Wednesday, August 15, 2012

And on the Seventh Day...

Though I regret the earlier than usual bedtime of the night before now that I'm home and missing Cuba, I felt great when I woke up August 1 to begin a day of activities. (So why is it that the same six hours of sleep only leaves me feeling tired when I'm home?  Vacation wins this round.)

The only drawback to my newly-discovered ability to walk around a city all night long was that I didn't enjoy the very early mornings like I often do in a new place.  In my defense, I didn't get light until it was almost time for our breakfast buffet so I didn't have much of an opportunity to prowl but when I did it was both insightful and enjoyable.

It was enjoyable for obvious reasons: no traffic, few people, slightly-less-hot weather.  The humidity of the mornings is somehow even more than later in the day but in the morning, it's more welcoming to those stepping out of air-conditioned hotels and vehicles.  Roosters call out their morning alert and not a single person is on the street trying to sell you something.  (I know this for certain because I was actively searching for the newspaper guy who fed my addiction for overpriced month-old Granma papers in English.) 

It was insightful because it was the time I got to see the most details of how the city operates.  Those clean streets that surprised me every day?  It's because of those guys in worn jumpsuits sweeping curbs with handmade brooms out of dried leaves (though I suspect there's a cultural element, too, since I never saw anyone just toss trash into the street).  Those Coco Cabs always ready to whisk you to your destination in style?  They're clean because the drivers spend each morning caring for them as they find their prime sales spot at the curb. 

In most places, the city comes to life in the morning - in Havana, it hits the snooze button until it's time to burst into sudden action.
Speaking of the snooze button, everyone in my group slowly collected themselves in a guava-filled daze for the long day ahead.  (Okay so I was the only one that was guava-filled - I loved it so much that it's all I ate for breakfast at this point.  Two plates full of guava, por favor.  The seeds probably will cause stomach problems for years.)
Our first stop of the day was a visit I'd been anticipating since months before our trip: the Santeria museum.  I like to understand every culture's religious preferences as much as possible because I understand how much it influences the lives of those I'm visiting...but despite lots of reading on the subject before I left, I just couldn't quite grasp Santeria.  (Spoiler alert: I still can't.)  My enthusiasm for learning about the religion was temporarily overshadowed, though, when we arrived at the Museo de Guanabacoa because the photographer side of me kicked in - this building was absolutely beautiful.

To share my obsession with photos of this amazing building, click here.

The Santeria information was interesting, of course, in a way that only discussions about animal sacrifices can be.  I chose to ignore that part and focused on the fact that for one full year, those being "inducted" into the religion must wear all white.  I appreciated that knowledge since it explained the all-white clothing I saw several times after that.

The basics: Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that was formed when the Spanish forced African slaves in Cuba to conform to Catholic beliefs.  The Africans did what many other cultures have done: assigned their gods to Catholic symbols and continued their religious beliefs in disguise.  Cuba is perhaps the least religious country I've ever visited (Cathi Herrod would not like their policies on birth control) but there is a large following of Santeria.  If you're interested, a simple Google search will be much more informative than I am.  Halfway through the tour I did what I do best: ditched the group and wandered back into the gorgeous blue and white courtyard.

My new friend with a Dodgers cap.

I could have stayed in that peaceful area for hours but the rest of my group got tired of waiting for the Santeria dancers to arrive for their scheduled performance.  My one experience with democracy in Cuba did not work out well for me since I was the only one who voted to wait for the dancers.  It was a clear tyranny of the majority but I begrudgingly got back on the bus because the next stop was one I'd waited 32 years to see: Hemingway's house!
(Note: this was the only time a scheduled performance didn't work out, and the director of the dance group literally ran after our bus to apologize.  Kudos to the tour guides and Havanatur company for keeping things on schedule in spite of repeated reminders of the "f word" - flexibility - necessary to dealing with life in Cuba.)

Hemingway's house has been at the top of my "to visit" list for a long time, but it has more to do with the fact that it's in Cuba than with any affection for him. I can't work up much loyalty to someone who was rather horrible to women, but his love for animals is a pretty redeeming quality.

First stop: the baseball field Hemingway had built in order to keep neighborhood kids from using his trees as a target for their batting practice.  It's sad that it's not in better shape - I hope kids are still allowed to play there.

It's easy to see why Hemingway spent so much of his life here - I would, too, if given the choice.  (Then again, I'd be happy spending large amounts of my life there even without the nice house.)  This was my favorite feature of the house, overlooked by even astute tour guides: paw prints in the concrete of the front steps.

They've done a wonderful job of preserving the lived-in feel of this place - at any moment, I expected to bump into one of Hemingway's dogs or a visiting writer.  It just added to the overall Midnight in Paris aura that hovered over Cuba every time an old car drove by - I expected Zelda Fitzgerald to pop out from behind the bar. 

If you're interested (and you should be) in Hemingway's house, there are lots more pictures here.  I'll just focus on my favorite part: the bathroom.

Hemingway was apparently very concerned about gaining weight...all those marks behind the door on the wall were him tracking his weight.  Pathetic and endearing all at the same time, isn't it?

Anyone who visits my house knows I am not opposed to reading material in the restroom, but a whole bookcase?  Now that's an impressive commitment to literacy.
Finally meeting Pilar!

