SANTIAGO DE CUBA: OUR REUNION WITH BENI, EDUARDO, AND GRISEL

Leading up to our April 9th departure from Miami aboard Fathom’s Adonia, the e-mails between me and Beni were flying across the internet at a rapid pace.  Beni was so excited we were returning to Cuba and would see him on his birthday, April 11.  We planned everything out to make sure we were all prepared to take full advantage of our day together, including taking him out to lunch along with Eduardo and his assistant, Grisel.

In one of Beni’s messages, he told me he went to meet Eduardo and Grisel, so he would be familiar with them before our reunion.  As it turned out, they had known each other years before in the military!

Eduardo, a glass blower for the past thirty years, is the only glass artist in the country producing and selling his glass pieces.  Procuring supplies is extremely difficult—and expensive—so it has held him back from being able to create art without limitations.  He asked Beni to pass along the message to Bruce that if there was any glass we could bring with us to Cuba, Eduardo would buy it.  Bruce immediately scoured his studio to compile a care package of glass rods and small pieces of glass we could carry.

Meanwhile, I asked Beni what items I could bring for him and his family that are difficult for them to buy, but easy enough for us to pack.

Fathom frowns on passengers bringing items to donate arbitrarily to people on the streets, and I agree with their “give them a hand up, not a hand-out” philosophy.  Creating a begging culture among the locals and expectations of getting free hand-outs from tourists has negative long-term ramifications.

Specific gifts, on the other hand, met with the Fathom Impact Travel Staff’s approval, since the items would be distributed privately to our friends.  The glass in particular was viewed as a great way to give Eduardo a hand up.  He had planned on making a glass piece to enter into an art competition, and the glass Bruce was bringing could be used for that purpose.

For Beni, I had promised him I would make a flash drive of our favorite music; but, I also added pictures of our community and home, favorite photos I used in my photo notecard line ( www.ExquisiteCards.Fototime.com ), photos I took of Santiago de Cuba during our previous visit, the video of Beni and Bruce singing “Dock of the Bay”, and anything else I thought he would like.  Since he was in need of data storage, I loaded it all up on a 64 gb flash drive I purchased on Amazon for only $15.  (I don’t even want to THINK about what I spent on the 1 gb external hard drive when I started my document scanning business, Doc – to – Disc, back in 1993.  It was a four-figure expense!  Writeable TDK gold cd’s cost me $26 EACH!!)

I also asked Beni what I could bring his family.  His first response?  Glow-in-the-dark stars he could put up on the ceiling of his granddaughter’s bedroom.  That warmed my heart!

What else?  Beni gave me a list of ideas, but he insisted I shouldn’t buy all of the items.  They were just options:  Toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant, and some other personal care items I was unable to decipher from his English usage in the e-mails.

We decided to bring him everything we could figure out from the list, most importantly, the stars (and planets, too!).

Fortunately, our community had a vendor fair just days before our departure, so we gladly accepted the handouts representatives insisted in throwing into our goodie bags as we roamed from table to table to learn about their businesses.  The dental care kits were especially appreciated, as were the pens, notepads, and tote bags.  All of it went to Cuba with us for Beni and his family, where we knew it would be much appreciated.

Putting it into perspective as to why we took it with us instead of donating it to our local food bank as usual, the average salary in Cuba is about $20 a month.  When Beni completes his exams and becomes a pastor at his church, he will earn only $12 a month.  Sure, the government pays for their education, healthcare, telephone, and some food (additionally, utilities and housing are low in cost through subsidies); however, Cubans must pay for everything else on an average income of $20 per month!  The cost of a bottle of shampoo in Cuba?  $5.  A toothbrush?  About $1.  That’s more than a typical Cuban earns in a day!

Our plan was to meet up across the street from the port, once we arrived in Santiago, cleared customs, and exchanged our dollars into CUC’s (roughly an even exchange not counting fees).

