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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

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

Havana’s cathedral is very old, and its architecture and designs are very intricate and beautiful. In front of it are cafes and stands. As we crossed its square, Ellen fell behind me. I urged her to catch up, assuming she had been stopped by a hustler. She had, but it was no ordinary hustler; the man owned a restaurant, a paladore, and was standing in mid-square, displaying a menu. That intrigued me; five years ago, he’d have been arrested for that. I said we’d go back to him after seeing the cathedral, which didn’t take long. Inside, it was relatively sparse but contained the usual large religious sculptures. The seats, as they had been five years earlier, were roped off. Others were taking photos, so I did as well.

The restaurant was called Rancho Luna. The proprietor led us out of the square, through an alley and some twists and turns, and into what could have passed at first for a half-hidden gangster’s lair, or maybe the kind of place where the just-landed alien hides out in the big city. The housing within all this was located was three stories and appeared to have been cobbled together. There was a lot of wrought iron fencing and railing. What we walked into was a lovely little restaurant with a fine collection of glass and small art works. A young woman approached with menus. The appetizer choices - or as American restaurateurs now prefer, “starters” - included small fish, bits of fried fish, fruit cocktails, salads with ham and/or seafood, shrimp and/or lobster cocktails, all priced from two to three CUCs. The entrees included a choice of two fish and/or meat and vetable based plates and one fruit-based plate, the latter with wine, all at 13 CUCs. We had some sort of deep-fried fish appetizer - bolitas - beer - of course - and ropa vieja. Ropa vieja, literaly translated as “old clothes,” is a quintessentially Cuban dish consisted of shredded seasoned beef over rice. I’d had it the previous trip and had it many times in Miami and now I was having it again, and it was always delicious in either city. As we sat, a young man with a guitar entered and approached. Neither of us was pleased, but we were stuck. He began playing and singing “Besame Mucho,” My travelers code of ethics is such that I will photograph a performer only if I am prepared to give him or her a tip. I knew we would be stuck having to give this man a tip, so I took his picture. As he was preparing to sing and play something else, we indicated that he should not, and I gave him a CUC. He was obviously dissatisfied with the size of his tip, but we were rid of him. Just after leaving, we encountered a woman carrying one of the most adorable baby girls I’d ever seen. She smiled and had a little potbelly, and her mom was happy for us to photograph both of them. Reentering the square, Rancho Luna’s owner approached us and asked us how we’d liked our meal. We said it was great, and told him we’d put him on the internet. “You do that for me?” he asked, with a sense of wonder in his voice. I said yes, I would. And I did. And now I’m doing it again.

plaza d'armas havanaAfterwards, we made our way back to Obispo, used up the rest of our internet card at Etecsa,, and walked its length to Plaza D’Armas. On Obispo, we encountered a tavern proprietor, a stocky middle aged fellow who spoke good English and was thrilled that we had come from the US. He wanted to offer us mojitos, but we didn’t want to take the time; I told Ellen we’d come back there and pay for our own mojitos. He lamented the bad relations between Cuba and the US. “All I want to do is go to Miami and watch a baseball game.” I smiled, thinking he’d probably see better baseball in Cuba. But I said I hoped that would happen, too. It was a special moment. I’d had lunch but I took a photo of the 10 peso burger place. A beautiful white mother cat posed with her equally beautiful white kitten for us, as did a bare chested man on a balcony, surrounded by his potted plants.. Two banners, one in red and one in blue, had a revolutionary symbol inside of a heart and the letters CDR. Souvenir shops specialized in t-shirts and other items with the one photo of Che Guevara that has probably been reproduced more than any other single photo in the world. I had read that the man who took it had never received royalties, but had once sued a foreign company for using it for profit. There were passersby of every hue, some with babies and toddlers ion strollers. At the Plaza, the booksellers were out, not totally surrounding it as I’d remembered, but there were perhaps 10 of them. They called out to me, one letting me know that he had Hemingway in English; I noticed he also had Dickens. I took shots of the white marble memorial to Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a former president, and of the greenery and pink and blue flowers.

We wandered to the far edge of the square, where it meets the bay. A young man with a horse and carriage approached us, offering a one hour tour at the usual price of 25 CUCs. We politely declined, but he didn’t seem to mind. We talked. His English was good and he had a badge with a Canadian flag and the name Alexander. I called him Alexander the Great, and he also said he was so happy to see visitors from the US. I told him I hoped that next year he’d be wearing a badge with a US flag. “If you buy it, I’ll wear it!” he said.

O’Reilly Street parallels Obispo to the north; it’s not a retail street but one of offices and buildings. We thought we could take it a few blocks and then find our way to our shuttle pickup spot, but we got a bit lost on a side street. That was when an odd short young woman with a barely visible mustache appeared. She spoke English and asked us where we were going. When we told her we needed to get to the Palacio de la Artesanias, she said she’d show us. We knew she was angling for a tip, but that was okay. “You are old,” she said. “You could be my grandparents!” We were amused, not offended. She guided us to where we knew we could walk around the corner and be where we needed to go, and I slipped her a CUC or two. Another word about CUCs. They come in the form of 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavo and one CUC coins, totally distinguishable from the lowly peso coins, and 3, 5, 10, 20 50 and 100 bills CUC bills marked “Peso convertibles.” Cubans use the dollar sign, making Cuba and the Bahamas the only countries with three dollar bills.

