[This blog was written by David Hinckley after he and his wife Fran Wood visited Cuba in May 2016.]
I’m walking down the middle of Obispo Street in Havana when a smiling Cuban man with a guitar falls in alongside and says amigo, let me sing you a song about Che Guevara.
Without waiting for an answer, he’s strumming and singing. I understand only the final two words, which are “Che Guevara.”
I have a Twitter-depth knowledge of Che. He was a doctor, military strategist, guerrilla fighter and organizer who became a key strategist and ruthless commander in Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. After their side won, in January 1959, Che hung around for the startup, got bored and left to help run another revolution in Bolivia, where the CIA found and killed him.
He was 39. Unlike Fidel, who’s turning 90 and has lost a few steps, Che will remain forever young and beautiful.
The song I heard may have been saying all that. Or it could have been celebrating Che’s policies as minister of industries. It could have been criticizing his putting stance. Or it could have been an ode to the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is officially extinct, but has on occasion said to have been heard in remote Cuban forests.
Point is, I don’t know. The singer, I’m pretty sure, figured as much. It didn’t matter. For 45 seconds he had provided a service, and now he extended his hand, hoping I would pay for it.
I didn’t. I told him I had no money, which was mostly a lie. Having just arrived in Cuba, I had nothing smaller than a bill for 10 CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), shorthand for the Cuban Convertible Pesos that are the currency used by tourists. That’s equivalent to about 10 U.S. dollars, which is more than I’m inclined to pay for a street song, though I would probably change my mind if Bob Dylan sidled up and sang “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
In the broader picture, this serenader begged a more interesting question about Che. Where exactly do the man and his revolution stand today in Cuba? Fifty-seven years after Fidel and his brother Raul launched a socialist state, is Che Guevara a cherished founding father or an easy catchword for street hustlers?
Two things can be true.
Like George Washington in the U.S., Che remains revered for lighting a candle of freedom, inspiring hope that the Cuban people could counter the inequities of the world while controlling their own lives and destiny.
His picture also sells a lot of refrigerator magnets and T-shirts.
Or, to phrase that larger question another way: With a cautious renewal of U.S. relations and various internal steps toward the loosening of state control, is the Cuba of Fidel and Che slowly re-embracing a socio-economic system they sought to eradicate?
I’m pretty sure spending a few days in Cuba doesn’t qualify me to answer that question. But it may qualify me to say it’s going to get answered, by people who may be much smarter than me. Or may not be, at which point Cuba will have to fall back on being merely beautiful, battered, fascinating and resilient.
Most of our group flies to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on a Jet Blue charter flight from New York’s JFK. We are advised to arrive at the airport three hours before our noon flight and directed to the Cuba boarding area at one end of Terminal 5.
In a relatively short time our papers are checked at two desks. We provide our ticket, a visa and $25 per person, our exit fee from Cuba, which, yes, is payable before we enter. They take credit cards and the bilingual Cuban officials are polite and efficient. They assign our seats and weigh our bags. The allowance is 44 pounds, a limit against which any unusually heavy carry-ons count. On the return flight from Cuba, the limit will rise to 50 pounds and the carry-on isn’t weighed. Go figure.
Our security line is short. We pass through uneventfully and leave close to on-time. The plane is slightly less than full and the flight takes about three and a half hours – comfortable hours, since Jet Blue seats actually leave room for your legs. Fly almost any other airline these days – I’m thinking United, not to get too specific — and you get decent leg room only if you amputate both legs above the knees.
Our group, about 20-21 people, is organized through the Archive of Contemporary Music, a New York-based non-profit that has the modest goal of collecting every non-classical music recording released since World War II. Its collection has grown to about three million recordings, which also form the basis for a staggering reference library.
Everyone on the trip has some connection to Bob George, who created the Archive, somehow made it work and runs it today. He’s well versed in world music and last year when he was involved with CubaDiscos, the island’s annual music festival, he came up with the idea of a Cuba music package. The CubaDiscos connection makes this officially a cultural/educational trip, which matters because the U.S. government still can get cranky about letting you go to Cuba if you say you only want to spend money and ogle 1957 Studebakers.
So you have to prove your cultural/educational intentions, however flimsy, in your visa application. Ours were mercifully arranged by Ed Steinberg, who worked with Bob to also set up most of the tour events and meals. Ed is a
long-time music and art promoter, artist representative, show organizer, video pioneer and all-around connected guy. His stateside credits include producing Madonna’s first video, but it matters more for our purposes that he was once married to a Cuban woman, has a house in Cuba and like all fixers seems to know half the island.
Our group includes people who know a whole lot about music, including Cuban music. There are college professors, photographers, digital archive creators, graphic designers, a theater director, an author, an actor/writer who designs haunted houses, a drummer and Jeff, who is among other things a walking encyclopedia of neon.
We also have a famous person, Sigourney Weaver, and I can’t tell you how useful that turns out to be. By the time we’re finished here, there may not be a waiter, doorman or shop clerk in all of Havana who hasn’t asked her to pose for a picture with them. Her infinite patience, I’m pretty sure, is the reason no other member of the group had to spend time fielding even a single such request.
Fran and I are hitchhikers on the musical road trip. We just have our thumbs out, looking to see Cuba, as she puts it, “before Burger King gets there.”
I think we do all embark with a sense that after a long stretch tucked in the world’s closet, Cuba is opening up fast. Americans today are two generations removed from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which in retrospect was not a good idea, and those several weeks in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to set off the Last World War. Today, while there are still Cuban exile families who will neither forget nor forgive the Castro brothers, I suspect Cuba to most Americans is less about tailgunners than tailfins. It feels benign and, partly because it’s been shrouded for so long, rather enticing.
American planes now fly there and American cruise ships now dock there, though not the largest ones. Havana harbor has a shallow draft and cannot be dredged because there’s a tunnel under it. Big resort outfits are mapping plans for casino complexes. Export/import warehouses on the Havana docks have been converted into tourist markets. Since President Obama gave Cuba his blessing and unofficial absolution with a visit in March, prices for tourist staples like hotel rooms and taxi rides have in some places doubled.
If Cuba today in some ways seems like an exotic time capsule, a lot of smart folks suspect it could feel different in a relatively few years.
What won’t disappear are the Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Fairlanes, because no one is stupid enough to eliminate one of the country’s main attractions. It would be like France dumping cheese and wine. If you’re Cuban and own, say, a 1956 Dodge Royal Lancer or Mercury Monterey, it’s good for your whole country that you keep it on the road where the tourists can see it. Car purists who grumble that it almost certainly doesn’t have its original engine are correct, of course. For most of us, that’s like complaining if Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” isn’t being played on an original 78 rpm disc. It misses the larger point of the moment, not to mention the more important point of the song.
In any case, many of the non-automotive arts of today’s Cuba aren’t so easily encased in amber, and now feels like a good time to get a sense of Cuba and the Cuban people, who frankly have had a rough couple of centuries.
The Spanish tried to kill them, the French used them to harvest sugar cane and the U.S. helped Fulgencio Batista turn Havana into an ATM for the rich and the Mob. After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, America declared a suffocating trade embargo that Cuba survived mostly by becoming best pals with the Soviet Union.
Then in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia bailed overnight, leaving Cuba with almost no place to buy basic necessities or to sell its only major cash export, that sugar.
About all that’s been missing from Cuba’s treatment by the rest of the world is a plague of locusts. So you have to admit as you head for Cuba that if you run across a little suspicion, there would be reasons.
The first thing we encounter when we deplane onto the tarmac, however, is hot air so humid you could drink it. Fran’s hair, straightened yesterday in an act of futility that rivals Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, barely makes it into the terminal before the curling begins.
We quickly clear Cuban customs, which seem strangely casual – though not as casual as Athens, where on our last trip we could have been towing a howitzer and they would have waved us through.
We climb into a pair of vans for the half-hour trip to our hotel and quickly realize that 1) Cuban vehicles seem to have no tradition of shock absorbers, and 2) you don’t care, because if they’re going to prioritize automotive options, you want air conditioning to come first.
We were originally booked into the Hotel Nacional, maybe the most famous hotel in Havana. Folks like Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra used to bunk there. On a more romantic note, organized crime would book it for business meetings.
Hotel Nacional offers a stately granite lobby and a spectacular view of the ocean. What it couldn’t guarantee us was hot water. This matters because if you plan to rack up more than 100 steps a day on your FitBit in Cuba, you will want to take showers.
So we were relocated to the Melia Habana, a clean, well-appointed modern hotel in the western Havana section of Vedado. As hotels go, you could transplant it to almost any major city in the world, from Amsterdam to Hong Kong, and not notice the difference. That’s not a bad thing. The staff is friendly and almost all bilingual.
The TVs in our rooms get CNN plus a modest selection of local and Spanish-language channels. We have mostly reliable hot water and water pressure. There’s a large outdoor pool and an indoor gym with a dozen machines – elliptical, exercise bikes, weights, etc. – more than half of which work. As hotel gyms go, that’s about average.
