Monday, December 28, 2015

NAGS, DRAGS AND CRAGS – A Weekend in Viñales - Part II

(continued from Dec. 19 post)

That whole day the mosquitoes had been out in force. Not remembering which kind—the day-biters or night-biters—are most apt to spread dengue and chikungunya, I tried to seal the night ones out of my room before I went to bed. But, with good inch-wide gaps under the doors and a pinky's width between the louvers of the blinds on the screen-less windows, I gave up and just applied repellent to my head, shoulders and arms.

The next morning, after a wonderful breakfast of fresh papaya, pineapple and banana, scrambled eggs, bread and a robust cafe criollo, I headed downtown to find my own fun for the day. A young man was aggressively pitching bike rentals, but I opted for an excursion by taxi. My driver, a pleasant veteran taxista named René, took me first up to the Mirador, or overlook, at Hotel Los Jazmines, which affords a sweeping bird’s-eye vista of the lush terrain around Viñales.


Then it was on to the Mural de la Prehistoria, which I’d assumed would be something like the ancient Native American petroglyphs found on some cliffs in Minnesota. Instead, it is a contemporary, massive, 60-meter-high cliff painting simply depicting, in gaudy colors, some prehistoric themes. Reputedly, it was commissioned by Fidel Castro himself.

The last stop on my little taxi tour was at the Cueva del Indio, a cavern running all the way through the base of one of the mogotes, or limestone massifs, which served as a refuge for runaway slaves during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though the little re-enactment of slave life and culture lacked showmanship, the natural beauty of the rock formations and the flora and fauna behind the mogote all but made up for it.

That afternoon, I walked into town and bought a few souvenirs and gifts for folks back home—rum, cigars and several handsome little “secret boxes” of inlaid woods forming the pattern of the Cuban flag (secret in that the little drawer slides out only if one can figure out the obscure trick of where to grasp it).

At a small restaurant I enjoyed a bowl of seafood soup, served with fried malanga chips. (Malanga is a starchy tuber, closely related to taro, that makes for chips every bit as tasty as potato chips.) And speaking of comparisons, my TuKola—Cuba’s best effort at a stand-in for American-made Coke—tasted nearly identical to the iconic brand.

        I kept up with his Cuban Spanish quite well—
        better and better, in fact, as we polished off 
        the rest of my bottle of rum.

Waiting for me back at the casa were some familiar faces. Four fellow students in the Jakera-Havana program—all lovely young women from various parts of Europe—had decided to join me for a brief overnight taste of Viñales. They were staying at a casa a half block down the street.

That night my fellow guests at Zoila and Maruco's casa, Luut and Joyce, joined me for a wonderful roast pork dinner on the patio. After dessert, they left for a night of music and dancing downtown, and Maruco came out and joined me for a drink, which turned into several.

(This was one of those moments I live for in my Spanish-learning quest—just chatting at length with one of the locals about everything from gardening to politics, business to sports. Cutting through Maruco’s Cuban pronunciation, with its unique rhythm and dropped consonants, was good practice for my listening skills, and I found myself keeping up with him quite well—better and better, in fact, as we polished off the rest of my bottle of rum.)

Sunday morning, I was up at 5:00 for a horse-cart ride, along with my four young compañeras, up into the hills to catch the sunrise. Packed like sardines into the rickety cart, off we went enveloped in darkness broken only by a faint glow on the eastern horizon and our driver's faltering flashlight. Something about the cool, misty air and the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the pavement brought home the sheer beauty and magic of this enchanting place. I knew this would be another Cuba moment I’d never forget.

We turned off the highway onto a rough, narrow dirt road—all of us now clutching the sides of the cart for dear life as it bucked and rolled through six-inch-deep puddles and potholes. After a couple of miles, the road deteriorated into little more than a deep, mud-filled trench which turned out to be impassable for our cart. So our driver tied up his horse and we continued climbing on foot, our six little flashlight beams strung in single file along the raised edges of the muddy track.

        As sunlight erupted from the very crown of the 
        highest peak, they served us each a cafecito
        a small, concentrated, absolutely amazing little 
        cup of their own coffee.

