Lost in Havana. It sounds like the title of a spy novel, but it is true. LYL and I had simply gone to the winding spiral of an underground passage to the hotel annex for breakfast, and somehow, we hadn't been able to find our way back. At some point we give up and escape out a broad glass door, then try to get our bearings. Decades of decay are being removed from along an entire block, soon to be renovated into a massive hotel that promises luxury, and hopefully, better signage. On the street below, a good number of foreigners, Americans mostly, are all walking in the same direction, and in following them, we arrive back at the front of the hotel.
I am surprised by all those Americans but really shouldn't be considering the recent opening of legitimate flights from the States. They all seem to be staying at my hotel, and that morning, they clog the lobby as if all the tour groups are leaving at the same time, to board a fleet of buses that blockades the boulevard in front. The hotel is a popular spot, and at happy hour, the lobby is filled with people drinking wine or overpriced rum drinks, the men being men with their cigars. It is fun on an American scale, scripted fun, with little of the relaxed looseness and spontaneity of the Cubans. Still, it is an interesting glimpse of how things must have been before the Revolution, all these moneyed notreamericanos gone south to let down their hair.
We begin our day on the outskirts of town at the home of a man who truly did know how to party. Hemingway’s Finca la Vigla sits somewhat unobtrusively atop a tree-covered hill that overlooks the sea. I could see why the writer loved this place, and how in losing it he had lost more than just a home. He was apparently quite untethered after forfeiting this refuge, and just a year later found a refuge far more permanent.
The house appears to look as it had the day he left. Visitors aren’t permitted to enter, but we are able to see the interior well due to the copious windows in every room. I am most taken with the books, which fill every wall of every room. As I squint and lean to take in the titles, I feel a tap on my shoulder and see it is the producer that I’d met the night before. He’d gotten filming permission all over the Island, but hadn't been able to receive it here. He told me that he wished I’d turned up just 10 minutes earlier, wielding my writing credentials and a tall tale that I was working on a piece for a major US newspaper. (I was flattered, but who did this guy think I was, Hemingway himself?)
Two women sit by the pool and chit-chat. These guards aren’t particularly concerned with people fiddling with Hemingway’s famed boat Pilar, which has found permanent dry-dock atop the tennis court. This is a nation seemingly taken with boats, as across town, the Gramma, which brought Castro home to wage revolution, stands under glass, beneath the gaze of 24-hour armed security. Both boats seem in far better condition than the handful I’d seen in Havana harbor,wrecks purposely hobbled in order to discourage trips of a longer nature. In Hemingway’s case, his final flight took him beyond America, beyond fame, to immortality. I would have an encounter (of sorts) with a couple of his literary contemporaries a few days later.
It would be on this very highway, which leads east. The road is again relatively untraveled, and dotted on occasion with those trying to flag a ride. At point a wall rises up, running parallel to the highway for thirty-three kilometers. It was built for no other purpose than to dispose of the stones that had been plowed up when farmers were laying out beds for sugarcane a century ago. Today not a thing has been planted, which surprises, as Cuba has the ideal climate to grow nearly anything. The problem appears to be in the organization of these state owned farms, which hadn't even been utilized during the near-starvation years of the Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s biggest benefactor. My eyes trick me again and again into seeing certain stand-alone rocks as Jizo, patron saint of travelers, fellow and otherwise.
We divert off the highway not far past the turnoff to the village of Australia, which besides being an ironic monicker had been Castro’s base during the Bay of Pigs. Along this narrow road we see much many more crops, rows upon rows of corn, the rough stubble of tobacco. Growing amongst them are signs bearing political slogans, and the faces of Castro and Che begin to pop up like mileage markers. They are proud of the revolution in the country, and few places more than Cianfuegos, our next stop. The town is prettily arranged along the curve of a long bay, and far across the waters stands the abandoned hulk of an unfinished nuclear power station once planned by the Soviets.
Our first task is to fuel up with lunch at Paladar Ache, yet another tidy house wrapped around a lovely garden. Masks hang along one of the walls, each representing a Orichá, a Santeria deity disguised as a Catholic saint. The two religions have over the centuries been fused and intertwined, and in the few cases that I encounter Santeria I am reminded of the folksy nature of Catholicism of rural New Mexico.
Fusion becomes the theme of the day, not only in the meal served up, but in the look of the buildings about town, a mix mash of various European cultures and styles, all tempered by a mild Caribbean climate. The most extreme example is the Palacio de Valle, which upon approach looks typically French, yet whose roof has been capped with a Mughal palace.
My favorite building is the Tomas Terry theatre, and I'm not alone in my devotion as it had once attracted the likes of Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt. I sit in one of its plush red seats, watching a dance troupe practice for the weekend show. From here LYL and I stroll the French renaissance plaza ringed with even more beauties, and up to the Paseo del Prado, punctuated midway by a statue of Benny More. The statue is modest, yet few legends of Cuban music were as big as Benny. Down a pair of side streets is a small street market, with a few dozen stalls catering to the localized crowd of Saturday strollers. It had a charm shared with other markets I’d seen in other socialist states, a timeless look at capitalism reduced to a neighborhood scale.
On the turntable: Madness, "Keep Moving"