Cuba’s Third Currency

The kids and I rendezvoused in Mexico City for spring break: from there it was a quick jump to Havana. We’d heard that thawing US-Cuban relations would affect big changes in Cuba in the near future. We wanted to see Cuba before that happened.

We arrived late at night, and taxied to our casa particular, a room rented in a private home. Eli said we would get a better feel for Cuba staying in a home rather than a hotel.  The Cuban government has allowed the practice since 1997 to accommodate and encourage tourist trade.  Upon our arrival our hostess Ana said her water pump was broken, and she turned us over to Orlando, who took us to his rental apartment.

We had to trust that everything would be okay.  And it was.

The electrical wiring at Orlando’s wouldn’t have passed a safety inspection.

 We were in a strange new place with its own set of rules, and had nowhere else to go.

 So when we detected the faint smell of gas, we opened all the windows, shut the door to the kitchen, and went to bed.

We awoke the next morning to the crowing of roosters, and a cacophony of social activity on the street; people laughing, talking, shouting cheerful greetings to each other from one balcony to the next.

We thanked Orlando, who turned out to be a retired chemistry professor, and moved to Ana’s place in The Old Town, several blocks from the capitol building.

At first La Habana Vieja, The Old Town, seemed a crumbling ruin…

…with people living in dilapidated buildings we at first mistook for abandoned shells.

In Cuba there are two forms of currency.  The Cuban peso is for local use.  The convertible peso is tied to the dollar, worth 25 times more, and is for tourist use. Most Cubans earn only twenty or thirty dollars a month, and use only Cuban pesos.

People sell…

…or buy whatever they can on their neighborhood streets.

 

Most shops have no refrigeration and little selection of goods.

This stand’s sole product was shredded cabbage.

In addition to wages, cigar factory workers are allowed five cigars a day, to smoke or to sell on their own time.

 

Tourists patronize government restaurants that few Cubans can afford, and even there the menu is limited according to what ingredients they can obtain. 

The Cuban government nationalized and charges admission fees to tourist attractions like museums…

…hotels…

…and restaurants.

 

Even the cemetery is maintained by the government, with admission fees charged to foreign visitors.

The government recreated a nightclub called The Tropicana…

…famous for its pre-revolutionary extravaganzas.

It charges tourists three times what most Cubans earn in a month for a two-hour show.

It’s what the market will bear, no more than we would pay at home, and it funds a government that pays for free healthcare and education for all Cubans, from pre-school through university and grad school.  Also milk for every child up to the age of seven, Ana said.  Gustavo drove us out to Ernest Hemingway’s house.  He shared valid complaints about government control and lost business opportunities because of it, but he also shared his plans for a new venture–in tourism.  That’s the only way most people will manage to better their circumstances, and earn dollars instead of pennies.

Everywhere there are reminders of the Revolution, on a grand scale, paid for by the government…

…but also celebrated by the people, many having lived through that momentous period of history.

 

I don’t presume to understand all the politics and history of those turbulent times.  I do note ironic parallels between the patriots of the American Revolution who fought for independence from Britain in 1776, and the Cubans who fought for independence from the US-backed Batista regime in the 1950s. Free speech and democracy are not enjoyed by Cubans, or the Chinese either, although China is a communist country granted “most favored nation” status by the US.  There’s also a history of human rights violations in China, as well as in Cuba, which includes, ironically, Guantanamo Bay. America is a big glass house, and in no position to cast stones. Yes, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we mustn’t forget that the US meddled in Cuba’s internal affairs, including eight attempts to assassinate the president of Cuba.

That was a long time ago.  Today we’re trade partners with Vietnam, yet still we cling to the punishing embargo on Cuba that hurts the Cubans…

…not the Castros.

Everyone we met was open and friendly. It helped that my traveling companions were both fluent in Spanish.  I’m not, but “Hola!” (hello) was a magic word that brought a warm response every time. I felt safe, even late at night. Warmth was the third currency of Cuba.  When we couldn’t get Ana’s key to work, the man on the steps across the street came unbidden to help.  Orlando made a special trip to Ana’s to return a sock I had left there. After a chance meeting in front of the synagogue, Eleazor took us around the old Jewish quarter, delighted when Bea could speak Yiddish with him.

A friend who had been to Cuba suggested we bring paper and pens, something we often take for granted in the US.  I bought a couple dozen yellow pads and dozens of pens, which we gave to kids, students, and elders.  When we stopped to give these little girls pens, their mother asked if we were part of the president’s entourage.

