Date of Trip: September 2011
Another week in Havana – September, 2011 – via Toronto and Niagara Falls
HOW IT BEGAN
Living in Miami and then Miami Beach, in 1960 through 1963 and again since 1971, I had been “Cuba’d” to bits. It was Cuba, Cuba, Cuba all the time – on TV, radio, in the newspapers, on the streets. The first wave of migrants began shortly after Fidel took power in January, 1959. First it was the wealthy, then the professional middle class, then the “freedom flights” of the 1960s. There was Fidel’s seemingly quick conversion to communism, the cold war issues, the ill-conceived and ill-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Missile Crisis of 1962. By the 1970s, Cubans made up a preponderance of the population of Greater Miami, and their numbers were increased further as those who had settled elsewhere in the US tended to drift back to Miami, and then by the Mariel boatlift of 1980. US administrations, one after the other, kept an embargo and travel restrictions in force against Cuba, catering in the process to the overwhelmingly Anti-Castro Cuban-American voters in south Florida. For decades, I’d been hearing about Cuba, and almost all of it was bitterly anti-Castro and anti the Cuban government. It was possible to get around the travel restrictions, especially by going through a third country, but it was also risky, and under the militantly anti-Castro Bush administration, it became riskier than ever. One report had it that more federal agents were being used to track money transfers used for “illegal” travel to Cuba than to track money transfers to terrorist groups.
I had gotten to the point of becoming increasingly anxious to see Cuba for myself instead of taking every anti-Castro screed I read or heard as gospel. In September, 2006, the summer camp in northern Ontario that I attended for two months every summer from 1950 through 1955 held its one and only reunion. It was held on site – the former campers gathered in Toronto and then journeyed for an all-day affair at the island, a few hours north of the city and just south of Algonquin Park. I realized that I could easily go to Cuba from Toronto – there are no restrictions on Canadians. I would be in Toronto anyway. And so I made the arrangements – very carefully, so as to avoid detection by the feds. And my daughter and I succeeded. My report on that trip is in this site under the name “Robert” and titled “A Week in Havana.” I hope you’ll read it; it’s much shorter than this one! While there, I discovered that most of what you hear about Cuba is simply not true. With one exception. All those wonderful old cars1 Well, now we’re almost three years into an administration that has virtually removed travel restrictions.
I had been transformed by that 2006 visit. I’d come home and written several short stories set in Havana. The third one, which was intended to be a short story of about 20 pages, turned into a 476 page novel. A 30s single American, recovering from a sadly aborted love affair, makes his third trip to Havana and falls in love with a tourism worker and would-be professional dancer. Cuba had so gotten under my skin.
I decided that this time, my wife also needed to see the real Cuba. We could have gone from Miami – it’s expensive, thanks to the remnants of the embargo – $400 roundtrip for a 230 mile flight – but it’s doable. So why did we go from Toronto – again? My wife wanted to visit an elderly and ill family member in Rochester, NY – not that far from Toronto. After having the opportunity to buy $50 roundtrips from south Florida to Niagara Falls, NY – no, that is not a typo – I decided we’d both go, and I’d buy an inexpensive Cuba package deal from Toronto for the same price as a roundtrip air-only ticket from Miami. Toronto is just a two hour bus ride from Niagara Falls. Sadly, the family member passed away, but all the tickets and packages had already been purchased., and I did have old friends from the afore-mentioned camp to visit with there. I bought a air/hotel package from a Toronto agency, and we were good to go. I’d have preferred to rent a room from a family in a private home in the central city, as I had five years earlier, but Canadian package deals only included hotels. I wasn’t pleased that we’d be about seven miles from the central city. But new experiences and new locations have their advantages, and the distance turned out to be no problem ast all.
Knowing that our credit and debit cards would be useless in Cuba, we made sure we had enough cash. In ‘06, my daughter and I had been hit with a terrible exchange rate and then having unexpectedly to take a $90 cab ride from Veradero Airport to Havana. My wife had been afraid to wire us money by Western Union, which does exist in Cuba, for fear of leaving an electronic trail for the feds. That wouldn’t have been a problem in 2011, but we also made sure it wouldn’t be necessary.
I spent a good deal of time on line, going to various travel sites. Most of the useful information came, not from specialized sites, but from previous visitors who posted. Virtually none were from the U.S. This wasn’t surprising. Despite the much-relaxed travel rules, the popular conception was Americans could go “legally” only if they were visiting family members, and bonafide family visitors weren’t much interested in posting on travel sites. In fact, enforcement of the “ban” had virtually ceased. Third-country travelers were no longer pursued, and a ticket from the US could be bought by simply saying that it was for family travel. No federal agent had any way of verifying the truth of an asserted relationship with a Cuban. Supposedly, one had to be visiting an “immediate family” member. But the official federal rule defined that as being anyone related, in any way, by blood or adoption, going back no more than three generations.
I debated whether to make a separate post for the Toronto stop, but it was so brief and difficult to disentangle from the entire trip account that I decided to leave them as one post.
NIAGARA FALLS / TORONTO
SUNDAY SEPT 18
Our Spirit Airlines nonstop flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Niagara Falls, NY arrived just about on time at 12:10 AM. We had considered going straight to a motel – there were some close by – and then going into town, but decided to just wait out the night in the terminal. A word about the Niagara Falls, NY airport. Its official abbreviation is IAG – nIAGara, get it? Orlando, Florida is MCO – why? Because when Orlando was a little cow town and Disney World not even a dream, there was no airport, just a leased corner at McCoy Air Force Base. Airport initials can be odd. Miami is MIA, but why is Ft. Lauderdale FLL – why the extra L? And Los Angeles is LAX – why the X? ExLax? Atlanta is logically ATL, but New Orleans is MSY and Chicago’s O’Hare is ORD – don’t ask me why. Canadian airports all begin with Y – Toromto’s Pearson is YYZ. Airport names may change, but their initials are never changed. Except once. When Idlewild (IDL) took the name of the martyred president, John F. Kennedy, it became JFK. But I totally digress.
IAG is spanking new and looks it. It’s located perhaps 10 miles from Niagara Falls. It’s a two story terminal, completed in 2009. It has two floors, an escalator, a restaurant and can seat hundreds of passengers. It has an information facility and a built in bus terminal. When we were there, it was served by exactly two flights every 24 hours. One of the flights, on DirecAir, went back and forth to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Orlando, Florida. And Spirit went back and forth to Ft. Lauderdale – in the middle of the night. Meaning that this airport is usually deserted and the restaurant locked down.
We debarked on the second floor and headed towards some comfortable-looking seats, but were told we had to leave that area and go downstairs. We made ourselves at home in the huge and empty ticketing lobby, but were soon told we had to leave it and go into the attached bus station. There were benches there to lie on, for what it was worth. The first bus supposedly was due early in the morning, and the second an hour and a half or so after that on the reduced Sunday schedule. The transit system was operated by NFT, Niagara Frontier Transit, and there were timetables on a shelf. I had grown up in nearby Buffalo, always despising NFT for its unreliability. I soon learned that nothing had changed. There was a 24 hour transit phone link, but the man at the other end didn’t even seem to know that a new airport had come into existence and would only talk about Buffalo’s venerable airport – which, for the record, is initialed BUF. We inquired about taxi rates – they started at $35. We decided to wait and see, but we did want to make the Coach Canada bus from Niagara Falls, Ontario that would get us to Toronto – and within a short walk of our hotel – at about 1:30.
At 8:40 AM, an odd looking wooden “trolley” – that is, an imitation of an old time trolley, on wheels – appeared at the far end of the airport property. We approached it and were told it was part of the transit system and would take us to within a block of the Rainbow Bridge. Riding in it was like riding in a Model T – no shock absorbers – really, the bumpiest, most jarring ride I’ve ever had. But it was cheap, and went where we wanted to go, About half way en route, it pulled into a sort of substation at a small plaza. There was no one there. As we approached downtown, I could see that the smoke-belching, stinking chemical plants that I remembered Niagara Falls, NY for from my childhood were still at it. Pillars of black and white smoke, rising high.
There’s something surreal about crossing international boundaries on foot, but when also involves crossing a certifiable natural wonder of the world, it’s bizarre. It was one block to the entrances to the Rainbow Bridge. There was a small hut where you could change money, and we changed some of our US to Canadian there, then looked for the pedestrian entrance to the bridge. We found the sign. You walk around the corner of a small building, then go through a turnstile. It was eerily reminiscent of the turnstile I’d gone through years before, to pass into Tijuana, Mexico. There was a sign advising that, once through the turnstile, you had to proceed to Canada. Moments later, we were on the bridge, which accepts both vehicles and pedestrians. It was only from the bridge that we could first see the falls, both the straight, up-and-down American falls and the socalled horseshoe Canadian falls. The American falls are narrower, but the bmost noticeable thing about them, aside from the sheer volume of water, is the mass of rocks at the bottom. One lock at that and you can understand why few people who try to go over the falls from the Niagara River in a barrel, or whatever else they use, survive. It’s really a crapshoot; some years back, a young boy fell into the river and went over those same falls and survived without a scratch. The horseshoe falls, apparently dead ahead, are apparently a few hundred yards farther from the American falls, which are on the left as seen from the bridge. We paused several times, taking it in and taking photos. In the middle of the bridge is a marker for the international boundary, and there are coin operated telescopes, the same kind I recalled seeing on the Empire State building 86th floor observatory as a little boy.. At the end was a small structure where Canadian customs and passport control is located. As of a year or so ago, the US requires specific forms of ID – preferably a passport – to enter from Canada by land. Canada is easier – they’ve always been easier. We flashed our passports and were waved through.
I had no idea how to get to the Coach Canada bus station from there using public transit, so we took a taxi. The bus terminal was a few blocks uphill from another international bridge, the Whirlpool Bridge; like most bus terminals, it was rather small, somewhat shabby, and contained a snack counter. I bought two roundtrip tickets to Toronto and we settled back to wait. From the counter, I bought a copy of the Globe and Mail, Toronto’s leading newspaper. It was the thick Sunday edition, and, to my surprise, when I opened it, it contained a section which was a slightly abbreviated version of the New York Times, which I subscribe to at home. Looking at the bottom of that section’s front page, I was surprised to find that these Times sections are included in over 60 newspapers, all around the world.
Our bus left at 11:15, and the ride to Toronto was pleasant and smooth. The bus didn’t stop at Hamilton, by far the biggest city en route, but did stop at Grimsby, south of Hamilton. To get from Niagara Falls to Toronto, you have to drive a sort of curve, around the western end of Lake Ontario. It was a trip I’d made countless times in the past as a child and young man, and there were some beautiful lake views. Everywhere I looked, the Canadian maple leaf flag was flying. I saw far more Canadian flags than you’d see American flags on a comparable journey. Canadians had never impressed me as being obsessive about their flag as so many Americans are – perhaps it was just a way of saying, hey, we are NOT “the states” – for only Canadians refer to the US as “the states.” And it is a pretty flag. Before long, we were in Toronto’s outskirts, seeing endless high rises – Toronto is Canada’s biggest city.
The Econolodge is located on Jarvis Street, perhaps three blocks from the station in Toronto, and involved walking past Yonge, the city’s best known main artery – Jarvis parallels it, north to south. Decades earlier, I’d read that Jarvis had been unofficially recognized by the local authorities as the one place where prostitution would be tolerated, but there was no sign of that now, either by day or by night. What there was, as there was all around downtown Toronto, was homelessness. Toronto is a wealthy and busy city, which made that problem all the more visible, but it was nothing new. Years earlier, when I’d been there in winter, a homeless woman had frozen to death in a parking garage. Walking to Jarvis, we passed Ryerson University. They had a film festival in progress, and a young woman greeting festival-goers asked us if we needed assistance. It would have been nice, but we had people to meet.
Our hotel was strictly a one star operation. Earlier that year, we’d paid $124 for a fairly nice albeit not distinguished room in a Holiday Inn Express in Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea district. This place was $150 and our room was a third floor walkup and was comparable to a YMCA with a private bath. We settled in and decompressed.
Years earlier, as a child and then a young teenager, living in Buffalo, I’d spent two months of every summer at a summer camp, Kawagama, located perhaps 100-odd miles north of Toronto on an island in one of countless lakes in the Algonquin Park region. My best friend from those camp days had shown up in south Florida a year earlier, and we’d gone to dinner with him and his wife. Now we were about to have dinner with them and three other former Kawagama cabinmates and their wives. This isn’t the place to describe personal reunions – suffice it to say that aforesaid best friend and his wife took us on a two hour but exhaustive tour of Toronto’s neighborhoods before driving us to a restaurant in the northern part of the city where we all had a private room. It was an old fashioned sort of seating – wives at one end, husbands at the other, My former cabinmates had a reunion itinerary of their own. There are two group dinners a year,. One with just the husbands – another with husbands and wives. This was one of the latter, and, as one who had shared a cabin with the husbands, we were an accredited part of it. After the dinner, another of the couples drove us back to our very humble abode.
MONDAY SEP 19
The morning news was as dismal as our room, and so was the breakfast. Our TV featured the news that Canada’s parliament was reconvening with a conservative party majority under their PM Stephen Harper, whose chief aims seem to include expending vast resources to suck dirty petroleum out of Alberta’s tar sands, downsize social services, eliminate environmental protection, promote a “religious-right” agenda, and generally wipe out Canada’s image as our progressive northern neighbor. The breakfast included bread, toast and bagels, cereal, milk and coffee. The “juice” turned out to be koolaid. We checked out, asking them to hold our bags for us.
We had two errands to run before sightseeing. The first was to a bank – any bank – to change the rest of our US dollars into Canadian to avoid the Cuban 10% penalty charge on Yankee money. We were able to change most but not all of it – the bank had a $250 limit for non-depositors. We had our own money and also $100 we were carrying for a friend’s cousins in Havana. The second stop was a Canadian post office. Set up more like a retail store with assorted merchandise than a typical US post office, a friendly employee helped me while my wife browsed. What I needed was two fully postpaid empty self sealing parcels to use to ship all my Cuban souvenir stuff back from Canada to Miami Beach. Why not just bring it back when we no longer had to worry about breaking some stupid restriction? The fear was that we’d get a hot-dogger of a US customs agent who would hassle us and hold us up and we’d miss our flight home and have to pay an outrageous change fee. The employee sold me the stamps and applied them to two large self sealing flexible packets.
Our first sightseeing destination was The Royal Ontario Museum. It was eight subway stops south. SThe ROM – as it’s known in Toronto – is a wonderful, all inclusive museum, comparable only to London’s Victoria and Albert, or to the entire Smithsonian complex altogether. One might call it Canada’s Attic. We got there by subway, after buying an all-day transit pass for $10 each. In a museum like the ROM, you never know what you’ll encounter first. In our case, it was an exhibit of Indian movie posters and signs and showings of portions of movies – . Bollywood flicks. The first we saw was charming, showing a Chaplinesque guy walking, playing a flute, using his cane when surprised by a snake, riding camel and then an elephant seated in front of a quintessentially older Indian guy complete with walrus-like mustache. Another showed the same actor, some years later – 1964 – at an English-style party in India. With a small crowd, an accordion, and an elegant woman playing a piano. The interactions between the characters were fascinating, even funny without being silly.
We moved on to exhibits dealing with Byzantine society and Constantinople. There was a lot of deja vu – Ellen had been to Istanbul four months earlier, and also had been there with me oin 2006. The iconic Hagia Sophia, the great church turned mosque turned museum, where I’d marveled at the murals and the huge Arabic-inscribed discs that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, was the star of that show. A short informative video, one of many, explained that the use of the term “Byzantine” in a pejorative sense was unfair – Byzantium had actually been a relatively open society. An idealized sculpture of Cleopatra came with a card explaining that it was indeed idealized – I happened to know that you have to go to coins to get anything approaching a true image. There were mummies of humans and of animals, mostly but not only cats, but no dogs. Even a crocodile mummy. One of the human mummies had the actual head exposed. There were relics and artwork from Pompeii. There was a superb exhibit of Etruscan jewelry, a huge decorative Etruscan plate, and an explanation that the Etruscans had had their heyday for only 50 years, from about 550 to 500 BC. . There were artifacts from the Chinese ‘Hell” people. The colorful porcelains of them reminded me of similar items in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the fact that no one ever designed nastier looking folks in miniature than the Chinese of centuries past. There were superb exhibits of minerals, miniatures, coins and precious metals One of the minerals, cerrusite, a natural crystalline form of lead carbonate, looked like nothing I’d ever seen before – I was entranced by it.
