Wednesday, March 1
The started with narrowly avoided disaster when we learned right before the plain boarded that Philip did not have a visa for Canada. Thanks to the kindness and quickness of the flight attendant, who used her cell phone to fill out an instant application on line and got an instant visa, we managed to get on the plain in the last moment. The travel was long. Between the earlier than planned departure from Boston and a seriously delayed flight to Havana we hang round the Toronto airport for almost ten hours, occupying ourselves with work, meals, conversations, reading and boredom. We arrived in Havana at 2 AM to a recently constructed airport, efficient processing in the empty passport control hall, and no road traffic. The first thing I noticed upon exiting the airport building was the specific aroma of a tropical third world country. Actually, I noticed that pungent sweetish smell earlier, in the gangway from the aircraft. Long ago, in 1989, when I was going for the first time to Thailand I read somewhere that I should pay attention to initial smells upon my arrival because we never forget those. That turned out to be so true. As soon as I arrived in Havana I thought about Bangkok.
At three AM our hotel Marques de Prado Amena looks good, strikingly similar to the Moroccan riad in which we stayed while visiting in Fez. The square central atrium open to the sky and is filled with armchairs and tall potted palm trees, the arched columned balconies bordering it on three levels, the rooms opening to the atrium, the extremely high ceilings, and cool stone floors. And a lot of blue color. Actually, these are two hotels connected through back walls, with front entrances on two parallel streets. Both were once private aristocratic residences. While having the same design, ours is the more modest of the two. Florida hotel through which we enter and exit has a ballroom, which now serves as a restaurant and its frond doors are large enough to allow horse drawn carriages to enter the central atrium. The women who lived here once upon a time were so sheltered that they never had to go outdoors. We drop the luggage, brush teeth, and gratefully go to sleep.
Thursday March 2
Our room on the second floor has no windows but because it is located in a side alcove connected to the main balcony we have privacy even when the door is open. The air-conditioning is efficient and quiet, the shower is great, and with its dark old fashioned furniture this is a lovely room. We make it to breakfast just before closing time at 10 AM. The breakfast spread is very large, and although I have no appetite for the strange salads with strange ingredients, the fresh papaya and the many kinds of exotic tropical juices meet my expectations and fond memories of Cuba of 2001. The challenge of this trip is that we will inevitably compare everything we see and experience with our first trip sixteen years ago. And I am fully prepared for disappointments, hoping for a rediscovery of the best memories.
Our hotel is located in the very center of Havana Vieja, close to the main tourist sites. Hordes of tourists are strolling in their typical semi-catatonic states: looking around, slowly moving their feet, walking without apparent aim. Mostly very young, student age, and older people like us: with time and money to spare. While we expected the tourists the reality of them is stark. This is not the Havana we remember. We join the human river for a couple of hours, visiting the main sites, lingering over mineral water in a café. The buildings in the three main squares have been cleaned up and renovated and are beautiful. It is very warm, everybody walks on the shady sides of streets.
As soon as we leave the main tourist routes we confront the same dilapidated buildings and courtyards filled with run-down shacks, clutter of unknown origin or use, darkness and poverty. Some building facades, with nothing behind them, look like they are ready to collapse any minute. Colorful people everywhere, occasional electric scooters and a lot of tricycle rickshaws. In addition to the antique cars from the 50s, we see less old run down cars from the 70s and 80s. The striking difference from the past are the hawkers — rickshaw drivers, restaurant managers, shopkeepers – greeting us uninvited, vying for our attention. This is an unwelcome change. Their absence was what distinguished Havana from other developing country destinations when we last visited.
Around 2 PM we stumble upon a very nice retro-type lunch place, full of young people, all tourists. The food is excellent and cheap, served with imagination and care. I order a smoked salmon platter and they bring a huge mountain of very fine lox that would suffice for three generous Sunday breakfast for both of us. All for $10. How can they afford to serve so much for so little? Philip comes up with a theory that some Canadian company is dumping this surplus smoked salmon in Cuba in order to maintain high prices in Canada and the US. This makes sense. The lunch service is slow, we watch the people, and by the time we finish and walk some more it is four in the afternoon. Exhausted, we get to the hotel for a nap and rest.
Then, again, go out, this time toward Malecon, the grand promenade along the sea. Getting to it requires crossing a boulevard full of heavy traffic and the increase in the number of cars and the noise is striking. But Malecon promenade is exactly as we remember it. A sweeping crescent moon bay with a fort to our right and the skyline of Havana to the left. The sidewalk is crumbling in places, people are leisurely sitting on the stone wall. The sun sets around 7 PM at this time of the year so we luxuriate in the soft light of the end of the day. A man puts in a full skydiving suit and gets in the water, strangely in the approaching darkness. We watch him swim until we can no longer see him, then we walk for a while. But the car noise soon becomes a nuisance so we turn back and head toward Prado, the grandest of all promenades, which runs perpendicularly to Malecon toward the center and Old Town.
