Ole! When I opened up my San Francisco Chronicle one day, lo and behold I found an advertisement saying “Join the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce exclusive nine-day, eight night guided Cultural Exchange Trip to Havana, Cuba.” Having always been interested in countries that have heretofore been closed to public scrutiny, this piqued my antennae. Before long, I had enrolled in the group, accompanied by a dozen other equally curious friends and off we went. Entrance to Cuba from America is supposedly still limited to special interest groups, but I’ve noticed that many of your well-known travel tour companies, including Tauck Tours and National Geographic Company, are now advertising their own educational trips. This SF Chamber of Commerce group was authorized and arranged by Californians Building Bridges (CBB), which Founder Darius Anderson, explains coordinates programs of educational activities focused on providing meaningful cultural exchanges between the group and individuals in Cuba. Mr. Anderson for the past 10 years has provided visitors with many opportunities to participate in government-sanctioned travels to Cuba in his quest to share his own passion for the culture of Cuba through the CBB, which was founded on the principle of joining together communities.
Unfortunately only two members of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce were on this trip: Mr. Joe Alexandro and Mr. John Gumas. I had the opportunity to speak with John Gumas, who with his wife and young daughter, said they found the people and life in Cuba interesting but admittedly, in a time warp where nothing had been done to maintain the once beautiful architecture of the country. In my own mind, it was as if a country stood still for half a century, and all of its once physical beauties, whether it be in the buildings, streets, homes and businesses, were sorely in need of revitalization and maintenance. Yet, the people seemed happy and content in spite of the fact we were told their average salary was under $50 a month.
One of our People to People exchange program goals was to see the new reviving art scene of Havana, so a highlight was visiting the home of Jose Fuster, the much revered Cuban artist known for his creations of ceramic mosaic folkloric art. Located on a very unobtrusive street surrounded by crumbling buildings, Fuster’s home is eye-blinding as every wall, turret, rooftop and stairway is plastered with bas-relief ceramic mosaic works in bright colorful designs. The very friendly artist seemed to enjoy our company as our 55 member group ate dinner in his patio area accompanied by the music played by active musicians and singers of the latest Cuban songs. If you’d ever seen Barcelona’s famed artist Gaude’s works, this is much the same, and I note that everyone who visits Havana is treated to a Fuster home visit, so he must be their national art hero.
Second celebrity of Havana was Ernest Hemingway so a visit to Finca La Vigia where Hemingway wrote many of his best-known novels from 1939-1960 was another notable stop. His boat, Pilar, was on view where he spent many a fishing excursion, supposedly when his writing juices had wrung dry. We next visited the nearby fishing village Cojimar that was the inspiration for his well known “The Old Man and the Sea”. Not much improvement or renovations since the 1960 era had been done to the buildings, so presumably Cojimar is still the same as when Hemingway visited there, with a 50 year span of deterioration added on.
Music is everywhere in Cuba, and when you walk through Old Havana, you can hear it coming from every restaurant or side street. We got a glimpse of what Cuba in its musical heyday must have been like when we saw the world famous cabaret show at the Tropicana, a six-acre suburban estate which was originally launched in 1939. The production had over 100 dancers, singers and musicians on vast stages in lavish colorful costumes, no doubt exemplifying the splashy shows and life styles of Cuba’s rich and famous in its yesteryears before the Castro regime. At our Melia Cohiba hotel, the jazz bar had nightly performers, and at an adjacent supper club, the Havana Club, there were cabaret shows, much like the variety shows of an era ago, consisting of long legged scantily dressed show girls, men and women singers, an orchestra like in the Big Band days, and a comedian or magician thrown in.
Howard Seto and Calvin Wong liked riding in the Cuban taxis, which were our American cars of the 1950-60’s varieties, like the old Buicks and Chevy Bel Aires with their back wings and convertible tops, with a Nash thrown in once in a while. Hawaiian travelers Sylvia and Sandy Young, Kathleen Wong and Lorene Yoshimura enjoyed shopping at the San Jose Arts and Crafts Market, once an outdoor crafts area, but now housed in a large building with multi-booths selling artware, clothes, miniature cars made from tin cans, crochet works, necklaces and bracelets made from twisted silver forks, and many wooden carvings and costumed dolls. Lane and Pauline Lee and Phyllis and Steven Gee enjoyed our dinner at the Guarida Restaurant, housed in an old once elaborate three-story mansion (naturally, no elevator!). Sherwin and Margaret Louie and Victor and Diane Jin enjoyed dining in one of Cuba’s famed Paladar restaurants, the Vista Mar. Paladars are private homes where the owners have turned part of it into an income-generating restaurant. Vista Mar is one of the oldest Palamars of Havana, owned by the same family and opened in the mid-90s. San Franciscans Ivan Valencia and Roger Salazar enjoyed exploring the different Cuban cuisines.