The African exhibits included a “car coffin” from the “Ga” people. They made coffins in the exact shape and design of popular cars, but smaller, and with every detail included. The model we saw was a Mercedes-Benz, and an interpretive sign explained that this was the most popular model, being a status symbol. There were decorative arts and exhibits of everyday objects and tools from different places and eras, with explanations of how they were made and used. We saw a long line of miniature Chinese warriors, some on horseback, reminiscent of the “terracotta warriors” of Xian. A special highlight were the furnished rooms from different locales and periods. An English dressing room, c, 1710-1730, and another from 1750. There were hundreds of interpretive videos, all of them short, sweet and clear. The oddest thing about the museum was the total absence of guards, despite the fact that many precious things were fully exposed. I call it the “Michael Moore syndrome,” as, in his movie “Bowling for Columbine,” he went on at some length about the low crime rate in Canada and the way that people in Toronto supposedly didn’t lock their doors.
An amusing sidelight was the exhibit of suits of armor. The humor came from its location adjacent to a contemporary hockey player, full size and in full protective gear. The analogy, both in terms of protective gear and violence, hardly needed the emphasis that was supplied.
Toronto shares with Boston and San Francisco the distinction – and it is a distinction – of having been the only city in North America NOT to do away with its streetcars. After leaving the ROM, I suggested visiting the Distillery District, which was recommended in several guidebooks. We took the subway south towards the lake. In the subway car was a poster placed by the TTC – the city agency that ran the city’s transit system. It minced no words ‘Respect and Dignity. Freedom from harassment and discrimination. This is at the very heart of the TTC’s commitment to upholding all aspects of the Ontario Human Rights Code.” Another TTC poster warned of $2000 fines and six month jail sentences for assaulting one of their workers. “The TTC has zero tolerance for worker assault.” We then took a bus, and got off a bus near Lake Ontario, and saw nothing but industrial buildings and an elevated highway, but we followed the map down a side street and walked into a building which actually had been a distillery and still featured examples of the large distilling apparatus. Walking through it and out to the back, we were in a sort of enclave, with small thoroughfares lined with low rise structures featuring restaurants, taverns, art galleries and gift shops. An interpretive sign explained that the area had become a distillery center when surplus grain was brought there to be turned into spirits in the early and middle 19th century. By now, it was dark and rather chilly out. We stopped in one gallery which was also in the business of turning one’s artworks into books. Then we wandered into a Japanese bar and deli. Bottles of saki and other drinks were for sale, and there was a short counter with bar stools at one side. I decided to order a small cold saki. It came with squares of fishpaste, to be dipped into wasabi sauce. Next stop was a small bakery which also sold soup and sandwiches. There were no tables, but a few chairs. We each had a styrofoam bowl of cheese and cauliflower soup. As we finished, a stout genial woman emerged from the back and asked how we liked it. She seemed to need praise for it, and I offered it to her – it was pretty good.
Getting back to the Econolodge meant taking the number 65 bus north and then the Carleton streetcar west to Yonge. We crossed the street where the streetcar tracks curved, and waited. We watched one streetcar after another go the other way, but ours never came; a friendly young woman said she had just texted the transit system and been told it would be another 11 minutes. But we ended up walking it; when we got to our corner to turn off, it still hadn’t come. In the meantime, it had started to rain. I stopped briefly to take photos of the multicolored facade of the church across the street, and got some snacks from a deli to take to the airport. We took some time in the lobby to rest and dry out – we had all the time in the world to get to Pearson airport for our 6:10 AM departure.
Most cities in the Americas have economical public transit connections to their airports – in Toronto, we took the west bound subway to the end of the line at Kipling, then the “Airport Rocket” 192 bus to Pearson. The airport complex was huge, and I expected that we’d walk into a busy and crowded facility. Huge, yes – busy and crowded, no. Almost dead would be more accurate, and it was just mid-to-late evening.
TUESDAY SEP 20
We arrived at the SunWings counter at Toronto’s Pearson airport mid-evening; you don’t rent a hotel room for a 6:10 AM international flight unless you’re prepared to miss it. The terminal was three floors and massive, but every airline counter was deserted. There was nowhere to lie down comfortably, and few places to sit – we commandeered a group of four chairs. The only thing open was a foreign exchange booth. We’d changed most of our money into Canadian at a downtown Toronto bank because of the 10% penalty Cuba levies on US dollars, but they had a $250/person limit on non-account holders and we had some money left, and the booth cheated us unashamedly – we’d have done slightly better taking the 10% penalty at the Cuban end. We waited most of the night at Pearson, ate our snacks, read, talked, and looked up things on Ellen’s Barnes and Noble Nook, which doubles as a sort of quasi-computer.. High above us was a huge annoying electronic Emirates Airlines advertising sign, letting us know that if we flew them first class to Dubai – a place I have no interest in visiting, and am sick of hearing about – we would have our own private shower on board. Nice – a $20 or $30 thousand dollar shower.
SunWings finally opened, and a crowd quickly formed. Once again, the destination was Veradero. This planeload of Canadian tourists, like the one in ‘06, had little interest in anything beyond the Veradero beach resorts. Living in Miami Beach, this is something we don’t need to travel for.
We somehow were invited to jump the line. I was concerned about seating because we’d need to change money and catch our bus on arrival.. I hoped to be near the front, but we were placed in the 26th row on SunWings, flight 680. Canadian security is quick – no shoe removal required. The flight was prompt and took about 3 hours. It was full. We had a hot breakfast. The route went over central Florida and the descent actually began over the Everglades. Going through passport control, this time the cameras were visible, small and mounted right on the front edge of each booth. We were sent back to the health insurance desk and had to pay $50 Can. Total for coverage. No one else that I could see had to do that. A tall Cuban man approached me. Had I been to Cuba before? Yes, once. Why did I go via Canada when I lived in Florida? I explained that. Then followed the x ray baggage screening. By then almost everyone else had gone through everything and I was concerned. I didn’t see money changing booths inside, but when we got outside there were numerous buses and a man selling cans of cold beer from a tray for $2 each. We were directed to our bus, a full size one, and I brought the 2 cans with me and we drank them. The money changing booth was outside and it became apparent that I could still make it there and back; the bus wouldn’t leave with E but not me. The beer man was still there and I figured I’d get two more from him but when I finished at the booth he was gone.
There wasn’t much to see along the way, other than Matanzas and the bridge and, of course, the shoreline and the ocean. The bus was mostly full, but at least 80% of the passengers were dropped off at seaside resorts. Almost the entire trip is along the coastal road on the north side of Cuba. Traveling along it five years ago, I had counted exactly one oil pumper. This time, I counted 10. Havana doesn’t really become apparent until soon before the port tunnel. My first sight of the Antonio Maceo on horseback monument. High on a column, there are subsidiary statues below, within a concrete circle and a fence. Then, the Malecon – first its out pouching where the fishermen gather and then the long seawall. The Malecon is 7 km long , and the seawall is about two feet high and two and a half feet wide, and a popular gathering place – I have photos of my daughter and I and some other Cubans sitting on it from 2006. It has occasional indentations where people can sit on actual benches, and on the other side were the buildings, medium height, and for the first time I really noticed how dilapidated so many of them were – one, near the Prado – which I couldn’t see from there – was literally half crumbled. The old cars were still there, endlessly, seemingly more than I could recall from ‘06. I didn’t recall having gone all the way to its end on the previous trip – there had been only the one trip as far as Vedao, to the synagogue. Overhead green and white signs announce Calle Calzada and request driving with Modere Velocidad, accompanied by a triangle with a lightning slash through it. There is what appears to be a very large athletic field and fenced in playground. Neat small houses, one in sore need of repainting, one being repainted as we looked. On the way to its end, on the land side, was a large playground and a sort of very large tilted gray wall with the words PATRIA O MUERTE painted on it in red. The Spanish-style exclamation point appeared at the beginning of the slogan, but the right-side-up one was lacking at its end. Shades of New Hampshire’s “live free or die,” I thought. About halfway down, the avenida turns inward and there is a crossing and a place where vehicles have to make a partial turn in order to rejoin the seaside boulevard and its stream of traffic. The bus passed the hulking Hotel Nacional, still elegant and still very much in business, minus the gangsters. I looked, as I did many times after that, for the building housing the U.S. “embassy,” now minus its black flags. The Cubans had erected a screen of them, years earlier, to block the anti-Castro messages flashed on a diplomatically-protected outdoor screen. I had never been able to spot the building. The aggressive quasi-ambassador had since left the diplomatic service and entered politics, and both screen and flags were reportedly gone.
There are two ways to cross into Miramar, both requiring a crossing of the Almendares River. One is a bridge, well inland; the other is a tunnel, and that’s what we too. I had never seen it before; I’d never been to Miramar.. Emerging, there was a sign about revolution involving heroism and honesty. The bus continued along the now rather nondescript seaside for a while, then turned inland and through a few narrow side streets.
The lobby of the Aparthotel Montehabana was long and dark, with a stairway and, to the left, an elevator and the reception desk. Near the door were two computers – internet access was available at 3 CUC per half hour. Nearby were a number of large wooden cushioned chairs and a bar which, we were told, would not be opening just yet. The hotel had been closed for renovation and we’d been hoping to be rerouted to its sister hotel – same ownership – the Occidental Miramar, next door. We’d been taken there first, and told that we’d be staying there, but then discovered we’d been misinformed. The driver/agent had been mistaken, If we’d arrived a day earlier, we would have been checked in at the Occidental. . But the Montehabana had just reopened, and there we were.
Quickly emerging from the shadows was a man I will call Ramon. A slightly baby-faced fellow, Lori and I had met him in the Viazul bus terminal 5 years earlier. He had said he was a musician, had played a gig in Miami, had been treated with hostility by the Cubans there who kept calling him a communist for living in Cuba, and that he’d never return there. I had apologized to him on behalf of my community. I’d reestablished contact with him by e mail, but it was an uneasy contact. He kept making references in his e mails to taking us on tours in classic old cars, and we neither wanted nor could afford that. As we usually do when we travel together, we chart our course independently and do a lot of wandering.
It was an awkward situation. I’d told him where we’d be, but I thought he would call us first rather than just show up. We checked in; the desk staff consisted of a group of uniformed 20s to 40s men and women, all of them pleasant., We needed to get settled in our room first, so we left Ulises in the lobby and took the elevator to the second floor. We were signed up for a standard room, but what we had was a suite, number 119 – a living room with a balcony, a kitchenette with a fridge, stove and dishes, pots, pans and cutlery, a sizeable bathroom, a large long closet, and a bedroom. The living room included chairs, a table and a couch, and a cable TV. I was surprised to discover that it included CNN, but then remembered that CNN had a news bureau in Cuba and that Ted Turner had been buddies with Fidel. We quickly found out that only the bedroom was supplied with air conditioning, but the a/c wasn’t working.
We were anxious to get to Habana Vieja – Old Havana – on our own, but weren’t certain how to do it. I was well supplied with printout, photocopies from guidebooks and one pocket sized Havana guidebook from the public library at home. But we were perhaps 7 miles from there, and people posting on TripAdvisor had said a regular taxi would run perhaps 10 CUC – a net cost of $11-$12 to us. I had information about, and a map of the routes of the cheap “collectivo” taxis and knew they ran along the nearby coastal Third Avenue, but didn’t know how to hail them or what they charged. Nor did I know – yet – about the four-times-daily free shuttles available to us from the Occidental next door.
I made it clear to Ramon that we weren’t interested in a tour but perhaps could meet later for drinks and/or dinner, for which I expected and wanted to pay. He had also asked me for a family picture, and I gave him a photo of Lori that I’d printed out and brought with me. We just wanted to get to Habana Vieja right away, and he indicated that we should follow him. He and Ellen walked ahead of me down past an empty lot and close by the Supermercado 70, the area supermarket, to the corner of 70th street and 3d Avenue. After a moment, he and Ellen suddenly walked around the corner, and they motioned for me to follow. There was a 50s American car, one of tens of thousands in Cuba. This one looked rather beat up, and there was a woman sitting in it along with the driver.
I quickly learrned how to use the collectivo taxi system. It relies on more-than-usually beatup 50s American cars, some of which have a piece of paper with the word “taxi” scrawled on it in a window, and some of which do not. The fares are standardized – 40 national pesos between Miramar and Habana Vieja, and 20 pesos within the Vieja/Centro area and to and from Vedado. Passengers are expected to have their peso bills in hand, in the correct amount, and simply hand them to the driver.
A word about national pesos or “pesos” versus convertible pesos – pesos convertible – or CUCs, pronounced “kooks.” This is the dual monetary system that exists in Cuba and nowhere else. A peso is worth about four cents; a CUC, about a dollar. Dollars and euros can be exchanged at banks and some exchange windows in hotels, but CUCs can be exchanged for pesos at cadecas, smaller exchange windows which are found almost everywhere that any kind of business is being transacted. Cubans are paid in pesos, and most of what they buy – or are able to buy – is paid for with pesos. Cubans can, for example, use pesos at most cultural events – non-Cubans have to pay in CUCs. Groceries want CUCs, but numerous food stands, including those referred to as “peso pizza” places, are happy to accept pesos.
The collectivos follow set routes; visitors posting on line suggest advising the driver of a destination by street and.avenue names/numbers or by monument or park, rather than mentioning a hotel, which could supposedly result in being asked to pay in CUCs. Our route went through the tunnel into Vedado, swerved off the Malecon and took streets inward, terminating at Parque Centrale. The day was well underway now, and people were everywhere.
I was back in familiar territory from my trip of five years previous, but the lay of the land people-wise was totally unfamiliar. Five years before, Fidel was still in charge, and communism still held forth in every respect. If you wanted a cab, a carriage ride or a bicycle-taxi, who approached the driver. If you wanted to buy anything, you approached the merchant. If you wanted to be serenaded by strolling musicians along the Malecon, you made eye contact or otherwise indicated that you were interested as they approached. If you wanted to eat at what were then the relatively few private restaurants – paladores – you had to know where they were and enter the correct door – not even the semblance of advertising, i.e. restaurant appearance, was permitted. In short, there was no hustling.
We left the taxi and stood by Ramon. I mentioned about having drinks, He said perhaps later – he had to go see someone in the hospital right away. I was prepared to do it then and there. Again – awkward. I thought perhaps he would call us at the hotel, but he never did. He left quickly. There we were, on a crowded corner next to a crowded small park, with a few high priced hotels and a few buses close by. We were at the start of Neptuno Street, a long thoroughfare, at collectivo taxi central.
Five years ago, there had been no hustling. Now, it was everywhere. Most persistent were the bici-taxi drivers. Often called bicycle rickshaws in Asia, there had been a number of them five years earlier – this time, they seemed to have multiplied, like wire hangers. Various guidebooks said that they were not allowed to take tourists, and that if one did you, you needed to approach it and then might be asked to leave it before reaching your destination. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Their drivers never stopped hustling us and anyone else who looked remotely like a visitor or glanced at them. The carriage drivers were not as aggressive, but instead of always remaining in the carriage or within touching distance of the horse, they vould approach any likely prospect. Drivers of regular – CUC-paid – taxis were on the hustle, as were tour guides. The cigar peddlers were more circumspect – one sidled up to me and whispered “Cohiba” in my ear. I knew that the two top brands – Cohiba and Monte Cristo – sold on the street were invariably fakes.
In 2006, there had also been no begging – at least, none directed at me, and that was when my daughter and I, having little money, walked the streets and haunted small lunch places and bars endlessly, always in Habana Vieja and Habana Centro. Not one person had simply begged me for money on the street. This time the begging was not that frequent but neither was it unusual. I wasn’t targeted by the “milk for the baby” game, but my wife was. We already knew that children under seven in Cuba get virtually unlimited milk for free from the state.
I looked across the park, and there was El Floridita, Hemingway’s old haunt and the place where the daiquiri was not invented, although they persist in claiming it was. Even those most determined to be a “visitor” rather than a “tourist” should visit El Floridita, and nearly everyone does. When I’d gone there with my daughter – the one and only touristy thing we did all week – she, age 35, attractive and friendly and speaking a little Spanish, was offered a free daiquiri by the bartender. I contented myself with plantain chips from one of the bowls. This time, I immediately ordered a daiquiri for Ellen – 6 CUCs – while I once again snacked on plantain chips. As you walk in, the bar is to the left, tables ahead and to the right, and a small band is often playing by the entrance, as it was this time as well as on my previous visit.
