Full Friday, morning

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Friday, February 23, 2007

With only Saturday to go before mom and dad head home, we have a really good Friday. This despite the cloud of foreboding over Jonathan's weird projectile yarfing. Last night at 1 a.m. everything just sort of flowed out of him. Same thing again at 8 a.m. It almost looks fake, this stream of fluid, like a bad special effect. It's very unlike a baby's normal little spit up, but it doesn't seem to bother him in the least. He just smiles at whomever he's just coated in fluid. No fever or discolouration, so we just opt to go as planned and watch his vitals.

Over at the Hotel Nacional, my mother, who stayed at the hotel yesterday while her cold got the better of her, is on the mend, but we still mercilessly quarantine her in a second cab and head off to the Plaza de Armas.

All travel companions have areas of tension. "New versus Known" would be one of Julie's and mine. I always want to explore something different; once she finds something good, she likes enjoying it more. Generally we complement each other -- me urging us on to see more, Julie ensuring we get a deeper appreciation for the best parts. For the first part of yesterday, I acted like a prom queen due to one of these friction moments. I excuse my behavior partly from the fact I wasn't feeling 100% after my food poisoning episode (the sun just felt hotter) but the truth of the matter is I was bummed out about repeating the same walk up the Prado and down Obispo again, then going to Al Medina for lunch yet again. One would think after almost six weeks on the road (and 43 years on the planet) that it wouldn't take me the better part of an hour to shake off a funk. Rosemary must sometimes think she has such a loser for a son-in-law.

Everyone is in good spirits today, thankfully. We're picking up the walking tour of Old Havana from where we left off yesterday. Mom missed a terrific guided tour of the museum of the city (Museo de la Ciudad) and a relaxed drink in the Plaza de la Catedral. It turns out my great bargaining session with one of the book merchants around the Plaza de Armas, wherein I proposed various prices and he never budged, could have been carried on today as well, as the book stalls are back. Had I known, I might have left the collectors' card "Album de la Revolucion Cubana" overnight to see if the price ever dropped.

Our walk south from the plaza follows the Lonely Planet Cuba walking tour for Habana Vieja. I've been really happy with this guidebook. The publication mere months ago means the info and prices are actually pretty accurate. We orient ourselves at the scale model of old Havana at the Maqueta de la Habana Vieja, beat a hasty retreat from the overly fragrant Habana 1791 perfume shop, poke around the photography exhibit in the inner courtyard of the Hostal Condes de Villanueva, and arrive triumphant at the Museo del Chocolate.

Cold air and the heady aroma of chocolate leap out at us as we push open the door. Lucy's eyes become dinner plates as she takes in the various chocolate animals along the counters and the chocolate waterfall flowing through the form-work area. Some of us opt for the milkshake-like chocolate fria, but my choice is the warm, thick cup of heaven that sells as chocolate caliente, for 55 centavos. We've beaten the tour buses here and have the place almost to ourselves.

Back out in the heat, Julie experiences her first hustle for milk. Typically carried out by women with children, this scam centres on telling foreigners that the milk rations the government provides are insufficient and more milk is needed. The gullible (and it got me in our first week) are guided to a store where they're overcharged for some milk -- which the mother immediately gives back to the store in exchange for a cut of the money once the foreigners are out of sight. The truth is, every child in Cuba gets a litre of milk a day from the government; it's one of those ironies that Castro gets bad PR over this scam, when he's got a pretty solid programme in place.

Surprisingly, we're actually accosted by less hustlers with our parents around; our incessant interfamilial banter provides an effective protective membrane. Even Julie's moment of entrapment between two mothers intent on easy prey is easily resolved by me simply saying "Let's go, people!" Everyone's momentum carries Julie out of the collusion and on to the next stop, the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This is familiar territory for everyone but mom. I take her to poke around a few of the building lobbies, then join the slowly baking family in the shadow of the church. It's getting warm, so we allow the piano music drifting from the renovated church to draw us in to the cool interior.

The deconsecrated church and monastery now house a concert hall, museum and national academy of music. While everyone else relaxes and cools off, I take a grumpy Jonathan out of ear shot of the piano recital and get instantly sacked by any number of charmed museum guides. Travelling with the kids is really like being a groupie for a rock star. Jonathan simply smiles and gurgles, and whoosh -- we're behind cordoned-off areas. I'm getting the history of the building, of everyone's families, gossip about the academy. Either my Spanish is really getting pretty good or my creative interpretation knows no bounds.

A great feature of the complex is all the modern sculpture on religious themes dotting the cloisters. The second storey, which I only see from the ground, is filled with modern sculptures on classic themes -- Venus de Milo and her whole family in a weird orgy of missing-limbed miasma.

We extricate ourselves from Jonathan's fans and continue through the face-lifted streets to the expansive and impressive Plaza Vieja, leaving Julie with a now-sleeping Jonathan (still holding down his chow) while we go up to the top of a 35m tower to take in the views at the Camera Oscura. As lovely as this part of town is, it's a little thin on eateries. We elect to head back to central Havana for lunch. Our ride in a minibus takes us around the waterfront of Habana Vieja, in front of the central train station and up Avenida de Belgica past Jose Marti's birthplace. We'd intended to walk to these sites with Mom and Dad before illness curtailed our plans, so it's a nice little detour.
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brod on

no milk for every child!!!
Every child gets a litre milk but only until the age of 7 years!!!
To get some milk for children older than 7 years, their parents have to do miracles since the average month wages are 20 dollar and a litre of milk (tetra brick pack) costs 1.80 dollar!!

