Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Perfect Night and A New Compañera

You wouldn't expect the perfect night in another country to start with a restaurant that had no air conditioning, but that's just how we began an evening that cemented my love and appreciation for Cuba.

And after all, I saw every experience without air conditioning as the chance to have a small taste of what life in Cuba was really like when you didn't have American wealth to taint your worldview.  (American wealth, for the record, starts at about $10 when you're traveling in a country that doesn't have much.)  The food was great, the service was smooth (and ironic, since our waiter looked like the Cuban anti-Castro actor Andy Garcia), and the night was young.  Our group took turns wandering outside between courses, either for smoke breaks or just for some circulation that would make entering the hot restaurant bearable again.  There was live music on the patio, performers that needed no notes so they made eye contact with you as you listened - it gave the impression that they played only for you.

This was definitely a tourist restaurant but it wasn't just our group of Americans that had invaded for the evening.  We gazed at tables of every nationality imaginable on the restaurant patio while we awaited our cue to head back inside.

And then it was time to rebel against protocol (again): when my busmates, full of tiramisu and filet mignon, climbed aboard our bus...I went the opposite direction.  The night ahead was so enjoyable that I - gasp - often forgot to take pictures. 

This time I had a partner in crime.  Afrodite proved that you can, indeed, find someone in a large city without a cell phone and we started our adventures at Plaza de Armas


It wasn't until I was writing this blog that I realized I'd already been to this park on the second day in Havana - Old Havana is so unbelievably different at night that I never would have guessed the quiet bench I sat on to wait for Afrodite, surrounded by Cuban teenagers and the distant sound of music from a nearby restaurant, was only a few feet from this circus we'd seen during the day:


My attempts to describe the enjoyable evening are greatly enhanced by this map of our wanderings.  I just created this, of course - there are absolutely no maps involved when one is truly wandering, as we did all evening.


It's much prettier and, I might add, more impressive when you look at it this way:


Our wanderings started with an unconscious but unanimous decision to go in the opposite direction as the tourist restaurant that was adding the musical accompaniment to our meeting.  We got delightfully lost almost immediately, guided only by a vague assurance that we were somewhere near Casa de Victor Hugo.  I was intrigued - Victor Hugo in Havana?  Les Misérables is one of my favorite books and Hugo's home was one of my favorite spots in Paris so we went in search of this Havana hotspot.  Many "wrong" turns (there's no such thing as a wrong turn when you're wandering) and one totally unhelpful conversation with a 12-year-old police officer later, we did accidentally find Vic's place. 

 


Note that it says "in honor of Victor Hugo," not the home of Hugo.  That is of course because Sir Hugo never lived in Cuba - la casa was founded in 2003 in honor of his support of Cuban independence from Spain, and to provide a place to highlight French literature and culture in Havana.  (Fascinating fact: Hugo was an associate of José Martí, the Cuban national hero.)

Satisfied by our French writer-stalking skills, we refocused on an enjoyment of Havana.  There really is nothing like it at night - the city turns into a giant neighborhood, with doors thrown open to capture any existing breeze in the hot, humid air and people talking, smoking and playing in the streets to escape the cramped space of their own homes.  Cobblestones create a patterned, uneven footfall that is still more safe than most of the crumbling sidewalks.  The tourist after dark feels much less obvious, as if the "sell me things" target painted on your back is hidden under the yellow glow of the street lamps.  It's not that you fit in, because that will never happen, but as if Cubans' own lives have become more interesting now so you're no longer quite as interesting to them.

It's hard to get truly lost in this part of Havana because the Malecón is an ever-present landmark, but we did our best.  We paused to watch a lively basketball game, but only until we were noticed...we continued our walk before we became the observed.


It was too early for the Malecón to be lively - that happened like clockwork at 10:30 every night of the week - so we enjoyed a quiet stroll amongst the in-progress Carnival floats.

