Go Eat Give Insight to Cuba

Join Go Eat Give and GCIV Executive Director, Shell Stuart for an insider look into Cuba. A visit to Havana and Trinidad offers an unforgettable and unique experience to learn about the legendary history, art, music and architecture of Cuba. Each day, we will explore a different element of this beautiful country that is frozen in time. From a walking tour of Old Havana, to touring a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to visiting Hemingway’s private estate, and the picturesque Bay of Pigs, you will get to experience the real Cuba. During this one week tour, you will stay at private homes, eat at authentic restaurants, visit popular sites and volunteer with local projects.

More information at at www.goeatgive.com/trips/tour-of-cuba

What I Learned From my Travels in 2015

Each year-end I take some time to reflect back at what all I accomplished, where all I traveled to, and most importantly, what I learned from those travels. I sincerely believe that travel is the best educator. Through experiences, you not only learn about other countries and cultures, but also about yourself. You acquire skills for communicating with strangers, adapting to changes, thinking on your feet, being the moment, and accepting what is happening.

Here are some of my travel highlights from 2015:

In January, I flew to Cancun and skipped the all-inclusive resorts that most vacationers flock to in Mexico. Instead, I drove around with my friends from the Mexico Tourism Board exploring the state of Yucatan. We ate the local cuisine, stayed at boutique hotels, swam in cenotes, and visited historic sites in the small charming towns of Valladolid, Merida and Izamal. What I learned was that this part of Mexico offers safety, luxury and small town charm, though its away from the sea. In fact, many Mexicans and Americans look forward to retiring in the Yucatan.izamal mexico

The same month, I also took a weekend break at Serenbe Farms, located only 30 mins south of Atlanta, GA airport. This residential community has been remodeled after the hamlets in UK and sustains its own food, power, education, art, etc. It was very interesting to spend a few hours hearing the story by its creator, Steve Nygren, and to learn that visionaries like him still exist today.

In February, I traveled to the Dutch-Carribean island of Bonaire, just before the carnival. This tiny island is packed with natural beauty, good food and friendly people. I noticed a great diversity of people here, most of whom discovered Bonaire during vacation and decided to settle. Within a few blocks of downtown Kralendijk, you can find restaurants that are run by immigrant Italians, French, Dutch, English, Africans, Indians, Indonesians, Jamaicans, and many more. Even though I was traveling alone for a week, I was always surrounded by interesting people, who were eager to include in their international circuit. Read my blogs from Bonaire. 

Bonaire carnival

In May, I visited Japan for the first time. I loved getting a bird-eyes view of Tokyo from my room at the Mandarin Oriental and enjoyed the wonderful fresh food around the city. But I also took an adventurous journey with Walk Japan Tours trekking for 10-days through the Kyushu mountains in the Kunisaki Peninsula. What I realized during this trip was I was completely unprepared to be climbing mountains for 10-12 miles a day! Some of the days were very scary as I was far behind my 3 fellow trekking, often sliding down slopes and not being able to call for help. However, I indulged in the authentic culture, staying at ryokans where no one spoke English, eating the freshest sushi ever, drinking saki every night, and bathing in communal baths (something beyond my comfort zone). I also saw a whole new side of Japan, that went beyond skyscrapers, shopping malls and bullet trains. Read my article on Japan in Khabar magazine. 

Kunisaki Japan

June took me to the farthest Caribbean island standing between US and Europe. Barbados has a rich culture influenced by the English and West Indies islands. You can see people playing the sport of cricket, eating fish fry, and singing reggae. There appears to be wide income disparity in this small country. Million dollar estates with private yachts can be found juxtaposition to shabby neighborhoods. Read Top 10 things to do in Barbados.

Bridgetown Barbados

In July, I took a group of journalists for our inaugural Go Eat Give trip to Mexico City. This was an eye opening experience since media largely portrays the city as being infested with crime, traffic and pollution. Most Americans who visit Mexico City go for business or family, not tourism. I learned that Mexico City was extremely rich in architecture, art, music and food, which has been influenced by wealthy Mexicans who travelled  to Europe during the 19th century. As a result, you can see neighborhoods with European architecture, Parisian cafes and gelato shops. It was clean and the traffic was far worse than what I have experienced in India. There were guards around, but I didn’t feel that I was going to get kidnapped or mugged. Also, I can never eat Tex-Mex anymore! Read Why Mexico City could be the next Paris.

I also led Go Eat Give’s culinary tour to Cuba in partnership with Cuisine Noir Magazine, who I have been writing for many years. Our all-women group experienced Cuban cooking, farming, food markets, rum tasting, mojito making, and much more. The highlight of this trip was having dinner at someone’s private home. The family was a friend of a friend and lived in a two-bedroom apartment that was falling apart. Yet they prepared an amazing meal for our entire group (perhaps the best food I ate in Cuba) with 10-12 dishes. We all sat outside in their tiny patio and ate with 3 generations of the family. I attempted to make some conversation with my broken Spanish, but mostly couldn’t stop admiring their generosity. Despite having so little (many food staples are rationed in Cuba), the people shared what they had. I also had some insightful conversations with Cubans about how they felt about easing relations with the US. Read about what has changed in Cuba. 

