Cuba, Land of Mystery

And Revolution 2018

We were off to see the wizard on Fri. November 30th. That is of course a figurative term, for going to places strange that seem like far away even if they are not. In our case, our destination, among others, is a four-day swing through the Republic of Cuba. Images of cigar factories, fifty-year old Chevies and Fords. Visage of the mildewed remains of old mobster casinos, once alive with tourists will capture our eyes first.  Then of course, the large billboards, featuring Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, will loom large in our consciousness. The aura I imagine will be redolent of remembered scenes from a George Orwell Novel.

Credit cards, of any sort, are not accepted by tradespeople. Neither is American money, except by small vendors at tourist sites. We have a stash of Canadian dollars from our frequent visits with our friends across the border. That will have to suffice. If we run short, CCU's are available for purchase. They are presented, by official vendors, as being worth one American dollar. The actual Cuban Peso is worth small change.

I find it intriguing to be visiting a place where Americans have, in large part, been virtually banned for the last sixty years. I wonder what reception we will get from the populace? Tourists and their dollars are generally welcome everywhere. But, one wonders what vestigial antipathy towards Yankees remains. We shall see.

The shared history we have with Cuba is of interest. The U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, igniting the Spanish American war. San Juan Hill, outside Santiago, brings up images of Teddy Roosevelt, astride a frothing, charging, mount, sabre-drawn and menacing, as the “Rough Riders” charged into the ranks of Spanish infantry on San Juan Hill. We were to find out later that only Teddy was astride. The rest of the horses had been left in Tampa.

And of course, the vestigial memory of the American presence is alive at our Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay. The images of Jack Nicholson, in his classic performance in “A Few Good Men,” comes immediately to mind. That, and of course the evil rascals that are still housed there, too dangerous to release lest they rejoin their jihadist brethren and come back at us with a vengeance. A few presidents had vowed to close the place but it still remains. After the Spanish American War, the U.S. had inserted the Platt amendment to the newly formed Cuban Constitution. It gave us a lease for that Bay in perpetuity, much to the annoyance of recent Cuban governments.

The mountain scenery in Cuba is said to be extraordinarily beautiful. Much of it is still undeveloped. Cuba's beaches apparently have first class resorts, peopled and owned by Canadians and Europeans. The dichotomy there must be acute, between rich and poor. I am always uncomfortable in the Caribbean, sitting down to a five-star dinner when a short distance away someone is getting by on a plate of rice and beans or less.

The old military song, sung by American soldiers in Mexico during that 1840's conflict, comes to mind. “Green grow, the grasses Oh,” is a line from that ditty, that morphed in Spanish ears into “Gringo,” a term for which we have always since then been named. In any case, like travel anywhere near and far, it promises to be a learning experience. I will try to take careful note and relate the experience as best I am able, when we return. Join us in reading our continuing installments, over the next few weeks, to see the magic of this mysterious land of Revolution. I think you will enjoy the visit like we did.

             Cuban Excursion- Salida- Miami

Fri. Nov. 30.2018- Estero, Florida

               We were up early at 5 A.M. We finished our final packing and preparation that had us ready to ferry our bags up to the Spring Run clubhouse, by 9 A.M. A member of our group, Fran Bussey, had done due diligence and arranged for a bus to ferry forty of us across the Everglades to the port of Miami, saving each of us about $200 in gas and parking fees.

              The assembled group was an eclectic array of senior citizens like us. Many knew each other well from years of living here at Spring Run. Many of us knew each other only in passing, from chance encounters on the golf course or at various club functions. We were to become much more closely aware of each other, during the ensuing days at dinner, over cocktails or meeting up in shared tours. The group was happy and expectant. We were headed to the mysterious land of revolution, Cuba. Some had already visited Havana. Most of us had not. We were both curious and expectant to “see what we could see.”

             The huge land cruiser scooped us all up and carried us across “Alligator Alley” towards the port of Miami. As always when crossing “the glades” you look for alligators along the banks of the drainage canals. Some days you see them by the scores. Other days, they must be away bowling or recreating deeper in the fabled “river of grass” that is the Everglades. Today, the highway was congested. We ran into what the Germans call “die stau,” a miles-long traffic jam. As we approached the blockage sight, I could see the charred remains of a 1964 Chevrolet alongside of the road, surrounded by firemen. Some poor person's age-old chariot had finally given up the ghost. As we passed through the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, we were treated to a particularly Florida event, a controlled, sugar-cane burn. Great clouds of black smoke could be seen from miles away. As you get closer, huge tongues of flame gobbled up the foliage around the tall, sugar-cane plants. It is an impressive sight. The practice had been discovered by accident in Hawaii during the 1800's. Sugar Cane and pineapple plantations require huge amounts of man power. The growers usually bring in large quantities of immigrants from foreign lands. They don't usually pay them or treat them well either. A large group of Japanese and Philipino sugar plantation workers had rebelled at the harsh treatment and set fire to the growers' crops. The fires did in fact devastate the existing sugar cane plants. What the growers discovered though was that the remaining charred sugar cane stalks, when processed, actually had an enhanced sugar content from the fires. Nature sure does teach us many things in mysterious ways.

              You can see an elevated and complex highway system as you approach Fort Lauderdale on the east coast. It signifies the virtual river of traffic that you are about to enter. The distance to the Port of Miami from here is brief, but the traffic is not for the timorous. Our driver steered us into the very complex port area, searching for terminal “J,” the docking space for the Oceania vessel “Sirena,” that was to be our home on the sea for the next ten days. She is an older and smaller ship, purchased from the Celebrity Line. The smaller passenger complement, of 700 plus souls and 1,000 crew, made for a much more livable experience than the newer and bigger sea monsters plying the Caribbean.

           The Port employees have the processing of boarding passengers down to a science. As we exited the bus, a rather forward sounding porter suggested we tip him now for the service of ferrying our bags to the ship and thence on to our rooms. The implication, I suppose, is that if you didn't fork over a substantial tip, your bags might end up far, far from where you want them. We gave the man $5 cheerfully and entered the Oceania Terminal. Processing there was even quicker. Documents and passports produced, we were whisked through the line, handed a ship's passenger I.D. card and walked up the gangway to the fifth-deck entry portal of the Sirena. As usual, on all departure days, the milling crowds swirled in a controlled chaos. Many folks had never cruised before and were unsure of what to do or where to go. We had been through the drill many times. We hiked up the central stairs (gangway on a ship) and found the Terraces Café on deck number nine. Like most ships, they have an extensive buffet area that feeds most of the passengers for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is usually taken in the Main dining room or in one of the specialty restaurants. We affectionately call these semi-elegant feederies “The slop chute.” The quality of the food is actually quite good. The large number of people, eating indecent amounts of food several times a day, is somewhat reminiscent, to our country-bred brethren. of a trough, slopping the hogs.

       After lunch, we found our stateroom, number 7103 on deck seven. It was of the usual variety, some 200 square feet with a small balcony. There was plenty of storage space and everything we needed to make ourselves comfortable. We then walked through several of the various decks, familiarizing ourselves with the various layouts. We knew from previous experience that we would have everything figured out about the day before we got off the ship. At the entrance to the Main Dining room, on deck five, we made dinner reservations for the two specialty restaurants on deck ten. The “Red Ginger” and “Tuscan Steak House” were to prove a wonderful and opulent dining experience later in the week. Unfortunately for us, we had been tardy in making our reservations. We had to settle for late dinner times, later next week. C'est la vie.

       They also had a wonderful coffee and pastry bar here. We sat down for some fresh-brewed cappuccino and chocolate chip cookies. These delicacies were available for all passengers, most of the day, without an extra charge. The casino, the gym, the day spa and other facilities rated a look through. Like most ships, they have everything a pampered passenger could ever want in the way of creature comforts. By three P.M. our bags had been delivered to the room. We unpacked all of our clothes and settled into the air-conditioned bubble. The controlled chaos around us would continue for the rest of the day as the Sirena readied for its six P.M. departure for Havana Cuba.

          At 4:15, the entire ship's compliment of passengers and crew were summoned to a “Muster call.” You bring your bulky life jackets to your assigned life boat station and await instructions from the Captain and crew. Ours was located on deck five, station B. Some of the passengers chafed at the inconvenience of the drill. We had decided long ago that things like this were nice to know in the event that the ship found itself in trouble on a very large and very deep ocean. Of course, a few of the knuckleheads hadn't showed up for the drill, thinking to blow the practice off. They were wrong. The ship's crew was sent to scour the ship for them, rounding up the recalcitrants until everyone was assembled and instructed on emergency procedures in the event of an “abandon ship” situation.

         It was getting late in the afternoon and we had already had a full day. A decent bottle of champagne was sitting in an ice bucket in our cabin. It called out to us. We changed and readied for dinner. Most of our “gang of forty-eight” were going to meet for cocktails in the deck ten “Horizon's Lounge.” We did. It was a pleasing ritual that we were all to follow for the next ten days. We imbibed some pretty decent wine and spirits, usually at a two for one happy hour price, and traded comments and life's experiences in a relaxed setting high atop the ship.

