cuban life and lennon statueWe’re sightseeing in Havana. What’s this . . . a public park honoring John Lennon, complete with a life-sized bronze statue? Yep, that John Lennon, the Beatle (who’s music Fidel Castro condemned in the ’60.)

Then there are the homages to Mother Russia’s Cuban years: the plaque honoring Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple executed for spying for Russia; the huge monument to Vladimir Lenin, Communist philosopher and theorist.

As we wind down from shaking hands with John in Parque Lennon, our guide tells us we’re close to her home. Would we like to see it? And meet her daughter?

Her invitation brings back memories of wending through the back alleys of Hanoi into homes of friends of our Vietnamese guide, of eating dinner with his family in his home, of chatting with his wife, father, and son – a real glimpse into life in Hanoi.

Chick here: we’ll peek into the worlds of tour guides in Havana . . . and Hanoi

alonso flag girlSo what are Cuban people like today? After a week’s tour I’m not in a position to make sweeping generalizations. I can at least offer a few experiences.

Our previous blog, Cuba classic cars and the Havana Hustle, reflected our first encounters with Cubans on the streets of Havana. We’re tourists in a country where even professionals have to scrimp and hustle to survive. By virtue of being here, we are rich by local standards.

As tourists, we get hustled and hit up for money here — yes indeed. But I can’t forget that the last time I bought groceries back home in Las Vegas, a woman hot-footed it across the parking lot and asked me for money. And every time I drive in Las Vegas I see disheveled panhandlers on the corners or approaching cars at the stop lights. It’s not just Cuban people; it can happen anywhere.

Our tour is tightly scripted; we don’t have time to spend days wandering Havana’s streets — that’s what I’d need to do to really see the city and meet its people. But even given our short time here, we come away with memories of many more fond encounters than irritating ones.

In this blog, we’ll share some of those encounters with you.

Click here to meet some of the Cubans we met.

Classic Car HustlerDay one in downtown Havana: sightseeing here we come. I’m barely out of the van when a guy waves me over to a gorgeously restored Chevy: a ‘56 Bel Air sports sedan.

“I give you a ride, señor!” He tries to push me inside.

He’s in my face, and I scurry away.

Another local falls in beside me, grinning as if he were a long-lost brother. “Ola, amigo!” As we walk, he scratches out a caricature in his notebook with a felt pen. He finishes, thrusts it at me.

I see glasses and moustache, but nothing else I would recognize in a mirror.

Meanwhile, another dude corners Annie. They’re “Picasso” and “DaVinci,” they say with straight faces, and the bargaining begins.

I know better, but we pony up for their “art” anyway. We’ve been had – fleeced the first morning out. How embarrassing; we’re not newbie tourists!

That was the beginning . . . but it turned out to be the exception. Some Cubans do ask us for money, but quietly; we’re never hassled. Others just want to chat.

Click here to meet the hustlers.

ssst louisCuba seems far removed from the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust.

But here in Havana, the synagogue Templo Sefaradi serves up an excellent exhibit that keeps those memories alive . . . and ties them directly to Cuba.

The exhibit reminds us of the tragedy of 938 Jews who fled Europe in 1939 aboard the St. Louis, a transatlantic ocean liner. Cuban authorities allowed 28 to stay, but turned away the rest – as did the United States. Eventually, 254 of those on the St. Louis were offloaded in Europe, only to lose their lives in the concentration camps.

The Templo Sefaradi exhibit isn’t the only Holocaust memorial in Cuba. In Santa Clara, David Tacher guides us to a small, but powerful memorial in the Jewish cemetery there.For 3 members of our tour group, these memorials unleash family stories of how the Holocaust profoundly affected their very existence.

Click here to read the full blog.

You won’t find Jewish Havana on the Cuban tourist circuit. It’s not even hinted at in Lonely Planet Cuba or Michelin’s Havana must-sees.

No wonder: today, Cuba’s Jewish population is a tenth of what it was in 1959 – an estimated 1,500 (of which 1,100 live in Havana), compared to 15,000 before the revolution. There’s no visible Jewish part of the city, no streets of Jewish merchants. Sounds like anti-Semitism, doesn’t it? But I had a chance to talk with Jewish leaders. Now I’m not so sure.

One thing is clear, though: today, Jewish Havana is thriving. Come with us as we visit Havana’s three synagogues, talk to its leaders, and get a glimpse into both its history and its future.

Join us in our visit to Havana’s three synagogues.

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