For 22 years before she moved to Solvang in June, Sandra Perez Gluschankoff had been visiting America’s Danish capital, and falling in love with everything from its vistas to its windmills. The imprint was such that when she wrote her second novel, “Franzisca’s Box,” she set the opening scene in Solvang.

“There are two characters in the kitchen. They are looking out the window and into the hills,” she said. “The day we came to see this house, I looked out that window,” she said pointing to her own large kitchen window, “and I said, ‘This can not be’. It was exactly what I had in my head when I wrote that passage.”

“Franzisca’s Box” is fact-based fiction with numerous elements of the seven-generation story coming from Gluschankoff’s own family history.

“I mix present time with historical times,” the Argentinian-born author explained. “It starts here, goes to Poland in the early 1900s, to South America, and then back to the U.S. There is Jewish historical fiction and background, and lots of drama.” Included is World War II in Romania and the post-war immigration of Nazi criminals into Argentina.

“I grew up in a family of immigrants,” she said. “My grandparents on my mother’s side spent World War II in Romania. Once the war was over and the Red Army came in, they escaped Romania and fled to an American refugee camp in Italy where my mom was born. The Americans offered for them to come to the U.S. but they’d heard so many wonderful things about Argentina — how you could find gold on the streets that’s where they went, only to find after they got there that the gold was what the criminal Nazis had stolen from the Jews.”

Sandra Perez had a far less dramatic reason for leaving Argentina, the country of her birth. In her 20s, she met her husband-to-be, Sergio Gluschankoff, through a mutual friend during a trip to the U.S.

“Apparently, I am unforgettable because six months later he came knocking on my door and asked if we could go out that weekend,” she laughed. After another six months of a long-distance commuter romance, she relocated to the U.S., and a year later they married. They are the parents of two sons: One is a UCSB student and the other is going into his third year at Georgetown Law at Georgetown University.

Gluschankoff admittedly had to reinvent herself when she came to the U.S., speaking no English and a few months shy of her university degree.

She became an English-Spanish interpreter for medical and legal offices. She taught Hebrew at a Jewish day school in San Diego where the Gluschankoffs lived for 14 years. Then one day, she said, she woke up knowing she wanted to write, specifically, screenplays.

“I bought every book on screenwriting I could find,” she said. She completed a dozen of them. Several finished well (although none won) in various screenwriting competitions. One was optioned for a movie but never produced. She worked as the script supervisor on a small film shot in Santa Barbara.

That led her into a reality series now airing on the FYI channel, “Life. Matters with Dr. Michelle Gordon.” Gluschankoff co-wrote and co-produced the 13 episodes of the first season, and appears in several of them.

The show follows Gordon and her friends as they ride through the hills of Mallorca, Spain, and discover Spanish cuisine and immerse themselves in Spanish culture and the arts, while discussing the health and lifestyle issues that women face in aging.

“Life.Matters” premiered earlier this month and has already been renewed for a second season. It is seen locally on DirecTV, Dish and Comcast.

Gluschankoff is also kept busy doing the administrative work for Synergy Organic Farms, a company she owns with her husband. They farm 212 acres along Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc.

Her next book is a stand-alone short story, “Wednesdays with Maria.” It will be published as an e-book in September and is the prequel to her next novel.

The Gluschankoff home in Solvang still has a bit of that “we’ve just moved in” look, unpacked but with empty spaces here and there and walls awaiting artwork. The couple is still in the process of figuring that out, and in no rush. After moves from San Diego to Calabasas to Santa Barbara and now the Santa Ynez Valley, they’re planning on staying put for a long time.

“We’d come to Solvang on weekends and I remember thinking how really nice it would be to live here. Now that we’re here, I love it. There is a certain vibe to the place, a certain energy. I love walking down Alisal, down to where it becomes a narrow winding road. I love seeing people taking pictures of windmills and the horses pulling the carriage. It makes me smile.”


searchYou are able to pardon

the greatest of our sins in secret.

We have burned ourselves with our desire and greed,

We come to You in awe

because You taught us to call

and You lit the lamp of supplication in this darkness.

–Rumi (Daquqi’s prayer, Mathnawi III:2212-2224)



Chief Brown, Dallas Police




Try these: In Napa and San Francisco yesterday, mentally ill and substance-uglied people attacked police and begged to be shot and killed. Officers were in both cases able to negotiate and take the “perps” into custody peacefully. (No pictures available that I could find)

Upping the ante on the same subject: In Britain, police on everyday duty carry no firearms. Same in Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, and Norway.

But here in the sovereign land of holy amendment number two, it’s been a dark week. As a nation we’re wandering around in a stew of anger, death, and retribution, and grief. There are moments of silence, cries of anguish, calls for love and calls for vengeance. And death follows death follows killing, every one beginning with a finger pulling  a trigger. Or maybe it starts with the idea that it’s a good idea to have a trigger handy for whenever you might have a beef with a neighbor or a cop or a stranger.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says NRA mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre. Well, apparently, Philando Castile was one of those good guys with a gun, exercising his god-given 2nd amendment rights  by securing a permit to carry a pistol for protection. A lot of protection it bought him. Probably got him killed. That and a dose of excess melanin. Oh, and the old broken tail light story. Almost as pervasive as the “you fit the description of . . .” story.

