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Havana

By

Belkis Kambach

Text & photos By: Belkis Kambach

Penalties for violating travel restrictions to Cuba are severe: up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for individuals illegally traveling there, according United States Customs Service officials. Although few Americans are caught or punished by the government, it remains illegal for United States citizens to step foot in Cuba.

For many, the lure of slipping away to a notorious, forbidden island is exciting. Cuba is a destination that reeks with adventure and intrigue, and the travel industry is determined to move quickly with tours and cruises when the trade embargo is lifted.

Just 90 miles off the tip of Florida lies Havana. Although it is illegal to visit Cuba as a tourist, Americans can get dispensation to visit the island for educational, religious or humanitarian purposes and can thereby board charters to Cuba. This makes tourism or direct flights from the United States off-limits.

Havana is little changed.  Socialism, the U.S. blockade of the early ‘60s and the continuing trade embargo have locked this city in a time warp.  Even with stiff penalties, the laws can’t seem to stop the tens of thousands of Americans from reaching Cuban soil.  Many start the voyage in a third country like the Dominican Republic, Bahamas or Mexico, where travelers pay for their trips in cash so that there is no record of the trip. Cuban authorities, eager for the dollars that Americans bring, facilitate this process  by not stamping blue passport holders, leaving no trace that the trip ever took place.

It was in the airport lounge in Puerto Plata, waiting for our flight to Havana, where we got our first glimpse of what it means to travel to Cuba these days.  Dominicans, who are not rich per se, traveled loaded with food, fearful of not finding enough to eat on this island where even basic commodities are in short supply.

We came to Cuba determined to avoid the state's network of hotels and restaurants. But after seven nights in a hotel and an invitation letter from Pedro, Maggy’s brother a Cuban woman my mother met in the Dominican Republic, (conditions of entry into the country is proof of a reservation in a reputable hotel or invitation letter) we ended up staying there. We didn’t enjoy our no-frills hotel room with its Soviet air conditioner and other annoyances -- like hearing a chorus of roosters every day on a nearby roof. It reminded me of home in the Dominican Republic, adding a touch of rusticity to the urban setting, until we discovered they habitually greeted the dawn not once but twenty-one times.

After being in Cuba just few hours, we went for a stroll and saw people forming lines down the block and around the corner. The best-educated, most highly qualified Cubans spend their days lined up for a few pounds of arroz or Frijoles negros (to make Moros con Cristianos). They get by with their libreta, the ration book first introduced in 1962. Every month, Pedro is permitted to buy, among other things, seven eggs and a quarter-pound of coffee (mixed with Frijoles), when available at state subsidized prices. Chickpeas have also largely replaced meat in his diet. For a pound of rice, he pays 45 pesos; even as a degreed electrical engineer, Pedro earns only 200 pesos a month (equivalent to $9.60 U.S. dollars, at 22 pesos per $1.00). A secretary’s wages are 100 pesos. Even a pack of cigarettes costs seven pesos (a day's wages).

On our second day in Habana it was lunchtime again and Isolina my mum, my sister Mariel Paola, Tshahka and I were regretting another overpriced, under-spiced Cuban meal accompanied by the usual sweet soda and flavorless Frijoles negros. The Cuban food here bears no resemblance to Cuban food cooked in Miami Beach or NYC. This was definitely not Victor’s Café, (the first U.S. restaurant serving regional Cuban food).  Where were those Frijoles negros, mojito, platanos amarillos fritos (fried plantains) or even the Cuban sandwiches we love? We found Havana's restaurants unremarkable. There exists a network of paladares, or makeshift restaurants in private apartments, but we didn’t want to take the chance.

The worst part of the experience was realizing that the bland meal we had just consumed would have set Pedro back the equivalent of three months’ pay. Such free-market prices are beyond most Cubans’ meager salary. In a land where hard currency is king, trying to spend pesos and live like a Cuban ended in frustration. We paid for each meal in U.S. dollars, never even getting near a peso. Only Cuban’s paid in their national currency.

