“The next time we are here, they will be doing Duck Tours! They will just drive right into the Havana Harbor!” Rick hooted with laughter as we sat enjoying a cocktail in the bar at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana. He was referring to the amphibious vehicle tours to which we have fallen victim on several occasions while taking our grandson, Logan, on otherwise respectable educational tours in the US. Rick sounded a little too excited about the ride, which made me a bit nervous. One Duck Tour per life is just about enough. Maybe one too many.
Anyway, it was the double decker bus that just took a sharp swerve on two wheels along the Malecon that reminded us of the enormous tourism possibilities that await Cuba and the capitalists eager to dive in if/when the time is right. We count ourselves among the many Americans hurrying to see Cuba before the Americans ruin it. Big red double decker buses are only the beginning!
We were immediately drawn to the bar at the Melia Cohiba Hotel for two reasons: 1) It serves booze, 2) The vista is a drop-dead gorgeous view across the ocean. We were staying at a casa particulares called Villa Romero just two blocks away. Whiskey, the resident German Shepherd at Villa Romero, cut short our well deserved afternoon nap by barking at a rock or some other perceived threat, so we wandered down to the Melia Cohiba for a restorative cocktail. Sometimes Whiskey just could not give it a rest. Once we watched as he was doused by his owner with a bucket of water for barking incessantly for at least a half hour. He sulked off and chilled for a little while after that, but not for long. A dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta do.
So, here we sat in a bar in Havana on a Friday afternoon. The path we traveled to and from this point was nothing short of phenomenal. At that point, we were only part of the way through our first day of what would be four incredible days in Cuba with a bundle of enthusiasm and energy known as Maria.
I am just going to get right down to business because there is so much to tell about this little episode of Lawsons on the Loose. A short time ago, I read a magazine article about a kayaking tour around Cuba. As much as we love the water, we have learned that, as we age, the sun is not our friend, so I knew immediately that this was not for us. However, I was intrigued by the idea of seeing Cuba, so I jumped up and grabbed the iPad to check out the website of Cuba Unbound. After a few emails and a phone call, I knew right away that these folks could fashion an adventure for us. Their “Classic Cars, Rum, and Cigars” long weekend appeared custom made for us. I have a life-long love for vintage automobiles, it must be told. I really don’t care what decade claims them; I just love old cars. Rick loves cigars. Neither of us love rum, but both of us love other products of fermentation, so we decided to keep an open mind about rum. Before long, we had set a date.
Since the commercial airline routes are not yet fully up and running, we opted to take a charter flight from Miami. The charter flight was operated by American Airlines.The flight to Havana was a short forty minutes. Retrieving our luggage took much longer. I don’t know if it was because they x-ray everything coming into Havana or if it was just a case of being on “Cuban time,” but I was beginning to think that a shopping spree was in my immediate future. I shuttered as I recalled a shopping adventure one frigid Sunday afternoon in Reykjavik. I stood there at the luggage carousel fearing that Havana (or all of Cuba, for that matter) had no mall even close to the mall in Iceland’s capital city. After waiting and watching for about an hour, the man on my right made a plea to the priest on my left. “Hey, Father! How about a little divine intervention?” The priest shrugged and smiled. It was another forty minutes before we embraced our luggage and hurried out to greet the Havana sunshine. Maria was waiting patiently for us with Eric, our driver. I was over the moon with excitement when I got my first look at the 1955 red and white Chevy Bel-Air that was the most stylish of rides for our weekend. What a beauty! Truth be told, she was even more beautiful because Eric had upfitted the Bel-Air with air conditioning. What more could a girl want? Yeah, it was love at first sight!
They come from Miami with TVs, refrigerators, even bicycles wrapped in plastic.
Our 55 Bel Air.
Nice old truck.
Maria had no intention of letting a minute go to waste, so it was a perfect match for us since we wanted to cram as much into our long weekend as we could. From the airport, we made a quick stop to exchange currency, then hit the ground running, or at least walking rapidly. We headed straight for a stroll through the plazas of the city, stopping only for lunch and a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, a restaurant that came highly recommended by none other than Earnest Hemingway. Papa said, “My mojito at La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” Papa knows best.
