It’s the People, People: UWBG Heads to Cuba AGAIN!

July 9th, 2013 by Sarah Reichard

The first time I heard about the plan to issue “People to People” licenses to travel legally to Cuba and have significant interactions with Cuban people, I knew it was something I wanted to do. My memories of hearing about Cuba go back to some of my earliest years.  I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury that first year, was awarded a license, and off flew our intrepid group in 2012.  We met amazing people and had adventures both in Havana and in the nearby countryside and beyond.

KORIMACAO-musicians

Talented young students in the KORIMACOA Project entertain us near The Bay of Pigs

 

During the second year our trip was organized under the auspices of another licensed non-profit called the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. This trip also visited many of the same sites, but we were much more successful at bird-watching on this trip and it was a revelation to me.  Our skilled guides helped us to see more amazing, endemic, birds than I could have ever imagined.

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Miquel Salcines explains about some of the products made at the organic farm near Havana

After I returned from this trip, I thought I would not return for at least a few years. Two years in a row was fun, but there are so many other great places to visit. But – the people I met in Cuba stayed strong in my mind. There was our first guide, Frank, whose mother got him through the starvation of The Special Period by getting him to focus on playing the piano. Our second guide, Yuli, talked frankly about being a young woman growing up after the Revolution. We watched her transform from a city girl who thought nature was icky, to an avid binocular-grasping birder calling out bird names in one afternoon. On both trips, my counterpart at the National Botanical Garden, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, talked with the same passion about “her” Garden as I talk about “mine.” Miquel Salcines and Norma Romero shared with us their stories about how Cuba was forced during The Special Period to embrace the principles of organic gardening, and how their innovative Alamar Organoponic Garden has provided food and so much more to the cooperative.  On this last trip, we met with Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, for a very frank discussion about Cuban-American relations. We saw very talented young people perform at both the Opera de la Calle and the KORIMACAO Project. And the person who returns to my mind most often is a young botanist, Alejandro González Álvarez, at the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture, who was filled with enthusiasm about plants and about the future. He would dearly love to be able to attend botanical conferences and workshops outside of Cuba. I have been unable to make this happen, but I do intend to keep trying.

I left Cuba this year, fully intending to not return for a few years, if at all. But people continued to ask me about whether I was going in 2014 and after a while, I realized that I was not ready to part from these people. One thing that really surprised me was that even though American visitors  to Cuba have greatly increased the last two years, all of these people, and those who stopped us on the streets of Havana, were so excited to meet us and share with us. I was stunned to find that in 2013, the people we had met with in 2012 – even just once – remembered me and were happy to see me return with more people. Our first guide, Frank, recognized me in a restaurant and warmly greeted me. Alejandro wanted to show me things that had changed since my first visit, with great pride.

So… UWBG is going to Cuba in 2014! Come with me and make memories of your own! Enjoy the stories, the plants, gardens, agriculture, birds, and so much more.  But it really is the people that will stay with you, people. Don’t miss this opportunity to share with them on our People-to-People trip. I plan to lead a trip to New Zealand in 2015 and because it would be at about the same time, I really won’t be going back for a while after this.

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Our nature guide in Soroa, Alberto, tries to lure birds by making very realistic calls, while our guide Frank (in red) and members of our tour watch

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Cuba is for the birds!

March 29th, 2013 by Sarah Reichard
Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.

Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.
Despite appearances the Cuban Tody is not related to hummingbirds.

I like to study plants for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is that plants sit very politely waiting for me to come along and find them. And they continue to sit until I am through examining and enjoying them. Birds, on the other hand, must be hunted down and no sooner to you find them, then they fly away without any consideration for my desire to admire them. I enjoy bird-watching, but find it to be very frustrating.

Our 2012 trip to Cuba did nothing to change my opinion. Oh sure, we saw the Cuban Emerald hummingbird, but despite valiant tries, we were unsuccessful at finding the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. One of our group saw the Cuban Parrot, but the rest of us were unsuccessful.

So, while birdwatching was one of our planned activities and I dutifully took my binoculars, I had low expectations. Wow! Was I wrong! We pretty much saw every bird on our list. And I have a new favorite bird, one who totally stole my heart, the Cuban Tody.  That is one adorable bird!