We continued to stroll along the neighborhood of Vedado and Viejo Havana.  It is ironic how Cubans don’t want to admit that Havana looks pretty much all-American. El Capitolio, one of the largest buildings in the center of the city, is a perfect replica of the Washington, D.C. Capitol. Even the cars that slowly cruise in Havana are mummified American or taped-together Russian cars with innumerable layers of paint on them. Pre-1960 Bel Airs, El Dorados and Continentals (mostly kept running with Russian spare parts) prevail. Taxis come in the form of '56 Chevy coupes. There seem to be more bicycles here than in Holland, and they look like 200-pound Russian tanks. Even Cuba’s national sport is baseball.

As we walked on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, heat shimmered up the walls of decaying buildings, blurring faded shades of pink and blue stucco and distorting shapes of rusting wrought-iron balconies. The bustle of the old city was quiet, surrounded by buildings in their fallen plaster. We saw how people lived in dilapidated buildings where everything you've taken for granted -- food, money, order and even toilet paper -- is a luxury. We watched well-dressed women hauling buckets of drinking water up from the street to third-floor balconies. 

With its narrow streets and artists' galleries (where you might consider buying one of the beautiful oil on canvas or water color Cuban beach scenes like I did), there are many small cafes, a living museum to the city's colonial origins.  There are several lively squares, like the Plaza de la Catedral, in front of the 18th-century Catedral de La Habana, and La Plaza de Armas where craftsmen sell their art, old books (some about or by Hemingway) and just about anything else that will fetch the sought-after U.S. dollar.

Schoolboys jumped behind us asking for chiklets (bubble gum), lapiz (pencils), lapiceros (pens) and hard currency to buy dulces (candy). Another flock of shirtless boys rolled down on homemade skateboards fashioned out of slats of wood and scavenged metal wheels. Dignified old men stopped us in the street to ask if we could spare some aspirin or mail letters to relatives  in Miami. The animal lover in me noticed many miserable, skin-and-bone dogs, short legged collie-like creatures or perhaps mixed German shepherd with bald patches all over their scrawny bodies, looking up at me in hunger with deeply wounded eyes.

Despite all the poverty we’ve seen, the entire old city is a wonderful place to walk. The high price of cars and  gasoline means that traffic is light.  I was stunned  by the beauty of the 18th, 19th and 20th century architecture in Havana; the tree-shaded promenade could be as elegant as Barcelona's Ramblas, reminding you of Spain rather than any Caribbean outpost.

The city contains a profusion of different architectural styles from Spanish colonial, baroque, victorian to modern. Worth seeing are buildings like El Gran Teatro, and the historic city center of Viejo Havana described in the Unesco World Heritage list is beautiful. However, the predominant look of the city is very gray: most buildings have not seen a drop of paint in over 50 years and are all peeling and crumbling. 

Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1952 for "The Old Man and the Sea,'' and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, is one of Cuba's national treasures. His books are taught in most schools and his memory is revered. Even Fidel Castro reportedly considers his writings an inspiration. Hemingway’s trail is still as fresh as the trade winds that blew him here in the 1930’s.

Hemingway had lust for travel and for life. It carryed him across the world in search of adventure, weaving a trail for his fans to follow. Some of his hangouts were in this island.  Seated at La Bodeguita del Medio, the very same bar where he spent many night’s, we sip a mojito (an ice cold, mint-laced rum). This is where you should begin a Hemingway tour of the city.  The Old Man, who would have been 100 this July, came in 1934 from the Florida Keys in his classic wood-hulled fishing boat, the Pilar. He stayed here, on-and-off, for over 20 years. He loved this part of town, with its rum joints and centuries-old architecture.

At Hotel Ambos Mundos, just one block off the center of Viejo Havana, was Hemingway's first home in Cuba, and his room - No. 511 - has become a museum. Catch a chambermaid, and she'll let you in to wander around. Gaze out the windows at Havana Bay as he must have. Legend has it he conceived the plot line of "For Whom the Bell Tolls.” A plaque on the hotel's facade boasts he wrote the novel in the hotel.

