On Saturday, February 15, we bid farewell to Udi, who returned to the United States, and departed in the morning for a long trip to Santa Clara and Cienfuegos in the eastern part of Cuba. As we left Havana, the landscape of the country changed quite quickly and drastically. Havana is a bustling and exciting city, but on the four-hour trip to Cienfuegos, we rode mostly through rural farmland, much of it out of use.
A little over an hour after departing, we stopped at the equivalent of an interstate rest area (pictures 1 and 2). Many of our group members chose to refresh themselves with a beverage. One of the perks in Cuba is that all of the sodas contain sugar, as opposed to the American substitute high-fructose corn syrup. Quite a few group members chose to imbibe with a Cuban coffee, complete with a piece of sugar cane to both stir and flavor the beverage. A true Cuban coffee is much smaller than our usual Americanos. It has a flavor and size comparable to an espresso.
A short while later the rural roads and communities gave way to our next town, Santa Clara (picture 3). Our first stop in Santa Clara was for lunch, which we took in at a local paladar and hostel (picture 4) The owners of the bed and breakfast were so generous with our group’s lunch- they served lobster tails, ropa vieja (beef that has been slow-cooked so that it falls apart, hence the name ropa vieja, which translates to “old clothes), fish, and pork, in addition to giving each of us an individual salad, and plenty of seasoned rice and beans to share. We dined in the open-air portion of the bed and breakfast. Our location also housed numerous old-fashioned product signs, including some Coca-Cola signs, all of which were in Spanish (pictures 5 and 6).
After lunch, we toured through Santa Clara (pictures 7 through 10), making our way to a community center where we serenaded with a special performance from Melodias Antillanas, a music group that utilizes traditional brass instruments from the 1800s. Several members from an elderly community center joined us to display traditional Cuban dances (picture 11). Naturally, our group joined them in the dancing!
Before leaving Santa Clara, we had a meeting with members from the Jewish community in Santa Clara. This community was much smaller than the one in Havana; they counted approximately twenty-one people in their entire congregation. Despite its size, the community is very active. Half-way through the talk, we were joined by a traveling Rabbi Elhanan Schnitzer, who works with an American organization, the Cuban-American Jewish Mission. Rabbi Sunny (which is what he goes by) explained to us that he has been working with the Cuban-American Jewish Mission for many years and makes yearly visits to Jewish communities in Cuba. As we learned with our visit to the Jewish community in Havana, many of the communities in Cuba do not have a Rabbi and they rely on visits from people like Rabbi Sunny in order to perform marriage ceremonies, and other special events that only a Rabbi has the authority to supervise (picture 12).
We left Santa Clara and drove for about an hour to our final destination: Cienfuegos. We arrived in the town square as the sun was setting (pictures 13 through 15). After a short walk around the square we made our way to the town museum, where we witnessed a phenomenal performance by the Cienfuegos Choir, a group of wonderfully talented singers from across the whole island. The Choir receives some government funding, but majority of the singers supplement their incomes by teaching, many of them worked at the local university. We found out that the Choir is beginning to plan a tour to the U.S. East Coast in 2015 (picture 16). We’re hopeful that we can have a hand in presenting the group in Philadelphia! Road-weary we dropped off our luggage and proceeded to dinner at a restaurant next to our hotel, and then some much needed rest.
We awoke on Sunday morning to find that our hotel is actually on the water in Cienfuegos. As I made my way to breakfast, I opened my hotel door to find the most breathtaking view of the Bahía de Cienfuegos, Cienfuegos Bay (picture 17).
Our first trip of the day involved a visit to the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden (pictures 18 and 19). There we engaged in a discussion with the staff on the current preservation projects and were given a short tour of the Gardens. The Gardens were initially founded by a gentleman named Edward F. Atkins and his wife. Mr. Atkins had ties to Harvard University and established a research station in the gardens for the university.
After the botanical gardens, we drove a little over an hour to the colonial town, Trinidad. We had lunch at a nice restaurant at the top of a hill lined with local vendors, many of whom sold beautiful textiles and clothes. At lunch we were treated to another impromptu performance, this one from Emilio Gravagno, who jumped on a bass the local band provided (picture 20).
After lunch, we drove to the town square, where we wandered around historic Trinidad. The streets are all cobblestone and the colonial Spanish influence is evident in many of the beautiful buildings. I felt like I was stepping back in time as I wandered the streets examining everything (pictures 21 through 24).
When we rode back to the hotel, we all changed for dinner, which was a short walk from the hotel and also on the waterfront. Our dinner was filled with much laughter and chatter, no doubt as we were all eager to return to the U.S. and reflecting on our tremendous experiences in Cuba!
We awoke on Monday morning, packed up, and set off to the airport in Cienfuegos. We rode through some of the main streets in downtown Cienfuegos and had enough time to wander through the Monday morning crowds. We saw many markets where citizens go to receive their rations from the government. After this, we arrived at the airport, where we checked in and went through Cuban customs. The process was not nearly as lengthy as we expected and so we had plenty of time to relax in the airport waiting lounge. We took our final group photo and boarded the plane back to Miami (picture 25).
Our experience in Cuba was really interesting, and even transformative in some ways. This was my first trip to Cuba so I don’t have anything to compare it to (aside from my knowledge of U.S. relations with the country, historically. Despite that, I feel like the country is different or at least it felt different then what I had been expecting. While we were there, it felt like the country was on a precipice of some sort; that we were witnessing a country that is changing much quicker now than it ever has in the past. I look forward to visiting the country again, perhaps after diplomatic relations between our two countries has warmed.