The afternoon was a crash course in the history of Cuba and of rum making in Cuba. Dinner was at a restaurant called Nao. I ordered the leg of lamb, envisioning a nice little shank, but that was not to be. My dinner plate came with an entire leg sprawled all over it and hanging off the side. Needless to say, I did not leave hungry. To be totally honest, I will admit that I capped that meal off with a few bites of what can only be described as the best tiramisu I have ever eaten. From Nao, we strolled to El Floridita for a daiquiri since Papa thought it the best in Havana. I’d have to agree.
Rick at the bar of the Havana Club rum factory
Believe it or not, Maria was still not finished with us. The night was young, even if we are not. We hopped back into the Bel Air and drove through the darkness of Havana to the Tropicana. Since 1939, this show has been packing the outdoor arena nightly, rain or shine. As we entered, I was given a flower and Rick was given a cigar and we were shown to a long table with other tourists. The men at our table thought they got the better end of that deal. The waiter slapped a bottle of rum in front of us along with a couple of bottles of Coca Cola. Really? A half bottle of rum for each of us? We did our best, but barely made a dent in that bottle. The show was phenomenal. It’s an all out cabaret extravaganza – a big band, singers, dancers – it’s a spectacle to behold that doesn’t quit until midnight. If I squinted, I could pretend it was still the 1950s – probably not much had changed; even the automobiles out front played into my imaginings. Afterwards, Maria and Eric dropped us off at Villa Romero and we slept like babies.
Saturday morning found us at a little restaurant called Cafe Ajiaco Comida Cubana which was out of town a bit. We walked with Roy, the manager, to a backyard organic garden owned and operated by Jorge and Jesus. This garden is the hobby of a wonderful pair of brothers, one who works as a mechanic during the day and the other who toils with numbers as an accountant. They were as different as night and day. After hanging out with the brothers for a while in their sublime garden, we trekked back to the restaurant kitchen for a cooking class and a lesson in making the perfect mojito. Lunch followed and it was probably the best we had in Cuba.
Let’s back up. I neglected to mention that Eric was not our driver on Saturday. Since we were going to Nostalgic Cars later in the day, Maria wanted us to arrive in one of their cars. It was exactly like Eric’s Bel Air except that it was pink and white and it was refurbished with authentic Chevy parts. The muscle under the hood was all Chevy, whereas Eric’s Bel Air was purring along with a Mercedes engine. After lunch at Ajiaco, we drove into Cojimar to see a monument to Hemingway, stop in at a restaurant that was essentially a shrine to him, walk along the sea wall, and clamber around a very old fort looking out to sea. We went on from there to Hemingway’s home. The property was absolutely beautiful. The swimming pool was empty, but looked like a sublime place to lounge around. The tennis court had been converted to a dry dock for Pilar, Hemingway’s beloved boat. It was such a treat to see this boat, having read about it in some of his books.
Here we are with the Saturday’s ride, the pink Bel Air, in front of Earnest Hemingway’s estate
The entrance to Hemingway’s Cuban home.
Before long, we were back in downtown Havana pulling into the garage at Nostalgic Cars. We had a wonderful visit with the owner who is trying with all his might to be a modern day entrepreneur in a communist country. Not an easy fence to straddle. If enthusiasm could do the heavy lifting, Julio would be king of the capitalist world! As it is, he cannot get a credit card which makes it very difficult to buy authentic Chevy products in the USA and elsewhere. He has a friend in the US who will charge items on his credit card but he requires a twenty percent take on the price of the goods he procures for Julio. He tells us that we can follow the progress of his latest acquisition on the internet. It will take him six to eight months to complete the restoration of the sad looking Chevy in the garage. Julio restores the cars and hires drivers. He essentially runs a taxi service with those really sweet rides. Hence, our ride for the day was authentic Chevy from the headlights to the tail lights. No AC in that baby. We rode along with the wind in our faces and it was just fine.
The latest project at Nostalgic Cars.
We dined in that evening at Mediterraneo Havana. We went there because it is known for its fish. Unfortunately, they had none that evening. Really? The island is surrounded by water! Maria says fish is very expensive in Cuba. Oh, well, we had a nice dinner and moved on to a really cool art spot called F.A.C. I think it stands for something like “made in Cuba.” The art was not your traditional 2-D art. We loved the venue and the energy of the young people there. When we left, the line to get in was out the door and around the corner. It was a great spot to eat, drink, dance, and enjoy some cutting edge art.
