Z is for “Z-end” of my tales from Cuba 2015

ZAs the April 2015 A to Z Challenge ends, so do my stories about my 2015 trip to Cuba. I’m sure I have more tales to tell, but for now, I need to draw this to a close. What else can I say about Cuba? Well, I highly recommend travelling to Cuba, but go with an open mind.  This is not Europe – Cuba is unique and there are no words to describe the differences. Here are some of my tips to make your Cuba adventure truly remarkable.

Street vendors in Havana
Street vendors in Havana

Immigration: I’ve seen many posts from people complaining about immigration rules or security. Yes, it can take time to get through immigration checks, yet, what’s the hurry?  You’re on vacation and you’re in a beautiful place! Relax, let immigration officials do what they need to do and soon, you will be sitting on the beach, mojito in hand. Just don’t forget to carry your passport and tourist visa! They need to check it. When you do finally go to the airport to leave, don’t forget to pay your $25.00 CUC airport tax BEFORE getting into the immigration line, otherwise, you’ll end up standing in the immigration line twice.

Even in Havana I find supporters of my favourite team! Forca Barca!
Even in Havana I find supporters of my favourite team! Forca Barca!

Safety: Cuba is one of the safest places I’ve visited. As a solo traveler, I had no problem getting around on my own in Havana and I felt very safe.  If I said “no” to someone, I was left alone. However, when I travel, I am very aware of my surroundings and I know my limitations.  It is a matter of trusting your instincts. Cubans are friendly and helpful, but if something doesn’t feel right – stop and get back to a place where you do feel safe.  It’s the same advice I would use no matter where I travel – even where I live in Toronto!

China town in Havana
China town in Havana

Try something new: Do try to get “out of your comfort-zone” by trying new food, exploring different beliefs, or simply talking to people! Remember my comment at the beginning of this post — keep an open mind! Learn, discover … that’s why you should visit Cuba! The resorts are nice – and if you are escaping winter for a brief respite, I do understand curling up on a sandy beach with a drink and a book. But please try, for at least one day, to get off the resort and see some of the country!

Banana grove
Banana grove

Look beyond the surface: While many people notice nothing more than the poverty of Cuba, I noticed that it was very clean, people treated each other with respect, and they have so much joy to share. Cuba is unique and very special, so put aside any judging and preconceived notions. Embrace all Cuba has to offer.

"Guard dog" at Fortress Morro, Santiago de Cuba
“Guard dog” at Fortress Morro, Santiago de Cuba
My new Cuban look!
My new Cuban look!

Above all, dance, laugh drink and have the time of your life!

Y is for Yemanja and other Orisha

YIt is very possible to see practitioners of an Yoruba-based religions, typically called Santeria by many people, while travelling in Cuba. Practitioners honour the spirits of Orisha and ancestors. There are several different Orishas, each with their own attributes and symbols. One of them is Yemanja, who is associated with the sea. Before coming to Cuba, I was told I would have an encounter with an Orisha. I figured it would be because of some of the places I wanted to visit. I was not expecting to be walking down a crowded street in downtown Havana and be approached by an older woman wearing white and blue. But there she was, walking towards me with her arms opened wide to hug me and give me a kiss on the cheek. And then, she was gone, vanished into the crowd. I think being blessed by the Mother of the Sea was a good omen for my cruise around the island!

You may encounter ladies dressed in traditional costumes in some of the plazas in Vieja Havana, like the ones in this picture.

ladies

I’ve already written a lot about Callejon de Hamel.  While I was there, I saw several priests busy working around the area to clean and prepare things for a gathering. They will typically wear white and have strings of beads that indicate the Orisha they work with the most. In the art shop, there was a small altar with candles.

When we docked at Cienfuegos, we were greeted by three women dressed in traditional costumes that would be worn to honour and dance for different Orisha: Oshun (gold), Chango (red) and Yemanya (blue).