Prado is as grand as ever, dark for a while until the old-fashioned street lights are turned on. Not too many people are here. Teenage boys are pirouetting on skateboards. And all the ancient cars of Havana are passing by. They display all colors, from light pink to black and look well loved. I wonder who they owners are and who the passengers are: tourists or locals? No way of telling. We spend a long time on a stone bench, working through our private tensions and disappointments, then head toward the center in search of some food and amusement. We pass the hotel where we stayed sixteen years ago. Looks the same, including the diner next door in a private home upstairs.
As we approach the center the night-time Havana puts a grand display of opulence for us. All the grand hotels in this area have been renovated and are full of people. The antique car taxis are waiting for tourists. The small public garden, called Park Centrale, which I still remember, looks the same as always. This city was built by and for the plantation owners on the backs of human toil and misery but in its beauty it offers no apologies.
We turn into the very touristy and somewhat seedy Obispo and settle over a beer and Mojito in a large establishment opened to the street. The live band is pretty good. A middle aged non-distinguished British couple dances a superb salsa. The food in this place does not look safe so we move on. By now it is late and we end up in the bar of our hotel, over a bland vegetable soup and two mojitos.
Friday, March 3
The second Havana day. Breakfast in our hotel is less than mediocre: burnt coffee, a huge display of not too fresh food, everything tastes suspiciously adulterated, even butter. But the place is beautiful and the atmosphere is pleasant. We already know that the many hours of walking yesterday cannot be repeated today. It is simply too much. We start the day by going to Park Central, with the National Theater and City Hall next to it. This time we take a street parallel to Obispo and it is a radically different world. The less than half hour walk brings us into contact with local life. We stop in a café for some real coffee. The café looks very much like the Old World Budapest Cafes. Philip has a great idea: let us take the Hop-On-Off Bus, which stops right in front of the Café. This turns out to be a really great idea.
The route is long, probably 1.5 hour without stops. There are no earphones or maps and I cannot understand the explanations offered by loudspeaker. All I get is that Prado is a one kilometer long and Malecon is 8 km. The route starts along Prado, then Malecon. We pass side streets that give me a glimpse of some neighborhoods in the City Center, which is adjacent to Old City and much larger. Some of these neighborhoods look like a war zone: parts of buildings missing and laying in ruins, terrible neglect everywhere. The shabby buildings we noted on Malecon in 2001 look sixteen years shabbier. It is hard to fathom such neglect, and hard to understand how it happens.
In other places we pass through the areas of pleasant villas, the university, large hotels, and so on. Our first hop-off stop is Plaza of the Revolution. This is a ridiculously huge expanse of asphalt with a large concrete hill in the center, steps leading to an oversized monument of Jose Marti, leader of Cuba’s successful struggle for liberation from Spanish rule, and it all topped with a very tall concrete kind of obelisk. There is also a museum which we do not bother with. Marti looks pensive and serious. I guess the artist wanted to show him as an intellectual, which he was, but to us he looks as though he has a premonition of the future struggles of his countrymen.
On the other side of the concrete hill there is a building housing, I guess, the Party headquarters. Its architecture looks like Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. What possessed Castro to build these monstrosities? They are a reminder that with all the positive ideas I have about Cuba, this is an authoritarian regime. The housing blocks overlooking the plaza show the stylized faces and writings of Che and Fidel. The wait for the bus is torturous. This parking lot, we estimate more than 15 acres, does not have a single place to hide from the scorching sun or for sitting down. We just have to stand and wait. Some three young Germans found a piece of a curb to sit on; I asked them to move a little and make room for us, which they do with a smile.
Once we are back on the bus we are determined to stay, but the next top is hotel Panorama right at the edge of a beach and otherwise in the middle of nowhere. So we get off in search of lunch and some seashore. It turns out to be a good idea. The restaurant in the hotel (which mostly serves large British tours) is excellent and we enjoy the luxury of the place. Then we make it to the shore, just across the road. There is no sand here, just the same porous rock that lines up Malecon. This is a very windy day, the breakers are ferocious, and it is fun to watch two teenage boys who came to swim egg each other on while they both lose the nerve to go in. The wind in our hair is a miracle.
