Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Oregonians P2P Tour and Afterwards

Mon Jul 2, 2012 7:00 am (PDT) .

Explore a once-hidden world as Cuba's doors open a bit wider

Saturday, June 30, 2012


"Why you from?" the middle-aged gentleman asked in broken English. "Estados Unidos. Oregon," we replied in our best Spanish accents. "Oregon," he repeated. "Salem is capital. I have poem about Oregon."

He quickly thumbed through a thick notebook of handwritten poems until he landed on a soiled page titled "Oregon" and began reading. Roughly translated, his poem said, "From the Columbia River to Portland to Salem, its capital, and on to Bend -- Oregon has mountains and forests and is on the Pacific Ocean."

We fished in our pockets and gave him some change.

My wife, Kathy, and I have had Cuba on our bucket lists for decades, but the specter of heavy fines and possible jail time has kept us away. Until recently, only Cuban Americans, journalists, students and those involved in certain cultural exchanges have been permitted to cross the 90 miles of Atlantic that separate us.

Last year, however, the door to Cuba opened a bit wider with the introduction of the "People to People" program, aimed at promoting greater understanding between our two nations.

The Treasury Department has issued licenses to several organizations that offer tours, including Marazul, under whose license we traveled.* Marazul charters multiple flights a day between Miami and Havana, carrying several tour groups each.

Tours to Cuba

Tour companies: Several licensed providers can be found online. Friendly Planet handled our logistics in concert with Marazul Charters. Look for companies that have received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department for educational exchange activities. The tour company will require your passport number and will obtain the necessary visa and humanitarian license; allow several weeks for this process.

Prices: Range from around $2,000 to $4,000 and more. Tours should include travel to and from the U.S., lodging, transportation and most meals while in Cuba, and an English-speaking guide.

More info: See a more detailed version of this with travel tips about Cuba at oregonlive.com/travel.
Ours was a first-class tour. In Havana we stayed at one of Cuba's best hotels, the historic Hotel Nacional. It was here in 1946 that the largest gathering of Mafia bosses took place, as they mapped out their Batista-endorsed plans for casinos and brothels. At least half the rooms in the hotel had placards by the door declaring who had stayed in that room, people like the Duke of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Tyrone Power.

We traveled in a modern air-conditioned bus manufactured in China, taking in Old Town atmosphere, museums, monuments to the Cuban Revolution and José Marti, art galleries and Hemingway hangouts.

Every restaurant served up fabulous cuisine, accompanied by quartets and quintets of Cuban musicians playing Son, their rhythmic version of folk music. They always finished with "Guantanamera." On our second night, we were treated to an energetic performance by the Buena Vista Social Club. We spent three fascinating days in Havana before trekking farther afield.

Famous pictures of Cuba portray pristine cars from the '40s and '50s cruising along the Malecón. This is not an exaggeration -- vintage cars are everywhere. Automobiles are hard to come by, so they are passed from generation to generation, maintained by ingenious mechanics who keep them running despite being unable to get the right parts. On the outside, a car might look like a Buick, but under the hood it could have any kind of engine or transmission that can be made to fit.

The one freeway in Cuba, the Autopista, is eerily empty, populated only by a few tour buses, ancient Chevys, donkey carts, bicycles, people on horseback and the occasional stray goat, cow or vulture. At every intersection and major rest area people stand waving paper money at passing cars to indicate they are willing to share gas expenses for a ride. The more popular intersections feature yellow-clad men called "amarillos" whose job is to flag down cars and assign passengers on a first-come, first-served basis.

On day four, it was off to Cienfuegos, the home of big band great Benny Moré, whose life-size bronze statue stands on the main boulevard. We ate at a restaurant in the former home of a sugar baron, a garish pink-and-white Moorish castle, while a tenor sang classic Cuban songs. The rest of the day was spent walking Cienfuego's immaculate streets and sipping mojitos.

