A Broad Abroad in Cuba
Cuba, sí! For my 50th birthday
(well, a month later), I went to Cuba! My husband and I had originally
talked about going to Chilé and renting motorcycles to celebrate my half
century, and I still want to do that someday, but I realized that, right
now, I'm just not in shape for that. And with USA-Cuba relations changing so
rapidly, I wanted to see Havana now, before the hoards of tourists show up,
and write about it. I also have a lot of professional interests in Cuba
regarding the work of the United Nations and NGOs, particularly regarding
women's empowerment, domestic violence, Internet access and literacy, and on
and on - but I'll write about that elsewhere.
Using guidance from Lonely
Planet's Thorn Tree community, as I've done for so
many trips before, I booked our flights, our guest house in Havana,
and a guide for the first day in Cuba. We used a 15 year-old Lonely Planet
guidebook - that was a bit of a mistake, as some crucial info was outdated,
particularly ALL public transport info, but it was mostly okay. I had bought
it when I lived in Germany,
thinking I would be going to Cuba from there at some point.
Highlights of our trip before the details of such, for those that don't like
to read travelogues and just want the key points to help them on their own
- Walking around La Habana Vieje (Old Havana, or Old Town). Not just the
usual tourist streets, areas already being prepped for hoards of
tourists, but lots of side streets.
- Vedado. This is the neighborhood where we stayed, and it doesn't get
much tourist attention; it's where most tourists just sleep. But we
found it fascinating and worth one full day of touring on its own.
- Hemingway's Havana Estate, Finca Vigía. My dream compound, to pay my
respects to a place that cultivated genius.
- Necrópolis Cristobal Colon, a massive, historic cemetery in Vedado
with around a million people and amazing statues and crypts.
- The antique cars. Oh, yeah, they are awesome.
- The Cuban people. So, so welcoming and nice.
- The music. It's just as wonderful as you imagine, and it's everywhere
in La Habana Vieje.
- The history. So much of it is similar to that of the USA, and you feel
the people and events of year's past everywhere.
We had six full days in Havana - and it was one day too long. I wish we'd
spent one of those days visiting the countryside, or made our trip one day
shorter. But other than that, I wouldn't have changed a thing.
- The lack of things. It was heart-breaking to see the lack of
groceries, lack of clothing stores, lack of so many things we take for
granted elsewhere, including lack of opportunity. You see the effects of
this on the people - and if you don't, you frighten me.
- The dogs and cats on the street. Horrible. Info later on how to help
- The lines at the money change offices at the airport. WOW. Bring a
book to read!
- The amount of time it took to get to Havana from Oregon - and to get
back home. That's two full days of my life I'll never get back, crammed
into tiny capsules. Shame on the airlines for their continuing efforts
to squeeze more money out of us with micro spaces.
- The trash everywhere outside
of Old Havana. Trash amid greenery depresses me.
- Some of the bathrooms. Oye veh...yikes.
And did I get it right, to go now, when it's more difficult and more
expensive for people from the USA, than to wait a year, when things are
going to be easier and probably cheaper as the embargo lifts. If I had any
doubts of that, I had none on the last day, when TWO cruise ships spilled
their vast numbers onto the streets of Old Havana, and our quaint historic
town was overwhelmed with hoards of tourists. A taste of things to come.
businesses I strongly recommend if you go to Cuba:
Some tips if you go to Cuba - based on our experience in February 2016 (and
these may not be valid in a year - things are changing fast!):
- A fantastic bar and restaurant - La Farmacia, in Habana Vieja. It's
on the corner of Aguiar and Peña Pobre - the last block of Aguair before
the Parque Martires next to the waterfront. We loved just sitting for a
couple of hours, me drinking daiquiris (they are the BEST). The food is
affordable and delicious, the staff is oh-so-nice. It was our
Farmacia is on Facebook and on
- Terrific patio with great Cuban jazz at the Hotel Sevilla, on Unli
Animas, next to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Granma Memorial.