No, but President Obama’s trip to Cuba coincided with ours, and he visited some of the same sites.


We toured the historic National Hotel…

…where Obama stayed while in Havana.

One morning, as we walked near the capitol, we saw a crowd spilling out of a little corner bar.

There was excitement in the air, as they listened to President Obama’s live speech on television.

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A man–his name was Ricardo–told us how much the president’s visit meant.

He began to cry, and told us that he finally dared hope for an end to the embargo, that it would bring more prosperity, a chance to see his family in the US and, because he had a heart condition, improved healthcare.

In the not-so-distant future there is much that I too hope will change for the Cubans.

But I’m guessing there are some things in Cuba that will never change…


 

 

…but then, we wouldn’t want them to.

All words and images ©2016 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Future.

Looking for Poland

This was our first trip to Poland, and Krackow, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our first stop. Krackow dates back to a little Stone Age settlement.

 It’s is remarkably well preserved for a city that has stood for over a thousand years, and survived the hell that was World War II.

 

Even the McDonalds there is deeply rooted in Poland’s ancient history.

Literally!  During its construction, medieval foundations were discovered and incorporated into the restaurant design. We bought a cup of coffee so we could go downstairs to check out the McVault in the basement, and it was like nothing you’ve ever seen in The House That Ronald Built.

Krackow suffered under the Nazis, but Warsaw got pounded.  At the Warsaw Uprising Museum we watched a movie that gave us an aerial view of post-war Warsaw. Of that bustling metropolis, only miles and miles of rubble and ruins remained.  The scale of destruction was unimaginable.

 

When the Poles defended themselves against the German invasion, the Nazis response was to destroy hospitals, schools, churches, universities, and commit mass murder upon both Jew and Gentile. When finally forced to retreat, out of spite the Nazis blew up anything still standing.

The Peugot Building was built where the old synagogue once stood. The Jewish Historical Institute is next door, in a reconstructed building that housed the Jewish Library.

Between the Nazis and the Soviets, over 400,000 Warsovians were murdered in the war. Those lives and all their promise can never be replaced. But the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city, brick by brick.  Canaletto’s 18th century paintings were used as visual references to recreate beloved heritage sites.  All along The Royal Way that artwork is displayed…

…in front of the structures that were rebuilt using them as guides.

You can’t say they don’t make ’em like they used to.

The Warsovians resurrected the Old Town Square too.

 Some say it’s like Disneyland, too perfect, but I thought it was beautiful, and I loved all the cool details.

 The royal palace in Warsaw…

…was also destroyed and reconstructed.

Some furniture and other treasures were spirited away before the Luftwaffe bombings, but the throne room and the banner with its royal eagles were destroyed.

  Only one of the original eagles survived, and somehow found its way to the United States.  It was used a model to replicate the original design.

 The clock in the Knight’s Hall, featuring the god of time, is forever stopped at 11:15, a moment never to be forgotten– the exact time the Nazis bombed the palace.

Poland’s history is harsh and fascinating, colorful and complicated.

Reminders of its painful past are everywhere–like the memorial to the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews killed in this bunker by the Nazis. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, which was called Hitler Platz when occupied by the Germans.

We saw statues honoring the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising…

…and one honoring the children who worked for the resistance, although their roles involved carrying messages more often than guns.

There was the memorial to the 15,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Soviet army at Katyn.

There were even teenage street musicians in uniform, singing war songs.

On a street corner we glanced down and realized we were standing on what used to be the Ghetto Wall.

So much suffering.  So many stories, most of which can never be told.

After living under the jackboot of the Nazis, like so many other countries of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured further decades of Soviet oppression.  But each new rebellion brought them closer to independence.

The success of the Solidarity movement was a long time coming, a difficult struggle that was as much for freedom as for bread.

It is all inextricably woven into the fabric of their nation’s past.

I wondered how it had affected the people…

…and how much of it was passed from one generation to the next.

After centuries of oppression and foreign rule…

…Poland is now a prosperous and independent Democracy.

I saw joy there, most often in stolen glimpses.

But wherever we went we felt safe.  People were always polite and helpful….

…although rarely quick to smile.

I’ve heard that Europeans believe Americans smile too much and too easily, and perhaps we do.

But in Gdansk…

…an old woman caught me watching her.  I could either avert my eyes and hurry on, or smile and give a little wave, which I did.  And when I did, she smiled back with such unexpected warmth that I couldn’t help myself–I blew her a kiss.

That was Poland in a nutshell.

All words and photos copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Texture.