Archive for the ‘Cuba’ Category

My Cuban Adventure Part Four: The Arts and Music

January 23, 2016


Art is everywhere in Cuba. Public art was both abstract and representational. There were metal sculptures, made from scrap metal including old car parts, on the streets and in the park behind the Hotel Ciego de Avila.

We visited a silver shop in the city. The artists were making jewelry and sculptures from old silverware.

One Saturday we went the museum in Ciego de Avila. After touring the museum we were treated to a traditional dance performance with a live band, Rumbavilla. They included us in the dancing, too.

Then we were off to Moron, a nearby city of 60,000 people. We went to the theater there, Moron Teatro. The government gave the building to the troupe, its director, and the stage crew. The theater was built in 1922 but was heavily damaged by a hurricane. In the ensuing years it was used as a venue for boxing and duck races as well as a storage facility for fertilizer. The actors, director, and stage crew cleaned it up and renovated it. They got a box car, cut it in half, and added one side of it to the back of the building for dressing rooms and used the other half for the front lobby and ticket office. They completed the work in five months and now have a full schedule of performances each week including classical, contemporary and children’s plays. The admission price is five CUP’s, about twenty cents.


There are several troupes of actors from the company that entertain at the beach resorts of the province. Since many of the tourists do not speak Spanish, they put on variety shows. We were treated to such a performance that included mimes. Huge puppets, dances, singers, and acrobats. The theater company is known for their clay-brushed characters. They presented Medea in that form as street theater.

Another amazing part of the theater company is their outreach program. They send a troupe out to isolated areas and stay for ten days, teaching the local people how to put on their own shows.

One night in Ciego de Avila we went to a nightclub called La Trova, named after a branch of Cuban music. We listened and danced to a band called Cuban Roots, Raices Cubana. The painter Miguel Angle Luna who was a fan of la trova so he opened the club and started it as a foundation to preserve the music.

In Havana we went to the Old City where we saw rehabbed buildings.I was struck again by the modern outdoor art like this surrealistic statue of a rooster.

rooster surrealistic statue in Havana

The galleries on the New Quarter had some interesting art, including Zombie art. Here’s a photo of fanciful mail slots.

When we went to the Museum of the Revolution, I saw a newer portrait of Fidel Castro painted by Luis Soltelo.


IMG_1659 I’ve included a photo of the rotunda of the building.


When we passed by at night, Che’s face was lit up on the front of the building.


We went to the Lucecita Music Consortium founded by Lucecita Benitez. They have a festival every summer, Pina Colada, in Ciego de Avila. The consortium’s mission is to provide training and venues for new talent. They have a show on the internet on the last Friday of every month, although I couldn’t find it.

sculpture at Lucecita

We visited Muraliando, an artists’ consortium in Havana. The government gave the group an old water tower that had been used as a garbage dump for years. The artists cleaned it out and built studio space for themselves and have a program for 250 children. It’s in a run-down area so the artists made murals and sculptures all over the streets.

There we listened to another band, Mambu and Company, who got us up and dancing.

My impressions are that the Cubans respect intellectuals and value their diverse culture.







My Cuban Adventure Part Three Transporation

January 11, 2016


IMG_1714I took a charter plane to Cuba as there is currently no commercial air traffic allowed. This is quite expensive ($540 roundtrip from Miami) and requires long waits. Some of the planes are American (Eastern, American, etc.) We had to check in four hours ahead of time. Baggage was expensive. The charge was by poundage, often including your carry-on.

We landed at the Santa Clara airport, went through customs and got on a beautiful air conditioned bus that took the teams to the two cities. I was surprised that there was little traffic on the highways. We went through mostly rural areas, flat with lush greenery. There were horses with carts or carriages on the same roads.

In Ciego de Avila there was also little auto or bus traffic on the streets. There aren’t enough public conveyances. I saw people, with their hands out with money, on the major highway through town hoping someone would stop and take them to a destination for money. I saw only one auto taxi. There were many pedicycle taxis. A ride in these costs about $2.00 for two people. Since it wasn’t only tourists, but also locals taking these pedicycle rides, I think there was a different price for the local people.

