Cuba! Communism Visited

What is the one thing Americans can do in Cancun that they can’t do at home? Go to Cuba! Being a Communist country, the U.S. government has declared Cuba an “enemy of the state,” making it impossible for American citizens to travel to Cuba from the States and illegal to spend U.S. dollars there. However, if you happen to be in Mexico, and have pesos in your pocket instead of dollars, then it is but an hour-long plane ride away to truly step out of your comfort zone.

We spent a quick four days on the island; two days in the streets of Havana and two days in the country at a little resort village visited only by Cuban vacationers. It was a quick overview. A taste of what should be a seven coarse meal. But we savored the flavor of our tiny bite and came away with a belly full of observations. There are many conflicting words to describe Cuba. Sad. Joyful. Grey. Vibrant. Dead. Alive. Suppressed. Inspired. Hopeless. Hopeful. I took a lot of photos. I hope some of them captured a bit of what we experienced… Please make sure you read Kat’s emotional observations at the end of this blog to get her perspective on this eye-opening experience.

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We did very little research on Cuba before jumping on the plane.  I read one travel website the night before we left Mexico.  We were as ill-prepared to visit a new strange place as we usually are.  I did manage to glean that the best and cheapest places to stay are in private homes called Casas Particulars.  We scored a good taxi driver at the Havana airport who had a friend with a house… he made a phone call to Martica en-route into the city.  We had our place to stay.  Martica, her husband and her son are among the lucky few who’s family got to keep their home after the Revolution.  They try to make ends meet by renting out bedrooms and serving meals to their boarders.  There are hundreds of homes like this throughout the city.  We had several long conversations with Martica over meals about her daily life, all in Spanish as she spoke no English.  Her resigned demeanor painted a picture of hopelessness, and Kat cried when we left her.

We did very little research on Cuba before jumping on the plane. I read one travel website the night before we left Mexico. We were as ill-prepared to visit a new strange place as we usually are. I did manage to glean that the best and cheapest places to stay are in private homes called Casas Particulars. We scored a good taxi driver at the Havana airport who had a friend with a house… he made a phone call to Martica en-route into the city. We had our place to stay. Martica, her husband and her son are among the lucky few who’s family got to keep their home after the Revolution. They try to make ends meet by renting out bedrooms and serving meals to their boarders. There are hundreds of homes like this throughout the city. We had several long conversations with Martica over meals about her daily life, all in Spanish as she spoke no English. Her resigned demeanor painted a picture of hopelessness, and Kat cried when we left her.


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We arrived in Cuba in the early afternoon and were settled into Martica’s house by 3pm so we went out walking in search of bottled water.  The grocery store we found had shelves barren of meat or vegetables or much of anything else except lots of soda and alcohol.  The cereal boxes were all little single packs.  We learned later from a taxi driver that beef is illegal to eat.  If you kill a cow its 30 years in prison, if you kill a person, it’s eight.  Why? “Because Fidel says so,” we were told.  We also quickly learned that paper products are non-existent.  No toilet paper, no napkins and of course no paper towels.

We arrived in Cuba in the early afternoon and were settled into Martica’s house by 3pm so we went out walking in search of bottled water. The grocery store we found had shelves barren of meat or vegetables or much of anything else except lots of soda and alcohol. The cereal boxes were all little single packs. We learned later from a taxi driver that beef is illegal to eat. If you kill a cow its 30 years in prison, if you kill a person, it’s eight. Why? “Because Fidel says so,” we were told. We also quickly learned that paper products are non-existent. No toilet paper, no napkins and of course no paper towels.


Ciego Montero bottled water, number 1 in Cuba.  That’s because it’s the only one in Cuba.  It was very minerally and tasted pretty bad.  But an option was not a choice.

Ciego Montero bottled water, number 1 in Cuba. That’s because it’s the only one in Cuba. It was very minerally and tasted pretty bad. But an option was not a choice.


Once we had water we wandered the streets around Martica’s neighborhood.  The old world architecture was stupendous.  The level of decay was heartbreaking.

Once we had water we wandered the streets around Martica’s neighborhood. The old world architecture was stupendous. The level of decay was heartbreaking.


Ok, I admit it.  The number one reason I wanted to go to Cuba was to see the old cars.  They did not disappoint.  The whole country is teaming with them and in Havana they seem to outnumber post 1960 vehicles by about 3 to 1.  More on the cars later.

Ok, I admit it. The number one reason I wanted to go to Cuba was to see the old cars. They did not disappoint. The whole country is teaming with them and in Havana they seem to outnumber post 1960 vehicles by about 3 to 1. More on the cars later.


The cars were cool, but the people we met and got to know were magical.

The cars were cool, but the people we met and got to know were magical.


