GROWING SOLUTIONS TRAVEL
By Karen Flagg
With the relaxing of US travel and trade restrictions under the Obama administration in 2015 many pundits were predicting a wholesale churn of the Cuban economy as they abandoned agriculture to welcome hordes of American tourists and the dollars they bring. The prevailing advice from many long-time visitors was “see it before it’s ruined”, presumably to catch a fleeting glimpse of the historic Havana before the waterfront is transformed overnight into a wall of glitzy high-rise hotels.
But just for the record, so far, it hasn’t happened.
Yet Cuba has changed since Don first visited there in the 1980's. From an outsider's point of view, it looks like a hybrid system of government…not quite communism and not quite free-market capitalism. It seems everyone gets a subsistance-level allotment of money and food. Homelessness is virtually nonexistent and the people we met seemed genuinely happy and gracious. Above that (and I'm not sure of the licensing structures) everyone is hustling to improve their situation.
Visas: Don secured visas from https://www.cubatravelusa.com/cuban_visas.htm
Ours cost around $75 each and took a couple of weeks to get. Recently the Trump administration tightened travel protocols to Cuba, reversing the Obama-era “people to people” method where individuals plan their own trips, have the option of staying in private homes and traveling around with few restrictions. The new Trump-era format appears to be more restrictive for US citizens; requiring individuals to travel with organized groups, thereby raising the cost of the trip and acing out the small proprietors and the genuine connections we enjoyed on out trip.
We booked a direct flight from LAX to Havana on Alaska Airlines. It was an easy flight and the US crew was excited to be traveling there. We took a cab from the airport to the city – the fares seemed to be all the same price, $30 US. While home we tried to book a room (via the internet) for the first night knowing we would be tired from traveling. Alas, the hotel didn’t have our reservation. The hotel porter saw our dilemma and had a “friend” with a place. It was outside of the normal procedure but at midnight after an all-day transit, who cares! It was clean and safe – so we paid a bit more. The next day as we explored the city, talked to folks we figured out how things work.
After our first night, we learned the system and stayed in a casa del particular, the Cuban equivalent of an Airbnb where the owners have taken a portion of their homes and made them available to travelers. The owners are licensed and guest passports were logged at check-in. All the rates are the same. The lady of the house, Andrea, did after-school tutoring for schoolkids. One day we came back to our room in the afternoon Andrea was tutoring the kids while three very pretty young ladies were decked out and waiting on the stairs for their gentlemen friends. It seems many European middle-aged men come to Cuba to acquire a companion for the length of their stay.
Europeans have continued to come and play in Cuba—never mind an American embargo—so the tourist infrastructure remains in place: cabs, hotels, lots of great restaurants and music. Virtually no crime that we could discern likely due to lots of subtle police presence of young people in uniform monitoring plazas and orange-vested men managing the taxi stands.
The next day we had a lengthy visit at an urban farm, Organoponico Vivero Alamar. We interviewed Isis, the daughter of one of the founders, Miguel Angel Salcines López. Isis is a graduate of Rutgers College, she was the only English-speaking person on the farm. She lives with her husband in a USSR-style apartment complex across the road. The farm is about 25 acres of volcanic soil so nutrient uptake is an issue. They have two oxen on site to plow and poo. Isis says Cubans today don't eat enough vegetables (and the government TV show indicated Cubans eat too much sugar) and don't know how to work efficiently. The farm has 60 employees to grow and sell produce. We asked Isis where she gets her supplies: irrigation, pots, horticultural tools and such. She laughed, "Amazon Prime”!
Once away from the hotel lobby Spanish becomes the primary language. However, we found folks to be very patient with our imperfect Spanish.
Havana is a large small city of 2.5 million. Before leaving the U.S.A. we were given a contact name by our SBCC co-worker Francisco Rodriguez, aka Paco. Our mission was to find his friend Rejulio and deliver a domino set. While home in Santa Barbara we asked Paco how we were to find Rejulio. Answer: "ask around, he lives in old Havana” I asked what did Rejulio look like? “Old, gray hair and everyone knows him”.
We wandered into the old Havana neighborhood, which felt very much like other Mediterranean cities; stone-paved streets, courtyards, tall beautifully carved doors. And everywhere, music…from Cuban ballads a’la Buena Vista Social Club to irresistible salsas to boombox Havana rap. We talked a few folks before asking one of the taxicab monitors. He pointed to Rejulio's “cultural center” and indicated he would be there soon. Five minutes later up walked an old gray-haired gentleman, keys in hand, opening up the Andalucian cultural center.
The first thing Rejulio did is offer Don a swig of rum and try and sell us cigars. Over time we were able to make him understand that we were bringing a gift from Paco in Santa Barbara, not trying to sell him the dominos. After showing us around, Rejulio took us to his club for lunch (Cuban ham sandwiches) and serenaded us. We paid for lunch (about $12 for the three of us including beer) as he told us his financial woes.
Through our Paco/Rejulio connection we hired a driver, Luis, to take us to the Pinar del Rio region in his immaculately restored 1954 Chevy which is now powered by a Mitsubishi diesel engine. Out of the city, into the mountains and farming country, we drove on perfectly maintained roads, sharing the lanes with horse-drawn carts carrying produce, motor scooters loaded up with gear and family, large Japanese-made tourist buses and other retro American cars.
Our first stop was a lowland tobacco farm (where cigar tobacco is grown). We toured the fields and the drying barn. The tobacco hangs three years curing which explains the high cost of Cuban cigars. The farmer gives 80 percent of the crop to the government and was trying to sell us cigars from the remaining 20 percent.
Next, we went further up into the mountains to Vinales, a small town that the young Euros have taken over as a backpackers’ haven. While looking for the farm scene we wandered down a neighborhood street, having spotted some banana trees. As we walked along a local man, Luis, joined us, invited us to his farm. His farm was structured as a Privado; small farms privately owned. A mile down the dirt lane we came to it. Like most of Cuba it was a hybrid operation: tobacco, bananas, avocados, corn, mint, and just about everything else. They host school groups and asked us to come back. His wife Yamara is an ecology instructor for the Cuban park system working with school children.
Cuba is a society in process. Some, especially the older folks, are hanging on to the good part of the old days. Overall, Don remarked that everyone's standard of living is better. Not wealthy but no one is starving (unlike the "Special Period" when the USSR failed in the 1990s). Technology is coming, there are internet hot spots in the plazas and the oldsters complain that the youngsters are buried in their phones. Yet there isn't a lot of stuff to purchase; particularly over-packaged plastic crap. Very little trash is seen as a result.
People overall were kindly with a keen sense of humor. The men, especially, were genuinely polite to women with little of the sexist machismo seen in other Latin American countries we’ve travelled to. Everyone works and the kids all wear uniforms and go to small neighborhood schools. There seems to be very little crime and fewer drug problems. Music and art are everywhere.
My hope for the Cuba people is that they can continue to pick and choose what they want for their future, leaving the addicting manic consumerism alone and going for quality of good food, good music and good company.
Story about Organoponico Vivero Alamar, Cuba's most successful urban farm:
Current travel rules (as of August 2017): http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article158491989.html#storylink=cpy