Most prized of all, there’s sporadic wi-fi. OMG! In general, Cuba is to Internet service what Greece is to responsible fiscal practices, but inside the hotel, if you’re willing to make a few tries, you can often connect to the world.
You know, there was a time in some of our lives when you’d go on vacation and the only way to talk to the folks back home was to send them a postcard. Seriously, dude, I’m not making that up.
In modern Cuba, postcards are a part of the past you can’t relive. Michel Perez-Oliva Perez, one of our first-rate hosts, explains that you can buy a postcard in Cuba, stamp it, drop it off at a post office and. if it’s addressed to the U.S., it will probably never be delivered. Call it collateral damage from the embargo.
They have some cool postcards, too, like Che with a putter and Fidel with a baseball glove.
In the hotel, we’re on the seventh of the Melia Habana’s nine floors. Our balcony overlooks the ocean, which is interesting for two immediate reasons.
One is that where you’d normally expect a beautiful tourist-seducing beach, what you see looks more like an obstacle course of mud, sticks and rocks. Someone needs to swap out that stuff for some sand, and it’s hard not to believe that will happen.
As relations between the U.S. and Cuba get taken out of the freezer, several major U.S. companies have queued up to create casinos and resorts, meaning some planner somewhere has got to be thinking beaches and very expensive hand-delivered drinks with little umbrellas in them.
That’s what Fran means by getting here before the return of corporate America, which was living large in Cuba during the Batista years. On the positive side, by that time there will probably be postcard delivery again.
The second thing about the Havana ocean is a little unnerving. Across that whole great sweeping vista, there are no boats. Not on the shore, not on the horizon.
Officially, the reason is that boats pollute the water and Cuba wants to keep its waters clean, which is admirable. The unofficial reason, per Ed, Bob and others, is that Cubans who have boats are way too likely to pack a Cuban sandwich and head for Key West, 90 miles north.
We unpack and confirm that we have air-conditioning. We exchange some dollars for CUCs, a simple process at the hotel and doable at banks around town. What’s not doable is ATMs, which are scarce and won’t take cards issued by U.S. banks.
The exchange rate is one dollar for one CUC, minus the approximately 13% service charge. So your hundred dollars buys 87 CUCs. Look, Ma, a place that charges higher fees than Ticketmaster.
When you acquire Cuban money, we are correctly advised, be sure to get some small bills or coins. If you want to make small purchases, like a bottle of water or a souvenir, many of the merchants will tell you they have no change, so the price you pay for the item you want is the smallest bill you have.
On the bright side, Americans who have grown up joking about three-dollar bills will be enchanted to find that there is a three-CUC note.
Armed with cash, our group piles into the vans for our first outing, which begins with a quick stop at Casa Miglis, a Swedish-Cuban bar on Lealtad. Turns out the Swedes have been making Cuba a regular vacation stop for years.
We sit down and start introducing ourselves over drinks, which for most of the group is mojitos, which are to Cuban tourist drinking what beer is to Oktoberfest in Germany. This makes total sense, since mojitos are built from rum and sugar, and Cuba is an island that is famous for its rum and has way more sugar cane than it knows what to do with.
From Casa Miglis we rumble over to San Cristobal Paladar, San Raphael #469. Ed calls this the most famous restaurant in Havana, noting that the Obamas dined here in March, partly on the recommendation of Jay-Z and Beyonce, who dined here in 2013.
San Cristobal looks like one of those old New York or Hollywood show biz restaurants, its walls covered floor-
to-high-ceilings with wonderful old sepia photos and paintings of Cuban stage and movie stars. It’s an enchanting collection, and not just because it’s sprinkled with non-Cubans like Mick Jagger and Spencer Tracy. No, what’s striking is how much these performers, the old jazz bands, dance teams, stage and movie stars, evoke their counterparts in America or Europe. Same era, same pictures, same timeless walls.
The Obamas both ordered steak here, a good choice unless you’re the cow. The lobster, which turns out to be a common and relatively cheap dish in Cuba, gets rave notices. Fran and I, unfortunately, order the lamb, which almost requires a blowtorch to cut. On the positive side, the Madeira sauce is wonderful.
The meal is followed by an elaborate presentation of Cuban cigars, in the same wooden box from which we’re told Obama selected one. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that once you get a cigar, you are invited to immediately fire it up and enjoy it at the table.
I don’t think we’re in California any more, Toto.
I suppose when cigars are a signature export from an island that needs every export it can muster, there’s not going to be much sentiment to discourage smoking anywhere, and Cuba doesn’t.
After we finish dinner, some of us go back to the hotel to fall asleep. Others, and not just the young, head out to the clubs where music plays pretty much every night until very late.
No one needs much convincing to start the day with the hotel’s breakfast buffet. It’s a well-done and familiar spread of scrambled eggs, meats, potatoes, fruit, breads, pastries and juices with a large corner for what Americans might consider cocktail hour appetizers. That includes several large wheels of cheese – bleu, parmesan and so on – with crackers. Maybe the Swedes like cheese.
We start the day by boarding the vans for a visit to the Partagas Cigar Factory, which is more interesting than it might sound.
It was a bank before the Revolution. The new regime decided it was better suited to roll cigars. Now it rolls about 25,000 a day, and the several in-house guides explain that while cigars you buy on the street are cheaper, these are the genuine Cubans.
Like many of Havana’s buildings, this one is several stories high with steep stairs. There’s a rotunda in the middle where you see the closest management could apparently get to cooling devices: a rickety array of air conditioners that seem to be about the same vintage as the American cars. Some seem to be working, some don’t. The place is hot.
A steady stream of visitors walks past the rooms where the cigars are packed and rolled. Inside, hundreds of workers sit in long rows, each behind a wooden desk. Some sort shredded piles of tobacco leaves into wrappers. Some roll. The final group cuts off the ends. It’s all done by hand.
The workers are young and old. Every day is apparently casual Friday at Partagas, and most are in tank tops or T-shirts, sensible attire given the temperature. A few workers have earphones. Some are smoking the product, including a somewhat large man who is 60 and has been at Partagas his whole working life.
The desks are painted in different colors, sometimes coded, sometimes seemingly random, and all faded. The whole room is a striking image, a slightly more modern and humane incarnation of those old Lower East Side factory photos. Alas, there will be no photos of Partagas, because cameras are not allowed. I’m not sure what part of cigar-making the competition isn’t supposed to know, but what happens at Partagas stays at Partagas.
As we drive away we get our first look at Old Havana, or Havana Vieja, in daylight. It’s visually stunning, with architecture in a mix of Spanish, French and Colonial styles. The streets are narrow with overhanging balconies – think New Orleans – and the colors are primarily pastels. Pastels that have spent a lot of time in the tropical sun.
It’s colors you couldn’t replicate, and the mix is remarkable, subtly different around each corner.
We get some help in absorbing all of this from our superb guide, Johanna Martinez Vera. You don’t need a guide to appreciate Havana, but without one you’re going to miss a lot of nuances. As we approach a building with Chinese lettering, for instance, Johanna notes that 1) this is Chinatown and 2) there are virtually no Chinese here now. Perhaps in meal situations where Americans order Chinese, Cubans order Swedish?
What we do start to see is a fascinating bit of embryonic capitalism. All over Havana, we will find, people who live in upper-floor apartments have turned their street-entrance doors into tiny shops.
If you have a door, you have a store.
As you can imagine, these enterprises may only cover 10 or 12 square feet. But there’s the proprietor, sitting on a step surrounded by shirts, shoes, pots and pans, Che posters or whatever. The merch is laid out on the lower steps, hung from the walls, tacked to the inside of the open door.
Nor is it only retail, Johanna tells us, that utilizes tiny spaces. Some offices aren’t much bigger, and while they don’t tend to be located in doorways, they may have no visible signs indicating what business they transact.
Unemployment in Cuba, Johanna explains to us, is low with an asterisk.
“Everyone who wants a job has one,” she says. “But sometimes that means we have secretaries to secretaries to secretaries.” It sounds a little like the old Soviet system of maintaining full employment by having a dozen people stationed to press the button for one elevator door.
As we turn onto Obispo Street, the main shopping district in a city that really doesn’t have one, we see a tiny storefront that turns out to be a school. About 20 young pupils in neat red and white uniforms are diligently hunched over their desks, facing the rear wall and the teacher, as visitors peer in the windows. This school, like the airport, is named for Jose Marti, one of the intellectual inspirations for the revolution.
Havana sidewalks are narrow, and it’s not uncommon for several columns of pedestrians to spill into the street. One of the several challenges this creates is that Cuban women seem to love high heels, and many of the streets are uneven cobblestone, leaving the visitor to wonder why there isn’t a constant stack of toppled Cuban women. As we look into the school, a man muscles his way through the crowd with a five-foot pole on his shoulders, balancing a large fish on each end.
In a tree-filled park on one corner of Obispo, several men sell puppies. Dogs are a common sight in Havana, almost all mixed breeds and many with no apparent home. “They belong to no one,” Johanna tells us, but they aren’t without friends. Restaurants often put out leftovers for the strays and the government licenses them, providing shots and other basic care. Now that’s socialism.