Go Eat Give Cuba

Until traveling on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, I had ruled out cruising (unless it’s an adventure cruise) as a passive form of travel that did not interest me. But the Mediterranean Cruise this August journey took me on a once in a lifetime experiences across France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and UK. This new mega ship had large modern staterooms with balconies, live performances by artists flown in, 30 eateries, skydiving on board, and 18 floors of nonstop activities. The ship itself was a major attraction wherever we docked, but the tours offered during ports of call were pretty unique too. I visited the Rock of Gibraltar, hiked for the best croissant in Marseilles, took ferries around Cinque Terre, and explored the small towns outside Lisbon. I learned that given the right ship and itinerary, cruising can be fun for young active travelers too. Read my posts from my cruise. 

anthem of the seas

In September, I stopped in Sydney for an amazing weekend, where I learned that there is much more to Australian food than steaks, barbie and pies. The restaurant scene in Sydney, though growing steadily, can compare to those in London and New York. People here like to eat well, enjoy life and stay fit. The Sydney seafood market comes second to Tokyo in terms of volume traded. I had the most amazing seafood paired with local wines and even took a cooking class at the largest cooking school in the southern Hemisphere.

dining in Sydney

I led my second Go Eat Give trip to Bali in September.  Every time I go there, I realize there still exists a place in the world where no one frowns, gets angry or is stressed. There is a lot of poverty on the island, yet people are happy and content with what little they have. They pray every day, live among large families and help each other. I truly love the serenity in natural beautiful, the simplicity of living, and hospitality of the people of Bali. This year, we also offered an add on tour to Java, Indonesia, a predominantly muslim island, with a rich history of Hindu and Buddhist temples built from 9th century AD. I visited many sites I had only heard about in history books, such as Borobudur. I learned that my tour guide was a Hindu woman who had converted to Islam, but was also a practitioner of Buddhism. It said a lot about keeping harmony within religions and choosing a way of life that appealed to you as an individual. Read about sustainable tourism in Bali. 

Borabudur temple in Java

In October, I attend a Food and Wine tour of Israel with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. We went to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acco, and Galile tasting up to 30 dishes a day. What I found out was that there is no such thing as Israeli food, but the food in Israel is some of the best in the world. With very high quality of produce traveling only short distances, and many cooking styles influenced by surrounding countries, the chefs in Israel have much in their favor. I had heard so much about the Old City of Jerusalem  and its holy history, but walking down the streets and experiencing it was something else. Despite what goes on in the area, I felt the people were praying for peace and wanted to spread love more than anything else. Read 8 of the Best Culinary Experiences in the Melting Post of Israel.

Western Wall in Israel

I crossed the border on foot from Elat to go across to Jordan, a place that was high on my bucket list. I felt like an explorer as I was one of the very few tourists roaming the vast open desserts of Wadi Rum and the lost city of Petra. After speaking to many locals, I found out how badly this part of the world has been impacted from the image of the Middle East. Though Jordan is a peaceful country, disruptions in surrounding countries has led to a severe decline in Jordan’s economy, where hotels, restaurants and tour companies have had to shut down. It was surprising that I was in the middle of some of the most beautiful attractions in the world, yet it appeared to be a ghost town.

Wadi Rum Jordan

What did you learn from your travels this year?

Cuba – What has changed?

On July 20, 2015, the Cuban embassy in Washington DC was reestablished after 50+ years. Meanwhile, US intersection opened in Havana, Cuba on the same day. I happened to witness this historic moment with some Cuban artists at their studio in Havana. Their reaction to the events was overwhelming! They were singing, clapping and in tears to see the Cuban flag being hoisted on US soil once again. The general feeling I got was that they were overjoyed to be finally accepted as a legitimate country by their neighbor, especially when most Cubans have relatives living in the US. Watch this video of people’s reactions. US embassy in Havana

I spoke to many locals to understand how they think Cuba will change as a result of lifting of the embargo and when American businesses were allowed to come to Cuba. There were mixed reactions. For most people, it was a welcoming change from being isolated and they were excited to get more access to resources. Because of limited trade, there is not much to buy in Cuba. Cars are recycled for decades, clothes are handed down through generations, and food is rationed. I have only seen one place that would resemble a tiny shopping mall, as we know it here. Even the artists I met said they cannot buy materials to make their little souvenirs – clay statues, cloth dolls, silver jewelry.

