Cuba, 2018. John Mark, Carol Reckamp, Brad and Tina Reckamp, Kathy Brown, David and Linda and Harrison Browne.
Our Story (Pictures and Videos Below!)
Carols Notes and Observations during February 17 – 24 while in Cuba
Preface – I usually try to keep a running journal of vacations, but this one was so packed with people and activity I did not want to engage in the solitary activity of writing in real time. I made some notes below on the second and fifth day that I will mostly leave in intact. For a day to day activity log I have copied the agenda and will fill in some other details. I am asking my travel companions to add or provide a different perspective if they see fit, and have the time. Every story is better with multiple points of view.
February 18, 2018. We are on our second full day in the suburbs of Havana and I have to say this vacation is already so incredibly awesome I can barely stand it.
The flight in was easy, mostly as planned. The visa ended up costing $75 instead of $25, but then we got duty free booze, buy one get one half off that served us well over the day.
On the flight in one could see the county is mostly jungle or forest. Two million live in La Habana region and 12 million on the island. I don’t know where they live – because I only see the green even when we are fairly close.
The airport was small and no hassles there either. We exchanged some money – and the currency exchange rate went over all our heads. Discovery Corps told us that we should bring Canadian dollars or Euro’s because they charge an extra 10% fee for American dollars. The Cubans also have two different currencies (Peso and CUC) – anyway, we got it and moved on. I learned in Africa that it is a waste of time to try and convert your present living conditions to the past – just make sure you can be happy in the moment.
We drove to our Cuban casa for the week. The city reminded me of Botswana with a little more artistic flair. Cinder blocks, and corner stands for basic food and supplies. It looked a little more segregated than I thought it would be – but still not much like America.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for living conditions. When we got there is it was a small house with small rooms, little storage and a shared bathroom, but as I got accustomed, we all got happier and happier as time went on. We had a nice outside patio with pool table, outdoor dining room, awesome hosts, and Cathy, from California, who joined our group as a great house mate, and definitely not a bathroom hog.
But the most awesome thing of all is our house hosts. Barbi and Oswaldo. They could speak very broken English and it was fun communicating with them. I knew at once that it would be a comfort to live here with them and share their home.
We met the rest of group at the community art center – which I figured out was nearly our entire program.
The Community Center is called Muraleando. It started off as an abandon water tank built in 1902. It had served as the community garbage dump for decades. The founder, Manuel had been working with other teachers and artist to improve the neighborhood and the people through art – and he had a vision. The tank was cleared out, mostly by hand, and rebuilt by all the people in the community.
It is a place where Special Needs children can wear a uniform and come to class (they are not mainstreamed in Cuba).
Artists can thrive with music, painting, sculpture, tiling, writing, and mentoring as ongoing everyday activities. They also have a market to sell their art at the Center with many visitors and tourists. The artists get half the money and the Center gets the other half (and the art is much more expensive – but one doesn’t mind when one knows where it is coming from). However, the art the Special Needs children make goes entirely to the child’s family.
There is a stage, open to all musicians and many groups come to practice and entertain visitors and the community. There is no part of the Center not covered in art. Everywhere inside, outside, down the streets, and into the community. We were told that the artists excel at recycle and reuse, mostly due to scarcity of resources. It was so fun to see how they used sinks, tubs, iron, old computers, tires, hub caps, wine bottles, scrap metal, sewing machines, and lots of concrete to make the most interesting objects.
The place was always filled with people who wanted to know us, learn English and teach Spanish and share their life, skills and their community with us. We ate nearly every lunch and every dinner there and we truly got an opportunity to know these people.
Our first community service project turns out to be construction work! I thought Brad and John were going to kill themselves. We moved heavy metals, boards, and rocks. We had to shovel and pick axe, and level the ground! Brad and John were dripping wet, beet red, and often grasping for breath. Tina and I tried to do more – but it was a small place, and we were the weakest ones next to 11 year old Harrison – who was even more desperate to help than Tina or I. I did get to wield the pick axe a few times, but it freighted others, how the pick seemed to be slightly out of control and I went back to mostly holding the rock bag open and collecting medium size rocks to move.
