Just 11 days on this humid island but its magic was palpable very quickly after we arrived. Our capable guide, Sandra Vazquez, and her boyfriend Alejandro – our driver – wove a tapestry for us: we met a farmer who is a major agricultural policy thinker, were included in a family party with a couple who had served as Cuba’s ambassadors to Canada, the UK, and Mexico, were guided through Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts – Cuban wing by a brilliant young curator; hiked in two national parks, one with a naturalist, the other a climber; and heard music from bands in restaurants, bars, on the street, in clubs – everywhere you turn music is throbbing sometimes softly like a gentle breeze that lifts you from your seat, sometimes with an Afro-Cuban beat. We have danced our way across Cuba – dancing with Sandra and Alejandro who are fabulous on their feet and who never say no to the music.
We’ve stayed in casas particulares – private homes, where we had our own rooms but with families – in one case not present [think Airbnb]. The range of accommodations helped us see a wide swath of social classes up close. In Vinales in western Cuba on the edge of a national park with gorgeous magotes – limestone haystack-shaped mountains – we stayed with two sisters who kept us laughing even with our fractured Spanish and who served us absolutely delicious meals. There we tried sleeping in a closet-sized bedroom with a mattress that seemed like it could have been stuffed with Spanish moss and a bath that had no toilet seat and no soap. Another evening we stayed in a large home in leafy Nuevo Vedado, an affluent section of Havana, with spa jets for every bathtub and a staff assisting our hosts with meals, etc. There we were fortunate to be included in a dinner/cocktail party with 14 or so guests where we learned from Jose Fernandez de Cossio [“Pepe”] and his wife Tanya about their roles as student leaders in the revolution of 1959 [Pepe was imprisoned and tortured by Batista’s forces] and his posting as ambassador to Canada at age 33 by Fidel. One of their sons fought with the African National Congress armed wing in South Africa in the 80s – and is now the ambassador to South Africa. Two other children are expats in Miami. Their family captures the tensions and conflicts that trouble this society – the frustrations with the economic deprivations enforced by the US blockade that drive some into exile, vs the pride in the opportunity, freedom and sovereignty that the revolution has achieved. For example we spent an evening with Alejandro’s mother, a 70 year old doctor who was a pre-teen during the years of the revolution [1956-58] who in the city of Santiago secretly carried messages under her clothes from revolutionary cadres and sometimes ferried a handgun hidden under her skirt. She is incredibly grateful for what the revolution has made possible for her life. As she explained, she had three strikes against her in pre-revolutionary Cuba: she was poor, a woman, and black. She became an MD, has practiced in several countries in Africa including Guinea-Bissau [where Cuba sends its over-supply of doctors as a form of foreign aid] and has traveled to every continent on medical missions and conferences, which as she says, was unimaginable to her as a girl growing up in Batista’s Cuba.
The landscapes on this island were an unexpected treasure. Vinales was to me the most memorable with its limestone hillocks draped with dense jungle – palms, vines, thorn trees that provide a green tablecloth to the cream-colored limestone. We walked through tremendous stalagtite and stalagmite-filled caves, took a boat through an underground river, and hiked with a climber to the top of one mountain with views that stretched over the surrounding small tobacco farms with their brightly colored wooden houses. Alejandro took us to visit a farmer who showed us his fields, his drying house, and the way to harvest tobacco – February is harvest season. He’s the third generation to farm this land but his son won’t follow him – the work is too hard, the economics too precarious. He rolled us cigars on the spot – his is the best tobacco-growing region in Cuba and he claims some family secrets in how its grown and how the leaves are prepared. We’re bringing back a supply for Cody and Noah to evaluate.
In Cienfuegos we were alongside a calm bay set just back from the Caribbean, in a small city founded by French from France and Louisiana in the early 1800s, with wide boulevards and parks. At Playa Giron we snorkeled alongside reefs that hugged the shore in the Bahia de Cochinos – Bay of Pigs – where the infamous CIA-backed failed invasion of Cuba landed in the early 60s. In Trinidad we swam in delicious waters on the reef-lined coast, then hiked in 1000+ foot mountains set just back from the coast, the Sierra Escambrey where Che Guevara led a column of revolutionaries in the months leading up to the overthrow of Batista. We hiked along beautiful trails in the national park there, swimming in waterfall-filled pools along the way, surrounded by dense virgin jungle with epiphytes filling the branches of every tree and orchids and other flowers hanging from the sky.