Tourism will thrive of course, and everyone from bartenders and servers, to taxi drivers and shopkeepers will make more money.  Already, over 2 million tourists have visited Cuba in the first half of this year. The guides tell me they have not had a slow season so far, while in the past, traffic declined in the summer months due to the heat. Increased tourism has come with its perils – more traffic and pollution. Walking along the Malecon, I saw cigarette buts and garbage dotting the entire pathway.

malecon havana

The Cuban infrastructure is not yet setup to support an influx of visitors. There are limited number of hotels, many of which are in need of renovation. Power cuts are frequent. Service needs improvement. One change I did notice was the lower cost of internet – $2/hour as oppose to $8/hour when I first visited two years ago. There is also a hotspot in Vedado for locals to access wifi now. Most people I met had an account on Facebook.

An older gentleman did not seem very thrilled with the prospect of Cubans being exposed to American culture. He said he wouldn’t want to see any drugs, prostitution and fast food coming into Cuba as a result of open relations. Note that currently there is almost no crime in Cuba. It is very safe to walk around alone even in the night, although this time I saw more beggars and street peddlers. The Cuban population is already seeing an increase in heart disease, obesity and HIV. If you go to a Cafeteria (where the locals eat), you will find mostly pizza, burgers, ham and cheese on the menu. He feared that increasing the access to packaged foods would only create more health issues.

cuban cafeteria

An owner of a private restaurant known as Paladar was super excited for he can travel to the US more easily. He said that didn’t bother to apply for a visa before because the process could take 2-4 years. Now with the embassy opening, it would be much faster. It would also be good for business, although he notices increased competition as many more restaurants have opened up in Havana within the past few months.

line outside US embassy in Havana

One of the doormen at a popular restaurant in Havana said personally the changes won’t affect him so much. He is a psychotherapist and makes the average living of a doctor i.e. $50/ month. He is passionate about his profession but can’t make ends meet for his family of four, so works illegally as a doorman at night. (Legally, doctors in Cuba cannot work a second job as they should be in top mental and physical condition). He wasn’t hopeful that doctors would make anymore in the near future, and he wasn’t open to the idea of switching his career to wait on tables (currently, artists and waiters earn the most income).

I would have to say that Cuba is definitely changing. The old classic American cars from the 1950’s still exist, but new imported cars and hop-on-hop-off buses are slowly replacing them. Streets are begging to fill with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops are tourists from all over the world are flocking to get a last glimpse of time capsuled Havana.

hop on bus in Havana

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba

Whether you’re looking for delicious food, vintage car rides, architectural gems, or lively dance, Cuba has it all. Here are the best reasons to visit Cuba…

1. Tour Havana in a classic American car. Drive through Havana in a vintage Chevrolet convertible for a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Adolfo, our guide/driver of a bright pink Chevy, tested our Spanish by explaining details of each site. Highlights include: the stunning view of Havana from La Cabaña (The Fort); photo ops in front of a massive marble statue of Jesus Christ, called Cristo de la Habana in Spanish; sampling delectable scoops of ice cream for four cents at the government run Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor; and meeting the official “Lennon glasses guardian,” Juan Gonzalez, who is in charge of putting Lennon’s famous wire-rimmed glasses on his statue.

old cars of cuba
Vintage American taxi

 

2. Drink a fabulous Cuban mojito or daiquiri. Mojitos are refreshing Cuban drinks with five key ingredients: rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint. Outstanding mojitos are available at nearly every restaurant or bar in Cuba. My favorite mojito was at 5 Esquinas (5 Corners) Restaurant in Old Havana because I got to watch the bartender make it! Daiquiris are cocktail concoctions with three key ingredients: rum, lime juice, and sugar. Bananas or strawberries can be added to the mix for additional flavor. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana joint, El Floridita, also known as “The Cradle of the Daiquiri,” whips up frozen daiquiris, made with blended ice and maraschino liqueur.

3. Smoke a Cuban cigar. Even if you’ve never smoked in your entire life, there’s a first time to try everything! Start with the best by trying a Cuban cigar at a family-run tobacco plantation in the town of Viñales.

A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.
A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.

4. Dine at a traditional Paladar. Paladars are intimate family-run restaurants with a delightful ambiance. These cozy restaurants serve traditional Cuban food, along with wine and delicious desserts. I had a lovely dinner at Paladar Los Mercaderes, located inside a charming colonial building in Old Havana. I walked up a staircase with pink rose petals and took a seat at my table underneath stained glass windows. As I enjoyed a scrumptious meal of succulent lobster with pineapple sauce, I listened to a violinist and guitarist strum “Guantanamera” in the alcove. For dessert, I enjoyed a layered chocolate and wafer treat with a caramelized edge.

5. Stay at a family-run casa particular. These bed-and-breakfast-style casas are everywhere in Cuba. A casa particular typically has a few private rooms, each with its own bathroom, situated inside a family’s home or apartment. You can rent the room at a very reasonable price, usually around $30 per night. The casa’s family members cook breakfast, assist with luggage, and even pick guests up from the airport or bus stop. Staying at a casa is just like visiting a relative for the holidays, except you get to chat about life over mojitos and learn a few rhumba dance moves from the family! It’s a fun experience and you get a chance to bond with local Cubans.