       The Sirena was late leaving the port. It was dark out as we slid by tony Fisher Island and enjoyed the lit-up splendor of a truly great city. The breeze was slight and we were relaxed from spirits. After seven P.M., we migrated down to the grand dining room on deck five. The amorphous crowd had settled into smaller groups to fit around the many tables. We were joined by Mark Michel and Bill Krein. Their wives were already paired up with two women friends. It was an enjoyable and wide-ranging discussion, on all matters du jour, that much enhanced our dining experience. Fresh mussels, lobster bisque, Grouper filet and key lime pie were accented by a decent Chilean Cabernet. I think we are going to like this experience much.

          After dinner, we passed on the nightly entertainment. It consisted of magic shows, musical groups and other entertainment. We usually get up early on most days. We had learned that burning the daily candle, at both ends, simply doesn't work for us. We retreated to our seventh-deck aerie, settled in with our books and awaited the embrace of Morpheus. The gentle rocking of the ship, like that of a baby's cradle, lulled us as we passed into slumber. The great ship motored on a southwesterly course, passing the Florida Keys and sailing onward towards Havana and our great adventure.


                                         (1,588 words)

                                   Joseph Xavier Martin

             Cuban Excursion- parte- dos

Sat. Dec. 1,2018- Havana, Cuba

           We were up early at 6 A.M. hoping to watch the ship enter Havana Harbor. The television news informed us that the venerable, former President George H.W. Bush had died at age 94. He may have been the most decent individual to serve in that job in the last 60 years.

            As we readied for an 8 A.M breakfast, the Sirena was passing the brown-stone complex of Moro Castle, situated high atop a hill at the entrance to Habana harbor. The gun ports and cannon, of the thick-walled castle, had protected Habana since the mid 1600s, from pirates, raiders and the English. Next to it sits a huge, shining-white stone statue of Christ the redeemer. We would find out more and explore both tomorrow.

           The Terraces café on deck 8 was alive with passengers, all expectant with the new day. Omelets, lox and cheese, with decent coffee, made for a good start to the day. The cruise director had announced that, because of docking scheduling difficulties, all day tours of Habana had been pushed back for one hour.

              Havana : La Habana  is the o "Capital city" capital city, largest city, o "Provinces of Cuba" province, major port, and leading commercial center of o "Cuba" Cuba.l "cite_note-CIA_Factbook-4" ]The city has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants. The city of Havana was founded by the o "Spanish Empire" Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location, it served as a springboard for the o "Spanish colonization of the Americas" Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish o "Galleon" galleons returning to Spain. King o "Philip II of Spain" Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. Walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city.

Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one, o "Old Havana" Old Havana, o "Vedado" Vedado and the newer suburban districts. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the o "Havana Harbor" bay, which is enters through a narrow inlet and divides into three main harbors: l "Facilities" o "Havana Harbour" Mari melena, Guanabacoa and Antares. The city attracts over a million tourists annually.l "cite_note-16" ]

           At ten thirty A.M., we assembled in the deck-five, Sirena Lounge for our four-hour walking tour of “Colonial Habana.” We exited, on a deck five portal, and entered a long entry terminal and into Cuba for the first time. First, you have to pass through Cuban customs like every country. An unsmiling clerk took our picture, stamped our pass port and waved us through. Either he didn't like Americans, his job or a combination of the two. Next, we passed through an airport like scanner. Then, just down the hallway, we lined up for the purchase of CUC's, the Cuban tourist currency. It was quick and easy. A clerk assigns you to one of several tellers. We had enough Spanish to handle the transaction, but it isn't necessary. These money changers handle people from every-where daily. The official charge for CUC's is a three per cent fee. But because of the American embargo on Cuba, another ten per cent was deducted. So, $100 U.S. would yield you 87 CUC's with a purchasing power of $87 U.S. A long stairway led us out of the terminal and to our guide for the day, Juan Alvarez. Juan, like most Cuban guides, was university educated. His English was flawless. The guides occupy a curios niche in Cuban society. Because of the tips, that they receive from tourists, they are among the highest paid workers in Cuba, where a Doctor or engineer can expect to earn between $40 and $60 per month.

          I digress here for a few lines, because I think it important for readers to understand who and what Cuba is. It is indeed a land of revolution. Fidel Castro, and his Argentine ideologue Che Guevara, are revered here. They engineered and led a popular uprising in 1959 that displaced a cruel military dictatorship led by Fulgencio Batista. The corrupt oligarchy had been propped up by the American mob, the United and Standard Fruit companies and the American C.I.A. The populace was ill-fed, uneducated and virtual serfs to the landlords. Today, though poor by our standards, Cubans have free medical care, are eligible for free education up to the PHD level and have a decent amount of food for the populace. The Cuban people understand what they have and what they were. Their reverence for Fidel and Che is absolute.

           No one, in either the American mob, the American Government or Batista's Cuban government, saw this one coming. Even the Soviets had no idea who Castro was or whether or not he was a potential ally. A popular revolt sprang up in the Santa Maestra mountains, in the far eastern portion of Cuba. It spread like wildfire to engulf the country. Who would have thought that ex baseball players like Fidel Castro read up on dialectical materialism? Actually, Fidel was a Lawyer and his inner circle fairly well educated. The U.S., the mob and the C.I.A later attempted to stage a coup, via the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. It was a disaster for all involved. The tactic had worked several decades before in Honduras and Guatemala, where “regime changes” had been engineered by the Fruit companies and the C.I.A. This attempt failed miserably. We didn't hear much about it during our stay, but there is an actual Bay of Pigs Museum on the Southeast coast, near Cien Fuegos. This invasion attempt, followed by the eye ball to eyeball confrontation of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, that almost engulfed the world in a thermo nuclear holocaust, had engendered a mild cynicism about those of us from El Norte. The guide actually stated that there had been 500 attempts on Fidel's life during his tenure. It bred a mild paranoia in the populace towards all things American.

          Having said all of this we were to find a very warm and endearing reception from the Cuban People. Like most folks, Cuban people are practical by nature. They know that they need American tourist and development dollars to succeed. Whatever the official government attitude, the Cuban people know they need us and welcomed us enthusiastically.

          Juan led us first into busy San Francisco Square, just across from the ship terminal. The large, old church here had been the main homestead of the Franciscans, who were to develop into a significant power in Colonial Cuba. Brother Junipera Serra, who would later go on to found and develop all of the famed California Missions, had been an early Bishop here in Cuba. The square was awash with early people traffic. As we eyeballed the various buildings, an older troubadour walked amongst us singing “Viva Che Guevara.” He was cheerful and didn't mean anything by it, except to entertain us. We gave him a CUC and wished him Vaya Con Dios.

       My favorite old structure was a lime-green, two-story casita (small house,) with wooden shutters. Above the entrance portal is painted an image of Che Guevara. In front of the old church, which is now a museum, stands another oddity. It is a brass, life-sized figure of an elegantly clad Frenchman, entitled “La Chevalier.” People rub his arm or foot for good luck. Apparently, he was a local character who charmed the crowds, sang for his supper and entertained the populace.

       Next to the church, we viewed the limestone remains of an old water aqueduct, built circa 1592. It once carried water from a river, eleven miles away into a network of pipes that fed the major buildings and the wealthier homes in Havana. Everyone else had to draw form these wells for their daily usage. The streets around us were all of cobblestone construction. You need good shoes to walk them. Some of the stones were ship's ballast from either Spain or the USA.

         Several dogs lie around us in the sun. They were actually “officially sponsored dogs.” A small plaque around their neck listed their name, weight and official status. Juan said with a smile that all of the other dogs were immigrants. The architecture, to my untrained eye, is a mélange of Spanish, Venetian and French Colonial, emanating from the five hundred years of the city's existence. Most of city's buildings have crumbling facades. The government is attempting to renovate what it can, but funds are scarce. I can only imagine the deteriorated shape of the structural steel holding up these buildings. I think the city is crumbling down around their ears.

         There were a few pan handlers and several wandering merchants, peddling various trinkets. But as a general rule, if you said “No, gracias” they left you alone. We were to find the Cubans we encountered as unfailingly polite and accommodating. The local police were in evidence, keeping an eye on varlets to make sure that the tourists weren't harassed.

         We walked along the cobbled-stoned streets, eagerly drinking in the visage of various shops and buildings. Juan took us to Viejas Square. (Old Square.) It is a very broad, rectangular expanse, with a tall central monument. An attractive school, a government building a few posh looking restaurants and cafes filled out the square. All of the building facades had been re-stuccoed and painted in bright pastels. From one corner of the square, near the main café, several brightly-costumed troubadours on stilts entered the plaza. They looked like Carmen Miranda on steroids. The influence was African/Cuban, and the driving beat of the music, their energetic dancing on stilts and colorful costumes drew everyone attention.

            Juan's narration was informative on the traditions and mores of Cuba over the centuries. He was even candid about the Russian experience. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was alone and broke. It was a very hard decade for the republic. Culturally it bred an interesting sea change in the relationship of men and women in Cuba. Before, the traditional Macho, virile persona of the Cuban male had relegated women “to the house” and obedient and docile. During the post Russia period, a lot of women had to go to work to make ends meet. This bred an independent spirit in Cuba's women, who were now equal to the men. They demanded and got equality in most things. The government, though revolutionary, is still reactionary and male dominated. Try as we may with Juan, and later guides, we were never able to find out much about the thirty-year “visit” by the Russians. (1960-1991) Surely some had married Cuban girls and left their biological children behind. But no one ever commented on this. I shall have to do some research on this area. We soon came to realize that, though voluble and friendly, none of the tourist guides strayed very far from accepted doctrinaire, Cuban, ideological parameters. They were all probably periodically monitored. And, one straying too far astray would probably lose a very valuable job.

