May 15, 2014

On the morning of our first full day in Havana, we enjoyed a rather full day.  Being already vaguely familiar with the city after the first day’s tour, my pre-departure research, and my own understanding that comes with having family from the city I was able to absorb the geography and layout even better.  While Havana feels physically small, it is larger than life.  Filled with wonderfully frustrating contradictions, the city is never boring.  The aging and decrepit buildings crumble with the lack of maintenance, casting a sad and haunting aura over the city.  However that same decay also gives testament to the true age of the city, perfectly conveying the life and struggle of the island since it’s discovery and colonization by the Spanish hundreds of years ago…but I digress.

We all hopped on a bus and visited the various areas within the city.  For me, that part of the tour was forgettable, not because it wasn’t interesting, but because I was to return days later to Miramar and have a profound personal experience that eclipsed anything that our tour guide or my camera would be able to capture today.  After touring around Miramar, we stopped to visit with a representative of the Cuban equivalent of the United States’ EPA.  Providing plenty of interesting background into the environmental challenges facing Cuba, she was very kind and fielded questions from the group very well.  I must admit that this was also a bit forgettable for me, as I was not familiar with many of the environmental issues at hand.

In the afternoon, we had our first of two days of salsa lessons.  The instructors were young, fun and vibrant which I later understood to be necessary in order to properly convey the soul that salsa dancing entails.  I hope to retain at least some of what I learned from these lessons and continue lessons upon my return to the United States.

After two full days in Havana, it all still seems a little bit surreal.  I am standing on streets that my father and grandparents and great aunts and uncles may have walked before fleeing the country.  I feel that there is still so much left to know and understand, yet it all feels so familiar.

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May 27-28: Havana, medical clinic, souvenir shopping, farewall dinner, return to Salt Lake City

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May 26th: Boat ride and hike at Hanabanilla, Sloppy Joe’s in Havana

Written by Katie and Steven. Photos and recordings by Jarrell.

On our second to last day in Cuba, we managed to pack quite a few activities into some limited time. We started with a boat ride across the Hanabanilla reservoir. Us being us, this quickly turned into an adventure, with people crawling all over the boat and testing their acrobatic abilities by doing handstands on the deck and human flags on the railings. The ride was beautiful, but quick, and our journey ended after only 20 minutes. Our destination was a open air restaurant nestled into the forest above a small natural harbor. We hiked to the top of the mountains and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the reservoir and surrounding area. After enjoying the clean air at the top, we walked back down and were treated to a delicious meal of rice and pork. Because of the day’s time constraints we shuffled back to the boat quickly after lunch and rode back to the hotel.

The Reservoir

At this point we started our bus ride back, which went by as they all tend to, with various people engaging themselves either with music, books, or sleep. Once we arrived in Havana we quickly went to dinner at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana Vieja, less than a block from our hotel. Once there everyone got some very delicious drinks and food and just enjoyed the classy atmosphere.

From here we had the night free, so the group split into many smaller groups and we all went our own ways. Some of us went to a dance club, others to a bar, and a group of four, including myself, went to a Jazz club recommended by our taxi driver, called the Jazz Cafe. The music there was absolutely astounding, played by a quartet of bass, drums, keys, and flute/soprano/alto. The musicians were able to build the music so well, pulling it up from subtle beginnings, mostly in the keys, to huge climaxes with the whole band. They played an astounding mix of electric funk, with jazz inclinations and following jazz traditions.

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May 25: Santa Clara, Che museum, Hanabanilla

Written by J

Santa Clara and Hanabanilla were responsible for some great food and a pretty amazing aviary/art school. Although honestly, by this point in the trip the same could be said for many of the other places we visited. What I’d prefer to talk about is the Che museum in Santa Clara, because I can honestly say that it was an experience like none other we had.

What you need to understand is that these people worship this man. Ernesto Che Guevara isn’t just another revolutionary to them. He is a symbol for what they stand for and what they will continue to strive to achieve. His face is spray painted all over Cuba’s walls and schools and his diary was prevalent in most the homes I ventured inside of. In fact, inside the Cuban education system they have a saying that the children chant every morning; “Queremos ser como el Che.” In english this translates to “we want to be like Che” this is spoken with a right hand above their head that is pointed toward their left shoulder.  I came to learn that this physical action represents their belief  that the “whole” comes before the man and this motion is their way of representing what Che meant to them.

