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Sunday, March 28, 2010

BBC Covers Amistad's visit to Havana

Of course we all know that Amistad was NOT a slave ship, but a coastal cargo schooner. Other than that, this BBC coverage of Amistad's arrival in Cuba is quite good.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 5: Los Calles de Havana

Some days are just better than others. Very few are better than today.

After all of the busyness of the last few days, it was good to sleep in until 8:00am, when the phone in the hotel room rang. After the morning ritual, Bill and I had one of the nicest breakfasts I've ever had in a hotel, as the Hotel Habana Libre puts on quite a spread, including just about everything from fruit to made-to-order omelettes to really good ham to just about anything that could be put on the meters-long buffet. After finishing our breakfast at about 10:00, I stuffed a banana and several rolls into my backpack then took off for a day of adventures in the streets of Havana.

Almost immediately, I found myself engaging in lots of conversations with people on the street and found that my Spanish is, indeed, quite good enough to survive with. Very soon upon beginning my journey, I found myself chatting with Javier and his wife, Emilina. Javier works at the hotel where I'm staying and was excited to show me around several interesting parts of Havana. We toured the Afro-Cuban area which is wonderfully colorful and features street decorations made of recyled found materials. We stopped at an art gallery owned by the artist who is responsible for all of the murals and street decorations in the area and I bought a painting of Yemayá. After that, we went to a club and had a couple mojitos while we watched some dancers practice Santeria ritual dancing.

Once Javier, Emelina and I parted company, I made my way down toward the Capitol building, walking through the Barrio Chino, Havana's Chinatown, and through several extremely non-touristy areas before arriving at the Capitol and the lovely parks around it. From there, it was on to the birthplace of José Martí, the "George Washington" of Cuba and author of some of the best poetry in the Spanish language, including the famous poem/song, "Guantanamera." After visting Havana's old city and the train station, photographing the old city walls and a park full of steam locomotives, I made my way back to the ship. Back aboard Amistad, I found the ship's guitar and had my Sierra Leonean friend, Sam Yokie, shoot video while I sang the cynically humorous song "Battleship of Maine." Then, I had a cigar and took a siesta to escape the heat of the day. This IS Cuba, after all.

After my nap, I continued my journey, walking along the waterfront and chatting with people, telling them about Amistad's presence in the city and discussing the commonalities between the American and Cuban people and our common hope that our governments might find ways to move past a half century of enmity.

As I made my way along the Malecón, I came across a trumpet player sitting on the wall, playing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. I stopped to listen and to photograph him and he made the not-unexpected request for some money. Since I had already managed to spend all of my pesos, I gave him an Amistad wristband and told him how much I liked hearing him play Gershwin. That surprised him, as he had learned the song by listing to Louis Armstrong's recordings of it and didn't know the composer, but it opened the conversation to our musical tastes and I mentioned that I also played trumpet, which brought a huge smile to his face. It also brought his trumpet to my hands and I took my turn playing trumpet on the Malecón, choosing a Dixieland style arrangement of Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Sorry, I don't have any video of that, but I really wish I did!!!

Moving along, I found myself at the western ende of the Malecón, where I found the one thing that I had been looking for all day: the monument remembering the souls lost when the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898. Ironically, though the Spanish were accused of blowing up the Maine, and that was the official reason that the US began the Spanish-American war, it was later learned that the ship's destruction was most likely due to a faulty boiler. William Randolph Hearst, in the runup to the war told his photographer, "You supply the pictures. I'll supply the war." For me, when I "remember the Maine," it is a reminder of what happens when people allow the sabre-rattling media to lead in a rush to judgement, but I expect that that's a subject that requires its own post some other time.

When I get back to the US and a less glitchy internet connection, I'll add photos and video to this blog, so please be patient. It is midnight now and I've got to be up at 4:00 for the trip to the airport and home. Adios de Cuba.

Day 4: De Matanzas a Havana

It’s the bus.

Amistad sailed from Matanzas very early this morning. Those of us who were left behind were scheduled to leave the hotel in Matanzas at 9:00, but that was delayed due to our bus needing oil and having to wait until it could be delivered from somewhere else. We were on the road by about 10:30 and retraced much of our drive along Cuba’s northern coast between Matanzas and Havana. The countryside was still beautiful and it is still surprising to see such a mix of modes of transport: everything from oxcarts and horses to 1950s classics from Detroit to Soviet cars that were imported to the island at later dates. There are lots of new vehicles on the roads, too, but my favorite was when we saw Amistad sailing West toward Havana, her sails shining in the sunlight.