        Walking further along the old cobblestone streets, we passed the “Firemen's Museum.” It had been erected by a penitent merchant who had stored a large amount of gunpowder in his home and told no one. A fire had erupted in the building. In putting out the flames, a huge explosion had erupted killing 38 of the Bomberos (Firemen). This museum, and the construction of a very large monument in a nearby Cemetery, had kept the rascal from prison. Across the street sat a small museum dedicated to various types of armaments. We were to find that there were small museums everywhere, all asking a fee for entrance. The latent capitalist in the Cuban Psyche was emerging. We sat for a few minutes in the cool shade of Simon Bolivar Square. A statue to that venerable early South American Revolutionary (born 1783) was populated by Cubans playing guitars or just wiling away the afternoon. We were puzzled by the crowds of people we were to find in “Old Habana.” The guide told us that it was of course a Saturday and Habana is a large city, with of over 2 million people. These were indeed mostly Cubanos all around us, out enjoying their city on a Sunny day.

         Juan led us into an airy and well laid out hotel for a rest break. It is named the “Ambos Mundos.” Ernest Hemmingway had stayed here for eight years, during the 1940's, penning “The Old Man and The Sea.” There were pictures of Hemmingway and Fidel, among other dignitaries, on the walls of the lobby. As nice as the place is, the men's room was out of order. Those needing to use it lined up to use the women's facility.

           There seemed to be tour groups everywhere in central Habana. You could hear the swirl of languages all around us. Italian, Spanish, English and German created a polyglot, holiday-like atmosphere as we mingled with the native Habanos and admired their cultural artifacts.

            We passed through Church Square next. It had originally been occupied by an old wooden church. But a flaming spar, from an exploding English ship in the harbor, had torched that building. Afterwards, the military used the open square for drilling their troops. Now, it was tree-lined and populated with Habanos, watching the curious spectacle of Americans trouping through their city. We were still an oddity to them. As we walked along the streets, we were beginning to see evidence of the fabled “Old Cars.” When Cuba had been cut off after the resolution, vintage Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges had been kept alive by cannibalizing other wrecks and lovingly restored. Now, they serve as Taxis and tourist vehicles offering rides for excursions. We were to see the entire series of 1950's Chevrolets with the old four-colored Chevrolet emblem on the front hood. All were painted in either two-tone or bright pastel colors. A 1957 Buick Electra convertible, a 1957 Cadillac, and several fifties Dodge automobiles passed along the busy boulevards. It is a common site and one much photographed by tourists who ooh and ahh at the vintage and picturesque autos.

        At Catedral Square, we took a few minutes to rest in the shade. The large, old, crumbling church had been closed after the revolution and used a store house. It sits on the corner of San Ignacio and Empredero streets. Just around the corner is a small bar (Bogaquita Medio) that had been the Hemmingway inspired birth place of the “Mojito.” It was awash with tourists trying that tasty concoction. It was hot, humid and in the mid-eighties out. We were tiring with the walk. Juan led us to a Transtur Bus. It was clean, new and air conditioned. Apparently, the tour companies buy them from the Chinese. They use them for two years and then turn them over to the Cubans for use in their mass transit system.

           The bus ferried us past the imposing Moro Castle and along the city's Promenade. The promenade is a very long, raised walkways, lined with trees and featuring artists and vendors with all manner of things for sale. Many Habanos sat in the shade and enjoyed the day. The upscale “Hotel Packard” is here. We passed by the Center of Cuban Government. A White-stoned building, with a large entrance stair way and marble columns, looks every inch the proto type of a Washington D.C. government building. It had been constructed in 1928. Its façade is well maintained. The secrets and shenanigans that this place must have witnessed would be material for a thousand stories.

        A quick run through the “old section” of Havana was not pretty. Scores of multi-storied buildings all stand in crumbling disarray. They are still populated by Cubans. Housing is difficult to find and expensive in the central city area. Finally, Juan dropped us off at the Ship terminal building on the waterfront. We walked through Cuban customs, passed through the scanner area and bought a few post cards (.75 CUC) before clearing the ship's I.D.-check and on into the air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. It was like returning to the future after a brief sojourn into a very much older past. We were still in time for a late lunch, in the deck nine Terrace lounge. Mussels, shrimp and fish made for a nice repast. We returned to our cabin. I wrote up my notes and we settled in for a brief respite.

       Later in the afternoon, we cleaned up and made our way up to the deck ten Horizon's lounge. Over a glass of wine, we traded stories with the rest of our group as to our impressions of the sights and the events of the day. Most had purchased cigars and rum at the official stores. The Cohiba Cigars, Cuba's finest, were selling for $23 each.   Tonight, we were dining with Ron & Linda Klocke, The Aspengrens and the Drevlos, all Minnesota's finest. Iced shrimp, lobster bisque and sea bass, topped off with apple strudel and vanilla ice cream, made for a memorable meal. The Pinot Noir was a good accompaniment. The conversation was lively and fun. We much enjoyed the meal.

         There were also evening excursions available to Cuban Night Clubs, but the day's heat and activities had drained us. After dinner, we made our way to our seventh-deck aerie, to write up my notes, read our books and drift into the great realm of the sandman.


                                          (2,878 words)

                                   Joseph Xavier Martin


               Cuban Excursion- parte- tre

Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018

           We were up early at 6:30 A.M. Mary had retrieved coffee and a pastry from the deck five coffee bar. We prepped for the day, stopped by the slop chute for omelets and then gathered in the Deck Five Sirena Lounge at 9 A.M. for our bus tour of greater Habana.

          Sunday must be a day of rest for Cuban officials. We were virtually waved through customs and the scanner ritual by some kids who were busy chatting with each other. Outside of the terminal, we found our Transtur Bus # 3 and were introduced to our Guide “Yammay.” She is mid-thirties, University educated, with two kids and possessed of flawless English. She explained to us that after University women had to complete three years of “social service,” after college. The work would be in their field, but they had to serve where the government needed them in Cuba. Men had to serve at least a year in the military and then another year of social service. This was in return for four years or more of free education, room and board and a small stipend. They also were provided with transportation to see their families a few times a year.

           Our first stop on the tour was Revolutionary Square. It is the home of Habana University with an enrollment population of 60,000 students. A large sculpture representation of Che Guevara is a poster for the Cuban Army. An imposing statue of Jose' Marti, the “father of Cuban Independence,” dominates the center of the square. Yammay explained to us that most Doctors and Engineers in Cuba earn from 45-60 CUCs per month. The tour guides earn significantly more because of the tips they receive from tourists. Go figure out that dichotomy. She also mentioned the name of the new president of Cuba, Miguel Diaz Canel. It was a name I had not yet heard. Retired premier Raoul Castro is apparently still the head of the Cuban Communist Party. He and the military, from Fidel's days, still have the country in their ideological grip.

           Next on our line of March was the Christopher Columbus Cemetery. The sprawling 139-acre complex houses an impressive array of marble statuary from the pre-revolution days. Family names like Rivera, Jimenez, Valdez, Alvarez and Del Calvo adorned the Carrera marble sepulchers. They must have been from the ranks of the wealthy in early Cuba. One towering marble column, adorned with an angel on top holding the body of a fallen firefighter, caught our attention. It was erected by the merchant whose business had exploded in Habana, killing 38 firefighters. This monument was part of his atonement and a way to keep out of the slammer. Cynics point to the angelic figure pointing towards the heavens with the dead firefighter in her arms. They say the angel is quietly saying that the men had better seek justice in heaven because they weren't going to get any here on earth. Nearby is a small plot for Hemmingway's bartender. Bar Tenders from Habana gather here every July in tribute. The party is considerable and day long. That must be something to see.

            A good sized, domed chapel dominates the center of the cemetery. Every Sunday, they hold a mass for the recently departed, which is about thirty burials per day. The place already has some two million Cubans interred. Burial is free unless you choose cremation. For that, there is a small fee of 15 CUCs. Most of the marble sarcophagi cover a deep grave area that will hold up to seven coffins, one on top of each other. The usual practice is to bury the deceased without embalming them. After two years, relatives collect all of the bones and put them into an ossuary box that sits astride the top of the grave site. This is a similar practice to the large grave sites in New Orleans.

           Lastly, we visited the small shrine of Amdia Goyri. Legend has it that she was interred with a small child. Fifty years later, when the grave was opened the child's body had not suffered any decay. Superstition or not, locals come to the grave daily to place flowers and walk around the plot three times, praying for good health, luck or whatever else was in need. Many Cubans visit their deceased relatives on a regular basis. The place is also a gathering point for tourists. There were at least seven other tour buses besides our that were visiting this Sunday.