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And you may even encounter other symbols that represent protection.  This baby doll was next to one of the bus drivers, along with the gold crown and lucky dice hanging from the mirror. He was both a very safe driver — and very lucky.  Somehow, he made it back to our ship in record time! IMG_5142[1] IMG_5145[1]

To my friends who practice Santeria / Lukumi, I thank you for the information. I also apologize for the simplistic way I may have portrayed it in this post. You know how much I respect and honour you.

X is for “X”tras treats at Antilla Cuba

XYou probably won’t find Antilla on a map of Cuba. It is a very small village in Holguin Province. It is mostly a farming and fishing village and, for the past couple of years, a port of call for the Cuba Cruise. We used ship tenders to get to a very small dock — always an interesting experience!

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Waiting for us on the dock was a group of dancers and musicians. They were very good and fun to watch.  It makes you feel like everyone in Cuba can dance — they sure had great moves!

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Local craftspeople set up shop along the road leading out of the port and into the little village of Antilla.The village itself is trying to rebuild from the devastation of a hurricane. One building that appeared to be intact was now used as a local lunch place.  Someone I met on the ship went there for lunch and really enjoyed it.

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The rest of the village had small houses with yards filled with gardens, chickens and an occasional goat.  As with everywhere in Cuba, there were old cars as well as horse-drawn carts in the streets.

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It was fun to see this village and talk to the people that lived there.

W is for Walled fortresses

WBoth Havana and Santiago de Cuba have fortresses originally built to protect Spanish interests from raiders and pirates. While each as a longer name, both are usually known by the shorter name of Morro Fortress. The one in Havana is older, built in 1589 while the one in Santiago de Cuba was built in 1637. The styles are very different, as you can see from the photos.

Havana’s Morro Fortress

Havana Fortress

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Santiago’s Morro Fortress

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V is for Vieja Havana

VVieja Havana is the old part of the Havana. It has plazas and cobble-stoned streets, many of which are pedestrian-only. This is the heart of the city. There are people, art, music, and dancing everywhere you turn.  On one side is the port of Havana and the start of the Malecon. Within the area of Vieja Havana are several plazas with cathedrals, old architecture and so many surprises to see. This is also where you will find Opisbo Street along with several museums.

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U is for Unity Bears

UEveryone loves bears, right?  When I was in Havana, there was an art display called Unity Bears. This was a collection of bears painted to represent countries from around the world.

Everyone seemed to be looking for the one that represented his or her country – and I was no exception.  Should be easy to find a bear representing Canada –look for one decorated in red and white, maybe with a maple leaf, or a moose, or a beaver, possibly even a hockey stick, or a goalie mask, or a Mountie’s hat. Well, it wasn’t easy at all and several of us Canadians stood around it trying to find out how it represented Canada.  Maybe you can figure it out:

Canada Unity Bear

Here are some of the other Unity Bears:

Unity Bears

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T is for Trinidad, Cuba

TAbout a 90-minute drive along the coast of Cuba from the town is Cienfuegos is the town of Trinidad. The drive itself is very beautiful as it runs past farms, mountains and then the sea. Trinidad is a beautiful town on the southern shore of Cuba with some unique architecture and cobbled streets. It is very easy to walk around the main area around Plaza Mayor. If course, the highlight to the plaza is the church, however there are several other interesting buildings. One building is a former house that is now a museum showcasing beautiful furniture and art objects typical for a home of some of the powerful people of this area. There are lively bars and art galleries that line the street surrounding the plaza.

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Trinidad is also the home of the pottery company I visited. The bar I visited used their pottery cups to serve what has become my favourite rum drink, canchanchara.

S is for Santiago de Cuba

SThe energy in Santiago de Cuba is very different from Havana and is considered the most Caribbean-influenced city in Cuba. Whereas Havana has large, open plazas and broad avenues, I found Santiago more chaotic, with smaller plazas and narrow streets. In some ways, I felt safer in Havana as I wandered along its streets because there seemed to be more people – and they all wanted to ask you something! In some ways, Santiago seemed almost claustrophobic with so many people and different modes of transportation crowding its narrow streets. It was very exhilarating!

