Camille Sparkman

Camille Sparkman,

Patriotism or die

After arriving in Cuba, it did not take long to see how the Cubans honor the revolution that occurred over fifty-years ago. I saw many billboards and murals in and around Havana that praise the uprising efforts of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. One can see their faces painted on the side of buildings or on billboards along many streets and roadways. While riding in a bus along the Malecón, I saw a mural of Guevara with the words ‘joven y fuerte’, which translates in English as ‘young and strong.’ Probably the most prominent mural I have seen thus far has been the words ‘patria o muerte’ which means ‘homeland or die.’ There seems to be no public defiance against the government.

Alternatively, while walking through Old Havana, I noticed a small art gallery that had an American patriotic painting of President Obama. While I was taking some photographs of the painting, one of the artists motioned me to come inside. Inside the gallery, there were several paintings of American musicians such as Michael Jackson and Jimmy Hendrix. In the adjacent room, which seemed to be more political in nature, there was a painting of Obama that I saw from the storefront, along with paintings of Fidel Castro. However, there was one photo of Castro that was much different than any one that I had seen since arriving. The painting was called ‘Post Fidel” but it depicted a large group of several men with Castro’s face. When I asked the artist what the painting meant, he told me how Fidel created a nation of people, who think and believe like him. When I asked him if he was he pro-Fidel, he shook his head and said no. As we continued conversing, he implied that the painting represented how Cuba must change and be free from government control.


Cuban Uber

Ride sharing is an efficient way of getting around town without the hassle and the expense of maintaining a car. Even though Uber is based in San Francisco, the company operates in other cities all over the world. Unfortunately, Havana is not one of those places, but it does not mean that the concept is not being used to bypass alternate transportation options and save some cash. While walking around parts of Havana, I saw several people who looked like professional hitchhikers as they would flag down a taxi that was already transporting one to three passengers. The driver communicated to the potential passenger the direction he or she was traveling in and the person on the street would decide on whether to hop into the car or wait for the next vehicle. Each passenger ride starts at 0.20 pesos, depending on the distance, to join the other passengers in a vehicle. Since Cuba has a low crime rate, hitchhiking is not terribly dangerous like it is in the United States.

The alternative to ride sharing is to walk to one’s destination or wait for a transit bus. Most of the people who I saw ride sharing were at a bus stop or standing along a busy street nearby. While the bus system seems reliable, it also looked extremely crowded. In Havana’s sweltering heat and high humidity, I can see why people would prefer to ride-share rather than wait for a jammed-packed bus. Since ride-sharing is perfectly legal in Cuba, it will probably remain a viable option for Cubans to travel to their next destination.


Razones to the rescue

Prior to coming to Cuba, I read quite a few blogs that described the food as being bland and tasteless. Despite the criticism, I remained optimistic and open minded because I wanted to form an opinion based on my experience and not someone else’s. However, after a few days of being In Cuba, I agreed with the critics. Not only was the food bland, but it lacked the flavor that I tasted when eating meals prepared in the states. A large part of me wondered how would I survive the trip without eating a good meal. That said, a small part of me was looking forward to losing the ten pounds I promised at the beginning of the new year. Culturally, Cubans and Americans have completely different approaches when preparing food.

American culture is very much about excess. When it comes to cooking, it is very easy to use several ingredients for a small dish in order to maximize flavor. American chefs and home cooks alike make a point of layering flavors so that everything tastes like it has been cooking all day. For instance, I might roast vegetables before adding them to a sauce or sear meat to lock in the natural juices before roasting it at a lower temperature. Taking these steps are not necessary, but well worth it when serving the final product. Alternatively, Cuban culture seems to be less about excess and more about only doing and using what is absolutely needed. I personally relate it to their experience of rationing and being resourceful based on what is available. Additionally, I was told that using garlic and onions to season food is a new concept in Cuba. As more American tourists come to Cuba, the more chefs are expanding their seasonal repertoire. And this is where Razones comes in.

Based on a recommendation, and perhaps some desperation, I went to Razones in hopes of finding a meal that reminded me of flavors I can find at home. On this night, I decided to order pasta because I thought it would be a safe option that was least likely to make me sick. I was so happy with my dish that I decided to go back the next night and the night after that. Razones has become my go-to place if I want to find a quick bite near my hotel. The staff is so friendly and the food is well seasoned. It provided a huge contrast to my experience the first few days that I arrived. Chef Raul is one of the main chefs at Razones. He speaks very little English, but I can tell it is important to him that all the patrons enjoy their experience at Razones. After my meal, Chef Raul came back to my table to ask if I liked my meal and I expressed how much I did.


A failure to communicate

In a country that has an abundance of pay phones, it should not be a surprise that communication is difficult at best and completely nonexistent at worse. After being in Cuba for 12 days, my frustration with leaving written messages or hoping to bump into my 2 p.m. appointment on my way out the door after waiting for him for 20 minutes, is starting to take its toll. Cuba is only 90 miles from US soil, but its communication technology is stuck somewhere between the 1990s and the early 2000s. The phone system within the hotel seems to be inconsistent. Some people in my cohort cannot use their phone to dial out, while others can dial out but get no connection on the other end. To my knowledge, no one has tried the hotel phones to make an international call to connect with anyone in the states as the charges for those calls are outrageous.

I am told that most Cubans use wireless internet for messaging or gaming but not to obtain news. Cubans do not use the internet to access their news because they know that it is filtered and manipulated. As a local put it, “the government adds their smoke screen to the news stories.” This is a huge contrast to most Americans because not only do we believe in free speech, we are also used to accessing news on a 24-hour cycle on any day of the week. Any American who is used to accessing people or information with a few clicks should prepare themselves before coming to a place like Cuba. I have noticed that some people are lackadaisical when it comes to meeting times. It is almost near impossible to know if your appointment is running late or has changed his/her mind about meeting with you. If tourists, especially US tourists, are able to continue to visit the island, I imagine that the technology infrastructure will be updated in no time at all.


The last tour

The last Saturday of my Cuba trip was dedicated to a tour of the Colon Cemetery, a visit to Fusterlandia and a stop at Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia. Colon Cemetery is a beautiful cemetery with a great deal of architectural significance. Built in 1870s, the burial ground is a space where Cuban families were laid to rest. The area is filled with grand tombs made of natural stone. One of the cemetery’s tallest tomb display is dedicated to firefighters who lost their lives during a fire in 1890. The cemetery also houses one of the world’s first octagonal-shaped chapels, which is in the center of the cemetery.

Next stop on the tour was to Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is a neighborhood dedicated to ceramic tile artworks. The art is displayed on the fences and homes of its residences. The designs are just as colorful as they are unique. While viewing the sites in the neighborhood, my first impression was of amazement as I was trying to understand the time and level of detail needed to create these beautiful mosaics. People who are interested in art and unique designs should stop by Fusterlandia to view the area for themselves.

The last leg of the tour was dedicated to Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban estate, Finca Vigia, perched on 15-acres of land. Hemingway purchased Finca Vigia in 1940 for about $12,000, where he and his third wife lived. The inside of the home can only be viewed from the outside, through windows and doors because it has been preserved since Hemingway’s death in 1961. It was said that Hemingway’s last wife wanted the home to be conserved as if he was still alive. The property was equipped with a main home, Hemingway’s fishing boat, pet cemetery, and a cockfighting ring.