As I struggle to say something meaningful yet brief about the time we just spent in Cuba, what we observed, our anticipation and reasons for going, the myriad aspects of this island nation–cultural, political, historical, economic, sociological–I can only say it’s more than I can hammer out with my thumbs on an iPhone in a travel blog. Forgive me for even trying, as there’s just too much to cover. Music of subtle varieties, people of so many colors and origins, contrasts of simplicity and sophistication, of grandeur and decay. Books can be, and have been written about this and other places, sure. But at nearly every turn, Havana and Cuba give an American so much to think about, more than any other place that readily comes to mind. Kim and I spent less than 48 hours there. I’ll reflect on the experience for another 480. Expect no conclusions here–too much to chew on.
This leg was the one the entire trip had been built around. I’d thought about it from the moment Barack Obama visited Havana, promising to reopen relations with Cuba. I knew I wanted to take a boat there–my own boat–right away, before everyone could or did. Because if I waited til then, I thought, some of the magic would be gone. Now I know I was right. Kim and I got all we bargained for.
. . .
We’d allowed a five-day weather window, planning to take at least the best three for our trip. As luck would have it, Saturday (the day the kids flew out) would be our best day to depart. We’d have to return midday Monday, before the wind and seas got up. Any later and we’d be stuck there for a while.
And so, we pushed off at 0945, the best start we could get, after dropping folks off at Key West International.
Out of the harbor and into the Straits of Florida, the weather was perfect. Leaving Stock Island on a 210-degree heading, we carved a wake through slick-calm blue water, parting patchy sargassum and kicking up flying fish. Autopilot engaged, we left the fleet of pleasure craft around the Keys behind, and began what would be a mere 4-hour crossing, thanks to prime conditions. Lonely, though–and a little too quiet. Only the occasional freighter on the horizon. Not even a bird to break up the blue-on-blue. What awaited us?
As we came within ten miles or so of the Cuban coast, a surprisingly vertical topography revealed itself east of Havana. More hills than we’d imagined somehow. Then the city itself, obscured by smoke from a refinery flare also east of town.
If you look waaaay in the background, past my inflated head, you might see it. Then, finally, the red-and-white bouy marking the entry to the channel at Marina Hemingway came into view.
And once inside the harbor, the Aduana, or customs office, in blue.
Time slowed to a crawl. A process that involved inspections, interviews, directives, and documents from military, medical, agricultural, and harbor personnel was conducted over the next 90 minutes. Always convivial, involving a soda, beer, or other gift. Finally we were assigned a slip. On arrival there, we were welcomed by an army of helpers, wanting to dock, tie, wash, and otherwise care for the newly arrived craft.
Thank God I’d thought to bring a pocket full of small bills, as many hands were out. In this socialist peoples’ republic, there was no shortage of capitalists!
One entrepreneur, Jorge, changed some dollars to Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, for a rate better than the bank’s. He then offered to take us into town in his Russian-built Lada. It resembled the Spanish Seat Kim and I used to drive, so we couldn’t resist a pic.
. . .
Jorge drove us down the embassy row of Fifth Avenue at a rate faster than Kim could truly enjoy. We passed the decidedly strange-looking Russian embassy, designed to look like a sword buried in the ground, according to our driver.
Fifth Avenue merged onto the Malecon, Havana’s oceanfront drive, which took us into town. There we met Maikel, our guide for a walking tour of Habana Vieja, the old city.
His boss, Mabel (next to Kim) made sure all was good, and off we went.
From the moment our feet met the cobblestone streets that dated back to 15th century Spanish colonial rule, music was in the air. It was our introduction to Cuba, where music is everywhere, and it’s gooood.
Over the next day and a half, we’d hear a dozen street and stage performances. Not one was less than first-class. Nimble, apparently relaxed hands played varied instruments, clear voices rang out, feet gracefully moved in rhythms exotic and hypnotic. All seemingly without effort, as if genetic.
For the price of a dollar, a duet was procured. Other performances cost nothing, but were of considerable value.
. . .
Highlights of our walk, courtesy of Kim:
This part of the ‘old city’ was largely renovated, showing off a spiffed-up past. No crumbling decay in Habana Vieja proper.
Maikel was a great guide, but an even greater cheerleader for the Revolution and the Castro regime–heck, for the whole of Cuban history. He routinely credited Castro with so much. He beamed, for example, “Thanks to the Revolution, we have art for all the people!”, ignoring the possibility that public art might come into being in a variety of ways, or have existed before. Kim and I shared a glance: how different perspectives can be. So much depends on where you get your information. Whether he’d had the opportunity to have his ideas challenged, I’ll never know–I wasn’t going to be the challenger. And he’ll never know that he’d just opened in my mind a Pandora’s Box of competing political philosophies, arguments and counter-arguments and a whole history of capital versus labor, the U.S. role in Latin America, etc. that would keep me busy between the ears for days. Though I know where I come down on most of that, it never hurts to examine it. I wondered if I ever had the will to fight for what I take for granted, if called upon. Thank the founders for our Bill of Rights! The experience of walking around Havana awakened fresh examination of my beliefs on so many fronts, of the competing systems societies devise to advance civic prerogatives and allocate wealth, and appreciation for our system in the ideal. One of William’s professors came to mind. He likes to say (I paraphrase), “Democratic capitalism is the worst system on the planet. Except for all the others.” Here was a chance to consider it all fresh. Whew–who knew what a workout we were gonna get?!
