Cuba March 31 – April 1, 2016

Cuba is a land stuck in the 1950’s. It is a land of semantics. It is a land filled with music and art. It is a land where the people continue to struggle against poverty. They hope for an end to the embargo but they are sure they will continue to survive without it

Since Columbus, they have been ruled by Spain and the United States. It has most recently been under self rule, Since 1902, with some intervention on the part of the US and Russia.

The US imposed an embargo in 1961 and that has dramatically influenced it’s survival as a nation. The embargo is not only against trade, it prevents banks around the world who want to trade with the US from lending money to Cuba. We have, over the years, sent humanitarian aid after hurricanes, allowed the families in the US with Cuban families to send money and eased the restrictions on travel.

We visited 4 cities, Camaquey, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Havana . In each city we met with groups of people. The laws governing legal visiting to Cuba by a US citizen are strict. The travel company must guarantee numerous people to people encounter and the travelers must sign a document stating that they will participate in those encounters. After the trip is over the visitor must carry for 4 year,with with their passport, a statement of legal traveling that lists the company and all the participants of the trip. One of the companies I traveled with in the past had it’s permit revoked temporarily because it was not adhering to the people to people rules.

There is very limited internet access, City squares known as internet squares are packed on weekends with Cubans using the limited internet. This access is an improvement from the past when computers and mobile phones were forbidden. In some of our hotels we were allowed to buy, for $5/hour, access, this did not allow access to some of our favorite sites like FACEBOOK.

Two of my favorite statements that were repeated over and over were “There are no social classes in Cuba. We have some rich people and some poor people but there are no classes” and “ After the Russians left, times were tough. Overnight we were so poor. That is when we learned to eat vegetables.”

The reason there are no poor people in the eyes of the speaker- the government gives everyone free housing, free education, free medical care and a ration card that provides food. After the revolution the government took over all the businesses and the profits. People were given 5 acres of land. Until recently property could not be sold, it could only be traded. Much of this property was owned by US businesses who lost their property and the property of all the workers who left.

From 1972 – 1991The Soviets helped with Cuba. Their support brought financial growth to Cuba. When the Berlin wall came down, the Soviet government collapsed and left Cuba. It left Cuba in dire straits. They had to reorganize and rethink many things. At this time state farms became semi autonomous cooperatives. Farmers began expanding crops, the country began to survive without soviet imports and according to the speaker learned to eat vegetables. The food is organic by our standards.

PEOPLE TO PEOPLE

Potters, Flamenco Dancers, Rodeo Riders, Modern Dancers, a Choral group, an American owned magazine, an overnight stay in a private home and Domino Players were part of our contacts. The best and most interesting was a Barber School.

When restrictions on private businesses were loosened a very smart Havana businessman asked for a permit to open a barbershop. He was allowed to put one chair in his private residence. Noticing all the young unemployed youth on the street he approached the government with the idea of expanding his business to a barber school. Following the success of that school he again approached the government with the idea of a school to train home caregivers for seniors and rehabilitation workers. In between he was able to open a restaurant. His original barbershop has grown, it it decorated with artwork from artists seeking a public gallery and antique barber equipment he has collected as he travels across the country to promote his training school model. His shop is still within his original house which has been expand, he is booked weeks in advance.

CUBAN ARCHITECTURE

The majority of buildings are original, they reflect the Spanish influence. It is difficult to imagine the infrastructure within these building being upgraded to accommodate the predicated influx in travelers. In many places the toilets were flushed by a person waiting outside the stall to dump water in the toilet to flush it. ( this as well as selling toilet papered access for twenty-five cents outside the bathroom is a job.) Many historic buildings are being restored by the government as well as private citizens who are restoring buildings before opening businesses with in them.

CUBAN MARKETS

Everyone in Cuba is issued ration card that allows them a measured about of items such as corn, rice, beans, coffee and bread each month. Milk is issued to families with children Extra food may be purchased at private markets.

The food we ate was blander than expected. Chicken,pork,fish and shaved beef were choices every night. Several days lobster and steak were also choices. Flan and other sweet desserts were served at many meals. The vegetables were always fresh. Rice was often on the plate but never the expected rice and beans. Of course were were fed better than the average citizen, we were stuffed at every meal. One member of the group compared this to a goose being stuffed to produce Pâté de foie gras. Every lunch and dinner was preceded by a welcome drink that contained rum.