          Next, we crossed over Almandarez Blvd and into the “Playa” district of Habana. Here, in an area called Miramar (look to the sea) sat many large Haciendas apparently inhabited by the wealthy industrialists and foreign ambassadors in the pre-revolution period. Now, many of the Government elite live here. Cynics call the area “cream of the crop” section. I was beginning to enjoy the subtlety of Cuban humor with respect to their cultural anomalies. As we traveled along Fifth Avenue, the mansions were impressive, signposts from another era.

          The coastal road, along the Malecon section is seven miles long. It is lined with new residential buildings and some from another era. Mobster Meyer Lansky had built his Casino hotel “Riviera” here. The Mob Hotel “Nacional” also sits here. The images of the mob meeting, from the movie Godfather, come to mind. The boys were blowing off the chances of a successful coup by the rebels. All of their many millions of dollars in hotel investments went south with the revolution. We also noticed that all of the structures along this route had water tanks on their roofs. The Cuban water supply can sometimes be spotty. The tanks collect rain water for use. Cynics also say the tanks conceal antennae to pick up internet and television signals from outside Cuba.

        As we cruised the local roads, we would continually see the whole parade of “old cars.” The locals called them “Frankenstein monsters” because whatever they looked like from the outside, they were comprised of parts from dozens of other vehicles because of the lack of parts available. Officials were sprucing up this whole sea side route in preparation in 2019 of the 500 th anniversary of the founding of Habana.

         A lengthy tunnel carried us under Habana Bay, to the other side. Here we were making a stop at the fabled Moro Castle. Officially entitled Castilo Tre Reyes de Moro (Three Kings of Moro) the massive brown-stone fortification is similar in construction to several other Spanish coastal fortifications in San Juan, Cartagena and St. Augustine. We walked around the exterior. Inside the castle, the place is a fee-based museum. Our stop was at the official store inside. It sells Cuban rum of all types and cigars of all types. The place was jammed with tourists. Along the exterior of the fort, rows of local vendors hawked tee shirts, carvings and all manner of other bric a brac that you find in the Caribbean. Like Niagara Falls, I think most of it is probably made in Indonesia. Several of the “old cars” were parked here for use as taxis.

        From the Castle, we passed by a small monument that the guide didn't mention, perhaps out of courtesy for her guests. She didn't have to tell me. It was the remains of a large wing section of an American U-2 plane. American aviator Rudolph Andersen jr. from Greenville, South Carolina had been shot down by two Russian sams (surface to air missiles) on October-27-1962, during the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Andersen knew his chances of surviving the mission were highly unlikely, but he knew that his nation needed photographic proof of Russian offensive missile placement in Cuba and flew the dangerous mission. He piloted several missions before being killed in one pass. Bless that man for his courage and dedication.

          The bus stopped at the very tall “Christ the Redeemer” statue that sits on a scenic headland near the Moro Castle. The official explanation for it is that the wife of Fulgencio Batista had it erected in gratitude for Batista's survival after an assassination attempt. The statue was completed six days before the government fell to Castro's forces. It is the second largest of its kind, second only to the massive similar edifice in Rio De Janero. A nearby military installation looked well-ordered and neat in appearance. A curious sculpture on its lawn represented two hands, the Cuban people supporting each other during any trouble or catastrophe.

          Even riding along in an air-conditioned bus didn't save us from the 87-degree heat and high humidity. It was time to return to the mother ship. Our guide dropped us off at the ship's terminal by 12:30 P.M. We wandered through a custom's check, the airport scanner and finally the ship's ID check, to the air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. We chilled out in our cabin for a bit, before lunching in the deck nine café. Fish and fruit made for a light meal. We knew if we didn't get a handle on the caloric onslaught that we would soon look like an ad for Iowa pork. I wrote up my notes and read for a time, until we dropped off into the “Ozzie Nelson special,” an afternoon nap. Life is good.

        Six P.M found us in the deck ten Horizon's lounge for the Captain's cocktail party. Held across the entire ship, drinks were free. They were accompanied by decent hors oeuvres. We chatted with other passengers, comparing what each of us had seen that day.  We watched the Sirena leave Habana harbor at 7 P.M. She would sail 495 miles around the western tip of Cuba, to the south-central City of Cien Fuegos. The ritual, of standing topside as a great ship leaves a foreign harbor, is one of our favorites.

       Donna Jablonski, from Spring Run, joined us for dinner in the deck five main dining room. Iced shrimp, lobster bisque and a whole main lobster made for a wonderful meal. A chocolate volcano confection for desert was sinful. A decent Chilean cabernet washed down the repast. Who wouldn't want to live like this? We were tired from the day. After dinner, we repaired to our cabin to read (“Princes of Ireland”) and drift off into slumber. It had been a wonderful visit to Habana Cuba.


                                   (1,731 words)

                            Joseph Xavier Martin

Cuba Excursion- parte- quatro (at sea)

Mon. Dec. 3rd, 2018- (at sea)

            We were up early at 5:30 A.M. The seas, rounding the southwest tip of Cuba, had been rougher than normal, bouncing us around some. We hit the gym for an hour of weights and exercycles and then repaired to the fan tail area of the deck nine Terrace lounge. The omelets here are pretty decent. We chatted with Bill & Carol Furtwengler, enjoying the morning sun on the open deck.

          Afterwards, we walked several laps on the deck ten oval track. Walking the decks in rough seas can be comical to watch, as you attempt to shift your balance with the side to side rolling motions. Still, the magnificent visage of a very blue Caribbean, and the dark hills of Cuba in the distance, made it worth the effort. We found a nine-hole putt-putt course on deck eleven. Now, we know what it must be like to putt while inebriated. The golf ball rolled back and forth with the ship. It made the challenge interesting and the results comical.

        A leisurely day at sea is very pleasant. We took our books to the deck ten library and read for two hours. The soft leather chairs, faux fire place and shelves of books gave you the impression of a library at an English country estate, albeit one that rolled back and forth with the ship's motions. Fish & fruit in the Terrace lounge made for a pleasant lunch.

        Two O'clock found us in the deck five, Sirena Lounge. Sandy Cares, a dynamic speaker, gave an hour-long lecture on Cien Fuegos which we were now approaching. She must have had an eidetic memory, for she reeled off a wealth of facts and figures without a note in hand. She had a dry sense of humor and poked fun at some of the sillier sights and customs that we might come across when we next made port. We were fortunate to attend four more of this little fireball's energic lectures over the next several days. She was a wealth of information on just about everything.

       After the lecture, Cappuccino and cookies were followed by a welcome “Ozzie Nelson” session. (nap.) We had time to watch some of the George Bush funeral ceremonies, as his body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C. Though saturated with pomp and ceremony, these official, state ceremonies remind you of the full grandeur of the American Republic and the many traditions and ideals for which we stand.

        The six o'clock cocktail, hour in the deck ten Horizon's lounge, found us sampling a decent Pinot Noir. We chatted with our group about the events of the day and what we expected to see tomorrow in Cien Fuegos. Tonight, we hooked up with Rodger and Sue Burton, from Kansas City, Mo. for dinner. Amidst a very pleasant conversation, we dined on crab cakes, Salmon filet and key lime pie, washed down by a glass of cabernet. I could get used to this. Afterwards, we returned to our cabin to read and prep for tomorrow's excursion in Cien Fuegos, Cuba. It had been a relaxing and enjoyable day at sea.


                                             (536 words)

                                     Joseph Xavier Martin

Cuban Excursion- parte- cinco -Cien Fuegos

Tues. Dec 4th, 2018- At sea near Cien fuegos, Cuba

         We were up by 6 A.M. Coffee and a pastry tided us over as we prepped for the day. We had to assemble at 7:30 A.M. in the Sirena lounge, for our six-hour excursion through Cien fuegos and out into the countryside. Customs was a wave through. We found our ten-passenger bus and our guide Iliana. Her English was perfect.

          The name of the city in Spanish means “100 fires,” but it was actually named after an earlier Governor General in Cuba named Jose' Maria Cienfuegos. The City was founded in 1819 by a New Orleans Frenchman named Louis de Clouet, who settled in the area as part of the Spanish Colonial policy of “Blanchismo.” Literally it means a “whitening.” The Spaniards were trying to encourage white farmers to settle here to offset the people of color who far outnumbered them. It was a period of revolution in nearby Haiti. In 1807, Toussaint Overture had revolted and expelled the white property owners from nearby Haiti. Many of them settled in Cien Fuegos. The deep harbor here encouraged shipment of freight.

           The city itself is much cleaner and smaller than Habana. Some of the buildings feature a classical Greek façade and looked to be in good repair. The anomaly, that first caught our attention, was the lack of traffic lights in the city. We didn't see a single one. Several stop signs (pare) attempted to regulate traffic. But, when the driver approached a major intersection, he simply waited until there was a small gap in the cross flow of traffic. Then he stomped on the gas and we barreled through the intersection hoping not to be t-boned. It was comical when it wasn't terrifying. The other complication was the proliferation of horse drawn conveyances. They weren't tourist buggies but a large part of the transportation system. They of course mover very slowly and added to the traffic congestion.

        It was early in the work day and throngs of Cien Fuegans were afoot, headed to school and work. The elementary children all wore red scarves, sign of the “pioneer spirit” of the soviet days. The older-school girls wore yellow blouses and green skirts. The boys were all dressed in khaki. They appeared neat and well ordered.

