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Another week in Havana - via TorontoAuthor: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: September 2011
At about a quarter to nine, a uniformed man bearing a torch appeared below on the path, and he and a group of white-uniformed followers marched back and forth as he chanted loudly and - to us, at least - unintelligibly in a singsong voice. Finally, the headed up the path to the ramparts and the chain-enclosed area, in which reposed one of the cannons. To the accompaniment of chanting, commands and more marching, the cannon was loaded, and a particular show was made of strenuously and repeatedly ramrodding whatever needed to be ramrodded into the barrel. A fuse was finally lit, and at precisely 9:00:00, there was one sudden and immensely loud bang. The ceremony concluded with the men marching back down and away.
As we drifted past the souvenir stands, my wife worried that there might not be any taxis available. I assured her that there would probably be well over a hundred waiting, and there were. It was close to ten when we went through the tunnel and proceeded along the entire length of the Malecon. On my previous trip, I’d stayed only a short walk from there, and had enjoyed walking alongside the seawall and seeing occasional singles and couples relaxing atop it. This time, there was nothing occasional about it - the seawall was teeming with people, relaxing, socializing, talking, thinking, watching, just enjoying one of the most enjoyable aspects of this great city. I felt an almost unbearable longing to join them, to be one with them. People were sitting on it all the way to its western end. Back in the Montehabana, our Japanese neighbors were once again relaxing with their doors wide open, puffing away. Inside, we took out rum and cola from the fridge, and again watched CNN. Entering our bedroom, we were enchanted by what we found On our beds, the towels had been folded into white swans.
I headed to the pool for a late evening swim. There were few people out. Swimming over to the basket mounted on a pool wall, I wanted to see why they would out up negative signs - signs with red diagonal lines - to discourage people from playing water basketball. Two of the signs said that diving was prohibited. The third sign - well, I had a fourth quote to add to my three favorite on-line profile quotations. The sign’s purpose was to discourage people, not from using the hoop to - well, shoot hoops - but to jump up and hang from it. In Spanish, it read: No Calgorse Del Aro. And in English, this absolutely precious mistranslation: Not To Be Hung Of the Hoop.
For the record, these are my other three favorite profile quotes.
“Wonderful to relate, he does not chew.” Written by William Howard Russell, a London Times correspondent, regarding the common custom then of chewing tobacco and then spitting into - or out of - spittoons - after his meeting with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861.
“Honi soit qui mal y pense.” French for “evil be to him who evil thinks.” Found, for some odd reason, impressed upon the edges of British silver one crown coins - silver dollar size - during the final years of the reign of George III.
“A person in charge of a dog which fouls the footway shall be liable to a fine of five pounds.” From a sign I saw on my first visit to London, in 1968.
Emerging from the water, I was greeted by a handsome Argentinian gentleman named Michael, and his lovely wife, Monica. We chatted briefly about Buenos Aires and the trip we’;d made there the previous year. Thence to our suite, now with working a/c and hot water, a nightcap, and to bed.
FRIDAY SEPT 23
We began the day with our usual in-house breakfast: cereal, milk, cheese, crackers, and the latest news on CNN. I’d been advised by people on line that the hotel supplied coffee machines in the rooms, but that it would be a good idea to bring our filters. We did so, and they had finally brought up a coffee maker, but there was no coffee. We could have bought some downstairs, but had already gone to buy more cereal. I carried out my usual twice-daily ritual of boiling a large pot of water for 15 minutes, letting it cool to a dull warmth, then funneling it into bottled to go into the fridge. We made the first shuttle at 9:20. As always, we dodged the hustlers who met the buses and headed up Stray Dog Street. Ellen acceded to my suggestion that she indulge in a two peso small coffee from the woman at the window. Up the work-a-day street, left at the Museo - isn’t it great when you settle into one place while traveling, establish a routine and get to know an area?
The fellow at the Cuban Art museum who’d said he’d let us in free because of our untimely early ouster the day before was nowhere to be found, and the woman in charge made it clear there would be no compensatory freebie for us. We went up the street to the Bellas Artes, the international art museum. It was air-conditioned and had a collection which could be described as respectable if not magnificent. Rooms of works from the renaissance and post-renaissance periods were arranged by county; the paintings from the continent of those periods were generally described as being, not by a given well known painter, but from “the school of” or “the studio of.” Many such, of course, are on a par with those of the teacher. I was more impressed with the collection of 18th and 19th century English paintings, which includes works by Gainsborough and Romney.
The Capitol building in Havana - the Capitolio - was modeled directly on the one in Washington, DC and looks just like it I wanted to tour it and see what is allegedly one of the world’s largest indoor statues, but it was closed for renovations. It fronts on a wide boulevard, across from a large movie theater that looks like the sort that existed in most American cities and towns a generation or two ago. The traffic was thick, and it seemed to get hotter every hour. We sheltered a few times in a nearby park. We people-watched. Habaneros dress pretty much as we do, but you don’t see people in the US carrying dozens of eggs in a carefully-held open carton. I photoed an attractive young couple flirting from facing benches. She was tan, in black top and shorts and sandals; he wore jeans, a black shirt and sunglasses. Ah, youth! I’m normally hesitant about taking photos of people without asking, but this was Cuba, and I would not be denied., In fact, no one ever seemed to mind. One guidebook has referred to the area in front of the Capitolio as the best viewing area of all for fine old American cars. It certainly qualifies.