The port is near town but is can be a bit of a walk up the hills that are part of this city, so for some people, it will be easier to take a taxi to get around and see the sights.  That said, if you are good with crowded streets, it is very walk-able and has different types of colonial architecture.  The buildings are very different from the grand structures in Havana. They are more colourful and unique to this portion of the island.

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Known as the City of Heroes, Santiago celebrates its contributions to Cuban revolutions with many monuments and a large Revolutionary Square. In the cemetery, there are a number of special sections devoted to different groups of revolutionary fighters — including a section to those who died fighting apartheid in South Africa.

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The Morro Fortress provides a guards the entrance to the bay leading to Santiago. It was built to protect the city from pirates. now, it provides a great vantage point to see the entire city.

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R is for Revolutionary Heroes

RBefore I begin this, none of this is meant as a political statement, but as a way to show how Cuban revolutionaries are commemorated. In a prior post, I talked about John Lennon and shared a print that I bought linking him to other revolutionary people. In every country, you will find monuments to that country’s heroes. In Havana, there is the Avenue of Presidents that honours leaders from many parts of the world. Cuba has a long history of revolution and you will find signs of these everywhere, including monuments, statues, signs and large plazas.

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Probably, the most honoured is the revolutionary poet, Jose Marti (January 28, 1853 – May 19, 1895). He worked in many ways: a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba’s bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century. He honoured all over Cuba through statues, and monuments. He fought against Spanish occupation and influence of other countries in Cuba. He dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, political independence for Cuba and intellectual independence for all Spanish Americans. His murder became a cry for Cuban independence from Spain by both the Cuban revolutionaries and those Cubans previously reluctant to start a revolt.

The tomb of Jose Marti in Santiago has a changing of the guard ceremony at his tomb daily. It is designed in such a way to honour his wishes from a poem a wrote:

Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun

The sun shines through the stained-glass dome of the tomb directly onto his casket which is draped with a Cuban flag and fresh, white roses placed on the coffin daily.

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Revolution Square in Havana is a large, open area framed by three large memorials.  The highlight is the large statue of Jose Marti in front of the tallest monument in Havana. Across from the monument and statue are the iconic figures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara on government buildings.

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Jose Marti

Che

Fidel

In Vieja Havana, there is the Museum of the Revolution, you can learn more about Cuba’s struggles.

Fidel's tank

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The tomb of Che Guevara is in Santa Maria – a place I did not get to on my 2015 trip to Cuba but hope to on future trips. There is, however, a memorial statue in Santiago for him and the fighters killed with him in Bolivia.

Che Memorial

It is near the large Revolutionary Square in Santiago that has a statue for Antonio Maceo.

Santiago Revoution Square

Q is for Quirky transportation

QGetting around Havana is interesting as there are so many different choices. There are regular taxis, classic car taxis (and for a negotiated price, you can arrange a  tour in a classic car), horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, buses, including a Hop On, Hop Off bus that costs $5 CUC and my favourite, the Coco Taxi.  There are even tours offered on Harley Davidson motorcycles via La Poderosa.

Coco taxis are three-wheeled, motorized “scooters” that hold a driver and up to two passengers. You can negotiate your price with them and then you’re off! My driver was Nadia – and she loves Havana.

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For 2 1/2 hours, she drove me all around Havana. We drove down the Malecon and along the Avenue of Presidents, past the University of Havana and the cemetery. She took me to Callejon de Hammel, acting as my translator, and surprised me by going to the John Lennon Parque. We even ran out of gas, but Nadia had a quick fix, then she pushed the Coco taxi to re-start it again and, with a stop at a local gas station, we were off! We ended our tour with a stop to take a picture of the statue of Neptune. Overall, this was one of my best experiences in Havana!

Me and Coco Taxi

Once you get out of the city, you find more diversity in transportation. Some of the horse or ox-drawn carts or made from parts of old cars or trucks. You can also find former Soviet Union-style trucks (some are used to give “tourists” an authentic experience) I even saw old some Soviet Lada cars.

Here are some pictures of the different types of transportation available in Cuba.

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