       The central square in town is called Jose' Marti Square. A large statue of “Jose' Marti,” the father of modern Cuba, dominates the square. Running alongside of it is a seven block long pedestrian mall featuring artists and a variety of vendors selling all manner of tourist bric a brac. The Tomas Terry Theater here provides cultural enrichment. The Ferra Palace Hotel and the Hotel Jagua are of decent appearance and provide shelter for visitors. The Hotel Jagua was another hotel owned by American gamblers. It had been seized in the Revolution. The peasants had risen here in 1957, two years before Castro's revolt. The rising had been brutally put down by Batista's military. The main crops in the area are sugar cane, cigars, coffee beans and Maribu charcoal. Mango, orange and guava trees abound. A passenger asked our guide how much a royal palm tree would cost? She didn't understand the question. Royal palms abound throughout Cuba. Why would you ever buy one? When I informed her that in Florida, contractors can charge up to $1,500 per royal palm, when building a home, she appeared stunned.

           Our bus drove us 90 minutes out into the country side. It was a portrait of 1920's America. Many horse-drawn conveyances and indeed horse riders provided transportation on the narrow two-lane roads. Motor cycles were also plentiful. And hitch hiking a ride to work was perfectly acceptable. Nicely dressed Cubanos tried to flag down any passing motorized conveyance to give then a ride to their place of employment. A cigar factory provides many jobs. The homes here appeared neat and well ordered. Many small casitas had attached plots of farmland, where residents grew vegetables, fruits and other foodstuffs to augment their monthly rations. Each family in the area receives a ration book that allows them to buy five pounds of sugar, rice, beans and salt. Meat is virtually unavailable here for the average person. Chicken and pork help augment their diet. That of course led to a thriving black market where you can obtain anything for the right price.

          In one small town, the major road was blocked by a vegetable truck. Residents stood patiently in line, hoping to purchase some of the goods. This line blocked the road. Our bus, and several very large dump trucks hauling sand, had to struggle to find a few back roads around the event. Priorities here are obtaining food. The sugar cane fields line the roads, a symbol of the area's main crop.

         Along the way, I viewed something that I had never seen before. A man was plowing his field with a team of oxen pulling the metal plow. Tractors here are apparently scarce. So, in deed was farming. I observed tens of thousands of arable lands lying fallow. A few hundred tractors, some chemicals and fertilizer and this land could feed the Caribbean basin.

          We passed through the small village of Cumanagua. It was well ordered with many small casitas, all surrounded by the colorful bougainvillea that grows everywhere here. It was 90 degrees F and hot today. An ice cream factory here provides many locals with employment. In the Cuban country side people appear to live healthier and more productive lives than in the crowded cities. That is the plus side. What you did for entertainment here is watch the stars and enjoy the beautiful weather.

           We began to traverse an upward climb into the Jamaguaya Mountains. The roads are narrow and in rough shape. We reached our destination “Parque el Nicho.” It is a nature preserve with running streams, beautiful glades with crystal ponds and every plant and bird form available in Cuba. Iliana secured “Tomas” our local guide. It was he who would lead us up the treacherous mountain path to the top. The rudimentary path was carved from the hillside and lined with rocks. Footing here is difficult. On a rainy day, it would be impossible. I had thought myself in decent shape, but I struggled to make it up the mountain. Native birch hand-holds helped some, but most of the time, you had to walk with the agility of a mountain goat and hold onto tree and shrubs to make your way. If you did fall here, I don't know how they would get you out. Our first stop was a picture takers dream. The Poceta (pond) ” of el enamoratos” (lovers)  was a small opening in the trail. Running water here created a very clear pond and sitting area. Everyone dutifully took pictures of each other. After we caught our breath, we proceeded on. Naturally, the younger people blew by us like we were standing still. The difficulty of the climb increased. On several “steps” I didn't think I was going to be able to propel myself forward. A last burst of energy and the fear of the kids seeing us as too old to make the climb propelled me upwards.

          At the top of our climb, at the two-thousand foot in elevation level, we came upon a much larger “Poceta Crystal” (crystal pond). Several people were already in swimming. The temperature of the water was a cool sixty degrees, Fahrenheit. We sat for a time in the warm sun, watching the bathers. A large party of Russians was in swimming. I know this because I chatted with them briefly in Russian asking of the water was very cold “ochen xolodna, Da?” They replied in the negative and that it was just fine. It was the first party of Russians that we had come upon in Cuba. Many of their fathers and grandfathers must have served here during the thirty year period of the “Russian visit“ to Cuba. A small cave in the hillside here provided a place for people to change into bathing costumes, should they so choose. A few from our group tried the water, bless them for their hardy souls.

             A second group from our ship was already arriving. The small glade was getting crowded. Tomas began the long trek back. I asked him several times “where is the elevator?” for the ride down. He merely smiled and said that it was not working today. The path down was equally as difficult as the one up. We held on for dear life, to trees and bushes, as the winding path led us down the mountain, praying that we didn't slip and tumble down the hill like a rolling human avalanche. After a struggle, we made it back to the Poceta D'amoratos and sat for a few minutes to catch our breath. A good number of locals were passing by us in both directions. The trail was a popular spot. We watched over head for the various types of birdlife and observed the varied plant life all around us. The small “Toko Rollo” bird, a tri-colored Tragon, is the national bird. Its feathers feature the same colors as the Cuban flag.

            Finally, we reached the base of the mountain. Here sits a large open-sided dining area, the restaurant “Los Heleachos.” We sat at a trestle table and enjoyed a Cuban country meal. Served family style, we enjoyed arroz & frijoles (rice and beans,) a sweet potato, green beans and tomatoes and a can of Cuban Cervesa (Whirlwind). The Cuban Coffee was both very strong and delicious. A small bowl of meat of some sort was available for those who partake. It was both tasty and fun to eat Cuban style. As always during meals when you travel, you meet interesting people. One couple from Indiana were commercial farmers. We traded observations about the need for tractors here. He informed me that the U.S had delivered a few hundred tractors, as part of the ransom for Bay of Pigs invaders in the early sixties. Lack of parts had sidelined many of them.

         Another couple were native Israeli's who now resided in Boca Raton, Fl. Both had served in the Israeli military. The conversation was an eye opener into many things modern Israelis take for granted like Terrorist threats and farming the desert. The man, now an eminent plastic surgeon, had been captured by Arabs and held for eight weeks. It wasn't a pleasant stay for him. His wife said that he was still scarred form the incident.

             Iliana rounded up her charges and we set off for the ninety-minute drive back to Cien Fuegos. The lush countryside and feelings of potential abundance again captured my eyes. The horse-drawn conveyances, and hundreds of people walking the roads and hitch hiking, provided the lesser abundant reality that is modern day Cuba,

               We stopped for thirty minutes at Jose' Marti Square. A magnificent church faces one side of the plaza. It has been restored and looked both medieval and elegant with its two towers of antiquity. A small mariachi band was playing in one corner of the square for tourists. A few panhandlers were about, trying to hit on the tourists. The police were there watching them to keep everything in check. It was very hot out. A cavalcade of motorbikes roared by the streets around us. It appeared to be one of the principle means of transport in the crowded city streets. You did have to watch out for them as you crossed the bust streets. We ventured along the seven-bock promenade, admiring art work and tourist glitz on sale. Some of the artists were quite good. The images of rural Cuba made for great looking art. Unfortunately, things like this don't pack well for travelers. The locals sat in the shaded lee of buildings hoping for sales and calling out to potential buyers. It was both colorful and lively.

               Back in the square, we sat for a time and just watched the interesting people and sights all around us. Everything you see is a story is my credo. A bright pink, restored, 1957 Buick Electra caught the attention of many, as it sat parked on the street. Also, the two-story, low slung “oldest house” in Cuba was open for visitors. A small fee allowed you to go in and see a visage of Colonial Cuba. The day was waning and we were tiring. Iliana rounded up her charges and we made our way back to the ship, arriving at 5 P.M, not too long before the ship would get underway. We all gave Iliana 5 CCU's and thanked her for the informative tour. She is a big fan of Cien Fuegos and a wonderful ambassador of all that the area has to offer.

            Back in the air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena, we repaired to our room to write up my notes, enjoy some sparkling water and chill out. The Sirena soon dropped her lines and began a slow run through an inside passage, towards the sea. I sat on our balcony and watched the portrait of Cuban life slide by. There appeared to be several prosperous looking sea-side villas and lots of traffic on the water. Many small canoes and row boats drifted by. I sipped a vodka martini and pondered the many things that I had seen that day. The cultural anomalies, the economic differences and all manner of differing philosophies drifted through my febrile brain. As always, we concluded that we were very fortunate to have been born and bred in America.

        We managed a six O'clock dinner in the main dining room. Oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salad, an exquisite swordfish filet, with coffee and a decent Pinot Noir, made for a pleasant meal. As always, in the Caribbean, I was uneasy in dining so lavishly while people around us had so little. We were tired with the day, the heat and the humidity. We repaired to our cabin, read for a time and drifter off to sleep. The great ship made her way south and eastwards, towards tomorrow's destination, Santiago, Cuba.


