"Everything has its beauty but we don't always see it."

A view of Havana from The Saratoga Hotel's "terrace-mirador"

On the evening of October 27, 1492, during his first voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus set eyes on the hazy mass of Cuba. The explorer voyaged for several weeks along the north coast of the island finally dropping anchor one month later in a perfectly protected harbor that he named Puerto Santo, near today’s Gibara. By 1511, his son Diego along with 300 settlers in four ships from Spain arrived and the Spanish established Cuba's earliest town at Baracoa in 1512.

Five centuries later--after its beginnings as a Spanish colony, after its conflicted relationship and occupation by the United States including a Spanish American War, its fight for sovereignty and attempts to construct a social democracy, its own grand revolution under Fidel Castro that ousted the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista but pulled the country into a Soviet trajectory, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the U.S. Embargo--a new Cuba is emerging. This is a country with enigmatic appeal, intoxicating to many over the years like its favorite son, Ernest Hemingway, who said he wanted to stay in Cuba forever.

Although Cuba has not yet opened its doors to free enterprise, its welcome mat has been laid. Foreigners are storming this intriguing country of 11 million in droves, including missions from the United States that have increased considerably. For good reason. Beyond the politics, Cuba's vitality can be seen in full spectrum color. Its sheer beauty is evident in its beaches and mountains and valleys and ancient cities. There's santeria and salsa, senoritas and mojitos, rumba and rhythm, '55 Cadillacs and chrome. Cuba is all about possibility and a visitor feels she is experiencing an unfolding drama. Bill Bryson called Cuba a "Third World country with a First World people."

During our six-day Cuban adventure, we visited historical landmarks and learned a great deal about the history and culture of the country, as well as its progress in education and healthcare. We were able to distribute medical supplies through a synagogue, meet with both an art collector and an economist, and travel from Havana to the central portion of the island.

But, let me start at the beginning. Five of us (Frank, Alex and I, along with our friends Karen and Robert) arrived at the Miami airport on December 30 and joined up with our guide, Rosemary, a lovely person with a wealth of knowledge from her life's travels and personal journey. Customs and check-in took longer than the 40-minute flight to Cuba. We were met at the Havana airport by our Cuban guide, Meylin, and our bus driver, Raul. Our destination: The Saratoga Hotel.

The Saratoga stands on Paseo del Prado and Dragones Street, considered a privileged intersection of Old Havana. Its breathtaking "terrace-mirador" has an almost 270-degree panoramic view of the capital—including the El Capitolio, the grand parliament that was the seat of the Cuban government until after the Revolution in 1959, modeled after the U.S. Capital and now being restored to house Cuba’s National Assembly. The Saratoga's rooftop terrace is complete with a swimming pool and offers live music in the afternoon. The surrounding neighborhood despite its "privilege," however, is decayed.

That evening, we ate at a paladar--a restaurant in a private home, and one of several entrepreneurial activities now available to Cubans. Early in this private business experiment, Fidel allowed up to four tables per home to be used as restaurants. That’s been considerably expanded today. At La Casa Paladar, with seating for about thirty, a pond built into the floor behind our dining table was filled with large turtles and fish; a multi-colored parrot in a cage stood to the side. We ended our evening at a famous jazz club called Taberna Café featuring several remaining members of the Bueno Vista Social Club—a group with a storied past—in a historical building within one of the few well-preserved areas of Old Havana. There were high ceilings, 50's decor and dancers entertaining an international crowd with rumba and salsa and line dancing, the latter including some of us in the audience.

Already clear to me was that Havana is a city of extremes: Potential alongside poverty, architectural and structural beauty stained by deterioration, an intelligent and hopeful citizenry with little opportunity. Wherever we went, the contrast was conspicuous. Structures of Cuba's illustrious past co-exist with present day neglect and decay. One could only react to this endearing country emotionally. Our transition to this new culture was just beginning.

December 31, 2013:

Today—the last day of the year and my birthday—our first stop in Cuba was the Museo de la Revolucion in Old Havana. It is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario Garcia Menocal in 1920 to Fulgencio Batista. It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban revolution. It had a beautiful open-air courtyard in the center of the palace as so many old mansions in Cuba. Behind the building lies the Granma Memorial, a large glass enclosure which houses the La Granma, the small boat that took Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution. Castro landed on the east end of the island in November of 1956 (with the 28-year old doctor, Ernesto "Che" Guevara) and this led to Batista’s departure and the dominance of Fidel’s 26th of July Movement.