When we arrived in Havana, the bus dropped us at the Hotel Habana Libre, which was once the Havana Hilton until Castro nationalized it in the 1960s. The Hotel Habana Libre is also the hotel from which Castro ran his government when he first took control of Havana. We were scheduled to meet the rest of the crew at 2:00 to drive down to the port where Amistad would later dock, but I made other plans to be dropped off at the harbor entrance, at the end of the Malecón, where I would have a good angle for shooting Amistad as she made the turn into the harbor after she made a pass along the Malecón. Since we were too early to check in, Bill and I had a great lunch of ropa vieja, a stewed beef dish whose name literally means “old clothes” because of the way the meat falls apart.

Finally, even though it wasn’t quite check-in time, the desk clerk managed to get us into our room on the 18th floor. As the bellhop settled us into our room, he opened the curtain onto the balcony and there we say Amistad making her final passage into the harbor – an hour and change ahead of schedule. I whipped out my camera and shot over 100 pictures as she made her way into the harbor and out of sight. The angle was good, but I hope that Wojtek, Amistad’s official photographer was able to get better shots, since I was shooting from more than a mile away.

Since we had missed being in the right place at the right time to photograph Amistad from up-close, Bill and I went ahead and met the group at the Hotel Nacionál, as we had originally planned, then we went to the commercial pier, where Amistad was already tied up, flying the United Nations, Cuban, United States, Connecticut, Mystic Seaport and United Church of Christ flags. We arrived just as the press conference was starting, but security wouldn’t let us in because we didn’t have the official invitations that were required for admission.

The group of eight of us stood around while our guide, Jorge, argued with the guards. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, I approached the woman who seemed to be in charge of the guards and, pointing out my crew shirt and hat, explained to her that I was a member of the schooner’s crew and needed to be inside. That, at least, got her moving and she came back a couple minutes later and declared that I was allowed to go in, along with two others of the group. Fortunately, before we could really start arguing among ourselves who the other two would be, the representative from the Ministry of Culture arrived with invitations for all of us and we were finally allowed to enter the cruise ship terminal where everything was already well under way.

The event was the typical dignitary-laden function where everyone stands up and says how happy they are and how great a historical moment it is to have Amistad in their port. This time, however, there was additional poignancy, as today is the 10th anniversary of Amistad’s launch in Mystic. It also marks the completion of her journey to the three points in the triangle of the Amistad story: Freetown, Sierra Leone; Havana, Cuba; and New London, CT. Today also is the UN Slavery Remembrance Day, celebrating the passage of the Wilberforce Declaration by the Parliament of Great Britain in 1807, which outlawed the international trade in slaves. The Wilberforce Declaration also influenced the policies of the United States, which banned the importation of slaves the following year, and of the Spanish Empire, which also outlawed the importation of Africans in short order, paving the way for the legal arguments about the status of the Amistad captives in 1839.

But back to the events of the day. After all of the dignitaries had had their say, an Afro-Cuban dance and music group presented a piece featuring Yemayá (the sea-spirit of Yoruba religion and Santería) dancing with several other orishas (the general name for the godlike spirits of Santería. Like the dancers at the UNESCO museum yesterday, they put on quite a show and I was sorry when they were done.

We finished up the evening with a recption hosted by the Ludwig Foundation, one of the major cultural foundations here in Havana. Again, we were surrounded by notable Cubans from academia, the arts, and political circles. Neither Fidel nor Raul joine us, but we had the next best thing in the person of the Cuban National Assembly Speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, with whom I'm chatting in the picture on the right.

Now, itis 1:30am and I'm just finishing up this blog post at the Hotel Nacional. When I'm done, I'm going to head back to my own hotel (where internet access costs $25/day) and go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'll do some sight-seeing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 3: Shipboard in Matanzas

Breakfast this morning was accompanied by the disappointing news that the Cuban government seems to have changed plans on us rather precipitously so that, now, it seems that only the crew that sailed Amistad to Matanzas will be allowed to sail from Matanzas to Havana. I’m hoping that there might be another change in that decision and am lobbying as hard as I can for permission to sail instead of having to take the bus back to Havana. I’ve got my sailing gear and the résumé as past crew in my favor but, since I lack any formal accreditation as a mariner and wasn’t listed as part of the crew upon arrival, it may end up being the bus for me.