He wasn’t even Cuban he was a humble medical school graduate from Argentina who came to Cuba looking to genuinly help. Che didn’t look to interfere or meddle with the progress of the Cuban people. He stood for a belief that the people should be left to their own rate of progress i.e. education, technology, and infrastructure. He fought so Western Civilization would recognize that there was going to be at least one Latin American country that ran itself. Che understood the struggle in front of Cuba come half-time during the 20th century. He understood that Cuba  wasn’t going to be allowed to stay truly Cuban amidst a world of budding technology and military movements; too many third party opinions and incentives. Who can blame him? I think we’d all agree that when it comes to the “geopolitical game” it’s always a safe bet that; where there are incentives and opinions there tends to be a stack of money ready to push them through. Fidel, Raul, Che and many other revolutionaries realized that their history with empires wasn’t a good one and they needed true independence. Cuba had been blatantly tossed around by the Spanish Empire in the 19th century and then, 40 years into the 20th, it became a puppet of the United states due to the “Platt Amendment” {look it up, have you ever wondered how we still manage to have a base there even amidst an embargo?} With the casino business and tourism industry poised to take control of the country, in the Revolutionaries’ eyes, there was no way money WASN’T about to reveal it’s wicked tendencies.

People inside the United States love to highlight that Cuba is a socialist country  “so how are they free?” Usually I don’t even try to argue because those people live inside an Oligarchy and insist that they are experiencing freedom constantly. In my opinion Cuba chose a different kind of freedom. They liberated themselves from the global bureaucracy. They were an island that was done being an intersection for global grudges between superpowers and or being exploited for their sugar cane, land and people. When Fidel rebelled against the United States he didn’t seize all the companies and goods for himself he nationalized them and spread a literacy campaign throughout the country (that the United States actively tried to halt. The revolutionaries figured if everybody was going to be in this together (socialism) then everybody needed to learn how to read. Hell, we even went to one of the premier cigar factories in Havana and listened to a woman reading classic novels to a floor full of cigar workers.  As a result many of the cigar styles that come out of the Cohiba factory are named after famous characters in world literature, such as the delicious and enticing “Romeo & Juliet.”  Socialism has allowed them to progress as one country, they have 96% of their island covered in power and almost all of the roads are either paved and easy to drive on or being prepared to be renovated. They even have an inter country highway that is one of the best I’ve ever seen in Latin America. Sure they don’t have Walmart’s and Costco’s but the average Cuban can fix pretty much anything inside a car older than 1970. So take that however you want.

I’m not saying they have everything figured out and that Socialism is the second coming of Christ or anything, but ,it definitely seems that for them; it was the smart choice. They are progressing at a slower rate than our major cities but our major cities are only progressing in certain areas. The ghettos and outskirts are left to rot until property value warrants attention to those sectors. The Cubans however are intent on progressing the whole rather than the individual. They are insistent on sustaining what Che brought to them and they will continue to do so into this century. To be completely honest, as we progress further into the 21st century, I don’t see them doing poorly. {especially since the rest of the world is still enjoying quite a bit of open trade with the cuban people and too many Americans seem to forget this}  Che’s belief in these people doesn’t seem irrational or misplaced their sense of community is off the charts and as their economic sector continues to improve their country will do so as a whole until history absolves them.

Che

 

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May 24: Topes de Collante mountain excursion, Trinidad

By: Christine Blubaugh and Erin Brown

This was one of the most majestic days of the trip, by far. We were picked up first thing in the morning by a “Russian Limousine”, which can only be described as an industrial, bus-sized, open-air safari vehicle. We rode up into mountains of Trinidad via a double shifting transmission, which sounded surprisingly like a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s shriek.  We went whirling around the “curve of death”, an off-camber downhill slope with a 500 hundred foot cliff below. Needless to say there were no guard rails in sight.

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On the way to the top, we stopped to visit a giant sundial, which had been intricately designed specifically for that one location.  We also drove past a hospital on the very top of the mountain and a summer camp for Cuban schoolchildren.  On the hike, we strolled through coffee fields shaded by native trees. Frank was a warrior in the jungle, persevering through the trek with a massively swollen ankle from the festivities in which he engaged the night before.  Luis led us to a magnificent waterfall reminiscent of the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” scene from The Lion King.  We then followed the river down to a smaller waterfall feeding into a serene pool. Many of us took the opportunity to channel our inner Tarzans, swinging from a vine down into the water.  We explored behind the waterfall and lounged on the docks.  After spending three days swimming in the bay of pigs, swimming in fresh water seemed significantly more difficult.  The pool was full of tiny cleaner fish that gave us free pedicures as we dangled our feet in the water.