We walk back just in time to catch a next bus. The way back is fun, sitting on the upper deck in these gusts of wind. Once back at the Central Square we stop briefly for some pastry, which looks European but does not taste the same, and we walk home, taking one of the parallel streets to Obispo. In this afternoon light, and with tiredness in out bones, we see more clearly than ever the poverty and neglect of this street. It is really impossible to figure out how a city can fall into such a disrepair. Castro screwed up royally by not liberalizing the economy and by selling his soul to the Soviets. He could have kept Cuba flirting with socialism like India and Yugoslavia did, after all the Soviets needed him pretty badly as a gateway to Latin America. Ah, what do we know about the real history behind the scenes!
I take a rest in the room for a couple of hours while Philip camps out in the lovely lobby. In the evening we head toward the Old City and have dinner in a very nice outdoor restaurant next to the Cathedral, of course with music. In contrast to last night this is a refined cultured crowd. The service is extremely slow, like in all the other restaurants so far. It must be the local cultural norm. Tourists in Cuba are truly a mixed international crowd. During these two days I heard the following languages: Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Dutch, German, French, Italian, British English, American English, Russian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish from Spain, Chinese, Japanese, and what we diagnosed might be Rumanian.
After dinner we stroll some more. Havana is really beautiful at night when all the rubble and scars on its buildings vanish into deep shadows and in the warms of street lights all the remains is the beautiful facades and streets laid out around many green squares. In this light Havana reminds us of Budapest, also with its many squares and ornate building facades interspaced here and there with some horrible soviet-style buildings. Obispo Street is full of life but I am ready to go back, while Philip heads out for more nightlife.
Saturday, March 4
We make the morning slow today, before picking up the rented car and heading toward Remedios. And then the trouble starts. At Saratoga hotel where according to the contract confirmation we should pick up the car they tell us to go to Inglaterra Hotel diagonally across the Central Square. We are smart enough to leave our luggage at Saratoga; and sure enough, at Inglaterra hotel they tell us to go to Saratoga Hotel. Several calls and tense waiting later we discover the worst case scenario: we have been fleeced. The company that took our money and reservation does not exist. And neither does the car. The kindly manager tells us that on this island cars are at a premium and that he cannot produce a car on a short notice at this peak season. And he has no suggestions for us, sorry. And no, do not try to taking a public bus in Cuba. Apparently, ever since President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations tourism has gone through the roof in Cuba, while everybody concluded that they want to see Cuba before it becomes Americanized, and so have various kinds of fraud.
What to do? We sit down at an outdoor café to process this disaster. Try to get to Santa Clara by bus and hope to rent a car there? No, that will not work: it is unlikely that we find a car there, and even less likely that we will be able to drop it off in Havana. Plan B: a taxi? It is 200 miles to Remedios, through Santa Clara. Philip goes out to talk with the taxi drivers loitering across the street. There are too many taxis in Havana so there is hope. After some give-and-take negotiations a senior driver among them agrees to take us to Remedios for $180. We take this great offer trusting that in Remedios we will find someone to drive us to the next destination, and then the next one, and back to Havana. Of course, the idea of driving around in the countryside is no longer relevant. We are lucky to get that far. The four hour drive is very pleasant. Something to be said for having a car with a chauffeur. The car is comfortable, with air-conditioning. Our driver does not speak a word of English, which spares us the conversations across the front and back seats but also does not allow us to learn more about Cuba. The highway has not changed since 2001. There are no cars on this three lane completely straight road, not even commercial delivery trucks. How does this economy function is a mystery. At regular intervals we pass security check points manned by policemen or soldiers and the driver visibly slows down. Once we stop at a gas station, use toilets, get sandwiches (also for the driver). The landscape is very flat and green but along this highway there are no villages and not much agriculture that we can identify. Not even the sugar cane fields.
Once we pass Santa Clara we get on a secondary road for the last 30 miles of the trip and everything changes. The landscape is hilly, the road is windy, there are villages, bicycles, horse drawn carriages, pedestrians. There is life. We arrive in Remedios before 4 o’clock and check into Hotel Barcelona, which was not here in 2001. There are four hotels in Remedios, compared with only one sixteen years ago. It is a very beautiful place, with the same center courtyard architecture as in Havana. On the two upper floors hanging plants send their long tresses down, giving a feeling a tropical garden. All is immaculate and the room is fine (no window, again). We quickly leave our luggage and hurry to see the center we once admired so much, right around the corner from the hotel.