Since this morning’s bad news, however, things have been going well. Most of the VIPs (and I have ended up being classed as a VIP) have been off with some of the crew members, visiting a memorial to a failed slave uprising. As one of the only Spanish speakers – and a limited one at that – I’ve been with the ship, working with Carlos, the first mate, and Capt. Bill Pinkney (Amistad’s original captain) to lead groups from a couple local elementary schools, the University of Matanzas, and a dental school. We’re expecting a group of historians later today, which I expect will be a very interesting conversation as we share information back and forth.

Since arriving in Cuba, I’ve been surprised at the juxtaposition of the Cuban government’s position toward the United States and much of the rest of the international community, and the interest and even affection that the Cuban people seem to have for the United States. I’m looking forward to more interactions with regular Cubans and to learning more of the subtleties of the social and political situation here.

After a full day of giving tours of the vessel, we were al invited to the UNESCO Slave Route Museum, which is a fairly small affair, located in an old fortress which was, of course, built by slave labor during the Spanish colonial period. The museum, itself consists of two rooms, one of which contains a variety of artifacts: shackles, manacles and other ironwork that has survived over the years. The second room is dedicated to the Afro-Cuban Santería religion and to the various deities that are part of it. Santeria has its roots in the West African Yoruba culture and developed in Cuba because the Spanish slavery system tended to keep African tribal groups together, whereas the US system of slavery intentionally split up Africans from the same tribal and linguistic background. We were treated to a performance of Afro-Cuban music and dancing which was very impressive,

In addition to people affiliated with Amistad America, I’m also traveling with Katrina DeWolf Browne and James DeWolf Perry, who are descendants of James DeWolf, whose family transported more Africans to the new world than any other slave trader in the history of the United States. DeWolf traded via Havana, where he also established several plantations to produce sugarcane and tobacco to use in the slave trade, as well as being a place to “season” newly enslaved Africans and to keep them as a hedge against the rising falling prices on the slave markets. Katrina and James have made a film detailing their family’s history with the slave trade, Traces of the Trade, which they used as the basis for a panel discussion last night, which was quite interesting. We finished up the evening with another dinner like the one the night before and then came back to the hotel kind of early, since the schooner will be leaving Matanzas quite early tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day 2: Morning in Nassau, Evening in Matanzas

After yesterday's stormy weather, today dawned bright and clear. Sunlight streamed in through the window of our two-star hotel, but Bill and I managed to sleep late, anyway. After showering, dressing and packing, I went out and took a walk to the beach I had visited, yesterday, stopping and taking pictures with my good camera instead of my cell phone.

Bill and I made it to the airport with time to spare and spent our time dining at a traditional Bahamian restaurant called Dunkin Donuts while we waited. The plane was scheduled to take off at 2:30, but the airline folks determined that everyone who was supposed to be on the plane had arrived, so they boarded us early and we took off into sunny skies.

The views were incredible, with the sea just as blue as advertised in all of the travel brochures and the sand sparkling white. As we flew west, I watched as the ocean floor dropped off steeply and the water took on the dark color that I usually associate with the sea. When the flight crew started serving snacks, Cuban rum was on offer too and many of us enjoyed our first authentic Cuba Libre courtesy of Cubana Air. Our arrival was uneventful and the good folks at Havanatur took good care of us to make sure that we knew where we were headed.

After exchanging our US dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), we negotiated for a taxi to take us the 60 or so miles from José Martí airport. As the driver, Charlie, took us out to the taxi, Bill and I were surprised to see that the taxi was, in fact, a full-sized tour bus. Bill, Charlie and I got aboard and the three of us headed off across the Cuban countryside. As we chatted in Spanish (¡Muchas grácias, Sra. Giles, por enseñándome el Español en el collégio!) Charlie, who used to be a Cuban Air Force MIG pilot but has been driving tour busses for 45 years, pointed out many of the sights. We passed banana, mango and sugarcane plantations. We saw milk cows, horses and goats tethered by the roadside. We passed oil wells and gas flares as we drove along the coast, with large surf breaking impressively on the rocks.

Upon arrival at the Hotel, we had a very slow and unremarkable dinner, then headed out to the central square in Matanzas, where we joined a group of radio broadcasters who had gathered in Matanzas for their national convention. The evening's program featured several really impressive examples of local Matanzas talent, including a father-and-daughters violin ensemble, a local chorus that was among the best choral groups I've ever heard, a wondefully athletic dance troupe where the women picked the men up as easily as the men spun the women around.

