In 2012, I received an invite to go to Cuba to visit libraries. Now I love libraries and I have been a librarian for over 35 years, but the real word that caught my attention was: CUBA! Who would not want to go to Cuba, the exotic island that Americans are not supposed to visit?
Actually, Americans can visit Cuba. The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC") administers Cuba travel restrictions that apply to all US citizens and permanent residents. In 2011, President Obama announced new categories of legal travel to Cuba. Under current government rules, you could join Cuba educational, academic and study tours as long as you are in a profession related to the academic content of such a trip.
Money, money, money. It all comes down to money. So, I decided that I would attempt to earn the George Bauer Memorial Fund Continuing Education Scholarship one more time. And, darned if the WLA did not give it to me again.
CUBA HERE I COME!
Under terms of full disclosure, I was also able to receive funds from the Greendale Public Library's continuing education budget thanks to my library board and a generous grant from the Greendale Public Library Foundation, Inc., board of directors. All these grants paid about two-thirds of the cost.
The plan was to be in Cuba from February 17, 2013, until February 24. The tour was arranged through Authentic Cuba Tours. The main feature of the tour was attending the 22nd International Book Fair of Havana. More on the book fair later. Along with that event, plans included trips to public, academic and special libraries as well as some cultural institutions of note.
One of the coolest things about this trip was when I gleefully announced it on my Facebook page my fellow librarian and friend Jennie Stoltz from the Pewaukee Public Library wistfully stated she was jealous because she always wanted to go to Cuba. I replied, "Why don't you?" and before you could say Ricky Ricardo, Jenny was on the tour. Then she invited our mutual friend Catherine Hansen from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee School of Information Science.
CUBA HERE WE COME!
So, on Saturday, February 16th, Denice dropped me off at the Milwaukee airport for breakfast while she went off to work. Now, I was not flying out of the Milwaukee airport, I was just there to catch the Wisconsin Coach line bus to Chicago's O'Hare. The first stop the bus made was at a park and ride and that is where Jennie and Catherine got on the bus.
When we got to O'Hare, we treated ourselves to more airport food before we could board our flight to Miami. While the flight there was no problem, when we went to pick up our bags, Catherine seemed a little too excited to see hers. It took me a second or two to realize having your luggage come down the baggage claim carousel in a plastic bag is NOT a good thing. This led to one of those interesting discussions with the airline baggage claim reps including phrases like: "We don't have a replacement bag for you because we are out of bags because this has been happening a lot lately."
Catherine made it to the baggage store at the airport just as the iron gate was closing down. Re-packed and ready to go, we headed over to the rather elegant Hilton Airport hotel where I had soup and then went to bed.
Sunday, February 17th, found me up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready to take our shuttle back to the Miami airport. Honestly, I did not understand what we were heading for. Would there be a domestic terminal, an international terminal and an illegal flight terminal?
As odd and ironic as it sounds, we flew to Cuban on American Airlines. AA flies there four times a day right out of the international terminal. Authentic Tours had a representative named Pedro who met us at security to make sure we had all we needed to get out of America, into Cuba, out of Cuba and back into America.
Cuban Health Care Insurance document (supplied by Authentic Cuba Travel)
Cuban tourist visa (purchased from Cuba Travel Service Charters)
Cuban arrival card which you should complete prior to your arrival in Havana
In addition, we were advised to have the following documents with us to prove our professional status:
Proof of Employment
Working itinerary while in Cuba
Affidavit for Travel under OFAC General Research License in which we claimed, "I am a full-time professional whose travel transactions are directly related to non-commercial, academic research in my full-time professional area, and my research will comprise a full work schedule in Cuba and have a substantial likelihood of public dissemination."
Anyway, security proved no big deal and once on the other side we met a couple of fellow travelers in Herbert Rogers and Mary Carr. We all shared a breakfast together before we headed down to the gate and boarded.
Not all of our party were flying out of Miami with some coming through Mexico and a couple coming through the Caribbean islands. The flight to Cuba proved to be short and uneventful. It was not until we were in Cuba that I realized that fellow travelers Darenna Rainsdon and Leanne Finnigan were on the flight with us.
