Cuba notes by runout


									                               Our visit to Cuba – March 2003

Saturday, March 8th
We arrived at JFK airport at 8:00 am, having spent the previous night at a local hotel. We
found very long but orderly lines. Check in and security presented no hassles. We then
had a long wait, but boarded our plane on time and departed about 12:15
After landfall, I had several first impressions of Cuba. There were lots of baseball fields,
often next to athletic tracks, presumably at schools. There were lots of multi lane
highways, with very little traffic. Developed areas had very orderly road grids. Also lots
of agriculture, although I couldn’t identify the crops. Unplanted fields had very red earth.
As we neared the airport, we drove over what appeared to be a drive-in movie theater.
Even closer we saw large free range grazing areas for horses.
Upon arrival, we proceeded to a terminal which was reserved for flights from the US
(and, interestingly, Cancun). Our plane was the first of several to arrive in quick
succession. The arrival hall was a mad house—while many people tried to maintain lines,
new arrivals kept pushing to the front. Nobody resisted—we seemed determined to just
take it as it came, which was very slowly. Kathleen and I made it through the line in
about two hours; it was a full three hours before the last of our group of 42 got through.
We learned later in the week that the other international terminals at the airport rank with
the best in the world. It seems that the US arrivals terminal is a deliberate insult, almost a
study in insolence. I watched with interest as a uniformed officer opened a locked
inspector’s booth by wedging a piece of plastic between the lock and the door jamb.
We had a pleasant bus ride into Havana, with Alain, our Cuban guide giving some
informative pointers. We also met Batia, the guide who accompanied us from New York
and would be with us for the entire week. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Parque
Central, which he described as the best hotel in Havana. Check in was a marvel of
efficiency—we had our keys in two minutes and quickly found our room. It was very
nice and included a TV with many US channels. We settled in and rested up before
leaving for dinner at 8pm (moved from 6:30 because of the airport delay). As a
consequence, we eliminated the introductory lecture from Georgetown Professor Clive
Foss (who had, however, spoken to us briefly on the bus).
Before dinner, I stopped at a dollar store to buy water. The clerks and customers moved
at a very leisurely pace, but the price was right; $1.70 for two large bottles that would
have been $2.75 each in the minibar in the room.
We had dinner at El Patio in the Cathedral square. They were very accommodating of
Kathleen’s request for a vegetarian meal. (This was not always the case, as we found out
during the week that followed.) The rest of us had a choice of beef, pork, chicken or fish.
I had the pork. It was served at room temperature and was quite bland. Others reported
the same for the fish. The outdoor setting, however, was very pleasant. .
Havana is quite dark at night. We say many pedicabs with no lights. The few street lights
were muted. Because of chronic fuel shortages, Havana has rolling electricity blackouts.
We were back in the room by 10 pm, ready to call it a day.