                                            (2,371 words)

                                       Joseph Xavier Martin





Cuban Excursion- parte – seis -Santiago

Wed. Dec. 8th, 2018- Santiago, Cuba

            We were up by 7 A.M. The ship was sailing towards Santiago, Cuba. The seas were calm. We had coffee and pastry in the room. It was “una buena dia” (beautiful day.) We walked 22 laps on the deck eleven oval, enjoying the early morning sun and the dark visage of the Cuban mountains off our port side. Afterwards, we joined Barry and Diane Drevol, in the deck nine café, for breakfast. Immediately following, we listened to the dynamic Sandy Cares for an hour-long lecture on Santiago and its environs.

           We watched an hour of the George Bush funeral ceremony on television, enjoying as always, the eloquence of former Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney, a pal of both Bush and Reagan. BY 11:15 A.M we had entered Santiago Harbor. Castillo Moro, a twin of the Habana fortification, loomed along the headland. There was much sealand commerce inside the harbor, with freight derricks and commercial docks. In the background, the dark hills set off the bright blue of the coastal waters. Santiago lies just 40 miles to the southwest of the American Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. As we stood topside and admired our surroundings, we talked with one Georgian who had been stationed at Guantanamo as a youth. He said that he and several of his pals had snuck through the wire fence around the base, on a number of occasions, and whooped it up with the locals.

        Twelve Thirty found us assembling in the Sirena Lounge for our excursion into Santiago. We boarded a ship's tender for the ride into port. There was actually a long docking pier here. But a collision with a ship had damaged it. The Cubans wanted the cruise lines to build them another one. The Cruise lines said “Yo Mama. Build your own pier.” So far, nothing had happened. At customs, we surrendered our Cuban paper visa and were given plastic entry passes, to allow us to leave Cuba and reenter the ship. We walked through the scanners and out into the port area. It was warm and sunny. We found Transtur bus # 8 and met our guide Dionogia. Her English was not very good. On every tour we had ever been on, the quality of your experience depends on the verbal skills of the tour guide. Today we would just have to manage as best we could.

          Santiago had been founded in 1515, by a Spaniard named Diego Velasquez. One of its early Governor Generals had been Hernando Cortez, who had then gone on to Mexico, to conquer the Aztecs. The streets were alive with motor cycle traffic, the apparent mode of choice for the city. We saw several of the “old cars,” but none were very well restored. This far east in Cuba, things got poorer and poorer.

          Our first tour stop was the massive brown-stone edifice of Castillo Moro. A few buses, of tourist from everywhere, had already preceded us into the fortification. The guide paid for thirty of us to enter. That fee apparently included the right to take pictures. Otherwise, it would have been an additional 5 CCU's for that privilege. We walked up and down the massive fort stairs. They led out to a spectacular vista of the harbor. You could just imagine seeing the early Spanish gunners rolling out their cannons and getting ready to repulse some invading fleet of marauders. A walk through some of the nearby rooms was enlightening. In one “powder room” sat a large pile of lead cannon balls. They were emplaced in boxes that were hauled up to the canons above by a pulley system on an inclined plane.

          Another room held a pictorial display of American warships that had fought the Spanish in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Pictures of these ancient behemoths, like the USS Brooklyn, Chicago, Helena, Iowa, New York and Oregon were fascinating to me. Many of these enormous warships were scrapped in the 1920's, to be replaced by even larger ships of their namesakes that would make up the mainstay of our World War II Battle fleet. The aging warships had been led by U.S. Admiral Sampson. They had run out onto Santiago Bay on July tenth, 1898 and annihilated the Spanish Fleet in the Atlantic. Shortly after that, The Spanish had sued for Peace, via a Paris Peace Treaty. They had paid the U.S a $20 million-dollar indemnity and surrendered control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Philippines and Guam.

          Castillo Moro had also served as a Military prison during the 1890's, housing a rota of Cuban rebels who would later be the fore front of the Cuban revolutionary movement. It is a moving history of Cuba, encased in brown sandstone. We all took plenty of pictures and admired our surroundings. The walkway in and out was lined with Cuban vendors hawking tee shirts and all manner of tourist bric a brac. Several announced that they would take American Dollars for their wares. We were a long way from Habana, the center of government. Practical politics was asserting its economic head.

            The next stop on our tour, was the fabled “San Juan Hill.” Everyone had heard of Teddy Roosevelt's charge, with his rough riders, into the Spanish infantry. The guide told us that only Teddy and his immediate commander Col. Leonard Wood were mounted. The rest of the horses had been left in Tampa. Still, this iconic site, like JFK's PT 109, had launched a presidential career. The small hillock is less than 50 yards across. The trenches, for the Spanish infantry, had been left intact. They and the paved walkways around the top of the hill, were lined now with stones and a metric array on the tops of canon shells. It looked ship-shape and squared away from, a military perspective. A small, two-story, wooden block house commanded the center of the area. It had probably been the observation post for Spanish guns. It was now surrounded by an eclectic array of monuments commemorating those who had fought here. General William R. Shaffer had been the American Commander, under whom Wood and Roosevelt served. One monument commemorated the 1st Division U.S. Army for its service here. Another proudly announced that the Battery F, Second U. S Army had been in action here at 4 A.M on July 2nd, 1898, Capt. C.D.Parkhurst commanding. Several large artillery pieces were sprinkled amidst the monuments. Curiously, next door to San Juan Hill, a Chinese company had erected a large Ferris wheel and amusement park. It is a temporal anomaly that caused me to smile. Lastly, even Christopher Columbus had a stone here commemorating his landing in Cuba in 1492. It was a brief stop, but fascinating to those of us who enjoy history. The hillock over looks the harbor. It must have been quite a battle sight in the hot Cuban sun so long ago.

          Next, we were to visit a Cuban cultural venue that had us all scratching our heads. The Macuba Theater sits in the midst of busy Santiago. We filed in to the one-story building and sat at café tables, not knowing what to expect. A troupe of Cuban-African players performed an energetic and colorful pantomime of carnival scenes that occurs every July in Cuba. Unfortunately for us, the vocals were in Espanol and muis rapido.(very fast) We were all wondering WTF? Later, the cast sat in front of us. An interpreter explained what we had been seeing. It was a graphic reenactment of the celebrations, jealousy between partners, rage and other emotional entanglements that occur every year during the Carnival celebration. It was certainly something you don't see on the regular tourist circuit.

          In the streets around the theater, we saw lots of really old cars. Most had not been reconditioned like those in Habana. The Soviet Ladas, and others joined the occasional 1950's Chevy or Ford. These vehicles weren't for show. They were the main conveyance for those lucky or skilled enough to maintain them. Locals called them Frankensteins, for their multi-sourced composition.

          Our last stop on the tour was Cespedes Square. The Casa Grande Hotel here looks both prosperous and busy. The imposing Banco de National de Cuba joins several other towering structures. Motorcycles buzzed all around the square. Either there was another “oldest house in Cuba,” or my age-related and faulty memory had placed the facility both in Cien Fuegos and Santiago. A few mendicants implored us for donations, but none were overly offensive. “No gracias” or “no Comprende” usually fended them off. The Police were nearby to chase away the obnoxious ones.

        The day was waning and we were tiring. The bus brought us back to the customs shed, where we surrendered our plastic pass and walked through the scanners. A welcome ship's tender ferried us out to the ship, where we passed through the ships I.D. check and into to the welcome air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. We repaired to our room to enjoy a glass of wine and write up my notes. We then cleaned up, and by 7 P.M, had decided to dine in the ships deck nine “slop chute.“ The Lobster tails, shrimp, fish and sushi were above average in quality. It was an informal dining spot, but the quality of the food was superb. An awesome, molten, chocolate cake was over the top.

        We ventured topside, to enjoy the warm and misty dark of a sailing ship at sea, admiring the lights of Santiago along the shoreline. Then, we stopped by the Deck ten Horizon's lounge and joined the Burtons for a last glass of wine, enjoying the conversation and trading stories of what we had seen that day. It had been a long day and we were tiring. We repaired to our room, to read and enjoy the last hours of the day. The Ship's Captain announced that the waves in Punta Cana Harbor, Dominican Republic, our next destination, were running six to eight feet in height. It would be unsafe for us to try and land ship's passengers there. He opted for sailing to the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios. The great ship set sail, south and eastwards for Jamaica. Hey mon, tally me bananas! Vaya Con Dios, Cuba!


                                        ( 1,665 words)

                               Joseph Xavier Martin


Cuban Excursion- parte siete- Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Thurs. Dec. 6th, 2018

         We were up by 7 A.M as the Sirena drifted into her berth at Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We were berthed in the Turtle Bay complex. It had gone commercial big time since our last visit. An attractive beach club, swimming area and a small Marina now cater to the well-heeled.  The Holland America's “SS Veendam” drifted in to her berth just after we did. She moored across from us at the pier of the old bauxite processing facility. It had been featured in the James bond movie “DR. No.” We had been here on two previous occasions. The first time we had walked up the 200 ft. incline that is Duns River Falls, a major tourist attraction in the area. The locals film or photograph you in your walk up the Falls and then try to sell you a copy of the video for $50. During our last visit, we had not gotten off the ship. The mendicants and vendors had been too aggressive to deal with.

