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Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Artist Jose Fuster’s neighborhood in the Jaimanitas suburb west of Havana looks a lot like Fusterland.    Photo: Phyllis Shess
Editor’s note: On a daily basis from June 1 thru June 30, 2015 Pillar to Post online magazine is featuring articles, photos and insights resulting from a recent group tour, an adventure we dubbed: the April 23 Brigade’s Tour of Cuba 2015.

Photograph taken in the 60s 
of Cuba’s literacy campaign 
(akin to U.S. Peace Corps) 
is on the wall of the Ciudad 
Libertad section of Havana, 
where the Literacy Museum is located.   
DAY 8, Thursday in Havana

The day begins with our last breakfast at La Veranda, our home buffet at the Hotel Nacional.  The crowded conditions for breakfast at both our excellent hotels reflects the need for Cuba to open more top-of-the-line hotels.  And, this is before any increase in U.S. tourist traffic.  Right now, the better establishments are bursting at the seams from Canadian and Euro travelers.  Crowded conditions exist at Cuban airports, too.  What might give Cuba a chance to expand its small airports (even in Havana) will be the licensing of ferries to make round trips from Cuba to the U.S.  

Of course, lifting the embargo will allow ships from the free world to call on Cuban ports without penalties by the U.S.  Currently, under the embargo the U.S. forbids any ship that docks in Cuba to use U.S. ports for six months after leaving Cuba.

But this morning our group was not thinking politics.  Many of us were busy exchanging email addresses and business cards.  As so many travelers do—we swear to keep in touch with our new found friends.

Because, our hotel is atop a hill, rain water from the big storm yesterday was not puddling.   In fact, our regular schedule had us going to the West side of Havana, which is a bit hillier than other parts of the city.  Thus we didn’t see any flood damage.

Heading West, our first stop was a very lengthy presentation at
Ciudad Libertad where we had the opportunity to better understand the importance of the literacy campaign that occurred in Cuba in 1961. The Cubans are extremely proud that the nation is illiteracy free—for the most part. 

We continued West into Havana’s suburb of Jaimanitas, where we arrived at Casa Fuster, the studio and residence of José Rodriguez Fuster who's inspiration comes from the designs of European Masters like Gaudi, Picasso, and Dubuffet. The roofs, walls, doorways and benches stretching for blocks around the epicenter of his studio enclave are adorned with his brightly colored murals and quotations from famous writers.

[Pillar to Post will feature more on Fuster’s art this month].

The beautiful homes and landscaping of Havana’s west side is where many of the foreign embassies are located and it is rumored that El Presidente Fidel Castro resides “somewhere” amid the tree-lined avenues.  But, it reality no one knows where Castro lives.

 Master chef Odlavin Castellanos Castillo works with tour member Nancy Henderson to prepare lunch at our visit at ArtChef Restaurant in West Havana.                                                                                            Bruce Henderson Photography
Afterwards, it's time to learn some of the secrets of Cuban cuisine at a cooking class led by one of Cuba’s award winning chefs Odlavin Castellanos Castillo. But first, the bartender at ArtChef Restaurant taught us how to make the best Mojito in the Caribbean.  Chef Odlavin then took the group through the how to create Cuban cuisine back home.  More on Chef Castillo in this blog later this month.

Although the U.S. does not have an official embassy it does have an special interests office (manned by the Swiss) that handles immigration issues.
Here Cubans wait outside for news of their applications (even in the rain). 
Photo: Phyllis Shess.
Following lunch we drove along the Malecon through Old Havana to the harbor front where we visited the bustling Almacenes San Jose Artisans Market located south of the ferry terminal.  The specialty of this busy place is fabulous art work, especially paintings.  A smart thinking visitor to Cuba would be wise to bring along an empty large sized suitcases and fill it with local art for the trip home.  Art is one commodity that US Customs has no problem in allowing into the country.   And, the market at San Jose on Havana harbor is the place to buy it.

Almacenes San Jose Artisans Market 
located along Havana harbor.

Beautiful Restaurante Café Del Oriente on Plaza San Francisco was the site of our group’s farewell dinner.  
We returned to the hotel early enough to have cocktails with buddies on the comfortable sofas lining the courtyard bar.  Soon it was time to return to our rooms “get dressed up” for our gala farewell dinner.  For that we board the team bus to Plaza San Francisco to the very sophisticated two-story Restaurante Café Del Oriente.  Tuxedoed waiters served a variety of European styled dishes, but what stole my heart was an old fashioned filet mignon.  It was the best.  Seated upstairs, we were entertained by a small combo that knew how to cater to its American customers with spot on renditions of New York, New York and I left my heart in San Francisco.   Toss in some good Cuban jazz and all in all, we experienced in one day—two fabulous restaurants that were as professional and culinarily superb as any top flight restaurants we’ve experienced in any major world city.

As this was our last night in Cuba, we toasted our Cuban guide Norkiss, our bus driver, Adrian and our American guide Daniel.  Oriente restaurant was a marvelous way to celebrate our journey.

Later, we enjoyed late evening drinks along the galleria of the Hotel Nacional listening to the excellent jazz combo. 

Nightly jazz entertainment at the outdoor patio, Hotel Nacional
Daily Dining Roster
Breakfast:   La Veranda, Hotel Nacional, Havana
Lunch:          Art Chef, West Havana
Dinner:         Restaurante Café Del Orient Restaurant, Plaza San Francisco

Sun Country Airlines charter commissioned by Discovery Tours/Gate 1 for our trip to and from Cuba
DAY 9, Havana & Miami
Our final breakfast at La Veranda seemed less hectic on this Friday morning.  Our guides had us efficiently on the bus to the airport but because many streets were still flooded, our driver used his guile to find us dry roads through many of Havana’s residential streets.  The usual trip takes about 20 minutes to the airport.  We made it in less than an hour, but still in plenty of time to go through Cuban immigration.
            Again, our charter was Sun Country and probably was the same 737 that brought us to Cuba a week earlier.
            The flight is 45 minutes long.  I swear it took us longer to walk from the arrival gate to U.S. Customs.  Those of you have been to Miami’s main airport know of what I speak.  Heaven help anyone not mobile enough to make the death march.
            Once again I needed assistance with the automated U.S. immigration machine.  Without mastering the technical monster one does not get back in the country.  Fortunately, I was traveling with a relative with acquired nerd-like skills. Ah, bureaucracy rules, so I know I was home.  Cuba was terrific.  Stunning.  Awe inspiring.  Historic.  Controversial and crumbling. 

Speaking for my wife, our son and myself we have high praise for our Gate 1 travel team.  Throughout, the leaders displayed remarkable organization combined with flawless execution.
We hope to return to Cuba someday but for now we’re happy to be home.

Daily Dining Roster
Breakfast: La Veranda, Hotel Nacional, Havana
Lunch:  Mid-flight Soda aboard Sun Country 737 to Miami International
Dinner: Catch of the Day, Seafood Cuban/Creole style, near Miami International.

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