National Heroes

Reflecting on something we’d just seen on Cuban tv the other night about Jose Marti, my husband turned to me and asked who Canada’s national hero was. He caught me off guard, and I asked him if it was obligatory (like national flowers, or birds) that every nation even have a single designated national hero. He paused and said he guessed not, but that he just figured that, like Cuba, we had one. Since we don’t have the luxury of instant Google answers to all of life’s most perplexing questions from home in Havana, I logged into the Kiwix (offline Wikipedia) app on my cell phone. It’s in Spanish, so when I looked up “heroe”, part of the definition suggested that a hero’s qualities or features might include having lived in exile or been a martyr, among other things. Hmm, that didn’t really sound too Canadian to me. Not finding anything whatsoever about Canadian national heroes in my phone app (and suspecting maybe it was because I don’t have the á symbol on my cell phone to even properly spell Canadá en español), I told him I really didn’t know. Canada’s a relatively young country, unlike Cuba (unless, of course, you divide Cuba’s existence into colonial pre-Revolution and independent post-1959 Revolutionary terms, I suppose). I explained that we have the Order of Canada, which distinguishes citizens for their positive contributions to society in different spheres. “Established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of Canada is the cornerstone of the Canadian Honours System, and recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” But I highly doubted that any Order of Canada recipients had been singled out with “National Hero” status, such as Jose Marti has been in Cuba. As it turns out, The Order of Canada, established on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s creation, does indeed represent the highest level of distinction in our National Honors system. It can (God forbid) even be revoked, as has been the case just 7 times since its institution. When I told him our first Prime Minister was a bit of a drunk, that got the biggest laugh of the night.

I thought of people like Terry Fox, then flashed back to elementary school history classes with Mr. McAleer and historic figures like Louis Riel or Nellie McClung. Could they be the people Abel was asking me about? Pierre Trudeau was one of our most popular Primer Ministers for a long time. We have environmentalists like David Suzuki, the astronaut Chris Hatfield, Rick Hansen who championed causes for the disabled, there was Lester B. Pearson, cultural icons like Stompin’ Tom Conners, Margaret Atwood, Buffy Saint Marie, Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion or Gordon Lightfoot. Canadian comedians John Candy and Jim Carrey certainly achieved great international status in their careers. And who can forget Bob & Doug MacKenzie (just kidding). We have Wayne Gretzky, and he would have come high on the list for many of my contemporaries, exemplary in his sportsmanship. Nowadays there’s even Mike Holmes, a champion of consumer advocacy and proponent of quality workmanship in construction, a hero of the common Canadian laborer and consumer. There are many Canadians that my fellow compatriots can feel proud to count among our country’s distinguished citizens, even if not all even have obtained the Order of Canada to recognize them as such.

I suppose my Cuban husband was asking me about Canada’s national hero because presumably that should be someone who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities; and is someone who has made significant positive contributions to society’s development and growth, and represents the nation. He was looking to see what we as Canadians hold as our greatest values, compared to Cuba. To know our heroes is to know our collective values, history, and what makes our country great. Acknowledging our nation’s heroes is equivalent to the national identity – its history, heritage, and culture. So viva national heroes, be they just one or a multitude of diverse people who rise up, make us proud of our countries and inspire us to be better world citizens.

Wrapping up my musings for today, here’s a little Bob ‘n Doug-style Canadian humor for you based on current events, and shared from @MeanwhileinCanada1:
“Dear Neighbours,
We have kidnapped your bird. He’ll be safely returned to you on impeachment day. We believe this is in everyone’s best interest.
With love, Canada”

eagle

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B&B Evolution in Cuba

There’s a saying about Cubans “o no llegan o se pasan” reflecting their tendency to either fall completely short or go way overboard, challenged with finding the exact Goldilocks measure of “just right” in many aspects of their daily lives and behaviour. The decor of the very lovely b&b we recently used, situated in a privileged location in Cienfuegos, is a perfect illustration. We made a last minute decision to travel and, as it was low season, we decided to try our luck and see what we could find on arrival. If you ask me, it would have been absolutely perfect if the owner just took away a few of the things that for me seem to clutter and detract from the natural beauty of her home. She charged us $40 CUC/night (excluding breakfast) and in our experience the room was just average by Cuban standards. Typically rooms in that area go for $25 CUC/night. It did have a split air conditioner, hot water and blow dryer, but other than that it was nothing extraordinary. Many b&b’s in Cuba offer those conveniences these days for similar or lower rates in low season. She claims that she recently discovered that one of the new powerhouse hotel booking engines operating in Cuba is selling the very same room for $103 USD per night. She expressed indignation at those rates, incredulous that the re-seller would earn more than she does as an operator, but I told her that’s the cost of dealing with the new US hotel marketing machines and the multiple layers they use to sell services in Cuba.

#1 mistake alot of Cuban B&B owners make when decorating their guestrooms: satin.
This went out in the 70’s, but noone has told Cuban casa particular owners that yet, and they continue to buy yards and yards of the tacky material and have local seamstresses whip up custom-made combinations of bedspreads & matching pillowcases to adorn their rooms. I wish designers in Cuba would start a campaign to get rid of them. I’d honestly rather simple white cotton sheets if that’s all to be found. It’s not, of course, but they don’t have HGTV in Cuba, so maybe it’s just that these operators need some exposure to good & modern design trends. En masse.
bed
#2 mistake: too much clutter. Stick to the basics and invest in quality, not quantity. Drown those creepy gnomes and trash the ceramic dwarfs and toadstools unless your name is Snow White and you’re catering to preschoolers. I really don’t want to see a one-eyed pot-bellied thing leering up at me from a fake waterfall with a knowing grin when I pull back the curtains to gaze at the ocean outside my room.

 


#3 mistake: investing in fancy before the basics. Fix the roof tiles and paint that last flower pot out front even if they belong to a part of the building that’s not under your ownership. The facade is the face of your business. If you have an air conditioner that may spit out the occasional drop of water (or worse), then don’t install it right over the bed. We ended up getting blasted by Tropical Depression Alberto and would have greatly appreciated a simple $5-$10 doorsweep rather than all the fancy plaster ceiling ornaments in our room. We awoke in the middle of the night to a room that had flooded from water coming in under the door, a/c dripping on our heads, and leaky roof that had soaked my leather purse from its resting spot on a ledge leaning against the wall. The casa owner was very friendly, and volunteered all kinds of information we didn’t ask for, including the fact that she has Spanish residence, and the coveted 5-year US visa. But after a sleepless night when I suggested that she consider picking up some simple weather stripping or a rubber door sweep on her next trip to Miami , rather than assimilate the constructive criticism, she dismissed it.

Don’t get me wrong. The place is lovely and the owner goes out of her way to make you feel welcome. There are just times I wish I could just come out and be blunt with some of the operators we come across and tell them that less is more, to identify and look after the basics first and then know where to stop to find that perfect balance. Without offending their sensibilities.

 

The Martín Infierno Cave

5 de septiembrePhoto credit: 5 de Septiembre

At WoWCuba we relish travelling backroads and would take a meandering scenic route over a boring highway any day. Having spent over a ¼ century criss-crossing Cuba on bicycles, motorcycles, in cars, buses, trains, antique motorcycles and airplanes we sometimes find there are fewer and fewer places in this marvelous land that we’ve not yet had the opportunity to explore. That often leads us to seek out some of the more obscure reference points and research their viability as destinations to share with privileged WoWCuba travelers. This past weekend led us to the Ecotur offices in Cienfuegos where we had the distinct pleasure of meeting a seasoned veteran in nature tourism and sharing an interesting exchange with him about a variety of activities under development in south central Cuba, one of which is the Martin Infierno Cave. The cave, first discovered in Cumanayagua in 1967 and declared National Monument in 1990, features one of the largest stalagmites in the world (over 67 meters, or almost as high as a 20-story building). It is situated 650 meters above sea level, 793 meters long, and reaches 197 meters in depth. Until recently visits were mainly underground and uncontrolled, resulting in some neglect and human-inflicted damage to the natural treasure.
Stalagmite Martin Infierno Cave
Photo Credit: CubaDebate

To our great pleasure, we discovered that Cuban authorities have assigned a ranger/guard to discourage illegal visitation, and assign fines to trespassers. Ecotur reports they now have authorization (for bats, etc) from Cuban Public Health authorities and are working on infrastructure for official excursions to the natural wonder. They expect to finally be able to launch that product, including in the first stage, visits to 2 of its 4 caverns by next spring. In a second phase they hope to be able to introduce safe walkways to minimize damage to the cave’s interior, and eventually allow access to the chamber housing the main attraction, the huge stalagmite.

Note there are several less-than-responsible websites and mass tourism marketing machines out there currently indiscriminately promoting this cave as if it were a legitimate tourist destination, when in fact the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) clearly indicates that unauthorized and unofficial visits are still prohibited. To preserve the integrity of natural treasures such as this one, WoWCuba strongly urges all responsible travelers to respect local regulations while traveling in Cuba, and be informed of which areas are authorized for visits.

