The minute we heard on the news that Carnival, Inc. had permission to take Americans to Cuba on a cruise ship, we looked at each other and said, “We have to go before it gets too Americanized.” Learning which ship it would be made it even better. Shortly after that our friends decided to join us. We booked with Fathom, the new cruise line, directly, picking a mid-September date so they’d have 11 cruises to get their act together before we boarded, and everything went well.
It was an absolutely fantabulous trip! Although we’d booked during one of the two weeks most likely for hurricanes, our week slipped in between a tropical storm the week before and Hurricane Matthew two weeks after. Not to be punny, but the cruise couldn’t have been smoother; we felt no wind, waves nor rain the whole week.
The ship is familiar; having been the Renaissance R-8, Swan Hellenic Minerva II, Royal Princess, and P & O Adonia, and similar to Princess’ Tahitian/Ocean Princess and Pacific Princess. We’ve been on these ships in the same aft balcony cabin several times; our favorite! The old red and blue carpeting is gone, and it’s been spruced up with new furniture, carpeting, draperies, and is ready for its next adventure to Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
We arrived at the dock about 10:30, checked in and had boarded, eaten a buffet lunch and were in our cabins by 12:15 on Sunday. Shortly thereafter we’d unpacked and were exploring. The casino was removed to make a much larger lounge, Anderson’s, on Deck 5 with lots of comfy couches and chairs. Additionally, one of the specialty dining rooms, Sabatini’s, was turned into the lovely Glass House Wine Bar, up on Deck 10. Computers were moved into the Library, which is otherwise untouched.
Mike and I opted to eat al fresco on the buffet’s aft deck most meals, while our friends preferred the main dining room. The dress code on the ship is “Casual, but no swim suits in the main dining room at dinner.” We could all live with that. Food was good; not spectacular, but good. There was a Cuban selection each night, as well as some remaining British recipes and of course American fare. When they had rack of lamb we all ate in the Main Dining Room, and two other nights we ate went up to the Sterling Steakhouse. I seriously doubt that a single person onboard lost any weight. By the way, if you're interested in making reservations in the specialty dining room, go up there immediately after boarding and make them.
This is no ordinary cruise. There are no glitzy shows; although some of Hemingway’s movies are shown, the thrust of the “entertainment” was to teach us Cuban history, as well as to prepare us for the three ports. There are also no guys trying to push drinks with umbrellas at you whenever you step into a public place. If you want a drink, you have to ask for it. That's refreshing! Tours are included as part of the cruise. Travel is relaxed, but Americans cannot just go wandering off on their own; one must be in a program and with a guide at all times. That’s easy because every licensed taxi driver is also a licensed tour guide (and we have to keep your receipts for 5 years in case the IRS decides to check).
After departing Miami on Sunday afternoon, we arrived in Havana at 11 am Monday and were there till about 8 pm on Tuesday. We’d read that the walking tour provided by Fathom on the first day in Havana was through the old city in intense heat with little shade. so we decided to do a “Self-Guided People-to-People” Exchange that day, studied up on where we wanted to go, found a licensed taxi driver/tour guide, and were off to Hemingway’s Havana estate, about 10 miles out of town, and also up to El Morro, the fort at the mouth of the harbor. We’d visited Hemingway’s Key West home on Saturday before boarding, so this would be a Hemingway Literary Tour.
After clearing customs we exchanged money. Cuba has two currencies. One is the Cuban Peso (CUP, pronounced coop) that Cubans use; that currency has people on it, and it cannot be converted to other currencies because it is what is paid to workers, who can use it something like food stamps to obtain commodities and clothing at government stores. The other is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC, pronounced kook), that has monuments on it, and which is what all tourists use. It is pegged one-for-one to the US dollar; one CUC is equal to 24 CUPs. Got that? There will be a test at the end. Euros and Canadian dollars are exchanged at the going rate, but American dollars are exchanged with a 10% discount. Knowing that, we took Canadian dollars, which we got a super deal on at Wells Fargo.
