Tag Archives: Cuba Cultural Heritage Research Expedition

A Drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues with A Drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata

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Zapata National Forest, Cuba

How may I speak out? How does a blond white American girl know what’s right or wrong in this world? I am only able to judge based on my own life’s learning. From my time in Cuba, I see a wrong has been done but I cannot say what exactly or how it was done or how it might be fixed as I also see that people have roofs over their heads and food on the table for their children and accessible health care, and clothing. I also never see a beggar on the streets. At least not like the homeless we see in the USA with old torn dirty clothes and grocery carts full of stuff they’re keeping for that rainy day. There are no shopping carts in Cuba. Many people ask for donations from us visiting Americans who must have so much they can offer handouts to all. We even had a guy carrying a new pair of Levis jeans, saying that he only had two pairs of pants the ones he was wearing and the jeans he was carrying and he needed more. More? I’m the one who needs more in order to make the payments next month for all my modern conveniences. I have to believe that they just don’t know what visitor they are inviting in the door.

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When traveling, you make it work!

Our next driver arrives on time at 9am. His name is Diamond and he’s brought his girlfriend Claudia along for the ride. In fact she drives everywhere with him. Today’s destination is Playa Larga, a small town situated on the divide of Cienaga Occidental and Cienaga Oriental of the Zapata Peninsula, otherwise known as Cuba’s swamp land Zapata. This is where east meets west on this coveted island in the Caribbean. The first leg of our drive is on the desolate Autopista, Cuba’s main highway which bridges most of the island but was never completed. With three wide-open faded lanes running in each direction and edged with tall grasses, this is Frost’s road less traveled. Cars and fuel and holidays are luxuries for Cubans. Most have never even ventured to the places we are about to explore. And the old classic cars now used as taxis in Havana are rigged together in ways that may not make this drive or the speed limit.

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Forgotten entrance to Zapata National Forest, Cuba

We pass through the Cienaga de Zapata National Park entrance gate that straddles the road. There’s no ranger on duty and signs are faded. There’s a billboard displaying a map of the park, but it’s been forgotten and details are no longer legible. Is this the land I read is on the tentative list of nominations for world heritage status? It needs the funding. After about 2 ½ hours since departing Havana, we arrive at our next casa particular, and are greeted with friendly smiles, fresh squeezed pineapple juice, seats on a balcony over-looking the sea and a lovely breeze. We’ve found tranquilidad until a swarm of mosquitos arrives and bites relentlessly. They are disappointingly undeterred by the bug spray and insecticide lotion and netted clothing I’m wearing. It’s unfortunate and I’ll itch from the dozens of bites accumulated over the next weeks but they are an insignificant price to pay for such uncommon opportunity.

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Cuba’s National Bird, Cuban Trogon

In coordinating and planning our expedition I strove to outline as much detail as possible prior to our departure aiming to avoid trouble for our team enroute in this as of yet unopened country. I should not have presumed, and instead remembered much of the journey is not an end result but the actual means and experience of getting there. So a good portion of my well researched information will prove to be lacking in accuracy or missing some vital puzzle piece. Fortunately Cuban hospitality and serendipity repeatedly meet us along the way as we venture into Cuba’s swamp land Zapata and to remote areas of this enchanting island.

A drive to Cuba’s Swamp Land Zapata continues with… Our Day with Mario in Zapata National Park

Good For the Cubans

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues…

Good for the Cubans. Their written history, started by Christopher Columbus staking the island for Spain, has been wrought with claims of conquest from the Spanish to the French to the English and back to the Spanish. The United States even tried to buy Cuba twice in the mid 1800s, but our $300 million was turned down. What is it about this lush island in the Caribbean that everyone has wanted since its discovery by Columbus in 1492? Is it the natural resources including mineral deposits of gold, marble, cobalt, chromite and oil? Is it Havana which was the Paris and New York of the 1700 and 1800s? Is it the island’s geographic location? Or is it simply the attitude: “I want it and you can’t have it”?

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Standing where Fidel Castro Once Stood To Admire Old Havana and Beyond

Even after our month-long exploration of the country and many dialogues with its people and much reading of local literature, I have not located a decisive theory. What I have discovered is that the Cuban history we are taught in school or read about on the Internet with the help of Google is not succinct with the history that the Cubans have lived. In fact there’s so much discrepancy I’ve come to appreciate that I know less than I even realized about this country. Timelines don’t correspond and neither do many maps. It’s as though the country has been blurred on purpose so no one knows or can remember actual events, Peoples and places. All that is defined are the political slogan billboards of the current ruling party and that head busts of Jose Marti, the country’s intellectual hero, should be kept pristine white.