Nor is my Che serenader the only hustler on Obispo. Art students quickly sketch souvenir caricatures, for which they would like one CUC. Colorfully dressed Cuban women invite you to take a selfie of them kissing you, also for a CUC.
“They’re working,” says Johanna.
For lunch, we visit La Bodeguita Del Medio, Empredado 207. Fran and I, having learned our lamb lesson, go with shrimp and langostinos, a good choice. This is another place Ernest Hemingway used to frequent and in theory there should be proof of it, because everyone who eats here is invited to sign the wall.
Unfortunately, that means the wall is festooned with thousands of signatures from people who are probably perfectly nice, but whom, unlike Hemingway, you’ve never heard of.
Our upper-floor dining room is small and as we’re finishing, five musicians come in, break out their instruments and begin singing. Their opener, in case we were feeling homesick for something familiar and American, is “Stand By Me.” Then they sing a few Cuban numbers. It’s touristy and fun because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
There isn’t quite a musical ensemble on every corner in Havana, but like New Orleans, it’s clearly a musical city. After lunch we stop at Clandestina, which sells Cuban-made clothes and crafts, just as the employees are celebrating the owner’s birthday by hiring a mariachi band to play in front of her shop.
This is a serious band. With some switching between songs, it includes three violins, two trumpets, a couple of guitars and percussion, as well as vocalists.
Birthday Senorita loves it, and so do more than a hundred passersby who gather around to listen, clap, dance and sing along. Traffic stops for the duration.
Interestingly, all these random people seem to know the lyrics to every song – including Johanna, who explains that Mexico over the years has been a primary source for Cuban television programming, so almost every Cuban grows up knowing Mexican music and songs.
We make a quick stop next at the road not taken, the Hotel Nacional. It’s a stately old building, with a sloping walkway out back that leads to a veranda with a sweeping view of the Caribbean.
A quick refreshing dip, however, is problematic, because at the end of the walkway there’s a six-lane highway between you and that water. If the Mob wanted someone who had been staying in the hotel to sleep with the fishes, it took some serious hauling.
Still, the view is lovely, which is presumably why the back lawn is being set up for a wedding. The theme is sunflowers, which also line the path to the ceremonial area and fill the water fountain.
The only challenge for the wedding photographer will be to shoot around the part of the wedding lawn that has the crumbling stone wall and the piles of broken concrete.
Pretty much everything in Cuba, we will gradually learn, is in some stage of repair.
We van from there to our first serious daytime music gig, a private session set up by Ed with jazz pianist Roberto Carcasses. Carcasses has played around the world. On this particular afternoon he’s playing in his living room.
He lives in a small, slightly cramped, but comfortable house in a residential neighborhood. Someone has packed about 20 chairs into a room with his piano and a small space behind him for drums, bass and a trumpet player. Two members of our group end up sitting with the band, though neither is invited to take a solo.
Carcasses talks a little about how music works in Cuba. You study it in school and when you complete your courses you can become a licensed musician. That means you’re paid to create music, whether you play every night or not. Music is your salaried job.
Carcasses’s style is nominally jazz, a natural adoption because his father was Afrocuban jazz pioneer Bobby Carcasses. Roberto explains that he doesn’t like playing in just one style, however, which is why he formed a group called Interactive that brings in musicians from multiple genres.
He stirred some controversy in 2013 when he was temporarily “banned from all cultural institutions” by the government for advocating direct presidential elections and asking that dissidents be free to speak.
Ironically, he made those comments while he was joining other Cuban celebrities at a nationally televised rally supporting the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence agents who were arrested in Miami in 1998 and sentenced to long prison terms.
Many Cubans felt they were railroaded and used as political examples. All five have now been released.
In any case, Carcasses doesn’t talk politics here. He plays three numbers with piano, drums and bass, then three more adding his famous trumpeter friend Alejandro Delgado.
The first number is slow jazz, the second a Cuban dance song written in the 1940s by Cachao. He also plays “Gypsy Rag,” which is just that, and a Delgado song, on which Alejandro naturally takes the lead. The last song is called “Seven,” because it’s played in unusual 7/4 time.
When he finishes, Carcasses adds that this rather spare ensemble isn’t his usual sound, and that his public show tonight will plunk him into the middle of a big band.
As we pull away from Carcasses’s house, it’s hard not to notice that across the street, two houses down, someone has tied up a horse, which is browsing on the very modest amount of grass growing by the curb.
Later that night, as some of us lay down our weary tunes, others go to Carcasses’s show. Great, great stuff, they will later say.
Much of the group arrives late at breakfast, which isn’t a big problem in a country where the whole day seems to start at its leisure. There are raves all around for last night’s show, in which Carcasses was joined by what sounds like half the musicians in Cuba, including a flutist.
We have no scheduled activities this morning, so it is suggested those who are interested might want to visit Finca Vigia, better known as the Hemingway House.
Finca Vigia lies on the outskirts of town and it’s now a museum, donated by the last of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives, Mary Welsh. The name means “lookout post,” and it was built by the Spanish to see who might be trying to sneak up on them.
The only problem with visiting there today is the weather. There’s intermittent rain, not a surprise in the tropics, and it turns out that when it rains they don’t open the windows at Finca Vigia.
This is a problem because they also don’t open the doors. Visitors to Finca Vigia don’t go inside. The only way to see it is to walk around the outside and peer through the windows.
Our caucus decides to take the chance they will be open. We pile into the van with Johanna, who turns out to be the most important part of this mission.
You get there by driving down Embassy Row in Havana, an airy boulevard with a tree-lined median that’s just a few touchups away from standing with the most elegant section of any world capitol. Many of the homes here were once private houses, we’re told, before the Revolution appropriated them for things like schools, museums and embassies.
Many of the embassies, of course, bear the names of countries with which the U.S. hasn’t always had sleepovers.
Beyond Embassy Row we pass a derelict baseball stadium, which does not suggest baseball has fallen out of favor here. On the contrary, even though this is the off-season for the Cuban baseball leagues, we see uniformed players on fields all over town. The stadium is just another case of almost everything needing repair.
This drive also reinforces something you can take for granted after 20 minutes in Cuba, which is all those 1950s American cars.
You don’t see just a few at select tourist spots. You see them everywhere, in every line of traffic. Some are spit-shined and gleaming. Some seem to get treated just like the family car. Few still have the original factory colors and even fewer still have original hardware under the hood, with most of the engines converted to or replaced by diesel.
Whatever goes into the tank, they turn Havana into a rolling 24-hour car show, colorful sparkling
gems lighting up an otherwise routine and forgettable array of old Russian Ladas, some nondescript Chinese numbers and a sprinkling of newer products like Kias.
It also reminds Americans that at one time even ordinary working-family cars had style and class. They had signatures. A tailfin, a gearshift, the angle of the hood. Every model, down to Nash Ramblers, had its own lines.
They also had little triangular windows between the windshield and the main windows on the driver’s and shotgun side. I called them “wings.” My wife called them “scuffers.” When I rule the world, that’s one of the things that’s coming back.
Anyhow, before we get to Hemingway’s place we stop at the Plaza De La Revolucion, a large, paved, open space. Think, um, parking lot.
It’s surrounded by tall buildings, two of which sport way-larger-than-life images of revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegoes and, who else, Che.
Much of the Cuban government operates in buildings around the Plaza, which also include the national library, museum, and a huge, not terribly stylish memorial to Jose Marti. Yeah, the airport and school guy. He died in 1895, so he didn’t march into Havana with Fidel, but his writings make him one of the theorists, architects and godfathers of Cuban independence.
Johanna notes that when there was a movement to have the U.S. annex Cuba in the 19th century, Marti helped defeat it. She notes that when Batista sought to assume power, he first tried to paint himself as a freedom-seeking Marti disciple. “When that failed,” she says, “he organized a military coup.”
Hey, everyone needs a Plan B.
In any case, the Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world, holding up to a million people. That was the estimate of the crowd there for Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Francis in 2015. There have also been good-sized crowds over the years for speeches by Fidel. His longest one lasted for eight hours, which would have been a really long time to be standing on unshaded pavement.
We also are told on this drive that Havana was named for Habaguanex, the presumably phonetic spelling for one of the local Taíno chiefs the Spanish encountered when they started settling here after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in the early 16th century. Locals today, Johanna tells us, pronounce the city as “Abana,” with a “b” for our “v” and a silent “h.”
Soon after we leave the Plaza we motor through a less affluent area. Hitchhikers hold out bills to attract rides, a good strategy in a country where public transit tends to be random and car ownership remains a luxury.
Someone asks what will become of ramshackle buildings we see along the road and Johanna says nothing needs to become of them, since people live in them now. If it has something that could pass for a roof, she explains, it’s almost certainly occupied.
There’s nothing ramshackle about Ernest’s place, a light yellow building that is indeed atop a lookout point.
The sky remains overcast on our arrival, however, which doesn’t bode well for the window opening. Several prior groups are wandering about, seemingly resigned to seeing only the outdoor features and, of course, the gift shop.