On the other hand, or on the same hand, really, five–count ’em FIVE–Dallas police officers are dead,  each and every one of them leaving a huge space


in the lives of their families. Because some one thought the only good cop (especially if white) was a dead cop and was able to get hold of a long gun to express his hate,  just as some thought in times past (or maybe still) that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, or that (in present times, even) the only good nigger was  a dead one or in present times as well the only good Muslim (or Mexican) is a dead one or the only good (suspected, even) terrorist (read “Muslim”) is dead one (preferably subsequent to some luscious torture). It’s all a matter of labeling someone an “other,” then shooting ’em up, blowing ’em up because if you don’t they’ll do it unto you and you’re a naive fool to inhabit any other reality. And yet, what reality have we created. Not one where we are safer. Quite the opposite. We’re caught in that place that Matthew Arnold described so eloquently. A world which

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.[22][23]

But what if we dared to take that other direction? Could we navigate our way out of this darkness into a room lighted with Rumi’s “lamp of supplication,” a space filled with love and tolerance? What if we just laid down our 300 million guns? Oh, no!. Give up our sword and shield? I say yes. All we’re doing now is shooting blindly into the dark space of an endless cave, laying out corpse after corpse without making ourselves safer in the least. The only way out of the situation is contained in Dostoyevsky’s description of it: search-1

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.


How about it?



Calixto Bieito

Saw the notorious new production of Carmen directed by Spanish maverick Calixto Bieito. Irene Roberts and Brian Jagde sang Carmen and Don Jose the night we searchwent. Roles were double cast, so can’t speak for what things might have sounded like on other dates.

The whole thing was set in the 50’s. We’d just been to Cuba, so the old cars on stage suggested the Caribbean in a way Bieito didn’t intend and probably carmen_thumbnail1spoke that way to no one else. There were some controversial moves, undoubtedly intended to shock and alienate–a simulated BJ behind a car with an actual bared male butt visible. Some simulated, fully clothed, sex between the principals. Much of the costuming, or lack of it, and atmosphere was very attractive to San Francisco’s Castrophiles. Still and all, not really shocking or gratuitous, except maybe the BJ.  What bothered me most was Bieito’s lack of directorial fundamentals, which undercut some truly wonderful performances. Roberts and Jagade sang splendidly, and their acting traced the arc of the Carmen-Don Jose relationship with clarity and truth. The dependence, defiance, self-destruction. Heart-rending. The orchestra was out of this world. Even better than usual. However, there were a number of crucial dead spots where the drama just plain stalled. A partying group drives on stage, drunk and laughing beginning, I think, Act 2. That’s all for what seemed like two minutes. A looooong time on stage. Then some music begins and people start piling out and preparing for a picnic. At last, we are relieved, to see some action. We haven’t been in suspense, just bored. Later, the smugglers hear there are cops on the way. They pack up their stuff to conceal their activities. But with no sense of urgency. Casual, relaxed, slowly so the audience, too feels Casual, relaxed. Ho and hum and another day in the life. Those moments drain so much energy out of a production for me that no amount of wonderful music can replace. So, instead of a super production with some notorious moments, we are left with a mediocre production with some soft-porn asides. Disappointing. I’d choose anger over boredom any day. And I’m still waiting to see a Carmen who can dance. . . Maybe that’s asking too much.

Sitting up


img20160528_14251251Even though I spent some time in San Antonio and Dallas working with my late co-author, Bob Stewart on The Yellow Rose,
Iyellow rose cover still anticipated a hint of the exotic when I committed myself to a week in the Lone Star State. 

I didn’t go straight to the writers retreat in San Antonio, but landed first in Houston where I spent a wonderful, though very brief, 24 hours or so with Bob’s sonIMG_2729 and his family. IMG_2728Here I am with Bob III in front of pictures of his parents. Note the copy of The Yellow Rose. Also on the right, me with super daughter Coco. Not pictured, wife Kim and son Bobby.


IMG_4639We also trod the very ground of the site of the San Jacinto memorial and park where the the battle of San Jacinto, the centerpiece of our novel and of the Texas Revolution took place. The tower is as high as the Washington Monument, and then some, because a Texas star (not visible) is mounted on the top. In true Texan style, they could get permission to build an obelisk only as tall as the one on the Washington Mall. But no one mentioned they couldn’t add the star. You have to get up early to keep ahead of a Texan.

It was a great time in Houston, but San Antonio and the main event awaited. I’ve been to quite a number of writers’ conferences, from the more prestigious (Sewanee, Squaw Valley, Tin House)  to the less heralded (Napa, DFW), so I’m a bit jaded. Shouldn’t have bothered with that attitude.

