Old cars, cigars, mojitos, and brightly colored colonial buildings.
The crumbling streets full of life, bustling cafeterias that everyone converges on for breakfast and lunch, or the sound of pick up soccer games outside your window.
Cuba is utterly indescribable. The country is wholly bewildering, insanely gorgeous, and completely captivating. The Cuban people have taken us into their homes, showed us amazing hospitality, and offered a semi-snippet into Cuban culture.
It’s been hard for us to internalize Cuban way of life.
On one hand, you have the new influx of tourism and private enterprises that are completely changing people’s lives. In a country where the average monthly wage is $25 a month, renting rooms or converting your house to a restaurant is a great way to make much coveted extra money.
Cuba is a country that is still struggling to figure out a way to exist in the shadow a major world power completely blocking their economy from prosper. While they do have many successes, they also have extreme censorship, lack of internet access, and some questionable human rights practices.
We talked many times about the embargo, politics, and the future of Cuba while we were there. Not only did we talk about it amongst ourselves trying to piece together an opinion, but we spoke about it with the many Cuban people we met along the way.
There truly is no black and white answer. If the United States lifts the embargo, will it make Cuban life any better for the average citizen? There are people who think so. And most Cuban citizens are predictably in support of ending the embargo in the hopes of a better quality of life.
I’ll tell you what I do know.
The buildings and infrastructure of Cuba are struggling. What were once beautifully ornate buildings and glamourous architecture are now often times crumbling reminders of what once was.
Education is completely free. For as long as you would like to attend. Cuban literacy rate is one of the highest in the world. After you graduate though, you’re subjected to the same $25 wage that everyone else is.
Healthcare is also completely free. The Cuban government views it as a basic human right that should be afforded to all citizens. Long lines at clinics and lack of resources can be an issue though.
Poverty, while widespread, wasn’t what we have been accustomed to seeing in many other countries we’ve visited. It seemed that we saw less homelessness, less begging, and a less malnourished population as a whole. It seemed that while poor, Cuban people are better taken care of than many other countries.
While the government might subsidize many things for Cubans, shortages are common. We witnessed lines that stretched around corners for both food and appliance stores. Store shelves were often empty. And if a place had things like water one day, they might not have it the next.
The Cuban sense of community is so much stronger than what we’ve witnessed before. It’s seen as a neighborly duty to help someone in need. Even the barrio dogs there are well fed and taken care of.
Not once did we fear for our safety. Crime, especially violent crime, is extremely low. Even in the ghettos of Havana, we were never frightened that we would be mugged…or worse.
There is a strong support by many for the current government. We expected people to be outspoken, and vehement in their dislike. However, we met many people that were 100% in support for the Fidel brothers and thought of Che as a national hero.
There were also those that disagreed with what the government has done to the country. Most were frustrated with the lack of opportunity and access to the international community, and disappointed with the state of disarray of many of the countries resources.
I won’t pretend to know what the right answer is for the Cuban people in the political sphere. I believe that freedom of press and non-restricted internet access should be basic rights for all people. And I definitely believe that President Trump’s reinstatement of a inane travel ban is pointless.
I do know that we will return one day. Cuba, you have won our hearts.
Asheville is full of wonderful things to do, but if you’re in the area and miss out on going to the Biltmore Estate… you’re not doing it right.
It was my first time visiting the Biltmore Estate and while Cazzie has been before, it was his first time in quite awhile. We planned on spending a couple of hours there during the day and then head camping later at night, but ended up throwing all our other plans away to stay longer. And it was well worth it!
If anyone says that the United States doesn’t have royalty, this estate stands proof to the contrary. Built by George Vanderbilt with construction starting in 1889 , this estate is testament to the standing of his family in the hierarchy of the development of America. The family’s wealth came from Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built railroads across the United States, and was a shipping mogul. As a third generation Vanderbilt, George was still the richest man in the United States at the time of his death.
Walking up to the house felt so immensely surreal, knowing that an entire family once called this enormous estate their home. It stands like a castle, overlooking the never ending waves of the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side, and an endless forest and gardens on the other.
It took six years to build, has 4 acres of floor space, and is still considered the largest private home in the United States. The house has:
- a whopping 250 rooms and 65 fireplaces
- a personal bowling alley
- a very creepy basement swimming pool
- an entire house wing just for the bachelor’s including separate gun, cigar and billiards rooms
- a massive library that houses only half of the 22,000 books that George owned with books in 8 different languages
- a formal dining hall complete with three fireplaces, a seven story high ceiling, and rare Finnish tapestries
- Two electric elevators in a time when most people didn’t have electricity
- A walk in fridge that housed food for the entire house
You might recognize the Biltmore Estate from a bunch of different encounters with the silver screen. Hollywood has recognized it as a great place to film, and the Biltmore has hosted movies such as Forest Gump, Richie Rich, Hannibal, Patch Adams, and The Last of the Mohicans.
There was no expense spared in the building of the Biltmore Estate. This guy had it all. Not only was he extremely philanthropic as well, but he was the first United States landowner to implement scientific forestry. He improved the health of the forests on his 125,000 acre grounds, while also producing sustainable wood resources from his property. After his death, his widow sold 87,000 acres of land to the United States government…which is now a good portion of Pisgah National Forest.
My kinda guy!
True to the historic legacy of the Biltmore House, these sustainability standards are still in the works today. Due to Biltmore’s projects in solar energy and tree protection, the city of Asheville has honored the Biltmore Estate with an award for their strides in staying green. Go Biltmore!
After touring the house, which will take about one or two hours, spend time exploring the Conservatory and surrounding gardens. There are adorable wrought iron tables and benches scattered throughout the Conservatory, and we enjoyed a freezing cold iced tea before venturing off into the heat again.
From the Conservatory, you can head to Antler Village, which I highly recommend! There will be a sign for a waterfall along the way, but it’s actually a dam and it isn’t that amazing, so I wouldn’t stop if I were you.
Right now until the end of August there’s a stunning sunflower field that lines the road from the House to Antler Village. There are biking trails, hiking trails, walking paths, and picnic spots all along this road as well. Honestly, the Estate is really just a giant playground for history lovers, outdoor lovers, and lovers of all things of taste.
Antler Village is where the Winery is, along with the Biltmore farms. There are goats and chickens in an enclosure and you bet we stopped to pet them. You’re not able to feed them, but the caretakers are standing on call to ask any questions you may have. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there during feeding time and can watch the goats headbutt each other away from their food. Territorial little buggers.
With your tour of the house, you will receive a complimentary wine tasting. They say they recommend you try 5-6 wines, and they’ll give you facts about the grapes and differences in wine while you’re tasting. I actually learned quite a bit, and Cazzie even found a red he likes! Even if it was the most expensive bottle they had… Baby steps.
Since I moved to the mountains of North Carolina, people have been asking if I’ve been to the Biltmore House yet. I sort of shrugged them off and thought “it’s just an old house, how cool can it be?” I WAS SO WRONG. It’s seriously one of the better “touristy” things I’ve done. So much awesome history, and it just makes it all better that George Vanderbilt was a stand up guy.