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.



2 Nov 2022

Cuba breaks my heart more every day

Cuba breaks my heart. I want to help. Do you?

I don't usually use images that are not my own but this one grabbed my heart and squeezed. It seems so emblematic of Cuba right now. The people are struggling. They need support more than ever.

In February, I took about 100 lbs. of "humanitarian aid" to people in a rural, remote part of the country, as you may already know. This aid was made possible by friends and family members (you know who you are!) who responded to an appeal I put out prior to that trip. Your support gave my heart wings! And, it allowed me to lift the spirits of many people.

I have a strong connection with the southern part of the Granma province, particularly to families in Marea del Portillo, Mota, Pilón and Niquero. Many folks there h
ave been out of work since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, since much of that region's employment is tourism based. So, that's where I've been directing my assistance.

On May 17, I plan to return there with another load of medical/health supplies, but I need your support. Medicine-cabinet items like children's cough syrup, pain pills, anti-inflammatory aids, arthritis rubs, antibiotic creams, etc. are expensive! In Cuba, however, they are both extremely expensive and hard to find. If your kid has a cough and you have a headache you often just have to ride it out.

During my February/March visit, I saw first-hand how difficult daily life has become. The gifts I took were very much appreciated by the families who received them, and I'm confident they will share with others in need. My friends are that kind of people. They will be helping me to distribute whatever I can manage to take in May.

I want to take as much as possible to help the long-suffering people of Cuba. Although I generally try to avoid political commentary, I will say this: The government of Cuba has made some choices I do not agree with; people are often not able to make their own choices but must live with the consequences nonetheless.

I don't expect to change the world. I'm not trying to do so. But, if I'm able to make a difference in a few lives, I'm going to do it! I hope you are with me in spirit. If you also feel able to support me monetarily in this endeavor, I would greatly appreciate it.
You can contribute via e-transfer to jennicacuba@gmail.com (in Canada) or through PayPal (if you don't have your own account, I can send you a "request" that allows you to use a credit card).

I hate to ask for money but, quite frankly, my budget is already being stretched quite a bit for this trip. However, I feel it is important to take more humanitarian aid while I can – and while the Cuban government is offering a duty-free exemption for suitcases filled with health/medical supplies. The deadline for this tax waiver is fast approaching, which factored into the trip's timing. I'm following my heart to Cuba.

If it is in your heart to assist me, I will be very appreciative, as will the Cuban people I'll be able to help. If you don't feel comfortable donating money, you can be supportive by sending good vibes!

XO ~ Jenny



27 Mar 2022

It's always fun to chat with Marilyn!

I've been interviewed by Marilyn Ball on her show, "Speaking of Travel," several times over the years, and we always have a great time chatting – both on and off the air. One of these days, we both have vowed, she and I will travel to Cuba together! I'm very much looking forward to it.

This LINK lets you travel to a podcast of the March 27 show. 

23 Mar 2022

My most recent Cuban adventure!

Yes, that's some of my luggage on the roof – there wasn't enough room in the trunk!   


TRIP REPORT: My most recent Cuban adventure

Hola! I've been thinking about what to say in a "trip report" on my recent two-week stay in Cuba... That's how I began a Facebook post with a semi-brief report. It will serve as a base (original text in blue), which I will add to below. I have to warn you, though, I have a lot to say! So, grab a drink and snack, to tide you over as you read. Here we go...
Life in Cuba is difficult and expensive. Food and other basic necessities are randomly and inexplicably unavailable. When things suddenly appear in a store after a long absence, word spreads like wildfire and lines form. If you're lucky, you may get to buy what you've been needing. If you can't get to the store or don't want to stand in line, you can usually find things "on the street" later, due to the efforts of re-sellers. The black market is thriving in Cuba these days! But, of course, street prices are significantly higher than store prices; you're paying for not having to stand in a line for hours and for being able to use paper money (national currency) instead of a credit card.
For example, one of the largest stores in Pilón, where I was staying, was converted to an MLC ("freely convertible currency") store and reopened with a fresh supply of stock while I was there. The line-up to get in reminded me of a queue for concert tickets for a popular band. Cubans are used to standing in lines, and they have it down to a fine art. They don't actually need to be in a physical line, in fact! When someone new arrives, they will ask who is last in line. Thus, they know who to follow and, so, they can all relax and sit in the shade... if there is a place to sit, and if there's shade!