I loved it because, unlike all the other places we saw, it wasn't
crowded at all, and the music was freakin' FANTASTIC. Daiquiris are
good, but not as good as at La Farmacia.
- Fantastic taxi driver - Juan Diaz. His email is email@example.com, and
his number is (+53) 05 296 7379. Delightful, doesn't try to rip you off,
super friendly, and prides himself on being reliable. He drives a Lada.
Adored him. He speaks a little English and maybe even some German.
- Another terrific driver, Victor, who can be booked through our guest
house host, Doña Berta (see below). Berta described him as "like
family," and she obviously adores him and trusts him. Very nice, very
- Doña Berta (never got a last name), who rents rooms in her large,
comfortable and well-situated flat as a casa
particular (guest house). She's half a block from the Habana
Libre hotel, a landmark easy to find and one every driver knows. We
booked her through a service, but you can book her directly by emailing
her at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling her land line at (+53) 78302164 or
móvil (mobile) at (+53) 58298464. Do NOT send her any attachments of ANY
kind via email! She accesses emsil via her phone, and she just can't
handle that much bandwidth! Her English is good enough for you to
contact her via email to find out rates and availability.
I did a lot of research once I was back in the states to find an NGO working
to help the situation for dogs and cats in
Cuba, because the situation for them is heart-breaking. I found The
Aniplant Project, Inc. (TAP), a nonprofit in the USA dedicated to the
protection of animals, and its primary activity is to support Aniplant
(Asociación Cubana para la Protección de Animales y Plantas) of Havana Cuba.
Aniplant is not part of the Cuban government and receives no financial help
from that government, but it is the only animal protection organization
permitted to function in Cuba. Aniplant's HQ is in Havana, but it provides
services throughout most parts of Cuba. In 2014 Aniplant sterilized over
5,000 dogs and cats in its traveling weekend clinics which move throughout
the country. I've made a small donation to TAP in support of dogs and cats
in Cuba, and I so, so hope you will do the same, and like
their Facebook page, to stay up-to-date on their work.
- Stick to small carry-ons! Our life was made oh-so-much easier for the
two full days of traveling because we could manage all of our luggage,
easily, ourselves, up and down steps or through acres of airports or
- We never needed CUP, the Cuban currency for locals - it's
all CUC now. The book fair folks weren't happen when that's all we
had, but they didn't overcharge us at that event that was, obviously,
not at all for tourists (more on that in the travelogue).
- If you want to have someone else to book your home stay, your guide,
your Spanish classes, your salsa dancing, your diving classes and
experiences, your art classes - really, anything and everything - I
recommend Rena at Experience
the Real Cuba. I've booked our trips ourselves everywhere, even
Egypt, but I was too scared to do it for Cuba. I shouldn't have been,
given what we did while there. If I were going to Cuba for the first
time and had wanted to take classes and have certain experiences, Rena
would definitely be the right
choice. Everything she did book for us - our home stay, our airport
transportation to our home stay, our casa
particular and our guide - were right on.
- Take a roll of toilet paper, per couple, for a stay of a week. You
will need more toilet paper in Cuba than you are given, even in your
guest house (and maybe even a hotel).
- Consider taking a small amount of coffee, as much as you think a
customs agent would allow, for your guest house host. Coffee is
expensive and very hard to get. It will better ensure you get more than
a cup a day with your breakfast.
- Bring any extra cloth bags or small day packs you want to get rid of
in Cuba; many people, including kids, carry all their belongings in
plastic bags, and appreciate such bags.
- Many restaurants and bars shut down from 4 to 7 p.m. They don't say
this on their doors, and the doors will still be unlocked and staff will
be inside, but they will wave you off, saying they are closed or out of
everything. If you want to experience Cuban night life, 4 to 7 p.m. is a
good time to go back to your room and nap.