Of course the urban landscape of Havana is monumental – architecture on a grand scale from so many different periods from classic to art nouveau, art deco – and beautifully lit by the sun setting or rising across the nearby sea, then by lighting at night that rivals Paris or Barcelona. Though Havana is crumbling in many places the beauty is formidable. And the commitment to architectural and historic preservation is fierce: the City Historian has renovated and restored hundreds of buildings, brought back neighborhoods once considered lost, and returned the profits from re-purposed spaces to support social safety net programs for Havana’s poorest. It’s an amazing story that merits another whole communication.
Ending the malicious US blockade of this proud, determined country is long overdue. Fernando Funes, the farmer we met with our first full day here at his Finca Marta, is an example of the capability, innovation and confident spirit that one finds in Cuba. He has chosen to farm organically a healthy range of crops in one of the most inhospitable locations in order to prove what is possible at his demonstration farm – and inspire a path for a revolution in Cuban agriculture, which still suffers from the legacy of a one-crop economy of sugar cane and the failures of collective farming policies that have made Cuba import 60% of its food today. Funes has worked in agriculture in South America, Asia and Africa, has recorded a TED Talk with his vision, and will likely have a major impact on Cuban farming and agricultural policies going forward – hopefully. The man is inspiring and you leave him ready to volunteer in the fields. He represents what is possible in Cuba – in spite of the blockade. But the other side of the country is a story of frustration and exhaustion waiting for an improvement in material standards, leading to a loss of hope for the economy, professionals piecing together multiple jobs as itinerant musicians, taxi drivers, bellhops in order to put food on the table – and some dreaming of exile.
We leave Cuba with a personal understanding of the people’s warmth, their courage and achievements [free health care and education for all, a narrower income/inequality gap than would ever be imaginable in the US, a noticeable unselfconscious ease in racial mixing of people across all skin colors/tones] — and embarrassment at the continued punishment our country inflicts on their economy. But more than all that, we feel the Cuban spirit, strong like the seductive music that carried us dancing all across this beautiful island. We loved our time here and were incredibly fortunate to meet the people we did.
Dick & Deane
Sandra’s Secret Cuba
My wife and daughter and I recently returned from a fantastic ten-day trip to Cuba. Tom Miller, co founder of Green Cities Fund, Imogene Tondre and Varun Mehra were incredibly generous to facilitate our trip, introducing us to Sandra Vasquez and her team of dedicated Cuban professionals.
Sandra and her cousin, Anita, met us at Jose Marti airport on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Within minutes, we were swept up by their warm smiles and headed towards Havana in a beautiful, blue and white, 1956 Ford Fairlane. First stop, Casa Raquel, our casa particular in the Vedado district where our hosts greeted us with open arms. After unloading our bags we were off with Anita for a very pleasant walking tour of Havana Vieja and dinner at one of Havana’s most famous restaurants, Paladar Le Guarida. From the roof top bar, we enjoyed an incredible view of the city and a full moon over the ocean.
After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, we headed out to visit Isis Salcines and her farther Miguel at Organoponico Vivero Alamar, a cooperative farm that he and other leaders established 1997. Isis is one of the most open, kind and visionary people I have ever met and the farm is nothing less than inspirational. Like other bright and capable Cubans who we so enjoyed meeting during our trip, Isis has travelled abroad extensively and will be attending the Eco Farm conference in California this winter where we will see her again.
From Alamar we drove west to our next farm visit with Fernando Funes and his wife Claudia at Finca Marta. From the moment we walked through their front gate, we knew that we had arrived at a very unique and special farm. After the best lunch in all of Cuba, we toured their farm, named in memory of Fernando’s mother. Together, they have created a model farm, complete with their own bio-gas production, rain and wastewater retention systems, and the most amazing production garden I have ever seen. And honestly, we didn’t see one tractor or motorized piece of equipment. Fernando did say that they badly needed refrigeration and were hoping to receive funding for this from a Japanese NGO.
Fernando had recently returned from North Korea and Washington DC where he had been invited to share his Cuban farm experience. And the day following our visit, he and Claudia were expecting a TV crew from Cuba 360 degrees to film their operation to share with the world.
And now comes the part where Sandra shined everyday. She had made us a special dinner reservation at Ivan Chef Justo. We were so impressed with the freshness of the food and the unique menu that we decided right them and there that this would be the restaurant where we would celebrate our final dinner in Cuba with the many of the friends we met along the way.