Sunday, March 9th
We started the day with the buffet breakfast at the hotel. There was an excellent selection
of tropical fruits, pastries, cheeses, smoked salmon, bacon and sausage, as well as
surprises like meatballs and chicken croquets. Eggs and omelets to order were also
available. With minor variations, the same buffet was available all week.
Kathleen and I took a short walk and were engaged in conversation by three Cubans. The
first, an old woman, was a beggar. The second, a man in his thirties or so, wanted to talk
about Guantanamo and the Taliban, but spoke only Spanish. The third was an old man
who mentioned several relatives in the States and then said that George Bush was loco,
making a spiral gesture next to his head to emphasize his point. Kathleen pointed out that
at least we have an election in two years to decide whether we want to keep him.
We returned to the hotel for a lecture by Clive on the life of Fidel, then took a quick bus
trip to ―9:30‖ mass. We arrived at 10:30, just in time. Public worship in Cuba is a
relatively recent phenomenon since it has only been since 1991 that members of the
Communist Party were permitted to belong to organized religious groups. Mass was said
by Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The worshippers appeared very devout and were very warm in
their embrace of each other and of us during the kiss of peace. Heartfelt applause
followed the sermon. We learned later that his closing remarks were ―the church in Cuba
has not forgotten you; you should not forget the church in Cuba.‖ All but one of the lay
participants (lectors, basket passers, etc) were women.
We then met our guide for the day, Mario Coyula, a leading figure in Cuba’s urban
design and policy for over forty years who took us on a walking tour of old Havana. We
saw the Hotel Ambos Mundos in which Hemingway lived for a year, in which he started
writing For Whom the Bell Tolls.
We had lunch at El Aljiba, ―one of the three best government run restaurants in Havana.‖
The specialty is roast chicken, served family style, with rice, black bean soup, french
fries, fried plantains, and ice cream for dessert. We were told that this would be the most
memorable meal of the week. That turned out to be good news and bad news. The
chicken truly was delicious, but this does not leave much to look forward to from a
culinary standpoint.
We then a quick stop to a very large model (it filled a huge room) of Havana, showing
great detail, with a wonderful narration by Mario.
Next we proceeded to the cemetery, the ―necropolis de Colon.‖ It had very interesting
statuary (an angel listening for the sound of the dead, a saint who saved three fishermen
in the sea, and a monument (the tallest in the cemetery) to firefighters). At one point in
the cemetery tour I was approached by a guard who wanted money for medicina for his
Returning, our bus took us through the university, where Mario made the violence of the
fifties (when he was a student there) come alive. He showed us streets that were to be
avoided because the chances of escaping from the police in the event of violence were
not good. He spoke of a friend who had died in the violence.

During the day we observed many beggars in the street. They were not overly aggressive
as is the case in so many other places where poverty is endemic. Most of the beggars
were adults, and many were entrepreneurial. Some would draw a quick sketch of you for
a donation; men dressed as clowns and women in colorful festive costumes would pose
for pictures. We also saw mardi gras-style paraders on stilts who danced and then
solicited contributions.
Alain told us how, with money, anything is possible in Cuba. Hackers readily sell Direct
TV for $20 per month. This is clearly illegal, but generally you don’t get caught. If you
do (user, not hacker) it will probably mean three days in jail and confiscation of your
equipment plus a ―good talking to.‖
After freshening up at the hotel, we walked a block to the Teatro Real for a performance
of the opera La Traviata. It cost us $10 per person for excellent seats in Row I in the
orchestra. We had an entire row for our group. The opera had a very musty smell, and the
carpet was threadbare, although the seats looked newly reupholstered. The performance
was magnificent. Violeta was sung by Sheila Ruiz who got a lengthy standing ovation at
the end.
We finished just in time to board the bus for dinner at a paladar (a restaurant in a private
home), Dona Carmela’s. The law says that a paladar can only have three tables for four,
for a total of twelve diners. This paladar seated our entire group of 30 or so, and then
some. Obviously they grease some palms. The dinner entrees (pork, shrimp, lobster,
octopus, or swordfish) were served in huge portions. Shellfish and octopus could be had
either in tomato sauce or with garlic. I had lobster in sauce, which was quite good, though
We had a guest at our table, Guillermo Bello, a friend of Clive’s and a professional
photographer. He had lots of interesting stories, including several about the cemetery we
visited today. (He lives three blocks from there.) Some of his work has been shown
abroad (Norway and Spain) and he went to Spain last year and will go again. Permission
to leave the country is difficult to get, but the money to go is even harder to get. He says
that it is impossible to buy cameras in Cuba, but he has been given quality equipment by
friends and relatives outside Cuba. Guillermo trained as a physicist, but due to lack of
work gravitated to computer programming. He created the program which generated the
security filigrees on the moneda nacional which, someone pointed out, was ―art.‖ Hence
his metamorphosis into photographer
By ten pm we were all ready to leave the paladar, but we didn’t get the bill until 10:30.
The restaurant was on the el cabana side of the harbor. As we went up the hill we saw
crowds walking up, as they do every night for the 9 pm firing of the cannon, a ceremonial
event which used to mark a warning that the gates of the city would close shortly.
On the way we went through a toll booth, except that they don’t collect tolls. They tried
and ―it didn’t work‖ so there is no toll collection.
It was an exhausting day. Except for twenty minutes between the afternoon tours and the
opera, we had no time to ourselves. It will be hard to keep this pace up. But we are
certainly learning a lot.

