La Melia y El Malecon

We arrived at the Melia Cohiba. It would be symbolic of the duality we would constantly find in Cuba. The outside  reflected a world class hotel. Inside, both the massive lobby and spacious bar areas reinforced that idea.

But a closer view exposed a darker underside. You could buy a book on the best writings of Fidel Castro in both English and Spanish in the hotel gift shop, but you couldn’t buy a camera or a camera battery if you needed one. Cameras or camera batteries for sale don’t exist in Cuba, even in hotels striving for world-class status. The elevators were painfully slow and often simply stopped working. Even if they did grind from floor to floor, the edge of the elevator and the edge of the floor never matched up. Internet connections were even slower. And, if you were to use the hotel phones, it could take up to an hour to connect to the outside world.

The view from our 9th floor room was spectacular. Two sides of the room were windows offering a view of the neighboring Riviera Hotel, once owned by American mobster Meyer Lansky and a centerpiece of Cuba’s gambling empire; El  Malecon, the famous 100-year-old stone walkway ringing Havana which comes alive nightly with thousands of strollers; the deep blue waters of the sea; and a large section of resort-area Havana.

Our room itself was spacious and accommodating. A bidet in the bathroom indicated that it had been designed on the European, not the American, model. There was a large sunken oval tub, but no shower. You could shower by using the hand-held shower head and metal-link tubing wrapped around the tub’s faucets. We had a small flat-screen TV with about a dozen stations. Most were in Spanish, but there were the BBC and CNN international news channels, as well as 2 MTV channels. Usually, we would rush right out to explore, but we only had about an hour until our 1st scheduled lecture. I figured out the shower system and took a shower. Judy unpacked. We changed and headed downstairs to hear from our writer-in-residence.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

A 1st Look at Cuba

After a one-hour flight from Miami, we arrived at the Jose Marti International Airport. We were the only plane there. During the past 6 hours we had met some of the 21 people who would be traveling with us for the next 10 days. We had also met our National Geographic guide and photographer Hilary Duffy. Hilary had been to Cuba several times before, but this was the 1st time she had flown directly from the United States. It would also be the 1st time she had led a group as a guide.

Carrying our smaller bags, we walked across the tarmac and headed to what in Havana was considered an international terminal. It was a plain, simple structure. I suppose I had imagined that there would be a strong military presence at the airport, but we were greeted by 2 females in matching white tops and blue skirts who directed us inside.  I had assumed that modern conveniences were scarce in Cuba so I was surprised to see two 46-inch flat screen Samsung LCD TVs hanging from the wall. They were displaying a Spanish cartoon, but the picture was extremely fuzzy.

I had also expected, as an American, to get an extreme screening. However, that wasn’t the case. Not a military uniform was to be seen. We entered individual stations where our passport and documents were scrutinized and our picture was taken. We then passed thorough airport scanners and picked up our luggage, which was waiting for us on the floor. We were directed to a final station where our necessary arrival documents were handed over and we walked out the door.

We were in Havana.

Outside, most of the group rushed to photograph the 1950 vintage cars that filled the parking lot. I headed to capture a giant billboard heralding the virtues of Che and socialism.  We all boarded our bus and were introduced to our Cuban guide Luis. As we headed out of the airport, the young woman (Traci, whom in few days we would jokingly be calling our daughter) sitting in the seat to our left, shouted “Look. Out there. At that billboard.” It pictured George W. Bush and proclaimed in Spanish that he was a terrorist to the people of Cuba. The bus was moving too fast to get a picture, but Traci and I both vowed we would get one when we returned to the airport.

We continued through the Havana outskirts, all of us trying to take in what we were seeing. The amateur photographers clicked away. Of course, the most striking sight was the endless parade of old cars. At every bus stop, there were long lines of people waiting for a bus that would be coming sometime; regular schedules simply weren’t part of daily living here. From every balcony of every apartment, drying clothes fluttered in the breeze. As we neared the heart of the city, run-down shacks and stark high-rises were replaced by street upon street of huge, once-stately homes, now fallen victim to years of Caribbean weather and embargoed neglect.

These dwellings reinforced the idea of two distinct Cubas: the Cuba of old, one of the wealthiest places in the hemisphere, and the socialist Cuba of today, where daily living was a constant struggle. The Cubans have a popular phrase to describe life on their island. No es facil, they say. Translated, that means it is not easy. And much of what we were seeing (and indeed would continue to see and experience over the next few days) would reinforce the absolute truth of that motto.