If you want to skip my detailed narrative regarding my trip (sniff), you can
just look at the photos:
of our photos are here. Of course, we took way, way more. This is a
compilation of the best, from both Stefan's and my photos, except for
photos that were put into these other albums:
the classic car photos here. I know there are some folks only want
to see those. And some are bored by them.
are all the photos from Hemingway's estate. Got a little emotional
from the massive Havana historic cemetery, Necrópolis Cristobal
Colon, with more than 1 million people buried there. They have a place
just for baseball players and umpires, another just for firefighters,
another just for sailors, another just for journalists, and on and
And then there was a day when we went across the river to two historic
forts - but at the same time, a
massive festival was happening. The narrative will probably be more
interesting than the photos, which we took mostly to show the MADNESS...
not exactly a pleasant day, but a very insightful one.
So, really, why Cuba? Well...
I've heard about Cuba all of my life. I've never had any desire to go to any
part of the Caribbean save one part: Cuba. I'm a history nut, and for 50
years, Cuba has loomed larger in the history of the USA, for me, than any
other country in the Western Hemisphere, by far. Its history is deeply
intertwined with that of the USA, with Teddy Roosevelt and yellow journalism
and the mob and movie stars and Nixon and Kennedy and Cuban-Americans and
even now, regarding Guantanamo. It's "that Communist country", that "Soviet
satellite" - but I just knew it couldn't be all bad, because Ricky Ricardo,
Lucy's husband, was Cuban, and he was on TV every day when I was a kid, and
he didn't seem like a bad person. I don't like modern jazz, but I melt at
Cuban jazz - even before Buena Vista Social Club became such a phenom in the
USA. I do not romanticize communism, and I'm repulsed by suppression of the
individual, oppression of any people, censorship and imprisonment for
dissent - that's the dark side of Cuba I don't deny and that I absolutely
deplore. But I also have to respect and admire volunteer-driven
Cuban literacy programs and the country's health care system. I also
am amused at how this little tiny country just holds on and on, in the most
dire of circumstances, and sticks it to the most powerful country on Earth.
Maybe it's because it's forbidden fruit. Maybe because I don't know many
people at all that have been to Cuba. Maybe it's because I watched the
Conan special from Cuba and laughed hysterically and also thought
Havana looked amazing. Maybe I want to shock people by saying, "When I was
in Cuba..." I just don't know, exactly, the answer to "Why, Cuba." When
people asked my Mom back in Kentucky why I went, she said, "Because it's
there." As I said earlier, I wanted to see this Cuba, before it gets
over-run with tourists. Maybe the end of the embargo will transform the
island for the better, rather than taking anything good away, and lift so
many of its people out of poverty, and give so many people, particularly the
marginalized members of Cuban society, particularly Afro-Cubans, much more
economic opportunity. Maybe all the change will be for the better. I hope to
return in a few years and find out.
As usual, just like for most trips by plane, whether for work or fun, we
were up at 2:30 a.m. to get ready and drive to PDX for our 6 a.m. flight.
Such is life on the West Coast. We were all packed up before we went to bed
- just had to grab our luggage and the food I'd prepared for the flights,
because airplane food is so expensive and usually so bad, if it's available
at all, and we would have no time to eat in Salt Lake City. I said goodbye
to Lucy and Max, who were terribly confused at our middle-of-the-night
activity. I had one small suitcase and a large purse as my carry-ons, and
Stefan had just one suitcase - but with an empty small daypack inside, in
case we accumulated too much stuff whilst in Cuba (we did). I packed my
Tevas (hiking sandles) to wear most of the time, flip flops to wear around
our apartment, and wore my hiking shoes for the trip there. And I counted on
being able to wear outfits that I brought at least twice, so I could keep
what I packed to a minimum. Someone's already commented on my
"cute dresses" in my photos, so I guess I chose well; I just get so
tired of seeing me in shorts and t-shirts all the time in warm weather
The flight to Salt Lake City was uneventful, but at the SLC airport, Stefan
immediately went to find a smoking room and I started looking for my
passport - and couldn't find it. I'd had it to get on the first plane back
in Portland. Panic ensued while I looked and waited for him to finish his
cigarettes and get back so he could watch our things while I sprinted back
to our arrival gate. It turned out that my passport had, somehow, fallen in
our food bag. Ugh. I hate travel panic.
