Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Farewell to Cuba: Final Days

Final Days

First my apologies for letting this last Cuba post take so long. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that February and March seemed to be very busy with both random personal stuff and lots of pen sales. And maybe I just didn’t want to let go of this final phase of our Cuba adventure.

February 10 was our final day in Cuba. We would depart from José Marti Airport on the morning of the 11th. Neither Jim nor José, our group leaders, made any secret of the fact that they wanted us to go out with a splash, that they were going to make that last day extraordinary. Spoiler alert: they did.

But let’s start. We began, as we did, with a lecture. This one nominally on architecture and preservation, but the lecturer ranged much more broadly into demographics and the problem of a declining and aging population.  I did not record it but it was quite interesting and gave us a lot to think and talk about.

From there we went to the La Cabaña fortress, mostly to see the sights there, we did not tour the fortress itself and that was OK. The fort is sited on a prominatory across the harbor from the city and gives a great view of Havana from a distance.

The city from across the bay

Unlike so many modern cities, the lack of population pressure has easily preserved open space

Warning: there will be people pictures. Up to now for the most part I have not included them since most of you do not know these folks. But as I do this entry I'm waxing nostalgic. First, our crew: From left, Juan Antonio who so ably drove us, then José. Most of were pretty well educated, but whatever we asked José seemed to know. And to the right Jim Fitch who hopefully is now in the Dominican training ballplayers for the Cards.

From there we got some retail therapy at a massive Almacenes de San José market near the port of Havana which offered a bit of everything from fine art to t shirts and all in between. I got a couple of typical guayabera shirts, we bought trinkets and t shirts for all. You get the idea.

Suresh (see below) enjoys a coconut

while José checks his look

Our last cultural stop of the trip was to see and meet with a group of young dancers. Apart from their talent and enthusiasm what was notable is that they worked with no government subsidies other than some very primitive performance and rehearsal space in a school.

The troupe

their acrobatics

In conversation

Cindy enjoys a last dance, and the kids enjoyed her as well

From there we retired to our hotel for a brief rest before our final evening in Cuba. Earlier in the trip Cindy and I decided that we needed a ride in some of the vintage taxis in Havana. We mounted a minor insurrection which group leader Jim cut off with the announcement that a cab ride along the Malecon and city tour was planned to transport us our last group meal which would be at La Torre, the restaurant atop the Edificio FOCSA, the 1956 monolith that remains the tallest building in Cuba. It was a finely nostalgic evening with festivities, cake, speeches, the whole thing.

OK, people pics--I didn't get everyone but . . .
John and Claire (not a couple)

Tom and Sarah (a couple)

Linda, Rosalie and Bob. Still hoping to catch up with Rosalie and Bob.

Ursula, Joan, John, Claire, Jane and Suresh, a learned, erudite and amusing fellow.

Jim herds Cuban taxis. Cats would have been easier. The only time in two weeks that he seemed at all ruffled.

Me in a '54 Roadmaster with Tom, Sharon and Sarah.

Our procession

Riding along the Malecon

Note the wave in the background, the seawall is under constant pressure from rising seas

This one would be Linda taking a picture of me taking a picture of Linda
This may be my favorite image from the trip, the Hotel Nacional and the city through clouded glass from atop the FOCSA building. One of my few regrets of the trip is that I just never seemed to hit it photographically. I'm slow and we were in a group.

 Our flight the next morning was not too early and so after breakfast we bade farewell to Cuba, Havana, the Hotel Nacional and finally to one another. In truth we hung together for another day not just when we arrived in Miami in early afternoon but later back at the hotel where it had all begun two weeks earlier. On the twelfth Sharon and I flew home.

Us waiting at the airport. The plane was only two hours late, which, we were told, was very fortunate

Linda and Laurie

Some final thoughts: I write this on the 19th of April, some two months after the trip. Our group, which pledged to keep in touch and share photos, have all returned to our own lives. Dunno how it is for any others but Sharon and I have had only intermittant contact with any of our fellow travelers.

We both enjoyed the trip immensely. At times the heat proved a real challenge for Sharon and, in truth, it got to me a few times. Otherwise I sweated happily through it. The exposure to another society, one with very different values and assumptions about levels of material comfort, the value of community and culture, was invaluable. You are never too old or too “cultured” to learn.  

Thorughout this segment of the blog I have tried to convey our joy and wonder. It was more than eye opening. Seeing life in Cuba from their side was invaluable. In short, it was great, as good as any trip we have ever taken in forty-five years of traveling together. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. But this fall we will resume our touring of the US and Canada with a trip to Yellowstone and up into the Canadian Rockies. Until then, happy trails.