Tread lightly and leave only footprints behind. And a word to some of the newbie tour operators in Cuba: Don’t be tempted to capitalize on Cuba’s natural resources until Cuban authorities have duly researched and authorized activities for visitors to these unique and fragile sites. They will have trained guides to escort visitors and ensure that they are preserved for future generations to contemplate and study.

Havana Girls Trip

A couple of my best Canadian girlfriends are planning a trip to Havana to visit me in May and I want to maximize both our time together and any of their independent exploring with fun, inspirational experiences. While all-inclusives are undeniably easy for organizing and budgeting, I personally can’t think of anything more boring or monotonous to do in Cuba. Especially when your friends are foodies and fortunate to hail from PEI, Canada’s food island. One of my girlfriends has never been here before, so when she asked me if they have 2-ply toilet paper in Cuba (me: we’re sometimes lucky if we have any, might as well a selection or luxury grade!), I decided I better get to work putting together some semblance of an itinerary to truly pique their interest (and tantalize their taste buds) if I’m going to actually pull this off. So if you’re planning a trip to Havana with your girlfriends, sisters or moms, then read on for some of my favorite spots to share with them. If you’re traveling as a group of ladies and prefer to pre-arrange transport & services (for groups, this invariably makes things flow much better), WoWCuba would be happy to oblige. Enjoy!

Getting Around
Bike taxis can be lots of fun and allow you to experience your surroundings a little more interactively, truly taking in the sights, smells and sounds of Cuba’s capital. Hitching a ride in a classic convertible car can be a little exhilarating for those who are new at it. Snapping a selfie with El Morro fortress (or some other iconic Havana landmark in the background) from the back seat of an antique car seems like an obligatory right of passage for visitors to our marvellous and photogenic city these days. Either way, neither of these options are difficult to come by, especially in Old Havana. Just make sure to ask the price before you jump aboard, as some Cuban taxi drivers can be opportunistic. As a rule of thumb, when you do the negotiating up front, there are no unpleasant surprises to deal with later.Shopping
Soaps & Scents
Nothing can remind you of a place or time quite so effectively as a scent or particular flavor and while many features of travel can be now replicated in virtual reality, this is not one of them. So go ahead and indulge yourself, engraining and extending your travel memories through signature scents and flavors.
D’Brujas – hand-crafted scented soaps. Some of the wonderful natural scents include coffee-eucalyptus, coconut, cappuccino, bamboo and more.
Habana 1791 – hand-mixed floral perfumes & scents housed in a historic laboratory-cum-museum
Mariposa perfume – made by Suchel and named after Cuba’s national flower, the butterfly jasmine, this popular Cuban perfume is widely available and costs just $11 CUC.
Locally Handmade Hats, Bags, Clothing, Jewellery, Housewares & more
Alma Cuba Shop – steampunk jewellery, Panama hats, paper products, unusual gifts
Piscolabis – decorative items, glass, ceramics, upcycled pieces, jewellery, café on-site
Galeria Bolo – shoes, bags, wallets and more. Some of their work is exquisite.
Zulu – custom-made leather bags for those who love quality one-of-a-kind items
Clandestina – t-shirts, fabric bags and more by innovative local designers. Quirky humor = free
Mercado Artesanal Antiguos Almacenes De San José – Old Havana Artisans Market
Antiques & Oddities
Bazar Vintage – Vedado storefront specializing in lamps made from upcycled materials
Memorias – vintage gift items in a convenient Old Havana location
Snacking, Cafecitos & Indulgences
Old Havana
Creperie Oasis Nelva – enchanted flower/plant shop & café specializing in crepes
CicloCuba – authentic Cuban sandwiches, fruit smoothies, natural juices, cocktails and radlers (you have to try the pale ale & grapefruit soda combination)! And when it’s in season, their avocado toast is to die for. You just can’t beat Cuban avocadoes.
Jibaro – tapas, delish and varied salads, mains & fabulous mocktails  (it’s super-close to where we work during the week, so great for my girlfriends on their independent forays)
Helad’oro – diverse ice cream flavors, this is their main location. Their ice cream brand can now also be savored in Vedado at the Cafe d’ La Esquina.
Bianchini – homemade sweet treats including vegan options
Café del Angel – café with good breakfasts, tempting (if not a little expensive by Cuban standards) smoothie flavors & designer Jacqueline Fumero’s locally-produced fashions in an artsy neighborhood of Old Havana
Chocolate Museum – savor this Cuban delicacy in solid or liquid forms, dark, white or milk chocolate flavors. They even offer truffels. Product demonstrations also offered on-site at the museum (which is really more of a cafe these days). You’ll often see churro (fried sugar-coated sweet dough) vendors outside. If the chocolate wasn’t tempting enough…
Vedado
Cuba Libro – books & magazines in English, shaded garden, hammocks, coffee, cappucino, tea, scrabble, chess
Café Presidente – great lunch spot with full menu, air conditioning, and consistent service
Café d’ La Esquina – for tapas, mini-pizzas, cocktails, drinks, ice cream, sweets and more
Miramar/Playa
Casa del Gelato – impressive selection of icy gelato treats
Café Fortuna – a funky slow spot where you can select from a broad coffee menu and sip away while seated at a sewing machine, in a bathtub or an old car.

Dining
Guanabo
Restaurante 421 – specializes in Italian-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, closest restaurant to our house in Guanabo
Le Mare – if this place were set any closer to the ocean they’d have to elevate it on stilts. Enjoy it while it lasts – climate change is coming. I like their shrimp and the flan is divine.
Chicken Little – consistently good service and reasonable prices have kept us loyal clients to this little spot.
Piccolo – really great pizza is served here, it’s a little more expensive than at 421, but very good quality and they make some of their own charcuterie
Old Havana
Donde Lis – if avocado’s in season then you have to try their octopus over a bed of guacamole served with sweet potato chips
Jibaro – also mentioned above under snacks, it’s a terrific not-too-expensive option for an evening meal too
Cafe Bohemia – an oasis from the hustle & bustle of Old Havana, the inner courtyard here is a welcome reprieve.
Ivan Chef Justo – this is on the more expensive end of Cuban restaurants, but still relatively affordable compared to dining out in Canada or the US. Regularly rotating menu, great ambience.
Vedado
Beiruit Shawarma – Chef Alicia’s flavor profiles are spot on, and I must admit this is one of our favorite new spots.
Mediterraneo – food is well-prepared, and their farm-to-table concept is novel in Cuba. Individual travelers can opt to tour their Guanabacoa farm and then dine at the Vedado restaurant afterwards (for a package price). Or for groups, a tour followed by dinner right at the farm can be arranged in advance.
Fuumiyaki – diverse sushi menu, demonstration cooking
Playa
Santy Pescador – sushi served beside the boat that probably caught the fish you’re eating. It may not be set in a Pinterest-worthy, high-end marina with luxury yachts to admire while you savor the salty sea smell over your meal, but the view is definitely authentically Cuban.
La Lisa
Conde Baraca – authentic and affordable Cuban food (much of it grown in-house), good service, unlimited repeats on rice/root vegetable sides, and close to several excellent greenhouses / gardening centers I like to frequent. Show cooking also available here.

Nautical
Time will undoubtedly be spent at Playas del Este as the white sand beach is walkable distance from our house in Mirador de Marbella (Beautiful Sea Lookout). Havana’s eastern beaches are spread over a 20+-kilometer piece of coastline and include (west to east) Bacuranao, Tarara, Megano, Santa Maria del Mar, Boca Ciega, Guanabo, Veneciana and Brisas del Mar. We like the beach at Villa los Pinos in Santa Maria for avoiding some of the larger crowds and rocky entries in the village of Guanabo, but where you still have the option of ordering refreshing local treats such as icy fresh coconut water (served in the coconut), cold drinks or hot tamales, served by the restaurant staff or beach vendors right to your beach chair/umbrella. If we really just want to get away from people and chill then we usually try the beach between Megano and Tarara where water entry is a bit more steep. There are also some nice lagoons for swimming there. For beach glass hunting and walking while relatively undisturbed, the Rincon de Guanabo just past the Brisas del Mar residential community is the best. We recommend taking a bag to collect and later properly dispose of some of the plastic garbage that collects there while you’re at it. Don’t let the presence of sacrificed animal carcasses deter you; that’s part of Santeria religious practices, although we sometimes wish its followers would realize that using the sea as a dumping ground for dead goats/chickens or floating entire cakes as offerings on cardboard bases in the ocean may not be the best way to gain favor with the water goddess Yemaya. If you see any blue bulky fabric packages, probably best just not to disturb them. Even the beach cleaners don’t like to go near that stuff, mostly out of superstition. There’s an elk coral garden off of the point that’s fantastic for snorkeling. You can take a catamaran out there or swim to it if you’re feeling especially energetic. We usually kayak there ourselves and then snorkel. The water in front of the Rincon de Guanabo is full of seaweed so best to start out from the point or Brisas del Mar. Please remember, coral is for admiring but not touching.