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After the hike, we piled back into our limousine and drove to an organic coffee plantation.  Luis showed the traditional mortar and pestle used to grind the beans, and told us that the coffee produced there sells for thousands of dollars per ton in Europe and Canada.  They gave us each a cup to taste.  It was very black and very rich espresso, which kept us all awake until the wee hours of the morning. Luis showed us the giant mortar and pestle machine with which they manually shell the coffee beans in large amounts.

We were then released for the remainder of the afternoon to engage in whichever activities we saw fit. For most of us, this included a much needed pool session at the hotel where we were lucky enough to bond more deeply with our beloved bus driver Ramon. All was happy in paradise on this day in spite of the loss of running water in the evening at the hotel.

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May 23: Trinidad, city tour, communist block party, La Cueva

Dear diary,

Today we departed for Trinidad. Our first stop was the center square where we took a walking tour to familiarize ourselves with the city. We immediately noticed how clean the city was compared to Havana, along with the unique colorful architecture.

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We began our tour with Our tour ended with a visit to one of the only restaurants with Afro-Cuban entertainment.

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During our free time, a group of us climbed to the top of a bell tower to get a breath-taking view of Trinidad.

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We then found an alley way full of vendors selling unique handcrafted souvenirs and in just under an hour, our wallets were emptied (except for a few CUC’s to buy lunch). A group of us spent the rest of our free time hanging out in the center.

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Later that night, we were invited to meet with a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, CDR. Our tour guide, Jesus, informed us that each visit to the Committee is different, so we didn’t know what to expect. We arrived to a welcoming sign and were entertained with a poetry reading, a fashion show, and LOTS of dancing. Two Spanish-speaking students, Karina and Justin, were interviewed by the president of the Committee for a Trinidad radio station on their perceptions of Cuba as US students.

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To finish off the night, half of our group decided to visit the town’s square for a night of music and dancing. While dancing, we heard rumors of a cave rave nearby that night. There was no way we were going to say no…so we followed the crowd and next thing we know, we were dancing in a cave. The night ended with a bang.

 

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May 22: Cienfuegos, botanical garden, tour of city, meeting with artists, beach

Chelsea and Taylor E.-    This morning started with breakfast at Hotel Playa Larga. After breakfast we all boarded the bus and headed east to Cienfuegos. The bus ride was a short hour and a half. Once we arrived in Cienfuegos, we went a short distance outside of the city to visit the Jardin Botanico which is a botanical garden. At the botanical garden we had a guide who started us out at the end of the gardens and walked us to the top where we later met the bus. During our walk we got to see plants from Indonesia, India, Latin America and other tropical areas. We saw some really tall bamboo and a “Tarzan tree”. The “Tarzan tree” had roots that grew to the ground from other branches. Several of the more adventurous among us chose to swing on one of the free hanging roots to swing out over a dry creek bed. We also had the opportunity to try various fruits from the trees there. This was an awesome experience.

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After visiting the botanical garden we drove into the town of Cienfuegos. Two things were immediately apparent. First, there was much more captivity by locals occurring. Second, all of the buildings looked newer, and slightly different. This was for good reason. Cienfuegos was founded in 1819 in the Spanish territory but was initially settled by immigrants of French origin, making it the youngest of Cuba’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. After spending a few days in the fairly remote Playa Larga, Cienfuegos seemed unbelievably busy.

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Upon reaching the center square (Parque de Jose Marti), each person was given 13 CUC for lunch and released to wander with instructions to meet back at the square in two hours. Several of us made our way to a pizza place that was suggested by Jesus. It was good to have variety, but I don’t think anyone would claim it was good pizza.

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Upon returning to the square, we were taken to an art gallery called Gallery Maroya, which had several different local artists and their works. After browsing for a few minutes, we were taken to a courtyard where we talked to the artists for a while. They offered to take us to their individual galleries so we spent the next few hours touring them and talking to them individually and having the opportunity to purchase their works.

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The day wound down from this point. we all got onto the bus and drove to the hotel, with one quick stop at a dockside hotel that had a cool view from the roof. Once at the hotel, several dropped off their bags and walked quickly to the beach. While this beach was nicer than some, there was a lot more pollution, and litter from less responsible beach goers. This beach was rockier than the beach that we experienced at Playa Larga.

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Dinner was at the hotel, buffet style. After dinner, two groups presented. Max R. and Chelsea presented on extinct mammals of Cuba, and Katie and Steven presented on endemic species. After the presentation, everyone went their separate ways, excited for the next day’s trip to Trinidad.

 

 

 

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