Cuba – They Have Tiny Coffee Cups There

In May 2015, Debbie and I were invited to participate in a Group Study Exchange in Cuba for prospective tour group leaders. It was a remarkable adventure. In the time since we have been back, we are quite naturally asked to describe our trip. It’s hard to put into words.

Like almost everything else in my life, I can communicate it best in lines from Star Trek:

McCoy: “You really have gone where no man’s gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?

Spock: “It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference.

McCoy: “You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?”

It’s like that.

But I’ll give it a try. So, with this group of posts, I will attempt to share some of the sights and feelings we experienced getting to know this marvelous land and people. 

If you’d like the condensed version, though, here it is:

I could adjust to the language barrier, socialism, even not flushing toilet paper.

But the tiny coffee cups? That’s just wrong.

You can read down the posts in order, or jump to whichever one you are interested in:

Cuba – The Cars

Cuba – The Sights

Cuba – The People

Cuba – The Music

Cuba – The Cars

One of the first things an American learns about Cuba is they have a lot of old cars there. It’s easy to figure a lot of it is hype. Not so. 

Fifties-era American cars are everywhere.

Fords, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, all pre-1960 models; along with a sprinkling of Russian Ladas, Peugeots, Kias,Toyotas, and even a Volkswagen or two. 

And one Blue Bird school bus from the early Seventies. I have no idea how that got there.

You can walk to just about any corner in Havana and take picture after picture of classic cars cruising through the intersection. Rows of old cars are also parked near El Parque de la Fraternidad (Fraternity Park), where the drivers will let you sit in one for a photo, in exchange for a few pesos. It’s customary to tip the driver of any car you wish to photograph.

The cars are also in various degrees of wear. Some look every minute of their sixty-ish years (which does little to diminish their charm).

Others are immaculate. On the outside, at least. On the inside, they can be a Frankenstein-ian conglomeration of original, remanufactured, and jury-rigged parts. Many have been converted to run on diesel, which apparently is easier to get in Cuba than gasoline. The original engines wore out decades ago and most are now powered by Peugeot, Toyota, and Mercedes engines and transmissions. Other parts are fixed or re-machined using the kind of ingenuity Cubans have had to develop during their long isolation.

Look carefully at the picture and you can see right above the V-8 logo, an engine with just five cylinders.

Some of the car interiors are nothing short of spectacular. I saw a Chevy convertible whose vinyl seats looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor. I can’t even vacuum all the sand up from my 2011.

Factory radios have also largely been replaced. It’s a hoot to look at the dash of a 1957 car and see a USB stick protruding from the radio. I also don’t think a horn that plays “La Cucaracha” was original equipment on your average 1956 T-Bird.

Legend has it that the cars are handed down to each generation. I’m sure this is true in some cases, but the driver of the beautiful baby-blue ’57 Ford Fairlane we rode to dinner our last night on the island said his car was owned by “the company.” The language barrier prevented us from getting much more detail.

Many of the cars are operated as cabs, which will you can hire for a ride across town or across the entire country. Unlike in many cities, no one counsels you against taking a private, “gypsy” cab. You’re perfectly safe getting into a car whether or not the driver has documentation as a taxi driver, and the rates are all about the same.

Read other articles in this series.

Here’s the gallery of all our pictures of Cuban vehicles:


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Cuba – The Music

Music is everywhere in Cuba. There are street performers, bands that perform in the restaurants and paladars, entertainment in the hotel lobby, and great clubs.

Our group was treated to a demonstration of a Cuban son in the lobby of our hotel, accompanied by two talented dancers. We also heard a band consisting of students and faculty from the Cuban Institute of Music. We even caught a talented acapella group, not something we were expecting!

Pretty much every band has a CD which they hope you will buy as a tip for enjoying the performance. These make nice souvenirs as well as well as supporting the performers, so it’s a good investment.

We also saw an outstanding demonstration from Habana Compas Dance, a troupe that combines traditional Spanish dance with Afro-Cuban rhythms and modern dance to create a sexy, exciting, pulse-pounding show. The program began when artist and musician Eduardo Cordova suggested to choreographer Lisset Fleitas that combining Spanish Flamenco with Afro-Cuban drumming would be a unique take on dance. Compas Dance has performed throughout Cuba, and also in Turkey and France.

Jazz-wise, the Jazz Cafe is probably the best known venue, but when I asked the concierge at our hotel where he thought we should go, he recommended La Zorra y El Cuervo (The Fox and The Crow). And man, was he right! We heard a very hip trumpeter named Yasek Manzano. Yasek told me in between sets that he was headed to New York this soon to record with Rudresh Mahanthappa. Mahanthappa will be playing at the 2015 Iowa City Jazz Festival, so if we’re lucky, we may get an update this summer.

 La Zorra y El Cuervo is a basement club, accessed by a phone booth at the top of the stairs, delighting this Doctor Who fan. 

An Australian singer named Nilusha also took the stage, accompanied by guitarist Alex Pertout. Their CD has a variety of big name guests, including Mike Stern and Edsel Gomez.

As excellent as the traditional Cuban bands we’d been hearing all week were, hearing some straight-ahead jazz was a nice change.

Speaking of traditional Cuban bands, we heard one of the best, in their natural habitat. At the invitation of singer Miguel Cuni, we journeyed to El Palacio de la Rhumba to hear his band, Conjunto Chappattin (pronounced Cone-HOON-toe Chah-pa-TEEN).