While we’re on that topic (looking/not touching), do be aware that you might encounter the occasional slightly depraved Cuban male with a hyperactive libido lurking in the dunes and to be aware of them. They may be flashers, or “tiradores” (public masturbators), as they’re known here. My sister was once scared by one and indignant that another brazen Cuban man reached out and actually touched her butt while biking, but the next time she was prepared and charged at the startled flasher like a crazed banshee, and he quickly disappeared in the opposite direction. I’m not sure if that’s really the wisest action. While it worked for her, I think the best plan is just to discreetly ignore them. Rremember, a reaction could be what most excites a perv – and zero reaction might just take the wind out of their sails, so to speak. But do take the precaution of travelling with a friend if you’re going to be in any isolated areas. A final warning to my best girlfriends: if I find out you’ve been hanging out at the deserted beaches more frequently than is normal, just know I’m onto you both…just kidding (well, kind of…)!!! What they do in the dunes of Guanabo, Cuba, has nothing to do what goes on in the dunes of Blooming Point, PEI, girls. But then again, maybe I’m just not with the times – aren’t we all supposed to be protecting (not romping around in) the dunes these days?

Health & Wellness
Pura Vida – Havana’s premiere health & wellness facility, with a full-range of fitness classes available on a group or personal basis including yoga, pilates, zumba, meditation, weight training, massage, and much, much more.
Vida Spa – specializing in massage and skin care services
O2 Spa – reflexology, massage, gym, hair salon, social spaces, yoga
Atlantic Guanabo – hair, nails, skin care, massage
Memories Miramar – day use of pool, gym, sauna, tennis courts
CicloCuba – quality Specialized bicycle rentals (not beater bikes or single-speed beach cruisers). Walk-ins accepted during the week with a $200 CUC deposit/bike, or you can reserve 3+ rental days in advance and just have your credit card pre-authorized for the security deposit.

Educational Experiences
Vivero Loteria – ornamental cactus/succulent arrangements (Cuba’s largest collection)
El Divino – out-of-this-world wine cellar, fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, orchids
El Ajiaco – Cuban cooking & bartending classes with meal and visit to herb-grower included. Ample seafood options on Cuban-inspired menu.
Quinta de los Molinos – gardens on the university grounds with a butterfly sanctuary and occasional gardening/bonsai workshops. This is an historic oasis in the middle of the city.
Alamar Agricultural Cooperative – We have gradually been planting both at home and in our neighborhood in eastern Havana, so with the community of Alamar being relatively close to home, we love to browse their fruit & palm tree selection. This is the largest and most successful urban gardening center in the city.
Tailors & Seamstresses – This is a dying profession in the developed world, so it’s refreshing to see clothing being repurposed and transformed in Cuba. Bring along some clothes or fabric you’re looking to transform/alter and then ask around for the local seamstress or tailor. Many will accommodate you same-day and are very resourceful with making tailor-made adjustments for just the right fit for your body type. If you bring along some extra needles & thread for their machines (or any other cute or useful sewing accessories), that’s a bonus. I usually voluntarily pay considerably more than what my local seamstress charges and am happy to do so to help support her family. I also enjoy watching her work her talents at her well-worn manual sewing machine.

Culture / Nightlife
Cuban Art Factory (FAC) – one of Havana’s most popular cultural gathering places with a diverse lineup with everything from visual arts, to multiple music genres, poetry, fashion shows and more gracing their stages. You can slip between galleries and concert halls, eat/drink, take dance (even tango) classes, socialize or just drink in the distinctly Cuban atmosphere.
Gran Teatro de La Habana – some of the most elevated cultural performances in Cuba take place in this spectacular & recently-restored setting which is the home to the National Ballet
SuenaCubano.com – a good online source for cultural programming, but best to check in closer to your travel dates for updates.

Support the Cuban People: US-Cuba general travel license category

If you carefully review the US Treasury regulations there are general travel license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, and opportunities for engaging with Cubans without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders or exorbitant prices from US group people to people tour operators. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. But being pragmatic, we think that ideology aside, travelers and Cuban travel intermediaries should be devising more practical ways to work within the existing guidelines that will both satisfy current US legal regulations and Cuban objectives/targets for tourism production without disrespecting Cuba’s right to self-determination and self-government as a sovereign nation. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant on the full-time itinerary component of this category within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (as this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the Revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity far more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.

“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA or United Nations to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.

Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses [note there are around 200 private entrepreneurial categories in Cuba]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.”

Ensuring Compliance

Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (generally understood to be ~ 6 hrs/day on weekdays) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), WoWCuba can confirm that’s definitely not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible (basically anywhere except a Gaviota or Habaguanex-owned hotel). License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).

Support the Cuban People full-time category compliance
WoWCuba’s suggested theme: Environmental Cleanup & Sustainability

If interested in pursuing an itinerary along environmental lines in the Havana area, following are some specific ideas on how to design a compliant program:
Volunteer activities could be with the United Nations or CITMA (Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment) and include cleaning up a section of public beach, for example, to promote non-proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or zika (also a benefit to public health). Landfills & garbage in oceans are major issues on planet Earth and Cuba is not exempt from the problem.

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

The Rincón de Guanabo is a Natural Protected Landscape in desperate need of immediate attention as it’s bordering on neglect, with a lack of financing to ensure its vibrant future. It’s less than 30 minutes east of Havana on the coast close to the Mayabeque provincial border. There’s a small interpretive center located at the Municipal Historic Museum. The UN is looking for help to conserve and sustainably manage the area which features mangroves, turtles in risk of extinction, beach, coral reef with abundant healthy elk coral just a short distance from the shore, and wetlands with local and migrant birds. Garbage and seaweed tend to collect on the beach and following are some photos taken in November 2017 (after Hurricane Irma). Evidently cleanup efforts haven’t yet made it to this section of the beach which is rarely frequented by visitors, but borders the wetlands and mangrove reserve area.

Natural Protected Landscape

Travelers could take this further by separating waste and donating aluminum cans to a private entrepreneur (often elderly people) who gather and return recyclable materials in exchange for a fee, thereby not only leaving a public area cleaner/more beautiful/safer for public health, but also economically assisting a vulnerable segment of Cuba’s society. Another extension of this type of project could include bagging seaweed to take to a local agricultural cooperative (such as the one in Alamar) to be rinsed and transformed into organic compost, where fresh (non-pesticide) materials are sorely needed to keep their urban gardening plots fertile and productive. Seaweed breaks down much faster than a lot of alternative organic matter. Or collecting seaglass for local artisans to be used for recycled art projects. The possibilities for collaboration with the private sector could be extensive.

Affidavits & Paperwork

Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign a do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a Sample Travel Affidavit Form-General for individual travel categories.

Travel Service Providers

OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. While the new US limitation on educational group people to people travel (§515.565b) requires that the organization sponsoring the group travel (not necessarily the travel agency employed for prepaying services itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance, the chaperone/group rules do not apply to the Support the Cuban People general license. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.”

For further information on Legal US Travel to Cuba, visit the US Travelers section of WoWCuba’s website.

Is it time for a US Revolution?

When my father shipped me off to work in Cuba over half a lifetime ago, I recall being posed some political questions by a Canadian radio interviewer. Which I evaded, as I hardly considered myself an expert in the area of politics. I was only just beginning my adult life in this foreign land famous for its bearded leader and Communist party, in a world where only a handful of nations governed by a Communist Party remain. When Nixon was president and before we started elementary school, my parents uprooted their young family and moved us from Cape Cod to the birthplace of our paternal grandparents, the Canadian Maritimes. Growing up in rural Prince Edward Island in the era of Canadian television content, we were a CBC radio and TFC (two effin’ channels) household. My siblings & I fought for space in front of the family’s small black & white television (powered by our home’s windmill) to watch Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Fraggle Rock, The Edison Twins, Beachcombers, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, Degrassi Junior High, The Littlest Hobo, Seeing Things, Danger Bay, Video Hits with Samantha Taylor, re-runs of Don Messer’s Jubilee, the John Allen Cameron Show, On the Road Again, The Kids in the Hall, You Can’t Do That on Television!, and who can forget Hockey Night in Canada, a ritual for at least half the country. We usually avoided Question Period because who wanted to listen to a bunch of politicians arguing back & forth and insulting each other in Ottawa? Peter Mansbridge was a better watch on The National, but we’d only appreciate his journalistic talents (and be able to stay up that late) as we grew older. Sure, we had Disney, Sesame Street, Archie Bunker or American soap operas like Dallas and All My Children. But we watched a lot of purely Canadian tv when we weren’t running around outside, biking to friends’ houses, playing board games, listening to 8 tracks/records/tapes, studying, practicing music, reading, doing chores or actually working (because in Canada, unlike our counterparts in Cuba, we almost always had part time jobs as kids). We didn’t have an Atari, but my brother did get a Commodore 64 when home computers were just coming out. We sometimes wiled away entire afternoons on that thing taking turns doing the powerlift game. How’s that for nostalgia? Sundays when Dad was home we were usually forced to listen to the Royal Canadian Air Farce followed by an hour of Gilmour’s Albums and Clyde’s classical musical selections, much to our chagrin, as our popular preference, more in line with those of our peers, would’ve been Casey Casem’s Top 40. Once I began studying at university and moved to larger urban centers, we had access to cable television to distract us. And American shows like Oprah Winfrey, The Price is Right, Seinfeld, Friends. All very entertaining and a great way to fill the time on your lunch hour or during those cold Canadian nights at home with your roommates.