Friday, March 31, 2017

At Home with Ernest and Mary

View of the house from the back

9 February 2017

We began the day in the Road Scholar way with a superb lecture by Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, one of those scholar/diplomats that represent, in one way and another, the best of any nation. This presentation resonated for me, given my background having taught American foreign policy for so many years. The presentation rather brilliantly combined a tour d’horizon with a constructivist theoretical approach.

Then we were off to the fine arts museum, a most interesting excursion. They do not, of course, allow phgotography inside the museum, which is unfortunate. The guide, a curator, gave us a historical tour of Cuban art. What struck me most was the degree to which protest art was hung, here on the walls of the official national museum. If the building looks vaguely familiar, it was built in the mid-1950s and patterned on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  

Our curator/guide, Jim, and José confer

After the tour, lunch, and a stroll along the fabled Malecon
The walkway still shows damage from the hurricanes of 2005 and 2012

From there came the main event of the day, a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s farm Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm).

Hemingway spent the last twenty years of his life here with both his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and his last wife, Mary. As with anything related to Papa, there are a multitude of stories connected to the house and as with Cuban-American relations there is a tangled story connected to the Cuban acquisition of the house. For years, apparently, the 1886 building and its contents, supposedly as Ernest and Mary left them in July 1960, were endangered by neglect.

 Hemingway was a supporter of the revolution and was a hero to the revolutionaries and after his death the government Mary negotiated a handover to the government that may or may not have been coerced. Regardless, today the building stands much as they left it. Visitors cannot go through the house, but the expansive windows are open and afford a good view of their life in what seems like paradise.

The entry 

From the front, the view to the back
At the back, Hemingway's office

As in Key West, Hemingway wrote in a tower, behind and to the side of the house
The guard offered to shoot the inside of the tower office for me

The typewriter

Also enshrined here is Hemingway’s fishing boat, Pilar, from which he launched a brief World War II effort to hunt German submarines operating in the Caribbean.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Streets of Havana

It has been a while since my last post, not sure why, though it is hard to choose from among more than a hundred images I shot that day.

8 February 2017

Our second day in Havana began with another lecture on the complex subject of religion in Cuba, this time by Dr. Maritza Corrales a member of Cuba’s small Jewish community and a leading expert on the subject. She spoke not only on Jews in Cuba but Cuban religion and culture in general.

After that we were off to old town Havana and a tour of the city’s plazas led by our own guide, José.  We were already familiar with Cathedral Square, so we began with the oldest plaza, Plaza de Armas, followed by the Plaza Vieja and finally the Plaza de San Francisco. Join us as we ramble the streets and squares of Habana.

We started where we left off, near Cathedral Square

The Castillo Real

Having not taken notes, I am not able to identify all these buildings. This is, I think, part of the archeological museum. What's interesting is the renovation work

Plaza de Armas

Another of Havana's storied hotels, Ambos Mundos

Outdoor art in a little park dedicated to Simon Bolivar

La Plaza Vieja, despite the name it is not the oldest of Havana's plazas, but it was at one time one of its most exclusive

Contrast of old and new.

The Zanja Real was the original aqueduct for the city  from 1566 until 1835.

the fourth of our plazas, Plaza de San Francisco. From here we had a couple of free hours to roam the city

We ended up in several galleries

We visited here and I found myself drawn to the work of this artist, Annia Alonzo. After lunch  we returned and I bought my print.

A view of the city from the paladar Los Mercaderes. Lunch was pricey but good.
 After a standout lunch at Los Mercaderes, recommended by Road Scholar guide extraordinaire, Jim, we struck out on our own.F or me that meant returning to one of the galleries we had visited before and purchasing a print from the artist Annia Alonzo. Sadly I cannot show the print here now, as it is still being framed.
And some other galleries
From above this ceramic show hands in greeting

From below it is a protest piece. Interestingly there was protest art fairly commonly, including on the walls of the national gallery. Whatever may have been the case in the past, the impression that I had of Cuba today is one of fairly free and open speech and expression.

After lunch we got back on the bus for a tour of the clinic of San Lazaro where nuns of the Catholic church care for those afflicted with leprosy.

In the late afternoon we returned to the Nacional. Sharon was tired, but I hankered for a cigar and virgin mojado on the verandah of the hotel overlooking the bay, the Malecon, and the Morro castle. A nice end to the day.

The verandah of the Nacional with El Morro in the background

The hotel from a distance. Around it newer, larger hotels are being built to accommodate a burgeoning American tourist trade, two million in 2015, four million in 2017.

This is not a new hotel, but the Edificio FOCSA, completed in 1956. It remains the tallest building in Cuba. The restaurant on the 39th floor, La Torre, would be the site of our farewell dinner two days later

A tower of the Nacional at dusk