4 May 2023

Summary of March 2023 Cuba trip

A CUBAN SYMBOL: Both the cars and the country require a lot of work.                

TRIP REPORT: Cuba in March 2023

WARNING: this is long and rambling! You may want to stop in the middle to make a snack, have something to drink or just rest a little while. Take your time; this report isn’t going anywhere! [You'll find more photos at the end, as a reward for reading that far.]
As I begin to write this, I’m still in Cuba, spending a quiet morning at the casa de renta where I’ve been staying in Pilón, awaiting the arrival of a friend for “one last visit” before I leave. I’m not sure if he’s coming by bicycle or hitching a ride from his home in a village about 15 km away. Public transportation is negligible these days, so it’s not a reliable option.
Presumably, he’ll call me when he gets to town, since he couldn’t provide an ETA. Sometimes, however, people just show up. Calls can be expensive when you’re on a tight budget. As well, both cellular and internet services can be erratic. I’ve often had messages fail to fly for no discernable reason. It can be maddening.
Cuba itself can be maddening. I used to say “Cuba is teaching me patience.” In the last few years, the lessons have gone far beyond patience. Every time I visit, I learn something new.
Sometimes I learn practical things. For example, I’ve known for a long time that it’s important to take T.P. with me wherever I go but, now, I perpetually carry water purification tablets and plastic bags too. Bottled water is no longer readily available, and it’s expensive, if you can find it. The tap water is safe for locals, who are used to it, but it can be problematic for us foreigners, especially when trying to drink enough to stay properly hydrated in the irrepressible heat! And the plastic bags? Well, one never knows when one will be given a piece of fruit, for example, that one doesn’t want to have smooshed inside one’s backpack or purse!
Other lessons are less tangible, and some are difficult to accept. “Cuba is sad,” one friend commented as we discussed the current situation in the country and in rural Granma, which is particularly hard hit. She has been out of work for three years, along with many other people in this area, if they worked at the region’s one and only resort, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo. It closed at the onset of COVID but, just this month (March 2023), finally began opening for day use on weekends (Friday/Saturday/Sunday). That’s an important start.

In December, full all-inclusive accommodation is scheduled to begin, if the stars align properly. Tourists who have been visiting this resort for decades are eager to return but are skeptical that it will really and truly open this winter because, for the last two years, Sunwing has sold flights and packages, only to cancel them later. Thus, people are distrustful. It’s hard to plan a trip, if you can’t be certain that your destination will actually be available. And, it’s hard to plan your life, if you think you’ll be able to return to work, then you can’t.
The realization that hope is fading from people’s eyes is hard to accept, but that’s what I’m seeing on this trip. Change is desperately needed on many levels but there is no viable way to reach the top of that cloud-shrouded mountain. So, people are leaving in droves – leaving the area and leaving the country.
They may not really want to go to abroad but many Cubans see it as the only way to provide a better future for their children. They want to be able to work and live without constantly looking over their shoulders for coming trouble while, at the same time, navigating around obstacles and roadblocks as they try to move forward with their lives. They want the chance to be as productive as they could be, if things were different. The grass looks greener in the land of greenbacks and perceived opportunity.
Opportunity is an important word here. Very few doors open easily in Cuba these days. Financial support from off-shore family or friends is key, if you want to create opportunity here. A new bar and paladar (private restaurant) is on the cusp of opening in Pilón, thanks to the determination of a young man who made his way to the U.S. five years ago. He told me that he wants to show his family they can make money here but, without his injection of cash, it wouldn’t be possible. Seed money is vital for starting up a business anywhere but, in Cuba, support won’t be coming from banks or government programs.
The government is struggling to provide basic services and supplies in many areas. Frozen meat (chicken, hamburger or hotdogs), dry goods and other necessities one would normally expect to be available in stores seem to come and go. Sometimes, there’s no toilet paper. Other times, there’s no cooking oil or vinegar. This week, in Pilón, boxes of chicken legs didn’t appear when expected, although they did arrive belatedly. For some communities, the legs were unavailable for several months in a row, even though they’re supposed to be part of a monthly allotment, supplemental to the “libreta” or ration book program that provides a limited assortment of necessities at reduced prices.
The erratic arrival of supplies makes it hard for individuals and families to cope. People have become experts at “inventing” solutions. For business owners, it’s an even bigger challenge, and it’s vital to have good connections, as well as to be creative. When there are no rolls of toilet paper, give your B&B clients paper napkins instead, assuming availability of course! Many households have stashes of paper in their baños ­– the ubiquitous Granma newspaper and old school notebooks are most common – or scraps of cloth. In one outhouse, I saw a paperback book being gradually consumed; that’s a harsh review. 

