Cuba tour takes in gardens, history

Our trip to Cuba in March of this year sounded like a gardener’s dream come true. Cuba boasts more than 6,500 species of native plants, more than half of them indigenous. The trip was a way to see Cuba with other West Coast gardeners interested in the country’s history, people and horticulture.

Dreams and reality collided, however. A visit from President Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones soon after our trip put a kink in many of our plans, forcing us to improvise and adapt.

The trip was a People-to-People Exchange, the only legal way for Americans to visit Cuba at this time. A special license is required by the U.S. to visit Cuba. The criteria for a visit emphasizes education and meaningful interactions with Cuban people.

The educational side of our trip involved meeting with botanists, scientists, farmers and educators. In addition to our Cuban guide and an American guide, we had Cuban botanist Carlos Sanchez with us for our 10-day, outdoor-classroom adventure.

Sanchez, senior professor and research botanist at the National Botanic Garden of the University of Havana, will speak in Seattle on May 10 and May 11.

Sanchez, 62, guided us through the 1,482-acre National Botanical Garden in Havana that opened in 1984.

Our time in Havana was constantly overshadows by Obama and the Rolling Stones, even though they weren’t there yet. It was something we couldn’t have predicted. They arrived after us, but the president’s and the band’s people tied up many of Havana’s hotels for a month prior to the visits. In a city that has very few good hotels, tour groups lost their reservations and were scrambling for rooms.

The shortage of accommodations in Havana is one reason that the Cuban government has agreed to allow the arrival of cruise ships, as tourists live on board and eat some meals there as well.

The only hotel that the travel company could find was a building that would have been deemed uninhabitable in the U.S. It was our own Amityville Horror Hotel for four nights. It was 22 floors and had only one reliable elevator. There was little or no hot water.

Supplies were, shall we say, not supplied. One woman in our group wanted to take a bath rather than a shower, but had no stopper for the bathtub. The hotel owned one stopper, which had to be delivered to your door and returned later to the front desk. Toilet tissue? Don’t plan on it.

There is no way to use an American credit card in Cuba. You have to bring cash. Getting it changed into Cuban units of currency can be a challenge, so exchange plenty.

The state owns all of the hotels but has loosened its grip recently as it tries to provide more rooms for the impending rush of tourists. Residences with tourist rooms for rent are called Casa Particulars and are springing up everywhere. It is a way for a citizen to earn a little extra money and could be an excellent cultural opportunity for the visitor and owner. It would be best to look for referrals before staying in one of these residences as conditions could vary dramatically.

The fall of Russia in 1991 dealt a catastrophic blow to the Cuban economy. Fuel and pesticides imports from Russia stopped immediately. Oxen still do the work that tractors used to. There were severe food shortages. Even today, Cuba imports 80 percent of its food.

The restaurant industry has taken an interesting turn as the government, which has owned and operated Cuban restaurants for decades, recently allowed private ownership. The restaurants are called Paladares and it was a delight to dine in them, and to talk with the owners who are happy to have their own business.

Cuba may be impoverished, but it is the most literate country of Latin America with 97 percent literacy. Cuba also exports doctors to 54 countries.

Cuba’s free educational system has created a highly educated society, but has not provided the infrastructure to create jobs. Consequently, there are a large number of citizens holding doctorate and masters degrees, working in the tourism industry and other nonprofessional positions. Many young, highly educated Cubans also emigrate.

Those in the tourism industry can make a greater salary because of tips. There is concern among some economists that this disparity will drive more professionals out of their careers and into tourism positions, leading to a brain-drain in key fields.

After our enlightening stay in Havana, we next toured the lush Escambray mountains, botanical gardens and the seaside of Central and southwest Cuba. The trip included a visit to an impressive urban organic farm, all things Hemingway, a seaside stay at Cienfuegos and a walk along the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, deep in thought about historical events.

Then it was time to head back to Havana for our last night. Our expedition company was able to find us a different, slight better, hotel in Havana. It did include an exploding toilet, however.

After the toilet incident, we were headed to dinner at an upscale Havana restaurant. On the way, we were treated to a caravan ride in 1950s American convertible cars.

It was an idyllic ending to our trip, until the wires that were dangling from the dashboard of our car began belching black smoke. The resourceful owner jumped out, threw open the hood, and ran to his trunk where he stored a bucket with water. He flung the water into the car, dousing the burning wires — and me at the same time.

We were rescued by one of the other cars and arrived at the beautiful restaurant looking like tempest-tossed survivors, with hair styled by Black & Decker.

Travel travails over, would I have rather stayed on a cruise ship? No. No matter the hardships with hotels, money exchange, exploding toilets and cold water showers; the memories and laughs are priceless.

In Cuba, if it can go wrong, it probably will. The good news is that Cubans are accustomed to making do and fixing things — as is clearly evidenced by the fact that there are still 60,000 American cars still running with locally made parts.

Visiting this island is all about the people, like Sanchez who dreamed of seeing his son receive his doctorate in Miami, which he recently did, thanks to some help by Northwest Horticulture Society past-president Greg Graves. Graves worked through a mountain of paperwork to make it happen. Graves met Sanchez on a previous trip to Cuba, and kept in touch with him, ultimately leading to Sanchez’s upcoming visit to the Seattle area.

For Puget Sound travelers who are simply seeking sunny beaches, Puerto Vallarta or Hawaii may be good choices. For adventuresome souls who would like to enjoy a rich culture and see history in the making, Cuba is the place.

Learn more

Carlos Sanchez will speak about the ferns of Cuba at an event from 3 to 5:30 p.m. May 10 at the Elisabeth Miller Garden in Seattle. Includes a tour of the garden. $45 nonmembers/$35 members, light appetizers and drinks included;

Sanchez will speak about conservation in Cuba at an event from 6:45 to 9 p.m. May 11 at the Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle. Lecture begins at 7:15 p.m. $10 nonmembers/$5 members;

Sandra Schumacher, Herald Net

May 7, 2016

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