The inside of the 1955 Chevrolet is like a spaceship. The car is painted blue and white and the interior matches, with blue neon lights that come on at night inside the cars speakers, casting a cool, calming glow over everything. The first time I climb into the back seat, already occupied by two giggling women, I have this strange feeling we are on our way to a sock hop. Each silver dial gleams, and there is enough room across the two bench seats for three people to sit most comfortably; in fact, you could easily live in this car. The immense trunk holds our giant duffel bags filled with gifts for the extended Cuban family in Havana, along with everyone’s overnight cases. Everything fits with room to spare.
I sit beside our driver, Armandito, flanked on the other side by Tío (Uncle) Arcadio, a slightly rakish-looking elderly gentleman who everyone has taken to calling “mi novio” (my beloved). In the back, my friend sits between her prima (cousin), Ofelia, who is one of the sweetest ladies I have ever met, and her Tío Pancho, a sentimental, keen-eyed fellow who looks to me like he could be US Navy, Retired. We are on our way to the beach outside of Trinidad, a mere ten minutes away.
A winding road deposits us at the water’s edge, and we all troop down a short sandy dune to put our toes in the water. I glance down the beach at a series of wooden and straw tiki umbrellas permanently nestled in the sand, and at the lovely curve of pristine white beach and turquoise water. Despite the beckoning beauty of the scene, we are completely alone except for a vacationing German couple who kindly take a group photo of us. Wandering up the beach a few yards, I find sandwashed glass, coral fossils, and tiny orange shells. It is clear that beachcombers are rare here.
We drive about two hours before stopping again, through wide open countryside that is green, lush, and entirely unaltered except for the road that has been carved through the surprisingly non-tropical plant life. Everyone talks at once, shouting over each other until I feel that I have loudspeakers in each ear. Despite not knowing the language, I am enjoying myself immensely, the beautiful weather and the warmth of this family combining to make me feel at home.
Eventually, we pull in at a 24-hour restaurant and rest stop that could easily fit right in on one of the Hawaiian Islands. The bathroom, like most that I see in Cuba, is very clean. We ignore the restaurant in favor of the packaged goods we have brought from the US. I feel that I am getting to contribute for the first time as I make everyone sandwiches of Bumblebee tuna, mayonnaise, and Kings Hawaiian sweet rolls, and slice up vacuum sealed packages of salami and cheese. Despite the complexity of having to find a can opener, it is clear that this gesture is much appreciated over the typical chicken available at the rest stop. We buy local beer, and I taste both Crystál and Bucanero for the first time, and pronounce them delicious, though I prefer mi novio’s Crystál.
We set off again, and despite making excellent time, it is dusk when we arrive at the outskirts of Havana. We drop Tío Pancho off at the family home, which was built by his parents and where my girlfriend’s mother and uncles grew up. The exterior of the house is fairly decrepit, but inside, I am charmed by the high ceilings, ornate crown molding, and ceiling roses in what was clearly the home of an upper-middle-class family when it was built in the early 20th century. Now, however, each problem goes unfixed due to lack of funds, and the repairs pile up, just as in almost all the houses in Havana.
After receiving a very warm welcome, we empty half of one of the large duffel bags giving out gifts. They urge us to stay, apologizing that they have nothing to offer us, but we wave off their protests and hug everyone profusely before heading out. I have been shown around the home, introduced to the dogs, and, despite the language barrier, generally treated as if they all knew me for years.
A short ride later, we say goodbye to Armandito for a couple of hours at Ofelia’s, where we will spend the night. As I come up the narrow staircase to their apartment, the top two floors of a house, I am greeted by a man with movie star good looks and a prominent jaw, his grey hair swept back like Ricardo Montalban on Fantasy Island. This is José Luis, Ofelia’s husband, and he takes a deep breath. In a loud voice, he slowly says to me in perfect English: “Hello! It is nice to meet you! Welcome to our home!” He has learned these phrases just for me, and his earnest delivery brings tears to my eyes.
Inexplicably, José Luis has chosen one of my favorite singers, Nora Jones, from his small CD collection, and her voice drifts from the other room. He painstakingly tells me his favorite is Elvis Presley, and since the holidays have just begun, I begin to sing “Blue Christmas” in my best Elvis impersonation. His face lights up and he dashes from the room, and in a few moments Elvis begins to warble the song himself from the stereo.
