Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Arizona: Extreme Edition

News flash: I leave for my Africa trip in eight days.  Eight! And I still have absolutely no idea of what I'll be doing or seeing while I'm there because the trip organizers either don't have things planned or have been tasked with teaching me patience.  A cool world traveler would not care...she would wing it and would know just what to pack and how to pack it (looking at you, Afrodite!) without needing any details.  I try to be that spontaneous person, I really really do.  But right now I'm not feeling it.  I want to know if I will see an elephant. 
Until I get more details on the next adventure, I wanted to share a closer-to-home travel experience that I had recently when work took me to Flagstaff for meetings.  Flagstaff is a wonderful place to go no matter what the occasion, and armed with my camera and my fresh-off-vacation instinct to photograph everything, I got some great shots as we walked between meetings and explored the downtown shopping area. 

Flagstaff always manages to surprise me.  Even when I'm there for something as routine as work meetings, unexpected things happen.  Like the band that stopped playing almost as unexpectedly as it began, seeming to come out of nowhere to entertain those crowded into an old hotel ballroom for a too-short time.
Or the traveling karaoke ride that was unlike anything I've ever seen before: participants peddled to keep it moving, then stopped to sing along when they got tired.

And as if Flagstaff doesn't have enough going for it, now there's Flagstaff Extreme: an obstacle course with ropes, bridges, zip lines and other assorted ways to be insane in the tops of enormous pine trees.  Awesome.
This was the point where I was playing photographer from a safe spot on the ground...
Travel close to home does have its advantages, like great friends for travel companions and signs all in your native language!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Markets, Money and Mayhem

Havana Times did an article on the San Jose Market that made me even more sorry that I didn't put more effort into enjoying the time that I spent there.  (Click here to read the article.)  My Shopping Mall Instinct kicked into high gear when faced by a giant warehouse of people selling many of the same art and trinkets that we'd seen near tourist spots around Cuba...but when I see some of the treasures my fellow travelers brought home, or read about the importance of the Market to Cubans' entrepreneurial opportunities, I'd like to take back that great nap I had in the bus while everyone else shopped.
I did stay awake long enough to get this fun picture near the market, though:
The San Jose Market, like the much smaller shopping market near our hotel, is a bustling display of the entrepreneurial hopes recently revived in the Cuban people.  Last year, President Raúl Castro expanded the number of opportunities for Cubans to own their own business.  The government, who has been cutting back on state-funded employment as revenues continue to fall short, stated its intention that 240,000 private jobs be created even as 170,000 government jobs were cut.  And for a short time that goal appeared to be realistic: a quarter of a million people applied for licenses to operate their own businesses since the government broadened business ownership opportunities.  Recent actions by the government, however, along with intense competition between private businesses for the tourists' dollar, have slowed growth among Cuba's privately owned businesses.
"Necessity is the mother of invention" is an overused phrase but it certainly holds true in Cuba, where the people have to be creative in obtaining even the basics of life like soap and food.  Under the new business opportunities, an unofficial import system began as family from other places - like the U.S. - would bring items with them for their Cuban relatives to sell in private shops.  Castro's government recently added a tax to those imported items which, combined with significant taxes already placed on business owners, threatens the success of many entrepreneurs.
All these factors add up to make tourists very, very popular.  In Old Havana in particular, the competition between businesses is obvious.  To those (like me!) who feel oppressed by heavy sales pitches, the pushy musicians, salesmen and marketers for private businesses created a less-than-relaxing environment.
These musicians, unlike most in Cuba, were driven by the dollar rather than by their love of rhythm.
It was fascinating, however, to see the different marketing techniques that emerged in a country with no real advertising system.  Many opted for the shove-a-menu-in-your-face strategy, others tried to entice you into their restaurant with promises of drinks that were more often than not connected in some way to Hemingway.  (The writer is so connected to Cubans' view of what tourists are interested in, I half expected to see his metal image emblazoned on a building like those of Cienfuegos and Che.)  Without a doubt, my favorite marketing came from a paladar that was located in an upstairs apartment.  In order to draw people up the stairs to eat, a lovely gentleman wore a noticeable uniform designed to draw attention to him, though he seemed very uncomfortable when people did look his way.  I got the upper hand on the advertisers when I caught them totally off-guard by pulling a matching figure from my purse and capturing what I humbly believe is an award-winning photo for the "Where's George?" contest among the GWU alumni:
Cuba's private businesses fight on despite growing uncertainty and competition.  It's certainly a big step away from the policies of Fidel Castro, and it highlights the Cuban desire for opportunity even when faced with tax rates that would make many Americans throw in the towel.  So if you happen to pop over to Havana anytime soon, try to avoid the hotel buffet and instead give your money to one of the people who open their homes to you every night.  The food's better and you may never fully understand your power to improve someone's life and/or make new friends.

