Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cuba - I'll be back again and again

June 2011 Vinales, Cuba

Dear Travelers,

I’m sitting in the kitchen of Heraldo and Senora Clara’s turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Viñales, Cuba, with a view of limestone karst formations that rise dramatically above some of the oldest tobacco farms on the island. A good friend of my guide Milan, Clara graciously invited us for a cup of home-brewed café Cubana. I hear her crushing the beans on a wall-mount grinder while Flavio, her husband, arrives from the orchards with just-picked juicy mangoes, pineapple, pink guava, and finger bananas complete with buzzing bees.

With an invitation to travel to Cuba under a humanitarian mission in June 2011, I arrived with some preconceived notions of secret police following me and a feeling that as an American, I wouldn’t be welcomed. After being questioned by Cuban officials at the airport (why wasn’t I traveling with a group?) and having my passport confiscated, then mysteriously returned by an immigration officer, I was beginning to think my misgivings were founded. But, after a week of total immersion in the Cuban culture, I realized that Cubans are truly unsuspicious, extremely friendly and hospitable people eager to have Americans visit their country.

At night in open squares street musicians played Cuban rumba music while children and white-haired seniors danced freely in the cobblestone streets. From tiny cafes, hotel lobbies, restaurants, local homes (paladars) – even at petro stations – foot-tapping, shoulder-moving, Creolized Cuban music was intoxicating.

In June the temperatures are volcanic. But you get your mojo back with some strong mojitas (rum), especially refreshing in the 100-degree heat. Castro nationalized the tobacco and sugarcane business when he came to power in the late ’50s and early ’60s, which resulted in disaster for the economy, but Cuba still cranks out world-class rum and cigars.

The scope of Cuban art is astounding, from Eduardo “Choco” Roca’s embossed lithographs to José Fuster’s oil paintings (he’s called Picasso of the Caribbean) to poster, cloth, metal, and recycled art to realist oil paintings by aspiring artists in Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos. Prices range from $30 for a Fuster ceramic to $300 and up for a textured lithograph by Choco. You could spend days just wandering from one artist workshop to another, even outside Havana. I met renowned watercolorist Jorge DuPorte, who specializes in Cuban flora in Las Terrazas just a few hours’ drive from Havana. Artisan markets brim with beaded jewelry – look for the Afro-Cuban orisha bracelets, embroidered tablecloths, smocked dresses, car-art (miniature Chevies), and handmade guayaberas cotton shirts.

I had to smile when I saw the Bay of Pigs, now a resort for coral divers, billboards espousing political beliefs with larger-than-life images of a hardy-looking Castro, and the ’50s and ’60s Chevies and Caddies plying the narrow cobblestone streets of old Havana, mongrelized with diesel engines. Horse-drawn carriages transport visitors to turn-of-the-century cigar factories where hundreds of workers sitting at rows of wooden tables separate, roll, band, and finish thousands of expensive cigars while listening to a reader, who reads novels or newspapers over a loudspeaker to relieve the workers’ monotonous but highly focused work. I stood next to a bronze image of Hemingway in one of his favorite bars and shook my head in disbelief when my guide said he once drank 14 daiquiris in one night. He didn’t need to commit suicide; his liver was already pickled by the time he was on wife number 4!

Watch for our 2012 and 2013 people-to-people trips to Cuba, each arranged through our U.S. Cuban agent, the only legal way for Americans to travel to this amazing island set back in time.

Yours in Travel,

Kathleen Zurich Fung

Founder, Far Fung Places LLC