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 is a list of blog entries I composed when my wife and I traveled to Cuba in 2012.
I hope you enjoy these stories and photos and we’re looking to going back to Cuba someday to see more of the country.
Here is a collage of some of the photos of Cuba I took and you will see if your read my posts on our 10-day Cuban trip.
We returned to the Havana airport to await the arrival of the charter jet that would take us back to the United States. The airport was symbolic of much of what I had found in my 10 days in Cuba. It was called Jose Marti International. But as I looked out the window in front of me, there was not a plane to be seen. There was only one exit gate, which led out to a pitted tarmac, where we would walk to board the plane that would take off from the airport’s lone runway.
As we had on our arrival, we easily passed through security. After 50 years of reading about Cuba, I had expected visible signs of a police state. The reality was that we would find much more intrusive security screening in one day of D. C. than we had the entire time we had spent in Havana. I could have brought my iPhone; I could have brought my iPad; I could have brought my iAnything. But, to be honest, I was glad I hadn’t. Without my electronics, my travels over the past 10 days somehow seemed more authentic.
The large screen TVs that I had been surprised to find were still at the airport. But the pictures on the screen often faded to fuzzy blurs. That about sums up the state of 21st century technology on the island. It sometimes appeared to be there, but really it wasn’t. The internet at our hotel was painfully slow. Our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci had told us she spent two hours one night trying to connect by phone to her boyfriend in California. I wondered how much time we had spent waiting for elevators that never arrived. Probably much less than all those Cubans in long lines who waited patiently for the buses than ran irregularly when they ran at all.
But what the island lacked in modernity, it more than made up for with simple charm, a commodity long missing from the hustle-bustle pace of much of today’s America. Life in Cuba, even in the large city of Havana, was slower. Much slower. With transportation options limited, people walked more. Without headphones and iPhones, they talked more. It appeared they valued art more, whether that art involved painting or dancing or music. Devoid of the games and gadgets that drive us into solitary isolation, they were more social, more outgoing, indeed more friendly. Provided with a cup of strong Cuban coffee and possibly a cigar, they were ready for hours of chat. As an educator, I kept coming back to one astounding statistic. In a country plagued by shortages and deprivations and hardships, 99 percent of the people were literate. America might have the books, the glossy magazines, the Kindles, and the computers, but Cuba had the readers, even though much of the limited reading material they had access to was dry and dated.
As we continued waiting for the plane, I focused my reflection on two people: one whose presence was everywhere, but whom I had never met and the other, much less famous, but whom I had come to know quite well in 10 days.
The first was Fidel Castro. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Cuba without Castro. But even El Jeffe can’t last forever. He has outlived all the other famous figures of the 1960s, Kennedy, Kruschev, Ho Chi Minh, Mao. The Beatles have broken up and the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Castro’s heart still beats, no matter how faintly. He has given most of his power to his younger brother, 81-year-old Raul. Rumors periodically circulate that he is dead, but then Fidel makes a brief appearance to dispel those reports. He may be failing and no longer able to deliver his fiery five-hour speeches, but he is still a force.
So what will happen when Fidel dies? The answer is cliched, but true. Your guess is as good as mine. Ten days in a country doesn’t make you a political expert, a fact even more true if the country being analyzed is as unique and enigmatic as Cuba. The only certainty is that a post-Fidel Cuba will be different. My guess is it will be more open. With Fidel gone, I would hope the United States would drop its senseless embargo (if it doesn’t do so sooner) and open complete relations with Cuba. But, as we all know, change is not always good. Cuba will gain, but it will also lose.
Remember it was its last encounter with America’s preoccupation with power and greed that led Fidel and his revolutionary brothers to take up arms. And then there was that disturbing question that Tom Miller had posed earlier: Can you imagine Spring Break Havana or Girls Gone Wild, Cuban-edition?
But if Fidel represents the past, the other figure in my reflections, our local guide Luis, stands for Cuba’s future. Like all younger Cubans, he doesn’t remember anything about the pre-Revolutionary days. He wasn’t alive then. As a well-educated guide and translator, he knows much more about the world outside of the isolated island than most of his countrymen. He knows there are benefits to his home, but he believes there are great benefits at other places, too. And he wants a chance to see those other places for himself. He was offered an opportunity to join the Socialist party, but turned it down. (That was another big surprise to me. I naively assumed that the entire population was Communist, but only about 10 percent of the people at any time actually belong to the Party.).