On opening day, one of my friends traveled from Mota (a village approx. 15 km away) and stood in line from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. before being able to enter. His goal was to buy shoes for his young daughter. By the time he got inside, however, all the girls' shoes in the appropriate size were gone. At least there were some boys' Crocs in her size. "She won't care that they are for boys," her parents said. They were just happy to have shoes that fit her. Shoes like Crocs (or knock-offs) are popular in Cuba because they are easy to clean, okay in rain and the loose fit means they will fit a growing foot longer than other types of shoes. If you are able to take footwear as gifts, they are a great, lightweight option for children or adults.
The MLC stores are now pretty much the only option and, in order to shop there, one must have a credit card. For Cubans, this means opening a special bank account where money (foreign or domestic currency) can be deposited and applied to what is essentially a pre-loaded credit card. Unfortunately, obtaining an MLC card is not a quick process, and it can be daunting as well as time consuming. Not all Cubans have MLC cards (especially in rural areas) and, if they don't, they cannot shop at these new government-run stores, since cash is not accepted. The MLC stores were instituted shortly before COVID began; discontinuing the use of the CUC ("tourist pesos") came hot on the heels of both. These three things occurred within such a short time frame that it was like a financial triple whammy for many families. Cubans are still paid in CUP, the national currency, but they now have to purchase most things with MLCs, which creates daily challenges.
If you have cash, you can buy things from other outlets but prices have increased astronomically. Produce is still available at street markets and roadside stands, as usual, but costs can be crazy. For instance, one vendor was selling a pineapple for 140 pesos (CUP); previously, it might have cost about 10 pesos. Everything has gone up, up and up in price – if the items are even available. During my recent visit, friends frequently commented on the price increases. Another graphic example of the insanity of current costs is this: a single plastic disposable razor (the kind you can buy in a bulk package at a Canadian dollar store) is now being sold for $2. I didn't ask if that would $2 CAD or $2 USD; the price is horrific either way.

Officially, the exchange rate at a bank is 24 pesos = $1 USD. But, if you're comfortable having your money changed on the street, you can get as much as 100 pesos for your American dollar in some places. Canadian money, of course, is less valuable but, even so, the street rates are better than a bank's. I started using a general calculation of 500 pesos = $25 dollars, with it being slightly over/under, depending on whether you prefer to think in CAD or USD. When I was out and about in Pilón, the cheapest rum I saw for sale was a bottle of Pinella for 500 pesos. Havana Club was significantly more! Wine is priced much higher (I saw one kind for 1,000 CUP), if you can find it, and beer is simply not available in that area at this time.

Challenges pertaining to food supply are most worrisome, especially regarding protein sources; for that reason, more people than ever are raising their own pigs. When possible, people are also growing their own vegetables. In this respect, those living in rural areas have an advantage because they have more space for gardens. I noticed quite a few patches of squash, both in yards of country homes and in town, as well as more backyard plantain trees. It was also the right season for tomatoes, so they were plentiful everywhere. These are great, of course, but protein is important. Rice and beans are staples of the Cuban diet and they do seem to be available now (a few months ago, they weren't), but they are more costly than "normal" – the new normal is pricey!

Since the places I visited (Pilón, Marea del Portillo, Mota and Niquero) are all along the coast, fish would seem like a natural option. When I was there, unfortunately, the fishing hadn't been good because of the unsettled weather. Wind and turbulent seas make it more difficult to catch fish! And, as with everything else, the price of fish has gone up, making a balanced diet on a tight budget a very big challenge. I took some cans of tuna with me, for the family I stayed with, but the weight of canned goods adds up quickly. 

Mota Playa (above) and the road near Marea.
Those living in the rural region to the east of Pilón (Marea del Portillo and Mota), also have a special challenge to contend with: the roads. In that part of Granma, you can't drive for 2 seconds without seeing a "bache" (pothole). And, some of these craters are so large, you can't go around them – you have to drive right into them and hope you will emerge safely on the other side, muffler intact. Instead of 30-40 mins. to travel from Pilón to Mota, it now takes an hour, and it's difficult to find a taxi willing to make the arduous trip. For this reason, as well as the high cost of fuel, taxi prices have also risen significantly.