Besides just watching our step over muddy rocks and though knee-high wet grass, our biggest challenge was crossing a creek on a bridge consisting of a slippery 50-foot log with nothing but a single waist-high cable to hold onto…in the dark.

At the first hints of daylight we finally reached our destination, a small coffee finca, or farm, perched on the flank of the mountain. Looking out over the area we’d just climbed, we could soon make out the different features of the landscape—fields, tobacco barns, a couple of roads, and, of course, the magnificent mogotes, now starkly silhouetted by the sun rising just behind them.

The young couple who own the operation greeted us and explained the process of growing, harvesting, drying and roasting their fragrant product. Then, just as sunlight erupted from the very crown of the highest peak, they served us each a cafecito, a small, concentrated, absolutely amazing little cup of their own coffee, along with some cookies and chunks of fresh coconut.

As we soaked it all in, we were beset by some aggressive little biting flies. Very much like a larger, more venomous version of a menace we in Minnesota call black flies, they left us polka-dotted with half-inch red welts with bloody centers.


I dreaded my return to my over-structured classes and the claustrophobic street-canyons of Old Havana that afternoon, but all good things must end. I packed up my gear and bid a fond farewell to Maruco, Zoila and Dyan. Not wanting to wait for the late bus, my compañeras and I, along with another young man we hadn't met, packed into a funky taxi—an old, green Pontiac station wagon—and hit the road.

The "green monster's" seats were lumpy and I was pressed against a door whose jury-rigged latch I didn't trust. And then there were the windows—or should I say the lack of windows. Alas, just as we hit Havana's suburbs it started to pour, and those of us in window seats crammed in toward the middle trying, unsuccessfully, not to get drenched.

Wet and cold as I was, it was far from enough to dampen the lingering glow of my brief excursion to Viñales, that friendly, stunningly beautiful little corner of northwestern Cuba.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

NAGS, DRAGS AND CRAGS – A Weekend in Viñales

(Part One of a Two-Part Post)

I’d searched for an easy weekend getaway from Havana between my two weeks of advanced Spanish  classes. Somewhere I could reach on the bus in a few hours. Someplace beautiful and quiet.

I settled on Viñales, which, though it seems to be on just about every Cuba tour’s itinerary, appeared to fill the bill.

So that Friday morning I walked a few blocks from my Old Havana casa particular to the elegant Hotel La Plaza to catch the TransTour bus. From there we made the rounds of a few other hotel stops in Vedado and Miramar before hitting the open road on route four west.

The Chinese Yutong bus was quiet and comfortable. I was reminded of the utter absence in Cuba of anything US-made after 1962. I saw many Chinese and Russian vehicles, lots of Peugeots and a smattering of other non-us makes, but not a single American car that would have looked out of place in American Graffiti.

   The forest, through the government's 
  "Evergreen Project"—with the mandate 
  "Cut One Tree; Plant Five"—had been 
   completely restored.

From the flat terrain around Havana the landscape gradually puckered into gentle hills. Then, as we approached Pinar del Rio province, the folds grew more pronounced, scrunching eventually into the impressive limestone monoliths, called mogotes, for which Viñales is famous. Along the way, I noticed the turnoff to Mariel, site of the Mariel boat lift, the mass exodus, with Castro’s calculated okay, of some 125,000 Cubans to the US between April and October of 1980.

With the Sierra Rosario serrating the horizon, we passed through a pine-forested area our guide proudly told us had been denuded by 1960, but, through the government's "Evergreen Project"—with the mandate "Cut One Tree; Plant Five"—had since been completely restored. Then, to protect its investment in the resource from the ever-present threat of fire, they planted a 50-meter fire buffer along both sides of all roads. The swath of icaco trees, a dense succulent, supposedly helps extinguish any fire before it can jump to the other side.

Finally, after about a four-hour ride, we arrived in Viñales, where the bus driver dropped me off at the town's all-but-deserted main square. Sergio, a pleasant but business-like young man who seemed a sort of broker for my casa particular and others, introduced himself and handed me a motorcycle helmet.

