muriel j smith 120     Perhaps the best solution to the problems between Cuba and the United States is to leave it up to the teenagers. Especially if they are teens like Catherine Curtin of Atlantic Highlands and Ava Zockoll of Bay Head.   Because while negotiations are going on at high levels between the bureaucrats of both nations, and compromise and trade-offs are slowly making it easier for Americans to travel there, 16-year old Catherine, a junior at Red Bank Catholic High School designed a week long stay in Cuba’s capital to interact with Cuban teens on the volleyball court. Eager to join her on the expedition were RBS’s girls’ volleyball team captain Zockoll, Ava’s mother, Nancy, and Catherine’s parents, Dan and Tricia Curtin. And me. The Curtins asked me to accompany them on the trip so I could report it for newspapers and magazines.

   Life is certainly good.

   cuba girls

The Curtins instilled in their daughter the desire to help others less fortunate than herself and encouraged her to come up with creative ways in which she can combine a vacation with helping others. Knowing that Cuba is just opening its borders after a decades long embargo, Catherine thought interacting with Cuban teens in the city on the volleyball court would give teens on both sides the opportunity to play, interact and communicate through volleyball; she reasoned, if they could accomplish that, the rest would take care of itself. The long range plan is to have annual visits to Cuba for a few years, with the ultimate aim of bringing many of those girls back to the United States for an intense game on American courts.

     The trip was sensational from the start. Following directions to meet Miguel at the Aruba Airlines counter at Miami International Airport, we received our flight tickets, visas, custom cards to fill out on the 45 minute flight to Havana, and the name of our casa in the heart of Havana. Once in Cuba, it was a short walk from the tarmac where the chartered plane landed to the Havana terminal at Jose Marti Airport, and an even shorter time to get through customs and immigration.

   Once outside and on the streets of Cuba, we got our first glimpse at what everybody talks about…..Cuba truly is swamped with American cars from the 1950s….Chevvys, Pontiacs, Dodge, Fords, a few Oldsmobiles..for those of us who were teens in the 50s, it brought back a lot of great memories of big clunky cars with comfortable upholstered or leather seats, no seat belts, and plenty of charm. Each cab driver owns his own taxi, and Jose, a charming Cuban with a permanent smile, took us around in his 1954 Chevvy Bel Air. Cuba enjoys friendly relations with Venezuela so fuel is readily available and affordable. And while I’m not sure what’s under the hood on that 62 year old vehicle, it rode like a charm.

   The half hour drive into the heart of the city is over well paved multi-lane roads lined with trees and bushes, past both residential, apartment, and business areas. Throughout the trip and while walking the streets, it’s obvious Havana had its heydays in the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century when magnificent structures with plenty of wrought iron and gorgeous ornamental work on the building exteriors were constructed. The next jubilant time was in the 1940s and 50s when wealthy Americans traveled across the border for fun, frolic, music and good times. It appears many of the buildings, certainly the roads within the city itself, haven’t seen many rehabilitation specialists since then.

cuba laundry

   Nonetheless, our casa in the heart of Havana, two blocks from one of its five main squares, was wonderful, cozy, and more than adequate with its friendly staff, huge ceiling fans and room air conditioners to beat the 90 degree and above heat. A former private home, the casa is now a B&B with six or eight rooms to rent on two floors, with an atrium filled with plants and flowers covered by a skylight three stories up. Breakfast, always included fresh pineapple, mango, a plantain and papaya, followed by a variety of fruit juices and eggs with cheese or bacon and toast. There was plenty of great Cuban coffee, and all was served each morning in the front room of the casa, with wrought iron covered glassless windows looking out on the street.

   Across from the casa was one of the government’s social service offices, where Cubans get their ID cards and are entitled to, in addition to free hospitalization and dental care, a ration of eggs, coffee, rice, beans, sugar, and a small amount of chicken on a regular basis. The coffee is a far cry from what’s served in the casa and every restaurant in the city; it coffee doled out with rations is ground and mixed with the remains of string beans vines from the fields. Children up to seven years of age also get a ration of milk, but none older. Families have to purchase their own ‘extras’ such as fruit or vegetables to supplement the government’s dole.

   What they lack in material goods, the Cubans make up in sheer joy and warm friendship. They seem content and knowledgeable there are two currencies in the country….their own Cuban peso, and the CUC, the peso that is exchanged for foreign dollars at any hotel and always at the same rate….87 cents for one peso, plus an additional 10 per cent tax for American dollars compared to Euros or South American currency. There is no place that takes American Express and there are ATMs only in the larger hotels, but not sure of how effective or efficient they are. All the advance literature recommends strongly bringing cash only, and it seems the right thing to do.

cuba church

     With both educational and cultural side trips planned in addition to volleyball for the five day stay, we spent the first day on a walking tour through Havana’s five squares, each dedicated to a different purpose…a catholic church in one, business in another, commerce in a third and government and historic preservation. Overlooking the city across the bay is a tall statue of Christ over St. Francis Church and the fortress which once guarded the city from pirates and other invaders. Most of the squares have restaurants with both indoor and outdoor dining, and it wasn’t unusual to see diners getting up to dance on the cobblestone square when music broke out.

   Dinner the first night gave us the opportunity to meet with the coaches and some of the Cuban girls who would be competing on the volleyball courts, as well as a chance to sample baked red snapper, baked plantains stuffed with chopped meat, taro root, fried fish sticks, mojitos with plenty of mint and flan with shredded coconut. Dinner was excellent, the restaurant offering tables both inside and out of the plaza, and friendly staff to serve and interact with the group.

     With the American girls armed with high school Spanish and the Cuban girls primarily unfamiliar with English, it seemed a bit frustrating and challenging at first. But smiles, pointing, acting out and lots of laughter always managed to get the conversation running smoothly; friendships were beginning to form.

NEXT: Volleyball, chess & 1950s vehicles