Looking out from a second floor terrace of the Museum, I faced a vacant and decaying Corona cigar factory building across the street. Ironically, the highlight of the morning was visiting a cigar store complete with a smoking room (we enjoyed Expresso and smoked cigars) and featuring a native Cuban artisan trained in the old ritual of hand-rolling tobacco leaves. Meylin, our 30-year-old Cuban guide, explained that the tobacco crop for cigars is grown once a year and there are five tobacco-growing areas in Cuba: all with soil rich in minerals, climate of high humidity, and the human know-how to develop the best and largest tobacco leaves. There are two ways to grow this plant--one area grows the Coroho plant (grown under shade and covered with cheese cloth) and the other four areas grow Criolla plants directly in the sun.

After lunch at a state-owned restaurant in Old Havana (El Mercurio), we split into two groups for a scavenger hunt in vintage cars, both pink. Although set up as a competition, we quickly realized the true object of our pursuit was to see more of Havana. First stop was La Cabana Fortress where we were to describe Che Guevera's office (since it was closed for renovation, we ascertained its contents from the woman taking tickets). While there we purchased a piece of sugar cane for ten CUCs* (that was on our list), then drove by the Park Central Hotel to photograph "a bat on a prominent building." We also went to John Lennon Park to "take a photo with a famous person." Our driver took a picture of me sitting on a bench next to a bronze life-size statue of Lennon himself. We drove past the Columbus Cemetery, past the tallest building in Havana (it was green), and to the Capitolio (also closed for renovation) in order to describe the large statue in the rotunda (our driver told us it was a Spanish princess). We passed by the entrance to Chinatown. Along this drive, we saw so many beautiful buildings in the baroque, neo-classical, art nouveau and art deco styles. Havana has, in fact, the largest concentration of baroque buildings in the western hemisphere. Unfortunately, many of the country’s structures are crumbling and deep investment will be needed to preserve the array of architectural treasures.

* There are two currencies in Cuba: the CUC (or convertible peso used by tourists valued at $1.13 when we were in the country) and the peso.

We passed a billboard that, in Spanish, offered a Confucius quote: "Everything has its beauty but we don't always see it." This quote could speak for so much of Cuba, where the beauty is often hidden but deeply felt by the observer.

The New Year's Eve celebration was the day's highlight. After meeting for drinks in the Saratoga's bar (frozen daiquiri for me), we went to Cathedral Square and sat among 1,100 seated celebrants at white-clothed dining tables under the evening sky, surrounded on three sides with buildings whose grand architecture was of varied eras and styles. At the front stage were many genres of talented singers and dancers entertaining us while tuxedoed waiters brought us a four-course meal, interrupted an hour before midnight by pouring rain. We retreated back to the hotel and welcomed the New Year from our palatial room with CNN turned on just seconds before the ball dropped in New York's Times Square.

January 1, 2014:

We drove much of New Year's day heading east, our destination Cienfugos, a city founded by 50 French families from New Orleans in 1819 making it Cuba's most modern city. To put this in perspective, Cuba's future capital, San Cristobal de la Habana, was founded in 1515. Meylin told us Cienfugos was a city well conceived (all neo-classical revival) and very clean, that it was created to stop the smuggling going on in the south coast of Cuba. It has an active harbor with an oil refinery, and boasts the second largest bag-shaped harbor after Havana. The city's name means "100 fires" and it is known as the "pearl of the Cuban south coast."

During our bus ride, I asked Meylin a lot of questions about education, given my deep interest and the country's crowning achievement in this area, with a literacy rate of 98%. In Cuba, education is compulsory until 9th grade and all schools are public, free all the way through university study. Cubans have three choices: they can go to senior high school for those planning university study; or go to technical school to study specific trades (that includes lower level accounting); or they can attend military school. University degrees take 5 years; medical degrees take 6 years. After completing their studies, the student's pay goes to the government as part of "social service." Women are assigned work by the government for 3 years of service, men for two.

Meylin studied English and French for her university studies--her degree being in languages offering her broader opportunities rather than be slotted into teaching with a degree in pedagogy. (Education and medical degrees are a priority in Cuba; the government sees access to education and health care as the most important human rights of a free people.) After her social service work, she joined San Cristobal, taking a risk during her interview in speaking frankly when asked why she didn't go into teaching. "I want to work as a tour guide because I want to improve my family's economy," she told them. They liked her spunk.