The car was a 1950 green Chevy convertible in cherry condition. We had a blast! Yes, the sun beat down on us at traffic signals; yes, we smelled more exhaust fumes that we had in years, but the wind on our faces with the top down made us all think we were teenagers again. The driver bragged that his car was his grandfather’s, and it was all original. There’s a saying here, “Locked in 1959 with all original parts.” Wish I’d found on a T shirt! At Hemingway’s house the driver got a big jug of water out of the trunk and topped off the radiator. When he finished, Mike said, “Hey, you forgot to replace the cap.” The driver replied, “No es necessario” as he slammed the hood down. By the way, the driver stays with you at each place; he's your guide, even though other people might be on site to answer questions.
The house, as all property, was taken over by the government when the Communists set up shop. It was retained as a monument, though, and government employees have been taking care of it since then. While the Key West house had some furniture and several rooms with a pictorial history of the man and his writing, this house showed how Papa lived, simple furnishings with lots of memorabilia from hunting trips all over the world. Both have tons of cats. His bedroom/study, where most of his writing was done, as well as other rooms are open for viewing. There’s a Miro in the dining room, which he most likely got when he lived in Spain, but the home is quite simple. The grounds are lush, the swimming pool inviting, and his boat is in the yard. It’s easy to see why he was depressed when they had to leave for Idaho.
After cooling off in the garden a bit, we returned to the car and watched as two men pressed canes through a hand mill to release liquid sugar, which they use to sweeten drinks. Everything here is done in the old fashioned, non-mechanized way, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Then we headed back to the old city, past the terminal where the Adonia was docked, drove through a tunnel under the harbor and went up to El Morro. We asked if the tunnel was built by the Russians; the driver said, “No, by the French.” By this time our driver/guide had warmed up to us. We teased him because he honked and waved to all his friends, which seemed to be half of Havana. As we approached a huge statue of Christ that is Cuba’s answer to Rio’s Christ with outstretched arms, he joked that it’s Christ in Jail, explaining that the scaffolding has been in place for years. We didn’t discuss religion, but Castro’s Communism must treat it differently than Russia’s; people in the former Soviet Union countries were not allowed to practice religion and never would have been allowed to build a statue of Christ. Across the way was the house Che Guevara lived in. That house has really been gussied up, at least on the outside, with Che written in bright red on the façade; Che only lived there a few months.
El Morro is an imposing fort on a hill overlooking the entry to Havana harbor. It is not as large as the one in San Juan, but apparently in the 1500’s it was big enough to take care of pirates and other enemies of Spain. A secondary part sits on the other side of the water. I assume they could put chains across, if necessary, to prevent boats from entering, and if nothing else cannons could hit them from both sides. In front sits quite an array of Russian planes and other things once used as a defense against any attacks by the US, which we chose not to inspect up close.
I need to interject here that the Cuban people are very friendly, energetic, happy that relations with the US are easing and that Americans are once again coming to Cuba. They are eager for the day when we can travel unaccompanied, and when they can legally visit the US.
We had purchased tickets online to the Tropicana. After refreshing showers and a quick dinner, we left the terminal, found a Pontiac with AC and once again headed out with a driver/guide. We noted that it had a “5-on-the-post” and the driver explained that many of the older cars have been updated with Toyota 5-speed drive trains; mechanics adapt floor shifts to shift on the post, and they get much better mileage.
We arrived early so they sent us to the bar, which overlooks the dining room, and then wished we’d come dinner, as well. The dining room is beautiful. This was our first chance to order a daquori, which was invented in one of a few places in Havana. All drinks at the bar cost 5 CUCs. When we ordered, though, we had no idea that the price of our tickets for the show included a glass of champagne with a strawberry, a vodka Collins, and a 5th of Cuban rum plus cokes (from Mexico) for the four of us. The show was in an air conditioned “grotto”; no smoking and (ahhhh!) air conditioning. Wunnerful! The show was 2 ½ hours long, and we all agreed it was the best any of us had ever seen. The costumes, head dresses, dancing, acrobatics, singing, and tempo were superb. The guys’ only comment was, “Buns of steel.”
We returned to the ship after midnight, but the next morning we were on a bus at 7:30 for the city tour. The bus company, like everything else, is government owned; buses are modern, with comfortable seats, air conditioning and clean restrooms with toilet paper. With an expert guide and driver, we covered a lot of territory. We learned that guides are either very pro-Communist or very not, depending on age. One of our guides said, “I’m young; I’m 33, and I want to live in Cuba; I want to keep working here, but I also want to visit the United States. Right now I can’t because I speak English and I can’t get a visa because they are afraid I’ll get to Miami and not leave, but I can’t earn as much money in the US as I can here.” He continued, “The embargo, the Bay of Pigs, they are history; we need to put history behind us. They matter to the old people, but they are not relevant to us young people. We want to be friends with America the way we’re friends with the all other countries in the world.”