We didn’t know what to expect when we put our bags through the x-ray machine after having our passports stamped.  Would we be questioned?  Would they forbid us to bring these items into the country?  Surprisingly, my bag of goodies for Beni wasn’t questioned at all.  Instead, it was the box of glass Bruce attempted to carry through in my Speedo backpack.  (Fortunately, the bracelet Bruce made for Grisel went unnoticed.)  The agent pulled us aside, opened the box, and gave Bruce a confused look.  Whether he understood our explanation (or even understood English), we’ll never know; but, I think it helped to point to my earrings, and then point to Bruce and say “artist”.  We told him the glass was for Eduardo, a glass artist at Artesanias Art Deco.  Either the customs agent understood and accepted our explanation, or he just wanted to get rid of us, once he saw we didn’t have anything illegal in the box.  Needless to say, we hustled ourselves out of there before they could change their minds!

Beni spotted us immediately and came running across the street to greet us with a big smile and bear hug.  As we discussed our plan for the day, we were disappointed to hear we wouldn’t be able to meet the rest of his family.  There was an unexpected death of someone they knew, and they had to go to the funeral.

Before walking up to Eduardo’s glass studio, I told Beni we would give him his goodie bag at the end of the day, so he wouldn’t have to carry it around; however, I wanted to give him his flash drive right away, so I wouldn’t forget about it.  You should have seen the surprised look on his face when he opened it up and saw “64 gb” printed on the plastic!  The largest size flash drive available in Cuba is about 8 gb, and it’s very expensive for them to buy.

Eduardo’s facial expression was even funnier when he opened the box of glass.  Another photo that got away; I should have been prepared…  It was priceless!  It reminded me of the look a kid gets when he walks into a candy store—pure delight!  Seeing colors of glass he otherwise has no way of obtaining was so amazing to him, we could practically see his mind wheels turning with ideas of creations he would make with his new-found glass.

Then, a serious look appeared on his face.  Through Beni’s translation, Eduardo wanted to know, “How much do I owe you for this glass?”  Bruce quickly replied, “Oh no, no, no; this is a gift!”  The look of gratitude and his sincere, “Muchas gracias!” needed no translation.

Meanwhile, Grisel smiled broadly as I put the bracelet on her wrist.  She loved it!

Bruce and I looked at each other and smiled.  This was going to be a very memorable day!

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Beni, Grisel (wearing Bruce’s bracelet), Bruce (holding Eduardo’s gift), Eduardo

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Me with my friend, Beni

 

Next up:  OUR DAY WITH BENI, EDUARDO, AND GRISEL

“WHEREVER YOU GO BECOMES A PART OF YOU SOMEHOW” – Anita Desai

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It wasn’t until our third cruise aboard Fathom’s Adonia (and multiple visits to the dining room to enjoy their superb cuisine) that I really noticed this quote on the mural located in the dining room lobby.  On every previous dinner visit, we had made a beeline right past it in excited anticipation of the meal we were about to enjoy with our fellow travelers.  During our third night aboard ship, though, we were meeting Fathom Impact Staff Member, Francisco, for dinner.  He was our cohort leader on the previous cruise, and he wanted to hear about the adventures we had experienced at Chocal and Santiago de Cuba during the last cruise, and our return to Santiago that day.

We arrived just minutes ahead of Francisco, and this time, I did a double-take when I walked past the mural.  Indian novelist, Anita Desai struck a chord in my heart with her words…

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Francisco and Bruce

I have traveled in 65 countries and 36 states, and all of those experiences have become a part of who I am.  Nothing else has had more influence on me socially, emotionally, intellectually, or politically as my travel experiences.

Feeling and expressing gratitude is one of my keys to happiness in life, and I owe my ability to appreciate to all those times I left the safety and comfort of my home, and familiar surroundings.

Although my husband, Bruce hasn’t had the extent of travel experiences I have, those we have shared have had the same positive effect on his life.  We are in sync, and we both craved to return for one last time for an Impact Travel experience in the Dominican Republic and Cuba with Fathom, aboard the beautiful Adonia.

My last blog post of our second Fathom cruise hadn’t even been written when we both agreed we had to return one last time.

We couldn’t wait to go back to see our new Cuban friends that had become a part of us.

Coming up next: SANTIAGO DE CUBA:  OUR REUNION WITH BENI, EDUARDO, AND GRISEL

LIFE ABOARD FATHOM ADONIA

The second time around, we thoroughly enjoyed our free balcony upgrade aboard Fathom’s Adonia.  Being upgraded to a room with a large window for our first cruise was wonderful, but being able to enjoy this calm, serene view was pure bliss on our first full day at sea:

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This time, there was also a Cuban band  on board to entertain us.  They were actually based out of Miami, but they were indeed Cuban, and the music they played was fun to listen to while relaxing at the pool or in the lounge.