Landing in Cuba taught us our first lesson: time is frozen in Cuba. The terminal is a prime example. You land and taxi up, but to get to the terminal you have to climb down stairs and walk across the tarmac to the airport building.
Authentic Travel had warned us that while waiting in line BEFORE we go through Cuban customs we might be approached by a Cuban official of some sort. We were told to respond with two phrases: Tourista and Havanatur. Havanatur is the company who will be guiding us around on our tour but we cannot meet them until we get through customs.
And, darned if we were not approached by the Cuban official we were warned about. He got into some deal with Herbert and before we knew what to do, Herbert had been cut out of the herd. Off went an official and Herbert's passport. All the rest of us got through customs with no issues but we had quite a few anxious moments worrying about your new friend Herbert until he finally showed up with his restored passport and a pretty chipper attitude for a guy who had just been hassled a little.
In the meanwhile, on the luggage carousel side of things, I knew I was in a third world country. Why? Because there was a cute little doggie running around the luggage having a ball. In fact, he seemed so friendly that he and I bonded for awhile. Yes, I got in a few good pets. It was only later that Catherine told me I should probably not make a habit out of petting the drug dog. Sure enough, there was my new best friend tethered to a military official, looking at me with a silly little doggy grin on his drug sniffing face.
My other new best friend was Eric Garcia from Havanatur. I may mention it again but Eric proved to be the best tour guide on the island of Cuba. His job right now was to orient a crew of disoriented folks and the first order of business was to get some Cuban cash.
Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) are the only currency used by tourists. You can carry US dollars into Cuba and exchange them but you pay a 10% conversion fee plus the exchange difference so roughly I could turn in $100 US and get $87 CUCs. (For my next trip or yours, take Canadian or Euros and there is no conversion fee). We had been advised to carry $60 CUCs a day so I went in for $500 at the airport to feel like I would be comfortable until we could exchange money again.
Remember: US credit cards were worthless once we landed in Havana. This restriction on a cash only basis made me shy initially to spend money. As time went by (or buy), I loosened up the purse strings a bit as you will see.
Locals use different money than the CUC. They use the peso which is 1/24 the value or $1 CUC is 24c in pesos. Locals use the peso for food and fuel but they also can spend the CUC the tourists are laying out.
My personal theme came at this point in the trip. I no longer remember what the issue was but we were standing around waiting for something when Eric said, "In Cuba, having a Plan B is always a good choice."
Besides Eric as our tour guide, our tour group was assigned to the same bus and driver for the entire trip. Our driver was Alfonso, a cheerful man who would always greated us with gusto but whom I assume does not speak a lick of English despite me jabbering away at him on various occasions. The bus was a Chinese built tourist bus that was wonderful to be in and we are going to spend a lot of time in it so I am glad.
DISCLAIMER: If you have been with me on other blogged trips like China or Oaxaca, Mexico, you know I like to do Fuzzy Out the Window shots as we drive around and there will be plenty here. However, because the Chinese tinted the windows of our tour bus, this trip you will be shown Fuzzy Tinted Out the Window shots and here is the first one:
As we left the airport terminal, I saw my first image of Che. Che is everywhere in Cuba. The story we were told is that Fidel did not want a cult of personality around himself so he let the face of the revolution be his primary partner, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
I can say this now: there is very little military presence in Cuba which surprised me. I shot this photo of a soldier and expected to shoot many more. Not true. During the trip, there was very little military or police presence--or, at least less than I expected which might say more about me than it does about Cuba.
The number one goal for me on this trip was to get a photograph of an old American car. In 1959, when the revolution came, the Cubans were cut off from parts and supplies for the American cars they were driving. That did not stop these enterprising people from being part driver and part mechanic. I had read a book about the old cars before coming and I really hoped I would see one.
One!?! I think 75% of the moving vehicles in Cuba are old American cars. Seriously, the are everywhere.
Because we had landed on the island early in the morning, way to early to head to the hotel, it was time to do some tourist things.
Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Plaza), the geographic center of the city of Havana. I am still amazed that without any intentional need on my part, I have stood in both Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Plaza de la Revolucion in Cuba. (My dear wife Denice, at this point, asked: "What's next? North Korea?")
While Tiananmen Square is quite impressive, the Plaza in Havana is basically a big old asphalt parking lot. Symbolically, the Plaza is famous for the mass rallies after the Revolution including speeches by Fidel that would stretch for hours.