There were also many horse and carriages on the city’s streets. It felt like a trip through time. These cost about $1 per person for a ride. The team took these carriages every night to dinner and then back to the hotel after tutoring at the Community Center.


There were trains going through town and a station. There were also “dragon” buses. These were two or three buses attached to each other and pulled by a semi. Ramon said they hold more than two hundred passengers, standing.


The autos were generally two types: fairly new and vintage. The vintage ones in Ciego de Avila were not for the hobbyist. They were a means of transportation. I sat in Parque Juanita one Sunday at noon to photograph vintage cars that went by. I noticed that about a third of the cars fit into that category.



We rode to Havana in the same wonderful bus. The highway was sparsely traveled. We stopped on the way to see Ernest Hemmingway’s house. These two restored cars were there, but they didn’t belong to Hemmingway.

There were more cars in Havana, but not many by American standards. I saw little yellow three-wheeled taxies.


IMG_1537The vintage cars were in better shape in Havana. On Friday night we went for rides in vintage cars that were convertibles. Great fun. These were driven by their proud owners who were members of car clubs.

Until three years ago, houses and cars could not be legally bought or sold. The owners of the cars I met had been in the family. However, a person could buy a car under the table but the registration remained under the name of the original owner until recently.


Cuban Adventure, People

January 1, 2016

Cuban Adventure Part Two   The People

Our Global Volunteers Team was the fifth to Ciego de Avila and the seventh to Cuba overall. The teams to Ciego de Avila have all tutored walk-ins at the Community Center. Although the building is owned by the Baptist Church, the tutoring is open to all.

In the mornings, most of the people were adults. Some of the volunteers also worked with young adults whose English teacher had strongly recommended they attend. The people who came in ranged from those who spoke no English to those who wanted to practice their already good English skills. The latter group, whom I never worked with, gave the volunteers insights into everyday life in Cuba.FullSizeRender (1)


I worked with the people who knew no English. My first, and most consistent student was Myla. We went over greetings, where are you from etc. I wrote everything down on index cards, in English and Spanish, so she could take them with her. When she got stressed (two hours is a long time for tutoring) we used my elementary Spanish and talked about our lives. She used to be a junior high school Spanish teacher until she had to quit to take care of her father. He died but now she takes care of her brother. Her daughter (psychologist or psychiatrist,) and her granddaughter live with her. Her granddaughter is ten years old and studying ballet at a school for the arts. (As I spoke with people it was quite usual to have multigenerations living in the same house. It speaks to the lack of housing and the dearth of building materials.) Her daughter and granddaughter go to the beach for their August and October holidays.

Rita, a college Spanish literature teacher, also came in the mornings. She was quite a character. She brought homemade wine one morning to share. One day when several of us were sitting on the wall in the square, we saw her. She insisted we come to her home. First she stopped by a travel agency and got us brochures and maps of Cuba. We shared organic yogurt. Her home was quite spacious: living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and patio upstairs.


In the evening tutoring sessions, we worked with people of all ages. Many older teens came. My take on it was it was an activity, sanctioned by their parents, where they could hang out with their friends. However they worked hard on improving their English.

One boy, about ten, came with his mother and English teacher. There were about five other children who came. A couple came who were moving to Toronto for jobs they’d secured. Annie, an enthusiastic woman, was a dance teacher who hoped to work in the resorts. Working within the tourism industry was the best way to make money.

One of the girls being tutored was on vacation from her boarding school for high achieving students. She told us about a custom for fifteen year old girls. Not a quincinera, but a photo shoot. As soon as a baby girl is born, the parents start saving for it. It costs the equivalent of $180. The photographer provides the lavish costumes but the girl’s family furnishes the modern clothes. When I asked several other people about the custom, they said they hadn’t done it for their daughters so I’m not sure how prevalent the practice is.