But we have something they don’t. Johanna. It turns out she knows the guy who pulls up the window shades. Who knew that would be such an important connection?
It is. He agrees to give us a viewing, and as he moves around the house, we form a moving cluster at the windows. “Peeping Tom tourism,” Sigourney muses. Her husband Jim Simpson says he envisions Hemingway telling Mary to shoo away all those people peering in his windows.
The house looks very writerly, with a touch of tropical casual. The front room is open, with a table for cocktails. Elsewhere, it’s filled with Hemingway’s stuff, including many shelves of books.
What’s hardest to miss are all the stuffed and mounted heads. It’s said Mussolini was so impressed he wanted to buy some of them. Whether Ernie sold Benito a few surplus antelopes or not, it’s clear that before he died, Hemingway made sure to take as much of the natural world with him as he could.
The letter opener on his desk is the saw-toothed spear from a marlin. He apparently didn’t even want to open his mail without a reminder of something he killed.
To be fair, the house does reflect that he had other things on his mind, one of which was Renata, a teenage Italian contessa whom Hemingway spent considerable time mentoring and tutoring.
Many of those tutorials took place in the third-floor room of a tower separate from the main house. We walk the steep stairs and peer into a room with lots of books and one chair that looks like a primitive lounger.
Mary, we are told, was forbidden to disturb Ernest when
he was tutoring Renata. Don’t want to break the kid’s, uh, concentration.
The grounds of Finca Vigia are equally stamped with Hemingway’s testosterone. There’s a pet cemetery, a nice boat called Pilar, a tennis court and a sign that marks where the cockfighting ring once was located. All that remains of that sporting arena is a picture, taken around 1938, of a beaming Ernest about to enjoy the action.
[Total aside: The general consensus, among those in this crowd and elsewhere, is that Hemingway was in many ways a jerk. Many also consider him, like some other jerks, a great writer. Whether you have any opinion on his work one way or another, find a copy of a slim 1968 paperback titled Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without. Written by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne, it’s 50 beautifully brief essays shredding the core reading list of almost every college English department. Moby Dick is here, and Beowolf, and Jane Eyre, and The Scarlet Letter and The Wasteland, and more. It wraps up with Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, which it grinds into literary dust. Agree or not, Fifty Works is surgical, elegant and completely worth tracking down.]
After we finish peeping into Ernest’s home and rec room, we all sample a drink made with fruit and freshly ground sugar cane. Unlike most of the drinks we encounter here, it’s non-alcoholic. It’s also delicious.
Some of us visit the gift shop. Some of us admire a big old 1930s Cadillac that looks vaguely like a limo and turns out to be an early minibus. Jim muses how the smell of oil reminds you of your first car,
because everyone’s first car always burned oil.
By now we’re far enough behind schedule that we’ve blown off our scheduled lunch date. Happily, we still have Johanna, and naturally she knows someone: the owners of Ajiaco, Calle 92 #267.
We can get a quick lunch there, she says, so we wind our way through what feels like a residential neighborhood to the restaurant.
Quick it’s not. Delicious it is. It’s probably the best meal experience of the trip.
It starts with mojitos, of course, and continues with pineapple. Then it moves to Ajiaco soup, which is root vegetables with corn, shredded beef and fish and is really really good.
The next course is little rounds of minced, marinated fish – sea bass, swordfish and octopus, which someone calls “the best octopus ever.” For some of us that’s a low bar, but it all gets quickly eaten.
Next come yucca and tamales, which may sound like we’ve now eaten a full lunch, but in fact means we have just finished the warmup for the main courses, which are chicken, beef, lobster or paella.
Consensus is that each is delicious. Each also looks as if the portion had been sized for Henry VIII. Johanna orders the paella and if you put them both on scales, the paella would weigh more than she does.
Anyone going to Ajiaco – which anyone going to Havana should make a point of doing – should keep that in mind. Rule of thumb: Don’t eat before and no need to eat after.
Noting that no one cleaned his or her plate, the wait staff assures us leftovers do not get thrown away. What doesn’t feed people goes to the stray dogs and cats.
The staff then adds that dessert is coming. It’s marinon (fruit) cheesecake and will be a superb addendum to the rave reviews that dogs and cats all over Havana will soon be posting on TripAdvisor.
Toss in a musical coffee-preparation performance by a local woman in a colorful costume, and Ajiaco was the kind of place where you could have happily spent all day eating lunch. Which we almost did.
By the time we waddled out the door, we had also blown off our planned visit to the national art museum, Bellas Artes. So instead we headed for the next generation of its potential featured contributors: ISA, Le Universidad de la Artes. Though not before we whipped out the phones and took the mandatory mass selfie.
Before the Revolution, ISA was a high-end country club at which both Fidel and Che played golf. Now it’s a school for the visual arts, subdivided into areas for painters, sculptors and other aspiring creatives.
This suggests the same thing Roberto Carcasses explained yesterday: that Cuba values the arts. If you want to be an artist, and you show the talent, that can become your profession. If you finish school and qualify for a license, that will be what you do.
There are drawbacks. The biggest artist in Cuba will never make as much money as mid-level artists in other countries. There also can be unspoken limits on artistic expression, since a government that grants a license can take away a license.
Michel (me-SHELL) explains that artists often find ways to slip controversial material through a side door, expressing it in a way that audiences understand.
The students at ISA don’t seem concerned that they will not be able to express themselves. Late in the day, classes over, they circulate through the large space talking among themselves and sorting through their work.
The central area for painters is circular, so each has an individual pie-shaped area around the perimeter.
Most of the work is contemporary. Some of it is Warholesque, some draws on international popular culture, some is graphically violent. Almost none of it looks like a promotion for the Revolution or happy workers.
The artists here are not beginners. The University is several rungs up the ladder, and some students have shown their work in New York and Europe.
That kind of travel isn’t the tense issue you might expect. Artistic visas, good for three years, enable Cuban artists to travel back and forth to America for three years. There seems little hesitation about this arrangement, one of the artists says, because artists with families in Cuba are not considered serious flight risks.
Riding back from the University we make a quick run through Fusterlandia, a small Havana neighborhood where almost every surface is decorated in splashy, colorful mosaic tiles.
Jose Antonio Rodriguez Fuster, a Cuban, has been working in this neighborhood, which is sometimes called Cuba’s largest private arts space, for half a century. He’s a disciple of the late Antonin Gaudi, a Spaniard who pioneered the style, and block after block presents meticulous, whimsical and, okay, sometimes slightly garish creations.
No, you don’t have to look too hard to find a mosaic Che Guevara.
It’s a light lift and shouldn’t be missed on any trip to Havana.
From there we head to a dinnertime concert by the band Lucas at Casa De Musica, but not before Ed, on the ride over, tells us some Cubans refer to Americans as “Yumas.”
It’s not derogatory, he says. It’s an aftereffect of the fact that when American movies came back to Cuba after the Revolution, one of the first was the reasonably famous Western 3:10 to Yuma. In translation, “Yuma” became a slang term for the characters, so some Cubans started referring to Americans as Yumas.
Personally, I was rooting for it to be a tribute to Nick Adams’s Johnny Yuma character in The Rebel. Oh, well.
And speaking of movies, Ed adds, most Cubans have seen way more American movies than a 57-year cultural embargo might suggest. Since the embargo means that America doesn’t acknowledge Cuban copyrights, he says, Cuba doesn’t acknowledge American copyrights. So American movies are shown on Cuban TV and others are widely available on bootleg DVDs.
Thus Alien and Avatar and 750,428 selfie requests for Sigourney Weaver.
Anyhow, Casa de Musica turns out to be one of several venues that has no use for our CubaDiscos passes. But Ed talks us in, for a show that’s less a concert than a cheerful happy hour with a band, Lucas.
Probably 400 people are packed into a room that should hold maybe 250. But there’s a bar in the back, a DJ in a booth above it, tables in the middle, a stage at the front and a seemingly infinite amount of room to absorb standees on the perimeter. To the young after-work crowd, what’s the problem?
The band, a shifting ensemble built around a guitar, bass, drums and a trumpet, with additional musicians and vocalists, follows the same stylistic path as many other Cuban bands, which is to say, they’re locked into nothing. There’s pop, rock and jazz, with nothing anchoring them to any distinctly Cuban sound.
The fact there aren’t a lot of lines among genres in Cuban music is all to the good. Lucas offers a lot of dance rhythms, and while there isn’t much room to actually dance, people stand, bounce and sing along.
We finish with a late dinner at El Idilio, 351 Calle 15. We sit outdoors, the food is good, and of course there’s a round of mojitos.
I say “we finish.” I lie. Some of the group again is just getting started, with music late into the night.
Fran and I and a couple of others go for an adventure that’s less musical but measurably more dramatic, which is a cab ride back to the hotel.
We are picked up by a blue Moskvitch, a Soviet car from the 1980s. The engine sounds like the inside of a ball bearing factory, and with the amount of power it now generates, we half expect the driver to punch his feet through the floorboard – which wouldn’t require much force – and walk the car like they used to do on The Flintstones.
