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"Cultural Exchange" trip to Cuba

"Cultural Exchange" trip to Cuba

Old Feb 2, 2014, 11:44 am
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"Cultural Exchange" trip to Cuba

It's Coo-ba, not Cue-ba.

Getting There

Nothing goes wrong on Grand Circle trips. At least nothing that bothers the clients. No missed connections, no lost reservations, no problems, no adventures. I cannot praise Grand Circle too highly.

Grand Circle Foundation is a subsidiary of Grand Circle Tours. GCF does people-to-people do-good stuff. As such, GCF is able to run people-to-people cultural exchange trips that are legal. There is a Cuba stamp on my passport that garnered no more than a sorrowful look from immigration control when I returned to Miami. I also have a letter with contract numbers and official language - says the Cuba stamp is kosher. I will carry that so long as I carry the passport with the little pink Cuba stamp.

Circle had our visas waiting for us in Miami. Cuban immigration officials collect the first half of the card. The other half is collected when you depart. Having just seen Argo, in which the half-visas are a tension building point I found this rather creepy. I was careful to not lose my torn half-visa. Charter flight to Havana on World Atlantic airline.

Getting Around

Our tour bus was way oversize for our small group. I suspect Havanaturs did not pay street price for diesel. Chinese manufacture. Worked fine. The bus driver Jesus did a miraculous job of wheeling the behemoth through Havana's narrow streets. Jesus is aptly named!

The bus' outside temperature display was in Celsius. Had to remember a trick from undergrad days to convert to Fahrenheit. One degree C is 1.8 degrees F. So call it two. Say the temperature display is 37 C. Round to the nearest multiple of 5: So 35. Divide by 5. So 7. Multiply by 9. 63. Add 32. 95. Almost done. Remember the 2 degrees we rounded off? They're worth almost 4 degrees F, so add 4. Voila, 99! A fairly cool day in Havana. And you can do this in your head.

We saw what we were allowed to see. We did not wander on our own. I thought of Theresienstadt and the red line on the map along which the Nazis conducted the Swiss Red Cross observers. I hope this was unwarranted. Google "Tourism apartheid," for more.

Yank Tanks

First impression of Cuba: Wow! Lookit the cars! There's my father's '51 Chevvy. A rocket-nose Lowry Studebaker! My mother's Baleen-whale Buick! The pictures you see on the TV aren't the half of it! About 1/3 of the cars in Havana are 1950's relics. Some are just patched together. But many are lovingly restored. "Every Cuban is a mechanic." The reforms introduced under Raul Castro have created an entrepreneurial class with disposable income. They have turned an embargo necessity into an art form.

A question I wish I had asked about the Yank Tanks: where do they get the value-added parts? Stuff you can't improvise like alternators, generators, starter motors, plugs and points? A partial answer is they replace the 1950's engines with Russian diesels. But we rode in a V8 Buick in Havana. No mistaking a rattling diesel for the throaty grumble of a V8!


New cars abound in the ritzier parts of Havana. (Yes, there are wealthy Cubans. Some Cubans are more equal than others.) Peugeot, Kia, Renault, and an occasional Mercedes.

Then there's the Lada. Since the Soviet Union abandoned Cuba in 1991, Russian anything is not a prestige item. We saw few restored Ladas. Most Ladas seem to have the Lada emblem removed. Perhaps in hope they'll be mistaken for Fiat 124, of which they are a copy. In the excellent Cuban horror movie "Juan of the Dead," the titular Juan attempts to steal a Lada which won't start. "$*&^ Russian piece of &*$%," he explains.

Rent "Yank Tanks," from NetFlix for more about Cuba's magnificent cars.
Gas is about $4/gallon. Europeans will think this cheap, Americans about right, but this is a country in which a doctor earns about $28 a month. That's MONTH, not minute. So, how do ordinary folks get gas? Government officials get subsidized gas. Each will take all he can get and siphon it into jugs. The Oklahoma credit-card is a common sight. Looking under the hood of a 51 Chevvy, what I thought was an improvised radiator overflow was actually the fuel supply. Two gallons. Gravity feed to the carburetor. No need for a fuel pump.

