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Ross Halleck
November 15, 2015 | Ross Halleck

Cuba: Epic!

A journey is difficult to characterize in words. They are insufficient in conveying one's feeling as events unfold, scenes change, landscapes transport, people are encountered, generosity witnessed, and experiences shared. 

offer my impressions of Cuba, now almost 60 years through a blockade that's created deprivation and suffering. One would think the Cubans might hold resentment and hostility to Americans for a random act of political violence intended to bring Castro to his knees. It didn't work. Instead, it strengthened the resolve of these highly educated and resilient people. The Cubans have neither succumbed to hate. They are loving and festive. We were treated to gracious hospitality, rich culture and a privileged view, though clearly from the outside. There were limitations and advantages.

A baker's dozen of us dropped in just prior to the gates opening for general tourism from the United States, its closest and most affluent neighbor. The jury remains out as to when unstructured tourism will be permitted. Though the American Embassy stands tall on the Malecon, a sea wall of miles along which people congregate, stroll and sit, the embargo is still in place. It's clear at every turn.

We met in Miami, thankfully all on time and in good spirit.  Jay Holland and I took 6 months of planning, design and manufacture of a custom rolling Halleck Vineyard travel bag which holds a 6 bottle wine carrier. I'd arranged for the custom cases and 52 bottles (we were restricted to 4 per person) to arrive the day before, giving me time to pack "goodie bags" for all guests; each bag with loving contents poised for check in. The bags were completed only days before our trip.   It was a fun group! Bob, Carol, Ken, Kerri, John, Tara, Arnon, Carolann, Carolyn, Howard, Dave and Valeria gelled into instant friendship. 

At 4:45 the following morning, we headed to the airport from our hotel. We noticed on the flight schedule that planes were leaving for Cuba every 15 minutes throughout the day!

Except for 13 people attempting coordination for the first time, the 40 minute flight went seamlessly, as did our entry into the country. Our bags were never inspected. We could have brought more wine. We lost 3 bottles to breakage. Not bad, in total, for wine. But some adjustments to the bags will be made.

We were met by Mariana, 24, working as a tour guide in social service to the state. She is not paid and is indebted to the state for 2 years in compensation for her free education. She spoke wonderful English, had a rapier wit and was an excellent representative of Cuban education and culture. We were her second group. 

Our bus was a crisp, modern 20 passenger Chinese coach, air conditioned, with big windows, reclining seats, a sound system and plenty of chilled water bottles. Ably driven by Gerardo, we made a couple of stops: a sweltering tour of the bullet-holed Museum of the Revolucion; then a delicious Cuban lunch at El Aljibe, which boasted an impressive wine cellar. Afterwhich, we headed to our hotel.

We were concerned about our accommodations, as Cuba is "as advertised": falling apart. It was shocking to witness the ravages of time on a clearly once-thriving metropolis. It was dystopian, as if post-apocalypse. The most beautiful of buildings looked bombed-out, abandoned and crumbling. We were hoping to find an oasis in this "city-of-deferred-maintenance" to call home for a week.

It was a relief to pull up to the Melia Cohiba. It's an urban resort overlooking the sea, surrounded by squalor. It boasts several music venues, bars, restaurants, luxurious pools, work-out facilities, spa, clothing store, cigar shop, apothecary, medical services, and night club. It was built to international standards for a five-star hotel. It was disconcerting at the pool bar, looking up to towering decrepit skyscrapers surrounding the area, vacant and shedding. 

The Melia Cohiba, with 470 rooms, was full and booked for seven months, as were all 4 and 5 star hotels in and around Havana. But even at 5 stars, the night club did not have toilet paper in its marbled luxurious bathrooms. There is a shortage.

As we proceeded, the schedule was jam-packed, creating some grumbling amongst our seasoned travelers. In attempting to carve some free time, it was clarified that, as Americans, we were not tourists, but travelers. This included participating in the activities planned. There was clearly an agenda. With a short reorientation, we went with the flow and continued to be surprised and delighted. Mariana also capitulated and included some free time to wander independently. Each experience bonded our group.

We were treated to the finest dining Cuba offers. We enjoyed several dinners at famed Paladars, the latest expression of capitalism in this socialist country. These are restaurants converted from homes by their owners. Each expressed the personality of its proprietor, and every meal was better than the last. 