A good two hours and a few small injuries later, we had cleared and leveled what appeared to be a junk yard into a buildable area for some new art rooms. Very happy without selves and more proud of our husbands. As this place grows and expands we will know we were a tiny part of that!
Great lunch! All local food cooked by local cooks. We got to hear a local 10 piece band that played old American rock and roll with a Latin beat as well as many Latin/Cuban songs. We drank our “Tanks” (special drinks developed just for the old water tank) and learned the history of the art centers and their developments. We saw the art that was for sale and loved it all! Great art, which we will buy more of later. However, Tina immediately splurged and purchased the cutest little dog picture made by special needs children. She may or may not put it in her classroom.
We were to have dancing lessons but all felt a little too tired and went back to the home and talked of Cuban history and politics. We absolutely love our hosts!
Later we returned to the Community Center and got to meet some of the musicians, and the original community leaders. One of the first persons to contribute to the art community has a dedicated statue out front. He dances the flamenco at 80! He posed with me and Brad. (Notice the teeth in the statue? They are real dentures donated by a community member who’s parents had passed away 10 years ago. She had always wanted the teeth to have a meaningful memory so now they do! This is a good example of how far they reinforce the recycle concept.
We returned back home and engaged in more camaraderie, games and bonding for me and Brad as well as the entire group at large. Oswaldo opened his pool table and the men enjoyed the game while we watched and enjoyed the conversation and family pictures that women always do.
February 24, 2018. Of course I mean to write every day but when you vacation with friends, writing seems so anti-social. So I will fill in the rest when I am home with our cameras.
Overall the trip has been awe-inspiring and humbling. We were in a family home and our hosts were so delightful: Barbi and Oswaldo. They are a very happy older couple, who seem to be born to share their home and their lives and were meant to help spread the word of different ways to live long with the same way to love and share – they were truly the foundation of joy on this trip. Each night they stayed up with us for hours providing fun and depth to our trip. We started each day with many laughs and smiles. The men greatly enjoyed the pool table. Oswaldo was an excellent host always playing at his competitions’ level.
Barbi is a doctor, and that added even more value to our trip. She took care of John when he had a 48 hour illness, our little aches and pains and tested Tina’s blood sugar to try and figure out her momentary “smoke strokes”. She examined my arm skin for the cancer I feared, but told me it was fine. Oswaldo is a retired Army Officer who fought in Angola, had suffered (and is still suffering many injuries), and then came home to fill a job in an alcohol factory.
Our guide, called T or Tury, or Joannis, was also remarkable. While our hosts were our foundation, T was mentor – teaching us, informing us, and making sure we learned in a way that will influence the rest of our lives. Non-judgmental, so smart and informative as well as a great sense of humor. He and Brad got to the bottom, and I mean the literal bottom of grown man brotherhood with insults and talk of girl chasing/stealing from the beginning. We were a very diverse group of people from all parts of the county, from 11-55, with different ideas and values – and he made each and every one of us feel well liked and special. He made all our requests seem effortless. Every person in the group believes the goddess of good vacations was smiling on us as we were assigned to him (and Jordan, his trusty driver and side-kick).
We were so lucky to have 3 great Spanish speakers on our tour (John, Kathy, and David) – and Brad was improving his language skills daily! They all provided all of us for a lot more opportunity for meaningful exchanges. The whole language experience encouraged all of to better learn a second language in our immediate futures.
The county of Cuba lived up to my expectations of the socialism Fidel Castro brought to his people. The Cubans did appear to be rather equal and lacking in class and race distinction at least compared to American standards. They were living a rather lower economic life and conversations with skilled people showed they often felt the sting of injustice when their skills could not allow them to rise to the level of life their education and skills would provide under a different government. It was odd, that lower skill jobs, that could be worked privately (not illegally) such as driver, barber, or tour guide would pay more than the doctors, engineers and computer information development staff (these jobs being controlled by the government).
