From Havana to beaches, Cuba is an exotic mystery
By Bella English | GLOBE STAFF JUNE 29, 2013
HAVANA — When I entered Sloppy Joe's Bar, one of Hemingway's legendary
haunts, I was surprised at how brand-new it felt in a city, and on an
island, that seem suspended in time. Then I learned that, nearly 50
years after closing, it had recently reopened following an extensive
renovation. Today, it is sleek and dark, with a DVD of Frank Sinatra
crooning, photos of Marilyn Monroe, and rows of good whiskey displayed
in glass-and-mahogany cases.
I preferred El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway drank his daiquiris.
The barmen still keep the blenders busy, and serve fine ice-cold
daiquiris. The only difference nowadays is that customers can have their
photos snapped next to the bronze statue of Hemingway, who is leaning on
the bar, his elbow next to a bronze paperback. Wish we knew which one.
I recently spent a week in Cuba, visiting Havana and the countryside
before checking out the beach. Because the country remains under US
embargo and travel by US citizens is limited — journalists and academic
researchers can go, and certain "cultural exchanges" are allowed — I
wanted to get there and write about it before the floodgates open and
tourists overrun the place.
Havana is really two cities. Its former beauty can still be seen,
through squinted eyes and imagination, in the stately but crumbling
colonial buildings that line some streets. Thanks to decades of sun and
neglect, many of the colorful concrete and stucco buildings have faded
to lighter shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink.
Then there's the post-1958 Havana. It can be seen in the pot-holed
streets and run-down apartments where lines of clothes hang from windows
and balconies. It can be seen in the ubiquitous image of Che Guevera,
which adorns everything from billboards to T-shirts, and in the
revolutionary signs that proclaim: "Be Proud of Our History!" and
"Revolution is achieved by audacity, intelligence, and realism."
It can be seen in the cars from the 1950s — from the bulbous Chrysler De
Sotos to the finned Chevy Bel Airs — that somehow keep rumbling down the
roads. The day after I arrived in Havana, a guide approached me as I
left my hotel and asked if I wanted to take a tour of the city in his
bright yellow 1953 Chevy convertible. I did.
For a couple of hours, Alberto and his father drove me around the city,
hitting the highlights, including "The Fifth Avenue of Havana," in the
seafront Miramar section of town, where the wealthy lived before the
revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power.
It may be prime real estate, but many of the grand mansions are
abandoned or in disrepair. Still, there are lovely embassies and lush
foliage such as hibiscus, bright orange Flamboyant trees, and enormous
banyans more than a century old.
Despite its pitiful infrastructure, Cuba maintains its natural beauty,
and the balmy weather — except during hurricane season — means that
people are outside a lot: families, couples, schoolchildren in uniforms.
Yes, there is poverty, but it isn't the dire desperation that you see in
other capital cities across the world. Health care and university
education are free. But the socialist government can't provide all the
housing and jobs needed. Alberto told me that he worked a couple of days
a week in a parking lot; he and others have to hustle up second jobs "to
feed our families."
I stayed at the Parque Central Hotel, which overlooks a park at the edge
of Habana Vieja, the oldest and most interesting part of this city of 2
million. I loved simply looking out my window at the park, with its
statue of José Martí, hero of the Cuban fight for independence, and
lovers holding hands — or making out. Public displays of affection are
Habana Vieja includes the formerly walled section where the 16th-century
city began. Later, in the days when pirates were a threat, a cannon
would be fired at 9 every night, warning citizens that the gates were
about to close. The gates are gone, but the cannon custom continues.
The old city is home to colonnaded buildings with domed archways and
wrought-iron balconies of churches, mansions that are now apartments,
hotels and museums that grace cobblestone squares. The architecture is a
mishmash of styles, from colonial to rococo to Art Deco.
Alberto and his father took me to the Hotel Nacional, built in 1930 and
apparently the premier place to stay, judging from the photos of
luminaries that line the lobby bar, including Greta Garbo, Nat King
Cole, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Murray. (In April Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed
at the renovated Saratoga, another beauty.)
We rode past Chinatown — the Chinese arrived in the 19th century to work
in the sugar cane fields — and then to the Plaza de la Revolución with
its metal visage of Che Guevara on one government building, and a
similar one of comrade Camilo Cienfuegos on another.
We stopped in at the Legendario Rum bottling plant and sipped various
flavors of the famous Cubano elixir: pineapple rum, cherry, and mint.
Then a bartender made me a cup of "rum coffee." He heated some rum,
lighted it, stretched his arm over his head, and poured the rum — now a
thin, fiery stream of liquid — into a coffee cup on the bar, 4 feet
below. Not a drop was spilled.
Old Havana is best seen on foot, and there are some great pedestrian
paseos. I spent the next couple of days walking the city, along
Empedrado and Calle Obispo, lined with shops and restaurants, small art
galleries, and a crafts market. The staples of a Cuban meal are pork,
beans, and rice, but the fish is excellent, the paella heavenly.
A couple of mornings, I ran along the Malecon, an oceanfront boulevard
with one of the few wide, and uncrowded, sidewalks in the city. I loved
watching the fishermen and divers in wetsuits.
The sweeping Plaza de Armas is ringed by bookseller stalls, featuring
historical and political treatises in Spanish and English. Hemingway
fans stop in at La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by the writer's
penchant for the bar's mojitos. They still know how to pour rum and
muddle mint there, but it has become a tourist magnet.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos on Obispo is where Hemingway wrote "For Whom the
Bell Tolls." A clerk told me that Papa lived there "off and on" for
seven years. I didn't spring for the $2 to see Room 511, now preserved
as a mini-museum.
But I willingly sprang for the Buena Vista Social Club legends, who play
traditional Cuban music. Though most of the original members are gone
now, a few are left, and they are backed by a great band. At Cafe
Taberna, they sang their way around the room, even getting some of the
ladies up to dance. They are still fabulous after all these years.
I wanted to see more of the country and so, along with other hotel
guests, I boarded a bus for a day trip to Valle de Vinales, about two
hours west of Havana. We passed fields filled with tobacco and other
crops, with an occasional team of oxen plowing. On the highway we passed
horses pulling buggies; some even passed us.
The trip included a stop at a farmhouse, a modest concrete home with a
roof of palm fronds. Tobacco farmers must sell 90 percent of their
product to the government, keeping 10 percent for personal use, our
guide said. A farm worker showed us how to roll a cigar, a painstaking
process. He said each worker is expected to roll between 80 and 140 a day.
Last stop, the beach. In Varadero, I stayed at the Iberostar Laguna Azul
Hotel, an all-inclusive place filled with Canadian, European, and Latin
American tourists. The beach was wide, the water clear and warm, and it
was a great chance to read "Our Man in Havana," by Graham Greene.
He wrote, in 1958: "To live in Havana was to live in a factory that
turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt." Here, even the dowagers are
beautiful: those once-dignified buildings that have tried to withstand
the vagaries of time, but could use a good facelift.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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