Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Everyone reads in Cuba, literacy rate exceeds ours

Vendors of periodicals, postcards and other printed materials flank the entrance to a leafy Havana park. 

It was quickly apparent in Cuba that its people are avid readers. Even though the press is state controlled, papers are hawked on the streets and people are seen in coffee shops and public places reading newspapers. News is not something found widely online, so googling for information and other changes technology has brought to our world haven't yet come to Cuba.

Literacy in Cuba exceeds 99 percent according to data from UNESCO . That’s higher than any other Latin American country and even exceeds the U.S. literacy rate of 96 percent for the United States.
Since internet access is problematic, to say the least, e-books also have not yet become a part of life. Like cell phones, they are rare.
We saw paper boys (usually men) hawking Granma, the official government newspaper and a few others, but the media in Cuba is entirely state controlled so the idea of a free press is foreign to Cubans. It's surprising to see a digital version, because internet access is pretty limited in Cuba itself. Have a look by clicking its name above if you speak Spanish or read a translation into English. Don't expect anything flattering about America.

The oldest and most important of four plazas in old Havana is marked by a ceramic sign.

A visit to Plaza De Armas, the oldest and most important of the four major plazas in old Havana,
underscores the popularity of the written word. Just opposite the Palace of the Captain Generals, bookstalls flank the entry to the leafy green and palmy Parque Cespedes. Containing magazines, books, posters and postcards, new and used and all in Spanish the stalls reminded me of those along the the left bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame in Paris.
The Palace dominating  Armas Plaza was built in 1791. 

Look down to notice the street surface in front of the Palace, which was built in 1791. It’s made of wooden bricks, laid instead of cobblestones to soften the sound of horse drawn carriages so as not to disturb the governor’s sleep.

The stately palace was home for 65 governors of Cuba until 1898 when it became the U.S. governor’s residence during America’s occupation Cuba. In 1902 it became the seat of the Cuba government until 1920 when it became Havana’s city hall. Today it is a museum.

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes is honored with a white marble statue 

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (1819 to 1874),  considered the father of Cuba. After fleeing his sugar plantation’s slaves in 1868, he organized them into an army and declared an open revolt against Spain. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in in 1874. That white marble statue of Cespedes in the middle of the park surrounded by Armas Plaza is often surrounded by those sitting on park benches reading what they’ve purchased.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hotel a legacy of the Mob in Havana

This lavish show at  Cabaret Parisien was a throwback to the past.

Havana’s Hotel Nacional, alleged Cuba headquarters for the Mob during the 1950s when Americans flocked to the island to gamble and play, was restored to its 1930s glamour a few years ago. Its terraced palm shaded lawns overlook the seaside Malecon — an appropriate place for our small group to gather for cocktails on the last evening of our visit to Cuba. Cigars and mojitos were the order of the evening.
The miles-long Malecon is a dramatic seawall stretching along the Atlantic shoreline where people gather day and night. It’s a great microcosm of the city with lovers, teenagers, peddlers, bicyclists, dog walkers and anglers — great people watching up close or from a distance.

Note the yellow  3-wheeled cocotaxi in the driveway of the storied Hotel Nacional in Havana.

U.S. gangsters had taken over the hotels and casinos, including this one,  during the pre-Revolution days of the '40s and '50s when Batista was in power and a tourism boom ensued. Those times now are recalled at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas — a town also run by the Mob in its earlier days.
This logo was projected in lights on the dark floor at the entrance to Cabaret Parisien

A wall of photos at the far end of the Nacional’s lobby pays tribute to its many guests, which included actors and writers to sports heroes including Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Rocky Marciano, Mickey Mantle and Ernest Hemingway. Royalty and heads of state stayed here including Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. A 1946 Mob summit, called to divvy up Havana, was dramatically recalled by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II.

 That night we attended a lavish and high energy show at the Nacional’s Cabaret Parisien, similar to what visitors in the 1950s saw. The dancers were great, costumes were lavish and the drinks were good. I( heard that the show at the Tropicana was even better buts its tickiets were more expensive.  But I was glad I’d brought a sweater because the air conditioning seemed aimed at keeping the dancers from overheating.