Despite this injustice, it was still obvious, that everyone we met loved their county. Everyone had respect for what Fidel Castro had done to provide free health care, education, and housing and eradicate starvation. Many would say he may have misjudged a few things – and they were looking forward to new leadership – but we did not meet anyone who did not agree that the raising of most citizens was worth the tradeoff that the rich had endured.
Our driver, Jordan, could not speak English very well at all, however he has a great sense of humor and what little we could share together seemed quite funny. He did make a lot of jokes with the Spanish speaking crowd on our trip.
Kathy was a great traveling companion. The perfect mix of fun and kindness. Quiet but not shy and full of fun facts and general wisdom. She spoke Spanish quite well and did endless interpreting for us. She never minded our drinking and over familiarity, and seemed to easily fit in to our group like an old friend.
Linda, David and their son, Harrison came as a family on the tour. David spoke quite good Spanish as well. Linda was a world traveler and often added new ways to look at things. Harrison was filled with jokes and thought of new ways to turn everything into a pun! They had a few objectives that were not on our agenda to complete on their travels and peeled off a few times on their own. That allowed the group to share a few other experiences that we would not have otherwise had.
The Political Situation: I never felt like we were being watched or stifled, nor did I feel like the Cuban people felt that. People talked pretty openly about the good, bad, and indifferent.
However, I will say that I deeply enjoyed their overall contempt for Trump. A few times, the minute people learned we were Americans the first thing out of their mouth was contempt for our President. Of course several of us in our travel group were receptive to this and it was easy to enjoy their company the rest of the night. Interestingly, not one single person said one thing positive about him.
I had brought my newly acquired book “Fire and Fury” to read, and several asked about the book, and looked longlining at it wanting to know the details for themselves.
Itinerary Cuba – From Discovery Corps
Day 1: You will arrive to Havana throughout the day. We’ll head over to the nearby neighborhood of Lawton, our home for the next week, to settle into our casas particulares, or local bed and breakfasts, and meet with the folks at Muraleando, the community arts program. Enjoy an orientation to the community art center as well as meet some of the children, community members and artists involved with the project. Tonight, dinner will be alongside members of the community.
Actual Events: John and I did not arrive in Cuba until 5:00 PM and we did all the things on our Itinerary. We met Kathy and Linda/David/Harrison shortly after arrival. We had a lovely dinner and met the people at the Community Center we would spend the next week with.
Brad and Tina were scheduled to land around 8, but did not get to our home until about 10:30. Their driver could not find our home (although there was no reason for this, as the community is small, all locals he asked told him how to get there and our tour company also provided assistance). Brad was deeply concerned that he was going to lose the perfect buzz he had going, but they arrived in the nick of time!
Day 2: After breakfast, we’ll jump right into our project with the people from the community of Lawton and artists of Muraleando. The goal of the project is to not only improve the aesthetics of Lawton through inspiring artwork and murals, but improve community cohesion and provide a creative outlet for the youth. Our activities will include creating colorful ceramic tiles with that will be placed around the community, participating in arts & music workshops, teaching basic English and helping to clean parts of the surrounding community. At the end of the day, this will culminate in a meaningful contribution to the community as well as a sense of shared purpose as ties continue to grow between the U.S. and Cuba. In the afternoon, enjoy a lesson in Cuban dance as well as a ceramics making class. We’ll have dinner together in the evening with the staff at Muraleando.
Actual Events: We absolutely improved the aesthetics of Lawton and the art center – although it may have been more by organizing construction materials and leveling the ground than doing artwork and murals. However, I am confident that our work will allow that inspiration down the road.
Also – we nearly broke into tears when we were told we would have dancing lessons in the afternoon. We reminded them of our age, and asked why would they schedule pick axing, rock moving and ground leveling on the same day as dancing lessons? They postponed the dancing for later, which provided more time to converse with the people and get to know the way they live a little better.
John and I also brought spices (on the wish list for donations) which we gave to the cooks. They asked a few questions and seemed to like the gifts.
