Travels with Lois and Jason


A People-to-People

Land and Sea Adventure

January 11 - 24, 2016

Traveling to Cuba was very different from other trips we've taken.  We were NOT tourists, but members of a Cuban government authorized People-to-People educational tour.  Our Road Scholar itinerary was prepared by the Cuban government and a Cuban Study Leader (tour guide) accompanied us at all times.


So, things were planned and organized to provide us with the view of Cuba that the Cuban government wanted us to see.  That said, traveling to Cuba was fascinating and educational, sad and thought provoking. 

Our Political Welcome

Our American Airlines charter flight from Miami to Holguin, Cuba took a little over an hour.  In Miami we completed visa forms, health forms, and signed an affidavit indicating that we understood we were not tourists.  At Cuban passport control in Holguin, our forms were reviewed and our pictures taken.  We were instructed very sternly not to smile.  (Upon our departure two weeks later, our pictures were once again taken.)  There definitely wasn't a warm welcoming attitude at the airport as there has been in so many other countries.  We were entering a very hard country where political tensions between our governments existed for a generation.  We were not tourists; we were participants in a study group to be educated.  And we were!

In contrast to the airport staff, our first Cuban study leader was an extremely open, well educated, accomplished individual who shared both the positive and negative aspects of his personal life in Cuba. 

Our Itinerary Overview

Our Cuba exploration consisted of three segments as can be seen on the map.  The first segment was four days touring the eastern end of the Cuban island by bus.  We then boarded a ship for five days to circumnavigate the island.  We docked in Havana Harbor for two days, where we had walking and bus tours.  Then we had a port-of-call at the western most part of Cuba, where we took an eco-tour of the National Park Peninsula Guanacahabibes.  The third segment was via bus through central Cuba returning to Havana.


Our Cultural Introduction to Cuba

Unlike some trips where the scenery or physical activities were the focus, cultural awareness dominated our time.  In our 12 days in Cuba, we attended or visited:

1.  Lyric Opera Institute of Holguin
(singing and dancing school)

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2.  Tomba Francesca (Haitian/French influence), Guantanamo

3.  Casa del Chengui (Afro-Cuban influence), Guantanamo

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4.  Danza Combinatoria (modern
dance), Havana

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5.  Callejon de Hamel (Afro Cuban Center), Havana
All women drummers
6.  Muraleando (Water Tank Community Center), Havana

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6.  Muraleando ochestra
6.  Muraleando homemade instrument

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Left to right:  Cuban tour guide, doctor, nurse 
Doctor lives upstairs
They grew herbs for medical treatment.

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Bone art studio, Holguin
Contemporary artist with guide, Guantanamo
Pottery artist, Trinidad


The key element in this process was the 1960 Soviet washing machine (blue rectangular object on right).  They said it never worked well with clothes, but was perfect for transforming recycled paper into a gooey liquid which when screened and dried made usable paper.  Several prints are hanging on wall.



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Meeting Cuban People

The most critical educational aspect of our trip was the people-to-people interactions – our discussions with owners, artists, and workers.  In total we probably spoke with a couple dozen people.  We were free to ask them any questions, excluding politics. We heard about their training and experiences.  With the exception of the cigar factory, the major complaint was lack of supplies or the lack of opportunity.  For example, the artists had trouble getting paints, the doctors had trouble getting medical supplies, the restaurant cooks had trouble getting food, and the printers had trouble getting paper. We did talk about the blockade (Cuban word) for the American embargo.  Without exception, the Cubans were excited that President Obama would be lifting the blockade.

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Crew members aboard ship
Paladar waiter showing off the oven he built


In addition to the group discussions, we spoke with about a dozen Cubans by ourselves outside the group setting, including our bus drivers, workers at hotels, and most exciting, a 72 year old pensioner we met on the street.  One evening when we were walking by ourselves we were saying to young people "do you speak English?"  And, behind us, this man said "I speak English!"  We spent an hour speaking with him.  He had lived in Miami from 1957 until 1962. He graduated high school, worked a couple of years, and only returned to Cuba because his parents needed him.  He became an English teacher as his career and was extremely proud of his accomplishments and that of his two children:  one was a doctor and the other an engineer.

TV Talk Host 

Our group met a local TV talk show hostess in the City of Guantanamo.  She had been on TV for many years and had a noon hour talk show that focused on local news and events, interviews, and social calendars.  It was non-policital.  She told us that there were political shows that people could call in to.  She told us that she rode the public bus to work and didn't think of herself as a celebrity.   

It seemed that almost every house had a TV aerial.  We were told there is a very wide range of programming available, most coming from Latin American countries.  All programming is controlled by the government.

Fiesta de Quince Anos

This is a celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday.  In Cuba it is a major event.  Our tour guide told us that he has two daughters that are approaching 15, and that it is going to cost him a considerable amount of money for their lavish parties.

These pictures of a young woman being prepared for her photos were taken in the town square of Cienfuegos.  We saw another quinceanera in Holguin sitting on the top of the back seat of a classic American convertible being driven around the town with the horn blaring.

