"" Writer's Wanderings: November 2018

Friday, November 30, 2018

Port of Call: Havana--San Carlos Fortress

Founded in 1519, Havana, by the seventeenth century, became a shipbuilding center for the Caribbean and a center for trade, To protect the harbor the Spanish began building fortresses. We passed by a small one at the entrance to the harbor and then not too farther on, a very large one called Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. On our Highlights of Havana tour our bus wound its way around to the fortress for us to get a close up look.

Unfortunately our tickets did not include an inside look but we were able to explore the courtyard outside the fortress and of course, as in all good Caribbean excursions, were given an opportunity to shop.

First our guide took us into an exhibition room with pictures that explained the process of growing, harvesting tobacco and then rolling the leaves into cigars. Along one side of the wall were some of the world's longest cigars. Jose Castelar Cairo holds the record for rolling the longest cigar. It measured 295 feet and was rolled in 2016 to commemorate Fidel Castro's 90th birthday. There were lots of other hands involved in the rolling but Jose engineered the whole thing. I can't imagine how long it would take to smoke it.

Next to the tobacco room and down a few steps was a shop where you could buy cigars, rum, and coffee. It was obviously on our approved OFAC list or we wouldn't have been directed to it. If I am understanding all those rules correctly, it meant that money spent there was not going directly to support the government. Our guide had hinted that Jose Castelar might be there but instead of the man for real, we got a real likeness of him in the form of a wax figure standing behind a table that held tools for rolling cigars.

Walking into the shop you immediately smelled the tobacco in the cigars--a much nicer smell than a burning cigar although Bob and I have fond memories of that smell from our grandfathers and fathers smoking them. We wandered through quickly and went back outside. It was a crammed space with all those people. Outside we climbed up to a spot where we thought we could get a view inside of the fort but it was not possible. There was a nice view of a lighthouse though.

Our last stop of the tour was at the Christ statue that stands above the harbor entrance. While not as large as the one in Rio, it is still quite impressive. It was designed by a woman sculptress, Jilma Madera. The story goes that Batista's wife commissioned the statue in the hope of protection for them. Fifteen days after the sculpture was installed and dedicated, Fidel Castro entered Havana and Batista and his family fled. A sign by the statue that explained its origin said that the pieces were sculpted in Rome and each blessed by the Pope.

While we lived a lot of the history that was going on in Cuba and involving the US, neither Bob or I recalled a U2 plane being shot down but as we left the statue we passed by some sort of military base or museum and displayed near the road were the pieces of the plane that were recovered. I looked it up. Yup, we did have a spy plane shot down over Cuban waters. It happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. There had been several missions flown that had taken pictures and confirmed the build up of Russian missiles in Cuba. On this mission, the Soviets ordered the plane shot down with a surface to air missile. The pilot, Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed.

Our return to the ship was as complicated as getting off. Several times our passports were checked along the way and again our bags went through x-ray machines and we walked through metal detectors. And yes, this time my new knee set it off. I pointed to it and the girl ran the wand over it and it went off. Without a smile she just waved me on.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Port of Call: Havana, Christopher Columbus Cemetery

Continuing our Highlights of Havana tour, we stopped at the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. Our guide began a narrative about all the marble statuary in the cemetery but I lost interest. We stood so long in one place that my legs were beginning to complain. I started moving around a bit and snapping some pictures. The statuary was nice and made of beautiful white marble.

If Christopher Columbus was ever buried there it would have been for a short time. From all the stories we've heard his remains made quite a trip to many different places. There are two graves that were of significant interest though. The first was that of Amelia Goyre de la Hoz better known as the Miraculous Lady.

Amelia and her baby died in childbirth and she and the baby were laid to rest in the cemetery. When she was buried the baby was placed at her feet. Her husband was so distraught that for the rest of his life (17 years) he came to the grave every day and knocked on the gravestone to let her know he was there. He walked backwards as he left to gaze upon her longer. For some reason later, the grave was opened and it was discovered that instead of the baby being at her feet, it was in her arms.

Many make pilgrimages to the grave bringing flowers. They knock on the grave and hope that the miracle lady will fulfill their wishes--usually for a loved one or to have a family. They follow the husband's ritual of knocking on the grave and walking backwards when they leave. Our guide invited us to partake in the ritual if we wanted to ask for a baby. Then he looked around and said, "Well, maybe grandchildren."

The other monument that was significant was one dedicated to firefighters. The main dedication is to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890 in Havana. Apparently the firefighters ran into the building to fight the fire and the owner had neglected to tell them there were explosives stored there. Firefighters with at least five years of service can be buried there.