Day 3: Uncover the cultural backbone of Cuba in the towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos over the next two days. Hit the road to Cienfuegos visiting the historic site of the Bay of Pigs invasion along the way. We’ll spend the first night in the French-inspired colonial town of Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enjoy lunch in the city followed by a guided tour along the wide boulevards and seafront malecon of Cienfuegos. Enjoy an inspirational encounter with a guitar ensemble. This group, dedicated to preserving the heritage of string music in Cuba, will treat us to a private singing performance. Afterwards, enjoy free time in Cienfuegos followed by dinner together at a restaurant in town.
Actual Events: It was a long drive to Cienfuegos, we stopped a few times along the way and got some pretty shots of lakes and mountains. The government sponsors tourist souvenirs – so there was no real gouging and it made shopping a lot more fun. The Cuban people did not pester or beg, they were proud of their work, asked pretty fair prices and would only come down a little. If you offered them too little, they would act insulted, as would I. Anyway – nothing was all that expensive, and we shopped and bought in leisure.
We stopped at a very nice animal reserve. Lots and lots and lots of crocodiles! A few other fun animals including chickens, fish, huge lizards, and tree rats. We were also shown how the poorest of the poor lived before the Revolution. They would do soooo much work to make pennies selling natural charcoal. Their houses were below real livable levels and the children did not have clothes, shoes nor enough food.
We stopped at the Bay of Pigs museum and once again saw how and why so many people wanted to support the new way of life under the Revolution. It seemed to me they never hated Americans, but they did want to live life as they chose with food, housing and basic decency.
We checked into a hostel fairly late. After dinner John and I walked the Palisade. Since it was Monday, there were not many people out, and we got primo seats on the top of building looking down. It was a beautiful night, and the sights were worth the 100 stairs. We got a little lost on the way home, but Johns Spanish saved us as we could talk our way thought town until we found our hostel.
Day 4: After breakfast, we’ll take a short drive over to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its cobblestone streets and Spanish-style cathedrals. We’ll join a guide from the office of the town historian for a tour of this charming colonial city. Explore the colorful alleyways where the clip clop of horses’ hooves can still be heard and Spanish style architecture dominates the tropical plazas of the city. After lunch on the leafy outdoor patio of a local paladar, return to Cienfuegos for a relaxing evening in town.
Actual Events: Trinidad was very interesting as it was mostly old plantations and we could see a colonial way of life. The rich were rich, and there were stories of so many slaves, we wondered how that inequity could last as long as it did. However, we did get to see special fabrics, local art, and cigar making here. We also climbed the towner (294 stairs) and got a great view of the whole pueblo. We only spent a half day there and we told ourselves we would come back to this site sometime in the future.
That night our guide took us out to a few taverns and we had some great conversations about life in American and in Cuba. We all may have stayed out a little too late.
Day 5: We’ll make the return drive back to Havana in the morning. Upon arrival to Havana we will have lunch followed by some free time to explore the markets of Havana. We’ll return to the Lawton later in the afternoon for dinner back at Muraleando and to enjoy a special musical performance from a local band.
Actual Events: When John got up late and did a slow grumpy walk to breakfast we assumed it was due to late night libations the night before. However, we learned within a few hours, John had eaten something bad, and needed to be by a toilet every five minutes. He asked to go home, and T had to find a cab, which was not as easy as one would think it should be. Uber does not exist there because they do not have appropriate internet. (Great business opportunity if we ever begin working together).
We got to see Ernest Hemmings dilapidated boat dock and a few dedicated statues. (Hemmingway was on the side of the revolutionaries and he is still respected here). John got a cab home. Barbi doctored him but it was a bad 24 hour bug for him.
Sadly – John missed the dancing lessons. We may have been the worse group ever. Brad and I can’t dance to save our lives – and David seemed to do just as bad. Poor Harrison, could not understand why his feet were defying his mind and became extremely frustrated that he could not “will” the music to come out of his feet and hips. (Something I came to terms with years ago). The class was supposed to be an hour – but they ended it in 30 minutes. We made the best of our remaining free time – socializing and buying nick knacks at the community center art.