BBC News. Cuba's new entrepreneurs say times are tough.  November 3, 2011.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Belly Shirts and Bright Colors: Clothing in Cuba

Yesterday I saw a delivery man outside my favorite coffee shop rolling his t-shirt up to cool off, and it was a pleasant but unexpected flashback to a similar practice in Cuba.  Most Cubans live in the hot, humid climate without air conditioning, and their survival strategies are commendable.  Men frequently do the same as that Phoenix man: roll t-shirts under so it leaves half of their torso exposed to any cooling breeze that may provide at least a momentary break from the humidity that makes clothing stick to one's skin.  Sleeveless shirts adorn men and women alike - another way to allow air to cool skin. 
Apart from the belly shirts on men, though, fashion on the streets of Cuba was not unlike that in America.  Comfortable fabrics and always, always bright colors.

Even at funerals:
Brand name clothes are as popular in Cuba as they are anywhere.  When our guide and driver weren't in uniform, they were often in Adidas shirts, and I frequently saw the German brand on other Cubans, as well.
So I was very amused when I saw this photo of a line outside an Adidas store on the Havana Unwrapped website:

Of course, name brands are very expensive here - they're sold in CUCs so many Cubans can't afford them at all.  The term "dollar store" doesn't have the same context in Cuba as it does here at home, where many of us go for great deals on useful items.  In Cuba, "dollar store" refers to the expensive stores that used to cater only to tourists who could pay for items in American dollars.  Thanks to the worsened relationship between Cuba and the U.S. under President George W. Bush, the dollar is no longer a legal form of cash in the Cuban system.

Kudos to Havana Unplugged for sharing videos of the difference between shopping in a CUC store ("dollar store") versus a peso store where most Cubans go to find the things they need.  The link to the videos is here.  And click here for another great article about the clothing disparity between those who have a job with tourists or family in the U.S. and those who must scrape by on pesos.

I failed to find the one fashion-related activity I had wanted to experience while in Cuba: the art of Luidmila López Domínguez.  This woman's obsession with shoes far surpasses anything I've ever heard of, and since I share her belief that shoes tell us a lot about history and cultures I wanted to visit her studio/home on San Lázaro Street.  Basically, I wanted to stalk her until I could see her legendary collection of shoes and shoe art, but I'll have to save that opportunity for next time. 
I did manage to bring home a pair of shoes designed and made in Cuba, and a hand-crocheted dress, so I think the shoe art can wait.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Spicing it Up

I had a hard time being patient with tourists who complained about things in Cuba.  The lines are too long? At least we don't have to stand in them just to get rationed food that won't fill our stomachs.  The bathrooms are too inconvenient?  At least they're clean.  Things are too unpredictable? Welcome to life outside your comfort zone. 

The complaints I could commiserate with a little, however, were about the bland and sometimes overcooked food.  We ate far better than I expected to: lobster tail is not a typical Tuesday lunch for me at home, for example, and when we got time to escape to the paladars the food was amazing.  But no matter how much you love Cuba, "bland" is a description that still applies to the food.

So I thought this article about a privately-owned Indian restaurant in Cuba was fascinating.  This place is definitely on the list of places I intend to eat the next time I visit Havana.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

HavanaTimes: Cuba's Push for Exercise

One of my favorite sources for Cuban news is Havana Times, an independent website written by Cubans.  Every day the site's writers provide interesting outlooks but this one in particular made me smile, since we repeatedly drove by this sports complex while we were in Havana.