          The name “Ocho Rios” in Spanish means “Eight Rivers.” In that there are only three in the area, the name is probably a truncation for the Spanish phrase “Las Choreras.” It means “waterfalls” in English. There are 2.2 million people in Jamaica. Kingston is 58 miles away and Montego Bay 67 miles. Both are major tourist ports. The island had been developed by the English. It is most famous for its Blue Mountain Coffee.

       We walked our two miles, on the deck ten oval, and settled in to breakfast on the fan tail of the deck ten café. A light mist was falling, covering the very green hills around us with a shrouded mist. We cleaned up some and readied to go ashore. Ships personnel had advised to be warned against pick pockets, hustlers and other rascals. The Customs area is non-existent. We asked about a private tour, hoping for a taxi that would ferry us around the area for an hour or two. What we found at the “Juta” tours desk was a small ten-passenger van that was crammed to the rafters with other tourists. For $30 each we boarded this vehicle. Anne Marie, our guide and Percival her driver gave us a whirlwind tour of the area.

         The immediate area around the Turtle Bay is a neon conglomeration of eateries and tourist shops. KFC, Burger King, jewelry stores and restaurants all beckoned hungrily. It was very busy. Gasoline is eight dollars (U.S.) per gallon, but the car traffic is substantial. The locals must be doing okay financially. Our guide said the average wage here is $65 a week. (U.S.) Anne Marie had us all repeating and singing a Jamaican lilt. The three main Jamaican phrases, she said, are “Airee” (everything is alright”)  “Ya Mon” (yes sir) and “No problem, mon” everything is airee !

      Percival drove us up a lush and tree-lined inclined road,” Fern Gully.” It had once been an old river bed like Dunns River Falls. A 16th century earthquake had dammed up the river atop the mountain and left the dry river bed. When it rains hard, the road is awash, like it had been when the river flowed along its length. There were vendors, a man dressed in green leaves and on stilts (Jack the Bean Stalk) and all manner of attractions for the tourist along the route. We watched in amusement at the collective oddities. One carved, four-foot, man-like figure featured a two-foot erect phallus. Hey mon, that is some imagination !” Pimento trees and nutmeg bushes abounded in the lanes. You could smell the various spices redolent in the damp air. The locals call the area spice alley. It rained lightly. The air was damp and pungent with forest growth and spices. The winding road that we followed was impossibly narrow and mud filled. Percival drove it with aplomb and commented along the way on the various homes and practices found here.

       The Jamaicans are into the whole “Rasta Man” concept. Possession, of up to two ounces of Marijuana, is legal here. It is used in certain of the “Rasta” rituals as well as for recreational purposes. “Hey Mon,” no worries. From high atop Breadnought Hill, we could see the Bay far below. Jamaica gets 72 inches of rain annually. The island is lush and green.

         Anne Marie explained that the three rivers in the area are all used for specific purpose. The White River is used for tubing. The Dunns River is for tourist walking up the Falls. The stronger Roaring River is harnessed for hydro- electric power. The tour was brief. We ended up near the afore mentioned neon shopping plaza. Anne Marie ushered us into a very clean “Gem Palace.” All manner of expensive jewelry was on display. They had the requisite tee shirts and tourist souvenirs of Jamaica. We sampled and purchased some delicious rum cream. It is a flavor additive for coffee. Blue Mountain coffee was available for sale at $25 dollars a pound. One woman on our tour said she could get it at home for the same price or less. On our way out, a few of the locals sidled up to us. One young lad whispered “Hey Man, you want to feel young again? I can help!” Another entrepreneur wanted to give us a link of beaded cord. If you took the item he would then ask you for $10 U.S. because you had bought the item from him. We waded through the rascals to our bus and made our way back to the pier. Regrettably, Jamaica hadn't changed all that much since we had last been here.

            By 1 P.M, we had returned to the Sirena. I wrote up my notes and then we ha d a light lunch of fruit and fish at the deck nine café. It was raining, with a light mist across the area. We read for a time and then joined “Ozzie Nelson” for his customary afternoon nap. Life is good. At five P.M. we joined Donna Jablonski, with her pal Del and a couple from Las Vegas, for a glass of wine on deck eleven, as the Sirena dropped her lines and left Ochos Rios, bound for the windward passage between Cuba and The Dominican Republic. It is a pleasant ritual that we never tire of.

              Afterwards, we cleaned up some. We were dining in the Specialty Restaurant “Red Ginger,” on deck ten, this evening. Its bright red and lush décor, set off by the black lacquer tables and snowy white napery was reminiscent of an elegant Chinese bordello. We were seated with two charming couples from Los Angeles and Vermont. Like all such encounters when travelling, all parties hoped that they were not being seated with “masters of the Universe,” who would bore you to death with a tale of their accomplishments and merits. I usually start off the conversation with some self-deprecatory comment that lets them know I am not one of the aforementioned talk monsters who will make you run screaming down the deck, shouting “stop, stop, shut the hell up.” Thus reprieved from that kind of pressure, people usually relax and you get to enjoy the very best side of them. We had a nice conversation about everyone's various families and pursuits. Several of my family live in Southern California, and we had visited the area often,  so we traded anecdotes about So. Cal. Lightly fried, fresh Calamari, an avocado lobster salad, wonderful Bay scallops and a rum cake confection, that was mouthwatering, were accompanied by a decent Chardonnay. It was a wonderful meal. We were served by a cadre of Russian and Ukrainian hostesses. I was able to trade comments with them in Russian. I like to trade comments with the crew in their native tongue if I can, because I think hearing their own language, when they are so very far from home, causes them to smile in memory of who they are when traveling so far away in an English bubble. Afterwards, we returned to our cabin to read for an hour and drift off to sleep, after a very busy day. The tour was wearing long on us and we were feeling the tug of home. The next two days at sea would be pleasant before a brief stop at Great Stirrup Key in the Bahamas and then onward towards Miami and home.


                                     (1,418 words)

                           Joseph Xavier Martin     

Cuban Excursion- parte-ocho- at sea-

Friday, Dec. 7th, 2018- at sea- windward passage

     We were up by 7 A.M. It was already 80 degrees out. Coffee and a pastry in the room was followed by walking 22 laps on the deck eleven oval track. It was both refreshing and relaxing to be looking out to sea in the early mornings. The windward passage here, between Cuba and Hispaniola, had been the major sea route for pirates, Spanish Galleons, British privateers and all manner of rascals and rogues during the 1700's.

       A stop in the deck ten café for omelets was followed by another interesting lecture, at ten A.M., by Sandy Cares. This talk was about the history of the Bahamas. It was fascinating. We read for a few hours in the Library, where we were treated to one of life's delightful vignettes. Most people sat quietly reading. But some, perhaps plagues by a respiratory ailment or other age-related malady coughed occasionally. Whenever a person coughed, a man's voice would pipe up saying “go to your room.” After the third such irritating exposition, a small woman stood up, turned to the man and said” You know something, you are a real jerk!” Then she slammed her book shut and stomped out of the room in a huff. It happened so fast that I didn't get the chance to stand up and cheer her on for doing something all of us probably wanted to do. Score one for decent people. After this cheerful performance, we met up with Ozzie Nelson in the early afternoon. (nap) Days at sea on a ship can be relaxing and enjoyable.

     We wandered by the Sirena lounge at 4:30 P.M. and joined the Ciccarellis and the Besseys for a team Trivia challenge game. Somehow, we came in third place. When they ask the right questions, you are a genius. When they don't, you are a dope. Afterwards, we retrieved a glass of champagne, from our room, and stood topside, watching the 5:25 P.M. sunset. At sea, these are beautiful events. The golden glow of the falling globe colors the sea a delightful aqua marine, as it sinks beneath the waves.

     It was time to clean up some. We were dining in the specialty restaurant “Tuscan Steak House” at 8:00 P.M. Although late for us, this is early for the Europeans. We were seated with two delightful octogenarian women from New York City. One had been a social worker in the Bronx for forty years. She had a few stories to tell. Her companion, another widow, also could spin a yarn. It was pleasant conversation, as we enjoyed Oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salads, Lobster, key lime pie with a glass of Pinot Noir.  A meal, in a place like this in NYC, would cost you the down payment on a new car. It was windy topside, so we retreated to our cabin, and read for a few hours before drifting off to sleep. In the real world, it was Peral Harbor Day.

Sat. Dec.8th, 2018 at sea- sailing to the Bahamas

           We were up by 5 A.M. The heavy seas, that had waived us off the Dominican Republic, were rolling the boat back and forth, like a hog in a wallow. We read and watched the early t.v. news. Trying to walk the deck in, a heavy sea, would have been silly. We visited the deck ten gym and worked the weights and exercycle for an hour, watching the white caps and rollers all around us. Now we know what it feels like to work out drunk as the back and forth motion made us scramble from weight machine to machine. Afterwards, we shared breakfast with George and Nancy Taylor, watching the boat rock and the mist splash against the boat. Pleasant, unplanned encounters like this make the voyage all the more interesting.

