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Cuba Diaries: Day 1

by: Jill Richardson

Sat May 15, 2010 at 19:14:33 PM PDT

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Hola from Mexico! I'm in Cancun with 4 of my fellow Cuba travelers, shacking up together in a free room at the Marriott courtesy of my former employment in corporate America and all of the Marriott points I accrued during that time. We're right on the beach and the water is warm and perfectly aqua blue. It's quite a shock after 10 days in Cuba.

Below is the first of my photos and writing about my trip to Cuba. I will continue to share about all 10 days of the trip, during which time we explored much of the island, visited many urban farms and gardens, and got to know quite a few Cubans.

The whole Cuba diary series:
Day 1: Arrival in Havana
Day 2: Pinar del Rio
Day 3: Havana, Cienfuegos, and Villa Clara
Day 4, Part 1: Villa Clara to Sancti Spiritus
Day 4, Part 2: Sancti Spiritus
Day 5: Sancti Spiritus to Havana
Day 6: Ration Books
Day 7: Reflections After One Week in Cuba
Day 8: A Photo Tour of Havana
Day 9, Part 1: Urban Farming in Havana
Day 9, Part 2: Urban Farming in Havana
Day 10: Notable People I Met in Cuba
Day 11: A Havana's Farmers' Market
Cancun: Don't Let Cuba Become the Next Cancun

Bonus Diaries:
Cuban Cars
Cuban Houses
State Propaganda

From My Fellow Traveler, Canadian Journalist Jennifer Cockrall-King:
The Gardens Are Greener Over There... In Cuba
A lesson from Cuba: Farmer-to-Farmer Movement, traditional knowledge sharing
How's the Food in Cuba, You Ask?: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Jill Richardson :: Cuba Diaries: Day 1
Day 1: Havana

Our journey to Cuba truly began as we boarded Cubana airlines flight 153 from Cancun. Although we were still in Mexico, the Russian signs adorning the plane were the first hint that we were headed for a Communist country (and for that matter, one that America does not trade with). Later, others told me that the name of the plane's model was "The Yak." Other than that, I did not expect this flight to be any different than any other flight. As we began to taxi, I saw smoke rise from the floor a few rows ahead of me. Shit. What was going on, and why was no one paying attention? Should I call a flight attendant? The girl next to me, also a member of my tour group, told me that the mist (not smoke) was normal. She had been to Cuba once before. Apart from the mist at take off and landing and of course the Russian, there was nothing that made the flight seem particularly different or Cuban.


Russian sign on our Cuban plane

Mist during the landing

Customs in Cuba was a breeze - for me. I waited in line, showed my passport, let them X-ray my bags, picked up my luggage from the carousel (which was unbearably noisy in a fingernails on chalkboard sort of way), answered a few questions about myself and my visit to Cuba (My name, my profession, and my hotel in Cuba) and that was it. "Welcome to Cuba," said the customs agent. I looked flustered, thinking he said "Why come to Cuba?" and tried to think how I could explain the difference between Cuban and American agriculture in Spanish. "Welcome to Cuba," he repeated, smiling, and gestured towards the door. So, with my two rolling bags (one full of donations to Cubans), I went through the doors and entered Cuba. The only unique thing I noticed were the car tires on the luggage carousel. I guess in most countries you can just buy tires if you want tires and you don't need to bring them with you as checked luggage on the plane.

In the airport, I was greeted by a woman named Sara Daisy. She would be one of our guides for the trip. In turn, she introduced me to a second guide for the trip, Michelle. Sara was Cuban, working for a Cuban tour company. Michelle was American but had lived in Cuba for decades. Thankfully, both were bilingual. Another member of the group soon arrived and joined us. Not long afterwards, we were instructed to go with a man to our bus. We followed him to a parking lot filled with identical tour buses and boarded the bus. Then we waited... and waited... and waited.

As we waited, we saw person after person arrive in the parking lot with their bags. Most appeared American (although, unless they were breaking the American law or a flood of Americans had gotten Cuban visas, they were likely Canadians) but none were from our group. Finally, our group all arrived together. There were 12 of us in all, plus the tour guides. Others had trouble in customs because we all arrived on tourist visas but we came to attend an international agriculture conference. A lesser problem was a new law requiring Americans to buy health insurance while in Cuba. Our trip fare included the fee, but as the law had only gone into effect this week, it was causing chaos in customs. With everything resolved, we were finally on our way to the hotel.

