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Wed, Oct. 23

The travel log: Prescott woman discovers the 'new' Cuba

Courtesy. Judy Riggenbach

Courtesy. Judy Riggenbach

Cuba: A country of contrasts. The land of cigars, rum, pristine 50's Chevy and Ford convertibles, music at every turn, cobblestone streets, joyful people, collective spirits and revitalization of crumbling buildings.

I am fortunate to have been able to see her prior to any capitalistic modernization.

After six days in Havana and four in the countryside of Trinidad and Bay of Pigs, I have to rewrite the history I studied about the Cuban missile crisis, the Che Rivera revolution, and the placement of a peaceful country on the "terrorist list" by President Reagan. The innovation necessary for the population to survive the 60's embargo is stunning, the aftermath of the revolution awe-inspiring, and the peacefulness and joyfulness of the people in no way deserves a "terrorist" label.

The "Interactive Arts Tour" I traveled with was organized by AltruVistas and Ethical Traveler. We walked freely throughout the streets of Old Havana talking with vendors, musicians, cobblers, dancers, children, and taxi drivers. We enjoyed exclusive ballet performances; danced during a roof top concert by the famous Mesclau Rock band; filled our hearts with angelic music from the chorus of Cuba; and visited numerous private artist studios. We never felt threatened or in danger, even during the late evening hours walking the malacon or enjoying a mojito at a local bar.

We were honored when Roberto Salas, personal photographer to Fidel Castro, invited us into his home where he had stacks of photos of Castro, sharing intimate stories of many. One of the more famous showed Castro in New York City during his famous five hour rant at the UN in 1960.

OLD HAVANA, a World Heritage Site, is built around four separate Squares with Baroque and Spanish Colonial churches the center of each. Mixed architectural styles can be seen throughout the city including Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modern and old style Russian three story concrete boxes. The average age of structures in the city is 75 years and collapsing at an astonishing average of three per day. It is estimated that 90% of structures are about to give way. The evidence was obvious as we strolled cobblestone streets seeing piles of concrete and dust next to restored Colonial palaces. Intricate restorations can be seen throughout the city, giving workers ornate construction jobs that were lost during the revolution.

Post revolution emphasis was to build hospitals and scientific research centers with housing forgotten. Consequently, 120,000 Cubans are living in temporary housing waiting 15-20 years to own their own homes.

The water system for Old Havana is still an antiquated version of the 16th century aqueduct setup in which the homes to this day are served by a gravity water system. Each home has a tank which is turned on during the night for five hours to receive water pumped through the city.

The Cuban playground of the 50's and 60's brought not only the mafia, but 85% of US imports, taken away by the JFK embargo of Feb 1962. An interesting note: Kennedy sent his press secretary to Cuba the night prior to the embargo to purchase 1,200 cigars.

Our tour guide loved telling the story of how power was taken back during the embargo when proud fathers and grandfathers tossed slot machines into the streets and tore parking meters to shreds.

The present population is still on a ration program because of food shortages caused by the embargo, and allows monthly rations PER PERSON of five eggs, five lb. rice, 2-3 lb. beans, 1/2 liter cooking oil, two boxes of matches, one package coffee, one loaf of bread each day, NO meat, but sometimes a chicken. The waiter who shared this information, speaking perfect English, has two growing boys and says they are hungry much of the time. After hearing this my friend and I didn't know whether to finish the giant hamburgers we ordered, or let them go to waste.

Dining was an adventure in and of itself. The food was surprisingly good, not spicy or fancy. The allotted time for a meal was around two hours. Both State and private (Paladares) restaurants serve family style with several courses, always including rum straight up, or mixed as mojitos, pina coladas, daiquiris or Cuba Libres. After servings of tapas, salad, potatoes, rice, beans, lamb, fish, and chicken, it's time to light up one of those famous Cuban cigars. The proper way to smoke the cigar, is first to dip the tip in your rum, then puff away, but don't inhale.

The attitude of "collective community" could be seen throughout the city. We saw evidence of numerous communities working together to clean up neighborhoods, paint colorful murals on buildings and display their artistic recycled doodads. One such project, Muraleando, saw a group of international artists haul 60 truckloads of trash out of an old water tank, now an art gallery, and use the debris to create sculptures and a community garden. They now invite the world to join them in music and art classes.

