Following Hurricane Matthew - Winter 2017 travel blog

Hotel Nacional



socialist building

love that car









Hemingway bar







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taxi ride on the malecon

To our guide Havana is a big city. And indeed compared to the rest of her country it is. But 20% of the only 12 million Cuban people live here, a city that is significant, but not overwhelming. Marialina keeps warning us about crowds and bad traffic, but compared to London, Paris, New York, there's no comparison. There are few traffic lights and our bus driver zips through intersections with impunity. He's not a risky driver; he knows that there is never anyone coming the other way.

We had a great lecture from a musician who taught us 500 years of Cuban history through music. We think of ourselves as a melting pot, but this little island has melted and merged and fused with the best. The combination of European religious music with Moorish influences with African slave traditions and rhythms with folk music with jazz from the US has resulted in samba, salsa and cha cha. You can't listen to Cuban music without wiggling your body. We've heard that Cubans are much less race conscious than we are. That certainly is true for Cuban music; if it's good they mix it in no matter where it came from.

Our city tour today started at the Columbus Cemetary, a spot that I compared to La Recoleta in Buenos Aries. Again, on a much smaller scale although the game plan was the same. It was named for the explorer who was buried here until they dug him up and took him back to Spain. The main boulevard through the cemetery was where the wealthiest families of the city built family tombs, which they theoretically still own. Cubans are not embalmed and after two years, what's left of the corpse is disinterred and put in an urn. This way there is always plenty of space for new arrivals; there are about forty funerals a day here and there's always room for more. Recycling is a Cuban art.

The rest of the city is hard to describe, perhaps because it is so varied. Magnificent buildings are side by side with buildings that appear ready to fall down. Rococo palaces are next to grim, gray Soviet era apartment buildings. Generally if a building has a touristic purpose, it is likely to be restored. The government does not allow Cubans to move here from the countryside unless they have a job and someone to live with. They don't want squatters to occupy the many empty and dilapidated buildings until they have been refurbished. We can see them working on it, but there's no end in sight. There is no subway; almost the only buses I've noticed are for tourists. Cabs and taxis are predominantly old American cars lovingly restored painted every color of the rainbow. Traditionally, Spanish colonial cities have a main square with the most imposing buildings around the edges. Havana has four such squares. We've seen two so far and we were underwhelmed. There are plenty of tourists milling around; many sound like us. There are two other groups from our tour company staying at our hotel. A huge crowd was gathered around a bar that Ernest Hemingway used to frequent. We can't see standing in line for two hours to drink a mojito when we get a welcome drink every lunch and every dinner.

Dinner this evening took us to what looked like a bad neighborhood. Crumbling buildings were festooned with drying laundry. People hung over the balconies watching us watching them. Doors were wide open. Dogs were wandering around. Residents were gathered around a water truck; this neighborhood had no water service from the city. But the restaurant which was also an art gallery was fabulous. It is run by one of Fidel's sons and ironically a man named Batista. They virtually gutted an abandoned building that used to be a jewelry store and started over. Batista spoke to us and said he hopes and prays for Home Depot to come to Havana. Refurbishment would go a lot faster if more supplies were reliably available. Nearly everything inside the restaurant was cleverly repurposed stuff they had scrounged from other abandoned buildings. Many of the streets make me think of sci fi films that portray what the world is like in the 27th century after the world imploded.

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