After the gala program at the city center, we were taken to a 19th Century colonial home that now serves as one of the museums in Matanzas, where the Ministry of Culture threw a party for us, featuring the music of a local Rhumba band, more rum, and a rather pleasant buffet. We arrived back at the hotel a little after midnight and, with morning fast approaching, called it a night.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day 1: Not Cuba

The Freedom Schooner Amistad was supposed to arrive in Matanzas, Cuba, today, where she was to dock right in front of the UNESCO Slave Route Museum. For all I know, she did just that, but I don’t really know, as my travel plans have managed to unravel themselves rather thoroughly.

My traveling companion, Bill Kraus, who is a board member of Amistad America and also a fellow UCC person, overnighted at Chez Brysmi so we could get an early start on today’s travels. At 3:15am, Kimberly shoved Bill and me into the car and drove us to JFK Airport, where we arrived the requisite three hours early for our 7:20am flight. We boarded the JetBlue aircraft and began our adventure, with the plane heading down the coast, taking us toward Nassau, Bahamas, where we were scheduled to transfer to our flight to Havana.

As the plane began its descent, we dropped down through deep gray clouds and the landing gear rumbled its way out from the fuselage. I watched the display on the seatback that gave the airspeed and altitude, watching the numbers decreased. 2000 feet, 1000 feet, 500 feet, and then the engines screamed back to life and the plane clawed its way back up into the sky. The young man in the seat in front of me vomited and the newlywed couple next to me clutched their airsick bags while other passengers moaned as their stomachs bounced off of their ankles.

The pilot circled the plane around again to try a different approach and, again, the numbers dropped. 1500 feet, 1000 feet, 500 feet. Once more, the engines roared as we pointed nose-to-the-sky and accelerated from an aborted landing, with the sounds of retching coming from somewhere behind me. The intercom crackled and the pilot announced that the runway was completely covered with dense fog and it looked like it wouldn’t be safe to land for at least another half hour but that we also didn’t have enough fuel to wait around for a half hour and try again and still have any margin of safety, so he turned the plane around and took us to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he made a beautiful landing and taxied to the concourse, where we sat for an hour or so as the plane was refueled. Finally, we got word that the fog in Nassau had cleared and we were in the air again in minutes for a 45 minute flight and another perfect landing, with the wheels touching the ground at exactly the same instant that our flight to Cuba was scheduled to take off.

So, now Bill and I are stuck in Nassau. Truth to tell, it is probably my fault, as I had joked on Sunday that here I was with a trip through Nassau and Cancun and was only going to see the inside of the airports. But here we are, killing time until tomorrow’s flight to Cuba. After settling into our room at the Sun Fun Resort, I made a couple Skype calls home to get Kimberly to make real phone calls for me, since my cell phone only receives calls here and can’t place them. Then, I went for a walk along the coast road, stopping to take some pictures with my cell phone. They drive on the left side of the road here, which made being a pedestrian oddly confusing. The storm here was pretty severe and there is standing water everywhere. I passed a grove of coconut palms and there were several nuts lying on the ground and I thought about taking one back to the hotel and trying to open it with my rigging knife and spike, but decided against it. Finally, after about two miles on foot, I caught one of the local busses (which are rattly affairs like the Poda-Podas in Sierra Leone) back to the hotel.

After my walk, Bill and I had dinner in Cable Beach: Conch fritters as an appetizer and a conch-in-a-foil-pouch affair for our entrée with sweet potatoes, yucca, plantain, and a rather nice curry sauce over wild rice. Of course, this is the Caribbean and neither of us was driving, so we also tried a couple of local specialties, the most interesting of which was “Cloud Juice” which is made with gin, coconut water and condensed milk.

Tomorrow, we’re supposed to be at the airport at 11:30, so we can be appropriately early for the 2:30 flight to Havana. We’re supposed to arrive in Havana shortly thereafter and will have to make our way to Matanzas to meet the schooner that I expect did, in fact, arrive on time, unlike us.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Going to Cuba!!!

It's official.

After months of hush-hush planning, Amistad is going to Cuba. She'll arrive in Matanzas, Cuba on March 22 and will then sail on to Havana on March 25, celebrating both the 10th anniversary of her launch in Mystic Seaport and the 202nd anniversary of the British Parliament's abolition of the international slave trade.

As wonderful as it is that the schooner is going, my personal good news is that I'm going with her. I'll be flying to Miami this Sunday sometime after church and will then fly to Havana on Monday, March 22. I'll get to spend the week with Amistad in Cuba, representing the United Church of Christ and covering the events for the CT UCC newspaper ConnTact, as well as uploading photos and blog entries as I go. I'm hopeful that I'll also be able to get some local press coverage of the event, but we'll see.

For now, you can see the article at the CT Conference's website and at Amistad's website. Be sure to check back here in the next week for my personal travel log.