Not far from the American Embassy in Havana, mere steps from the body of water that proves narrower than ideology, stands a monument to the USS Maine, which exploded under mysterious circumstances in the city harbor over 100 years ago. Upon the monument an American eagle once perched, until on a January day in 1961 its head was carried away, by citizens equally carried away by revolutionary fervor.
It is easy to lose one’s head over Havana. Travelers return from the city raving about the classic automobiles passing beneath old colonial period buildings. Like most visitors, it was the cars that held the most appeal to me. I’d first heard of them twenty years ago, over beers in Hanoi with an American whose boat had had engine trouble, and had been forced to dock in Havana for a few days for repairs. So it was only fitting that one of these old automobiles was the centerpiece of one of my first views of the country, spied from a plane high above the open fields, as if I were reenacting the final scene of American Graffiti.
Here the American graffiti is the island’s relationship with its neighbor to the north, writ large upon every aspect of Cuban society. The half-century long trade embargo had seemingly stopped the clock in 1960. More accurately, every so often somebody keeps turning the hands back.
There are few places on earth so stuck in time, a concept that has admittedly become a travel agent’s cliché. They’ll tell you to go immediately, before the old is lost forever. But how much more exciting to visit a place in the midst of change, as the traveler comes back less with the static memory of wandering a picture postcard, and more with the feeling of having connected with the flow of history.
I couldn’t have timed my own visit better. A week before I arrived, the first commercial flight in over half a century arrived from the US. It landed just days after the death of Fidel Castro, who in taking control of Cuba in 1959 had caused those once regular flights to cease in the first place.
I’d booked my own ticket ten months before, not anticipating any of these events. The visa situation at that time called for a round-about approach, so I opted for a couple of days on the beaches of Cancun on either end of the journey, which admittedly wasn’t such a hardship. I had looked forward to a quiet holiday, an attempt to unwind and rest after an intense year. I’d turn off my critical mind, and forego my usual travel writing for a future journey. But history had upped the ante.
The immigration officials surprise in being young women in street clothes and devil-may-care attitudes, Latin indifference combined with an apathetic pout. I’m always a little anxious when entering countries idealistically opposed to my own, but the woman who checks me through does so with little more than a cough upon my documents.
José Martí Airport has a certain Third World vibe, and I smile at the irony of its namesake having initiated the propulsion of Cuba toward the First. I catch a faint whiff of cigar smoke the moment I exit the plane. Bodies move noisily and chaotically through the hot, still air. A father carries a shirtless child, limp and listless in his arms. He is waved over to a table, which I presume is staffed by the quarantine squad. I think of ZIKA and suddenly worry about the poor kid, as behind me a few pieces of luggage from our flight begin their turn on the carousel. For some unexplained reason, no other bags will appear for the next 90 minutes.
We arrive finally at our hotel, the plaza in front looking like a car lot circa 1958, filled with monsters of Detroit-made steel. Many of these beasts are now used as taxis, mainly for foreign tourists willing to pay the high fares.
I’m not given much time to admire them as we are quickly shuffled over to the old town. Habana Vieja is pedestrian friendly, and in the fading light, clusters of silhouettes move along the stone streets before 16th Century facades. Most of the action seems to be up a single shallow alley where a half dozen restaurants have been crammed, their sidewalk tables filled with boisterous foreigners high on rum and the easy Latin vibe.
We take our dinner in the far corner of the alley, inside Paladar Dona Eutimia, which appears to be an old home tricked out to serve meals. So begins our introduction to Cuban service, slow, patient, unhurried. This allows time for conversation, as well as drink, for that is the only element of the Cuban meal that arrives quickly. The food is heavy and rich, and goes well with red wine, Chileans having cornered the market here. And from the very first, I fall in love with Cuban cuisine, a love consummated on this particular night with ropa vieja. I am lucky to be traveling with other foodies, and the four of us are generous with our orders, rotating our plates every so often as if we are speed dating. Well sated, we limit our selves to just two desserts.
After dinner we step into the neighboring Taller Experimental de Grafica gallery to admire the prints, having little context for Cuban art beyond that obsequious photo of Che. Tired as we are from the travel, tonight is not the night to learn, so we step out before long, and pass the al fresco diners taking the night to the next level. One of my travel companions is a mischievous sort, and he greets a table of burly Europeans with an unseasonal “Merry Christmas.” They stop their conversation and turn to him with a collective glare. Unmistakably Russians. I pull my companion away toward our awaiting car.
It is a missed opportunity of sorts, for Russia, then the Soviet Union, was the one foreign country besides the US to have any regular interaction with Cuba over the years, though those relationships were polar opposite in nature. So I am curious as to how the average Russian views Cuba, its vassal state of sorts, once a red flag to fly in the face of its long term adversary.
On the turntable: Calexico, "The Black Light"
On the nighttable: Pedro Juan Gutierrez, "Dirty Havana Trilogy"