Images by Phil... and June
by June's Views on September 29th, 2012

Cuba has been an enigma to me…I was young and not very concerned with world affairs even so close to home when Castro’s revolution took place in 1959.  I was interested in the Bay of Pigs incident however, and during the missile crisis my young family and I were living in the Florida Keys.  We were acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation when our law-enforcement neighbor assisted with the escort of the military (including US Army Hawk missiles deployed along the beaches) into Key West.  Cuba:  Just 90 miles from the U.S. but still forbidden fruit we could not taste.

In 2012 I had the opportunity to spend a week on the island.  I was part of a cultural exchange program that had been arranged by Tauck Tours.  Sadly there is no stamp in my passport to show I was on Cuban soil:  I had to leave my Cuban visa when I departed the island.  We left from Miami and flew to Havana.  
I expected to see a few classic American cars, but thought probably they were mainly props for photographs.  Wrong!  From the minute we landed until we left we were inundated with vintage autos from the 50’s.  Many were in great shape in both performance and appearance, but there were those that were barely able to run and just looked sad.  There are virtually no American car parts available for purchase and we were told the car repair shops don’t hire mechanics, they hire magicians!   Our tour guide estimated for us that at least one-third of the cars in Cuba were considered American classics. 

I never tired of seeing and photographing them.   Should the embargo on Cuba ever be lifted, I’m betting these old cars would quickly sell to American collectors, leaving Cuba without that large part of her charm.  
I expected to have a very tightly regimented experience and not be able to mingle with the local population.  Our schedule was full and we only had one afternoon to really poke around on our own, but we did have some opportunities to communicate and interact with a number of folks. 

Most folks we encountered spoke good English, or enough.  They seemed genuinely pleased to have us as their guests.  I did not feel restricted in any way by authorities or our tour leaders. 

Cubans do want the embargo lifted “yesterday” but they really like us, the American people, and of course, our tourist dollars.   We did see signs – with slogans - of intense dislike for the U.S. government by the Cuban government, but we felt none of that from the people we encountered.   The closest thing we had to any disagreement was as we listened to a talk on Cuban-American relations, which was heavily weighted toward the Cuban government view – but we were on their soil, so they got to tell it their way.   

As expected, we visited and photographed many monuments to the Revolution, and relics from the Cuban victory at the Bay of Pigs.   We heard relations between the two countries compared to Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo and Juliet being the American and Cuban people, with their parents being the two governments.
Friends and I visited a grocery store near our hotel and found it to be sparsely stocked.  Many shelves contained rows and rows of the same item, and a good number of shelves were empty.   The meat department had especially low inventory.   We were there to buy bottled water, and the manager helped us navigate the long lines and even helped us get a taxi as our water purchase was too heavy to carry back to the hotel on foot.
Our guide told us of his experience growing up under the dictator Batista, then as a young married man in Castro’s government, and now as a father, living in Cuba.  He told about terribly difficult times for Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and gave guarded insight to living in a socialist-run country.   The income of Cuban’s - lay people and professionals alike - is unbelievably low.   The black market is the only way most of them can survive.  Some are lucky enough to have relatives in other countries who send them supplemental income.    

We visited several museums and notable community art projects.  One especially meaningful and moving experience for me was visiting the Angels of the Future Preparatory School Community Project, where we watched young children from dysfunctional families perform.  

We spent an evening at the Tropicana Music Hall and thrilled to the non-stop, amazing, costumes and really well choreographed performances.   
We toured a clinic, and learned later that although health care is free, medicines are not.! 

We also visited the late Ernest Hemingway room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel and his favorite bar. 

We visited the Christopher Columbus  Cemetery with headstones and monuments that truly make an outdoor museum. 

We were treated to lots of fine Cuban music.  
I was prepared for a bland diet with not much variety, but we ate excellent meals; several in privately owned homes turned into restaurants called paladars.  From my understanding, paladars are an example of a co-mingling of communism and capitalism. 

Early twentieth-century American influence on Cuban architecture is very evident and there are many beautiful old buildings. 

We were bused to a tobacco farm up in the mountains and had an interesting visit with the owner. 

 We also toured a tobacco factory and saw the tobacco being prepared for those famous Cuban cigars. 

Anyone who wanted to could smoke one while we were there, but unfortunately we were not allowed to bring a souvenir back home!  

We visited the beautiful Ancon Valley and took pictures of the striking karst mountains.  

On our way to our farewell dinner we were surprised with rides in American 50’s convertibles.  

We were given headscarves to protect our hair, and listened to Elvis serenading us from an added CD player.
I am left with mixed emotions about Cuba.   My heart goes out to the people in such need  on the island.   The impact of people living in a socialist society was summed up for us in this direct quote by someone I encountered during the trip:   “The government pretends to pay the people and the people pretend to work.”  

There is also the issue of a serious lack of human rights.  The answer to many questions we asked was prefaced with “It’s complicated.”   I must leave it to the governments, but I do wish for the sake of the Cuban people the differences between our two countries would soon be resolved.