After Castro, what’s next?

Our casa particular in Havana formerly was the home of one of Castro’s generals. General Ordaz, who was with Castro “in the mountains,” as they say in Cuba, and who later became head of a psychiatric hospital in Havana.

It is a beautiful home with four or five guest bedrooms on the ground floor, and accommodations for the family and staff upstairs. There is a lovely pool, air-conditioning, 24 hr. staff. The entry hallway is filled with photos of Dr. Ordaz with Fidel, Che and others. The staff brought out the family albums for us to see, and they were filled with great pictures of Dr. Ordaz and his family with the Revolutionary generation, as well as one with the Pope. The home now is operated as a guest house by Dr. Ordaz’ daughter.

Edifice complex: The Russian embassy, and the monument to the Revolution

Located in the Havana neighborhood of Siboney, Casa Ordaz is on graceful, tree-lined streets with well-kept (mostly) homes that look like they were built in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Many embassies are located here.

It prompted a question, which came up over and over and which never was adequately resolved, is why some people seemed to be doing so well and some were living in poverty. Sure, everyone gets free health care and education, and there is an allotment of food every month (quite a modest allotment.)

The official story is that it is a classless society, which equal access to education and health care, etc. And I think that is basically true, but why did some people seem to be living so well? Why was Dr. Ordaz’ daughter still living in this lovely home and renting it out as a guest house on the private market?

Plenty of pictures of Che on the sides of buildings. Followed by Fidel, and then Hugo Chavez.

One answer was that the Cubans who had renovated their houses and seemed to be living well probably were being sent money from relatives in the U.S. Now I don’t speak much Spanish, and so I had few conversations with real Havanese, but clearly in their view, the reason for the poverty and economic stagnation is the U.S. embargo and not the socialist economic system dictated under Castro.

Any conversation about politics was about the U.S. and its impact.

We went to the great Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana – formerly the dictator Batista’s palace. There still are holes in the hallway from rifle shots when students attempted (unsuccessfully) to storm the palace and depose Batista. The theme of the museum, told repeatedly, was about the Cubans’ ability to survive attacks and assaults by the U.S. and particularly the CIA.

Cuban billboard tells what they think of the blockade.

The narrative of modern Cuba is indistinguishable from Cuba v. the U.S. And while one might argue that a little capitalism might have helped their economy, it is difficult to argue that our embargo hasn’t helped impoverish two generations of Cuba, and we are working on the third.

Of course one gift of the embargo is the wonderful collection of 1950’s cars and colonial buildings in old Havana. They would not exist if Hilton and Sheraton had been allowed to come in and erect 20-story hotels in their place. There is a significant amount of restoration going on, despite Cuba’s economic issues, and revenue generated from tourism now is being funneled into further renovations. Our traveling partners Terry and Jane, who were here two years ago, remarked at the amount of work that had been done in just that time. The work we saw in Old Havana was true to the period and design of the original buildings.

Lineup of classic cars for hire.

I walked around old Havana with a retired professor of cultural anthropology from the University of Havana, and it was clear from our discussion that the Cubans treasure the history and want to preserve it. The 50’s-era Chevrolets compete for customers with modern, Chinese-built taxis, but they, too, wouldn’t be there were it not for the embargo. So in a perverse way, we have helped preserve a great heritage — at significant cost to the natives.

Beautiful square in Old Havana.

It was clear when talking to and observing the Cubans, that they are proud of their country and their local culture and wary of what capitalism brings.  Even though we saw poverty, the Cuban people are full of life enjoying music, dancing and . . . rum.

We indulged in mojitos at the grand Hotel National and the floor show at the Tropicana, which began in the 30’s and looks a little like 1950’s Las Vegas. Cuba was mobbed up in the 50’s, and one guidebook said that putting Castro in charge of Havana would be like giving the Amish control of Las Vegas. Despite any puritanism on the part of Fidel, there is enough music and dancing and rum to keep tourism going.

Glad we came when we did.