In every country in the world, there is always a Chinatown of some sorts, and Havana’s is only a one block filled with 5 restaurants, although there is a large Chinese style concrete archway and a smaller wooden arch signifying where a bustling community once lived.
We met Senora Tao Qi, owner of the Tien Tan Restaurant, who opened it some 10 years ago with husband Roberto Vargas Lee, who is a well known master in Cuba for his wushi schools with over 1500 students studying kung fu. I must say her Chinese food was pretty good with a tasty won ton noodle soup on her menu. She said she goes to Miami monthly to pick up supplies for two restaurants she runs.
In retrospect, I would say that when visiting Cuba, one must be prepared for oftentimes changes in itinerary, scheduled speakers, inexperienced guides, and time frames unlike our American schedules, where restaurants and night clubs don’t open until late in the evenings. The scars of the revolution, communist release and attempt at socialization are still visible and it will be many years of catch-up before Havana can achieve the life style she historically once had. There will have to be a major remodeling job on its once glorious architecture, which have become dilapidated, crumbling and unsightly fixer-upper buildings sadly in need of a can of paint. I said the same thing when I visited China in 1976 and look what in 35 years has transpired in China. I wonder if this tiny island of Cuba will have the same destiny!
Hawaii at Its Best
Across the Pacific is another world – but no doubt Oahu was an underdeveloped little island some 100 years ago, but today, it is abound with high rises and a Waikiki area filled with luxury shopping, street vendors and hordes of tourists from all over the world.
We escaped over to the Ko Olina Resort, which is spread over 640 acres along the sunny western shores of Oahu. There we met Greg Nichols, Director of Golf, who welcomed us to his Ted Robinson golf course and award-winning golf shop. He greeted us next to the life sized golfer statues at the entrance-way, and explained to me the legend of Ko Olina’s famed Ladybug symbol. He advised me that if a ladybug landed on my shoulder, I should sweet talk her to my finger and with a gentle breath, send her off so that then Lady Luck will lead me to the cup and success on the course. I think Lady Luck is just with anyone who is privileged to play the Ko Olina Course with its cascading waterfalls and picturesque ocean location overlooking Oahu’s leeward coastline. Greg previously was managing director of Wailae Country Club for many years, so self admits he is a tried and true Hawaiian native now, claiming life there is the best!
On the other side of Oahu is the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club, formerly Luana Hills, which had a reputation for being too difficult for the average golfer, according to Director Darrin Sumimoto. So they hired Greg Norman to realign the course to make it more golfer-friendly and presently visitors have logged in over 20,000 rounds of golf already. Darrin practically grew up on the course, and remembers playing on the land before it even became a course. He admits he started work there at the very bottom over 17 years ago, and is happy to be managing it while its new design will soon make it the best in the area. I loved the new design, Darrin, which has lessened the horrid force carries, and made the course so much more playable for we women!
`For Oahu’s nightlife, the new Lani Misalucha Show was a fast-paced mixture of songs with Ms Lani showing off her five-octave range and impressions of Tina Turner and Celine Dion. She sings from opera to rock and roll standards, and brings Las Vegas to Waikiki at the Magic of Polynesia Showroom at the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort. If you’re tired of hula dancers, this talented lady is not your traditional luau entertainment.
Golf being one of my passions, as most readers have guessed, it was fun meeting Regional Manager for Billy Casper Golf in Hawaii and Asia-Pacific Ed Kageyama and his associate Melissa Ludwig. Ed is a man of many faces. He not only oversees the 36 hole facility I recently played, the Kaanapali Golf Courses in Maui, he’s VP of 808GOLF.COM, a website that reports on local golf events and widely used as a golf guide. In spite of all of his world travels in the golf world, his proudest moments, he said, is coaching the Punahou School Girls H.S. Golf Team which is the five-time defending State Champs, but he was too modest to tell me that for the past 5 years he has also won the ILH Coach of the Year Title. With Hawaii being definitely one of the most popular golf destinations in the world, it was quite an honor to have Golf Inc. Magazine in 2010 name Ed as one of the top 20 Most Admired Golf Operators in the World. My golf visor’s off to you, Ed. When can I play one of your courses in Asia, eh?
Hawaiian hospitality is always what makes visiting the Islands such a pleasure, so it was fun seeing old friends Larry Tseu, Ed and Leilani Keough, Myrna Chun Hoon, Rodney and Marvey Pang, Sarah and Alvin Kan, Bunny and Larry Look, Hunky and Jeanette Pang, Ed and Margaret Lee, Lloyd and Geri Wong, Dickson and Marilyn Lee, Don and Jeanette Wong. Aloha – till we meet again.