Our bird-watching was supposed to start in Soroa, where we had again engaged a wonderful naturalist named Alberto to lead a walk. Unfortunately, Alberto called in unavailable that morning, and our terrific trip guide, Yuli, made some frantic phone calls and soon we headed to Las Terrazas for a very nice 4.5K hike with a guide named Miquel. That is where I saw my new avian love, the tody (could it not have been given a more suitably adorable name?). It sat over the trail on a branch and sang for us. We also saw the CubanTrogon which is the national bird of Cuba because its colors mimic the colors of the Cuban flag. It is also one good-looking bird. We also saw the Yellow-headed warbler and the Red-legged warbler on this walk.

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Bee Hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae. Photo by jonycunha.
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world.

This walk was not only exciting for me – I think it may have converted Yuli to a nature girl. Before we left Havana she said she was a city girl and did not like the countryside (she specifically mentioned frogs as undesirable denizens of the countryside). But on this walk, she borrowed Miquel’s binoculars and soon was knowledgeably tossing out names of the birds we saw a second time. I teased her later that when she finishes guiding she was going to become an ornithologist.

But our next hike, on the Zapata Peninsula, was truly amazing. When our bus pulled up, our hike guide Orlando, met us and asked if we would like to see the Bee Hummingbird. Seriously? And there they were, swarming around palm flowers. If he could deliver those 60 seconds after we were off the bus, we were in for a great walk! And we were. Later he took us to a stump with a couple of holes, positioned us, and motioned for us to be quiet. He went over the stump and scratched it with his fingernails and out popped a male Screech Owl! After that, he confidently said we would later see the Cuban Pygmy Owl, the smallest owl in the world. I thought to myself that there is no way he could be sure of that and he really should not promise it, but…sure enough, later on he pointed to a branch and there was the owl! I could not see a tether on his leg, so I assume that Orlando had just lived there so long and was such an avid birder, he knew where each individual bird hung out.

Cuban screech owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by lgooch.

Cuban screech owl, Gymnoglaux lawrencii. Photo by lgooch.
The Cuban Screech Owl is found only in Cuba and nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

Cuban pygmy owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by copepodo.
The Cuban Pygmy Owl is the smallest of the world’s 200 owl species.

Another fun bird that we saw here, as well as at our hotel in Soroa, was the Great Lizard Cuckoo. These birds are quite large, with very long tail feathers. The way they move around a tree looks exactly like a squirrel. They were great fun to watch.

As for the rest of the birds we saw in Zapata…all the birds we saw in Las Terrazas (Todys!) but also the Magnolia Warbler in on its winter vacation, the Black-throated Blue Warbler, West Indies Woodpecker, Northern Flickers (looking much like the ones in my garden in Seattle), Zenaida Dove, and so many other species that I don’t have room to write them all.  We did NOT see the Cuban Crow, despite much looking. I guess there is a reason to go back…

I may not shift to studying birds instead of plants, but I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into bird-watching in Cuba. I think I understand now why people work so hard to find those little winged jewels in the trees. And they have so amazing endemic species, found only in Cuba, that it was a real treat to be able to see them.

As we approach one month from our return, I am still pondering what I have learned in my two trips to Cuban. I will try to share my thoughts in the coming week.

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Cuba, Una Vez Más

March 21st, 2013 by Sarah Reichard
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The student musicians at the KORIMACAO Project sang several wonderful songs for us. The singer in red on the left was excellent and would be an easy winner for Cuban Idol, if that existed.

[Note: Because last year I blogged about the various legs of our trip and activities, and this year had many of the same events, I am taking a wider view. However, Joan Wells, one of our 2013 trip members, is blogging about her experience. You might want to follow along for Joan’s vibrant descriptions]

At the end of February, another band of intrepid adventurers joined me for my return trip to Cuba. Since my last reflections on the previous trip, I have continued to read about Cuba and 2012 previous travelers have had two reunions and traded numerous emails and articles about this fascinating and confusing country. I was very curious to see what my reactions would be for this trip.

