Handing out baseballs in Cuba: A "Day Trips" travelogue.
Before I boarded a cruise ship for a seven-day, educational tour of five Cuban ports in early January, I asked Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta in Tampa, Florida, who has visited Cuba several times, “What should I bring?”
“Why not make a friend or two?” he answered. “The Cubans are short of consumer goods. Sometimes the simplest things to us have great value to them. They love baseball.”
The idea was born. The Cubans and I have many things in common, and baseball is one of them. Over the Christmas holidays I bought a baseball every chance I got – six total. After I got to the island nation, I wished I had brought chewing gum, too. American chewing gum is very popular in Cuba.
Thank you President Obama for opening the door to travel to Cuba by ordinary Americans like me, even if it isn’t completely unfettered of government stipulations. The easiest way for Americans to go to Cuba is by educational tour, even though most of the rest of the world has been vacationing there for years.
The Cuban tourist industry is ready for the onslaught of Americans. Personally, I think it’s a case of being careful of what you wish for. The Yankee dollar has historically come at a high price to the Cubans.
Ready or not, the Yanks are coming
“People-to-people” is a U.S. State Department approved program that certifies that Americans are traveling to Cuba for educational purposes. The idea is that Americans and Cubans will benefit from one-on-one interactions.
Because of the education requirement, the 600 or so Americans on the ship were given two to four lectures a day about Cuban history and culture. The lectures were presented by staff members of the University of Havana and were more interesting than the faux-Las Vegas shows every evening on the ship. The informal talks added an interesting dimension to the trip.
Several people I talked to before I went said they wanted to visit Cuba before American corporations got there and ruined it. I think it will be a while before that happens. Foreign investment in the country seems to have been minimal up until now, other than 50 years of Russian assistance, and more foreign money in large quantities is unlikely to be allowed by the Cuban government anytime soon.
Unlike most national capitals, the Cuban state house dominates the Havana skyline without skyscrapers blocking the view. The capitol dome is encased in scaffolding like many of the buildings in the city.
Baseball #1: The postcard vendor in Santiago de Cuba
Our first port-of-call in Santiago de Cuba on the island’s eastern tip was fraught with confusion. Maybe it was me, but it seemed like it was our cruise hosts. This was Celestyal Cruise Lines' third tour to Cuba, and the crew seemed to be still working out the bugs. In contrast, the notoriously bureaucratic Cuban government officials seemed the model of efficiency. We got through customs effortlessly. Figuring out which of the waiting tour buses we should board was chaotic.
Finally, we were on the motor coach to our predetermined and regimented destinations – Moncada Barracks, Revolution Square, and an Afro-Cuban cultural presentation. At the San Juan Hill Memorial, I thought of hurling a baseball into the playground at the bottom of the hill. That seemed ill advised with several armed military guards standing around the monuments.
Of what I saw, Santiago de Cuba looks like an old neighborhood in Miami. Cuba’s second-largest metropolis, it is also one of the oldest and the most revered settlements in the country. Major battles of the Spanish-American War and 1959 war that brought Fidel to power were fought here. It is their Lexington and Concord.
As we passed a large parking lot near the city center where people climbed into the open beds of large Russian-built trucks that served as buses, the guide on our luxury tour bus explained that Fidel’s private life is a state secret. Nobody knows how many wives or children he has because only Pope John Paul has had more assassination attempts.
The city was noticeably free of litter and trash. Men pushed carts holding brooms and shovels around the streets. Probably to alleviate the waste left by the horse-drawn carts that filled the narrow streets. Businesses along the major thoroughfares seemed to be thriving. Our guide said that we were not allowed to get off the bus except at the stops or the port. We could not walk back to the ship by ourselves.
It turned out that our guide was misinformed. We could come and go from the port area, although we had less than two hours of free time. It would have been plenty of time for a brisk walk to the old Spanish church on the town square and back.
