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Saturday, February 9, 2019

Going to Cuba


We planned the trip months in advance after talking about it for longer and chatting with people who had been. We booked Casa Inez, through Air BNB, airline tickets, and then did serious research. A tornado had hit Cuba on January 27 and the American government was shut down. We were scheduled to arrive in Cuba on January 31. 
We used Eyewitness books in country and the Internet before hand. There is no Internet in Cuba. Knowing Spanish is very helpful. The embargo has not been helpful for the Cubans in learning English nor seeming to want to since they have such little use for it. Those who know English in varying degrees are always eager to jump in and help in translating and helping navigate the beautiful city of Havana. We restricted ourselves to Havana with future visits designed to explore this beautiful island.  If you like Paris, New Orleans, and NYC, then you will love Havana. Havana reminded me very much of Paris in its street layout and size of roads. It reminded me a lot of New Orleans, too. Listen to your City. Large boulevards, gritty neighborhoods, constant sound, posh middle class, and then there is Miramar. We were in a gritty neighborhood, west of Infanta.

We arrived at Casa Inez to meet our hostesses, Inez and her mother. Maria was the daughter with whom we communicated and lived in Sweden. We had arranged for lunch to be ready for our arrival and for breakfast the next morning. Lunch was ham and cheese with a lush and large salad accompanied by delicious tropical fruit drinks. Note that ham is a common ingredient in all meals. After lunch and a shower, we walked up Infanta to the National Hotel. There we sat high above it all on the lawn overlooking the Atlantic Ocean sipping rum drinks. I had a Havana 7 without ice and she had a Mojito. Strolling the lobby was educational. As we left a busload of road Scholars arrived and were filing in when we were heading out to enjoy our first Havana night. We headed to the ocean to walk the famed Malecon.  It was high tide and the crest of the waves sent spray up over the seawall threatening walkers and cars. We walked on the opposite side to avoid the drenching. The buildings are a mix of total wrecks to beautifully restored and remodeled. The rare and few remodels are restaurants.  We found a restaurant but it hadn’t opened yet. It looked like it was going to be a hot spot. Restaurants are popping up all over Havana just as breweries are popping up in America. Since Bourdain’s days, lots and lots of restaurants have emerged. When we got to Italia Ave, we turned right and after the hotel, we found the C&T restaurant. Not hungry yet, we continued our stroll around old Havana to the capital and then returned the long way along the mall on Prado, Paseo de Marti towards the water. We hung a left on Calle Colon to return to the C&T. We passed a few restaurants and took note of them. The C&T could have been in NYC, nicely appointed and English menu and we spoke enough Spanish and they enough English to get us dinner. I had grilled octopus and a local vegetable side. She had couscous and cucumber soup.  We asked about ingredients and cooking prep while studying the menus in all restaurants.  Warning: pork is included in all dishes it seems even if you would never expect it to be included. Gardens and farms surround Havana, so food is farm to table and sea to table.

The walk home on Carlos III  & Reina was glorious. Hustle and bustle, buses, taxis, people all over. Local restaurants and cafeterias provided the only open business. No streetlights, which I loved. We could see the stars as we walked the streets of Havana to Casa Inez. It was magical and very New Orleans with the happy sounds of people and music. I bought a bottle of Havana 7 for the house on the way home.  Remember to bring good sound proper walking shoes. The textures of the streets and roads vary wildly on major boulevards and side streets. Large boulevards have side service roads. The sidewalks have two levels. Lowest is on street. One step up the sidewalks are wider and are under the cover of the buildings above. Here the pavement condition is based on the residing establishment. We sat out on the terrace, sipping our rum and listening to our neighborhood. Exhausted we slept soundly.