Monday, March 10th
After breakfast I went on a photo expedition, looking especially for pictures of the
―camel,‖ of which I got several. The camel is the popular name for the large, two-humped
bus that is pulled by a tractor. They can carry far more people than a regular bus and are
invariably packed to the point of bursting. (On one route these buses are colored pink and
thus are ―las camelitas.‖)
Clive’s lecture had to be aborted because of slide projector difficulties. The topic was art
deco architecture in Havana, so we set out on foot to see an outstanding example—the
Bacardi building. Because they had lots of money at the time it was constructed, top
quality imports were used. Like everything else, the building was nationalized. Bacardi
moved to the Dominican Republic. We went to the top for several panoramic views.
Near the Bacardi building we also stopped briefly at a ration store. We were there only
about 5 minutes, while Alain held up a ration card and explained the system. It was
obvious that the people were uncomfortable with us and wanted us to leave, which we
soon did. In theory, one can buy all the basic necessities (rice, flour, soap, etc.)
inexpensively with pesos at the ration store; in practice the ration store is always out of
almost everything so that people have to go to the much more expensive dollar stores. It
was amazing how little they had. It is almost impossible to exist on pesos alone; everyone
must also participate in the parallel dollar economy to survive. In short, everyone has a
need to obtain dollars, whether by working in the tourist industry, by begging, or by other
Then we took a bus tour and saw several more examples of Art Deco architecture, getting
out once or twice. It was frustrating to be in the bus and unable to take advantage of all
the wonderful photo opportunities that we passed. For the first time we did see some
stores – ―real‖ stores that the Cubans use – but we did not get to see what kind of goods
they actually carried. On my walk I had seen a ―department store,‖ which was actually
several small shops in an arcade. They hadn’t opened yet, but the selection looked to be
very limited.
We stopped briefly at one very impressive building that had a coffee bar, an internet cafe
(two kiosks) and a cigar store. Several in the group were buying cigars.
We then visited the Patronato synagogue and had a talk by the vice president, Mrs. Adele
Dvorin. We learned that Havana has five synagogues and that 90% of Cuba’s estimated
1500 Jews live in Havana. When asked why there were five synagogues, she replied that
―whenever there are two Jews there are three synagogues.‖ Before Castro, there were
about 15,000 Jews in Cuba, but the better educated and wealthier ones fled to the US,
primarily to Florida. She calls them ―Jubans.‖ For many years the only Jewish activity in
Cuba was distribution of the Passover food, sent by Canadian Jews. There has been a
revival of sorts in the last decade, but they still have no rabbi.
When the pope came to Cuba several religious leaders met with Castro. She was one. She
asked him why he had never visited a synagogue. He said that he had never been asked.
So she asked him to visit for Chanukah. What is that, he inquired? Struggling for a two
word answer, she said ―Jewish revolution.‖ He must have liked the answer because he

