Where do Cuban cigars come from?

Good cigars require at least two things: good tobacco and expert tobacco rollers. To see where the good tobacco grows, you can go to Vinales in the wild west of Cuba. Take a tour bus from Havana (which I did) or, (if you want to stay overnight in Vinales) a long-distance collective taxi arranged by your casa particular in Havana. Vinales is only a couple of hours from the capital. As you ride through the relatively flat fertile landscape of  province Pinar del Rio, you will start to see little houses painted in pastel colours and surrounded by fields. Pinar del RioThese are tobacco farms.

 

You will see men on horseback in high white boots, their small horses trotting  in the grass beside the road, a dog at their heels.  Or a farmer standing on a heavy sledge made of logs and pulled by oxen (below), which is used as a harrow to flatten a plowed field.P1020993 Continue reading Where do Cuban cigars come from?

Are Cubans religious?

You might expect that in a socialist country like Cuba there wouldn’t be a place for religion. That’s what I thought, too, when I first visited the country in 2008. Churches looked closed; people didn’t seem to be wearing crosses. But then in early 2011, quite by accident, I found myself travelling by ferry across Havana harbour to Regla, a district apparently known for its church.Regla f

The people standing in the passenger room of the ferry were normal-looking Havana citizens – not middle class, not poor – just dressed in informal, colourful, body-tight clothes. But as the oily ferry made its way across the harbour’s rainbow oil slicks, the female passengers, a clear majority,  started pulling on shawls and knee-length skirts, unwrapping bouquets, tying up their long, wild hair and lowering their voices. By the time we docked on the other side, they had transformed themselves into pious worshippers ready to enter the church of Nuestra Señora de Regla.

Regla churchThe church itself is nothing special (see right), but it obviously exercises strong power on people.  Only 20 or 30 steps from the ferry dock,  it consists of two rooms: a large nave dominated by the formally dressed black madonna pictured at the top of this post, and a smaller side room where a similar madonna, backgrounded by small sailboats and fishermen, is much closer to worshippers, who kneel to pray behind a railing, light candles and leave flowers.

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These two black madonnas holding a white baby Jesus interested me from the beginning, as did the history I read about how African slaves brought to Cuba in the early 1800s were forced by their masters to worship as Catholics. Their own West African gods (many of them were from the Yoruba tribe)  did not disappear entirely, but resurfaced in an amalgamation with a Catholic saint. Thus, the Virgin Mary was amalgamated (or syncretised) with the Yoruba spirit Oshun, who was worshipped as the goddess of fresh water, life, love and beauty. And so on, each Catholic saint being linked with a specific Yoruba spirit. The Virgin of Regla is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, and you will find both black and white Cubans praying at her altar.

There are many kinds of Christians in Cuba: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists … as well as Catholics. And, although these aren’t religions new to Cuba, church membership and attendance is on the rise. The worshippers I observed in Regla were clearly on a mission to make or fulfil a personal vow, remaining very serious the whole time they were inside the church.

As a tourist, you will occasionally notice Cubans dressed from head to toe in white, often carrying white umbrellas. These are followers of Santeria, a religion based on the syncretisation of Catholic saints and Yoruba gods or spirits. The people in white are going through a period of purification before becoming leaders of Santeria worship, which usually takes place in people’s homes rather than in a church-like building.

Santeria couple

So, to come back to the original question, Cubans are much more religious than one would expect.

 

 

 

 

At the crocodile farm with Ernesto

Ernesto next suggested a trip to the Zapata Peninsula – to the “Swamp of Cienaga”, to be exact. Presumably he thought I needed to see a tourist attraction with more excitement than lakes, bird-filled forests and waterfalls. So after driving for at least an hour in the fast lane of the pot-holed and badly patched six-lane highway known as the autopista, we turned off towards Australia… that is, the village of Australia, Cuba. Apart from slaloming around potholes, it had been a fairly peaceful drive, during which we’d only encountered a handful of other cars and the occasional highway worker, machete in hand, cutting back the flowering bushes on the centre strip.