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Propaganda about the Revolution can be found anywhere there might be a foreign tourist around to read it.  You’d think it happened yesterday, not in the ‘50s.  We never saw newsstands, newpapers or magazines.  There are no ads on TV, only government propaganda between shows we were told.  We only saw one working TV in the two houses we stayed in.  It was showing a Cuban baseball game!

Propaganda about the Revolution can be found anywhere there might be a foreign tourist around to read it. You’d think it happened yesterday, not in the ‘50s. We never saw newsstands, newpapers or magazines. There are no ads on TV, only government propaganda between shows we were told. We only saw one working TV in the two houses we stayed in. It was showing a Cuban baseball game!


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Human backhoe.

Human backhoe.


Some fruits and veggies are sold in the streets from homemade carts, but it was clear that a poor Cuban’s diet is mainly carbs from bread-based meals, usually fried.  Small, mostly bread sandwiches with a thin slice of ham and cheese and “peso pizzas” (dough with cheese) could be bought for pennies on the street.  Meals in restaurants were very expensive.  The exchange rate of the Cuban CUC is about one to one with the U.S. dollar.

Some fruits and veggies are sold in the streets from homemade carts, but it was clear that a poor Cuban’s diet is mainly carbs from bread-based meals, usually fried. Small, mostly bread sandwiches with a thin slice of ham and cheese and “peso pizzas” (dough with cheese) could be bought for pennies on the street. Meals in restaurants were very expensive. The exchange rate of the Cuban CUC is about one to one with the U.S. dollar.


In a country where most of the populous owns next to nothing, the pride in the faces of the owners of the old cars is like a window in to their souls.  This old Buick has a Mercedes diesel.  About 99% of the pre 1960 cars have had most or all of their running gear changed out to Russian, Japanese or Korean bits.  Almost all are diesel.

In a country where most of the populous owns next to nothing, the pride in the faces of the owners of the old cars is like a window in to their souls. This old Buick has a Mercedes diesel. About 99% of the pre 1960 cars have had most or all of their running gear changed out to Russian, Japanese or Korean bits. Almost all are diesel.


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Around 5pm we came across this crowd in the street.  They were all clamoring to get into Las Vegas – Bar that is.  The Las Vegas Bar resembled its namesake about like the rest of the Cuban lifestyle resembles life in America.

Around 5pm we came across this crowd in the street. They were all clamoring to get into Las Vegas – Bar that is. The Las Vegas Bar resembled its namesake about like the rest of the Cuban lifestyle resembles life in America.


If it weren’t for the modern bus, this shot could be 1955.

If it weren’t for the modern bus, this shot could be 1955.


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Our first evening we were charmed into riding around with Alfredo in his Coco Taxi, a small Tuk Tuk like three-wheeler with a two-stroke motorcycle engine and a bright yellow fiberglass body that looked like half a lemon rolling down the road. (I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of one, they were everywhere)  As we rolled along, we asked him questions about his life. He struggles to pay a high monthly flat fee to the government for his taxi license in addition to trying to purchase the tiny taxi from the government.  Alfred was raised by his Dad because his mother was “crazy.”  His Dad “liked Castro,” but Alfred’s opinion of the dictator is “he is an asshole.”  Not the first, or the last time we heard Fidel described with such glowing reverence.

Our first evening we were charmed into riding around with Alfredo in his Coco Taxi, a small Tuk Tuk like three-wheeler with a two-stroke motorcycle engine and a bright yellow fiberglass body that looked like half a lemon rolling down the road. (I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of one, they were everywhere) As we rolled along, we asked him questions about his life. He struggles to pay a high monthly flat fee to the government for his taxi license in addition to trying to purchase the tiny taxi from the government. Alfred was raised by his Dad because his mother was “crazy.” His Dad “liked Castro,” but Alfred’s opinion of the dictator is “he is an asshole.” Not the first, or the last time we heard Fidel described with such glowing reverence.


“Ask me if I give a sh*t” seemed to be the attitude of this government guard at the telephone company.  We went there with Alfred who needed to pay for more minutes on his cell phone.  The phone Co had closed early, a situation that made Alfred very upset.  He argued with the guy then turned away, resigned to the fact that this was life and he could do nothing about it.

“Ask me if I give a sh*t” seemed to be the attitude of this government guard at the telephone company. We went there with Alfred who needed to pay for more minutes on his cell phone. The phone Co had closed early, a situation that made Alfred very upset. He argued with the guy then turned away, resigned to the fact that this was life and he could do nothing about it.


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Alfred took us to the Necropolis De Colon, a huge vacant concrete square with these huge neon images of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara that glow all night long.

Alfred took us to the Necropolis De Colon, a huge vacant concrete square with these huge neon images of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara that glow all night long.


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Later in the evening, after he’d driven us all over the city sightseeing, we bought Alfred (and ourselves) a few beers to cheer him up.

Later in the evening, after he’d driven us all over the city sightseeing, we bought Alfred (and ourselves) a few beers to cheer him up.