The guides’ view of Communism also depended upon age. One day our guide was about 60. Or maybe 59 with all original parts. At any rate he told us that everything in Cuba is free, while in the US we had to pay for everything. Here’s what the young guide said. “The old people, they’ll tell you that everything is free. But nothing is free. We pay for everything we get. Everybody works and the first 200 hours a month we work is for the government. (200 hours a month!) Any time we work after that, we get paid. What do we get for our 200 hours per month? We get 16 years of school. We get medical care if we can afford the co-pay. We get a state funeral and burial. We get enough CUPs to buy about 20 lbs of rice, 20 lbs of beans and 20 lbs of pork each month, plus some clothes. We get enough money to share a small apartment with lots of family members. All men must serve in the Army (or Navy); two years if we’ve finished 16 years of school and four years if we’ve finished only 12. Women serve two years if they’ve finished 12 years of school, and none if they finished 16. We have a lot of over-educated people in Cuba.” He also explained that Cubans do not have to be members of the Communist party or swear allegiance to Communism, but membership is required to be part of the National Senate or National Assembly or to be appointed to anything.
One more thing; Cuba is definitely a tipping society. Everybody gets a tip, from the tour guide and driver to restaurant hostesses and waiters, to restroom attendants, to people who bring free drinks to those who tell you a bit of history at, say, the Hemingway House to musicians. You get the idea; everybody is tipped for everything. You can tip in CUCs, Euros, Canadian dollars or American dollars; they don’t care, but they expect a tip. The result is that tipping is literally tipping the society. All these service people who receive tips are being tipped in high-value currency. A CUC, remember, is equal to 24 CUPs, which can buy more rice and beans and clothes. What’s happening is that all these people are tipped so much that they earn more than the doctors (who work for the government), and who drive taxis to earn tips after a day of seeing patients.
OK. I’ll get off my government spiel and back to our tour. We drove past tons of apartments built by the Russians, just like the ones I called Communist bunkers in the Czech Republic. We also drove by some of the homes that were once privately owned and taken over by the government, many now turned into guest houses. At the National Hotel, our guide said it was formerly the Mafia headquarters, but now they only have one Mafia: Castro.
We stopped at the Casa de Fuster, or Fusterlandia as they call the home of artist-sculptor Jose Fuster. It is reminiscent of Gaudi’s Parq Guell in Barcelona or the Young Adults section of the Camarillo Library. All I can say is, “WOW!” This man thought that his neighborhood needed to be inspired, to have something to make them happy when there was very little to be happy about. So he began to tile everything at his home with whimsy; there are cacti, giraffes, cowboys, and all kinds of things piled one on top of the other and on every wall. Neighbors got into the act and helped; even the street markers in that area are tiled. It’s not in my guidebooks, but if you get to Havana, be sure to see the Fuster House.
Next up was the Cemetario de Colon. Although Columbus landed on Cuba, he did not die here and was buried in Genoa, Italy. However, the cemetery bears his name. It has some fantastic monuments that were built by very rich people before Castro took over; they remain. However, the cemetery is pretty much full so, and here’s the zinger, after the state funeral that everybody gets, the bodies are buried in available plots, but they can only stay there for two years, when they are dug up and given to the family so that other people can be buried in the plot.
Lunch was at La Floridita, a place claiming to have invented the daquori, and definitely a Havana Hemingway Hangout. Then it was time for shopping, or “chopping” as the guides all called it. Our friends were dropped off at the ship; we bought a few things and returned to the bus to talk in depth with the young, forthright guide. Wish we could have spent more time in and out of Havana, but it was time to leave for Cienfuegos, where we’d arrive after a day at sea.