Here it is, the same exact square as we remember: the church, the community center, the café, the pastel colors, the colonnades in front of all the establishments. Just as it begins to feel like it is possible to revisit old memories a horrendous music begins to blast from the man-size loudspeakers set up in the center. The sign over them says that this is the work of the cultural program for the town of Remedios. Some insane cultural director decided that this little sleepy town needs music on Saturday afternoons! We sit at a café bemoaning the situation, when something else happens: the church bell begins to ring. This is not a regular ringing: measured, rhythmic, slow. It sounds like a very angry priest is pulling on the ropes faster and faster, louder and louder, to drown out the loudspeaker music. For the next minute or so the two are having a big fight: one gets louder than the other, crazy, and deafening. And then the priest stops, we wait, and sure enough the cultural direction lowers the volume of his music. We ask our waitress what is going on in Remedios. Crazy, she says with a shrug and a smile. The little boy at the next table who intently has been watching us nods in agreement.
Well, so much for keeping the place frozen in time to suit our fond memories. We take a walk to see Remedios beyond the square. Last time we were here we could not do it because we spent most of our time dealing with the damaged tires in our little rented car. Remedios is set entirely on a grid. Except for the two-three story hotels all the buildings are a single story in height. And all the streets look to our visitors’ eyes the same. One could easily get lost in this maze if it was not for the church tower serving as a beacon. One could easily get lost in this maze if it was not for the church tower serving as a beacon. As we move further from the center the streets and houses get shabbier, until at some point we walk on a dirt road amid poverty.
Poverty looks the same everywhere: dilapidated shacks, temporary structures turned permanents, wobbly fences and roofs, various items and broken parts that might be of use one day strewn around, stray dogs and chickens under our feet. I cannot tell if there is real plumbing here. Tell the Minimalists about the liberating simplicity of not owning much! Tell the happiness scholars about the importance of community and family over possessions! They have never experienced poverty and the value of material objects that looks like discards but may be useful one day. I do not feel comfortable meeting the eyes of the people we meet here, feeling like a gawker an their deprivations. On the other hand, what do we really know about this place and this society? The elementary school we pass may be a great equalizer of opportunity. The bread factory we pass serves everybody here. The tomato stand sells these great tasty tomatoes which we buy for about 2 cents per pound.
Our hotel offers fine dining but we find a restaurant for the locals. It is a large hall full of people, mostly families. The menu is in Spanish and nobody speaks English. The dinner of grilled chicken, rice, salad, bread and beer arrives in minutes. We enjoy it immensely. The cost: $9 for both of us. The lunch was $6 for the three of us. How are we going to spend all our cash at this rate?
Around nine o’clock in the evening people begin to stream into the main square, mostly the youths. The middle aged and older people fill up a dance hall on the square. Just as we started to give up on live music in Remedios a large band materializes and people start dancing salsa. They are of course great dancers. Some tourists are here as well, looking like they came to Cuba specifically to practice their advanced salsa skills. We also go to the dance floor, sticking to our basic steps. Philip would like to do more advanced moves but I do not go there, mostly because I never really liked how we did them, without adequate grace. It is really great to be dancing salsa in Remedios!
On the way back to the hotel we pass the crowds of the local youths who obviously want nothing to do with the dance hall, salsa, the entertainment of the elders. Some are glued to cell phones but mostly they just hang out. This is the difference from 2001.
Once the band stops the mechanical music takes over until late into the night. We can hear it from our room.
Sunday March 5th
It’s our 12th wedding anniversary and no better place to celebrate than in Remedios, Cuba. Philip has bought a volume of poems by a young American Cuban artist which he dedicates to our union. The poet writes in two languages from his jail cell (I do not remember his crime or his jailer). Each poem is printed side by side in Spanish and English. Our breakfast is much, much better in this hotel than in Havana; and we enjoy the quiet atmosphere after the German group that poisoned the previous night and early morning with their low-class loudness has left.
This is going to be a slow, rainy and lazy day. We walk over to an outdoor place to have some coffee; and are starting our walk when we meet an Italian girl who is negotiating with a driver of a 8-seat motor rickshaw about a trip to neighboring Cairabien. She asks if we are interested to join and share the cost and we say yes, always looking for an adventure. The ride of about 10 km is in a vehicle that is a hybrid between motorcycle and mini truck, consisting of two benches for four people under an open tarpon roof is quick.
This village is like Remedios, but completely run-down and in that sense the polar opposite. It is stormy and rainy and we agree with Maria from Milan to meet again in two hours, which seems a short time but turns out to be more than enough. We walk through what could be called Main Street with colonnades and a few nearly-empty shops, and a restaurant. After exploring a few adjacent streets, with run-down houses we decide to have some food first.