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The next morning we walked to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.  It appears to be one of the few grand old opulent structures from bygone days that the communist government has maintained as a tourist destination.  I found it ironic that they are capitalizing on the famous people and the lifestyle they so detested before, during and after their Revolution.

The next morning we walked to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It appears to be one of the few grand old opulent structures from bygone days that the communist government has maintained as a tourist destination. I found it ironic that they are capitalizing on the famous people and the lifestyle they so detested before, during and after their Revolution.


A view of Havana from the beautiful grounds of the National Hotel.  I wonder how many free-spending tourists stay at this hotel, marvel at the food and the views, then ride around in air-conditioned buses viewing other government approved sites, only to go home and proclaim they’ve seen Cuba and it is grand!

A view of Havana from the beautiful grounds of the National Hotel. I wonder how many free-spending tourists stay at this hotel, marvel at the food and the views, then ride around in air-conditioned buses viewing other government approved sites, only to go home and proclaim they’ve seen Cuba and it is grand!


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We rode around in this cool 1955 Plymouth for a while.  Its owner, like every old car owner we talked to, was so proud of his car.  As we understand it, (remember we are interperating all this in Spanish,) up until three years ago, people were not allowed to own these cars unless they had been in their family since before the Revolution.  Since Raul Castro has taken over the reins from Fidel, he has loosened the rules regarding car ownership.  Before, one could lease a car like this from the government, but now they can own them outright and modify them as they see fit.  This Plymouth sported all Toyota running gear.

We rode around in this cool 1955 Plymouth for a while. Its owner, like every old car owner we talked to, was so proud of his car. As we understand it, (remember we are interperating all this in Spanish,) up until three years ago, people were not allowed to own these cars unless they had been in their family since before the Revolution. Since Raul Castro has taken over the reins from Fidel, he has loosened the rules regarding car ownership. Before, one could lease a car like this from the government, but now they can own them outright and modify them as they see fit. This Plymouth sported all Toyota running gear.


“End the Injustice!”  This huge billboard was along the highway coming from the airport. Our taxi driver tried to explain to us what it meant, but in the Spanish/English translation we didn’t get the whole story. Evidently these five Cubans are being held by the U.S. government for something (?) while Cuba is holding a CIA agent who was caught trying to establish Internet service in the country. Both governments are at a stalemate over the issue.  The same taxi driver described Fidel as “Loco” and his brother Raul as “Stupido.”   “End the Injustice!”  This huge billboard was along the highway coming from the airport. Our taxi driver tried to explain to us what it meant, but in the Spanish/English translation we didn’t get the whole story. Evidently these five Cubans are being held by the U.S. government for something (?) while Cuba is holding a CIA agent who was caught trying to establish Internet service in the country. Both governments are at a stalemate over the issue.  The same taxi driver described Fidel as “Loco” and his brother Raul as “Stupido.”

“End the Injustice!” This huge billboard was along the highway coming from the airport. Our taxi driver tried to explain to us what it meant, but in the Spanish/English translation we didn’t get the whole story. Evidently these five Cubans are being held by the U.S. government for something (?) while Cuba is holding a CIA agent who was caught trying to establish Internet service in the country. Both governments are at a stalemate over the issue. The same taxi driver described Fidel as “Loco” and his brother Raul as “Stupido.”
“End the Injustice!” This huge billboard was along the highway coming from the airport. Our taxi driver tried to explain to us what it meant, but in the Spanish/English translation we didn’t get the whole story. Evidently these five Cubans are being held by the U.S. government for something (?) while Cuba is holding a CIA agent who was caught trying to establish Internet service in the country. Both governments are at a stalemate over the issue. The same taxi driver described Fidel as “Loco” and his brother Raul as “Stupido.”


This is the main office of the only bus company that services the whole country. There were no computers or even a normal ticket counter. Everything was written by hand and kept in school-kid like folders. We tried to take a bus to a location in the country but it was booked up for the next three days!

This is the main office of the only bus company that services the whole country. There were no computers or even a normal ticket counter. Everything was written by hand and kept in school-kid like folders. We tried to take a bus to a location in the country but it was booked up for the next three days!


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Just hanging out with the laundry.  There seemed to be many more people not working than vice-versa on the streets of Havana.  Why work when there is nothing to gain from it?

Just hanging out with the laundry. There seemed to be many more people not working than vice-versa on the streets of Havana. Why work when there is nothing to gain from it?


I just love this shot.

I just love this shot.


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This street artist seemed quite fond of Hugo.

This street artist seemed quite fond of Hugo.


This was a beautiful walkway from the Capital to the Malecon. The architecture of the buildings on either side was striking. Unfortunately, many of them were in serious decay or gutted out all together.

This was a beautiful walkway from the Capital to the Malecon. The architecture of the buildings on either side was striking. Unfortunately, many of them were in serious decay or gutted out all together.


