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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: September 2011

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.


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.


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