Habana, Cuba- parte dos
Cuban Excursion- parte- dos
Sat. Dec. 1,2018- Havana, Cuba
We were up early at 6 A.M. hoping to watch the ship enter Havana Harbor. The television news informed us that the venerable, former President George H.W. Bush had died at age 94. He may have been the most decent individual to serve in that job in the last 60 years.
As we readied for an 8 A.M breakfast, the Sirena was passing the brown-stone complex of Moro Castle, situated high atop a hill at the entrance to Habana harbor. The gun ports and cannon, of the thick-walled castle, had protected Habana since the mid 1600s, from pirates, raiders and the English. Next to it sits a huge, shining-white stone statue of Christ the redeemer. We would find out more and explore both tomorrow.
The Terraces café on deck 8 was alive with passengers, all expectant with the new day. Omelets, lox and cheese, with decent coffee, made for a good start to the day. The cruise director had announced that, because of docking scheduling difficulties, all day tours of Habana had been pushed back for one hour.
Havana : La Habana is the capital city, largest city, province, major port, and leading commercial center of Cuba.]The city has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants. The city of Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location, it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleonsreturning to Spain. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592. Walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city.
Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one, Old Havana, Vedado and the newer suburban districts. The city extends mostly westward and southward from the bay, which is enters through a narrow inlet and divides into three main harbors: Mari melena, Guanabacoa and Antares. The city attracts over a million tourists annually.]
At ten thirty A.M., we assembled in the deck-five, Sirena Lounge for our four-hour walking tour of “Colonial Habana.” We exited, on a deck five portal, and entered a long entry terminal and into Cuba for the first time. First, you have to pass through Cuban customs like every country. An unsmiling clerk took our picture, stamped our pass port and waved us through. Either he didn’t like Americans, his job or a combination of the two. Next, we passed through an airport like scanner. Then, just down the hallway, we lined up for the purchase of CUC’s, the Cuban tourist currency. It was quick and easy. A clerk assigns you to one of several tellers. We had enough Spanish to handle the transaction, but it isn’t necessary. These money changers handle people from every-where daily. The official charge for CUC’s is a three per cent fee. But because of the American embargo on Cuba, another ten per cent was deducted. So, $100 U.S. would yield you 87 CUC’s with a purchasing power of $87 U.S. A long stairway led us out of the terminal and to our guide for the day, Juan Alvarez. Juan, like most Cuban guides, was university educated. His English was flawless. The guides occupy a curios niche in Cuban society. Because of the tips, that they receive from tourists, they are among the highest paid workers in Cuba, where a Doctor or engineer can expect to earn between $40 and $60 per month.
I digress here for a few lines, because I think it important for readers to understand who and what Cuba is. It is indeed a land of revolution. Fidel Castro, and his Argentine ideologue Che Guevara, are revered here. They engineered and led a popular uprising in 1559 that displaced a cruel military dictatorship led by Batista. The corrupt oligarchy had been propped up by the American mob, the United and Standard Fruit companies and the American C.I.A. The populace was ill fed, uneducated and virtual serfs to the landlords. Today, though poor by our standards, Cubans have free medical care, are eligible for free education up to the PHD level and have a decent amount of food for the populace. The Cuban people understand what they have and what they were. Their reverence for Fidel and Che is absolute.
No one, in either the American mob, the American Government or Batista’s Cuban government, saw this one coming. A popular revolt sprang up in the Santa Maestra mountains, in the far eastern portion of Cuba. It spread like wildfire to engulf the country. Who would have thought that ex baseball players like Fidel read up on dialectical materialism? Actually, Fidel was a Lawyer and his inner circle fairly well educated. The U.S., the mob and the C.I.A later attempted to stage a coup, via the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was a disaster for all involved. The tactic had worked several decades before in Honduras and Guatemala, where “regime changes” had been engineered by the Fruit companies and the C.I.A. This attempt failed miserably. We didn’t hear much about it during our stay, but there is an actual Bay of Pigs Museum on the Southeast coast, near Cien Fuegos. This invasion attempt, followed by the the eye ball to eyeball confrontation of the Cuban Missile crisis, that almost engulfed the world in a thermos nuclear holocaust, had engendered a mild cynicism about those of us from El Norte. The guide actually stated that there had been 500 attempts on Fidel’s life during his tenure. It bred a mild paranoia in the populace towards all things American.