There’s a café next to the shuttle stop, and after I took a few more photos of the wonderful cars across the street, we went under the awning in the outdoor portion - we had some time to kill - and ordered some fabulous lemonade and then some sparkling water, and it began to rain, the rain quickly swelled into a horrendous downpour, something not unfamiliar when one lives in south Florida. The pavement began flooding, and a waitress came and shooed everyone inside. Buses came and went, and we worried that our shuttle bus might be one of them, and might be coming a bit early, so I kept running out to check. The sidewalk had become a pool and my clothes and shoes quickly became soaked. It was the last shuttle of the day and we didn’t want to miss it.

The shuttle did come, perhaps two or three minutes before its scheduled pickup, and we dashed inside, dripping. It went on to the Plaza de San Francisco, down Cespedes and San Pedro, past the Plaza and finally turning and pulling up beside what could have been a train station, with a full size mockup of a locomotive in front. Several attractive young women, fully soaked, boarded and we headed back north and then west - water was now so deep on Cespedes that it made the bus produce waves like a boat.

Drenched, we made it up the slippery steps from the one hotel to the other and to our suite for the usual cheese, crackers and drinks. The suite just before ours, number 117, was occupied by a group of young Japanese who were constantly smoking and sitting with their doors wide open. We found them to be annoying, relieved only by a small white kitten that seemed to enjoy sitting in their company by the railing. We watched CNN news and the announcement of the shameful execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. For the record, Cuba, a communist authoritarian state, had its last execution in 2003. Their government did not even request the death penalty for the killing of several soldiers a year or two ago. Most of the witnesses in Davis’ case had recanted their testimony.. The maids had folded towel into the perfectly formed shape of a swan and mounted one at the foot of each bed. We slept as well as could be expected after watching our country shamed in this manner. The air conditioning was finally working properly, but we still had no hot water. But, thanks to the stifling daytime heat, the water in the pipes was somewhere between slightly cool and lukewarm.


We woke to a dry morning, and I washed some clothes and used the hair dryer in the bathroom to dry my army-style beach hat, which I wore every day. Hot water had finally been bestowed upon us. Today would be a busy day and evening, as I was determined to take in the cañonazo We went down to the lobby and the hotel store for crackers, apple juice, and more cereal and milk. I also picked up a bottle of Havana Club rum. We’d used ours up, and the manager talked me into buying what he said was the best kind, only slightly more expensive. Then back upstairs for breakfast. Casey Strong and his girlfriend had shown up when I returned to our suite and were there, talking with Ellen. We talked about the city and he reiterated about the biweekly Friday evening parties at the Canadian embassy, assuring me that their burgers were the best in the land. They went off on their own schedule; we found out later that their habit was to walk all the way into the city, regardless of the heat. I doubt I would have made it had I tried the same under the broiling sun. I funneled more boiled water into bottles. Ellen was concerned about “scale” - the thin mineral coating left on the inside of the pot by the boiling water. I assured her it was no problem - the main thing was boiling to kill any germs. We tried sitting in the hot stuffy Occidental fancy lobby, then went outside in fresher air and made the 10:45 shuttle. Through the tunnel and past the beginning of the Malecon, called “the great sofa,” but few people sit on it by day. We became increasingly aware of the crumbling state of so many buildings along this oceanside boulevard. The bus came to the point where the seaside road sort of jogs and splits. As I watched the endless variety of old cars, I spotted an attractive young woman approaching vehicles. A jinatera - a woman seeking small luxuries in return for companionship and possibly more? Or simply seeking a ride? I took photos and kept taking them as we approached and then passed El Morro, the 400 year old fortress, and its accompanying lighthouse, debarking at the palacio, passing the hustlers and again walking uphill on Cuarteles,, a/k/a Stray Dog Street, still taking photos of this, a piece of the real working Havana. Among the workers on the street was a man crushing tin cans, obviously for redemption for the metal. I reflected I had seen plenty of professional colleagues back in the US.

Cuarteles opens at the top of the hill onto Avenide de la Misiones, which, like the Prado, runs north and south but is two to three blocks short of it, depending on location. Across the street and to the left is the Museo de la Revolucion, housed with historical irony in the former presidential palace. On the outer grounds, and under an overhang are vehicles associated with the revolution - a boat and, oddly a van marked “Fast Delivery” in English. It had been used in an assault on that building. The boat, “Granma,” is the “yacht” that Castro and several of his fellow revolutionaries used to secretly travel from Mexico to Cuba.