We’d talked of walking to the other side of the Capitolio and checking out Havana’s small Chinatown, but somehow ended up back on Obispo instead. Passing four floors of apartments atop some retail, we saw laundry neatly hung on almost every balcony railing. As I approached the burger stand where I’d eaten twice before, the young man running it recognized me and simply handed me a burger, and I handed him the 10 peso note I had at the ready. As for my wife, she was delighted when I spotted a vendor selling bananas. At long last, fruit! And these were the short, small, deliciously sweet variety, the kind that cost at least twice as much in American supermarkets as the more familiar long ones, bred for preservation and sometimes referred to in the trade as “Ecuadorian baseball bats.”
Obispo isn’t the prettiest pedestrian-only street, but its functionality makes it attractive, and there are unexpected diversions along the way. There’s a hotel where Hemingway once stayed; his portraits hang in a dimly lit entrance corridor. There was what was supposedly the oldest house in the city, the Casa de Obispo 117-119, with a few exhibits and an ancient carriage. A sign listed the various occupants over the centuries. There were two old pharmacies that looked like American pharmacies from the late 1800s, complete with large glass bottles of mysterious-looking liquids and potions; yet I was also able to purchase a few small packets of facial tissue. In one of them was a tall dark wooden glass-fronted case containing a full human skeleton. An employee assured me that it was real. To its right was an ornate blue and white vase as tall as the skeleton; to its left, a cabinet filled with mysterious capped porcelain jars.
I’ve been a coin collector since childhood, and Ellen pointed out that we were in front of the Museo Numismatico, so of course we went in. Admission was free, and a short staircase led to a sort of mezzanine with a comprehensive collection of Cuban coins, medals and paper money dating back to the Spaniah and the 1700s. As with a similar museum I’d visited in Costa Rica, there were privately issued plantation coins and tokens, and oversized worn early paper money. The collection was arranged chronologically, with the latest post-revolutionary issues at the end. Back on the small ground floor area, there was a substantial collection of U.S. $20 gold pieces or double eagles, including two scarce Carson City, Nevada minted pieces. One of the woman guards told me they had all been part of Fidel Castro’s private collection and that he had donated them to the museum. Odd to think of Fidel as a collector of American gold coins.
Moving along, I came upon a Rottweiler and a dachshund, playing together. My camera got a workout. Our last four family dogs had all been Rotties. This was the first Rottie I’d seen on this trip. He was pure Rottie, and very tame. I’d encountered another on my previous trip, along the Malecon, who had snarled at me, but I’d gotten his photo, too. I had, however, seen many dachshunds this trip - they seem to have become a favorite of Havana dog owners. As for the locally-originated Havanese breed which I had seen portrayed on Animal Planet, I saw not a one.
The Plaza de Armas is always the perfect finish to crowded, hot, work-a-day Obispo. It seemed cooler just looking at the trees in full leaf shading the benches and the booksellers. I’d read good things about the City Museum, the Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana, and that’s where it is, on the far side of the Plaza, housed in an age-old Spanish-era government building with outdoor stairways and corridors and elaborate inner chambers. A peacock strolled its plaza. The first chambers we saw exhibited old carriages and various implements. Also visible was a covered wagon, but, unlike the familiar American ones, both sides and top were of solid wood. A model, perhaps two feet high, of an old fashioned locomotive pulling a coal car was mounted on rails. They were painted bright red. There was a gravestone, in English dating to 1759, and an unusually lifelike sculpture of a tormented Jesus, nude, facing down, seated on what could have been a pile of branches. There were old photos and drawings. This was the museum telling the story of Havana before the days of Batista and Fidel.
Most of the exhibits were upstairs, and there w ere numerous rooms showing a lot of decorative arts of the period, but also with an emphasis on furnishings, clothing, kitchens, carpeting, chandeliers. and artworks and plates mounted on walls. There were various implements used by the wealthier classes, primarily in Spanish and immediate post-Spanish times. Spain, it should be noted, lost almost all of its vast American empire between 1810 and 1830, but managed to hang on to Cuba until the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. Much of this was shown through the exhibits that included signs, newspapers, magazines, firearms, swords, drawings, paintings, photographs.and interpretive signage. There were dozens of long rifles resembling the famed Kentucky rifles I’d seen in US museums. There were many commemorative and historic plaques. We had barely entered the first upstairs room when three genial uniformed middleaged female employees descended on us. They zeroed in on my obvious discomfort from the heat... “Ohhh, papi, you are so hot!” brought seats and fanned us. In their rudimentary English, they offered explanations of some of the exhibits. They insisted on taking photos of us with our cameras - one shows my wife pretending to fire a cannon at me. It occurs to me that there may have been times when that thought has crossed her mind. They were obviously hoping for tips. This wasn’t really a problem for us at first; the issue was how to get away from them before our time together multiplied, along with the size of the expected gratuity. I finally offered a CUC or so each, and my wife managed to wave them off.
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