These human-powered taxis were another way to get around.

These human-powered taxis were another way to get around.


Patriotism in spite of it all.

Patriotism in spite of it all.


Mobile hardware store.

Mobile hardware store.


The only reading to be found.

The only reading to be found.


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Street graffiti.

Street graffiti.


Strange access to a playground.

Strange access to a playground.


Showing off to the neighbors.  Love that blue.

Showing off to the neighbors. Love that blue.


This hairdo seemed to be all the rage.

This hairdo seemed to be all the rage.


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The Capital.

The Capital.


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My Dad had a Buick like this in college. A 1948 Roadmaster convertible.

My Dad had a Buick like this in college. A 1948 Roadmaster convertible.


This is not a Saturday gathering of an old car club.  These are all working taxi cabs waiting for fares in the Parque de la Fraternidad in downtown old Havana.  Hundreds of pre-1960 American cars still ply the streets and highways of Cuba.  I had heard about them for years and they were my main reason for visiting Cuba.  After the Revolution in 1959, all importation of American goods ceased.  As I understand it from asking around in my terrible Spanish, for years, no new vehicles from any country were allowed into Cuba, and only certain individuals who had cars prior to the Revolution were allowed to keep them.  Over time the government “acquired” most of them and leased them back the people.  Only in the last three years have individuals been allowed to own them outright.  The pride of ownership radiates from the owner’s faces.  These cars provide a glimmer of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.

This is not a Saturday gathering of an old car club. These are all working taxi cabs waiting for fares in the Parque de la Fraternidad in downtown old Havana. Hundreds of pre-1960 American cars still ply the streets and highways of Cuba. I had heard about them for years and they were my main reason for visiting Cuba. After the Revolution in 1959, all importation of American goods ceased. As I understand it from asking around in my terrible Spanish, for years, no new vehicles from any country were allowed into Cuba, and only certain individuals who had cars prior to the Revolution were allowed to keep them. Over time the government “acquired” most of them and leased them back the people. Only in the last three years have individuals been allowed to own them outright. The pride of ownership radiates from the owner’s faces. These cars provide a glimmer of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.


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Not just old cars abound. Many great old trucks are running around too like this 1951 Ford. If you look closely you’ll see it is actually a newer truck underneath, (probably Russian) with the Ford body widened to fit. Cubans are the Kings of Bondo.

Not just old cars abound. Many great old trucks are running around too like this 1951 Ford. If you look closely you’ll see it is actually a newer truck underneath, (probably Russian) with the Ford body widened to fit. Cubans are the Kings of Bondo.


This 1959 Chevy wagon has been modified with an opening back door and is converted inside with side mounted seats facing inward. It is used as a bus.

This 1959 Chevy wagon has been modified with an opening back door and is converted inside with side mounted seats facing inward. It is used as a bus.


Almost every car is extensively modified mechanically.  Almost all are now powered by small diesels from Japan or Korea.  All seem to have later manual transmissions, even if they were originally automatics, and most rear axles are Toyota or Russian in origin.  In addition, many have lost their original independent front suspensions which wore out long ago on Cuba’s potholed roads.  Many, like this ’46 Ford, now have beam front axles and leaf springs. (Ok all you collectors reading this. Yes, I know, ’46 Fords always had beam front axles with a single leaf spring. Bad example I guess, but it is a cool pic of an old Ford and it now has TWO leaf springs!)

Almost every car is extensively modified mechanically. Almost all are now powered by small diesels from Japan or Korea. All seem to have later manual transmissions, even if they were originally automatics, and most rear axles are Toyota or Russian in origin. In addition, many have lost their original independent front suspensions which wore out long ago on Cuba’s potholed roads. Many, like this ’46 Ford, now have beam front axles and leaf springs. (Ok all you collectors reading this. Yes, I know, ’46 Fords always had beam front axles with a single leaf spring. Bad example I guess, but it is a cool pic of an old Ford and it now has TWO leaf springs!)


Lots of Willy’s “Crackerboxes” running around.

Lots of Willy’s “Crackerboxes” running around.


Convertibles seem to garner a higher fare as taxis and get to park in the fancy area with the tour busses.  It doesn’t seem to matter if the car was originally a soft top.  Both of these Chevys, a ’54 and a ’55 have had their tops chopped off while the Buicks are the real deal. The black ugly car is a Russian Zil limo from the ‘60s – ‘70s. I don’t even know what the cool building in the background is! It’s all about the cars!

Convertibles seem to garner a higher fare as taxis and get to park in the fancy area with the tour busses. It doesn’t seem to matter if the car was originally a soft top. Both of these Chevys, a ’54 and a ’55 have had their tops chopped off while the Buicks are the real deal. The black ugly car is a Russian Zil limo from the ‘60s – ‘70s. I don’t even know what the cool building in the background is! It’s all about the cars!