6. Walk along the Malecón and watch an incredible sunset. The Malecón is Havana’s famous thoroughfare where locals gather to chat with friends and enjoy spectacular ocean views. From here, you can see gorgeous sunsets and watch the Malecón’s colonial buildings light up in bright pink and orange. Everyone I met in Havana told me that if you haven’t visited the Malecón, you haven’t seen Cuba!

A couple admires the view from the Malecón.
A couple admires the view from the Malecón.

7. Dance. In a small Havana alleyway called Callejón de Hamel, crowds gather every Sunday at noon to take in the energetic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. Here, people dance to the beats of pounding drums, spirited singers, and enchanting rhumba dancers moving their hips to the beat. If you’re lucky enough to sit close to the stage, you might find yourself dancing with the group!

8. Visit the town of Viñales. Here, you can photograph soaring evergreen trees and giant limestone cliffs at the magnificent Parque Nacional Viñales. It’s also designated as a UNSECO World Heritage site. Viñales is famous for tobacco plantations, historic caves, and beautiful greenery. Take some time to relax in a rocking chair on the porch of your casa particular and watch the world go by.

A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.
A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.

9. Admire Cuban architecture. Only in Cuba will you find a mix of different architectural styles ranging from baroque to modern art deco. Stroll past ancient churches, narrow alleys, and cobblestone plazas to admire the colorful architecture. In an open top bus tour (which is only $5 per person), you’ll drive by art noveau buildings in central Havana’s hip neighborhood of Vedado.

The National Capitol Building in Havana
The National Capitol Building in Havana

10. Check out the art. It’s everywhere. Cuba’s art scene is vivacious and unique. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (The National Museum of Fine Art) hosts intriguing exhibitions from Cuba and abroad, including a recent art show from the Bronx. I was in town for the Havana Biennial art celebration in May, so all the galleries had amazing art shows on display. I also visited a hip, new gallery called Clandestina, started by a young graphic designer named Idania del Río. Her shop in Old Havana is full of colorful posters, T-shirts, and other fun items.

Havana Skyline

Havana Biennial represents a changing Cuba

The air buzzed with excitement outside the Factoría Habana in Havana Vieja. Cubans and people from around the world, gathered outside the gallery, eagerly awaiting the opening. Right away, art aficionados dressed in trendy outfits, streamed into the building. Within minutes, the entire gallery was full of people looking at art, chatting with friends, taking pictures, and listening to the woman DJ spin music.

I couldn’t believe I was at a cool gorgeous art gallery, full of cool, gorgeous people right in the center of Havana. Everywhere I looked, I saw young fashionistas admiring the art from hanging iPads to a giant sign made with plastic rulers.

Change is happening in Cuba. During the 12th Havana Biennial this year art galleries and museums displayed never-before seen work. One of the most interesting scenes was along the Malecón, a popular sea-facing stretch of road where people gather to enjoy the view. For the biennial it became a massive outdoor art gallery featuring everything from an ice skating rink to a fountain with barbed wire.

In Havana, art was on display everywhere from a dilapidated bicycle factory to fancy art galleries! In the words of an organizer on the festival’s website, “It won’t be a Biennial for collectors or gallerists, but rather to make a connection with the city. There will be no official opening or specific venues; art will spill out of the galleries, bursting into the streets which will be bubbling with ideas.”

A former bicycle factory turned into an art gallery during the 12th Havana Biennial.
A former bicycle factory turned into an art gallery during the 12th Havana Biennial.

On my last night in Havana, I met Cuban artist, Rachel Valdés Camejo. She’s the artist behind the magnificent “Blue Cube,” a giant plastic blue box on the Malecón. Upon entering the blue cube, I could see the dark blue ocean and the clouds in the sky above. Rachel explained the inspiration for her cube, along with another installation she has on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña. She excitedly talked about how this type of art can impact all Cubans. Even though Rachel studied and lived in Spain and the United States, she wants to be a part of the Cuban art scene. She said the Malecón was the perfect venue for people of all backgrounds to view and interact with the art.

Rachel Valdés Camejo's incredible sound, mirror, and light installation on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña.
Rachel Valdés Camejo’s incredible sound, mirror, and light installation on display at the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña.

During the biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building. In a former bicycle factory, I saw pieces of silver embedded in the wall. I was impressed that many of the artists stood next to their pieces and eagerly interacted with the audience.

During the 12th Havana Biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building.
During the 12th Havana Biennial, the entire city of Havana became a living art museum. I noticed hidden gems such as a wall full of tiny sketches in an abandoned building.