showed up for their Chanukah party. They couldn’t have been more surprised, she said,
―if the Messiah had shown up.‖ He gave a two hour talk on Chanukah – he had obviously
They maintain a ―pharmacy‖ of donated medical supplies for Jews and non Jews. Our
supplies were added along with cash donations from many of us. They also have a
computer lab for students. Mrs. Dvorin told us that there is lots of intermarriage in Cuba,
so many of their members are not Jews, but spouses of Jews.
She also told us the story of the generous donation of the Kaplan family from Tenafly,
N.J. They had provided a van (via Chile) and asked only that their name be placed on the
side of the van. Not wishing to appear ungrateful, they had the name Kaplan painted on
every door and window of the van. Soon, however, they tired of responding to the
question, ―What does Kaplan mean?‖ Finally they developed the shorthand answer, ―It is
Spanish for Misubishi.‖
If Mrs. Dvorin ever tires of her good works, she has a second career waiting in stand-up
We then walked to the Hotel Nacional for lunch. It looks exactly like the Breakers in
Miami, having been designed by the same architect. We had a very nice lunch on the
veranda, with musicians entertaining us and then walked around and took photos
Next we visited the home of artist Alicia Leal and her artist husband Juan Moreira. The
home was small but well furnished and very livable. Artists can make a good living in
Cuba and are tolerated because they pay taxes on their sales. She had brochures; this was
the first time that we had seen anything printed that one could take – there had been no
opera program, no restaurant cards, etc.
Next was the revolutionary museum (Museo de la Revolucion). Alain did a very good job
of providing commentary. On a map he pointed out Guantanamo and it was obvious that
the US presence there is still a very sore point with the Cubans. Then we went by bus to
the Moro castle. The high point was the visit to the light house control center. The three
person crew was very friendly and informative. We saw the flags that are flown when a
ship from another country arrives. They still have the US flag, which was last flown in
1963. then back to the hotel.
We are to have dinner at another paladar tonight; actually we will split up and go to
several different ones. These ones are not as well connected politically, so the 12 guest
rule is enforced, and we will split into four groups. The one that we went to was
experiencing one of Havana’s rolling blackouts, so we ate in the dark. It did not seem to
affect food preparation, so we had the full menu choices. Afterward they said they could
not call a cab to a private house, so we walked to the main street to see if we could find a
taxi on our own. There were six of us – four of us hopped in a 1956 diesel-powered
Cadillac which took us to the hotel. We were just about in the hotel when a woman
stopped Kathleen with a tear-jerking story about needing milk for her baby. She said that
she could not buy it – an American had to buy it for her at the dollar store. (Although
Cubans need dollars to exist, they appear fearful of having them if they can not explain
where they got them.) Kathleen insisted that we go with her, which we did. We

purchased four large packages of powdered milk for a total of $21. The woman was
extremely grateful, and we felt better for having helped out.

Tuesday, March 11th
This morning we start our overnight excursion to Trinidad and Cienfuegos. For $50, the
hotel will let us keep our room so that we do not need to check out and can travel with
just an overnight bag.
The three hour bus ride to Trinidad was very boring with little to see on the way,
although we did have an interesting stop at a sugar plantation which had been an early
mustering place for Castro at the beginning of the revolution. Along the way we passed
several agricultural sites and learned that most of them are joint ventures with foreign
enterprises. The citrus groves, for example, are operated by joint Cuban-Israeli
One thing that we did notice was the huge number of people that stand along the road
looking for rides. The government encourages picking up hitchhikers because of the
severe transportation shortage. We saw this in Havana as well; people would rap on the
window of a stopped car and ask for a ride.
We arrived in Trinidad in time for lunch. It is a very colorful town, with buildings in a
variety ofpastel colors. For lunch we had several choices. Kathleen had pizza which was
a hit. I had fish.
We then visited the home of an artist and bought two prints. Since I had already been
quoted a price of $15 for the first print, I offered $30 for the pair. The artist would only
accept $25, since the second one was smaller.
The group went into Trinidad’s art museum, but many of us just walked around and took
pictures. I have a couple of great people shots. Then we had another one hour plus ride to
Cienfuegos. We stayed in the beautiful Hotel Union. Our room is like a suite, large,
spacious and well appointed. The pool is beautiful as well. I went outside to take a few
pictures, but the sun was fading fast. I walked along a pedestrian mall and was surprised
by the number of sops. The selection was not great, but they had a variety of stores –
hardware, clothing, art, photography studios, etc.
Perhaps our most novel dining experience in Cuba was tonight’s dinner at a Moorish
Palace, the Palacio de Valle. Clearly out of place, the building was built to replicate one
seen elsewhere in a bygone era. We were each served a thin soup, three lobster tails (the
fairly tough Caribbean lobster) and rice. (Kathleen was abale to get a nice omelet.) The
food was not bad, but certainly not memorable. The highlight, however, was the 95 year
old piano player. She appears nightly, plays the same twelve bars or so over and over
again and flirts shamelessly with all the patrons. In a word, she was a hoot, and she will
remain one of my most indelible memories of Cuba.
Many of us took horse drawn carriages back to the hotel for one dollar per person, along
the ―Malecon‖ of Cienfuegos. It is in much better condition than its counterpart in
Havana, as is the whole city. At least in the parts we have visited, we did not see poverty
or dilapidation. (As we left the next morning, we did see many crowded and dilapidated
apartments on the edges of the city.)