Most conferences focus on the short story, giving you a group workshop and a single one-one-one conference with a staff member. I found them all valuable in their own way except that I was a bit frustrated with the process of discussing a chapter or two of my novel as if it, too, were a short story. Hard to explain the difference, but it’s pronounced. Tin House (on the campus of Reed College in Portland, OR) had a section on the novel, which showed me that my frustration was justified. It made all the difference to talk to people about novels as novels, especially under the superb leadership of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Hummingbird’s Daughter and many other titles). So I was looking forward to WRW because we were supposedly going to be in the company of other novelists. And boy, were we.


Plus, our manuscripts got not only a group going-over, but a number of sessions with different accomplished staff members. You could get feedback, revise, then get feedback on the revision. There is time in the schedule set aside for–get this–writing. That’s in addition to the normal menu of workshops, group instruction, and so on. Director Jason Sitzes and wife  Lisa Willars-Pic have put together a superb staff. Good teachers as well as good writers, and those two don’t always together, believe me.


Among that cast are my old friend/mentor/nemesis, multiple novelist (The Bomb and The Rapist are his latest gems.) Les Edgerton, without whom my count would zero published novels instead of four; literary agent Michelle Johnson of Inklings, who had the good taste to request a copy of my manuscript of the sequel to Bonita when it’s finished; Reavis Z. (for “Zane”) Wortham (Dark Places, Vengeance is Mine), who is a retired educator (me too) and a Texas cattle rancher (definitely NOT me too) Not pictured are Carol Dougherty, Arianne “Tex” Thompson, and David Corbett. All of these also made significant contributions to my superb experience at the Oblate (an Catholic order of priests, like the Franciscans, I’d not heard of. They are missionaries.) Center. This is beginning to sound a little bit like a testimonial, but what the hell. I transformed my beginning chapter in a way that launched the sequel Bonita like a power boat instead of row boat, yes, I will testify that Writers Retreat Workshop is at the top of the novelist writers workshops in the USA. Thanks to all.




My intention was to write at the end of each day to journal our activities, but by the end of these jam-packed days I just fell into bed.  Every once in awhile I tried to catch up – most of our trip is chronicled.  I will put some of the main points I learned at the beginning—the details will be enjoyed by Nancy, Joel and me, but others might find them tedious.  If you want to read the whole thing I recommend doing a day or two of journey at a time.


  • Some things mentioned over and over and some observations:

o   The embargo has had a devastating effect on the Cuban people and they feel it is very unfair – we don’t take that position with other Communist countries and it is preventing them from progressing as fast as they otherwise could.  They do not seem to hold us American tourists to blame, but urge us to pressure our country to end the embargo. [Our guide and other Cubans we met took the same posture. Feel that just our tourism will help.]

o   They really like Obama and the Pope [Our guide thought Obama a smart guy for allowing that Cuba has to proceed at its own pace. The more pressure to hurry, the more resistance. Even if people don’t like what’s happening, they feel compelled to defend it when attacked from the outside.] – very proud that three Popes have visited Cuba—75% of the population is Catholic—the other predominant religion is Santeria – an African based religion with gods based on animals, spirits and music

o   The 1980’s—the era of the boat people when Fidel allowed departure of @120,000? Cubanos to US was a real wound to national psyche.  Unlike the wealthy who left in 1959-61, the boat people included ordinary people, artists, musicians, teachers, professionals most of whom had supported the revolution *[although, Fidel didn’t mention communism when he first came to power. Some feel that Bay of Pigs is what forced the issue.}

o   The Special Period [What a cute cliché, huh? Like the guy in Savannah we met who called the Civil War “The late unpleasantness.]– from 1991 when USSR collapsed, which provided 90% [We heard 70%, but same difference.] of the Cuban economy, until about 2005 – Cubans nearly starved to death and couldn’t get any commodities, but free health care and education continued although people were told by doctors to eat better and couldn’t and many medicines and medical supplies were not available

o   2011 big Communist Party changes which allowed for limited private enterprises not allowed before – included paladares (private homes made into restaurants), casas particulares (B&Bs), barber shops (didn’t see a single young Cuban who needed a haircut [all with good teeth, too.), artist galleries, ability to own more than one house and one car, ability to sell a house if you have paid it off, [but not apartments if you have been given a confiscated one, you can only swap it.] and some investments in private companies

o   There is a ration system of several items, rice, beans, sugar, meat (they decide what you get – chicken, meat, fish or eggs), bread, salt and coffee [Our impression is that you had to qualify low-income to get these ration coupons.]

