Until recently, I shared a personal trait with the majority of Americans. I am not referring to my comical fantasy about winning the lottery. (Unfortunately, I still cling to that pathetic delusion.) Rather, I am talking about the fact that I had never been to Cuba but had always wanted to.
Like so many others, I wanted to visit Cuba before the American invasion that will inevitably occur if all barriers to access are ever removed. When I was invited to participate in a Travel Leaders Owners’ Cruise that included a stop in Cuba, I leaped at the chance. As it turned out, we were only in Cuba one full day and late into the evening. I can claim to no longer be a Cuba virgin but hardly a Cuba Casanova, so take my limited observations with a chaser of Cuban rum.
Keep in mind I was part of a group sharing an itinerary. The day and evening we spent there can be divided into three parts: a morning walking tour, an afternoon coach ride to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s farm (among other stops) and a dinner at the famous Havana restaurant Paladar San Cristobal. So I invite you to don your Guajiro straw fedora and Guayabera shirt or your Bata Cubana dress, as you prefer, and join me for a whirlwind Rumba down the backstreets of Havana.
The Morning Walking Tour
When I say, as I do in my title, that Havana is a city of contrasts I mean that both internally and externally. The first contrast with the US that practically runs you over (and will if you are not exceedingly carefully when crossing the streets), is the ubiquitous nature of the 1950’s cars. From the moment you exit the cruise port and customs hall and cross the street to the Plaza of San Francisco, the first thing you notice is all the vintage automobiles zipping about. Not all are as well maintained as this one but for someone who remembers the 50’s (as recounted to me by my Grandfather, or course), the wave of nostalgia was palpable.
As you might imagine, a country as poor as Cuba forces the populace to capitalize (note the irony) on the tourists in any way possible. The expectation of tips is not exactly subtle from the street performers of various stripes to the attendants outside every toilet. If you merely glance, you may be forgiven. If you pause, however, to appreciate or certainly to snap a picture, it is is expected that your free hand will be reaching for a small gratuity. In pointing this out, I am not acting as a critic, simply a chronicler.
As we wended our way through the narrow streets, an internal contrast emerged between a few relatively well maintained edifices (mostly of government, historical or touristic importance) and the majority of buildings in various degrees of disrepair, if not more accurately, dilapidation.
Without a doubt, my three favorite stops along the way were the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway famously occupied a room on the 5th floor, a nameless sidewalk cafe where the group paused for a Cuban coffee (that, parenthetically, ripped off the already paltry number of chest hairs I could previously boast) and best of all, a stop at the La Bodeguita del Mundo.
If you are conversant with Spanish you might have guessed that this bar began as a small store before it graduated to the most famous bar in Havana.
In actuality, this modest little tavern has not one, but two claims to fame (however dubious they may be). It was the haunt of many famous people, while among them is purported to be Ernest Hemingway. I will leave it to others to determine if the inscription inside the bar, “My mojito is La Bodeguita, my daiquiri is El Floridita” with his signature beneath is genuine or a forgery. The same may be said for the claim that my drink of choice, the Rum and Coke or Cuba Libre, was invented here by US soldiers who cut the strong Cuban rum with Coca Cola to slow down the rush to inebriation. Some stories are just too good to be questioned!
I am not normally one to buy souvenirs but when you run across the first car you ever owned by yourself, how can you resist. I believe when I bought the car the color was blue but I almost immediately plopped down the $39.95 (yes, the decimal is in the right place) with Maaco (as I recall) to have the entire car painted this exact shade of yellow (unlike the two tone below). When I turned into the school parking lot, I wanted to turn all the girls’ heads, which I accomplished. I just didn’t realize they would be heaving at the same time.
As usual, I have waxed eloquent (or maybe just waxed) to the point where common decency demands I bring this little post to a merciful close. But before you imagine you have escaped my Cuba musings permanently, think again. We are just up to noon. We haven’t even had lunch at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski yet. So tune in next time for the coach ride to Hemingway’s farm and our night on the town at San Cristobal.
If you really enjoyed this first post, you can buy me a rum and coke when we reconvene!