Air pollution did not seem to be a problem. Yes there were vehicles belching smoke. And many of the Yank Tanks actually have Soviet diesel engines. But air remained much cleaner than the air in Washington DC.

One of our group desired a ride in a Yank Tank convertible. Since many of the old cars are taxis, I thought one of the guides would take her for a taxi ride. Instead, several were waiting for us after our last supper in Havana. We had a top-down parade through the balmy Cuban night, along the sea wall. Viva Cuba! Viva Grand Circle and Havanaturs!

Economy

Then there's money. No US credit cards. Forget using the ATM. Bring cash. The real-people peso is about $.04. But there is the convertible peso called the CUC. Nominally 1:1, but tax and fee makes USD $1 equal about 0.87 CUC. Foreigners may only use CUCs. That's OK. Anything you'd want to buy is only available for CUCs. The US dollar is illegal for anything but buying CUCs. It is illegal for an ordinary Cuban to possess a greenback.

The whys and wherefores of having two currencies are not completely clear. Welcome to the labyrinth of communist economic policy. Cubans are paid in pesos except for the aforementioned more-equal-than-other animals who receive CUCs so they can buy foreign goods.

Despite economic reforms introduced after Raul took over from the communist doctrinaire Fidel, Cuba must not be mistaken for a democracy. Although our guides and people we met insisted, "Ask us anything," one of the most poignant remarks from one of the "real people" we met was, "thank you for not asking embarrassing questions." Dissidents have an unpleasant time of it.

Facilities

USA cell phones do not work in Cuba. My British Mobal did work. Mobal charges are cheaper or equal to T-Mobile or AT&T roaming charges.
Don't drink the water. Cubans cant either. Ordinary Cubans can't afford bottled, so they boil tap water.
Electric in Cuba is 110 volts except when it isn't. Moka hotel outlets indicated voltage in magic marker. The outlets were euro/US hermaphroditic. I had doubts, but nothing I plugged in blew up.

Tipping

Tips are expected, but not everywhere. Rest rooms are "coin operated." There is an attendant. He/she gets a 0.25 CUC coin. GC provided each of us with a .25 CUC starter coin on arrival in Havana. (I suggested this after a GC Egypt trip. Egyptian facilities are also "coin operated." I would like to think GC actually implemented my suggestion.)

The tip-but-not-everyone is tricky. Professionals such as the artists and teachers we met would be insulted by gratuities. Musicians expected themunless the musician was a professor. Again and again, our guides steered us.

Gifts

Gifts from outside are very important. Cuban pesos won't buy foreign goods. Only Cubans with legal access to CUCs have access to luxuries. Making Cuba a country where a Snickers bar is a viable bribe.

GC warned us to call stuff we brought with us regalos (gifts) not donaciones. Donations are collected at immigration by the Cuban authorities and dispensed according to some method inspired by dialectical materialism. So we brought regalos. Here I wish we'd had better communications with GCF prior to packing. My guess of 50-pound-test monofilament for the fishermen of Cojimar was adequate. But I'd have brought spark plugs, ignition parts, and carbide-tipped saw blades for other venues. For the schools perhaps a modern encyclopedia and a notebook on which to read it.

Guides

A word about guides. We had a USA guide from Grand Circle Foundation, and a Cuban guide from Havanaturs. Havanaturs is owned by the Cuban government - naturally. Havanaturs is contracted by Grand Circle Foundation. Thus, all proper palms are crossed with silver.

One cannot praise Roberto (USA) and Milagros (call me Mily from Cuba) too highly. They moved heaven and earth to meet our needs.