o   Black market is common – material goods brought in from US and sale of rationed items – e.g. Franky’s mom gets 18 lbs of sugar a month (because he and brother not at home right now) so she sells at least 10 lbs to the local paladar [interesting]

o   Every block has an elected “president” of the CDR (Comité en defensa de la revolución) and an appointed representative of the PCC (Cuban Communist Party).  From each of the CDRs, there is an elected representative to the neighborhood, then the municipality, then to represent 15 provinces or counties; from that group 612 are elected to the assembly who in turn elect the president.  Fidel was elected with 100% vote for five 5-year terms—Raul only got 94% vote in 2008 and has announced that he will not run again in 2019.  Many people have told us that they don’t believe the government cares what the people think.  Franky (our Cuban tour guide), who, believes first VP, Miguel Diaz Canel will be next president.  48% of the assembly are women.  11% of budget goes to education, 15% to health care and 12% to social security.  The amount going to defense and the armed forces is top secret. [We never got to this political structure. Very interesting.]

o   There has been an increase in wages for some occupations – notably doctors, who organized, petitioned and got an increase from 25 CUCs/month to 45 and some extra money paid based on experience

o   Low government wages and opportunities abroad (e.g. programs with oil-producing countries like Brazil and Venezuela—they send cheap oil and Cuba sends doctors who are housed and well-paid by the host country, but the doctor can not take his/her family) and private enterprise opportunities that pay more than the professional jobs are causing a terrible brain drain.  Many of the taxi drivers, paladar owners, B&B owners, bike-cab drivers, were trained professionals – from doctor to chemist to veterinarian, etc., but could make more money being self employed in areas unrelated to their education. [we were told many professional women prostitute on the side as well]

o   Roads are in pretty good shape and traffic is light – not very many people have cars.  There is not enough public transportation.  In the cities people sometimes have to wait for two or three buses before they can get room on a bus and people pack in very tightly.  On the highway you see many people hitchhiking because public buses are few and far between.  People who live on the outskirts of town have to leave home very early to get into the city by 8.  Outside of Habana horse-drawn carts are seen regularly on the highways [If a bus is empty, we were told, they are required to pick up hitchhikers.]

o   The streets in the towns and cities are litter-free and no tagging or advertising seen anywhere.  Outside towns along the sides of the roads there is litter—probably from people riding on open-air horse-drawn carts. [We, too, were impressed by the cleanliness.]

o   Everyone has asked us to make comments on Trip Advisor—apparently it is an important way that individuals and travel groups make decisions about where to stay.

o   In the paladares we were offered very similar menus everywhere – lobster and/or shrimp (sometimes good, sometimes not so much), grilled chicken, beef or lamb ropa vieja (shredded meat with good savory sauce), grilled fish, rice and beans (sometimes combined).  We didn’t get any salad until we got to Cienfuegos and Camagüey and almost no cooked vegetables other than occasional squash.  Food was not spicy—Joel traveled with Tabasco and our guide and driver got addicted to it.  Of interest is that although lamb was usually on menus, we never saw a single sheep in Cuba but lots of goats—draw your own conclusions [Yep]

o   Learned some slang – papayas are fruta de bomba because papaya is a bad word for woman [Learned the word, but not the reason. Thanks]– mango is a sexy man, canyón is a woman. When we told Franky and Adrián that we hadn’t seen men calling out to pretty women as we had other places, they smiled and called out “que rico pastel” (what a delicious cake) to the next beauty that passed by.




April 3 – 4 — 7pm at airport – 10:30 take-off (hour late) and 6:30 arrival in Miami after a smooth, uneventful flight—off to the Double Tree hotel.  We had booked a 4 hour tour of Miami with David Del Rio – a real flamboyant character who was a first generation Cuban-American – he’d never been to Cuba – gave us a good overview of all of the parts of Miami that you hear about—including Coral Gables, Little Havana, Miami Beach, South Beach.  We saw a cigar store that featured 700+ varieties of cigars (no Cuban) and every accessory one can imagine.  We stopped by a domino/chess park run by the city – you have to be over 55 and no betting allowed.  There were only domino games going on while we were there – the group included one woman.   Evening spent getting low-down on our trip by our leader, Paula Miller and introducing ourselves to one-another over dinner.   Paula is a frustrated opera singer and she informed us she plans to use singing opera lines to gather us. (that will probably get old fast!) We were exhausted and since we had to get up at 3:15 am (!!) to get to the airport for a 7am boarding, going to bed was all we wanted to do. [Matched our Miami tour except we didn’t have dinner there and it was Gay pride week in Miami Beach with attendant sights and festifities.


April 5—left hotel at 4—everything we worried about in customs did not happen and we got through without incident, but because it went so smoothly we had two hours to kill in the Miami airport when nothing was open.  Several crossword puzzles later we got on the plane for a 45 min. flight to Havana and then through Cuban Customs without a hitch but they only had two guys unloading 4 planes so it took two hours to get our luggage – we got to watch drug dogs, including some cute spaniels [Same guys on duty for us.] do their jobs.  Apparently when Cubans travel they have to bubble wrap any purchases they are bringing in huge plastic packages that are then torn open by the “aduana” checking for contraband.