The view out the window between the airport and Havana (La Habana in Spanish) was wonderful. We passed farm after farm after farm. Most were small, the size of very large gardens. Many had raised beds, each about one meter wide and many meters long. I noticed mango trees and vowed to aspire to an all-mango diet during my time in Cuba. And I saw animals, mostly goats, horses, and cows. As we approached Havana's "Vedado" (Forbidden) area, the views of farms abated and instead we saw architecture that gave away some of the city's history. The buildings ranged in appearance, some built in the Victorian, Beaux Artes, and Art Deco styles of decades before the Revolution, and others similar to the Soviet-style buildings I've also observed in Eastern Europe. The Vedado area, where our hotel was located, borders the ocean. The name comes from the 16th century, when building in the Vedado was forbidden to allow residents of Havana to see any pirates approaching.

Hotel Nacional

The hotel's entrance

A closer view of the hotel entrance

The hotel, it turns out, is the nicest hotel in all of Cuba. The National Hotel of Cuba, a historic hotel with the grandeur and elegance of the 1930's. It fit well with the antique cars on the road, evoking an earlier era that I only know from movies. The bus stopped in front of an enormous entrance with columns and a marble staircase, an impractical setup for a hotel where every guest came with luggage. Perhaps the stairs were more practical before suitcases had wheels. Inside I noticed framed pictures of movie stars who had stayed at the hotel, including Americans who likely broke the law to come here. Any hostility the Cubans held against America or its government was certainly not extended to its movie stars. Our room - I shared with a food writer from Canada - was also decorated in the style of a previous era, complete with an ashtray. After a few days in Cuba, I realized that the ashtray was in the room as a practical measure and not as an antique. Nobody thinks twice about smoking indoors in Cuba. Everything in the room was entirely normal for a hotel - furniture, a TV, lamps, little bottles of shampoo, etc. The only difference (aside from the d├ęcor) was the number of pillows. I can't remember the last hotel that only provided one pillow per bed, as this one did.

After dropping our luggage in the room, we went downstairs to meet the group for our orientation meeting. We went out the back door to an elegant patio and sat down, facing the ocean. Almost immediately, a man named Chuck joined us. He was the elusive 13th tourist in our group, and we had not yet met him because he flew in the day before from Montreal. A nearby waiter must have read my mind because he approached us and asked if we would like beer or mojitos. Yes, please. One mojito, por favor, and more if I can hold my liquor (which is not a particular skill of mine).

The Hotel Patio

A few minutes later, I got my first sip of a real Cuban mojito. Other than soda water, which I assume is not particularly local to Cuba, the drink is perfectly Cuban: rum, sugar, mint, and lime. I suppose that any number of other islands in the Caribbean could boast the same local ingredients, but I believe rum was invented here (does the name Bacardi ring a bell?).


Then the waiter presented our bill, seven pesos. Crap. Neither of us had changed money yet, a task I was awaiting with dread. Cuba gets its revenge on the U.S. when Americans who visit change money: they skim 20 percent off the top of every transaction. I could have first changed my dollars to Euros or Canadian dollars, but I wasn't sure if the loss from converting my money twice (to Euros or Canadian dollars and then to pesos) would be greater than the loss from converting from dollars directly to pesos. I was probably silly to bring dollars to Cuba but it was too late. Chuck saved us by picking up the bill. He had changed money the day before.

The remainder of our group joined us and we followed our guides away from the hotel, past a beautiful fountain with sunflowers floating in it, to a table with a breathtaking view of the Cuban sunset against the backdrop of palm trees. The Royal Palm is the official tree of Cuba. While we introduced ourselves and received the most updated form of our trip itinerary, I noticed a few guineas walking around hotel grounds. Guineas are native to Africa, but they are kept on farms around the world for pest control. Like chickens, they will eat bugs, but unlike chickens, they won't eat your crops too. What were they doing at the hotel? From the little I know about guineas, it's unlikely that they were lost. Our hotel has its own flock of guineas, I guess.




After our meeting, at long last, we went to the hotel's buffet for dinner. Our group contains several vegetarians, and the standard Cuban diet is anything but vegetarian. Therefore, the trip planners chose this hotel specifically for its buffets, which offer many vegetarian options. I can't stand buffets as often the food is cold by the time you eat it, and I'd honestly rather eat an authentic Cuban meal with meat than a non-Cuban vegetarian meal from a buffet. I'm hear to experience the culture and if that means eating meat, particularly if it was not factory farmed (as I doubt much meat here is), then I'll do it. That said, I had little choice about the hotel buffet, so I ate it.