There are seven universities in Havana with Havana University, serving more than 6,000 degree students, being the oldest (founded in 1728) and most important. All the universities are of high quality but offer different specialties like animal science or historic preservation. Pre-university, there are specialized schools for talented artists and athletes. For those who need to attend a university away from their home, the state also pays for dorms and provides stipends for living expenses. The irony is that this educated and skilled populace has no incentive to work in fields they studied, their opportunity to improve their economic situation quite limited in Cuba's current socialistic structure. Raul, our bus driver, for example, has a degree in mechanical engineering but he gets more income from driving private buses for tourists to support his wife and two daughters.

Given the housing shortage in Cuba, grandparents often take care of children when the mom works. There are subsidies for day care. Many still want their children to attend pre-K, which is not supported fully by the state.

Cuba's healthcare system is an enviable one, recognized internationally. It is laser focused on primary and preventive care, with front-loaded investments going to maternal, infant and child care. A system of neighborhood clinics or family doctors makes access to such basic care, which is free, readily available. As a result, Cuba has reduced infant mortality and raised life expectancy on a par with developed countries.

Today, Cuba drifts somewhere between communism and capitalism. Meylin told us Cubans don't see themselves as Communists but rather they are "Fidelists." Economic progress has been a gradual journey, but Cubans remain hopeful for the future. As with paladars, limited "self employment" activities by citizens is growing. The tourism industry has been reinvigorated with well over ten million international visitors a year, many of those from the United States traveling as part of cultural missions as we did. Since Obama's presidency in 2008, Cuban-Americans can now visit their families in Cuba with few restrictions. All outsiders, however, find a communications system in Cuba far behind what they have in their own countries. There are no fiber optics or Wi-fi except in select locations. Satellite connections to the Internet are expensive, and yield very slow responses with the downloading of large documents nearly impossible. So even though the web is not blocked in Cuba, access is limited and only available to tourists and those citizens who are more well-to-do.

While roads are generally well maintained, the infrastructure needs are overwhelming with so much deterioration of once magnificent buildings far beyond the ability of the country to overcome without foreign investment.

Since the mid-90s, as part of an economic reform program designed to help Cuba adapt to the new global environment, Cuban authorities began linking agricultural producers to consumers, converting Cuban state farms to cooperatives to increase food production. There are also private farmers who own their own land who may be part of a profit-sharing cooperative, although many of these are the families who inherited their land pre-1959.

During our nearly 160 miles to Cienfugos, we passed fields growing papaya, sugar cane and plantains. We saw rice patties, Mango trees, roosters and dogs meandering across the road. We passed horse and buggies carrying one to three passengers; black, brown and white cows grazing in fields; a single horse grazing on grass in the front yard of a cement block house; children sitting on an old green Chevy in the dirt drive of a boxy, pink house. We visited the Bay of Pigs Museum, a side trip not worth the time it took to get there.

After hours of driving, we finally arrived in Cienfugos and found it as Meylin described--clean and with architecture reviving the classical style. But there was an overwhelming emptiness we felt as we walked the streets of this city of 400,000. Even the strays dogs had sad eyes, and there didn't seem to be any purposeful activity we could observe, just many thin stragglers hanging around corners or sitting curbside in front of shells of buildings (although Robert reminded me that it was New Year's Day). Our hotel, La Union Hotel, was a modest accommodation in a poor neighborhood. The elevator was broken, the finest room had to be ours--large in size but without character but for its Spanish colonial roots. Only the central Square revealed the grandeur of a once vibrant city. Dinner was in Punta Gorda, a more well to do area inside the Bay, called Villa Lagarto Paladar. The setting far surpassed the cuisine. We had earlier determined we wanted to tour our next city, Trinidad, but return by evening to Havana.

January 2, 2014:

There was a loud and rambunctious crowd on the streets of Cienfugos well into the night, noise that only subsided from 3:00 a.m. until 6:00 a.m.. Frank and I walked four blocks from the hotel, descending into the Bay where the smell of sewage was evident. Still early, the streets felt as barren as the one-story buildings of faded shades of blue, pink, yellow and green that we passed. A single boy and his dog walked by. A lone man peddled a bicycle. A frail Cuban directed a donkey carrying a rickety chariot. We crossed the street in front of a 1950s green Chevy.

The sights on our drive to Trinidad were much the same but this smaller city presented a happy surprise--a beachside community that was bustling with people and commerce. The third oldest town in Cuba (1514) with only 75,000 inhabitants, it became one of the most important in Latin America. It had been the site of vast smuggling for more than two centuries--exchanging leather and tobacco for spices and alcohol. It also illegally continued the slave trade. The narrow cobble-stoned streets were filled with art shops and retail operations; many, Melin told us, were privately run. We came upon old mansions, a hotel renovation project and the main City Square with its grand church, architectural museum and palatial home of the Mayor.