Hemingway may have departed this life by his own hand in 1961 – as with many who remember where they were when something shocking happened, I was standing on a corner in the Polanco district of Mexico City and had just bought a copy of the Mexico City News, and there was the headline. But he spent a good part of his later life in Havana, with a house just outside of the city, and, in Floridita, he still rules. He spent a good deal of time there, and his photos – including one of him with Fidel – grace the walls. But where the bar curves to the left and parallels the wall, and where there are a few bar stools squeezed in, two of which we occupied, right at the end, standing and leaning to one side, is Hemingway – life size and incredibly lifelike, cast in bronze. His expression is one of curiosity and a touch of arrogance, and his eyes seem to sweep the room. He takes in everything and everyone – perhaps for material for his next novel.
When you visit El Floridita, it is de rigeur not only to order a daiquiri, but to pay proper respects to this late giant of American literature by posing with him for a photograph. That’s what y daughter and I had each done, and that’s what my wife and I each did, and that’s what at least four or five other people did after us before I was able to finally have a clear space within which to back up and take a full length shot of the master. It was a perfect shot – capturing his moodiness, I thought, more than most real life photos of him had. Ellen commented that there seemed to be a lot of energy in that place.
Floridita also marks the beginning of Obispo Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that runs perhaps a mile, and for about 10 blocks, between Parque Centrale and the Plaza de Armas. Five years earlier, my daughter and I had walked it, stopping at a state-owned café, at Etecsa, the state-run phone and internet office, and on to the Plaza, a beautiful shaded affair ringed by second hand book and magazine stalls. The street is a busy one, lined with shops and a few cafes and small museums and one tiny park. But one thing had changed. The street was now also lined with private food stalls. They operated out of windows and alcoves in the buildings, with signs posted with prices, and they took pesos. The first one I saw sold pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers. People posting on line wrote about the availability of “peso pizza.” But it didn’t look so good. What looked good were the hamburgers. They were good sized, and pre-supplied with ketchup. I noticed that the young man behind the small counter had a George Foreman-type small grill, and pressed each burger in it before handing it over.
The menu, such as it was, said 10p for the burgers. I knew not to struggle with language or expect change for anything. I took a note and handed them over. A burger was briefly grill-pressed and handed to me. It was good. Minutes later we passed another stand. Soft ice cream was being sold from a machine, again for 10 pesos. I asked Ellen if she wanted an ice cream. Sure. I handed over 20 pesos in 10 peso notes. We each had one. She didn’t like hers, but she ate it. I thought mine was OK. Not Mister Softee, but OK.
Our first indoor stop was InfoTur, the government tourist office. It was airconditioned and modern, looking just as it had been five years earlier. The man at the desk sold us an excellent foldout map of Cuba for two CUCs. I’m using it as I write this. It includes every street and block in greater Havana, all places of special interest, maps of other major towns, and a map of the whole island and even of a few outlying islands.
I’m a train person, and one thing I’d always wanted to do was ride the rails in Cuba, the last place in the Caribbean with passenger trains. Decades ago, Ellen and I had had a wonderful train ride from Kingston to Montego Bay, Jamaica, but that service was long gone. Cuba has a fairly widespread rail network spanning the island. The problem is that there is no official schedule, and no one knows exactly when the trains run. Not the Cuban travel office in Toronto, not the people who post on travel sites in response to questions, not the people at our hotel, and not this gentleman either. He had no idea. He said pretty much what everyone else had said – go to the station and ask when the next train is to wherever. My dream was to ride the express train – the ‘French train,” called that as its cars had been imported from France – to Santa Clara. A friend had asked me to go there, her hometown, and bring back a photo. The bus schedules to there were available, but didn’t work for us.
It wasn’t far from there to Etecsa, the internet place. I remembered it well; my daughter and I had been there every day for a week, forwarding our e mails through someone in Canada for fear of discovery by the feds. No more of that. But this time, there was a small gathering of locals in front of the door, almost blocking it. They looked a bit raggedy and needy. A guard monitored the entry from without and within. He looked at me and opened the door, and we nudged through the gathering.
I remembered having gone to Etecsa every day. It was like an AT&T showroom, with a modern two sided central counter, phone booths to one side – OK, not quite today’s AT&T – but computers to the right, low down. You walked to a counter, simply paid for a one hour card, sat down and signed on.
Not any more, and this was no liberalization or modernization. Buying a card in 2011 required showing one’s passport. I’d been telling people in Miami that any Cuban with 6 CUCs could walk into Etecsa and just pay and sign in. But not any more. You still had to buy a one hour card, and it was still 6 CUCs. The computers were all to the left, arranged around a few large round sort of desk-tables. The middle of the space was largely empty; to the right were just a few desks. There was no air conditioning, and only a few desk fans. It was hot, and stuffier than the increasing heat outside. I scraped off a spot on the card to expose the code, and we took turns signing on, Leaving, there was that cluster of locals by the door. Who were they? What did they want? They weren’t begging or trying to sell anything. Were they just hoping to get inside and sign on without a foreign passport?
We both signed on. I e mailed our kids and Casey Patrick Strong. Casey was from Montreal, a city I’d lived in for four years as a teenager. We’d “met’ through one travel site, and he said he loved Havana and had been there well over 10 times – not a problem for someone who lives in either Montreal or Toronto and needs only to get to a local airport to take advantage of a cheap package deal. He’d be arriving in Havana, and at our hotel, a few days after us, and he provided a number of useful hints.
Obispo was hot, crowded, frenetic. Relatively narrow and by no means aesthetic, it was dedicated to work, drinks, eating and shopping. It’s also useful as a corridor devoid of the need to dodge motor and human-powered vehicles, connecting Plaza de Armas and Parque Centrale. But on that first day, my focus was on getting to the Prado, one of my favorite places in the entire world. It was truly the Prado that inspired me to write my Cuba-based fiction – and each of those stories was subtitled “Tales from the Prado.” Here’s how I described it at the beginning of my Cuba-based novel, “Alicia.”
Paseo del Prado, in Habana Vieja – Old Havana. Strictly speaking, it is a wide elevated pedestrian promenade, elevated several steps above street level, divided into sections by side streets that go through it, guarded by virile black stone lions on pedestals and lined with elegant old fashioned lamp posts. It is said to date back two hundred years. Its pavement, bearing shapes of different colors, mostly faded blues and reds forming great stripes and diamonds, is unobstructed save by people, and lined by low walls, against which are endless continuous single and double seats and benches, all of concrete. On either side, a few steps down, runs Prado the calle – the street – southbound on one side, northbound on the other. Along it are buildings with canopies – apartments, schools, shops, cantinas, groceries. A minute’s walk past its northern end brings you to the eastern end of the miles-long boulevard and seafront, the Malecón, with the centuries-old El Morro castle fortress and its lighthouse just beyond. At its northern end is the Capitolio, a near-perfect smaller version of the U.S. Capitol, the Parque Centrale with its monuments and signs, a plaza featuring four and five star hotels, and bustling pedestrian-only Obispo Street, with its shops, galleries and government offices. It is a bridge between the old city and the central city. And, along with the Malecón, it is the very essence of Cuba’s centuries-old capital.
If you sit along the Prado for a few hours, you can see the whole world go by. Or, at least, the whole world as it’s found in Havana. Families carrying or wheeling babies. Young cops, still as statues but smiling the minute you approach or talk to them. Kids on home made wagons and skateboards. Young men, white and black, a few with dreadlocks, listening to and sometimes playing reggaeton. School children in their uniforms and sashes. Dogs with people. Dogs without people. Tourist couples. Gossipy young women. Soldiers in uniform. Old ladies carrying parcels. Workmen carrying tools. Old men selling thin paper cones of salty trail mix to small children for small coins. Tired looking women in their 20s and 30s, looking over the men. Delivery people. I have seen all of these and more.
I should add that the thoroughfare is cloaked with leafy shade trees; so much so that it can be difficult to see the pavement from an aerial view when they are in full leaf. As for the salty trail mix, that seems to have been replaced by tiny shelled peanuts – two pesos per cone.
To me, the Prado is the delightful opposite of Lincoln Road, a popular pedestrians-only street of about the same length and width, located in Miami Beach about three blocks from our house. Lincoln Road is popular, wildly successful, and usually so crowded that it vcan be hard to navigate on foot. One reason for that is that it’s filled with fountains, gardens and – mainly – café and restaurant tables. The shops and cafes all open directly onto it; there’s no parallel thoroughfares for vehicles. And, except for one intersection, there is no place to sit down comfortably – unless you order and pay for something.
I’m trying to think of single small places in the world that even begin to compare with the Prado, but my list is short. A few big city parks here and abroad, a few village greens in Vermont, the town square in Granada, Nicaragua, venerable Washington Square in New York, a few enclaves in places like Curacao and Paris, a few spots in Israel, Patagonia, western Canada and the English Channel Islands. But the Prado is unique. And in this new world of unfettered Cuban street capitalism, it remained free of hustling and begging.
There had been two especially magical moments there on my previous trip. First was a group of four couples dancing the tango at night. One couple was sharing an ipod – one earpiece each for the man and the woman. The second was a couple seated on one of the benches – I’d say in their 30s. The woman was washing her infant in a tub, while her little boy sat close by. She was visibly pregnant, and the man was smiling, his hand on her belly.
We were hot and tired and sat for a while, just taking it in. My wife likes Lincoln Road more than I do, and I wanted her to experience the other side of the pedestrian-street coin. But I also had a particular destination in mind – the Oasis. Located on the west side of the street paralleling the Prado on its western side, it had been the favorite hangout of my daughter and I during our ‘06 visit. It was an indoor bar, located deep inside a building, at the far end of a cavernous room stacked with unused tables and chairs and staffed by friendly bartenders, one of whom could have doubled for George Foreman, another, Joaquin, who treated my daughter to dinner one night and walked with us along the Malecon. I worked it into my stories, and when I saw the sign, I was ready.
Alas, it was not to be. All there was of the Oasis was a sort of deli and small café, just off the sidewalk. To one side was a partly open door. I looked in. There was what was left of the cavernous room, filled to the ceiling with earth and trash. The Oasis I remembered and written about was no more.
Close by was the Café 254. We sat on upholstered chairs in a sort of small lobby; an employee invited us to take a table inside, but we only wanted cold beer. There are two popular beer brands in Cuba; Cristal and Bucanero. The beer was brought. Most places iun Havana only charge one CUC for a beer, but this charged two. I had no small change or bills, so handed the employee what I thought was a 20 CUC bill. He walked off with it. After 10 minutes, I began to worry about getting my 16 CUCs change, but he finally returned, shaking his head sadly and handing the bill back to me. I thought they had no change available, so I handed him a US $5 bill, the only American money I had left other than some quarters. I knew that would cover it, even with a 10% exchange penalty. He didn’t look happy about it, but he took it and we left it. It was only later that I realized what I had done – confused by the similar and, to me, unfamiliar colors of Cuban and Canadian same-sized bills, I had handed him a Canadian 20. One of those “I screwed up” travel moments – like the time a gas station attendant in France had come running after me – and caught me – as I drove away because I had, mistakenly, paid him with cheaper Belgian francs instead of French francs.
W sat some more, both of us tired. Across the way, colorful clothing hung on a balcony railing. Opposite us sat two pretty young women, one, white, in a red top and blue shortys, the other, brown, in a pink top and jeans. A couple perhaps late 30s or early 40s passed by – next to them, facing the other way, a boy, perhaps 5 or 6, white shirt and multi colored baggy shorts, holding a toy telephone or player to his ear.
We had six more days in Havana and were even more tired than before – we’d gotten hardly any sleep the previous night. I suggested we head back to the corner of the cheap old-car collectivo taxis. Ignoring the invitations of regular cab drivers whose more expensive cabs had taxi “hats” on them, I looked for a small cluster of especially worn-down cars with men hanging out around them. I remembered to ask for “Third and 70″ rather than give a hotel name and to have my peso bills ready.
The Supermercado 70, the neighborhood supermarket, is one of the few visible retail places in that area of Miramar. A word about Miramar. Havana, like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts. Or at least that part of not that’s anywhere near the ocean. Four, really, but it’s convenient to think of Habana Vieja and Habana Centro as parts of Part One, linked by the Prado. West of that, marked on the map but not by any visible landmark save, perhaps, the coastal Hotel Nacional, is Vedado, which bulges north into the sea. Vedado is where you find the Plaza of the Revolution, the zoo, and the famous Colon (Columbus) cemetery. Vedado has a lot of commerce and many small apartment buildings and small houses, what some in the US would describe as “working class.” It is bisected, east-west, by La Rampa a/k/a 23d Street, a major retail thoroughfare. Traveling west, Vedado ends at the Almendares River, which flows south from the ocean. The most-used crossing of the Almendares is a tunnel, near the ocean and adjoining the river’s mouth. The next most used is a pedestrian and vehicular bridge about a mile inland, linking the western end of La Rampa with a group of streets on the other side.
Miramar is what’s west of the river. I had never been there before. It’s an area of wide avenues and side streets – several of the major avenues and side streets feature medians with greenery, trees and walking/jogging/cycling paths. It would be easy to mistake much of it for any pleasant suburb in the US. Although there are several commercial and government installations, it’s not at all commercial in character, featuring mainly what we would think of as middle and some upper-middle class homes and a few beyond that, many unfortunately in considerable need of maintenance. It’s a quiet area, and its Fifth Avenue houses most of the embassies. The embassies appear to have been among the finest homes, and are all in perfect shape. Many have beautiful trees and gardens.
The Supermercado 3/70 sits on a small side street, facing a wide empty lot and ocean-front Third Avenue. From the front, it looks like any large supermarket. On the other side of 70th street is a small collection of retail – a little café, a few food stands, a car rental office.
We wanted to make dinner in our kitchenette and eat in the comfort of our living room, so we went inside. The shelves were well stocked, but the market was notable for what wasn’t there. There were lots of canned goods, crackers, cookies, packaged foods, frozen foods and a fair choice of meats. There was plenty of beer, even more rum, and some wine. But there was no bread, no fruit and no vegetables. None. There were two kinds of cheese, both in sealed chunks – queso and “tipo gouda.” We bought some of each. There was a store downstairs in the hotel, but it also had none of those missing items although, oddly, there were stacks of cartons of vodka at its entrance. Between both stores, we also bought crackers, cookies, water, beer, cereal, milk and Havana Club rum. Back in our suite, we made a meal of all of it. The queso cheese was as bland as water, but the “tipo gouda” cheese was not bad – it actually tasted somewhat like real Gouda. I realized that I could avoid having to buy more bottled water for our suite by boiling water on our stove with one of the supplied pots and using the funnel I had brought to put it into empty bottles and then into the fridge.
I had heard of a free shuttle service, available to Montehabana guests, running four times each day between the Occidental next door and Habana Vieja. I went to check that out, and also went to avail myself of the Occidental’s pool. The shuttle did indeed exist, and would cost us nothing.
To get from the Montehabana to the Occidental, I had to walk through the back portion of the lobby, which was long and always dark, and down a long outdoor flight of stairs, with a wobbly sort of metal bannister in the middle, which led into a concrete path and a wide expanse of lawn. The Occidental’s building was to the right. A shorter flight of stairs then led to the pool area, with lobby access to the right.
I’ve been to many hotels and resorts with pools, but had never seen any like the Occidental’s. There were basically three pools. The first one I encountered was shallow and just short of olympic size; a wading pool for children. Just past it was the second pool. It was never deeper than between 4 and 5 feet, but it was huge. Length and breadth were both at least olympic size; to the far side, against a sport of wall, was a basket, providing for water basketball games. There was also a net for water volleyball. Off to the left, the pool narrowed into a sort of channel and ended at a spill wall, where it cascaded into another pool, set well down at a lower level and as large as the first pool. The pools were surrounded by loungers, few of which were ever in use at any one time. Almost completely surrounded by water was an outdoor bar. On my first trip to Cuba, I’d stayed in a private home and become one with the locals. This somehow didn’t compute. It was decadent. Shame on me. I loved it.