Roosters woke us Friday morning. The working activity included children, dogs, cats, music, moms and dads, and work related noises. I knew neighborhoods like this in NYC where I lived and worked. Soon after waking and acclimating to our new environs, our hostesses appeared with breakfast.  We were served eggs, ham and cheese, fruit, fruit juice, coffee and bread. It was a great way to start the day. After Breakfast Orialys, our salsa teacher arrived. She was a former dancer at the Tropicana and sister to our hostess Inez. This first lesson was without music as we learned the basic steps of salsa. After a shower, we headed for Old Havana on foot. First we stopped in the bike shop to reserve a tour for the next day. Good walking shoes are in order for any city, but especially Havana. Our first stop was a fabulous cathedral with amazing stain glass windows and an edifice that could rival any in France. From here we ambled to the Capital and admired the wide avenues and old cars.  We found a wonderful restaurant, Los Nardos, across from the capital, to have lunch. We were next to the Saratoga hotel, where we exchanged some more Euros to CUC. American credit cards do not work in Cuba. We discovered that American dollars did exchange at a 1 to 1 ratio. We did not know this. We exchanged USD to Euros (took a hit) to take to Cuba and then exchange those Euros to CUC the Cuban money. We also learned from another American he changed USD to Canadian dollars, again a better rate. One thing is that things are much cheaper in Cuba with equal quality to that in USA. During our lunch two magnificent singers male and female entertained us with heavenly voices to help digestion.  After lunch we headed to the Museum of the Revolution, which was housed in Batista’s former Palace. It was very educational and enlightening. Highly recommended. After the museum we strolled down towards the water to rest in the sun and the glory of Cuba, before continuing to wind our way through the streets. We saw homes and how the Cubans live. We saw green markets and shops busy and bustling. Laundry was hanging from above providing an almost nautical feel to the city or a Christo in NYC in 2005 look. Needing directions we stopped at an artist’s shop. He was at his easel painting. He provided us directions to El Floridita, the bar where Hemingway helped create the daiquiri. While in the studio, we admired his work and bought three 8.5 X 11 prints of his work. He was Yunier Guerrero and has a Facebook page. When we got to El Floridita, a band was playing; the joint was hopping and packed. We found a pair of seats at the bar near the statue of Hemingway leaning on the bar in the corner, probably his classic bar pose. People were going in and standing next to him as another would take a picture. We took pictures and had daiquiris. From here we took a bike cab back to our casa. Showered and rested, we went back up Infanta to a restaurant we had found the day before. El Biky was actually three restaurants for three levels of cost. We chose the elegant restaurant, which was upstairs. The more local version was downstairs, and at one end was a bar and limited seating arrangement for more casual dining. The entire complex could be in any American city. The restaurant was gorgeous and well stocked. Again we had rum drinks, I had the rabbit and she a vegetarian pasta dish. During dinner, we were entertained by a lovely and accomplished pianist. The dining room filled.  A slow walk home, a rum on the terrace, and bed, tomorrow we would tour on bikes.

After breakfast and salsa, we dressed for the bike ride. The Bike Rental and Tours Havana on Carlos III was just around the corner from our Casa. It was Baly, our guide and us. The bikes were good touring bikes with baskets and a lock. She had a bell, I did not. I had my bike gloves, which I recommend. Also, I put half a large bottle of water in the freezer the night before. I filled the other half with cold water. It was perfect as we had cold water all day. If I hadn’t frozen the water, it would have been very hot water half way through the ride. Baly was a university professor and did this as a second job. He spoke English beautifully and provided us a deep look into Cuban culture, one we would never get on our own. We drove historical streets. He would stop and explain the history of the name of the street or the importance of the street itself. Our first stop was an artist colony. What these artists did was very like Louise Nevelson, they would use cast off items and reconstitute them into art. Thus the setup cost or material acquisition was nothing. Bathtubs and toilets were a favorite as was abandoned metal works, piping, and wire. It was a glorious look at recycling. Next we went to a green market in Old Havana and he pointed out unique produce we wouldn’t find anywhere else. The abundance was staggering and the prices even more staggering. Butchers were there; too, working hard preparing choice cuts of pork, lamb, and chicken. Our next stop was a real surprise. We went to the home of a local religious man who served as a mentor to hundreds of Cubans. His home was a sanctuary, a religious spot, and very reverent. It was eye opening and humbling. We had heard of the ballet in Cuba and that it was must see if possible. We didn’t get tickets for a ballet, but we did get to tour the ballet school. A security guard came out to greet us and escorted us around the school. We saw classes of ballet students practicing. The school also provided further education like Performing Arts in NYC, the Fame school. Ballet was great in Cuba because of their previous Russian connection. The kids were unbelievable. We even saw an advanced jazz-ballet class. IMPRESSIVE!!!  We were given a Cuban ballet poster and two pair of toe shoes as gifts. From here we rode deeper into Old Havana to view another remarkable church that celebrated the Virgin. It was a unique building and very very beautiful. Again could be in France. We wound our way around the streets hearing history of neighborhoods and structures. It was a perfect way to see Havana. Highly recommended. After five hours in and out of the saddle we arrived at the casa and relaxed before dinner.  We decided on returning to El Biky, the bar part for dinner and had thin crust pizza and good rum drinks. Nourished and satiated, we strolled home. On the street before our street we heard great music and headed to it. We found a large warehouse that had been turned into a scene. Entrance was free, but a very very large rum barrel was at the entrance that asked for donations. The music was loud and inspiring, tables of silent auction, bars, and lots and lots of kids. The stage was set up and preparing for something. We discovered that this was an event to help the victims of the tornado that had hit Cuba on the Sunday before we arrived. We went home to get more comfortable and returned for the night. We saw five different bands play as each took the stage for three or four songs. Exhausted, we went to the casa and could still hear the music from the benefit as we sat on the terrace enjoying our evening rum.