From the article on Cuba's push for exercise:

Early every morning, people of all ages start showing up on the running track at Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva “Sports City” complex. Since this institution is one of the largest sports centers in the country, it’s an excellent indicator for diagnosing the willingness of average people to incorporate exercise into their daily life routines.  Click here to read the rest.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chao, Cuba

It was our last night out in Cuba, and we were all determined to make the most of it.  I set records for the short time I took getting ready for our farewell dinner and for the first time on the trip, I too had nice clothes to change into for dinner.  (That's something younger travelers just don't seem to have down the way retirees do: I never thought to bring fancier clothes for dinner.  Doreen is the obvious exception to that rule, since she always looked amazingly appropriate for any situation!)  Before I fell asleep on the bus, I did buy a beautiful blue hand-crocheted dress at the San Jose Market.  Along with the breathtaking shoes I bought at this local artists' market by the hotel, I finally had the "dress up for dinner" part down.  The "fit it all back in your suitcase" thing was a problem to be solved later.

But there was still time before the farewell dinner, so I did what all smart women do: I ate dessert first.

I did cheat by using the CUC side of the popular ice cream shop, but next time I'll make up for it by standing in line for hours with Cubans waiting for ice cream on the peso side of the block.  Either way, a great experience and totally worth the very minor stomach ailments I experienced later.  It was exactly what an ice cream shop should be: an open outdoor patio, far enough from the street that you feel rested but close enough that you can hear the sounds from the street nearby.  Not a tourist in sight so I enjoyed the companionship of Cubans stopping for a break from their afternoons.

And then for one last time, we all piled onto the bus for our next Cuban excursion.  Spirits were high - some because the trip home was near and some because it was impossible to cry at the same time as eating a delicious dinner.  You already know which one I was.

The restaurant was a wonderful place inside an even more wonderful building, part of the former upper-class neighborhood that boasted diplomatic residences and mansions for Bautista's "ghost ministers" (political pals who reportedly didn't do much but got nice perks).

Now you understand why there's no way I could avoid buying those shoes!

And like every tourist-targeting castle, the restaurant had its own wine-serving knight in almost-shining armor.

This dinner was different because both tour groups were together for a rare joint outing.  Most of the time the two buses were on alternate schedules, to avoid a tour group of almost 60 people.  Although I would have loved to spend more time with my friends on the "blue bus," I'm forever grateful that I avoided treks through Havana with 60 people.  For tonight, though, we had the place to ourselves and the orange-blue mingle was a big success.

Determined to make the most of my last moments in Havana, I joined my friends for another trip 'round Hemingway's places in Habana Vieja.

Bob's drink with his bronze doppelgänger.

Once again, the night streets of Havana were near empty until 10:30, so we took advantage of the opportunity to capture sights like this one: a garbage truck rolling through the streets after dark.

Just a quick trip down Nerd Lane...solid waste management is always fascinating on an island, so of course it's even more interesting when that island is the one place on Earth that hasn't conformed to modern systems most of the time.  I'll be doing more research on the topic soon (that's supposed to convince you to keep reading, not to stop reading!) but from my initial readings it seems Cuba has taken some steps to at least recognize the issues that will arise from uncontrolled landfills on the island.  Click here for a very interesting summary of the issues that need to be addressed - such as funding, of course, but also keeping medical waste separate from household waste and better understanding of municipal waste practices.  Cuba has also implemented biogas facilities to capture energy from waste - click here for a summary of those efforts.

Back to the touristy talk...I found another "mouth of truth" to add to my collection!

I don't know how I didn't notice this fascinating statute before.  His casual but intense gaze stares over Plaza de la Catedral in a way that would be creepy if it weren't so beautiful.  The statue is a tribute to Antonio Gades, a Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer who is renowned as one of the greatest dancers of his generation.  He was responsible for taking dance onto the stage and film to enhance its audience, and his work is very popular in Cuba.  Before his death in 2004, Gades was awarded the coveted Order of José Marti by Fidel Castro.  Though he died in Madrid, his remains are buried in Santiago de Cuba.  (Click here for his obituary.)

Our evening festivities wound to a quiet close, with more time in the street outside the always-overcrowded Bodeguita del Medio and enjoyable conversation about shops, paladars and crumbling but beautiful buildings.

You'll be happy to know that I did manage to get everything in the suitcase, though it involved a rather ungraceful act of bouncing on top of it to condense the contents every time I moved the zipper a few inches.  Whatever, it got done!

The bus left for the airport far too early (not because of the morning hour, but because I just wasn't ready to leave yet), but I snuck in one more walk through the streets around our hotel to capture a few of my favorite details, like the "Viva Cuba!" sign I saw every day from my window...