At the top an angel holds a fallen firefighter and around the base of the monument the faces of those lost in the great fire are on plaques. The chain around the monument is hung with teardrop shaped ornaments.

Several foreign nationals are buried here as well, notably some from the explosion of the USS Maine.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Port of Call: Havana!

Our ship, the Oceania Sirena, arrived in Havana just as the sun was rising. We were already up on deck because our first excursion into Havana was at 8AM. As we ate breakfast on the back deck of the buffet, we watched the sun rise and wondered about what we would see here. Old cars, to be sure.

We were actually docked at a cruise terminal, the only one of three that was operational. The other two docks appeared to need extensive work to get them functioning. There was some talk that the cruise lines had tried to encourage the Cuban government to fix the others so more ships could be accommodated. I'm sure it will happen eventually as tourism grows.

The routine was pretty much the same as the other immigration areas. Our passports were checked and our bags and purses x-rayed. I think they took pictures of us as well but I don't remember now. There were 49 steps down to the street level where our buses waited. We had been warned that that of the two elevators that were there, usually only one worked. I took the steps. I don't trust elevators when they don't have a good history of operation.

Our excursion that morning was called the Highlights of Havana and was basically a bus tour so some of my pictures are kind of funky as they were taken through the bus window and sometimes while moving. Our guide was an older gentleman and very interesting to listen to. We were starting to get some conflicting explanations of life in Cuba but I think that was because of each guide's perspective and of course the area of the country where they lived.

Our room stewardess had told us she loved Havana because of all the pretty colors. She was right. The buildings were pretty pastels. It was a bit like the other cities we had visited in that there were still areas where you would have a very nice building flanked by two that were crumbling. Havana though was in a little better shape.

The roads here were wide boulevards and there were lots of parks and green areas. We passed several very large and nice looking hotels including the Hotel Plaza. At the Revolutionary Square (every city seems to have one) we saw a large monument to Jose Marti and we passed by several ministry buildings with large profiles of revolutionary heroes on the facade. I recognized Che but not some of the others.

By the way Che Guevera was only 39 when he was killed by the Bolivian army. He was actually from Argentina but fought in the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro. He went on to fight in other countries to promote peasant based revolution to combat injustices in third world countries. The iconic picture of Che was taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda seven years before Che's death.

We stopped a moment in front of the University of Havana to see the steps and the statue that was sitting in a chair with her arms outstretched. I didn't get the significance until I looked it up. The statue is called Alma Mater which means "nourishing mother" in Latin. Who knew!? The face of the sculpture which we were too far from to see is said to be of the daughter of a professor at the time it was made. This is also the university where Castro went to school.

A stop at the Christopher Columbus Cemetery would bring a few more interesting stories.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Port of Call: Cienfuegos, Cuba, Old Town

The first part of our tour in Cienfuegos was a dolphin show. Now we found ourselves going into the city on our way to the old town section. Cienfuegos is laid out in an amazing grid of streets and boulevards. The boulevards have large promenades in the center with benches and trees--a gathering place for a bit of peace and rest in the middle or at the end of a hot day. As we passed a building reminiscent of our trip to Russia, our guide explained that at one time the Russians were planning to make the city nuclear powered and had built residential buildings for their employees. Of course when the USSR fell apart, the Russians pulled out of the project.

We stopped in the middle of the historic part of the city, Parque Marti, named for the poet, journalist and patriot, Jose Marti. Like the square in Santiago, this one was surrounded by beautiful old buildings. The buildings all had colonnades in front of them allowing for plenty of shade to walk from one place to another.

Our guide took us into the Tomas Terry Theater which was under extensive renovation. The story of how Tomas Terry became wealthy is tied into the slave trade. He was quite a business man. He bought slaves cheaply that were not in the best condition and nursed them to health and then sold them at a much higher price. His estimated worth at his death in 1886 was 25 million dollars. In 1863 he attempted to get his theater built but it was not to happen until after his death when his family carried out his wishes. A statue of Terry graces the entrance of the theater.

After we wandered around the parts of the theater that were accessible, we went back to the Parque Marti and our guide pointed out several buildings including the beautiful Palace Ferrer and the Cathedral. We were given some time to wander around on our own and Bob and I walked completely around the square which had several art galleries with local artists' work for sale.

The Ferrer Palace was built by a wealthy Cuban family in 1912-13. They eventually moved on to Havana but it is said that Caruso, after singing at the Tomas Terry Theater, went to his room at the palace and sang from the balcony. You could have heard him for free by listening on the square below.

While the cathedral looked impressive from the outside with its red domed top, the inside was not nearly as nice as the one in Santiago de Cuba. We stopped in briefly and then continued on our way around the square.

