On the Road: Havana
THE AIR IN HAVANA is sweet on Thursdays, laundry day. The scent of fabric softener from sheets flapping on lines strung across balconies and streets overwhelms the malaise of diesel exhaust from the candy-colored 1950s cars and various claptrap, pasted-together vehicles that tootle about the narrow streets. They are, these cars, just as fantastic as you’ve heard.
If I were to go to Havana again, instead of pants I’d pack a skirt. Something swinging, colorful, sparkling with sequins that would swish along in time to the beat of the streets and catch the sun. Hola! I’d echo the call of the people I met; Trump he loco! which is invariably the second thing said. Si, si, Trump he loco.
They may not have much, but they do have cable TV, Florida stations overdubbed in Spanish, so we non-Spanish speakers know something important is happening, like Chuck Schumer is weeping, but we’re not sure exactly why. Commercials are untouched, in English, delivered without irony. Cheerios, Crest smiles, Shield your home, the Slomin shield. Dial 1-800-alarm me.
This winter, The Prince and I flew to Havana to celebrate a Rather Large Birthday. His.
I’d been trying for months to pin him down on where he’d like to go, to wallow in his sorrow at another decade passed with no switchplate in the upstairs hallway. Oh wait, that’s my wallow.
It was difficult to hoist him out of this year’s funk; you know, those drumbeats of approaching death thrum more loudly as the years go galumphing by.
I dangled Paris, Cuba, Amsterdam, Cuba, the moors of Yorkshire, Cuba, Quebec. . . . We were at Banana Café, which happens to be a Cuban restaurant on Capitol Hill, scarfing down carnitas and awash in margaritas, when he had a Eureka! moment. “Let’s go to Cuba,” he said.
I suppose it’s clear that I encouraged this. Old cars, older buildings, the ocean. What better time than now, when Havana is on the verge of being: a) destroyed by swarms of obese American families in their matching plaid shorts searching for Starbucks in the land of café cubano; b) dropped back behind a rusted curtain by our fercocked administration; or c) closed off to us by their fercocked administration, because of our fercocked administration. Fercocked being Yiddish for, I’ll let you guess what it means. And you’re right!
Anyway, I sighed with relief that a decision had finally been made. Have I mentioned that this was less than two weeks before his birthday? And that he did not want to go with a tour, waddling along like obedient duckies behind a leader, possibly with a whistle and whip? Was it even possible to do, given the time and travel restrictions and visas and so on?
It took all of a couple of hours, thanks to Ronald, the Corinthian leather voice on the other end of my phone call to JetBlue. Don’t bother trying to get information online about traveling solo to Cuba, you’ll give yourself scurvy. Travel agents, by the way, are as yet barred from making your arrangements. Just phone JetBlue, as I found out through a happy accident that’s too convoluted to bother explaining.
Here’s the drill: You give Ronald your passport information, and fill out an online form swearing under penalty of I-know-not-what to your absolutely legitimate reasons for visiting Cuba. The categories are loose: religious activities (so tempting to proselytize about something), humanitarian project, support for the Cuban people. About the only thing it seems you can’t do, so far as the US Government is concerned, is just go bake on the beach. I checked “journalist,” which is true, and he a restoration carpenter wanting a firsthand view of the architecture, which is also true. No one ever asked us for proof, before, during or after.
Then we flew to Fort Lauderdale, the launching point for all JetBlue flights Cuba bound. We picked up a visa at the airport (there’s a guy selling them for $50 approximately four inches from our departure gate) and took off for Havana. (American Airlines has Havana flights out of Newark and Miami International. Same deal with the close-at-hand visas.)
If it was this easy, I tell myself now, I would have booked fewer than nine days in the city and come up with some excuse for lying on a beach; surely there’s architecture to be seen, a story to tell, but it seemed so intimidating, groping along in the dark, fiddling with pages of web warnings and government-speak. If we were caught out in mild fudging would we face a firing squad? Guantanamo and waterboarding?
Having had a fantastic time with Air B&B in Rome last year, I gave it a try here. If you haven’t booked an Air B&B stay, it can be a great alternative to a hotel. In Italy we had a completely modern, wonderfully private one-bedroom apartment in a 2,000-year-old building in Trastevere, with a delightful terrace with orange trees scenting the air.
There are some charming apartments and rooms and homes to be had in Havana—one in particular whispered to me, white curtains billowing in a breeze from the sea. All of them were booked. We ended up with a room in Sol’s flat. He’s short and plump at the center, with stick legs and arms, like a child’s drawing of a man. Since he wears one each day, he apparently has a wardrobe of oversize sleeveless T-shirts, huge in the arm holes, to wear with a pair of khaki Banana Republic Bermuda shorts with a rip in the seat.
Sol speaks little English despite 12 years in the US, where he may or may not be a citizen, since we communicated mainly via charades. A chef in Miami, he moved back home to Havana about a year ago, bringing his sleek leather Roche Bobois sofa. The rest of his apartment was furnished with a mix of grandma’s castoffs, plastic flowers and Marilyn Monroe posters. Adding a frisson of danger were electrical wires hung over the bathtub that had something to do with hot water. There was not a hanger or a peg for our clothes, and the air that floated down a shaft into our room held both mold spores and bird effluvia.