La Casa was hosted by young Alejandro, who took it over from his parents. They still live in the back and he reminisced about watching TV in the dining room we enjoyed. His was the most established, boasting 20 years in business. The dining experience and hospitality were signature. 

An unusual find was NaZdrarovie, a Soviet inspired eatery serving nostalgia to the large population of Cuban famiies who worked and were educated in the Soviet Union. It's Canadian owner, Gregory, has lived in Cuba for 25 years, more than half his life. He was the first North American to teach politics at the University. We were surprised to find photos of Mariana's father all over the walls. Her father was a Cuban Soviet Cosmonaut. It was her first time to see this. At just a year old, the establishment is thriving. We reveled in the extraordinary view from our veranda three stories above the Malecon. And the food was delicious.























A highlight was a lunch we helped prepare at El Ajiaco, a palapa-styled Cuban diner nestled in a suburban neighborhood. We first toured a small organic farm, hosted by Jesus. He grows the herbs and greens for this Cuban specialty, Ajiaco, the namesake of the restaurant. The efficiency and ingenuity invested in this small residential yard were impressive, bordered by a stone wall dug from the plot. Then a few short blocks away, we disembarked at the restaurant where Jesus walks his herbs daily. Everything in Cuba is organic. Everything. There is no money for or access to chemical augmentation.

On the back patio, we were treated to a demonstration of the ingredients and preparation of our Cuban stew. We split into groups. One half worked in the kitchen at the stove preparing some of the components for lunch. The other headed to the bar where we enjoyed instruction in making the perfect Mojito. It far surpasses the American version. Then we swapped stations to assure we all had drinks.

Prior to eating, Pedro, the owner, introduced his entire staff. We had the opportunity to open all Halleck Vineyard wines to taste and educate the dozen service personnel. It was an honor to share my wines in this global arena.

Pedro is one of Havana's unique group of Sommeliers. Their mission is to elevate the position to include not only command of all the world's wines, but also chocolate, spirits, and, of course, cigars. They entitle the post "Habana Sommelier". This will be a challenge with the limited access to world wines in Cuba. One admires the ambition. 

The day prior, Pedro was joined by professor and Somellier, Jose Pellogrino, author of Mi Pasion Gourmet, a text on the art and appreciation of wine in Cuba. The two hosted a private seminar for our group in the Hotel Florida in Old Havana to explain their wine program. They boast over 100 budding sommeliers.

Eating and drinking was a focus, but we also toured the National Museum of Fine Arts and the home/studios of two world-renown Cuban artists, Beatriz Santacana, sculptor and ceramicist, and whimsical mosaicist, Jose Fuster. 






Jose's home and entire neighborhood is "like Disneyland, only real". We found ourselves using this catch-phrase often throughout our trip. Every surface of Jose's three story home is covered in small tiles with messages and colors. And this has spread throughout the neighborhood. This prolific artist recruited an army of participants as his projects became more ambitious. Characters and shapes sprout everywhere. His world lookes as much like Who-ville from Dr. Suess. 

We toured Old Havana, a district in the process of restoration. It was encouraging to see these historic buildings in restored glory. We hardly passed a bar without a drink and swept into small boutiques and kiosks full of art, handicrafts, and antiques. Music was everywhere we went. We enjoyed fine dining in two august remnants from the jeweled past, Cafe del Oriente and Conde del Castillo, both in Old Havana and state owned. 











There were tours of Havana Club Rum factory and Partagas Cigar factory. Then the group headed out of Havana into the countryside to a tobacco plantation and toured an enormous network of caves the African slaves used to escape Spanish oppression. The caves ended at a boat ramp, deep underground. Boarding the large wooden vessels, they were guided out to daylight. Just like Disneyland, only real. 

Cuban history under oppressive regimes (the Spanish, the British and the Americans) forged a fierce nationalism. It's been tempered in blood and there is evidence of this throughout the country. The red in the national flag symbolizes blood. We witnessed the nightly cannon blast to close the walls of the old fortress city. There are remnants of older walls removed as the city expanded beyond their boundaries. Statues, t-shirts, paintings, books and graphics of revolutionaries are ubiquitous. 