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We even had a lot to watch during their performances.  This little gal brought her hula hoops aboard with her, and she had us all entertained!  Check this out: https://youtu.be/XGkpk8CP740

Even with several college students aboard ship during spring break, the vibe was very low key and relaxed among the passengers.  Nobody was visibly drunk or wild, and everybody coexisted comfortably for the most part (well, except for our man overboard incident).

What a great cruise it was!  After returning home, we heard from the father/daughter duo we met back in January that Vacations to Go dropped the price to $299 for some of the upcoming Cuba/ Dominican Republic cruises; so, Bruce twisted my arm (ha!) to book once again for the one available week we have before the ship returns post-lease to Europe.  It’s the same cruise our father/daughter friends will be on with big brother and Mom, so we are excited to have an onboard reunion with them!

Our new friends at Chocal are in for (another!) big surprise when we show up again, especially when we give them another box of ear plugs, along with a stack of photo note cards I made from the photos you saw in my last post.

Meanwhile, our Cuban friend, Beni, and I have had e-mails flying back and forth almost daily; so, he’s excited for our return.  We will see him on his birthday; and, we plan to take Beni out to lunch along with Eduardo (the glass artist) and his wife.  Beni is also going to take us to meet his daughters, son, and grandkids.  We have compiled a care package for all of them, and I loaded up a flash drive with music, the video of him singing “Dock of the Bay” with Bruce, as well as pictures I shot of Cuba, my community in Georgia, and Bruce’s glass work.  We are thrilled and grateful to be able to return aboard Fathom’s Adonia once again!

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Our first aboard Fathom Adonia on this cruise:  Man overboard, a female captain (and rescue boat pilot), going to cuba, and having a balcony.

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Interesting art work drawn on the walls of the top deck aboard FAthom

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Fathom Adonia returns to Miami

OUR RETURN TO CHOCAL

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The early evening light cast a beautiful golden glow on the shores of Puerto Plata, and our arrival to Amber Cove was magical.  After enjoying the sail into port from the aft deck, we took in the views of the cove from our balcony, as we got ready to head to the dining room for another delicious dinner.  That night, I was getting so excited to see our amigos and amigas at Chocal the following morning that it was difficult to get good sleep.

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Sunrise behind Amber Cove

After breakfast, we grabbed the box of ear plugs and stack of photo notecards I made for everybody and eagerly hiked out to the buses.  Leurys from IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development) spotted us immediately and greeted both of us with a big hug and “thank you”.  Back in January, she had admired the fused glass earrings I had been wearing, and since Bruce had made them, it was easy enough to give her an identical pair.  Bruce offered to send her some as a gift; however, we were unsure of the mail service; so, I sent them along with a friend of mine who sailed on Fathom’s Adonia, in February.

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When we arrived to Altamira (“high view”), our bus load of volunteers started out working at the cacao plantation.  “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?!  (What’s up?)”  As soon as he heard my voice, Gumarcindo turned around and greeted me and Bruce with a huge smile, hug, and a fist bump for Bruce.  (It’s a guy thing, I guess…)  The surprised look on his face was priceless when we gave him the photo card I had made from the picture I had shot last January.  He was so appreciative!

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It was time to get to work, though, and our group hustled filling 266 bags of dirt, and then passed them down the assembly line to receive cacao seeds.  In two months, they will look like the ones we planted in January.  It was great to see how our “babies” were doing!

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Bruce leads off the “bucket brigade”

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Our “babies” from january!

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Cacao pod and seeds.  The membrane surrounding the seeds is delicious!  Suck the membrane off the seed, but don’t bite, because the seed itself is very bitter!

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Cacao seeds drying in the sun

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Not only did Gumarcindo remember us, but Wilmers, Steven, and the bus driver, Milagras did, too.  Instead of going off with the group to tour the fermenting area (which we had seen during our last visit), I stayed back to talk with the guys.