What was the same? We went to many of the same places and heard from many of the same people. Even when there were different people, the impressions were often the same. For instance, I was again impressed with the musical abilities of so many people. Again, we almost always had live music in restaurants and it was common on the streets. Last year we saw a rehearsal by a very talented group of young people at the KORIMACAO Project in Zapata. We did enjoy them again this year, but we also saw a powerful performance in Havana of the Opera de la Calle. This mix of professional and amateur artists has a great musical show that starts out telling the story of Cuba in Spanish, and then somewhat surreally breaks into “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (in English), as shown in this video from a previous performance. Following that song, they moved into a beautiful rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is always a powerful song, but tears came to my eyes when the Cuban singer looked out into the small, almost entirely American audience and sang:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace”

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After a fun but soggy hike through the clinging mud of Mil Cumbres, our group attempts to scrap about 50 collective pounds of mud off of our boots.

Indeed. Imagine what these young people’s lives could be. Should be. I never understood that song more than in that minute. Imagine what the last two generations of Cubans could have become and done if U.S. and Cuban politics had not hijacked their options.

 

The beauty of the country is also unchanged. Havana has marvelous colonial architecture in states between ruins to restoration. The countryside is still gorgeous, even though we had some very Seattle-ish rainy weather while we were in the countryside. Everyone’s spirits were up and no one complained, though hiking in red Mil Cumbres mud resulted in impressive accumulations of mud on our boots, leading us to drag our feet like we were wearing 10 lb. ankle weights. I had particularly been looking forward to seeing ethereal Viñales again and sharing it with the group. It was still beautiful, but our desire to explore the town and surrounding areas was…dampened.

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Beautiful Viñales in the sunshine, 2012

 

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Beautiful Viñales in the rainy mist, 2013

What was different? It is a little hard to say, but it seemed like Cubans felt more comfortable with us. I did not sense the anxiety about tips from our group. Yes, they wanted and needed them, but it seemed like they were less concerned that they might not get them. They seemed more giving in talking about the political situation there. Perhaps less concerned about the consequences of being frank with us?

One notable discussion was arranged by our travel partner organization, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. Our speaker was a retired former diplomat for the Cuban government, with friends obviously in high places. We had a very open discussion about the rights and wrongs of both the Cuban and American governments over the past 50 years and beyond. Last year we danced around the subject of the Cuban Five and Alan Gross, but here we laid out the arguments. I felt emboldened to raise the issue about the lack of free press and access of almost everyone to the Internet (there are no Internet cafes and even at our very nice Havana hotel, the Internet was not available most of the time we were there, and out of the price range for ordinary Cubans). He quickly agreed with me that Cuba will not advance without either and surprised us by saying that since he is retired, he also no longer has access to the Internet! Imagine that – we have smart phones that allow us to access the Internet anywhere, but in Cuba even retired government officials have limited access to it. That we were even having this conversation, however, made me hopeful for their future.

There are still lessons we can learn from them, however. The visit to the Alamar Organoponic Gardens and the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture [note that I am not linking you to the actual institutional websites because they do not have them] was again inspirational. Their practical attitude about food security and food sovereignty may have been born of necessity from The Special Period but it is taking them in a direction we could learn from. And at Las Terrazas, we heard from the Director of the field station that they have 30 years of data about the phenology (timing of plant flowering, leaf growth, etc.) that gives them a good record for tracking climate change. Not many places here have that.

On this trip we also had a wonderful time bird-watching. Bee hummingbird? Cuban tody? Pygmy owl? Sí!  More about that next…

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Explore Ecuador & Galapagos: UWBG Study Tour

September 12th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard

We are pleased to announce a UWBG trip to the place where Darwin first developed his ideas about evolution – the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador.

Photo credit: Claudiah

Photo credit: Claudiah

Join Director Sarah Reichard for a trip June 5-19, 2013, as we explore the Quito Botanical Garden, hike trails in the Amazon, and explore the Galápagos Islands on a yacht. We will see the birds and tortoises that inspired Darwin and climb the volcanoes of the Islands. For more information review the itinerary . To sign up for the trip or to receive more information,  you can register at Holbrook Travel. The deadline for booking the trip has been extended until all spaces on the tour boat are filled.