When we arrive, which is enough of a miracle that it deserves a footnote at Lourdes, Fran asks the driver what year the car was made. He says, in his best English, “1847.” We don’t disbelieve him.
We do not foresee a day when Russian tourists will flock to Havana to swoon over vintage Soviet cars.
As the group slowly gathers in the Melia lobby after breakfast, there is talk of last night’s club excursion, which led to a pickup band with a trombone and drums. More rave reviews.
Casual chat turns to visas, and the problems Cubans face in securing them. Even if Cuba will let you go, Johanna explains, other countries often have ceilings on the number of visitors they will accept.
Internally, you have a problem if you have relatives outside Cuba and not so many relatives inside. That makes it less likely you will return. She also says that the older you are, the easier it becomes to get a visa, because you’re perceived as increasingly less valuable.
Nice to know some perceptions are universal.
Johanna, who wasn’t originally scheduled to work with our group, is a government-licensed guide. She’s in her early 30s and lives outside Havana with her parents and son. She speaks fluent English, down to the idioms, and while she has great affection for Cuba and the Revolution, she acknowledges the country’s struggles.
Together she and Michel, who performs most of the same guide functions even though he’s officially licensed only as a translator, make a good team and underscore why a guide is an excellent investment.
In this case, she’s versed in the sights, the culture and the life of Cuba, while he’s eager to talk about bigger social, economic and political issues, which are woven together and collectively will determine where Cuba goes during his lifetime.
Michel sees looming economic expansion as all to the good for Cubans and he’d like to be part of it – though his only official specific ambition, he says, is that his young daughter will one day become the first Cuban woman to play professional tennis.
In any event, our group faces a more immediate decision. The itinerary calls for a trip to Santa Maria Beach, said to be a lovely patch of Caribbean sand outside Havana. At the same time, there is grass-roots sentiment from another faction to go downtown and further explore Obispo Street.
Eventually the beach group separates to take one van while the self-described “shallow group” takes the other van to go shopping. Hey, we knew there would be mojitos and were hoping for an occasional Edsel. Now shopping, too?
Obispo, like most streets in Havana, is long and narrow. It also has the same visual elements, like marvelous old buildings in pastel colors whose peeling and fading looks like distinguished lines of age in a great old face.
The shops are a striking mix. A few could have been
transplanted from Fifth Avenue, with large window-display photos of elegant models in high-end black-and-white designer outfits. There are also functional stores, like an optometry shop that can make you a new pair of glasses, relatively cheap, before your plane leaves to take you home.
A couple of blocks further, near the pocket park where they sell dogs, is a sort of flea market where vendors at
tables sell crafts and souvenirs. Don’t look for Faberge Eggs here, but much of the group finds inexpensive souvenirs, like colorful bead bracelets.
The store that wins hearts and minds, however, is Carranza Fan Store and Curiosities, 119 Obispo. That might sound like the heat has gotten to us, which in fact is exactly what has happened. After you’ve spent an hour baking on a Havana street, finding a store that sells something to create a breeze is like finding a feather bed in a field of cactus. The fact Carranza has been here for more than a century attests to someone having had a really really good idea.
Fans range in price from about 4 CUCs for a basic model to 25 and up for elaborate and colorful designs. There is also an in-house artist who for a modest charge can add additional designs or inscribe your fan.
You have no idea how much time a relatively small group can spend contemplating
and discussing fans until you’ve seen it. At least the men in this group had no idea.
So it comes as good and bad news when we discover one woman in the group has gone missing, apparently separated from the pack on an earlier street.
The men, many of whom just yesterday were reminded of the macho surge that Hemingway derived from hunting, spill out into the streets to track down the lost maiden, even if it means absenting themselves from extended discussions on the relative merits of blue vs. red fans.
Alas, none of us finds her. She is located by Johanna, who is clearly relieved insofar as it is bad form for a guide to
lose one of the guided. This may explain why, on the next leg of our excursion, she starts several directives with “Now, children….,”
As we make our way toward lunch, Roxanne becomes the first to buy one of Havana’s most popular street drinks: a coconut with the top lopped off and the cool liquid inside.
We also pass through the Plaza de Catedral, which unsurprisingly is named for its showcase church. As we walk by, a noon wedding is just beginning. The bride and her escort are queued up outside the door, “Here Comes the Bride” begins to play and they disappear inside.
Our plans, at least our short-term plans, are more mundane. We walk a few doors to La Moneda Cubana, Calle Empredado 152, then up several steep flights of stairs to the roof, where we can catch an actual breeze.
Rooftop dining is a good thing here for precisely that reason – breeze – though it also must be noted that the Cubans seem to love steep staircases on principle.
The food makes the climb worth it. Several members of our group order the octopus and proclaim it particularly tasty.
After lunch we reboard the van for our only out-of-town field trip, to Matanzas. Johanna tells us several times that we won’t really know Cuba until we’ve seen other parts of the island, but she also says Havana is the place to start and it’s already clear Havana will have no trouble filling a week.
We shoppers rendezvous with the beachgoers, who speak highly of the waters. They do not have fans, of course, but they appreciate what they have missed, and several will visit Carranza themselves before the trip is out.
Along the road to Matanzas, 56 miles east of Havana, seemingly homeless cows graze along the sides of the road, or, more improbably, on hillsides so steep you wonder if these cows trained on the balance beam.
Johanna explains on the drive that Matanzas means “massacre” or “slaughter,” which isn’t terribly romantic. It is, however, the rare case where the victims weren’t the natives, but Spanish soldiers who were looking to evict them.
The town itself, the capitol of Matanzas province, is a horseshoe wrapped around a bay. Because it has 17 bridges, it’s known as the City of Bridges.
In the 19th century, Matanzas was sugar central in Cuba, producing almost half the country’s crop. On a less noble note, much of that sugar was harvested by slaves, who by the mid-19th century comprised more than half of Matanzas’s population.
Today Matanzas feels more like your basic small city, with government buildings, a fire department, offices, shops and a lot of people milling around the streets, many on bicycles. Several rowing shells glide under one of the bridges.
Up a side street, at the Asociacion Provincial, a small neat sign says Ernesto Guevara once lived here.
Our primary purpose for visiting Matanzas is musical. It is the home of Los Munequitos de Matanzas, a song/dance/performance group that originally formed on Oct. 9, 1952, as Grupo Guaguancó Matancero, seven young local men brought together by their fondness for the rumba.
The B side of their first record – anyone under 30 may now ask Siri, “What’s a record?” – was a novelty number called “Los Munequitos,” which roughly translates to “The Newspaper Comic Strip Characters.”
It became such a hit, and was so frequently requested by audiences, that the group adopted it as their bemused name.
Seven generations of performers have now passed through Los Munequitos, which has had a rolling membership. But the musical mission has remained unchanged. Where a group like the Buena Vista Social Club has popularized the more commercial side of Cuban music, Los Munequitos will proudly tell you they have maintained the traditions.
We are at their home base in Matanzas, a dance hall with a high ceiling and a long balcony along one wall. The plaster walls are a very pale pink, the balcony exterior a pale blue faux granite. The walls are decorated with large sepia blowup photos of Munequitos past. They’re marvelously evocative, a timeless vision of pure style.
Members of the group assemble on the stage
and first recount some history. There are three styles of rumba – yambu, guaguanco and Columbia – and judging by Los Munequitos, an infinite variety of drum and percussion nuances with which to explore them.
They play songs as if they are telling stories, the instruments talking to each other as the action intensifies and we accelerate to the end.
Vocalists and dancers weave in and out. For one number an older dancer trades riffs with a girl who is probably about 7. She has been sitting on the side with the indifference of her age until she is called on stage, at which point all her lights go on and she dazzles the room.
After they’re warmed up, Los Munequitos summons our group to come dance with them as the drums slowly accelerate the rhythm. It’s not exactly professional choreography, but it’s happy chaos, and it gives a couple of group members a chance to show off their legitimate skills. Roxanne, who was a professional dancer, stands out here, as does Johnny, a tall fellow who happens to be a drummer himself and has been luxuriating in all the drums we’ve been seeing here. You can see him in the Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy, playing iconic session drummer Hal Blaine.
Five numbers last about 45 minutes and leave everyone sweating more than usual as we mingle and chat with Los Munequitos.
I suggest to the older man who was dancing with the young girl that I see some kinship in Los Munequitos to classic tap dancing steps like Over The Top and In the Trenches.
Michel translates my comment to him. He frowns and replies. Michel says he doesn’t think of this as tap dancing. His body language says he considers Los Munequitos more sophisticated.
Whatever that nuance, Los Munequitos clearly still considers itself the municipal house band for Matanzas, and the performance hall feels almost like a community center where passersby wander in. One man brings his son, who looks to be about 6 and wears a Chicago Bulls cap.
We eventually head back to Havana and wrap up our pre-midnight ramble at El Bukan Calle, 110 E/127 y 129 Playa. It’s a first-class place, and how often on any menu anywhere do you see swordfish stuffed with bacon and cheese? Is that even their natural diet in the wild?