Most of the interiors have been upgraded as well with tuck and roll upholstery and modern steering columns. (No airbags here though!)  Note the truck four speed shifter sprouting through the floor of this Buick, a car that most certainly had an automatic originally.

Most of the interiors have been upgraded as well with tuck and roll upholstery and modern steering columns. (No airbags here though!) Note the truck four speed shifter sprouting through the floor of this Buick, a car that most certainly had an automatic originally.


While most are rough edged working cars, this Willy’s wagon was a show piece with its Mitsubishi diesel covered in chrome.

While most are rough edged working cars, this Willy’s wagon was a show piece with its Mitsubishi diesel covered in chrome.


There was another parking area in front of the Capital building that only contained perfectly restored cars that seemed to be there for display. These convertibles, a ’58 Edsel, ‘55 Chevy and a ’59 Buick could have won awards at any car show in the States.

There was another parking area in front of the Capital building that only contained perfectly restored cars that seemed to be there for display. These convertibles, a ’58 Edsel, ‘55 Chevy and a ’59 Buick could have won awards at any car show in the States.


On our way back to Martica’s house we caught a ride with this guy in his ’53 Chevy. It had a Hyundai engine, Toyota transmission and a Russian rear axle. Note the Subaru steering wheel connected to an Audi steering box. It kind of reminded me of that old Johnny Cash song.

On our way back to Martica’s house we caught a ride with this guy in his ’53 Chevy. It had a Hyundai engine, Toyota transmission and a Russian rear axle. Note the Subaru steering wheel connected to an Audi steering box. It kind of reminded me of that old Johnny Cash song.


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Just down the street from Martica’s we came across this impromptu jam and dance session that had broken out in the street for no apparent reason other than love.  We realized that there was something other than old cars that gave the Cuban people joy.  Music.  These guys rocked!  After about a half hour it just broke up and everyone went on their way to wherever.

Just down the street from Martica’s we came across this impromptu jam and dance session that had broken out in the street for no apparent reason other than love. We realized that there was something other than old cars that gave the Cuban people joy. Music. These guys rocked! After about a half hour it just broke up and everyone went on their way to wherever.


Our final dinner at Martica’s.  She really pulled out the stops for us, serving us chicken and a salad.  Things that many Cubans can’t afford to eat.  During our meal we talked with her about the many things we take for granted like eating anything we want, travelling when and where we want, skin care products she can’t get, toilet paper and the Internet which is banned in Cuba.  She had such a fatalistic approach to her life, like, “this is how it is and it is never going to get any better so I just exist.”  We are sooooo lucky.

Our final dinner at Martica’s. She really pulled out the stops for us, serving us chicken and a salad. Things that many Cubans can’t afford to eat. During our meal we talked with her about the many things we take for granted like eating anything we want, travelling when and where we want, skin care products she can’t get, toilet paper and the Internet which is banned in Cuba. She had such a fatalistic approach to her life, like, “this is how it is and it is never going to get any better so I just exist.” We are sooooo lucky.


The next morning we hopped in this Chinese made Geely and headed for the countryside.  After we had found the buses full to anywhere, we struck a deal with a taxi driver outside the bus station.  He agreed to take us an hour and a half outside of Havana to the small resort village of “Hotel Moka” which he recommended.  He’d drop us off, then come back two days later and pick us up and take us back to the Havana airport, all for 100CUC or just under $100US.  The bus would have been half that, but the experience we got from this arrangement was priceless.

The next morning we hopped in this Chinese made Geely and headed for the countryside. After we had found the buses full to anywhere, we struck a deal with a taxi driver outside the bus station. He agreed to take us an hour and a half outside of Havana to the small resort village of “Hotel Moka” which he recommended. He’d drop us off, then come back two days later and pick us up and take us back to the Havana airport, all for 100CUC or just under $100US. The bus would have been half that, but the experience we got from this arrangement was priceless.


Our first conversation with Alain, our driver, was about the USA and his feelings towards Castro and his country’s government.  “Castro is a sommabitch” he told us emphaticly.  He showed us the home screen on his cell phone – an American eagle and flag.  Wow!  If Alain could float his taxi we’d have been on our way to Florida.  He told us many things as we rolled along, again all in Spanglish, so I hope we got it all right.  The most profound thing I remember him telling us was when we asked him why nobody ate vegetables, only fruit.  All around us were endless acres of fallow farmland with a year round growing season and plenty of rain. “Nobody wants to do the hard work it takes to grow crops. Why work hard on land owned by the government who will only pay them a paltry salary for their labor?” We asked, why aren’t more things grown on the sly and sold on the black market?  Answer:  “People have no money to buy anything.”  “Fruit just grows wild so there is no labor in producing it. Just pick it up.”  “There is no incentive in my country for the people to do anything.”   Classic Socialism.  Take heed America! Visit Cuba before you vote next time!