There was confusion about whether the four graves next to the boat belonged to Hemingway's dogs or six-toed cats, but the answer is: the dogs.  How can I be so sure Erik was right about this?  NPR told me.

After an enjoyable - and quiet - time spent at Ernest's place, we were back on the bus for another anticipated visit: Morro Castle.  Officially it's Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, and its history will boggle the mind.  Built in 1589 (yes, that's a FIVE), it did a great job of protecting the Havana harbor...until it didn't.  The British mined one of its bastions in the 1700s and took over Cuba until they traded it for Florida.  (I have absolutely no idea what mining bastions is but I assume it was a bad thing, at least for the Cubans.)  Now it's a museum with one of the most amazing views of Havana.

The view through one of the gun holes in the outer walls.

There's a beautiful lighthouse that was added to the grounds in 1846.  Visitors can climb to the top but not, apparently, when they show up during the Lighthouse Doorkeeper's lunch hour. (That's just a trace of bitterness you might sense in my tone - I was looking forward to both the workout and the view.)

If you're interested in war history (that means you, dad!) click here for a photo album of my walk through Morro.

And then it was time to return to one of my favorite places in the world: Old Havana.  This time I met a new friend: The Gentleman from Paris.  The statue was added to this street in 2001 to celebrate the life of  José María López who was, contrary to his nickname, born in Spain in 1899.  He moved to Cuba in 1913 and dubbed himself The Gentleman from Paris.  He is described as "a well-spoken vagabond" who wandered through Havana wearing a cape and giving gifts to people after he was released from jail following a conviction for a crime he didn't commit.  Of course that kind of kindness is suspicious - he was placed in a psychiatric hospital (the one right by the airport, for my busmates who remember the site) and he died there eight years later. 
The Gentleman is a popular landmark in Havana and, as is true with most popular statues, violating his personal space is supposed to bring good luck.  I knew that if you rub his finger your wish comes true so I held his hand with optimism.  I didn't know, however, that rubbing his beard means you'll return to Cuba.  I'll have to make it happen without Spanish-Parisian luck, I guess.

We sat down for a really lovely meal in one of the most beautiful restaurants I've ever seen (also, I believe, visited by Anthony Bourdain) but then wanderlust hit me.  It was a beautiful nice tempting day outside - okay it was incredibly hot and it made no sense to leave the air conditioning, lobster and great conversation offered at the lunch...but I did it anyway.  My departure from Cuba was looming and I wanted to enjoy every possible moments here that I could.  So my granola bar and I took to the streets. (I'd say that this is when Erik and my busmates knew I was crazy, but let's not fool ourselves...they'd figured out my sanity issues long before day seven.)

My solitary wanderings were bliss.  I was invited into a woman's home on the street photographed above, where we somehow had a conversation despite a total lack of understanding of each other's languages.  Sign language for the symptoms of cholera transcend language, and I sympathized with the frustration she shared about the government's failure to share any information with Cubans about the cholera outbreak that had recently occured in eastern Cuba.  That short visit to her home was one of the highlights of my trip, and I'll share more about it when I drone on and on talk about infrastructure and housing in Cuba.
Speaking of housing, I found this new place to live.

And best of all, I watched these three boys playing baseball in the street, somehow managing to avoid breaking both people and windows while doing so.

This was one of only two places I found on my trip where I could quietly watch without being approached for favors or conversation.  The park was full of Cubans but we all sat quietly, watching the group of kids playing dodgeball (kickball?) in the center of the park.

I returned to the restaurant in time for ice cream and apologies to those who didn't understand my inability to sit still, and we all set off for the next stop: a rum factory.

There's no way to describe the smell that seeped through your senses when you walked through the doors of this place.  My scribbled notes say "overwhelming smell of sweet alcohol" which is not at all helpful in trying to communicate the adjusting my nostrils attempted to do.  It wasn't bad or unpleasant...just totally overwhelming.

The smell was bearable as long as I could listen to the incredibly funny commentary of our guide/salesman, "Big Daddy."  No one who meets him could ever be ambivalent - you either love this guy or hate him.  I, for one, adored him and laughed so much through his quick-paced lecture that he probably thought I was drunk on the rum fumes.  He cracked mother in law jokes, he insulted, he coaxed...and through it all, he referred to us as "his Chamber children."  Erik said he's received many job offers from tourists in the rum factory and I have no doubt of it - I would have bought just about anything just because he was so enjoyable to be with.  I even forgave him for not selling me empty cigar boxes (but I did try, Amy Love!). 

Our action-filled day came to an unpredicted - though short-lived - halt for a few moments on the way to the next stop when we ran into this scene.  An accident?  An arrest?  A mechanical failure?  Nope, it was a movie scene - you can barely see the one video camera set up on the right, in front of that silver van. 

And here's the part where I feel the most regret in describing what came next.  We arrived at the San Jose Market, an enormous swap-meet where private artists and sales experts hawk their wares to anyone who enters.  There were amazing things in here, and even some variety.  But I really dislike shopping and was tired and broke at that point, so I missed the opportunity to bring home some really great treasures like those found by my travel companions...I went back to the bus for a 20-minute nap.

I did, at least, take time to appreciate the industry that occurs on this waterway - it's amazing how much can get done with old equipment.

The shopping victors returned to their seats, I woke up, and we returned to the hotel to freshen up for our evening of Cuban dining.

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