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Cuban Innovations

Our Cuban tour guide (study leader) was around 40 years old and remembered the Special Period during the 1990s when the former Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Cuban economy.  He conveyed how this period of lack of resources was an engine of innovation for Cubans.  We heard that repeated many times from others.  Here are a couple of examples:  someone had figured out how to re-charge batteries soaking them in salt water; a print shop could not get paper so they figured out how to use recycled paper to make new paper.  The owners of classic American automobiles cannot get parts so they have found ways to make them and/or modify parts from other cars.


Cuba has two parallel currencies.  The money used by Cubans is called the Cuban peso (abbreviated CUP). The money converted from other currencies is called the Cuban convertible (abbreviated CUC). It takes 25 pesos to make one convertible,  25 CUP = 1 CUC, and our exchange rate was 1 CUC = $0.87 U.S.
Cubans receive their salaries in CUPs.  The medical doctor we met made 1300 CUPs (about $45) a month, the nurse 800 CUPs ($28) a month, and the pensioner we met said he received 325 CUPs ($11) a month.  We were told that Cubans do not pay for education, medical needs and each receives a food ration.  They do pay for electricity and telephones.  Still, the pensioner told us that he needed to do English tutoring on the side to make ends meet.
Cubans who work in the tourist industry are much better off than the typical Cuban as they have access to CUCs.  For example, the artists we visited sold their work to tourists and were paid in CUCs, and the Paladars were paid by Road Scholar in CUCs.  Our tour guide, bus driver and the cultural centers we visited, each received tips in CUCs from Road Scholar.


Housing, Hotels and Transportation

Our first two nights in Cuba were in Gibara (population 75,000), a city on the north coast facing the Atlantic Ocean.  The streets were narrow, barely wide enough for our bus.  Many times the driver had to go back and forth to complete a turn.  Almost every house was constructed of concrete blocks, with the exterior walls unfinished.  Only occasionally did we see houses with painted exterior walls.  Most houses were two story.  If the second story had an exterior staircase, that meant they were two separate homes.  Furnishings always appeared sparse, but there was a flat screen TV in almost every house (see note on TVs below). 

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We were told by our tour guide that most families live in small one or two room houses, and very frequently these were multigenerational.  He said that having so many people in one house was a major cause of the high rate of divorce in Cuba.

The primary bus system in Gibara was horse drawn carts, very appropriate for the narrow cobbled streets. We saw only a few automobiles and buses.

The housing and transportation systems we saw in Gibara were repeated throughout Cuba outside the big cities.  In the bigger cities,  we saw more painted exteriors on the houses and consider car and bus traffic.   


Our hotel rooms were consistently of very high quality.  About half our hotels were Cuban government owned.  The other hotels were joint venture partnerships between the Cuban government (51%) and foreign investment (49%) .  Surprisingly, the government hotels had more charm than the private as they were century old buildings recently renovated on the outside and totally modernized on the inside.  On the other hand, the joint venture hotels were extremely modern high-rise buildings.  A couple were three-star and one was a five-star (but we only stayed for one night, and only because of flooding at the three-star we were supposed to be at!).

Shopping and Food

We visited three local markets.  The first sold shoes, clothes and other household items.  Walking through this market felt as if we were in a thrift shop with all items on open shelves and racks.  The second was a farmers' market, much like we have here with stalls overflowing with fresh produce.  This market also had a meat section, but there was no refrigeration. The third market was a ration market where the Cuban people brought their ration books to collect their monthly allotments of rice, grains, sugar, eggs, oil, and salt.

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Ration book
Rice, grains and sugar

Occasionally we saw a crowd in front of a store.  We were told that usually meant that some commodity had arrived which was in limited supply and people lined up as soon as they heard it was available.  Our Cuban study guide told us that when he built his home he had to line up on many occasions to get building materials (bricks, cement, wiring, etc.) as these materials were never "just available."  (He built his home on top of a relative's home and it had an outside staircase.)


Regarding our meals, overall the food was average.  Breakfast was usually a buffet similar to any hotel restaurant with eggs, fruit, cereal and bread.  Lunch and dinner menus usually had two or three items available from fish, lobster, chicken, and goat. About half our meals were in recently established Paladars (privately owned restaurants within the owner's home) while the rest were in government owned restaurants.  A few of the Paladars were only months old and the oldest a couple of years old.  The government has allowed very slow, but steady expansion following market driven ideas rather than central planning.  We always met with the Paladar owners to hear about their experiences opening a private restaurant in a Communist country. It appears that the Paladars were in the forefront of introducing marketing concepts into Cuba.  Most indicated that the capital for opening the restaurant came from friends and relatives outside Cuba.  The most common complaint from these entrepreneurs was how difficult it was to get reliable deliveries. 

We could not see how food was prepared in the "typical" home, but when walking through the Paladars and artists' homes/workshops, we saw their kitchens.  Granted these were successful people, so their kitchens were modern with microwave ovens, stoves, refrigerators and freezers.  We saw both electric and gas ranges.  Those with gas used gas canisters.