One writer and artist I talked with on this trip had just opened a tattoo studio. His path to this business endeavor is quite interesting. I first met Gilmar Naranjo close to a decade ago, when he was, essentially, a talented kid who was part of an art show/sale I arranged for one of my travel groups. Although he’s a gifted artist, he was not able to seek formal university-level training. So, he studied on his own and received some coaching from local art mentors.
He’s very skilled and he learned fast. However, materials were often in short supply. That led him to pick up wine and rum bottles as alternatives to canvas. He found a magnificent niche! He now paints incredibly vibrant and textured scenes on the entirety of these empty bottles. Gilmar’s unique art creations are available for sale in a gallery in Bayamo or in Pilón, directly from him (you can find him on Facebook). Eventually, he plans to have some on display at his tattoo studio, along with some of his paintings.
How did he make the jump from bottles to tattoos? Well, he saw an opportunity and seized it. He continues to work as a part-time art teacher, along with juggling the bottles and tattooing. Gilmar enjoys blending art with social interaction, since he’s a gregarious guy, and there’s decent money to be made in the tattoo business. He’s not the only Pilón artist to shift into tattooing. Yes, even though food is expensive, people seem to find the money for body art! That gives me hope.

Where do people get extra cash for things that are not necessities? It’s hard to say. I can only guess that they might have a generous friend or relative, but it’s also quite possible they have a business in the shade, shall we say. In my informal observation, capitalism seems to be thriving in the shadows in Cuba and, it would appear, the government just winks. But, it can be challenging and frustrating to navigate a system that is in flux. What new problem will arise in the morning?

There are many reasons for frustration in Cuba these days, and many unfulfilled needs. The country is in rough shape in most areas. Are things as bad as they were during the “Special Period” of the 1990s? Maybe not, or not yet. Tourism has been restarted in some places but not in Granma, although it’s desperately needed. There just aren’t many work options beyond tourism in the Pilón and Marea del Portillo region. Even if you’re able to start a business, it won’t do as well as it will once the local resort reopens and tourists roll into town once again. People are waiting for that to happen, hanging on by nails and teeth. 

During this trip, I often thought about the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot. The characters in that classic piece of absurdist fiction keep waiting and waiting, expecting the mysterious Godot to come and something to happen. Cuba is waiting and waiting, expecting change to come and good things to finally begin happening. I sincerely hope Cuba is not waiting for a Godot who never arrives.
I always strive to remain optimistic. Tattoos give me hope, as do the other new businesses that have popped up in Pilón in recent months. There are several new restaurants and bars. I ate at as many different places as I could, but I discovered that they sometimes run out of food. Nonetheless, they are making a go of it. Any food I ate at the local paladars was prepared well and, to a foreigner, the prices were reasonable.
I also had a very nice lunch at the Club Amigo Marea del Portillo resort when I was finally able to visit there near the end of my stay. They offered two entrée options for lunch: lobster or pork. I chose lobster and it was both substantial and delicious! As part of the day-use package, one also receives sandwiches before and after lunch, and a beer or other beverage at lunch. Although there weren’t many guests that day, there was a full complement of staff. It was nice to see some familiar faces back at work, finally.
Having the resort open again, even though it’s only in a limited way at this point, is the biggest reason for optimism. It will survive. The people will survive. The resort will be ready for tourists in December and our Cuban friends will be ready to give us huge hugs! I’m already mentally packing.

Thanks for reading my report!
~ Jenny

23 Jan 2023

Do you have a relationship with the place known as Marea del Portillo?

Human relationships are remarkable things. You never know where or when you'll encounter someone who will become a friend, and you may not even know why. Nor can you predict to what degree that friendship will develop. Connections can be incredibly random, yet strong as Gorilla Glue. 

I've sometimes noticed interactions between people on Facebook that are heartwarming because I know they connected with each other at Marea del Portillo, an obscure but beloved little resort in rural Cuba. Sometimes these friendships were formed because the individuals were part of a group I organized, which is particularly gratifying to me!

As a tour leader, I've always seen a key aspect of my role as being to help people make connections – with others in the group, with members of the community we're visiting and, ultimately, with the country itself. Over the years, with or without my involvement, many visitors to Marea del Portillo have become connected to the place and its people.