I also worked with a teenager who lived with her grandmother. Her mother was a doctor who was working in Brazil. It was an intergovernmental agreement. She saw patients for free and was paid by the Brazilian federal and municipal governments. In Cuba she earned the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. Teachers make about seventeen dollars a month. In another installment I’ll discuss the two forms of currency and how they can survive on so little.


I worked with Migue, a nineteen year-old, who attended a military academy. He was a bit shy but I drew him out. One night I tutored him with a fifteen year-old girl whose English was excellent. Her father was a tour guide I’d met at the Cigar Store the day before.

One day while we were walking to the Community Center, an old woman and her husband approached us. She was wearing a large Star of David around her neck. Later, some of the team visited her in her home. Her father had immigrated to Cuba from Istanbul. Her husband was a Palestinian Jew. She was eighty-seven and he was a few years younger. Her home was filled with Judaica. Her two sons were rabbis in the U. S., one in Florida and one in North Carolina.



The second week I worked with Emily, the seven year-old daughter of our local guide, Ramon. She was brilliant and reminded me of my own Emily. I told her stories in Enlgish and Spanish. She then colored the characters and in theory told the stories back to me. By the time she should have done this, she was bored. We played color games and illustrated vocabulary. When I wrote “snowman” we both drew one. Of course mine was better than hers, as she’d never seen snow. She ran crying to her father. Gifted children often think they have to do everything perfectly, and I explained that to her father. Emily could read Englihs on a fourth grade level!

One day two other volunteers and I went to Ramon’s house after lunch. As we walked, he explained that he often picked up Emily before the end of school because she didn’t learn anything in the afternoons. Just as he said this, he teacher came biking by, way before school was over. He explained the often repeated maxim, “We pretend ot work and they pretend ot pay us.”

He told us that he pays about eight cents a month for his daughter to eat lunch at school. The charge for daycare, including two snacks and breakfast and lunch, is about three dollars a month.

Ramon was staying with a neighbor while he rebuilt his home across the street. He was hampered in this effort by bureaucracy and a lack of money and the limited availablilty of building supplies. He had been a teacher but couldn’t support his family on that salary. Teachers are prohibited from taking extra jobs that don’t relate to teaching. Then he worked as an immigration officer at the airport but also did not make enough money. He also tried to make a living as a photographer, but the government took seventy percent of his profits at that time. I think government regulations have changed and he’s going to try that again. I saw his photographs and he is talented.

His wife does not speak English and she seemed shy. His younger daughter Evelyn is a cutie pie. Ramon is quite enamored of his family, wonderful to see.

Almost every adult I met was divorced. The families were small, one or two children. That jived with what I had read ahead of time.


Annie, another tutoree, was a dance teacher. Her life was very hard. She hoped to improve her English so she could work as a dance instructor at a resort.

I saw many people fixing up their homes, painting or doing concrete work.


I realized how cynical I was. When I could ask someone on The Boulevard for directions, I would be taken to my destination. I thought it was for a tip, but people were just friendly and helpful. The staff that served us breakfast every day asked to see us all together. They had made flowers for us out of natural materials. I thought perhaps they wanted an extra tip but our leader Warren tipped them, not us. They were just being nice.

I didn’t see any evidence of racial tension. Columbus and the Spanish decimated the native population. Slaves were brought in to the labor, along with Chinese coolies. The latter had little influence on the culture because they were single men who often didn’t marry. Slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1886. I saw lots of interracial friendships and marriages. The word “mulatto” is not offensive. The African culture is a valued part of Cuban life. Aunt Jemima dolls and mulatto puppets are not insulting.

I saw lots of instances of entrepreneurship. Many people had small “cafeterias” on their patios or porches, selling coffee and take-out food. The paint merchant had his wares in huge plastic buckets. The pedicabs and horse and carriage drivers were in business for themselves.

At the Sunday morning outdoor market, pork, wine, vegetables and baskets were sold. The pork and wine was then re-sold to others. To my eyes it seemed unsanitary to have the pork out in the open. To buy wine, one had to bring back a container. Some people had fifteen containers to trade in. Onions and garlic were sold out of the back of a truck, probably to be resold. There was a lottery/ game show going on in the back of the market. People paid for a number. If your number was called, you went on stage and your number was verified by someone in the audience. The emcee put on some loud music and you had to dance. You then won one of the bags of goods.

