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Off the Tourist Trail in Cuba

Off the Tourist Trail in Cuba
by Lauren Matison February 29, 2016

A seven-day journey through Havana in search of responsible travel
opportunties yields inspiring discoveries beyond the
government-regulated tourism industry.
It’s been like this for the past 56 years, you think the first time you
see Havana’s Linea Street: a wide thoroughfare lined with crowded buses,
construction trucks and art deco buildings cracking in various shades of
sherbet. Old Chevy Bel Airs, Studebakers, and Pontiacs clatter by. The
air is hot and thick with exhaust, and yet you could stand there all
day, soaking in the hustle-bustle of a bygone era. But the weight
of bike-gear donations on your back reminds you that you didn’t come
here just to stare at a crumbling, forgotten world.

Sweating in spandex, my husband and I, along with four Cuban cyclists,
were bound for a rural village 25 miles west of the city to aid a
struggling youth racing club. It was part of a semi-improvised plan to
venture off the tourist checklist, take the
carriage-and-horseshit-covered road less traveled, and maybe make a
difference. A widespread lack of Internet in Cuba made it more difficult
than usual for a conscious traveler to know who to trust and what to
expect from a country still largely cloaked in mystery and communism.

Cuba lies 90 miles to the south of Florida, though it looks even closer
than that on a map, as if it’s meant to be attached to the United
States. While President Obama’s recent strides to ease tensions between
the two countries has led to the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana
and boosted American tourism by 77% in 2015, the island couldn’t feel
farther from home—and the 21st century. Now is still the best time to go
and marvel at the beautiful mess the U.S. embargo has crystallized since
1960, but locals like Marta Nuñez Sarmiento, professor of sociology at
the University of Havana, caution that change will happen slowly.

“It’ll take five years to make a new beginning once the embargo is
lifted; then we will be able to breathe and build better homes,” said
Sarmiento. “Tourism, mining, communications, education, and sports are
all owned by the state. Many Cubans feel handcuffed. State-employed
doctors make $34 a month while privately operated taxi drivers earn six
to 10 times more than those in the public sector.” Sarmiento
acknowledged that the cost of living in Cuba is low, and expressed her
hope that health care and education remain free no matter what happens next.

Before we left I spoke to American expats and locals like Alejandro
Berroa Álvarez, a well-regarded guide from San Cristóbal Agency, who
encouraged independent outreach for those travelers wanting to make a
deeper, more direct impact. So I spent a lot of time in the beginning of
my trip on my own, behind the lens, captivated by a photogenic land of
broken dreams. It was easy to get caught up in the surreal privilege of
being there, able to roam the pre-Brooklynized neighborhoods and vibrant
Baroque-designed plazas where McDonalds and the Gap will surely tarnish
what makes Cuba special. Weaving around the narrow streets of Havana, I
found Che etched into the sides of buildings, kids playing soccer, stray
dogs hovering at my heels, and families sitting on crumbling stoops
watching me watch them. At first glance, Cuba is like a live art show,
the people part of a moving canvas. Click. Click. Click. Later, after
several mornings spent bringing food and toiletries to two homeless men
in Parque José Martí, I walked along the Malecón, waves crashing up
against the seawall, and realized that if you get swept up in the
dilapidated charm, you risk missing out on the big picture.

At Álvarez’s suggestion, I travelled to the outskirts of Havana to meet
Isis Salcines and get a tour of Vivero Alamar, a 25-acre farm that her
father, a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture, started in
1997. Salcines pointed out the long bright green rows of Black Seeded
Simpson lettuce, the eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, and spiritual
Afro-Cuban plants. She noted that 70% of food in Cuba is organic by
default—there isn’t money for chemical sprays, except on potatoes and
tobacco. “Havana is slower than the rest of the country when it comes to
eating vegetables,” said Salcines, a rare Cuban vegetarian who dreams of
having a Whole Foods. “At most state-owned restaurants, you’ll see them
as a garnish, a symbolic vegetable on the plate beside a mountain of
rice and beans and meat.” Ninety percent of the food harvested at the
farm goes to the local community in Alamar, where Salcines works with
primary schools once a week to teach students about environmentalism and
a healthful diet. The remaining produce gets picked up at the farm by
privately owned paladares, the informal restaurants run by many Cubans
out of their homes.