We stopped at an outdoor restaurant for our 1st Cuban food. We had repeatedly been warned by National Geographic not to expect 4-star quality in accommodations or cuisine. We were served tasty stewed chicken. The lunch included some of the best beans and rice I had ever tasted. Traci, our soon-to-be-daughter, proclaimed “Where’s all this bad food they were warning us about?” 

After a few minutes of street exploring and picture taking, we returned to the bus to head to our hotel, which would be our Havana base. We would have some time to unpack and relax before our first Cuban talk by our expert writer-in-residence Tom Miller. 

A typical old Cuban home

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

Moon Over Miami

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here, over the next few days, I will be posting journal entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2011. This is the 2nd post. I hope you enjoy and I’m looking to going back to Cuba someday.

February 10 2011
Dateline: Miami, Florida

I woke up early this morning, fueled by pre-trip energy and filled with questions. Would Cuba live up to my 50 years of dreams? What would daily life really be like on the embargo-impacted island? Could I possibly run into Fidel Castro? How would I survive for 10 days without my iPhone and iPad?

During the months of preparing for the trip, National Geographic had sent us lots of information. Several times their letters and emails had stressed that you couldn’t bring any devices into Cuba with GPS. Such devices would be confiscated at the Havana airport and might, or might not, be returned to you on your departure. I considered disregarding the warnings, but I decided against it. I didn’t want Judy to spend 10 days saying I told you so. So I was going to Cuba with only my Kindle and Judy’s antiquated cell phone for electronic comfort.

As I looked at the 2 bags Judy had packed 2 days earlier, I reviewed the preparations we had made, some of them based on our previous traveling experiences and others specifically designed for this special journey.

Judy had changed our U. S. dollars into Canadian money, which was cheaper to exchange in Cuba. National Geographic had sent us a lengthy reading list and we had divided up the reading. Judy had read three books, including Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee’s Travels Through Castro’s Cuba written by Tom Miller, who was to be one of our three guides in Cuba; another about an American woman living in Havana; and a biography of Fidel Castro, written by a friend of a friend.

For my part, I had also read three suggested books on Cuba, re-read Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and Sea (since we were going to visit at least two Hemingway sites), and had seven more Cuban titles on my Kindle. I also had packed two books, the one by Miller which I was planning to read on the trip, and the 2nd edition of National Geographic Cuba, a guidebook which we had received free in one of our multiple mailings. Judy had created an emergency medical kit since we had been warned that many, if not most items, could be in short supply in Cuba. We each made 1 major purchase: a fashionable light-weight black sweater for Judy in case of any chilly Cuban nights and a new small orange Olympic carry-on bag for me.

After weighing our two mid-size suitcases and our two carry-ons one more time with the new suitcase scale we had purchased (together both suitcase and carry-on could not exceed 44 pounds), it was time to hit the road.

Although Cuba was foremost on our minds, there was going to be an additional benefit to our stay-over in Miami. I would get a chance to meet up with one of my former students, Scott Sayre, whom I had not seen in 21 years. Scott and his long-time partner Jeff Wetter, whom he planned to marry later this year, were also staying overnight  in Miami prior to a cruise in the Caribbean. We made plans on Facebook to have lunch and a catch-up afternoon.  Arriving in Miami after an uneventful flight from DC, we were able to meet up with Scott and Jeff. Four hours and one lunch later (a tasty Cuban sandwich for me), we boarded shuttles for our respective hotels.

For us, it was the Miami Airport Marriott, where we were to meet our fellow travelers tomorrow morning for the short shuttle ride back to the airport. Since we had to be at the airport by 7 a.m., we made it a really early night, turning in right after watching Fringe. Knowing all I wanted to do in Cuba, I figured it might be the last full night’s sleep for a week-and-a-half.  

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

Cuban Ties, Cuban Dreams

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing vacation world travel to a virtual halt, the only way currently for most Americans to visit foreign lands is to watch travel destination videos, surf the internet, or derive vicarious pleasure from the travel writings of others. Here, over the next few days, I will be posting journal entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2011. I hope you enjoy and I’m looking to going back to Cuba someday.

Tomorrow I will begin a trip to Havana and the island of Cuba, a 10-day excursion that has been more than 50 years in the making.

My fascination with Cuba has always been centered around a now fading, sepia picture taken in 1957. That photo features my Father and Mother, surrounded by 18 other travelers, all posed outside Morro Castle, a massive fortress that has guarded the Havana Harbor since 1589.

