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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

MY JOURNEY TO CUBA (Part I)!

Jack Jodell surrounded by two native beauties in Cathedral Square, Havana. (Left click on each photo to make it larger).

Map of Havana, by district. We scoured the city in 4+ days.

George W. Bush had barely been installed in office 7 days when I, an old high school friend, and a Canadian we both knew who financed our trip (the only legal way a U.S. citizen could make such a trip) left from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to visit the communist country of CUBA. We flew down to Cancun, Mexico, and, upon clearing customs, immediately booked a flight with the Mexican airlines to Havana, the capital city of Cuba. There was a three hour wait for the flight to begin boarding, so we sat down to pass the time.

Having done quite a bit of advance reading on how best to travel in Cuba without running into difficulty, we went over our story to relate to Cuban customs. We know that the Castro government at that time was permitting a limited number of its citizens to accept foreigners as house guests, and that was our aim, rather than staying in an overpriced state hotel. We also knew we needed at least $50 per person per day in US Dollars (the going rate 10 years ago, and the figure our Canadian friend had given my other friend and I before we had all boarded the plane). The US dollar was the accepted currency back then. The Cuban peso was and still is basically worthless on the world market, so US dollars were required for all foreigners to have and spend in Cuba, an ingenious way for them to have access to a stable currency for trade with the rest of the globe. I understand now that the Euro is the accepted currency in Cuba, but at the time it was only our greenbacks foreigners were allowed to spend. We also knew to tell the customs agent that we were planning on staying at the Lincoln Hotel, a low-to-mid-priced hotel in Havana often frequented by tourists. We also knew to avoid doing or saying anything controversial, as the last place we wanted to end up in was a Cuban jail, without hope of intercession from a non-existant U.S. Ambassador!

My friend and I had long talked about visiting Cuba, just to see what it would be like living in a tightly-controlled police state (if indeed that was what it was) for a few days; to see if our government's anti-Cuban propaganda had any merit (it really didn't, as far as we could tell); to see evidence of anti-American posters and such (oddly enough, we saw NONE); and to basically see if the stories we had all heard from childhood were true about how most of the population was trapped, miserable, wamted to leave the island, endured constant shortages, etc. Oddly enough, rather than a dour, unhappy populace, we found the country to be a lively mecca of art and music, with little outward evidence of unhappiness. We also wanted to see all the old 1950s American Chevys, Dodges, and Fords still in use and in operation throughout the country. We got all that we wanted and then some, but let me return here to our departure.

Eventually, the time to board our flight to Havana arrived. We got on the plane and we were off. An hour or so later we would be disembarking in Havana, and we couldn't wait! Once we were airborne, we noticed a woman speaking in accented English with another passenger.

We learned that her name was Maria, and she was an Italian national who had married an abusive American (whom she later divorced), and was living by herself in Nevada. She was on her way to visit her brother, also an Italian national, who was LIVING IN HAVANA and coordinating visits of Cuban dancers and musicians between Cuba and Italy. We looked at each other and realized we had discovered gold: here was the chance to pick the brain of a guy who knew Havana inside and out. We mentioned our desire to her and she said, "That would be fine. I'll mention it to him when we arrive, but only one problem - he doesn't speak a word of English, so I will be happy to be your interpreter. He will also help us find accomodations!" We couldn't believe our ears at this stroke of luck. We spent the rest of our flight getting to know one another, and agreed to meet her and her brother once we had all gotten out of customs.

Keep in mind, this was before 9/11, so boarding and unboarding airline flights were FAR less cumbersome than today! Once we filed into customs, we spoke to a guard sitting behind a tall counter, which obscured our view of anything below his chin. He asked each of us why we had come to Cuba, and we told him we admired the Cuban revolution and wanted to return home to tell our friends about its accomplishments. The agent glared at us and said nothing. Finally, he asked for our passports. I mentioned that two of us were American citizens and that stamping our passport "Havana" could cause us much political trouble back home. He simply glared back and took the passports. He examined each for a moment and then we heard the unmistakable "kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk" of three passports being stamped. I thought, "Oh, shit! How will I ever be able to explain this to American customs back home?" Even though we were observing proper protocol by letting our Canadian friend be the one who was treating us, we simply had wanted to avoid ANY evidence of our trip to Cuba, just in case. But my fears were short-lived, as the customs agent handed our passports back, broke into a huge smile, and said enthusiastically, "Welcome to Cuba!" Upon examining our passports, we found that he had stamped a separate document, a tourist visa, and had inserted IT into our passports. We were to hand this document in to airline authorities when we boarded our return flight to Mexico. Whew! I thought: we had dodged our first Cuban bullet!

