February 17th (Sunday) 5:30 pm
I woke up this morning in Miami and we were in MIA by noon, following breakfast at IHop (sort of felt like we were in Cuba already…); a quick trip to Kmart for a jacket (it is freezing here); a spin through UM, after which we picked up Oscar and a drove to the airport.
Our destination at the airport was “the extreme end” of the American Airlines terminal. In the car, we debated if that meant the beginning or the end of the terminal, and since it was the extreme END, we thought that would mean down to the left…but no, “extreme end” meant the beginning.
February 19th, (Tuesday) 6:30 am
(I am continuing from where I left off above)
Here began a period of frustration for a serious type A: Stand in line, stand in another line, stand in yet another line, and stand in line again…first for getting the documents checked, then to have your documents taken away, then to get your documents back with a boarding pass, and finally to go through security.
Because this was not an American Airlines flight, none of the perks we have with American were usable, so spoiled me had to wait in line like everyone else. I reminded myself that even if I was not flying American, that didn’t mean other people on the same plane were not. (But they were.) Sound confusing? It was. We could not get mileage on American for this flight or ask for a better seat, or get to check a bag for free. I repeat: It was not an American Airlines flight. I was assured by the AAdvantage Platinum desk that “American doesn’t fly to Cuba.” (She was laughing when she told me that.) Just because the flight was listed at the airport as American Airlines, was being flown on a plane clearly painted as American Airlines, with American flight attendants and pilots, the standard American safety video, etc. be assured that American does not fly to Havana.
It was a mercifully short flight (remember La Guagua Aerea? This was very reminiscent!) We saw some interesting landscape as we flew over the very southern part of Florida that I will look up on Google maps when I get home. After a nice cat nap, we were over Cuba. It was cloudy so we really couldn’t see much from the plane until we got beneath the clouds. What did we see? From the air, it looks like nice orderly farms – fields both green and brown; roads with perhaps a car on them; typical farm layout – a cluster of buildings surrounded first by trees, then by fields. The flight does not go over the city of Havana (pilot told us so) even though the airport is on the south side of the city. (You have to wonder if the vibrations from the noise would knock down the rickety buildings.)
The Havana airport experience was not so different from that of other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. First, no jet way. Interestingly, no supervision (not even painted lines) once you’re on the ground to indicate where (it is safe) to walk. (Clearly not the US.)
We found ourselves in a large room with an imposing bank of passport control cubicles. We line up (again). We go through passport control one by one. You have to stand in a special place, take off your glasses, look at a camera. I am not convinced that the camera works. The agent holds up my passport to compare my photo (in which I have my glasses on) with my now glasses-less face to identify me as the person in the photo. He does not compare the passport to the “photo” on the computer monitor (if there is one) nor would the passport have appeared in the picture if it had taken one. I was unconvinced. The whole procedure seemed like a charade.
I didn’t know until the following day that we had to ask to have our passports stamped. Since I am here legally, I would have wanted it stamped. Apparently they do not stamp them for our sakes.
Anyway, once through passport control you exit from the cubicle via a door unlocked for you by the agent. (The next person cannot enter the cubicle until the door is shut and locked again). Once through this door, you are in the baggage claim area of the terminal. Now you have to go through a security screening. This is before you get your checked luggage. You have to put your hand luggage on a screener and walk through a body scanner. On the other side of the body scanner, you get swiped, front and back, by a hand-held scanner (no beeps from the body scanner – I don’t think it was even working). Honestly, the whole set up was suspiciously bogus looking.
We did not have any checked luggage so we stood to the side and waited for our group to get their things and get organized.
Whenever I say “we”, I am using the collective “we” of our group, or I am referring to Cindy and me. If Gerry is ever part of a “we” that is not the group, I will probably mention him by name. The occurrence that he would be the other half of a “we” that includes me would be quite rare; He’s always off making new friends and generally getting in the way.
Finally our group is on the bus and driving about ½ hour to our hotel in central Havana; The Hotel Parque Central (run by Iberostar. The other high end chain is run by Meliá. Both are owned by the government.)
The views from the bus were interesting. Shanty towns, propaganda billboards. The bus windows are so dark it is hard to get the real color of things.
Our hotel is not much to look at from the outside, but inside it appears very nice.
Appearance versus reality is an on-going theme for me here. I am always questioning what is real or true of the things I hear and see. Even 24 hours into the trip, there are contradictions I am struggling to decipher.
Our room is more than adequate though the bed is hard. The bathroom is fully stocked with shampoo, soap and toilet paper! That’s a relief. (The toilet paper.)
Once settled in and unpacked we met our group for introductions and the introductory explanation of how the trip will progress. Afterwards, we headed to the Hotel Nacional (a landmark, historic hotel – now owned by the government) for dinner in their outside patio restaurant. The food was barely passable and it is so cold here! Despite the heavy plastic awnings pulled down to shield us from the wind, the cold air was blowing in underneath, chilling our feet.
I forgot to mention how cold it is. It is so odd for me because it is never cold in Puerto Rico. I have worn the jacket I bought in Miami constantly since I got here – usually over a long sleeved blouse and with my wool shawl underneath.
After dinner, a group of about 10 of us walked back to our hotel from the Hotel Nacional with our National Geographic guide Massimo Bassano. Gerry and I were inquiring at the hotel for our friend and mentor Raul Touzon, who was staying at the Nacional with a photo group of his own, but calls to his room went unanswered. It turned out that he was at the Parque Central listening to calls to our room go unanswered.