“It will never be offered to me again,” he says. “But I believe change is coming. I believe that one day soon I will be able to come to D.C. and you and Judy can show me around. I would like that; I would like that very much.”
Finally, our plane arrived. As we walked toward the jet, I turned for a last look. Whenever Judy and I travel, we put the places we visit in one of two categories. The first we call been-there, done-that. We may have loved the place or we may have hated it, but if we didn’t feel a need to visit again, it goes there along with Scotland, the South Sea Islands, Monaco, Malyasia, and the rest.
The other category we call we’ll-be-back. Not surprisingly, many of my places to revisit are cities. Barcelona, Bangkok, Bejing. Judy’s usually displays a more natural setting: Africa, Ireland, Italy. So where would we place Cuba? We have other places to visit, but we were certain we would return to Cuba. And it wouldn’t (indeed, it couldn’t, since I doubted I would have enough travel mobility at 109) take me 50 years for a 2nd visit.
Obviously, I found a different Cuba than the one my father and mother frequented 50 years ago. But in some ways – cars and customs, architecture and artifacts – it was almost the same, an island, as Tom Miller termed it, “frozen in time”.
Relying on his Texas roots, my Dad had a saying whenever he planned to go back to something. “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back.” When it comes to Cuba, that sounds about right.
Today would be our last day in Cuba. Later this afternoon, we would be flying back to Miami. But that still left us a couple of hours in Havana. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, which had been closed when we had tried to visit it earlier.
Arriving at the museum grounds, we walked past the SAU-100 Soviet tank that Fidel Castro supposedly commanded at the Bay of Pigs. In a bit of irony, what now serves as a repository for revolutionary artifacts and memories was once a Presidential Palace, built in 1920 with an interior decor by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1957, the palace was the site of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow General Batista. You can still see bullet holes in the foyer from that attack.
Although the museum focuses on the years of the revolution, it actually highlights chronologically much of Cuba’s political development, from slave uprisings to joint space missions with the Soviet Union.
The descriptions are in Spanish, but even if you don’t understand that language, the visuals allow you to comprehend the story. Two of the more noted exhibits are one of Che’s famous berets and a diorama of Che and Camilio Cienfuegos emerging from the forest of Sierra Maestra ready to continue the fight.
But I found an omission to be the most interesting fact about the museum. There is not one word, not one picture, not one news clipping, not one artifact about the 13 days known in America as the Cuban Missile Crisis. To me, given the impact it made on me as a 12-year-old, that was exceedingly strange. I tried to ask a couple of the guards the reason for the omission, but my Spanglish wasn’t sufficient for me to convey my questions.
Just outside the museum, a glass encasement – Memorial Granma – enshrines the vessel that brought Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and 80 others rebels from Mexico in 1956 to launch the revolution. Also outside is a display of other vehicles involved in the struggle including planes and tanks. There is a piece of a last U.S. spy plane shot down over Cuba in the 1970s.
To the socialists of Cuba, the swampy fields of the Bay of Pigs are their Bunker Hill, their Valley Forge, their Yorktown. The Battala de Giron is the site where the bravery and blood of martyrs secured the threatened freedom of the Cuban people from the invasion of dissidents backed by the Yankee imperialists of America.
At Playa Giron, there is a museum, rather small and simple by American standards. Here, you can see the story of the men, and the women (for as a propaganda poster proclaims in Spanish “Women you are not discriminated against here; you can fight for your freedom’) who made up the Cuban force which repelled the ill-planned, under-equipped invasion launched from the shores of the United States.
You can see the canteens they carried; the toothbrushes and toothpaste they used. You can see the soiled caps they wore and the weapons and bullets they fired. Outside, a single plane stands as sentry. Inside, you can learn the story of the young Edward Garcia Delgado, who according to Cuban lore wrote a message in his blood about his undying faith in the victory of the Revolution, a message he composed just minutes before dying, “a victim of Imperialism and Yankee shrapnel.”
