Memories of Cuba

Cuba Obama
Photo: National Public Radio 

I am so excited to read stories about President Obama’s visit to Cuba. Ever since I visited Cuba with the California Agricultural Leadership Program in the late 1990s, I have hoped that someone would find the political courage to normalize relations with Cuba.

Our group had permission from the US Treasury to visit and it was part of a three week educational trip that included Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Haiti. We first landed in Santiago de Cuba and then spent most of our visit in Havana with a one day field trip to an eco-resort.

Cuban baseballI have many terrific memories of Cuba including drinking my first mojito. One of my favorite memories recurred regularly when we moved around Havana by bus. Several of my fellows learned that real quality baseballs are hard to come by (even though they are made in Haiti). In Cuba, children are still playing baseball in stickball games on streets all over Havana. So whenever we passed a group of children, Dan or Todd would ask the driver to stop, they would whistle to get the kids attention and then they would toss out a couple of brand new baseballs.

Every time something magical happened. The children would catch them, stare open mouthed and wide-eyed and then toss it to a playmate who would have a similar reaction. Then they would hoop and holler and thank us. We would all wave and grin and feel real joy.

I hope President Obama has a terrific visit and that progress is made toward improving relations between our countries. Just remember Mr. President, US Treasury limits your cigar imports to $100 US.

1 Reason to Go to Miami Now

Yes, I am mocking my own tendency –and travel writers everywhere– to use numbers in headlines. I was trying to find a hook that explained my sense of urgency. There is one main reason to go now: Miami is living on borrowed time. I wanted to see Miami before climate disruption wreaks Katrina or Sandy-like damage.

Al Gore dedicated many hours to training the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.
Al Gore dedicated many hours to training the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

I am so glad I saw New Orleans before Katrina because now every story is how it is coming back. While it is still a special place, it is still an echo of its former glory. Just as articles are encouraging people to see Cuba before it loses its Cubanness, see Miami while it is in its prime.

Building construction and growth is rampant. At the same time the oceans are getting warmer. Miami Beach is flooding during king tides and it is one big storm or hurricane away from major damage. Over time this will fundamentally change Miami. I hope the leaders and citizens of Miami make smart decisions and adapt in advance of major property damage and loss of life. I am also glad I saw it now.

Miami at night from hotel balcony.
Miami at night from hotel balcony.

I went to Miami for the Climate Reality Leadership Conference to learn more about the challenges facing our home planet because of the choices made by humankind. It is emotionally challenging listening to the scientific news and to see example after example of natural disasters related to climate disruption. The only thing that saved me was some good news about the growth rates of clean energy adoption, and the enthusiasm and commitment of 1200 other participants from 80 other countries. People are organizing support for their governments to make more serious commitments at the next climate talks in Paris. There is still time to change our behavior and reverse the damage.

I had very little time to get out and about and enjoy Miami. The Hotel Urbano where I was staying was inconvenient far from the main conference hotel Hyatt Regency. It was a 36 minute walk in the intense humidity or rain. There is a free trolley but I never allowed time to take it. The hotel is better located for the aquarium or the Vizcaya Gardens. So I relied on the Lyft app a lot and it proved affordable and super responsive. Once I got over the disappointment about Hotel Urbano’s location, I could appreciate the beautiful pool and quality food. The formica tables and cafeteria style layout does a disservice to the very good food they serve. Both my All American breakfasts and my cheeseburger on a pretzel roll were excellent. The rooms are just okay. I never could figure out the lights—why some worked and others did not. Housekeeping was lackadaisical. Overall I would still say it gave good value at $95 a night.

One night I joined some colleagues for a Cuban dinner at the Versaiiles restaurant. It had the same formica tables as Hotel Urbano Though it was set up for larger groups. The menu was expansive and included all the Cuban classics. I had the good fortune to go to Cuba about 15 years ago and eat some amazing food. This did not match those memories. It was moderately priced and a mediocre experience.

I met up with Jim, my friend from my Trek Travel Tour de France experience. We met in Coconut Grove where his maritime law office is located. We ate at Monty’s where Jim assured me I would have another average experience. At least I finally got some great clam chowder. The popcorn shrimp caesar salad was also tasty. He described some of the challenges of bike riding in Miami. If you cycle, check out the once-a-month Critical Mass rides when there is less potential conflict with cars. Or look for the Gran Fondo rides that start in October.

After talking to a half dozen drivers I learned a lot about the city. Miami is a very Latin city of hustle. People are very transient. They are also moving from job to job chasing the American Dream. Miami seems to be giving people a foothold. It is definitely an advantage if you speak Spanish and English.

People in Miami love, love, love air conditioning. The conference organizers warned us in advance to wear layers. I brought a jacket and scarf and a light sweater. At different times I used all of them. When I met up with Jim we sat outside. The evening had cooled slightly. It felt like a warm hug and after a short while I did not think about it again. Another occasion I was outside but in the direct sunlight and I wilted after just 10 minutes. Another time it was raining so hard I could hardly see across the street. Miami is a city of extremes and can be stressful.