Sunday, April 3, 2016

Farewell to Cuba

Cuba has been in the news almost daily these past few weeks - especially with the Obama family visit. Our hosts in Havana whom I introduced in the Cuba Connection II blog were thrilled to meet President Obama at a conference for Cuban Entrepreneurs. That same week they attended the Rolling Stones Concert!

Our amazing Havana hosts Julia and Silvio
Our three weeks in Cuba were fascinating, fun and often times frustrating. We experienced firsthand the lack of infrastructure the country needs to support itself, let alone support what is certain to be an overwhelming surge in tourism from America. A recent New York Times article, passed on by a friend, really summarizes the situation: As the article states, there are monumental changes underway but even as those lofty goals are met, the results won't spoil Cuba's bohemian charm in the short run. First of all, there isn't enough paint. Or asphalt. So you can wait to travel until there is functioning airport, food in restaurants, stores with products, and access to the Internet and still see "Cuba before it changes", but if you are adventuresome, flexible, willing to forgo some creature comforts and keep an open mind, go now -  just bring your own snacks!
The people we met in Cuba were wonderful and loved to talk about life in their country.
We finished our trip with short stays in Cienfuegos and Guanabo. Our Airbnb in Cienfuegos was one that we kept going back to during our search,  but set it aside several times. Maybe it was the reference in the reviews of loud music until 4:00 am and maniacal crowing roosters. But in the end, the lure of the Italian host's home cooking lured us and we booked it. We were glad we did. Here's the link

The view from the front porch of Casa Babi in Cienfuegos

The once glamorous yacht club was a short walk down the road from our Airbnb.
Two large boats in the marina in very different condition!
Our room was fine and the location was good. The front porch with the advertised rocking chairs looking across the road to the waterfront and lovely sunsets were spot on. Once you crossed the road, a yacht club and marina full of colorful boats was to the left and the bustling city center was to the right - both pleasant, twenty minute walks in either direction. And yes, there was loud music one night, and yes the roosters in Cuba have no concept of when the sun actually rises (isn't that when they are suppose to crow?) so like howling dogs, once one puffed-up cockarel gets going any rooster nearby crows right back - and so it went all night. We got used to it.

Three things on offer: beer, Mojitos and meat on a stick - plus some great music.
These two human blenders were working hard to keep up with the demand!
Our host Babi offered a full breakfast and we enjoyed "Cubitalian" food for dinner. We also found a popular seaside restaurant where the Mojitos were flowing, the only food on offer was skewered (and delicious) and the music was live. But still, at least for me, I felt we were "perching" here and  I wasn't fully engaged in this city. I needed a beach and I knew it was just a few days away!

We started looking at options to reach our next and final destination of Guanabo - a popular, but sleepy little beach town east of Havana. After crunching the numbers it was a decision between taking a three hour taxi ride or a bus that would have dropped us into the center of Havana. We'd still have to take a taxi to Guanabo from there. In the end it was about push for the budget, so we indulged in being driven door to door. Our driver took a scenic route that had us winding through small villages and sugar cane fields that we wouldn't have seen along the main highway. He spoke a little English, but mostly we enjoyed the ride along with great hits from the 80's.

Our wonderful hosts Silvia and Evelio in Guanabo. There were so gracious.
We pulled up to our final Airbnb and were greeted by Evelio and Silvia - it was like showing up at your grandparents house! They were gracious and friendly and very "house proud." They loved showing us all the special things we’d find in our apartment and took painstaking efforts to make sure we had everything we needed. Here's the link:

Just one of the beautiful fruit plates that Silvia created each day.
Not so lucky in Cienfuegos - do not eat the centerpiece!
Silvia loves to create original needlepoint tapestries and we had several on our walls. She also turns out a very artistic plate of food - our daily breakfast started with a mosaic of colorful tropical fruits including bananas from the backyard. I had no idea bananas could have such intense flavor! Evilio and Michael spend some lovely time together sitting on the front porch discussing politics. It was interesting to get a perspective from a man in his 70's who has seen Cuba from before, during and after the revolution. 
Michael and Evilio are about the same age and  enjoyed swapping stories and talking politics.
This quiet seaside town is just 20 miles from Havana, but seemed a world away. The area is famous for the Playa de L'Est beaches - where the city folk flock in the summer. There are a few resorts and a large casino down the road from where we were, but our little slice of beach was uncrowded and postcard perfect. Perhaps we had it all to ourselves because it was February - but being from Seattle, and a Pisces, there is no salt water that doesn't call my name any time of year, so I finally got my bracing swim in the sea.
We found a couple of lounge chairs and an umbrella and settled-in for the day.
Another benefit of Guanabo is there is enough tourist traffic to support some good restaurants! We found three we liked and finally enjoyed eating out. We even had really good burgers and milkshakes one night.
More skewered pork! Vertical this time - and delicious.
Great milkshakes including a smuggled Oreo in Michael's
On the day before we left an intense storm blew in and huge waves pummeled the shore, sweeping inland to the edge of the main road. Our Airbnb was just a block away from the beach so we could hear it as it bore down all through the night.

Beautiful little blue meanies!
The next morning we walked down to see the aftermath. The sun was out, the air was fresh, and although the sea was still churning it seemed to be over its tantrum. As we walked along the beach we discovered thousands of brightly colored blue disks about the size of large mussels washed up on the sand. In fact, I thought they were mussels, but on closer examination they looked more like deflated balloons although many of them were still puffed up with air. If you stepped on one it made a sharp snapping noise like popping a cell of large bubble wrap. I was wearing beach shoes that enclosed my feet so I am afraid I did pop quite a few for fun (they were doomed anyway).  I was mesmerized by their iridescent color and shape so I picked several up to get a closer look. I could see tentacles so I knew they were a type of jellyfish and I probably ought not to touch those...

Fun to pop but not to touch! I was lucky I didn't end up in the ER.
When we got back to our house I asked our host about them. And he turned a little pale when he heard that I had handled them. "Those are very, very dangerous!" he sputtered. "You would have ended up in the hospital if you had been stung!" Apparently these beautiful blue creatures are a smaller version of the highly toxic Portuguese Man o' War jellyfish. Although it is rare, they do wash up on the beach after big winter storms. The locals stay away until they are all washed back to sea.  I guess I thank my beach shoes for saving me from testing the Cuban medical system - although I hear it is very good!

Our final day with Silvia, Evelio and there little puppy Rikki.
Our stay in this small bungalow on the beach with such warm hosts was the perfect bookend to the beginning of our trip when we stayed with our now dear friends in Havana at their lovely Casa La Rosa de Ortega. Here's that link again:
As we were leaving Evilio confessed he had been nervous about hosting "the famous Senior Nomads" in his humble home but he assured us that we were definitely not the demanding Americans he was expecting "we were normal people." Well, that's good to know.

We waved goodbye to Cuba from Havana and flew back to Miami. I have to say, it felt good to be back in the USA. As it turned out, my boss from one of my very first jobs in advertising lives in Miami so we were able to connect for the afternoon before we fly on to our next destination. Kay Coulter and her husband Al treated us to a lavish lunch at the Lido restaurant at the Standard Hotel and Spa - a glittering white complex nestled in a huge garden retreat with multiple pools and spa rooms on Biscayne Bay. It was a serious re-entry culture shock.

Back to living the good life with Kay and her husband Al at the Lido restaurant in Miami.
We had a wonderful afternoon together and enjoyed catching up on presidential politics along with filling in the 30 years between the last time we saw each other. It was hard to imagine as we sat among the rich and tanned, watching mega yachts drift by, that just 90 miles away people are scavenging for food every day.

Hoping for peace and harmony between America and Cuba!
Our prayers are for a harmonious renewal of trust and friendship between America and Cuba that will allow for some much overdue prosperity for our delightful island neighbor just to the south.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads 


  1. Fantastic travel! Hope you also will enjoy France!
    Good bye and all the best,

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