We took cute little yellow coco-taxis back to our rooms in the suburbs.

You can see one in the driveway of the hotel in the photo here.  When I saw  these three-wheeled, three-passenger vehicles my first day in Cuba, I commented on how unsafe they appeared. “Not on your life,” I’d said. But we all survived, despite the driver getting lost and losing power en route..

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cuba's Botanical Garden a tropical treat

I saw the most beautiful flower at Cuba's Botanical Garden but couldn't identify it until I got home.

Greenhouses at Cuba’s Jardin Botanica Nacional are designed to keep plants shaded and catching breezes, unlike those in our own more northerly latitudes. I was delighted to have a visit there on our group’s itinerary because I wanted to know more about the unusual flowers and plants I’d been seeing.
The garden was en route to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, which is now restored and welcomes visitors. Follow my newspaper series on Cuba and you’ll find out more about Hemingway soon.

A guide is included for touring the 1,400 acre botanical gardens which is laced with more than 20 miles of roads. Our guide came aboard the small bus which transported us everywhere except on our walking tours of Havana. His English was quite good and his botanical knowledge was impressive, but I still needed to turn to my friends at the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden to identify many of the plants I saw there and photographed. That’s probably because our guide’s heavy Cuban accent on plants’ Latin names totally befuddled me and the plants themselves were quite unlike those seen at home.

One can understand why palm with the furry trunk is called an Old Man Palm.

The botanical garden not only showcases Cuban ecosytems and their plants but also has areas of other plants found in tropical  countries. Its center has palm trees from around the world and I had no idea there were so many varieties of them., including the rare cork palm, otherwise found only in western Cuba.

Our guide retrieves a fallen palm leaf

Our guide showed us how palm leaves have many uses, such as thatch for roofs and even for fashioning into easy biodegradable trash cans.

This trash can was fashioned from a palm leaf.

The botanical garden was established in 1968 and opened to the public in 1984. A highlight is the Japanese garden which is laid out with tiered cascades and a small lake filled with koi fish.   The huge greenhouse has areas for ferns, cactuses, epiphytes and tropical mountain plants.  Just like our own Cleveland Botanical Garden it has an area dedicated to the plants of Madagascar, which includes a baobob tree — which looks like it has its roots in the air which, there as here, inspires the nickname “upside down tree”.

Other nicknames names are easy to guess, such as the sausage tree, native to South Africa and identified by the Holden Arboretum as  genus Kigelia. In South Africa its large oblong sausage shaped gourds are used to make containers.The hanging "sausages" were at least as long as my forearm.

Cuba’s national flower is the lovely white bloom Cubans call the mariposa — Spanish for butterfly. This sweetly fragrant bloom became a symbol of rebellion and purity in Cuba. Ann McCulloh, curator of plant collections for the Cleveland Botanical Garden identifies it as Hedychium coronarium or Butterfly Ginger .

We saw begonias, bougainvillea, anthuriums, and poinsettia beyond number and I was proud to be able to identify the purple flowered jacaranda  -which I first encountered in Los Angeles.

 But the flower I loved the best was the large brilliant orange bloom as large as my fist with strangely shaped almost tenacle-like blossoms. I sent my photo to McCulloh who identified it as a Brownea grandiceps also known as a Rose of Venezuela, or Scarlet Flame Bean. She said its’s a small tropical tree from South America, that will not take temperatures below 55 degrees.

Although she said the Butterfly Ginger can sometimes be grown as a houseplant, I guess there’s no large orange Scarlet Flame Bean flower in my future.

I never did learn why the bark on this had many colors but I thought it was pretty so photographed it. 

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Meet some Cuban artists, see their work

Music in Havana is everywhere  - from balconies on decaying houses from which laundry lines are strung, at dinner and over drinks on breezy rooftops, in immaculate and beautifully restored public squares, and among street vendors hawking peanuts.

Street art in Havana includes this fish and others hung along a pedestrian street

But others arts in Cuba also are just as public .