Politics aside, we encountered a warm and welcoming Cuban people, apparently happy, generally smiling. We honestly didn’t encounter anyone who appeared cross or irritated, we never felt at risk in any way, and were told proudly by drivers and guides that there was no crime to worry about, no guns, no problems. None of that kind, anyhow.
Above: Hotel Ambos Mundos, a Hemingway haunt. Below: Plaza Vieja
Our tour ended at the Plaza Vieja. We cut Maikel loose and found dinner. We’d packed a lot into one day. After a good meal, we headed back to Marina Hemingway where the El Dorado awaited, offering air-conditioned refuge.
. . .
In the morning, Maikel and our driver, Estevan, met us at the marina for a 2-hour driving tour of the greater Havana we’d not seen on foot–we’d be riding in the back seat of a 1948 Chevrolet convertible. My favorite color! Super cool.
Cut off from trade with the U.S. since the Revolution, Cubans preserved the cars they had. The roads were filled with American classics from the 40s and 50s, and with Russian Ladas brought over in the 60s and 70s. The streets were like an odd movie set.
We drove back down Fifth Avenue towards Havana, but stopped in the Jaimanitas neighborhood, where the spectacle that is the home and workplace of Fuster, a local artist, can be found. Fuster has redone his home and the entire neighborhood in tile mosaic.
Maikel explained that Fuster’s project has gone on for decades, transforming the area, venerating his heroes, promoting his ideas.
I didn’t care to debate the topic of Hugo Chavez with my Castro-loyalist. Fuster’s pad was indisputably awesome, and now that he’s world-famous, he sells his paintings and tiles for big bucks. Good for Fuster.
. . .
We continued on to the Bosque de La Habana (the Havana Forest, a Central Park kind of place). Many classic convertibles carry their clientele to see it.
Kim couldn’t resist.
From there, it was on to John Lennon Park.
We found what was across the street more camera-worthy.
The other side of the Castro Revolution, illustrated in a single frame. And these:
And that was the scene that rolled by: classic cars, homes once-grand-now-mouldering, and communist icons.
Like the University (“free for everyone,” we were told).
And, la Plaza de la Revolucion.
Above: Che Guevara. Below: Jerry Garcia?
. . .
Estevan graciously dropped us at the market, where Kim found a handbag, I found a hat, and Maikel ordered up a round of coconuts for us.
We sipped and then parted. Maikel had given me a memento to carry to his brother in Sarasota, when I’d be there the following week. We bid our guide a warm farewell.
That’s when the cigars found me.
A nice young fellow offered us a bicycle-buggy ride.
“No, Gracias,” I replied.
“Cigarros?” He tried.
“Posiblemente,” I waffled. I’d committed to some pals that I’d bring a few back home with me, but I hadn’t really planned how I was gonna get ’em, how many, etc.
“Cohiba, Robusto,” I finally came up with. “Una caja.” I knew I’d pay $100 for a box, in a store, if I wanted to walk around and find one. Now the store had found me. He assured me he had a friend whose dad worked at the Cohiba cigar factory. $60 for a box. I was in his hands. He took us to the friend’s apartment across the street.
The merchandise came out.
Choices offered. Robustos selected. Authenticity confirmed. Cash exchanged. Goods wrapped and bagged.
The things I do for my friends back home, and for Havana’s underground economy!
. . .
We wandered back to Habana Vieja for lunch. Now it was getting good, the scenery more Habana autentica.
We found a table under an umbrella in a breezy alley cafe, and sipped a limonada while the band played, then took a break.
Now spoiled on convertibles, we took a pink one back to the marina for a siesta.
. . .
After siesta, it was time to think about heading downtown one last time, for dinner and a show: Legendarios–Proyecto Musical del Guajirito. Jorge picked us up at 7:00 that evening. We were excited–who were these Legendarios?
The room was grand, if slightly hokey. But the music was over the top. And it was big: horns, piano, drums, congas, rhythm instruments of every description, back-up singers, sharkskin suits, fedoras, gowns, heels, microphones. Latin ballads and Cuban classics a la Buena Vista Social Club. Every headliner knew how to connect with an audience.
The three-hour show was too much to photograph. You couldn’t get it into the frame. The above will have to do.
. . .
Jorge brought us back to the boat one last time. What a day, what a night.
. . .
In the morning, it was customs again, this time on our way out. Then back out the channel and past the entry bouy. Into the Straits and the Gulf Stream.
I got out past the channel a little bit before cleaning up lines and fenders.
And though the ride home got a little bumpy, Kim and I enjoyed every moment, reminiscing over the two short but action-packed days we’d just spent. We’d crossed a distance just over half of that between Mobile and Montgomery, but in so many ways, we’d left the world we knew for a different one entirely.
We came back with a handbag and a hat, a boxful of cigars, and a head full of Havana daydreams.
Having gone on way too long, we wish you Hasta Luego, Buena Suerte, and Adios!