The front door opens and a pair of warm, friendly eyes appear, belonging to Ofelia’s brother, Ismael. An environmental engineer, Ismael is my official bridge to Cuba. He speaks passable English and knows a lot about Havana. He is joining us for dinner, followed by a nighttime walking tour of the old city.
Dinner is almost ready, and I am invited to make the salad. I jump in, happy to be of service in this unexpectedly warm environment. I have requested spinach, and Ofelia points to a bunch of foreign-looking green stems that remind me a little of a flat Jade plant. “Espinaca?” I ask, uncertain. “Sí,” she nods happily. My American friend tells me it was a big deal to find, so I shrug, smile my thanks, and begin to pick the teardrop-shaped leaves off the stems.
I pick over the greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes, ignoring the insect holes in the lettuce leaves, the unripe edges of the red fruit, the puckered ends of the cucumbers. Even at the vegetable stands, “fresh” is simply not the quality I am used to. In fact, the undersized refrigerators and sometimes intermittent electricity means its not safe to keep a quantity of anything on hand, and plastic wrap is a luxury no one can afford. Also, the idea of a hot meal seems to be less of an concern; the meat was cooked earlier in the afternoon and no one has reheated it–microwave ovens are out of course of the question, but in the three Cuban homes I visit, only one has a working oven.
Five of us sit down to the meal and I am suddenly dismayed to see that we are sharing three thin pork chops. Should I take one anyway? Let the others have them? I settle on cutting off half a pork chop and filling in with Morro and salad. I notice José Luis ladles his plate with the rice first and I wonder if he too is concerned about his guests, or if it’s just how he’s used to eating. I feel deprived suddenly, like the potential lack of food is making me hungry, but when my dinner is finished I am satisfied, and there’s still half a pork chop left over. I am happy when José Luis eats it.
Armandito returns around 10pm and we pile into his 1955 Chevy, its cab lights washing everything in a neon blue. Again, I feel like I am about to go party with my pals on a Saturday night; its clear visitors are a great excuse for a festive occasion. First stop, the legendary Tropicana nightclub, made famous by “I Love Lucy’s” Rickie Ricardo (the character sang in a fictional Manhattan club of the same name), then by the combined influence of the Cuba mob and the infamous American mobster Meyer Lansky. Glancing at the posted menu, I am surprised to see you can eat steak for 20 Chavitos, but then I am told that’s on top of the ticket, which costs between 75-95 Chavitos (approx. $90-$115), We take photos in the lush, dramatically lit gardens, and I catch a reflection in the interior mirror of a Moulin Rouge-ish cabaret, but I have no desire to go inside, and besides, the Cubans we are with aren’t allowed in.
We drive on, eventually reaching the water, and the car turns onto the croisette. I understand how hurricanes must buffet the island, as the seawall is being bombarded tonight with waves that collide with the waist-high wall of stones; water spills then pools onto the street, soaking the cars that brave the winding road. At a safe distance, tourists and locals congregate in the squares that dot the far side of the croisette, watching the waves splashing up to ten feet in the air. At the Hotel National, Armandito pulls the Chevy right up to the front door, and we all stop for a coffee.
The building is similar to any chic European historic hotel — high coffered ceilings, gracious fountains and lawns, beautiful architecture, dripping chandeliers — except there is a whole photo exhibit of Castro visiting here over the years. (A side note: during my whole visit, I never saw postcards of Cuba’s beauty; instead, all the stands had black-and-white images of a youthful, fit Fidel, as if his were the only image worth writing home about.
We go down a long corridor featuring floral arrangements that look straight out of the Bellagio, and through a stunning ballroom with a ceiling painted like a sunny afternoon sky. Entering the coffee bar, I am struck by the photo montages that line the room, each depicting the celebrities who visited the hotel over the years. I note that in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the images are like a Who’s Who of American movie stars — Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, posed in such a way that she seems to be gazing adoringly at Frank Sinatra–as well as Hemingway, Churchill, Nat King Cole, and even Walt Disney. There’s also a pride of place series of photos of Meyer Lansky But the real surprise for me is the recent montages. Jay-Z and Beyonce aren’t the only Americans who have been visiting Cuba since the embargoes. Everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oliver Stone to the Backstreet Boys and Kool and the Gang have made it over for either the Latin American Film Festival or a variety of music festivals. Peter Frampton donated a guitar when he was here, as a symbol of collaboration between two countries’ musicians; it sits open in its beat-up case, with a small sign that says Do Not Touch.