We live in Miami Beach, but convenient swimming opportunities are limited. The ocean is close by, but requires either parking or a fairly long walk, usually in the heat and bright sunlight. There’s an excellent public pool about a mile away, free to city residents, but hardly on our doorstep. During the summer, adult hours are limited. This was special and different. I swam endlessly. When I passed the wall-mounted basket, I noticed three signs next to it with red lines through them. I wondered why they would put up signs prohibiting use of the basket. Later, I discovered that this wasn’t the case at all. I watched a small circle of teenage girls dancing in a circle in the water. It reminded me of a similar scene from long ago, at a state park near Buffalo, and another circle of teenage girls who had been older than I at the time.
I’d finally had enough, and returned to our suite. We settled in with another round of drinks, now chilled by the fridge, and watched CNN. Our living room had floor to ceiling sliding glass doors leading to a balcony and, then, a night time dark landscape. We opened the those doors for a slight breeze and barely cooled nighttime air, That night, we brought the living room standing fan into the bedroom, as the air conditioning, which hadn’t worked when we checked in, functioned, though barely. It was a warm night, and a chilly morning – the hot water wasn’t on, either. However, unlike the casa particular – the home stay – on my previous trip – and unlike experiences in Argentina and Nicaragua – there was no water pressure problem. In fact, when flushed, the toilet resounded with minutes of noise and a violent internal waterfall.
WEDNESDAY SEPT 21
Finally, a night’s sleep. We woke at 7:45 – breakfast was milk, cereal, cheese, crackers, apple juice and CNN news. We’d been told that a woman from SunWings would be coming to the lobby in mid morning to give us some useful information, but the agent turned out to be a personable young man named Osmay. He was our private tutor, and went over maps and tour info with us. We were tempted by the two day/one night tour of Santa Clara and two other towns, with an overnight in a national park. The question was whether or not we’d have sufficient time – and sufficient cash. I also asked him about the cañonazo. This is an odd but intriguing ceremony that dates back to the late 1600s, when a cannon would be fired to mark the closing of the city walls, letting people know that if they were outside the walls, they wouldn’t be able to get back inside until the morning. Originally, it would be fired again early in the morning to announce the opening of the walls. In the 1774, when the San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress was finished, the firing was relocated there, and in the late 1800s, the firing was reduced to once daily, at exactly 9 PM. Since then, through revolutions, occupation and war, capitalism and communism, it has continued, every night, at the same place and time, complete with participants dressed in Spanish 19th century infantry uniforms, acting out chants, marches and ceremonies of that era. The cannon now fires bags of jute rather than cannon balls, but the mechanism is the same, and the sound can be heard everywhere in Havana. Osmay recommended it highly, saying that he was taking his children that very night and had been before. I figured that if a local enjoyed it that much, I would, too.
We just missed the 10:45 AM shuttle; the next one was at 1:25, so we walked back down to Third and 70th street. A woman operating a food stand was selling empanadas; she demanded CUCs, but it was still cheap, so we each bought one. They were thick, barely cooked and tasted horrible. I spat out my first bite; Ellen swallowed a few bites, then declared she’d probably be sick as a result. At the small adjoining café, we sought solace with cold beer and chatted with a visiting Spanish family and their sweet toddler son. I asked at the car rental center, thinking that might be a way to get to Santa Clara and back in one day, but they wanted a three day minimum rental. The national aquarium was only a block or two away, but there was no time for that if we wanted to make the next shuttle.
The Occidental lobby is large and posh, but like ours was not airconditioned and had become hot. I picked up a copy of the government-published newspaper, Granma, for one CUC. It’s printed every few days in English, and on the back page was an enlarged photo of a hand and the words “OBAMA – GIVE ME FIVE!” The plea was for the repatriation of the five Cuban “spies” who were convicted in a Miami federal courtroom, essentially for infiltrating private Cuban exile groups. The term “railroaded” comes to mind, but this isn’t a political website. The paper also ran, as it does in every issue – it’s available on line – the names and prison addresses of the “spies.” urging people to write to them. I changed the rest of our Canadian money at their exchange booth, and we boarded the shuttle, a large posh air conditioned bus which, as we discovered, runs on time, to the minute. It proceeded nonstop, through the tunnel into Vedado and then along the entire Malecon, past the Maceo monument and to its first stop at the Palacio de la Artesiana, a blue and white low rise building that apparently served as some sort of school and cultural center. Across the road were wall-less tents with tables and chairs, a few small café stands, a green area and a parked row of perhaps the finest-looking and most colorful 50s American cars I’d yet seen in Havana. Beyond the green area was a bayside road, Avenida Cespedes, and just past it, the bay. The second stop of the bus would be Plaza de San Francisco, farther down the bay from the harbor, then nonstop back to the hotel.
The maps indicated that the shortest way from there into the center of Habana Vieja would be along Cuarteles Street, which I quickly began calling Stray Dog Street. Not that I thought most of the dogs were true strays, though they could have been. Turning into Cuarteles offered quick respite from the hustlers and bici-taxi drivers who besieged the shuttle’s arrival. Cuarteles was strictly a working peoples’ street, lined with low to medium rise buildings There was the occasional car, bike and wagon. At an alcove, a woman offered tiny cups of Cuban ciffee for one peso; at one corner, there was a small indoor market, its open counters displaying whole and partial chickens.
Our immediate goal was Cathedral Square, and it was hard to find, even with the map. We floundered about, both frustrated and happy to be wandering aimlessly. At one point, we encountered one of the many cops; speaking English, he urged us to visit an adjoining museum, which, he assured us, was free. It was some sort of colonial religious museum, thankfully air conditioned, with two floors – the exhibits – sculptures, paintings and religious art objects – were beautiful, if limited in scope. There were no other patrons. A woman who worked there escorted us, happy to have us there and, quite clearly, not angling for a tip. She only knew a few words of English but was able to offer explanations- the informative signs were all in Spanish. She took our photos for us, and I gave her a couple of CUC coins. W passed a school – Escuela Primera – Simon Rodriguez. Cuban children, in or out of school, seem as happy and healthy as any I’ve seen anywhere.
Havana’s cathedral is very old, and its architecture and designs are very intricate and beautiful. In front of it are cafes and stands. As we crossed its square, Ellen fell behind me. I urged her to catch up, assuming she had been stopped by a hustler. She had, but it was no ordinary hustler; the man owned a restaurant, a paladore, and was standing in mid-square, displaying a menu. That intrigued me; five years ago, he’d have been arrested for that. I said we’d go back to him after seeing the cathedral, which didn’t take long. Inside, it was relatively sparse but contained the usual large religious sculptures. The seats, as they had been five years earlier, were roped off. Others were taking photos, so I did as well.
The restaurant was called Rancho Luna. The proprietor led us out of the square, through an alley and some twists and turns, and into what could have passed at first for a half-hidden gangster’s lair, or maybe the kind of place where the just-landed alien hides out in the big city. The housing within all this was located was three stories and appeared to have been cobbled together. There was a lot of wrought iron fencing and railing. What we walked into was a lovely little restaurant with a fine collection of glass and small art works. A young woman approached with menus. The appetizer choices – or as American restaurateurs now prefer, “starters” – included small fish, bits of fried fish, fruit cocktails, salads with ham and/or seafood, shrimp and/or lobster cocktails, all priced from two to three CUCs. The entrees included a choice of two fish and/or meat and vetable based plates and one fruit-based plate, the latter with wine, all at 13 CUCs. We had some sort of deep-fried fish appetizer – bolitas – beer – of course – and ropa vieja. Ropa vieja, literaly translated as “old clothes,” is a quintessentially Cuban dish consisted of shredded seasoned beef over rice. I’d had it the previous trip and had it many times in Miami and now I was having it again, and it was always delicious in either city. As we sat, a young man with a guitar entered and approached. Neither of us was pleased, but we were stuck. He began playing and singing “Besame Mucho,” My travelers code of ethics is such that I will photograph a performer only if I am prepared to give him or her a tip. I knew we would be stuck having to give this man a tip, so I took his picture. As he was preparing to sing and play something else, we indicated that he should not, and I gave him a CUC. He was obviously dissatisfied with the size of his tip, but we were rid of him. Just after leaving, we encountered a woman carrying one of the most adorable baby girls I’d ever seen. She smiled and had a little potbelly, and her mom was happy for us to photograph both of them. Reentering the square, Rancho Luna’s owner approached us and asked us how we’d liked our meal. We said it was great, and told him we’d put him on the internet. “You do that for me?” he asked, with a sense of wonder in his voice. I said yes, I would. And I did. And now I’m doing it again.
Afterwards, we made our way back to Obispo, used up the rest of our internet card at Etecsa,, and walked its length to Plaza D’Armas. On Obispo, we encountered a tavern proprietor, a stocky middle aged fellow who spoke good English and was thrilled that we had come from the US. He wanted to offer us mojitos, but we didn’t want to take the time; I told Ellen we’d come back there and pay for our own mojitos. He lamented the bad relations between Cuba and the US. “All I want to do is go to Miami and watch a baseball game.” I smiled, thinking he’d probably see better baseball in Cuba. But I said I hoped that would happen, too. It was a special moment. I’d had lunch but I took a photo of the 10 peso burger place. A beautiful white mother cat posed with her equally beautiful white kitten for us, as did a bare chested man on a balcony, surrounded by his potted plants.. Two banners, one in red and one in blue, had a revolutionary symbol inside of a heart and the letters CDR. Souvenir shops specialized in t-shirts and other items with the one photo of Che Guevara that has probably been reproduced more than any other single photo in the world. I had read that the man who took it had never received royalties, but had once sued a foreign company for using it for profit. There were passersby of every hue, some with babies and toddlers ion strollers. At the Plaza, the booksellers were out, not totally surrounding it as I’d remembered, but there were perhaps 10 of them. They called out to me, one letting me know that he had Hemingway in English; I noticed he also had Dickens. I took shots of the white marble memorial to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a former president, and of the greenery and pink and blue flowers.
We wandered to the far edge of the square, where it meets the bay. A young man with a horse and carriage approached us, offering a one hour tour at the usual price of 25 CUCs. We politely declined, but he didn’t seem to mind. We talked. His English was good and he had a badge with a Canadian flag and the name Alexander. I called him Alexander the Great, and he also said he was so happy to see visitors from the US. I told him I hoped that next year he’d be wearing a badge with a US flag. “If you buy it, I’ll wear it!” he said.
O’Reilly Street parallels Obispo to the north; it’s not a retail street but one of offices and buildings. We thought we could take it a few blocks and then find our way to our shuttle pickup spot, but we got a bit lost on a side street. That was when an odd short young woman with a barely visible mustache appeared. She spoke English and asked us where we were going. When we told her we needed to get to the Palacio de la Artesanias, she said she’d show us. We knew she was angling for a tip, but that was okay. “You are old,” she said. “You could be my grandparents!” We were amused, not offended. She guided us to where we knew we could walk around the corner and be where we needed to go, and I slipped her a CUC or two. Another word about CUCs. They come in the form of 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavo and one CUC coins, totally distinguishable from the lowly peso coins, and 3, 5, 10, 20 50 and 100 bills CUC bills marked “Peso convertibles.” Cubans use the dollar sign, making Cuba and the Bahamas the only countries with three dollar bills.
There’s a café next to the shuttle stop, and after I took a few more photos of the wonderful cars across the street, we went under the awning in the outdoor portion – we had some time to kill – and ordered some fabulous lemonade and then some sparkling water, and it began to rain, the rain quickly swelled into a horrendous downpour, something not unfamiliar when one lives in south Florida. The pavement began flooding, and a waitress came and shooed everyone inside. Buses came and went, and we worried that our shuttle bus might be one of them, and might be coming a bit early, so I kept running out to check. The sidewalk had become a pool and my clothes and shoes quickly became soaked. It was the last shuttle of the day and we didn’t want to miss it.
The shuttle did come, perhaps two or three minutes before its scheduled pickup, and we dashed inside, dripping. It went on to the Plaza de San Francisco, down Cespedes and San Pedro, past the Plaza and finally turning and pulling up beside what could have been a train station, with a full size mockup of a locomotive in front. Several attractive young women, fully soaked, boarded and we headed back north and then west – water was now so deep on Cespedes that it made the bus produce waves like a boat.
Drenched, we made it up the slippery steps from the one hotel to the other and to our suite for the usual cheese, crackers and drinks. The suite just before ours, number 117, was occupied by a group of young Japanese who were constantly smoking and sitting with their doors wide open. We found them to be annoying, relieved only by a small white kitten that seemed to enjoy sitting in their company by the railing. We watched CNN news and the announcement of the shameful execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. For the record, Cuba, a communist authoritarian state, had its last execution in 2003. Their government did not even request the death penalty for the killing of several soldiers a year or two ago. Most of the witnesses in Davis’ case had recanted their testimony.. The maids had folded towel into the perfectly formed shape of a swan and mounted one at the foot of each bed. We slept as well as could be expected after watching our country shamed in this manner. The air conditioning was finally working properly, but we still had no hot water. But, thanks to the stifling daytime heat, the water in the pipes was somewhere between slightly cool and lukewarm.
THURSDAY SEPT 22
We woke to a dry morning, and I washed some clothes and used the hair dryer in the bathroom to dry my army-style beach hat, which I wore every day. Hot water had finally been bestowed upon us. Today would be a busy day and evening, as I was determined to take in the cañonazo We went down to the lobby and the hotel store for crackers, apple juice, and more cereal and milk. I also picked up a bottle of Havana Club rum. We’d used ours up, and the manager talked me into buying what he said was the best kind, only slightly more expensive. Then back upstairs for breakfast. Casey Strong and his girlfriend had shown up when I returned to our suite and were there, talking with Ellen. We talked about the city and he reiterated about the biweekly Friday evening parties at the Canadian embassy, assuring me that their burgers were the best in the land. They went off on their own schedule; we found out later that their habit was to walk all the way into the city, regardless of the heat. I doubt I would have made it had I tried the same under the broiling sun. I funneled more boiled water into bottles. Ellen was concerned about “scale” – the thin mineral coating left on the inside of the pot by the boiling water. I assured her it was no problem – the main thing was boiling to kill any germs. We tried sitting in the hot stuffy Occidental fancy lobby, then went outside in fresher air and made the 10:45 shuttle. Through the tunnel and past the beginning of the Malecon, called “the great sofa,” but few people sit on it by day. We became increasingly aware of the crumbling state of so many buildings along this oceanside boulevard. The bus came to the point where the seaside road sort of jogs and splits. As I watched the endless variety of old cars, I spotted an attractive young woman approaching vehicles. A jinatera – a woman seeking small luxuries in return for companionship and possibly more? Or simply seeking a ride? I took photos and kept taking them as we approached and then passed El Morro, the 400 year old fortress, and its accompanying lighthouse, debarking at the palacio, passing the hustlers and again walking uphill on Cuarteles,, a/k/a Stray Dog Street, still taking photos of this, a piece of the real working Havana. Among the workers on the street was a man crushing tin cans, obviously for redemption for the metal. I reflected I had seen plenty of professional colleagues back in the US.
Cuarteles opens at the top of the hill onto Avenide de la Misiones, which, like the Prado, runs north and south but is two to three blocks short of it, depending on location. Across the street and to the left is the Museo de la Revolucion, housed with historical irony in the former presidential palace. On the outer grounds, and under an overhang are vehicles associated with the revolution – a boat and, oddly a van marked “Fast Delivery” in English. It had been used in an assault on that building. The boat, “Granma,” is the “yacht” that Castro and several of his fellow revolutionaries used to secretly travel from Mexico to Cuba.