Our best find was Los Conspiradores Restaurant, opened just six months earlier--and private--on the second floor of Galeria de Arte featuring the work of Yami Martinez, who made symbolic sculptures of coffee pots depicting women. Her art focused on themes important to Cuban women. I bought one framed drawing with a bicycle (freedom), coffee pot (balance), planter of flowers (beauty), and fish (survival). The Spanish words underneath translated into "the best birthday of all."

Back in Havana, we had dinner at Paladar Vistamar, an elegant Frank Lloyd Wright-type designed house built at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in the exclusive and well-maintained Miramar section of Cuba where ambassadors and the well-to-do and well-connected reside, where Embassies are located.

January 3, 2014:

We began our day in the Santos Suarez neighborhood and the family home of Jose Busto. Rosemary had discovered Jose months ago when researching Cuban art collectors and she had gone to his home our first day in Havana. With some family money, Jose began buying personal objects and art that people leaving the country wanted to leave behind as a very young man. He went from being an art collector to representing artists as an art dealer, and then a private gallery owner, tough to do successfully in Cuba where state policy encourages people to use studio space controlled by the state. Jose had to close his gallery last June and move all his art into the family home and at a neighbor's home across the street. His collection is impressive, displaying works of Jose Bedia, Yoan Capote, Roberto Fabelo and Jose Manual Fors. Busta is in his 40s but his lean frame and gentle manner make him seem younger. He was impeccably dressed but in an understated way--a collared, blue striped shirt, thin silver-buckled black leather belt and black slacks, and Italian high-style pointed leather tie-shoes.

We headed to Old Havana and Plaza Vieja, where Robert's friend, Ike, had grown up and lived until he was 9 and the revolution hit Cuba. The Plaza Vieja became the main gathering place of this area in the 1700s. Ike's grandfather’s house, Casa de los condos de jaruco, is now the site of a museum and gift shop and has a bright yellow and blue exterior. From there we went to Cuervo y Sabrinos Boutique/Museum, an elegant store selling exquisite watches and writing instruments, with a plant-filled exotic courtyard, a fine coffee bar, and artistic wall murals and clock images. Here I had the most delicious cappuccino, topped with cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate shavings. Shortly after we left, we passed a bronze life-sized sculpture of Chopin with whom I sat for a photo op. We lunched at a state-owned restaurant called Cafe Del Oriente, exclusive for tourists. From there we took a walk along Officio Street, one of the first five streets in Havana, to the Plaza de Armas where we browsed along an outdoor market. There I bought an antique necklace for my sister and a paperback copy of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.

Our afternoon also included a visit to Bet Shalom Synagogue where we met a dear friend of Ike's Uncle Efraim and the grand dame of the Jewish movement in Cuba, Adela Dworkin, whose office walls revealed photos of her with Fidel Castro and Steven Spielberg, among others. She told us the 15,000 Cuban Jews dwindled after the revolution down to 1,200 in all of Cuba--with 1,000 of them in Havana. Yet, her synagogue, which was fully renovated in 2000, has an active congregation, including a Sunday school for 100 children. Ike’s grandfather was instrumental with the founding of the synagogue as head of the finance and building committee and he designed the distinctive double doors with the 12 tribes at the front of the building.

Before we headed back to the hotel, we stopped at Hotel Nacional, the once gallant hotel of the 1920s, state-run, located along the broad esplanade known as the Malecon in the middle of Vedado with a view of Havana Harbour, the seawall and the city. It was made famous by many artists, actors, athletes, writers and dignitaries and, in 1946, hosted an infamous mob summit held by Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, dramatized in Godfather II.

Our dinner was at LaGuardia Paladar, inside the once pristine and massive family home of the restaurant's owner. After the revolution, it began to house more and more families and the decay over subsequent years can be seen everywhere, especially the peeling plaster walls and darkened passageways beyond the main stairwell. Today, it houses 44 families, but retains a stark beauty exposed by its magnificent wooden hand-carved Baroque entry doors, its white marble winding staircase, and the inner columns and high ceilings. The Paladar draws an international crowd, and its homey and historic presentation (black and white photos peopled the walls, artifacts like a blue 1950s Crosley refrigerator sat behind our table, brown wooden shutters over the windows) made this a memorable and unique evening.