We head out toward Old Havana, which misleadingly suggests there is some sort of organized New Havana somewhere else. While there’s plenty of construction in progress, and our hotel has a newness to it, most of Havana remains wonderfully old.
It’s also misleading to think that translates to shabby chic. Old looks right here. It fits. You don’t get the sense that building construction and design is a race to some hip new architectural cutting edge. .
When you walk down the streets of Beverly Hills, you want to stop half the people you pass and say, “Stop. No more facelifts. Just stop.”
You don’t want the day to come in Havana when you have to say that to the buildings.
Our drive now takes us through a moderately upscale area where Raul and Fidel have houses. Of course, they have houses almost everywhere in Cuba, because they wisely don’t stay in one place for too long.
Before the Revolution, Michel explains, this area was occupied by Cuba’s large middle class. After the Revolution, there was some appropriation.
“The people who owned these homes could still live in Cuba,” Michel explains. “But their old home might be the Chinese embassy.”
Ah, the Chinese. We pass a tree-lined area that looks like a modest-sized amusement park. Which it is, Michel says. Sort of. It was once the Coney Island of Cuba. “Then it closed and the Chinese bought it,” he says. “But only two attractions worked. It was like a ghost town for kids.”
After the Soviets pulled their vanishing act in 1991, the Cubans hoped the Chinese might pick up some of the slack, or at least the sugar. It didn’t really happen. It was 2005, Michel recalls, before a deal was cut even to import Chinese cars.
Not that he thinks there should have been any rush.
“You can buy a Chinese car now,” he says. “You just need to buy three more for parts.”
What most Cubans did not do when outside events like the U.S. embargo and the Soviet pullout waterboarded the Cuban economy, Michel says, is blame the Castro brothers.
“Fidel charmed the people,” he says. “My grandmother always liked him. My grandfather, who was more political, didn’t like Batista.”
Today, he says, the government is slowly loosening some of its control. A few years ago, Raul Castro privatized hundreds of thousands of jobs. Three years ago the government launched an experiment wherein some business owners who previously had to clear things like hiring with the government were granted more freedom to do it on their own.
A major step that could come in the future, Michel says, would be to allow European banks to operate in Cuba. Investment here has long been made riskier, or at least more difficult, because money must be kept in Cuban banks, which means access to that money requires the approval of the Cuban government. European banks could provide on-demand access, which would make investment more attractive.
None of our group is planning on buying a building today. We’re just browsing, and our browsing takes us to the Yoruba Society, a Santeria museum that features images of Afro-Cuban saint-gods. Alas, all that’s open when we arrive is the gift shop, so we decamp to a site that’s sacred in a different way.
El Floridita, maybe the most popular tourist bar in Havana, claims to be the place where the daiquiri was invented. Lest anyone miss the connection, a towering daiquiri glass is parked by the entrance.
The other defining historical feature of El Floridita is that Hemingway frequented the place when he wasn’t writing, tutoring Renata or shooting something. That’s why one end of the bar has a life-sized bronze-tone sculpture of Hemingway sitting on a stool. Bronze Ernest is also right in front of a picture of Ernest chatting with Fidel. A photo-op with Ernest is free. The daiquiris are not.
Our group declares them worth the price, however, and that’s nothing compared to the value of this El Floridita visit for the young man at whose table Sigourney Weaver briefly sits down.
Having his drink with a friend, he seems dimly aware someone just sat at his table. He casually glances up and in that split second you can see carbon arc lights go off in his head. His eyes widen and his mouth opens with no sound coming out.
Fortunately for him, basic 2016 survival instinct kicks in and he whips out his phone to snap a picture before the moment passes. The bronze Hemingway will stand up and leave the El Floridita bar before this senor will stop showing that picture to his friends.
The real Hemingway, assuming he once considered El Floridita his neighborhood bar – truth is, he probably sampled most of the bars in Havana at some point – would find it less intimate today. It’s clean and pleasant, which in most cases is what you want in a bar. It’s also a small industry.
On the opposite side of the front door from the tall daiquiri glass, a musical quintet sings easy-listening tropical songs. Guitar, violin, maracas, drums, standup bass. It’s pleasant. To Bronze Ernest’s presumed chagrin, none of the songs reference the Spanish Civil War. After a couple of songs the band circulates, selling their CDs.
For lunch we hop over to the docks, the center of Cuba’s import/export trade back when there was any.
A large former warehouse has been converted to a large dining space, succinctly called Antiguos Almacen do Madera y Tabaco, Ave del Puerto Avenida Puerto y San Pedro.
The inside, being an old metal building, is airy but noisy. Everything you say ricochets back a second or two later. The acoustics are better outside, where we take our seats. It’s cooler and since service is casual, to put it politely, there’s time to wander around.
Alongside the building, mostly paved over though still visible, are the tracks on which railroad cars rode up to the water’s edge to load and unload. Clearly no one expects they will roll again any time soon.
The docks themselves, however, are back in action receiving those cruise ships, and they’ve been repurposed to make tourists feel right at home.
Beside our restaurant, there’s a parking lot full of 1950s cars honking to take you for a spin. An hour riding around Havana in that old Mercury or DeSoto runs around 25-30 CUCs, convertibles a little more than sedans.
Right next door another large former warehouse has been converted to what’s called a craft market, nominally selling native crafts.
That’s true if native crafts to you means row after row of booths selling Che T-shirts (10-12 CUCs), Che hats (3-5 CUCs) and homemade paintings of Fidel, interspersed with photos of Derek Jeter and Charlie Chaplin.
In other words, it’s a full-service Cuba souvenir market, perfect for that last-minute gift shopping before you get back on the ship.
If you leave Cuba without some memento of Che, you weren’t trying. (Full disclosure: Fran has the leather embossed purse. I have the T-shirt.)
Lunch at Antiguos is very good, by the way. You can’t miss with the chicken.
Later in the afternoon we leave the tourist path for a visit, arranged by Ed, to the home of Cuba’s best-known female spoken word artist, Telmary Diaz, known in the biz as Telmary.
She doesn’t live in a mansion, just a nice house where about 16 of us sit around the perimeter of the living room and nosh on sweet Cuban snacks provided by the mother of one of Telmary’s friends.
The biggest suggestion of Telmary’s success may be the fact her living room is air-conditioned. She spent some time in Canada, she tells us, because Cuba was too hot. Then she came back, partly because Canada was too cold.
Too bad there isn’t some place between Cuba and Canada.
But Telmary talks less about climate control than her musical path. That began around 1999, she tells us in well-turned English, when she was a teenager and decided to become a rapper, “which was very unusual for a female at the time.”
Her father thought so, too. He told her to become a doctor or a lawyer.
She declined, sliding from journalism over into poetry and rapping. “I wanted to bring to Cuban hip-hop,” she says, “some of the ways of improvisation we have in our culture.”
She became known for fusing her lyrics with a wide variety of musical styles. Her live shows are eagerly awaited, her albums have been hits and she has won several major awards.
But she says being a successful artist in a country where the government licenses artists isn’t quite like being a successful artist in other places. The fame is there, the fortune is not.
“In Cuba,” she says, “fame is not that important because you don’t have money.”
She’s not the first successful musician not to get rich, of course, and she notes that in Cuba like elsewhere, “almost no one” makes money from album sales any more.
Still, there are peculiarities in Cuba. She says she sometimes agrees to play shows she probably won’t be able to make, because “I have to lend my name to it for it to happen at all, since the government licenses it.”
That’s part of the reason, she suggests, that she went exploring. She went to Spain and didn’t like it. Didn’t much care for Europe, in fact. When her boyfriend, a Jamaican drummer, decided to settle in Canada, she went along.
“Canada was so good and so different,” she says. “So much freedom.”
“But there was no hip-hop movement there,” she says. “When I was in Canada and said I was a musician, people would say, ‘But what do you do for a living?’”
There were also other incentives to return to Cuba. Like the average temperature from November to March. Or 3-year-old. Or fights that need fighting.
“In Cuba, you can have six families living in one house,” she says. “And the men let the women do all the work. I fight against that.”
So there are tradeoffs.
“Sometimes in Cuba you can get blacklisted for leaving the country,” she says. ”Because it’s as if you’re betraying the country. I think that’s trying to change. A lot of things will change after Raul.”
For those keeping score at home, Raul became president when Fidel stepped down in 2008. In 2013 he was re-elected to another five-year term and announced he would not seek reelection in 2018, when he will be 87.
It is widely expected that after 59 years under the two Castros, Cuba in 2018 will elect a new generation of leaders. For starters, it would be almost impossible not to elect someone younger.
At Ed’s urging, Telmary finishes with a performance number. She can rap in English, she says, “but I don’t feel I can improvise as I do in Spanish. I’m not as comfortable.”
She does the number, a capella, in Spanish.
At a club last night, Jim says, the band played for three straight hours with a flutist who did things he had never seen before. Totally amazing, he says.
And he sleeps when?
This morning we cash in on Ed’s connections to Cuban visual artists, the first of whom is Tamayo.
