cuba girls on the street

CUBA - Regardless of the politics, discounting the poverty, forgetting about the unknown future, the people of Cuba are as wonderful, happy, and eager to meet Americans this year as they were a year ago.

Having the unique opportunity to visit the island country twice in twelve months, accompanying two teen age girls who clearly want to, and are successful at, making the world a better place person by person, afforded me the chance see if there were more differences or if things were just the same in a nation just 90 miles from Florida but miles away in opportunity.

 

Differences from a year ago are evident from the start. 

There were five of us traveling through Cuba Educational Travel for a Girls Universal Empowerment Sports Tour (GUEST)  designed by 17 year old Catherine Curtin of Atlantic Highlands. She, a senior at Red Bank Catholic High School, and a long time friend, Salma Abdelbarry of Manasquan, a senior at the Ranney School, were in Cuba for five days on the second year of Catherine’s five year goal of interacting with girls their age with far fewer advantages; her ultimate goal is bringing some of those news friends to the USA for some healthy competition. Their tool is their mutual love and talent for volleyball, a highly popular sport in Cuba and one in which Catherine excels here…Salma, who is president of her school’s Spanish Club served as translator and photographer rather than volleyball player. The girls were accompanied by Catherine’s parents, Tricia and Dan Curtin, who instilled in Catherine a strong belief in giving to others some of the gifts of talent, experience, and opportunities she enjoys at home. In the past, Catherine has also visited missions and neighborhoods in Cambodia and China in learning first hand the absence of the benefits many Americans take for granted. 

cuba uniforms of a sort

For this reporter, it was an opportunity revisit some museums I found fascinating last year, interact with smiles, laughter and some very broken Spanish with the friendly people who not only remembered us all but showed their happiness in a second visit through hugs, kisses, and plenty of laughter and broken English/Spanish.

Back to changes from last year…..it was far easier and more comfortable getting to Cuba in 2017!  A year ago, we had to travel to Miami, meet a representative who took us to a small airline counter and gave us our tickets, visas, and custom cards to fill out during the 45 minute flight to Havana; this year, we had our visas in hand, flew United Airlines direct from Newark to Havana, filled out custom cards and made the flight in less than three hours. Once at Jose Marti Airport, it was just as swift both years going through immigration and customs and happily heading out to see once again the array of 1950s taxis. 

Well, not exactly. This year, because of friendly contacts we had made with Pavil Garcia Valsdes and Sandra Sotolongo Iglesias of Proyecto Sociocultural Comunitario BarrioHabana, an incredible young married couple who work tirelessly on the streets of Havana to give a better life to people of all ages, the Curtins had many gifts. Chess is one of the most popular sports in Cuba for even the youngest children, and in response to the Curtin’s inquiry, Pavil said they would appreciate chess sets for the youngsters. Generous as they are, the Curtins purchased 20 sets, complete with official clocks and travel bags, and had them all neatly stored in a single suitcase that weighed in under the 53 pound limit.

It was after we had secured the seven other bags with which we were traveling, that customs officials rushed up to have a second look at “the chess bag.” Therein followed a nearly two hour inspection, much discussion among more inspectors called in to observe, a lot of turning over the bags of chess pieces but leaving unopened the plastic bags in which they were stored, and finally approval and on your way, chess games intact. None of the other bags was even given a second glance!

Outside, the second change was immediately, and sadly, evident. Whereas the 2016 line-up of taxis at the Airport was flush with all those 1950s vehicles everyone always hears about, the 2017 version was far fewer antiques and many more yellow, government owned taxis. Our driver, Pedro, an architect by profession, met us with his classic Pontiac and filled us in the poor encounter he had just had. Waiting alongside the road for our arrival, he was approached by a policeman, issued a ticket for parking where only busses are allowed. It made no difference there are no signs indicating anything, and there’s no court hearing to plead your case. While the fine was only a Cuban  peso or two, the more severe penalty was the eight points such an infringement cost. Thirty-two points means the loss of driving privileges. Hard to determine whether this is standard procedure, or a means of reducing the number of antique cars and their drivers in exchange for government owned cars and government income from that source.

It was a delight to see we were staying in the same casa and again, more smiles, hugs and laughter were exchanged as we all remembered each other. As clean, comfortable and cool as the rooms were last year, this year’s beds sported colorful new, crisp and very attractive coverlets. The mini-refrigerators in each room were stocked once again with two bottles of two different kinds of beer, two cans of soda, each available for two CUPS, or about $2,  and two bottles of water, one CUP each.  Same as last year.  

cuba watching volleyball alone

A quick look around the city showed little change…the buildings held together with wooden scaffolding last year are still being held up with the same scaffolding a year older now; clearly, no repairs or reconstruction have been on the agenda. The gracious and gorgeous intricately carved and designed churches, schools, banks and other professional buildings are still unkempt, perhaps losing a few more chunks of concrete over the winter, although one neighborhood church we visited had been scrubbed clean and refreshened inside.  The bedraggled fenced playground where the girls played three hours of volleyball each morning was as rugged and scraped as last year; even the physical exercise equipment under the trees inside the fence and at the side of the volleyball court where the moms sat to watch their children were no different from last year. But no one complains; the sun still rises and its beauty, warmth and brightness, coupled with the laughter and energy of the teens at play, blinds the eye to any decadence. 

The monetary system is exactly the same as last year: it costs an America dollar for every peso, or CUC,  worth 87 cents, a slightly less favorable exchange than the Euro. Their exchange for foreign currency is a different and more valued peso than the natives use for currency.   Cuban currency is not exchanged anywhere outside the country, and no other currency is officially used or accepted within the country. There’s an added small charge for exchanging American dollars compared to Euros or other currency, and no American credit cards are accepted anywhere. This year, though, there were notices that some credit cards are accepted in the major hotels…there is only one American owned hotel in Havana…..there were also warnings that the credit card machines don’t always work properly. 

The major monetary difference this year was in where Amereican dollars were accepted; in 2016, neither Euros nor dollars or any other country’s currency were accepted; this year, the restaurants,  in some cases, requested dollars instead of CUCS. Or accepted dollars if you proffered them.

NEXT: Water, buckets and 55 gallon drums