Aside from the architecture, the other sight that catches your attention immediately is the old 50s era vehicle rambling down the bumpy highway next to you. Before the revolution and ensuing embargo, most of the cars in Cuba were apparently American-made vehicles. Post-embargo, most people either can’t afford new cars or don’t have access to them, so thousands of these vintage automobiles are rolling around the streets of Havana. It’s like a time warp.
Unfortunately, parts for these cars are also difficult to acquire, so they’re kept running through many creative patches and tractor parts and whatever else keeps the wheels turning. The effect is that most of them belch awful black smoke from the exhaust pipes and I found myself choking a bit on the fumes, especially when we first arrived. Between that and the cigar and cigarette smoke (people smoke EVERYWHERE), I realized how much I’d taken for granted those gulps of fresh air I get at home. But, at least the cars were fun to look at, even if you have to hold your breath when they cruise by.
One of our first tasks upon arriving in Havana was to find a way to call home and check on Camille. We bought an international phone card at the hotel, and began trekking through town trying to find a phone booth that would accept it. There are lots of pay phones, but many are broken. Of the ones that work, very few were programmed to handle international calls.
This was the only phone booth we discovered in all of Havana we could call from, so we made a daily pilgrimage the 5 blocks or so and waited in line to call. It was across from the “May 13th Plaza,” a nice tree-lined square that we felt particularly fond of because our first date was on May 13th.
One advantage of visiting with seasoned travelers is that they know all the good spots to go, including La Guarida. La Guarida is a paladar, which is the Cuban term for a restaurant inside someone’s home. When Cuba began to open it’s country to tourism in the 90s, the government allowed select people the right to operate restaurants and hotels from their homes. When we pulled up to this particular paladar, I had reservations, and I’m not talking about a table for 20. It was obvious that the building was once a fine three-story mansion, with tall wooden doors carved with intricate designs. But push open those doors, and you step into a crumbling foyer. At one time, it was a grand entrance – there is evidence in what’s left of the beautiful plaster ceilings.
A large marble staircase spans the entryway, but the railing was broken, the statue decapitated, and a sign hung on the side cautioning us that it was fragile.
With care, we climbed the three stories to the top floor. The home has been split into about 25 apartments, if you can call them that. They are small flats with little or no privacy. You hear everyone’s music, everyone’s television, and can peer directly into their living rooms. This particular shot is of someone’s front door, except there is no door – just a shirt hung across the doorway.
But to the left of the stairs is a set of real doors. To the left of the doors, a doorbell. We rang it, and the doors opened to reveal and honest-to-goodness restaurant, with candelabras, art on the walls, and tons of charm. We drank fancy drinks and ate red snapper, and I was torn between feeling excited about the experience and guilty because I knew the other people living here probably couldn’t imagine this meal. How can such a nice restaurant exist in the middle of all this? Another Cuban contradiction.
In honor of Ernest Hemingway, we ate at a restaurant in Cojimar that he frequented, and we visited La Bodeguita del Medio, his favorite place for a mojito. We did a little of this:
And a little of that:
And it was all quite good. La Bodeguita is about half a block from Havana’s cathedral – a beautiful old building surrounded by tropical flowers in bloom.
On our second full day in Cuba, we met up with Alaberto Cuellar, a retired pastor who has become friends with our pastor over the years.
He’s a kind, gentle man who has worked hard to spread his faith in the face of some impossible circumstances. He has found success in recent years, with the building of this new sanctuary in his hometown of Guanabacoa (just outside of Havana). It’s a nice building, and compared to those around it, it’s exceptional.
But he seems especially fond of “la finca,” or the farm. It’s a parcel of land atop a hill on the way out of Guanabacoa, with two buildings situated on top with a garden and some chickens wandering the campus. It serves as a retreat for area Baptists to gather and hold meetings. From the roof of the main building, I snapped this photo of la finca’s main caretaker looking at the expansive view of the land below.
This is when our trip started to make a little more sense to me, because my church and several others raised money to help Alaberto purchase la finca. This is a peaceful haven that wouldn’t have been possible without help, and I’m quite proud to belong to a helping church.
Alaberto doesn’t speak much English, and our pastor doesn’t speak much Spanish, so the tour of the sanctuary and of la finca was difficult at times. I used to know a decent amount of Spanish, but it has been many years since I’ve used it and I’ve forgotten so much. But I concentrated very hard, and was able to help translate as Alaberto showed us around. I’m sure I probably got some things horribly wrong, but I know I also got some things right, and that was a wonderful feeling. I finally felt like I learned that language for a reason, and it came in handy throughout the trip.
We also visited a Jewish cemetery in Guanabacoa. Because so many Cuban ex-patriots cannot return to pay respects to their loved ones who’ve died, our traveling companions from the Savannah synagogue wanted to pay respects for them. A special prayer was said as we gathered around the holocaust memorial – I didn’t understand the Hebrew words, but I didn’t need to.
Saturday, we checked out of the Hotel Plaza and loaded up into our two vans to head for Sancti Spiritus, a town about the size of Savannah in Cuba’s interior. We rode along the autopista, which is a 6 lane highway built by the Soviets, but unfortunately no one has bothered to maintain it. The trip felt like a 5 hour roller-coaster ride as we swerved to dodge pot holes, and bounced around on the pot holes we couldn’t avoid. We also had to swerve around an ox cart and lots of horses and buggies. On the main highway. I kid you not. Our view changed from cityscape to rolling hills with small farms dotted by palm trees and thatch-roofed houses.
Rolling into Sancti Spiritus, I noticed some of the same poor housing, but without the choking fumes and crowded streets of Havana. There were bus stops, but horse carts picked up the waiting residents for their trip through town. Our hotel was just amazing – it was an old doctor’s mansion that had been converted into a 16 room bed and breakfast.
Our room had three balconies overlooking a city street and a square, with the carved wooden doors typical of that Spanish style. This was our view from the rooftop.
The main house had an interior courtyard open to the sky, with rocking chairs beckoning you to sit and relax.
Across the street was La Casa De La Trova, a wonderful music venue featuring local artists. Our first night there the place was too crowded for us to get inside, so we went back to our hotel room and just opened a balcony door. The musicians play in an open-air courtyard, so their music rose up into the air and could be heard perfectly from our room. This was fantastic until we were ready for bed – then problematic until the party stopped around 2 or 3 a.m. Then promptly at 8 a.m., the church bells from the cathedral across the square were pealing to be sure we were awake. Thanks.
But we were awake, because this was our day to go to the service at our sister church, The Geneseret Baptist Church of Sancti Spiritus. It was my favorite day of the trip, but I’ll have to write about it later if I plan to get any sleep tonight!