Cuba IV: Havana!

Cuba IV: Havana!

The day we arrived in Havana, two events took place, and they both enhanced our exciting experiences in the country’s capital. Secretary of State John Kerry re-opened the American Embassy after almost 60 years, and it was the first night of Carnaval! The city was abuzz with excitement and the spirit was infectious.

Havana: fabled tropical metropolis of the western hemisphere – once grand, monumental in scale, sophisticated, glamorous, cosmopolitan, and home to stars and gangsters. 20150814-20150814-DSC_1171Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s 1959 Revolution and the socialist policies of the next five decades, plus the U.S. trade embargo, have been cruel to the city and all of Cuba. Still the glory of the past was visible everywhere in the architecture of its buildings and the open spaces of its plazas and parques, if now some tarnished and crumbling. 20150814-20150814-DSC_1191Yet the early stages of a renaissance are evident in the surprising number of freshly painted buildings, renovations of major structures and new construction, often financed by Chinese and European investors.

We arrived Friday afternoon at Cousin Maite’s rental apartment (our friend Alan’s family), which was occupied by eight Japanese students on holiday, and she took us to her sister’s two-bedroom flat in a former office building just inside Old Havana, where we stayed for four nights. After dinner, we walked to the famous Hotel Nacional, meeting place of the glitterati before the Revolution and still an elegant property, sitting on a bluff above the Malecon, the sea wall and promenade that snakes along the Caribbean Sea.

20150814-20150814-DSC_1176It was from the hotel terrace that we first heard, and then saw, the spectacle of the Carnaval parade on the first night of the celebration. We waded through throngs of revelers on the Malecon to get a view of the parade floats as they launched their acts. Drummers of all kinds of percussion instruments, trumpeters, costumed dancers, drag clowns dressed as big-butt and big-breasted women with longhaired wigs led the procession along the Malecon. The crowd was electrified, swaying and stepping to the Afro-Cuban rhythms. Several women wore skin-tight leotards of the American flag. One woman grabbed her three friends and ran up to us to ‘bump’ and dance. “You Americanos, si? Kerry was here today. We are happy you are here!”20150814-20150814-DSC_1159

What a welcome to this city dubbed “the Rome of the Caribbean.

Saturday morning we made our way to Partaga’s Cigar Shop to buy gifts. 20150814-20150814-DSC_1180The aromatic shop had floor-to-ceiling display cases of all price ranges and qualities. We bought two boxes of a dozen Romeo y Julieta’s “shorts,” basically because I liked the poster that promoting them.20150817-DSC_151520150814-20150814-DSC_1203

The rest of the day was devoted to visiting Aunt Helga, who came to Cuba as a young woman, when her father sent her from Germany just at the close of World War II because he was afraid of what the American soldiers might do to her. She married a Cuban man, the uncle of Alan’s partner, Rene. Now mostly restricted by health to her small apartment in the leafy, more open Vedado neighborhood, Aunt Helga held court, regaling us with stories of her life and her view of the world gathered from information from the German newspaper she has mailed to her through the local embassy.20150815-20150815-DSC_1209

Later, we walked to the sprawling Cemetario Colon so that Alan could visit Rene’s grave, which required three staff to help us find among the row upon row of vaults. This 140-acre sea of marble contains more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults, an amazing site to behold. At one point, a man took me by the hand and led me to the vault of Ibraham Ferrer, founder and lead of the famous Buena Vista Social Club. Of course, a gratuity was expected and I paid up. But that’s just what you have to do sometimes to see the out-of-the-ordinary.

The next day, we toured Havana Vieja (Old Havana), named a World Heritage site, 20150816-20150816-DSC_1413just a few blocks from our apartment. Impressive in the history encompassed and good quality of the restorations, this tourist area is a must-see for any visitor, providing an experience of Spanish Havana two centuries and more ago.20150815-DSC_1333

Guidebooks provide you with a route to see the sites, including the Basilica, cathedral, fortress, palaces, and plazas.  Don’t miss the Plaza des Armas, 20150815-20150815-DSC_1287the location of dozens of new and used bookstalls with titles that you would never see in the U.S. I bought a pictorial book about Che Guevara, with a photo of him smoking a cigar on the cover, to complement the box of cigars as a gift.

We had several enjoyable gustatory experiences in Old Havana, some restaurants very modern and chic; others were more authentic in décor or local flavor. One of our favorites was lunch at Café Rosa. We sat at a table at a floor-to-ceiling open window to be up close to the couple dancing the tango to a four-piece combo, mesmerized by their intricate, smooth footwork and the sublime expressions on their faces. 20150816-20150816-DSC_1371

20150816-20150816-DSC_1381-2One of the most thrilling experiences was the continual sight of pre-1960 American cars cruising the streets. 20150816-DSC_1357Some of these jewels have been refurbished as taxis with foreign parts from Russia and China under the hood, 20150815-20150815-DSC_1233-2and others looked glued together with a Bondo cement-like material. Still, the overall effect on the senses was mind-bending. How beautifully stylized automobiles were before aerodynamics and fuel efficiency became concerns!