We soon met up with Maria and her brother. Night had fallen and we had no idea where we were going to bed down. He, through her, advised us to remain quiet as he flagged down a taxi-van, and soon we were off into the night. After about a 40 minute ride, we stopped and left the taxi. He told us that he had a friend who could put us up for $25 per person per night. He had us wait outside while he went upstairs into a 10 story apartment building which we found out later had been made by the Sovirts in the 1960s. After a short time, he invited us all in to meet and pay our new host, a mid-30s-ish man with a wife and small boy. He and his sister stayed on the fourth floor and we three others each had our own separate bedroom.

Spartan yet immaculate, up one floor higher than Maria and her brother, we each settled in. . Turns out our host had government permission to house foreigners and therefore had the necessary rooms. We all then had a small meal of fish and rice, washing it down with a lovely Heineken-like Cuban beer called Cristal. Hey, we were home free and settled at last! It was now quite late at night, so we all settled down to sleep in a perfect little spot in northernmost Havana, the El Vedado region looking out directly over the Gulf of Mexico. The very next day we resolved to scour the city itself.

COMING UP IN PART II: Habana Vieja and Plaza de la Revolucion!

And, for some SUPERB videos, Google Havana: City: City Guide, weather, and facts galore from Answers.com.

18 comments:

Lazaro Gonzalez said...

"MY JOURNEY TO CUBA (Part I)!" or how the cuban custom make fraud. no problem, is not your fault

Jack Jodell said...

Lazaro Gonzales,
It is hard for me to understand your broken English, but if you suggest I did not see the "real" Cuba, all I can say is that we went as independent tourists, and not as guests of the Cuban government. So all I can report on is what we experienced and saw, although we did keep our eyes and ears open. I would suggest you keep reading. You'll see an honest appraisal, not one tempered by pro or anti-Castro government bias...

Vigilante said...

Way to go, Jack! My hat's off to ya', kiddo!

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks, Vigilante! Parts ii and iii will be even better---watch for 'em!

Lazaro Gonzalez said...

why you offended me talking about my broken english? you can not read? i said was not your fault and by the way my last name is gonzaleZ no gonzaleS. you get it?

if cuban custom help you do not get on trouble does not mean he did not violated the law like you did.

for sure the us authorities want to know about you. if you do not want to go ahead i can do for you in my broken english.

but i can understand you if you like cuba now it your time to go overthere and spend you hard working money to support a dictatorship that violated all the humans rights and put people in jail just for think or express different.

i want to be a polite and i mentioned -on or in my broken english- about the cuban custom not about you.

have a good night and be happy. take care of yourself like i take care of myself either.

but

Jack Jodell said...

Lazaro Gonzalez,
My apologies for the typo in your name in my first reply. And I am not making fun of your English, but it is difficult for me to fully understand your point. Perhaps it would be best for you if you choose to reply again to have help from a local American so I don't misunderstand you or miss your meaning. It appears you are opposed to the current Cuban government, which is fine with me. As this series unfolds you will see me being critical of them, too. But the fact remains that our embargo with them has done little to change that government and has only made life for the poor Cuban citizen, the true victim of it all, unnecessarily hard. So before you get too critical of what I write, keep reading and you will see I am giving an honest appraisal, based on what we experienced.

Thank you for your good wishes. I wish the same for you, sir.

Vigilante said...

Señor Gonzalez's "broken" English is not nearly as broken as is my Spanish, so he is to be welcomed on my site, anytime!

Stimpson said...

This was a good read, Jack. I look forward to Part II.

Max's Dad said...

Fascinating stuff, Jack. Can't wait for parts 2 & 3.