Wednesday, March 12th
After a leisurely breakfast and checking out of the hotel, we began a walking tour of
Cienfuegos. We visited the 950 seat Teatro Tomas Terry, a famous venue where artists
including Enrico Caruso, Anna Pavlova and Sarah Berhardt have appeared. The theater is
adjacent to the town’s central square, the Parque Marti. We then walked the main
shopping street (Prado) – it was amazing to see the goods available in the dollar store –
stereos, refrigerators, fans, etc, On the other hand, they had junk in the peso stores. An
apparently used tv antenna, very small, was 100 pesos – ―almost a month’s pension.‖
Outside a craft bazaar, I saw a legless man with a hand-pedaled cart as his mode of
transportation. I was torn as to whether I should take his picture. On the one hand it
seemed predatory; on the other hand it was obvious that he (and others) are hanging
around tourist havens precisely for that reason, hoping for a tip. In the end I took the
picuture and he gratefully accepted the proffered dollar.
There were lines everywhere. The longest was at the ice cream store where people
patiently waited for an ice cream cone. We then walked all the way back to the Palacio
de Valle, taking several pictures along the way. Then we went for lunch on a boat and
were pestered by beggars (adults) both before and after. The bus ride back was about
three hours. En route, we watched the classic Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate on
video. We had subtitles but no sound. Many of us dozed off because of all the walking.
Back at the Parque Central Kathleen headed for the rooftop pool. I walked around the
corner to La Floridita, one of Hemingway’s haunts and ―birthplace of the daiquiri.‖
The entire group had a dinner of nondescript chicken. The fun part was walking back to
the hotel with Emilio (another of our guides, Emilio generally joined us in the evenings).
We saw a building near the final stages of restoration – soon to be a hotel – and the
workers (both of them) were happy to have us come in and take photos, etc. A little
further on, we ran into a drugstore. It was huge, with lots of old apothecary bottles. We
were amazed at how the streets are teeming with people at 10:30 at night.
Walking back with Emilio, we turned into a dark street. Kathleen asked if it was safe.
Emilio said yes. Kathleen asked, ―Do you know Karate?‖ (Emilio is diminutive in
stature). He answered ―I know everybody.‖

Thursday, March 13th
We started the day with a visit to the Paragas cigar factory, about two blocks from the
hotel. The tour lasted about forty minutes and was very informative. There are about 700
employees in this factory and the jobs are highly sought after – you have to have ―pull‖
(like a family member working there) to get in. The reason is that this is one of the few
state-sanctioned jobs which provides a production incentive to the workers – and it is
paid in dollars. The result is that a cigar roller earns more than a salaried physician. The
workers toil at desks and the boredom is relieved by a reader, using a public address
system. By popular demand, the reading material is romantic fiction. We saw the quality
control station which includes a smoker – he has been smoking cigars for fifty years,
forty of them ―professionally.‖