A few rushed moments and several lines later, we were through security and in the waiting area for the charter flight back to Miami.  My fellow travelers eagerly watched the TV screens to see when our flight boarded...I hoped that if I ignored the TV, maybe the flight would be cancelled.  And perhaps I wasn't fellow Cubans-in-the-making joined me in some light reading while we waited.

The flight did come, as it always does when you're not in a hurry for it to, and we settled in for the short hop back over the water to the U.S.

People warn of culture shock when you travel to Cuba, and I can testify that it's absolutely true...but mine was experienced when I came back from Cuba, not when I landed there.  I spent lots of time in American airports that day, and developed a headache as I tried to readjust to the cell phones buzzing, tabloids blaring pointless gossip from every corner, TV screens reeling through their news highlights that aren't actual news and vending machines with stale, overpriced food.

I've readjusted to my real life, but hope I never lose the sense of appreciation I developed on this trip to Cuba.  Appreciation for small things like toilet paper and soap, and for big things like the ability to call a family member just because I'm thinking about them.  I'll get back to Cuba as soon as I can but until then, I want to capture that person that I was there in the day-to-day reality of my existence here.  I want to always be the person I was that moment on the lazy ox, who loves without fear, cares without caution and experiences things without a roadmap.  Gracias, Cuba, for helping me find a better version of myself in your complex simplicity.


Thank you so much to the friends and strangers who have shared this journey with me by reading my blog every day!  I'm grateful for your company, questions and comments.  The good/bad news is that my obsession with Cuba has not even slightly diminished in the two weeks since I've been home, so I'll keep writing about the island and issues surrounding it - like the Cuban Five, water infrastructure and private enterprise.  And of course, soon there will be posts about my trip to distant places like Africa and not-so-distant places like Flagstaff.  I hope you'll keep reading!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Day Eight: One Last Road Trip through Prehistoria

Our last full day in Cuba began with an oh-so-Cuban experience I'd dreamed of for years: a tour of a cigar factory.  We weren't allowed to carry cameras and I'm not cool enough to have an iPhone to smuggle in so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was a sobering experience.  Jobs in this factory are reportely coveted by Cubans - the money is better than most jobs, and the pay per cigar means that hard workers are rewarded for their efforts.  It did not, however, look like a good job.  It looked like being stuck in a small space for hours on end, doing the same thing over and over again while tourists hung over your shoulder or peered through windows to gawk at your efforts.

The real disappointment was that I did not get to hear the reader in the cigar factory after all - they take a break for several hours while tourist groups (and there were lots, from just about every place on earth) come through.  It makes sense to separate the hushed sound of shuffling feet and comments from tour groups from the voice of the reader, but of course I experienced some slight travel heartbreak that I wasn't able to see something I'd dreamed of for years.

The cigar-making process really is fascinating, and I wish I could say I learned a lot from the tour.  But mostly I just understood why those things are so expensive.  "Labor intensive" doesn't even begin to describe it.

I liked the factory details that weren't highlighted in our tour: the bulletin board where workers wrote down the small amounts they wanted to donate from their paycheck to a maternity ward of a local hospital (is it mandatory to donate, I wonder?)...the poster about global warming prevention that was posted on the wall but had been crumpled and faded by exposure to the heat and humidity of Cuban weather...the woman whose job was simply to add that little sticker wrapper around the top of each cigar.  It all came together into one of Cuba's most important processes but overall I didn't enjoy my time in the factory as much as I thought I would.  And it certainly served as a reminder that I shouldn't ever complain about my own job again.

I'd started the day with a unique perspective since this was the only day when I had absolutely no idea what we were doing.  At the end of the day before, Erik had outlined where we would go and what we would see but as you will recall, I ditched the bus before it headed back to the hotel.  This would have driven me crazy before I landed in Cuba - I'm the girl that had a three-ring binder full of printed facts about each stop on our itinerary, after all.  But Cuba was good for me, and that folder hadn't come out of my suitcase the entire trip.  A whole day of surprise opportunities?  Yes, please.

My ignorance only increased the joy I felt when I discovered that we were on our way to western Cuba, to the Pinar del Rio province.

For some reason I thought a visit to this area was cut when our itinerary changed/improved to include the Cayo Santa Maria visit, so imagine my delight when the city streets we'd navigated (and by "we," of course, I mean Tilon...all we did was gasp in fear or frustration, which I'm sure was no help at all) by the cigar factory:

gradually gave way to miles of scenery like this:

And as if that weren't good enough, we also drove past the one thing I'd given up hope of finding in Cuba in the summer: a real baseball game.  (Note to self: make sure your next visit is during baseball season!)

