Cuba Part 2: Just Look Up

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

At some point in the past decade, people began walking with their heads down.

Why? What are people looking for?   Looking at?   Their feet?   The ground?   Avoiding gum?   No, they are looking at cell phones in their hands. With the invention of the smart phone, the art of personal interaction and communication started changing.

Wherever you travel these days there’s an internet connection. Or so I thought. We were told in advance that internet connections could be “spotty” in Cuba. Even though I travel with a smart phone and iPad, I found the prospect of limited access intriguing. I activated the auto reply on my business email, recorded a voice mail greeting informing clients I was out of the office, and off we went.

Pedicab in Havana

Pedicab in Havana

As digital protocol dictated, on arrival I checked my email on the iPad. In Cuba my smart phone was useless except as a clock or camera. The hotel wifi connection was slow the first day. On the second day – even slower. I could brush my teeth and shower by the time my email loaded. (Unlike home, our hotel shower was extremely luxurious resulting in my taking an abnormally long shower.) This lengthy shower enabled all my vital communications to download. After so much time and effort and so little reward (important emails vs. junk emails), I decided to turn off all electronics and experience being “digitally disconnected” for the remainder of the trip. I felt a sudden strange sense of freedom.

For me, cutting the digital cord was not as hard as you might think. Unlike many of my contemporaries, technology doesn’t play a large part in my life. Outside of work, I don’t Tweet, post on Facebook or check in on Foursquare. I do have a Facebook account, but only have a small number of friends – and they “friended” me. My wife says I’m antisocial.  She’s probably right, but I think it’s only a part time condition.

Poster at Hotel SaratogaBeing digitally free, I had more time to explore my surroundings. One day, while wandering around the Hotel Saratoga lobby, I noticed an interesting wall decoration. On it were signatures of people from all over the world who had stayed at the hotel. At the bottom were the words Brooklyn, NYC and a website address: Olivesveryvintage.com. Since I was born in Brooklyn and my son had recently moved there, it piqued my curiosity.

The photo and website address stayed in the back of my mind until I returned home. I found out that olivesveryvintage.com is the website of Olive and Olaf’s, a store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and an online shopping website for vintage fashions and home décor items. On a lark I clicked on the company’s email link and sent the photo and a short email detailing how I came to take it. Later that day I received an email from Jen McCulloch, the founder and owner of Olive and Olaf’s. She was amazed that someone would contact her regarding a poster she had signed 5 years earlier. I just might drop in to Olive and Olaf’s next time I’m in need of something vintage to wear. (It’s funny that after refraining from using technology, I needed it to connect with Jen.)

While traveling around Cuba I saw little evidence of people using smart phones or tablets. Because of poor or nonexistent internet connections, if you do see a smart phone it’s for voice conversations or texting. Even in people’s homes internet connections are rare due to the high cost, limited bandwidth and censorship of online content.

On one hand limited technology hinders progress in Cuba, but at the same time facilitates an atmosphere for people to people communication. People talk directly to one another – not via technology. They tend to live in the moment, their moment, not through someone else’s life on Facebook.

Wall Graffiti

Wall Graffiti

Walking through the streets of Havana, while looking up, I noticed interesting graffiti on the outside wall of a bar. The bar turned out to be La Bodeguita Del Medio, one,of  Ernest Hemingway’s many favorite watering holes.  The bar & restaurant was also a favorite of former Chilean President Salvador Allende and the poet Pablo Neruda. It lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito.

Hemingway's Hangout

Hemingway’s Hangout

While in Cuba I consumed more alcohol (mojitos and cervezas) than I have in the last two years combined. I rationalized this consumption as a way of staying hydrated. And I did.

La Bodeguita Del Medio was packed and alive with conversation as I entered. No one was looking down at their hands. Drinks were being consumed, food shared and stories exchanged. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand one word, but I knew everyone was thoroughly engrossed in the moment.

People to People

People to People

In the evening many Cubans congregate along malecons with the hope of catching a breeze and meeting friends. Face-to-face conversation is the main entertainment … and perhaps receiving a free bottle of rum from a passing carload of crazy Americanos. One night, with Matt our tour guide from Austin and Cindy and Terry from Michigan, I cruised the malecon in Havana.

While speaking with a Cuban about the local social scene, a young woman came up to me and posed for pictures her friend was taking. She was about 20 years old, extremely attractive, and had a great smile. This led to a conversation with Matt translating, since he was the only one in our group fluent in Spanish. Through Matt I asked why she wanted pictures with me, secretly hoping I still had that certain “something” (which I’m not sure I ever had). Or was it that I reminded her of her father? It turns out she just wanted pictures with an American tourist. She gave us her phone number and told us to call if she could be of any help during our stay in Cuba. I’m still waiting for her to “friend” me.

As I get older, I have a growing desire to find the world of my early years. Where neighbors would go outside on a hot summer night and speak over the fence. Where children would see how many fireflies or bees they could catch in a jar.Dina Photo Web 2

To facilitate a true “people-to-people” experience on vacation, you might first want to attend a 3-day retreat at Digital Detox in Ukiah, CA., where the theme is “disconnect to reconnect”. After attending you could take a flight directly to Cuba and truly enjoy a “people-to-people” experience. All you need to do is just Look Up! If not you might miss something like this – click here!