           Ten O'clock found us again in the Siren Lounge, listening to another lecture by the wonderful speaker Sandy Cares. This one sounded prosaic enough. It was about Bananas. “Huh?” you might say. It was fascinating. The development of the Caribbean basin, in the early twentieth century, centered around the cultivation and transport of this humble food stuff. The United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit company (later Dole and Del Monte) brought the humble yellow tuber to the area, developed the banana plantations, and later rail transport and refrigeration, to found an empire. Along the way, it is alleged that they engineered a few regime changes to the “Banana Republics” that asserted themselves a little too vigorously for their company's interests. Hey, we did those things way back then. The Russians aren't the first ones to come up with the idea.

        We read for a time and then stopped by the Sirena Lounge again to watch a movie. Today, “The Wife” was playing. Although Glen Close's acting was brilliant, the movie was an intense downer. Ugh ! We managed a glass of wine in our cabin, before gathering with the group of Spring Run Travelers for a group photo in the decorated stairs, between decks four and five amidships. Then, it was off to dinner in the main dining room. We were dining with Bill & Carol Furtwengler, Ron and Linda Klocke and Myrna and Miland Meeks. Iced shrimp, Caesar salads, Monk fish medallions, chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and a glass of Pinot Noir entertained us while we talked about everything that had happened this week. The meal conversations highlight the day, shipboard. It had been a full day and we were tiring, so we repaired to our cabins to read and drift off to sleep. The seas around us had calmed as we approached the shallow shelf of the Bahamas. Tomorrow would be a beach day on Great Stirrup Cay, in the Bahamas.


                                      (839 words)

                                Joseph Xavier Martin


Cuban Excursion- parte Nueva- Bahamas

Sun. Dec. 9th, 2018- Great Stirrup Cay- Bahamas

         We were up at 6 A.M. The Sirena was sailing into the Berry Island Group of the Grand Bahama Islands. The island group lies some 130 miles due east of Miami, Florida. It is an uprising in the Ocean floor that features a series of coral atolls, covered in a thin layer of dirt and sand. We were headed for a small atoll (Great Stirrup Cay) that the NCL group, owner of Oceana lines, had purchased and developed. They had blasted out an opening in the coral atoll for an entrance way into a small lagoon. Then, they had dredged the lagoon for a channel to allow passage and shipped in tons of sand, to make a beach area for ship's passengers. It didn't sound particularly enticing, but we would be surprised later to find out how nice it is.

          It was warm and overcast at 7 A.M., as we walked our 22 laps on the deck eleven oval. The seas were a crystal blue and calm as we glided through the warm waters. Indication of land nearby came in the form of several birds, kestrels I think, that were buzzing curiously around the ship. An omelet breakfast, on the open fantail of the deck ten café, was both restful and appealing. The soft wind, the warm air and the rising sun made it an ideal place to linger over coffee and conversation.

          A visit, to the deck four purser, settled our accounts for the voyage. Oceana really doesn't over charge you for anything. We thought all of their charges more than reasonable. We hunted down our room steward and tipped her liberally, thanking her for taking care of us for the last ten days. Then, we repaired to the cabin to read for a bit and ready for the day.

         At 11:30 A.M we ventured down to the deck three portal, to board an open ferry that would tender us in to the beach. It was a large, two- decked affair that could accommodate a crowd. Though the seas were calm, transferring an aging crew of passengers onto a moving ferry was a challenge for the crew. We eyed our surroundings for the brief ride into the pier. The coral itself is sere and heat blasted. Thin levels of soil already featured some Grape leaf trees, red mangrove trees and various thistle types of shrubbery. Tall coconut palms stood out.

        At the pier, we walked through a small enclave of vendors hawking tees shirts, beach wear and other souvenirs. A stone rest room facility and a large-roofed and open sided shelter centered the area. Here, the ship would provide a barbecue lunch for those on shore just in case you didn't want to miss out on that odd 1,000 calorie mid-day caloric assault.

        We sat down on the beach chairs provided. There were hundreds of them, all sitting patiently in neat rows. When the big ships come in, they are filled with sun bathing passengers. We ventured down to the ocean's edge, to walk into the very blue water, with a white sand bottom. It was cool, this far out in the Atlantic. It reminded me of swimming in cool Lake Erie. You had to walk in up to your knees and let your body adjust to the cool water temperatures. Then maybe slide in up to your waist and further adjust until you slide all the way in with a delighted shriek. By then, the water felt perfect and exhilarating. A good-sized crowd of fellow passengers were swimming all around us. It was an idyllic time at the beach. Regretfully, we made our way back to shore and attempted to dry off. Lunch was nearing and we had a brief eco tour scheduled for 1:30 P.M. The picnic lunch was a caloric onslaught. We selected a few items and munched on them under a shaded pavilion. The biggest thing to remember in these heated environs, is to keep drinking water. Dehydration occurs quickly in this type of heat and sun.

         A small crowd gathered at the tourist information hut at 1:30. Several were going off on jet skis to run through the surrounding waters. We boarded a small, roofed, tour boat that was chock full of other passengers. The boat skipper looked, talked and sounded like a younger version of golfer Phil Mickelson. I later asked him if he had any relatives that played golf in southern California. He just smiled and gave a non-committal answer.

        The hour and a half tour was informative. We would motor up to a cove area, of a surrounding Island. A diver on the boat would slip into the water and brink up various sea creatures for our touch and feel observations. The adult star fishes were huge. The keratin surface was reddish, rough and hard. The sea cucumber looked like a small loaf of rye bread. As it lay on the seat it started to evacuate a stream of water. I thought I might be the only person on the planet than had been peed on by a sea cucumber. The guide explained that these creatures puffed up with water under the sea and when surfaced deflated by expelling water. Thanks, I appreciated that tid-bit. The sea biscuits were small, brown affairs about the size of their name. The conchs were much larger. And they are much valued. We had tried and enjoyed conch fritters and conch chowder in Key West. Both are delicious. The joke of the trip was that you had to ease the conchs back into the water. Throwing them back in, the guide said with a smile, would give them a “conk-cushion.” Everyone laughed dutifully. We looked for both sharks and dolphins, but the noise and wakes of the jet skis had scared them away.

      A good narration of the seas, who had traversed them in history and how they handle hurricanes this far out into the ocean (hunker down and pray) was both informative and fun. The surrounding coral shores look like a heat-blasted and harsh environment. It was nearing 4 P.M. and we had to head in. The tender ferry was waiting nearby. We boarded her and made for the ship. The seas were rising ahead of a blow that was coming in tomorrow. It made for a tricky re-entry into the ships deck-three portal. Aging and unsure adults were virtually hand carried across the entrance portal. It had been both an interesting and fun day at the beach.

          In our cabin, we started packing for our return journey. It was near time to go home and we were ready. We cleaned up from our shore excursion and made it up to the deck ten Horizon's lounge for the last “happy hour” of the voyage. Like every night, we traded stories of what we had seen and done during the day. We again joined Rodger and Sue Burton, of Kansas City, for dinner in the grand dining room. Amidst pleasant conversation and a few laughs, we enjoyed shrimp, Caesar salads, filet of salmon and chocolate cream cake with a glass of the Chilean cabernet. They feed you well on this old bucket.

            After dinner, we repaired to our cabin. Everyone had to finish packing and have their bags out in the hall by ten P.M. so the crew could start getting them ready for off-loading. We then settled in to read and drift off to sleep. It had been a very pleasant cruise and we were glad that we had come.

        Mon. Dec. 10th, arriving at the port of Miami.

       We were up by 5 A.M. expectant with all that we had to do to get off ship and find our way back to Estero on the other coast of Florida.  We had but a few books and things to take with us. Everything else was packed and sent ashore already. We cleaned up and headed for the deck ten café. I would have thought it would be pandemonium but it was calm and well ordered. The staff was professional and polite to the very end. We enjoyed the same omelets and service that we had on the previous ten days aboard ship. We waved to a few fellow passengers who we would not see again. One very old German couple were a delight. They were Berliners. He had tolerated my halting German throughout the voyage and a few tours. Many of these folks we had grown very fond of during a brief, few days.

      We stood topside and watched the lit-up areas of Miami slide into view. The harbor cranes, several tugs and various loading crews were already busy with the day's tasks. All passengers were instructed to wait in the various lounges and listen for the call of their numbered release. Our luggage group was a green- three. We got paged about 8:45 A.M. We exited the ship, waved good bye to ship's crew and found our bags easily enough, in the cavernous entry hall at dockside. A passage through American customs was perfunctory. Our gang of forty assembled dockside to await our ride home. The bus driver had screwed up and it was late in arriving. It gave us all yet another opportunity to talk with those who had shared the voyage with us. Watching the well-ordered port crew handle both arriving and departing passengers would make a good weekly television serial. They were characters.

           Finally, the large land cruiser wheeled into our terminal. A grateful bevy of passengers loaded our bags underneath and boarded the bus for the two-hour ride across the glades and home. On the ride back, we were thoughtful. Images, of what we had seen, still percolated in our consciousness. The cultural contrasts, the beautiful scenery, the fun that we had all shared was still fresh with us. Bob Ciccarelli led the group in a singing of God Bless America. It might sound corny to some but it sure meant something to all of us. Finally, we arrived at the Spring Run Complex. Everyone picked up their bags, tipped Charles the driver and made their way back to their homes. It had been a wonderful adventure, but we were all collectively glad to be home.