The so-called Espana restaurant has little to offer beyond overcooked chicken and rice. The people who serve us make a point of ignore us completely, we do not know why; and we do not try to engage them. After lunch we walk around and reach a broader street called 5th Avenida, which ends at the seashore. Ironically, to call this run down desolate street Fifth Avenue. Sure enough there is a statue of Jose Marti. It is rainy and very windy. We encounter run-down former storage houses or whatever, all apparently deserted but since it is Sunday we cannot be sure. After a while we find another street which brings us to a little fishing harbor; with many boats painted in many faded colors. Hardly any people to be seen. Maybe we could have had a lunch with fresh fish here, instead of that pathetic chicken. We walk further, taking pictures and talking about what went wrong in this country, and how it could have been otherwise; and what causes all this economic misery. Why do they allow buildings to deteriorate to that state? Cement is not that expensive. We return to the meeting place where Maria is waiting. She tells a very different story: about the beautiful architecture she saw, and the many fish restaurants we did not see. Amazing differences in subjective experiences.
Back in Remedios Halina does not feel so well (possibly after that suspicious lunch) and goes upstairs to rest while, Philip wonders around the town, feeling somewhat bored by this place where not a lot is going on and not a lot is to see. We dine in style in our hotel. At about 10 PM the rain finally stops and we take a nighttime walk through Remedios. At night all the shutters are closed and the streets are dark and deserted. But we can hear the sounds of life behind the tightly closed doors and windows. We stop by the bread factory and for a long time watch trough the large window the four men making bread in a quarter of perfectly coordinated motions. An old woman is standing next to us. We smile to each other. I can feel that the humidity is going away and the weather is changing. It will be a fine day tomorrow.
Monday, March 6
We wake up to a lovely cool day and take our last walk through Remedios. On this Monday morning the town is teaming with life, especially on the streets with commercial establishments. People move briskly on bikes and on foot. In this light the streets seem well cared for and modestly prosperous. Since all the buildings are one story high and have no glass in widows we can see the life of Remedios on a full display. We pass a preschool, an elementary school (uniforms are red skirts, white blouses and white socks) and a middle school for girls (their skirts are yellow, just like those we saw in Havana). We pass a nursing home with a dormitory-like sleeping arrangement for about 30 people, we pass City Hall, a bookstore, and bike repair shop. Further out we pass a prosperous family compound with what looks like a small farm in the back. It becomes clear that the sleepiness of Remedios was a Sunday phenomenon and that this place is very much alive. People smile to us. I could easily stay here for another day, just exploring this place. I find the geography of this town very confusing because there are about ten different streets radiating out of the main square and these streets are connected at to many other streets, all laid out on a grid. It is a spider’s web, but more complicated. The result is that one makes many right and left turns and very quickly gets disoriented. But Philip somehow keeps track of our directions and knows how to get back to the main square from any location.
Our last stop is at the tobacco shop where I buy Montecristo cigars and by 10:30 we get into the waiting cab, all negotiated and arranged on our behalf by the hotel manager. The vehicle is a blue thing from the 50s. Well, I got my wish to drive one of these ancient cars. It is noisy, the springs in the back seat are uneven, and I can smell the faint presence of gasoline fumes. Our driver is a smiling kind man.
Off we go, first to Santa Clara, which takes an hour because of slow traffic, then westward on the main highway, then south on a secondary road toward Zapata National Park. Philip has been wondering how we will get to Guama Hotel, as the map does not show any roads. The mystery is solved: we need to wait here for another hour to be picked up by a boat, which will take us to the hotel, 8 kilometers up the river. We enjoy a lunch of crocodile at an open air cafeteria. The taste of Crocodile is somewhere between fish and chicken: it is very tender and slightly sweet, like fish, but essentially it is meat. These crocodiles come from the local farm.
The boat ride takes us though a river landscape very reminiscent of the Amazon rain forest we visited in Brazil. After a while then the river opens up to a large lake, and on the other side of the lake we find our hotel. The campus of the jungle hotel is scattered on a mini archipelago of mini islands, each hosting anywhere from one to 4 cabins, all connected by a myriad of wooden bridges in the shape of Venice’s bridges: a few steps up, then a few steps down. The wooden cabins are circular, with thatched roofs, a narrow balconies encircling them, and are built on stilts sank into the riverbed. Each cabin has one set of steps leading down to the river and one connecting it to land. Raised wooden walkways crisscross each mini island and provide connections to the bridges. In order to get from our cabin to the main dining hall, which is within a stone throw distance from us, we cross four bridges and take numerous turns in this labyrinth of paths. The accommodations are rather basic, as one would expect of an eco-lodge, but the bathroom has all the conveniences.