In Australia, a roadside policeman flagged us down for a document check. We held our breath while it was established that Ernesto’s papers and permits were all in order,  freeing us to continue down this smaller road, past ox-carts, farmers on horseback or bicycles and uniformed school kids being transported in farm wagons.

Our first visit was to a large lake with an island, where a Taino village had been re-created. (“Taino” is the name of a group of native people living on the island of Cuba when it was settled by Europeans.) We spent some time walking around the displays on the  island, and finally found ourselves trapped in an embarrassing native-dance-and- face-painting ceremony. This meant that, despite discreet wipes, when we later entered the Criadera de Cocodrillos (the crocodile farm), our faces still sported the odd yellow or red stripe.

The croc farm’s first display consisted of baby crocs in a way-too-small basin, attempting to bite each other’s noses off. Next came the child crocs – about 3 feet long – which visitors could hold (bound and gagged) for a photo.crocs2

A high arched bridge took us to the lake, where dozens of huge, evil-looking adult crocs were “resting” on the shore.  A chain-link fence enclosed the lake, so I felt fairly secure about photographing the reptiles, who had an unnerving habit of holding their jaws open in order to snap them shut on passing flies. We were soon joined by a small group of Russian tourists wearing brand new outfits and all kinds of bling. The croc farm wardens then zoomed into action and started “feeding” the crocs by waving whole fish filets dangling from long poles over the crocs’ heads. A snapping frenzy followed, and once in a while a croc would even catch a flying filet.

Keen to take pictures, the Russians pushed forward and held their phones over the fence; we remained at the back. It was then that one of the Russian ladies dropped her pink-clad iPhone into the croc enclosure. She cried operson-woman-hand-appleut of course, and the others craned their necks to view it lying on the ground below, but no one knew what to do. Except the wardens. They quickly transformed their feeding poles into batons and started stomping the ground with them as they opened the gate into the enclosure. Baton-stomping continuously, they marched towards the massed crocs, who started backing off. Before the men could get near the phone, however, Ernesto deftly reached through the fence and picked it up, handing it back to the Russian damsel with a slight bow, his gallantry only slightly marred by a smidgen of  face-paint. The wardens didn’t look too pleased, but once again Ernesto had saved the day.

Cuba on a shoestring?

Let’s talk about money. How much do things cost in Cuba? Well, prices can vary considerably.

Luxury beach hotels are certainly not cheap. You can pay from $100 to $300 a day for a double room with meals. But, as this blog keeps telling you, touring Cuba doesn’t need to be wildly expensive. You can stay at a clean and welcoming casa particular (a room with bath in a private home) for about US$25 a night. Food is not expensive either. Main meals are anywhere from $8 to $20, depending on the type of restaurant. And you can even eat at your casa particular, enjoying some of the best meals available in Cuba.   Fruits like guavas, pineapples, papaya etc. are tasty and reasonable. Even fish and lobster aren’t expensive.  When you go out, a fruit juice in a café is $2; a beer is $1.50. A taxi ride through Havana starts at $5. By North American or European standards those are not high prices. Plus, they have the added advantage of giving Cubans jobs and a decent income.

On the other hand, some people – often Cubans – will tell you that those are high prices. They’ll argue that you don’t have to pay the “standard” tourist prices because Cubans themselves pay much less for rent, meals, transport, drinks, and so on. For instance, Cubans only pay 2 cents for a city bus ticket, 4 cents for a movie ticket, 25 cents for a concert ticket, 20 cents for a meal in a subsidized restaurant, 10 cents for a cola, 20 cents for a mojito in a Cuban bar. But here’s the thing:  Cubans only earn $20-$25 a month. Ten cents for a cola seems very low to us, but not to Cubans, who have less than a dollar to spend each day. And those “low” prices are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government. As a tourist you shouldn’t be claiming a Cuban government subsidy that you didn’t earn. You shouldn’t expect Cuba to subsidize your vacation!