I’d like to believe that the media we were exposed to in Canada didn’t result in our dumbing down. I know we all look back fondly on a lot of those programs we followed as kids and the core values they instilled in us as Canadians. And of course I realize that the way people access and view media today in Canada and most of the rest of the world is a whole other story. But when I arrived in Cuba in the early 1990’s, it was clear that I still had a vast amount to learn about how the rest of the world works. Little by little, my view of world politics and media in general has expanded. I’m still far from an expert, but I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to step outside of the bubble of the developed world and explore how things operate on the other side of the spectrum. The family I married into has undoubtedly influenced my thinking and knowledge of the political system. My Cuban husband studied international relations in Kiev. My father-in-law’s career focused largely in Cuban diplomacy, followed by a very long and distinguished career in Cuban Parliament. My mother-in-law is spending her retirement writing historical books. She taught philosophy for a time at the University of Havana, and later worked in Cuba’s foreign ministry until her retirement. Conversations sometimes get so heated at our family gatherings that we have had to ban the subject of politics. The ban isn’t always effective.

One of the things that I discovered early on (and at first, in my immaturity and naïveté, I had a hard time swallowing this) is that propaganda in the United States is spread by both government and media entities. You don’t want to believe a nation has been duped and so you first think whoever is telling you this must be paranoid. While Pope John Paul was making a historic visit to Cuba that was supposed to be reported on by Christiane Amanpour, all of a sudden all of the CNN coverage (which we were “privileged” to have at the time in our state aparthotel) that was to be directed to the papal visit to Cuba was suddenly diverted to the story on Monica Lewinski and where Bill Clinton was directing her to insert Cuban cigars. As if that were an event that merited the amount of media coverage and resources that it was assigned. For weeks we’d been anticipating an historic visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church with the leaders and people of Cuba. Posters were everywhere, even the non-religious were excited about this kind of a visit. But for the US media, it was long forgotten the minute the Lewinsky story was leaked. Illicit sexual liasons in the White House? Obviously a higher priority for American viewers. Some of the best documentaries by Oliver Stone have been censored in the US because it is not convenient to US authorities’ interests that unflattering (but accurate) information about their activities be distributed to the US population. Did you know that in the US, data on ownership and market share of media companies isn’t even held in the public domain? Doesn’t that sound fishy to you? You wouldn’t think information on who owns the media should be shielded from the public that consumes it. Unless, of course, there were some convert operations or ulterior motives someone (or something, like the CIA, perhaps) were trying to keep hidden. Such as brainwashing the US public with American heroes, GI Joe crap, and scare tactics about the supposed “enemy”. Free speech, hold it dear. Except (psst), who exactly controls the content that dominates all your feeds, channels and theaters? Do you know? Take Michael Moore, for example. He independently produces some compelling documentaries on some of the top issues that you would think should be addressed by the US government today, including gun control, the fast food industry, health care, conspiracies and more. He even correctly predicted that Trump would win office. Yet the mainstream US media consistently portrays him as a propagandist, a leftist (as if that were a crime), an alarmist, and even (gasp!) an a—hole. Someone pipes up and talks about some of the most alarming issues in his nation, but in order to keep the status quo (and satisfy the interests of the transnationals that really control the US government), their media channels immediately swoop in to discredit the source of the information not on their agenda. The current US cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion dollars (or roughly 1/3 of the wealth of the entire country) are probably slapping each other on their greedy backs and having a great laugh over being able to keep the country entertained as long as they already have already with The Donald’s multiple deficiencies and colossal flubs. Meanwhile, they’ve effectively managed to move very efficiently during his presidency so far to:
-get out of the Paris climate agreement. We all know that the US is one of the largest contributors to global warming. But their president (in 2017) is in denial of science and publically declares this with a straight face. Do we believe this is possible, or is Trump the buffoon at the helm just extremely convenient to the pockets of the companies of his administration bros?
-set back Obamacare and get out of those pesky obligations to improve health care access for Americans
-roll back diplomatic advances Obama worked hard to make with Cuba, after half a decade of estrangement.
Really the list is too long to go on. But even those closest to Trump have declared that he’s easily manipulated. He must be equivalent to a transnational’s wet dream.

The veto powers of a US president are clearly too great, and what exists today in the USA does not even closely resemble a democracy. You have just two parties that have controlled the US Congress since 1856, both with weak central organizations. And there’s not much that really differentiates one from the other in terms of ideology – the fact that some US organizations contribute to both parties’ campaign funds clearly suggests that they fundamentally represent the same (primarily economic, not social) interests. Over the past several decades US presidents have worked toward achieving undivided control of the executive branch, to the point where they are now operating like kings without the checks and balances that were intended to govern their democratic systems. With a questionably sane chump like Trump at the helm, controlling the world’s most expensive military and second largest nuclear arsenal, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it deeply concerning. I mean the man over-uses Twitter, a social media platform limiting its user to 140 characters or less, to get his puzzling and polarizing messages out to the world. Is this what the role of the President of the United States has been reduced to? Dumbed Down Personified?

Participation in US federal elections (comically portrayed as national race between the political parties – I say “portrayed” because this seems to me to be just another, albeit very expensive, US-funded entertainment program, not an actual exercise in democracy), requires huge amounts of money. For advertising, which benefits…..(yeah, you guessed it)…the US media, who else? As has long been a criticism of international election observers, and became all too clear with Trump’s win, the imbalanced way in which US congressional districts are set up means the conclusions are really foregone, and that competitiveness of these election contests doesn’t truly exist as it would in a genuine democracy where the majority vote wins. In the USA, only the wealthy or those with wealthy donors in their pockets can afford to postulate as candidates. We the people?! The Occupy movement? The majority crushed by the 1%.

Moving on to the country that I actually reside in most of the year, here are some facts that you may not be aware of… Municipal elections begin tonight in Cuba, where they don’t claim their system is perfect. But it’s their system. If there are things you don’t like about it, as a Cuban citizen there are outlets to voice your concern or file your complaint. Voting isn’t compulsory but it’s indeed popular here. The information slip my husband received to vote today Oct. 20 at 8 pm from the Electoral Commission reads quite simply that according to the Electoral Law, he has the right to vote in the Assembly for the Nomination of Delegates to the Municipal Assembly of the People’s Power. It gives him the time & place to go (within walking distance of our home, of course) should he choose to participate in the election as a Cuban citizen. He knows he should take his Cuban Identify Card (every single Cuban has one of these, with a unique #, their thumbprint and photograph attached). No one will rebuke him, consider him un-revolutionary, or threaten his job if he were to skip the vote. You laugh? I do too, as I’ve actually repeatedly read some of those theories in US media and I just can’t believe that anyone in Cuba (in their right mind) has actually reported that’s the case. So I can only assume it’s simply more disingenuous US propaganda.

Some of you out there don’t realize we have democratic elections in Cuba. Well, surprise, surprise, they exist, and they start from the bottom up. In the first phase, delegates are elected to the Municipal Assembly, and in the second phase, deputies are elected to the Provincial and National Assemblies. Surprisingly, no political parties (including the Communist Party of Cuba) are permitted to campaign. Which means we don’t have to put up with the stupid slander, lies or insulting behavior that you often see in elections in countries where big money is at stake for the power-grab. Or, better yet, waste a whole lot of money on that funny business when it could be put to better use improving the quality of life for the country’s citizens. It’s not to say a little more real debate at the grassroots and national levels wouldn’t be a bad thing. But the expensive media circus isn’t what I’d like to see, of that I’m sure.

So how do Cubans know who do vote for? Simply consult the candidates’ biographies/photos which are posted in public locations. Vote based on their merit – a choice of municipal candidates will be available, nominated by individual electors or grass-roots organizations in nomination assemblies rather than by small committees of political parties. Voter turnout in Cuba is exceptionally high (95% or higher) because not only Cubans but many other Latin Americans today know and accept that it’s their civic duty to participate in choosing their government leaders, and they fully recognize that every vote counts. Most Cubans actually care about politics. In the US, many ordinary citizens have given up, believing they are powerless to counteract the influences of the wealthy interests/corporations/unions/PAC’s on their political system. Fidel’s famous literacy campaign in the early years of the Revolution eradicated illiteracy in Cuba, meaning the peasants could no longer be kept in the dark. Especially those of the disenfranchised, the poorest citizens, those who want their voice heard. Our neighbors to the north would do well to learn that lesson when the 2020 US federal elections come around again – barely half of eligible voters in the US bother to cast their ballot. Many others (especially minorities) are prevented from doing so for a lack of transportation, resources, viable identification, economic inability to leave their workplace and a host of other issues impeding their voter registration. In countries like Australia you can actually face a fine for not voting. Of compulsory voting, Obama once said: “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

The President of Cuba (referred to as the President of the Council of State) is also the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba, the head of government. The Council of Ministers (the Cabinet consisting of the President, Vice President, 7 Vice Presidents of the State Council, heads of national ministries, the Executive Committee Secretary and other lawfully-established members), is Cuba’s highest ranking executive and the administrative body of the nation’s government. The Executive Committee consists of the President and Vice Presidents of the Council of State, the Secretary and ministers chosen by the President. Policy agreements are authorized by the National Assembly, and the Council of Ministers is responsible for their implementation, designating that task to individual ministries. General plans for economic and social development are proposed by the council, which the National Assembly authorizes twice yearly. Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, will step down in 2018. If he is elected to the National Assembly, many assume that Miguez Diaz-Canel Bermudez could be Cuba’s next President.