Along the Malecón, Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center. When people looked down into the fountain, they could see a reflection of themselves. She told me that her piece represented borders and “at first, you don’t see the borders, since nothing appears at first as what’s reality.” Her piece emphasized how politics often creates boundaries. Another Moroccan artist, Mounir Fatmi’s installation of poles painted with American flags represented the U.S.-Cuba relationship. I met a curator who told me that many of these art pieces were created before the U.S. and Cuba formally engaged in dialog in December 2014.

Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center titled, "Fuente de Espinas," or Fountain of Thorns," in English.
Moroccan artist Safaa Erruas displayed a Moorish shaped fountain with hundreds of white barbed wire poles emerging from the center titled, “Fuente de Espinas,” or Fountain of Thorns,” in English.

Many Cuban artists raved about the New York exhibition, “Wild Noise,” which debuted at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes). In this exhibition, The Bronx Museum gathered more than 80 pieces from American artists. It was an amazing experience to see this collection from New York debut in Cuba for the first time in fifty years!

The Havana Biennial represents a Cuba that is quickly changing. This year, over 200 artists from 44 countries across Latin American, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States presented their art pieces in Havana to the world. Cuba is such a fascinating country and I hope to visit again for future art and culture celebrations.

Art piece displaying U.S. and Cuba flags at the Zona Franca exhibition, held inside the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña during the 12th Havana Biennial.
Art piece displaying U.S. and Cuba flags at the Zona Franca exhibition, held inside the 18th-century fortress, La Cabaña during the 12th Havana Biennial.

The Havana Biennial runs until June 22.

Impressions of Cuban Artists

My mother visited Cuba as a teenager with her family before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. I had dreamed of visiting the island. For many years, I had heard her stories and seen the black and white photos of her trip. It was forbidden or difficult to travel to the island as a US citizen ever since then. Sucheta, the director of Go Eat Give approached me about going to Cuba around Halloween 2013. We collaborated on the Art Tour of Cuba long before the historic December announcement of the Cuban thaw and in March 2015, we flew to Cuba via Cancun, Mexico. I was immediately enchanted by the vivid color and warmth of the island, both in the artwork and the people. Along the journey, we stopped to paint in our watercolor journals. While in Havana, we visited several art studios and Fototeca.

Artists Painting at Plaza Revolution

Early in the week, we met Jose Fuster, the renowned ceramic muralist who has created his own world called, “Fusterlandia” in his home and surrounding neighborhood. He had a vision to bring beauty to his home using repurposed materials. He takes broken ceramics and places them into wet cement to create a sparkling 3-D world from his imagination. When a neighbor asked for his assistance with a leaking roof, he expanded his fantasy world into the community. It continues to grow as people request his services. Fuster now creates all the designs and others complete the work under the supervision of his trusted artists.

Along with the other Go Eat Give travelers, I had a lot of fun completing the mural that was started last year on a wall two blocks from his home. We broke up recycled ceramic tiles and then positioned the colors into the wet cement. It was hot in the sun but we all enjoyed the experience immensely. We were both, elated to complete it, and sad that we didn’t have more to create. Afterwards, we reconvened at Fuster’s house to tour his ceramic studio and view his colorful tile work and paintings. His childhood friend and his son led us on the tour before Jose joined us, answered a few questions and posed for photos. Jose now requires the use of a cane, but was very active and happy to host American artists. Several of us purchased his works at great prices before retreating to a mosaic-tiled alcove to feast on a delicious lunch prepared by his staff.

Kathy in Cuba

We also saw the intriguing “black and white” photos of Reinaldo Echemendia, a college photography professor. His large images of bells from around Cuba resonated with all of us at Fototeca in Havana. We were not able to meet him as he was traveling out of thecountry for an art show.

Artists are given greater freedom to travel than the average Cuban citizens. They are ambassadors for the country. Interestingly and grotesquely, Echemendia developed the film using both standard film chemicals and pigs blood to give it a slightly reddish tint. Few were able to watch the detailed video of the film developing process. I wondered if it was also a statement about the blood that was shed on the island during and after the Revolution.

Kathy in Cuba

One of the highlights of our trip was down a sunlit alley where we were welcomed into the spacious studio of Eduardo Roco “Choco”. Born in 1949, Choco looks younger than most Cubans we met. This may be because he earned more in our one-hour visit in art sales than most Cubans earn in a year. Artists have no restrictions on what they can earn, unlike other professions including doctors and lawyers whose salaries are capped at 30-40 pesos per year.

