I recently returned from a “Road Scholar” cultural, educational and people-to-people trip to Cuba. We arrived a few days after President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking visit.
We visited several 500-year-old UNESCO world heritage squares and plazas in Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Camaguey. The days were hot, but after sunset the squares and neighborhoods were bustling until nearly midnight with Cubans and tourists socializing and people watching. Music was everywhere.
The streets were exceptionally clean; many are swept daily. On pedestrian-only streets, people of all ages walk hand-in-hand or arm in arm. I have the distinct impression that Cuban society is at peace with itself. Our Cuban guide said that’s the Caribbean way.
Because of our embargo, there were few American tourists, but I saw British and Australian bicyclists and groups from Russia, Israel, France, Switzerland and Germany.
The narrow streets and roads are crowded with modern, wide-bodied tour buses made in China and equipped with refrigerators to keep bottled water cold.
We were encouraged to roam freely and rarely saw police during the day. At night there were a few in the squares.
Our trip included visiting the Havana Fine Arts Museum, playing dominoes with Cubans in a community center, watching a professional contemporary dance group, ballet company rehearsal, and listening to a private performance by an acapella choir. And, of course, we visited the Hemingway Farm and legendary Cojimar fishing village, where we lunched with fishermen.
We visited the popular Playa Giron Museum commemorating the infamous, harebrained Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Instead of the expected heroes’ welcome, the invaders were handily defeated by the Cuban military supported by local citizens. Like our Civil War museums, artifacts and pictures of boys and men taking up the cause of repelling invaders are proudly displayed.
To protect against a common intestinal bug, we liberally used hand sanitizer and drank bottled water. We stayed in hotels on a par with Marriotts and ate in Paladars, privately owned restaurants. One was the Paladar where President Obama dined.
My most interesting experience was at a Casa Particular, privately owned B&B, in a Trinidad neighborhood a a fair distance from the city square. A family remodeled and transformed its upstairs to accommodate tourists. The entrance from the street is via a narrow, steep metal circular staircase. I had a private room and bath; two other Rhoad Scholars had twin beds and private bath.
Our host, an agricultural engineer-turned entrepreneur, fixed a lavish dinner of beans and rice, baked chicken, mashed potatoes, root vegetables, salad, two kinds of breads, fresh fruit, ice-cream and double-layered flan cake.
After dinner we stood on the overhanging porch watching the street action below. Houses are cheek to jowl. No grass. Steel grids for doors open onto the sidewalk. People sit outside and visit with each other and passersby. The street functions as a quasi neighborhood parlor.
Occasionally someone walked down the street carrying a cardboard box and loudly announcing that he had cucumbers, tomatoes or bread for sale.
Dogs run loose. A shopkeeper across the street had thrown pig bones onto the sidewalk; several dogs took turns chewing on them.
Cats seem to belong to the community. We watched one go through the iron grill into the house across the street, up the stairs, off the porch onto the roof and over two buildings to disappear. When it finished its mission, it retraced its route back to the street and disappeared. There was a parade of bikes and motorbikes holding up to four riders, various sized vehicles and trucks converted to carry passengers and horse-drawn taxis.
Our most unique visit was to a remote village in cattle-ranch country: population 200. The only available transportation is horse and buggy. There’s a two-room school. Above sixth grade, students room and board in a town 2 miles away. For high school they stay in a town 5 miles away and return home weekends.
The town has electricity. Every hut has a refrigerator and TV. Cooking is by electric hot plates. Well water is brackish and unusable. For washing and bathing, rainwater is collected in cisterns. Drinking water is trucked in.
There is no way to succinctly summarize my Cuban experience or draw a catchy conclusion.