Ferrer Palace
Our time on the square was up and we gathered at our pick up spot to board the bus for our next stop. We drove through a place called Punta Gorda which had several large mansions built before the revolution. The architecture was quite beautiful.

At a place that looked like it was perhaps some sort of school for the arts, we went into a large room that was set up with chairs and we were introduced to a group of ladies who played flutes (and one guy who played percussion). It was quite a concert filled with nice music and a bit of humor. The ladies had been playing together for seventeen years. None of them looked much older than twenty-something.
A mansion at Punta Gorda

After our concert, we returned to Parque Marti and were given directions to the "mall" which was a pedestrian street lined with little shops of souvenirs and art work. The middle of the street had kiosk after kiosk of souvenirs. We found a small painting of old cars that we bought. We're not big on souvenirs but that would at least give us something to remember Cuba by.

As we neared the waterfront, we noticed quite a few horse and carriages waiting for anyone who would like a ride back to the ship or around the town. Tourism is growing and I think the Cuban people are beginning to get a good handle on it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Port of Call: Cienfuegos, Cuba

Cienfuegos is most likely named for the captain general of Cuba from 1516-1519, Jose Cienfuegos and not for a hundred fires which is how it translates. Its population is only about 170,000 but its deep water harbor makes it an excellent port for imports and exports. It was described to us as an industrial city with colonial charm. I wasn't sure what to expect but what we found was truly charming.

The doctor is behind the guy in white. I missed the shot.
Our Enrichment Lecturer, Sandy Cares, had told us what to expect at this port for immigration. Something new was that a doctor and nurse might be stationed outside the entrance to immigration and may use an infrared thermometer to make sure no one who is ill is coming ashore. We've seen this done before in Japan, for one. As the day was already heating up as we approached immigration and we were in the sun, I wondered if they could get an accurate reading. The doctor and nurse were there but it didn't appear that they were taking temps.

While the immigration building was quite small, the process moved quickly. Bob needed to get some of the larger CUC bills changed to smaller denominations so he went to the exchange window and they were happy to do that for him.

We boarded our designated bus for our tour. I wondered if they were the same buses we'd used in Santiago. (The buses we'd used for our Christmas Markets cruise last year followed our boat up and down the river.) Our guide this morning didn't speak quite as clearly as the previous day's guide but she was still quite understandable. We would have about a half hour drive to the outskirts of Cienfuegos to a dolphin show. When we booked our excursions, this one was an alternative to spending a whole day on an excursion to Trinidad. We're not fond of all day excursions and this one would get us out in the country a bit.

Audience participation.
The roads we took were a bit bumpy but in somewhat good condition--better than some of the roads we'd experienced in Costa Rica. This area has a French influence as the founder of the city, Louis de Clouet was a Frenchman from New Orleans and there was a French migration from Haiti and many French coffee plantations were established. We didn't see any coffee plantations but there were a lot of mango orchards along the way.

One of the other interesting facts we learned about this area is that it supplies artisanal charcoal. It is made from an invasive plant that was introduced to Cuba from South America. In clearing fields for agriculture, the Marabu plant can be taken and carbonized and used as a good quality charcoal. It was the first export in 50 years to make it to the US.

The dolphin complex was very much like those we've visited in the states. Not exactly Sea World style but very nicely built for the dolphins as well as the viewing audience. It was an educational facility as well explaining the life and habitat of the bottle nosed dolphin.

One of the trainers explained their mission and answered questions about the dolphins. Considering the language barriers he did an excellent job. The show was amazing. Dolphins are just amazing in their own right. One of the things we remarked about however was that they used a lot of people from the audience. I don't believe they were plants in the audience but one girl did have a bathing suit under her shorts. I was just amazed that there was apparently no signing of wavers and the interaction with the dolphins was without a trainer in the water.

Once aboard the buses again, we were on our way to the city for our walking part of the tour.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Port of Call: Santiago de Cuba--Parque Cespedes

Bacardi home
On our way into the old town area of Santiago from our stop at San Juan Hill, we passed by Revolutionary Square. There were several monuments and some modern buildings. I could not get good pictures because a lot of the interesting sites were on the other side of the bus and we were always moving.

Our driver did slow down as we drove past the big pink Bacardi house and it was on our side of the bus. In 1862, Facundo Bacardi and his brother Jose purchased the Santiago de Cuba distillery and began experimenting with the recipe, improving upon it and making it one of the most popular rums in the world. Cuba became known for the place to go during Prohibition to get rum. The Bacardis began to expand and open some places in Europe and in Puerto Rico. A lucky move for their survival as in the 1960s Castro began to nationalize all private businesses in Cuba. They lost their holdings in Cuba as did many hotels and Casinos and other businesses, many owned by Americans.

