...

My highlight was not Revolution Square though it was an architectural beauty....

Patricia and Ché

Patricia and Fidel

Revolution Square really a monument to José Martí
But, my highlight was the cemetary(Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón).  I think that I could blame my brother (who loves graves) for this.  The cemetery could easily claim one day, but we had one hour.

Necropólis Cristóbal Colón
Mother Theresa Chapel in the Cemetary
A cemetery cleaner picked us up & gave a fantastic tour to his favorite graves.   

Replica of Miguel Angel (of piety)  but obviously the family Herrera-Ortiz

personal favorite-Medical Students who died as Martyrs during 1906
grave of José Mata

Gravestone  of coral

Our grave tour guide and cleaner

Grave of Ibraham Ferrer Buena Vista Social Club Singer

Inside Chapel
These included one of the original singers with the Buena Vista Social Club, young doctor martyrs from a mass death (plague or revolution) at the turn of the century who died, martyrs of another revolution who died, martyrs from the revolution with the Spanish who died, babies who died, precious women in families who died, entire famous Cuban family tombs, etc.  The goal seemed to be that with the exception of the martyrs, each tomb had very individual headstones.  Some used coral; some used glass, or gold.  The martyrs were always headless.  The center of the cemetery was called the Mother Theresa Chapel & she was prominently featured caring for the poor & dying.  There were also pictures of the Former Pope, and other Bishops and other famous Catholics. It was a beautiful chapel, and a restful place after the hundreds of glistening white graves that we had walked by, around.  Our self-appointed guide left us after a few pesos & some Polaroid pictures of himself. I was very sad that we did not find our way to the 1957 Martyrs of the assault on the Presidential Palace!  We just did not have time.We caught our bus back to Central Plaza  where joyous  music was playing & people were gathering for evening fun.  
Capital from Park Central

Park Central

José Marti Park Central
 We walked to our hotel and headed out to our anniversary dinner at the Hotel National.

Anniversary on Bicycle Taxi

Musicians at dinner

25!!!! Who would have thought!!!!
Our next day consisted of a trip out of town.  I feel we should have made a full day of it, but we just didn’t realize what we were missing.  We found our way to a small gallery in which the artist made amazing ceramics.   If I had not had my trusty Trip Advisor address, we would never have found this lovely studio.   

Fantastic Gallery
After a while we headed to the Hemingway Marina, thinking that it would give us some Hemingway views, but we realized when we got there that it is another rich person’s place, and that this is where the new secret Americans are living and making many dollars without notice from the US government (I guess).  Our taxi driver thought that we might find some art at the old hotel there but unfortunately it was boarded up and clearly closed forever. So, we headed to the Hemingway house, which was amazing. 

I highly recommend seeing “Papa Hemingway” and though it does not show the best side of Hemingway, what actually is the best side?  He always was troubled, he always was a testosterone driven man, the Africans did not love him because he went to kill not to revel in the African wildlife, but this movie also shows the last days before the Revolution and his bravery amidst the insanity that was the Batista days.  See it, and you will really appreciate this house, because the movie was a set, but nearly identical, and you can imagine seeing the actors wandering in and out, the driveway, and the grounds.  Hemingway's role as a spy for the revolution was a part of him that I had not known.

Band outside Hemingway house

Graves of Hemingway's dogs

Living room

Entry way

JB in front of Hem. house

Patricia in front door Hemingway house
Pilar the boat

Pilar inside

John & Pilar
View from Hemingway house

Fun photo on our way back to Hotel
When we got back to Havana City, we toured the Fort of San Carlos across the bay. This, too was fantastic, but I think we could spent another day there!  Here we were amidst British Domination over the Spanish as well as the Bay of Pigs.  I loved hearing Trevor Noah saying that the only reason the Brits needed to colonize other countries was because of the weather.  I felt this as I read inside the fortress about the battles fought and won over Cuba, the tiny country south of Mexico.
Patricia View of Harbor from Fort
Jesus, Havana Statue
Ché Gueverra's House in Cuba

Old Spanish Fort won by the British

Guns from Fort

Narrow walk ways in fort.  John is claustrophobic so he was a hero to walk in this fort
John Waiting for me to finish reading

Missals from 1962-the missile crisis.