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Cuba Part 1: People to People

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

OK. How many of you have taken a vacation where the apparent goal was to visit as many churches (even if you’re Jewish) and museums as possible? Or at least until the funds ran out?

Raise your hand…

This year was my turn to pick our summer vacation destination, and I vowed to do something different. After all I had just had one of those “decade” birthdays. After much deliberation I chose Cuba. When informed of my choice, the only thing my wife said was “Cuba?” This she repeated several times over the next two days. On the third day, it changed to “Cuba!”

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Since travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens (unless you’re Jay-Z and Beyonce) is restricted for the most part to educational, cultural or religious programs, we needed to find a group to travel with. A friend recommended Grand Circle Foundation, a company that runs People-to-People Cultural Exchange Programs that help the countries they visit. The Foundation has pledged or donated more than $91 million throughout the world. The programs emphasize meeting and speaking with “real” people.

“People-to-People” travel licenses were created under former President Bill Clinton. Along with many other missteps, they were stopped due to travel restrictions imposed by George W. Bush and later reinstated by the Obama administration. For this reason alone, Cubans love Obama.

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

We landed in Havana and checked into the Hotel Saratoga – the very same hotel where Jay-Z and Beyonce had stayed. Being in the same hotel as A-list celebrities was a new experience for my wife and me. During the next several days we argued with one of our tour group members from Michigan, as to who had Jay-Z and Beyonce’s room. In the end, for the sake of tour group relations, we resolved that she had their room and we had Cyndi Lauper’s room. Why Cyndi? We had just seen Kinky Boots on Broadway. (Has she ever been to Cuba? If not, she can say she stayed in the Rhodes’ room when she visits!)

Art Deco in Havana

Art Deco in Havana

Walking through the streets of Havana you see a city that has been in architectural decline for decades. Buildings once magnificent are now in dire need of TLC. In spite of this, the city still has an amazing air of dignity and style.  Some of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture can be found in Havana. This year Havana was the host site of the World Congress on Art Deco.

Baseball is a large part of Cuban culture. In our tour guide Roberto’s quest to arrange spontaneous “people-to-people” experiences, he organized a pick-up baseball game for Austin, an 18 year-old tour group member who had just received a full baseball athletic scholarship to New Mexico State. Roberto approached a group of young men on a street corner in Cienfuegos, the home of Los Angeles Dodgers rookie phenom Yasiel Puig with the promise of rum and other swag if they could assemble enough friends for a ballgame at the local field that afternoon.

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

With no advance warning we drove to the ball field – which was really a flat field full of rocks and scattered horse droppings. In Cuba horses and other animals are used as lawn mowers. Needless to say, we did not strike fear in the hearts of our opponents as we unloaded from the bus. Sixteen Americans, some slightly overweight (count me in), some in flip flops (count me in) who probably had not played ball in over 25 years (count me in) …if at all.

Trash talking is not nearly so effective when your opponent doesn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t stop either side. No one was keeping score, since we already knew who the winner would be. The game was pure comedy – easy grounders missed, fly balls dropped, horse manure stepped in, not enough gloves to go around, pitches flailed at, cars almost hit, and some friendly cheating. Our side did manage to score a few runs with the help of my 2 for 3 performance at the plate.

Leena and husband

Leena and husband

One afternoon Roberto invited my wife and me to visit Leena, a woman in her late 60’s he had met 12 months prior. She lives in a tiny apartment with her husband off the town square. Leena told Roberto of her dream the prior week that he would visit her soon. She was overjoyed to see him.

During our visit Roberto gave Leena two bottles of Aleve. When they first met, she had mentioned that she suffered from arthritis. To her the medicine was like gold. Even though there is free health care in Cuba, citizens must pay high prices for any medications needed.

Dance Practice

Dance Practice

The Arts have been supported as much as financially possible by the government. Music and dance permeate Cuban culture. At a rest stop between Havana and Cienfuegos our driver Felix offered Laura, a young dancer waiting for a bus, a ride. Before we reached our destination, Roberto had arranged for us to see a rehearsal of Laura’s dance company the following day.

Even though the wood floors in the rehearsal space were warped and probably had never been refinished and the temperature was well over 90 degrees, the dancers vibrated to the beats coming out of a boom box. The condition of the location was irrelevant to the dancers. The pride in their craft was what mattered.

When we checked in at our hotel in Trinidad each group member received a bottle of aged Cuban rum. Since the rum could not be brought back to the US and we couldn’t possibly drink it all, our tour guide Roberto said he had something in mind for the bottles. After finishing an incredible meal in Havana on our last night, we exited the restaurant to find four vintage 1940’s American convertibles -pink, orange, blue and white- waiting to take us back to the Hotel Nacional.

People to People

People to People

Could Hollywood have scripted a better ending to a vacation? Sixteen tourists piled into four vintage convertibles, cruising down the malecon under a starlit Havana sky, horns honking, stopping and passing out bottles of excellent rum to random Cubans. The look on their faces was indescribable when presented with the rum.

Could it get any more “people-to-people” than that???