Sergio’s electric motor scooter whisked us silently down the main street a few blocks to a row of tidy, nearly interconnected, mostly one-story casas. There he introduced me to my hosts for the weekend, Maruco and Zoila, and their 20-something son, Dyan, who showed me to my clean, quiet room behind the main house.

Dyan, who'd just finished bartending school, promised, that night, to make me the best you-name-the-Cuban-cocktail I'd ever tasted. I had just enough time for a quick nap before my scheduled "excursion" at 3:00, which, if understood Maruco's blurry, rapid-fire Spanish, would be a walking tour around town.

At three, having donned shorts and sandals for my walk, I met Dyan in the patio, and we headed out. But just in front of the house we stopped and Dyan introduced me to a young man named Orlando, handsomely decked out in cowboy hat, high boots and a shirt that matched his blue-gray eyes. Then Dyan turned back toward the house and said “Que disfrutes,”  “Have fun!” Great, I thought, Orlando probably knows the town better than Dyan anyway.

We walked a few blocks—not toward downtown, but down a side street. Just as the asphalt turned to dirt, we approached a couple of horses tied to the fence in front of a house. No surprise, right?, since I'd already noticed that Viñales is full of horses. And when Orlando grabbed the reins of one and handed them to me, I was sure he was pulling my leg.

Nope. Jeff—dressed for a casual stroll on sidewalks—meet Mojito, your mount for the next two hours! I guess when Maruco had told me about the excursión en caballo, I'd missed the caballo part!

At any rate, away we rode, beyond the end of that street and onto a winding red-clay trail heading toward one of the towering mogotes forming the town's backdrop. Thank God I remembered a few things about riding from my limited experience—mostly decades ago—because Orlando seemed to think I knew what I was doing. The only thing I wished I had was long jeans, since before we’d ridden a mile the insides of my thighs were already chafing from the constant friction against coarse, sweaty horse hair.

The ride was rough at times; we forded creeks, clambered up and down steep banks and slogged through knee-deep (Mojito’s knees) mud. It was also breathtakingly beautiful, winding among lush groves and between bean, corn and tobacco fields. Dotting the landscape were tobacco drying barns, with their distinct gray-thatched roofs sloping down almost to the ground on each side.

Coming around the back side of the mogote, we began to climb up its wooded flank. After another 20 minutes we came to a clearing where a group of four bored-looking young men sat under an open-air shelter behind one of those drying barns.

One of the muchachos, Rainier, showed me into the drying barn where sheafs of tobacco leaves were draped over tiers of horizontal wooden poles. Grabbing a handful of the leaves and a curved, cleaver-like blade, he sorted the leaves, picking out just the choicest parts. Then he sat down and deftly rolled the leaves together in a long, densely-packed cylinder. He picked out a different, thinner type of leaf and rolled the cigar in it, moistening the edges to seal it.

While he worked, he explained each step of the process, extolling the virtues of a real, non-factory, hand-rolled cigar: its freshness, the absence of chemical curing agents (in favor of curing with fruit juice and honey), and the minor inconsistencies of hand work that lend character to the finished product.

After lopping off the ends, Rainier handed me the cigar and, to my delight, pulled out a book of matches. It was an unforgettable experience lighting up a real Cuban cigar fresh from the hands of the maker. But, as nice as that cigar was, I knew better than to smoke very much of it. (Long story, but suffice it to say, for me and cigars, a little goes a long way.)

Back at my casa, I met my newly-arrived fellow guests, Luut and Joyce, a very nice, 30-ish couple from Holland. While Joyce napped, Luut and I sat in our small, shared patio chatting and sharing my bottle of Havana Club seven-year-old rum.

After my new friends walked downtown for dinner, I enjoyed a wonderful fish and rice dinner served by Zoila and Maruco, both of whom were bending over backward to make sure I was comfortable and well-fed during my all-too-brief stay.

 (To be continued…)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

CUBA CAN-DO – Forbidden Fruit At One Third the Cost

If you’re like me, telling you something’s off limits only makes you want it more. Am I right?