A highlight of the tour was the Prodanza ballet school, housed in an old Russian-like apartment building restored for classrooms. The oversized courtyard holds a stage is that is almost too dangerous to dance on. There are few costumes, shoes, or clothing available for the 300 students. In spite of this, they are a well-known troupe directed by the granddaughter of a Russian ballet diva. The troupe had just traveled to Venezuela for 36 performances of Swan Lake, but took the time to perform for us.

One of the more fascinating excursions we took was to the Havana cemetery, a sprawling 1.38 acres containing vast amounts of Italian Carrara Marble carved and designed by International artists and architects. The mind-boggling number of 2.5 million people are buried in the various mausoleums and crypts. To allow those numbers, the deceased are buried in the family gravesite for two years, exhumed, cremated, and the ashes put in the same crypt with other family members, thus making room for more bodies. As many as 60 family members are buried in one crypt.

The two constitutional rights afforded every Cuban are education and health care. 98% of the population is educated with 55% of the government's budget allotted for education. At six years of age, school is mandatory and is until secondary school. Students are then tested for aptitude in one of eight professions and attend either polytech or one of the 24 universities. Cuba is a country of professionals working at menial jobs.

The government pays for all education, including room and board. Upon graduation, two years of restitution is paid either in the army or working the farmland. Graduates are then free to work anywhere. The problem is that very few professional jobs are available, thus creating a brain drain with more than 40,000 Cuban doctors working outside of Cuba and an over abundance of other professionals within the country. The good news is that Cuba has the highest percentage of teachers to students in the world and their medical care is among the best in the world. I had the experience of taking my friend to a medical clinic while in Havana. Upon entering the clinic we saw several doctors awaiting patients. My friend was taken immediately and examined by a very chic female surgeon with graying hair (one side cut short and dyed blue), lab coat, and five-inch blue high heels. Within 15 minutes, my friend was diagnosed, treated and off we went. It was a "pleasant" event to say the least.

At every opportunity we talked with people on the streets. Most understood rudimentary English and were anxious to talk with us. We wanted to know what they were looking forward to now that the embargo had been lifted. Without question the #1 answer was INTERNET; second was good housing and third a big supermarket. They all agreed that change will bring prosperity and jobs.

During the tour, much time was spent discussing political relations, past and present, between the US and Cuba. We visited with the Cuban Institute of Friendship With the Peoples, a social organization developed one year after the revolution to channel requests for visits to Cuba. We met with the American director who indicated that there are now 100,000 tourists a year visiting Cuba, mostly Canadians, Germans and Japanese. He estimates the lifting of the embargo will see an increase of three million travelers. Hence, lots of dollars, a raise in salaries, economic improvements, and lesser shipping costs for goods that are now purchased from China. An example is the 7,000 tour buses purchased from China over the years.

Our tour group met with the director during the week Obama was in Panama discussing the lifting of the label "terrorist nation." There is optimism for the normalization of relations and the lifting of the label.

Because of the 1962 action, it was difficult for Cubans to work with the international banking community to get everyday goods. The social and economic problems are still felt. He thinks the U.S. was "not well behaved" when the sanctions were imposed. But that if all are treated with respect, the talks can progress. There is virtually no hostility that we could see.

When asked about outside investments coming into the country, he indicated that for years the Cuban people have had links with Capitalistic countries and have a legal framework and rules in place. Presently Cuba has diplomatic relations with 185 countries.

The widening of the Panama Canal will also bring Cuba more commerce with a new port already being built to accommodate larger ships.

We wanted to know about the differences between the Fidel and Raul dictatorships. He indicated they both followed the same ideals of wanting a productive workforce and a developing nation. Raul says he will be stepping down in the coming years with a new leader in the wings. Because sixty percent of Cuba's present 600 member parliament are newly elected and 50 years old and under, there is optimism for new perspectives.

When I landed at the chaotic Havana airport, I had no expectations. Ten days later, waiting to fly home, I was excited for the spirited Cubans sharing their hope of a prosperous future. I had discovered a stunning metropolis with a people struggling for a better life. I had smiled when I saw children singing and dancing in the streets. I had marveled at how safe I felt. I was captivated by creativeness at every turn, and meeting famous artists whose shows have graced prestigious galleries around the world. My brain wanted to explode learning so much history that can't be found in books and seeing back alleyways that can't be described in "ten words or less." Would I go back? Perhaps in ten years or so when Starbucks, McDonalds, and Capitalistic enterprise abounds. Then again, maybe not.

Want to share your special trip with Travel Log? Contact Robin at rlayton@prescottaz. com or 928-445-3333, ext. 1095.

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