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Diosiris, Wilmers, Steven, and Gumarcindo

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Gumarcindo and Raymond

When our time was up at the nursery, we headed over to the factory to sort beans and nibs, mold chocolate, and wrap chocolate bars.  Again, our enthusiastic greetings of “Hola!  Que lo que?” were met with big, wide-eyed smiles, and hugs.  It was nice to be remembered!  We also were so happy to see how much everybody appreciated the photo cards.  One of the ladies even went to get paper towels and carefully wrapped hers up, and then held onto it tight.  (She at least let us get another photo with her and the card first!)

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They had so much fun looking at each other’s cards and laughing at the pictures!  We may not have been able to communicate too much using words with each other; but, a smile is a smile in any language, and those ladies were all smiles!

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After passing out the cards, my next order of business before getting down to work was to give the co-op’s president, Susan, the yellow 3M ear plugs.  As one of the other IDDI facilitators translated, I explained the importance of using ear plugs to save their hearing. I then demonstrated how to properly insert them and use the “pillow pouch” for storage afterward.  By keeping the ear plugs clean and storing them in the pouch, they would last a lot longer.

I promised Susan and Naomi (the V.P.), that if the factory workers used the ear plugs regularly, I would send more.  There is no mail service to Altamira, so I would send them to the IDDI office, and the facilitators would deliver them to Chocal.

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Bruce, Christopher, Naomi (VP), Susan (President), and Rafael

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After distributing the cards and ear plugs, Bruce and I finally did manage to get some work done.  The best part, though, was getting to taste the spicy hot chocolate and warm molding chocolate again.  Ahhh, it was so good to be back!

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This time, when we said, “Adios!” to everybody at the end of our last day, we wondered if it would be forever.  Would we ever be back?  Never say never…

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My amigo, Steven

Next up:  HABLA INGLES?  TEACHING ENGLISH IN THE DR

OUR NEW CUBAN FRIEND “BENI”

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We quickly learned that our new friend Dilvenis (he preferred to be called “Beni”) loved American music (especially Blues), so we clicked with each other immediately!  Beni excitedly said, “You know who my favorite is, it’s Otis Redding!  Look!  It gives me goose bumps just thinking about him!”  Sure enough, he showed us his arm, and it was covered in goose bumps!  I replied, “You know all the words to ‘Dock of the Bay’ Bruce; so, how about you, Beni?  Do you know the words?”  Beni replied yes, so I said, “Hit it!  Sing it, boys!!”  And, here it goes, such as it is:  https://youtu.be/gXNdiCOk9vU .

Beni told us about all the concerts he had seen when he was in New Zealand:  Bruce Springsteen, Little River Band, James Brown, and more.  “You were in New Zealand?”  I wanted to know more.

While working as a bartender in a local restaurant, Beni met a woman from New Zealand and was able to get a visa to go visit her in 2004.  He stayed for nine months, and then returned again on another visit for six months.  While there, he got a New Zealand driver’s license and still carries it in his wallet.  He was proud to show me his license from my favorite country.

We chatted about all of the gorgeous places we had each seen in New Zealand, and some of the work he did there.  He was an extra in the movie, “King Kong” and worked at Miramar Studios.  (I was sure there were plenty more stories to hear about that!)

Unfortunately, the romance with his Kiwi girlfriend didn’t last, nor did his days as a movie star (well, make that an “extra”).

After hearing about his experiences in New Zealand, the conversation returned to music.  I told Beni I would send him music from some of his favorites if he gave me his address, so we exchanged contact info. and agreed to keep in touch.

Since returning home more than a week ago, Beni and I have sent e-mails back and forth almost every day.  We have learned more about his musical tastes, and his life in Cuba as a bartender, cook, and soon-to-be pastor.  (He just took the exam and will receive the results soon.)

Although Beni has written some of his messages in English, he finds it easier to write his more involved e-mails in Spanish.  Thank goodness for Google Translate!  I copy and paste into Google’s free online tool, and it immediately translates the message into English.  It doesn’t always make perfect sense, but I am able to understand it for the most part.

In turn, I write in English, and then I copy my message into Google Translate to convert it into Spanish.  I include both the English and Spanish in each of my messages back to Beni.  So far so good!

In one of his messages, Beni signed off with, “Big bear hugs to you and Bruce!”  That made my day…

This is what I have learned about Beni’s life:

He was born in the Sierra Maestra Mountain chain in Granma Province and is the youngest of seven brothers and sisters.  His family fought against Batista’s corrupt and repressive dictatorship during the 1950’s.