After walking around for a while we rent a flat bottom pedal boat and investigate the world up the river. We are in a rain forest full of birds. This is really a birder’s paradise. The current is slow so we can easily move in this clunky plastic boat. At some point we come across a site of a long ago Indian village which has been reconstructed for tourists in an unusual way. The village area has a series of monuments depicting daily chores in the life of its inhabitants: fixing fishing nets, carrying water, playing games, daydreaming, grinding seeds for flour, and so on. In the central hut a chief and another man are talking. There are no people here, just us and the statutes, so we tie the boat and wander around.
The sun is low now. It is time to go back. The short time we have before dinner we sit on the steps to the river, watch the daylight disappear and listen to the sounds of the jungle. Magic. As we make our way to the dining hall all the walkways are lit up with lamps in the shape of old fashioned gas lamps mounted on 2-3 feet poles. In the pitch dark of this jungle night these hundreds of lights magnify the magic.
At dinner we see other hotel guests. We count 18 people, all small private groups of two or four.
The night is very still here except for the wind.
Tuesday, March 7
With all its magic, there is nothing to do here. There are no chairs or benches where we can sit and listen to the sounds of the jungle, and this little archipelago does not provide grassy surfaces for sitting either. The promised swimming pool does not work and the promised kayaks do not exist. There are no hiking paths, just the river, swamps and a jungle. But this is OK because we always planned to spend a day at the beach in this area. The boat to the mainland goes once in the morning and returns around 3 PM. After breakfast we get on the boat. From what I can see, most people spend here only one night, maybe two. While waiting we chat with two Danish women who are on the same arrival and departure schedule as we are. One is much older than the other; they look like a married couple rather than two girlfriends. They are heading to the crocodile farm and some other short adventure. We hire a taxi to take us to the beach in Playa Largo, about 10 km from here. The beach is modest, strongly reminiscent of the Brazilian Parakeet beach we visited several years ago: narrow, some debris scattered around.
White sand, turquoise water, gentle waves, palm trees and these other trees with very large sturdy leaves, like plates, giving a lot of shade. Concrete military fortifications are decaying in the wind. We spend several hours on the beach under a tree, have lunch in a bar frequented by the locals. The wind is getting stronger and air getting cooler as the day progresses. On the way back, while looking around to find a taxi, we notice a middle aged couple getting into a car, so I ask them for a ride. There is only one road here and we are at the very end of it, so everybody must be going in the direction of our hotel. Yes, indeed, they welcome us to their car. They are from Marseille. I have met on this trip more French people than in any previous trip. Either the tastes of the French toward foreign travel have changed over the years or they are especially fond of Cuba.
We meet our boat returning to the hotel at 3 PM. After an afternoon nap we take the pedal boat out again. I really like moving along this river and listening to the sounds of the forest. The river is meandering this way and that, branching out here and there, but it seems impossible to get lost here. Like yesterday we end up back at our hotel campus.
A dinner at the dining hall among mostly new faces of tourists. Multiple languages. I would like to chat with the other guests but the dining hall tables separate us into small traveling units. Unfortunately this place does not have a lounge conducive to human contacts. Also, I have noticed that surprisingly many tourists, especially the French and Italian, do not speak fluent English.
Wednesday, March 8
The best time of the day here is morning. Waking up to the symphony of birds and the stillness of the pure air is so special. It is too bad that they could not organize this hotel in a way that would allow us to spend some more time here, in this marvelous nature.
After breakfast we collect the luggage and wait for the boat. We get into a conversation with a nice couple from the Netherlands. Attractive people, worldly, dressed in expensive clothes, the man is probably an executive for Shell. He speaks fluently several languages, including Spanish, which I note wistfully. As I get into the boat with my suitcase I am reminded what I noticed earlier: that people who operate the boat do not lift our luggage, even when they can see that I am struggling with it. This must be their sense of social position: a boat operator is not doing the work of a luggage carrier, even if that means allowing an older woman huff and puff.
At the dock Alberto, our driver for today greets us. The front desk man organized our drive back to Havana and before that a drive to Zapata, where another person will give us a tour of Zapata. The driver is a very pleasant and earnest young man with bad teeth. He gets into his lemon yellow 1949 Chrysler Plymouth with wooden carved door handles, intact burgundy leather on the rear seat and a cardboard instead of glass in the window on my side. It takes only a few minutes to get to the gate of the National Park where we learn that at this moment they do not have jeeps or English speaking guides (cannot enter the park without a guide). We thought that the hotel man made these arrangements for us, but his English was so rudimentary that of course we did not understand.