As you may know, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo was closed at the start of 2020, due to COVID-19, and has not yet been reopened. Many people in that area have now been out of work for three years! Since the resort is key to the economic survival of numerous families, if not the community itself, I accepted a challenge to create a petition, urging action by those with the power to reopen the resort. It will go to Sunwing executives and others.

You can read the petition by clicking HERE. I hope you will sign it.

Even if the resort doesn't open this season, I remain confident that it will open next winter. The people in that region need the opportunity to work that tourism affords, both directly and indirectly.

Meanwhile, I'm working on putting together a little group (just a van load) that would fly into Holguin, spend a night or two there and explore the city, then wend our way through the Granma province, visiting a few historic sites along the way to Marea. If the hotel is not open, we would stay at casas particulares (Cuban B&Bs) in the area. A few people have already expressed interest in this but I need a couple more to make it viable; please contact me right away, if you might want to go along in late March. 

We're bouncing into a "bunny" year...

Happy Year of the Water Rabbit!

According to what I found in a quick internet search: 
"The Chinese Year of the Rabbit represents peaceful and patient energy. 
The water element suggests tapping into inner wisdom and trusting instincts. 
Together, the Water Rabbit indicates focusing on relationships, diplomacy, 
and building bridges in professional and personal relationships."
What will this year hold for you? 


17 Dec 2022

Update on Cuba & holiday greeting

Waiting for Cuba...

Ah, Cuba, when will you be able to soar?

I'm listening to some Afro-Cuban jazz (Telmary's "Libre" CD) and thinking about what to tell you regarding my November trip to Cuba and the current state of life there. I would say things, in general, are incrementally better in most ways and places, compared to the past summer of discontent. Prices, however, remain exorbitantly high for most Cuban budgets.

Havana and areas where tourists have begun to return in significant numbers are doing the best – when tourism is thriving, there are more spin-off opportunities for income, as well as employment within this key industry itself. Tourism, in some ways, is both a blessing and a curse. Food and energy resources must be directed to resorts, in order to keep guests happy, local people employed and money coming in. This means, as I interpret it, that less touristy parts of the country must make do; there doesn't seem to be enough of everything to go around all the time. Supplies come and go, including food staples and fuel. But, everyone is getting by and nobody's starving.

In planning my November trip, I'd originally booked a stay at Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, my beloved second home, which hasn't been open since the onset of COVID. Unfortunately, as I found out today, it will not be opening at all this season. Or, more correctly, Sunwing is not offering packages or flights to that location at this time. I certainly hope they will deign to return service there next winter! I also hope, most fervently, that the resort will be able to open for "off-the-road" guests, without flights. Even if people must fly into Holguin and travel 4-5 hours to get to Marea del Portillo, I think some would, and I'd be happy to help facitlitate such an adventure!

When Sunwing cancelled my booking at Marea del Portillo (it was on their website and they were taking reservations earlier this year), I opted to rebook at a similarly small, laid-back resort called Don Lino, which I'd heard good things about and had been wanting to visit for years. But, the stars did not align. Don Lino's generator had a problem and, since it was vital for supplying fresh water, they had to abruptly close. Four days before I was scheduled to fly to Holguin, expecting to stay at Don Lino, Sunwing advised me that the resort would not be re-opening until the end of November. They offered to refund my money or upgrade my reservation to a pricier hotel in the area and, since my bags were already packed, I chose the latter.

At the beginning of November, I spent my first week at Brisas Guardalavaca, which literally translates to "Breezes Keep the Cow." I didn't see any cows while I was there, but there was often a nice breeze! Compared to what I'm used to, it was pretty posh and significantly larger, but it was very welcoming, the staff was top notch and the ocean setting was lovely. If you have a Sunwing voucher to use, I can certainly recommend it!



After being purely a tourist at an easy-breezy resort, I was eager to shift gears and get on with the real reason for my trip – to visit my Cuban friends! I was armed with a suitcase and a half of gifts to share, and my arms ached to share their warm hugs. I started in the charming and historic city of Holguin, moved on to Bayamo and Manzanillo, then finally, I landed in Pilón, where I stayed for a fortnight. With Casa de Noel (a Cuban B&B) as my home base, I visited friends in the villages of Marea del Portillo, Mota and Niquero. It was all quite delicious, as was the food.