Choco was both extremely talented in multiple mediums from printmaking to painting, sculpture and decorated ceramics. He employed 5 assistants to help create, ship and track his art plus a cook to make sure they were all well fed. A shipment of newly completed bronze statues arrived while we were on our tour. It was thrilling to watch his reaction and ours to the unveiling of the bronzes – all were very pleased! Choco was both talented and magnanimous with his time and hospitality. Like Fuster, Choco used recycled materials to create his printing plates and in his paintings and sculptures. During the “Special Time” when resources were in short supply in Cuba and continue to be even today, artists learned to use any and all materials available to them. They are very creative and resourceful. Choco is known around the world and will continue to be remembered for his visionary artwork.Kathy in Cuba

~ By Kathy Rennell Forbes, an International Artist based in Atlanta, GA. She teaches art classes in the Atlanta area (Chastain Arts Center, Kennesaw State University, Studio Z) and conducts art workshops around the U.S. (Georgia, Florida, Maine, Tennessee) and Internationally (Cuba, France, Italy). Read her blog and follow her on Facebook. Join Kathy on her next Go Eat Give Art tour of Italy in October 2015. 

An American Perspective of Visiting Cuba

Cuba is an opportunity to relive life as we enjoyed it in the 1950s. Being in that warm and friendly country is experiencing an environment held motionless in time for more than 50 years.

That does not mean that the country is not progressing, only that it had its more noticeable growth period in the years before 1959. The 2.1 million people who live in the capital city of La Habana, the official name of we call Havana, see infrastructure improvements constantly. The problem is that the improvements are constantly slow! To the 11 million residents of Cuba this is not an inconvenience, it is simply the way things are.

A recent Go Eat Give cultural mission to Havana, Cuba, provided an opportunity to meet and work with Cubans who were doing a variety of things to make their small island an appealing place to live.

We worked with farm workers, healthcare professionals and artists.

We found they were completely welcoming to Americans. Together we picked beans, worked on a public art mosaic wall drawn for us by an internationally-known artist, Jose Rodriguez Fuster, whose works have been exhibited in Cuba, England and France, and spent time serving an afternoon snack in a home for the elderly.

Participants of Go Eat Give tours engage with local artists as the group did in Havana.
Participants of Go Eat Give tours engage with local artists as the group did in Havana.

It was a revelation to learn that in Cuba, which mostly remains a mystery to our country, the literacy rate is 99.8 percent.

Even though our languages were different, we mostly could communicate with a few words and often our own brand of sign language that might result in hearty laughter. As we crossed the city many times, it was evident that this was very much a city of younger people with a median age of 39 years for men and 40 years for women with about 50 percent of the population being between 25 and 54 years of age.

Beyond the numbers, there is a youthful aura that permeates the Cuban culture. Live music everywhere. People walking briskly pursuing their everyday schedules. Wide smiles greeted us wherever we went. In some restaurants the musicians would choose one of our group and begin dancing among the tables. We soon felt more like one of the family than outsiders visiting a place that has been forbidden to us for decades.

Using the word ‘decades’ reminds me of the spectacular collection of American cars from the 1950s and older that truly adorn the streets. Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Plymouths and old Ford Fairlanes. They are all there looking bright and beautiful. Cheery Yellow, Soft Lavender, Fire Engine Red, Bright Blue, Kelly Green, Deep Purple. Shiny and in pristine condition. Many cars still running because the owners have found ingenious ways to replace parts or create parts to repair the automobiles of which they are so proud. Just being on the streets of Havana is like going to an antique car show!

We were told that crime is low in this quiet but busy country. They attribute much of that to the fact that the Mafia was banned from Cuba along with their gambling and casinos that flourished before the 1950s. Drug use is not prevalent and the HIV health problem affects only .1 percent of the population.

Architecture throughout the capital city is reminiscent of historic Europe. Lovely, gracious facades with graceful arches and molded friezes. The Cuban capitol looks like our capitol in Washington. Sculptures and historic statues are situated from large airy squares to small tree-lined parks. Some statues have traditions such as if you touch the man’s bronze beard and hold his bronze hand, your wish will come true. A few modern, less interesting buildings are found tucked in among all the antique structures. Their presence provides an attractive contrast.

Contrast between old and new architecture in Cuba.
Contrast between old and new architecture in Cuba.

The most outstanding modern building is the art museum that is exciting both inside and outside. It is a huge complex of several buildings that has an extensive collection of traditional, modern and art deco exhibits. The areas are open, well-lighted and broad enough to make the presentations professional and captivating.

The capital in Havana, "Just like Washington's!"
The capital in Havana, “Just like Washington’s!”

As you exit the museum, directly across the street is the Museum of the Revolution that was originally the Presidential Palace. Behind it is a glass-enclosed building that displays Fidel’s yacht, Granma. This structure is surrounded by a park featuring military icons: tank, airplane, missile, truck, guns. It is a must to visit both. Not only for the information but for the contrast of two Cuban histories.

Which brings us to the Fidel Castro history. It was amazing to us that there is next to no symbols of their leader of more than half a century. I saw only one picture and one wall-size silhouette of him. His image does not appear in the hundreds of kiosks in the public craft market nor on colorful postcards. Quite the opposite of the handsome Che Guevara. His picture or likeness is everywhere from postcards to small prints to the entire wall of one of the larger mid-rise buildings next to Fidel’s image. The Cubans we met, with whom we had long conversations in English, said that they do not know where Fidel is and that he is rarely seen. He is simply part of their history.

