Visiting Cuba
Tourism with a dose of Communism, culture and cars
By Terri Akman

Since March, when the U.S. government lifted its travel embargo to Cuba, curious Americans have made their way to the communist country – very unsure of what they might see on their arrival. For three SJ travelers, the unprecedented trip gave them a glimpse of the culture, customs – and cars – of this controversial island.

Seeing Cuba while it’s still Cuba

At 85, Marlene Lieber felt it was now or never.

“I traveled all over the world and always wanted to see Cuba,” says the Medford resident. “This was my chance. I also wanted to go before it became completely Americanized.”

This past April, Lieber joined 19 others on a Road Scholar person-to-person educational trip focusing on the arts. The group spent 12 days traveling around the island, stopping in Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Camagüey. “We met painters, dancers and other artists,” Lieber says. “The artwork was stunning and very abstract, symbolic and shocking.”

Her biggest surprise was that there was so much apparent freedom. Police carried radios and nightsticks but no guns. “We were led to believe that it was almost a military dictatorship where people are living in fear,” she says. “I did not find that at all. We were free to wander and talk to people who had no hesitation in criticizing the government and sharing their hopes for the future. Mostly that’s ending the embargo so they can grow economically.”

“I’m sure there are political prisoners, but the general population seems to be going along as best they can, waiting for the Castros to go. They say they are hoping the next in line will be a younger person who is going to open them up to the world.”

“There aren’t many jobs for the Cuban people, so the government subsidizes them with money and goods. Citizens are allowed to open independent enterprises, giving 40 percent of profits to the government,” Lieber says. “That’s better than it ever was, and there’s still a big black market.”

The currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUP, can only be purchased in Cuba, she adds, and it comes with a 13 percent exchange tax, which the government keeps for historic reconstruction. “There is a tremendous amount of reconstruction going on because the country had fallen into total disrepair. In fact, the main drag in Havana was paved the day before President Obama came. Most of the streets are narrow cobblestones that the buses couldn’t get through, so we did tons of walking.”

Her group ate mostly at paladares, the Spanish term for private restaurants in homes. “Some are very elegant and some are basic, but they all have the same menu – rice and beans, chicken, beef, pork, seafood and lamb,” she says.

Cuba is also home to casas particulares, Spanish for private accommodations in people’s homes where two or three tourists are able to stay at one time. “Some are very primitive, like the one we stayed in,” she says. “But the people were so hospitable.”

Lieber recalls meeting the owner of an organic farm who shared two complaints: “The embargo prevents them from getting all the supplies they need so they have to make do, and it’s difficult getting young people to work on the farm. The average age is 56.”

And then there are the cars. “They can’t get the parts because of the embargo, so they make the parts. The only thing original is the body. The rest they’ve cobbled together, but they are in perfect shape,” Lieber says. “We had a ride in a red ’52 Chevy convertible. It was the best thing I ever did.”

The downside for Lieber was the bathroom accommodations. “All the bathrooms, except for hotels, had no toilet seats because they think toilet seats are unhygienic,”she says. “And you can’t flush toilet paper – it has to go in a trashcan because their sewer system can’t handle it. And you have to use bottled water. You can’t even wash your toothbrush with tap water.”

But she says those complaints were minor considering this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She’s glad she got there when she did, expecting that 10 years from now Cuba will be filled with lots of American hotels and fast-food chains. “I think it will be a different culture completely,” says Lieber.

 

Taking your mission across the ocean

Rabbi Jerome David visited Cuba twice over the last five years, in 2011 and 2015, for religious/humanitarian missions. “The purpose was to connect our Temple Emanuel synagogue community with Jews living in Cuba,” says David, who lives in Cherry Hill. Beyond sharing stories, the delegation brought gifts of much-needed medical and personal supplies.

“A small tube of Neosporin is almost not attainable,” he says. “There’s a pharmacy on the second floor of the largest synagogue in Havana, called the Patronato and also called Beth Shalom, with very important supplies brought by volunteers. They aren’t just for the Jewish community but the entire community. They also have two doctors there. It’s a lifeline for many people in the neighborhood.”

Each member of David’s group brought a minimum of 15 pounds of donations based on a list of what was needed by the community. They donated maternity and baby clothes, formula, diapers and other supplies to a maternity clinic for women with at-risk pregnancies in the small town of Trinidad.

“Trinidad is a very poor town, and the capacity of the clinic is about 23 women with six nurses and one doctor,” says David. “The women watch TV. They have activities, and they learn some skills. They have very good meals and meet with a nutritionist, and they get a lot of love there. It’s probably the most attention and caring they will ever get.”

The group gave notepads, crayons and other supplies to a school in Havana that David described as basic but immaculate. “The class would come up, we’d meet them and hand them their gift,” he recalls. “The kids clutched these supplies, crying and laughing, as if this was the most valuable, important thing that had happened in their lives.”

“We were there at a real turning point,” David says. “We didn’t realize the week we were there, the second week of January, was the beginning of real evolution of change between our government and an opening up in many ways with the government of Cuba. The people we met were very, very hopeful about that. We sensed a real love of America, but they are also proud to be Cuban.”

 

A culinary experience to help heal the soul

Still coping with the death of her husband last year, Judy Charny felt a trip to Cuba might offer a nice, unusual adventure. So this past March, she joined about 20 other travelers on a five-day culinary tour, put together by Cuba Libre Chef-Partner Guillermo Pernot.

IMG_0091“I wanted to go with a chef who would know which paladares were really good,” says the Cherry Hill resident. “We also went to an organic farm and they prepared a meal for us, which was amazing. In Cuba, no food is imported, it’s all grown locally so it is completely fresh.”

Charny can still taste the mouth-watering pig and “the biggest lobster tails I’ve ever seen in my life,” highlights of the fresh, gourmet food she ate. Beyond the superb food, she enjoyed meeting the talented artists who created clay creations for their American guests.

“The most interesting thing about the trip was how the country hasn’t changed since the revolution in 1959,” she says. “They still talk about before the revolution and after the revolution. It’s hard to believe how the people have no technology at all.”

“Yet, even without technology, they are very well educated and very artsy. The music and art were unbelievable. There’s no pollution, because there’s no industry. There are cars but also horse and buggies. It’s beyond your comprehension.”

Though the people at the restaurants were “lovely,” Charny felt the locals were careful not to share their personal or political beliefs with tourists. “They call Castro ‘him’ and don’t speak about it beyond learning from the guide about the country’s history,” she says. “We went to the Revolutionary Museum, where there was still blood on the walls and there were still bullet holes. That shocked me.”

“The museum was about how bad life in the United States is, comparatively speaking, to their way of life. It’s not a democratic state. There was nothing said about the government, ever. They were very cautious.”

Her group stayed in a resort on the beach that was “breathtakingly beautiful,” Charny says. “You could see the buildings at one time were magnificent, because they are huge and ornate. It’s a beautiful country. But it’s a place where time stood still.”

September 2016
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