Iván Chefs Justo is one of these seasonally minded eateries, where
Salcines’ husband, Dennis Hernandez, cooks, churning out fresh ceviche,
Magret duck breast, and entrées inspired by mushrooms, a rare delicacy
in Cuba. Al Carbón, a sister restaurant specializing in charcoal-grilled
dishes like suckling pig tacos, just opened down the street near the
National Museum of Fine Arts in Old Havana. Following Salcines’ advice,
after dinner we strolled five minutes to Bodeguita del Medio, Ernest
Hemingway’s favorite mojito haunt, where the drinks are strong, the mint
comes from Vivero Alamar, and the nightly live music sends people
dancing into the street. Restaurants like Cafe Ajiaco, Moraleja, Paladar
Los Mercaderes, and newcomers like El Litoral are trading in imported
ingredients and the predictable plate of arroz moro and ropa vieja to
join the more cutting-edge, farm-to-table movement. Salcines believes it
will only keep growing with the help of tourists who are hungry for an
alternative to forgettable meals at government-run restaurants.

“Paladares are a wonderful way to support private enterprises and
inspire sustainability while going off the beaten path,” Álvarez told me
while leading a Cuba Explorer trip to Las Terrazas, a pioneering
self-sustaining community housed within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. As
the bus bumped along through lush terrain, scarcely another vehicle in
sight, others chimed in, eager to talk about what responsible travel
means in Cuba. Several people spoke of being unprepared for how great an
impact their little offerings would have: one traveller had given soccer
balls to overjoyed children; another had handed out repurposed sandals
to women who couldn’t afford new shoes; and yet another had brought old
clothes, pens and pencils, and USB flash drives that she said were
received like tiny bars of gold. At the Almacenes de San José market, a
woman on my tour bought a painting from an emerging artist named Carlos
Barreiro and has been helping him sell his artwork in the States since then.

An hour after leaving Havana, we all got off the bus and blinked twice.
Founded as part of a reforestation project in 1968, Las Terrazas is a
royal palm dreamscape; an eco-community comprised of 1,200 residents,
artist workshops, a craft market, a clinic, some 70 bird species,
waterfall-laden swimming holes, and a solitary hotel built around lime
trees. We bought art and colorful ceramic mugs at the market, and then
followed Álvarez along a narrow dirt path, passing black and white
roosters, peacocks, playful huskies, and clotheslines hung with
paintings and underwear on our way to visit Lester Campa, a
world-renowned artist. In his lakefront studio, Campa exhibits tableaux
of towering palm trees and sensuous natural settings. If you’re lucky
enough to find an incomplete piece lying around, Campa may offer to
finish it for you on the spot.

On our last day, Peter Marshall, a Canadian-turned-Cuban and the owner
of cycling tour group CanBiCuba, led the way as we biked out of Havana
to meet the youth racing club in Punta Brava. We rode by fields of cows
and waved back at drivers in classic cars. At a beach bar made of wood
and palm fronds, we sipped a cold Tu Kola and watched perfect sets of
waves go to waste without surfers. When we arrived at the club coach’s
home, 10 beaming kids in their bike kits put heavy coconuts with
colorful straws in our hands and showed us to a table filled with food:
banana bread pudding, fried plantains, sandwiches with spicy tomato jam,
and bowls of guava and papaya.

While cradling their new (our old) saddles, pedals, and shoes, the boys
spoke of life on two wheels, how they train six days a week after school
and aspire to become pro cyclists, regardless of the challenges they
face. Listening to their stories as they held the recycled gear and
grinned the widest grins, it occurred to me just how much this moment
meant to the club. The donations and beat-up bicycles allowed them to
escape everything else, if only for a little while. The kids hugged
farewell and chased after our wheels, which kicked up mud on the
fractured concrete alley. I was surprised by having to brush away tears,
a salty mix of joy and guilt.

Back in Havana, I sat along the Malecón, washing down my Cuban sandwich
from La Chucheria with a splash of Havana Club rum and pineapple and a
whiff of exhaust from a pink ‘59 Buick Invicta. A fisherman in a
makeshift Styrofoam boat floated through ripples of gold as the sun
dipped below the sea. It was a perfect sendoff, but my mind had already
left, drifting towards new plans to ship bike supplies to those kids
with big dreams in Punta Brava.

Source: Responsible Travel in Cuba | Travel + Leisure –
www.travelandleisure.com/articles/traveling-in-cuba-on-your-own

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