I've never lost my passport before. Ugh. It took me two hours to calm down.
The flight to Mexico City was relatively uneventful - just the usual
way-too-crowded seats (airlines should be ashamed of themselves at the way
they have packed people together on planes). Glad I brought the food from
home - we had no time between take off in Portlandia and landing in Mexico
to ever get food. I kept reading my 15-year-old Lonely
Planet Cuba book, and was getting nervous, with all of its dire
warnings about Americans going to Cuba - in contrast to what Americans say
now on the Lonely
Planet's Thorn Tree community, including a guy from Portland I met via
the group who went in November and assured me it was easy peasy. I was
anxiety ridden by the time we landed in Mexico, envisioning me being turned
away from our flight and men in dark suits and dark glasses whisking me
I had thought the three-hour layover in Mexico City would be too long, but
it turned out to be the perfect
amount of time for me to get some Mexican pesos, for us to stand in line for
our boarding passes and then find out we couldn't get them until we got our
Cuban travel visas at another place in the airport, for us to get those
travel visas (you have to fill it out correctly the first time - if you
don't, you have to buy another one!), for us to have a late lunch, for us to
stand in various lines and for Stefan to smoke several times. By the time we
were done with all that, it was time to leave for Havana! No Pope-related
delays whatsoever (he came to the Mexico City airport later for a final mass
and departure). The AeroMexico gate staff were stunned that I already had my
State Department form filled out - I downloaded it from their web site! No
form, no admission to the flight!
At some point, I realized I was wearing the same shirt that I wore for my
passport photo. It's this shirt I bought back
in 1996 for a cross country road trip, and it's a perfect travel shirt
- a bit over-sized, and quite multicolored so that, if you spill something
on it, it's hard to see the stains. I so regret having my passport photo
taken in it, because it seems like, every time I show my passport, I realize
I'm wearing that damn same shirt at the time.
The flight to Cuba was somewhat better than the previous flights because the
seats were bigger and the flight was shorter. I was completely
anxiety-ridden until we took off, waiting for men in uniforms to come drag
me off the plane. I kept imaging someone or something preventing me from
this dream trip. On the flight, we realized alcohol was free. Oh, how I wish
I could have imbibed! But I was just too nervous, and wanted to have all my
wits about me until I was past immigration in Havana. Stefan passed up
drinks as well. I was really sick of being in the middle seat by then, as I
had been on every flight that day, especially with the two Russians in front
of us decided to push their seats back as far as possible and get really
drunk. Jerks. Our flight was full of Chinese people going to Cuba to catch a
cruise, and the woman in our row wouldn't move to one of the many
empty seats throughout the plane, which would have given her an empty seat
next to her and, therefore, one next to us. I was so tired of feeling so
We landed in Havana, and it was almost 10 at night. I
was in Cuba. I must have had the goofiest smile ever on my face. We
got off the plane outside and then crowded around a tiny opening in a
sliding door to get into the building to the security check point. I felt
quite prepared, because the
Havana airport web site has an English section that has very detailed,
specific info about arrivals (impressive!). We looked for the Assistur
counter, to buy health insurance for our stay in Cuba, but it was nowhere to
be found. We'd been told repeatedly, in our book and on the Thorn Tree, that
we had to have insurance or they wouldn't let us into the country - but
there was nothing. Nada. So we chanced it and got in line for immigration
and, surprisingly, neither of us got asked for proof of insurance. I wasn't
thrilled about not having insurance - I would have much preferred to buy it
- but there seemed to be nothing to do about it. The airport border guards
were almost all women. When the immigration lady handed me back by passport,
I wondered - did she stamp it? Later, I found out: no, she didn't. Stefan
got a stamp, but I didn't. There had been an unleashed dog out on the tarmac
with us as we deplaned, and of course, I was worried, but it turned out to
be a dog that seems to be taken care of by an employee - I saw them together
in the building later.