Tuesday morning, having arrived in Cuba just 36 hours prior, we were off with our newest friend, Alex, in a rented car to Pinar del Rio Province and Vinales. This was an exciting addition to our trip, made possible by the incredible feat of Alex finding a car to rent! Along the way, we stopped by the home of a local tobacco farmer to walk his field and learn about his cultivation techniques. He rolled us a homegrown cigar, which Emily puffed on!
With its limestone cliffs, caves and lush fields of tobacco, Vinales is a must see and one of Cuba’s most magnificent natural settings. As a surprise, Sandra had arranged a guided walking tour with the most experienced local climber of the region. After several hours of exploring the mogotes, Alex took us to a refreshing, late lunch of shrimp with garlic, yucca and salads, which was delicious. Our return to Havana, along the four lane highway with animal carts and people walking in the right lane, was in the dark and reminded me why Alex was driving rather than me and why it’s best not to drive at night.
Again to our great surprise, Sandra had called upon her friend Hubert, the owner of La Esperanza, to accommodate us for a late dinner. We were exhausted from our day in Vinales but delighted by our meal and the gorgeous surroundings of Hubert’s home.
And now the day we were all looking forward to, our tour of the Museum of Fine Arts. Danella, our personal docent, did a remarkable job introducing us to the Cuban artists of the past century. From Carlos Enriquez to Choco and Kcho, we spent several hours learning about art and sculpture, including the revolutionary artists leading up to today; definitely one of the highlights of our entire trip.
A late lunch, upstairs at the wonderful Dona Eutimia. What a great, fun, and delicious restaurant! In the afternoon we strolled old Havana and walked from Casa Raquel to Café Madrigal for a light dinner.
New Year’s Eve day and a drive together with Sandra and Alex up 5th Avenue. A quick tour through Jose Fuster’s amazing ceramic neighborhood and on to a long awaited swim in the Caribbean. We spent a few lovely hours at Playa Santa Maria before preparing to meet Sandra’s friends from San Francisco for New Year’s Eve dinner.
Julie and I very much wanted to welcome the new year with salsa dancing and after checking out dance venues with Alex, we ended up at Casa de Musica where an amazing salsa band took us into the wee hours of the morning. Getting back to Casa Raquel was a little dicey and expensive but hey, it was New Year’s Eve!
The next part of our trip exploring Cuba was exhilarating. We left Havana en route to Trinidad via Cienfuegos, arriving three hours later. Trinidad is nestled in the hills above a beautiful beach and is absolutely gorgeous. Our stay at the brand new Casa de la Trinidad was delightful, with excellent breakfast and dinner offerings. Sandra again surprised us with a lunch reservation at La Casona. Her friends and owners of La Casona, Kenia Pons Espinosa and her husband, Andres, were consummate hosts and prepared a wonderful meal for us in their outstanding bed and breakfast.
As Julie and Emily enjoyed Playa Ancon, Alex and I explored Valle de los Ingenios, Trinidad’s former sugar cane producing valley and home to many sugar mills. This verdant valley was one of Cuba’s wealthiest. The valley’s main focal point is the Manaca Iznaga, a hacienda originally owned by an unscrupulous slave trafficker who built a 132-foot tower to watch his slaves.
Somehow Alex must have known that I really wanted to go to Sancti Spiritus, a town 60 kms. away, which was not on our itinerary. So I said: “Let’s go” and off we went!
Along the way we stopped to pick up several local Cuban hitchhikers and learned a great deal about the local culture from them. And Sancti Spiritus was well worth the extra drive. It’s a beautiful, 500 year old town with much less tourism than Trinidad. The central plaza, lined with gorgeous buildings including the library was, as Alex liked to say – ‘Spectacular’!
We made a hasty return to Trinidad for our final dinner at 1514 Café, owned by Alex’s friend Cesar. The entire meal is prepared on a wood fired stove in an elaborate, outdoor dinning area.
Next stop Playa Giron. We were so warmly received at the home of Lidia and Julio where we enjoyed two days of scuba diving with Julio. Lidia prepared the best lobster of our trip, not just for one meal but several! Visiting the Museo de Playa Giron was a very sobering experience and reminded us of how little we really knew about the miss guided and irresponsible Bay of Pigs invasion.