Growing up, he listened to English and American music by Paul Anka, The Beatles, James Brown, Elvis, and others.

Beni has two daughters (30 and 31 years old), and a twenty-year-old son, but he described himself in one e-mail as a “lonely man”.

One thing that struck me warmly in one of his e-mails was this: “If some friend wants to write me I am open to meet and make friends.  It’s time to tear down the walls and build bridges.  Do not be afraid to introduce me to more people.”

It’s time to tear down the walls and build bridges.”  There is so much I can say about that, given our current state of governmental affairs here in the U.S.A.!  He is absolutely right, and that is why the former administration loosened restrictions for Americans to travel to Cuba.  How sad we now have a president who wants to build walls and tear down bridges…

Overwhelmingly, the feeling we got speaking with Cubans was they were eager to make friends with Americans and felt warmly about us as people, regardless of how our governments feel about each other.  We (and everybody we talked with aboard Fathom Adonia) agreed that we feel the same way about the Cubans.  They are such warm and friendly people!  It is not them we despise; it is their repressive government.  Will Raul Castro be better for the Cuban people than Fidel was?  He is Fidel’s brother; however, I am at least optimistic that he and President Obama were able to come to some promising agreements.  We’ll see what the future holds between Castro and Trump.

What I do know is that Bruce and I plan on taking a land tour of Cuba in the future to see more of the country and meet more of its people.  Until then, Beni and Bruce will be groovin’ through the years at the “Dock of the Bay”.

Scenes from Santiago de Cuba:

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This is Hector, a wood carver and painter.  We bought this sculpture as well as one of a couple dancing.

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Two American 1950’s era cars were parked near our ship.

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Looking back at Santiago de Cuba as we sailed away.

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I spotted this man from the 9th deck of the ship and was able to capture him with a fully zoomed-in lens while we were cruising by.

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This family came to watch us sail away.  They were sure having a good time!

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San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (Castle)

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Coming up next:  OUR HAPPY RETURN TO CHOCAL

 

MAKING FRIENDS IN CUBA

When we left the port for a walk through the streets of Santiago de Cuba, we hoped we would meet some locals we could converse with in English, since our Spanish is extremely limited.

A large center for artisans caught our eye as a first stop, because I had also hoped to bring back a small wood handicraft to add to my international collection from my travels.  Surprisingly, in addition to woodcraft, we also spotted a glass artist who did torch work to create glass figurines.

Although Eduardo didn’t speak English, his assistant, Grisel, spoke enough to communicate with us and translate to Eduardo.  We conveyed that Bruce was also a glass artist, and I showed them my earrings that Bruce had made for me.  The two men talked “shop”, and a bond was formed.

After a long conversation, we wished them our best and thought we would continue on our way to Cespedes Park where the cathedral was located.  Eduardo turned and grabbed a glass globe containing a purple flower from his display shelf and insisted on having Grisel wrap it up as a gift for us.  We insisted on paying, but they wouldn’t allow it.  Instead, we asked Grisel what her favorite color was, so we could send her one of Bruce’s fused glass bracelets.  Business card in hand, we were on our way, amazed at what had just transpired.

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On average, Cubans earn the equivalent of a mere $20-$40 per month.  (Actually, their new currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC, is worth about $1.)  The fact they wanted to give us a “present” (as she insisted) spoke to what our interaction with them meant.  They were so pleased to learn we were Americans, too; and, it warmed my heart there was still somebody in the world who liked Americans.  I truly believe that won’t be the case in the coming years…

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During other interactions with the locals who spoke English, we were pleased at the overwhelmingly pro-American sentiments expressed to us.  I was thankful we visited Cuba so early in Trump’s presidency.

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After listening to a violinist in Cespedes Park (the town square), we climbed the stairs and peeked into the cathedral.  More enjoyable, though, was watching the bustling streets below us.   A few 1950’s-era American cars drove past, and well-dressed students in their crisp blue uniforms walked by with their backpacks.  (Later in the week, in the Dominican Republic, I would learn just how hard the word “backpack” would be for a Spanish-speaking woman to pronounce in English!)