Just this week, the Cubans are choosing a new President, although Raul Castro, at least for the time being, is retaining the roles as head of the army and of the communist party. Cubans are quite uncertain about what will happen next.  With the possibilities of big changes coming, we were glad we visited when we did

 

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Cuba, not so libre

Our band of travelers. That’s son-in-law/tour guide Alfredo on the right.

 

What was remarkable to me, on our recent visit to Cuba, was not the number of classic, restored Chevrolets, but the number of horse carts.

Sure, there were plenty of ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevs, along with the occasional Ford or Oldsmobile, and they have become something of a cliche and a major tourist draw in Havana. But the rural areas and smaller towns we visited depended as much on horse power as on horsepower.

New and old means of transport.

There is a similar comparison among buildings – beautifully restored colonial buildings and Art Deco buildings from the 1930’s – next to crumbling structures.

And along with this, the overlay of the period of Soviet influence – essentially between the time of the Revolution (1959) and the fall of the Soviet Union (1991.) Some of the taxis are wired-together Soviet-era Lada’s, and there are ugly concrete apartment blocks that could as easily be on the outskirts of cities in Bulgaria or Croatia.

Now you may be wondering why this is all being written in the past tense.

Colonial church in the Vinales town square.

Avid followers of travelswithpatty  – both of you – will recall that we usually post these blogs as we travel. That wasn’t possible this time, as the Internet is hard to find in Cuba. So this will be an effort, back in the comfort of Seattle, to recreate what we liked most about our trip.

For about a year, we had been planning to go to Cuba with our friends Paul Goldberg and Janie O’Brien, and Jane and Terry Chadsey. We all had traveled together before, so we were pretty confident we could get along with each other. And Jane and Terry have a Cuban-born son-in-law, Alfredo, who offered to lead the tour.

So last summer, Alfredo used part of his annual visit home to Cuba to

Private enterprise in Vinales.

scout out places for us to stay. Rather than hotels, we used casas particulares  — the Cuban version of a bed-and-breakfast. Alfredo also required each of us to write down on 3-by-5 cards what we most wanted to do. (For me, it was to see some historic buildings and museums and to talk politics with real Cubans.)

You will recall that there had been a period of liberalization under Raul Castro, which allowed some additional private businesses, and more travel from the U.S. Since then, Cuba has backed off a little on the privatization – a fear that some people were benefitting much more than others – and new restrictions on U.S. travel imposed by our current president.

The rules now require that travelers from the U.S. be part of a recognized tour group rather than freelancers. We took a chance, marked the box for “people to people” and “education” as the reason for our visit, and went unchallenged.

Government store. Today there were eggs available.

 

Our first stop, after flying to Cuba via Miami, was Vinales, a small down West of Havana near a major national park. Vinales is an agricultural town, but its proximity to the park means there are a number of casas particulares and some nice restaurants. It was a good, low-key way to introduce ourselves to Cuba. The second day, five of our group rode horses to a tobacco plantation. I stayed in town and had lunch – my first ham-and-cheese sandwich of the trip.

Vinales had some restaurants and a market aimed at the tourist trade, but these were mixed in with the government shops were the residents got their monthly allotment of eggs, rice and other essentials. We did not see a lot of folks from the U.S. although later we met a retired teacher from the Seattle area who had come here for rock-climbing on the limestone.

’56 Chev in the driveway.

The water here is safe enough for Cubans but doesn’t have the right bacteria for Norteamericanos, so we used bottled water and avoided fresh vegetables. There also isn’t much beef. So a lot of places offered ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Or you might get cheese sandwiches, or ham sandwiches, or pork sandwiches. Most dinners came with rice and black beans. If you are lucky, you might get a spicy black-bean soup, which is really good. Or, more often, rice and black beans mixed together in arroz moro.

Every place we stayed came with breakfast, which consisted of juice, coffee, bread, eggs, ham and fresh fruit. We also had some very good seafood. Big lobster tails were a great bargain.

 

Next stop after Vinales was Trinidad, an old colonial town on the south coast, southeast of Havana. Trinidad was founded in 1514 and is a UNESCO site. It was a slave-trading center and an important part of the sugar production in the 17thand 18thCenturies. It has some beautiful

Colonial buildings.

colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. Many of the buildings house shops featuring embroidery and other crafts, and there is a lively nighttime scene with modern jazz coming from some restaurants and Afrocuban music from others. We also found local pottery and many shops with artwork.