We order café con leche, the delicious local latte that is exactly the same in Spain, and I have a tot of the dark Havana Club Anejo Especial. My Cuban friends look around; several have been here but not for many years. José Luis and I tour the movie star photos; he knows who almost everyone is, his eyes light as he points out the famous Cubans I don’t recognize — singers, film stars, even a poet laureate.
I wander out onto the grounds, marveling at the dramatic and grand facade–from this angle, it reminds me of the Hotel Biltmore in Miami–and run across a group coming back into the hotel. As they enter the main corridor, half of them raise expensive cameras, shooting the length of the interior. I inquire if they are professional photographers, but they are merely a tourist group from Tel Aviv. Over my long weekend, I also meet tourists from Australia, all over Latin America, Canada, and even the US. I am the only one who has flown directly from Miami; the other Americans I come across have entered from other countries, avoiding having their passport stamped.
Armandito brings the Chevy around, and I can’t help crowing to the bellman about the fancy car in the fancy hotel driveway. He nods. “We see it all the time,” he tells me, not unkindly. Our next stop is the famous bar, La Floridita. We arrive just as it is closing, and I take a quick peek inside, where tourists from all over are drinking. I bring Tio Arcadio with me, holding his hand so that no one attempts to stop him; I do not want him embarrassed by the bouncer, and I am comforted by his presence. Hemingway drank daiquiris at La Floridita so often there is now a life-size brass statue of him leaning on the bar, a jolly, Santa-looking Hemingway who adored Cuba and died just three months after the Bay of Pigs [Link to Wikipedia entry], the failed attempt to overthrow Castro. I look curiously at the Hemingway homage, wondering what he would think of the changes in Cuba, of the dearth of Americans, of Castro’s long headlock on the Cuban people, of the recent announcement that the long embargo of Cuba will soon end.
Next to La Floridita in the square, though it is past midnight, construction is proceeding at a furious pace on a hotel site. Five years hence, Havana will celebrate its five-hundredth birthday, and someone in the Castro regime (rumored to be the more sympathetic Raul, Fidel’s brother) gave both the French and the Spanish permission to cooperate with Cuba on the refurbishment and restoration of some of the most iconic properties in the city. As we take a late-night walking tour of this very European quarter of Old Havana, I note several similar projects, all lit up and with an active crew despite the hour. Along one charming walking street, I see a half-dozen dogs, all cuddled together in the recessed doorway of a glamorous storefront. Some of them have collars, even little sweaters against the evening chill, a mix of stray and owned dogs who roam the city freely. During my visit I made friends with many of them; others I approached made it clear I should keep my distance, but just as in so many big cities I’ve visited, the people and its homeless critters seem to cohabitate in peace. I also saw fewer homeless humans or beggars here than I expected; most offered an exchange of music, a craft or music CD.
The English-speaking Ismael, who kindly spent hours planning this walking tour for me, escorts me around Old Havana, as my companion chats happily with her uncles and cousins in Cuban Spanish, a local dialect as different from traditional Spanish as Texan is to a New Englander. At one ornate square, lavish with old trees and tropical plant life, stone archways mark the entrance to an ancient fort, now a military museum. Ismael motions me over to the enormous dark wood doors. “Look here,” he instructs me, pointing above an oversized doorknob. I lower my eye to key-shaped hole in the black metal, and see an enchanting courtyard inside, its central fountain flowing merrily, surrounded by potted plants and local trees. Ismael grins at me, happy to share some of Cuba’s charm.
At 2am, back at Prima (Cousin) Ofelia’s, she and José Luis have opens the bag of gifts we brought in our black duffel bag. Ofelia turns to me to say good night. “I am sorry,” she says in halting English. “I have nothing to give you.” My eyes widen, suddenly full of tears. “Ofelia,” I tell her, “you gave me everything – you gave me your bed!” She smiles, grateful, and I go into her bedroom as she and her husband climb the stairs to the room upstairs, to spend what I am sure is a much less comfortable night on a small, thin mattress on the floor.