CUBAN TRANSPORTATION AND YES, OLD CARS

Nothing says Cuba to America like Rum, Cigars and Old Cars. Our major mode of transportation was a bus that was chartered through the Havana Tourist Agency which also supplied us with a trained tourist guide. When we weren’t on the bus we walked like the majority of Cubans who appear slim, trim and fit. We also took pedicabs which are bicycles decorated with passenger covers and powered by a very strong person who pedaled us to our destination. It goes without saying that the passengers outweighed the operator and he was under a great deal of stress. The husband of on of the group member felt so bad he jumped out of the pedicab and helped by pushing the cab up the hill.

Old cars are everywhere. They serve as luxury taxis. They are colorful and lovingly rebuilt and maintained with locally tooled parts. We were treated one night to a ride through the city in a group of old cars honking, flashing lights making some of our group feel like member of the homecoming court on parade.

HEMINGWAY

The Cubans love Hemingway. We visited his home, the fishing village where his boat was docked and maintained and the Flordita Bar, one of his hangouts where the Daiquiri was invented.


BAY OF PIGS AND PROPAGANDA SIGNS

The Bay of Pigs is the site of the famous invasion that was reportedly supported by the CIA and carried out by Cubans who left the country after the revolution. Many live in Florida. These people along with Cruz and Rubio seem to be the most vocal in their opposition to restoring relations and lifting the embargo.

There are no billboards advertising goods, they all have political statements.

PEOPLE ON THE STREET

The Cuban people are a mix of Spanish settlers, the African Slaves and other Europeans. For the most part the natives were eradicated by the settlers who came after Columbus. The streets are full of people who would love to have their picture taken for a Cuc, the currency of the Cuban visitor that is exchanged at about 87cents to the dollar.


THE FUTURE OF CUBA, IN MY OPINION

I think it is time to restore relations and lift the embargo, it didn’t take a trip to Cuba to convince me. I agree with Anthony Bourbain “ “What next for Cuba? Something is coming. It will come, from out there, but also from within Cuba. It’s already happening — but what is it? Everybody knows, everybody can feel it, it smells like freedom. But will it be victory?” (http://www.eater.com/2015/9/27/9399323/parts-unknown-recap-anthony-bourdain-cuba-season-six-premiere)

I hope the charm doesn’t go down the drain with change. If you want to beat Mc Donalds and Starbucks you had better hurry.

LATE, LAST, BUT NOT LEAST

Model for ET

Model for ET

 About thirty years ago I heard a radio show about the Galapagos Islands.  I asked my craziest ,most adventurous friend, Mary, if she would go.  It required and boat and held no promise of shopping so Mary said no.  I have dreamed of a Galapagos adventure ever since.

 The reality did not disappoint.  The environment is pristine.  I watched local guides go out of their way to clean up the very few thoughtless messes that tourists left.  The water is crystal clear and the animals have no fear of humans.

 We stayed on one of the few licensed boats that is allowed to bring tourists to the islands.  Everyday we had two excursions from the ship via Zodiac to the island of the day.  Every night we watched from our cabin window as the sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, frigates, pelicans and flying fish played survival of the fittest.

 The Islands were formed by volcanoes and are still in an active cycle of formation and destruction.  We hiked in a lava tube, one of many on the islands.

The islands have served as a stronghold for pirates, a military base for the US government and a living laboratory for Charles Darwin.  In 1959 the Ecuadorian government named the islands a national park, in 1979 it was named a World Heritage site and in 1985 a World Biosphere Reserve by Unesco.  

 One of the points of interest was the POST OFFICE. 

pirate mail box that is still in use

pirate mail box that is still in use

A barrel installed in 1793 served as a drop off point for letters.  A person dropped off letters and then sorted through those left and  took for personal delivery those close to their destination.   I left one for San Francisco ( attn Millers)  and took one for Kalamazoo   ( the Chenoweth family).  