The Rhumba Palace is not in a neighborhood where tourists go. In fact, our cab driver was a little reluctant to let us out, but Miguel met us at the door with a big smile.

The show that night featured several different bands, with some vocalists singing to tracks in between. But when Chappattin took the stage, the place lit up. Before long, nearly everyone in the place was up and dancing, including one little old lady who must have been celebrating a birthday or something, because various performers called her out during the show.

Yeah, and two gringos got up to cut the rug, too. Everyone was very polite in not making fun of us.

My Spanish is minimal, but it appeared the night we were there, the club was promoting an upcoming big event, as the manager took the mic several times to plug something coming up “proxima Sabado” (next Saturday).

Despite our cab driver’s nervousness, we felt perfectly safe in the neighborhood, named San Miguel, as we did wherever we went in Havana (more on this in Cuba – The People).

Miguel was a charming and affable host, despite the language barrier. He speaks little English, and as I mentioned, my Spanish is something less than basic. Miguel will be in the U.S. this summer, touring a documentary about his father, also a famous Cuban musician.

KCCK is hosting a screening of the film on July 18.

Cuba – The People

Just because the Cubans are looking forward to better relations with America does not mean they want to return to the days when their culture was subsumed by the U.S.

Cubans are a very proud people, and they have every right to be. For over fifty years, the U.S. Government has tried to bring the country to heel with the devastating economic embargo, and they never backed down. You can disagree with Cuban socialism and government policies, but you have to respect how the country has stood firm in its independence, even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the huge loss of economic sponsorship that brought. I sensed quiet pride that the end of the embargo is on the Cubans’ terms.

Our Cuban guide, Eric, spent much of our transit time describing aspects of Cuban life. Among the downsides: the monthly allotment of food the average Cuban family receives really only lasts about two weeks, and needs to be supplemented at the fresh food market at prices that test the average $24 monthly salary. 

The up side: Free health care that includes some new drugs that are advanced even by U.S. standards

The average Cuban seems much like the average American when you bring up politics. You get a shrug and a comment that runs along the lines of “governments argue and fight, but it’s never the politicians who suffer, it’s the people.” 

Hard to argue with that.

We think of Cuba as a disadvantaged, Third World country. Economically, that may be true. But the country has a 99% literacy rate, which dates back to a 1962 campaign that sent young people out into rural areas to teach farm families to read. Today, Cuba sends teachers to other countries to teach reading, as well as doctors. It’s pretty impressive. 

That said, the average Cuban that we met was so excited that the Americans are coming, they are practically giddy. But a cautionary note came from a few, notably the architect who squired our group through Old Havana. Daniel quite frankly said  he was looking forward to the tourism dollars the U.S. would bring, but as a historic preservationist, does not want to see five-hundred year old buildings torn down to put up a Starbucks.

The Cubans can hardly wait to welcome Americans to their country. 

I hope they like us just as much when we’ve been there a few years.

Cuba – The Sights

Havana is bursting at the seams.

Anyone who figures they can wait and visit Cuba when it opens up, more hotel rooms are available, and the rates are cheaper will have a long wait. The city is already doing a brisk tourism trade, and dozens of buildings that started as hotels have been converted to residences. 

Here’s what I think: When trade between Cuba the U.S. opens up, accommodations are going to be at a premium. It’s not going to be cheaper, it’s going to be more pricey. So, if you have a chance to go now, I would.

A massive restoration is going on in historic Old Havana. Our tour guide for the area, an architect named Daniel, explained that his department has wide latitude to take some of the rent new business tenants pay to fund the restoration projects; not unlike TIFF financing in the U.S. However, restoration is slow because nearly every building has existing tenants who are not willing to leave their homes, even if they might be able to return later to a remodeled building. 

So it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see a beautiful restaurant in the middle of two crumbling buildings. What happens to the restaurant if none of the other storefronts nearby can be saved?

Speaking of restaurants, it’s only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private restaurants to open. Called paladars, these establishments are some of the most profitable businesses in the country. A server can make the equivalent of several months’ salary in just one night’s tips, meaning a waiter or waitress makes far more money in a month than a doctor. 

The idea of zoning hasn’t exactly taken hold in Cuba. Some of these paladars are located in suburban neighborhoods. Imagine a bus pulling up next door to your house and disgorging forty tourists into the place for dinner.

Private development is contributing a lot, however. An artist named Jose Fuster has spent the last twenty years adding artistic facades and decoration to his neighborhood, which is beautiful, but looks a little like Disneyland on hallucinogens. 

Driving through Havana, the contrast between historic colonial structures and the utilitarian architecture brought by the Russians is striking. But both kinds of buildings have one thing in common: Laundry hanging in the window. Most Cuban households have a washing machine, but no dryers.

Our group took just one day trip out of town, but it was amazing. The Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage area, whose landscape is notable for its mogotes, a series of tall, rounded hills that rise abruptly from the flat plain of the valley. Only a few locations in the Pacific Rim share this stunning geography. It’s an agrarian area, with many tobacco farms, one of which we had the opportunity to visit.

The Cuban government is unlikely to allow private companies to come in and buy up large amounts of buildings or land in central Havana, no matter how much they are in need of repair. If I had to guess, I think development will take place outside of the city, with people busing or taxiing into town to take in the sights. At least until developers and the state can figure out a way to modernize the city’s core without dynamiting everything and starting over.

Here is a link to our photo gallery of Cuba Sights:


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