We met our guide Luis Franky Hernández– not named Francisco – actually Franky – who is college educated as a translator [Same with our tour guide. No one was looking for French translators]  but decided to become a tour guide instead.  He is delightful – funny smart and candid.  We proceeded to the Plaza de la Revolución, which had huge silhouettes of Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and a statue and monument to José Martí.*  We saw our first almendrones, (big almonds) which is what the Cubans call the old cars mostly used as taxis.  Joel was very happy.  There were even old military US Jeeps fixed up and painted in wild colors.  The upholstery has not been kept up like the outside in most of the cars.  Our 1956 Ford Victoria was well represented.  [cemetery—see if NJK got more details – included a memorial to 35 fire fighters who were killed when they went into a burning building that had explosives no one knew about. [Didn’t catcha this one]  Some huge family mausoleums.  More than 2,000,000 people buried in this cemetery, which about equals the current living population of Habana.  We visited the Hotel Nacional that was the favorite of old time movie stars, gangsters, politicians and others who wanted to be seen. Lots of pictures of 80 years of famous visitors. Interesting to see American celebrities 30’s to 50’s; then Soviets and Latin Americans 60s to 80s; then mixture after Soviet collapse including many Chinese.  The only Cubans in the place were the help.  While there we learned that there was a special schedule for the Buena Vista Social Club and that this week we could go on Thursday night—after much to-do about the cost (25 cucs) most of our group got tickets.  We had lunch and dinner at paladares, which are private homes turned into restaurants.  Since 2011, the communist party started allowing some private enterprises in various fields – restaurants, crafts, taxis (almendrones), and some investments.  People have to be licensed and pay a percentage of their income to the government. We lucked out and had Franky at our table at dinner and he gave us very candid picture of what it is to live in Cuba today and explained the shortage of consumer goods better than anyone else ever has for me.   We also learned that there is a ration system of several items: rice—7lbs per person per month; beans; sugar—6 lbs per person per month; meat (they decide what you get – chicken, meat, fish or eggs); bread—a 4 inch square per person per day; salt and coffee.   If you want more than your allotment, you can buy it e.g. a loaf of bread is 10 CUP or deal on the black market trading your excess ration.  All property is owned by the government.  By law every Cuban head-of-household is entitled to a house so households include several generations. [We were told there is a sort of underground system of putting properties in other family members’ names. Our guide owned a house, and her mother “owned” another.’ You can qualify for a home of your own by service to the nation, e.g. successful sports stars in the Olympics or those who serve abroad (Franky’s mother is a doctor who served with the Cuban brigade in Angola for which she was awarded a house separate from her divorced husband) You pay rent on your house to the government which is based on your income – and is about 20% of income.  Since 2011 you can vender/sell your house privately if you have paid it off completely.  If not, the only way you can move is to permutar or trade your house with someone who has one of equivalent value.  There is an attempt to get permission for private home-owners to be able to rent out rooms even if they are not licensed B&B.

Our driver, Adrián, is very good but speaks no English so he doesn’t really socialize with the group.  Since we speak Spanish we have gotten to know him – very nice guy and so proud of his beautiful 4 year old.   We had two good music experiences today – went to our hotel lobby for a beer before dinner and a trio was playing – very lovely – when they figured out Joel was Mexican, Trio Los Panchos became their choice of music – we bought their CD.  Then after dinner we went to see the pool and lo and behold, another music group playing traditional Cuban music with dancers around the pool– even the wait staff was dancing.  Joel bought their CD – we will have a huge CD collection when this trip is over.


April 6—

We had a presentation by a Musicologist which included a PowerPoint presentation that covered historical and cultural study through music.  He started pre Columbus times and gave samples of indigenous music – covered arrival of Africans-samples of progression of European with indigenous and African music.  He has played abroad but only travels to job and leaves – no real exposure to life outside of Cuba..


We had a lovely walk through Plaza de las Armas—book sellers, picture drawers, mimes, impersonators (e.g. cop to take picture w/tourists).  Things we saw included:

  • Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway lived and one of his favorite bodegas (Bodeguita del medio)

Lunch in Cathedral Square – quick look inside church. Stately Romanesque architecture.  No gold to speak of.


Went to learn to play domino’s – 9 spot with Cuban rules (quite different from Mexican rules)  — no draw and no scoring by 5’s. [no dominoes for us, wouldn’t have recognized the different rules anyhow.]  You play until one team runs out or no one can play then team who wins get points of other players.  It was really fun – Joel and I won our match.


We visited a neighborhood development program called Arte Corte started by a barber “Pepito” on the top floor of his own home in 1991 originally for hairdressers and barbers –  with charming antique barber equipment and wonderful pictures everywhere.  The program has expended from training neighborhood kids as barbers and hairdressers to culinary arts and afterschool recreation.  Program initially private only, but now receives some support from government, e.g. they pay for a security guard at the playground. [nice stuff.]

  • Dinner at Arte Corte restaurant staffed by program students
  • Drinks at the rooftop pool – new band new CD We have a lot of cd’s too.