One of the most visited artifacts in the museum is the pair of small white shoes which hang above the poem “Elegía de los Zapaticos Blancos” (Elegy to the Little White Shoes) by Indio Naborí. In the poem, Nemesia, a young charcoal maker, talks about watching her mother die and her grandmother and two brothers become wounded by anti-Socialist forces. She was unharmed, but her white shoes were marred forever by bullet holes.
Many Cubans view the Bay of Pigs as a monumental moment in Cuban history. That belief was encapsulated in a 2011 speech delivered by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul.
“The historic importance to the destiny of the Revolution of the crushing defeat of the mercenary invasion of the Bay of Pigs escapes none of us,” Raul said. “It was achieved as a result of the firm, ceaseless, and decisive action of our combatants, who under the direct command of Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, who remained on the battlefield the entire time, where they destroyed in less than 72 hours, the intention of the United States government to create a beach head in a remote corner of the homeland, to which they would later move from a military base in Florida, a puppet government which would request of the Organization of American States (OAS), the sadly infamous OAS, a military intervention by U.S. forces, located in very close waters, accompanying a mercenary contingent after its departure from Central American shores.”
“This is an appropriate moment to repeat the words of Fidel on the 15th anniversary in 1976 of the April 19th victory, when he said, “After Girón, all the peoples of the Americas were a little freer,'” Raul concluded.
February 19 Dateline: Un campo de los sueños en Cienfuegos
Baseball, the game that Americans brought to the island in the 1860s, has long been a national obsession in Cuba. We had seen youngsters playing spirited pickup games in streets, alleyways, and lots all over Havana, sometimes using taped balls or makeshift bats. We had witnessed the old-timers, with voices raised and fingers pointed, vigorously arguing the nuances of the game at the famed Esquina Caliente (the hot corner) in Havana’s Parque Central. A love of baseball even reached into the highest offices of Cuban government. Over the years, Fidel Castro has been a very visible supporter of the game. There was even a widely circulated false story that he had once received a tryout as a pitcher for the Washington Senators or the New York Yankees, depending on who was repeating the tale.
When we first met in the Miami Airport, Tom Miller and I talked about the Cuban love of baseball. He said that if he could manage it, he would try to get us tickets to a game. But so far, with our busy schedule, that opportunity had eluded us. All that changed, however, when, as our bus was leaving Cienfuegos, we came across 2 teams of what looked to be high school aged kids engaged in a spirited game. Miller convinced the bus driver to stop and most of us on the bus got off to get a closer look.
The stand-less field was lined with cheering fans. From them, I found out the game was between the best 14-16 youth team in Cienfuegos and an opponent from a poor, rural countryside town. There was a decided inequality between the two squads. The Cienfuegos team was wearing sharp green and gold uniforms. Their manager and coaches wore matching uniforms. The batting area outside their dugout was lined with shiny metal bats. Their opponents provided quite a contrast. They weren’t wearing uniforms. None of them had matching caps. Some wore cleats, but most wore sneakers.
The score mirrored the look of the two teams. Cienfuegos had established a comfortable lead and was continuing to batter their opponents’ pitchers. During yet another pitching change, I watched as a Cienfuegos coach threw his arm around the next batter and for several minutes talked patiently to him about how to handle his impending turn at the plate. Even though my Spanish is limited, I was able to understand that the young hitter was receiving some instrucción excelente.
As the game progressed, the excited fans cheered wildly, especially as an outfielder sidestepped a fallen coconut to make a running catch outside the foul lines. One of my fellow travelers, Helen, tapped me on the shoulder. “I guess some things about sports are the same all over the world,” she said, as we watched a mother bring her son a bottle of water as he stood near the on-deck circle.
Helen was on a special mission. She had brought a bag full of yellow tennis balls with her. Whenever she would find a group of youngsters playing street ball, she would toss them a bright tennis ball to replace the ragged one they were playing with. I had accompanied her on some of her giveaways and had been warmed by the grateful smiles from the beaming recipients. I’m sure Helen and I would have stayed much longer. The weather was perfect. The fans were animated. The game was interesting.
But we saw Hilary motioning us back toward the bus. We needed to get on our way to Bahia de Cochinos, or, as we call it in America, the Bay of Pigs. There was more than baseball in Cuba; there were famous battles sites, too. And we wanted to see at much as we could in the short time we had left.