 

By now – six days into our journey – we had become pretty confident.  Pat, Jane, Paul and Janie actually walked into the center of town from where we were staying (about 3 km,) apparently unfazed by the 80-degree weather. Alfredo was on the lookout for places that had ice made from bottled water, but even when there was no ice for mojitos, our group had become quite fond of Cuban rum taken straight.

 

Tomorrow: Our stay in Havana.

 

 

 

 

 

Grandma and Amelia Explore the Yucatan

We decided that this year’s Grandma Camp would go beyond the 2-day camping experience in Washington state. We came upon an Intergenerational Road Scholar tour to the Yucatan. It sounded great in January. We are now embarking on the trip in 90 degree heat. Two days at a Cancun resort before we meet up with the tour. I promised big money if I didn’t hear “grandma I’m hot” one time during the trip. I confess day two and I haven’t heard it yet from her but from me a few times.

We had a great day on the beach with oh so blue bathtub warm water and white sand. Sitting on the beach and swimming with my lovely granddaughter–who could ask for more? Today’s adventure was taking the R 2 bus into Cancun. We thought the bus drivers were racing each other while eating chicken wings and picking up passengers at a rolling stop. YIKES! Time for happy hour.

 

 

Amelia got a fish pedicure today–REALLY! 

Bulgaria on my mind: go for the tomatoes, stay for the yogurt.

Pat and I have been back from Europe for two weeks now, but we still are thinking about our wonderful trip to Bulgaria — and the questions so many of you asked “why Bulgaria”?

We were going on a Rick Steves trip, and we felt like we were more likely to need a guide in a place like Bulgaria than in the more familiar climes of Western Europe.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.

As with many of our far flung trips we felt we’d needed help with the logistics and the language. And that’s clearly true of Bulgaria — not only is the language obscure, even the alphabet is strange. They use the Cyrillic alphabet, which means not only can you not understand what they are saying, you can’t read signs or menus, either.

Icon in Bulgarian church.

Modern-day icon just painted in this craft area of Veliko Tarnovo

The Bulgarians are very proud of Cyrillic, incidentally. It was introduced to them by 9th Century theologians — Cyril and Methodius — and spread from there to Russia and other parts of the East. The Bulgarians we met — and particularly our tour guide, Stefan — were intensely proud of their country and their freedom from the Ottomans (in the late 19th Century) and the Nazis and Russians after World War II and the fall of communism.

So the reasons for going to Bulgaria, after all, are several;

First, the food is great. We weren’t expecting much. During our trip to the Balkans a couple of years ago, we ate a lot of cabbage. Bulgaria has a thriving agricultural sector. We had tomato-and-cucumber salad

A daily indulgence.

almost daily. There was fresh fish — much of it driven up from Greece — and a lot of variety. We had some great Bulgarian wine. The local drink is rakia — a very strong drink something like grappa. You have to be careful with rakia, but that’s not difficult.

Because the civilization is so old here — Bulgaria is part of ancient Thrace — there are some spectacular history museums, ancient tombs, Roman

Roman theater in Plovdiv

ruins, etc. Plovdiv, the second-largest city, is one of the oldest in Europe and sits on extensive Roman building.

There is the chance to experience some cultures that we hadn’t seen in other parts of Europe. We visited a Roma village and a Muslim village and were hosted for lunch in both places.

This family in a small Muslim village prepared our traditional lunch — both beef soup and bean soup — and then sang folk songs.

And there is very interesting architecture from the Ottoman era and 19th and early 20th Centuries.

 

 

My advice is like that you hear about many developing areas. Come while its still affordable.

This Russian-style church was built to commemorate Russian soldiers. My sandwich was very forgettable.

This monastery, which dates to the 13th Century, is important for both religious and nationalistic reasons.

 

 

Traveling through history in a family pub

I remember meeting Uncle Sam once on a visit to London. He was a big, blustery man – as I recall – owner of several pubs, and my grandmother’s youngest brother: hence, my mother’s uncle and my great uncle.