 We made three attempts at snorkeling.  The first off Gardner Bay, recently named one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world, was billed as the least attractive of the snorkeling spots on the trip.  It actually turned out to be the best.  The water was clear and warm, the fish were colorful and plentiful.   The Parrot fish, whose eating and pooping of   the local coral is responsible for the ultra soft sand, were abundant.  Maggie was accompanied by a sea-lion who caressed her body as he swam above, below and to the right and left of her. This is one time in life where Maggie’s magnetic attraction to the males of all species did not cause any jealously in my bones. 

 The second snorkel trip was limited by a jelly fish hatch which stung several of us.  The third and most disappointing was ended by a strong current.  

 During the days of pirates, the islands were loaded with the giant land tortoises.  Pirates would take hundreds of them off the island and stack them, alive, on their back for fresh food on the long journey.   The Charles Darwin Station is making an effort to breed tortoises back to historical levels.  ( our guide informed us this could take up to five more generations)  Eggs and the babies are carefully marked so they are released to islands where the native DNA matches theirs. 

 Sea turtle nests are also protected and monitored.  The sex of sea turtles and alligators are determined by the placement of the eggs in the nest.   Eggs closer to the top and the heat are female and those lower and cooler in the nest are male.  (hot chicks and cool dudes-memory device shared by our guide).  

 Nazca Boobies,

Blue Footed Booby

Blue Footed Booby

Blue Footed Boobies, Albatross, Sally Light Foot Crabs, Finch, Hawk,  Iguanas  and sea lions were abundant at most stops.  <A living laboratory, a zoo without cages, this was definitely a trip of dreams.  <

HATS OFF TO ESTHER

 

Final Reflections / Hats off to Esther!!!

The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life.”

–Agnes Repplier,

American essayist

I have begun to classify the trips on my bucket list by the amount of strength and agility I perceive they will require.  I witnessed 2 parties that were eighty or older on this trip that taught me a lot about my future plans.

betty crab

betty crab

The one couple had obviously not read the travel material. Their clothing and shoes were inappropriate for the trip.  They were totally unprepared for the altitude and the wife became very sick because of the altitude.   I need to read every piece of information before a trip and I need to continue to consult doctors before

afternoon nap

afternoon nap

travel.

The altitude sickness was no joke.  It was not, as I heard my friends warn me,a matter of my asthma.  Even Maggie, who is more athletic than I will be in 10 lifetimes combined and lives in Denver was affected by the altitude.  The International Heath Medicine practice here in town gave me drugs to deal with the effects.  The drugs combined with the local coca leaves and tea were helpful.  Apparently altitude sickness affects your digestion and some of what we thought was travelers diarrhea was in-fact caused by the altitude and the quantity of food we were being “forced” to eat.

The other party was Esther, my new hero.  Esther is 85 and never missed a trick the entire trip.  She travels to many remote and exotic places, ( her next stop is a Bengal Tiger Reserve in India)  always reading before the trip, planning her simple wardrobe and rising to every challenge along the way.

I need to push myself both mentally and physically if I want to continue to travel.

My next stop is Iceland with Wendy Beckwith.  June – July.

More Quito

Today we stood on the equator. Out first stop was the middle of the world monument which was built by the French to celebrate the French and English expedition to prove the world was round and the equator was the center. Once proving it they named the land Ecuador meaning equal. When the country gained independence the kept the name.

A few miles down the road we went to the equator museum where we participated in demonstrations showing the effects of being in the north,south or exactly on the equator. On the equator your shadow diapers at the equinox, other wise it is either east or west of your body, depending on the season. The indigenous population used a sundial to tell them when to plant and when to harvest. The days on the equator are always the same length, 12 hours daylight and 12 night, there is no real season change except for wet and dry, you can always see the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and the southern cross. We witness the true corollas effect with water and a drain, it actually changed by moving to the little sink a few feet away from the equator. We tried balancing eggs on a nail, only two people were able to successfully balance them. While trying to do the balance test typically given given by police to drunks we learned that your inner ear cannot compensate while on the equator. It was amazing that the effects of the equator can be felt a foot off of 00*.( bulletin, I ate breakfast with a doubter and he thinks it was all hokey)

It should be obvious by now that the person leading this tour loves,excellent food, good drinks and entertainment. Every place we go for a meal it is as if he were inviting you into his private home to serve you the best possible food. He loves a show of great ambience also. Lunch today was at a restaurant owned by two artists in an exclusive development on the edge off an old volcanic crater. Quito is surrounded by eleven volcanos. The dessert was poached (?) figs. This is second time we have had them and they could easily become a favorite.