Of course, we saw what we were allowed to see. There was no wandering off on our own. Our guides were contractually obliged the track us at all times.
My favorite niece E, had been in contact with the international baccalaureate school in Havana. E, as a teacher had leaned heavily on the school visits in the trip prospectus to justify leave for the trip. When the evolving itinerary was to bypass the IB visit, our guides worked hard to arrange a solo visit for her. Accompanied by Roberto of course. No unsupervised time.

Locations Visited

Havana

First sight of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba: Myer Lansky's hangout. I wanted to kiss some random guy and rasp, "I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart." Roberto, our USA guide pointed out that this was a museum as much as hotel. Like museums everywhere, don't expect everything to work. Actually, plumbing, elevators and AC worked just fine.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba held a steady round of weddings and social events. Cuban ladies uniform for social events is dress too tight, heels too high. As a card-carrying guy, I did not mind in the least.

Old town Havana street crime is low. The implication is that there is little drug use among Cubans. On the worker tier, as opposed to the elite, drugs would be too expensive. In Latin America the line between Marxist revolutionaries and drug cartels is fluid. Fidel boasts there is no nation as inhospitable to the drug trade as Cuba. Yet he has been accused of making common cause - transshipping drugs in exchange for hard cash. But that was in the 90s.
Roberto mentioned that crime is low because Cuba has seen what crime rates in other Latin American countries have done to tourism, and they dont want that to happen in Cuba. If its true, then who is regulating that and how? I dont think I want to know.

Homeless people. Technically there are none. Everybody has an ID - an internal passport, Soviet style - so everyone has an address. Most households are multi-generational. Young with parents, elderly with grown children. You can inherit a house. What happens to the addicts, alcoholics and just plain loonies that comprise the bulk of USA homeless? In Havana they are called divers - as in dumpster. Embarrassing questions not asked.

The Viales Valley

Cuba's economy has shifted from sugar to tourism. The Viales Valley is unique in Cuba. There is no other locale like it.

The Viales Valley reinforces the "I'm at summer camp," vibe of Cuba. The lush green valley is preserved as a world heritage site. The Moka Hotel is built on ruins of the old plantation. Scenery is lush and spectacular. The attractions are hiking, rock-climbing, caving, horseback riding. I forbore to ask about basket-weaving.

We left a suggestion to the Moka Hotel to offer either screens or mosquito nets. We had to close up and run the AC to escape the bloodsuckers instead of basking in the balmy Cuban night.

Dinner with a local family in Viales Valley.

Their home was a B&B under the relaxed rule of Raul. They have enough scratch to own a car. This became important later in the evening. We had separated into three groups. Our two guides went with the other two, leaving my favorite niece E with the main language burden. Best meal we had in Cuba. That family can cook. Phone rang. Neighbor's new baby had a medical emergency. Our host, being the one with the neighborhood car went to the rescue.

That left E, our best Spanish speaker, to translate the exact nature medical emergency. This required vocabulary that is not on most high-school Spanish curricula. Cuban infants are not circunciso. The neighbor was exercising her infants pene to prevent a constricted prepucio. (See what I mean about not high school vocabulary?) Neighbor pulled too hard, baby bleeding. Our genial host went to the rescue. My blushing niece found out just how hard a job those simultaneous translators at the UN really have.

Our hostess and her mother will not be able to visit her sister and her sisters baby in the US. They wont be granted a visa since having a sibling in the US makes you a risk of outstaying your visa. Her husband only has aunts and uncles, though, so hes allowed to go.

Cojimar, The Fishing Village

I want to scuba in Cuban waters. We passed multiple dive shops in Havana. I would love to check out the stories of pristine, healthy reefs.

Do healthy reefs really exist? In the fishing village of Cojimar (on which "The Old Man and the Sea" is based,) we lunched with local fisherman. State of the fisheries? The bay used to be jumping with fish. Now fisherman must go 20 miles out to sea to meet their quota. So I doubt the pristine reef stories. Wait a minute, quota? Yes, fishing is on the Soviet model. Licensed fishermen must meet a quota, which they provide to the government for their salaries. What happens to fish over the quota? Look away.