We started at the top floor and worked down. Far from being a propaganda showpiece this is a genuine historical museum, covering every phase of this most recent Cuban revolution from the beginning through its aftermath, although the first rooms by no means ignore the struggle against the pre-20th century Spanish colonial authorities. The interpretive signs are bilingual, so we had no trouble following the exhibits. Good historical museums feature genuine artifacts, and there were hundreds of them here – articles of clothing, sanitary items, maps, radios ranging in size from field radios to four foot high old fashioned vacuum tube Hallicrafter consoles housed in wooden cabinets and used in mountain and jungle headquarters. There were tools, signs, flags, banners, firearms, knives, telescopes, binoculars, rubber stamps, medals and decorations, and even revolutionary pre-1959 revolutionary coins and paper money, something that I, a longtime coin and bill collector, hadn’t known existed. The information next to a medal stated that it had been a “Medal of Honor” awarded to one of Batista’s soldiers, Julio Labanin, for having participated in a massacre of noncombatants. A doll was shown that had been used to smuggle ammunition. There were uniforms, some of them bloodstained. Detailed maps showed the battle of Santa Clara, a town we had hoped to visit, where rebels had attacked a Batista troop train with a bulldozer A moving photo showed a group of women demonstrators carrying a banner “Cesen los Asesinatos de Nuestros Hijos . Madres Cubanas.” Stop killing our sons – Cuban mothers. The rooms and the portions of rooms were arranged first by year and within one or two year periods by theme. Photographs, clippings, magazines, books, pamphlets, maps, and documents meticulously documented every phase of the struggle. There was particular emphasis on showing the day to day life and routine of the rebels. In today’s political climate, with the cold war still fresh in so many minds, it’s easy to forget that this most recent of Cuban revolutions was a five year struggle against a brutal and thoroughly corrupt, gangster-ridden dictatorship, aided and abetted by the United States, which had its cold-war-crazed nose in the business of almost every country in Latin America. Carried out against seemingly impossible odds, the success of the revolution, after a brief Cuban-US “honeymoon,” was followed by endless bumbling American attempts to bring the new government down, culminating in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The exhibits were moving and striking, but I had a brief flash of humor when I saw Fidel’s toga and imagined him cavorting in the toga party in one of America’s greatest comedy flicks, “Animal House.”
The real showpiece of the museum is in an inner alcove where a top floor corridor turns, and consists of two superb life size and lifelike sculptures of revolutionary icons Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. They’re armed and in battle gear, in an outdoor setting, standing amidst rocks and trees, clearly moving forward. A bilingual sign explained that this display had been made in “hyper-realistic style,” primarily using polyester resin and fiberglass. Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash less than a year after Castro took power, is wearing his trademark straw hat. They appear neither fierce, sentimentalized piously noble – simply two fighters prepared to do what they have to do. Rather then highlight the men with lighting and framework, they are modestly lit – I needed to use a flash to get good photos of them. The fact that the display is indeed “hyper-realistic” and yet somehow understated renders it even more stunning. Nrarby, mounted on a sort of vertical metal rail, are smaller but lifelike representations of the “trilogia of la Revolucion Cubana” – Fidel, Camilo and Che.
Incidentally, the guidebook warnings that this museum prohibited photography turned out to be false. The effect is memorable, and very reminiscent of the outdoor sculpture of three American soldiers – one Caucasian, one black, one Latino – also armed, in battle gear and quietly ready to do their duty – facing the Vietnam memorial on Washington DC’s mall.
The exhibits extended through the revolution’s aftermath, demonstrating that the revolution had not so much ended as entered a new phase. The quick and intensive post-revolutionary extension of education, sports, health services and culture throughout the country was painstakingly documented. So were the efforts against foreign interference – in the case of the US and a failed 50 year old policy, that struggle continues today.
I reflected on what Harry Truman had supposedly said to biographer Merle Miller when asked about Castro and Cuba. Truman had said that if he had still been president in 1959, he would have quickly called Castro. He would have said that you’ve made quite a revolution down there, and you’ll need help. There are two places you can get it, and we know what the other place – the Soviet Union, of course – is. “Now, you just tell me what you need, and I’ll see that you get it.” But that was a call that Eisenhower never made.
Having been the presidential palace, the presidential office and conference rooms are preserved, just as they were when in use. Admission to them was an extra CUC. It’s interesting how important executive suites, presidential or not, seem more alike than different – the ornate desk, the bookshelves, the long table, the portraits. Two black marble cherubs held up a golden globe. I had another flash of humor seeing a telephone, obviously painted gold. It reminded me of that great scene in the first Godfather movie, set just before Batista’s fall, when the American gangsters who held sway in his Cuba presented him with a solid gold telephone. Included was the sizeable but relatively unpretentious bathroom, nothing at all like the one we’d seen in the Royal Ontario Museum.
The view of the city from a corridor window was a splendid one – yes, another cliche. A red white and blue banner mounted at street level proclaimed “Fieles a nuestra historia.” Faithful To Our History.
Downstairs was a nicely airconditioned café where we were urged to try a delicious nonalcoholic cocktail. But the prize exhibit was in a downstairs entry and exit corridor – four life sized caricatures of Batista, Reagan and both Bushes. They were labeled in accompanying signs as “cretins” and each sign, in Spanish, French and English said ‘Thank you, Cretin” – for inspiring the revolution, then for helping to maintain the will of the people. They were masterful caricatures, with expert use of color. Reagan, of course, was portrayed as a cowboy, complete with hat. Bush 41 was portrayed as a slightly goofy-looking Roman senator, complete with toga and sandals. Bush 43 – “W” – was the quintessential Texan, shown holding a copy of a Cuban revolutionary book and looking at it – upside down. Nearby was an odd black and white blownup photo – a group of what appeared to be rebels in a boat, clearly labeled “Big Baby – Galveston, Texas.”
Who is to judge this and other world revolutions? Our own revolution resulted in massive property seizures from loyalists and numerous instances of brutality. The much-touted “tarring and feathering” of loyalists and tax collectors by our revolutionaries was a particularly brutal and sometimes fatal form of torture. Oddly, the United States still lacks a single museum dedicated to its own revolution. Little more need be said about the mass beheadings brought about the French revolution, yet it is still celebrated in their national anthem. The Russian revolution of 1917-18 and the Chinese of 1947-49 brought about the deaths of millions of innocents.
Havana has two major art museums – the one we visited that day is the next block south of the Museo de la Revolucion and is dedicated to Cuban art. The only Cuban art I had really seen until then was by Cuban-Chinese painter Wilfredo Lam, whose works were once exhibited in Miami. The museum, has three floors, and the air conditioning was broken. The heat and humidity were brutal, but the art – the third floor was modern art – was fascinating and often superb. Some of the abstract paintings, as seems so often the case, were far more pleasing and also challenging to the eye than some what I consider the junk that sells for millions and even tens of millions in New York. But this is something I’ve noticed in many other museums, small and large, in various cities and countries. On one wall was a huge lifelike sculpture familiar to any south Florida resident – a giant cockroach. There was one painting that both amused and enchanted us – it shows a black janitor, working in an obviously closed-for-the night museum, bending down, puckering up and kissing a sculpted bust of a beautiful woman.
We were hardly finished with the third floor when we were approached by a young female guard, telling us we would have to leave at 2 PM – in 10 minutes. Closing was normally several hours later, It was because of the breakdown of the air conditioning. We would have stayed, despite the heat, to see the rest of the exhibits, but we got only glimpses of them as we were herded down a series of ramps and out the door. We protested, and a man who seemed to be a supervisor of some sort told us in his broken English that if we returned the next morning we should ask for him and he’d let us in without having to pay another 5 CUCs each.
I wanted to return to the Prado and walk its length to the Malecon as I had done many times during my first visit, when I was staying right on the Prado. It was as shady and peaceful as ever. There was a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 11, playing soccer. As I took photos, one of them fell on his back, laughing along with his friends, in white shirt, blue shorts and sneakers, his arms waving in the air. It was a perfect shot, and I took it. Another fallen boy, in red shorts, lay on his side close by, as an older jeans-clad boy kicked the ball back into the air. When the two fallen boys saw ne with the camera, they got up and happily posed, each flashing a “V” with their fingers. Farther down, just past the school of dance, we sat and I explained that this was exactly where the male visiting American character in my novel met Alicia, who became the new love of his life. A note, in Spanish was pinned on a tree. I knew exactly what it was – someone advertising to buy, sell or trade an apartment or house. This note, in red on brown paper, offered a “2X1″ first floor apartment. I had heard much of this business was conducted quietly on the Prado, skirting the law. But such transactions had only recently been legalized.
On a wrought-ironed balcony, two women a generation apart were having a dialog with young shirtless boy. On one of the benches was a group scene better than anything I could have devised. Standing in front of the bench was a beautiful young white woman, probably late teens, in white shoes and stockings, hot pink shorts and a tight white top. Her expression was difficult to define – incomprehension, perhaps. Standing on the bench at its end and facing her was a young bare chested black man in blue shorts who seemed to be hooting and hollering at her. Six young children of varying genders, ages and hues sat and stood between them, apparently bemused by the little spectacle. To quote the commercials – priceless!
Taking photos of people on the Prado, for me, was like doing the same on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires – I couldn’t stop. The difference is that the Prado is more peaceful and intimate, with its pastel designed flooring, trees and endless benches. At one intersection was a medium-rise building, white except for its columned ground floor, the bright blue of which matched the two 50’s cars stopped beside it. A green car with black trim at the lower rear was followed by one that was bright red. All, as is so often the case with the exception of the old-car collectivo taxis, perfectly kept up. A two-compartmented public bus, in pink and white, passed by.
We walked on. We were both beginning to feel a positive lust for fruit and vegetables, neither of which we had been able to find, so we stopped in a grocery – “Mercado – La Primerade Prado” – where my daughter and I had gone a few times. It was a rather grubby place, selling various household goods, some processed foods and meats, and plenty of rum and beer. Rum is to Cuba like vodka is to Russia – you can buy it anywhere. We bought some beer to drink on one of the Prado’s built in benches. We passed by a black woman in jean shorts, her hair in a net, looking startled, facing a man with a half smile, both seated. Perhaps they were reacting to the intrusion of my camera. Between them, squatting on his forelegs, was a 100% pure Dalmatian.
Reaching the north end of the Prado, we passed the medium rise apartment building where my daughter and I had stayed, renting a bedroom and bath from a family on the seventh floor. I looked into the small lobby, with its small white sculpture and elevators – it looked exactly the same. Outside, a grinning boy was scrubbing the pavement. We bypassed a small park that I remembered and came to a major intersection where I had once taken a photo of a street sign marking both Prado and Malecon. By the way, Havana street signs are concrete and set down on the ground. Coral Gables, Florida copied that scheme, making it almost impossible to navigate the Gables’ streets at night.
The intersection had a traffic light, but the arrangement of the streets and the traffic flow there was such that it was fiendishly difficult to cross safely. It’s a busy spot, and my wife was frightened. We finally made it across, and onto a sort of plaza which marks the outpouching of the Malecon at its eastern end. The seawall turns and extends to the north, and ends at the far end of the plaza. There, just as I had seen them before, fishermen were gathered together, their lines held upwards, and boys were diving deeply and dangerously from the seawall and over the concrete chunks into the ocean. I knew that if I photographed them, I’d be asked for money. I had taken such photos the last trip and tipped then, so I passed up the opportunity.
On the previous trip, I’d never been bothered there – this time, we were pestered mercilessly by hustlers. The new breed of Havana hustlers are persistent but not aggressive – if you ignore them or just say no, they back off. But there were a lot of them there, and as soon as we blew one off, he’d be replaced by another. We walked around – I wanted to find the plaque I’d seen embedded in the concrete there five years earlier, noting that U.S. general Leonard Wood had built the Malecon during the turn of the century American occupation following the Spanish-American War. . I’d been surprised to see it there, thinking that Castro would have had it removed, and I’d photographed and even translated it. This time, I couldn’t find it. There was a pedestal with a statue and the name Miranda. The hustlers had become truly annoying, so we moved on. I wanted to walk west along the Malecon, at least for a hundred yards or so. On the ocean side, irregular large chunks of concrete and possibly stone extend 10to 20 feet out into the water. We’d hardly started when another musician approached and also began playing “Besame Mucho.” My wife exclaimed “No!” and he backed off. These, I thought, are the Besame Moochers. A bit farther along, another musician was serenading a Japanese couple. Figuring that he was already being tipped, I took his photo. The sunlight was dimming, and clouds had gathered above Vedado. Across the way, a balcony’s ceiling was seemingly held up by six statue-like columns. Red sightseeing trackless trolleys pulled their cars back and forth along the road. A blazing red 50s car with a white top passed by.
The 12 Prado café, at the Prado/Malecon intersection, was next door to the building in which I’d previously stayed, and was another hangout for me and my daughter. It was time for some more deja vu. The café, which is right on the corner, has two entrances. It looked almost the same as five years ago, except that in addition to the TV set I remembered, mounted high, there were two others. There was also a stage for a small band. We ordered beer and club sandwiches – tuna for me, cheese for Ellen. Facing me was the side of the cooler where, five years earlier, there had been a long government notice warning about the dengue fever epidemic for which Havana was being sprayed daily by trucks and planes, The TVs were featuring funny music videos.
The sun was going down; it was time to set out for the cañonazo, the nightly cannon firing ceremony. The site, the San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress, is across the bay, the Bahia de la Habana, and there are basically two ways to get there -by the Casablanca ferry and then walk, or by regular taxi. We chose the latter.
There is a taxi stand just outside 12 Prado, just as there had been five years earlier. However, back then, most of the taxis were under the Panataxi label, and usually had meters, although getting a metered ride was not always possible. Now, there are no more Panataxis, and if any of the regular taxis still have working meters, I saw no sign of them. One does just as we’d been warned to do in Russia and Argentina – negotiate the fare in advance. In this instance, it was 12 CUCs – not much different from what it would have been in most US cities for the same distance. We were driven through the port tunnel and past a hilly area between the road and the bay. Entering the neighborhood, the driver stopped and said we had to pay an additional one CUC each to a man by the window – a neighborhood admission charge. The driver informed us that there was a restaurant nearby, and we also saw a small snack bar., But we had just eaten and drank. We debarked by a short road leading uphill between two cannons. An illustrated sign announced “Forteleza San Carlos de la Cabana.”
We’d come very early and it was still light, so we decided to explore. On the side of the road away from the bay was a neat and clean middle class neighborhood. The houses were not unusually large, but they were well kept and featured greenery and lovely gardens and flowers. Unlike Miramar, none of them appeared to be in need of maintenance. Some had flagstone paths. We went up and down the side streets, enjoying the ambiance and taking photos. On a fence in front of one house was something I had never seen before, a sign identifying that house as a residence of someone active in a committee to defend the revolution. These neighborhood committees, if you believe what you hear and read in Miami, are in the business of constantly spying on everyone living nearby and reporting treasonous talk to the authorities. But I had learned five years ago to believe very little about what I heard about Cuba in Miami. As we turned, we saw another house, a huge anchor mounted in front of it, leaning against a tree. The front of it hinted, without a sign, that it also served as a paladore, a private restaurant. As I prepared to take a photo, the proprietor came out and asked if we’d be interested in patronizing his establishment. Regretfully, we said no, because we had just had dinner. He was gracious about it, and didn’t mind us taking the photo. A less elaborate display consisted of a another house with a simple sign saying “pizzas” posted on its porch. A lovely little girl in blue shirts and white shirt and pigtails tied with pink bands smiled for us behind a gate. On another gate, a sign warned of a dog “Cuidado – Con el Perro.”
Eventually, we made our way up the hill, between the statues, and into the fort property. There were six-layer stacks of cannon balls; six wide at the bottom, five above that, and up to a single one at the top. There was an entry arch, and by it stood a sentry, in an old white Spanish uniform, who informed us that proceeding further would require purchasing a ticket for five CUCs each from someone in a small structure behind us. My wife suggested that perhaps we could linger outside for free to hear the shot. I said we’d already spent 14 CUCs to get there and would need about as much to get back, so we paid. We were always more cautious than usual about unanticipated expenses, knowing that our credit and debit cards, thanks to the embargo element of our failed 50 year old Cuba policy, were good anywhere else in the world but not in Cuba. A sign announced “San Carlos de la Cabana 1763-1774 Patrimonio de la Humanidad.”
Once over the short bridge and across the moat, or what was left of one, we turned and walked between ancient structures and then past a line of souvenir stands. Finally, we were in an area below the walls, the ramparts of the fort. Several paths and stairs led up to the ramparts; behind us was a low structure and, at its far end, a bar with a lit sign. People began walking up onto the ramparts, where portions of the stone paving were marked off with low chains. There were several cannons there, and we weren’t sure which would be fired. It was still early, eight or shortly after. Below the ramparts was a steep drop to the bay, and across the bay was Havana, spread out and lit in the twilight. It was a fine sight. We watched the sun set over and behind the fortress walls. The tops of downtown buildings were reflected with a tinge of pink in the smooth bay.