January 4, 2014:

This is our last full day in Cuba. First, we had a lecture on American-Cuban relations given by Umberto Blanco, an economist with University of Havana's Center for the Study of Urban Economy. Here is what he told us: 18.3% of Cuba's population is now older than 60 and they expect the population will decline in the next fifteen years and Cuba will have, in 30 years, one of the oldest populations in the world. They import half of the fuel they need. They have productivity issues in agriculture (3% of the GDP but employs 18% of the population) and industry. Their technologies are obsolete and their current two-currency system is a big problem. The leadership change in 2006 from Fidel to Raul has begun a gradual shift from their central planned economy to one that has some elements of a market-driven system. A new plan was approved (unveiled for public input in 2010) in April of 2011 and the hope is for 35-40% of the economy to come from non-state businesses within the next few years. Most countries grow by re-investing 20% of their economies but Cuba can't do this as they need $$, resources and technology. Cuba needs to attract foreign investments but to do this their policies must become transparent and efficient and hospitable to other countries.

They see themselves as an important geographical hub--surrounded by Central America to the west, South America, North America, and the Atlantic Ocean and Europe to the east—and want to use that strength in focused areas such as bio-technology and medical services where they are already linked to emergent economies with huge populations like China, Brazil, India and South Africa. Cuba knows it needs to focus on industries relying on knowledge, rather than those that are labor intensive since their population is aging and shrinking and they have large needs. Their cities are crumbling while their educated populace has no opportunity or incentive to use their knowledge to better their lives and their country. While they don't blame the U.S. Embargo for their current plight, Umberto did share with us that the United Nations estimates that Cuba has lost $1.127 trillion from the embargo that began in 1962. He emphasized that Cuba must change tax policies, monetary policies, etc. to change their system and, thus, to change their condition.

The day's other highlight was going to see the Cuban home of Ernest Hemingway, where he lived from 1939 until 1960 with his third and fourth wives and wrote The Old Man and The Sea along with many other stories. This period was the longest he lived anywhere and the estate's fifteen acres may have been the setting where he felt most at home. There was a white barn alongside the yellow house, a pool, and a dock where he kept his beloved fishing yacht, Pilar (near where he buried his four dogs, one named Linda). His wife built a four-story tower next to their living quarters where he was supposed to do his writing, but rumors suggest that the "writing room" was used for time he spent with a young Italian countess who later became a journalist, their relationship labeled platonic as she was but 19 and he was some 25 years older. While her mother often accompanied the countess during her visits to the estate, she and Hemingway's wife were purportedly not allowed to disturb them. Hemingway had many visitors to his Cuban home, known as Finca Vigia or "lookout farm" since it sat on the top of a hill in the city of San Miguel in the neighborhood of San Francisco de Paula.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, when relations between the United States and Cuba were at their lowest point, President Kennedy quietly arranged for Mary Hemingway to travel to Havana and meet with Fidel Castro. It has been reported that the two struck a deal whereby Mrs. Hemingway was allowed to take papers and paintings out of the country and, in return, gave Finca Vifia and its remaining contents to the Cuban people.

We had drinks at Floradita, a bar cafe where the daiquiri was invented and where Ernest Hemingway was frequent patron. Today it is crowded with international tourists who, like me, would pose with the bronze likeness of the author at the far end of the bar as they smoked their Cuban cigars and drank margaritas or daiquiris. The smoke fumes permeated the bar and prompted our early exit.

Our last night was spent at our hotel for dinner, skipping the Las Vegas-type production at Tropicana Cabaret. It began pouring outside and we were grateful to be indoors and dry. That is, until I woke up at about 3:00 a.m. and nearly slipped on a flooded floor, the water's point of entry a mystery.

The bigger mystery to me is Cuba itself. It stirred my emotions as I was immediately taken in by the inherent beauty of this island nation but pained by its decay; its poverty alongside the pride and passion and hopefulness of its people. What was and what could be. The allure and the promise. Yet, the stark reality: like the number of beggars pleading in Spanish--from the shirtless young boy in Trinidad to the mother outside the Saratoga Hotel with her sleeping baby in a stroller telling me, in her broken English, to "feel his fever". It is 4:00 a.m., then 5:00 a.m. as I lay in darkness on the 6th floor of Cuba's finest hotel, towels bunched up on the floor around me, continuous noise coming from the street during what should be the still of night—voices arguing in Spanish, cars honking, the deep growl of large engine transmissions and the sloshing of traffic. A shriek interrupts this steady cacophony of sounds and I strain to discern if it is a cry of alarm or a sudden outburst of laughter. The answer depends on my own interpretation.

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