Cuba’s foreign policy and its relations with other governments is directed by the Council of Ministers. It approves international treaties before they are passed to the Council of State for ratification (much like the Senate, in Canada). It oversees and directs the State budget and foreign trade. Laws authorized by the National Assembly are passed by the Council of State and enforced by the Council of Ministers. They can sometimes be almost maddeningly slow in their pace of implementation with certain national policies (for example, the perfection of the new non-agricultural cooperative systems). And sometimes it seems like they’re learning and adjusting as they go – Cuba’s ironing out a lot of wrinkles right now with their taxation and audit systems for the private sector, a recently expanded sector of the national economy. Cubans haven’t had to pay much in taxes until relatively recently, and on the overall scale, they’re still coming off fairly easily compared to Canadian income tax rates if truth be known. Being largely a cash economy, a considerable amount of tax evasion appears to be going on and the authorities are struggling with how to control that. Although they tout efficiency as one of their lofty ideals, bureaucracy is the real norm here. In Canada we’re somewhat used to things being bureaucratic, but admittedly, Cuba goes above & beyond.
However, Cuba certainly doesn’t end up with a cabinet with a collective net worth of $4.3 billion accepting bribes left & right and shielding their money in offshore accounts, of that you can be absolutely certain! In Cuba, with the exception of the President, politicians live in regular neighborhoods, in regular houses, and live many of the same day-to-day routines as working class Cubans, and largely they can still relate closely to the problems in Cuban society. In Cuba they’d have a cow if their system were that corrupt. I can recall the story of a lady selling black market cheese door-to-door, when she unknowingly knocked on Carlos Lage’s door some years back, seeing if he would be interested in purchasing some of the cheese she was selling made with milk diverted from the state’s supply. In the US you couldn’t get that close to someone that high in the government without having a security detail all over you. It probably shouldn’t have happened here either – something was obviously remiss, but you get the point. He wasn’t living in some gated/gilded mansion with a pool in Miramar, despite all of the responsibility he was assuming in his government position.

Although they disingenuously claim they want “democracy” restored to Cuba, our neighbors to the north have violated the United Nations charter through countless assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, and even in modern days continue to attempt to undermine Cuban democratic processes, often under the guise of “USAID”. But Cuban officials have been on to their underhanded tactics, which have largely been a colossal failure, for years. It’s almost part of their doctrine. They try and sneak in, then Cuba exposes them. Cubans don’t believe that the US is promoting their watered-down version of “democracy” to the rest of the world out of the goodness of their own hearts, rather they promote their own interests above all others, which has always been and continues to be America First. This concept was not invented by the Donald. The US is not out there to save the world, the environment, or all of a sudden interested in ensuring those who work in the garment trade in India are paid a fair working wage, or that desperately-needed vaccines are provided with affordable prices by US transnational pharmaceutical companies to those in dire need in Africa, in order to preserve lives. Is anyone really that naïve? Maybe, but in Cuba the wool was torn off Cubans’ eyes more than half a decade ago. The United States wants to retain their dominance of the world economy, and in order for a small segment of Americans to live a lifestyle of relative (and in some cases extreme) excess, then the overwhelming majority of citizens of the rest of the planet must sacrifice. This is the only doctrine the US insists on actively ensuring is followed. Many Cubans would like to see changes implemented in their system, and in a more efficient manner. They would like more transparency on government spending, on projects like Mariel. For youth to feel like their country has a promising economic future, to stem the flow of talented professionals out of Cuba. They want mechanisms to truly support the private sector, rather than in name only. And for a media that offers constructive criticism of their system and its leaders, not one that pats everyone on the back and neglects the real issues facing Cuba today. We’re in the midst of some important transformations and many Cubans want to see their vision of Cuba realized from the inside out. But some are getting tired of the bureaucratic wheels and their lack of grease / ability to adjust to today’s challenges at the rate at which they are being presented.

In Canada we can elect a Prime Minister to as many terms as we wish. We don’t limit ourselves to 8 years of good leadership if we have one that is doing a bang-up job and willing to continue to serve us. In July an unpopular tax reform was introduced in Canada and after public outcry and debate, in October the government stood down as the private sector is the backbone of Canada’s economy. It didn’t take them 8 years to come to their senses. It seems to me that this is a sensible way to keep one’s citizens content, with effective and admirable leadership and a sound moral compass to guide us through good and difficult times. It’s too bad that Obama couldn’t have run for another term because in his absence, and after Bernie Sanders very unfortunately loss to Hillary Clinton (do take another read through the link on his political positions – it might make you nostalgic like it did me, and wonder “what if”….), the US voting public was left with 2 unappealing choices and the unthinkable transpired. The US voting public elected an idiotic, pu—y-grabbing, lying, unqualified, egotistical, bullying, incompetent excuse for a man to be the leader of their “democratic” government. By allowing that to happen, the US government has chosen to abandon universal goals and their offensive choice for their nation’s world representative is isolating them abroad. They are not an ally to be trusted. As Winston Churchill once said, “There are no eternal friends or eternal enemies, only eternal interests”. In Cuba, as in Canada, on the other hand, the continuity of the nations’ long-term national and sustainable global development goals is ensured. Cuba is not abandoning its commitment to the planet, to supporting other nations in need and within its means. According to the WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report, “Cuba has the most sustainable model of development on the planet”. That’s something to be proud of and to look to as an example of what to strive for in the future as a nation and as a planet. According to a Telesur article (our really great news source in the southern part of the Americas, conceived as a joint nations project to counteract the US propaganda machine): “Cuba…was found to have implemented a good — yet not perfect—combination of human development and environmental footprint, with a high level of alphabetization and a high level of life expectancy, while using little energy and natural resources.” In Cuba & Canada we have universal health care. Education is free up to Grade 12 in Canada, and through post-secondary institutions in Cuba. We are committed to global goals. It’s high time the  citizens of the country in the middle started standing up for their rights and demanding more humane, rational action from their government. Maybe they need a new political party to stir up some real change because it’s certainly not happening with the establishment. Maybe a Revolution is what they need.

3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!

Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

As responsible travel agents, we at WoWCuba do our utmost to ensure our clients are aware of what they can reasonably expect from Cuban accommodation & transportation providers before they dive in headfirst and commit to services. The unfortunate reality is that car rentals in Cuba often fall short of client expectations, and more so at this point in time when demand is at record levels and tourism authorities are struggling to keep up. WoWCuba is a travel intermediary. We are not the rental company, we do not control or maintain the Cuban state’s car rental fleets. We do process reservation requests with our Cuban partners, and only process payments for car rental reservations if a confirmation has been received in writing by the service provider in accordance with the exact parameters of client requests. There are admittedly operators out there who may not even have direct contracts with Cuban tourism operators who will promise the moon, only to disappoint; you should beware of undertaking arrangements through questionably ethical/legitmate websites against which the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has published warnings. The following is meant to provide potential visitors to Cuba considering renting a vehicle the low-down on the rental company’s obligations, and what one can reasonably expect when undertaking a self-drive holiday. We hope you read, absorb and carefully consider the information we offer to best plan your travel in Cuba and reduce stress to a minimum.

At an meeting held by the Cuban Minister of Tourism to conclude the record year of 2016 which saw over 4 million entries to Cuban territory, as accredited Cuban travel professionals we were provided with statistics on the industry’s growth, and problem areas that the various ministries are addressing and attempting to solve with the unprecedented and sudden surge of the tourism sector of late. With just 13, 592 vehicles existing in the fleets of the 4 Cuban state-owned car rental companies, only 5,116 were imported in 2016. That makes your chances of being assigned a late model rental vehicle roughly 1 in 3, not particularly great odds.