Long-line fishing (multiple hooks) must be licensed. Otherwise single hook fishing for personal consumption is permitted. Enforcement? You betcha. Did you think Castro wouldnt watch men in power boats 90 miles from Miami? The Cuban coast Guard is very present. What about neumaticos - guys fishing from inner-tubes tricked out with nets and paddles? Illegal. Very dangerous. Yes, it is done anyway. The tubes wash up with or without living neumaticos in Florida regularly.

Before the special period, Fidel had created a deep sea fishery with modern harvesting. With Soviet withdrawal, no gas, no spare parts for the boats. The Cuban people reinvented the small-scale. Pesca furtiva is of major importance to the community, thus the government turns a blind eye.

Rural grammar school in Soroa.

3-room schoolhouse. What children aren't charming? Grand Circle Foundation's presence is perhaps symbolized by the GCF-provided modern laptop sitting next to the clunky government computer. And I thought Igor, my home PC was old junk!

Niece E brought pen-pal letters from her students in the states. Replies from the students in Soroa must be hand-carried back. Yes, the embargo includes kids mail.

Pinar del Rio

Pinar del Rio, one of Cubas important tobacco growing regions was lost on me. I quit smoking 42 years, 3 months, 7 days and 52 minutes ago. Hardly miss it! Besides, Cuban cigars are contraband. A cultural exchange visitor can't bring em back through customs.

Orquiddeario

Orquiddeario (orchid farm) in Soroa. The Chacka or tourist tree is so known for its red and peeling bark. Pale-skinned Russians and Europeans head to Cuban beaches, underestimating the wattage of the tropical sun. At the end of the day they resemble the Chaka.

International School of Havana (in E's words)

The ISH is a school for the children of diplomats, business people, and other temporary residents. The school has 370 students representing 61 countries. Cubans are not permitted to attend the school. Most of them couldnt afford it anyway, the tuition ranges from roughly $4,000 to $13,000/year (I can't tell from my notes if that's CUCs or USD, but either way it's out of reach for Cubans).

The school offers both an IB diploma and an ISH diploma. Regardless of the choice of diploma programs, the school offers many different options for students. The IB diploma program allows students to specialize in languages, science, business, or art. The ISH diploma is slightly less rigorous, and is a better option for students with less skill in English, or students with an IEP.
The rate of student turnover is very high, and students come to the school with widely varying education and ability levels. The school has such a diverse population and so many course offerings, that its a scheduling nightmare. The instruction is entirely in English (except for French and Spanish classes, of course) and students have widely varying levels of English knowledge, which can make it tricky for a 16 year old coming in and hoping to graduate in 2 years in spite of his 3rd grade reading level in English. Most classes are pretty small, some as low as one student, and some classrooms have two classes going on at once. I saw a science lab with what looked to be a 7th grade and a 10th grade Science class happening at the same time. Each class only had a handful of students.

The facility was about as modern as any school youd see in the US. It's two old mansions that have been connected and converted into a school. There's a lovely playground for the little ones, and the school had plenty of well-equipped science labs and art rooms, and a very nice library. The course offerings are similar to what youd see in the US. They offer typical core classes and also extras like Drama, Music, Psychology, etc.
Most African students who graduate from ISH apply to Cuban universities, most of the other students go to Europe, Canada, or their home country for college.

The teachers who I met with were extremely welcoming and helpful. http://www.ishav.org/

Culture

The Cuban national sport is baseball, not soccer. "In soccer we are pitiful. We can't even beat Jamaica!" Baseball in Cuba pre-dates the Spanish American war. (Cubans say, "The Cuban, Spanish, American War.) In the 1880's upper class Cuban kids learned baseball during their education in the states. Real people learned it from American sailors. The game evolved in Cuba in parallel to in the US. Pro baseball clubs were disbanded after the revolution. Under Raul, there is hope professional baseball will revive. Look out Boston!