If you were to have asked my father (he is in the front row with the hat above while my mother is to his left) his profession, he would have said dry cleaning plant builder and operator. But if you were to have asked him his passions, he would have said my mother and gambling. In the the 50s, he was able to combine both by taking my mother with him on short flights from Florida to Cuba, where the American Mafia was running an extremely lucrative gambling empire.

However, that was all to change on Jan. 1, 1959, when a band of guerrillas led by a young Fidel Castro swept down from the mountains, deposed then-president Fulgencia Batista, forced American interests from the island, and established a Communist/Socialist regime a mere 90 miles from Miami’s beaches.

By the time I first came upon the photo, say 1960 or so, the island was off limits to Americans. I had to content myself with the picture, a travel book of my Mother’s entitled Around the World in 1,000 Pictures (which I still have) that included 6 pages of black-and-white travel shots of Cuba, and the headlines from Havana.

Once in power, Castro aligned himself and his small country with America’s enemy Russia. It was the time of the Cold War and no spot, with the possible exception of Berlin, was hotter than Havana.  

In 1962, America, Cuba, and its partner Russia, gave me my first glimpse of the possibility of a real-world Apocalypse – 13 days in October now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but then thought to be the imminent end of all days. Many believed the standoff between the world’s two superpowers over Russia’s installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba would end in fiery flashes of destruction and towering mushroom clouds.

Like the later assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who, for Americans, was to play the hero’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, most everyone who lived through those harrowing 13 days has vivid memories. I was 10 years old. I was in the 4th grade at Bridgeton Christian School. My father and mother worked about 12 miles away in Salem, New Jersey. As I recall, I wasn’t  really scared of dying. But I didn’t want to perish without seeing my mom and dad one last time. So I came up with a plan. Mrs. Robinson was my teacher. She drove a large Oldsmobile. She kept her car keys in her purse. She kept her purse in her desk. My plan, even though I had never driven a car before, was, at the first sound of an air-raid siren, to grab Mrs. Robinson’s keys, jump in her car, and drive to Salem. Fortunately, however, Russian leader Nikita Kruschev blinked first and I never had to test my pre-teenage driving skills.

But there was another Cuban threat consequence on my formative years – the mandatory Civil Defense drill. We practiced two types. In the first, we hid under our desks. In the second, we lined up in front of the hall lockers, placed our arms on the wall, and then put our heads on our arms. A fellow reporter once told me that he thought the drills had left him with severe psychological hangups. They simply left me convinced that those in authority didn’t always have the best of ideas.

My next brush with Fidel and Cuba came in my sophomore year at Villanova University. In the early evening of the last day of our 1st semester, we were taking my roommate Steve Ferrera to the Philly airport to catch a flight back to his Boston home. Somehow, during the party-filled day, we had acquired a Mexican sombrero. At the airport, our friend Rich Nocella, with the festive hat perched on his head, began hollering “Cuba … Cuba … Viva la Cuba.” Unfortunately, this was during the time when planes were being hijacked to that island. The next thing we knew, we were besieged by airport security, who whisked us into separate rooms and mentioned the threat of 20 years in prison and a $100,000 fine before letting us go.

After college, Cuba continued to be off limits. Presidents came and went. Nixon. Ford. Carter.  Reagan. George Bush, the 1st. Clinton. George Bush, the 2nd. But the Cuban embargo, begun under Kennedy and extended by Lyndon Johnson, continued.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2008, some of the travel restrictions to Cuba began to ease. Some organizations were being allowed to offer cultural exchange excursions to Cuba. In 2011, we discovered that National Geographic was offering 10-day people-to-people trips to Cuba. We had traveled to Kenya once before with National Geographic and had a exhilarating, informative experience, so Judy immediately notified the organization that we wanted to join one of their upcoming Cuban excursions. Representatives there got back to us and said all their tours were filled, but they would put us on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we were notified that more trips were being offered and we immediately decided to join the Feb. 10th trip.

So that background brings us to today – the day before I can finally follow the traveling path of my mom and dad and spend time in Cuba. 

Langston Hughes, the noted African-American author who both spent time in Cuba and wrote about his experiences there, once asked – what happens to a dream deferred? Now, I was about to find out what happens when a dream deferred becomes a dream realized. Cuba here we come.

A Father’s Day Tale of Fathers, and Sons, and Sports Fandom

This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC

Sports loyalties, like so many of our character traits, are often a combination like environment and heredity. You know, like nature and nurture. Or, to be more accurate, geography and family.