Everywhere I went, whether at the resort, in cities I visited or the homes of friends, I ate well. There wasn't as much variety as at some times but there was enough, and it was prepared very well. I'm lucky to have good friends who look after me, and often feed me too much! Since I knew my friends would go the extra kilometer whenever I dined with them, I made a point of taking food for their households, in addition to other things like acetaminophen, which is the best thing to take if you contract dengue fever.

Dengue fever was on the uptick in some regions due to the lack of consistent electricity, which had been a problem for several months. When I visited Pilón earlier in the year, the power supply had been somewhat erratic. The situation worsened over the summer but, by late November, the pattern of outages was more regulated, at least. It was, essentially, 4 hrs. on/4 hrs. off. Since I knew this on/off cycle would be happening, I took a rechargeable fan, which I grew quite fond of during my stay.

It's hard to fathom how people have been coping with this current issue, among others, over the past few months. I'm glad things have improved in this rural part of Granma, though it can only be defined as modest improvement. They are not out of the proverbial woods yet, and they can't really see edge of the forest, but there is a faint path. So, they keep moving forward, with all the poise and aplomb they can muster. And, let me affirm, the Cuban people I've encountered are not lacking in poise, aplomb and a whole lot of other admirable qualities!

They have not given up, and I won't give up on them. I will keep thinking about possibilities, ways to support and encourage them. One thing I've done since returning to Canada is to set up a Facebook group for my friend's B&B, Casa de Bárbara, in the village of Marea del Portillo. She and a mutual friend in Holguin will arrange transportation from the airport and back, along with a night in Holguin before/after the flight, and a tour of the city, guided by an English-speaking young man who's studied local history. I'm also considering a version of this trip for a small group (maximum of 8), perhaps in late March. If you're interested, please let me know by the end of this year, if possible, or early January at the latest.

Since the year's end is fast approaching, let me close this email with my heart-felt wish that 2023 will be better for everyone in Cuba and elsewhere! The people of that beautiful island deserve the opportunity to thrive, not just survive. When given the chance, they will soar.

Meanwhile, hug your family and friends, stay healthy, savor life and enjoy the holidays!
Peace and joy to all,

3 Nov 2022

My May trip report & November plan

I owe you an apology...and an update on Cuba!

I've been remiss. I posted a bunch of photos on Facebook following my May 2022 journey to Cuba but I neglected to provide a report on that trip via this venue or on my website. What can I say except, I'm sorry! I had a busier summer and fall than expected and, now, I'm heading off to Cuba again (tomorrow!), suitcases fully loaded with vital items for friends there who are struggling more than ever.

I didn't ask for donations this time for two reasons: 1.) Thanks to the generosity of those who donated in the spring, I still had some supplies left over; 2.) Things had been rather up in the air regarding this trip. When I finally got all the details sorted out, I scrambled to fill the suitcases, quickly purchasing what was needed. On this trip, I will be taking more food than anything else because friends in the rural areas where I'll again be going have identified that as a particular need – protein sources, especially. During my May trip, I gave out bags of basic medical/health supplies to many families.

On that tour, too, I had the opportunity to attend the 2022 book fair, hosted in Bayamo, the capital of the Granma province. It was very interesting to see the wonderful outreach and literacy promotion activities associated with this annual event, as well as to meet other writers. You can find photos of the "Feria del Libro de Granma" among my Facebook albums. You'll also find an album featuring "Casa de Noel," the B&B in Pilón where I'll again be staying for the last part of my trip.

The first part of the coming junket will be spent at a resort called Brisas Guardalavaca, on the opposite shore from Marea del Portillo, where I had originally been booked to stay. My favorite little resort, which has been closed since the start of COVID, was supposed to re-open Nov. 2, but Sunwing pushed back the opening to Dec. 14. Many of the dear people who normally work have been unemployed for close to three years now. Some former staff have had to move to other parts of the island to find work and others have left the country.

To say that times are tough in Cuba seems like an understatement. When I was there in May, some people said things were as bad as they were during the so-called "Special Period," but others disagreed. Now, however, I think everyone would say things are as bad or worse than they were in the early '90's, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without that key trading partner, Cuba's economy tanked. Currently, the lack of tourism is the biggest factor in the nation's present financial problems. Things are starting to pick up in some areas, though, including the one I will soon be visiting – Holguin.

When I return from this trip, I promise to give you a report in a more timely fashion! And, to all those who generously donated to assist with my trips earlier this year, thanks again for your wonderful support.