The next morning we were off to Trinidad for a few hours of shopping at crafts stands that lined the narrow streets, then on to Sancti Spiritus for the night. On our return to Havana, we toured Hemingway's estate, the Corona Cigar factory, the Church of the Black Madonna, and an interesting Santeria museum. Santeria merges the African Lukumi naturalist religion with Catholicism.

More tips

Currency: In Cuba you can exchange U.S. dollars for Cuban "convertible" pesos, or CUCs, the money that foreigners are allowed to spend. However, most currency exchanges levy a 10 percent surcharge on U.S. money. This expense can be avoided by taking a different currency, such as Canadian dollars or euros. Credit cards issued by American banks cannot be used at all, though ones issued by banks in other countries are valid.

Carry change: Always have plenty of small change on hand for tips, especially for the ever-present attendants at the public restrooms.

Bring your medicines: Besides taking your prescription medicine, take whatever over-the-counter medications you think you may need (decongestants, anti-diarrheal medicines, etc.) as they are not available over the counter in Cuba.

Water: Always drink bottled water, which, by the way, you can get for a fraction of the price hotels charge if you go down the block to a local tienda (store).

Phone calls: Don't plan on calling home often, as it will cost you around $1.70/minute.

Purchases to bring home: Under the People to People program, Americans may bring back arts and crafts, music and literature, but no alcohol or cigars.

If you need help: If you have problems while there, such as a lost passport, the United States does not have an embassy but does have an "Interests Office" in Havana: U.S. Interests Section American Citizen Services Unit Calzada, Entre L y M Vedado, Havana, Cuba. Phone: 53-7-833-3551 (through 3559). Fax: 53-7-833-1653.

A bit later we rode a bus-sized rickety ferry across Havana Harbor. The boat was filled with perhaps a hundred sweaty people standing shoulder to shoulder holding onto railings and leather straps. Our formal tour concluded with an elegant dinner and a jazz trio who ended their set with, yes, "Guantanamera."

Each day of the tour included breakfast and either lunch or dinner, but rarely all three. This prompted us to explore some offbeat restaurants, notably the "paladars," privately owned restaurants in homes. Some of these were richly appointed with antique furniture and beautiful wallpaper and chandeliers, while others were decorated with perhaps a string of Christmas lights and plastic flowers. The food, however, was universally good. When venturing away from tour groups and hotels, it helps to know some Spanish.

We had arranged for our flight to leave several days after the official tour ended, so we could return to Trinidad, a city that captured our hearts. With its cobblestone streets, central squares and Spanish colonial buildings that date to the 16th century, Trinidad is vibrant and full of music. We stayed in a private home called a "casa particular," a B&B. Being a musician, I eagerly interacted with other musicians there, and took a conga lesson from Guillermo Galán, an outstanding percussionist. Once we were away from our American compatriots, performers no longer ended their sets with "Guantanamera."

Cubans are almost universally friendly and eager to talk to Americans. On our last evening in Havana we chatted with the 30-something assistant at a hotel help desk, who told us about some of the difficulties Cubans faced. Her father lives in Naples, Fla., but because of a heart condition he cannot travel to Cuba. The Cuban government does not allow her to travel abroad, concerned that she won't come back. She lamented her inability to access the Internet, which she'd only been on three times in her life.

She also wished she could have a different job, but this was the job she was assigned to, and she had no choice. Beyond the necessities the state provides, she earns about $15 a month. Many professionals wait years to become taxi drivers because then they can collect tips.

On the other hand, Cuba has no homelessness, the literacy rate is nearly 100 percent, violent crime is almost unheard of, we saw no hint of racism, and health care is free.

Cuba is the cleanest Latin American country we've been to, with almost no litter or graffiti. Sadly, though, many magnificent buildings have fallen into disrepair, victims of decades of neglect and a weak economy.

When it was time to leave, we rode to the airport in a '52 Ford whose engine sounded like it came from a tractor. It probably did.

* Friendly Planet is the P2P license holder, not Marazul.  JMcA

No comments:

Post a Comment