That’s the way I’d felt about Cuba ever since I first read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the coincidental US blockade of all trade with the island neighbor we preferred be a ruthless dictatorship than a communist annoyance.

But recently, after half a century cinching a pit bull choke collar ‘round the neck of a bichón*, the US, led by an enlightened Obama administration, has taken the first steps to ease the long-since-ineffectual embargo.

    We were cinching a pit bull choke 
    collar ‘round the neck of a bichón.

It’s never been illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba; it’s only illegal for us to spend money there. Thus, the matter’s been overseen not by the US Immigration and Naturalization, but by the Department of the Treasury—specifically, its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In 2011, after a couple of false starts, the OFAC began allowing a few organizations to offer U.S. citizens “people-to-people” group tours to Cuba. This required formal licensing with stringent, case-by-case evaluation and strict accountability.

Licensees had to ensure that participants spent every waking hour engaged in a prescribed range of sanctioned cultural exchange activities, like tours, lectures and workshops involving music, dance, history and the country’s nascent entrepreneurship. “Sightseeing” and other purely recreational activities like days at the beach were not tolerated.


Tour companies lucky enough to get licenses have been offering nearly identical itineraries at grossly inflated prices—at least partly reflecting all the red tape and middleman costs of arranging and documenting only those qualifying, tightly-organized activities. Prices for a week to ten days averaged $4,000 to $5,000, including airfare from Miami.

(Now, some intrepid Americans have been defying the embargo for years, flying first to Canada, Mexico or Jamaica and hoping US Immigration agents wouldn’t notice either the Cuban Immigration stamp—or the two entry stamps into the connecting country—when they return home. The vast majority of these under-the-radar travelers haven’t even been questioned, or, if they have, have gotten off with a hand slap. Still, the threat of hefty fines or if nothing else a lengthy legal and bureaucratic snafu, was enough to keep Cuba from rising to the top of my bucket list.)

PHOTO: Pixabay

But then, in January, 2015, the OFAC, in conjunction with the Commerce Department, enacted a further easing of travel restrictions to “engage and empower the Cuban people.” The new guidelines affected trade, financial services, telecommunications and travel services.

The changes also loosened—mentioned only as a sort of afterthought—restrictions on individual travel to Cuba. The stringent “specific” licensing of organizations gave way to “general” licensing, allowing individuals to travel on their own for any of 12 specific—though rather broadly defined—purposes. (OFAC's 12 rules) Apparently only one’s own judgement that he/she could in good faith check one of the 12 boxes, is required.

Since I’m a published author / blogger, I made my mental check next to justification number three, journalistic activity. I was ready, just in case, with some credentials, but as it turned out no one ever asked.

I’ve found from past experience that it’s hard to beat the value of a trip centered on a week or two of language classes. I’ve done this in Mexico and Panama, and find it combines several of my requisites for a rewarding travel experience: a ready-made host and home base; an immediate circle of new friends; a doorway (through the newly-acquired language skills) to authentic cultural experiences…and clean, comfortable—and dirt cheap—room and board.

For my Cuba adventure, I signed up with a program called Jakera. Already well rooted in Venezuela, they’ve just opened up shop in Havana, where they’ve recruited teachers and administrators, selected nearby casas particulares (well-maintained, government-regulated rooms within Habaneros’ homes), and connected with local education, arts and community development partners.

Program participants—already a few from the US, but the majority young Europeans—take Spanish classes every morning and in the afternoon alternate between cultural outings and either salsa dancing lessons or volunteering with one of those community groups.

PHOTO: JakeraCuba

Once I’d signed on with Jakera, all I had to do is line up my air travel (done through the Cuba Travel Network); figure out how to get a Cuban tourist card/visa (available for $25 at most airports with direct flights to Havana); and deal with a few personal concerns like health insurance, currency conversion, and electrical, Internet and telephone (Verizon has just started international roaming in Cuba, so I was able to at least send text messages home.) (SEE LINKS BELOW)

I enjoyed two full, amazing weeks in Cuba, including Spanish and dance lessons; excursions—most of them guided—around Havana and out into the countryside; modest but clean and comfortable lodging; two decent meals a day; and a program coordinator to help arrange for everything…all for $800usd. Even adding the always-inflated airfare** from a nearby US or Mexican connecting airport to Havana, my cost still came in under $1,200.