The final night of our trip was spent at our favorite restaurant, Ivan Chef Justo, celebrating with our favorite friends, Sandra and Alex, his son Alejandro, Imogene and her fiancé. We toasted each other while enjoying our favorite Cuban drink, Canchancharas! Our 1,300-kilometer trip across Cuba was coming to a close but it was just the beginning of an amazing friendship with the people of Cuba. We are sure to return very soon.
Urgent Message From Varun Mehra*I am writing to ask for your help to raise some money and skills for a very special project in Cuba, where I first traveled in early 2012 on an invitation from Tom & Nhu Miller of Green Cities Fund (greencitiesfund.org). In December 2012, we traveled to Havana organized a delegation of 40 U.S. chefs and friends for two weeks of programming to highlight the beautiful organic ingredients available within Havana city limits and from farms within a short driving distance. With Imogene Tondre and several other coordinators, we organized four major events: a dinner for 50 major Cuban paladar owners, a workshop for students and prominent Cuban food activists at a small culinary school in Havana, a Cuban state dinner for ministers and diplomats, and an impromptu street party where U.S. chefs cooked for neighborhood residents in Vedado, Havana.
Since December of 2012, Imogene has continued the work in Havana with Cuban chefs through various workshops, events, and culinary collaborations—including a recent visit from chef Narsai David of Berkeley, CA. We hope to soon find a permanent space in Havana, run by a collective of Cubans with collaboration from U.S. chefs–a diplomatic exchange of ideas centered around food. In addition to being open to the public, our team will workshop traditional recipes for Cuban citizens, implement outreach to Cuban schools and communities, and provide internships to young Cuban chefs.
In August 2014, through major assistance from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, we received an unprecedented license from OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control) within the U.S. Treasury Department. We are able to spend up to U.S. $2 million toward the continuation of the project—one of the largest approvals ever given by OFAC since the embargo began.
We need to raise some money! For two things — to fund research into traditional Cuban recipes, culinary traditions and agricultural practices from around the island. And to establish a permanent space. In order to get this off the ground, we need to raise $50k in the next two months and about $400k total to secure a space in Havana.
HERE IS HOW YOU CAN HELP!
1. Donate to http://greencitiesfund.org/
2. If you are interested in offering your specialized skills, let’s see if we can creatively make a plan to utilize them! We could certainly use donated time from website designers, video editors, chefs, restaurateurs, accountants and wizard generalists. If you would like to devote time to fundraising and formally become part of this cultural exchange, I am interested in setting up a development board for the project.
3. TRIPS TO CUBA! As a special offer, I will lead up to three (fully licensed) five-night customized trips to Havana for up to six people at a mutually agreeable date in the next two years (but no hard deadline!). Meet excellent friends in Havana, see farms, drink mojitos, and dance it out. Donation of $5k/person + flight/hotel expenses. Please e-mail me to inquire. (If you don’t want me to come, and would prefer to ask me upwards of 100 questions about your potential trip to Cuba, please consider making a donation of $1k/person.)
4. Finally, if you are interested in making a larger, more “investment”-like donation to the project, there is a lot more to know about real estate, new laws, and more; and it’s an extremely interesting opportunity for the right person. Please set up a time to talk to me!
Thank you so much, amigos! For more detailed information about the project, please click the following MailChimp link to download a PDF.
*Personal assistant to Alice Waters 2008 to 2015.
Check out The Monthly’s article on Narsai David: Broadening Cuban Relations | East Bay foodie Narsai David explores the organic farming movement in Cuba while working to create a culinary academy dedicated to the Cal cuisine ethos.
View the Planting Seeds Project Page
FEB. 27, 2015
To the Editor:
Re “As Cuba Opens Door to Private Enterprise, Inequality Rushes In” (news article, Feb. 25):
One suggestion Cuba might consider to solve the inequality that capitalism is producing would be a more liberal approach to the alternative of independent worker cooperatives, which effectively compete with the capitalist world in countries like Brazil, Spain, Canada and even the United States.
If, for instance, coffee farmers were permitted to join together into cooperatives that could sell directly abroad, they might see the same success as coffee farmers did in Vietnam when its government allowed independent cooperatives.
There are many groups, like Kiva (which has generated many millions of dollars of investment funds), eager to foster cooperative, socially responsible development.
The writer is president of Green Cities Fund, which sponsors humanitarian development projects in Cuba and Vietnam.
View PDF: 2.27.15NewYorkTimes.doc