Cuban Coffee Chronicles – Final Day 9

Our last day in Cuba ended with a visit to Fusterlandia before we headed to the airport. A crazy Picasso meets Gaudi situation where the artist converted his home and many others in the community into glistening, colorful, funny, joyous celebrations of art, community and Cuba. A very befitting way to end our trip.

What a trip from Santi Spiritus to Habana! In between, I discovered the creativity and resourcefulness of the Cuban people. I was impressed by the role of music, dance and art, by the ration cards that held information about each citizen’s medical needs,  by availability and respect for education, by their efforts towards sustainable development, by their surprisingly entrepreneurial spirit, by their awareness of the dangers and benefits of tourism, by their efforts to be energy efficient and ecologically sensitive, by the general safety and scarcity of crime and gun violence, by the active and respected role of women, by their racial diversity and much more. Yes, often the ideology does not translate into reality.  However, the effort seemed genuine and hopeful. On the other end of the spectrum, no fishing boats are allowed for fear of citizens escaping to Miami. They import fish while they have fish available off the coast. There is certainly a level of control and suspicion that we as foreigners were not privy to. The dual currency system of CUCs and pesos frustrates everyone to no end. The infrastructure is lacking, as in the case of highways or crumbling, as in the case of old Havana. There is so much in need of repair. Housing and food seemed to be the biggest concerns for Cubans. Given Cuba’s slave trade past, elimination of native population, harsh and exploitive sugar plantations (like many countries) it offers a humble history lesson about working for one’s self and the sanctity of labor.

Personally, I will carry two lessons learned in Cuba onward.

  1. For us, what we own, in particular, home ownership, to a large extent defines us. Cubans seem to define themselves by what they do, instead of what they own (most of what they ‘own’ comes unofficially from family living abroad or the black market..flat screen TVs seem to be the highly prized). This was a worthy reminder for me. What would I do if I couldn’t define myself by what I “own”?
  2. Each home was an independent business in all the towns we visited, whether as a casa particulaire (bread and breakfast), paladar (restaurant) or craft studio. The living rooms of most houses visible from the street were devoted to selling something they made. Despite limitations, there is always something one can offer, even if that is five mangoes and two bananas on a table. What can I do with whatever skills and abilities I do have?

I was humbled by my Cuba experience and thankful for all the gifts I enjoy. The struggle towards a world without starvation, homelessness, violence, ignorance and sickness are fundamental human material needs (and not mere ideology) practiced there. How we get there is worth ongoing discussion. Cuba is an important voice in that discussion. Viva Cuba!


Cuban Coffee Chronicles – Day 7

Las Terrazas a reclaimed coffee plantation is a self-sustaining community project, a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1984. Bird watching, hiking, horseback riding are among the offering. A community of over 1000 inhabitants and the area has schools, a daycare, a small clinic, library, ration store and a coffee shop. Maria, pictured below was the first to run the coffee shop. The chilled coffee was perfect on a hot day.

One of the residents of the Las Terazzas is artist Lester Campa. We visited his inspiring studio overlooking a lake. His fluid surrealist work combines Cuban landscape with cultural references. He uses reclaimed wood, craft paper, water colors and acrylic.

Lunch at Las Terrazas included some of the best chicken I had in Cuba and chickens roaming around at our feet. Felt wrong. Assuredly the chicken was fresh. Poor chickens.

Next, more dancing at a music school….

We visited an after school guitar and music center where the teachers are volunteers and children shared a few Cuban and Latin rhythms. Very talented.

We were lucky to get a reservation at La Guarida, a paladar that numerous celebrities visited, including the talk-show host Conan O’Brian (we found his picture on the wall). We got there early (riding our 1966 Chevy) to enjoy the view from the rooftop bar. The dinner was elegant and delicious. I had a lamb dish that had been slow cooked for over 12 hours. It was so soft. I also had a delicious coconut milk poured over cake and lime ice cream. Summery combination.

Our evening ended back with our travel friends at Old Havana listening to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. Intimate atmosphere, amazing music, talented dancers and just such a sophisticated and soulful pleasure.

Cuban Coffee Chronicles – Day 4

Day 4:  We visited Santa Clara Ballet and Dance School and were treated to a dance performance. The kids performing were about 12 and in their second year in residence. When asked what they liked most about being in the school, one answered….dancing. When asked what they liked least, another answered….homework. Universal answers. I have come to realize that I was wrong to try to brush up on my Spanish as preparation for this trip. What I really needed to do is take dance lessons. So much non-verbal communication happens there through dance.  My daughters dance here in the U.S and I am humbled by the Cuban love of dance without fancy pointe shoes, mirrored dance studios, and sleek outfits. These kids spend their mornings dancing, have lunch and then attend regular school classes that end at 5 pm (followed by homework). I learned a lot about how much one can do with passion, with so little. Kids smiling and dancing, yes, that certainly was one of my many favorite moments in Cuba.

Next, we had the pleasure of visiting, La Coincedencia Fruit Farm and Ceramic Art where mangoes and ceramic hearts hang from trees. What a magical place! What creativity, passion, and generosity of the owners( who rent the land from the government as long as the farm is productive). They shared the sweet tropical “fruits” of their labor. We also enjoyed visiting the ceramics workshop.