My only other expenses were for modest evening meals (easily do-able for less than the equivalent of $4usd a day); bus/taxi fares for a few optional excursions to other parts of the country; airport transfers; and the $25usd Cuban departure tax. Airfare from home to one’s connecting city, as it is with nearly all tour companies, is additional.

   Even if you’re disappointed—which 
   you won’t be—you’re only out a third 
   of what a less-adventurous convention-
   al trip would have set you back!

Throw in a few incidentals, and the grand total for my two glorious weeks on this lovely, languid long-forbidden Gulf/Caribbean island came to well under $1500—about a third the cost of most packages available through “sanctioned” tour operators.

(Okay, traveling as I did—staying with a local family (in a private, air-conditioned room with bath); meeting fellow travelers, not just from my own country but from all over the world; eating the same food most Cubans eat; walking a lot; and occasionally embracing the unexpected—is not for everyone. But if you’re open minded, in reasonably good health and a believer, as I am, in doing as the Romans do when in Rome, it’s worth considering, don’t you think? After all, even if you’re disappointed—which you won’t be—you’re only out a third of what a less-adventurous conventional trip would have set you back!)

It’s a question of some debate whether Cuba has advanced beyond third-world-country status. But their national airline, Cubana Air, would suggest it has not. On both my arriving and returning flights—both of them delayed, without warning, by nearly 12 hours—Cubana showed that they fly whenever they want to.

To be fair, perhaps I should say they fly whenever they can. I suspect that, unlike most international carriers, Cubana has no extra aircraft to fill in when a plane suddenly becomes inoperable. And I suppose I should be grateful that they take the necessary time to make repairs.

But travelers considering Cubana should be aware that: 1. Such delays are quite likely. 2. If they do occur, Cubana cannot (or will not) switch you to an available seat on another airline; 3. The closest thing to a real person who might help you merely understand and feel better about the waste of full day of your life may be the airport’s departures screen; and 4. Cubana may add insult to injury by listing your 12-hour-late flight on that screen not as “Delayed,” but “ADJUSTED.” Argh-h-h!

Here are a few links to information you might find helpful in planning your independent travel to Cuba:

¡Vámonos a Cuba!

* The bichón—or more specifically the Havanese—is the national dog of Cuba.

** From either of the closest departure points for Havana—Miami or Cancun—that last 90 miles will likely cost you about the same as your first 1,500 miles. Be aware that it is still illegal for individuals to fly directly into Cuba from the US; only organizations with specific OFAC licenses can make the arrangements. This corner on the market, along, I suspect, with hefty fees from the Cuban government, account for the inflated pricing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

CUBA – Art and Soul

Remember that scene from Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Malcolm, questions the bio-engineer’s reassurance that the dinosaurs couldn't possibly breed outside the park because they were all made females? And Dr. Malcolm warns that “life finds a way?”

In Cuba, an island nation isolated in so many ways from the rest of the world, that’s the way it is with art. Despite the stifling effects of a half-century embargo by the US, and a communist government not known for its support of free expression, Cuban art is finding a way.

Some Cubans are managing to rise above their hardscrabble existence and soar the clear-air currents of creativity.

During my first couple of days staying in Old Town Havana, it was hard to see beyond the surface—the work-a-day hustle and bustle of Habaneros, the widespread decay of buildings and infrastructure. I found all those forms, faces, colors and textures, if not uplifting, at least oddly photogenic. At first, that's all I saw.

But then, exploring side streets and poking my head into doors, I started seeing art and even meeting a few of the artists at work. Indeed, at least some Cubans are managing to rise above their hardscrabble existence and soar the clear-air currents of creativity.

What does Cuban art have to say? I cannot begin to judge where creative expression stops and political statement begins, though I suspect nothing even close to the subversive ever finds its way to a public space in Cuba. Nonetheless, even if the works I discovered might fall a bit short of freeing the person, certainly, simply by capturing a place, a time, a feeling, they have the power to free the spirit.