Our first conversation with Alain, our driver, was about the USA and his feelings towards Castro and his country’s government. “Castro is a sommabitch” he told us emphaticly. He showed us the home screen on his cell phone – an American eagle and flag. Wow! If Alain could float his taxi we’d have been on our way to Florida. He told us many things as we rolled along, again all in Spanglish, so I hope we got it all right. The most profound thing I remember him telling us was when we asked him why nobody ate vegetables, only fruit. All around us were endless acres of fallow farmland with a year round growing season and plenty of rain. “Nobody wants to do the hard work it takes to grow crops. Why work hard on land owned by the government who will only pay them a paltry salary for their labor?” We asked, why aren’t more things grown on the sly and sold on the black market? Answer: “People have no money to buy anything.” “Fruit just grows wild so there is no labor in producing it. Just pick it up.” “There is no incentive in my country for the people to do anything.”
Classic Socialism. Take heed America! Visit Cuba before you vote next time!


The Russian Embassy. A rather imposing structure.

The Russian Embassy. A rather imposing structure.


Once out of the city the highway was good, but empty. Horse drawn carts shared the tarmac with the few trucks and cars.

Once out of the city the highway was good, but empty. Horse drawn carts shared the tarmac with the few trucks and cars.


Roadside fast food. These guys were selling roasted chickens and homemade cheese. Free enterprise in a communist world.

Roadside fast food. These guys were selling roasted chickens and homemade cheese. Free enterprise in a communist world.


When we arrived in Moka we were invited to stay with the family who owns this spotless house in the village. Elizabeta and Tomas live with their granddaughter, Marita, who is three. The little girl’s parents are working overseas. Tomas makes a living as a musican. What a treasure this family was to find!

When we arrived in Moka we were invited to stay with the family who owns this spotless house in the village. Elizabeta and Tomas live with their granddaughter, Marita, who is three. The little girl’s parents are working overseas. Tomas makes a living as a musican. What a treasure this family was to find!


Our room.

Our room.


Elizabeta’s kitchen.

Elizabeta’s kitchen.


A view of the village and the small lake from the only actual Hotel.

A view of the village and the small lake from the only actual Hotel.


Housing apartments.

Housing apartments.


Portable clothes line. Moka appeared to be a government built resort town within a National Park.  We saw very few foreign tourists but there were quite a few Cubans there for the weekend.  There was a nice Hotel with a swimming pool and a tennis court. We snuck in and tried out both.

Portable clothes line.
Moka appeared to be a government built resort town within a National Park. We saw very few foreign tourists but there were quite a few Cubans there for the weekend. There was a nice Hotel with a swimming pool and a tennis court. We snuck in and tried out both.


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This guy keeps pigeons in cages on his roof as pets.  In the morning and evening we watched him release them to fly around.  Then he would give a special whistle and they would come back and settle in to their cages.

This guy keeps pigeons in cages on his roof as pets. In the morning and evening we watched him release them to fly around. Then he would give a special whistle and they would come back and settle in to their cages.


Gotta have at least one Flatfender picture, even if this ‘52 CJ3A was now 2WD and had a Suzuki rear axle.

Gotta have at least one Flatfender picture, even if this ‘52 CJ3A was now 2WD and had a Suzuki rear axle.


Necessity is the mother of invention.

Necessity is the mother of invention.


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On a walk through the jungle we came across these two guys spear fishing in the river.  He caught three fish during the five minutes we watched him!

On a walk through the jungle we came across these two guys spear fishing in the river. He caught three fish during the five minutes we watched him!


Then a few of their buddies showed up with two bottles of Vodka.  So much for the fishing.  We shared a couple of sips with them and they told us how they had always lived in this area of the jungle.  Only in the last ten years or so had anybody from elsewhere come to swim in their river.

Then a few of their buddies showed up with two bottles of Vodka. So much for the fishing. We shared a couple of sips with them and they told us how they had always lived in this area of the jungle. Only in the last ten years or so had anybody from elsewhere come to swim in their river.


Our Vodka friend’s home.

Our Vodka friend’s home.


It was very hot and muggy so swimming in the river seemed like a good thing to do.

It was very hot and muggy so swimming in the river seemed like a good thing to do.


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These Cuban tourists were enjoying the river in the designated tourist area downstream from where we met the locals.  They were munching on a huge hunk of roast pig.

These Cuban tourists were enjoying the river in the designated tourist area downstream from where we met the locals. They were munching on a huge hunk of roast pig.


Back in the village, the old cars were still the stars.  These trinkets, sold in the tourist kiosks, were made by hand out of old soda cans or chunks of wood.

Back in the village, the old cars were still the stars. These trinkets, sold in the tourist kiosks, were made by hand out of old soda cans or chunks of wood.


This is what Kat had to put up with the whole time we were there!

This is what Kat had to put up with the whole time we were there!