After Alfonso parked the bus, I stepped off and right into my first contact. The square had a sketch artist who was there for the tourists and most of the folks ran like hell from this guy. But, when I was in China, I had my portraiture done in the Forbidden City and I was not shy about having it done again. It is hard to talk about Cuba without talking about the "issue" (that would be "us" from the "US") but I did not expect to confront it so soon. The artist asked me where I was from and I said, "Estados Unidos." "Ah," he said, "I want to go to the United States as soon as Fidel is dead." I forked over $4 for the portrait and I am very pleased to have it as a souvenir. (Good news / Bad news: I can't find the portrait but hopefully it will turn up soon).
While the surface of the Plaza is not impressive, the surrounding structures are of interest. The plaza is dominated by the massive Memorial José Martí, a tribute to the revolutionary journalist and poet who represents the fight against Spain to the Cuban. Martí's image is iconic on the island and can be found everywhere. Unfortunately, we never got across the street from the Plaza to tour the building or climb its heights.
Opposite the Memorial is the very impressive Memorial Ernesto "Che" Guevara steel frieze which is attached to the Ministry of the Interior. The artwork is a recreation of the famous photograph by Alberto Korda taken in 1960 at a memorial service for victims of a freighter explosion. Under the portrait are the words, "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Keep Striving for Victory).
Next to the Ministry of the Interior is the Ministry of Informatics and Communications and it has an image of Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the major players in the Revolution. On this building, the quote is "Van bien, Fidel" which was the advice Camilo gave Fidel after the leader announced the military barracks at Columbia would be converted into schools.
To one side of the Plaza, we could see the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí (National Library) which would be our destination in a few days. However, at this point I became distracted by these cool little yellow Coco Taxis (which to my great regret I never got to take a ride in one).
Taxi ownership is one way to pay for and keep running these great old cars. Check out this bad boy:
Eric had said to us, "Viewing Cuba is like measuring time." That is certainly true as you can see it in the cars and the buildings.
Now it was time for lunch. Every guide book I read about Cuban warned that the food was bland because the island is too poor to import the spices it needs to create really tasty food. Not! Through out our entire tour, the food was a highlight for me.
The other interesting phenomenon on this trip is the current battle between the state sponsored socialism and the idea of loosening up the economy for private enterprise. Since Fidel has had to step aside, his brother Raúl has been loosening the reins and one part of it is the "paladares" (palate or taste), or the private family-run restaurants. Today we went into the city to "La Maraleja," which I have no idea what it means except the place was great.
Then it was time to check into the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a huge fine old hotel built in the 1930s. Many famous guest have stayed here and at one point wandering around I found a sign commemorating the fact that Buster Keaton slept there.
Admittedly, some parts of the hotel looked a little worn including our rooms. Electrical outlets proved to be a challenge with some not really looking like they were up to the challenge. The good news was that no special equipment was needed to get juice. After all was over, my impression was that the cable TV, wireless Internet and other amenities were only for the tourists, an illusion of prosperity that does not extend off the grounds of the hotel. As we talked to our guide and some residents we realized that we were amongst the privileged inside the hotel. So, if you were going to be the Ugly American in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the only one who would see you were other tourist and the staff.
Photo by Jennie Stoltz
Our group gathered in the bar of the hotel for a meet and great. Eventually, when we all on the ground, our party consisted of (Charles) Len Ainsworth, Catherine Hansen, Dolores J. Walker, Herbert Rogers, Janice Meyer, Jean McCann, John Stroman, Kamuela Ka'Ahanui, Ken Mandler, Leanne Finnigan, Michael A. Vance, and Darenna Rainsdon.
The hotel is frozen in time and well aware of it. It revels in the past.
After this I wandered around the grounds of the hotel for awhile.
While I already knew the hotel was stuck in the past, I discovered another theme for the trip: There is art everywhere in Cuba. Here is some on display in the lower level of the hotel.
This is the art in the hotel lobby. Hmmm...
And, before you ask, the day ended with the same issue as in all foreign travels, answered in the negative:
For a complete set of all the photos from this trip, please visit me at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gniebuhr/sets/72157633250056880.