In Havana, we exchanged the exterior sounds of the rooster in Santa Clara, with the sounds of cars in the busy city streets. This morning we had time to take in the spectacular view that we had of Havana and the ocean from our hotel rooms. Havana is the capital of Cuba and the largest city, with 2.1 million residents.
Our first hotel in Cienfuegos, Hotel Jagua, was owned by the Hilton chain of hotels. Our current Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, was also previously owned by the Hilton hotel chain. Before the US sanctions, and the Cuban reactions to those sanctions, there were many American-owned hotels in Havana – America’s playground only 75 miles south of Florida. At some point, Fidel Castro and the Cuban government told all the American hotels to leave Cuba. In Cuba, no one owns the land as it is a communist state, so when the government usurps one’s property, one has no recourse. Now, local hotel chains have taken over all the previously American owned-hotel properties. These properties are still among the best in Cuba!
I must confess in all the international tours that the choir has taken over the years, and there have been many, this has been the greatest challenge to acquire a good Internet connection. In America, some believe that free Wi-Fi is almost an inalienable right! No one has been able to get any Wi-Fi signals in their hotel rooms. All guests must go to the lobby to acquire the network connection. One must purchase Internet cards at a rate anywhere between $2-$5 per hour with a discrete username and password. Once connected, one would notice speeds similar to dial-up twenty years ago when the Internet first began. When I have attempted to send emails home, I could not tell whether the email was sent or not, needless to say, you may have seen multiple transmissions for some day’s account of our tour. Certain websites (Google apps, YouTube, Banking sites, etc.) are not allowed in Cuba. Forget trying to use VOIP apps to call home via the Internet, as this was not possible. The only wireless carrier that is supposed to work is Verizon Wireless, however the rates are $2.99 per minute for phone calls and $2.05 per Megabyte for data. By just downloading a few emails in a minute or so, you could amass a bill of over a thousand dollars!
Another Cuban departure from American hotels is the lack of the hotel gym. Given all the food that we were eating, a hotel gym could have been put to good use. Although every hotel had a swimming pool, the hours to access the pool were generally not very compatible with our itinerary, open 9-5 or 10-7.
At 10:30 a.m. we left for our last cultural exchange, at the house of the National Choir of Havana. We imagined that the event would be similar to the previous cultural exchanges; however, today the Havana choir, Coro Entrevoces, did not meet with us until our sound check later that afternoon at the theatre. During our exchange, the very fine director of the national choir, Maestra Digna Guerra, worked directly with the Morgan choir on our songs in Spanish. She gave some great comments on Spanish pronunciation and pointers on sound production. During a tour of the facility, we discovered that there were at least five choirs in residence. We got a chance to hear one of the choirs sing the American classic, Shenandoah, as well as a complicated Cuban song arranged for choir. The choirs were very well trained.
From the exchange, we received a quick bus tour of Havana, driving through the most famous sections. We saw a neighborhood next to the ocean named Miramar, which means looking at the sea, with beautiful homes. We saw their version of our Embassy row, where rather than the US Embassy being the largest, the Russian Embassy was enormous in a brutalism style – reinforced concrete. Havana’s Fifth Avenue is not like the US version with upscale retail stores, but upscale residences! From there we went to unique a attraction called Fusderland. An artist named Fusder adorned an entire set of buildings and furniture with mosaic tiles. The sight was fantastic – very amusement park-like! We could only think of a former choir member, Loring Cornish who similarly adorned his Baltimore home with tiles of glass. It was well worth the visit to this community. We then visited the Plaza de la Revolución, which is a gigantic square where many political rallies have been held over the years. Fidel Castro spoke here for many political rallies over the years.
Although I do not smoke, and certainly not cigars, one cannot visit Cuba and not pick up an authentic Cuban cigar or two. We visited the Corona cigar factory and many purchased a couple of cigars for personal use, or for gifts to cigar smokers back home who asked to bring back a couple of genuine Cuban cigars.
Although the pacing of this tour has been more reasonable than some other tours, (China comes to mind where we had to walk up to the top and back of the great wall of China), most are still generally exhausted from all the touring in the Cuban heat. We returned to the hotel for a short rest prior to our dress rehearsal at the Havana theatre.
After our sound check and short rehearsal with the other Havana choir at the National Theatre of Havana, we went to our farewell dinner. Originally, our concert was planned for a smaller room in the National Theatre, however, due to the interests in our concerts from the Cubans, our concert was moved to the largest hall in the venue, the García Lorca Room in the Gran Teatro de La Habana which seats 1,147. As a result of the change in venue our concert was moved from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. forcing us to have the farewell dinner prior to our concert.
The farewell dinner has always been the best meal of the tour over the years, and this meal did not disappoint. The farewell dinner was held at the National hotel of Cuba on the waterfront. It turns out the moving the meal earlier was better because we could see the ocean from our tables at dinner with plenty of light. Around the hotel premises were several peacocks with beautiful wings displayed. The food was great and typically Cuban. We all will miss this Cuban cuisine. This is the event where we presented gifts and gratuities to our Cuban guides and drivers. We all believed that our guides were very accommodating in all facets of this tour, trying to respond to as many requests as possible. Some believe that it is not a good idea to eat a big meal before a singing a concert, but I tell people all the time, that the Morgan choir sings better on a full stomach.
After dinner, we went to the theater, which is the most famous in Cuba! We believe that choral lovers all over Cuba made sure to attend the concert this evening. Like in all the other concerts, the Cuban choir began the concert. Entrevoces Coro was the choir that visited Morgan during last summer, featured in a Baltimore Sun article. We told Entrevoces then that we were planning to come to Cuba. I am glad we followed through on our statement. After the Cuban group, we did our thing, with again very enthusiastic applause, although not as special for us as last night’s very special concert in Matanzas. Our performance this evening was videotaped to be televised later all over Cuba. Once again, we believe that Morgan has positioned itself to be the university that Cuba thinks of when students want to attend an American University. We could not ask for better publicity than what we will receive via this telecast. We leave on the 31st to return to The States!