By Idalia Rewar
Sitting on a plane heading to Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. The country had been off limits to American travelers for years, and I didn’t know anyone who had ever been there. I’ve always been intrigued by different cultures, however, and when the Obama administration loosened up relations with Cuba, I decided I wanted to check it out. So I signed up for a nine day trip that was billed as a “people-to-people” cultural exchange.
One might assume that after decades of Communist rule and the American embargo, Cuba would be a drab and depressing place. My experience there suggested that despite its restrictive political environment, the country still has a rich and vibrant culture.
Our trip was facilitated by an American tour manager and an English-speaking Cuban guide. There were 22 people on the tour. In addition to visiting dozens of beautiful sites, we were treated to a variety of artistic performances, informative lectures and even a cooking class. In the interest of brevity, I’ll focus this article on just a few of the highlights.
After an orientation session in Miami, we flew to Cienfuegos, a seaport known as the “Pearl of the South.” The city is adorned by architecture reflecting its French colonial roots. One of the first things we did was tour the Province Botanical Gardens, a soothing setting filled with palms, orchids, bamboo, and a myriad of other tropical plants. As we walked along, a local botanist described the garden’s founding as a center for research on sugar cane and its historical ties to Harvard University.
We stayed in Cienfuegos for three nights, venturing out each day for side trips to nearby cities. In Trinidad, we observed a pottery demonstration and visited the Teatro Tomas Terry, an impressive theater where famous performers like Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova once graced the stage. In the historic city of Santa Clara, we stopped at an 18th century mansion that houses the Museo de Artes Decorativas and enjoyed a concert of Spanish Renaissance music. We also toured a museum and mausoleum built to honor Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a revolutionary who helped bring down the Batista regime in the late 1950’s. During a morning excursion to the Playa Giron area, I had a chance to plunge my legs in the warm, azure colored waters of the infamous “Bay of Pigs.”
For the second half of our tour, we were based in Havana, the country’s capital. We stayed at the Hotel Nacional, which in its heyday was known for its elite clientele that included members of the Mafia, movie stars, and dignitaries from many countries…and for serving the city’s best cigars.
The side trips during the last days of the tour were particularly exciting for me as an artist. One day we had a tour of the city led by a Cuban architect discussing Havana’s rich architectural heritage. We stopped to admire the 16th and 17th century buildings being carefully restored and transformed. We saw a community project called the Murealando which featured murals and sculptures celebrating Cuban life. We also visited the “Tank” – where an artist took an area that was in disrepair and turned it into an art mecca for children’s art. Another day, we explored Casa Fuster, the studio and residence of José Rodriguez Fuster, whose inspiration comes from the designs of European Masters like Gaudi, Picasso, and Dubuffet. The enclave, which extends out for blocks and blocks, is adorned with his brightly colored murals and quotations from famous writers. Another highlight was our brief visit to Finca Vijia, Ernest Hemingway’s winter home between 1939 to 1960.
Throughout the entire trip, we had multiple opportunities to interact with local artists, musicians, and experts on a variety of topics. We learned a lot about Cuba’s history, its challenges and the many ways in which it is changing.
Being a third world country, life there is not easy. Most of the people work in low-paying, government-controlled jobs and there is limited upward mobility. A food rationing system is in place for basic food items such as rice, beans, coffee, oil, etc. Even toilet paper is hard to get; in most of the restrooms outside of the hotels, you have to pay someone sitting outside in order to get 2 little square pieces of toilet paper. A lot of the country’s infrastructure is antiquated and breaks down often. A lack of cash registers in stores and restaurants, for example, makes any purchase a time-consuming event.
On the other hand, we saw a lot of positive things on our trip. The countryside was beautiful, the people friendly, and there was wonderful art everywhere. The large open-air markets were full of inexpensive, organic vegetables. The government is putting a huge effort into restoring many of the country’s historic areas and buildings. I was also impressed by the way the country treats its elderly population. During the trip, we visited two very nice senior centers. One was a community project called Alegria de Vivir (Happy to Live), in which art, music and dance played a crucial role in the resident’s daily lives.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Cuba and would love to go back sometime.