April 7

  • Museum of Fine Arts Museum of Havana (=MOMA) with museum curator – only art since revolution including art depicting problems after the revolution.  Some art from those who left in 1980’s, but most from those who have stayed and criticize the revolution from within including a gay artist
  • Raul took over in 2006 when Fidel had bad intestinal infection and became president in 2008
  • Period of 1991 when USSR collapsed until about 2005 called “special period” and was extremely hard on Cubans—food and all material goods non-existent
  • We were treated to a modern dance group—AMAZING.  They had learned their dance at public school – starting at age 10—they got us up to dance with them  Charming young people. [Was this the Rosario Cardenas group? If so, we saw and lunched with them as well.]
  • On Cuba magazine owned by group in Miami and distributed in paper and online in Cuba and US)—another example of private sector initiative—about 20 employees in Havana with over 100 free lance journalists contributing.  Also produce an Arts magazine in Cuba.   Very good talk by brothers (who were the same guys who taught us dominoes) about how embargo is so unfair and injurious to Cuba – 57 years when we do business with China who is also Communist.  Companies who do business with China can’t do business with US for 6 months – makes it extremely difficult and expensive to get goods. [We saw this one as well. Fascinating.]
  • Visited Fort built in 1649 – at the entrance was line of craft/souvenir booths the only ones we have seen—bought a crochet sweater and a music statue [El Moro. Susanne traded a small bottle of hand sanitizer for two pair of earrings.]
  • Old car ride in a 1955 Buick – our driver was Enrique (called himself Rick) and spoke pretty good English – $35 cucs for an hour and 4 of us shared the ride.  He was very open and candid – went to the university and became an engineer – invented both medical and military items – got some small bonuses, but not for all of them.  Had a son who had a medical problem absorbing nutrients – medical care free but needed to eat high % protein and he couldn’t afford it on his government salary – bought and fixed up the car and now works 7 days a week as a taxi driver to be able to afford special diet for his son.  Feels that Raul’s ideas about economic system like China’s will work better for Cuba even though Fidel’s ideas were needed at the time of the revolution
  • Dinner at the National Hotel and then Buena Vista Social Club—almost everyone went – it was wonderful – very good musicians – high energy – two of troupe (woman 78 and man 84) were probably doing same thing in big nightclub days. Wore new sweater – got lots of compliments [Missed this and wish we hadn’t]


April 8

  • Outskirts of Havana to the Finca La Vigia – Hemingway Farm.  On the way we saw:

o   US Embassy-Plaza with 168 flag poles – center one with Cuban flag, but the rest are empty.  They are in front of US embassy because the US embassy had put out big electronic billboard with anti-revolution propaganda so they put up flags to cover it.  No attack on embassy – just flags to block the screen and now they stand empty. [Except one with Cuban flag. Weird forest.]

o   Abandoned sports complex built in 1991 for the PanAm Games which Cuba hosted. Then USSR collapsed-the coplex has fallen into disrepair.  Local neighborhoods have petitioned to use the playing fields for practice for local teams, but so far no permission. Government moves slowly

  • Told Hemingway loved Habana and night life staying at Ambos Mundos Hotel in old Habana but couldn’t write – encouraged by Martha Gellhorn to rent Finca in suburbs to find quiet to write.  Saw pix and his boat.
  • Cojimar – fishing village—15 year old schoolboy bribed to talk to us a little but really didn’t want to do it.  Went to lunch with fishermen – didn’t speak English so we did lots of translating.
  • 2 fishermen at our table – Luis and Umberto—charming and funny.   Described how hard they work.  Umberto was a carpenter as well as fisherman and has his own boat
  • Cojimar marina – saw boats being repaired – talked heard that they use car motors that they have to modify to work on boats—watched a large shark just brought in  being cut up for sale. [Probably as Mahi Mahi}


April 9

  • On the way to Cienfuegos: [We went the other way]

o   On the outskirts of Habana stopped at an agriponico/organic farm.  The farm was started during the ‘special period’ on a small plot of land by 5 people – it is run cooperatively and has grown to 25 acres with 150 workers.  The average worker age is 56 years and is currently managed by Isis, the daughter of one of the founders, who is trying to recruit younger people.  She herself had a degree in communication, but went back to school to get a degree in agronomics.  The farm offers internships to students and agricultural extension services to local farms.  The co-op workers get 0% loans from the co-op, free meals, a base salary of 400 CUPs per month plus a bonus of sales revenue proportioned out based on worker seniority.  The government collects a 5% tax on all sales.  The farm uses no pesticides; pest resistant plants around the beds (eg marigolds and corn), and beneficial insects to eat the bad ones.  Soil buildup is 50% humous; 25% compost and 25% rice husks—all but the rice husks produced by the farm itself.  Also grow their own worms in beds. They have a tractor—usually broken—and rely on oxen.  Unlike other farming areas of Cuba where water is severely limited, the co-op land has several deep wells to supply the drip and sprinkler irrigation systems.  As well as a wide variety of vegetables, the farm also grows ornamental plants and medicinal plants and has on staff a “medicine woman” who prescribes plant medicines to those in need.  Isis, who is a personal friend of our guide Franky and like Franky is symbol of the new Cuba—educated, committed, resourceful, beautiful! [Our experience with farms was similar.]