I found the people I met to be open, friendly, earnest, and very willing to tlk to Americans.






My Cuban Adventure, part 1

December 26, 2015


Music, friendly faces, socialism, dance, horse-drawn carriages, rice and black beans, vintage autos, restored and crumbling buildings, shredded cabbage, pina coladas, cigars.

I’m back from two weeks in Cuba with Global Volunteers. The team I served on was made up of twenty people from ages 22 to 86.

our team

The other team of thirteen worked in another city, Sancti Spiritus. I spent most of the time in Ciego de Avila, a city of 110,000 people in the middle of the island. American tourists are not yet allowed to go to Cuba but we were

there to do volunteer projects for our sponsor, a Baptist Church.Eduardo, the pastor, was welcoming and open-hearted. His nineteen-year-old son, Junior, was our constant companion and was quite the fashionista.Ramon was our local go-to guide. He seemed to know everyone and everything in Ciego de Avila. We called him “the Mayor.”


There were three projects: a two-acre community vegetable garden, maintenance at the church and community center, and tutoring. I did the latter for two hours in the morning and everyone tutored for two hours in the evenings.

Like many developing countries, the first thing to know is not to throw toilet paper in the toilet. It goes in a basket next to the toilet. By the second day this was automatic.

I left my journal at a location in Cuba. Luckily it was found and will be returned to me by the end of January. I’ll do a day by day separate blog when I get it. Today I’ll expound on the food.

I was amazed at the availability of food, including pork, beef, chicken and fish. Every meal, breakfast included, had a tray of sliced cucumber and shredded cabbage.

For breakfast we ate from the buffet at Hotel Ciego de Avila where we stayed. The spread included: fresh cut pineapple, guava, a fruit not quite oranges, and papaya; pourable yogurt, rice pudding, the equivalent of applesauce made from guava, and cake; fresh juices which we warned not to drink because they were made with suspect water; hot dishes of spaghetti or pasta, cooked vegetables, sausage, ham, cheese and chicken fingers; omelets or fired eggs made to order; cereal, dinner rolls and “toast” that was sliced dinner rolls baked in the oven; and coffee, tea, hot chocolate and hot milk.

We ate lunch at the community center where we tutored. The fare was sandwiches on French bread. The choices were ham, ham and cheese, cheese, canned chicken salad, tuna salad and tuna with cheese. The people who worked at the garden often brought us fresh lettuce, radishes, pineapple and cucumbers. IMG_1055


We had freshly squeezed guava, papaya and pineapple juices. Two days we had pizza. It was thick crusted, had cheeses not mozzarella, topped with all manner of meats and veggies and served in long square pans. I was not thrilled with lunches.

After the first week my roommate Ginny Ryan and I skipped the sandwiches and ate at restaurants suggested by our adult students. In each restaurant we were the only non-Cubans. One day we ate at La Flotanda, a restaurant in the artificial lake behind our hotel. We walked across a bridge, passing a metal sculpture of a fish.


I had excellent fried fish and plantain chips for the equivalent of $1.50, including a cola. The cola had sugar but only one hundred calories per can.

cola with 10 calories per can

Another day we ate on the Boulevard (the pedestrian street in the middle of town) at Tia Maria’s. I couldn’t decipher the menu so we both took stabs at chicken dishes. Mine was pounded chicken sautéed in oodles of butter. Yummy. Ginny had Chicken Tia Maria which turned out to be Chicken Cordon Bleu. I had plantain chips and a soda and Ginny had a beer. Our total tab was $4.00.

Our last day in Ciego de Avila we ate a Don Pepe’s, also on the Boulevard. They only served pork. We again couldn’t figure out how each entrée was prepared. Mine turned out to be rather tough, thin pork steak. Ginny had delicious roast pork with a light gravy. And of course I ordered plantain chips. The manager sent over mini pina coladas that were delicious. We had a pop and a beer and It was $5.00 including a huge tip.