Then we were attacked; not by some invading navy, but by an onslaught of mosquitos. My wife, who has always been considered a particular delicacy by the one species that I would dearly love to see become extinct, was besieged, We had to leave the area quickly, and retreated to the bar, which was fortunately air-conditioned and, despite a captive clientele, had one-CUC beers. After having several, we finally returned to the ramparts 30 or 40 minutes later. It was now dark, a crowd had gathered around one of the chain-enclosed areas, and the mosquitos were gone.
At about a quarter to nine, a uniformed man bearing a torch appeared below on the path, and he and a group of white-uniformed followers marched back and forth as he chanted loudly and – to us, at least – unintelligibly in a singsong voice. Finally, the headed up the path to the ramparts and the chain-enclosed area, in which reposed one of the cannons. To the accompaniment of chanting, commands and more marching, the cannon was loaded, and a particular show was made of strenuously and repeatedly ramrodding whatever needed to be ramrodded into the barrel. A fuse was finally lit, and at precisely 9:00:00, there was one sudden and immensely loud bang. The ceremony concluded with the men marching back down and away.
As we drifted past the souvenir stands, my wife worried that there might not be any taxis available. I assured her that there would probably be well over a hundred waiting, and there were. It was close to ten when we went through the tunnel and proceeded along the entire length of the Malecon. On my previous trip, I’d stayed only a short walk from there, and had enjoyed walking alongside the seawall and seeing occasional singles and couples relaxing atop it. This time, there was nothing occasional about it – the seawall was teeming with people, relaxing, socializing, talking, thinking, watching, just enjoying one of the most enjoyable aspects of this great city. I felt an almost unbearable longing to join them, to be one with them. People were sitting on it all the way to its western end. Back in the Montehabana, our Japanese neighbors were once again relaxing with their doors wide open, puffing away. Inside, we took out rum and cola from the fridge, and again watched CNN. Entering our bedroom, we were enchanted by what we found On our beds, the towels had been folded into white swans.
I headed to the pool for a late evening swim. There were few people out. Swimming over to the basket mounted on a pool wall, I wanted to see why they would out up negative signs – signs with red diagonal lines – to discourage people from playing water basketball. Two of the signs said that diving was prohibited. The third sign – well, I had a fourth quote to add to my three favorite on-line profile quotations. The sign’s purpose was to discourage people, not from using the hoop to – well, shoot hoops – but to jump up and hang from it. In Spanish, it read: No Calgorse Del Aro. And in English, this absolutely precious mistranslation: Not To Be Hung Of the Hoop.
For the record, these are my other three favorite profile quotes.
“Wonderful to relate, he does not chew.” Written by William Howard Russell, a London Times correspondent, regarding the common custom then of chewing tobacco and then spitting into – or out of – spittoons – after his meeting with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861.
“Honi soit qui mal y pense.” French for “evil be to him who evil thinks.” Found, for some odd reason, impressed upon the edges of British silver one crown coins – silver dollar size – during the final years of the reign of George III.
“A person in charge of a dog which fouls the footway shall be liable to a fine of five pounds.” From a sign I saw on my first visit to London, in 1968.
Emerging from the water, I was greeted by a handsome Argentinian gentleman named Michael, and his lovely wife, Monica. We chatted briefly about Buenos Aires and the trip we’;d made there the previous year. Thence to our suite, now with working a/c and hot water, a nightcap, and to bed.
FRIDAY SEPT 23
We began the day with our usual in-house breakfast: cereal, milk, cheese, crackers, and the latest news on CNN. I’d been advised by people on line that the hotel supplied coffee machines in the rooms, but that it would be a good idea to bring our filters. We did so, and they had finally brought up a coffee maker, but there was no coffee. We could have bought some downstairs, but had already gone to buy more cereal. I carried out my usual twice-daily ritual of boiling a large pot of water for 15 minutes, letting it cool to a dull warmth, then funneling it into bottled to go into the fridge. We made the first shuttle at 9:20. As always, we dodged the hustlers who met the buses and headed up Stray Dog Street. Ellen acceded to my suggestion that she indulge in a two peso small coffee from the woman at the window. Up the work-a-day street, left at the Museo – isn’t it great when you settle into one place while traveling, establish a routine and get to know an area?
The fellow at the Cuban Art museum who’d said he’d let us in free because of our untimely early ouster the day before was nowhere to be found, and the woman in charge made it clear there would be no compensatory freebie for us. We went up the street to the Bellas Artes, the international art museum. It was air-conditioned and had a collection which could be described as respectable if not magnificent. Rooms of works from the renaissance and post-renaissance periods were arranged by county; the paintings from the continent of those periods were generally described as being, not by a given well known painter, but from “the school of” or “the studio of.” Many such, of course, are on a par with those of the teacher. I was more impressed with the collection of 18th and 19th century English paintings, which includes works by Gainsborough and Romney.
The Capitol building in Havana – the Capitolio – was modeled directly on the one in Washington, DC and looks just like it I wanted to tour it and see what is allegedly one of the world’s largest indoor statues, but it was closed for renovations. It fronts on a wide boulevard, across from a large movie theater that looks like the sort that existed in most American cities and towns a generation or two ago. The traffic was thick, and it seemed to get hotter every hour. We sheltered a few times in a nearby park. We people-watched. Habaneros dress pretty much as we do, but you don’t see people in the US carrying dozens of eggs in a carefully-held open carton. I photoed an attractive young couple flirting from facing benches. She was tan, in black top and shorts and sandals; he wore jeans, a black shirt and sunglasses. Ah, youth! I’m normally hesitant about taking photos of people without asking, but this was Cuba, and I would not be denied., In fact, no one ever seemed to mind. One guidebook has referred to the area in front of the Capitolio as the best viewing area of all for fine old American cars. It certainly qualifies.
We’d talked of walking to the other side of the Capitolio and checking out Havana’s small Chinatown, but somehow ended up back on Obispo instead. Passing four floors of apartments atop some retail, we saw laundry neatly hung on almost every balcony railing. As I approached the burger stand where I’d eaten twice before, the young man running it recognized me and simply handed me a burger, and I handed him the 10 peso note I had at the ready. As for my wife, she was delighted when I spotted a vendor selling bananas. At long last, fruit! And these were the short, small, deliciously sweet variety, the kind that cost at least twice as much in American supermarkets as the more familiar long ones, bred for preservation and sometimes referred to in the trade as “Ecuadorian baseball bats.”
Obispo isn’t the prettiest pedestrian-only street, but its functionality makes it attractive, and there are unexpected diversions along the way. There’s a hotel where Hemingway once stayed; his portraits hang in a dimly lit entrance corridor. There was what was supposedly the oldest house in the city, the Casa de Obispo 117-119, with a few exhibits and an ancient carriage. A sign listed the various occupants over the centuries. There were two old pharmacies that looked like American pharmacies from the late 1800s, complete with large glass bottles of mysterious-looking liquids and potions; yet I was also able to purchase a few small packets of facial tissue. In one of them was a tall dark wooden glass-fronted case containing a full human skeleton. An employee assured me that it was real. To its right was an ornate blue and white vase as tall as the skeleton; to its left, a cabinet filled with mysterious capped porcelain jars.
I’ve been a coin collector since childhood, and Ellen pointed out that we were in front of the Museo Numismatico, so of course we went in. Admission was free, and a short staircase led to a sort of mezzanine with a comprehensive collection of Cuban coins, medals and paper money dating back to the Spaniah and the 1700s. As with a similar museum I’d visited in Costa Rica, there were privately issued plantation coins and tokens, and oversized worn early paper money. The collection was arranged chronologically, with the latest post-revolutionary issues at the end. Back on the small ground floor area, there was a substantial collection of U.S. $20 gold pieces or double eagles, including two scarce Carson City, Nevada minted pieces. One of the woman guards told me they had all been part of Fidel Castro’s private collection and that he had donated them to the museum. Odd to think of Fidel as a collector of American gold coins.
Moving along, I came upon a Rottweiler and a dachshund, playing together. My camera got a workout. Our last four family dogs had all been Rotties. This was the first Rottie I’d seen on this trip. He was pure Rottie, and very tame. I’d encountered another on my previous trip, along the Malecon, who had snarled at me, but I’d gotten his photo, too. I had, however, seen many dachshunds this trip – they seem to have become a favorite of Havana dog owners. As for the locally-originated Havanese breed which I had seen portrayed on Animal Planet, I saw not a one.
The Plaza de Armas is always the perfect finish to crowded, hot, work-a-day Obispo. It seemed cooler just looking at the trees in full leaf shading the benches and the booksellers. I’d read good things about the City Museum, the Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana, and that’s where it is, on the far side of the Plaza, housed in an age-old Spanish-era government building with outdoor stairways and corridors and elaborate inner chambers. A peacock strolled its plaza. The first chambers we saw exhibited old carriages and various implements. Also visible was a covered wagon, but, unlike the familiar American ones, both sides and top were of solid wood. A model, perhaps two feet high, of an old fashioned locomotive pulling a coal car was mounted on rails. They were painted bright red. There was a gravestone, in English dating to 1759, and an unusually lifelike sculpture of a tormented Jesus, nude, facing down, seated on what could have been a pile of branches. There were old photos and drawings. This was the museum telling the story of Havana before the days of Batista and Fidel.
Most of the exhibits were upstairs, and there w ere numerous rooms showing a lot of decorative arts of the period, but also with an emphasis on furnishings, clothing, kitchens, carpeting, chandeliers. and artworks and plates mounted on walls. There were various implements used by the wealthier classes, primarily in Spanish and immediate post-Spanish times. Spain, it should be noted, lost almost all of its vast American empire between 1810 and 1830, but managed to hang on to Cuba until the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. Much of this was shown through the exhibits that included signs, newspapers, magazines, firearms, swords, drawings, paintings, photographs.and interpretive signage. There were dozens of long rifles resembling the famed Kentucky rifles I’d seen in US museums. There were many commemorative and historic plaques. We had barely entered the first upstairs room when three genial uniformed middleaged female employees descended on us. They zeroed in on my obvious discomfort from the heat… “Ohhh, papi, you are so hot!” brought seats and fanned us. In their rudimentary English, they offered explanations of some of the exhibits. They insisted on taking photos of us with our cameras – one shows my wife pretending to fire a cannon at me. It occurs to me that there may have been times when that thought has crossed her mind. They were obviously hoping for tips. This wasn’t really a problem for us at first; the issue was how to get away from them before our time together multiplied, along with the size of the expected gratuity. I finally offered a CUC or so each, and my wife managed to wave them off.
One particularly large and long chamber included a hall of original flags – of Spain, colonial and independent Cuba, and various other countries. Mounted on one wall was a collection of at least 50 or 60 world leaders from the early 20th century, presumably assembled by the Cuban government. My own favorite aspect of the room was an enormous air conditioner, the first I’d seen in this Museo. If I stood or sat in front of it, as I did for at least ten minutes, I felt transplanted from a hot humid Havana summer day to a windy late autumn or early winter day in Vermont. I could feel the accumulated sweat disappearing. But then it was time to move on.
At the far end of this hall was The Room of the American Involvement. The subject had nothing to do with US support for pre-Castro dictators or meddling and worse with Castro’s government; it focused on the events before, during and after the Spanish-American war, which brought to intervention to a height never dreamed of by the Kennedy brothers and their successors. There were photos and headlines regarding the explosion that had destroyed the US ship The Maine, in Havana harbor – an event that had served as a convenient excuse for a declaration of war, and the cause of which is still debated today. Following the quick American victory, Cuba was virtually ruled by the aforementioned general, Leonard Wood, for several years, and independence was granted with many strings, the longest and strongest of which, the lease on the Guantanamo Naval Base, will not expire until 2033. Flags, photos, signs, and documents lined the room, and a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, signed as president, was under glass. Dated May 10, 1902, it stated that Cuba was now being granted its independence – such as it was – and that the US occupation was about to end. The room also featured a fine painting of Abraham Lincoln.
Another elaborately furnished room had been created especially to receive a Spanish ruler whenever he or she should deign to visit Havana. None ever did. Perhaps some day Juan Carlos or hsi successor will drop in. Back in the plaza, school children dressed in white tops, blue sashes and dark red skirts carried their bags.
At our shuttle stop destination, those especially pretty and shiny 50s cars were still parked across the street. There was time to kill, so we crossed and bought beers from a stand. We sat on a bench adjoining a small group of policemen; their cruiser was parked by the curb in front of us. Two were talking animatedly; one was talking nonstop and rapid fire, a style rarely heard in Havana but far more frequently in Miami’s Cuban community. I bought five refrigerator magnets for the equivalent of a dollar each from a little store. A light rain arrived with our shuttle, but didn’t prevent us from seeing the red ball of the sun set over Vedado as we rode west along the now-familiar Malecon. In our room, each bed featured a towel folded into an arrangement of four matching abstract hearts.
Our plan for the evening was to attend Friday evening services at Havana’s largest synagogue, the conservative Bet Sholom in Vedado. My daughter and I had been there for Rosh Hashonah – the Jewish New Year – afternoon services in 2006. We needed to get back to the hotel and change, and I needed to bathe, and what better way to do so than another immersion in the Occidental’s huge pool complex? Back at the hotel, we changed and I swam. It was a busy day.
The directions I gave the cab driver for the synagogue were too short and, as it turned out, faulty – the stated corner would have been a few hundred yards out in the ocean. We could have had the driver return to the hotel and I could have looked up better directions, but I was certain that they would also have Sabbath services on Saturday, probably in mid morning, and in any event we could certainly gain entrance so that we could both tour the facility. And so, I asked the driver to take us to the Canadian embassy. Hopefully, Casey and Bridget would be there, but, if not, we could at least have a drink at their “Polar Bar,” have one of their touted burgers, and perhaps make some new friends. Ellen had suggested, earlier, that we might be out if place there, not being Canadians. I responded that we were “honorary Canadians” – we’d both lived in Buffalo, a border city, I’d lived for four years in Montreal and been a bona fide Canadian landed immigrant, I’d gone to summer camp in Ontario, and she’d spent a summer studying in Quebec. Most of the embassies in Havana are in Miramar, and most of those are on Fifth Avenue, but Canada’s is on the corner of Third and 30th Street. A guard asked if we were Canadians. I said yes. He asked for our passports. I said we’d left them at the hotel. He let us in. We followed a path around the building. There was a pool and a few people sitting nearby, eating, drinking and socializing. They seemed oblivious to our presence. Casey and Bridget were nowhere to be seen. There was a counter behind which burgers were being cooked. They looked and smelled delicious. When I approached the counter, I was reminded that I needed to go inside and get my tickets. Inside, there was a counter. Nothing was free. The burgers were 3.5 CUCs. Everything was priced – beer and even soft drinks and condiments. Had we been able to use credit or debit cards, we’d have succumbed to the temptation of the burgers, but the need to conserve our steadily dwindling supply of CUCs plus the fact that we knew no one there and no one seemed especially interested I getting to know us resulted in a decision to leave.
We decided to walk back. It was twilight, not quite as hot, and no sun out. From 30th to 70th street was a good walk, but Casey had mentioned that the street numbers took a sudden leap in the 40s. We walked back via Fifth Avenue – embassy row. We passed territorial enclaves belonging to Turkey, Ukraine. Cambodia and others, including Nigeria, or, as its guard pointed out, Ni-HEER-ee-ya, However, one of Havana’s most important embassies, that of Spain, is a huge wedding-cake-resembling affair, only a few blocks from the Prado and Malecon. I was struck, as before, by the unusual traffic signals in Miramar. I had never seen one five years earlier, but then I hadn’t been in that area. Many US traffic signals flash descending numbers, designed to show pedestrians how many seconds they have left to cross safely. That number rarely exceeds or even reaches 20 and then drops. Here, the light will turn red and numbers will begin as high as the 50s and then descend. Then the light will turn green and the same thing will happen. My wife tried to explain their system to me, saying that it totally orinted to drivers, not pedestrians, but I never did “get it.”
The entire walk paralleled a grassy median with a walkway in the middle, with trees and benches at each end. Couples and families were strolling. To our relief, there was a sudden jump from 46th to 60th street. Back to our usual in-house meal. My wife accompanied me to the pool, but I stayed longer than her – the lure of fresh water, especially not smelling of chlorine, was real.