With a deficit of vehicles to meet the current demand for rental cars, delays in their delivery are admittedly frequent. We regularly field calls from clients who appear at the agreed-upon rental counter at the confirmed time to collect their rental vehicle, only to be informed by the rental counter functionary that there are no cars. Morever, they are rarely able to provide an informed estimate on how long the client may have to expect to wait before their will can be delivered. They aren’t denying the existence of the prepaid reservation, and we’ve not had a single case in over two years where a WoWCuba client didn’t receive a rental vehicle on the same date scheduled for its pickup. But delays (and sometimes up to 5 or more hours, especially for rentals programmed for early morning or early afternoon pickup) are not out of the question. It can be frustrating for clients and for agents, but is an unfortunate reality with car rental services in Cuba today. The upside is that the rental company has a contractual obligation to our ground handlers to supply a vehicle to clients who have prepaid their services, while others must seek alternative modes of transportation. Their failure to provide a vehicle on the date reserved for pickup could result in the rental company being obliged to assume additional expenses that clients incur, but only once they have analyzed their claim, supporting documents and corroborated evidence. In our experience the claims process can be maddeningly slow, and it often seems to us that Cuban authorities attempt to take advantage of any possible loophole to avoid forking out funds. Some examples we’ve encountered include:
-clients who fail to report their issues to the rental company’s Technical Assistance numbers to document issues.
-clients who fail to present official receipts to corroborate their claim, or (and this one is key) have failed to retain a copy of their completed rental contract to submit as evidence for any adjustments corresponding to documented issues at the end of their rental period.
-clients who ask for compensation for loss of activities that have not been prepaid (and for which verifiable receipts cannot be presented)
-clients who present receipts for inflated and non-approved taxi fares. Ex.: A $20 taxi between 3ra & Paseo and Linea & Malecon is clearly a scam. If your rental car is scheduled at 3ra & Paseo, but they tell you to go to an alternate location to pick up the car, call us first. We will give you instructions on how to proceed and ensure that (if it’s actually necessary for you to change locations rather than have them deliver the vehicle to where it should have been waiting) you retain an official receipt and that we ensure a record of the incident is immediately put on file with our ground handlers.
-Partial compensation is occasionally approved for clients who’ve reserved, for example, an economy category car for 9 am, but not received it until well into the afternoon. While it’s not much, at least it’s something to recognize the serious level of informality demonstrated at times by some Cuban state service providers in terms of compliance with reservation parameters. We’ve handled claims for other clients who’ve lost more than 5 hours of their anticipated rental awaiting the vehicle, but were ultimately provided with an upgraded vehicle at no additional cost (which they’ve not requested). Disappointingly, claims for partial refunds for lost time have been denied in those cases, as the rental company’s logic is that they made up for the lost time by providing an upgraded vehicle. While our stance is that the practice is questionable, thus far we’ve not managed to convince authorities to budge on that particular point, despite persistence and insistence that they reconsider their rulings.

WoWCuba recognizes the need for contractual compliance, and regularly makes note of its importance with our ground handlers. Sometimes, however, we believe those suggestions fall on slightly deaf ears. Just this week I met with the heads of Sales, Quality Control and the International Department Chief at the offices of one of our main ground handlers. My agenda was to hash out some fully documented and corroborated claims that they’ve failed to respond to within a reasonable period, as well as to request that they provide us with the details of some of the specific contractual obligations and terms with the car rental companies. These sometimes seem to be well-guarded state secrets to me. My logic was that when an agency accepts prepayment for a service through their contracts, we should be able to offer more specific information to our clients on exactly what the maximum established compensation might be, when and if things go astray. Despite having spent my entire adult life (over 2 decades), working in the Cuban tourism industry where customer service levels can often be qualified as deficient, and the ratio of quality-price is questionable at times, I still fully believe this is a reasonable and logical demand. But the answer I received demonstrates that there’s a culture of complacency, and even resignation even at the highest levels in the Cuban tourism sector. Perhaps it’s precisely because I’m not a newbie to the Cuban tourism industry, but they didn’t seem to show any shame when responding telling me that there are not enough cars. No hay carros. We have to be real, this is Cuba. That we should be lucky they’re confirming anything at all this year; last year it was almost impossible to get a written confirmation issued by a rental company. That what’s written into the contracts they sign with the rental companies is not always exactly what transpires in reality. That’s the sad truth of this system. When the four rental companies and their ground handler all ultimately belong to the state, I’ve often said that as the agents accepting prepayment for their services it’s a little like playing with a stacked deck, or batting in a ball game where the umpire and the pitcher are on the same team.

Some clients arrive in Cuba with the misconception that as an intermediary agency we have some degree of control over which model of rental vehicle they will be assigned, when in reality Cuban rental companies only confirm car reservations by category. Others believe we are able to ensure that they are assigned a vehicle with low kilometers. If an agent trying to sell you a car rental claims they have absolute control over those issues, you should be skeptical as the ultimate assignment of vehicles normally occurs the evening prior, or on the same day of the service initiation, and it’s impossible to know in advance with any degree of certainty, the exact model or year of the vehicle you’ll ultimately receive. To avoid being slapped with a claim, the rental company’s contractual obligation is to deliver the same category a client has reserved or superior, on the scheduled date of service initiation, with the transmission type requested, functioning air conditioning (for those categories featuring a/c), and passenger capacity as described in the parameters of the client’s reservation. The vehicle must pass documented Cuban technical inspections and be roadworthy. According to the rental companies, cosmetic imperfections (dents, scratches, upholstery which may be stained or have rips/cigarette burns, etc.) do not contractually constitute a valid reason to reject a rental vehicle, but if there are technical or mechanical deficiencies which affect the integrity or safety of the vehicle, those would be considered acceptable reasons for their rejection.

When opening your rental contract, it’s essential that you perform a full inspection and ensure any dents/scratches, or other imperfections are duly registered on your rental contract as it will be inspected upon your return, and you are responsible for any new dents/scratches etc. Take your time, turn on the lights/blinkers, a/c, windshield wipers, carefully inspect the condition of the tires and the spare tire, ensure the jack & tire iron are included in the car inventory, etc. If there are technical issues with the vehicle, you are under no obligation to accept it or sign a contract expressly indicating your conformity with the vehicle. Signing the contract indicating that you received the vehicle in acceptable technical conditions is one of the loopholes the rental company can later use in the rejection of a refund claim. If a technical issue occurs while the rental is underway and the renter fails to duly report the issue, the plate/contract #, exact location of the vehicle, and provide the rental company’s Technical Assistance staff with the tools to contact them at a local number and the opportunity to repair or replace the vehicle, that is another loophole which we often see used as justification in the rental company’s rejection of claims. Contacting WoWCuba or random rental counter functionaries to complain or report a problem does not mean that your issues will be documented as verifiable incidents on file with the rental company. They don’t take the client or the intermediate agency their word, but rather put the onis on the client to ensure they have all issues fully documented in their system and on the rental contract for analysis. From the time an issue is reported to the Technical Assistance office whose telephone contacts are listed on your rental contract, they must respond in a reasonable time frame with a solution. Taking note of the time your report is submitted, and the name of the rental company functionary with whom you spoke is highly advisable.

If the rental company functionary attempts to assign a vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or unfit and does not offer an acceptable alternative, then you should immediately contact a WoWCuba to request intervention. If there is evidence available to corroborate your claim, then we can contact their superiors/operations office on your behalf to report the difficulty and request intervention for replacement of the vehicle. If no alternative acceptable solution is ultimately available through those channels, and you choose to reject the vehicle they’ve assigned to your rental, then upon verification, refunds for prepaid rental fees are available. To avoid being left without a rental car altogether, some of our more flexible clients have accepted older/inferior vehicles which they’ve been able to switch for alternative models at the earliest opportunity. In our experience this strategy can be hit or miss, especially when heading outside of major urban centers where the availability of vehicles may be more limited. Some clients have had to travel through several cities before finally encountering some luck replacing their vehicle, and most report the experience to be inconvenient at best.

If you do elect to reserve a rental car in advance, following are some suggestions worth considering to maximize your time and itinerary goals:
-If picking up a vehicle after your international arrival (not directly at the airport upon arrival in Cuba), consider programming pickup of your rental vehicle the evening before you’ll actually need it. Especially if planning on travelling several hours or more from the planned pickup location, this strategy can often result in the best guarantee for an on-time departure.
-Consider upgrading to REX, the “luxury” rental company. Their rates are certainly higher than those of the other three Cuban rental companies, but in our experience they have the highest rate of client satisfaction. It’s not to say they’re perfect – we have had a couple of cases where even REX ultimately disappointed clients by delivering an inferior category than that which was initially confirmed, but always with reimbursement for the difference in contracted rates.
-Arrive slightly earlier than the programmed pickup time to collect your vehicle. Lineups at the rental counters, especially in Havana, are common, and the earlier you mark your spot, the faster you will hopefully complete the process and be on your way.
-Ensure you have all documentation on your person (printed voucher if one has been issued in advance by WoWCuba, a copy of your invoice with contact information, your driver’s license issued at least 2 years prior to the date of initiation of the rental, and passport corresponding to the primary driver on record, demonstrating that he/she is at least 21 years of age (or 30 for sport car models). If registering additional drivers they must be present with their identification at the time you open the rental contract.
-If your rental vehicle is scheduled for routine maintenance while under your care (typically this is every 5000 kms; the rental company will advise when the vehicle’s next maintenance must be performed), ensure you take care of that detail. There are penalties if you fail to have the maintenance completed when due. It’s not always convenient for the client, but the manufacturer’s warranties require the maintenance to be performed. If the designated rental company garage does not have the corresponding filters/cannot perform the maintenance for any reason, simply ensure you have them issue an official document (duly signed & stamped) attesting to the fact that you attempted to have maintenance performed but that X reason(s) prevented that task from being completed. You should submit that document to the rental counter functionary upon conclusion of the rental for compliance/justification.

Traveling independently in Cuba can be a wonderful adventure, but things aren’t always rosy. WoWCuba continues to offer car rentals as many of our long-time clients would be disappointed if we discontinued the service. Being prepared for the realities of what to expect/the limitations of local systems & infrastructure, and planning accordingly can make the experience much more fulfilling and relaxing.