However, Sol made me chicken soup when I had Fidel’s revenge one day, and bought The Prince a birthday cake, which was delicious, and sang Happy Birthday in a Broadway-quality voice. And it was cheap, about $75 a night including a lethal afternoon cocktail Sol invented called the Osvaldo, after the upstairs neighbor who once had a very, very bad day. There was also the occasional breakfast or snack, and it was centrally located, just a block and a half from the Malecon, Havana’s famed oceanfront promenade. (The ocean, by the way, is not swimmable in Havana, just dramatic. Sometimes it leaps the wall and floods the streets).
There are three main parts to the city. The center, where we were staying, is third-world residential but with magnificent, jaw-dropping architecture. It looks as if bombs have gone off. Palm trees grow out of missing roofs, walls are falling down. People live here, restoring portions of buildings, carving out a habitable niche. There are little home-based businesses everywhere: nail salons, barbers, food vendors, operating out of doorways. The bakery across the street, which made that birthday cake, operates on the second floor of a row house, which has French doors to a catwalk balcony that remain open all day. The cakes and rolls are sold from a tiny stall in the ground-floor entry.
There are carts loaded with fruits, people riding bikes and holding poles dangling with loaves of bread for sale, and stores selling strange assortments of not much: a vacuum cleaner sharing a store window with a black-haired doll in a ruffled dress and a wrench. Spices are considered a fine house gift, though why there’s a cumin shortage is anyone’s guess. But the food everywhere was strikingly mediocre and every meal took forever to get through—three-hour lunches were normal, most of that waiting to order and then waiting to pay the bill, severely limiting the time you have to do anything else.
Along the Malecon, a young woman, standing in the window of her house, watches her mother (presumably) as she jounces a well-wrapped infant. My Prince wanders near, gurgling as he does whenever he sees a baby, and the older woman smilingly hands him the baby. They coo at each other. We have a photo. Imagine that in Washington.
The cars were everything you imagined. Most were from the 1950s, bulbous of fender and huge. Some remodeled, most carefully, others inventively—Cadillac limos with the tops chopped off, painted flamingo pink. You can hail them like taxis, though they tend to be pricy. Far cheaper, and in their way more fun, are the pedicabs. Everyone expects you to bargain a bit.
Dogs scurry about self-importantly. They’re amusing to watch, but don’t touch them. They are not friendly and are inbred to the point where most seem to be the same medium-size brown dog.
Besides the dog(s), there is no sense of danger here. This is particularly shocking because almost everyone is wandering around with wads of cash, credit cards being worse than iffy. Even when a shop or restaurant says it takes them, an American card might not go through. A friend suggested we carry $1,500 in cash, which turned out to be far more than sufficient for a nine-day stay for the two of us, including all meals, the purchase of a Che Guevara T-shirt, $100 worth of cigars and a couple of bottles of Cuban rum. In fact, the entire trip, with lodging and airfare, scarcely topped $2,000.
At the eastern end is the old part of the city, which for some reason is called Habana, with a “b,” a distinction I still don’t understand. As you’ll endlessly hear, Hemingway haunted the cafés in this part of town. El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio are now haunted by tourists. The Capitol building is here, a ringer for ours, and fortresses with moats, charming squares and cafés, a smattering of interesting shops and galleries, fortune tellers, and stilt walkers in ruffled sleeves. This area is slowly undergoing a terrific revitalization—they’re determined not to turn the city into a theme park. While still largely a shambles, buildings are being restored, restaurants and cafés are lively, and some gorgeous old hotels are being rejuvenated, the sort with central courtyards, dripping with greenery and open to the sky. The Hotel Florida was particular eye candy. There were spanking new ones too, very modern and Euro-cool, though rather expensive. Craving a non-threatening shower, we tried to skip out on old Sol midway through our stay. One desk clerk quoted $400 per night, adding mournfully, “It’s much cheaper booked on line.”
Good luck with that. Internet and phone service are spotty. It was refreshing to do entirely without.
The newer part of the city, the main business and financial district, is in the west. This is where Sinatra, Bogart and Ava Gardner used to hang, hopping over by boat or plane from Key West, just 100 miles away. The Hotel Nacional, a replica of The Breakers in Palm Beach, built in 1930, sits on a point with a fabulous view. It’s a national monument, and considered (by Cubans) a five-star hotel, but it’s government-operated and a little dingy and sad, resembling the movie-set lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel, when it was in decline. There are a number of museums worth seeing; the magnificent Napoleon Museum, for one, features splendid artwork, weapons—and the emperor’s unimaginably tiny armor. But the 125-acre Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus was once interred, is sadly neglected, with tombs caved in and vaults ravaged, and the Quinta de Molina, a small botanic garden, has seen better days—though it has some engaging caged birds.
I’m tempted to say if we did this again I’d go for one of the grand hotels in the old city. However, Sol’s place and those of his neighbors were amazing experiences, if only in retrospect. We felt, for those days and nights, like residents of Havana, a feeling that could not be replicated by a stay in more traditional confines.
But, no matter where you stay or dine or what you do, keep in mind that this is not a luxury destination. Don’t bother complaining about hot water, lumpy beds and slow service. Don’t drink the water either. As a reviewer on Trip Advisor perfectly summed up a review of one fine old hotel, giving it four stars: “Before I start, remember this hotel is in Havana. There are bits falling off the wall in the bedroom and the breakfast is different, to say the least.”
Four-stars in Havana might not be what you’re expecting. Roll with it, but do it soon: The mega-cruise ships are arriving shortly; can a Day’s Inn be far behind?