From the buffet, I chose vegetarian paella, a few cheeseless varieties of pizza, fresh fruit (no mangos), a few vegetables including a white sweet potato, a rather bland winter squash, and a very chewy piece of eggplant, and a "chickpea soup" that I realized after the fact had meat in it. The meal was not good, but it filled my stomach. To make sure I would not be hungry later (which was perhaps an excuse to eat extra junk), I helped myself to a second serving of dessert, a brownie-ish item and something that tasted like coconut.

And thus, I ended my first day in Cuba. Upstairs, I took a shower, read for a bit, and went to bed. Normally I'm a night owl, but Cuba - with its lack of oil - uses compact fluorescent lights exclusively, and they give me migraines. I was eager to turn off the lights and close my eyes before my head hurt worse than it already did. Before leaving the hotel in Cancun, I downloaded all of my favorite U.S. news shows - the last news I would get for two weeks - onto my iPod. Now I turned on Rachel Maddow to listen as I fell asleep. I lasted only 15 minutes before nodding off.  Apparently the lack of multiple pillows did not bother me very much.

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Cuba Diaries: Day 1 | 15 comments
Everybody, quick! (4.00 / 3)
Clean up the bedrooms, get rid of those bottles!


Welcome back, Jill!

Looking forward to reading all about everything.  And enjoy Cancun while you're there...

I urge you to please, please write your Congresscritters and President Obama to remind them that the U.S. blockade of Cuba is an outdated and senseless policy and it is utterly inhumane to the Cuban people.

Yes, each and every one of them should know that the American public's view on Cuba is not represented by that small group of terrorists in Miami.

If I find out you were drinking bad beer (4.00 / 3)
while I was gone, you're all in trouble. But good beer is fine.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
beer is like sex... (4.00 / 4)
never bad, just sometimes better than others.

[ Parent ]
oh sex can be bad (4.00 / 3)
and so is coors light.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
mist (4.00 / 3)
I wonder if the mist might have formed from hot humid air entering an air conditioned passenger compartment. Just guessing.

Welcome back to the internet, Jill (4.00 / 4)
I await the rest of your Cuba saga. I've wanted to visit Cuba since forever. Almost went with the Venceramos Brigade back in the day, but it didn't work out.

We didn't break anything while you were gone. Honest.  

The US does trade with Cuba (4.00 / 3)
Cuba buys food from Cargill and other corporate Ag companies.

Most of these US products end up in the luxury hotels.

oh yes (4.00 / 3)
we found out. sick.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
just planted mojito mint.. (4.00 / 4)
they are my favorite drink.

love the pics of the hotel.  

I think I'm mojito'd out for a little while (4.00 / 3)
I drank at least one a day if not more.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
yes thanks for the diaries.. (4.00 / 3)
I got some ideas. The soda bottles filled with water and molasses? Do you happen to know what kind of pest it attracts?

All that gorgeous healthy food growing contrasts to what you found in hotels. Could home cooking be different or more of the same ( heavy on the meat)

[ Parent ]
Flies? No idea (4.00 / 2)
But I could give it a go at home and let ya know. Wish it killed those stupid cabbage butterflies.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Thanks for these diaries (4.00 / 4)
I'm very interested in how they do intercropping and intensive market gardening, especially in very small acreages. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from people farming like they are doing in Cuba and elsewhere.

Some of what you've shown in this diary are helpful to me right now in planning fall/winter/spring crops not only at my place but at dad's garden in SE Portland.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

I'm so glad (4.00 / 3)
I was a lot more observant now that I grow things in my own garden. Everything was so much more relevant to me. There's a lot more to come. I took about 500 pictures.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I'm looking foreward to them (4.00 / 3)
and the rest of the diaries.

There is so much that we who are farming small and very small amounts of land can learn from people who are working this way.

It's one thing to raise even 20 acres of corn, or any other crop, there's lots of info out there for that. But there's a dearth of information for people raising crops on small acreages or parts of acreages who can't use a tractor, etc.

I look at myself. While I'd love to be able to use our tractor to till, cultivate and harvest crops, the areas I have for planting, and the sheer variety of crops I grow prohibit that type of farming.

People who farm in Cuba, Nepal, and other areas around the clobe have skills and information that we in the developed world have lost. We need to get that information back, and the best way to do that is to relearn the old ways from the people who you visited and others as well as learning new ways to adapt new and existing materials and techniques. The water bottle timer in this diary is a great example of that.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Cuba Diaries: Day 1 | 15 comments
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