Feeling caged in at the cruise ship terminal, I shopped at the dozen or so vendors just inside the port gate, but bought little. I struck up a conversation with a man in his early 40s who along with his mother was selling postcards, books, and T-shirts. My rudimentary Spanish and his imited English didn’t allow for much depth in our conversation, but he had a friendly smile. He promised to mail my postcards if I wanted to buy stamps, too.
As the sun was dropping behind the wall of warehouses surrounding the parking lot where his booth was set up, I quickly scribbled notes to my grandsons and to myself, and handed the postcards back to the salesman. He said he would mail them tomorrow. (It took five weeks, but I did eventually get the postcards from Cuba.)
I asked if he had children. He said he had three, two girls and a boy. I pulled a new baseball from my bag and handed it to him. “Esto es para sus hijos,” I said, stumbling over the words. His face lit up, but he hesitated. I said it again and extended the ball to him again. This time he took the ball and smiled broadly while thanking me. He showed the ball to his mother sitting in the shade. Then he reached out to shake my hand with his friendly smile beaming. I had made my first friend.
Baseball #2: A tres peso bill with Che Guevara’s picture
Like any good tourist I searched the Internet for recommendations on what souvenirs to bring back from Cuba. Of course, cigars and rum topped the lists. Another item mentioned by seasoned travelers was the three-peso CUP bill with a picture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Sounded easy enough.
Cuba has a dual monetary system. There is the convertible currency used by foreign visitors which is about equal to a U.S. dollar. Most of the stores that sell imported goods or deal with tourists accept only this currency, called CUCs. The rest of the country uses the local currency called CUP pesos which have about a 25 to 1 CUC peso exchange rate. Needless to say, the locals love to get CUC pesos. Supposedly, the government is working to do away with the CUP peso in 2016.
As the cruise ship slipped out of the Santiago de Cuba harbor, I went to a people-to-people meet-and-greet with Cubans working on the ship. There were seven Cubans on the stage of the auditorium answering questions from 50 or so Americans in the audience. About halfway through the session, we broke up into small groups. Carlito, a bartender on the ship, came to our table.
He was a graduate of the University of Havana with a degree in hospitality service and spoke excellent English. He has worked in Europe, but this cruise ship gives him a chance to be home in Havana with his family for at least an afternoon every week. He really likes his job and hopes to become a bar manager.
I told him of my attempts to exchange a CUC for a three-peso CUP at the Moncado Barracks gift shop and at the port’s souvenir stands. No one seemed to have one or couldn’t understand what I was asking. He said he had one that I could have.
That was nice of him, but really? There were nearly a 1,000 people on the cruise ship and I really didn’t expect him to honor the promise, no matter how well intentioned.
The next afternoon, I stopped by the bar to get a glass of wine in an effort to get as close as possible to the $35-a-day that I paid for the cruise’s unlimited drink package.
There was Carlito behind the bar. Tall and handsome with a very personable smile, he recognized me right away. “It’s my friend from yesterday,” he said enthusiastically. “I have something for you.” He pulled a tres-peso bill from his wallet, the only bill in his wallet. There was Che Guevara on the bill in orange ink. I was speechless. I took the bill and thanked him repeatedly, looking at the bill as if it were the Holy Grail I had been searching for. It was more exciting than I imagined.
“I have something for you,” I said as I grabbed the glass of wine. I ran down to my cabin and grabbed a five-peso CUC bill and a baseball.
Between his customers, I handed Carlito the CUC bill and said thank you again. He smiled and said no, he couldn’t accept it. From my other hand I handed him the baseball and his face turned into a question mark. “Do you have children?” I asked.
“I have a son, but he likes soccer,” he said with a laugh.
“Here, take it,” I said. “It’s for him. Maybe he’ll start to like baseball.”
“I love baseball,” he said with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. “Me too,” I replied. For the rest of the cruise we greeted each other as old friends every time we saw each other.