SATURDAY SEPT 24
We set out again for the synagogue that morning with detailed directions. Bet Sholom is in Vedado, amidst low and medium rise apartments and small homes. I had found that it was only a few blocks from the Museo de Artes Decorativos, and we had learned from touring decorative arts museums in New York and Buenos Aires that they are well worth a visit. If we left the synagogue after an hour or so, we’d be able to walk to the museum.
Ironically, our Miami Beach house is less than four blocks from a Cuban synagogue – the only one I know of in the United States. Neither of us had ever been inside, but we had seen the outdoor part of its initial dedication, with a Torah being carried down the sidewalk and through the door. It caters primarily to “Jewbans” – a popular term for Jewish Cubans who have emigrated, and their children. Many of then live in Miami Beach, and the fact that our youngest daughter had made many if not most of her best friends in that community accounted for her fluency in Spanish. It also accounted for her mild embarrassment when, studying in Madrid, a professor had told ehr she spoke Spanish with a Cuban accent.
Sinagoga Bet Sholom is a modern building, built in the 1990s, with stairs leading down to a lobby and large reception hall in which my daughter and I had been treated to a holiday dinner, and an upstairs sanctuary seating close to 300. The outer doors feature designs including lions and menorahs. Above it, on the outer wall, is a large six-pointed Star of David. As it happened, we arrived shortly before the Shabbat morning service. My daughter Lori and I had been greeted by an officer with some enthusiasm – this time, there was little such, but we were heartened by the attendance. In many US synagogues, Saturday services are held primarily for the benefit of the religious school students, and otherwise sparsely attended. On this occasion, there were at least 50 to 60 people, at least as many as had been there for the holiday service in ‘06.
The lobby also serves as a small museum, which includes, encased in glass, a cobblestone from the Warsaw ghetto, a letter from movie director Steven Spielberg praising the fortitude of Havana’s Jewish community, and various plaques and tributes. One plaque, of marble, lists there Jewish organizations that financed the structure. My father had served as director of one of them, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, for 12 years. There were names of individuals in South Florida whom I recognized. One was the father of one of my youngest daughter’s “Jewban” friends.
We took seats near the back of the sanctuary, as we expected we would want to leave in mid-service. Bet Sholom has no rabbi, nor does any other synagogue in Cuba. There’s an estimated 2,000 Jews in the country, about half of them in Havana, which also has two smaller synagogues, one of which is Orthodox. There had been a far larger Jewish population in Cuba before 1959, but most of them lost little time in emigrating after the Jan. 1, 1959 regime change. While there were problems between the dominant Roman Catholic Church and the Castro government in its earlier years, the Jewish community was spared, despite the government’s consistent anti-Israel positions. In the late 1990s, a synagogue official reportedly asked Fidel why he had never visited. He responded that he had never been invited. An invitation was dfuly extended, and he showed up at the annual Chanukah party. Photos of that visit are displayed in the lobby, wearing fatiqgues. Another, presumably taken on a different date, shows him with synagogue officers, wearing a red and white checked shirt. In 2010, Raul Castro attended that event as well.
The service was conducted using a Spanish and Hebrew prayer book, published in Buenos Aires in 2000. It was the same one I’d seen there in ‘06. We left after about an hour. On the way out, I saw that a reception hall had had tables set, presumably for a luncheon for the congregants. We’d have stayed for ir, but our time was limited.
The Decorative Arts Museum, like the synagogue, was surrounded by conventional Vedado residences. Most had two floors and were well kept. The museum also had two floors, a elaborate white front, and consisted of perhaps 15 or 20 rooms, lavishly furnished with furnishings and artworks from past generations. It shows how wealthy and important families during the Spanish and pre-Castro eras lived in luxury. The will violate the anti-cliche creed of good travel writing by saying that the exhibits were stunning. The building was not air conditioned, but the exhibit rooms were. Different woman guides would escort us into each room, carefully unlocking it for us, then locking it as we’d leave. The rooms, while not dim, were not brightly lit, so that works on cloth and paper and paint and print would be better preserved. One room was for dining, another devoted to Chinese lacquer ware. Another featured Sevres porcelain, another French and French-style Second Empire furnishings. There was a “Salon Anglais.” a “Salon Orientale” and a “Salon Eclectique.” There was an amazing bathroom, featuring silver and crystal and an Art Deco stye. There were no limits on the time spent browsing. Explanations were offered, but the ladies spoke no English. Unfortunately, photography was strictly prohibited, but we were offered illustrated leaflets.
While taxis abound in major tourist-oriented sections of any big city, there were none to be seen around 17th and D in Vedado, and we finally returned to the museum, where one was called for us. We photoed the interior of Vedado en route. A red, white and blue sign above a garage proclaimed “SOCIALISMO. Unica Garantia de Ser Libres y Independientes.” We needed to freshen up and change, as we were about to take up a dinner invitation to the home of a Havana family.
It was a relief to take a break from the heat and effort of sightseeing and enjoy the pools in full daylight. They were busier than I’d seen before, particularly the upper-level pool. Through casual brief conversation and eavesdropping, I realized that the people around me came from a wide range of countries, mostly in Europe. I saw an actual water basketball game in progress. We had the usual small lunch and drink in our room. More than before, I reflected on what seemed like the inappropriate decadence of being here in a country with such critical economic problems, especially in view of my previous trip, when I’d stayed with a local family in the heart of the city. But I was too relaxed to be much troubled by it.
Well before embarking on this trip, we had made arrangements to visit a middle aged couple who lived in the Santos Suarez area of Havana. I’ll call them Emilio and Gloria – not their real names. Gloria was a first cousin to a friend of ours in Miami, who had given us some money to bring to them. We’d also brought candy and toys for them and their grandchildren. This is a primarily residential neighborhood south of Vedado and of the Plaza of the Revolution, seldom visited by tourists. Again, we would need a regular taxi to get there, and we made sure that the address we had was accurate and detailed.
We’d had some e mail exchanges – in English – with them before the trip, and they’d insisted on inviting us to dinner at their home. In a subsequent e mail, Emilio, knowing that we were Jewish, advised us that in Cuba people primarily “eat of the pig” and asked if that would be a problem for us. Being Reform Jews, and on the lax side of that, we assured him it would not be.
The ride was 12 CUCs. En route, I saw a strange sight – what looked like a heap of dilapidated structures, piled one on the other, with small shacks on top. The driver let us off at their small front porch, and Emilio took his phone number so that he could be called to take us back. Their home was a sort of long flat, leading to a yard in back. In te yard was a tall cluster of trees and ferns. We learned that another portion of the residence was rented out. A sort of furnished entry corridor led into a living room, where Gloria awaited us in her wheelchair. Also in evidence were several examples of the sort of sturdy old fashioned good sized wooden rocking chairs that are not uncommon in Havana – two such had been the only chairs in the room that my daughter and I had rented five years earlier. They had a medium size mixed breed brown and white dog. Emilio’s English, if not perfect, was adequate, even vernacular – he used a common vulgar term in referring to the “milk for the baby” street scammers. After appetizers in the living room, we moved to the dining room, where we were treated to soup, salad and large pork loin chops. Everything was delicious. Knowing that fresh meat was not always affordable ad abundant in Cuba, I hesitated to take a second helping, but Emilio insisted. Dessert was flan, a sort of delicious solid but light Cuban pudding that we’d had many times in Miami. In fact, I had discovered that, while the politics of Miami Cubans and Cuban Cubans couldn’t be more different, their foods and drinks are just about identical.
Back to the hotel, and back to the pool. This time, no one was using it, and a guard shooed me away, but I took a quick plunge in the kiddie pool to refresh myself. Back in the room, I did what I’d been doing each day – loading everything I wanted to save into my two prepaid Canadian postal packets.
SUNDAY SEPT 25
We were back in the old city the next morning, wanting a look at Habana Vieja and Centro on a Sunday. We’d settled into a routine that had become comfortably familiar, almost homelike – the shuttle bus, the same friendly driver, the same exit stop at the Palacio, the same brightly colored new-looking old cars across from it, and the same walk up Stray Dog Street. By this time, I’d driven my wife half-crazed with my stubborn insistence on taking photos of one dog and one old car after another. We passed a 50s white car with a blue trunk lid and as big fins as I’ve ever seen.
Obispo was all strollers on Sunday. I saw perhaps the longest dachshund I’d ever seen. A freshly painted building front had a sign, in English “Rooms for Rent.” We sat down at a small park on one side of the thoroughfare. I looked up as an elderly but healthy looking gentleman approached. He was wearing a red shirt with thin horizontal white and brown stripes, and had a red, white and blue vertical-striped charm hanging from a necklace outside of the shirt that looked like a map of France. The tricolor. His hair was cut short – white, gray and black. His hairline had retreated but he was far from balding.
Sometimes, when one travels, something happens that is so bizarre that it could not possibly be made up. On my previous Cuban trip, this bizarre episode had involved encountering a gentleman in 12 Prado who was drinking a lot of beer and informed us that he was Fidel Castro’s personal Japanese translator.” When he spoke, two strangely large teeth appeared on either side of his open mouth. They had looked like vampire teeth.
The red shirted gentleman walked right up to me, and in a loud, assertive voice, announced: “YOU ARE A JEW!”
I had only seconds to try to absorb my total shock before he added: “YOU HAVE THE NOSE!”
Unlike so many others, he didn’t seem in the least surprised that we were from the US. His name was Luis Szklarz Tejblum, and he was retired from the rabbinate of Havana’s small Orthodox synagogue. He had been a small child – perhaps a baby – when his parents and he had left Poland for Cuba in the 1930s, and he’d been in Cuba ever since. Needless to say, the 1930s had been an excellent time for anyone, especially any Jew, to leave Poland and, for that matter, Europe.
Our conversation was fascinating but brief. He gave something akin to a snort of disgust when we said we’d attended services at Bet Sholom – no doubt, he considered Conservative Judaism to be a pagan religion. He suggested that we might be interested in contributing to his little synagogue, but when I said we would send a modest cash contribution, he said no. What we would need to do, he said, was to send it via Western Union and use a different name. I had learned that, while merchandise sent to Cuba via the US mails may get through, cash sent that way usually does not. As we walked away, I told my wife that sending him the money via Western Union would probably cost considerably more than the amount of the contribution itself.
We walked back to the tranquility of Plaza de Armas. A little girl with a fluffy yellow top and pink decorations in her hair was playing with a red shirted little boy. People lounged in shady entryways. In one building entryway, two chairs faced each other. A wheeled secretarial chair held a young man in a light green uniform, with an almost-shaven head, holding a sort of briefcase in his lap. In the other chair, of blue plastic with a red cushion, sat a young policewoman in a uniform of blue skirt and white top, with blue insignia on each shoulder, holding a cigarette in her right hand. They smiled as we took their photo.
I insisted on checking out the Natural History Museum, which borders the Plaza. Five years earlier, I had been afraid to even spend the there CUC admission fee. In fact, it was a rudimentary two story museum. My favorite part of it was a wide and almost empty corridor on the second floor, with another one of these enormous air conditioning blowers. I commandeered a chair and sat in front of it, blasting away as much of the day’s sweat as I could. Downstairs, I did photograph an exhibit of colorful Cuban tree snails. I had had a small case of these shells once as a child, given to me by my parents’ landlady and long since lost. I then spotted their rock and mineral collection. It was pitiful, containing almost nothing of value and contained in one small glass case. I collect rocks and minerals, and just the specimens on my piano made up a far superior assortment. When I tried to take a photo of the case, a woman guard – why are all the museum guards in both Russia and Cuba women? – stopped me. Embarrassment, perhaps?
Outside, in the plaza, lay two dogs, one gray and white, one brown and white. They seemed to be sleeping, half curled up and perfectly paralleling one another. We made our way back to the Palacio de la Artesanias via O’Reilly Street. A cautionary sign showed a male and female child, in black against a yellow triangular background and framed in red, running across the street, hand in hand, holding their books. We passed an ancient green car, perfectly painted and preserved. Read “ancient” as 1940s, perhaps even late 1930s, Definitely not 1950s. We headed for the Prado. In a doorway, a young man with a blue cap and thin mustache sat. he looked sullen, but his white bulldog, sitting front of him, looked at us blankly.
At 12 Prado, a bank of three male musicians was performing. Two attractive young foreign women were dining in front of them. We had beer and sandwiches. Leaving, I had my photo taken with “20 Prado,” the sign and my week long abode of five years earlier in the background. There had been a light rain, and the rain slicked Prado gleamed beautifully all its length, the Capitolio in the background.
We walked back towards the Palacio and our shuttle. Rounding a corner, I realized that something was missing from alongside the street that wound round the horseback monument to Antonio Maceo, the 19th century landowner who had freed his slaves and led an unsuccessful revolution against the Spanish. On the side of the street south of the monument, bordering the parkland which is dominates, is a fence, and just below the fence is a short stretch of greenery leading downhill. Five years ago, this stretch of street had served as a busy outdoor bus terminal, with buses coming and going, lines of passengers, and two men cutting the grass below with machetes. My daughter and I had taken a public bus from there to Guanabo, together with her newfound young male Cuban friend. Guanabo is about 25 miles east by the coast, with its beaches, carriages and B&Bs for holidaying Cubans. The fare had been two pesos – equal to eight US cents. All that was there now was the fence and the grass. The buses were gone.
MONDAY SEPT 26
There are two main routes for the collectivo old-car taxis. One extends west into Miramar; the other peels off to the southwest around the Hotel Nacional and goes up La Rampa – 23d street. I could see from the map that that skirted the edge of the famed Necropolis Cristobal Colon – the Columbus Cemetery. And it was there, in that famed resting place for the deceased, that the number one destination of my Cuban agenda lay.
Jeannette Ryder – yes, with two n’s – was an American, the widow of a doctor, who lived for decades in Havana and passed away in 1931. She was the founder of Cuba’s first animal rights and care organization, which has reportedly been rejuvenated in recent decades. Being a dog person who has never gotten over the loss of my and my daughter’s dogs, I seek then out wherever I go, and photograph them, whether in front of my own house in Miami Beach or while traveling in places near and far. I can’t say that I have read all of my Albert Payson Terhune dog books as often as I have seen The Wizard of Oz, but it is close.
I don’t remember if I first heard of Rinti before or after my first trip to Cuba in ‘06, but no matter. Rinti was Jeannette Ryder’s own dog, and when she passed on in 1931, Rinti found his way to her grave in Colon and refused to leave. Perhaps he had been named after Rin Tin Tin – no matter. Cemetery workers took him away, but he kept returning. They tried to care for him with food and water, but he refused all sustenance. He soon passed on at the concrete-encased feet of his late mistress. It is not clear if he was actually entombed there, but dog lovers today can be assured that his loyal spirit ascended to the Rainbow Bridge to join that of his philanthropic mistress. In 1944, touched by the story, a Havana sculptor, Fernando Boada, created a sculpture of Rinti. His likeness now lies at the feet of Ms. Ryder. He looks forward , lying on his tummy, his front paws paralleling his head, his rear paws and tail to the left, his body curved. Under him are chiseled the words Fiel Haste Despues Muerta. Rinti.
When I returned from Cuba in ‘06, and wrote my novel “Alicia,” mostly set there, my leading male character visited Necropolis Colon with his lady love, saw the sculpture, recalled his own lost Golden Retriever, and, as we say in colloquial English, “lost it.” I was determined that I would someday pay my respects to Rinti in person.
La Rampa, where I’d never been before, seemed to have some of everything – shops, little malls, low rise apartments, restaurants, movie theaters. It didn’t look like Habana Vieja or anything around it – it had the air of an area where locals go to do their own business. The collectivo driver pulled over to let us out, indicating that the cemetery was a block to the left. Its entrance included an elaborate arch, with angels on top, easily visible from La Rampa. Our one block walk took us past a building that seemed to be a large open indoor space where people went to watch sporting events and have activities of one sort or another – there were references to baseball. Outside was a small café. We crossed another street and were at Colon’s entrance. It appeared that we could simply walk in, but a middle aged woman came out from beside the arch and asked for 5 CUCs each. While I had read or heard nothing about an entrance fee, particularly one that high, I wasn’t disposed to argue. By then, we had realized we had neither the time nor the available cash for a real out-of-Havana trip, but we did have enough to see us through our departure on Tuesday.