We then took the bus to Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia. They said no photos without a
$5.00 permit and then only through windows and with no flash. I paid because they
stopped me (along with one other member of the group) but most walked right in with
their cameras and were not stopped. In the ―observatory‖ where there is a desk and a big
bear rug, the guide conspiratorially suggested that she would take my picture with my
camera if I went in and posed. Naturally, I tipped her. So much for rules. Later, as I
returned to the main house, another guide took my camera inside and took some shots
from a much better angle than I could have gotten through the window. Hemmingway’s
boat, El Pilar has been moved to the estate, which also has the graves of four of the cats.
Lunch was at the Restaurant La Diminica, an Italian restaurant. Kathleen had pizza which
was very good. Most of the rest of us had pasta and tomato sauce which was very bland. I
wish that we had been able to order off the menu – it looked quite extensive.
In the afternoon we visited the Museum of Fine Arts and had a whirlwind tour guided by
a fairly senior (but young) curator, whose English was excellent. The building was in
excellent shape, and was the most modern and well maintained that we have seen
anywhere in Cuba. All of the art is Cuban. Next was a visit to the Council of Churches.
This was a big disappointment after the synagogue visit. They did not appear to be
expecting us, were not well organized, did not have a prepared talk, and spoke to us in a
room with noisy air-conditioning so that we could hear little from the soft-spoken
representative. We did leave medicines and monetary gifts.
We had dinner at La Guarida (some went to the Nacional for dinner and show). This is a
highly touted paladar that was featured in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate. The
atmosphere was charming – it was on the second floor of a building that appeared to be
largely in ruins. Unfortunately, they had an off night on the food. I had pork, others tried
chicken and lamb. All were exceedingly tough. Two had fish and said it was good. The
warm cheese appetizer salad (it tasted a little like Welsh rarebit) was excellent. We took
a taxi back to the hotel and called it a day.

Friday, March 14th
Today was full of very diverse experiences. We had free time early in the morning and
Kathleen and I explored the craft market. Generally we stayed within several blocks of
the hotel. We have been besieged by so many beggars that we are stand-offish, which can
be too bad. This morning a very friendly man approached us – he simply wanted to tell us
of the principal tourist attractions in the area where we were. Once we realized his
intentions, we had a nice conversation.
We then joined the group for a bus ride to visit a Santero, a practitioner of the Santeria
religion. Santeria is a blend of Roman Catholicism and African oral traditions. We
traveled through one of the poorer barrios of Havana to find our destination. When we
arrived at a landmark near our destination, a local resident boarded our bus to provide the
final directions.
Our Santero greeted us dressed in a mesh athletic shirt and blue shorts. It turns out that he
is a physician in his regular job. He was raised as a Catholic but became a Santerian after

nearly dying with peritonitis. He spoke excellent English and was pleased to answer our
We learned that Alain’s former wife (mother of his children) is a Santeria priestess. We
gather that her involvement with the religion may have been the cause of the divorce.
However, they remain good friends. Alain, his girl friend, his former wife and the kids all
go out together.
On our own for lunch, we ate at the hotel. A sure sign that it has been a long week, I
order a cheeseburger. Kathleen has a veggie club sandwich. Both are quite good.
After lunch, we went to visit the US Interests Section. It is the former US Embassy, and
is, in fact, and embassy in all but name. The only real distinction is that it is not permitted
to fly the US flag outdoors. The conversation we had with the consular official reminded
me of what I had read of the USSR in the days of Intourist. He assured us that our hotel
rooms were bugged, and even asserted that the conference room in which we were
meeting was bugged. (The hardened areas of the building, obviously, are not.)
Surveillance, as well as occasional harassment, is par for the course for US diplomats in
Cuba. All US staff earn hardship allowances, have a two year tour, and get two R&Rs.
Following this visit, we proceeded to the ball park, arriving at the bottom of the eighth
inning. We saw Guantanamo lose to the Havana Metropolitanos. After the game the
players cam over to the rail by the dugout where we were gathered and several were
literally selling the shirts off their backs. For twenty dollars I got a shirt that was worn in
a professional Cuban baseball game. As Alain pointed out, this is equal to a month’s
salary. After several minutes of bargaining (some people also got signed balls for $5) the
security guards came over and raised a ruckus with the players, bringing an end to the
informal souvenir market. The players could get in serious trouble, because they were
competing with the state-run souvenir business.
As Alain points out, hustling is a way of life. If you can get just $1 a day, you have the
equivalent of an official salary. Most hustlers probably do better. Of course, outside the
tourist area there is no opportunity to hustle.
Our farewell dinner tonight was at the Hotel Isabel. The service was a cut above
everyplace else that we have been to, and the food was generally good (lobster and
shrimp for most, a passable filet mignon for those who chose it, and a very good pasta
primavera for Kathleen).

