Sunday, February 4, 2018

Cuba Visit

Cuba, a get-away Tropical Island, off the beaten track and a respite from the sub-zero New York
Trip dates; January 20-25, 2018.

Short and sweet and close to home, and in a place where is “perfect” is the most ideal vacation. It is supposedly winter in CubaJ (Temperature was low-70’s to low-80’s). This was the first time I woke up to the crowing of the roosters since I visited south India years back. It felt so wholesome!

I had visited enough Caribbean islands and Bermuda enough times and so I was in no mood to plan a trip to these parts this winter (last year it was a great 7-day trip to the Mexican Riviera on Holland America after a wonderful three-day stay in San Diego with “framily”; our longest trip lasted 21 days--Prague to Budapest and then a Viking Cruise up to Amsterdam) but Cuba looked irresistible. I was lucky that Peggy from my writing club had gone there last Winter and had an agent at the ready to recommend. So we could plan a quick getaway and I was surprised to see how easy it was to travel there. We picked the “People-to-people” category for our visa which our airline Delta provided for us for $50/per person and held them for us at the check-in counter at the airport.

The famous classic car experience

Cuba reminded both B and me of south India. Beautiful architecture, coconut palms, tree-lined broad boulevards, a ton of history, friendly people, virtually no beggars, no pan handlers, no annoying vendors unlike in places like Rome.

Known as Banyan trees in India these are ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu. As are the coconut palm.         


For the first time, I saw B having such a good time, It might have been due to the personal attention he got (we both did) from our charming guide Ari, a university professor who does this on the side without anyone in authority knowing about it as it is “illegal.”

Ari and her husband Fo, a banker opined that B and I could pass for Cubans.

Street scenes, Old Havana:

 Highlights of the trip:
The visit to the art factory (a unique concept, only 2 CUC’s to enter; they must make their money from the food and the drinks consumed by the heavy turnout to the place), the Cuban Jazz program and the art work there. There was also a fashion show.

At the Art Factory, a map of Cuba made with keys.

Art Factory Jazz performance. The violinist also sang a few numbers. Beautiful!

 * * The visit to Hemingway’s home Finca la Vagia ( 
Hemingway’s boat. Pilar was the nickname of the author’s wife Pauline

Could not go to the fishing village Cojimar which inspired his novel, Old Man and the Sea. Instead, went to Fusterlandia

While there, had lunch at nearby Hemingway Marina.

1.      * Dining with Ari and Fo at across from the ocean and near where we stayed. Took some photos before our lipstick wore off and also of the kitchen where the chefs were delighted to be treated as the stars that they were.

 Kitchen staff at HM 7.

Felt lucky that Ari and Fo accepted our invitation to join us as our guests but though they ordered a vegetarian spicy dish (Curry Amarillo, vegetales de la huerta y frijoles chinos Yellow curry with garden vegetables and bean sprouts) like myself (B ordered Pasta with vegetables), they could not finish it. It was too spicy for them. I suggested doggy bagging it for a dog but they refused. Guess spicy is not good for a dog (the street dogs looked sickly, abandoned, and truly pathetic). The next day I tried to feed an emaciated, limping dog at a touristry square a couple of cookies I had on me. He wouldn’t even smell it. He had forgotten what food is I think. It broke my heart. I wished that I could set up a fund to feed these dogs. Not practical maybe. In Cienfuegos did see a dog and her puppy happy and well taken care of. The owner treated them like they were his children. He looked poor himself but the dogs were still his children.  

Owner in Cienfuegos with the one-month old puppy whose brother was no more.

While waiting for our orders, I found out that Ari and Fo had met at the university 18 years earlier and had lived together for five before getting married. In Cuba, apparently, people did not have to tie the knot to bestow legitimacy to their offspring. 

"What attracted you to Ari?" I quizzed Fo.

"Everything," he said, blushed, and smiled at Ari.

I think I get it. I too know a thing or two about falling in love.