Cuba, the mystery country, located so close to our Florida Keys, remains shadowed in our own United States embargo, but Cuba is there nonetheless. Their culture touches ours in many ways going back centuries. Our own vibrant Cuban neighborhoods have brought wonderful traditions, energies, music and food to our country. Our shared family values and hardworking populations are reflections of the other. We came away feeling enriched and content with our Cuban cultural mission experience.

Havana's answer to McDonald's, great local eating establishments.
Havana’s answer to McDonald’s, great local eating establishments.

~ By Barbara Rose, president of the consulting firm for non-profits, New Generation Partnerships Inc.. Ms Rose visited Cuba with Go Eat Give in November 2014. Her article also appeared in Global Atlanta

Todo Cambia – What is it like in Cuba?

Much has been written about the ruin of previously unspoiled travel destinations due to the overwhelming popularity of the very things that made them desirable to begin with:  Natural beauty unmarred by hotel high-rises;  arts as opposed to mass-produced memorabilia; culturally unique traditions that do not mock their practitioners; and economics based on something other than vacuuming money out of the pockets of visitors.

In a world where large numbers of travelers have the means to seek trophy destinations, it’s hard to find a place worth visiting that hasn’t already succumbed to a tourist culture. The irony is that every time someone like me writes of such a place, we are helping to destroy it.

Cuba is on the precipice of such a change. Since the introduction of tourism in the 1990’s (a desperate means of pulling the country out of depression after the collapse of both the sugar market and its economic benefactor, the Soviet Union), Cuba has survived. It is the influx of tourist money from Europe and Canada that has eased Cubans’ economic pain. As a result, some of the by-products of tourism are evident. The arts are being exploited; street performers live off tourist areas; and even the old cars are now used for souvenir photographs rather than as a means of transport. It’s been the limits on American tourism that have kept Cuba from completely falling over the precipice. It is expected that America will continue to loosen travel restrictions and my travel to Cuba is part of the inevitable commercialization that could turn what is still an utterly unique and beautiful country into a parody for the benefit of paying visitors.

Having acknowledged my role in Cuba’s potential cultural demise, I can say that traveling there has increased my appreciation for the country’s enigmatic contradictions and has left me with a lingering sense of its tragic beauty. What makes Cuba unique is its 55 years of relative isolation during which it has exercised an enormous experiment in nationalistic socialism. What makes it enigmatic is the pull between the idyllic aspects of such a Petri dish and the harsh economic realities of a global economy.

In the end, what one thinks of Cuba has everything to do with expectations.

Before I went Havana, a number of people told me to expect despicable poverty. This was not the case. Perhaps there was such poverty when the economy collapsed in 1993. I did not see evidence of this when I was there and certainly nothing close to the shantytowns I’ve witnessed in many other Latin American cities. Cubans talk about how terrible 1993 was, but it’s similar to the talk I heard in Argentina about the hardships during their 1998 economic collapse. It reminded me of my grandparents talking about the Great Depression. Financial despair leaves scars that transcend culture and politics. Life in Cuba is no doubt hard. While the basic necessities such as food and healthcare are provided for, there is limited opportunity beyond that for economic gain which I think leaves people feeling helpless. Nonetheless, I saw no one starving; no one without decent living conditions; and no one without medical care.

street performer in cuba
Cuba by Cheryl Garin

I didn’t expect lack of crime in Cuba. I was able to walk dark streets in downtown Havana without fear. Nothing has made me more keenly aware of how afraid I have become in America than the joy and freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted. Even more interesting is that I can’t ever recall seeing a policeman there. This is changing with tourism. Prostitution and pick pocketing are unfortunately on the rise.

cuba at night
Cuba by Cheryl Garin

I also didn’t expect the level of cleanliness. I saw no litter anywhere in the city or countryside. Even more remarkable is that young people by the hundreds gather each night to socialize along the Malecón, a main drag in downtown Havana. There is no partying; no drugs or alcohol. And in the morning there is no evidence – the street is left spotless.

I didn’t expect ubiquitous higher education. I knew that Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, but Cuba also ranks world class in medical research and its doctors are highly sought after. PhDs are fairly commonplace. You might even find one driving your taxi.

old cars of cuba

Finally, I didn’t expect the candor of the people in speaking about their country’s faults. What most surprised me is that Cubans are frustrated by their standard of living and government bureaucracy in part because they compare themselves to the United States. It made me wonder if their expectations shouldn’t be based on comparisons with other Latin American countries instead. Cuba would fare quite well in that regard.