Another Missile
Perfect date.  Gulp

The big Missile

JB and Missiles

Amazing Monument to the Defense of Cuba

Explanation of monument

KM Zero
We went to a good dinner at  Kilometer 0 (why the name?) and then to the Buena Vista Social Club. 

Buena Vista Social Club

John with  Mojitos at Buena Vista Social Club

 Despite the huge crowds and perhaps the mojito that caused my “Havanarrhea” on the way home, I loved it. The wait staff moved us when they realized we were not there for food to a table farther from the stage, but right next to the door that the singers came through on and off stage.  It was amazing.  I loved the music and could have danced all night, but reality and John’s desire for early bed got us home at a reasonable hour.

Our last day in Havana was interesting.  I knew that there was a fine Arts Museum in Havana but John couldn’t find it in our book (turned out that two pages were glued together!) so we went to small galleries.  This error was probably better.  We just had fun and really saw in the small galleries the influence that West Africa and the Yoruba peoples and their culture had upon the indigenous peoples of Cuba.  Felt somehow familiar to East Africa and New Orleans.  We added a ride in an open 1947 Chevy coupe, and the day was complete.  We had a moment when we tried to go to the “cigar museum” and some probably thieves told us it was closed for tours and we should come with them.  Over our better judgement, we went with them, wandering in and out of alleyways and finally into a room filled with boxes of cigars that they were selling.  They were disgusted that they had wasted their time with us, who bought no cigars (we have too many it turns out already.)  So we ended our day and began the last with a look at the horses and carriages and the museums that we wanted to see.

Park Central gathering of Bicycle Taxis
The Plaza Vieja (not so hidden treasures)
This plaza was filled with school children playing ball, jump rope and running around.  Tourists intermingled around the amazing Statue of the giant rooster with the nude woman in high heels riding him holding a giant Fork.  The symbol is supposed to demonstrate the power of women.  The children paid it little mind!
The Tobacco Museum.  Fabulous except for the lady asking for money, but quietly in a corner
Look at these Box covers for Cigars.  WOW!

One of the tiny Museums of Anthropologie orArchiology

Us in our fab Chevie Open Air 47

And here it is!
Leaving Havana was actually fun.  Our taxi driver, Dani, was fabulous.  He was driving a 1954  Chevy Cavalier and told us the whole history of his family and the car. 


It was like a history lesson on wheels.  We also passed a psychiatric institution and an old folks home and learned even more about the belief that getting folks out and involved with sports and activities, whether they can walk or play is positive and just generally good for patients.

Everything was fine until our check in Priority Delta lady whispered, “Your plane is 2 hours late, just sayin’ ”.  We asked where the lounge was and she said “no lounge, except there is an international lounge that you can pay to gain access to” and gave us directions none of which were correct and we found ourselves through customs with no lounges except a Virgin Atlantic that would not allow us in.  So we were back in plastic chairs for 4 hours.  My sweet husband had paid to bump us to business class, but all lost on me because after the first bite of food, I knew that either I was going to die, vomit or faint.  I managed to get to the bathroom where I put my head between my legs and managed to get some air back (in the bathroom this is not easy).  The rest of the trip to JFK was foggy. But at least our flight attendant brought me soda water and ice packs for my head and I had the room to put my head down to get air. 

We arrived in NYC to find that our own flight was 2 hours late so instead of racing to catch our flight, we spent two long hours in the lounge. When our plane came in, I felt so sorry for the confused people getting off the plane with international connections to contend with, many of which had already departed.  We helped as best we could to guide them for help because the Delta desk was not interested in helping them at all.

Wall mural showing the revolution

People do not be afraid of this country, the confusion and craziness.  They want us, and they love nice people.  Music is everywhere and it is all fun and good, and you can drink or not, but do not drink the water or have mojitos with ice cubes in them or daquaris with ground up ice.  Use Trip Advisor as much as you can, and be sure to write down addresses.  If you do, you will be just fine. Learn from my experience.

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