Tuesday, January 27, 2015

And so it begins ... (Day 1 - Jan. 5th)

The take-away impression from my first day in Cuba has been sensory overload.

The airport in Santa Clara is too small for there to be a jetway into the terminal. They wheel up a set of stairs and you walk from the plane out into the sun, the heat, and the aroma of tropical vegetation burning, which sets off childhood memories from the half year we lived in Peru.
On the tarmac at Aeropuerto Abel Santamaria in Santa Clara
(Photo: Pat Dopazo)
The two-hour drive from the airport to our hotel outside Cienfuegos is an overwhelming array of things to see. Fields of sugar cane and banana trees, with palms sticking up here and there, and mountains in the background. The two-lane highway we're on serves equally well for our bus rolling along at 50 mph, for bikes, for bikes carrying two people, for old, smoke-belching Soviet cars, for horse-drawn carriages, for tractors, with or without a farm implement or a wagon full of people in tow, and for pedestrians.
No, these aren't fields of sugar cane, but they do capture the
sense of small fields, with livestock scattered around.
(Photo: Chris Shaw)
Along the drive we keep passing settlements that don't seem to connect to anything. It seems like too many people for the farmland around it, but not near enough to a city for the residents' work to be tied to the city.
A settlement glimpsed from the bus on the way from
Santa Clara airport to Cienfuegos (Photo: Chris Shaw)

In the U.S., the distance from these villages to a city wouldn't be an issue, but car ownership is far from common here, and gas is extremely expensive relative to people's wages. In addition to all the modes of transportation mentioned above, you see people flagging down any vehicle with decent speed (including our bus from a tourist company), often with money in their hands, indicating their willingness to pay for a ride.

All in all, it doesn't seem likely that these are "bedroom communities" for the nearest big city.

People will hitchhike by the side of the short stretches of 6-lane highway we've been on. This is particularly likely under an overpass, where you get some shade.

And the phrase "6-lane highway" probably gives the wrong idea. It is a highway with six lanes, three each way. But the amount of traffic could easily be handled by two, rather than six. People walk along this just as much as they do along the smaller roads. And bike. And drive horses and horse-drawn carriages.

At one point as we bombed along at 50 mph, a horse by the side of the road bolted. Our driver slowed, and the horse's owner got control of the animal. Other animals are grazing the vegetation at road side.

Occasionally some non-motorized vehicle is heading the wrong way down one side or the other of the highway, but with six lanes available and traffic enough only for two, it doesn't make much difference.

We pass many walls with murals of Che and billboards with quotes from Fidel speeches that are meant to be inspirational.

When we finally reach the hotel, on a point outside the bay of Cienfuegos, we walk into an open, airy lobby, where we are greeted with a welcome cocktail. We get ourselves checked in without too much detail and make our way to our rooms.

The hotel is on a cove with a sliver of sand; we are at the Caribbean. There's also a large, salt-water pool in which I'm able to take a swim before dinner. When I start it is dusky and there are five people in the pool; by the time I'm ready to get out, it is dark, there is nobody else in the pool, and there are no lights under the water either. If I lie back I can look at the starts and float, carried along by the sound of Cuban music in the background.

So we've arrived.

Map of Cuba from http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/cuba.html
The western portion of Cuba that we covered on our trip.
The red line shows our approximate route from Aeropuerto Abel Santamaria,
north of Santa Clara down to Playa Rancho Luna, southeast of Cienfuegos.
Overall, there's the discordant sense of having parachuted in from another planet. The horse is still an economically crucial source of mobility because of limited access to gasoline, and here we are bombing along at 40 or 50 mph (when not having to slow down for a truck, bicycle, horse cart, dog, or stretch of road marked, "Bad surface"), burning through diesel without a second thought.

Much of this isn't about Cuba or communism, but simply the nature of being a visitor from a rich country in a poor, tropical one. And the contrast is all the starker for the experience of the day before, flying into Miami.

Approached from the air, the sub-tropical sprawl of south Florida is impressive testament to what humans can accomplish - for good or ill. A fringe of barrier beach is covered in houses and hotels, separated from the mainland by a narrow waterway that leads onto countless channels allowing as many lots as possible to have some form of waterfront.

At first, this landscape stretches as far inland as the cloud cover lets me see, and all the way down the coast. The overwhelming impression is of endless housing developments crowded up around lakes and waterways - waterbodies that, at a minimum, have been shaped by the hand of man, or perhaps created out of nothing.

Well, not out of nothing. Out of sandy marsh that barely rises above sea level, so a bulldozer is all that's needed to sculpt the land and the water around it to one's wishes.

Turning inland, we suddenly leave housing developments behind. We are out over larger lakes, diked off from each other ad a highway that follows a canal west across the peninsula, in straight sections with cleanly angled turns.

We bank back to the south, and as the plane turns, the sun glints off the forest floor - we're over a swamp, and everywhere that you're able to see through the trees, you see water, flashing the sun back up at you.

Then we're back over built-up terrain, and landing.

A day later and 150 miles south, we are far away from the land where large machines effortlessly carve playgrounds for adults out of marshy sand. Instead, people walk on highways and hitch for rides on horse-drawn carts, while tour buses weave around them.

