Cuba (properly pronounced “Coobah”) is a place that breaks your heart and lifts your spirit all in the same day.
The Clown, by virtue of being married to the current wife who is a member of the People Who Actually Contribute to Society, Atlanta Chapter, was allowed to venture into Cuba for one week in February. (On his own, the Clown has multiple TSA travel restrictions, especially to those places where U.S. and foreign relations are edgy. If you haven’t been paying attention, the U.S. and Cuba have had an edgy relationship for more than five decades. So, visiting Cuba on his own is not possible.)
Your first clue that Cuba has a different approach to airline travel than most other countries is the two hour wait for checked bags at the José Marti International Airport in Havana (properly pronounced “Habana”). See, the Cuban authorities don’t much care if you take firearms out of the country but woe unto those who try to bring them into the country. Ergo, all checked baggage entering the country gets inspected by one very old X-ray machine with one operator. Travel Safety Tip: Do not check bags when going to Cuba!
The original airport opened in 1930 and expanded to include Terminal 2 in 1988. Terminal 2 is where the charter flights from the U.S. come and go. If it were still 1988 and the Terminal was a bus station, it would be fashion forward. As an airline terminal in 2016, not so much. Many amenities that international travelers take for granted are missing in Terminal 2, including toilet seats and toilet paper. Traveler Safety Tip: Do not show up at José Marti Airport Terminal 2 with a bad case of intestinal problems, either coming or going.
While the Clown was in country, Cuba and the U.S. signed an air travel agreement which will allow an additional 20 regularly scheduled U.S. carrier flights per day. Having seen how the current level of airline traffic in and out of Terminal 2 is processed, the prospect of 20 additional jet liners filled with visitors every day gives the Clown a serious case of the willies, a condition for which toilet seats and toilet paper are not required.
Our group of 20 pilgrims finally boarded our bus, one built by the famous Chinese bus maker, “Yutong” which loosely translates in Mandarin to “breaks often”. Besides having a permanently locked bathroom door (probably designed to hide the fact that there was no toilet seat), the Yutong served us well.
Our first residence was a tourist hotel in the hotsy-totsy western suburb of Miramar. The route to this government-built, sea-side hotel took us by the famous USSR embassy. Designed by Aleksandr Rochegov, the construction took nine years (1978-1987) and resulted in a massive brick building that basically looks like a giant lint roller. Given the beauty of the classical architecture of places such as Saint Petersburg, Russia, one might expect a different look but the brutalist Soviet aesthetic prevailed. In a word, hideous. Hopefully, Aleksandr did not receive a generous pension.
After two nights in Miramar, our lodgings were moved to Old Havana (please remember, in your mind, to think, “Habana”, to maintain the authentic flow of this narrative).
Old Havana is basically a habitated ruin. When you read that Havana is in a time warp, suggesting that the city is just like returning to 1959, what you are reading is travel writer’s spin. Old Havana is like visiting an abandoned factory that was padlocked in 1959, except that people live and work there but no one bothers to maintain the factory, so it crumbles. What were once elegant stone facades are now disfigured eyesores. The years and weather have had their way. This is one of the parts of Cuba that breaks your heart.
True, the streets are crawling with vintage American cars. The ones with fresh paint, blue exhaust, protective plastic over the rolled and tucked upholstery, old suspension and who knows what engine, are taxis. Many are convertibles so that tourists can enjoy the tropical weather and relive their youth for all to see.
The cars with faded paint, blue exhaust, no upholstery, mismatched or hand-made bumpers, missing tail lights and only one out of four doors that works, are family cars, usually seen with the entire family on board. It would be charming if not for the fact that these families would damn sure like a better car but can’t afford to get one.
What lifts your spirits are those ambitious Cubans who are taking advantage of the small cracks of capitalism that Raul Castro has allowed to open. The paladars (privately owned restaurants) are the most visible but we also visited with other very small private business owners (seamstress, vintage car restorer and B&B owners) who are moving up the economic ladder in fits and starts. Of course the economic ladder starts at a very low bar. The average government-provided wage is about 500 Cuban pesos per month which sounds pretty meager and then you realize that this figure translates to $21. Now we’re talkin’ meager. Party!, Party!, let’s hear it for the Communist Party. Of course the people get free health care and education but still….
Towards the middle of our week in Cuba, we motored to a western town in a tobacco-farming region. The town of Viñales has become world famous as a hip tourist destination where visitors stay in privately-owned bed and breakfasts and the local farmers, if not growing tobacco for cigars, are doing the organic gig. Given that obtaining pesticides and manufactured fertilizer is close to impossible in Cuba, the “organic farming” shtick is a brilliant example of turning lemons into lemonade; organic lemonade.
Viñales, however, is toilet seat challenged. Nothing like a cold porcelain toilet bowl to super-charge your morning constitutional.
The Clown’s accommodations in Viñales had an interesting heating system for the shower. A tiny water heater was located in the shower head, thus requiring an electrical connection. Having often been warned about the dangers of combining electricity and water, the design tended to cause angst. Also, the volume of water thus heated was necessarily quite small and the water pressure was minimal. However, by jumping around, while avoiding contact with the shower head, one could get mostly wet, lather and rinse. Sorta.
The food was authentic and our hosts very pleasant. Given that the family spoke no English and the Clown’s Spanish is limited to “enchilada especial”, “taco grande” and “cerveza”, there was much smiling and nodding. Our host owned a gray ’55 Dodge which was in decent shape but left a noticeable oil slick every morning.
Finally, back to Havana and a two-night stay in the infamous Capri Hotel. This hotel, originally opened in 1957, was owned by Santo Trafficante, a mafioso from Tampa. It was one of the largest and most famous hotel/casinos in Havana during the American mob’s salad days in Cuba. The Hollywood B-movie tough guy, George Raft, became the property’s front man. Now, the casino is a dance club and if your hotel room is on the wrong side of the hallway and not up high enough, the incessant rhythm of the conga drums, deep into the early morning hours, can make you wish that one of Santo’s henchmen could go down and whack the entire band.
The Clown experienced no hostile attitude from the Cubans who seemed genuinely pleased that Americans, many in hideous tourist attire and white tennis shoes, would soon flood the island. Although, in the hideous tourist attire category, it’s hard to top the hordes of eastern Europeans who have been vacationing in Cuba for decades. The memo about not mixing, say, tropical floral print tops with, say, paisley shorts seems not to have been delivered east of Baden Baden. Add to this the standard European black socks with sandal combination and….well, you get the picture.
The Clown is glad he went and glad to be back in the land of toilet seats. The Castro brothers haven’t created a socialist utopia with almost 60 years of effort, but the Cuban people seem to accept that reality with ingenuity and grace. The future of Cuba is unclear but probably better than the social/political experiment of the past 57 years. The Clown, however, is not going back until Cuba has an established plumbing fixture distributor.
Observoid of the Day: “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Alberto Brandolini