His studio is on the second floor of his home, and when you reach the top of the stairs, you pass a baby carriage/stroller that has been refitted as an army tank, in full camo.
It gets even more interesting from there.
Most of Tamayo’s paintings and prints are rooted in popular culture, American and Cuban. There’s Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe and Al Capone. A large poster has a startled Superman looking over his shoulder to see Che emblazoned on his cape.
But a huge chunk of Tamayo’s work revolves around baseball players, collectively reflecting his affection for the sport, its history and many of its most important practitioners.
[Fair warning: If ramblings about baseball makes your head crash forward into your oatmeal, skip the next 18 paragraphs.]
We’re not talking Babe Ruth here. We’re talking players in the Cuban leagues and the Negro leagues, the ones who played the game just as well for little money and less fame, except in places like Cuba, Mexico and the “colored” sections of major U.S. cities.
Tamayo spotlights Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearns, Raymond Brown and Mule Suttles, many of whom picked up a few dollars in the U.S. off-season by playing for Cuban teams like the Leopardos de Santa Clara in the 1920s.
All you need to see is Satchel Paige in a Superman uniform to know Tamayo understands the game..
His all-time favorite player, he says, is Martin DiHigo, who pitched and played second base in the Negro, Cuban and Mexican leagues. One year in Mexico he went 18-2 with a 0.90 ERA, and while statistics from all those leagues are hopelessly spotty, we know he won more than 250 games as a pitcher and hit hundreds of home runs. He’s in the Hall of Fame in all three countries.
DiHigo also has an interesting off-the-field story. He left Cuba in 1952 to protest the excesses of Batista, then returned with the Revolution in 1959. Castro named him minister of sport. While he was born a few years too early to play in the U.S. major leagues, Tamayo calls him the most famous Cuban baseball player.
Perhaps Tamayo’s baseball piece de resistance is a painting of a large diamond with Cuban players scattered all over the field.
DiHigo is here, of course, and dozens of others from Tony Oliva to Omar Linares. Luis Tiant is on the mound.
What I’m looking for, I find in the lower right hand corner, in a small motorized cart used to bring in pitchers from the bullpen. Specifically, Tamayo uses the familiar Cuban three-wheeler called the Coco Taxi. .
One of its occupants is Camilo Pascual, who pitched for the Washington Senators in the 1950s when the Senators kept signing Cubans to avoid signing black Americans.
Pascual was a solid pitcher, a five-time All-Star who went back to play in the Cuban league every winter until Castro banned that kind of shuttling in 1960.
But the guy I care about is the guy in the cart next to Pascual, Edmundo “Sandy” Amoros.
I tell Tamayo, who speaks some English, that I’m glad he included Amoros. A smile engulfs his face. He fully extends his right arm. “Amoros,” he says. “The catch!”
Yes. The catch.
On Oct. 4, 1955, in the seventh inning of the seventh game of the World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Walter Alston decided his best shot at preserving a precarious 2-0 lead was sending Sandy Amoros to left field as a defensive replacement for Junior Gilliam.
Sure enough, the Yankees put runners on first and second and Yogi Berra sliced a drive toward the left field corner. Gilliam, a fine player, would have had almost no chance to catch it, because even if he ran it down, he was right-handed and would have had to reach across his body. No way. The ball lands in the corner, two runs score, Yogi pulls into second with a double. The game is tied and here we go again. The Dodgers had played the Yankees in the World Series in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, and every year they lost.
Not this time. No mas. Amoros was a lefty. He threw out his right arm and caught the ball a step and a half from the fence.
Then he planted his right foot, pivoted and threw a strike to shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to first baseman Gil Hodges for a double play. That effectively stopped the Yankees from scoring, and two innings later Brooklyn had the only World Series it would ever win.
[Baseball interlude over. We now resume our regular blogging.]
The next artist, Kadir Lopez Nieves, works in a different medium: vintage signs, like the kind you would have seen at a gas station or at a corporate headquarters or along the Havana roadsides in 1956.
Nieves takes these old signs and sort of restores them while trying to enhance them. Specifically, he’s fond of adding neon to reinforce the sign’s original message.
Jeff, our neon guy, likes that neon is involved. He’s ambivalent about whether it would be better to restore them to what they were, without any added neon component.
Nieves, whose work spills out of his house into an enclosed backyard covered with old signs in various stages of repair and disrepair, says his ultimate goal would be to “restore the neon glamour of the city. . . . recreating the past as it would look in the future.”
He’s got folks who like that vision, and not just in Cuba. His work was shown in Southampton in July.
One of his biggest challenges, he says, is finding the signs. Since the corporate signs in the 1950s tended to come from American companies, he says, revolutionary soldiers saw them as way-too-tempting symbols of capitalist oppression.
“Most of them were destroyed,” he says. “The rebels used them for target practice.”
All his work isn’t signs. There’s also, for instance, Havana Monopoly, a photo montage of Cuban images set up as a Monopoly board, with neon in the middle. One work from this five-piece edition recently went on sale for $2,800
We drive from Nieves’s studio to another downtown area, parking near a long pedestrian alley where a group of dancers is performing rumba and other numbers under a tent. The tent is critical because as we walk further down the alley we’re reminded just how hot this place can get.
That lesson is reinforced again when we head for lunch at the Sandwicheria le Bien Paga, Aguacate No. 259. Ed tells us it’s the best sandwich in Havana, though it’s hard for the rest of us to be that definitive, not having sampled any of the other contenders.
It’s a decent sandwich, it turns out. It’s not worth chartering a plane to go to Cuba for lunch, but if you’re there already, you could do worse.
Our bigger victory is finding a shaded park where we can unwrap and eat the sandwiches. It’s a couple of blocks away and there’s a slight sea breeze along with a statue of Juan De La Luz y Caballero, 1800-1867.
Caballero was described by Jose Marti, who should know, as “the father of Cuban intellectual life.” Caballero argued that there was a singularity and autonomy to Cuban thought, that it wasn’t just some salsa of random thoughts from all the countries that had shuffled in and out.
Sitting in the park gives us a moment to reflect on a couple of things, including the fact that after just a few days we have some idea where we are in Havana. We recognize buildings and streets.
Since it’s hot even in the shade, it’s also a moment to reflect on two of the most important words in Havana: Ciego Montero, the most popular bottled water. It is not wise for a tourist to take any extended walking tour around Havana without it, which may explain why it is widely available for about 1 CUC a bottle.
And as long as we’re talking about walking through Havana, be advised that the concrete sidewalks need a lot of repair. Over time chunks have broken off, creating periodic piles of debris and corresponding ruts where the chunks used to be.
The heartening news is that there seems to be a steady stream of repair work going on. Less heartening: It’s low-tech. It usually seems to be four or five men with a wheelbarrow full of water and a bag of cement. They wheel it over from wherever they can park, mix it up and reshape the sidewalk.
Depending on how strongly you embrace the concepts of smooth and level, this can either be random and chancy or charming and folksy.
We next stop for ice cream at Coppellia, which Ed says is the best ice cream joint in Havana, though once again we have to take his word for it. It’s easier this time, because the ice cream is very good. How many ice cream parlors anywhere have a mojito flavor?
Late in the afternoon, back at La Melia, Ed tells us to assemble in the ninth floor bar area where we go for breakfast every day.
Fifteen or 16 of us dutifully show up to sit in a small lounge area and hear a half dozen flamenco guitar pieces by Reymier Marino. It enhances music when it feels like it’s being played in your living room, but this would have sounded superb anywhere.
Rey accepts our invitation to join us for dinner at El Cocinero, Calle 26, where it proves fortuitous that John speaks Spanish, which most of us don’t, and thus can show more than abstract appreciation for his playing.
We’re on a roof again, which is as pleasant as the old Drifters’ song suggests, and for the first time we see rabbit stew on the menu. Recommended: the red snapper.
Word has circulated by now how close we came to losing the drummer.
Johnny, like all of us, occasionally wandered onto the balcony outside his hotel room. It’s a nice relaxing view. Only this one time he closed the sliding glass door and it locked.
Our group is on the seventh to ninth floors, so these balconies aren’t the kind of thing you can jump off unless you packed a bungee cord. They aren’t especially scary, because on the outside of the railing there is a wide, sturdy flower box. Still, the balcony isn’t where you want to spend your Cuban vacation.
Johnny didn’t have his cell phone with him. He did, however, have a peso in his pocket. So he went to work with the peso and found it would eventually release the lock. This option isn’t information you want cat burglars to have, but then, if cat burglars are prowling seventh, eighth or ninth floor balconies, we have bigger problems.
We don’t have a lot of scheduled activities today, so Fran and I take a cab toward Old Havana by way of the Plaza De Armas.
The plaza is where Havana was first settled, which explains a statue of Christopher Columbus. Governors used to live here, because its location gave them a clear view of anyone who might be approaching on the nearby seas.
These days, a view of the ocean from anywhere in Havana includes the Malecon, a concrete wall that runs for miles along the seashore and serves as the city’s go-to hangout spot.