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But this ’48 Plymouth was worth looking under.  I discovered it was 4 wheel drive!  Its clever owner, shown here showing off his power windows through a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke, had grafted a 4WD Hyundai SUV chassis and running gear under the old beast.

But this ’48 Plymouth was worth looking under. I discovered it was 4 wheel drive! Its clever owner, shown here showing off his power windows through a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke, had grafted a 4WD Hyundai SUV chassis and running gear under the old beast.


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Just one more! Not all cherished cars are old American ones. In the ‘70s Russian cars began to be imported. Now they are old and are being refurbished by proud new owners. This Moscavitch now has a Renault diesel.

Just one more! Not all cherished cars are old American ones. In the ‘70s Russian cars began to be imported. Now they are old and are being refurbished by proud new owners. This Moscavitch now has a Renault diesel.


What is a Dana 44 doing under a Russian car? That’s like pouring vodka all over apple pie!

What is a Dana 44 doing under a Russian car? That’s like pouring vodka all over apple pie!


Little Marita was the cutest thing ever. She was way wiser than her three years. An old soul.

Little Marita was the cutest thing ever. She was way wiser than her three years. An old soul.


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I think she wants to be a hair dresser.

I think she wants to be a hair dresser.


On our final afternoon in Moka we had the best treat of the trip. Tomas took us to his mother’s apartment in the village to let us listen to him practice music with his band partner Miguel.

On our final afternoon in Moka we had the best treat of the trip. Tomas took us to his mother’s apartment in the village to let us listen to him practice music with his band partner Miguel.


Greeting Mom.

Greeting Mom.


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Proud Mama.

Proud Mama.


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 I doubt these images convey the soulful energy that was in the room as these guys played, but I hope they give an idea.  Through their music, these guy’s lives, and those of the two elderly listeners, are transformed like magic.  Though they play all the time professionally and have heard their songs hundreds of times, creating the music once again removed them from the stoic resignation of their daily lives.  It was a very special experience for Kat and me.

I doubt these images convey the soulful energy that was in the room as these guys played, but I hope they give an idea. Through their music, these guy’s lives, and those of the two elderly listeners, are transformed like magic. Though they play all the time professionally and have heard their songs hundreds of times, creating the music once again removed them from the stoic resignation of their daily lives. It was a very special experience for Kat and me.


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Music puts smiles on Cuban faces.

Music puts smiles on Cuban faces.


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When Alain picked us up to take us to the airport I asked him if we could go the back way and see a Cuban beach.  I mentioned we could stop for a coffee and take in the ambiance of a seaside town.  He seemed to like the idea and mentioned a “good” spot.  I envisioned a sidewalk café with a table and an umbrella. We’d sip coffee while watching tourists on their way to the beach. Hah, maybe 55 years ago.  Alain took us to this beautiful beach but it was the saddest site we’d seen.  In the 50’s this was a thriving hotel and dive center with a long pier for tying up boats.  Now it is in ruins, just rotting away to rubble with no one on the beach. After the beach viewing we went in search of coffee. After stopping at three different restaurants and being told three times they didn’t have any coffee, Alain gave up in despair. The shame on his face was heartbreaking.  He wanted so hard to please us but his country wouldn’t let him.  He was embarrassed and kept saying “This is how my country is.” Finally he just quietly said, “I just better take you to the airport now.”

When Alain picked us up to take us to the airport I asked him if we could go the back way and see a Cuban beach. I mentioned we could stop for a coffee and take in the ambiance of a seaside town. He seemed to like the idea and mentioned a “good” spot. I envisioned a sidewalk café with a table and an umbrella. We’d sip coffee while watching tourists on their way to the beach. Hah, maybe 55 years ago. Alain took us to this beautiful beach but it was the saddest site we’d seen. In the 50’s this was a thriving hotel and dive center with a long pier for tying up boats. Now it is in ruins, just rotting away to rubble with no one on the beach. After the beach viewing we went in search of coffee. After stopping at three different restaurants and being told three times they didn’t have any coffee, Alain gave up in despair. The shame on his face was heartbreaking. He wanted so hard to please us but his country wouldn’t let him. He was embarrassed and kept saying “This is how my country is.” Finally he just quietly said, “I just better take you to the airport now.”


Alain my friend, I hope someday you get your wish of going to America, the land who’s image you keep on your cell phone.

Alain my friend, I hope someday you get your wish of going to America, the land who’s image you keep on your cell phone.