It is really incredible that you don't know this sad fact after spending one month on Cuba!!!

mbgower on

Re: no milk for every child!!!
In the 6 weeks I was there, the milk hustle was performed exclusively by mothers with babies, not seven year olds. For this reason, I didn't mention the milk situation for older children, as it is irrelevent to the hustle.
To address your comment, with the loss of good grain for their cattle Cuba's milk production fell dramatically after the Soviet collapse and they could no longer provide enough milk for free up to 12 years of age, as previously promised. They chose to convert many facilities to soy products. Cuban children from aged 7 to 12 receive a ration of soy milk. I won't get into a discourse on amino acids and complementary proteins here, but with a Cuban diet, soy milk provides all the nutritional value of milk. Also, rural farmers sell excess fresh milk, which like fresh juice is a lot cheaper than the packaged stuff.

brod on

no milk for every child (2)
I am sorry but when you write:
"The truth is, every child in Cuba gets a litre of milk a day from the government; it's one of those ironies that Castro gets bad PR over this scam, when he's got a pretty solid programme in place."

You are saying that "'each child" regardless his/ her age, is getting, daily, a litre of milk, which is not the truth, no matter of it is relevant or not for your hustle history.

I am not sure if 100% of the older children get a litre soja yoghurt instead and even when it would be the case I wonder if soja can substitute the milk calcium, vitamins and other nutrients that children need so much to grow up.

By the way, this litre "milk" is in most of the cases a mix of imported powdered milk + butter oil. Since both ingredients are (in big amounts) stolen from the factories, to be sold in the black market, the quality of this "milk" is frequently very poor.

Even when these women are getting this cheap, subsided litre Castro's "water-milk" for their babies they also need to find the way to get more money to pay for other basic articles like clothes, shoes, etc, that are only sold in the dollars shops at the same incredible prices as in USA, Europe or Canada in a country where the average salary is about 20 dollar a month!!!

We were a people used to share everything we had with our guests, nowadays sadly converted to beggars due to an inefficient, failure system. A system that transformed a country like Cuba, self sufficient, before Castro communistic experiment, in milk, agrarian products, etc, to another totally depending of the import of all this basics things to minimally satisfy the demand of them.

I am sure that when this nightmare, Castro's almost 50 years dictatorship will be over, we will return to be the same kind of people we used to be before. One of the most hospitable and proud people in the world, always happy to share everything we had in exchange for nothing.

Unfortunately your very nice written history ignores the common Cuban, the simple people I mean, not the privileged Private Room owners that have a very higher life standard. You can't find here almost nothing about the misery in which Cubans are obligated to live, the insufficient food rations, the prostitution, the miserable wages, the dangerous conditions in which people have to live every day, risking their live living in houses that are continuously falling apart.

Almost no mention either about the lack of freedom, the fear to be denounced to secret police, the lose of hope in the future, the broken families, the hundreds political prisoners.

A shame that tourists from Argentina of Denmark have got more significant rolls in your history than the Cubans self!!

Nevertheless a very well wrote history. I really enjoyed reading it. Nice photos as well.

Apologizes for my basic English.

brod on

no milk for every child (3)
I forget to say that farmers, the few that are still independent of the government, are not allowed to sell any excedent of milk. They could get very big fines instead if they are caught selling milk of any of its derivatives that have to be sold exclusively to the state factories.

mbgower on

Re: no milk for every child (2)
Thanks for your comments. I welcome other perspectives, but please understand that I am travelling with small children, not conducting a human rights investigation. I think it only right that my comments most of the time deal with the reality of what I experienced -- and I didn't witness or hear first-hand accounts of significant political censorship. Someone there for longer, getting off the tourist track, would have something different to offer, I suspect.

I find your nostalgia for pre-Castro Cuba a bit odd. In the histories I've read it hardly comes off as a great time to be an average Cuban. Statistics show Cubans' lives are better now than in the 1940s; the basic methods for measuring poverty like infant mortality rate and literacy have all improved. As for the crumbling buildings in old and central Havana, do you believe the older ones just started crumbling in the last 50 years? That prostitutes didn't exist before 1959?

Castro's regime is rightly brought to task for Cuba's asthmatic economy. I think it's difficult to separate its economic performance from the fact it has been operating under an embargo organized by THE economic superpower in the world for over 40 years. I know if Canada were to face similar measures, our economy would completely collapse. It's a miracle there IS any economy in Cuba -- and that is due almost entirely to the perseverance and ingenuity of Cubans. People tend to blame either Castro or the US for the problem, but I don't think either of them should get off easy.

It's natural that when you're travelling you occasionally connect with other travellers. I'm sorry to hear you feel they feature more prominently than Cubans in my journal. That I often choose not to link individual Cubans with specific information or conversations should be understandable to you, given your concerns about political persecution. You should realize I have to get my information from someone, and that is largely from interacting with taxi drivers, casa owners and people I talk with on the street.

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