The day I visited the Marea del Portillo resort and village, my taxi rides cost 600 pesos each way. My trip to Mota, on a different day, cost 1600 round trip; on that occasion, I had the same driver for both directions. You can sometimes find a driver willing to do it for less but it's difficult. Most taxi drivers simple don't want to deal with that nasty stretch of road and, after seeing it, I understand. Some government officials recently visited the region and promised to repair the road from Mota to Pilón this year. People are skeptical, since they've heard this song before. But, a long section of the same road has already been repaired, beginning in Santiago and heading west toward Granma. So, the roadwork machines are moving in the right direction!
And yet, life goes on. Schools are in session and public events are beginning to happen. People smile and welcome guests into their homes (paying attention to COVID protocols). There are some cases of COVID in Pilón, as there are here in Ontario, but the concern is much less than it was; things are improving in that respect. Current Cuban regulations still require people to wear masks in all public places – riding in taxis, sitting in parks, walking along any street or road. The only time you're allowed to remove your mask in public is when you are "actively" eating or drinking. Most people are triple-vaccinated with one of Cuba's home-grown vaccines.
I was pleasantly surprised to find some new restaurants open in Pilón, though I didn't have a chance to try them all out. There were also several casas particulares (B&Bs) open in Marea del Portillo and Punta Piedra, as well as Pilón – I stayed at Casa de Noel, near the town's "malecón"... I've finally sorted most of my photos, some of which I've added here. If you want to see more, please check my Facebook page, where I'll post additional photos as I get them organized and processed.

Now we're in the home stretch of this lengthy report! In conclusion, I want to tell you about the humanitarian aspects of my trip. Thanks to the support of many wonderfully generous friends, I was able to purchase a LOT of medical/health supplies to take with me to Cuba. MUCHAS, MUCHAS GRACIAS! I want to give a special shout out to Denise, who was my personal shopper at Costco. She was able to get large bottles of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, children's Tylenol, etc., etc.

I also took several packs of masks and an assortment of vitamins and pain meds. for arthritis and muscle strains. I distributed everything as equitably as possible, giving extra supplies to nurses and large families, who will share with each other (I took small zip-bags, so they could divvy up the large bottles as needed). All of these gifts were very much appreciated. I wished I could have taken more!

Since the Cuban gov't is currently offering an exemption on a suitcase filled with medical/health supplies and food, I took a 23 kg/50 lb. packed-to-the-gills duffel bag (topped up with rolls of toilet paper, when the weight limit was almost reached). As well, my other large suitcase and my carry-ons were stuffed with more medicine-cabinet items and other gifts – some of the things I'd been waiting to take for over two years. I felt like a Sherpa but, thankfully, I wasn't headed for a mountain of snow!

Well, that's my report. If you've read to the end, you deserve some chicharitas (fried plantain chips) – one of my favorite Cuban snacks! 
Thanks again to everyone who was with me in spirit on this adventure in Cuba. The boat name in the photo below expresses my feelings: Shalom.


15 Feb 2022

Where can you get CUBAN KISSES?

Hello! Hola!

Welcome to Jenny Cressman's "JennicaCuba.com" website! This is primarily intended as a travel-related site but, since Jenny's travel business has been disrupted by COVID, there are not currently any group trips planned. Hopefully, that type of customized travel to Cuba (or elsewhere) will be viable again soon.

In the meantime, you may want to read about travel to Cuba! Jenny Cressman has written a series of novels that are mainly set in a small, out-of-the-way resort in rural Cuba – a fictionalized version of the resort she has been taking groups to for the past decade. The first two books in the trilogy are Cuban Kisses and Cuban Wishes

The author's writing-related website, "JennyLovesWords.com," is having some technical difficulties, so it's not possible to order books through that site at this time. However, you can purchase both novels from the following outlets:

Muskoka Unlimited – order one or both books online and have them shipped directly to you or arrange to pick them up within Muskoka (Ontario); shipping costs will vary, depending on your location.

• A Different Booklist – 779 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON

• Algonquin Outfitters (3 stores carry Cuban Kisses and Cuban Wishes) – Oxtongue Lake, 1035 Algonquin Outfitters Rd., Dwight, ON; Huntsville, 86 Main St. East, Huntsville, ON; Bracebridge, 60 Manitoba St., Bracebridge, ON

• Georgian Bay Books – 247 King St., Midland, ON

• The Great Vine – 36 Main St. East, Huntsville, ON

• Worth Repeating – 31 Manitoba St., Bracebridge, ON

You can also contact Jenny's agent, Brenda Paterson, regarding the purchase of both books or about publishing the third book. A new publisher is currently being sought, since the original publishing company has closed. Brenda can be reached by phone, 705-640-1054, or email: info@grovepark.ca.