Next stop, a cable car ride to the top of the city. The view was fantastic but the clouds hung so low that my pictures all look like I was stuck in a wad of white cotton candy.

Dinner on our own tonight with our new best friends Carol and Jim. Nothing fancy, just individual pizzas and wine in the hotel deli.

We watched the Michigan, Ohio state basketball game with Spanish commentators.

Wednesday

Our adventure the morning took us to the city center where we visited churches,all Catholic, and all dripping in fabulous art and gold leaf. Maggie is constantly reminding me about the greed of the church as well as the harsh ways they used to convert the natives to Catholicism. Ecuador at one time made Catholicism a requirement for citizenship.

Continuing on a theme we ate at another fabulous restaurant with figs for dessert
Tonight we have a festive city tour, a dinner with opera singer as the entertainment

Thursday we. Leave for the Galapagos where there will be no Internet connection. I will catch up on my seven hour lay over in Miami.

Quito

Quito

We left Cusco and had a long arduous journey to Quito. When we finally got through customs and loaded the bus we were all a little short on patiences. We still had a two hour journey to north of Quito which just seemed like a bridge too far. We finally made it to Hosteria Pinsaqui, an old hacienda that had been in the owner family for nearly three hundred years. It was Simon Bolivars favorite stop when travelling between Ecudor and Columbia. The room doors were all original with the old heavy brass keys. Each room had a wood stove for heat. The ambiance was restorative. Dinner was served in the large original dining hall. After dinner we returned to the room and surprise our wood stove had a fire and the bed had shot water bottle dressed in a little terry cloth robe. Bed was to inviting to resist.

In the morning we began the drive south back to Quito. Out first stop was a rose farm where we learned a out the production of roses. We visited the green houses that are planted with row after row of roses organised by color. The help begins each morning by cutting the roses that have tight buds. Unacceptable roses are put in a container and dumped in the trash. The trash pile was enough to make me weep, beautiful roses that just didn’t,t meet the standards set by the market. Cut roses are wrapped and moved by conveyor to be washed in soap, sorted again, packaged and then cut to the proper length. (The Russian market prefers an 18 inch while the US market looks for a 12 inch stem.) This farm ships 80,000 roses a day to Russia, US and Europe. All these roses are bred for looks and not fragrance.

Our next stop was the Otavalo Market, one of the largest indigenous markets in the world. Crafts, clothing, fresh foods and home goods.

Lunch was at a cultural center. Native soups, breads, chicken and Guiena pig were on the menu. One pass at a Guiena pig is enough for me. There was a local band and children dancers who entertained us.

We arrived at the hotel at about 630 and were off to another native dinner and more music.

The amazing Incas

We returned to Machu Picchu today to climb to higher heights. Maggie and I did not get our wake up call so we rushed through breakfast which meant no time for coca tea and no time for my altitude pill to start working.. We began climbing very steep steps, everyone was winded but I was not recovering as fast as the other days. I opted to turn around and spend the morning exploring by myself. After two hours I returned to town to site see until after lunch.

Lunch was at another fabulous buffet. After lunch there was shopping and the the train back down the mountain.

We had another long bus ride to Cusco for a two night stay.

Saturday Feb 2

Cusco is a lovely city with a very large square, built originally by the Incas. When the Spanish came they decreased the size of the square by building several streets of shops.
The Spanish also built a very large cathedral with a basilica. The art, silver and gold that adorns the walls,niches and side chapels is stunning and mind boggling. When the church was built the people in town pleaded for prime spaces to decorate with commissioned art work. There is a solid silver carriage that was pulled by horses. It has been converted to ride on a golf cart and is used for religious festivals. My favourite is the Last Supper painted by Zapota(?)) the food on the table consists of Andean bread and cheese and a roast Guinea pig. The face on Judas is the face of Pizzaro the Spanish conquistador.

We visited the Korichana, the sun Temple which has been converted to a Catholic Church. The architectural skill of the Incas is still maintained in parts of the building.

