By Barbara Chacour
I had been looking at Cuba trips for a while, but only got serious when the U.S. government policy changed allowing one to travel without joining a tour. (I don’t like tours, plus they seem too long and too expensive.) My Charles Street neighbor, Ramon Caceres, recommended a travel agency he had used—CubaToDo—based in Massachusetts. I found them very responsive and reasonably-priced. They booked flights for me and my friend Anne among New York, Miami, and Havana, coordinated transportation to and from the Havana Airport, reserved rooms in a bed-and-breakfast, and helped us secure visas. Casa Telefonica is located in the heart of Havana Vieja (Old Havana), across from the very fancy Hotel Raquel. There, we each had our own room with a bath and the owners, Elvis and Mallelyn, were very friendly.
As it turned out, I was more on my own than expected because Anne lost her passport in the Miami airport. Luckily, the airline checked passports prior to boarding for Havana. I would not like to think about the consequences had she arrived in Cuba without one. We were sorely disappointed but she was safe in Miami and, after checking every possible crevice, returned to New York.
After the initial shock, I realized that I’m quite used to sightseeing on my own. I only had four full days and made the most of them.
The colonial buildings in the area closest to the port are mostly restored; the facades are painted beautiful colors. It was discouraging, however, when the massive cruise ships disgorged passengers—it was almost as mobbed as Venice. But it was magical in the evenings when they left, as the elegant street lights came on and the musicians serenaded.
By walking inland from the port, I discovered Plaza del Cristo, a popular square where I soaked up local color to my heart’s content. The guidebook says that Graham Greene situated his Englishman in an apartment in that square in his book Our Man in Havana. School children of various ages, dressed in school uniforms, emerged to socialize. One lasting memory involved a small boy, maybe five years old, running around the square at breakneck speed with a big smile, carrying a large canvas shoe in each hand. I’m afraid he did not have shoes that fit him. That was the only worrisome scene I saw, except for stray dogs and a few cats. Some dogs had tags around their necks with the word “sterilizada,” so there must be an attempt at population control. The animals looked ok—the climate is in their favor.
A Restaurant Experience Turns a Bit Surrealistic
I took a cab to the famous Hotel Nacional, which is located in another district called Vedado. The hotel is on a small cliff overlooking the famous Malecon walkway and the sea—a lovely setting. Strolling in the area, I saw a pretty restaurant featuring “farm to table” food. They kindly let me sit on their patio for 30 minutes before opening. But it turned out that the electricity was out. A crew was working on power lines in the street. I asked if I could have the roast chicken. They said they had not received any chicken, so, “No.” I inquired about the pizza and they said “Si,” but then returned to say “No” because the oven was electric. I then ordered the cheese plate with bread and they said “Si,” and then “No” because they slice cheese with an electric slicer. Finally, I ordered the fish soup with bread and they said “Si” and it came without bread and looking greasy. I would have eaten it with bread but none was available. They had not received bread that day because it was too early. So, I paid for my local brand cola and left, returning in a wreck of a taxi to Havana Vieja. Back at the Casa, they thought it was funny because, of course, anyone can cut cheese with a knife. They said it must be a state owned restaurant where they don’t care if they do any business.
Serendipity for a Modern Dance Lover
One afternoon, I entered a garden near the Casa and, a little later, discovered that someone had locked the gate. However, a door was open to the adjacent building, leading to the dressing room of a small theater. When I explained that I was looking for “la salida,” a young dancer took my hand and led me through a dark passage into the theater where a rehearsal was underway. It was a company from Chicago called Lucky Plush creating a joint performance with a Cuban modern dance company. I was told that the performance would take place after my departure. The next day, I ran into the dancer who said there was a free performance that night, so I went and loved it.
Art Exhibit Where I Met the Wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba
One afternoon, while sharing a bench in a little garden with several people, I was invited to join them at the opening of a nearby art exhibit. The young man who invited me is 27 and teaches art to children, which he loves. The person introducing the exhibit thanked the wife of the U.S. Ambassador for attending; I introduced myself to her later. Jennifer DiLaurentis and her husband Jeffrey had been in Havana prior to the resumption of diplomatic relations in September when he was named ambassador. When I mentioned the uncertainty under the new administration, she said, “We are digging in to stay as long as we can.”
In 1960, Hemingway moved into a one-story house outside of the city, which is now a museum. It is on a hilltop surrounded by tropical plants and a swimming pool. The house is filled with books, bottles, writing desks, mounted heads of animals, and photos where he looks very happy. Angel, Casa’s driver, took me on the morning tour, which included points of interest along the shore.
There is not a lot of traffic and Havana Vieja is almost free of cars, which is lucky because the quaint old cars and busses spew fumes. Angel drives carefully in a new Chinese-made car. For short distances, there are pedicabs, which they call “bicitaxis.” My one ride was hair-raising because he had to swerve around potholes and the contraption itself was in terrible shape.
The Best Part
For me, the people were the best part. They seem relaxed and kind. I’m told by friends who know the region that this cultural attribute is being lost in other Caribbean countries. I never was hassled or felt uncomfortable. Also, Cuba is reported to have little crime, possibly because the penalties are so severe. I wonder if this means that it lacks a drug trade and, if not, whether Cuba lacks the corruption that thwarts efforts by other countries to reduce violence.
But it’s depressing to know that the economy is a shambles, as are most of the buildings. I imagine that only the warm climate makes it possible for people to inhabit the ruins I saw—think parts of Baltimore or Detroit.