They were married twelve years ago and their daughters are eight and six. Apparently, in Cuba, a couple would have changed spouses two or three times in 18 years.

After dinner, we walked to our place. The sidewalks were in bad condition with several sudden dips and potholes and large, leaning trees that one had to skirt to get further. I should have worn walking shoes but my sandals were comfy though with heels. At our place, I served black coffee (instant that I had taken with me; Ari and Fo like it black) and some Mangaram biscuits and two pieces of dark Belgian chocolate which are a must for me after dinner (for medical reasons:)). So I was not generous since I had taken very limited quamtity with me.

The conversation flowed easily. At one point, when I said that if Cuba turned over their run down buildings to Americans, we would fix them up in no time. Fo immediately said, “No, thank you” in Spanish. He wished he knew better English. I think he is afraid that we Americans would export the bad with the good to their country. Apparently, he is an excellent salsa dancer. He shared a story related to this when he was in Germany one time.

Though this middle-class couple has many of their relatives in the U.S., they themselves do not want to leave Cuba. I can see why. Cuba is a beautiful country. Ari mother born in 1954 is a psychiatrist and her father who is with his third wife now and has no contact with Ari or her mother is a lawyer. Ari’s half-sister from her father's first wife and olde rthan Ari by 10 years moved to Miami eighteen years earlier and Ari has visited the U.S a couple of time for professional reasons. She has fond memories of her visits and what stood out most was the freedom to move about that she experienced in New York. She speaks good English though she tried to improve it constantly by seeking my help whiel we were together. From the overall service she tried to provide it was clear that she was a perfectionist though punctuality did not seem to be a Cuban virtue. By the end of our trip we had become close friends. I named the doll I purchased Ari in her honor. On our way back to the airport, she gave my husband a bottle of Cuban Havana Club rum (carrying the same name, one kind is made by Bacardi in Puerto Rico), She gave me the paper she presented at the University of Alabama in November 2017. The subject matter was gender in Cuban films which she plans to make her doctoral dissertation topic. There are no course requirements for this degree but she anticipates taking five years to complete it though with reservations as she is a mother of two girls and works full time plus acts as a tour guide. According to her, her husband is an exceptional husband and father who prefers country living while she is a city girl. For a banker, he did look plain and simple.

1.      * On the fourth day we left for Trinidad, a UNESCO Heritage City   (,_Cuba). Along the way stopped at the historic port of Cienfuegos ( for lunch and spent a short time there in the main square and driving through the city. 

      Trinidad is a place frozen in time. I was blown away by the very first whiff. In the evening of the first day, B and I took a carriage ride on the cobble-stone streets. The young bespectacled driver David looked very Texan with his large hat and low cute jeans and boots. He barely spoke any English. Unfortunately, as soon as the carriage began to move, he lit a cigarette and almost immediately, I requested him not to refrain. He put it out.  I felt bad for him. Then again, maybe not. 

      Cool Caribbean breeze kissing our faces, the clippity clop ride on the cobble stone streets was like when I rode these carriages, though on tar roads as a kid in New Delhi, India. 

After clearing the cobblestone roads we were on tar roads. David took us to see an abandoned train yard with three dilapidated engines lined up. In broken English he explained that they were from the U.S. from the early part of 20th century. It sounded like at least one was from Philadelhia. A guard at the station across came toward us and David asked through hand motion if we wanted to see the locos. We declined.

Next he took us to a ceramics show room with the factory attached to it. This break was meant more for David to be able to smoke. The owner tried to interest us in a few of the items. I was more interested in using their bano but skipped it as there was no toilet paper and mine was in my room at the hotel. Me feeling guilty for not buying anything, we left the howroom.

We went to Guitrara Mia (, a lovely, cozy restaurant with live, non-intrusive vocal music accompanied by guitar. Later, the young woman dressed in tight jeans and a bra-like top went around for a collection. Sad I thought. Maybe, because I too sing? For 40 CUS we got a five or six-course meal per person with two Cristal beers. 