Sunday, we headed out of town. As we drove further away from Havana, we could not help but notice that the mode of transportation swiftly went from taxis, pedi-cabs, and automobiles to hitch-hiking, walking, horse and buggy, or horseback riding. Life in the countryside is obviously very tough. After a few hours, we arrived in the Vinales area where we took a super cool boat ride in a subterranean cave. From there, we had a nice lunch at Finca Paradiso. The view of the mountain range was quite lovely. Later, a half hour hike landed us at the home of a farmer who explained the many enterprises he juggled. The coffee side of his business was the most intriguing to us. We were also impressed with Juan Carlos’ command of the English language. He was obviously quite the Cuban gentleman farmer.
Cuevo del Indio
A very common form of transportation, especially outside of Havana
This is where things went really downhill for us. Maria and Eric dropped us off at the Pinar del Rio Hotel in the town by the same name. It looked like there was a massive reunion of some sort in full swing. Sadly, it was not our graduating class. The noise was deafening, especially around the bar, the lobby, and the swimming pool. We were given a room on the third floor. We have traveled a bit and have encountered some downright lousy rooms in our time, but this one went right to the top of the list. There was one chair; it was broken. The fabric headboard had come in contact with more than a few really nasty heads over many decades and I knew my fair locks would never be within a foot of that disgusting thing. This room was a serious contender for the worst room we have ever been sentenced to spend a night in. (There was that room in Aguas Calliente outside of Machu Picchu, but we won’t go there now.) We took a deep breath and checked our watches. OK, this will only last about 12-14 hours. “We can do this,” we told ourselves.
OK, opinion time: I read recently that Cuba is “North Korea with palm trees.” Since I have never been to North Korea, I can’t really give my opinion on that assertion. However, as I stood on our balcony looking at some forlorn concrete structure, I decided that Cuba might be a mash-up of Myanmar and East Berlin. Later I decided that I was flattering Myanmar, but the crumbling structures we saw all over Cuba definitely reminded me of East Berlin. Honestly, please tell me how there are not dozens of injuries daily from falling chunks of buildings all over Cuba! Especially sad to me were what looked like blocks of crumbling, deteriorating buildings just one to two blocks from the Malecon in downtown Havana. These buildings were obviously glorious buildings in their day, but their glory has long since faded. So much money will be needed to save them, if indeed it is not already too late. Maria says they need foreign investment. Is this the same as saying that they need capitalism? Our comrades here in the USA who have spent the last year “feeling the Bern” would find Cuba positively Utopian. Me? Not so much. Sorry, did not mean to get all caught up in the politics!
Plaza de la Revolucion Havana
OK, so back to Pinar del Rio. Maria met us in the lobby for dinner. We went to a nice restaurant in town, and as the wine went in, the truth came out. Maria was dismayed that our accommodations were so awful and offered to switch rooms with us. Not a chance, we replied. She apparently went to work with her cell phone and an abundance of stealth. She found another casa particulares in the town and asked if we might want to move. Before long, she was hailing a “Cuban taxi.” (A “Cuban taxi” is a sight to behold; every would-be socialist in the US needs to ride in one, although normally foreigners never see the inside of one. I will leave it at that.) Anyway, the three of us jumped in, checked out the prospective casa, and in no time, we went back to the hotel, grabbed our things, and made a 10 pm move to Casa Colonial Rabanal. It was sublime! The beds were comfy, the room was spotless, and the AC hummed like a 55 Chevy. Breakfast the next morning was massive. If you ever go to Pinar del Rio, let me give you their card. But the real hero was Maria. She will move heaven and earth to solve problems and in Cuba, they can be legendary!
The sun came up on Monday and we hit the street, eager to see Cubans living their Monday morning lives. There was a soldier with a sawed off shotgun guarding the entrance to the bank. I was glad I didn’t have any immediate banking needs. There was a huge crowd around the government grocery store. We peeked in the windows. If soda is your thing, Monday morning at this store was your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Don’t know about meat and vegetables. It didn’t open until 9 AM, so we could not go inside. Maria explained the rationing system to us and showed us her booklet. The government allows each person 11 ounces of beans per month, one pound of rice per month, and so on. You won’t starve in Cuba, but your diet may bore you to death.
Maria and Eric came to collect us and off we went to the cigar factory. We had to wait for the ticket lady to show up to get our tickets. She works on Cuban time, so she didn’t show up until her fellow employees called her and told her to hurry up. We were only about 15 minutes late getting in, so that wasn’t too bad, compared to getting baggage at the airport.
