Cuba Part 1 – Introduction

Go to Cuba.

As soon as you can.

Why? Let me share my reasons with you, based on a week-long cultural exchange tour there organized by Halleck Vineyard for members of its Inner Circle Wine Club. Later, I will be writing detailed accounts in words, pictures and videos of what we saw, learned, ate and drank. For today, however, I just want to share some overall thoughts, impressions and reflections.

The People

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This is, without question, the number one reason to go to Cuba. The people are wonderful.

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They are friendly and full of laughter.

They love life, they love their families and they welcome strangers—even tall, overweight Americans who clearly do not blend in (that would be me, in case someone thinks I am criticizing someone else’s appearance).

They love to eat and they love to drink and they love to share their food and beverages with, again, family, friends and strangers alike.

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They come in all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. While the island is not free from prejudice, I generally saw everyone working, laughing and dancing together.

They dance. Oh, how they dance (more on that later).

Americans are welcome. The people know that the issues and animosity that exist between The United States and Cuba are between the governments, not between the people, of the two countries.

The Food

Black beans and rice are elevated to near-gourmet status in some places in Cuba. One restaurant, El Aljibe, served beans and rice that were matched in deliciousness only by the chicken with a secret sauce that was served with it.

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Yes, the photo just shows a plate of roast chicken, rice, black beans and fried potatoes. Unfortunately, you cannot smell the aromas that were coming off of the plate, feel the consistency of the beans in your mouth or taste the complex, delicious flavors. Later in the trip we learned some of the secrets for making Cuban black beans taste so good. I’ll share those in the detailed blogs to follow.

Rice, beans, fish, pork and chicken are ubiquitous in Cuba. We ate in many of the best restaurants in Havana and the food was consistently good. Occasionally, a dish would be truly outstanding. At present, it is difficult to consistently get a wide variety high-quality ingredients, except those that are grown on the island. So, there are no Michelin star-worthy locations today, but there are clearly talented chefs who make the most of what they have. As relations with the United States are normalized and more products become available, I suspect Havana will again become the food destination that it was in the pre-revolutionary days.

The Rum

There is nothing more refreshing in the Caribbean climate that a cold, perfectly made Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint, a splash of soda). Every bar and restaurant will offer them as you walk in. Unless you abstain from alcohol entirely, do not refuse to try one. They are generally not too strong but are delicious. We had Making Mojito lessons at Cafe Ajiaco. Mine was a success if I do say so myself!

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There are two major brands of rum made in Cuba, Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba, named after two largest cities in Cuba where the respective brands are based. Since we were in Havana, we toured Havana Club’s Rum Museum. The museum gives you a chance to taste a little rum, learn something about the history of rum making and, of course, buy a bottle (or six) of Havana Club.

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I’ll have a lot more to say about the making, mixing, drinking and tasting rum in future posts in this series.

The Architecture – Faded Glory

How beautiful Havana must have been before the revolution! Magnificent buildings in Spanish Colonial styles with plenty of influence from Roman, Greek and Moorish architecture. Sadly, the majority of the building have seen little, if any, maintenance in the 60 years since the Revolution. Some have been restored along blocks where a Pope or some other visitor was paraded. I suspect that many of these are “Potemkin Villages” of sorts, where the outside facade was restored but little was done on the inside.

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The Music and Dance

Music is in the very soul of the Cuban culture. Live bands were everywhere, seemingly all the time. There was even a band at breakfast in our hotel. Fortunately, most of these bands did not play at the eardrum-piercing volumes that American bands seem to think are required (perhaps hoping to hide a lack musical skill behind a wall of sound). Because of the loosened restrictions on private commerce in Cuba, musicians can sell CDs of their work to tourists and collect hard cash, which is a bonanza for them. (More about the two Cuban currencies and wages in later blogs.)

Here is a brief clip of a group called Son Por Quatro which was playing in the El Aljibe Restaurant while we were having such. The name means “They are Four,” but there were actually five of them. The flautist is not on the cover of the CD I bought from them, so maybe she is in a trial period and they will be be Son Por Cinco

Cuba is the home of mambo, cha-cha and rumba. Salsa is derived from Cuban cha-cha and mambo, mixed with a little American swing and hustle, and seasoned with some African dance influences. It appears that some Cubans dance before they can walk, as we saw young kids showing their moves on the street. They also seem to keep dancing when they are almost too old to walk, as we saw elderly women who could barely stand who still managed to move with the music. Watching the locals dance, it was clear that they did not spend their time in dance studios being  formally trained. Their movements were organic and the steps relatively few and simple, but their whole bodies were totally involved in the movement.

Yes, there were young girls moving in ways that are probably illegal in some countries.

But watch this woman. She was in the restaurant with what appeared to be her daughter and granddaughter. Could anyone be more into the music?

These are just teaser clips for now. There will be full performances by band and dancers, professional and not, in the blog series to come.

The Cars

You may have heard about the beautifully preserved and maintained cars from the 1950s that still prowl the streets of Cuba. After the 1959 revolution, no more cars arrived from the US and few could afford European cars, so the old Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs have been kept running one way or another for decades. Many are taxis that you can ride in for nominal fees.

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There are no American fast food chains. American cell phones don’t work. (You do have the option of spending most of a day standing in multiple lines to get a Cuban SIM card.) Internet connections are spotty at best. Being unconnected may sound bad, but it’s not.

So is Cuba truly a Socialist paradise? Oh, no, far from it. You may or may not find toilet paper in the bathroom. It it’s there, it may cost you a dollar or so to buy some. The toilet may or may not have a seat on it. “Flushing” may consist of an attendant with a bucket of water. And all of this is in upscale, tourist-friendly locations.

I was traveling with a group of very experienced international travelers; people who have been to second and third world countries many times and know what food to avoid. Nevertheless, everyone in our group had Montezuma’s revenge to a greater or lesser extent sometime during the week.

But none of this matters. Unless you are only comfortable traveling to the finest hotels and eating in the finest restaurants, Cuba is a beautiful place to visit. 

In a series of upcoming blog entries I will detail each day of our trip—where we went, what we ate, what we learned and what we drank. I hope this brief introduction has piqued your interest in learning more about the people and culture of Cuba.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6000 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins.

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