In 1997, Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge celebrated India. In 2005, it was Italy. In 2012, it was Russia. And last year, if you recall, it was Greece. But this year, our Country of the Year – an annual program that since 1996 has reflected the interests of our globe-trotting residents – is Cuba, and it’s been a very active celebration so far:
Betsy and Jim Greene went to Cuba in November 2011, right after President Obama opened up travel, which as we know had been restricted since 1962. It was a people-to-people visit sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They were there for eight wonderful days.
“The main focus for us was preservation and architecture,” remembers Betsy. “We got to see buildings being restored – both before and after.” A highlight was the famous House of Green Tiles, which had been renovated a year or two before.
They were also impressed by the above-ground cemeteries – which exist because of Havana’s extremely low elevation relative to sea level. Of course, the most impressive tombs and monuments date from before Fidel Castro took over in 1959, when the upper classes could afford such things – although the Greenes saw a chapel that had been renovated.
Unfortunately, there were plenty of buildings that seriously needed renovating or replacing. Jim noted that a local architect told them that “on average, three buildings collapsed in Havana every day!”
But the most impressive thing wasn’t the buildings, or the famous 60-year-old American cars, which are kept running with Russian parts and Cuban ingenuity. It was “how wonderful the people are – so friendly and kind.”
One of Betsy’s favorite memories is of the men who brought boxes of books to the Plaza de Armas outside the Greenes’ hotel each morning to sell. She was amazed to find that they carried the books in apple crates – and the crates were from Chiles Orchard, only 22 miles from WCBR.
The United States had a trade agreement allowing the sale of fruits and vegetables to Cuba for cash, which explains the boxes being there. But still, it was a bit surprising to run into something from home like that.