We had been to another famous Latin American cemetery, Recoleta, in the heart of Buenos Aires, where Eva Person and her family and thousands of others are interred. Recoleta is very large but also very compact, virtually al vaults, and they are close together, with relatively narrow thoroughfares between the blocks. Colon is also very large, but is far more spread out, more in the American style, but for the most part with far more impressive and artistic monuments. Many are huge, tall and impressively ornate. One featured a large base, an ornate column that changed shape as it soared upwards, and an angel on top. It was as tall as a three story house. Some tombs had photos incorporated into them and one featured a box, also built into it, marked “Donations.” The avenues are wide, are numbered and lettered and there is a lot of open space. Maps are sold at the entrance, but I had one, photocopied from a guidebook, and I also had a pocket size Havana guidebook borrowed from the library in my pocket. The entry avenue leads directly to a round chapel; and there appeared to be a funeral or memorial service going on inside. On our way to it, a cemetery worker approached us, obviously angling for a tip. He directed us first to the tomb of Amelia Goyri, who had died in childbirth in 1901. The baby had not survived, and she had been buried with it at her side. The story is that when the tomb was opened, for whatever reason, the baby was found in her arms. Her grave is marked by an angel statue and a huge cross, and I counted at least seven floral arrangements that had been left there. There were no devotees present, but women are known to frequent the tomb, often to pray for fertility. He also showed us the grave of the musician, Ibrahim Ferrer. I remembered him well He and some other elderly Cuban musicians had been “rediscovered” by an American folk music producer, Ry Cooder, and brought to New York for a concert. The end result was the extraordinary musical documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club. I had seen its world premier at the Miami Film Festival, and thought I was perhaps the only non-Hispanic in the packed theater. Subsequently, Ferrer applied to revisit the U.S. Bush had taken office, and his administration denied the visa application. I had thought it to be gratuitous politically-inspired cruelty. And then Ferrer passed away.
Perhaps the most impressive single monument, which was not at all like the others, was the monument to Cuban firefighters. It includes a row of flat vaults and, above them, an ornate wall featuring 24 plaques with names. It resonated strongly – months earlier, we had visited “Ground Zero” in New York (I still hate that name – I’d always associated it with nuclear bombs), not for the first time, and taken a tour with a volunteer from that infamous day and seen the new monument to the 344 firefighters who had perished there. Yes, 344, not 343 – a passing lawyer joined their ranks, died with them, and was posthumously honored as one of them.
I had directions, and the way to Rinti was to make a right at the chapel and proceed to a certain intersection. When we got there, there was a monument where I’d expected Mrs. Ryder and Rinto to be. There was also a group of cemetery workers there. I had a copy of a photo of their resting place and showed it to them, and was directed to the site. It was just behind the monument. You can see the photo, as I have asked that this be the one of my submitted photos to be included above all others.
I didn’t “lose it” as my fictional character had, but I was overcome with emotions – admiration for Mrs. Ryder, a feeling of love for her loyal unto death dog, and the never-departed feeling of loss for our family dogs. I sat on the edge of Rinti’s portion of the monument, next to his hind legs and tail, petted him and told him what a good dog he was. Someone had left a small red flower next to Rinti. I took pictures, sat back down again, took more pictures. A handsome young couple passed by, and I took their photo as well. I had waited a long time to be at this monument. The cemetery workers glanced over at me, doubtlessly thinking that I was loco but I didn’t care. I wished I had had something to leave there – perhaps a flower for Mrs. Ryder and a doggy treat for her loyal pet. I was glad someone else had left a tiny red blossom. But I did leave a little bit of my heart.
We left the way we’d come, knowing that this was our final outing. There were more impressive monuments – one huge winged angel towering over a group of people. Another, a standing Jesus looking as if he was about to deposit something into the outstretched hand of a seated angel. Our plan was to continue walking along La Rampa in the same direction in which we’d come. Then we’d cross the Almendares River on foot, not via the tunnel, but crossing a bridge. I knew that down below the bridge was a park and also, on the other side an urban forest, The Bosque. But we’d only have time to see them from overhead.
La Rampa goes round a corner of the cemetery – we passed blocks of low rise apartments, and it seemed that there was no end to Colon, visible a block off to our left. At one point, we came to a small area, a kind of little outdoor mall. A woman had a small stall and was selling small fried pork sandwiches on buns for 5 pesos each – the equivalent of 20 US cents. I bought four. The bits of pork were well fried, warm and delicious. Then I saw the dog. A limping stray, I thought, and probably starving. He was fuzzy brown in color. I gave him one of my sandwiches. He ate the pork but not the bun. That was when my wife pointed out my mistake. The dog was not a stray. He had a tag, and was limping because he only had three legs. Our next to last Rottweiler had also been three-legged for her final year because of a cancer-necessitated amputation. If the dog had been a starving stray, he would surely have eaten the bun as well. No matter. I had done the right thing.
We were finally out of sight of Colon Cemetery. The map indicated a moderate walk to the bridge, but it took so long that at one point we asked someone how far it was. We passed mostly low rise apartments and a service station or two. A childrens’ park “Parque Infantil – Jalisco Park.” We finally walked out onto it. It was properly fenced and busy with traffic. It rose high above the Almendares, and the view to the north and to its mouth was clear. The trees and foliage on either side reflected perfectly in its calm waters, as did the buildings. We kept pausing to look down, then out, then down again. On the far side, way below us, was a park along the river bank. There were trees and flowers, and round picnic tables that looked almost like toadstools. We could have descended to it, but it would have taken time and required a hot climb back up to street level. In the park, an employee had just lowered a huge Cuban flag to the bottom of a flagpole. The flag had collapsed on itself, but appeared to be at least there or four times as wide as the man collecting it.
When we finished crossing the bridge, we were just south of Miramar, and at least two kilometers from our hotel. The street that crossed the bridge led west and carried almost all the traffic. Off to the right, a less trafficked street led northwest. Between them was a small park. I wouldn’t consider walking the rest of the way – I was overheated and exhausted. The less trafficked street seemed to point to Miramar, but our attempts to get a cab on it were futile, as they were all going on the other street to the west. We finally moved there, and got a cab for three CUCs. It was our final cab ride of the trip.
I spent much of the remaining day and evening in the pool. There was minimal packing, as we had traveled light. I had washed out three days’ worth of clothing a day earlier, so there was no more washing to be done. I took everything that indicated we had been in Cuba, right down to receipts in my wallet and the coins and bills I wanted to save, and packed them into my two prepaid Canadian postal parcels. We photographed the notes I had taken, and they also went into the parcels. The pool was busy, with young people playing both water basketball and water volleyball. I looked up at the multistoried Occidental, thinking that somehow I didn’t really belong where I was, that this was more of an incarnation of the tourist section of Miami Beach – where we live – than the real Cuba.
While still light, we explored the side streets to the south and west of the hotel. I photographed houses, people, dogs and cats. It seemed a pleasant neighborhood. Not all the houses in this part of Miramar were as well kept as most of those in our Miami Beach neighborhood, but many if not most were. I noticed that the percentage of old 50s American cars had dramatically decreased. Most of the parked cars were fairly new compacts.
It was early to bed, as our Sunwings bus to Veradero airport was due to pick us up at 5:00 AM, and we made sure of a wakeup call; as usual in such cases, we awoke long before our deadline. I double and triple checked everywhere, mindful of the time I’d once left a short tangled in the bedding in Italy. Our ride arrived – not a bus, but a van. It was still dark outside.
TUESDAY SEPT 27
For the last time, we went through the tunnel and along the length of the Malecon.
deserted at that hour, then through the harbor tunnel and onto the coastal highway. The sun rose ahead of us. Off to our right was an oil fired flare from a tower atop a hill. There were occasional pedestrians, bicycles, carts and horses. There was one large “Patria o Muerte” billboard. We rode through Matanzas during morning rush hour, and the sidewalks were busy. The sort of crumbling buildings we’d seen along the Malecon was absent. There were shops, schools, government buildings – it could almost have been an American town at the same hour of the day. A young woman ran past us, presumably to get to work on time. At one corner, an attractive young woman in a white top, short blue denim skirt and sunglasses stood next to a four part sign pointing the ways to Bacunayagua, La Habana, Guanabo and the hospital. A blue-capped cop strolled past, his head jerked back, eyeballing her. Next to a long porous wall was a perfectly painted and polished reddish-purple and white 50s Plymouth. A long wall was covered with exquisite marine-themed semi-abstract graffiti. Another perfectly kept bright red 50s buick or Dodge sat next to a railroad track. Leaving Matanzas, we saw an immaculate black Model T Ford.
The entrance hall to Juan Gualberto Gomez – VRA – Veradero airport. It was a couple hours to departure time; unsurprisingly, the Sunwings counter wasn’t yet open. A wall poster showed what seemed to be a nightclub scene and the words “Cuba – Paradise Under the Stars.” Another showed there small children in the water and “Cuba – Find Your Happy Place.” When Sunwings opened, I asked for seats near the front, and this time got them. A flight board showed nonstops to various Cuban cities and to Moscow and Brussels. We paid our 25 CUCs per person departure tax and got our receipts I expected departing passport control to be as routine as it had been five years earlier. It was not.
My wife preceded me to one of the passport inspection booths. It was staffed by a young woman who was chewing gum and could have been just out of high school. She said there were computer problems and apologized for the delay, but then she was finally passed through in about 15 minutes, and the door closed between us. By the time, virtually every other passenger had already gone through.
Once again, I was photographed, and was also told there was a computer problem, but this time, the wait was interminable. The girl just stood there, pretending to fiddle with the computer and with papers, and working on her gum. My wife and I were unable to communicate or even see one another, and after about a half hour, she began to panic. A woman brought her a chair, and I began begging to be able to at least see her. Another woman opened the door, and we had about one minute face to face. She said she’d told my wife that I’d be out soon, and then we were cut off again.
I stood for another 10 minutes, and became more vocal in my complaint over the delay. There were other agents available, and obviously this was more than a computer problem, and had not been dragged out by the gumchewer. Finally, a tall black officer came over and walked me to a different booth. He took my passport with him, asked me to wait, and retreated into a nearby office. The office door was open, and after a few minutes, I walked over and looked in. Six different officers, male and female, were huddled over my passport, examining it. I made sure that they could see me. Minutes later, the tall man returned with my passport, went back behind the booth, fiddled with something for a minute, handed me the passport, and the door opened and I was liberated.
The long four-gate upstairs departure lounge was much as I remembered it, but the stalls selling a wide variety of revolutionary-type books were gone. We were close to running out of CUCs. My wife wanted coffee and that was 2.5 C’s. As we awaited the departure call, we.fell into conversation with an odd young man from Sri Lanka. He had tousled black hair, jeans, an infectious grin and a white t shirt with the classic Che Guevara portrait. His conversation was disjointed and odd, but his English was clear enough. He loved Che and wanted to return.
It seemed absurd to travel three thousand miles to return to our home that was only about 200 miles away. Our flight left on time, and it was full. No landscape had ever seemed greener to me than the land around Veradero. After clearing the Cuban mainland, we crossed a long crooked and disjointed spit of land. As it had been coming down, we flew over the Everglades and then parallel to Florida’s east coast. I recognized many of the towns and landmarks. It was a clear sunny day, and we were served a hot lunch, complete with wine. The final stage, crossing over Lake Ontario and then the downtown Toronto skyline, was very quick. I was concerned that our passports not be stamped there, as otherwise the US border officer would know we had entered Toronto by air and might ask if we had been to any countries other than Canada, and, if so, which ones. In ‘06, I had argued with a Canadian officer for 10 minutes before she finally agreed not to make the stamp. When faced with questioning by a US federal officer, you have three choices. You can refuse to answer, a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. You can tell the truth. Or you can lie. If you lie and the lie is discovered, then you can be charged with a felony. We knew that, under the new administration, we wouldn’t get in trouble for having been to Cuba. We just wanted to make sure some overzealous agent didn’t hold us up, searching and questioning us, and possibly cause us to miss our flight, incurring a night’s hotel bill in Niagara Falls and several hundred dollars in Spirit Airlines change fees.
We picked out a young pleasant-looking female agent, who immediately agreed not to stamp our passports, boarded a city bus to the end-of-the-line Kipling station on the east-west subway route, and debarked two blocks from the Coach Canada bus station. Now that we’d cleared Canada customs, which involved simply walking through the “green line,” I was able to seal my two prepaid parcels and dump them into a mailbox. A bus to the Falls was about to leave, we boarded it, then took a local bus to the top of Benders Hill, overlooking the falls, walked down and took the pedestrian entrance to the United States. As before, the view of the falls was stunning. At the end of the bridge, there was a small structure with a counter inside running its length. On one side, there was a large area filled with Asians milling about, presumably waiting to be cleared. To the right was a narrow corridor. A young male officer was at the counter. What he saw and heard was an older American couple carrying small bags, cameras around their necks. He probably thought we were daytrippers who, like most visitors, want to see the falls from both sides. He looked at our passports and waved us through. The same bumpy wooden trackless trolley we had taken at the start of the trip took us back to the Niagara Falls airport, once again open, gleaming new, and totally empty of people. Our flight didn’t leave until well after midnight. We were hungry, and the restaurant was closed – a young Korean student let us use his laptop to locate a nearby pizzeria that delivered, and that provided our dinner. Hours later, the airline people arrived, then the TSA security agents, who ordered their dinner from the same pizzeria. We left for Ft. Lauderdale on time, and by midmorning were home in Miami Beach.
My two trips could hardly have been more different. The first time, I was accompanied by my 36 year old attractive single daughter. I accompanied her to many of Havana’s bars and clubs. Young men doted on her, bought her drinks and perhaps only half-jokingly offered to marry her. We went to two beaches, and she made friends with a local young Cuban man. We stayed with a Cuban family in the heart of the city and haunted the Prado and Malecon at night. People were friendly and open, but what little private enterprise there was was discrete and, in the case of the private restaurants and homestays, well hidden. We’d been short of cash and I hadn’t had the money to visit a single museum.
On this trip, we saw entire portions of the city my daughter and I had missed, but ended up skipping the plaza of the Revolution – which I had seen – and experienced a whole different Cuba, with small private enterprise flourishing. We also missed the beaches, Chinatown, the zoo, the railroad, and Santa Clara.
Our 2006 trip had been conducted in deepest secrecy, with the Bush administration actively seeking out and penalizing “illegal” American visitors. We told very few people about the voyage. Nonetheless, we had encountered a woman from Seattle who had come via Cancun, and, surprisingly, five University of North Carolina exchange students who were there legally – yes, even by Bush standards. After January 20, 2009, it was clear there was no further need for secrecy. And, ironically, on this trip, with the loosening of travel restrictions, we encountered not another single American.
I wondered why the problems about leaving Cuba, but after going through the newspapers that had accumulated at home, I realized that the week we’d been there had been an unusually difficult one for Cuba-US relations for a number of reasons. It also occurred to me that my passport, less than two years old, held stamps from four other Latin American countries – four of them, Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – and from no other nations.
Canada Post is known more for frequent strikes than for speed and efficiency, but after a month I had both my parcels. Neither had been opened by US customs. I refilled the Cuban beer cans with cold beer – Fosters, this time – and we drank to the political demise of all the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress. I cooked the biggest, juiciest burgers I’d ever made, and we had our own “Polar Bar.”
A final word. Any American can go to Cuba now. You can go via a third country. No one will care. Or you can take a direct charter flight from any of perhaps 10 American cities, buying the tickets from any of dozens of authorized agents. If you’re questioned by our people – the Cubans couldn’t care less – say it’s family travel and you’re visiting a cousin. Bring as much cash as you can afford and spend it with these new entrepreneurs. Stay in a casa particular – a private home stay. Eat in the private restaurants – the paladores. They’re easy to find now. Patronize the food stands and the little shops. Ride in the collectivo taxis and the bici-taxis. Splurge on a horse and carriage ride. In the news: Cuba now loans money to private businesses, and allows them to rent out government workshops. The US does not allow people to return with Cuban cigars and rum, though I have been told that if a few cigars are declared, the customs officer may simply shrug. There is not and has not been any embargo or restrictions on printed matter, educational materials, books, magazines, newspapers or works of art. Buy some and bring them home. Who knows, you may soon be able to buy your own vacation home or apartment there! These are good people, and after all these decades of inter-government hostility, they nevertheless love us, want to be our friends, and want us to visit.