Thursday, May 24, 2012

13 Things About Cuba

One of the gifts I left behind in Cuba.
Last week I was fortunate enough to have traveled to Cuba legally as a U.S. citizen.  So naturally, I thought it would be fitting to share a few things about Cuba and my experience there before everything changes.

13 Things About Cuba

1. If I'm going to talk about Cuba, I have to begin with the Malecón in Havana.  For our trip, we stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba right on the Malecón.  All I can say is, what famous American from the early- to mid-1900s did not stay there?  Frank Sinatra, check.  Ernest Hemingway, check.  Ava Gardner - who eventually ended up swimming naked in Ernest Hemingway's pool - check.

Now, back to the Malecón, the boardwalk and break wall along the sea coast.  Not surprising, the first thing you notice are the cars.  These are not the shiny, classic American cars kept under tarps in your uncle's garage only to be rolled off of a flatbed trailer into a Cracker Barrel parking lot car show.  No, these cars are driven.  And just like everything else in Havana, the cars can be seen in various states of repair.  Being enveloped in black clouds of exhaust, you'll realize just how old some of these cars really are.

The Malecón is a boardwalk.  But much more interesting than the one in Venice Beach or Myrtle Beach.  I ran along the Malecón at different times of the day and always encountered the same thing: people.  People fish, walk, and hang out on the break wall.  In the evenings and weekends, vendors and artists set up stands.  While I ran on the old, pockmarked surface, I could only think of coral.  The Malecón teamed with schools of colorful people.  Beautiful.

2. Workers in the famous Cuban Cigar factories are allowed to have three cigars each day.  These are not the high quality items reserved for sale.  Inexperienced apprentices generally hand-roll these cigars using lower quality leaves with tears or imperfections.  Hand-rolling cigars takes practice, and practice makes perfect.  So why waste an otherwise good thing?

Although their three cigars may be rejects by Cuban quality standards, not all tourists know that.  While on the factory tour, a worker on a bathroom break peeked from around a corner and waved his three cigars at me.  It was clear he wanted me to make him a deal.

3. Many of the beautiful buildings in Havana are in dire need of renovation - and much has already begun.  The facades can be dull and colorless old concrete.  But like a flower pushing through the sidewalk, the vibrancy of the Cuba shines through.  From the pastel colored classic cars, to the lively clothing styles, to the bright artwork, Cuba will capture your heart - even on a cloudy day.

4. According to recent new articles, President John F. Kennedy ordered one thousand Cuban cigars before he signed the U.S. trade embargo into law.

5. During our visit to an elementary school in Havana, somebody asked about the graduation rate of school children.  The administrators were a bit perplexed because they claim that all students graduate.  

Prior to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the literacy rate was about 60-70%.  Today, according to UNICEF, it is 100%.

6. Through a combination of the Embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, organic farming is the only method of farming possible.  The lack of chemicals and farming machinery forced Cuban to innovate.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  (Since Cuba has been so successful with organic farming, it makes you wonder why produce at Whole Foods is so expensive.)

7. After Castro nationalized businesses and private property, most people argue that the best Cuban chefs fled to the United States.  If you want great Cuban food, stay in the United States.

But this wasn't necessarily my experience.  If you avoid the tourist restaurants in Havana - where these chefs try to cater to a warped interpretation of Western tastes - you will find wonderful food.  Make sure you eat in at least one paladar, a small restaurant set up in a private residence.

8. Many of the old American and Russian cars in Cuba have a yellow Ferrari emblem displayed on the sides.  Cubans are resourceful and creative.  They are proud of their cars but authenticity does not always factor in when it comes to maintaining their cars.

9. An American, William Alexander Morgan, fought alongside Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution against Cuban dictator Batista.  Morgan held the rank of Comandante.  He was later executed by Castro.

10. In 2009, an open air peace concert was held in Havana's Revolutionary Square.  Our guide said 1.2 Million people attended and even the police enjoyed the free Latin Music concert.

11. Expect to tip a lot of people while visiting.  Local guides and hotel employees all work for tips.  Cubans in Havana are generally very friendly toward Americans.  But just like any tourist area in the world, beware of hustlers.  Everyone wants your money.

12. Ernest Hemingway is Cuba and Cuba is Ernest Hemingway.  In the village of Cojimar, the setting for The Old Man and The Sea, a bust is on display that was created from the boat propellers of local fishermen.  Cubans loved, and still do love, their Papa Hemingway.

13. As shown in the picture above, these Cuban children really appreciated gifts.  Baseball hats and baseballs are great gifts to give in exchange for a family's hospitality.  I wanted to give something unique and memorable.  Hopefully the few Rubik's Cubes I gave away won't frustrate too many Cuban children.

What comes to mind when you think about Cuba?

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