We stayed in the elegant and tropical ( where we kept the windows flung open and listened to the bird songs. But at night, we had to keep them closed as we needed AC and plus I was afraid of noisy guests or particularly employees who were noisy earlier, and also because of loud music which was playing at a restaurant on the same block. In Cuba, I
did not hear any bad music.  Guess Cubans have got music in their blood. 

Next morning’s highlight was visiting the Museum of the Revolution (,and the bell tower above it ( and Plaza de Mayor (,_Trinidad,_Cuba). On the first floor of the Museum's tower, a slightly built, older man’s T-shirt caught my attention. You will see why:


It says India on it along with the name of the Elephant God, Ganesha. The wearer’s name was Oscar. He was part of the Cuban history. As a young man (now he was 74), on the Sierra de Sancti Spiritus hills behind him he had fought the counter-revolutionary forces in which many men were hanged. In Spanish, he described the battle scene vividly. From the little bit I understood, from his hand movements and simultaneous translation by Ari, I understood that it was fierce battle that involved a lot of shooting and that despite being shot himself he fought the enemy and saved some      lives on his side. Indeed, he was a feisty. Playfully, I said that I’d like to go with him on a date and      that he must spend on me. He agreed instantly.

* The absolute highlight of the morning was the visit to La Canchanchara ( and tasting the drink Canchanchara there. I also bought a couple of souvenirs for the showcase-a vase and a woman of means in a dress made of dried banana leaf (actually, I didn’t buy the one I saw here as there was no box to box her; but later at a store near Iznaga Tower ( where the doll showed up again and there was a box for her. All stores in Cuba that I visited were clean, tidy and well-organized. Ari and I climbed the Iznaga Tower (350 steps?) but not B or our driver, Cesar.


The long round trip (a total of ten hours maybe) between Havana and Trinidad gave us four passenegrs ample opportunity to not only carry on long conversations but also to share my musical knowledge (as a trained classical music vocalist). I ended up not only singing but even teaching Ari the famous Doris Day song Que Sera, Sera.

Ari taught me how to pronounce Sera like a Hispanic. Cesar the driver and Ari insisted on taping the song and in a car moving at 100 kilometers per hour I taped it and every time we went over a bump my voice jumped. The important thing was all of us had turned into a bunch of children.

Our driver Cesar. He had just bought that hat in Trinidad.                The simple paladar ( on our                                                                                                                 departure from Trinidad, the first place in Cuba where we finally                                                                                                                 found some rice (wild) and beans. Salad and mashed pumpkin were                                                                                                             part of this sumptuous lunch. Ari treated us saying that the price                                                                                                                   here she could afford!

Soon after having this photo taken, Cesar bumped into a metal protrusion at the paladar and it was quite severe. He was quite traumatized. I suggested treating the badly hurt area with ice and it worked.  It was a miracle it wasn’t worse and there was no bleeding.


As a low-carb vegetarian, I am always paranoid about what food I’d find in places that I visit. So far so good but Cuba was a different kind of a place and we would be on our own except for our guide and driver at our disposal during the day. I had been warned that food was scarce in Cuba and that I was better off carrying some ready-to-eat, packaged items. As usual, I packed plenty of nuts and a total of heat-and-eat meals for the five-and-a-half days we were there and a box of cereals (12 servings).

The first shocker that awited was no milk was readily available. So we bought a carton of soya milk, which was fine, from the store open only 9:30-6:30 and on Sundays, till 2 p.m. The store sold different items. Nail polish and face powder stood out as did packaged snacks and ice cream. I wondered where the milk for the ice cream came from. B clarified that the ice cream was imported. Street ice cream vendors also came by regularly. Shelves were also filled with paper cups and paper plates and bins brimmed with clothes washing powder like Surf. Hardly anyone spoke English but by now we have learned how to mime effectively to communicate. In Morocco, I used to mimic fish with the wave of my hands and bovine by shaping my hands into horns and sticking them into my forehead and bounce around like a cow and then wave my hands to say I didn’t eat these creatures. Living in New York and having travelled to Chile and Spain I knew a few Spanish words which helped in Cuba.