Old Town Hall
We were let out of the bus on a very narrow street and followed our guide single file down a very narrow sidewalk. Our guide warned us to stay off the street because of all the traffic and the danger of motorcycles driving fast. In a very plain building, we were led to a room that was sparsely furnished with plastic lawn type chairs for us to sit in. Before us was a group of people with large smiles who, once we were seated began to sing. It was our cultural exchange time for this tour. The voices were lovely even though we didn't know the language and their enthusiasm was appreciated by all of us.

The concert lasted about thirty minutes and we headed, again single file, a block or two down the street to the Parque Cespedes. It is the center of Old Town Santiago and surrounded by several very historic buildings.

Old Velazquez home.
The one that caught my attention first was the old city hall with a central balcony. It was from that balcony that Castro delivered a victory speech on January 1, 1959. (I couldn't help but recall standing in front of another balcony in Argentina where Eva Perone delivered her famous speech.)

Just a quick review of the revolutionary struggle: Batista had returned to power in 1952. The next year Castro leads an unsuccessful revolt which leads to his imprisonment. The revolt took place at the Moncada Barracks on July 26 which would give Castro the name for his organization, July 26th Movement. Upon release he goes to Mexico with his brother Raul and meets Che Guevera. The men return on a large cabin cruiser named Granma (enshrined in Havana) and many of them are killed. They head for the mountains where they regroup and begin guerrilla warfare against Batista until finally Batista flees the country. That's a little simplified but gives a general idea of how the revolution went.

On one side of the plaza was what is said to be the oldest house in Cuba. The house was originally the home of Diego Velazquez and dates back to the early 1500s. It is now a museum.

Another corner of the plaza was the site of the Hotel Granda that dates back to the early 1900s. In front of the hotel was a group of musicians. Our lecturer on board ship had mentioned groups of musicians called Trovadores who travel around playing their music for donations.

Across from the old town hall was a huge cathedral, We walked up the steps and hoped to get inside as the heat of the day was beginning to take its toll on us. A small handmade sign had a drawing of what dress was acceptable and what was not. Shorts and sleeveless blouses were not allowed. Bob had shorts on and my arms were exposed. I pointed to the sign and looked at Bob. We were about to turn away when the attendant inside waved us in. We discovered later that they must have just opened the cathedral for the tourists on the square. As soon as we began boarding buses again someone noticed that the doors had been closed. It was a cool respite though on what was becoming a very hot Caribbean day.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Port of Call: Santiago and San Juan Hill

San Juan Hill (Heights)
Santiago de Cuba is known as the "hero city" for it's role in defeating the Spanish troops in the Spanish-American War and later, the Cuban Revolution. A lot of the buildings suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Restorations projects have been underway but to restore all those beautiful buildings will take a lot of time.

The first thing that impressed me about Santiago was the architecture. While resembling European and Spanish style it still has a flavor all its own. Definitely not the typical Caribbean structures. It is sad that so many are in disrepair. There are obvious signs (hanging laundry for one) that some of the buildings/homes which look uninhabitable still have residents in them.

Santiago served as the capital of Cuba for almost 100 years before the Spanish decided to shift it to Havana in 1607. Because of its location on the southeast end of Cuba, it became a major trading post for slaves from West Africa, Haiti, and Jamaica.

Monument to 71st New York
The backdrop to Santiago de Cuba is the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel Castro hid while assembling his supporters for the revolution to come.

An interesting note: The city is 41 miles away from Guantanamo Bay which was established in 1903. The area is 43 square miles and an 8 mile long cactus wall was planted in an effort to keep Cubans from sneaking in and asking for sanctuary. It is the only place in Cuba that has any fast food franchises. The song Guantanamera is actually from a poem written by Jose Marti one of Cuba's heroes and speaks of a peasant girl from Guantanamo.

In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders among several other troops arrived in Cuba and fought the Spanish in a place now known as San Juan Hill. Our guide said it is actually San Juan Heights. It is an elevated area above the city. There were no horses for the Rough Riders as they could not travel with them. The hill was taken and eventually the city when the Spanish fleet was defeated by the US Navy.

Cuban Soldier Memorial
Fidel Castro and Jose Marti are both buried in Santiago. When Castro began his revolution and came down from the mountains, he took Santiago first and then marched across Cuba to Havana when independence was declared. When Castro died, his remains were taken over land retracing his steps back to Santiago where it all started. We only saw pictures of his grave since our tour did not stop at the cemetery. It is just a plain large rock with his name on it. He did not want a monument.

Speaking of monuments, we learned that if a rider's horse has his fore feet in the air it means the rider died in battle. (Tuck that away for a trivia game.)

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