Second hand contact with a people though books or film can most certainly be informative, but one accepts these insights with some risk, filtered as they are through whatever baggage the writer brings to the project. Far preferable to get out amongst the people and observe directly. On this first full day we are to do just that, but with a twist. We step out of the hotel and straight into a horse-drawn carriage. LYL hadn’t known about this, and agree that this isn’t our thing at all. And so it was we began our spin around the city center, seated in the privileged position of the well-heeled colonist, looking down on our subjects.
The city itself takes revenge, the cars spewing choking exhaust. Eyes and throat rebel as the unfiltered petrol enters our systems and does some colonizing of its own. But in time, the beauty of Havana works as a remedy. The first wave of travel books written after the revolution all talk of the city's crumbling beauty, but by 2016 an obvious attempt has been made to clean things up. In most cases around the world, this restoration is done by wealthy foreigners who have bought properties. But in Cuba, this has yet to begin on a large scale, as investors cautiously negotiate Cuban law, and it wasn’t until very recently that Cubans themselves could own their own home. As it is, any properties for sale have already been renovated, and despite passing a great number of these obviously empty buildings, the streets below are bustling filled with locals just going about their day, still somewhat oblivious to a pair horse-drawn carriages pulling past , their occupants wearing sunglasses and trying not to breathe.
We wheel through El Barrio Chino, which has only a handful of Chinese anymore, with nary a dragon to be seen, nor the color red. To me, the architecture that most impresses is the French Baroque, which adds a nice flourishes to the Spanish colonial which it dwarfs. The gem of them all is the Capital Building, modeled on the dome of its twin in DC. And of course, old Detroit classics line every street, and on every other street stands one broken down, hood open. The dull hum emitting from those that do run hint at a horsepower far greater than that which bears us. Still, the cadence of the hooves is hypnotic, and as they carry us to the next destination, they take on the sound of boots on the march.
I had been looking forward to visiting the Museo de la Revolution, since as a writer I am intrigued by the absurd superlatives of propaganda and the glorious monuments they spawn. With Cuba’s proximity to its greatest enemy, I was expecting the heights I’d seen in a similar museum in Hanoi. But this one is somewhat subdued, with near empty rooms displaying a few photos and jungle-tattered clothing and equipment. It is as if the success of the revolution could speak for itself. The structure that houses it had once been Batista’s Presidential Palace, and from its design you can see the former dictator had a Versailles fetish, if Versailles had been designed by Tiffany’s. Today, the famous ballroom is playing host to a party of generals who have gathered along with Minister of Defense, who politely declines my friend’s request to be included in a photo. Who knows to what purpose such a photo might be used?
Our horses draw their rest at Habana Vieja, and we are let down to wander its stone covered streets. This is of course Havana’s real treasure, and its carefully planned restoration project has earned it a UNESCO rating, not to mention hundreds of tourists at any one time. Despite this latter fact, there is no begging, nor any pushy touts. (The biggest danger I’m told is getting bullied into taking a photo with the cigar-chomping mamas who look as if they just steeped off a Chaquita banana label.) I’d like to hope this will remain the case, and that the Cubans don't lose their laid-back nature in the flood of tourist dollars coming in the near future.
The remainder of the morning is a casual walk amongst a veritable architectural museum, popping into the odd museum and cafés, perusing the photos of Hemingway inside the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Papa is said to have written For Whom the Bell Tolls. At the Plaza d’ Armes I am surprised to see a man with no arms, and the street before him is laid with wood, used at one time to soften the sound of horses hooves. Along this stretch dozens of book stalls, each one busy and a testament to Cuba’s high literacy rate. Upon the covers of many of these can be seen the Bearded Trio – Castro, Che, Hemingway. As I lean in to have a look at one stall, its owner begins a chat and by its conclusion I’ve bought an old peso coin that bears the face of Che, who I’ve been told I resemble somewhat (sans beard). The coin is now worthless I know, but the dollar that I’ve given in exchange I see not as a scam but as a tip for an interesting encounter.
Our walk ends not far away, at the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. The former church that gives the square its name is known for its remarkable acoustics and is now the setting for frequent concerts. I am lucky to find a choral group at practice inside, and I stand mesmerized as the voice of one soloist traces the curves of the arched ceilings and the grooves of the pillars holding them up.