The scenery continued to change, making that jump seat in the front of the bus even more enjoyable.  Rice paddies, baseball games, green fields and tall forests - this drive included them all, and since few Cubans have the opportunity to drive such long distances we had the road almost completely to ourselves.

Just about everyone on my bus agrees that what came next was one of the best experiences of the entire trip.  Our enormous bus pulled down a narrow dirt road to an operating farm, complete with animals and crops for miles, surrounded by those beautiful sharp-cliffed mountains in the distance.

The breathtaking sight made it difficult to go inside, but I obediently followed the group into this amazing structure with a thatched roof.  Drying tobacco leaves hung along the walls, and the cool, scented air helped me understand why our friend the farmer enjoyed being in here. (I would be forever grateful if someone remembers our friend's name...until I'm reminded, he's forever lovingly branded in my mind as The Farmer.)

This was an entirely different experience than watching the workers roll cigars in the factory; that was a streamlined process with no allowance for creativity, but this was a casual process left entirely up to the cigar's creator.  The first one didn't light quite as he wanted it to?  It got tossed aside to restart the process until the cigar was exactly as he wanted it to be.

The Farmer owns his land, an option that was created when the failure of the USSR forced Cuba to shift from large state-owned sugar mills to smaller privately-owned parcels of land.  That's not to say he's wealthy or free to do as he pleases, however: the number of cattle he owns is strictly controlled by the state, and between 80-90% of the revenue and products he grows must be given back to the government.  (Crops are a coveted part of diversifying Cuba's food rations.)  So he got creative and took advantage of the fact that almost everyone in the world is curious about his life and his land.  A steady string of tourist buses from around the world made their way up that narrow road to his house, none of which disturbed the regular processes of operating and improving the farm land and facilities.

We were all invited into The Farmer's beautiful home for a cup of coffee.  Not even a trip to Cuba could make me learn to like coffee, so instead I stood outside to enjoy the view of this lovely kitchen...

Yep, that's an Oakland A's magnet on the fridge!

...and spend time with my new friends.

The hours of open road were a welcome change from the more crowded city streets - Tolon finally got to relax for a few minutes.

I loved him even before he asked if I was from Italy.

Even this city girl could have stayed on that farm for at least a month, but since that was impossible - and the next batch of tourists was coming in for their own cigar-rolling demonstration - I climbed back on the bus for our ride to the one-of-a-kind Valle de Viñales.

This place is both a national park and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I'm a big fan of any level of protection that keeps this place looking like this - it was truly the most amazing scenery I've ever seen.

Those mountains are called "mogotes" but I refuse to accept that term because it's a rather ugly word for such an amazing sight.

One of the mountains is especially impressive: the Mural de la Prehistoria

The mural was begun in 1960, and it depicts the history of life in this area of Cuba.  It took 18 workers four years to complete it, and there are ropes hanging from the top of the cliff so workers can climb up every four years to remove growth from the cliffs and touch up the paint so it stays this vibrant.  It's a tourist trap, sure, but something this beautiful deserves to be.

Everyone else was in a hurry to eat at the lovely restaurant located at the base of the cliff, but I'll be forever grateful to Dave who inspired me to tackle this oh-so-touristy experience.  I definitely don't have a future as a bareback rider but I loved the moment.

I became the anti-social member of the group that afternoon, ditching dessert (again!) to simply walk around and try to capture every detail of this place rather than join in conversations about the trip home the next day.  I couldn't bear to think of leaving and, though of course I love my home and missed the people in my life there, I'll admit that I shed a few tears during our quiet moments at this viewing spot over the Valle. 


Practicing my driver/guide partnership with Afrodite did a lot to shake the sadness, however, and hopefully no one saw those tears.

The driver-in-training is reflected in the mirror.  Wait, why are people in a hurry to get off our bus?!

The drive back to Havana was long but enjoyable, and I'd like to think the hours of silence meant I wasn't the only one processing the fact that our time in Cuba was almost over.  The revelry wasn't over yet, though!  We climbed off the bus for our time to refresh at the hotel (or, in my case, go get ice cream at Copelia) before our fancy farewell dinner.