For dinner we ate at a few different places. Our most frequented places were Garnish Restaurant and El Crucer. They served much of the same fair: vieja ropa (a pulled beef dish,) thin pork and chicken steaks, fried and baked fish, the shredded cabbage-canned green beans-cucumber salad, sautéed vegetables, rice and black beans, yucca, plantain chips and flan. The Garnish also served lobster tail, tostone relleno, shrimp scampi, and fiedo (a delicious chicken noodle soup,) and a dessert called Sicilian cheese which was like a light cheesecake. El Crucer served us seafood paella.

One night we ate at Ranchon, a restaurant in the park behind our hotel. They specialized in vieja ropa. At many restaurants we ate in one or two long tables. It was hard to find white wine in the restaurants but the beers were great. Cristal was the light beer and Bucaneer was the heartier one. We also drank pina coladas. I sampled the two colas and some of the other pops.

dinner at Rancheron

On the first Saturday we went to a neighboring city, Moron. We ate lunch at Rancho Palma, which had a lovely setting and hammocks for a siesta after lunch. Two men used a grinder type of thing to squeeze the juice from sugar cane and they sold it with or without rum and it was called coktel vigia.

That evening we ate at Don Papa. The last Global Volunteers team had presented the owners with an American Flag and it was displayed along with ones of Cuba, Canada, and others. The fried fish was delicious. I didn’t have the huge charred pork chops. Some people said they were tough while others raved about them. We were serenaded by a band. One of our group, Dexter, was asked to play some of his songs. He sang one he wrote for his mother, who died recently. It touched my heart and made me a melancholy for my daughters and my mom.

Dexter performing his songs in Moron.jpg

The food in Havana was the same as Ciego de Avila. One night we went to 3rd and 20th. We ate on the patio. I sat by the outside grill and was a sweaty blob by the end of the night. They only had last minute notice that the forty of us would be dining there. The drinks were great but the fish overdone, as it is in many Cuban restaurants where we ate.

We had lunch on Friday in Havana at Lucecito, a music cooperative. The patio setting underneath a thatched roof was quite romantic and the food good.

On Saturday, after two informative lectures at The Council of Churches, we ate a bountiful lunch cooked by volunteers. It was the usual fare except one appetizer. The fruit had the consistency of a pear, but it didn’t taste like a pear. The stuffing was a mixture that tasted like ricotta, cream, and cottage cheese.

Our last night in Havana we ate a huge restaurant that specialized in el alhibe, sleeping bean soup, that is poured over rice. It was the first spicy dish I’d had in Cuba and loved it. They also had the most tender chicken that tasted like it was marinated in a lime and maybe cilantro. A band played the whole time we dined. The pina colada was too strong for me so I gave it to Dexter.

Ginny and I also felt it was our civic duty to investigate the ice cream parlors, heladerias. The, Copelia, one on The Boulevard, always had a line. We got on the line one afternoon and were seated with two young men. They were university students and members of the local baseball team. The day’s flavors were fresa (strawberry,) chocolate and plantain. The guys and Ginny ordered all three. I asked for the fresa and chocolate. Imagine my surprise when nine sundae dishes of ice cream appeared. Apparently only one flavor per sundae glass. The guys ate theirs up, I gobbled most of mine and Ginny made a valiant effort to finish hers. The ice cream was tasty but the texture was icy. The charge for my two sundae dishes was the equivalent of sixty cents.

A week later we went to the heladeria in the park behind our hotel. The architecture was quite modern and it sat on the lake. We were the only customers on a very hot afternoon. The flavor choices were fresa and montamondo. We had no idea what that was. I went for fresa and adventurous Ginny went for montamondo. The latter turned out to be chocolate chip. This ice cream was tasty and had a much better texture than the crowded ice cream shop we’d visited last week. And it was about half as expensive.

That’s as much as I remember about food without my journal. Another installment soon. (more…)