For our final activity of the day, we went to the Che Guevara museum and mausoleum. This was the only place where we felt the presence of the government in the form of guards. It is always fascinating to see how a people imagine their histories and identities through their heroes. The Cuban people have certainly embraced Che as their own.

IMG_2128.JPG We concluded our busy day arriving at Varadero, a beach resort popular among Europeans and Cubans. This mid-week shift in rhythm was welcomed. We had dinner at the Melia hotel buffet. Overwhelming and my least favorite of all our meals. Although a beach resort, we had much to learn in Varadero on day 5.

Coffee at the fruit farm was actually a type of tea. Really good.






Cuban Coffee Chronicles – Day 3

We stopped at a local ration store. Ari explained how the system worked.

In Trinidad de Cuba, (established 1514 like Sancti Spiritus) we talked with Julio Munoz, owner of a local casa particulare (Bed and Breakfast) and heard about the challenges of running a home business in Cuba. The owner, educated as an engineer is an avid photographer, horse enthusiast, and very animated speaker.

We learned about the religion of Santeria (a combination of African spirituality and Catholicism).

We had lunch at a paladar named strangely, Ananda (a Bengali and Hindi world for joy). Loved the house band there. They played a mix of Cuban and American songs. It was disorienting listening to Georgia by Ray Charles in small town Cuba. Each meal was an opportunity to meet our fellow travelers. Already by day 3 we had become a loose crazy family exploring together, learning together, staying together. All of our fellow travelers had fascinating travel stories to tell….elephant riding, Safari trips, hiking across Spain and more.

Visited the architecture museum after lunch. So impressed. Built in 1826 this house for sugar barons had running hot water, a shower, indoor plumbing, cisterns that collected rain water, indoor gas lighting….again in 1826! Crazy advanced and beautiful craftsmanship. On our way back to Sancti Spiritus we stopped at El Alfarero, a ceramics workshop in operation since the 19th century.



Back at Sancti Spiritus. What a day! View from balcony of our hotel room. In the morning we could see the elementary school kids going to school in their red uniforms, some stopped at the bakery across the hotel for a bite, many going to work, umbrellas in hand, a lady just carrying an uncovered pink and yellow-frosted cake,  a Zumba class despite the hot, humid weather (without air-conditioning!). I am humbled by the dedication to health the women in that small town showed. Children and often women had an incredible ability to balance themselves on bicycle bars as passengers. At one point there was loud happy music, someone walking down the street with a speaker on wheels. Little familiar things in unfamiliar clothes.

Oh yes, and the tiny cup of strong and sweet Cuban coffee after lunch was perfect for mid-day energy!


Cuban Coffee Chronicles – Day 1

This is no Rum Diary, ala Hunter Thompson. Rather this series of 9 gentle blog posts chronicle our recent trip to Cuba. Before I offer my account let me begin with a few disclaimers:

  1. The relationship status between the U.S and Cuba is complicated. My observations are bound to upset  or annoy people on both ends of the love-hate spectrum. I am not making sweeping claims just presenting my joy in learning about a new place. My observations are deeply personal.
  2. We visited Cuba through a “people to people” Friendly Planet Tour. I did not arrange or choose the activities. Admittedly this may have been a rosy “touristy” version of the country. There is no way to know any country without living there for at least three months. My observations are limited.
  3. I, having been born in a developing country am particularly sensitive to economic disparities I see in the world. I am intrigued, suspicious and fascinated by the alternate reality a communist country presents. My observations are jumbled.

Please take the blog posts as my personal journal that briefly sketches what I learned during my trip. Nothing more. Cuban coffee, warm, small, strong and sweet, represents the country’s contradictions and complexities for me perfectly. Hence, the Cuban Coffee Chronicles.

Day 1 began in Miami with my first sip of Cuban Coffee before we took an architectural tour of the Deco Hotels.


The tour of Deco Hotels introduced us to variations of the American Deco style which included Moderne influences, marine influences, tropical motifs, frozen fountains, use of aluminum and glass block etc.

We were aware of possible negative local reactions to our upcoming trip to Cuba. Our uber driver was second generation Cuban and had recently returned from a visit. She seemed happy for us but many others may not have been. As I said it is a very complicated relationship.

We had our tour briefing that evening with our tour manager Tracy Lewis. I can’t say enough good things about her. She was patient and positive throughout the trip. She helped us fill out airport forms, gave us a summary of our agenda, offered a quick account of major Cuban historical events, explained the dual currency system of pesos and cucs, and warned us not to put toilet paper in the toilets (also alerted us that toilet seats are missing in some instances). This last issue may have been the most difficult to keep in mind. We are so spoiled. I’m sure philosopher Slavoj Zizek would have an interesting interpretation about the limitations of a socialist sewage system. For more on his philosophical account of toilets, watch:

We were to have breakfast at the hotel and head to the airport to catch our charted flight into Cien Fuegos.

We went to bed full of anticipation. This was going to be a wonderful week!