Cubans themselves will often encourage you to take advantage of the subsidized Cuban prices. “Why should you pay $25 for a concert ticket when my ticket only costs 25 cents?” they’ll say. “It’s the same ticket.”

The answer is that paying the subsidized local price means cheating Cuba, and it’s just not honorable to cheat one’s host. If you love Cuba, you won’t want to live on a shoestring. Prices are reasonable enough without that.

 

Cuba’s kids

Wherever you walk or drive in Cuba you see school kids. Whether they’re walking hand-in-hand with a grandparent or with a group of other kids, they’re always dressed in clean uniforms: maroon and white for elementary school pupils, ochre and white for secondary students.
In the countryside, there are no school buses in the North American sense. School kids have to find another way to school. On my travels I’ve seen 6-year-olds riding on the back of their father’s bike or sitting in a horse-drawn cart, being brought out to the highway. Once there, they are eventually picked up by one of the trucks or tractor-drawn wagons that take country kids to school every day.  So, if you’re driving along Cuban highways, you’ll often see 20 school kids standing in the back of a dump truck or wagon, their little hands holding on to the rim, their eyes peeking over their hands. But even then they’re  dressed in crisp, clean uniforms in the regulation colours.

Schools in Cuba don’t always look like the ones we’re familiar with either. They aren’t surrounded by lawns and playgrounds unless they’re located in a public park (which some are). In fact, elementary schools often consist of just a few classrooms on the ground floor of an apartment building. While walking down the main shopping street in Havana once, I happened to peer into the narrow open window of an apartment house, only to find 30+ pairs of young eyes staring back at me. The teacher ignored me. The little girls above go to a school that’s on a major boulevard in Havana. They normally have recess on the boulevard “island” in front of their school until it’s time to go in for the next lesson. Despite a bit of friendly shoving, they seem to be enjoying their environment.

Once in the classroom, Cuban kids are lively participants in discussions, unafraid to speak their mind. If you don’t believe me, try to see the Cuban film Conducta, which is about a disadvantaged boy, his classmates and his retirement-aged teacher who goes to a lot of trouble on his behalf.

But not all Cuban kids are disadvantaged. These two 12-year-old pupils let me take their picture at an English teachers’ conference, where their teacher had them perform an English dialogue in front of a roomful of teachers. When I talked to them alone afterwards they were shy, but happy to try to answer my questions.

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Havana kids on their best behaviour

Independent travel in Cuba is easier than you think

Cuba is an attractive vacation option for North Americans and Europeans alike. It’s safe, flights are regular and available, the weather’s fantastic, the people are charming and the countryside is unspoiled.

One of the first decisions you have to make as a prospective visitor is whether you want to sample the country or just lie on another gorgeous beach. If the white-sand-and-turquoise-water aspect is the only thing about Cuba that attracts you, book a hassle-free resort package and you’ll have a great time, surrounded by dozens of (other?) friendly, polite Canadians. If, on the other hand, you want to meet real Cubans, explore the natural wonders of the interior as well as the coast, experience the colonial charm and pulsing local nightspots of Cuban towns, or sample delicious Cuban home-cooked meals… you could book a simple return flight to Havana or Santa Clara or Holguin, and tour the country from there.

Cuban B&Bs, called casas particulares or hostales, are now listed on websites like Trip Advisor and AirBnB, so you can and should book your room before you leave home. These places are where you’ll meet your first Cubans – your host family. They’ll arrange for a pick up at the airport, serve you better food than in a restaurant and help you arrange long distance taxi rides that are more flexible, faster and usually cheaper than traveling in a crowded tourist bus. Talk to them, trust them, and they’ll make your visit memorable. Other possible modes of transport are car rental and organized bus tours, but they’re much more expensive.

Many Cubans now have email and cell phones, so it’s much easier to arrange accommodation and transport today than it was even 3 years ago.