Having said all of this we were to find a very warm and endearing reception from the Cuban People. Like most folks, Cuban people are practical by nature. They know they need American tourist and development dollars to succeed. Whatever the official government attitude, the Cuban people know they need us and welcomed us enthusiastically.
Juan led us first into busy San Francisco Square, just across from the ship terminal. The large, old church here had been the main homestead of the Franciscans, who were to develop into a significant power in Colonial Cuba. Brother Junipera Serra, who would later go on to found and develop all of the famed California Missions, had been an early Bishop here in Cuba. The square was awash with early people traffic. As we eyeballed the various buildings, an older troubadour walked amongst us singing “Viva Che Guevara.” He was cheerful and didn’t mean anything by it, except to entertain us. We gave him a CUC and wished him Vaya Con Dios.
My favorite old structure was a lime-green, two story casita (small house, with wooden shitters. Above the entrance porta is painted an image of Che Guevara. In front of the old church, which is now a museum, stand another oddity. It is a brass, life-sized figure of an elegantly clad Frenchman, entitled “La Chevalier.” People rub his arm or foot for good luck. Apparently, he was a local character who charmed the crowds, sang for his supper and entertained the populace.
Next to the church, we viewed the limestone remains of an old water aqueduct, built circa 1592. It once carried water from a river, eleven miles away into a network of pipes that fed the major buildings and the wealthier homes in Havana. Everyone else had to draw form these wells for their daily usage. The streets around us were all of cobblestone construction. You need good shoes to walk them. Some of the stones were ship’s ballast from either Spain or the USA.
Several dogs lie around us in the sun. They were actually “officially sponsored dogs.” A small plaque around their neck listed their name, weight and official status. Juan said with a smile that all of the other dogs were immigrants. The architecture, to my untrained eye, is a mélange of Spanish, Venetian and French Colonial, from the five hundred years of the city’s existence. Most of it has crumbling facades. The government is attempting to renovate what it can, but funds are scarce. I can only imagine the deteriorated shape to the structural steel holding up these structures. I think the city is crumbling down around their ears.
There were a few pan handlers and several wandering merchants, peddling various trinkets. But as a general rule, if you said “No, gracias” they left you alone. We were to find the Cubans we encountered as unfailingly polite and accommodating. The local police were in evidence, keeping an eye on varlets to make sure that the tourists weren’t harassed.
We walked along the cobbled-stoned streets, eagerly drinking in the visage of various shops and buildings. Juan took us to Viejas Square. (Old Square.) It is a very broad expanse, with a large central monument. An attractive school, a government building a few posh looking restaurants and cafes filled out the rectangle. All of the building facades had been re-stuccoed and painted in bright pastels. From one corner of the square, near the main café, several brightly-costumed troubadours on stilts entered the plaza. They looked like Carmen Miranda on steroids. The influence was African Cuban, and the driving beat of the music, their energetic dancing on stilts and colorful costumes drew everyone attention.
Juan’s narration was informative on the traditions and mores of Cuba over the centuries. He was even candid about the Russian experience. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was alone and broke. It was a very hard decade for the republic. Culturally it bred an interesting sea change in the relationship of men and women in Cuba. Before, the traditional Macho, virile persona of the Cuban male had relegated women “to the house” and obedient and docile. During the post Russia period, a lot of women had to go to work to make ends meet. This bred an independent spirit in Cuba’s women, who were now equal to the men. They demanded and got equality in most things. The government, though revolutionary, is still reactionary and male dominated. Try as we may with Juan, and later guides, we were never able to find out much about the thirty-year “visit” by the Russians. (1960-1991) Surely some had married Cuban girls and left their biological children behind. But no one ever commented on this. I shall have to do some research on this area. We soon came to realize that, though voluble and friendly, none of the tourist guides strayed very far from accepted doctrinaire, Cuban ideological parameters. They were all probably periodically monitored. And one straying too far astray would probably lose a very valuable job.