A portion of the tour fee is a tax-deductible donation to the Education program at UWBG.

Mockingbird photo by Reinier Munguia

Sea lion by Reinier Munguia

Pinnacle Rock photo by Reinier Munguia


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Travels to Cuba – Reflections on a Resilient Country

April 11th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard
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A tobacco worker takes a break by a curing shed. Photo by Stephen Wescott

We have been back from Cuba for about a month and I am still sorting it out in my head. As I said before, it is a far more complicated place than I expected to find. My fellow adventurers continue to email new articles and books they are finding about Cuba, suggesting that they also are trying to reconcile what we experienced.

What do I mean? Well, for starters, this is a communist country, right? I am not a terribly political person, but my understanding of communism is that the state owns everything, and the state redistributes the wealth. People work for the state and the state provides for their needs. That might work IF there is wealth. But what if the country is not wealthy, has few lucrative exports, is relatively small, and has 11 million citizens? Then the wealth that is redistributed to the many citizens is insufficient to support their basic needs. Oh, but what if there is another communist country that is able to provide support, especially when the first country is strategically located near the second country’s greatest enemy? That can work! But then the first country relies on the second country, and when IT then experiences problems…the first country is last in line for the support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, that prop was gone and Cuba crashed into its “Special Period,” which is a strange way of labeling a time when people were starving. In more recent times, Venezuela and China have helped, but clearly this is not a sustainable solution.

Many people will cite the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba as the source of the problems. While that has certainly not helped the Cuban economy, they do have other trading partners and they do, actually, receive imports from the U.S. – one report claims that the U.S. is the 5th largest exporter to Cuba. One Cuban tourism professional we talked with said that the embargo should be lifted, but a lift of travel restrictions would do more to help the average Cuban.

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A driver leans on his taxi. Photo by Stephen Wescott

The increase in tourism is helping. We found ourselves tipping everyone, including professionals such as architects and biologists for the park system. It felt strange to be tipping people I consider my peers, and it may have been strange for them to be accepting them, but it is survival. I have been told that professionals such as doctors and biologists are giving up their jobs to drive taxis, to enable them to get tips from tourists. The more recent ability to take in paying guests into homes, or open private restaurants is an acknowledgement that the state payments to their workers is insufficient to sustain them.

The Cubans we met were very friendly and happy to see Americans. Martha was greeted warmly by this cigar salesman. Photo courtesy of Martha Clatterbaugh

Despite their at least implicit acknowledgement that the current system does not work, the people we talked with about these subjects are very resistant to any sort of outside interference. After learning more about the Bay of Pigs incident, I can completely understand it. But without a free press, how do you know what is inside, and what is outside, interference? For instance, our guide, Frank, was very adamant that a well-known dissident blogger from Cuba was supported by Cuban exiles’ (so now American) money and therefore suspect. When I asked him how, without a free press, he could be sure of that, he sort of admitted that he couldn’t.

 

 

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Travels to Cuba – More Adventures in the Countryside!

March 30th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard
Mil Cumbres photo

Our guide leans against the very rare Microcycas calocoma

(click photos to see full size image)

We were privileged to go to an “ecologically protected area” known as Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). Our bus wound its way up a very rough dirt road (though our expert driver, Miquel, did a fantastic job of missing the giant potholes) to the field station. The area of Mil Cumbres is geologically varied, including large patches of serpentine soil. Serpentine rocks have a low calcium to magnesium ration and may have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other soils. Because of this, plants that grow on the soils are often highly specialized and endemic (found only there) to the region. In Mil Cumbres, there is a very high concentration of endemics, including Microcycas calocoma, a cycad found only in this area. There are only about 600 plants of this species – the only species in its genus – and we took a short hike along a lovely stream to see one. This forest was probably the best of the ones we visited, but even it was severely fragmented, with agricultural fields and houses throughout it.