We are glad to finally be here. All 18 of us gathered the evening before at a hotel near the airport, just so there was time to deal with contingencies, like the one student whose suitcase didn't arrive with her. "And so it begins ...", Pat says.

The next morning, there's no shuttle. We were told there'd be a shuttle for us at the hotel at 11am to take our whole group to the airport, but it's not there. The hotel itself is unclear as to what the arrangement might have been, since they don't have a vehicle that can take 18 people, never mind our luggage. "And so it begins ...", Pat and I say to each other.

Checking in for a flight to Cuba is a more cumbersome process than your usual flight. We're met at the airport by someone from the travel agency who's going to walk us through all the examination of documents. And we find out that our flight, originally scheduled for 2:30, is now scheduled to depart at 1:30. "And so it begins ...", Pat says. "And so it continues ...", I offer.

We make it onto the plane just fine, though it is a bit tight getting through TSA, and there are some tense words between the guy who's trying to expedite us and the TSA agent who explains that his badge only allows him to expedite five people, not 18. But we all make it through, and make it on the plane.

The passengers are mostly Cubans, either residents of the island returning from a visit to relatives in the U.S., or Cuban-Americans heading off on a visit to relatives in Cuba.

And many of them are old. When we come down the stairs from the airplane to the tarmac, there is a fleet of wheelchairs waiting to receive the elderly passengers.

The airport itself is a former military airfield, and you can still see bunkers along the side of the runway, mounded up with soil and covered over with vegetation.
Photo: Chris Shaw

The students move through passport control with no problem, but Pat and I are asked to wait. First she's taken off somewhere, then I am. It's a room with an immigration officer, a paper-strewn desk, and a small camera mounted on the wall directly opposite me.

"Please remove your hat and glasses." I comply.

She asks all sorts of questions. Why are you here? This is part of a college course on the changes happening in Cuba. Do you have a copy of your itinerary? Can I keep this? Of course. (Much flipping back and forth through the itinerary, trying to glean from it I-don't-know-what.) If you're here for an educational purpose, why do you have a tourist visa? We worked with a travel agency to make our arrangements and obtain our visas. Those are the visas they obtained for us.

After perhaps 20 minutes of inconclusive "interrogation," she stamps my passport and lets me go. She tears off the part of my visa that the immigration office retains, and places it carelessly on the spare keyboard on her desk, next to the visa of another American, just sitting out there (Hi, Charles Klein!). She places our itinerary on an indistinct stack to her right.

I note (to myself) that her filing system is uncomfortably similar to mine. From one perspective, that suggests I shouldn't be too mocking or critical. At the same time, my job does not involve trying to suss out who's entering my country legitimately and who's there to wreak havoc.

Pat is cleared as well, our bags are through with no problem, and all our students are on the other side, waiting for us. But in recounting to each other our experiences, we naturally say, "And so it begins ..." "And so it continues ..."

Outside the airport we are met by our guide, Jesús, and bus driver, Victor. Jesús seems critical of specific decisions the government has made, but supportive of the regime overall.

He said that people who think there haven't been changes are blind, but the changes haven't touched everyone yet. He told the story of a coffee farmer who is upset that he can't sell to French tourists, but there are goods that, if they were priced freely, Cubans would never be able to buy them.

Some people are hopeful of the economic stimulus that cruise ships will bring, but when a cruise ship touches your coast, it's also going to dump its shit in your harbors, and it's not going to be worth it.

Some people want to use the economic opening to make money but they're upset about paying taxes; they don't realize that the free education and healthcare provided by the government actually cost money.

And much more, but you perhaps you get the flavor.

After we got checked in and people had a little time to explore (and I got in my swim), we gathered in the lobby to be driven into Cienfuegos proper for dinner. The largest portion of the hotel guests seem to be Canadians, including a 50-ish guy with shoulder-length hair and a Che t-shirt (as it turns out over the next couple of days, a variety of Che t-shirts).

One of the Canadians is taken with some of the young women in our group. He asks if he can get them a drink, but they're actually simply thirsty, so they say they just want some water (we've been told to avoid drinking the tap water). A couple minutes later he's managed to waylay a couple of bottles of water that were on their way to the bar and gallantly brings them over to our students.

Another students (Sawyer), seeing just the end of this drama, observes dryly, "You know it's a safe country when the guys are buying you water."

Before dinner we stopped at Palacio del Valle, a Moorish-style confection. This had been the home of a sugar magnate, later sold to the state and eventually made into a casino. (The large hotel next door was built to cater to people coming to Cienfuegos to gamble there.) One of the things Fidel was adamant about was getting rid of casinos, so the building is now a restaurant. We got to walk all through it and get the night view of the bay from the ramparts up top.

Our group on the grand stairway inside the Palacio del Valle.
Our guide Jesús is at the left. My co-leader Pat is at the right.
Dinner was across the street at Casa Verde; we were served a very nice paella. A ride back through the night to our hotel, and Day 1 was done.

And so it begins ...

Next post


  1. I can't wait to read more of this....

    1. I've updated it with a couple of pictures from Pat's camera. Now it looks like I really was there.

      And despite the evidence of this post, there will actually be pictures from my own camera entering into posts as well.