Pre-school through graduate school is 100% free in Cuba today.  School is compulsory for children ages 5 through 16, and Cuba enjoys a 99% literacy rate, amongst the highest in the world.  Exams are used for university admittance.  We did not visit any schools, but did see the children playing at different times.  A couple of times we saw children out in the middle of the day.  They were on lunch break and went home for lunch.  We were told that if that wasn't an option, they were given lunch at school.  All students wear uniforms.  For the pre-university level students (ages 16 thorugh 18), different uniforms identified whether they were at an academic or sport or trade or arts school. 

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Our tour guide shared some concerns (paradoxes) that were quite disturbing regarding the successful educational system.  First, creating "equal" educational opportunity throughout the country ended up lowering standards in the countryside, not intentionally, but by the fact that when you set up a "university" in every province, there aren't enough top-tier academics (students and teachers) to maintain quality at every level.  Another paradox was that there are too many people with advanced degrees, but no jobs available.  We met an architect who worked in a Paladar.  There are so many architects in his area that the government had him come in one day a week to do architectural work so that all the architects had some work.  A third paradox of universal education is that very few people want to go back to work on a farm.  Once university educated, people want jobs that are commensurate with their educational level.  The factories and fields require unskilled laborers. 

Farming and Fishing

Gibara Harbor had many fishing boats and the river which entered the harbor had many people sitting on inner tubes fishing.  As we passed through the countryside we saw only one tractor and it was being used for harvesting sugar cane.  All other farm work was manual.

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Gibara Fishing Harbor
People fishing from inner tubes
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A Television Story

The  period of 1960 through 1980 was a high point in Cuban economy.  The Soviet Union provided extensive funding support propping up the Cuban economy.  During this period, Soviet appliances were sold throughout the country, including vacuum tube black-and-white TV sets.  TVs were provided very widely, and all TV stations were (still are) government owned.  Soviet constructed oil based power stations and electric distribution systems were setup to support the growing use of appliances. 

Then, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the vacuum tube TV became a major power drain.  We were told that power blackouts were common.  As one measure to alleviate the problem, the Cuban government undertook a TV swap, providing Chinese built flat screens low wattage sets in exchange for Soviet built vacuum tube TVs.  Hence, flat screen color TVs were seen everywhere we went!

Cuba still uses oil as its primary power source, but we saw wind turbines and understand that Cuba is making a major push in the renewable arena.  Also, we experienced three blackouts which lasted only a few minutes each during our stay.

Pay Phones and Cell Phonesmap

Pay phones are still used in Cuba.  In each town we visited we saw pay phone booths with people using them.  We only saw limited cell phone use, usually with young people, and almost always in the town square around a hotspot.  We were told that there is very limited Internet access and that it is always slow to load pages.

Cuban Tourism and Caya Coco (our biggest shock)

As global travelers we've been to all corners of the world, and have always found ourselves surrounded by many American travelers.  So, to be on extremely crowded tourist streets in Cuba with only a handful of Americans was surprising.  Who were all these people? 

While Cuba may be off-limits for Americans, that's not the case for the rest of the world.  Most tourists come from Canada, followed by the UK, Germany, the rest of Western Europe, many Latin American countries, and Asia.  While on-board our ship, all announcements were given in English, German and French.

We were speaking with one of our bus drivers who was a lawyer and spoke excellent English.  He worked as a bus driver because he made more money with tips paid in CUCs).  He was telling us about his family and we asked about vacations.  He said that they go to Caya Coco, one of the islands off the north coast of Cuba.  He said they go on an all inclusive vacation, including transportation from his town.  He said there is a causeway to drive there.  When asked about the accommodations, he said they stay in a resort complex that has a 1000 rooms.  "A 1000 rooms?" we said.  "Who stays there?"  "Mostly Canadians" was his reply.  Investigating upon our return home we found that Caya Coco is an island with dozens of beach resorts of varying prices.  According to our bus driver, these are all sold out during the winter months and much cheaper in summer.

Some Concluding Observations

We really didn't know what to expect when we went to Cuba. We learned a lot about the history and culture:  

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  • There were so many billboards (and tee shirts) with the picture of Che Guevara, who is considered a national hero.  Billboards only have  pictures of war heroes and political messages.

Translation:  Those who die for life can not be called dead.


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  • We didn’t know there was a city of Guantanamo (and not just the U.S. base). 

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Upcoming Changes in U.S. Cuban Relations

Cuban American relations are currently in a state of major change.  The American Embassy in Havana reopened July 20, 2015 after being closed since 1961.  And personal travel is changing.  For example, when we booked our trip in May, 2015 for travel in January, 2016, Americans could only travel to Cuba using the educational groups and travel via special charter flights.  On December 17, 2015, American Airlines applied to the U.S. government for permission to book flights for the general public from the U.S. to Cuba (anticipating 20 flights a day).

The Cuba we visited will most likely be very different in a just a few years.
American Embassy, Havana

As we were leaving our last hotel for the airport, the doorman was raising the American flag.  It was a perfect farewell to our trip.

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February 7, 2016