Baseball #3: No rain delay
The second day of the cruise we spent at sea. Occasionally the island was visible on the horizon, but mostly it was just ocean as far as the eye could see.
The educational lectures continued. The day’s topics were history, music, rum, and cigars.
The next morning, before going to breakfast, I went to the upper deck of the ship to see the capital of Cuba for the first time. The city was actually quite beautiful, but much shorter than I expected. The capitol building loomed over the city of three- to six-story buildings. Palm trees swayed in the parks along the waterfront. Old Spanish churches towered above the ornate colonial buildings and Russian-era apartment buildings. Some of the buildings were painted pastel colors and others were made of limestone stained black that looked like they would crumble after the morning rain. On the main thoroughfares old American cars mixed with Korean, Russian, and Chinese cars. I felt excited to be in a forbidden place.
Our tour for the day was the model of efficiency. Our tour guide, Joanny, was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs as we exited customs and the cruise ship terminal. He walked us around Old Havana, telling us about the landmarks as we went. His narrative included advice about dealing with the locals, and then he turned us lose for an afternoon of exploration.
As a light rain began to fall, three of us from the cruise hailed a late model Hyundai taxi. The driver pointed out landmarks in his heavily accented English as he took us to El Floridita Bar, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar for daiquiris when he lived in Havana. (For mojitos, Hemingway preferred Sloppy Joe’s Bar on the other side of downtown.)
When we came out of the crowded bar, the rain was falling harder. Out front were several bright yellow three-wheeled taxis that the locals call CoCo taxis because they resemble opened coconut shells. Later I learned that the U.S. State Department advised Americans not to take the motorcycle-powered taxis because they were considered unsafe.
With the roar of what sounded like a lawnmower engine, the cart sped off on rain-polished streets of the old city toward the port with three of us in the back. We were soaked as we climbed out, laughing and yelling at the passengers in another CoCo that we had raced back to the ship.
I handed the driver a 10-peso bill for a seven-peso fare. Then I reached into my bag and pulled out a bright white baseball. “Esto es para sus ninos,” I said. He smiled and clapped me on the back. “Muchas gracias,” he said, as a policeman blew his whistle and pumped his arm for the taxi to keep moving. We smiled at each other for a moment and then he was gone into the buzzing traffic of old American cars, Chinese trucks, and bright yellow CoCo taxis.
Baseball #4: “Pay attention now, my children”
The buses were waiting for us as we came out of the customs building the next morning, our last day in Havana. Joanny welcomed us again with a big smile as he pointed us to bus number 1.
The morning’s bus ride took us along the Atlantic seawall with the waves crashing over the sidewalk and further into the city. We went to the Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel used to give his hours-long speeches, past the University of Havana, through neighborhoods, and business districts. My feeling was that there were no affluent sections of town. Only areas less impoverished than others.
Joanny seemed to speak openly and honestly about his city and country. He pointed out the obvious: that housing and transportation were huge problems in Havana. What few tall buildings there were in this city of 1.5 million people were government buildings or had laundry hanging from the balconies. We saw a few hotels, and no towering bank or insurance buildings to mar the skyline.
As we got off the bus after a day of sightseeing for our last afternoon of free time in Havana, I handed our bus driver and Joanny a tip. He had been a friend as well as our guide. He called our tour group “my children.”
As I stepped to the street, I reached into my bag and pulled out a new baseball and handed it to Joanny. “For you,” I said in English. He looked at the white ball in disbelief and then began to laugh as I was being pushed away by the crush of passengers exiting the bus. “Thank you,” he yelled after me and waved. “Thank you very much.”
Baseball #5: Stepping back 500 years
The Canadians and Europeans on the cruise ship were not limited to the mandatory people-to-people excursions like the Americans. That didn’t mean that the Americans couldn’t pay extra for the other trips offered by the cruise line. In fact, the cruise line was anxious to sell as many of the excursions as they could. One of these was an all-day bus trip to the colonial city of Trinidad about 85 kilometers outside Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos is one of the seven important cities of Cuba. It is the only Cuban city founded by French settlers. It had a very European look surrounded by very Latin American-looking neighborhoods. Our guide, Xavier, pointed out the landmarks, such as a replica of the Parthenon built in a cemetery, as our big motor coach maneuvered the narrow two-lane roads.
