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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

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

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.”

old havana streetPaseo 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.

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