I could not find any bread either on this store’s shelves. Next day, Ari brought us eight sesame-sprinkled buns. They were tasty though might have been made of white flour. On the last day on our morning-stroll of the area we went to a mall where there a well-stocked supermarket graced the place and by then we also knew where the 24-hour bakery was which also sold pastries. On our last day, we bought an almond sprinkled pastry which was not as a sweet as I’d have liked. We also discovered a vegetable and fruit market and another corner shop selling different kinds of bread. Rolls seem to be popular in Cuba. On our way back from Trinidad, on the way, Ari introduced us to the sweet candy tablet made form peanuts and honey. They are called turron (I discovered this later after I returned to New York and reserached it).

All school-going youngsters in Cuba wear uniforms supplied by the government. The red and white is for elementary, gold and white (my favorite) for middle school (6-9) and blue and white for high school (10-12). 

On a Sunday (our second day) afternoon, I spotted young school boys with backpacks playing chess in a promenade across from the stately El Capitoliao, now the Cuban  Academy of Sciences. Ari proudly observed how she never had to worry about the safety of her kids when they were out. Gun crime is virtually non-existent in Cuba. How wonderful! Would this ever be possible in the U.S.? The flip side of a free society.

Another surprise was finding vendors inside the fort--Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (; where we went to see the Cannon Ceremony (our driver had cautioned me to close my ears during the firing of the cannon ball; glad I listened to him). I did some shopping here.

I know Cuba is a Communist country and based on the heartbreaking stories of Cubans trying to flee their country for the U.S. even risking their life but I was surprised to learn that my guide’s salary per month for her work as a professor and her husband as a banker is 25USD. True that medicine considered high quality by world standards is free as is education, art and music and dance lessons (every city has its own Culture Center) and everybody has a ration card which of course provides the bare necessities (apparently, soya oil is used widely I n Cuba and is very cheap). I found this beyond incredible but I didn’t want to probe. This economic “woe” is what is forcing Ari to moonlight as a guide.

It was interesting to note that Mr. Fidel Castro’s granddaughter is a colleague of Ari’s. It was sad to hear of Mr. Castro's oldest son's suicide soon after we retruend to New York. The 68-year-old Mr. Castro Díaz-Balart, known as Fidelito, was the president of the Adaemy of Sciences.

In Havna we stayed three plus one nights in a sixth-floor, three-bedroom apartment with great cross ventilation and a balcony with a view of the ocean. It was fully furnished and had a kitchen with all amenities.

For a country carpeted with plantain trees, we could not find a single banana in any store we visited. Maybe we were looking in the wrong places. Most trees were devoid of the plantain though a few did sport some healthy bunches. According to Ari, a recent hurricane had devastated all the plants.

Observing the fertile land along the way from Havana to Trinidad, B kept saying how much potential Cuba had and why it was not more developed (at one time it used to be a great trade center; its stately homes a testament to its once-upon-a-time wealth).

                Coffee shop                                                       On our way back from Trinidad where we bought                                                                                                                          Turron from a street vendor at this "pit" stop                                                                                                      
Cuba was one of my best ever trips ever mainly because the visit was only six days long (short and sweet), was close by and as a country heavily into the arts, it might one day welcome me to return, this time as an artist! It’s always fun to have a private car, guide and driver. We had done this in Brazil but there was too much internal flying involved as Brazil is huge and also the weather in Brazil was super humid in Novermber and it was an eleven-day trip covering Manaus, Rio De Janiero and Iguazu. Such a trip spread over three days to Ootty and Coonnoor in India in February 2014 was memorable.

Long Live Cuva!

                                                                       The End 

   At the ariport (us)                                                                            Loot from Cuba

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