It was interesting to see the countryside up close. At one point, two horsemen herding cattle along the highway slowed the bus to a crawl. In Cuba, the cattle can only be slaughtered by government butchers. The penalty for the unauthorized killing of a cow is more than killing your wife’s lover, Xavier said.
Once again, our guide seemed to speak honestly about his country. It took him three years to maneuver the bureaucracy to get the title to his Russian-made motorcycle. “The U.S. will never be able to conquer Cuba because they don’t have the right forms,” he said to laughs.
The excursion sales staff on the ship said going to Trinidad was like stepping back 500 years in time. It was pretty rustic. The town’s three churches were the only buildings taller than three stories. Horse-drawn carts nearly outnumbered the cars, although we did see a couple of new Peugeots.
The town was founded by rich sugar plantation owners from Spain. The big houses that sugarcane built were now government schools and museums. For a town far from the tourist centers, it still had sizable markets on the narrow streets paved with stones brought as ballast on the ships from Europe. The town’s women are known for their embroidery work that they sell to tourists.
Xavier led the dozen of us from the bus first to a pottery factory, then to a still-functioning Catholic church, and through the markets. At each place, he showed our government vouchers to the guards at the door.
The town was interesting, but hardly worth the high price that we paid the cruise line. I felt we were being herded from approved spot to approved spot with not much time to actually get a feel for the place or the people.
As we were being rushed to the cafeteria for a late lunch, we passed a small group of children about 12 years old wearing their blue and white school uniforms. On the entire visit we had seen children only at a distance. In all of the big cities, especially Havana, we had been accosted by beggars asking for money “to buy milk for their children.” But it was never children begging, like in other countries; it was just adults asking for money.
In Cuba, the health care is free and education is mandatory from kindergarten to high school. The kids were all in school. The adults were looking for any opportunity to get a few of the CUC pesos from the rich Americans.
I approached the young boy walking with two girls. “Buenos dias,” I said and handed him a baseball. “For you,” I said in English. “Adios,” I said as he took it and I rushed off to catch up with my tour group. I waved to him as I turned to see my group turning the corner a block away. “Muchas gracias,” he yelled at me in a bewildered tone. Before I turned the corner, I looked back to see him still standing there staring at the new leather baseball in his hand with a smile beaming across his face. He looked up at me and waved.
Baseball #6: The cruise ship
The first week of January was only the Celestyal Cruise line’s third time to make the weekly journey from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to Havana and back. The Greek cruise line is famous for its moderately priced trips among the Greek islands, so you would think they would have the basics of customer service more polished than they did. The food was mediocre at best, and the waiters and bartenders were overwhelmed trying to keep up with passengers ordering blender drinks on their all-you-can-drink packages.
One place the cruise line excelled was with our rooms. Although we had a small cabin, it was comfortable. Here’s a tip: There are a limited number of electrical outlets in the cabins, so bring a power strip to charge your electronic devices.
The best part of our room was our cabin stewards. Quarry was a young man from the Philippines, and Milli was from Havana. Every morning they greeted us by name with a smile. In the evenings, when we returned, a towel was folded into some whimsical creature on the freshly made bed.
Supposedly, all gratuities were included in the price of the cruise, yet Quarry and Milli acted like we were their special friends even when they were obviously very tired.
Early on the last morning, as we stuffed our souvenirs into the suitcases, my wife and I laid out a few things on the bed for our stewards – our last 40 CUC pesos, a $20 bill, some trinkets from home, and a bright new baseball. “Esto es para sus hijos, Milli, muchas gracias por todo.”
Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for the past 24 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips," is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 40312, South Austin, TX 78704.
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