Saturday, March 15th
Guy’s maternal grandfather, Albert Lavedan, was born in Cuba and came to the United
States in 1910 at the age of sixteen. His sisters, Coca and Amalia, and brother Carlos
remained in Havana their entire lives. On this trip we were fortunate to find the house
that they had lived in and to meet a woman who had known them.
During the week I had given Emiliio the address in Vedado ( a district within Havana)
that we had for Coca’s home. He indicated that he thought that he would be able to find it
because it was near where he lived. On Friday night he told us that he had found it and
that he had talked to the people who currently live there. They had no knowledge of prior

On Saturday morning Emilio took Kathleen and I to visit the home. It is actually only a
couple of blocks from the US Interests Section which we had visited the afternoon
before. We got there and took a few pictures. The house is about a block and a half from
the Ocean. Emilio rang the doorbell but no one answered.
Emilio told us that a single family lives on the first floor and that there are some
government offices on the second floor. The government wants to take over the entire
building, but the occupants are not satisfied with the trades that have been offered so far
for new living quarters for them. I am puzzled as to how long they can get away with
saying no. The government provides housing to everyone, but it is not clear to me that
they have much choice in what housing they will accept.
While we were talking, a woman who appeared to be in her seventies appeared with her
daughter (in law?) on the balcony across the street. Emilio engaged her in conversation
and mentioned the names ―Coca,‖ ―Lavedan‖ and ―Aguayo‖ (some other relatives). She
indicated that she knew Coca and Amalia. After about five minutes I asked if I could take
her picture. She declined because she was not dressed for a photograph. She did,
however, invite us to come up to her apartment. We went up and were met by the
younger woman. We were joined shortly by the older woman who had changed her
clothes. She immediately gave each of us a big hug.
She spoke no English, so Emilio provide the interpretation for us. She said that her
mother and Coca were best of friends and used to discuss politics all the time. She told us
of knowing Coca, Amalia, Carlos and Blanca. Blanca was apparently a secretary in
Carlos’ office before Carlos married her. They had no children. Coca was the last of the
family to die, about twenty years ago when in her eighties. Our new friend had also
known the family and told us that Coca had given her a sewing basket that she had kept
all of these years because of the love that she had for Coca. She brought the basket out to
show Kathleen and then gave it to Kathleen.
Their apartment was fairly small, long and narrow. It was very clean and had a variety of
decorations. The centerpiece of the living room was the television, and all of the chairs
faced it. On the wall opposite the television was a tapestry-like wall hanging of several
dogs playing cards. We could see into the kitchen which had a four burner gas stove.
We chatted for about half an hour during which time she mentioned that Coca had also
given her a stamp collection. Enrique, Grandpa’s father, may have started this. She still
has that collection. She mentioned that Coca left all of the furniture in the house to ―the
brown woman.‖ We assume that she was referring to Thomasa, the servant who lived in
the house with the family.
Our host laughingly declined to give her age, but we would estimate that she was in her
She invited us for coffee but we declined because of the hour. Emilio had to get back to
the hotel to take some other members of our group on an errand. As we left, she once
again gave us big hugs. It was a very pleasant visit. She asked that we send her
photographs (which I did immediately upon our return).

On a scale of poor, well-off, rich, Emilio would rate our host as well-off (comfortable).
She considered Carlos, Coca and Amalia to be rich. (Certainly this home in Vedado was
much nicer than most of the private dwellings that we have seen.)
Following our expedition, we set off for a brief walk and ran into a young married couple
(Alejandro and his wife). He worked in a bakery and still (at 25) goes to school three
days a week. His English is good and he obviously wants to improve his lot. He showed
us pictures of his in-laws and their two kids. Then he politely asked if we could buy milk
for the babies, so we walked them to the store, and bought 2 packages of milk. Kathleen
returned to the hotel. I was going to take a few more photos but when I got the next milk
pitch (from a young man for his brother) I finally said no and went back to the hotel for
the last time.
After a brief and pleasant lunch in the hotel, we departed for the airport. We left Cuba
with many memories.


To top