I am not going to write about the cigar thing, although the tour of the factory was interesting and also the plantation tour was fun; I am leaving that for Rick. Stay tuned.
Working in the newly planted tobacco field.
This gentleman has been rolling cigars by hand for 50 years at the Robaina Cigar Plantation.
Fast forward to our last night. Eric and Maria delivered us to yet another casa in Havana, this one called Hostal Plaza Vieja 1910. (The Villa Romero had no vacancies that night.) It was just steps from the Plaza Vieja and our hosts were super friendly. We had a lovely dinner overlooking the plaza. We walked along the streets for a while and then Maria headed home, but left us at the front door of the Hotel Ambos Mundos. It was a favorite of Mr. Hemingway’s. He loved the rooftop bar and so did we. The elevator was a functioning piece of art from the ’30s. We loved riding up and down with the elevator attendant. That night there was a super moon. It was strange to look out over the city and see so much darkness. I surmised that in the darkness were those empty crumbling buildings.
Building across from the casa where we spent our last night in Havana.
Piano in a dilapidated building. Might need tuning.
Plaza Vieja at dusk
This is a good time to give you my opinion of the Cuban people. I read repeatedly that they were friendly and eager to engage Americans. I read that they were happy in spite of their hardships. Honestly, yes, they were friendly, but not more than any other people we have met the world over, nor did they seem any happier than the rest of us. If we had found them miserable, it would be understandable. For goodness sake, you can’t drink the water coming out of the tap there. Also, toilet paper can’t go down the toilets! Let that sink in. Forget the internet. People are lined up all along the front and sides of hotels trying to get online using the internet in the hotels. Cell phones are basically used as pagers due to the high cost. People call each other but don’t answer the calls. Then they go to a pay phone were it is cheaper and call back. I guess they are just happy to have what little communication they have with the outside world. Maria tells us that there is not a drug problem in Cuba. It is illegal to grow, sell, or smoke pot. Since they x-ray all incoming packages, it would be difficult to smuggle drugs into the country. Also, probably no one has ever given Cuban prisons a five star rating. Don’t know for sure, but I bet convicts don’t exit with six pack abs and a law degree the way they do here. Only one in thirty eight people in Cuba own a car. Almost all Cubans have a cell phone. The average salary is equal to twenty five dollars a month. It is forbidden for a Cuban citizen to get on a boat. Think about that the next time you hop aboard a friend’s boat for a beer and a little cruise.
We also read that there are many things unavailable that we take for granted and it is nice to take a few gifts if you go to Cuba. We took lots of make-up samples, aspirin, Neosporin ointment, gently used shoes and clothes, and a couple of backpacks. We honestly did not know what to take, but felt like we should take some of the overflow of our bounty. Our primary goal was to give these items while being careful not to offend people or make them feel pitied. After we got to know Maria, we knew that our best bet was to seek her advice. We ended up handing over our gifts to her to distribute as best she could. She immediately mentioned the needs of the victims of Hurricane Matthew on the east side of the island. Since our little town also felt the wrath of Hurricane Matthew, we loved the idea of sharing with the people affected, although our pain and destruction was minimal compared to theirs. Maria gave some of the make-up samples to the nice ladies at the cigar factory. Eric’s daughter received one of the backpacks. As we headed back toward Havana, we came upon school children walking along the road. Maria spoke to Eric in Spanish. He pulled over to the side of the road as we approached a mother and her daughter walking home from school. Maria opened the car door and spoke to the woman. The woman looked puzzled as Maria shoved the backpack into her arms. Suddenly, the light bulb came on. The mother’s face lit up as she smiled, blew kisses at us, and exclaimed, “Gracias, gracias, gracias!” I was so glad I had on sunglasses so that no one could see me weep. We have so much, yet we never have enough, but a cast-off backpack was like a gift from heaven to this mother and daughter. I was furious with myself for not bringing more things to share.
It was sad to have to say good-bye to Maria on Tuesday morning at the Havana airport. Our weekend in Cuba was unforgettable as is Maria. She is warm, caring, talented, and intelligent. My hope for her would be that Cuba will allow her to reach her full potential, but sadly, I doubt that will be the case, although she is full of optimism. We met so many people like her – people who want to have a better life and improve their country. Ironically, I spotted the priest from the luggage carousel on Friday in the check-in line for our flight from Havana to Miami. I remembered the need for “divine intervention” comment that I overheard Friday and it struck me as a perfect metaphor for this island nation stuck in time.