The streets were really dark and the buildings to either side of us were crumbling. Still, there were lots of people in the darkened doorways and sitting on the curb, people walking just like we were, all in the dark broken by an occasional street lamp or light spilling from a doorway. One doorway beckoned us with both light and music, and Massimo (who’s ability to walk into people’s houses will become legendary) dragged us in to see a “show”. A fellow was blindfolded and then danced around an empty rum bottle. It was just our first experience of the ways that Cubans will earn a CUC from the tourists.
The house was interesting – three rooms straight back from the street. First, living room, then family room, third a dining room ending in a kitchen alcove. In the dining room there was a wooden stair/ladder to a platform above (Sleeping quarters? Other business room?)
I hope I have interesting pictures from the walk.
Monday morning started with a huge breakfast buffet in the hotel and then lecture #1 by Massimo about Cuba. I took extensive notes, but the most salient idea I learned was that the propaganda billboards we see are not all aimed at Americans, nor are they all designed to specifically make us uncomfortable. Their messages are aimed at the Cuban people. According to Massimo, before “the triumph of the Revolution”, a Cuban sense of nationhood, of country, of being one people did not really exist. In order to cement the goals of the revolution, the people had to find this collective sense of who they were and forge themselves into a “nation”. We might argue that Cuba was a republic after the Spanish American War, but Cuba was a republic in name only – and in reality, more like a colony of the United States. Class and racial distinctions were very prominent features of society; Afro-Cubans and the rural poor were extremely marginalized. I am explaining this because it gave me a different perspective through which to evaluate the revolution (which is not to say that I agree or disagree with it, at all.)
After our lecture, we walked through La Habana Vieja. Most of the walk is documented with pictures, and our itinerary hit all the highlights of the suggested walk in the National Geographic Guide to Cuba, so I am not going to describe everything in detail because you can look it all up.
We started in the Plaza de Armas, where there was a book fair in progress. We would have called it a used book fair. There were lots of images of Che and books about and by Che and Fidel. I bought two movie posters (colorful, serigraphy posters that I will frame and hang at the Farm) despite the difficulty inherent in carrying them around all day and trying not to damage them.
There were lots of tourists in the streets. Most were groups like ours – but some were obviously on their own.
Plaza Vieja was pretty extensively restored. Very interesting were the before and after pictures of the buildings. The place was chopped up for some sort of street work (we saw that in many places actually) and the museums were all closed. (You have to wonder if that is a good or bad reason for scheduling the tour on a Monday.)
We had lunch in a place called “La Imprenta”. The food was quite good. Our group is very nice so it is a pleasure to meet people and spend time with them over meals. The building that houses this restaurant is only partially restored and so it is open to the elements. It is creatively decorated with the printing theme and to complete the circle we visited a graphic arts studio after lunch. The studio uses both antique and modern methods. All the work is for sale. I bought a print of “el Bodeguito del Medio”.
(Let me digress here for a minute – and this part, like some of the others, is written after I am home. We were instructed that we were not to purchase anything in Cuba outside of educational materials, i.e. books and music, and art. As a result, we were given a number of opportunities to visit artists and musicians, and I did purchase art – like my posters – and other works along the way. We also bought CDs from many of the groups we heard. That artists and musicians can sell these items is part of the liberalizing of the economy in Cuba, and our purchases were directly helping the people from whom we purchased. I hope.)
After a nap at the hotel, we met again as a group to hear the second lecture of the trip. This time our speaker was Miguel Coyula, an architect, and the official City Historian. The Historian’s Office is responsible for overseeing the restoration of the city. His talk was really interesting. Again, I took notes for myself, but the take away was “At least 3 buildings fall down every day in Havana.” It isn’t hard to understand why. Most of the buildings in Havana date from the glory years from 1898 to 1959, with some notable gems from the 19th century too. Since 1959 there has been no money or materials to keep up those buildings. (Blame the embargo – the universal scapegoat!) As a result, all the buildings are aging at the same time. Not even a totalitarian government can keep up with the forces of time. Especially, when it is all happening at the same pace. Sr. Coyula expressed a measure of frustration with the situation and with the unrealistic projections of the government. He is fighting battles on both fronts: Trying to keep the old buildings from disappearing completely and trying to keep modern buildings from being built in their places. You cannot argue that the entire personality of the city of Havana would change if development were unfettered. I think we all would agree to be in favor of a restored historic city.
Dinner was at a paladar (a private restaurant) called “la Guarida” (The Hideout) located on the third floor of a derelict building. After hearing from the architect that three buildings collapse every day, walking up all those stairs (imagine a ghost house) felt like taking your life in your hands and tempting fate big time.
The place was packed! The food was divine. It was as good as good food anywhere in Puerto Rico, and even better than most. Unfortunately, our bus driver was late picking us up and we got into a traffic jam
that caused us to arrive late and therefore finish late – too late for us to meet up with Raul, again.
Gerry went with Massimo and some of the others to La Floridita Bar, about two blocks from the hotel, for daiquiris in Hemingway’s haunt. Gerry classifies this as a “Can Miss” – lots of tourists taking pictures of themselves with the statue and bust of Hemingway, but otherwise a typical smoky bar.