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Along our stroll through the streets of the city center, we came across a small town square where an unusual band was performing for tips.  The featured instrument was a 1950’s hand-cranked organ, unlike anything we had ever seen before.  When I gave the musician a big smile and a curious look, he responded in kind and was pleased I wanted to photograph his band.  The music they played was fabulous, so I shot this clip:  https://youtu.be/rvc7L25oIgg .

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We enjoyed strolling along the pedestrian street and watching the people go about their day.  Although I am not much of a shopper back at home, I am always curious to poke into local shops when I am traveling, just to see what the locals buy and sell; and, at what price.

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Playing dominoes is a favorite pastime in Cuba, so we paused to watch a couple of games being played in the small city parks.

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Before making our way back towards the ship, we allowed plenty of time to return to Eduardo’s shop to buy them a cold drink and say a final goodbye.  Eduardo had left for a meeting, but we treated his wife to a cola and promised to send one of Bruce’s glass bracelets when we returned home.

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In the same artisan’s complex, we stopped to look at some other shops and came across a friendly man who spoke English.  He asked, “Where are you from?”  When we replied that we were from the United States, he grinned and asked if he could practice his English with us.  The extroverted man said he didn’t want anything from us, but did we have time to just have a conversation?

Well, that is exactly what we had hoped for when we stepped foot on Cuban soil…

Next up:  OUR NEW CUBAN FRIEND “BENI”

 

 

 

SANTIAGO DE CUBA: CUBA’S SECOND LARGEST CITY

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Knowing we would be in Cuba for only one day on this cruise, Bruce and I weighed the advantages and disadvantages of taking a ship-sponsored excursion versus going it alone as a self-guided people-to-people experience.

Fathom’s website states:  “Self-Directed People-to-People activities include educational activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba and/or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. Travelers who elect to forego the Fathom sponsored Immersion Activities will be responsible for adhering to a full-time schedule of activities from an authorized category (e.g. educational, religious activities, humanitarian projects, family visits) and maintaining their own records demonstrating compliance with OFAC requirements.

Travelers opting to engage in a self-directed P2P program or relying on one of the other travel authorizations will not be monitored by Fathom and are required to maintain records related to the authorized travel activities for a period of five years (a copy of your travel affidavit and documentation evidencing the activities that you participated in while in Cuba).”

Really?  We must keep these records for five years?  Is a U.S. government official going to come pounding on my front door in a few years demanding to see these documents?  If I don’t produce them, will I get thrown in jail?

Of course, I wouldn’t trust anything our current president and administration does over the next four years, but I think this and the following blog post and my photos will suffice as evidence of my activities.  I even have a “people-to-people” video as proof!  More on that in my next post…

In the end, neither of us could fathom (no pun intended) the idea of being herded onto a bus with 40 other passengers and spending half the time just trying to get on and off the darn thing.  Besides, how much contact would we really have with the locals if we are being shepherded from place to place?  Sure, we would see more, but what Bruce and I really wanted to do was just meet and converse with Cubans.  The seeing would have to wait until a return trip to Cuba—that is, if our current regime will permit it in the future…

Before the cruise, I had done research on all the places to visit in Santiago de Cuba.  I even printed off a map and highlighted San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (castle), Cepspedes Park, and Santa Ifigenia Cemetary where Fidel Castro was laid to rest.  We were going to hire a taxi and see them all!  Not.

Instead, I showed the map to one of the Impact Travel staff aboard ship and asked her to highlight where we should head out on foot.  Both streets she recommended were located directly across from the port, and one of them was strictly for pedestrians.  Perfect!

After passing four armed guards stationed throughout the customs terminal with Springer Spaniel sniffing dogs in tow, we insisted on having our passports stamped (The dedicated passport stamper was lazy and would only stamp it if you asked), and cleared the gauntlet.

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As poor as Cuba is, and as poor of a city Santiago de Cuba appeared to be, we did not see any poverty in the streets.  The poverty rate in Cuba is only 5% (compared to about 14.5% in the U.S.A.), so nobody appeared to be starving or in bad condition.

During the day, we stopped into a few stores to see what was being sold and for what price.  These sodas were .60 CUC each (about US $0.60).  They were delicious!

A gallon of milk costs about 7.00 CUC, and a can of sardines was 1.75.  A bottle of shampoo averaged 5.00.  Toothbrushes cost about .75-1.00, and a small sofa would set you back 250 CUC.