 

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Ted and Iris celebrate their anniversary as the musicians play

We returned to the field station to find that a wonderful lunch had been placed for us. As with all our meals, local musicians played. This group was unusual because they included a flute player and most of their songs appeared to be original. We bought all the CDs they had. This was Iris and Ted Wagner’s wedding anniversary and the band played a special romantic song while they danced.

 

We left Mil Cumbres to head to Viñales, a lovely town that one of our group called “the La Connor of Cuba” (for readers not from Washington, La Connor is a scenic town north of Seattle that is a popular stop for tourists). The valley surrounding the town was incredibly beautiful, surrounded by mogotes, which are steep, flat-topped hills created by eroding limestone. We had several activities there, including visiting a garden created mostly by two sisters who lived there their entire lives and who had an interesting habit of placing doll heads throughout the garden. Over time, the hair on the dolls decayed, leaving a somewhat frightening discovery for the unprepared. The sisters grew many ornamentals there, but also fruit and other food plants, which they sold. As with all the gardens and hikes we took in Cuba, our guide was very knowledgeable about the medicinal qualities of the plants. In the absence of adequate medicines, Cubans have been very resourceful with traditional cures.

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The beautiful valley of Viñales

Note the dolls ahead in the garden in Viñales

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Our guide rests in the tobacco curing house. Photo by Martha Clatterbaugh.

This is also a big tobacco growing area and we visited a tobacco farm. About 90% of the harvest goes to the government, but farmers can keep 10% for their own use. The tobacco was being harvested and we visited the curing shed. The farmer explained that the leaves cure slowly in the shed and that they are sprayed regularly with water containing honey, guava, sugar, and/or rum every few days. As they cure, workers – mostly women – sort the leaves according to their qualities. Different qualities of leaf are desirable for the wrapper of the cigars, to add different flavors and aromas, etc. We then went to another area where he demonstrated how to roll a cigar and most of us shared one (possibly the source of the cold we all left Cuba with!).  You do not inhale cigar smoke, but savor the flavors in your mouth. It was interesting, but I don’t think I need to do it again.

 

The Valle de Viñales may have been my favorite part of the trip, but our last stop might be the most memorable. We traveled to the Zapata Peninsula, where there is a national park to preserve birds (65% of Cuba’s 354 bird species can be found there), as well as 1000 species of plants and 37 species of reptiles, including the Cuban Crocodile. Our hotel was on the Bay of Pigs and many of us swam in the shallow waters. The Bay of Pigs was the site of an attempted invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Castro was warned and prepared to repel the invasion at Playa Larga, which is where our hotel was located. It was not a good event in Cuban and American relations and it was so interesting to stand there and try to imagine it unfolding.

 

Our group stands in front of the Bay of Pigs, along with our Cuban guide, Frank (wearing red) and our driver Miquel (kneeling, in a tie). Photo by Steve Westcott

That night we attended an outdoor stage rehearsal of a group called the Korimacao Community Project. Young people from the area are selected and trained by well-known musical, dancing, and acting professionals. We were very impressed by their talent and it was fun to see the directors putting the students through their paces. There were some very talented young people – if they had more opportunity to travel, I have no doubt that some of them would be successful on a world stage.

 

We had only one night at Playa Larga and the next day, after a short hike to see some of the local birds, we headed back to Havana for a last chance to get souvenirs and for a very good dinner at an upscale private restaurant in the upscale section of town called Miramar.

 

As we prepared to leave Cuba – a place most of us never thought we would have the opportunity to visit – we reflected on our impressions. We had come with expectations and some of them were met (cool old cars everywhere!), but others were more…complicated. Complicated is a word that comes to mind often when contemplating modern Cuba. It is less than a month after we left, and I am still sorting it out in my head. I will try to pin some of these thoughts down in another message.

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Travels to Cuba – Seeing the Countryside

March 22nd, 2012 by Sarah Reichard
Mercury car photo

A typical street scene in Havana. Note the Mercury in the front of the line – it is the same color as my old car, but I think it is a couple of years older. Also note the pedicabs.

