Today was our longest driving day, but we had a long and interesting stop in Cienfuegos, a picturesque town located on the sea. The main square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and this town was the most touristy we've been to yet. Doubtless the German cruise ship that was in port had something to do with that. We walked a vendor street in our free time and it looked like we could have seen much more in this pretty town. However, we had a morning concert to attend, given by a professional caliber choir subsidized by the government. It is becoming increasingly clear that even though this country is so much poorer than we are per capita, they value the arts much more than we do and devote a much higher percentage of their revenue to support culture. However, when this choir travels overseas to perform, they have to beg, borrow and steal to pull together the funds for such a trip. Last year when they performed in the US, half the choir decided to stay on in the US. This was when our immigration policy for Cubans was to let any who set foot on our soil stay there and many choir members already had friends and family in the US. Auditions were held and they were easily replaced; the talent pool is deep. They sang a variety of music in four part harmony so tight it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Then it was time for lunch. We had no idea we would eat so well on this trip. We have what amounts to two dinners every day. Every meal comes with at least two drink choices, liquor included, and a welcome drink. We eat family style or are waited on and the food choices have been fabulous. Today's lunch included a huge lobster tail. The meat had been removed, diced and cooked in a flavorful sauce and served inside the tail. Every meal includes live entertainment, always of high quality.
The afternoon drive flew by as Marialina talked about topics she thought would interest us. She welcomes our questions no matter the topic and seems to answer honestly and from her heart. She talked about the horrible time after the Soviet Union fell and Cuba right along with it. The country had depended much too much on the USSR and had no electricity, little food, no transport and no hope. She was a little girl then and remembers splitting an egg with her sister while her parents drank sugar water. Her shoes were home made with rubber soles from old tires and cloth uppers. There were numerous lengthy power blackouts and her mom would get up and cook between 2am and 4am when the electricity would usually come on for a while. As they began to raise their own fruits and vegetables in their yards the country's diabetes rate declined. It took about six years to recover as the government built beach resorts and the Canadians and Europeans brought in cash. They also got a lot of petroleum assistance from Venezuela when Hugo Chavez shared his world view with Fidel.
About 20% of Cubans live in Havana and it seems to have little in the way of suburbs, because no one has a car and commuting is impossible. So one minute we were in the countryside and then we were in town. We are staying at the Hotel Nacional, built in the 1930's and the place to be before the revolution. The place is huge; it feels like we are on a cruise ship. There are so many restaurants, pools, shops, etc. and it sits facing the malecon and the sea. We are thrilled to be here and looking forward to sightseeing in the big city.