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The Tree of American Brotherhood, Havana, Cuba by XplorMor

Our taxi-van passes through many city districts, including Buenavista, Miramar, Vedado, Centro and finally the narrowing cobble streets of Vieja, also known as Habana Vieja or in English, Old Havana. On a map, the old town looks orderly with grid-like streets culminating to the north and east with the Canal, and to the west at the Paseo de Marti, the National Capitol Building and The Tree of American Brotherhood, and in the south by the Central Railway Station. Yet, stepping into this mélange of centuries old buildings seems anything but orderly. There’s something for every sense from thrumming island music and a cacophony of wildly varying car and bicycle horns to salty sea breezes and stinking rotten trash cans to wobbly uneven pavement and road works to gritty dirt-coated doors and bold colorful freshly painted balconies.

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Old Havana Prior To Rehabilitation Reminds Passers of Cuba’s Hardship

The people and their clothing offer a similar tousled potpourri. Today’s Cubans are an extraordinary mix of European, Island, African and South American races, with varying appearance from pale skin, blond hair and green eyes to dark complexions and beaded corn rows, and every beautiful mixture in between. The English and French soldiers definitely left marks during their respective occupations. I was told that the Cuban women loved their English champions as they were treated well and money was abundant so they did not want, except when it came time for their cultured and refined men to return home. Hard to say if centuries’ old hearsay is accurate, regardless the conquests of Europeans remain evident in the population and the architecture of the city.

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Cuba’s National Flag Flying in Havana, Cuba

Good for the Cubans. Continue reading the next excerpt from The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience

Ninety miles and twelve minutes in a jet plane are all that separate the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba. I’ve come to call this “the longest twelve minutes” as to cross the divide is hours of effort, perseverance, waiting and patience, or in Spanish, paciencia. This is Cuba’s word. How do I know the distance is about twelve minutes? Yesterday I was on a World Atlantic flight from Havana to Miami, and I timed from when I saw through the cabin window the last tip of Cuba’s coast line until my first glimpse of the Florida Keys.

Cuba, XplorMor, Julia Thomsen, Cuba Travel

Cuba from a Jet Plane

On the outset of our journey I timed the actual flight length from take-off to landing, and couldn’t believe my watch read only 40 minutes passed from when we departed Miami International Airport until we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The fifty plus year old chasm separating the USA and Cuba has to be wider and deeper… doesn’t it?  That’s less time and distance than flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco or New York City to Washington DC or from Miami to Key West. The reality of Cuba’s geographical location only makes the heavy-handed political isolation all that more absurd. Or does it? While exploring Cuba over the course of a month, I took every opportunity presented to speak with the locals. I hoped to gain a broader understanding of Cuba, past and present, and reasons behind such an exceptional and lasting embargo.

Cuba Julia Thomsen

Arrivals at Jose Marti International Airport, Havana, Cuba

Stepping on to the tarmac I headed toward a large sign above two glass sliding doors labeled “Llegadas/Arrivals”. I was in Cuba. Customs and luggage went smoothly. Maybe too smoothly. Our driver was not waiting outside. After searching through the crowds of family members, taxi drivers and men selling tourist trinkets, we borrowed a cell phone from an older Cuban gentleman, and called our contact, Sam. Sam apologized profusely and said the driver should be there, and he would find out why he wasn’t, and we should call back in seven minutes. Fortunately the man with his cell phone was waiting for relatives to arrive on a delayed flight so he’d let us use the phone again in seven minutes.

Our driver arrived in a clean white van very apologetic for the misunderstanding. We hoped our ride would be one of the colorful 1950s era beauties we’d drooled over during our wait, but we’d have to hail one later. Departing Jose Marti we headed to our “casa particular” in Old Havana. Casas Particulares are private houses in Cuba serving as accommodations, similar to bed and breakfasts that offer rooms and meals in family homes. From what I could tell these have recently sprung up in great numbers due to the estimated 3.5 million American tourists expected to arrive shortly. I write “recently” as throughout our travels we saw many homes being remodeled with extra bathrooms, painted, and new open for business signs hung out front. In well-traveled tourist communities such as Vinales and Playa Larga, every house looks to be offering itself as a casa particular. Seems the Cubans have fittingly caught on to making money from foreigners.

 Julia Thomsen

Street lined with Cassa Particulares in Habana Vieja, Cuba

Perhaps they have caught on in more ways than just rooms for rent. Cuban currency is only available in-country so an exchange must be made after arrival. Before departure from the USA I read this charge is government regulated at 10%, yet we were never offered this controlled percentage amount. Be warned: the airport exchange counter charges about 25%, so if you must turn your US Dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos do so sparingly. It’s also my opinion that the Cubans have outsmarted us all with their two currencies: Cuban National Peso (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is for Cubans and the CUC seems to have been created solely for foreigners to pay more than 20 times the actual value of an item (CUC is valued today at about 26 CUP). My awareness of this brazen secret grew over the course of our stay as kind locals kept insisting we should be paying in pesos, not “kooks”. Even a police officer standing on the corner of a busy street in Miramar told us not to pay more than 20 CUP for a ride to Old Havana. We’d been paying 10 to 15 CUC. Truly inspired thinking.

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues with Good for the Cubans