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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

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

Downstairs was a nicely airconditioned café where we were urged to try a delicious nonalcoholic cocktail. But the prize exhibit was in a downstairs entry and exit corridor - four life sized caricatures of Batista, Reagan and both Bushes. They were labeled in accompanying signs as “cretins” and each sign, in Spanish, French and English said ‘Thank you, Cretin” - for inspiring the revolution, then for helping to maintain the will of the people. They were masterful caricatures, with expert use of color. Reagan, of course, was portrayed as a cowboy, complete with hat. Bush 41 was portrayed as a slightly goofy-looking Roman senator, complete with toga and sandals. Bush 43 - “W” - was the quintessential Texan, shown holding a copy of a Cuban revolutionary book and looking at it - upside down. Nearby was an odd black and white blownup photo - a group of what appeared to be rebels in a boat, clearly labeled “Big Baby - Galveston, Texas.”

Who is to judge this and other world revolutions? Our own revolution resulted in massive property seizures from loyalists and numerous instances of brutality. The much-touted “tarring and feathering” of loyalists and tax collectors by our revolutionaries was a particularly brutal and sometimes fatal form of torture. Oddly, the United States still lacks a single museum dedicated to its own revolution. Little more need be said about the mass beheadings brought about the French revolution, yet it is still celebrated in their national anthem. The Russian revolution of 1917-18 and the Chinese of 1947-49 brought about the deaths of millions of innocents.

Havana has two major art museums - the one we visited that day is the next block south of the Museo de la Revolucion and is dedicated to Cuban art. The only Cuban art I had really seen until then was by Cuban-Chinese painter Wilfredo Lam, whose works were once exhibited in Miami. The museum, has three floors, and the air conditioning was broken. The heat and humidity were brutal, but the art - the third floor was modern art - was fascinating and often superb. Some of the abstract paintings, as seems so often the case, were far more pleasing and also challenging to the eye than some what I consider the junk that sells for millions and even tens of millions in New York. But this is something I’ve noticed in many other museums, small and large, in various cities and countries. On one wall was a huge lifelike sculpture familiar to any south Florida resident - a giant cockroach. There was one painting that both amused and enchanted us - it shows a black janitor, working in an obviously closed-for-the night museum, bending down, puckering up and kissing a sculpted bust of a beautiful woman.

We were hardly finished with the third floor when we were approached by a young female guard, telling us we would have to leave at 2 PM - in 10 minutes. Closing was normally several hours later, It was because of the breakdown of the air conditioning. We would have stayed, despite the heat, to see the rest of the exhibits, but we got only glimpses of them as we were herded down a series of ramps and out the door. We protested, and a man who seemed to be a supervisor of some sort told us in his broken English that if we returned the next morning we should ask for him and he’d let us in without having to pay another 5 CUCs each.

soccer prado havana kidsI wanted to return to the Prado and walk its length to the Malecon as I had done many times during my first visit, when I was staying right on the Prado. It was as shady and peaceful as ever. There was a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 11, playing soccer. As I took photos, one of them fell on his back, laughing along with his friends, in white shirt, blue shorts and sneakers, his arms waving in the air. It was a perfect shot, and I took it. Another fallen boy, in red shorts, lay on his side close by, as an older jeans-clad boy kicked the ball back into the air. When the two fallen boys saw ne with the camera, they got up and happily posed, each flashing a “V” with their fingers. Farther down, just past the school of dance, we sat and I explained that this was exactly where the male visiting American character in my novel met Alicia, who became the new love of his life. A note, in Spanish was pinned on a tree. I knew exactly what it was - someone advertising to buy, sell or trade an apartment or house. This note, in red on brown paper, offered a “2X1" first floor apartment. I had heard much of this business was conducted quietly on the Prado, skirting the law. But such transactions had only recently been legalized.

On a wrought-ironed balcony, two women a generation apart were having a dialog with young shirtless boy. On one of the benches was a group scene better than anything I could have devised. Standing in front of the bench was a beautiful young white woman, probably late teens, in white shoes and stockings, hot pink shorts and a tight white top. Her expression was difficult to define - incomprehension, perhaps. Standing on the bench at its end and facing her was a young bare chested black man in blue shorts who seemed to be hooting and hollering at her. Six young children of varying genders, ages and hues sat and stood between them, apparently bemused by the little spectacle. To quote the commercials - priceless!

