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. Fidel 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. Yet 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 seawall and promenade that snakes along the Caribbean Sea.
It 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!”
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. The 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.
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.
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, just 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.
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, the 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.
One of the most thrilling experiences was the continual sight of pre-1960 American cars cruising the streets. Some of these jewels have been refurbished as taxis with foreign parts from Russia and China under the hood, and 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. (“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, past the Hotel Nacional and the American Embassy (“We can’t stop here! It’s illegal!”), ending 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 (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.
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 dozens of mostly young people on ice skates skimming clumsily over a rink made 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. Afterward, 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.