In mid-day, when it’s blazing hot, not all that many people want to bake in the sun. There may be a few fishermen, not much more. But when the day cools down, and especially when the sun goes down, large groups of people migrate to the Malecon just to sit and talk. There are families and extended families. Large groups of young friends. Old folks.
What really gets your attention about the Malecon is that people are still sitting there and chatting at 2 a.m.
Now maybe this says some people don’t have to get up for work, or that a lot of Cuban jobs start toward mid-morning. Maybe it says that a significant part of the Havana population is looking for free social gatherings. One thing it definitely says is that Havana doesn’t worry too much about crime. It exists, like it exists everywhere, but no one seems concerned about wandering downtown to the Malecon at any time of day or night.
The Plaza de Armas has a small square shady park, surrounded by a three-foot wrought iron fence. There’s a statue in the middle of Carlos de Cespedes, who led the 1868 war of independence that didn’t work out quite as well as Fidel’s revolution.
But we’re not here to see Carlos. We’re here for the flea market, because on most days the park is surrounded by vendors with tables or display racks selling used and sometimes odd stuff.
Beat-up record albums from 30 and 40 years ago are nostalgic, if not particularly tempting. Who really wants to come home from Cuba and say hey, I scored a “Best of
the Bee Gees” LP? If you did, you dropped about 10 CUCs.
Several vendors have T-shirts from the recent Rolling Stones concert in Havana. “It was amazing,” says one vendor who was there and now would like you to share his memory by paying 30 CUCs for the shirt.
In the finest flea market tradition, prices are negotiable. If you want a paperback of Danielle Steel’s “The Sins of the Mother,” for instance, you could offer 2 CUCs instead of the 3 CUCs at which it is marked.
Many vendors have books, most of them naturally about Cuba, Fidel and, yup, Che. I buy movie lobby cards from A Private Affair, with Sal Mineo singing, and Ten Wanted Men with Randolph Scott. Perhaps I have been subconsciously influenced by the fact that Bob George is compiling a book of words and phrases from early movies, especially B movies.
Fran is less tempted here than she was in the fan store, so we move on to join Debbie and Jeff for lunch at Dona Eutimia, Callejon Del Chorro 60C, a small restaurant just off Plaza de Catedral. It turns out to be reasonably priced and quite good, with a clear winner in the appetizer of shrimp in garlic oil. Cuban food isn’t generally as spicy as we had expected, but the garlic here means business.
The group later gathers for our last supper at Mediterraneo Havana, 13th St. between F y G. True to its name, it has a bit of a Greek look and true to apparent Cuban custom, it serves plenty of food.
Everyone gets a mojito to start, naturally, and the items that seem particularly impressive include the ceviche, bruschetta and red snapper.
Most of the group continues on to reunite with our old friend Rey, who is playing at a modern-looking bar/club with a whole ensemble. No solo flamenco here, though he’s throwing some of those licks into a mix that includes a flutist, two more guitars, a violinist and some vocals.
It’s the kind of sound we’ve heard a lot this week, trampling down the walls that often separate musical genres. The jazzy flute gets funky. The whole group breaks into a kind of boogie. The more music you hear in Cuba, from the street bands to well-traveled arts school graduates, the more words you feel you would need to define “Cuban music.”
We’re headed home today, but not until early afternoon, so Fran and I grab a cab for a quick visit to the twin art museums, Museo Bellas Artes, that we missed earlier.
We ask our cabbie, who displays an American flag, how the changes in Cuba are affecting him.
“It’s not changing yet,” he says. “But a lot of people say it will. As long as the government is the same, it won’t change too much.
“I know some people have problems with the government. I don’t. Cuba has good and bad things, just like the United States.
“I hope we don’t get McDonald’s and Burger King here. Where they are in other countries, they put chemicals in the meat. Here, we don’t have chemicals, so we don’t put them in our meat.”
Bellas Artes is two separate museums, which turn out to be several blocks apart. One is for European and international art, the other for Cuban art.
Both buildings are spacious and require considerable walking. Neither is crowded with either art or people.
The Cuban museum offers more surprises. One section is contemporary, i.e. post-Revolution, with bold colors and sharp edges. Then there are more traditional older works, showing influences of the French, the Spanish and even John Singer Sargent.
Portraits by Leopoldo Romanach are particularly striking, and Cuban art aficionados won’t want to miss the work of Guillermo Collazo, Rene Portocarerro and Wilfredo Lam, among others.
The European wing, where we seem to be pretty much the only patrons, looks like a picked-over selection. A lot of choice pieces presumably left the country after the Revolution, and perhaps some of what remained wasn’t the sort of thing the new government was eager to showcase.
The docent on the top floor follows us from room to room, ostensibly to be sure we aren’t snapping pictures. Her real motive, we come to suspect, is that she’d just like someone to talk to. She tells us about her grandfather, a pioneer in Cuban aviation.
Earlier in the trip we had asked several Cubans whether it was worth visiting the Havana Botanical Gardens, which cover 600 acres and are a ways out of town.
While no one wanted to trash the Gardens, the consensus was no, you’d be better off spending your time elsewhere. The Gardens are fine, we were told, but they’re more like an arboretum these days – implying they didn’t have the staff or resources to maintain more work-intensive displays like flowers.
Bellas Artes feels like it suffers from the same sort of benign neglect. What’s there is fine. It’s just low on the priority list of where Cuba needs to put its upgrade resources.
Back at the hotel, we leave a tip for the service staff, check out and wistfully enjoy a final round of tailfins and colorful convertibles as we head for the airport.
We arrive three hours before our flight. Check-in takes approximately 10 minutes. That gives us plenty of time to take care of the last crucial task, which is to buy Cuban rum.
Havana Club is cheaper, but Santiago, we’re told, is the rum that will impress your friends. The most popular buy is the mid-range rum, which is aged 12 years and costs 50 CUCs a bottle at the duty-free shop.
You can also buy wine, cigars and honey, which become more enticing when you have three hours and no place else to shop.
The waiting room at Jose Marti Airport more closely resembles a bus terminal back in the States. If you doubt that, you only need to walk into the one place that sells food. The sandwich choices, posted over the counter, are cheese or cheese.
Still, it’s pleasant having time for a wrapup chat with a remarkably compatible group of people, which is definitely whom you should travel to Cuba with.
AND IN CONCLUSION . . . .
On one of our van rides, Michel mentioned that he was born in 1982, nine years before the Soviet pullout, so he remembered spending his early years in constant fear of Americans.
“We were taught that the U.S. was our enemy,” he said. “Everyone feared there could be an invasion or a bombing any day.”
These days in Cuba, there’s more concern about an invasion by mosquitos than by Americans.
True, most of the Cubans you’re apt to meet as a tourist have good reasons to be nice. Tourism is a growth industry in Cuba and Americans have been discovered to be bigger tippers than Europeans. Even the Swedes.
Still, everyday Cubans who have nothing to sell will smile when an obvious tourist passes by. We’re pretty recognizable. If they’re not in a hurry, they’ll ask about New York, or say they have a cousin in Florida. Even if you’re not famous, they’ll ask how you like Cuba..
The answer is that you do like it, accepting that some of it is like Havana sidewalks, a work in progress. Now yeah, we’re all works in progress, but there are a few things that require some adjustment for visitors.
Internet connections are sporadic even in wired areas. When you use a restroom in a public place like a museum, an attendant will give you a small amount of toilet paper, for which you should offer a tip. When you have used the paper, you are asked to put it in a wastebasket instead of flushing it, because the sewerage is, well, fragile.
Early in our trip, someone asked Michel about Cuba’s free health care.
“We don’t have the best health care system in the world,” he said. “But we have the most humane because we try to prevent illnesses. We can’t afford to treat everybody, so we must prevent them from becoming sick.”
Anybody against that? Didn’t think so. The issue, of course, is how to do it, and a lot of Cubans like Michel think Cuba may be closer than the U.S.
Ed Steinberg says Cubans also aren’t as victimized as the superficial observer might think. They’re collectively smart in matters of survival, he says, and visitors don’t see all their cards.
So yeah, a week in Cuba isn’t going to make a tourist an expert about anything except how it all looks before Burger King arrives and how a certain thread of style seems to weave its way through the island’s marked diversity.
As takeaways go, you could do a whole lot worse.
The Cuban capitol building in downtown Havana, Johanna told us on our introductory walk, was designed to look exactly like the U.S. capitol in Washington. “Only just a little bit bigger,” she added with a smile. “Of course.”
The Capitol building at the moment is also undergoing renovations and restoration. Of course.
When it’s done, it will be just as impressive as it aspires to be. Whoever is running Cuba at that point will be able to step out and greet a visiting head of state, or address a crowd, or just take a deep satisfying breath of warm tropical air, against a backdrop of imposing grandeur.
And as he or she stops to inhale that majesty, savoring the sweeping panorama of stately buildings to the left and right, it will be hard to miss the row of sturdy apartments right across the street.
It will be hard in part because at least one of its occupants seems to regularly hang colorful Cuban clothing out to dry on the balcony. That’s just the way folks do it, seemingly in almost every part of town.
Maybe that’s what my guy on Obispo was singing about.