Santeria, the Afro/Catholic syncretic religion is now tolerated, as is Catholicism and evangelical Protestant sects. Our Cuban guide felt that Raul considered the communist hard-line atheism to be a mistake. One could not openly practice religion and have a job both. Suppression of religion abated in the 90's especially after a Papal visit. One hoped the Santeria dance ceremony we observed and participated would echo the voodoo dance in "Angel Heart." Alas, much more decorous. Participated? Yes, we geezers shuffled around with the Santerias, even in midday heat. I hoped that Santeria instruction included CPR.

Every bar and restaurant has a band. Every band has a CD. 10 CUCs for the CD, or tip the band without buying the CD. The bands are of varying quality. Lets say Buena Vista Social Club they werent. I heard enough of "Guantanamera," and "Hotel California," slightly off-key to last me a life and a half.

The lecture by Professor Alberto Falla on the history of Cuban music was brilliant. And he had the best singing voice I heard in Cuba.

Jose Fuster's art work has to be seen. It cannot be described. The "Picasso of the Caribbean" has transformed an entire village into a work of public art. There are artists everywhere. Art is kosher to bring back to the USA. So we did. Be careful with this link. On older PCs it is a direct link to the blue screen of death: http://www.havana-cultura.com/en/fi/...-and-sculpture

The best art I saw was not for sale. We dropped in to the Instituto Superior de Arte, on our way to the airport. The students there blew away anything the established artists exhibited. Again and again the theme of survival appears in Cuban art. Previous generations had the revolution and the Cuban adventures in Africa to survive. More recently there is the special period, arguably comparable to the great depression in US history.

Cubans can attend the Instituto Superior de Arte with free room and board, but no AC. Foreigners can attend for what I remember was a modest tuition (just a few thousand, I think) and they get dorms with private rooms and AC. The place was abandoned during the day, because I think they said that most of the kids work on their art at night when its cool.

Survive and even Thrive

Perhaps symbolized by the 50-year old cars, there is a can-do spirit among Cubans that cannot be denied. "We survived, we will survive," is a common theme both in Cuban arts and in Cubans view of their own troubled history. It is my personal opinion that the US embargo has done much to engender this spirit.

Cuban art repeats the theme of survival in adversity. In the Viales Valley we visited a local artist, Lester Campa, whose painting of a healthy robust tree in the middle of a desiccated plain symbolized Cuba for me: a people not just surviving but seeming to prosper under extreme adversity.

The Special Period

Mily, our Cuban guide was a student, then a teacher during the special period. When the USSR broke up, the Russians stopped buying Cuban sugar at way above the market rate. The economy crashed. Transportation without Russian oil became sparse. The government provided camels. These were 18-wheelers pressed into service as public transport. It was not a charming way to travel. To this day, hitchhiking is an accepted mode of travel. Only our specially contracted tourist bus was not obliged to pick up travelers until full. I think this made Mily somewhat uncomfortable.

Farming

Petroleum based factory farming became impossible in the special period. Ordinary Cubans took the initiative to garden or farm small plots. Foreign permaculturists assisted in setting up sustainable farming in small, even urban plots. (USA locavores take notice!) Our guides proudly directed our attention to these organic garden plots throughout the city and countryside.

The local distribution model that evolved in the special period drastically shortened farm-to-fork. We visited a small dairy farm. One family, 12 cows. No plan to expand. "We fill our need." Milk by hand. A courier picks up the milk. Takes it to the local grocers. Folks await the milk with containers and ration books. Never pasteurized, never refrigerated, never stored. The government sends inspectors at random times. In Washington DC or San Francisco one pays big bucks to eat in a restaurant whose ingredients are locally sourced, seasonal and fresh.

