Benzings share stories from Cuban adventure

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Ila and Ric Benzing in front of the harbor at Cienfuegos, wearing hats purchased from the local street market.

The Malecon (sea wall) in Havana protects the city from the sea and provides a walkway for residents and tourists.

A view of the coast of Cuba from San Pedro de la Rocco Castle, near Santiago de Cuba.

A view of the Cuban capitol building, which is modeled after the U.S. capitol building. It is currently being renovated.

The view from the 30th floor of Restaurante la Torre, looking out across Havana, with the Hotel Nacional, visited by movie stars and celebrities in the 1940s and 1950s, in the foreground.

The second course of the meal at the Restaurante la Torre, which consisted of lobster, rice, yams and root vegetables. This is pretty typical of the meals the Benzings were served in Cuba.

Classic cars waiting to be hired by tourists.

A mural at Havana's Casa Cultural Comunitaria, a community center which provides classes in art, dance and music to children and adults in the neighborhood. It was previously a water tank filled with junk.

The Tropicana Night Club was the model for show rooms of Las Vegas. The open air club has a fast-paced, two-hour show filled with singers, dancers and acrobatic acts in dazzling costumes.

Spanish cathedral in one of the four main plazas in Havana

Christ of Havana stands guard across the harbor from old Havana. It was completed shortly before Castro took power.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Ila Benzing describes Cuba as a land of contrast.

“You would walk past a dilapidated building, then come to a beautiful mosaic,” she said of the island nation located just south of Florida. “You never knew what you were going to see around the next corner.”

Cuba, Ila admitted, was never a travel destination on she and husband, Ric’s, radar. But, in February, the Monona couple joined around 26 others from the area on a trip to the country, which they said was both historically and culturally interesting.

The trip was offered through FreedomBank, who worked with a travel agent to arrange a cruise with Fathom Cruise Line. The cruise line, Ila said, specializes in people-to-people educational tours, currently one of the 12 authorized ways to travel to Cuba.

After setting sail from Miami, Ila said the cruise offered several mini workshops to acquaint passengers with Cuba and its history and culture.

“It was as educational a trip as you wanted to make it,” she noted.

It took one day to reach Santiago de Cuba, on Cuba’s southeastern coast, the first of three cities, including Cienfuegos and Havana, the Benzings visited.

At each stop, the cruise passengers made day trips in to Cuba, returning to the ship each night.  

“Some people stay and visit in private homes—like AirBnb,” Ila said. “We heard that’s also a good way to do it. Families really encourage that.”

Before entering each city, passengers were required to go through customs, which, with 900 people, took around two hours, Ila said.

“Then,” Ric explained, “we got on a bus and they’d take us around with a local guide.”

The tour guides, the couple noted, were often teachers or had trained to be teachers, but found they could make more money, through tips, as guides.

The group spent one day visiting the first stop, Santiago de Cuba, which Ila described as a smaller city. 

Among the stops there was San Juan Hill, the site of the famed 1898 battle during the Spanish-Cuban-American War, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders demonstrated their mettle. To Ila, the site was surprising.

“We visited Gettysburg the year before. It was so spread out, and you could imagine an army marching across the open space,” she said. However, at San Juan Hill, “the city has grown up around it. There’s an amusement park across the street. It’s hard to imagine it used to be a battlefield outside town.”

Other stops in Santiago de Cuba included the fort at the entrance to the harbor, as well as a platform where revolutionary leader and former prime minister Fidel Castro would speak to thousands of people.

They visited a bar, where a band was playing, and stopped at a privately-run restaurant for a meal.

In Cuba, said Ila, there are both state-run and privately-run restaurants, which is a more recent phenomena. 

“In order to produce more local entrepreneurship, they’ve allowed people to open restaurants in their own homes,” Ric explained. 

The privately-owned restaurants were likely buoyed by money sent from family living outside Cuba, Ila noted, as a month’s wages in the country are just $20 to $30.

She and Ric preferred the private restaurants over those that were state-run.

“They were much better because they had more incentive to do it well,” Ila said.

They rounded out the Santiago de Cuba stop with a walking tour to see some of the area’s most beautiful buildings.

The next city on the itinerary was Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s southern coast, which had a strong French influence, Ric shared.

“It was a really pretty town,” Ila said, but the group spent just one afternoon there before moving on to Havana.

Over roughly two days in Havana, the Benzings saw a variety of sites in the “old” part of the city, including several forts and the malecon, or sea wall, which protects Havana from the sea and provides a walkway for residents and tourists.

Other sites included “Christ of Havana,” a large sculpture of Jesus; the National Theatre, where ballet and opera are performed; and Christopher Columbus Cemetery.

Ila said the cemetery is built atop another cemetery; a four-lane, paved road runs through it. 

“We’re used to a little gravel road,” she commented.

That wasn’t the only interesting aspect.

“The bodies are only buried there a few years,” Ila continued, “then they move the bones somewhere else and the next person gets it.”

The Benzings also saw the exterior of the Cuban capitol building, which is modeled after the U.S. capitol, but could not go in because it was being renovated.

In Havana, as well as the other stops in Cuba, there was a lot of excavation of historical sites and building renovations being completed, Ila said.

“They’re in the process of doing more restoration in anticipation of more tourism,” she remarked. “They’re really doing anything they can to draw in tourists.”

That’s not to say there aren’t already beautiful sites. Ila said the city’s architecture, including breathtaking cathedrals, was on full display during tours of Havana’s four main plazas.

One of her favorite stops was the Casa Cultural Comunitaria. Once an old water tank filled with junk, it now serves as a community center, offering art, dance and music classes. Locals used the junk to create unique works of art, including murals.

The repurposement of buildings was also seen on the bay, where an old warehouse was turned into a market.

“There were a lot of artists there and people selling all kinds of trinkets,” Ila said. “They sold wooden items, T-shirts, posters. There were a lot of paintings with the old cars in them.”

Cuba’s cars, Ila noted, largely date back to the 1940s and 1950s. Many, though, have been rebuilt to use diesel.

“There are very few private cars,” she said. “A lot of the older cars are used as taxis.”

Locals travel more often via motorcycle or packed in the backs of large trucks.

Another stop in Havana included a meal at the state-run Restaurante la Torre. From the 30th floor, the couple could see the nearby Hotel Nacional, which was visited by movie stars and celebrities in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ila said this meal, like many others in the country, featured rice, yams and root vegetables. Meat options included chicken and beef, as well seafood, like shrimp and lobster.

One of the highlights in Havana was a visit to the Tropicana Night Club, the inspiration for the Las Vegas strip.

Upon walking in the door, said Ric, “they hand the men a cigar and the ladies a carnation. You sit down and they hand you a glass of champagne.”

Individuals also received a small bottle of Coke and a bottle of rum for the table, to make the country’s well-known “Cuba Libre” cocktail.

“It’s all walled in, but there’s no roof,” Ila detailed of the Tropicana. Tables were crammed in, holding around 1,000 people. “There was a two-hour show with different musical groups and dancers. It was crazy.”

Overall, said Ila, the trip proved fascinating. She especially enjoyed the country’s history, architecture and artwork.

Ric said he also appreciated the historical and cultural aspects of the trip, although he would have enjoyed hearing the song “Guantanamera” a little less.

“It’s like a national folk anthem, like ‘This Land is Our Land,’” he shared. “It’s played and performed over and over and over.”

“For people interested in history and culture, this was a great trip,” Ila said. “Yes, we were shown things they wanted us to see. But we’re not naive that everything is wonderful, old buildings. We also saw things that made you think, ‘Yes, this a poor country.’ It makes you appreciate what you have.”

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