On the surface, the prices in many respects were similar to ours; HOWEVER, when you think about their average monthly pay (about $1/day), it takes a full day of work to pay for one toothbrush!  Two days of work will pay for one hour of internet access from a desktop computer at an internet café.

The supermercado (super market) wasn’t all that super, either.  Entire six-foot long shelf units displayed just one item, such as identical large plastic bottle of cooking oil.  Would you like to buy some crackers?  You have perhaps three varieties from which to choose.  Chocolate?  I was shown either chocolate spread or chocolate drink as my choices to purchase.  I would never survive…

Cubans receive food subsidies, so at least they don’t have to spend all of their hard-earned money on what little variety they find for groceries.  In addition, Cubans receive free telephone service, free health care, and medicine is priced the lowest in the world.  Housing and extremely low-priced utilities are highly subsidized, and there are no taxes on public jobs (which account for 75-90% of the jobs, since there are very few self-employed people). Education is a high priority in Cuba, so it is free.

If it sounds like I am pro-Communist, I assure you, I am NOT.

This is the sad economic fact in Cuba:  According to Encyclopedia.com, Cuba’s economic freedom score was 28.7 (in 2014), making its economy one of the world’s least free.  As an entrepreneur who created and ran a successful computer-related services business for twelve years, has also enjoyed a small hobby business creating and selling photo notecards for over thirty years, and is currently (and happily!) running my husband’s successful art glass jewelry hobby business; I am definitely all about economic freedom!

I also all believe strongly in the first amendment and being able to speak out against our current government without fear of being thrown in jail, beaten, or worse (at least for now).  That wasn’t the case for Cubans in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  It remains to be seen what the future brings…

Coming up next:  MAKING FRIENDS IN CUBA

Meanwhile, here are a few scenes around Santiago de Cuba.  There are MANY more photos to come in my next post!

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MAN OVERBOARD!

As the Adonia sailed south towards Cuba on March 13, 2017, Bruce and I enjoyed a typical sea day for us: a workout in the gym, dining al fresco on the aft deck, attending lectures and workshops, and walking up on deck.  It was a beautiful day, and the sea was like glass.  It was so calm that I was able to do difficult yoga balance poses in the gym without so much as a wobble.

After attending an afternoon lecture about the history of Cuba, Bruce and I were ready for a walk in the fresh air; so, we made our way upstairs.  As we walked past the card room and spa, we heard loud yelling in the hallway.  A crowd gathered around a young, college-aged man who was yelling obscenities and sounding very incoherent.  Just as I said to Bruce we needed to get security, a woman in the crowd said security had already been called.  Just as two crew members from the pool area came in and also stated security was on the way, the extremely agitated passenger bolted, stumbling as he ran to the starboard side of the ship.

It was only moments after we continued out to the pool deck that the ship’s horn blasted, and the officer of the watch announced, “Man overboard!  Man overboard!!”  Crew members darted around us, grabbed life rings hanging from the railings, and tossed them overboard.  We saw several flying into the sea.

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I turned to Bruce and said, it’s HIM!  That guy jumped!!

A flare was shot out in the direction of where the young man had jumped overboard from the spa area of the 9th deck into the sea below.  The ship abruptly changed course to circle back; a rescue operation was underway.

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As we watched from the walking track of the 10th deck, we could see life rings float away, orange smoke pouring out of the flare, and a head bobbing in the sea.  Meanwhile, the crew lowered one of Adonia’s rescue boats and sped off with a pilot and two crew.

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When their boat approached the bobbing head, the jumper started to swim away in the opposite direction!  He was alive, and he survived the jump!  From the 9th deck, the only way anybody could survive that far of a water landing would be to enter vertically.  A flat landing would result in death, we speculated.

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What amazed us is that the jumper didn’t want to be rescued.  It took several attempts of circling back until the crew was finally able to get ahold of his shoulders and drag him into the boat.  Then, one of the crew had to hold the agitated man down.

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As the rescue boat returned to the ship, we were watching the scene unfold right under us.  The rescued man was rambling incoherently and making it very difficult for the crew to transfer him to the ship.

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When he was finally safe onboard, the passengers erupted in a loud applause.  The rescue operation was a success!