o   One of our group had heard of bee hummingbirds, and, of course, Franky knew someone who kept them.  We went by the place they have a display and it was closed so Franky called and got us invited to their home.  They were a delightful couple-probably in their 60s, who had a humble house and a beautiful patio and large vegetable garden.  Even though they had no warning of a visit of 20+ people, they were welcoming and obviously proud of their home.  There were many of the usual hummingbirds flying around, and also tiny ones – maybe an inch and a half long, darting about.  They had also caught a baby crocodile which they housed in an old tire and a tree rat, which is indigenous to Cuba and said to be edible, in a cage. [Looked like a muskrat to me. Pests back home in the rice fields.]

o   drove by Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron).  We didn’t stop but gave the Cubans’ view of the attack by mercenaries.  The Cubans call the Miami Cubans who are very anti-Castro Cuban Mafiosos – different from Cubans living in America who are not anti-Castro. [Our guide asked the question who in CIA decided to invade at the only location in Cuba that has Crocodiles. We didn’t go there, though.]  The Russians started building a nuclear plant but had not gotten very far when they collapsed – Cuba does not have that technology even though the dome appears on the horizon.

  • Botanical Garden – amazing – wonderful guide, included a palm that flowers before dying during which time it puts out tons of food for animals and a plant from which strychnine is made and a soap plant that Cubans had to use during the “special period”  I left my glasses when I bought a book and Joel got in an argument with the tour guide about going back for them – Joel won.
  • Went to Cienfuegos – a UNESCO World Heritage Site—went to UNEAC—the Union of Authors and writers and saw a wonderful show by children.  Made us wish we had brought tights and material for costumes – absolutely adorable kids – especially a 5-year old singer/dancer.  Got some good videos. Went next door to artist’s studio – saw work and met his family.  Joel made friends with the artist, who gave him a book, written by a UNEAC writer, about the Amistad slave ship.   UNEAC works together to stand up to government attempts at censorship
  • Went to an absolutely amazing guitar concert – 8 guitars in close harmony doing everything from Mozart to Scott Joplin.  Can’t wait to share videos of them with Alan Smith and Randy Porter
  • Went to Tomas Terry theatre—very beautiful but got in trouble for taking pictures without paying – had to pay them for taking pictures!


  • At night went back to artists’ studio and heard The Naranjos – a really good Cuban combo – lots of locals came by and we all danced a lot – fun [Bet you bought a CD also]


  • Home too late for dinner at the hotel – tried to find somewhere else but came back to the hotel and acted so pitiful they made us Cuban sandwiches for dinner-yummy


  • All 3 of us have gotten colds – not pleasant, but we are coping


April 10

In bus learned about election system – every neighborhood has elected “president” who then get elected to represent 15 counties; from that group 612 are elected in the assembly who in turn elect the president.  Many people have told us that don’t believe the government cares what the people think.  Franky believes first VP, Miguiel Diaz Canel will be next president.  48% of the assembly are women.  11% of budget goes to education, 15% to health care and 12% to social security.


Went to ration store – learned how it worked.  Went to corner market and bought vegetables with Cuban pesos – very small stand, limited selection – took what we bought to the senior center and met many of the people who eat lunch and dinner there – main spokesman was 93 and a pistol!  The woman who cooks for them is a secretary of the Communist Party (maybe part of her job is to make sure the resources are going to the seniors – that isn’t clear)  A French group had come in and donated TVs, CD players and fans.  The program is government sponsored but very bare bones


Had a drink on the roof of the castle – then watched the sunset and went to a beautiful paladar for dinner.


April 11

  • Went to Valle de Los Ingenios – valley of the Sugar Mills—
  • In Manaca Iznaga – sugar cane plantation – learned about process called Trapihe to get the juice from the sugar cane, called Guarapo.  The slave owners like to give Guarapo to the slaves to keep them strong, but made them grind their own guarapo to drink – hard work!  There is a 40 foot **tower build by the plantation owner – and then his brother dug a 40 foot well (not to be undone)—the local story is that they did it to win over a woman, but since they had both done a 40 foot project, she married their father.  We all got a taste of guarapo with rum – not as sweet as you’d think.
  • At lunch had Canchanchara – a drink with guarapo and honey and ron – yummy
  • We drove by the Escombrai mountain range – 2nd most important in Cuba (the first is Sierra Maestra, but we didn’t see them).
  • In Cuba, papaya is called fruta Bomba because “papaya” is a bad word for women.  Mango is a sexy man and canyón is a woman.


April 12

Visit Sancti Spritus – old Spanish style architecture.  We got lost with two other ladies and because we knew Spanish we were able to find the group – really good flan!


Long ride to Camagüey – no time to explore – will do it in the am.