Cienfuegos, a hundred fires, was named for Senor Cienfuegos and has nothing to do with fires. It is a resort city for Canadians, Europeans and Cubans who can afford it. We stopped at a folk park where residents had made a lot of interesting things from metal, and drove by old mansions-now-guest houses, plus the yacht club. We had checked before leaving, and Cienfuegos was the home of Dodgers right fielderr, Yaseil Puig. The cruise line warned us not to take gifts to distribute because it would create problems for those who come later by setting the expectation of gifts. We bought a Dodger baseball cap at Big 5 and were discrete, although we became doubtful when our (older, “59 and holding”) guide told us what a traitor Puig was for defecting to the US as we drove by the city baseball stadium.
As we disembarked the bus to walk around the Plaza de Armas, Mike donned the cap. We tried to detour an old Chevy convertible. but the driver turned to sell us a tour—and then spotted Mike’s cap. He immediately said, “How much for your hat?” Mike hesitated; the guy almost panicked. “How much? How much for the hat?” Finally, Mike asked, “Do you have a son?” The guy smiled, “Yes; he’s 11,” he responded. “Does he like Puig?” “Yes, he loves Puig.” So Mike removed the cap, bowed, and said, “This cap is for your son.” Believe me, that man and his wife would have done anything for us, but we only wanted pictures of him and his car—and we didn’t give him a tip, either.
After seeing some very nicely restored buildings on the plaza we entered the Teatro Tomas Terry, a theater donated to the city by a rich resident, for a choral presentation, which was fantastic! Later we walked through a street market, saw several delivery wagons pulled by mules, had a local beer (Cristal) to cool off, and then it was time to return to the ship and depart for Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba is the “birthplace of Cuban Revolution,” and not just Castro’s revolution. It’s also home to San Juan Hill. Our first stop was at the Plaza de Armas, which is filled with huge bulletin boards that are filled with more information than we wanted to read about the history of Castro and Che’s first attempt to take over Bautista’s government here in Santiago de Cuba, in both Spanish and English. We quickly followed our guide down a street to a little bar; each bus went to a different bar (there were 15 buses), where we heard typical Cuban music and dancing (Rhumba and Samba—no Conga line, though). The bar was actually an open patio, enclosed on four sides, and pretty hot, even in the shade. However, seeing the musicians and dancers was more important than being on the shady side or sunny side. There were guitars, a very unusual base, a flute, singers and two dancers, and the 45 minute performance wasn’t nearly long enough. It was the kind of stuff that could keep us sitting all night, enjoying the music. We really wish we could have stayed twice as long!
The time had come to walk back to the bus on the Plaza, with enough time for more “chopping”. In addition to the Dodgers cap, we’d taken a Mickey Mouse cap, which I kept in my purse. At a hat and guitar shop we spotted a toddler with her two abuelas and father, the shopkeeper. While he tried to sell another hat to Mike, I bent over and asked the little girl, “Conoces Mickey Mouse?” She looked at me and grabbed the cap from my hand. Her grandmas said in unison, “Si, conoce Mickey Mouse” as one of them put it on her head. She pulled it off and refused to put it on again. Then she began to run all over, stopping only to look at Mickey.
We later heard what happens when you bring gifts and just hand them out. We had not seen any beggars in Havana, but there were some in Santiago de Cuba. One woman from the ship had a large bag of T shirts she’d brought, and handed one to a beggar. Another immediately showed up, and she gave him one, too. Then another and another and she was finally overwhelmed by beggars fighting over her T shirts. Another cruiser ran to the police, who broke up the fight and hauled the beggars off.
After lunch at an open-air restaurant above the owner’s home, we went to San Juan Hill, where they talked about the Spanish Cuban American War, asking why the Spanish and Americans never mention Cuba in the name of the war in which they won their independence from Spain. With no mention of Teddy Roosevelt nor the Rough Riders, we saw all kinds of monuments to Cuban and American heroes. I noted the 31st militia from Michigan and another from Ohio; all the names are listed on each monument. All of us learned a lot of Cuban history, including the fact that the US had temporary control of Cuba after that 1898 war.
Our final stop was at the Forteleza, above the harbor. We climbed and snapped pictures, but it was hot and we were tired. This fort, like the one in Havana, is not as large as El Morro in San Juan, but it got the job done and protected the harbor from invaders for Spain for centuries.
Then it was time to return to the ship and say adios to Cuba. It seemed as if we’d only been gone 4 or 5 days, but after a day at sea, we were back in Miami with only our memories Read Less