We headed out of Havana early on a Sunday morning. This was really our first look at the countryside, and at the transportation system. The stories about huge numbers of old American cars from the 1950s? All true! Under Cuban law, cars registered after the 1959 revolution could not be bought or sold, though that is changing. The result is that those who had a car hung onto it and tried to keep it running, passing it down as an inheritance. Many of the cars we saw are Frankencars, with parts from various cars slapped together. Some were well-tended, others looked like they were held together with rust, and it was not uncommon to see one of them along the roadside with the hood up.  I was on the lookout for a ’56 Mercury Monterey, like my grandmother’s old car that I drove in high school. Chevys seem to be the most common but I did see Mercurys, as well as just about any other model you can imagine.

Cuban "bus" photo

These flatbed trucks, loaded with standing passengers, are a typical “bus” that moves people in the countryside between towns.

Only about 1% of Cuban people own cars, so other forms of transportation are common too. We saw lots of bicycles, including pedicabs. There were lots of horses with buggies too, especially as we got outside the city. We saw some recognizable buses, packed with people, but in the rural provinces, it is common to see people standing, jammed into the back of an open-air truck. In the countryside we also saw an interesting sight – most vehicles are owned by the state and at key intersections in the small towns we passed we observed an official dressed all in yellow stopping cars and trucks. Our guide, Frank, explained that all state vehicles had to give rides to citizens going in the same direction, so the man in yellow was coordinating ride-sharing.

Our first stop that Sunday was at the National Botanical Garden. The director, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, gave us a lecture on the plants and vegetation zones of Cuba that was very helpful in our interpreting what we saw on our later hikes. One of her staff then joined us on the bus as we toured the Garden. It is HUGE – about 600 hectares (1480 acres) so we only saw a small bit of it in our tour. Probably the most impressive part was the palm collection. They have over 200 species in their collection, making it one of the largest in the world. They also have a really lovely greenhouse area. Following our tour we went to their open air restaurant and had a wonderful buffet lunch – one of the best meals we had in Cuba! Many of our meals were short on fresh fruits and vegetables and this lunch had various salads and a large fruit plate.

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We prepare to enter the beautiful greenhouse at the National Botanical Garden

 

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The community at Las Terrasas includes apartment buildings and small, but neat, duplexes set on hillsides

Our day was just beginning though – from the Garden we traveled west to see the community of Las Terrazas located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the Pinar del Rio province. French coffee farmers arrived early in the 19th century and there were more than 50 plantations in the area.  These plantations were later abandoned and erosion became a problem. Beginning in 1968, the hillsides were terraced (Las Terrazas means terraces) and reforested with 8 million trees. In 1985 the area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. Such Reserves allow some development within and Las Terrazas is designed as a sustainable community and ecotourism center. We visited a restored coffee plantation and then went to the small community, where we visited the homes of two local artists. The homes were small, but very nice and the community seemed vibrant, with children and chickens roaming around.  We visited their small coffee bar where we were treated to excellent espresso drinks. The community seemed very peaceful – they take great pride in retaining the natural, social, and cultural heritage of the area.

Leaving Las Terrazas, we traveled to our hotel near Soroa, a sprawling set of buildings on hillsides. In the center was a very large pool, which became of focus on interest on the next couple of toasty afternoons. The hotel is right next to an orchid garden that is now run as a research center by the University of Pinar del Rio. The garden was originally built by a wealthy man, starting in 1948, who then gave it to the University. It is a set on a steep hillside, like my own garden, so I was really interested in how it was terraced to provide planting areas. Most of the building material appeared to be native limestone. There were more than 700 species of orchids, begonias, and other types of flowering plants. Our guide took us up the hill to the house, where we sat on the terrace, listened to musicians, and had refreshments, including fresh coconut water.

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The orchid garden at Soroa includes an amazing infrastructure made of limestone

We also enjoyed a short hike while in Soroa, but the best hike of the trip was on the next leg of our journey, which we visited the “ecologically protected” area of Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). More about that coming up!

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The Adventure Begins – Travels to Cuba

March 13th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard

It has been less than a week since we left Cuba and has started to seem like a dream.  This is probably in part because most of us came down with a hellish cold the day we left and have spent these few days back in a feverish and dazed condition. But it is also because the experience of immersing ourselves in a world so different from our daily lives has made the transition back more intense than after some trips.