There were many confusing aspects of Cuba. We couldn't comprehend how real estate is divided, coming from a market economy. There are some luxuriously restored homes, but most are not. The majority would not be considered habitable. We were told by Mariana that some of the larger homes house multiple families. She described privilege as "luck", as many live in homes that go back generations. But there is no rent or taxes. Gregory opened his Soviet restaurant on the sea in his apartment of decades.  He pays no rent for his apartment/restaurant. Then he rented another place to house his family. It was unclear how the rental market worked or was supported locally.  

Staple foods and provisions are not centrally available. One day, you might buy onions from a vendor on the corner. On another, the vendor will be gone or out of stock. This is true of all aspects of life in Cuba: restaurant dishes and flatware are sourced individually. There is a shortage of toilet paper and many other daily necessities. Most toilets do not have seats.

The practice of "baggage provisions" pervades. Business people with contact outside the country cajole friends, relatives, and associates to bring items in their luggage. This is the only way Gregory can procure caviar for his Soviet diner. 

One evening, thirteen of us were served the best prepared lobster I've ever enjoyed. They were huge tails, succulent and gorgeously butterflied and presented. The restaurant was called, "The Californian". Charlie, the owner, represented one of the "new entrepreneurs" of Cuba. He sported pictures on his Android standing in comradeship with the American Ambassador for the opening of the US Embassy. In speaking with Charlie, he was embracing every aspect of the changes occurring in Cuba. He moved his car out of his garage to warehouse beer for a local event. His wait-staff takes home $100-150 per night, more than the monthly wages of most Cubans. And many of his servers are doctors, lawyers and other highly educated professionals. 

There's not a great deal of modeling for young people in this new era of entrepreneurism. There is an embedded distrust I sensed from Mariana of this new "order". Most Cubans get everything for free, are paid nominal wages for their jobs, and have little example or incentive to achieve more. The 50+ years of austerity has ingrained itself. But things are changing and it may be rapid. The biggest barriers are infrastructure and orientation. 

Yet there are exceptions sprouting. One great example of capitalist ingenuity is a night club called the Art Factory. It boasts a purely avante garde setting,  live music, dancing, provocative installation art, delectable nibbles, several bars, and a pulsing beat for change. It's the creation of two young men with a vision. And it's garnering international attention. 

As a counterpoint to the new order, our last night we were caravanned from our hotel in a line-up of beautifully maintained 1950s American cars. Following a tour of Havana by night, we enjoyed yet another elegant meal at a chic waterfront bistro called Del Mar. 

After dinner, we were transported to 1939 and the historic Tropicana Club. Sitting outdoors stage-side, beneath a canopy of caoba trees, we were dazzled with a musical dance performance that lit the night over two hours. The choreography, production, costumes, music, lights  and stage play were nothing less than spectacular. There were perhaps 75 performers and musicians sequencing show number after number, replete with headgear of color and stature. Every performance had a different set of costumes and themes. I've never seen or heard anything like it, as it represents 76 years of continuous refinement. Like Disneyland, only real.

With a large influx of Americans chomping-on-the-bit to see Cuba, the question is: "Can Cuba handle it?". With Yelp and Trip Advisor offering unfiltered impressions, will our compatriots be generous or unforgiving? There are many things lacking. They are FAR outweighed by kindness, generosity, cuisine, art, rum, cigars,  fun, and love. But time will tell. 

The success of this visit was uplifted by the people of our Inner Circle. Many had met at different events over the years, but what gelled between us eclipsed all expectations. Every day had us considering destinations for our next trip. Cuba was a pure expression of "Building Community Through Wine" (and rum;-).

Cuba stands as an epic journey. I've been invited back.  Halleck Vineyard wines lubricated many new and promising relationships. There are upcoming wine festivals and a keen interest in boutique artisan wines to balance the "big brands" from around the world available everywhere. I've volunteered to help with the Habana Sommelier program. The timing is perfect. We had the opportunity to participate in history as Cuba opens its doors to change. 


Mark Wegner's Gravatar
Mark Wegner
@ Dec 6, 2015 at 8:14 AM
What a fabulous account of the trip Ross. I felt like I was along for the ride with you all. Btw, was there any evidence of the 'build-up' already starting?

Teresa McDaniel's Gravatar
Teresa McDaniel
@ Jan 9, 2016 at 12:02 PM
What an amazing trip. I was disappointed I couldn't go with you BUT I will be going to Cuba in late March so your blog was very timely and insightful.

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