The customs agents were almost all women as well, wearing sand-brown
uniforms, with the tiniest skirts or shorts ever - not sure which - and many
were wearing black lacy fishnet panty hose. I felt like I was in some fetish
porn movie... and I did not want to be.
We got through customs just fine, then went out to the crowded lobby and
found our driver, Victor, no prob at all - just as Rena at Experience
the Real Cuba promised, he was standing with a little sign with my
name on it. Yes, it's a chaotic airport, at least for arrivals, but
honestly, I've seen way worse (Delhi!
Dubai!). Then we stood in the long, long, painfully slow line outside to get
Cuban pesos, while Victor sat oh-so-patiently nearby - he's obviously seen
this before. The line was beyond slow. It took more than an hour. No one was
in a hurry. I had a nice chat with a woman in front of me who is the clone
of Lis M___ - Stefan agreed, and we remained freaked out by her the entire
time in line, because her mannerisms were the same as Lis's as well. When I
wasn't talking to Lis clone, I also tried not to stare at some of the women
around me, dressed in clothes I haven't seen since Kyiv
- I call it the anything-goes-to-be-sexy look. All I could think is, how can
you wear panty hose, even fish nets, in this heat?!? I also watched cars go
by, and I was, at first, disappointed: most of the cars passing by were
newish Chinese and Korean cars. But later, as we were leaving the airport, I
saw a row of classic
cars in the parking lot, and we never stopped seeing such - I mean,
come on, who doesn't want to see those
classic cars in Havana?! Our driver took us in his 1980s Lada, a
Soviet car that's about as well made as you think it is, spewing gasoline,
to our guest house in Havana. We just stared out the window, barely
speaking, because WE ARE IN CUBA OH MY GADS WE ARE IN CUBA!!!
I was surprised at how many propaganda billboards we passed along the way,
glorifying the revolution. I had wanted to see that as much as the cars! I'm
spellbound by political
propaganda posters... the memes of the past... It was too dark for
photos, sorry. We went by Revolution Square, all lit up and looking
beautiful, and Victor started pointing out various points of interest, which
I so appreciated. We got to our guest house, Doña Berta met us at the door,
we went up to the third floor to her apartment, and almost immediately, we
went to bed - we were just too dead for anything else. Thankfully, our room
had air conditioning, and the bed was comfy. And it was so, so good...
Day 1 (Thursday, our
first full day of touring)
We were up at 7:30 a.m. I couldn't believe how well I had slept! Our
room had a full sized bed, a twin bed, and a bathroom of our own. Not
much of a view, but honestly, I didn't care - I don't vacation to sit
in my room, just to sleep there! There were two Chinese students in the
other apartment-within-an-apartment, there to attend classes at the nearby
university, but we rarely heard them and saw each of them only once in our
entire week. Our
breakfast, every day at 8:30 a.m., was pineapple, bananas (usually),
toasted bread, butter (just two slices!), eggs, blended juice, strong coffee
and warm milk. Our guide arrived soon after we finished breakfast. Eddy is
very young, in his 20s, and trained as a mechanical engineer. He was also
very well-trained as a tourist guide, a profession he much prefers to the
one he formally studied for. I had read up as much as I could on Cuban
history via my 15-year-old Lonely Planet guide, and that really helped in
understanding what he was telling us - and he pretty much told me all the
highlights I'd read in the book - impressive!
walked two kilometers (more than a mile) to Revolution
Plaza (Plaza de la Revolución), passing by an
impressive political painting on the side of a government building on
the way. It was a gorgeous day, and I was exuberant. There were classic
cars everywhere full of tourists, and I could hear Elvis singing "It's
Now or Never" pouring from the sound system from one of them. I
was overwhelmed. I could have gotten on a plane right then and come
home and been satisfied. The photo at left is a photo I have DREAMED of
having taken for years. We took SO many in the plaza.
was super hot, so I asked if we could go somewhere for water. He took us
to a bus station, where we got to see a dusty model of a camello
or camel bus - Eddy told us the name, and Stefan knew what they were.