We stopped at Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fort that was never completed. The size of the stones and the shapes they are cut I so that each stone fits perfectly against the next and has remained in place several hundred years without mortar.

After a quick stop at an alpaca factory were we hosted in a private home for lunch. The meal was all native dishes made from ingredients purchased at the market that day. The surprise treat was Guinea pig. It is a greasy, stringy meat with small bones, one piece will last me a lifetime.

Evening free time was spent shopping the small stands for souvenirs that my kids will eventually donate to goodwill or toss.

In the Clouds

We began the day with a visit to the local corn beer bar. We learned how to make corn beer and we sampled both the plain and the strawberry flavoured. Of course the strawberry was my favourite. As we walked a round this local bar we saw the Guinea Pig barn. Everyone raises a few Guinea pigs for that special dinner, weddings graduations…. In the market there is always at least one vendor selling grass to fatten the little buggers. Our guide tells us the trick is not to name them.

After drinking we played the local coin toss game. A small table with a drawer has a metal frog with an open mouth anchored in the centre, around that are several other holes for the coins to fall into. The coin is about the size of a quarter and the weight of a
Silver dollar. At ten in the morning, after a glass of strawberry beer this game can be very entertaining.

Next stop, Inca Railroad, the train up to Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca village. Their was a light rain and the clouds were hanging very low. I have been very concerned about this part of the trip because of the altitude sickness and my asthma. We walked for about three hours, up and down stone stairs of varying widths. Our guide, Edgar
Is very knowledgeable, he is a trained guide which requires a four year degree, he has a Phd, and is a consultant for National Geographic. Among the amazing things he shared with us new theory on the orientation of Machu Picchu. The mountain structure is between four mountains, one in each of the cardinal directions and the river from the sacred valley runs by all the mountains.

The method of building required no mortar. The walls, doors and windows are all trapezoidal. Many of the rocks were from the top of the mountain. They were cut and hauled down to form the large terraces,

When we returned to the hotel we celebrated Pisco day. We learned to make Pisco sours, the national drink.

I may have mentioned this already, sorry, the national population is three women for every man. This is further complicated by the number of gay men.

The land of the incas

13* South

Tuesday Jan 28- Jan 30

Tuesday we took the boat to Iquitos, the bus to the airport, the plane to Lima, another plane to Cusco, a bus through Cusco to our fabulous hotel, Casa Andia, Private Collection. This journey took most of the day. The only unscheduled stop was Bembos Burgers, the most popular fast food store in Peru.

I also lost my innocence today. We drank coca tea and chewed the leaves as a preventive.

Dinner was exquisite with the requisite Andean harp player. This is the night that the rest of people joined trip. There appeared to be no problems until today when one of the older ( than me) women fell down stairs, fell getting on the bus and was barely responsive until the guide sent her to the local doctor. She is suffering from altitude sickness.

Our first stop today was a women’s weaving cooperative. They demonstrated the hand spinning techniques, and the natural dye. The red dye was the most amazing, it was made from a crushed bug that is a parasite on one of the cactuses. It takes one woman thirty days to make a table runner for which they charge $225 solaces or about $75 American. The woman dressed in native costumes. Each tribe has a distinguishing characteristic, this group’s was braided hair. Many purchases were made, sweaters, table runners and hats.

On the bus ride to lunch we learned about the history of land ownership in the Scared Valley. At one time all the land was owned by six families. The government bought the land and distributed it among 350 families. The large land owners were allowed to keep their houses and the reduced plot of land. We had lunch at one of the old plantation houses, Tunupa. The house has been restored and is very spectacular.

The major crops are potatoes (380 kinds), barley,quinoa, asparagus, coca and corn ( apparently) with the largest kernels in the world.

The last stop was Ollantaytambo, the best preserved of all the Inca sites and a still functioning Inca Village. I was faltering on the climb up but one of the guides stayed with me and cheered me all the way to the top. I dubbed him my hero and gifted him with beer.

I am the Champion

I am the champion

I am the champion

Monday

It started raining yesterday afternoon and continued through the night. A long storm is known as a female storm, a violent storm is known a male storm. The river was at an extreme high last May when it peaked, they are expecting an equally high level this May.