We have lunch adjacent, in the Café del Oriente. The wooden bar, checkerboard tile floors, and deeply varnished tables simultaneously harken both 1950s New York and 1920s Paris. A pianist visits both these periods with music that acts as a sort of flavor enhancer for yet another stunning meal.
The wine has made me drowsy, and the thought of wandering through a market has no appeal. While the other half our quartet shops, LYL go in search of coffee, which we find in a converted warehouse down on a pier somewhere. To my delight I also find local craft beer. Some of the other table are drinking theirs from long yard glasses, and as they tip them skyward, it looks as if they are playing along with the band currently creating heat on the stage. The vocalist gyrates somehow in a dress three sizes too small, and somehow the horn section behind her isn’t distracted as they start and stop their parts on a dime. This is my first encounter with Cuban music proper, and as has been oft-told, what has been caught on recordings is only part of the story. (And during my time in Cuba, I never saw any musician that wasn’t of the highest talent.) It is hard to tear ourselves away, but it is time to dance.
On approach the street looked like a quiet residential street, and Casa del Son is discreetly located midblock. This former house has a half dozen rooms converted to studios, each lined with mirrors and hung with bright and colorful artwork. We pass through the gyrating bodies of the entry room, and are led through its open-air labyrinthian corridors to a room in back. The creativity of the conversion of residence to commercial space reminds me a great deal of Kyoto, where the threatened species of traditional machiya townhouses have recently begun to appear as cafés, galleries, restaurants, bars.
For the next 90 minutes we are led through our paces by a small wiry man with a head shaved but for a lone patch at the pate, from which extends a stump of pony tail. To me it looks like a fez. His tank top, quickness of speech, and hurky-jerky movement seems copped from the hipster streets of New York (though no doubt the reverse is more apt). But man can he move! Salsa isn’t such a difficult dance to learn, being little more than a quickened boxstep. More than the footwork, the spirit of the dance is in the hips. The movement is an invitation, a promise. It is a dance to be danced with one you love, even if that love lasts a single night. As it is, my own love is being twirled in the arms of another, and I am paired with a young girl whose eyes, and thoughts, are far away. (In my mind’s eye I can almost picture her chewing gum.) Still, there is never a bad time to dance, and I spring rather than walk back toward the front door at the end of the lesson, body drenched in sweat which flows toward the earth to which I now feel far more connected.
The day is long and waning, and in the rapidly changing light we cool ourselves with yet another spin around the city, this time in an 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner convertible. In a city filled with gems, this is a diamond, drawing the attention and cameras of many foreigners we passed. Our route is long and circuituous, amidst many of the sites I had hoped to see. (One regret is that I never got to either of Hemingway’s favorite drinking holes, nor into Sloppy Joe’s, where Graham Greene set one of his most memorable scenes.)
It is good to get into the traffic, to feel the throb of the V8 beneath me, which is almost as sexual as the dancing. (And with the vast backseats of these old cars, it's a wonder that teen pregnancy at the time wasn’t higher than it was.) Cubans have kept these old cars running by cannibalizing the parts of dormant wrecks, but our driver assures us that this one is all original. As if in comparison I begin to assess the quality of the others we pass, to look for true classics, and search for an elusive Edsel. There is magic in this ride, despite the ubiquitous Korean made taxis that add an unwanted splash of bright yellow to the otherwise subdued cityscape.
We welcome the evening with drinks out on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional. The drink in my hand is lost on me, this libation of the liberation, this Cuba Libre. The well-known, fancy monicker doesn’t change the fact that it is simply a rum and coke, the drink of high schoolers, a sip of which conjures up the ghost of hangovers past. (I’m not a spirits person but I wanted to love rum, which seems as well suited to the Caribbean as gin is to Southeast Asia. I find some compromise in the mojito, which has quickly proven to be a perfect pre-dinner aperitif.)
And we sit here awhile, biding time for dinner in Vedado nearby, watching the sun lower itself over toward the Yucatan. On the near empty stretch of the Malecon below, a horse carriage moves in the same direction, followed by an old Buick, then a red Chinese-built tour bus. Bigger, faster airborne vehicles have just begun their passage across these waters before me, and with their coming, such quiet scenes are certain to cease. I ponder the inevitable, as I empty the remainder of my drink onto the grass.
On the turntable: Chet Baker Quartet, "This Time the Dream's on Me"
On the nighttable: James McLendon, "Papa: Hemingway in Key West"