Previous car rental posts you may want to reference for additional information:
Cuba Car Rental Advice
Cuba Summer Car Rental Adventures

The Black Box

Cuba has been making advances over the past few years with free public access to digital television. I recall several years ago now when they first began selling the digital tv decoders in Cuban stores, swarms of locals rushed to the local TRD (Tiendas de Recaudacion de Divisa, where they charge in CUC for all merchandise) to get theirs before the stock ran out. I can’t blame them. With no legal cable television for the population, the local options are limited. Sure, there are still illegal shared satellite connections around and there’s the bootlegged “paquete” with all kinds of weekly digital entertainment for a fraction of what it costs Netflix users. But for $44.95 if there’s an option out there to get access to local/international news, movies, soap operas, and a host of other locally-offered programming for no monthly fee, with the option to pause it and view it in (hold your breath) High Definition, why wouldn’t you jump on that bandwagon?
We have always had pretty bad reception on 3 of the 4 channels we received at home, despite trying a multitude of different antennas and positions. Having largely turned into workaholics of late, only being able to watch Buenos Dias (the morning news magazine) and Multivision for an hour’s worth of entertainment after work was not really a big issue for us. But friends & family kept planting the bug in our ear about the improved reception and features of the digital decoder box so we figured that after several years on that market, what the heck. While running errands a couple of Saturdays ago we decided to drop in to the mini shopping center at 5ta & 42 in Havana. Lo and behold, they had the cajitas in stock; several other places we’d asked over the previous weeks didn’t. But there was a lineup. And no air conditioning. In August. My husband & I looked at each other and shrugged. Both of us know the rule: if it’s in stock and not astronomically priced and you need it, buy it and don’t wait until later. You never know if they will be in stock when you return. Alright, might as well do it, we’re committing to the lineup. ?El ultimo? we asked. ?Y detras de quien vas? Because you don’t want to get caught screwing up the lineup. And then we settled in for a long wait. The lineup itself was my entertainment so you get to hear about it (as it’s much more exciting than work these days).

Being workaholics and living in Cuba where there’s always something we need/can’t find, we took turns holding our place in the lineup while the other would check out the adjacent mini supermarket, hardware store, or housewares to see if we could cross anything else off our list and make the best use of our time. They guy who marked his place behind us struck up a conversation with me, asking if the box had HD capability. I told him yes, but in order to view television in high definition you first have to have a high definition television, and then the programming has to be recorded in high definition. If all those requisites are met, then in my experience watching tv in high definition compared to what we’ve had until now is a huge difference. You can see every flaw and detail in an actor’s complexion if your screen is big enough. He wasn’t sure if his mother in law (who he was buying the box for) had an HD tv, but there was no way he was leaving the line. Another dude came into the store who had a lot of information to share about the decoders. He targeted the same guy in the line behind me and started telling him the white box was better than the black box, and all kinds of other information before I realized he was a re-seller trying to recruit customers. My husband returned and I told him if somebody tried to do that in Canada they’d be escorted off the premises. In Cuba, most of the people (and the guy behind me who had also caught on by then) just tried to ignore him. He lost any potential fish he might have had the hook for his unit, but he told everyone in the line (in a typically loud Cuban voice) that he was an electronico, an electronics specialist, and his box was the best box, why were they wasting all that time in the lineup, blah blah blah. So then, still having no bites, he left. People wait in the lineup because they get the store guarantee (which is a heck of a lot more complicated than an exchange at Walmart, I can tell you that, but it’s something).

More people came into the store. “El ultimo?” they asked, marking their place in line, and then “Pa’ que es la cola?” because if there’s a line there must be something worth buying, right? In walks a pretty young Cuban woman and she approaches me asking what the line’s for. Well, it’s either the automatic washing machines or the decoder. That’s what people are after today. She asks if they’re on sale. No, $44.95 is the regular price. “What are all the reduced price tickets for?” she asks. “Merma”, I answered. Stock that’s either broken or so freaking out of date that the Cuban retailers have to reduce the price to see if they can move it off their shelves. She’s looking for a rice cooker though. So, being a foxy Cuban, she approaches one of the male store attendants who looks her up from head to toe (front & back) and tells her she doesn’t need to wait in the line for that, go see the third counter attendant (by that time lunch was over, so all 3 were back behind the counter). She waited about 10 minutes while he was attending to another customer, only to be told when it was her “turn” that the rice cookers were defective. Merma. See? I told you so, but nobody wants to believe the blue eyed, blonde haired foreigner as you figure she doesn’t know what a CDR or a libreta is, right?!

My husband is back with something from the hardware store and we’ve moved up considerably in the lineup. The couple in front of us is pointing to a dvd player in the merma section and the store attendant kindly tells them that although it’s his job to sell merchandise, he wouldn’t recommend investing their hard-earned money into a technology that’s outdated and probably won’t even read all the codecs that are out there nowadays. Being from Remanga la Tuerca (Cuban for Timbuctu), they insisted they needed a DVD. The poor souls, I thought, they probably don’t realize that if you get the paquete on a flash drive you can just watch that on the (cheaper) decoder. But let the salesperson do his job, it’s not the customer’s job to interfere. Not being able to convince them otherwise, he finally told them that if they had to have a DVD, to go to La Puntilla (another department store) where they had more modern versions available that might read more codecs than the model at 5ta & 42. So off they went, having waited 1.5 hours in the rotten lineup instead of first asking the question. Finally, it was our turn and I told my husband I was buying 4 units. “4 UNITS?!?!” he retorted. “You’re darned right, 4 units”. If we have 4 tv’s and I’ve waited this long you can be sure that I’m not doing this again. I smiled at the clerk and told him 4 units, 2 people buying them, and he had to agree to that, so the paperwork began. They have 3 clerks working just on the task of selling the boxes as one person takes it out of the box to get all the serial #s and plug it in to a power source to prove it’s working before you take it from the store. Another accepts your money. And a third fills out the store guarantee along with your identity card so if it blows up before the 3 months expire, at least you might have a chance of getting it fixed or replaced. This is not the Walmart mentality, remember, where time is money. As we’re working on that, another couple walks into the store and the woman is excited that there are decoders in stock. But it seems to me that her husband a) doesn’t want to wait in the line or b) spend the money on the box because he’s poo-pooing everything she says. Oh yeah? But they’re the black box and everyone knows the WHITE one is the best. The store clerk says, no, these Konka ones are actually the latest technology. They’re the same as the white ones, just a different color. Oh yeah? But it doesn’t have Alta Definicion he tells his wife. She asks me, “Tiene alta definicion?”. Mmm, hmmm. See the HDMI cable? Her husband retorts: “Sure, but does it have HDMI 1 and 2?” I didn’t bother answering that as by that time I was onto his game. He wasn’t buying it, wasn’t doing the lineup, either that or he was just a complete imbecile and that’s OK too.

On our way home I was telling my husband a few stories about the line and he told me that in Cuba people don’t know that HD = Alta Definition because it’s an English term. Yeah, I know. I should be more understanding right? Sometimes these macho men can be a little infuriating. And I know too that many have never experienced high definition tv or movies before, heck I’ve only seen it while visiting family & friends in Canada. But it is pretty amazing. So back at home once we got everything put away, the dog fed, and supper heated I was stoked to connect up our box and see if this little black box was going to really make a difference in our Saturday night movie viewing pleasure. But my husband wanted to eat first. So I plugged in everything except the HDMI cable. I didn’t see a plug for that on the side of the tv (which, as in most Cuban households, is placed not at eye level while you’re sitting, but higher up on the wall). Momentarily confused and recalling something about having previously hooked up my laptop to the tv with a monitor cable, I asked my husband if our tv had HD. “CLARO” he retorted, as if I were born yesterday. So I patiently waited for him to finish his dinner and then (being taller than me) he deftly hooked the HDMI cable up to the back of the tv. He sits down on the bed and takes possession of the 2 remote controls and then pauses for a moment to say, “But what I don’t remember is if this tv has High Definition”. OMG!!!!!! After our conversation in the car, I couldn’t believe he actually said that. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg, or if he really did clue out for a second. But the little thing works like a charm. We now even get Cubavision International. Radio Stations. Can pause/record our tv programs and everything. Pretty luxe compared to 1 clear channel and 3 fuzzy ones.

So what are we watching? The latest and most talked-about show on Cuban tv this season is a Cuban singing talent show called Sonando en Cuba. They have 3 judges who are giants on the Cuban salsa scene: Paulito FG, Haila and Mayito (formerly of los Van Van). There’s a great amount of talent on the show, but way too much talk. And for some reason I find it particularly annoying that a show that’s obviously conceived to promote Cuban culture has all of the contestants calling their mentors (the three aforementioned artists are each assigned different talents to train) their “Coach”. Like a knock-off version (and poor relative of) The Voice. Come ON already! And then I saw Haila on another show the other night where, after she admits she’s on a diet as he no longer boasts a svelte figure, she states that there are two things in life she loves: the kitchen and shoes. Haila is a self-proclaimed Cuban Diva who actually got a sign made for her car that said Diva. Who does that?! A friend who’s been on tour with another famous Cuban orchestra in Europe was once in the same hotel as her and told me a story about her shoe fetish. Always wanting to give her beloved public the impression that she’s wildly successful economically, she had been bragging in the hotel elevator about how much money she’d just spent on a pair of jeans. My friend, who earns a much more modest income as a musician touring with someone else’s orchestra (and possibly could make even more money being an impersonator or a comedian), says that he later spied her at a discount store not only shopping for shoes, but diving into the discount box after them. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining in the end, watching Cuban tv or listening to Cubans tell stories. I’m strongly inclined to say the latter, however.