Medicine

$28/month salary for a doctor? Well, yes. Sort of. Salary does not mean the same thing in Cuba. Many of the things we pay for out of our capitalist salaries are free to Cubans. Like health care. Like no taxes on salary. Like education. There is a basic food allotment - ration books and all. That said, there is a thriving underground economy. Just don't call it Black Market. Every Cuban has a hustle.

Every neighborhood has a local doctor. Free. Salary paid by the government. Universal free healthcare is the signal accomplishment of the revolution. One may wonder about quality. Cuban doctors are a principle export. You didn't think Chavez was supporting Castro for free did you? But Wikipedia says that 75% of Cuban doctors fail the licensing test to practice in Brazil. Again, care is free, but access is another story. Money or favors changes hands to set one's place in line. Or one's access to scant resources such as imported medical equipment and drugs.

Doctors for oil - Google Convenio Integral de Cooperacin. It's much more than that. The communist mandatory universal education has brought a surplus of professionals. Cuba exports surplus brains to Venezuela and Latin America. Not just medical, but teachers, technicians, social workers. Cuban military has combat experience with the Soviet hardware that Chavez bought. Yes, Cuban veterans are training Venezuelan army. The end of Russian patronage brought on the special period. Cubans need worry what Chavez' death and Venezuelan economy in the toilet may mean another special period. That is why Raul is liberalizing the economy. Man aint stupid.

Cuban Cuisine

Cuban cuisine is a sea change from Latin fare. I didn't need to pop a single Tums. Spice is gentle. Ingredients are fresh. Very fresh. "Where did you get such great avocados?" Our host pointed to the tree. Pork and chicken are the usual protein. Beef not so much.

During the special period it was illegal to kill and eat a cow. Dairy was needed for children.

The communists of course mismanaged the special period. Comparison can be made to how the North Korean government handled famine. Scant resources went to the elite and military. The workers in this workers' paradise starved. Industrial, plantation farming had ruined Cuban soil. Reduced it to almost sand and clay.

The solution came from the people. Dare I say, grass roots? Small scale, sustainable farming is king. No chemical fertilizers, so crop rotation, husbandry of the soil substituted. This is what Joel Salatin has been preaching in the US. Outside help came from Australian agriculturists. To their credit, the government facilitated rather than interfered. (Leadership 101: Figure out where people are going, run out front and yell, Follow me!
The upshot is that an entire nation moved from the fat-rich Latin diet to vegetable rich, organic, healthy stuff. Yes, the health benefits show in public health statistics.

An item I hadnt tasted outside of Cuba is the sour orange. Sour? Whoa Nelly take the enamel off your teeth! Used as a marinade for meats and garnish for the ubiquitous mohito. Wish Id known it is similar to grapefruit in interaction with statins. Im old. I take statins.

Cuban coffee will dissolve your spoon. I loved it. Buccanero is the cerveza of the proletariat. It is proletarian.

The Embargo

People-to-people. We heard again and again, "the Cuban people are not your enemies. It is the politicians. We have nothing to do with that." I want to believe this. That the real people we met just want to survive, and hope to actually thrive.

What would happen if the US ended the embargo? It's been 50 years. Cuban-Americans that actually remember Cuba are geezers now. Most who identify as Cuban-Americans were born here - are Americans, not Cubans. Even if they had a chance to regain family property - a dubious proposition - how many would trade US citizenship for Cuban?

USA companies that had their land and business expropriated are another matter. G.E. Bacardi and the rest still carry their Cuban property on their books as assets. Corporate lobbyists, rather than Cuban ex-pats would be likely to gum up any chance of forgive-and-forget. The Bacardi building in Havana was a beautiful specimen of Art Deco architecture. Now it is a shabby government office.

Bankers of Cuba, the Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba there are claims upon claims. But Cuba couldn't pay even if they wanted. So, how could normalization be achieved? That's a problem for the next generation. For me, it was nice to stroll through Old Town Havana without seeing a McDonalds.

Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting family. Remittances to family run about $2 Billion/yr. The government of course takes a hefty cut. That is why the CUC is nominally 1:1 with the dollar, but when you change a buck you get 87 cents. Its Castro dipping his beak. The charter airlines between Miami and Havana limit luggage to 44 pounds. Cubans taking supplies and appliances to family pay through the nose for overweight. World Atlantic airline coins at $2/pound on overweight baggage. The folks you see in Miami airport wearing 5 layers of clothing: you can bet they're going to visit family in Cuba.

Or they might be mulas, carrying embargoed goods to Cuban entrepreneurs for money. Read who profits from the embargo here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/saul-l...b_2559965.html

Last edited by scubadiver; Feb 2, 2014 at 1:33 pm Reason: spelling
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Old Feb 2, 2014, 2:01 pm
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Cool report!

One thing I'd like to set straight though, the restrictions on what you can see were from the US side, not the Cuban side. If you enter Cuba via Mexico or Canada as an American you can travel around freely
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Old Feb 11, 2014, 10:15 am
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Insightful and intersting. Thanks.
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Old Feb 11, 2014, 3:07 pm
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Excellent and comprehensive report. One minor correction- the Godfather was filmed in the Dominican Republic not Cuba, logically due to the embargo. The hotel scene was filmed in the Hotel Embajador in Santo Domingo, not the Hotel Nacional in Havana.

Did you visit Varadero?
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Old Feb 12, 2014, 4:13 pm
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Very nice report, should be useful on my next trip to Cuba. Very nice! Thumbs up.
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Old Feb 12, 2014, 9:56 pm
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Originally Posted by mpkz
Cool report!

One thing I'd like to set straight though, the restrictions on what you can see were from the US side, not the Cuban side. If you enter Cuba via Mexico or Canada as an American you can travel around freely
For sure. I have to say, Cuba is one of the coolest places I've ever visited. I hope to be able to go back before the embargo is over, since I fear it won't be the same after.
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Old Feb 13, 2014, 11:45 am
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Thank you for a very interesting trip report.
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Old Feb 14, 2014, 10:44 pm
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Great TR! Thanks so much for this.
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Old Feb 16, 2014, 10:22 am
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Nice cultural exchange report! We recently visited Cuba as normal tourists.

Originally Posted by mpkz
Cool report!

One thing I'd like to set straight though, the restrictions on what you can see were from the US side, not the Cuban side. If you enter Cuba via Mexico or Canada as an American you can travel around freely
This is true. Coming from Europe, a couple in front of us jumped on an orange taxi at Varadero airport along with their backpacks and disappeared to see more of the island.

We did some street walking in Havana ourselves.
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Old Feb 16, 2014, 2:12 pm
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Ahh, Seville orange (aka bitter orange, aka sour orange) is used in marinades and marmalades in Cuba and Southern Spain. Yummy!

Great TR!
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Old Feb 18, 2014, 2:52 pm
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Er, I've met cuentapropistas, and even jineteros / jineteras in Cuba, but tourists?

Originally Posted by tsastor
...

We did some street walking in Havana ourselves.
Nicely done! We traveled to Cuba late 2013, and noted a number of similar things.

We also were welcomed by every Cuban we encountered (I speak Spanish fluently and spoke to many Cubans under unsupervised circumstances), and while the many negatives have been noted elsewhere, we were also impressed with Cubans' resilience, their humour, their ability to deal with the many regulations and restrictions with a sense of irony and satirical observations; also notable was the lack of prejudice so notable in most Latin countries (along whitest to darkest skin lines), at least among younger people.

We travelled with Euros to avoid the Cuban required payment of 15% surcharge on exchanging US Dollars, and found our copies of The Economist magazine were exceedingly welcome (the source of printed information in Cuba is the daily Granma newspaper, the official organ of the Communist Party, and Trabajadores weekly, issued by the Labour branch of the CP).