We skipped the 5:30 am bird watching adventure.
At breakfast we were joined by a female doctor from Wisconsin who has spent the last 22 years as a doctor in the Amazon. She said nothing she does resembles modern medicine, she works from a bare bones clinic that is the only source treatment for the local population. After several years she has been able to train enough help so she can return to the US for six months every year and work in an ER room to hone he skills and earn a modest living. She was at the lodge waiting for a ride into Iquitos to pick up supplies for her annual vaccine day.

Our morning activity was piranha fishing. I am the champion, I caught the first and largest piranha. I also caught a catfish, making me the winner for the most fish.
The time in the boat is wonderful. Next to the air conditioned room, it is the coolest place to be.

The afternoon was spent traveling the manmade shortcut between the Amazon and the Napo river. Before the road was constructed it took 16 hours to take a boat around the peninsula separating the two rivers, it now takes twenty five minutes to travel between the rivers. Thesis a real asset for farmers trying to move crops to markets.

Again Paul told us stories about the various medicinal uses for foods. He pointed out a tree that produces a fruit that is beneficial for woman. When the tree rots and falls over the woman wait for the. Men to split the tree open. It is usually filled with maggots that the women consider a sweet treat. Men do not eat the maggots or the fruits.

One of the national dishes of Peru is called Juanes. It is the food eaten on the feast day for St. John, June 24. It is rice, chicken, olives and a hard boiled egg wrapped in babjac leaves and boiled. We seasoned it with a tumeric sauce. We had some for our last dinner in the Amazon.

Tuesday is a day of travel by bus, boat and plane to Cuzco.

Meeting the amazon

3* south

Friday was a full day of travel. Wendy picked me up at noon From my house to The airport, then to, Miami,then Lima, another flight to Iquitos, a bus ride to the boat launch and then 45 minute boat ride up the Amazon to the Ceiba Tops Explorama lodge in the Amazon Rain Forest was a 26 hour trip.

After we unpacked, we took a short walk in the forest to see some of the unusual plants and birds.We were accompanied by a Tapir. We saw tarantula holes, golden orb spiderwebs, mushrooms and the large tree, ceiba, for which the lodge is named.

After dinner people quickly returned to their rooms for a good nights sleep.

At 5:30 AM some of us got out of bed to travel up river and see the Sunday market in the town of Indiana. Our local guide, Paul stopped frequently to explain the medicinal properties of every plant. Termites nests for mosquito repellent, papaya for digestion, a
Combination of several plants to rid the stomach of the parasites that invade the stomach and intestines of people who swim in the river. There were many kinds of fish, the Amazon has over three hundred kinds of catfish. Other meat sources included chicken, venison and Paccar, a huge rodent.
On the ride we looked and saw serval pink dolphins.

After breakfast we traveled by boat to a site of the Yagua Indians. Here we witnessed part of their culture, canoe carving, blow guns, weaving of the leaves for roofs and the local dancing. Mary, I can hear you questioning the authenticity of this adventure. Think of it as the Greenfield Village of the Amazon. It supplies a small income and keeps the culture alive. In the pictures below there is a quiver for the arrows. Piraña teeth are part of the hunting equipment, they are used to sharpen the arrows.
In the afternoon we traveled by boat to an animal rescue farm. The monkeys, sloth and birds were very entertaining but the snakes, anacondas and boas, were terrifying. I wonder what you have to pay an employee to bring a 10 foot anaconda out of its pond space and show it to tourists.

The life of any of the people here is one of subsistence, fishing, farming, a few skinny chickens. If you are lucky you have a job in the lodge, own a water taxi to transport people 50 miles to work, sell produce in Iquitos or own a small motorcycle taxi to transport people to market.

Paul found another plant miracle drug which he claims stabilises your blood sugar and controls diabetes. I have heard many people say the cure for most of the illnesses we have exists in the rain forests…are these cures of the natives myths or is western medicine as resistant to these natural cures as we have been to acupuncture.

After our dinner we were entertained by dancers from Indiana high school. They perform to earn money for school supplies.

The company, 3 couples and Maggie Conger, has been delightful. My only complaint is the heat. I have been dripping wet since we arrived. Good friends of mine will remind me of this next time I am ready to book another adventure tour in the tropics.