If Americans want to go to Cuba to see beautiful decaying mansions, old American cars lovingly maintained by their owners, and a world-class arts scene where music and dance are part of the fabric of life, it exists. But it is disappearing and being replaced by beautiful restored mansions, old American cars being used as taxis, and music and dance shows that cater to tourists.  Already beaches that were once freely available to every Cuban are being restricted to paying customers only by resorts being built along them, the sort circumstance that helped fuel the revolution to begin with. When Americans go, I hope they appreciate the price that Cuba is paying for this economic opportunity.  It’s a bittersweet “todo cambia.”

cheryl in cuba

~ By guest blogger, Cheryl Garin, an IT professional by day and travel photographer by night. Cheryl traveled to Cuba in September 2013 for a Go Eat Give volunteer vacation and cultural insight program. She has also volunteered in Morocco, Peru and Kenya. 

Sloppy Joe’s Havana

Sloppy Joe’s is a historic bar located in Old Havana and one of the must-visit places in Cuba. The landmark sandwich shop opened in the 1930’s. It is believed that the name originated from the unkept nature of the restaurant or the fact that it had “ropa vieja” Spanish version of a sloppy joe as the featured dish.

Over the century, the bar became a popular hangout spot among Hollywood celebrities, international artists and American tourists. Even Ernest Hemingway was said to have frequented the bar often, befriending the owner Jose Garcia. Sloppy Joe’s has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most famous bars in the world” with “almost the status of a shrine.” The bar, in its heyday, can be seen in the movie “Our Man in Havana” starring Alec Guinness.

sloppy joes cocktails

The cozy bar was known to have the longest mahogany drinks cabinet of Cuba, and still retains its charm after careful renovations. Sloppy Joe’s was shut down in 1959 during the Cuban revolution, but is now open for business. It reopened in April 2013, after 48 years, just in time for my visit to Havana. The new Sloppy Joe’s is made to look like a replica of its 1950’s version with black and white interiors, photos of celebrities and walls adorned with every imaginable variety of spirits. They even offer polaroid photos of guests at the legendary bar.

sloppy joes bar

Go Eat Give volunteer vacationers enjoyed an evening of cocktails, small plates and sandwiches stepping back into time and imagining the splendor of this once all-American hangout. If you visit Cuba now, you should make it a point to step inside Sloppy Joe’s and have an overpriced drink or two. The food is typical of what you would find at a touristy restaurant, so perhaps take your appetite for an authentic Cuban sandwich someplace else in Havana.

sloppy joes

Sloppy Joe’s located on the corner of Calle Animas and Zulueta in Havana Vieja (Old Havana). The entrance is next to the Plaza Hotel.

Organic community farming in Havana

One of the projects Go Eat Give supports through international volunteerism is an organic community farm in Cuba. A few miles outside of Havana, a large public housing project was created for people who could not afford to live in the city. In 1997, four agronomist Cubans started an organic urban farm, Vivero Alamar as a way to feed the community and generate employment. Now Vivero Alamar has over 25 acres and employs over 160 people.

alamar2
Some facts about Organoponico

The farm has been able to make a huge impact in the lives of Cubans. Up until recently, Cuban diet consisted of rice, beans and meat, but thanks to the produce of Vivero Alamar and other such farms in the area, the locals are now eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Under the direction of Isis Salcines, Vivero Alamar started an outreach program with local schools. Here, children learn to grow vegetables, get a basic understanding of where their food comes from, and discover what makes a healthy diet. By teaching the next generation about organic and sustainable food production, Isis and the staff at Vivero Alamar are ensuring that their methods and philosophy will continue, no matter what happens in Cuba.

Secondly, Vivero Alamar is an innovative cooperative, where all employees share in the profits of what they produce and sell. The employees live, work and participate in Alamar so that they have better working conditions and higher wages than an average Cuban.

The market at the entrance of Vivero Alamar sells produce like cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, green onions, carrots, tomatillos, peppers, beets and bok choy; Cuban staples like rice and black beans; peanuts, sprouts and sunflower seeds; and some prepared foods like tomato puree, mango or guava jam, and sauerkraut. Customers can pick up fresh produce daily and meet the farmers too.

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Go Eat Give volunteers help remove weeds and plant trees.

During our volunteer vacation in Cuba, we spend a day at the farm learning about sustainable organic farming in Cuba, helping out with their projects, giving them donations and enjoying a delicious lunch prepared using all farm grown ingredients! Isis Salcines said, “Go Eat Give is the only organization who has come to Alamar to work alongside the farmers and make them feel important!”

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Go Eat Give’s mango tree at Organoponico

Go Eat Give volunteers took donations of clothes and office supplies for the farm and its workers. Simple items such as paper clips and pens are very expensive and sometimes even hard to find in Cuba, so our offerings were much appreciated!

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Donations were given to the farm’s office and workers

Join us for our next trip to Cuba and volunteer at Organoponico Vivero Alamar yourself.