We started at the top floor and worked down. Far from being a propaganda showpiece this is a genuine historical museum, covering every phase of this most recent Cuban revolution from the beginning through its aftermath, although the first rooms by no means ignore the struggle against the pre-20th century Spanish colonial authorities. The interpretive signs are bilingual, so we had no trouble following the exhibits. Good historical museums feature genuine artifacts, and there were hundreds of them here - articles of clothing, sanitary items, maps, radios ranging in size from field radios to four foot high old fashioned vacuum tube Hallicrafter consoles housed in wooden cabinets and used in mountain and jungle headquarters. There were tools, signs, flags, banners, firearms, knives, telescopes, binoculars, rubber stamps, medals and decorations, and even revolutionary pre-1959 revolutionary coins and paper money, something that I, a longtime coin and bill collector, hadn’t known existed. The information next to a medal stated that it had been a “Medal of Honor” awarded to one of Batista’s soldiers, Julio Labanin, for having participated in a massacre of noncombatants. A doll was shown that had been used to smuggle ammunition. There were uniforms, some of them bloodstained. Detailed maps showed the battle of Santa Clara, a town we had hoped to visit, where rebels had attacked a Batista troop train with a bulldozer A moving photo showed a group of women demonstrators carrying a banner “Cesen los Asesinatos de Nuestros Hijos . Madres Cubanas.” Stop killing our sons - Cuban mothers. The rooms and the portions of rooms were arranged first by year and within one or two year periods by theme. Photographs, clippings, magazines, books, pamphlets, maps, and documents meticulously documented every phase of the struggle. There was particular emphasis on showing the day to day life and routine of the rebels. In today’s political climate, with the cold war still fresh in so many minds, it’s easy to forget that this most recent of Cuban revolutions was a five year struggle against a brutal and thoroughly corrupt, gangster-ridden dictatorship, aided and abetted by the United States, which had its cold-war-crazed nose in the business of almost every country in Latin America. Carried out against seemingly impossible odds, the success of the revolution, after a brief Cuban-US “honeymoon,” was followed by endless bumbling American attempts to bring the new government down, culminating in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The exhibits were moving and striking, but I had a brief flash of humor when I saw Fidel’s toga and imagined him cavorting in the toga party in one of America’s greatest comedy flicks, “Animal House.”

The real showpiece of the museum is in an inner alcove where a top floor corridor turns, and consists of two superb life size and lifelike sculptures of revolutionary icons Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. They’re armed and in battle gear, in an outdoor setting, standing amidst rocks and trees, clearly moving forward. A bilingual sign explained that this display had been made in “hyper-realistic style,” primarily using polyester resin and fiberglass. Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash less than a year after Castro took power, is wearing his trademark straw hat. They appear neither fierce, sentimentalized piously noble - simply two fighters prepared to do what they have to do. Rather then highlight the men with lighting and framework, they are modestly lit - I needed to use a flash to get good photos of them. The fact that the display is indeed “hyper-realistic” and yet somehow understated renders it even more stunning. Nrarby, mounted on a sort of vertical metal rail, are smaller but lifelike representations of the “trilogia of la Revolucion Cubana” - Fidel, Camilo and Che.

Incidentally, the guidebook warnings that this museum prohibited photography turned out to be false. The effect is memorable, and very reminiscent of the outdoor sculpture of three American soldiers - one Caucasian, one black, one Latino - also armed, in battle gear and quietly ready to do their duty - facing the Vietnam memorial on Washington DC’s mall.

The exhibits extended through the revolution’s aftermath, demonstrating that the revolution had not so much ended as entered a new phase. The quick and intensive post-revolutionary extension of education, sports, health services and culture throughout the country was painstakingly documented. So were the efforts against foreign interference - in the case of the US and a failed 50 year old policy, that struggle continues today.

I reflected on what Harry Truman had supposedly said to biographer Merle Miller when asked about Castro and Cuba. Truman had said that if he had still been president in 1959, he would have quickly called Castro. He would have said that you’ve made quite a revolution down there, and you’ll need help. There are two places you can get it, and we know what the other place - the Soviet Union, of course - is. “Now, you just tell me what you need, and I’ll see that you get it.” But that was a call that Eisenhower never made.

Having been the presidential palace, the presidential office and conference rooms are preserved, just as they were when in use. Admission to them was an extra CUC. It’s interesting how important executive suites, presidential or not, seem more alike than different - the ornate desk, the bookshelves, the long table, the portraits. Two black marble cherubs held up a golden globe. I had another flash of humor seeing a telephone, obviously painted gold. It reminded me of that great scene in the first Godfather movie, set just before Batista’s fall, when the American gangsters who held sway in his Cuba presented him with a solid gold telephone. Included was the sizeable but relatively unpretentious bathroom, nothing at all like the one we’d seen in the Royal Ontario Museum.

The view of the city from a corridor window was a splendid one - yes, another cliche. A red white and blue banner mounted at street level proclaimed “Fieles a nuestra historia.” Faithful To Our History.

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