One day we decided to tour the city in one of these taxis, and we spied a white 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88, with white leather interior. 20150816-20150816-DSC_1427(“My parents drove this model car!” Rick exclaimed, as we piled into the back seat.) The grandfather of Malena, our guide, and her architect/driver brother had garaged the car for decades, and now his grandchildren were making income from this preserved gem. We drove along the Malecon, 20150816-20150816-DSC_1438past the Hotel Nacional and the American Embassy (“We can’t stop here! It’s illegal!”), 20150816-20150816-DSC_1452ending up at the vast Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel has delivered many six hour-long speeches to masses of people. The impressive Jose Marti Monument 20150816-20150816-DSC_1498(its namesake a national hero and intellectual, prominent in Latin American literature)is worth a visit, with its fascinating exhibits of his life as a revolutionary and an exhibit of Fidel Castro’s rise and reign as leader of Cuba.

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That night, we walked along the Malecon for about a mile to return to the raucous Carnaval festivities. I saw my first tropical outdoor “ice skating” rink, with dozen of mostly young people on ice skates skimming clumsily over a rink make of hard plastic.

If you are fortunate to get to Havana, don’t miss the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which features Cuban artists beginning in the 1700s. Most interesting is the modern work to see what the regime is allowing artists these days to produce and display. 20150816-DSC_1476Afterwards we visited the fascinating Callejon Hamel, a small street turned into a cultural art experience – galleries, shops, outdoor sculptures and murals — by followers of the Santeria religion.

In the evening we boarded our Sun Country Airlines flight back to Miami.

Cuba is explosive with sensations – a memorable experience for my partner Rick and me, thanks to our friend Alan. Go if you can, while it’s still not “KFC’d. ” Experience the people, the place, and the soul of the country. And while Havana is a feast for the senses, make yourself get out to the smaller towns and communities. It’s a very different Cuba.

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Cuba III: Trinidad de Cuba

Back in the Hyundai with Umberto at the wheel the next morning, we left Camaguey and headed for Trinidad de Cuba on the central southern coast, the city that time has passed by.  As we approached several hours later, the climate and land changed to humid air and verdant, rolling hills, where we experienced our first tropical downpour of the trip. Trinidad (yes, also 500 years old) apparently has changed little archi20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1033-2-2tecturally in the last few centuries.  One to three-story buildings, red-tiled roofs, and curving cobblestoned streets reminded 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1055me of the towns and villages in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico – streets of simple, almost adobe-like structures of a long ago time, yet charming and rustic. 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1015-2Still, it’s on the tourist loop, so restaurants, bars, and shops were plentiful.

Our hosts live in an unlikely part of town for visitors, yet they were warm and welcoming. 20150812-20150812-DSC_1003

Twenty year-old Davis is studying architecture and English at the University and was excited that Americans were guests in their recently renovated apartment with a breakfast balcony overlooking the street.  For each of the two mornings we stayed, he brought out his notebook of English nouns and verbs to practice with us and read the lyrics to American pop songs he had copied from the radio. (He loves Nirvana, Avicii, and Hozier.)  His mother Esther, who greeted us in curlers, spoke no English. His aunt Leonor, who owns the casa, spoke English and joined us for a chat about what to see and do and where to eat.20150813-20150813-20150813-DSC_1090-2

I got up early the first morning before the appointed 8:00AM English lesson with Davis to write in my journal.  Sitting on the balcony, I heard a man yelling, “El pan!” Another, “El mantiquilla!” I looked over the railing and saw the men on bicycles toting crates on the back coming from opposite directions, selling loaves of bread and chunks of butter to women who hailed them down from their doorways. 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1009At 7:30am, the street was waking up – people leaving for work, street cleaners sweeping, housewives chatting, horses drawing carts of goods, even a insecticide truck spraying clouds of bug killer, the kind we kids used to ride through on our bicycles when I was young.

We did the tourist route, visiting the main church, 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1030

seeing a jeep used in the 1959 revolution, plus a small speed boat from the Bay of Pigs invasion by the US, 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1035-2climbing the town’s bell tower to get a bird’s-eye view of the red tile-roofed village, 20150812-20150812-DSC_1051-2poking into shops selling mostly souvenirs, and visiting a Santeria church (an Afro-Caribbean religion that combines mysticism, animal sacrifice, drumming and dancing with elements of Catholicism) to see the black Mary and baby Jesus stopped in the shade frequently to drink water and get out of the sun.20150812-20150812-DSC_1078-2

At Lonely Planet guidebook’s suggestion, we wandered off the beaten path to a local neighborhood, 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1069_AuroraHDR_HDR-2where residents were hanging out, leaning against buildings or sitting on curbs. 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1066-2

 

We were greeted cordially by some, cooly by others. 20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1017-2The small stores with openings onto the streets where raw meat for sale hung exposed to air, rattled my shrink-wrapped refrigerated sensibilities.20150812-20150812-20150812-DSC_1013

In the afternoon, Umberto drove us to a playa (beach) in the hotel area, where we experienced the clear blue bath-temperature water of the Caribbean. Traveling is hard work, and the warm water was relaxing.