Again we had a rooster awakening. After breakfast, no salsa lesson, we returned to the bike shop to fetch our bikes for the day. I did the frozen water trick again. We were going out on our own to explore Vedado and Miramar. Our first stop was the Museum of Napoleon. It was an adventure finding this museum. We started wondering if it really existed. Our fault, Spanish would have been useful for us. We went in circles looking for this museum. When we found it, we realized we were a few blocks from the Infanta. It was only open until noon on Sunday and we had been delayed, so we were worried. The museum was a Napoleon fanatic. The building was a palace. It was grand, marble, Italian, French, and Cuban. The open air terraces off the rooms were glorious. The design ingrained in the building materials was art. The Napoleon collection was extensive and beautiful. The fourth floor was the library. It contained thousands of books about Napoleon arranged in chronological order. There was a magnificent oak table with ten chairs around it in the center of the room. This is a must see. From Napoleon we rode to find the Café Laurent and we did find it. We planned to have dinner there that evening.  Now the day began. We took a left and headed into the Vedado on bikes. Roaming the grid of the streets, we discovered a middle class in Cuba. Outside the Old and inner city, we discovered the neighborhoods of a middle class.  We found ourselves at our first point of interest, Parque Lennon. Of course we took pictures of sitting next to John on a bench in a park in Havana. We lingered and saw a steady stream of visitors sitting with John.  Beautiful old cars sat at the curb. It was sublime. We meandered the streets of Vedado until we found the bridge at Calle 11 into Miramar. Miramar is where the embassies are located. When we crossed the bridge, we stayed right all around the point, to a beach and community center. All along this coast, the sea could not be seen because of the fenced in houses and private clubs. We took a left after the Karl Marx Theater into the embassy heart of Miramar. We walked our bikes on the median between the streets. Service and 50’s classics raced that along this restricted Avenue, Fifth Avenue. We couldn’t ride our bikes, which is how restrictive it was.  We sat in a park of fabulous Banyan trees next to the German embassy. We got back on to our bikes and went left up a little hill that led to many places to eat. Busses lined the streets as well as cabs. It was a destination, a food destination. We weren’t hungry so we moved on past the various embassies as we wound our way to another bridge that would return us to the Vedado near the Colon Cemetery. We rode along the road that bordered the Parque Almendares. We saw a fabulous playground and natural preserve alongside the Rio Almendares.  The Colon Cemetery was a large plot of land that seemed to contain everyone who has died in Havana. All plots were above ground like New Orleans. Even though it was on high ground, I suspect it was the red clay that forced above ground burial. We paid our 5 CUC each entrance fee, never been charged to go into a cemetery. In the center of the cemetery was a large chapel used for services, one was going on today.  The four lane road leading to the chapel was recently redone and lead to a four lane circle around the chapel with spokes leading to roads and a grid that reminded me of the great cemetery in Paris where one will find Jim Morison as well as so many more like Piaf and Balzac. It was a lovely sojourn as we found benches strategically located under trees and would allow for better views of ornate graves. As the day was coming to and end we headed back to the bike rental shop, which was mostly downhill as we seemed to be at the highest point in Havana.