Although a couple of the passengers who witnessed the entire event unfold from the very beginning told us the content of the young man’s rants, and other passengers provided details of his identity and behavior previously that day, I have omitted this information as a matter of privacy.  In addition, I have whited out the man’s face in the photos.

I am proud to reveal, however, that our ship’s captain was a British woman, and the pilot of the rescue boat was also a woman.  Congratulations to both of them and the entire crew of the Adonia for a job well done!  If there was one consistent opinion we heard expressed from other passengers about the shocking event that unfolded during our (previously) peaceful day at sea was that the crew could not have done a more excellent job!

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Later, we were informed by the captain that the jumper was being held in the medical center for observation, and he was sent to a hospital in Cuba the following day when the ship arrived in Santiago de Cuba.  He and his parents did not return…

Next up:  Santiago de Cuba:  Cuba’s Second Largest City

 

FATHOM ADONIA: CRUISE #2

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As we sailed away from the Dominican Republic last January, my heart ached to return to Chocal.  The friendly women at the co-op, Gumarcindo at the cacao nursery, and the IDDI facilitators had grown on Bruce as well.  We both wanted to return, and it seemed to be the only thing we wanted to talk about during our drive home from Miami.

By the time we returned home, we had made the firm decision to book another Fathom cruise to the D.R. and Chocal before the ship leaves for Europe in June.  Immediately after we arrived home, I headed into our house and picked up the phone to call Fathom’s office.  Since we only wanted to book a cruise if we could return to Chocal, our cruise date would be dependent on that availability.  Our first choice was sold out, and our only other availability was for a cruise that included a stop in Cuba as well.  One day in Cuba isn’t enough, and only two visits to Chocal in the D.R.  wasn’t enough either, but something was better than nothing.   With suitcases still packed in the back of our car, we were already booked for our next cruise!

It would be two-and-a-half months before our departure, but we were filled with excitement for what was to come.  During our free time, I researched Cuba and the port we would be visiting:  Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city of our mysterious neighbor, just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

Although Fathom has a strict policy about not bringing items for donation, there were two ideas I had for gifts I wanted to bring to Chocal:  photo notecards of each of the people I had photographed back in January, and ear plugs.

Why ear plugs?  When Bruce and I toured the factory, the noise level from the machinery was horrendous, and we noticed none of the workers used ear plugs.  By the time they reach my age, they will be deaf!  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went on Amazon and purchased a box of 3M industrial-grade foam ear plugs in cardboard pouches—the same type I was given at the hospital when I had an MRI.  After a day’s work in the factory, I thought the workers could place the ear plugs back in their pouches, and put them in their pockets.  The ear plugs could be used again for several days before they would need to be replaced.  I figured I could then obtain an address where I would send more to them in the future.

On March 12, with photo notecards in hand and ear plugs in our suitcase, we boarded Fathom’s ship, Adonia, and set sail from Miami.

We knew our cohort leader, Collin, and his wife, Katie, would still be on leave, but we were happy to see many of the friendly staff we had met on our first cruise.  It felt like “home” to be back aboard this beautiful ship!

As an extra bonus, we were surprised with a free upgrade to a beautiful balcony cabin!  It was a first for us, so we couldn’t have been more thrilled.

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We looked forward to enjoying a full day at sea before our arrival to Cuba, a “bucket list” destination we had spoken many times of visiting after President Obama had loosened up travel restrictions in an agreement with Raul Castro.

What we didn’t yet know was what unbelievable event would unfold during our sea day—something most crew have never experienced during their years at sea.

Coming up next:  MAN OVERBOARD!

WELCOME TO MY WORLD! FOUR WAYS TO INVOLVE YOUR NON-SWIMMING SPOUSE OR PARTNER

This is dedicated to Bruce, my soulmate for over thirty years and husband for nearly 25 of them.  You have always been there for me, even when you thought I was nuts!  (Only you would have the patience to video my painstakingly slow 2000 yard butterfly for Butternuts.  Yes, I am a nutty Butternut!)  I love you more than ever, I’m your #1 fan, and will always remain your Aqua Dog.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

WELCOME TO MY WORLD! FOUR WAYS TO INVOLVE YOUR NON-SWIMMING SPOUSE OR PARTNER

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