These used to be the mass transit buses of Cuba, massive beasts, pulled
by semi trucks. Now, Cuban buses are as modern as most cities in the
USA that have mass transit.
Then Eddy flagged down a
car for us to head to La Habana Vieje - Old Havana - and we snapped
along the way - obligatory
photo of chickens in the street, and official
Cuban political propaganda graffiti, of course. We were dropped off at
Capitolio Nacional, which is being completely renovated to eventually
house the Cuban parliament again, as it did before the revolution (it was
housing the National Library of Science and Technology for the past several
years). Unfortunately, we couldn't go in - I really wanted to see the 49
metric ton 17m bronze statue of "an effeminate Jupiter" my old guide book
walked into Old Town and it just FELT SO GOOD BECAUSE I WAS IN HAVANA.
We passed La
Floridita, Hemingway's favorite bar for Daiquiris, now overrun with
tourists. We snaked our way up
and down the streets, buying a map of Havana from the tourist office
by and through plazas, restaurants, charming
little boutique hotels, hidden
gardens and, still mostly, housing, using just a block away from a
tourist street. People
live in La Habana Vieje, and it felt a bit intrusive to be walking up
and down the streets of their homes. UNESCO
and UNDP are undertaking massive amounts of restorations and
improvements in the area, in anticipation of the flood of tourists, and
that's providing much-needed repairs to the historic area and employment to
a statue in Havana that one is to grip and stand on in a certain way and
thereby receive... I dunno. Luck? Fame? Who knows. I
grabbed. I stopped for sugar cane juice along the way - much less
sweeter than I was expecting, and as delicious as I'd hoped for. We also
stopped at the oh-so-charming Hotel
Frailes, for mojitos and chatter (I paid - instead of tipping our
guide, I got him drunk and fed him). It's
a monk-themed boutique hotel and a bar. We studied
the map, got more advice from Eddy, drank too much, and then, more
sight-seeing and, as the afternoon got later, it was time for an early
supper. I was tired and hungry and not thinking and just kept saying yes to
whatever the waitress wanted to bring us. Our bill was almost 100 American
dollars, which for three people, with alcohol, isn't horrible,
but it was more than we were expecting, so we took better care the rest of
the trip regarding food. But I have to say: the food was delicious.
They served me a bean soup that I am still dreaming about.
Speaking of food, the food in Havana was good or great for most of the rest
of the trip - we'd been warned that the food was not good in Cuba, but we
enjoyed most of it - and we ate at a few official restaurants, not just
paladars, which used to be the name for small family-run businesses, but now
seems to mean anything more like a really nice restaurant in the USA or
Europe and catering specifically to tourists. As Eddy warned us, indeed,
sometimes the service at government-supported places wasn't great, but we
found the food was good and, quite frankly, sometimes, we liked them better
than paladars, which seemed, at times, unreasonably expensive.
We took a taxi back to our guest house and took a much-needed two-hour nap.
Then we headed over to the Habana Libre hotel, just half a block away, to
buy cokes and water in the little convenience store there. Not sure if I
needed to, but I decided to brush my teeth with bottled water, so we kept
our little fridge stocked with such. We cleaned up and then walked to the
Malecon, the water front street, watching water smash against and over the
wall onto the sidewalk. We also passed lots of groups of people all gathered
on the steps or border walls around various hotels and phone shops along the
way; they were all busily typing, reading or talking on laptops and smart
phones. It's how they get Internet: they buy time at the shop or hotel, and
then gather outside for access for an hour or two.