Taking photos of people on the Prado, for me, was like doing the same on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires - I couldn’t stop. The difference is that the Prado is more peaceful and intimate, with its pastel designed flooring, trees and endless benches. At one intersection was a medium-rise building, white except for its columned ground floor, the bright blue of which matched the two 50's cars stopped beside it. A green car with black trim at the lower rear was followed by one that was bright red. All, as is so often the case with the exception of the old-car collectivo taxis, perfectly kept up. A two-compartmented public bus, in pink and white, passed by.

We walked on. We were both beginning to feel a positive lust for fruit and vegetables, neither of which we had been able to find, so we stopped in a grocery - “Mercado - La Primerade Prado” - where my daughter and I had gone a few times. It was a rather grubby place, selling various household goods, some processed foods and meats, and plenty of rum and beer. Rum is to Cuba like vodka is to Russia - you can buy it anywhere. We bought some beer to drink on one of the Prado’s built in benches. We passed by a black woman in jean shorts, her hair in a net, looking startled, facing a man with a half smile, both seated. Perhaps they were reacting to the intrusion of my camera. Between them, squatting on his forelegs, was a 100% pure Dalmatian.

Reaching the north end of the Prado, we passed the medium rise apartment building where my daughter and I had stayed, renting a bedroom and bath from a family on the seventh floor. I looked into the small lobby, with its small white sculpture and elevators - it looked exactly the same. Outside, a grinning boy was scrubbing the pavement. We bypassed a small park that I remembered and came to a major intersection where I had once taken a photo of a street sign marking both Prado and Malecon. By the way, Havana street signs are concrete and set down on the ground. Coral Gables, Florida copied that scheme, making it almost impossible to navigate the Gables’ streets at night.

The intersection had a traffic light, but the arrangement of the streets and the traffic flow there was such that it was fiendishly difficult to cross safely. It’s a busy spot, and my wife was frightened. We finally made it across, and onto a sort of plaza which marks the outpouching of the Malecon at its eastern end. The seawall turns and extends to the north, and ends at the far end of the plaza. There, just as I had seen them before, fishermen were gathered together, their lines held upwards, and boys were diving deeply and dangerously from the seawall and over the concrete chunks into the ocean. I knew that if I photographed them, I’d be asked for money. I had taken such photos the last trip and tipped then, so I passed up the opportunity.

On the previous trip, I’d never been bothered there - this time, we were pestered mercilessly by hustlers. The new breed of Havana hustlers are persistent but not aggressive - if you ignore them or just say no, they back off. But there were a lot of them there, and as soon as we blew one off, he’d be replaced by another. We walked around - I wanted to find the plaque I’d seen embedded in the concrete there five years earlier, noting that U.S. general Leonard Wood had built the Malecon during the turn of the century American occupation following the Spanish-American War. . I’d been surprised to see it there, thinking that Castro would have had it removed, and I’d photographed and even translated it. This time, I couldn’t find it. There was a pedestal with a statue and the name Miranda. The hustlers had become truly annoying, so we moved on. I wanted to walk west along the Malecon, at least for a hundred yards or so. On the ocean side, irregular large chunks of concrete and possibly stone extend 10to 20 feet out into the water. We’d hardly started when another musician approached and also began playing “Besame Mucho.” My wife exclaimed “No!” and he backed off. These, I thought, are the Besame Moochers. A bit farther along, another musician was serenading a Japanese couple. Figuring that he was already being tipped, I took his photo. The sunlight was dimming, and clouds had gathered above Vedado. Across the way, a balcony’s ceiling was seemingly held up by six statue-like columns. Red sightseeing trackless trolleys pulled their cars back and forth along the road. A blazing red 50s car with a white top passed by.

The 12 Prado café, at the Prado/Malecon intersection, was next door to the building in which I’d previously stayed, and was another hangout for me and my daughter. It was time for some more deja vu. The café, which is right on the corner, has two entrances. It looked almost the same as five years ago, except that in addition to the TV set I remembered, mounted high, there were two others. There was also a stage for a small band. We ordered beer and club sandwiches - tuna for me, cheese for Ellen. Facing me was the side of the cooler where, five years earlier, there had been a long government notice warning about the dengue fever epidemic for which Havana was being sprayed daily by trucks and planes, The TVs were featuring funny music videos.