What to do? In the end, another guy with a blue antique car presents himself and we take a Spanish speaking guide. Who cares about the language when all we want is to get the names of birds and help with seeing them. The trip is very reminiscent of the first time we were here in 2001 except that in March there are no mosquitos and water is very low (which means fewer birds, especially the coveted pink flamingos).
On one of the stops we run into our Dutch fellow travelers, who are here in their own car, with another Spanish speaking guide. ‘You could have come with us’ he says, but of course they did not tell us that they decided to come here, probably after Philip told them of our plan for the day. We meet them again at the end of this 20 km ride on a terrible road and get cheered up by this man with a very gregarious demeanor, perfectly suitable for his job.
Zapata is an amazing place. It takes an amazing place to turn me into a bird watcher. We see so many kinds of water birds, with egresses and herons most populous, but we also see some pink flamingos and pelicans. And I am fascinated by these huge termite nests on the trees. Upon exiting the park we are handed over to Alberto, stop briefly for lunch and set out for La Habana. Alberto is a gregarious guy who apparently knows everybody. He waives or honks to drivers of other cars, horse drawn carriages and pedestrians we pass. Then we hit the highway, the same straight, flat, empty highway. These old cars are marvels to looks at but riding in them is tiring. The engine is noisy and all the windows stay open, magnifying the noise. Two hours to Havana, following almost three hours in Zapata, is more than enough for one day. As we enter the city I watch how Alberto gets directions form people. He stops at a curb, calls to a guy “Hey, Amigo”, introduces himself, shakes hands, and only then asks for directions. I admire his social skills. With little trouble he finds our hotel Colina on Calle L.
This time we stay in the Centro, not Havana Vieja. Our hotel is across the street from the University of Havana and the neighborhood is full of students. This is a real living neighborhood in comparison with the old city, which was a museum surrounded by slums. There are plenty of tourists but they are still a minority. Life of Havana happens here, not in Old City. We first attend to our emergency cash crisis by finding an ATM machine, then sit in a lovely little café where two beers cost $3. It is quite a cool day which allows us to stroll around. We pass an outdoor karate lesson for elementary school children and then find ourselves in a neighborhood of once beautiful villas, some of which are being renovated. The US Embassy is nearby and we think that these renovations have to do with the reopening of diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Dinner at an outdoor restaurant on a patio of one such villa. The prices are extremely low in this part of town. My sword fish is uninspired but Philip’s chilindron (pressured cooked goat meat with tomatoes, onions and some herbs) is fabulous. My digestive problems, which slowly started this morning and got worse over time, do not allow me to share in this feast. Half way through the meal four young man, maybe students, set up a band and we enjoy the lovely voice of their leader. They play for us Commandante Che Guevara, which was super popular sixteen years ago but we do not hear at all on this trip anymore.
Next to hour hotel there is a little cement wall, more like an oversized curb, which marks the edge of a small city park, a green patch of trees and benches, dozens of which dot Havana. When we return to the hotel we find the entire long wall filled shoulder to shoulder with young people on cellphones. They are using the hotel WiFi system. There are more people in the park, on benches, doing the same. Complete silence and blinking bluish screens. Cuba in the twenty first century.
Thursday, March 9
My digestive problems got worse and I spend much of the day in the hotel room. It is a pity because the breakfast buffet is the best so far in Cuba. I fill up a plastic bag with small rolls, a honey container and a couple of bananas and that is my food for the day. This hotel is a standard socialist architecture, probably considered upscale once upon a time. The rooms are spacious, with large windows, and so is the lobby. But today this place is very tired looking, worn out, the paint peeling in the corners in our room and the bathroom smells of mold. But I enjoy having a large window with a view on street life.
Philip spends the entire morning on getting us checked in for tomorrow flight. First finds a place to buy internet card, which requires standing in line of half an hour, fending off people who try to cut in front of him. Then the endless attempts to get on line in the hotel lobby. Complications with his Canadian Visa. Then more complications when we discover the consequences of my entering Cuba on the Polish passport: I need to leave Cuba on Polish passport but being a Pole requires a Canadian entry visa, which requires a week to obtain. At the end of the morning Philip is quite exhausted.
Since I am beginning to feel better we settle in the outdoor patio-café in front of the hotel. This is a perfect place to watch street life in Havana Centro. The patio is shielded from the sun by a large overhanging roof supported by columns. It is a relatively cool and sunny day. Masses of people move right in front of us and there is a major intersection to the left of me so I can watch the car traffic. In these couple of hours I probably inhale more fumes and dust than I do in a year in Newton.