Walking further along the old cobblestone streets, we passed the “Firemen’s Museum.” It had been erected by a penitent merchant who had stored a large amount of gunpowder in his home and told no one. A fire had erupted in the building. In putting out the flames, a huge explosion had erupted killing 38 of the Bomberos (Firemen). This museum, and the construction of a very large monument in a nearby Cemetery, had kept the rascal from prison. Across the street sat a small museum dedicated to various types of armaments. We were to find that there were small museums everywhere, all asking a fee for entrance. The latent capitalist in the Cuban Psyche was emerging. We sat for a few minutes in the cool shade of Simon Bolivar Square. A statue to that venerable early South American Revolutionary (1783-was populated by Cubans playing guitars or just wiling away the afternoon. We were puzzled by the crowds of people we were to find in “Old Habana.” The guide told us that it was of course a Saturday and Habana is a large city, with of over 2 million people. These were indeed mostly Cubanos all around us out enjoying their city on a Sunny day.
Juan led us into an airy and well laid out hotel for a rest break. It is named the “Ambos Mundos.” Ernest Hemmingway had stayed here for eight years, during the 1940’s, penning “The Old Man and The Sea.” There were pictures of Hemmingway and Fidel, among other dignitaries, on the walls of the lobby. As nice as the place is, the men’s room was out of order. Those needing to use it lined up to use the women’s facility.
There seemed to be tour groups everywhere in central Habana. You could hear the swirl of languages all around us. Italian, Spanish, English and German created a polyglot, holiday-like atmosphere as we mingled with the native Habanos and admired their cultural artifacts.
We passed through Church Square next. It had originally been occupied by an old wooden church. But a flaming spar, from an exploding English ship in the harbor, had torched that building. Afterwards, the military used the open square for drilling their troops. Now, it was tree-lined and populated with Habanos watching the curious spectacle of Americans trouping through their city. We were still a curiosity to them. A we walked along the streets, we were beginning to see evidence of the fabled “Old Cars.” When Cuba had been cut off after the resolution, vintage Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges had been kept alive by cannibalizing other wrecks and lovingly restored. Now, they serve as Taxis and tourist vehicles offering rides for excursions. We were to see the entire series of 1950’s Chevrolets with the old four-colored Chevrolet emblem on the front hood. All were painted in either two-tone or bright pastel colors. A 1957 Buick Electra convertible, a 1957 Cadillac, and several fifties Dodge automobiles passed along the busy boulevards. It is a common site and one much photographed by tourists who ooh and ahh at the vintage and picturesque autos.
At Catedral Square, we took a few minutes to rest in the shade. The large, old, crumbling church had been closed after the revolution and used a store house. It sits on the corner of San Ignacio and Empredero streets. Just around the corner is a small bar (Bogaquita Medio) that had been the Hemmingway inspired birth place of the “Mojito.” It was awash with tourists trying that tasty concoction. It was hot, humid and in the mid-eighties out. We were tiring with the walk. Juan led us to a Transtur Bus. It was clean, new and air conditioned. Apparently, the tour companies buy them from the Chinese. They use them for two years and then turn them over to the Cubans for use in their mass transit system.
The bus ferried us past the imposing Moro Castle and along the city’s Promenade. The promenade is a very long, raised walkways, lined with trees and featuring artists and vendors with all manner of things for sale. Many Habanos sat in the shade and enjoyed the day. The upscale “Hotel Packard” is here. We passed by the Center of Cuban Government. A White stoned building, with a large entrance stair way and marble columns, looks every inch the proto type of a Washington D.C. government building. It had been constructed in 1928. Its façade is well maintained. The secrets and shenanigans that this place must have witnessed would be material for a thousand stories.
A quick run through the “old section” of Havana was not pretty. Scores of multi-storied buildings all stand in crumbling disarray. They are still populated by Cubans. Housing is difficult to find and expensive in the central city area. Finally, Juan dropped us off at the Ship terminal building on the waterfront. We walked through Cuban customs, passed through the scanner area and bought a few post cards (,75 CUC) before clearing the ship’s I D check and on into the air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. It was like returning to the future after a brief sojourn into a very much older past. We were still in time for a late lunch, in the deck nine Terrace lounge. Mussels, shri