Last weekend we had to drive my brother to Varadero for a flight. On the way back I asked my husband to stop at the TRD in Santa Cruz. Being a smaller town, they often have stock that other stores don’t. Are you guessing where I’m going with this? Yup, you’re right. 3 employees in the store. No customers. As we walked in the man was holding a newly-arrived black Konka box in his hand and all 3 workers were wondering about it. OMG!!! I just waited 1.5 hours in Havana last weekend to buy that very same unit!!! Apparently they’re bringing in 1000 units a time into 5ta & 42 from the warehouse, and they can’t keep them on the shelves. No kidding, they said. Is it any good? Marvellous. What a difference. That’s the way life goes here. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Extraordinary Havana Experiences Recommended by WoWCuba for Independent Travelers

This post is in response to the flood of recent requests we’ve been receiving from potential independent travelers who claim they’re too busy to plan or research their Cuba travel but want to see the country’s culture, people and beauty. Yawn. First, we’d urge you to reconsider that stance, since any wise person knows that arming oneself with knowledge about a destination’s people, services, history and even politics will only serve to make one’s independent travel experience richer and more fulfilling. Travel is as much about anticipation and expanding your human horizons as the moments one will live contemplating the sunset from a different perspective while physically present in the destination. Having a solid background or at least even just some basic information about Cuba and the (hopefully off the beaten path) places you intend to explore prior to arriving will impart greater significance to your travel experience and enable you to have more meaningful interactions once here. Put down your selfie stick for awhile, quit taking that shaky video from the top of the double decker bus that you’ll never watch again, and instead resolve to engage in meaningful activities. Observe and try to relate to what you see, smell, taste, feel and hear. Don’t be a tacky tourist but rather make a conscious decision to travel with purpose. You might even thank me for that later.

Starting with Havana…
The following two options are available for advance arrangement only as part of your WoWCuba travel package:
Cuban cooking classes
El Ajiaco Café, a Cuban specialty restaurant in the fishing village of Cojimar just east of Havana, offers instruction in Cuban cuisine. Their offer includes:
-visit to a local herb grower (and their supplier, just 3 blocks from the restaurant) where you can learn about their production process and hand-select herbs to use in food preparation.
-an introduction to Cuban cuisine and its origins, presentation delivered in the El Ajiaco patio (with a restaurant employee providing English translation if required).
-demonstration of how to prepare local dishes including ropa vieja (shredded beef), plus lobster & shrimp enchilado (in tomato sauce).
-instruction on preparation of the Cuban mojito at the bar, followed by making your own version of this, one of Cuba’s 3 signature cocktails.
-your lunch includes bread service (accompanied by several of their own sauces), ajiaco (a typical Cuban root vegetable-based soup/stew), rice, salad, beans, yucca, sample the beef/lobster/shrimp dishes that you learned how to prepare in the kitchen, accompanied by a national brand beverage, your choice of several typical Cuban desserts, traditional coffee, and aged rum to finish of the meal.
Cost: $60 CUC/person includes prepayment to guarantee the service
Schedule: begin @ 10:00 a.m.
Excludes: transportation, gratuities
Group size: 2-6 participants
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Escorted Art Tour
With advance notice, we can arrange for a Cuban curator as the perfect escort to squire you around the most captivating artistic corners of the nation’s capital. The curator counts on a wide range of connections in the Cuban art world including the most celebrated contemporary Cuban painters such as Kcho and Fabelo to lesser-known and more affordable up & coming artists. Stops on your itinerary can be customized to your particular interests, whether they be art galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Cuban artist cafes, studios of Cuban designers, or browsing the wares of private antique collectors.
Cost: we offer 1/2 day or full day packages with or without transportation, on a group or private basis. A private 4-hour tour + transport for 2 travelers goes for $112 CUC/person.
Advance booking available: in conjunction with any WoWCuba land package

Following is a selection of DIY activities for cultural exploration, education and enjoyment
Music/Performing Arts
Online Cultural Events Guide: this is one of the best sources of current performance information including artists, details on venues, performance dates and more. Research on planning your ideal independent cultural itinerary should start here. Another option is La Papeleta. The Google translator is a tool you may need to employ for both websites. Some suggested venues:
Fabrica de Arte Cubano: for live music, drinks/snacks, art/sculpture/photography gallery
Corner of 26 & 11, Vedado (53) 7-838-2260
Privé Lounge: for mellower live music, Cuban troubadors, and drinks in a smaller venue
Calle 88A #306, between 3ra & 3raA, Miramar (53) 7-209-2719
Casa de la Musica Miramar: for diverse local acts and salsa dancing (they offer both late afternoon and late evening performances)
Avenida 35, corner of 20, Miramar, Playa (53) 7-204-0447 or 7-202-6147
El Sauce: where you can catch the most contemporary & popular Cuban acts
Calle 9na #12015 between 120 & 130, Cubanacán, Playa (53) 7-204-6247 or 7-204-7114
Jardines de 1830: for salsa on the weekends in a picturesque open air venue at the mouth of the Almendares River
Malecón & Calle 22, Vedado, Plaza (53) 7-838-3091-2
The Magic Flute for later evening jazz performances accompanied by very decent dining and a prime elevated view of the Malecón and US Embassy. Indoor & outdoor seating available.
Calzada #101 (Penthouse) between L & M, Vedado (53) 7-832-3195
La Zorra y el Cuervo is perhaps the most famous jazz venue in Havana, in a basement venue in the middle of the action on La Rampa.
Avenida 23 between N & O, Vedado, Cuba (53) 7-866-2402
Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís: for classical music performances at 5 pm on Sundays
Plaza San Francisco de Asís, Old Havana
Cuban National Ballet: performances are a spectacular bargain and provide insight into Cuban culture at its highest levels. National performances are currently at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba and occasionally at the newly-inaugurated Teatro Marti, but usually at the Gran Teatro (currently under restoration).
Cuban Contemporary Dance Troupe offers performances, a twice annual festival (Cubadanza) and workshops geared more towards intermediate-professional dancers.
Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Paseo & 39, Plaza, Vedado (53) 7-879-6410 or 7-879-2728
Cuban Dance Classes
La Casa del Son offers instruction for beginners to intermediate dancers in a variety of rhythms including salsa, son, cha-cha-cha, danzon, rumba, casino & folklore in a large restored colonial house.
Empedrado #411 between Compostela & Aguacate, Old Havana (53) 7-867-1537
Spanish Language Courses
The University of Havana offers morning instruction and course length as short as a couple of weeks (40 hours for $200 CUC), to a month or even up to 9 months. With the exception of the month of August, enrollment takes place at the Faculty of Foreign Languages the first Monday of every month. High level of instruction, quality instructors, social activities are often arranged amongst participating students outside of classroom time, and if continuing Spanish education upon your departure from Cuba you´ll find that the transition into your next level of study will often be seamless. More info
The animation departments of most all-inclusive hotels in Cuba offer introductory Spanish classes to their guests for free. But there are of course also a number of private instructors located around the city and country.
Yoga
Eduardo Pimentel of Vidya Yoga studio is Havana’s (and perhaps Cuba’s) most celebrated Yogi. Allow him to help you find your holiday zen with a private or group class.
Calle 26 #514 between/ 5ta & 7ma, Miramar (53) 7-203-3147
Culinary / Agriculture / Wine
El Divino / Finca Yohandra: restaurant, exemplary in community integration/environmental education, 110+ fruit trees in extinction in Cuba, Cuba’s most fabulous wine cellar and in-house sommelier.
El Mediterraneo restaurant is unique in that they cultivate much of their own produce in two farms they operate in Guanabacoa, plus raise small animals, produce their own cured meats, keep goats for milk which they turn into their own cheese, and even maintain a family boat on the south coast in Batabano for the freshest of seafood.
Reading / Relaxing
If the hustle, bustle, bongos and maracas around every corner in Havana gets to be too much and you need a retreat, then Cuba Libro (corner of 19 & 24 in Vedado) is one of my personal favorites for English books, magazines and conversation. I must admit I’m partial as the owner is a friend. But Conner’s café/bookstore/oasis project is unique and a great example of an ethical business model that benefits employees, community members and patrons alike. Sip on a fresh fruit juice, try out a frappuccino, or re-fill your own travel waterbottle from their cooler (without contributing to plastic waste) and then chill out in the garden in a hammock under the shade of the almond tree while browsing your chosen reading material. Check out one of Conner’s Trip Advisor posts (on their review page) for a great list of donation material if you’re inclined to pack anything extra in your suitcase to leave behind after your travels. There’s a good bakery just around the corner (that belongs to another friend!) if you’re looking for something sweet to eat as you indulge in the Cuba Libro’s non-alcoholic beverage menu.