Where you were born has a lot to do with who you root for. For example, if you were born in Ohio, there is a good chance you will be a Cleveland Indians fan, no matter how you feel about the treatment of America’s Indians. That’s unless your Dad or another favorite relative has always been a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan. Then there’s a good chance you might take the O’s over the Indians. Of course, in cities with 2 teams like New York (Yanks/Mets) or Chicago (Cubs/White Sox) the fandom choice is more murky.

I was born in Philadelphia. For 59-and-one-half-years I lived in South Jersey, except for 4 years when I went to college at Villanova University, located just a few train stops from downtown Philly. And, for all of those years – no surprise here – I was a Phillies fan. My father was from Texas and had been raised in Washington state, neither of which at the time had a baseball team. So, when he arrived in South Jersey after World War II, he became a Phillies fan, too.

I have a whole host of memories of watching games on our black-and-white TV with my Dad, or listening by to the radio, or, most importantly of all, sitting with him in the bleachers at the Old Connie Mack Stadium where the game really came alive. 

I’ll share just 2. My favorite non-Phil (and my Dad’s, too) was St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial. I remember my Dad fighting his way through a crowd to get me Musial’s autograph. He got his hat knocked off, received a cut on his bald head, but emerged with my prize. 

Then there was Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, 1964. Every Sunday, my Dad would take my Mother and me out somewhere in South Jersey for a family late lunch. It was tradition. But on that particular Sunday, our dining tradition bumped up against an even stronger tradition, one that involved a bat and ball, not a knife and a fork. As always, we were listening to the ballgame on the way to the restaurant when it became apparent that this particular game could be a piece of baseball history. Jim Bunning, the Phils pitcher, was hurling that rarity of rarities, a perfect game. My Dad turned the car around and rushed us home so we could see the last few innings. It was a good move. For, on this day, Bunning, who later became a Congressman and U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was perfect. He pitched a game with no runs, no hits, no walks, no errors.

I tell all of this as background for last night. Last year, after we retired, my wife and I left South Jersey and moved to Crystal City, Virginia, a community that is even closer to Washington, D. C. and its hometown baseball team the Washington Nationals than Villanova was to Philly. And, for the 1st time this season, we were going to see the Nats, who were playing the Phils. The fate of the 2 teams had completely reversed this year. The Nats, proverbial also-rans, were in 1st place. There was an excitement about their young team and its season. The Phils, an Eastern Division power for years, were in last place, 14 games behind the Nationals.
In fact, just hours before the game, the Phils had made it clear that they had abandoned their chances for this year by trading 2 of their starting outfielders, one to the Dodgers and one to the Giants, for younger prospects. I joked on Facebook that I hoped I would recognize the team by game time.

Now, I figured I had learned my sports lesson in loyalty from the musical West Side Story, “When You’re a Jet You’re a Jet All the Way …” But I wondered as we approached the field for the game’s 7 p.m. start – would my love of my new city D.C. have any impact on my long-standing feelings for my Phils?

Well, the Phils made quick work of my doubts. Even though the Nationals were using their best pitcher, the Phils jumped to a 2-0 lead in the 2nd inning by way of a home run from a young fill-in 3rd baseman. The Phils continued to expand that lead throughout the rest of the game. The final score was 8-0 and, in the parlance of old-time sports writers, it wasn’t really that close. The Phils’ pitcher Cliff Lee, who had won only 1 game prior to last night, looked like the all-star he had been. There was even a 2-run inside the park home run off the bat of long-time Phils shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

I left the game as I had entered it – still a Phils fan. Of course, that’s easy when your team is winning. The Phils have 2 more games with the Nats. Maybe, just to be sure on that fan thing, you should check back on Friday. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I can’t wait to see how fandom turns out for my 2 grandchildren, Audrey, who is 4-and-a-half, and Owen, who is 3. Their mother, an avid sports fan, is a Massachusetts girl and that means all things Boston. For her, it is Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins. Like me, their father is Philly with a capital PH. That’s Phillies, Eagles (or Iggles if you are a true aficionado of the team and its legendary Boo-Birds fans), 76ers, and Flyers. When it comes to college and basketball, the family rift is even worse. Shannon is die-hard Duke. If you could bleed blue, she would. Michael is a huge ABD (Anybody But Duke). So far, as a family, they have lived in Reno, Nevada and Knoxville, Tennessee, neither of which have pro teams. (Although both Audrey and Owen did wear a lot of orange during their Knoxville years) Just last month, the family moved to Atlanta for a few years. Can you say Braves, Falcons, and Hawks?