In the evening we wandered towards the main plaza, and a persuasive hostess lured us into an attractive restaurant (a privately owned ‘palomar’ rather than a government-owned eatery) in what was once a grand house. Gratefully we sat at a table with an oscillating fan blowing on us as we ate tasty puerco adobo (marinated pork dish), arroz moro (black beans and rice), and tostones (fried plantains), typical Cuban dishes. I had to have flan for dessert. A trio of two musicians and a songstress with a sultry, hypnotic voice made us forget the stifling heat.

Salsa! The music caught our ears as we left the restaurant. Paying $1 for admission, we climbed the steps to an outdoor plaza with a seven-piece band and a dance floor filled with couples executing intricate dance steps. One group of three couples danced together, smoothly changing partners in a Latin version of a Virginia reel. Who could sit still to those infectious rhythms?!

Bidding adios to Davis, Esther, and Leonor the following morning, we piled into the Hyundai to head to Havana several hours away. We stopped for lunch and a quick tour of the pretty seaside town of  20150814-20150814-20150814-DSC_1114-2

Cienfuegos, quiet and sort of deserted in the noonday summer sun, with its well-manciured main plaza surrounded by colonnades fronting attractive public buildings, as well as some once grand mansions, now needing refurbishment. 20150814-20150814-20150814-DSC_1139-2

On the harbor’s edge sat the glorious Palacio de Valle, 20150813-20150813-20150813-DSC_1091-2a 100 year-old mansion in a neo-gothic Spanish-Moorish style, now an elegant hotel and restaurant with a rooftop bar and dining area20150814-20150814-20150814-DSC_1116-2

that afforded a sweeping vista of the lovely bay and Caribbean sea.

We were grateful to have been able to experience these small cities and towns over four days, because it gave us a taste of life outside the hustle and bustle of urban life in Cuba.

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Cuba II — On the Road to Camaguey

                                                                 Off on an adventure!

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Rick, Alan, and I piled our luggage into the trunk of our driver Umberto’s late model Hyundai, and after bidding goodbye to our Santiago host, we made our way through the city to Route A1 that travels the central spine of the 760 mile-long island. As we headed into the dry, flat central part of the island, it felt like we were embarking on a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road trip (Dear Millennials, please ask someone your parents’ age about this), as we followed a blue and white early 1950s Plymouth along a bumpy two-lane road under a blue sky studded with huge cumulus clouds.

I felt that sense again about Cuba being frozen in time – around 1959 – as houses fell away quickly to a rural landscape, the few cars were mostly older models, pot-holed roadways, many people riding bicycles pulling carts of stuff, walking along the roadside or waiting at occasional sheds where open-top or enclosed trucks served as buses to pick up passengers. Carts loaded with harvested sugar cane were pulled by what looked like Brahman bulls (how did they get there from Asia?).DSC_0780As we drove towards the center of the island, we entered horse country, where the animals are used for pulling carts with people in them or loaded with goods for market. This region is the home of the iconic Cuban cowboys.

Instead of billboards selling commercial products, the occasional sign, sometimes a few spaced sequentially together like the long ago Burma Shave advertisements, promoted socialist slogans – “La Patria Ante Todo” (Country Before All) and “Tierra de Internationalistas” (with a picture of Che Gueverra), are just two – so that travelers got their pep talk about the 56 year-old revolution.DSC_0766

Six hours on the road and we pulled into charming Camaguey. Cuba’s third largest city and the most cultured and sophisticated one outside Havana, the beautiful 17th and 18th century homes and public buildings, antique churches, restored mansions with beautiful murals from a century ago now used as galleries, and cobblestoned streets and colonial plazas altogether were a pleasant surprise. The streets are laid out in a maze-like pattern, built to confuse the continual plundering by pirates a few centuries ago, all making for enjoyable walking experiences.

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At attractive Casa Alfredo y Milagros, we were welcomed warmly by Maite and her father, along with her husband, two sons and her mother. The living quarters surround an open air courtyard with lounge chairs and dining table. The only part of the house that was air-conditioned were our bedrooms, and despite the noisy units, they were a necessity in the oppressive heat.

Wandering the curving streets, I came across a busy shopping district with small markets and retail shops for locals. DSC_0905Government stores were poorly stocked – food and household establishments had mostly empty shelves and a men’s clothing store had eight shirts hanging on the back wall of a large display window.      DSC_0906

DSC_0885As a result of easing government restrictions, there are increasing numbers and varieties of privately owned establishments that offer well-stocked shelves of goods, as well as a few boutique stores.

The town is pretty, again many structures freshly painted for the 500th anniversary of its founding. On almost every block in the center of town was a construction site of an old building being rehabbed, and the large numbers of them suggested increased investment and an improving economy.DSC_0909

DSC_0927                   DSC_0822The main plaza was crowded at night with people of all ages talking, playing, dancing, holding hands and kissing, and tapping away on cell phones, since the plaza had free WIFI. A group of young boys and girls swarmed around us, climbing on the walls where we sat, to play and ask us about America.

DSC_0923Our brief overnight visit to Camaguey endorsed my initial impression of Cubans as friendly and open people, with gentility at the heart of their culture.

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