Anyone wanting books on Cuba will find them in the international departures lounge in HAV, offered by - a Cuban government kiosk, which can amazingly take US dollars, Canadian dollars, Euros, your spare CUCs, probably your firstborn. Of course, many books in English, and most of them with significant propaganda value, but some interesting nonetheless.

US residents licensed for travel to Cuba as well as others can bring back books, printed matter, art (including posters and crafts), CDs (what a vibrant music scene!), and the like - no cigars or alcohol, no clothing, etc. Mail service does not exist between the US and Cuba due to the blockade / embargo, so no postcards, etc. (though normalising mail service is under current discussion between US and Cuba).

I'd recommend NOT giving gifts (much less money) to the people begging downtown Habana - they are always coming up and asking for spare soap, toothpaste, etc. but - they are always the same people, and they seem to be supplying a small "cuentapropista" business, and not helping their families.

Our trip to Cuba meant Lady JDiver's 100th nation (not country, nation), and we've counted coup on all the remaining Communist nations (China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam - which I fought in in 1965) outside of North Korea - I won't visit that, too tricky. (Lady JDiver has visited such paradisical nations as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but... I ain't goin'.) We had a lot of interactions with Cubans in various venues, and it was interesting and educational.

IMO by travelling we learn, and where we travel learn, and the denizens from and about us as well. Ideas are infectious and The Economist is seditious... (I found slipping them in a used Granma or Trabajadores made it less intrusive to give them over) but of course, some printed matter can be banned in other, non-Communist nations one visits.
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Old Feb 18, 2014, 3:00 pm
  #12  
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Yes, you can, but it is still an OFAC violation. Whilst not much enforced, it is always possible a US citizen or resident travelling to Cuba can be held accountable to OFAC - at worst, a significant fine and at least, I'd not count on Global Entry, etc.

I don't have any problem with those US people who travel through the "back door", but one should do so aware of possible adverse consequences and make an informed risk management decision as to if this is what one wants to do. (For me, I have worked a lot with US Government and law enforcement organisations over the years, so I chose to travel legally to Cuba with a licensed company, like Grand Circle Foundation.)

Originally Posted by mpkz
Cool report!

One thing I'd like to set straight though, the restrictions on what you can see were from the US side, not the Cuban side. If you enter Cuba via Mexico or Canada as an American you can travel around freely
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Old Feb 18, 2014, 3:59 pm
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Originally Posted by JDiver
US residents licensed for travel to Cuba as well as others can bring back books, printed matter, art (including posters and crafts), CDs (what a vibrant music scene!), and the like - no cigars or alcohol, no clothing, etc. Mail service does not exist between the US and Cuba due to the blockade / embargo, so no postcards, etc. (though normalising mail service is under current discussion between US and Cuba).
Just to make also this clear: non-US citizens can bring cigars, alcohol and clothing back. As we did, especially as a half bottle of Havana Club was $2.35.
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Old Feb 18, 2014, 4:08 pm
  #14  
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If your final destination is not the USA, I am sure you can. It's (unfortunately) US residents and citizens who are affected by OFAC.

Originally Posted by tsastor
Just to make also this clear: non-US citizens can bring cigars, alcohol and clothing back. As we did, especially as a half bottle of Havana Club was $2.35.
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Old Feb 18, 2014, 4:33 pm
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Originally Posted by mpkz
Cool report!

One thing I'd like to set straight though, the restrictions on what you can see were from the US side, not the Cuban side. If you enter Cuba via Mexico or Canada as an American you can travel around freely
I entered Cuba from JFK on a regular schedule Delta flt , Saturdays at noon. No restrictions, no tour guide, very legit entry as an educator.........anyone can be an educator. Wonderful country, warm people.......looking forward to taking my grandson next year for his 13th birthday.
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