Jack Jodell said...

Vigilante,
I have no Spanish to break (or speak or read).
---------------
Stimpson and Max's Dad,
Thanks, guys. You won't be disappointed. There may even be a part IV. We'll see...

TRUTH 101 said...

Lazaro and I you made it back alive Jack. God forbid you would have gotten sick and had no health insurance. Oh wait. Cuba has national health care.

Why did you come back again?

Jack Jodell said...

Truth 101,
Haaaa---tricky question you ask! While there were many beautiful things about Cuba, as both you and Lazaro will see, there were a number of less than desirable aspects, too. So, in short, with all its faults, home here in the US is better, for now at least.

Lazaro Gonzalez said...

http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/5062087-dozens-of-patients-dead-in-psychiatriac-hospital-in-cuba

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFnTCilRe4w

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25_RgM1jHeo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Kw3aZ_UBP4&feature=related

best wishes

Lazaro Gonzalez said...

http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/americas/news/article_1615132.php/Cuban-dissident-Guillermo-Farinas-detained-during-protest-Roundup

Jack Jodell said...

Lazaro Gonzalez,
Thank you for those links.
1. Clearly, the death of those patients by hypothermia was due to staff negligence. But as the article states "Before the revolution when Fidel Castro took in January 1959, the Mazorra clinic was a human dumping ground, with scant attention to healthcare. That changed during the decades the hospital was overseen by the late Commander Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz. Still, political opponents of the government have made allegations of mistreatment that hang over the hospital, including reports of prisoners admitted as “patients” and lodged in special rooms set aside for that purpose.

Of course, with record low temperatures extending even to Cuba this winter, it is impossible to tell whether these deaths were due to government decree, which I doubt, or staff negligence, which would seem to be more likely the case.

2. I couldn't get this link to work. Sorry.

3. I doubt that anything found on Fox "News" is trustworthy or fully legitimate. Therefore I do not accept this as proof of anything. It appears to be Hannity's attempt to discredit Michael Moore, and that makes me very suspicious. Sorry---I've caught Hannity in too many lies and distortions to accept anything he presents without a lot of reservation.

4. That portion of the video of a speech Castro made many, many years ago is taken out of context. I would prefer to see the entire speech before making any comment of judgment.

5. I do not know the full background on the detainment of Mr. Farinas, although I would expect anyone leading or attending a political protest in Cuba to be arrested. Regrettably, that's the way it is.

Mr. Gonzalez, your anti-Castro stance is unmistakable. You can contimue to send me anti-Castro links if you wish, but they will not affect what I write about my time in Cuba, nor will they change my mind about how Cuba has evolved. Since Castro took over in 1959, many bad things have occurred. I do not like, nor do I agree with, the restraints he has put on his people's freedom of speech. But many good things have also taken place. As I have told you before, I will eventually state my conclusions about the Cuban revolution, but you must first allow me some time.

Thank you.

Lazaro Gonzalez said...

no problem jack, i can see your view. enjoy your trips not to cuba but to castros regime. enjoy the "jineteras" and support the dictatorship.

i hope you never meet a cuban prison like many foreigeners and never get a simillar regime on the states.

of course, how you violated the usa laws i should report it to american authorities.

please, i do not want to heard anymore from you. stop the feedbacks [in court could be fine to testified again you in my stupid broken english as a witness].

thank you and have a good night

Stimpson said...

There is something ironic in someone who opposes a dictatorship saying he should report a peaceful person to "authorities."

We'll be glad not hear from you any more, Mr. G.

Jack Jodell said...

Stimpson,
Thank you for your understanding and support. Mr. G characterizes me as a lover of dictatorships, which, as everybody who reads this blog should know, I most certainly am not. He is making an awful lot of assumptions that aren't correct. That is his perogative, of course, but level-headed open-minded people like you and I and nearly all others who come here wish he wouldn't jump to such conclusions. If he had the patience, he would wait until this series was finished and saw what all I have written about this incredible journey before he passed judgment. But there are always a few hotheads out there to contend with. I think I've been very polite and accomodating to Senor Gonzalez, don't you agree, Stimpson? What more can a blogger like myself do?