As I expected, the internet access in Havana was spotty and in the other parts of the country we visited, non-existent. I will post a few blog entries over the next week or so that reflects our travels.

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The beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, our home in Havana on the Plaza San Francisco de Asis. Some of our group is loitering outside.

We met up in the wee hours (5:30 am) on Feb. 23 to get to the Miami airport and complete all the paperwork to get our visas for Cuba. After spending time standing in this line, and then that, we were on the flight to Cuba! The plane had hardly gone up before it came down, underscoring how close Cuba is to southern Florida. We straggled out of the baggage claim to meet Frank Alpizar, who would be our able guide for the next 10 days. We checked into the beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, a former mansion that has been remodeled into an excellent hotel. The location was fabulous, right on the San Francisco de Asis Square in old Havana. After our first meal of many to consist of white rice, black beans, and our choice of chicken, fish, or pork (pretty much every lunch and dinner followed this formula), we had the afternoon free to explore the old town.

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A view into a courtyard in old Havana. Photo by Steve Westcott

Old Havana is beautiful and sad all at once. It is filled with ornate colonial buildings in various conditions. Some, like our hotel, were beautifully restored. Others are in such disrepair that is hard to believe that people live in them, but in most cases they are indeed lived in. Many of the buildings use the typical Spanish concept of an interior courtyard, and peeking in the open doors of some showed a nice space in a few, and crowded and, well, squalid conditions in others. The many plazas in the area were filled with kids playing games, indicating that families lived in these homes.

The unusual living conditions in Havana were displayed in the most bizarre and almost hallucinatory terms when we visited the private restaurant, La Guarida, for dinner one night. We drove in the bus to a neighborhood of decaying, but formerly glorious, buildings. The restaurant is on the fourth floor of a beautiful old mansion that was the location of the Oscar-nominated movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” We hiked over marble floors and up stairs lined with wrought iron railings, and had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards, we descended down a different set of stairs and found ourselves in what seemed to be a former ballroom.

Lisa and Nevada dance in the old balllroom downstairs from La Guarida, with an audience of not only our group, but small children who live off of the room.

Lisa and Nevada began waltzing and I attempted to take a few photos. As I did this, I realized that there were a couple of toddlers watching us through an open door of a small room opening onto the ballroom that was the home of their family. As we left the building, I realized that other families also were living in small areas carved out of this once grand estate now visited by tourists rich enough to afford a meal they could never aspire to. It felt surreal.

Our time in Havana was busy. We visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture where we heard a presentation on their programs and had a brief tour. They have been around for 108 years but it seemed clear that they lack the resources to as effective as they could be in providing assistance to Cuban farmers. They seem to have a strong program in plant pathology, but their labs need much upgrading.

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This is a typical scene – with one building at least partially restored, but the adjoining building uninhabitable. The old car is also typical – more about that later.

One of the standouts of our trip to Havana was the visit with Miquel Salcines, a Cuban agronomist who started Alamar Organoponic Gardens during the “Special Period.”  These thriving gardens were an inspiration in urban agriculture. Mr. Salcines provided some interesting background, including that before the Special Period 80% of the food was grown in non-urban areas, with large inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and now 80% is grown organically in urban areas. They went organic, in part, because no other means were available to them and they had to go back to the “old way” of doing things. These food cooperatives provide good working conditions and workers have access to food, loans, education, and payments for shares that accumulate over the time with the cooperatives. The Seattle area is striving for greater food security and there are many lessons to be learned in Havana.

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Miquel Salcines talks about the practices of the Alamar Organoponic Gardens.

Many of us chose to go see the Buena Vista Social Club on our final night on this first part of the trip. I saw the famous Oscar-winning documentary not that long ago and recognized some of the performers from the film, though many of them are now deceased. It was a fun show and a good way to end the first phase of the trip.  The next day we set off to explore some of the countryside. Stay tuned for more on that.

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The farm is managed using traditional practices. The fields are plowed using oxen.


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UWBG Goes to Cuba!

