Old Habana – Jan. 16

Saturday was our day off from teaching and travel. It is nice here at the Casa Alejandra and the senora is so sweet. She gives us coffee each morning. In the morning we went to the breakfast buffet at the Coppacabana, which was less expensive than breakfast at most diners in the US. The casa we are staying at is much less expensive than a hotel, but it is just a few blocks from “embassy row” and the wealthiest part of Havana. We walked past the Russian embassy, which is a monstrous concrete edifice with a strange top that houses communications equipment. It is a grim reminder of the Cold War.

After omelets, guava, and bread, we returned to the casa. Alejandra had polished by shoes and left them by the door without my asking. It was good because they were in sad shape from days of walking on dusty roads. Then I worked on my sermon for Sunday so Sam would have plenty of time to translate it. The sun came out and it was suddenly very hot and humid, so I changed into tourist shorts and a T-shirt that identified me as someone who had been to the beach in North Carolina. We walked to the main road and hailed a cab. It was a 1956 Bel Air and it already had three passengers, but there was room for two more in the back seat.

We headed straight for the capitol, which is modeled on the US capitol. On the way we passed the American embassy and saw the flag. The same three Marines who took it down in 1959 raised it when the embassy was reopened last year. At the square across from the capitol there was a line of old cars for hire for an hour, including a beautiful red Thunderbird. It was tempting to rent a convertible, but the weather had changed again. It was overcast and cool, with rain threatening. We walked quickly through the tourist streets of Old Havana, past all of the usual shops, past all of the usual hawkers and gawkers. It was so different from Camaguey. Old Havana is beautiful, if crumbling. We saw an ancient fort that now houses the police, but we have not seen many police. Certainly less than other countries I’ve visited where police carry automatic weapons. From a distance we saw the stature of Jesus overlooking Havana harbor, and it was touching to think that this was not removed early in the revolution, the way Stalin tried to erase the church.

We ate in the Hotel Florida just because it was so beautiful inside with a marble courtyard. A pianist was playing old standards like As Time Goes By quite well despite a piano whose days are clearly numbered. Cuban pork steak, rice and beans, and then a quick detour to see the house where Victor Hugo lived. I needed a picture for my daughter who is a huge fan of Hugo, thanks to Les Miserables. The plaque on the wall commemorated Hugo’s commitment to the right of people in Cuba to govern their own affairs.

The best part of the afternoon was spent at the Hotel Nacionale. This is the place where celebrities and world leaders have stayed for decades. They have pictures of the famous people like Nat King Cole, Gary Cooper, Yuri Gagaren, and even Vladimir Putin. Surprisingly one of the biggest pictures was of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. We sat on the veranda overlooking the sea, sipping drinks, and smoking cigars. Key West Florida was just over the horizon. It started to drizzle so moved under a tree and we were the only ones there. Then it came down harder and we retreated to the pleasure palace of the rich and famous and powerful.

We went down to the cigar store and there was a 68 year old woman who has been rolling cigars by hand since she was 19. She showed a picture of her younger self in the Romeo y Juliet factory. She was so pleased that I was interested in her work that she showed us the whole process of making a cigar, and she talked about her life. She used to live in a cold shack in the tobacco fields and then got a job in the factory. They went to using machines, but the machines could not be repaired, so they went back to better way. Machines do not have a feel for the tobacco, she said, as she carefully removed imperfections and blended the light and dark leaves. She joked about Winston Churchill’s very long cigars, which may have been compensating for other things. We laughed that the ones I bought were so short. She and Sam talked at length in Spanish, some of which he did not translate, but the gist of it was that he and I looked like we were truly happy people. We left with two of her cigars for each of us. They were the least expensive we had purchased and that evening we discovered they were also the best. Were they truly better or was it just the knowledge that they were made by a beautiful women whose wrinkled face brightens when she laughs, kissed me when I left and told me that I happy?

In the evening we went to a beautiful hotel near the casa. It was where Sam and other Moravians used to stay in Havana, but the prices have more than doubled and we could not afford so many nights there. It is lovely, but we would not have had Alejandro greeting us each morning with coffee and warning us about the pickpockets. We managed to read emails but not much else. I had a long email from my wife who I very much miss. We had a small bottle of Havana Club, glasses, and the new cigars. We sat by the pool under the palm trees. The clouds were gone and the stars were bright overhead. Orion was rising. The sky was such a dark midnight blue that the red stars were clearly red instead of the pale shades I’m accustomed to. There was a large group of Belgian tourists who had just arrived late the night before. For some reason they were fascinated by Sam and I as they walked past. Several commented in French with smiles about us lying there smoking. An older couple walked past and I said Bon soir, which confused them since they thought we were with their group. But they knew English and we talked for some time about their plans and Cuba. Such lovely people. Such a beautiful night. Such a wonder to be alive and get to experience all of this.

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  • Joe Jarvis  On January 19, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Craig…very enjoyable read.
    Brings back many memories. I’ll be heading back down this spring.

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