But I had never been to his famous – or notorious – pub in London’s east end until we met my “cousin” Amy there for a drink while visiting London this week.

Outside the Blind Beggar

I know how Amy and I are related – her mother and my mother were first cousins – but I am not sure what to call that. In any case, we first met a couple of years ago and have managed to stay in contact. She suggested going for a drink at Sam’s former pub – the Blind Beggar, down the street from the Whitechapel Underground station.

When I was a kid spending summers in London, I would come to Whitechapel with my aunts to visit various shops in this very Jewish neighborhood. Now, every storefront is Muslim-owned. We had a great dinner at a Pakistani restaurant nearby, the waiter apologized for the slow service because the cooks were just breaking fast during Ramadan.

The Blind Beggar is just on the edge of the area. It is not upscale but quite a nice place. You can see that the menu is not traditional pub fare,

No steak and kidney pie here.

although the beer selection seemed to be.

Besides my own memories, the place has an interesting history. It is named for Henry de Montfort, a son of Simon de Montfort, who lost his sight in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. His father, Simon, had led a rebellion against the king — he was killed in that same battle — and is credited with helping limit the power of the king. And that’s where the name the Blind Beggar comes from.

It was, according to the history, the first pub to serve modern brown ale – in 1654 – and was the site of a speech by William Booth, in 1865, that led to the founding of the Salvation Army. More recently, in the 1960’s, a mob shooting took place here.

It ‘s nice to have at least a little bit of that history in your background.

The inside of the Blind Beggar.

On the Black Sea, looking for Ivan

We actually had left the Black Sea towns of Varna and Nesebar, and were on our way inland on the next leg of our tour of Bulgaria, when our tour guide, Stefan, complained specifically about organized crime.

Gotta be a cocktail lounge around here somewhere.

A new Porsche was in the road holding up the tour bus while the owner was doing business in some shop and Stefan said that was an example of the group which reportedly had been dominating these Black Sea ports since the fall of communism in 1989-90.

I had long been interested in the cities on the Black Sea, and getting a chance to visit them was a big part of the reason for this tour of Bulgaria in the first place. Like so much of this region, they have been influenced over the millennia by invaders from Central Asia, contrapuntal dominance by the Russian, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the role of Greece and its predecessor in Thrace. Most recently, they are known as the playground of rich Russians, as well as sun seekers from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia.

Stefan, who is half tour guide and half Bulgarian nationalist, has mostly confirmed those rumors, although the role of the European Union reportedly has lessened significantly the influence of crime in the area. Apparently it is difficult both to operate a criminal enterprise and launder money, and abide by the EU’s strict rules. So the same rules that are annoying the Brits and Dutch because of their inflexibility are apparently a help to Bulgarians.

In some ways traveling here feels a little like we have been transported back to the 1970’s. Besides the concrete communist-era buildings, tourism is not a slick or modern as we see in the U.S. or Western Europe. Many fur shops are visible in the shopping areas. We, as Americans are a bit of a spectacle with school children wanting to greet us with “hello”, “hi” sometimes ciao.

Early church in Nesebar.

 

Our first seaside stop was Nesebar. Much of the city consists of new hotels and condos that cater to vacationers from Russia and other northern areas. We avoided the new development called “Sunnybeach” and stayed on the island – now connected by a causeway – that has been a settlement for centuries. Half seaside vacation area and half historical antiquities, built over Roman ruins, this little island includes 14th, 15th, and 16th Century Orthodox churches, traditional 19th and 20th Century Bulgarian domestic architecture, seafood restaurants and tourist shops.

Next stop was Varna, up the coast about an hour. Varna has been

Varna building undergoing restoration.

a major economic, social and cultural center for 3,000 years. Most recently a stop for cruise ships but now, because of the unrest in Greece and Turkey, cruise ships no longer dock. Beginning as a Thracian seaport settlement, it now is the third largest city in Bulgaria, home to the navy, a major seaport, with a beautiful stock of 19th and 20th Century mansions – in various states of disrepair and renovation – and a wonderful, 5 km-long park along the seaside.