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It’s All About Perspective – Kat’s Thoughts on Cuba

Deep in thought, strolling along the covered marble and tile sidewalk, I looked up to find that Ned had vanished. I thought he was behind me but he wasn’t. I walked half a block back down the grimy walkway still musing on the former grandeur of the city. I scanned the faces of loiterers and fellow walkers. No Ned. My pulse quickened as a bubble of panic began to grow. I was not in Mexico. I was in Havana. Cuba. Enemy to the United States. Minutes ticked by, and reality rushed in as I paced up and down the block. Ned and I had pooled all of our Mexican Pesos to buy Cuban money, and he had it all. I had ATM and Credit cards, but they were American…worthless in Cuba. I did not have a dime. Where was Ned? My overactive imagination took over, and I pictured Ned kidnapped. The American Embassy! That’s where you go, right? No, wait. This was Cuba. There was no American Embassy, and I was a citizen of an enemy country who was not supposed to be here “trading with the enemy.”

By now cold sweat had broken out, my heart was pounding, and I was shaking all over. Five more minutes passed, and sobs built up, threatening to escape. I searched the crowd for a friendly face but found only dull disinterest or inappropriate leers. What was I to do? What good was clever resourcefulness in a country where cleverness was not rewarded and there were no resources?

Obviously I found Ned, (he was ahead of me by a block) but not before receiving the fright of my life and a healthy dose of perspective.

Our four days in Cuba were more thought provoking than any previous travel experience. Being a fierce advocate for freedom, capitalism and our whole American way of life, I was intensely interested in the beliefs, thoughts and dreams of people living under pure dictatorial Communism. I wanted to know everything; how they earned a living; how was money controlled; what could they own; what did the government own; how was food produced and sold; what were their limitations; where was it possible to excel; what did they think of their dictators, Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul?

With limited time, we forwent sightseeing in favor of delving in to the lives of the Cuban people. We had long conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, Cuban people on weekend getaways, musicians, the owners of the houses where we stayed, clerks who sold government sanctioned goods, poorer Cubans and Cubans who were better off.

We found the people soulful, charming and kind…human spirit peeking out from the suppression of government control. But life was hard there. There were no vibrant, colorful markets bursting with the energy of free enterprise. No Internet, no easy access to the outside world. No television, except government sanctioned programs. Unemployment was high, especially for women, and there was no welfare. With heart wrenching realization, we saw many lovely teenage girls “hanging out” with much older men. A few people owned their houses, their taxis or their market stalls, but paid very high flat fees for licenses to own and operate them. Most people leased everything from and worked for the government, receiving shockingly low wages in return. A medic (doctor) for instance, earns only the equivalent of $10 per month yet the cost of living, we found, was nearly that of the US. Everyone we spoke with complained about the disparity between wages and cost of living. It is an immense problem for the Cuban people, and of course many turn to black markets.

Some of the people found relief in the ability to work overseas. We met a man who did consulting work in Barcelona, a musician who played concerts in Mexico, Canada and Russia and a family who’s daughter and son-in-law worked as Medics in Venezuela. But these were the exception. Most were mired in the endless sameness of Communism.

Cubans, like many Mexicans we chatted with want to go or have their children go to America. But, watching their faces as they speak, I noticed a big difference. The Mexican people always have a certain dreamy look, a glimmer of hopefulness. The Cubans, however, spoke of the wish, but their faces reflected a sad fatalism, indicating a complete lack of hope. It was heartbreaking, and time after time I found myself saying tearful goodbyes to these beautiful people, wishing I could smuggle them out in my backpack.

We Americans grow up with the belief that anything is possible. We have endless choices and can come and go as we please. I have traveled in many countries and have seen how different forms of government affect the people. I have seen wretched poverty and the apathy of idleness. But there in Cuba it was not only goods and services that were in such short supply. Freedom itself, had, for most people become an impossible idea. It appeared to me that this Communist government had formed a place where the human spirit to create and grow was thoroughly repressed, and every choice, even down to what brand of water or shampoo people could buy was controlled by someone else.

Our four day Cuban sojourn was hugely emotional for me. The suffocating weight of Communism fell over the country like a dull miasma, and I felt a haunting fear of ever having to live like that. While I understand that the promise of Communism is to lift all people to an equal level, what I sensed, was that the level was much lower than we Americans are used to. It was true that we saw no extreme poverty like we have seen in other countries, but we also saw no signs of progress, pride or excellence, and the entire country had an air of disinterested neglect.

In the end it is all about perspective. We are so accustomed to our incredible way of life that we take it for granted. I feel fortunate to have felt for four days, what it would be like to live without freedom, human rights, choices, and advocacy.

Back in Mexico, I had my hair done by a beautiful Mexican woman named Berta. I was telling her about our visit to Cuba and how I found the Mexican people so much more vibrant and full of life. Berta summed it up simply, saying, “Without freedom, the people are not happy.”

Side Notes:

While there is no American Embassy in Cuba, there is a US Interests Section housed in the Swiss Embassy. In place of an Ambassador there is a Chief of the US Interests Section.

A few people were allowed to keep ownership of and/or inherit houses or cars after the revolution, but three years ago (2011) the Castro regime began allowing more widespread private ownership of houses and cars. Many are taking advantage of the new law, making payments to the government to become owners.

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for the Cuban people.