Fuster's work is reminiscent of Gaudi

Ceramicist Jose R. Fuster, who lives in the suburbs near the off-limits compound  where Fidel Castro resides, has transformed his home and the entire neighborhood surrounding it .
 It’s reminiscent of Gaudi, the over-the top Spanish artist known for his work in Barcelona.  Fuster welcomes folks to the open-air workshop in his home. His surreal world of ceramics has spread to benches, entryways, facades and roofs of nearby houses.

Back in Old Havana, a street mural along a cobbled pedestrian walkway near the handsome Plaza des Armas chronicles much of the city’s history and its people, who are carefully drawn and attired in the garments of their time. It's a popular meeting place.

 Nearby is a shady pocket of a park dedicated to Hans Christian Anderson.

Salvador Gonzalez 

Step into an Havana alleyway transformed by painter Salvador Gonzalez into statements about the African influence in Cuba, including obscure references to voodoo-like santeria beliefs evolving from the slave years. The saint worship called santeria, entrenched for 300 years in Cuban culture, is a fusion of Catholicism with that of African Yoruba tribes.
Henry Aloma talks about his work.

When we visit Henry Aloma in his studio perched on a hillside in   Las Terrazas about an hour outside the city it’s immediately clear that he is a fine artist.

Lovely Las Terrazas is an artists community  in a valley centered by a lake and guarded over by giant mahogany and teak trees planted in a long ago reforestation effort.
We meet Aloma's pretty daughter when we step into his studio to look at his works in progress. Later we also meet his wife.

He explains that his work comes from his unconscious without any preconceived ideas or objectivity. “Every idea is an island,” he tells us.
Visit his Las Terrazas community in the Aug. 10 travel section.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tocororo reveals Cuba as a birding paradise

The brilliant blue white and red tocororo is Cuba's national bird.

I've been stopped in the street, at the grocery store, library and at wine tastings by those asking about my recent trip to Cuba.  The story ran on July 13, and by the response I've had I know that many folks still are reading the print editions of The News-Herald.

Most are surprised to learn this was not a journalist- only visit, but a trip that anyone can take. I not only paid for it out of my own pocket but took some vacation time from my job to join Bob Older's Creative Travel group.

 Bob is a Delaware- based travel agent  who secured a license from the US. Treasury Dept. to put together legal trips to Cuba. Licensed companies must develop and stick to an itinerary framed around people to people contacts in Cuba, usually based around a specific subject. Travelers are issued visas, which are presented at every overnight, so both Cuban and American governments can check to see that the itinerary is followed.

Bob speaks only a little Spanish but has developed many valuable contacts in Cuba during the course of leading several trips a year to this previously  forbidden island nation. They are able to interpret for his guests. Older once worked as a chef and has done TV cooking shows so has a special interest in food. That's why the trip I joined had a culinary focus.
Bob Older of Creative Travel hopes to put together a photography and birding trip to Cuba. 

Like many folks, he follows his own passions in developing trips. As an an avid amateur photographer he wants to host a photo based trip. During our visit to Las Terrazas, in the lush Sierra del Rosario mountains, about 45 minutes west of Havana, we were greeted by birdsong and butterflies.

Our six-person group joined a walking and driving tour to learn more about this pristine place, while Bob held back to take photos. Birds that have largely disappeared in other parts of the Caribbean find safety here in Las Terrazas, and Cuba has more than 350 species of birds. Hearing the call co'-co co'-co co' co, Bob knew that the tocororo, Cuba's national bird, was around. He also identified the trill of the Cuban green woodpecker and haunting song of the endemic Cuban solitaire.

It's no surprise to learn that a birding trip is on his wish list for Creative Travel, although dates have not yet been set.  He needs six like-minded travelers to begin the official planning process.

I loved La Terrazas so much I knew I could live there. Find out more about this very special place in the Aug. 10 Travel section. Click on the underlined words above to read my recent story and learn more about Creative Travel

This is a yellow-bellied flycatcher

Labels: , , ,