A single room here now goes for about $65 a night (a double is $90, a mini-suite $120). These are in much better condition than most Cuban hotels. They offer such luxuries as bathtubs – quite a rarity here- cable television and mini bars. The hotel has a restaurant and bar and a lobby that spills out onto the teeming streets of Viejo Havana.

From here, it's just a 10-minute walk to El Floridita, bar Hemmingway frequented and which claims to have invented the daiquiri. The walls are festooned with pictures of him, and his bar stool sits empty. A word on tourist traps: at both El Floridita and La Bodeguita, a daiquiri costs $6 - about what a worker in Havana takes home in a month. At La Bodeguita, a mojito runs $4, about two to three times what other charge.)

Another walk will take you past Las Mansiones de Miramar, the exclusive neighborhood where American millionaires once lived and employed legions of Cuban servants after the revolution.  Today most of these have been turned into embassies (they are the only painted buildings these days in Havana). In the evening you can join the crowds walking on El Malecon - the boardwalk that stretches from the west side of Havana Bay where the crashing Atlantic turns to salt spraying on the waterfront and eating away the paint of building facades. It’s a great way to get a sense of Havana life and strike up conversations with the locals.

In Cuba most male travelers are certain, to find not only savory cigars and delicious Cuban  liquor de caffe y de cacao but also sexy, young, dark-eyed beauties provocatively dressed and  eager to make your acquaintance. It is said that Cuba has the world's best educated hookers, and a foreign man can not walk alone in Havana without being surrounded. Young women will thrust themselves against Tshahka in aggressive manner. I felt like shaking them and telling them that the handsome Finn by my side was my fiancee. However, Cubans approaching a foreigner in a tourist-designated area are in danger of police action as locals aren't allowed into foreigners’ hotel rooms.

After 40 years of the American trade embargo, the Cuban government's appreciation for tourists begins and ends with our traveler's checks.  In the decade after the fall of Soviet subsidies, Fidel has scrambled for a way to survive and has settled on tourism as the quickest way to get cash. Beyond that, there's no love for foreigners with revolutionary ideals here. Even as it encourages tourism, Cuba works to create with no doubt the highest wall possible between visitors and Cubans, financially as well as in practical matters. Unfortunately, tourism brings Cuba money that is desperately needed.

I hold memories of Cuba like none of the other 62 countries I have visited. I tried to look for the best aspects of Cuban life, but, even as a first-time visitor, I came away dispirited. I might have enjoyed Cuba more if I didn't speak Spanish and therefore didn’t understand their struggle quite so vividly. 

I was troubled in many ways by the extent to which food, clothing, resorts and main tourist attractions  were off-limits to Cuban Nationals, who are held back by checkpoints on the road by the Special Brigade police -- supposedly incorruptible black-bereted cops. To me those “Socialismo o muerte” signs are already an empty formula.

Even our friend Pedro had to leave us 2 Km away from the hotel in order to avoid trouble.  In a way we left understanding why electrical engineers like Pedro (with not one but three engineering degrees) were tempted to become another balsero (rafter) and risk a place on a homemade raft to successfully negotiate the 90 miles between Cuba and the Florida coast.

Visiting Cuba is still illegal but at the same time fascinating to the thousands of us who are making the trip. We found Cubans to be extremely well educated, kind, warm and were always delighted to engage in conversations with us.  When Pedro smiled, he usually did so with all his teeth and all his heart. Cubans like him live without much of anything but seem to have their minds set on living life to the fullest. That, to me, is Cuba in a nutshell.   

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Belkis Kambach is the travel editor for Finland-USA in Helsinki, Greenline and a frequent contributor to Toronto’s Globe & the Mail and Epicurean. Married to a Dutch she often writes about the Netherlands Antilles. She can be reached at travelwriter@att.net , or through her Web page, at http://home.att.net/~travelwriter/ .

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