February 22nd, 2012 by Sarah Reichard

I was a very small child during the Cuban Missile Crisis but I was old enough to know that my parents were quite upset about something. I knew what “bomb” meant and when I heard that word I was very frightened. It is, in fact, one of my earliest memories. I am from the generation that grew up with families installing bomb shelters and in school we used to have drills where we “ducked and covered” in the hallway (I am not sure just how that was supposed to help in case of a nuclear bomb).Cuba image

But even as a child, I knew that there was more to Cuba. Its history is fascinating, with stories of the original inhabitants, the Arawak people, emerging from their villages in 1492 to greet Christopher Columbus with gifts of thread and parrots. Sadly, his log also notes on October 14th that they apparently had little notion of fighting and he was able to capture seven to bring to back to Europe.

Cuba then became a Spanish colony for hundreds of years until the Spanish-American War lead to withdrawal of the Spanish in 1898 and the establishment of an independent government in 1902. It is interesting that the United States fought for Cuban independence but then just a few decades later, became completely estranged amid hostilities. It just underscores the complicated nature of our relationship with our close neighbor to the south.
As a forbidden place, it holds allure. We hear stories about the classic old cars still in use because new cars are not an option. In school we learned about the Cuban revolution, Batista, Castro, and “Che” Guevara. There have been air and boat lifts of refuges in the news periodically. The country seems beautiful, mysterious, adventurous, and tragic all at once.

In the early to mid 1990s, after the collapse Cuba imageof the Soviet Union, Cubans entered their “Special Period.” This time may illustrate the resilience of the Cuban people more than almost any other time in their tumultuous history. Without the input of petroleum from the Soviet Union, and faced with hunger and enormous deprivation, Cubans demonstrated their resourcefulness. They learned to live with reduced transportation and completely overhauled their agricultural systems, using fewer tractors and fertilizers produced from petroleum products. They developed a creative organic agricultural system that included not only fields of crops, but urban agriculture in vacant lots and rooftops.

When President Obama lifted some travel restrictions, allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba on a special license, and when a representative of Holbrook Travel, the company that UWBG worked with last year to offer atour of Chile, mentioned that they were able to organize these tours, I jumped in! I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury for one of their “People to People” licenses and, after waiting, providing more information, and waiting some more, it was granted.

Holbrook has planned a wonderful trip for us. We will be visiting botanic gardens, meeting their staff and scientists and consulting with some of the urban farmers in Havana to learn how they make the most of every square inch they farm. I am really looking forward to our visit to the Zapata National Park, which is part of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where we will be guided on a walk by a professor from the University of Las Villas. In addition to the great plants and animals we will see, I am looking forward to the walking tour of Old Havana, seeing those old cars (and maybe a ’56 Mercury Monterey – my grandmother’s car that I drove in high school!), and maybe going out to hear some Cuban music.

I am not expecting to be able to send emails from Cuba, so I won’t be able to blog from there, but when I return in early March I will describe some of our adventures. So don’t go too far!

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Summer Greetings from Director Sarah Reichard

August 25th, 2011 by Sarah Reichard

Summer color at the Center for Urban Horticulture

Summer Greetings  from UW Botanic Gardens!  I hope you are having a wonderful (if somewhat delayed) summer, filled with the joy of the season.  I invite you to come visit us as often as you can – the gardens and natural areas we manage are free to all, so whether it’s respite and relaxation you seek, a quiet walk in the woods, the beauty of what’s blooming, a guided kayak tour of Foster Island, or the splendid colors of fall, UW Botanic Gardens offers you magnificent nature experiences year-round.

I also invite you to continue your support to UWBG, joining us in our goal to promote an educated, inspired, and engaged society, dedicated to sustainable ecosystems.  Together we can do great things to safeguard the health of our environment, restore damaged ecosystems, and preserve valuable species for generations to come.  Now, more than any time in the recent past, your support is vitally needed as state funding continues to decline, resulting in a continued reduction of staff. Consider giving a gift to UWBG via the UW Foundation’s secure website.

Read the rest of Director Reichard’s letter to friends of UWBG.

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