To understand this, it helps to draw a parallel with Cuban music, a medium no one seems to fault when it eschews weighty issues like oppression and injustice. Cuban art—or should I say the art I was able to see in a narrow window of space and time—is, like the music, more about escapism than protest. It's not so much the lyrics that matter. It's the rhythm.

The media range from straw, to paint, to bronze; the canvases, from wet paper to building walls, to towering cliffs; the venues, from back alley, to back-room gallery, to stately hall.

Here are just a few images of that vibrant, irrepressible art.

"The Eye of the Hurricane," "I don't want cheese anymore." What does this say...and to whom?
Untitled sculpture by Roberto Fabelo in Havana's Plaza Vieja
Painter Lázaro at work in a back room in Viñales.
The "Prehistoric Mural" near Viñales turned out to be a very contemporary mural with a prehistoric theme.
At Havana's Experimental Graphics Studio, an exhibition of rhinos-only prints.
"La Conversación" by Étienne Pirot. Being in front of the trade center building, this would be translated, I was told, as "The Negotiation."
Private gallery in the back room of my friend Leandro's home.

Mural by Andrés Carrillo in Havana Vieja depicts 67 iconic figures in Cuban history.

In the lobby of the National Museum of Fine Arts
Artist at work in the Experimental Graphics Studio in Havana.
"Blue Flower" – one of four prints I bought at the Experimental Graphics Studio

Friday, December 4, 2015

CUBA – Orchids of Soroa

It’s November 11, and I’m heading a couple of hours southwest of Havana to Artemisa Province and the tiny spa/resort village of Soroa. It will be a relief to claw my way out of the gritty, claustrophobic street-canyons of Old Town Havana for some peace and fresh air.

I hook up with my Spanish school compañeros, Meg, Suzanne and Charles, in the tiny plaza in front of La Floridita—reputedly Hemingway’s bar of choice whenever he craved a daiquiri´. There we meet our driver for the day, Lazaro, along with his pride and joy, his nicely restored 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

(Lazaro finished medical school, but hasn’t yet found a job. What’s more, at a doctor’s salary of 1,060 Cuban national pesos—about $40 usd—a month, he didn’t seem to mind driving tourists around for $75 a day!)

Turning north off the Autopista Este-Oeste (Route 4), we wind our way up a long, narrow valley to El Salto Park, where we pick up the climbing trail up to El Mirador (Overlook) de Soroa. It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the rewards along the way—flora, fauna and even the rocks’ and trees’ amazing forms, colors and patterns—are well worth the effort.

After the beautiful half-hour trek we’re looking out over a broad sweep of the lush hills and plains of Pinar del Rio—and down on the backs of soaring vultures.

Once we’re back down, Meg and Suzanne decide to pay the three-peso (CUC) admission to cool off under the wispy, 20-meter salto (waterfall) while I play with some of the amazing touch-me-not plants (Mimosa Pudica) that furl up when brushed with a finger.

Some orchids are so playful, so animated
as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

From El Salto we head down the road to the Orquideario Soroa, the largest botanical gardens in Cuba—and, some claim, the second biggest orchid gardens in the world. Built by Spanish lawyer Tomás Felipe Camacho in 1943 in memory of his wife and daughter, the lovely eight-acre grounds feature some 700 orchid species, including many endemic plants. Though Camacho died in 1960, the Orquideario, now supported by the University of Pinar del Río, continues to thrive.

(Admission to the Orquideario costs three pesos (CUC) for a person—plus an additional peso for a camera!)

Our knowledgable guide explains the origins, preferences and significance of each specimen—though I must say I’m distracted by the sheer visual impact of such gorgeous flowers, some so playful and animated in form as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

Unfortunately, not all orchids bloom at the same time. Alas, Cuba’s splendid national flower, the mariposa (butterfly) orchid, (Hedychium Coronarium), with its intoxicating, gardenia-like fragrance, is among the absentees. But the other amazing orchids of Soroa fill in nicely and will forever decorate the sultry alcoves of my happy place.