After showering we left early for dinner at Café Laurent, knowing we may have to wait or return a couple of hours later for our to be made reservation. When we arrived at the Café, the building was an apartment house. A receptionist met us downstairs and escorted us up to the fifth floor penthouse in the elevator. The restaurant was gorgeous. We were shown a perfect table for two on the balcony overlooking the city and looking west for what will become another glorious sunset. Across from me I was facing one of those wavy 1950’s 20 story pastel apartment houses one seems so often in the Miami and Ft Lauderdale area. The large pool in back was empty. What was it now, I wondered. Every waiter and server in this restaurant spoke beautiful English. She finally found a vegetarian dish and I did a sea grill extravaganza to accompany our rum drinks. After dinner we walked into Old Havana again looking for San Cristobal Palace, where the Obamas had dinner, so we could check it out and find it so we could have lunch there tomorrow. The address I obtained on the web was not correct. We were given various directions that conflicted. It was on San Rafael, but not at the cross street shown on web or from a couple of sure individuals. Exasperated, a woman inquired about our frustration in good English and was overjoyed when we told her the restaurant we were trying to find.  She exclaimed it was where the President and the First lady ate; she had been there to see them. She grabbed our arms and we paraded down the street to the restaurant, which was closed. We had walked by it twice, not really noticing it. It was so innocuous and private.  It was a longer walk home than we had expected, but the weather has been perfect and walking is always a treat when one is in a foreign city. Rum on the terrace and stars above.

Monday was our last full day and we hadn’t planned much except lunch and inquiring about the Tropicana. The rooster awoke us. We had another unique breakfast and then our last Salsa lesson before dressing for lunch at San Cristoral Palace. We arrived just before two bus taxis filled with tourists. We were seated at our table on the main floor opposite the pictures of the Obamas greeting the owners. The food was spectacular, she had another good vegetarian plate and I a poached local fish. We were given a very special glass of rum after our meals and coffee. The owner stopped by to say hello. We learned from our waiter that the owners turned their home into this very beautifully appointed restaurant and lived upstairs which had a balcony that provided views of the restaurant. After our light lunch we headed for a souvenir shop I had found our first night to get necessary gifts. Next to the shop was a hotel and we went in to inquire about exchanging money and to learn about the Tropicana. It was all so much easier than we had thought it would be. They have three ticket prices: 75, 85, and 95 CUC. We selected the 85 package, which included a cigar each, a fifth of rum, a glass of champagne, snacks, and water. We made reservations and were informed dress was formal. We were prepared, except the sandals I had were not advisable and that sneakers were. She of course was prepared and I was forced to wear black slacks and my black linen short sleeve shirt with white tennis style sneakers I use for bike riding. It worked. We bought some chicken at the local shop along with some more water and headed home for a little rest before the big night. We called for a cab to pick us up at 8 so we could get there early, show started at 9:30 and lasted two hours with dancing afterward with some of the dancers on the stage of the Tropicana. Our driver, Reinaldo, arrived on time and took us on a lovely ride to the Tropicana. We happened to go by his home. He lived around the corner from this famed venue. He was an architect and this was his second job. His dad had been involved with the club in the early 50’s before the revolution. When he dropped us off he told us he would meet us at a particular spot when the club closed at 12:30. We were close to the first people to arrive. Diners were in the dining room eating and the stage was ready. Upon entering, we discovered it was open air.   It reminded me immediately of The Papp Theater in Central Park, NYC. Trees were all around the stage and the tables were elegantly placed to provide excellent views of the many stages used by the performers during the show. Our table was right next to the stage. Six violinists in choir robes were playing. A drummer and bassist accompanied them. They played until about 10 minutes before the show was to start and when it started it was a July 4 finale type of explosion of sound, color, and dancing men and women oozing from all parts of the stage. Las Vegas was inspired by this place. 54 wished it could be like this. The best choreographers in NYC had to have seen these shows for inspiration in dance, costume, and presentation.  Even Cirque du Soleil has to take a back seat. I have never seen such a powerful and beautiful show. It was happy and joyous. And after it was all over, we were invited on stage to dance for the next hour. As the evening was drawing to a close and we were getting ourselves ready to go, Reinaldo was sitting opposite us. He joined us on stage for the final chords and a shot of rum before he took us on a beautiful drive along the Malecon singing our heads off until the night was over and we were in front of our casa. A night unlike any night we had ever experienced and a perfect way to say good-bye to Havana, Cuba. We finished the rum from the club and went to bed.

Our last day began as all the others had with the song of the rooster. Before breakfast we packed and then made our goodbyes. The hostess had arranged for a 1955 Pontiac to drive us to the airport.

The trip home was uneventful as it should be. I bought great rum at duty free.



Final notes: Take good walking shoes, fancy dress for Tropicana, baseballs to give to kids in parks, earplugs, don’t count on the Internet. We obtained Wi-Fi cards that allowed for very limited Internet access in parks. Don’t plan to upload pictures to friends, Web is useless for large pages, no streaming, and check in for airline is not possible, which is why we had to be at airport three hours early. We will return to Cuba to see more of the island. 


Pictures