 



I'll never quite get over my disappointment about missing Carnival by less than 12 hours, but it's another reason to return to Cuba.  Havana was abuzz with excitement about the festivities throughout our trip: taxi drivers invited us, fliers beckoned revelers and Cubans themselves showed up every day to work on the floats and bleacher seating along the Malecón.  We were gently guided away from the still-unfinished floats by a kind gentleman who warned it was unsafe to walk near the floats due to equipment that was laying on the ground.  We found his warning deliciously ironic since every street in Cuba was a crumbling, dangerous place to walk...but we obeyed him anyway.  I was glad we did when the power went off throughout the neighborhood a few moments later: no one could blame us for tripping over a power cord!  I doubt blame would have been sent our way, however, since everyone was so used to power outages that no one even stopped to look when all the streetlights went out.


We had only one clear goal for the evening: a ride in a Coco Cab.  Thus far, travelling with larger groups of friends had prevented the Havana-specific experience, and we were determined to not go home without it.  The only problem was the total lack of Cocos on the streets.  We chased (and "chased" is not at all an exaggerated term for the situation) several through the streets but never caught up to them or found where they stopped.  The Hotel Nacional seemed like a good consolation prize, however, so we turned off the Malecón to walk the short distance to the Hotel...when we found our Coco Cab, appearing as if divinely placed directly in front of us.

There was nothing graceful about the way we approached "our" Coco, since we were not about to let this one get away.  We ran toward it, hurled ourselves in front of the driver...and there we found Jenny.

 

There's no way to understand our joy about a female Coco Cab driver until you experience the constant interactions we'd had with Cuban men for over a week.  This is not at all to complain about Cuban men as a whole - many of them are lovely, and a very high percentage are respectful and beautiful people.  However, women walking through the streets of Havana don't meet the lovely ones, who ignore you completely or gaze in silent, friendly respect...we heard only from those whose communication style varied on harrassment.  After days of kissing sounds following our steps through the streets, calls of "boyfriend?" and in-your-face offers of restaurants, products or dates, Jenny was like an oasis in a desert.  A Coco Cab ride without constant conversation about where we were staying, what we were doing or whether we'd like to go dancing?  Yes, please!

Our request would have been odd if Cubans weren't used to Americans being odd: we want to go to that hotel that's a block away, but first we want to go everywhere but there.  But Jenny understood, accepted our compliment on her oh-so-cute yellow helmet, and jetted off back along the Malecón.




Jenny played driver, friend and tour guide.  It was impressive to see how many of the Havana highlights we'd already visited at least once: the one time we did stop to gawk was at El Capitolio.  Similar in many ways to the U.S. Capitol, the beautiful domed building created a more impressive aura at night than it did during the day.  The lighting allowed the statues to cast daunting shadows along the walls of the building and the lit dome glowed with hope that someday the building might again serve as more than meeting space and museums.

The statues are 21 feet tall and were created by the Italian artist Angelo Zanelli. On the left is El Trabajo (Work) and La Virtud Tutelar (The Tutelary Virtue) is on the right.

The Capitol building had a rough start: it was begun in 1917 but was stalled by World War I, and an explosion in 1918 ruined the dome. A former President hit the "reset" button in 1929, demolished the start of the original building and started again. The building housed the Cuban Congress until the Revolution eliminated the need for such an unruly group of elected officials.


I'm guessing lobbyists don't get a lot of access to the buildings where government really acts.

And then, after an unfortunate moment in which I misinterpreted Japanese tourists' desire to take a photo with Jenny's cab for an attempt to steal our precious chariot, we were back on the streets of Old Havana.


Our stop at El Capitolio, along with every red light, made the Coco ride even more adventurous because the motor of Jenny's cab would die every time we came to a complete stop.  For some this would have been a problem, but not for Jenny.  There was always a male somewhere nearby who would respond to her curt whistle for help and would push the cab until the motor roared to life and, with a wave of her hand to our temporary aid, we were off again.


I have no idea how long we were in that wonderful Coco but it was at least 45 minutes.  $20 for a dream come true and a new friend?  Deal.



 
Hotel Nacional seemed eerily quiet after the buzz of the Coco Cab and the shouts from the now-full Havana streets (it was after that magical hour of 10:30 when all Cubans seem to wake up and take to the streets for fun and gossip), but we settled into the peaceful environment.  Thanks to my previous experience with the grand Hotel I had it all figured out...except for the part about getting a waiter's attention.  We weren't in a hurry, though, so we enjoyed the quiet overlooking the Malecón's exciting activities and added to our discussion on U.S. policy toward Cuba until we could accept that our perfect Cuban night had slowed to an end.



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