Clearly there are elements of the communist past: One of the ugliest hotels in existence, a concrete monstrosity for a city hall. Nothing unusual there. We’ve seen communist dreck alongside wonderful buildings from the 19th Century Austro-Hungarian style and 20th Century Art Deco and Art Nouveau periods. If it takes the mob to use their ill-gotten wealth to restore the buildings, maybe that’s the price of doing business.

We had a glass of wine in a bar on the beach, exceeded by 40 percent our 10,000 steps on Fitbit, but saw no apparent Russians. Maybe they were in a nicer hotel.

 

 

First impressions in Bulgaria

“Why Bulgaria?” we were asked repeatedly when we said where were going for a trip this spring.

The answer is complicated: we had purchased a tour of Istanbul from the Edmonds-based travel guru, Rick Steves, but decided not to go because of a coup attempt. So we needed to pick another tour. Since we have traveled quite a bit in Western Europe and didn’t feel we needed a tour guide for Rome or Paris, Bulgaria seemed like a good choice. Traveling with a Rick Steves tour brings a bit of chat in the group, since we live in Edmonds, his home base. There are folks for whom this is their sixth or eighth Rick Steves tour. Fellow travelers want to know if we have ever actually seen the travel guru and are interested in personal Edmonds lore. Our guide Stephan has been known to call him “Uncle Rick”. The Steves tours always appear to get priority and the travelers aren’t your usual hoard of aging tourists following the umbrella. It is an amiable group and we are enjoying having meals with and getting to know other folks from around the country both in large groups and small excursions in our free time.

On Bulgaria, I have been interested in this area for a long time – the crossroads of empires between Russia, the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empire, and Rome and Western Europe. Our trip a couple of years ago to the Balkans was really fascinating and so Bulgaria. For those not immediately familiar

with the geography, we are adding a map of the region as well as the route of our tour. So far, in a few days, we have seen the capital, Sofia, and the Rila

Vaults in the church at the Rila Monastery.

Monastery, a key cultural and religious shrine located in the Rila mountains,

The route of our tour.

where we spent a night without heat and very few creature comforts. Today we are in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria and one of the oldest in Europe, dating well before the Romans.

I can’t say that I have gained real insight about the country in a few days here – just impressions. And because we are on a guided tour, I want to make sure the impressions are our own, and not the intellectual property of the Rick Steves organization.

Sofia is a beautiful capital with many monuments, civic and religious buildings and parks. The Alexander Nevski cathedral may be the most famous. You can see the influence of Russia as well as Turkey and the Ottomans, but the Bulgarians we have met are very proud of their national heritage and independence – especially after disappearing from the map for five centuries under the Ottomans, and then under what they call the “Russian yoke” until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in

Guards at the presidential residence.

1998-9. They are particularly proud that the Cyrillic alphabet began here and spread to Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The current government is pro-Russian, and there is an area in the south where Bulgarians with Turkish heritage are pro-Turkey and Erdogan. Like other countries in the Balkans, they must deal with a history of conquest and wars and changing alliances. As you drive out of Sofia, you can still see the influence of the late communist period in the blocks of ugly and rundown Soviet-era apartment blocks.

Plovdiv, the second city, is very different and very compelling. There are a number of universities, so that adds a flavor. There are extensive Roman ruins and one of the most intact Roman theaters I have seen. The old town is full of restored 18th and 19th Century buildings, and there is an area with an

Roman theater in Plovdiv.

amazing number of art deco buildings. Unfortunately, the first floors of many of these now have modern storefronts for companies like Adidas and Burger King. Apparently, as the buildings were restored, may of the old, small, individually owned shops gave way to more modern retailers.

The food is wonderful. We have been eating tomato and cucumber salads every day, hoping to get our fill before going back to hothouse tomatoes at the QFC. There is drinkable red wine and awful white wine. We just spent the equivalent of $15 on lunch and drinks. Pat bought a tube of hand cream at the Maybelline store for the equivalent of 60 cents. Of course it won’t last as tourism increases.

Art deco buildings in the Plovdiv downtown.

We are headed tomorrow for the Black Sea coast.