We mozied over to the Hotel
Nacional de Cuba, an historic, legendary hotel that, before the
revolution, hosted Nat King Cole, Johnny Weissmuller, Winston Churchill,
Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nelson Rockefeller, Spencer
Tracy, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney, and Eartha
Kitt, among others. Turns out there's no public access from the Malecón, but
the security guard sweetly let us walk up the private drive to the hotel. As
we walked up, a man was testing his sound system in his car parked at the
bottom of a cliff to our right, and at first, we walked with beautiful
romantic music accompanying us. It was perfect. Then rap music broke out and
ruined the moment... the hotel was, indeed, beautiful. We
sat outside in the back and I imagined all those famous people over
the years. We paid for our overpriced drinks and walked around the grounds -
it was a lovely, but windy, night.
We left and walked slowly back towards our guest house, hoping to find an
upstairs, outdoor bar along the way. Nope. Everything that was outside was
right on the street, and we really wanted something a bit more protected. We
ended up getting beers at a sad little cafe across from the Habana Libre,
then walked home. We were DEAD. And sun-burned - we'd forgot to put
sunscreen on areas other than our faces. Ooops.
Day 2 (Friday)
After lathering ourselves in sunscreen, we decided to go to the home of
Ernest Hemingway outside of Havana, in San Francisco de Paula. The estate is
Vigía, meaning "lookout house". He lived there from mid 1939 to 1960,
and while there, he wrote For Whom the
Bell Tolls, one of my very favorite books, The
Old Man and the Sea, which we all had to read in high school, and A
Movable Feast. As
depression, illness and chronic pain overtook him, Hemingway left Cuba in
mid-1960, and the Cuban home that he had lived in for over twenty years.
When he left in 1960, he had intended to return - but it was not to be.
Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho in July 1961.
The home is maintained, in part, by the Finca
Foundation, based in Boston. The home is filled with original
furniture, artwork, china, fishing rods, animal trophies, guns, typewriters,
and other objects collected by the author and his wives. His phonograph
still works. Closets contain the family's clothing, jewelry, and personal
memorabilia. Approximately 18% of the more than 90,000 books on his many
shelves have writing in the margins.
were a LOT
of tourists at first, brought by the massive Transtur tourist buses,
but I was there for the long haul, and knew if we were patient, we might
get a break in the crowds. And we did. We stood in line a few times, but
just held back for others, so we could casually, slowly look through windows
and doors and see things. You aren't allowed into the house, of course. I
loved the estate. So
many books. By the way: Hemingway
loved his dogs.
I took time to sit down on the patio, far from the tourists, and write in my
travel note journal. Usually, I use it just to write bullet points that I
use later to write a travelogue, like the very one you are reading now. But
here's what I wrote as I sat there on hallowed ground:
beautiful. Peaceful. I'm surrounded by trees. Hemingway was here. For 20
years. How marvelous. But just outside the tree-covered estate: squalor.
There was a rush of tourists for about 30 minutes, frantically taking
photos, crowding around windows and doors, and then, they all left on
their buses, and now - quiet. Everyone
here is taking many photos. We have taken many photos. The same photos
are posted again and again on the Internet. I wonder as I look
at these people: have they read Hemingway? Do they think of him here,
writing? Fishing? Drinking? Talking with famous visitors? Of Ava Gardner
swimming naked in the pool? I wish I knew what books are on his many
bookshelves, what alcohol was in the bottles in the living room on the
cocktail cart. I wish I could take a bath in Hemingway's bathtub. I would
like to see my red birthday toes in that bathtub. I'm going to call my
memoirs Hemingway's Bathtub. I try to imagine this place with no people -
with just peace and laughter of drunken guests. Anne Marino is heavy on my
mind, to the point of tears. She should be here, and we should be sitting
here in the shade, drinking rum from my flask, making crude jokes.