The sun was going down; it was time to set out for the cañonazo, the nightly cannon firing ceremony. The site, the San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress, is across the bay, the Bahia de la Habana, and there are basically two ways to get there -by the Casablanca ferry and then walk, or by regular taxi. We chose the latter.

There is a taxi stand just outside 12 Prado, just as there had been five years earlier. However, back then, most of the taxis were under the Panataxi label, and usually had meters, although getting a metered ride was not always possible. Now, there are no more Panataxis, and if any of the regular taxis still have working meters, I saw no sign of them. One does just as we’d been warned to do in Russia and Argentina - negotiate the fare in advance. In this instance, it was 12 CUCs - not much different from what it would have been in most US cities for the same distance. We were driven through the port tunnel and past a hilly area between the road and the bay. Entering the neighborhood, the driver stopped and said we had to pay an additional one CUC each to a man by the window - a neighborhood admission charge. The driver informed us that there was a restaurant nearby, and we also saw a small snack bar., But we had just eaten and drank. We debarked by a short road leading uphill between two cannons. An illustrated sign announced “Forteleza San Carlos de la Cabana.”

We’d come very early and it was still light, so we decided to explore. On the side of the road away from the bay was a neat and clean middle class neighborhood. The houses were not unusually large, but they were well kept and featured greenery and lovely gardens and flowers. Unlike Miramar, none of them appeared to be in need of maintenance. Some had flagstone paths. We went up and down the side streets, enjoying the ambiance and taking photos. On a fence in front of one house was something I had never seen before, a sign identifying that house as a residence of someone active in a committee to defend the revolution. These neighborhood committees, if you believe what you hear and read in Miami, are in the business of constantly spying on everyone living nearby and reporting treasonous talk to the authorities. But I had learned five years ago to believe very little about what I heard about Cuba in Miami. As we turned, we saw another house, a huge anchor mounted in front of it, leaning against a tree. The front of it hinted, without a sign, that it also served as a paladore, a private restaurant. As I prepared to take a photo, the proprietor came out and asked if we’d be interested in patronizing his establishment. Regretfully, we said no, because we had just had dinner. He was gracious about it, and didn’t mind us taking the photo. A less elaborate display consisted of a another house with a simple sign saying “pizzas” posted on its porch. A lovely little girl in blue shirts and white shirt and pigtails tied with pink bands smiled for us behind a gate. On another gate, a sign warned of a dog “Cuidado - Con el Perro.”

Eventually, we made our way up the hill, between the statues, and into the fort property. There were six-layer stacks of cannon balls; six wide at the bottom, five above that, and up to a single one at the top. There was an entry arch, and by it stood a sentry, in an old white Spanish uniform, who informed us that proceeding further would require purchasing a ticket for five CUCs each from someone in a small structure behind us. My wife suggested that perhaps we could linger outside for free to hear the shot. I said we’d already spent 14 CUCs to get there and would need about as much to get back, so we paid. We were always more cautious than usual about unanticipated expenses, knowing that our credit and debit cards, thanks to the embargo element of our failed 50 year old Cuba policy, were good anywhere else in the world but not in Cuba. A sign announced “San Carlos de la Cabana 1763-1774 Patrimonio de la Humanidad.”

Once over the short bridge and across the moat, or what was left of one, we turned and walked between ancient structures and then past a line of souvenir stands. Finally, we were in an area below the walls, the ramparts of the fort. Several paths and stairs led up to the ramparts; behind us was a low structure and, at its far end, a bar with a lit sign. People began walking up onto the ramparts, where portions of the stone paving were marked off with low chains. There were several cannons there, and we weren’t sure which would be fired. It was still early, eight or shortly after. Below the ramparts was a steep drop to the bay, and across the bay was Havana, spread out and lit in the twilight. It was a fine sight. We watched the sun set over and behind the fortress walls. The tops of downtown buildings were reflected with a tinge of pink in the smooth bay.

Then we were attacked; not by some invading navy, but by an onslaught of mosquitos. My wife, who has always been considered a particular delicacy by the one species that I would dearly love to see become extinct, was besieged, We had to leave the area quickly, and retreated to the bar, which was fortunately air-conditioned and, despite a captive clientele, had one-CUC beers. After having several, we finally returned to the ramparts 30 or 40 minutes later. It was now dark, a crowd had gathered around one of the chain-enclosed areas, and the mosquitos were gone.

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