April 13,

Went by Bici Taxis – bicycle cabs—they are not allowed to use any motor—visited several of the plazas – including Worker’s Square, San Juan de Dios.  There were bronze statues in many of them – in Workers’ Square, the man who had posed for the life-sized statue of a man reading a newspaper was sitting on the bench next to the statue of himself reading a newspaper, and he was reading a newpaper.  Camagüey has many plazas and narrow streets that go in every direction – very easy to get lost in.   We learned that Camagüey used to be Santa Maria del Puerto Principe—the origin of the name Camagüey is unknown and it is the only city with that name.  Camagüey is the largest province in Cuba.  They have mirabu trees, which are very invasive – they burn them (and make charcoal from the burning) to keep them under control, and letting goats graze where they grow also controls them.


Went to a family of ceramicists (Casanova)who make the traditional water carrying containers of Camagüey.  We had a fascinating demonstration of how they work on the wheels.  Joel and the papa hit it off and he gave Joel a little pot and introduced us to his wife.  He has built a little church on his property and a priest comes and gives mass every week there.  He has beautiful plants and cacti in addition to many beautiful pots of every description in addition to the traditional water carriers. Before 2011, the family couldn’t sell any of their product to anyone but the government.


Visited an art gallery in the home of the artists, Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sánchez.  Their home is very old and the original stone construction was visible in places along with the mahogany beamed ceiling.  There was a big picture of Guadalupe on the wall and Ileana was very devoted to her, so of course, Joel and she got along really well.


Dinner was in a really nice paladar that felt like being in a wine cellar.


April 14

Hard to believe it is our last full day in Cuba!  We took a 2 hour drive east to a ranch. Adrián showed up in full cowboy gear ala Marlboro man—he was obviously enjoying the whole idea of the trip to the ranch.   The ranch was started by the King Ranch from Texas.  They bought 40,000 acres and ran 65,000 head of cattle using Cuban workers. Since the revolution, it is owned by the government and the cowboys there are government employees, although there is a management company involved – that part was not clear to me.  In 1993, the ranch was changed to a dude ranch still running about 3-6,000 head of cattle, but catering to visiting dignitaries/tourists.  We were welcomed, as we have been everywhere with a drink.  We had music and the head cowboy, Vicente, (who was charming!) explained the operation of the ranch.  He had trained a large rooster and a het to jump onto his arms, and he proudly displayed a table made of baria wood with a 48 star American flag carved in the top.


We were treated to a demonstration of a rodeo that they do for fun on that ranch but several of the participants are serious rodeo performers who have competed and won prizes abroad.  One of our group (Annie) who lives on a ranch in Oregon, was allowed to ride in with the cowboys, which was apparently against the rules, but delighted us all.  Adrián rode in with them too. [Cool sorry to miss this]

Then we went on horse-drawn carriages to the village where many of the ranch employees live.  The houses were very basic—wood (brick everywhere else we’ve been) with thatched roofs.  There are two schools for the village – 1st and 3rd grades (1st being considered the most important) and 2nd , 4th and 5th.  There are regular teachers for everyday and in addition art, music, math specialists and librarians who go from school to school.  The libraries are very sparse but the librarian makes sure they are kept in order and facilitates lending.  From 6th through 9th grade, the kids go to a school where 400 children attend and live in dorms from Monday until Friday afternoon.  At the school they all learn to wash, iron, cook, clean, serve and do all of the chores necessary for the school upkeep in addition to their studies – it is considered very important that they learn these life skills.  The children are required to learn beautiful cursive writing and cannot graduate unless they can write without spelling mistakes.  There used to be complaints that graduates could not write properly.  We were served coffee (made on charcoal ) and served a snack of fruit grown locally and coconut cookies, then back on the carts to a roast pig lunch at the ranch.  One of the side dishes was bananas cooked with garlic, onions and vinegar sautéed in oil- sounds terrible, but was quite tasty.  The same group that sang when we arrived sang again and, of course, sold us their CDs.  Since we left Habana we have been served a salad of cabbage, cucumbers and tomato everywhere—nice.


April 15 – LAST DAY!!!

We had a demonstration of contemporary ballet—amazing talent.  The young people have studied at the fine arts school since they were 10 are we believe would be competitive anywhere.  The beautiful hall they performed in used to be a social club and then was taken over after the revolution as an office.  When they began clearing the office stuff they found a beautiful original wood floor perfect to use for dance.  The dancers are required to practice for an hour every morning before beginning work on their choreographed numbers.  After graduation they work for the company, which is owned by the state.  They can give lessons and special performances to earn extra money and will be performing in New York later this year.


Back to the hotel – leave for home.  Adrián and Franky made us feel like they’d miss us and we for sure will miss them.  Franky stayed with us throughout the airport experience to make sure we didn’t have any problems.  Customs in both Cuba and US went without a hitch.  We couldn’t believe how huge the Miami airport is.  The airport was involved in a lightening storm which delayed the flight before ours, but we were less than an hour late getting off and even though we were exhausted when we arrived at 1:30 am (4:30 am to our internal clocks), Kim was right there and got us home safely to our beds.  Hard to believe the adventure is over!