Enrique, our driver that we got at the Habana Libre, overcharged us for the
trip to Fina Vigia. But I decided not to care, not to be angry. We had
wanted to try to take mass transit here, but my guidebook is horribly out of
date in regard to mass transit information - who knows where we would have
ended up. Also, it was a really fascinating ride to the estate and back,
seeing the other Havana, the one most tourists never see. And it was my only
chance on this trip to see banana groves, since we didn't book a day trip to
anywhere outside the metro area. It's my first glimpse of true jungle.
Stefan saw a camello
during our ride back, but I didn't.
We went back to Old Town, and wandered along a line of used book sellers. I
Escuela, Libro Segunda de Lectura, Serie de Libros Cubanos de
Texto - a second grade reader, in Spanish, from 1941 and produced in
Cuba. I bought it because I LOVE old text books, and I can actually read it!
We strolled around, and saw a banner at Iglesia y Monasterio de San
Franciscode Asisi for a De Vinci-related exhibit that had Stefan very
excited - but the room where the exhibit is housed was closed for
renovation. Sad trombone sound... There was also a concert going on inside
the church, so we couldn't go in. So, instead, we walked around back of it
and strolled the grounds, and found a
tiny Orthodox church behind
the church - it's all tree covered and a good place to take a break from the
hot sun, providing a feeling of seclusion in the middle of a busy city.
We found a
local dive for a terrific, inexpensive lunch. There was a mix of
locals and tourists - it was perfect. We noticed a lot of places put
specials and their prices on the wall where such is easy to see - it made
choosing and ordering way, way easy.
Then we went to the City Museum, housed in the Palacio
de los Capitanes Generales, on the Plaza de Armas. There's not a ton
to see, and what there is to see really isn't all that fascinating - the
building itself is why you pay to go inside. The most interesting thing was
the three sarcophagi
for cholera victims, that were recovered from the sea, where they had
been dumped oh-so-long ago. The bathrooms are - some of the most disgusting
I've ever seen... But the guides at the museum were plentiful, were super,
duper nice, and so happy about President Obama coming for a visit in March.
The last and only USA president to visit Cuba while in office was Calvin
Coolidge, who traveled there in January 1928 (I didn't know this -
found out after I came back to the USA). Former President Jimmy Carter
visited in March 2011 (I knew that).
We left the museum at 5, and my brain was dead. When I'm on vacation, my
brain checks out between 4:30 and 5. I am DONE. If I've walked all day, I
have trouble forming sentences around this time. I can't make decisions.
Questions that require decision-making almost bring me to tears. All I want
to do is sit and drink something and relax. We went to two different cafes,
but neither had coffee, and both seemed more closed than open. We tried the
Oriente Cafe, which had no coffee - but did have Cuban cola and beer. So I
started with cola and then switched to beer. And I got my second wind. We
stayed there until nightfall, just drinking and talking and people watching.
It was a sweet evening. We left after two and a half hours and headed to the
waterfront, and took a really old
Chevy to Habana Libre, where, sadly, the convenience store was out of Cristal
beer - "mañana." Only Heineken, which Stefan LOATHES. So we went back
to the sad little bar across the street and got three cans to go. We sat on
the porch of our flat, eating Pringles and chocolate cookies, and drinking
our beer. I looked in our guidebook for a possible day trip out of Havana,
to give us an experience in the countryside, but could find nothing. We
could have gone to the Habana Libre and paid for Internet access and looked
for something more up-to-date, we could have emailed the woman who organized
our trip, but ultimately, we decided to forget it and just stick to Havana
for the rest of the trip.
And we were in bed before 10 - which is our usual. Because we're old.
I realized that I was really glad we were staying in Vedado, rather than Old
Town. Before the trip, I was disappointed, but I think, for our first trip,
it was best - Vedado is very quiet, and it is nice to get away from most of
the tourists at the end of every day. Plus, it's pretty. Since we weren't
interested in going dancing at night, it really was best for us. My LOL
moment came when I found out that our guest house was not only a few doors
down from the Methodist Church, but we were just around the corner of the
Baptist church as well! Between the Baptists and the Methodists... just like
And this is continued in part 2.
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