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Published: January 17th 2013
What’s new in Havana? Not much actually.
Imagine taking a trip back in time….where the time on a clock actually is not a major factor, but living life to its fullest takes on an importance all its own. You look at the buildings and the vehicles on the streets and come to the conclusion that time has almost stood still…and for the most part it has. Welcome to Havana, Cuba.
When you get off the plane in Havana you look at the clock and it says 1960, time seems unimportant. A bit of history
In the late 1950’s, Fidel Castro and his band of socialists took control of this island in the Caribbean supposedly in an effort to thwart the Batista regime, which was in the throes of major corruption. Havana was being infiltrated by the mob from the United States and was threatening to turn this beautiful island into a hedonist brothel. Castro’s efforts succeeded, all businesses became property of the government and life changed dramatically for all Cubans. For some, escape to the United States, Spain or other countries provided safe haven, especially if you had the means. For
simply a breathtaking automobile
everyone else, the revolution placed everyone on somewhat equal footing, as citizens no longer had private ownership.
The United States failed to overthrow Castro in 1962 in the highly publicized “Bay of Pigs” fiasco and the U.S.S.R. partnered with Cuba and parked nuclear missiles less than one hundred miles from the U.S. The ensuing 50 years saw a long-standing U.S. embargo on almost everything. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late 20th
century plunged the country into a deep depression, yet the spirit of the people remains, just as it had through the decades of Spanish rule and continues to shine through despite all obstacles in it’s way. It is a seemingly tireless “joie de vie” that can be seen in their faces and their actions….welcome to Havana, where the music and the spirit of Cuba lives on. Americans and a visa
For Americans, travel to Cuba was prohibited for many decades. If you wanted to travel to Cuba, you first had to go to Canada, Mexico or some other country in order to enter Cuba. Tales were told of offering customs officials something akin to a small bribe not to stamp your
Ambos Mundos Hotel
Where Hemmingway lived for 7 years.
passport. Fortunately for us, the current administration has somewhat eased the travel restrictions and we were allowed to enter on a “people to people” visa.
For us, this was a perfect opportunity to visit a land that was “forbidden fruit” for U.S. citizens. Leaving the U.S. from Miami to enter Cuba was legal but still felt “strange”. We giggled from time to time as so few Americans can legally travel to Cuba that we felt like we were slipping in.
Our arrival provided us with a bit of apprehension. Growing up in the Cold War era, we were basically indoctrinated that while Cuba was not necessarily an enemy of the U.S. (due to it’s size), it was essentially “persona non grata.” Even though it was some 90 miles from Key West, it essentially did not exist in the minds of most Americans, with the exception of Cuban-American contingent in Miami.
All fears were dispelled immediately upon arrival. We were made to feel welcome by all that we encountered. Staying in Old Havana put us in the heart of the tourist section of the city, but also allowed to drink in the flavor of the history and people
of the city. On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated with both foreigners and locals alike by visiting the establishments on Obisbo St. and imbibing Mojitos, Cubatas and beer, all while listening to the many bands playing in the bars.
Seems that one of the local customs is to throw water out of windows above the street as a sign of good luck. We managed to catch some of this luck on our way back to the hotel. Not one of our favorite local customs….. Music
The Old Havana air is filled with the sounds of Latin music and the aromas of Cuban cigars wafting down the streets. Nary an establishment or bar is without the wonderful sounds of Cuban music. The musicians also circulate among the customers trying to sell their CDs or soliciting tips. Either way, they do fairly well considering Cuban standards, where physicians, engineers and other well-schooled people can only expect about $50 per month. We’re told that many well educated Cubans work in the tourist service industry, as they can be much more successful financially than in their “chosen” profession. The musicians play wonderful music and
Pitched seven shutout innings.
are many self-taught. Antique Automobiles
This is also a great place to see older automobiles. As a result of the embargo from the U.S., you can see a plethora of pre-1960 automobiles, many in very good shape due to some very creative mechanics. Most have either been re-painted, had a new (but not American) engine installed, or both. They may spew some smoke, but an estimated 60,000 are still running according to some. Amazing. You can also see some late model Soviet machines out on the street. It is a rarity to see either a new vehicle or an expensive one as in theory, no one could possibly afford a car of this stature. It does make you wonder if antique car enthusiasts will flood to Cuba when the borders open and buy up these beautiful and amazing cars. Hopefully, the Cubans will be aware of the value and bargain wisely if they decide to sell.
Many or most of these cars are now taxis for both locals and tourist. Evening entertainment
Now sometimes you are at the right place at the right time and benefit from it out of shear
a ride in history
luck. Our good fortune came in the person of Gerardo, a cab driver. We had arranged to go the Tropicana with a cab driver that we had used to tour part of Havana the day before. She even called that evening telling us that she would pick us up at the appointed time. Alas, she did not show. After standing on the curb waiting for her more than 15 minutes past her expected arrival, we took the first available cab and met the most wonderful Cuban gentleman. He provided us transportation to the Tropicana, found us after the show and we utilized his services the next two evenings. He was timely, friendly and ensured our safety.
The Tropicana was an unbelievable show that involved singing, dancing, acrobatics and the most innovative costumes since the glory days of Las Vegas. The two-hour show was well choreographed and well performed by the large troupe of performers. We left amazed by the performance, dazzling costumes and the energy.
The very next evening, we went to a baseball game and Gerardo joined us. For the non-fan of this sport, we need to let you know that baseball is extremely popular in Cuba.
Posing for tourist photos
Hoping for a couple of pesos.
It is told that Fidel Castro once had the opportunity for a tryout with the New York Yankees. His love of the game no doubt has influenced this nation, which definitely has a thirst for the game.
We sat among some 20,000 fans in a half-filled stadium as they thrilled the local fans with a well-played game. Although the game is the same as it is played in the United States, the milieu makes all the difference, as we watched the fans cheer, blow small horns incessantly as drums played all while local vendors plied their culinary treats to the noisy crowd. In America, the scoreboard and sound system treats the fans to many sights and sounds. Here, the crowd entertains itself in an almost throwback way during the game. A most enjoyable evening.
We got a taste of the finer arts the very next evening, as we attended the Nutcracker at the Teatro Nationale de Habana. The performance was strong in the dated, but well-designed theater. The dancers excelled at their craft, backed by a full orchestra in what was a delightful performance of a classic. The crowd was enthusiastic in their applause of the troupe’s work.
We left Havana the next morning somewhat sad, as we knew we might never see it this way again. Sooner or later, the regime will change and more foreign investment dollars will float in, most likely from their neighbors to the north. The thought of Starbucks on many corners along with MacDonald’s and American hotel chains may rob this nation of the very essence of what makes it so terribly unique, its Cuban soul.
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