Day 6: Enjoy breakfast at your casa particulares before spending the morning continuing our project with the community. The goal of these projects is to not only lend a hand in the community, but to also better understand Cuban society and culture. In the afternoon, we’ll head into Old Havana and take a tour of the cobblestone streets and plazas of the city. You’ll also have some free time to explore the cafes and shops in the area. In the evening, relax at one of Old Havana’s classic paladars, or local restaurants.
Actual Events: Tina and I had been telling our awesome (and also pretty darn cute) guide that we loved his rather Viking like haircut, and he said he would take the men to his local barber. John had decided to stick close to the toilet in the morning and was considering continued rest. T said he would get John and take him to the barber – because it took no effort to get a cut and a shave, and there were bathrooms there. If John didn’t feel well after the cut T would take him home. So John and David got some very hip haircuts (see pics). John did return to the group – but he looked so tired. However, the group had a good energy and John thrived after that.
We saw the ancient churches and plazas in old Havana. Finally, for the first time, we saw some new construction. Cuba is still mostly living in the building from the 50’s – but here in Havana, they were modernizing.
We went to the old National Hotel History Hall and it was fun to see pre and post revolution. It looks like the revolution did nothing to inhibit the Cuban peoples’ ability to enjoy the good things in life.
Day 7: Today, we’ll continue our projects alongside the children of this small Havana neighborhood. Oftentimes, we’ll get creative and use everything at our disposal to create art, including old tires and recycled materials. Later in the afternoon, head over to the home of one of Cuba’s most famous residents – Ernest Hemingway. Enjoy a tour of Hemingway’s expansive property and see firsthand the area that provided inspiration to some of his most famous novels. We’ll savor a farewell dinner together, recalling the week’s highlights and sharing what impacted each of us the most. Walk the streets of Old Havana for desert and enjoy your last night in Havana.
Actual Events: Art projects with the special needs students! They introduced themselves to us. We asked if they could dance and a few boys got up and rocked it!!!! The girls were all shy. We then drew pictures, and looked at pictures on phones, and tried to talk the best we could. I cleaned up! I mean that several of those little sweet hearts gave me their pictures to take home!
Ernest Hemmingway’s home was exactly how one would imagine. Very nice, but somewhat humble for a rich man. Lots of his hunted animals, his pool, typewriter, and art. He also had a boat, a baseball field, a cockfighting ring, a dog cemetery, and a guest house. We visited some of his watering holes and imagined how interesting it would have been to be one of his friends in the days he lived here.
We walked through the street with all the 1940s and 50s cars that rent out as taxis. I can’t believe how well these old cars are maintained. Why did we ever stop making these beautiful machines?
Finally, our good bye dinner at a very nice restaurant. We got to see the nightly, 9:00 pm cannon fire that protected Havana from the beginning of its existence and is now how the Cubans set their watches!
We all went home to tell our beloved guide good bye. We gave him his tips in American one dollar bills, so it looked like we were rich Americans with huge stacks of money. Ha Ha. I gave him my Fire and Fury book that he had been eyeing the whole trip, and was so happy to receive. Bittersweet farewells to new friends – and he was gone.
Barbi stayed up with us making us nice little friendship bracelets. Oswaldo played his last few games of pool and then we all did the standard “I love you man” last night together blues.
Day 8: Throughout the day, travelers will be taken to the airport for their flights home.
Actual Events: Quite sad as we went home and there much good to say about that.
Overall, we loved Cuba and cannot wait to return. Hopefully under better national relations that can provide a truly enduring and growing world community.
Some Cuban Art
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Some Cuban Cars
Our Visit to Hemmingway
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Our Home Stay
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Us and our new friends
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The Muraleando Project
Some General Tourist Stuff
Us working at the Muraleando Project
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Our visit to see some animals and other fun stuff
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Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Brad Good Bye
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Dancing and JM breaks the glass
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Dancing at the Muraleando
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Fun Band at Muraleando 2
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Fun Band at Muraleando
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – JM and Hamilton on the Bongos
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – JM on the drums
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Kids Dancing 2
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Kids Dancing
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Pottery Demo
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Singers in the Bar
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – The Little Crocodile That Could
Cuba 2018 DiscoverCorps – Us Working