Women in Havana are not especially beautiful (of course there are beauties among them) but they move nicely: with confidence and grace. At some point I feel well enough to venture across the street to check out the university campus. University campuses are always places where I feel comfortable. Two students approach me and show me around two main buildings, kind-of founders’ halls, including the balcony where Fidel was giving speeches.
Now Philip is ready to move but I need to lie down. So he takes a taxi to the Old City to see the museum of revolution, which I would love to see again but must forego. After visiting the museum Philip walks back most of the way, observing street life in this impoverished neighborhood. Eventually he finds a bike-rickshaw but after some blocks of leisurely making photographs he ends pushing the heavy bike up the hill jointly with the driver!
As the evening descents I feel well enough to take undertake our last walk in Cuba. We go toward the Synagogue Beth Shalom, partly walking partly by taxi. This is modern architecture from the sixties, currently under major renovations. Pictures of the congregation life line the walls, including the visit of Steven Spielberg. In the office I donate $100 to my brethren in Havana.
The Berthold Brecht Center next door is a theater and a cultural center. We have a beer there; watch the locals do the same. Then we slowly walk back. It is very windy and cool and the city seems friendly and open to us. We pass another one or two of these postage size parks. Have dinner in a trendy hipsterish restaurant while watching Dirty Dancing on TV.
I have come to like Havana very much.
This is our last day in Cuba. My first task is to check us in for the flight back to Toronto the next morning. It turns out to be a big production. First logging in on the internet turned out to be a truly hellish experience, with multiple times a connection being made and broken. The next challenge was finding the right website. Most websites of Air Canada conveyed a message that checking in from this location was not possible. When that finally worked, the check-in was refused because Halina, traveling from Canada to Cuba on her Polish passport, needed a visa to re-enter Canada. By now, my internet card had lapsed; and I went to the lobby to buy another one. No luck, the lobby referred me to a place some blocks away. I started walking; ending up in an upscale hotel where they only sold cards for their guests. The adjacent shopping center, to be reached by walking basically around this 1-block hotel, did have a pharmacist (who could not sell me Imodium but some abysmal bismuth tablets). After asking many people about buying a WiFi card I found the kiosk not far from the hotel, with a very long line of people and little progress. This is because the clerk wrote down all personal data from each buyer. I also learned something about how in Cuba lines are formed and maintained. Just as I came close to the front of the line several people materialized, claiming to be ahead of me. Since I loudly objected, some lady explained to me in broken German that people “save” their place in line and go to do other errands, only to return just in time.
After finally securing two internet cards (for a fraction of the price paid in a hotel) I went back and started all over again. It turned out that Halina’s visa for Canada would be delivered in 5 days. I called Halina in her room to consult her, but as it turned out later there was no phone in the room. I did not want to lose my internet connection so I decided on my own to change Halina’s nationality to US; and that way I could finally check us in. My plan was that the next day she would check in with Air Canada on her US passport, and then go through Cuban border control with her Polish passport, and next through US immigration control in Canada with her US passport again. This scheme turned out to be working the next day but cost us quite some sweat.
The whole procedure cost me the entire morning; I sat for about two hours numb on the hotel terrace with coffee and a sandwich before I was able to move again. I next needed to check in for our last and final flight from Toronto to Boston: this I managed for Halina but not for myself, reasons unknown.
Close to 4 pm I was ready to go out myself, but Halina after her walk was too tired to go with me. I took a taxi to the museum of the revolution, and enjoyed seeing again the great monuments like the Granma, the aircraft, the tanks and ambulances, and the pictures and stories inside the museum. Afterwards I walked towards the south, crossed the Prado which was full of pedestrians at that hour, and walked the poor streets south of Prado close to Malecon (which I could not cross because of traffic). I finally was able to get a bike rickshaw who took me back to L Street. The road near the hotel became so steep that we ended up pushing the rickshaw together up the hill.
Friday, March 10
We depart in the dark at 5 AM in a taxi which is really a wreck. It basically misses all the interior walls. Nerve wrecking passport dance at the airport ends well and we get out of Cuba without a glitch. In Toronto we go through the US border patrol where thy office asks us where we are coming from. As previously agreed I simply answer Cuba. There is a moment of hesitation, a second look, and he lets me go. It could be more complicated for Philip but the man gives us no trouble and we are again in the US. This little blue booklet called US Passport is a blessing, the best thing to have in the world. I hope that it stays that way.
Snow greets us in Boston! Never mind, it is good to breathe the sharp winter air of home.