An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.
July 29, 2015
We had planned an ambitious tourist adventure for this day, centered on a walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Lorenzo was to pick me up at 8:30 AM. Gratefully, I slept ten hours! When I emerged at the curb for our meeting, he wasn’t there. Instead, I began an unlikely conversation with a gentleman enjoying a breakfast of a clear, likely alcoholic beverage. He nicknamed it “Cuban water,” and he offered it to me several times (I declined). My new friend spoke only Spanish, though he volunteered English song lyrics a couple of times. Given my poor understanding of Spanish, we didn’t get much further than establishing that I came from the United States and that the weather was hot. He did not recognize the name of my home state (Tennessee), and he developed the idea that I was from Southern California, sharing this tidbit with several passersby.
Lorenzo arrived around 9:15, and we returned to his family home for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, and sweet, cold mango smoothies. Eventually Lorenzo, his wife Perla, their two sons, and I piled into Thingamachinga. Lorenzo “filled” its gas tank at a nearby filling station. In doing so, he revealed that its gas tank had been replaced with a five-gallon plastic jerrican under the hood of the car. I tried not to think of the consequences in a major collision. Lorenzo explained that the smaller volume made it more affordable to “fill ‘er up” (generally around 20 CUC).
Lorenzo drove the family to the harbor of Havana, parking in a space that afforded a view of the Cristo statue across the harbor in Casablanca. We walked to the Convento de San Fracisco de Asis, where women in traditional costumes volunteered for photos (we declined). I snapped photos of the family in the plaza, and then we hired a horse-drawn carriage for a two-hour tour of the old city (cost: 25 CUC).
Our carriage ride began down the main street lining the harbor, drawing the ire of buses and cars. The driver seemed unconcerned, though, and we frequently occupied the middle lane. Lorenzo’s older son got a chance with the reins and seemed to be having a great time. After a bit, we turned into the mass of buildings to reach the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo. This church is special for the devotees of the Virgin of Mercedes. In Cuba’s Santeria, the island’s syncretic religion merging Christianity and African religious themes, the Virgin is called Obatala. The nave of the church was very beautiful, and Lorenzo’s older son captured a nice photograph of me.
Our tour continued along a more significant road that touched a fragment of the original city wall, incorporating a city gate. The driver explained that a nightly ceremony at 9 P.M. commemorates the firing of a cannon to signal the time to close these gates. A little further on, we paused at the birth home of Jose Marti, a poet who is expansively venerated throughout Cuba for his vision of a Cuba for Cubans rather than as a colony to a more powerful country (you will probably know his words from Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera”). Soon we turned off the road (we had by then pinned a bus and a lorry behind our carriage). We passed through the former convent of Belen, which had housed the first university attended by Fidel Castro, back when it was run by Jesuits. The buildings surrounding the low archway over the road were filled with evidence of poverty, though the colors of laundry waving in the breeze were pretty.
We re-emerged to stride alongside the Parque de la Fraternidad, where many nations in the hemisphere had contributed busts of significant citizens. I snapped a photo of Lincoln, and shortly thereafter I saw a bust of Bolivar. The Parque adjoins El Capitolio, modeled upon the U.S. Capitol building except that it is larger. Remodeling is now underway so that the Cuban legislature can use the wing intended for the Legislative Branch. The ornate Gran Teatro de la Habana faces one end of the Capitolio. Its facade is really breath-taking.
From the Capitolio, we passed to Parque Central. The park includes a 1905 statue of Jose Marti in Carrara marble. The statue became a point of controversy in 1949 when inebriated U.S. Marines used it as a urinal while swinging from its arms on their way back from a bar. Fidel Castro used the incident to great effect to illustrate the contempt that the United States felt for Cubans. We soon passed Lorenzo’s favorite structure in Havana, the 1930 art deco Bacardi Building, and then we arrived at La Floridita, where Hemingway was frequently seen. We stopped for the obligatory photo next to his statue.
Soon we had reached a glass memorial structure protecting the “Granma,” a boat in which Fidel Castro and colleagues returned to Cuba from Mexico. The boat is so venerated in Cuba that a province has been given the name. Imagine the United States renaming one of its states “Grandmother!” Batista’s former executive mansion has become the Museum of the Revolution, including his office from which he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt through a hidden door. A tank parked right outside was part of a famous photograph of Fidel Castro, and next to that we saw a long line of citizens in line at the Spanish embassy; many Cuban citizens can apply for Spanish citizenship, as well. Looking toward the other side of the bay, we saw an equestrian statue of General Maximo Gomez, who was offered the presidency after the Cuban Independence War in 1898 but declined, saying that a someone born in Cuba should take the role instead.
After a pause to acquire some cold drinks, we were dropped at Plaza de Armas. For the first time, I felt we were in a place ready for tourists. The oldest permanent buildings in Cuba can be found on this site. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, el Templete, and the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales were glorious, and tours were available of the palace and castle. The plaza was ringed with vendors, many selling any book they could find featuring Che Guevara or Fidel Castro on the cover. La Fuerze was tremendous, and Lorenzo’s sons were over the moon to see the huge cannons. El Templete was styled like a Greek temple and featured a 500-year-old tree. Lorenzo confided that we could circumnavigate it six times on a particular date to be granted a wish.
We continued on foot toward the famed Havana Cathedral. We enjoyed the air conditioning of a huge convent complex that was being restored. I shooed the boys off an inviting bench, explaining that it was as old as the United States. We trudged onward to the Plaza de la Catedral. Sadly it was covered over for restoration, but we snapped a few photos anyway. Lorenzo decided we would take a pair of bicitaxis (pedicabs) to our lunch destination, Plaza Vieja. The boys really appreciated it when the drivers put on a show of strength to make it a race, though our driver was less-than-enthusiastic about the weight of two middle-aged men.
Sadly, our restaurant experience at Plaza Vieja was not a great one. I enjoyed my “malta” drink (I liked both “Hyper Malt” and “Bucanero”). When our limonadas arrived, we asked for napkins. The waitress didn’t like our tone. She explained that she was a professional and we didn’t need to tell her how to do her job (loudly and in Spanish, so this is a wild approximation). We didn’t feel welcome after that, and we cancelled our lunch order and departed. We took a pair of bicitaxis to a restaurant that was promisingly named “Don Lorenzo.”
The food was okay, though slow and expensive. Lorenzo was simmering, but we finished our meal and continued on our way. We walked some distance to the former medical school celebrating Dr. Finlay, who linked mosquitoes to yellow fever. We continued our walk back to the car and made our way to a dock warehouse that had been converted into a bazaar. The patrons were marketers par excellence, shaking maracas, calling to us in familiar terms, charming the children with simple toys, and even trying to guide the kids away from their parents. We took a breather at a nearby facility that had been transformed to a microbrewery. After another malta / Cuban Sprite / beer, we paused by some nineteenth century trains for more photos.
We returned to the warehouse bazaar, where I inspected some paintings that I might like for my house. I was quoted prices from 40 CUCs to 130 CUCs, but no painting felt quite right. Certainly, if you want a painting of an old American car in front of the Capitolio, the bazaar has you covered. I was looking for something a bit less common, though. Lorenzo bought a small truck, executed in wood, for his younger son and a domino set housed in a wooden big rig for the elder.
After we returned home, I opted for a quiet evening at the apartment while Lorenzo and Perla attended a birthday dinner from 8:30 PM to 2:30 AM!