The colorful buildings in the narrow streets of Old Havana beckoned us. The ever-present music drew us into the courtyard. Hypnotized we sat down and let the sounds wash over our souls until we were one with the rhythm.
Jet Blue was organized. ‘A Cuban visa would be issued at the airport. Just purchase your ticket and come to the airport,” said the friendly agent.
We checked in at JFK and after getting our boarding passes, we were guided to an elderly man wearing a white shirt who was sitting at a folding card table. He charged us $50 each for the visa, which included health insurance.
On arrival in Havana airport, I tried to get some Cuban currency but the line to the only bank was incredibly long. While contemplating what to do, I was approached by a young woman who asked if I would like to change money. At first I was suspicious but she offered me the going rate and I changed a few hundred dollars. Problem solved, we cabbed it into Havana.
The Airbnb house we booked was in the district known as Miramar. Once an elegant, up market area of Havana it was now incredibly worn-out looking. Streets were in disrepair and the once beautiful villas were crumbling. Fortunately, our house, a three-bedroom villa with a small swimming pool was in fine condition. It came with a couple who maintained the property and cooked us breakfast in the morning. Apparently the father of the owner had been a member of the government and very close to Fidel Castro who often visited.
The house was near a bank, which seemed to be open only occasionally. Next-door was a supermarket with mostly empty shelves. What was readily available was bread, pasta, processed ham and frozen chicken. And I almost forgot…Rum, lots of Rum. Fresh produce was sold in separate shops or markets but the greens and vegetables that we saw, looked tired and often bruised. We walked down to the seashore, which was, like the streets, in great disrepair. Broken concrete seemed to be strewn everywhere and the beach was unkempt and deserted.
Old Havana is full of ancient structures. Some have been repaired but many are decaying. Once grand plazas in the Spanish style are now faded and unkempt. European hotel chains have renovated some buildings and once restored, they show how magnificent the town must have been. But even with all this shabbiness (although many of the buildings are now painted in colorful hues) there is an energy and vibrancy about the city. Before leaving New York, Rita had insisted that we make a point of listening to music.
It is almost impossible not to hear music. Most streets had musicians playing guitar or bongos. Everyone had a CD to sell and I bought quite a few. The recordings are simple but the performances are great and the quality of singing and playing shines through. One of the main streets was filled with bars and restaurants, each with it’s own band or ensemble. We heard Rumba, Guaracha, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Chachacha, Bolero, and a more modern version of Salsa called Timba. Old Havana is a music lover’s paradise.
We found the people friendly and curious. Walking through the old cobbled streets never made us feel uncomfortable. No one except street musicians approached us, and all they asked from us was to listen to their music.
One day we took an excursion to Pinar Del Rio. It lies about 100 miles west of Havana, and is famous for its tobacco plantations. We visited one outside the city. It was family-owned and the courtyard at the front was like most of Cuba, run down with chickens pecking in the dust and an occasional goat baaing for attention. They had a reception area that sold finished cigars with a top price of $4.
I wandered around and came across two massive barns. Inside, hanging from wooden racks were rows and rows of tobacco leaves, drying and curing. I am not a smoker but my father only smoked Cuban cigars and I have a fondness for their smell. The aroma of this barn was so nostalgic and seductive that I didn’t want to leave. This was possibly the most sensual fragrance I have ever experienced. I did buy a bundle of Cohibas to give as gifts. I think I paid $40 for 20 top quality cigars. Whenever I open that suitcase, I still get a whiff of that lovely perfume.
It’s hard to change currency, as banks are difficult to find. The secret we discovered was to ask in hotels. They are delighted to take your dollars. Cuba has two currencies. One for tourists (the convertible peso = 1 dollar), the other for locals (25 peso nacional = 1 dollar). Tourist restaurants price everything in convertible pesos, whereas local places price in peso nacional. This is good for the locals but tourists get ripped off by having to pay US prices. I didn’t mind as I was on vacation and felt that the country needed my dollars.
The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes de Cuba is a spectacular exhibit space. It displays art from colonial times up to the present. The early art is derivative but the modern art by Cuban artists is spectacular, their use of color and texture original. The museum stands in a beautifully refurbished 1950s building in the heart of old Havana. For all its modern conveniences, track lighting, air conditioning, climate control, etc., the toilets lack running water. An attendant was employed to flush the toilets with a bucket of water.
Ernest Hemingway had some of his most productive years in Cuba. His house, called Finca Vigia (lookout estate) in Spanish, is stunning and has been lovingly restored, so much so, that you wouldn’t be surprised if Hemingway himself turned up. You cannot enter it but you can walk around the open windows and peer into his life. Unfortunately it is too popular, so fighting the crowds to get a peek is challenging.
His papers are strewn about. You can see his typewriter, his guns, and fishing tackle. More than a few bottles of alcohol are in plain view. The home, like the man seems larger than life. It sits in a private estate about 9 miles out of Havana. I tried to sense what it would have been like during his time there but the incessant busloads of tourists intruded into that thought.
We only visited for a few days but we enjoyed our stay so much we vowed to return soon and often but now because of the political situation, (Trump’s closing of relations with the Cuban government) the island is virtually barred to US citizens.