Last fall, I was watching TV and minding my own business when the Lovely Louise says something to me. Well, I'm watching TV so I said sure, that's fine. I hear her say, “great,” and think nothing of it. Later, when the show is over and I can actually turn my attention to her, she says, “It's all set.”
Me: What's all set?
Louise: We're going to Cuba?
Me: WHAT? I can't go to Cuba—I'm American.
Louise: You can now, and I just booked it. We leave in two weeks.
Two weeks later we landed in Havana, taxied to the terminal, and stopped about 200 feet from the building. The International Airport is right out of Mayberry RFD. I kept looking for Opie to come and get our bags. We had to wait to exit the plane until they brought a bus over to drive us the 200 feet to the building. After ten minutes with everyone watching the bus at the terminal not moving, they decided we could walk to the building, which we did.
Making it safely through customs, we were promptly met by our tour guide and ushered aboard what appeared to be a brand new tour bus—made in China, of course. The bus took us to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a stately matron of the 1930s. Considered a five-star hotel in Cuba, it was nearly to Motel 6 standards. We were in room 232, whose claim to fame was that it had been the favorite room of Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame. The room was decorated with pictures of Johnny and Cheeta, his faithful chimpanzee companion. Quaint.
I was told that, because I am American, I was not allowed to wander off on my own and had to stay with the tour. I was informed that, if I didn't show up, I would be reported to the Cuban government. Okay then, stay with the tour there, Cliffie.
Lunch and dinner were included in the package price. Every restaurant we went to featured rice with black beans. They were all so similar, I think the same guy made them for every restaurant. I had expected wonderful and mystical Cuban flavors, but found that every dinner tasted pretty much the same. They're great at roast chicken and pork, but that's about it. I wondered why, Cuba being an island nation, we couldn't have amazingly fresh fish. I was informed by the tour guide that the fish comes from Venezuela, since there are no fishing boats in Cuba.
“Why not,” I naively asked.
“Because,” they told me, “if we had fishing boats, they would all head to Miami.” Sometimes I can be incredibly stupid.
I should say a word or three about the Malecón, a four-mile wall that runs along the west side of the entrance to Havana Harbor. At any hour of the day or night, you will find people sitting, standing, or walking along the Malecón as it is the main meeting place of Havana. Talk a walk and you will be propositioned by both men and women for just about anything you might desire. It is very common to see older white men with beautiful, young Cuban women whom they “date” while on vacation. Lovely Louise kept a very close eye on me …
One day, we visited the home and gallery of José Fuster, a famous Cuban artist whose works are exhibited around the world. Cuban art seems somewhat primitive: the most popular works are very colorful and cartoonish, and Mr. Fuster’s works are a prime example of this quality. When we visited the Fine Arts Museum, I found out why most American museums do not have a Cuban art section: It sucks, and the best place to display it would be on a refrigerator. There is one exception, Tomas Sanchez, but good luck buying one of his paintings. You might be able to trade your house for one.
Let's talk about cars for a moment. Everywhere in Havana, you see old Fords, Chevys, and Buicks, and a remarkable number of Edsels. Most are held together by bondo, spit, and baling wire. They are not “cherry” by any means. Every once in a while I’d see one that looked like it just came off the showroom floor, and I would instinctively start to drool. Parts are a major problem. Although they can get some from friends and family who come to visit from the States, most make their own parts, which makes for some very interesting Frankenstein automobiles!
Everywhere in Havana there are street musicians, peddlers, and hustlers. The main difference from America is that when you say no, for the most part they smile, tip their hats, and wish you a good day. The Cuban people are unfailingly polite and helpful. They know a lot about America, certainly far more than we know about Cuba. Surprisingly, the two American TV stations they have are ESPN and CNN, both in English. They have all the American music, American TV shows dubbed in Spanish, and all of our movies. To a man, they are looking forward to the lifting of the embargo and are eagerly awaiting the changes that will come when this happens. They have no idea what they are in for when large corporations invest hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. I shudder just thinking about it.
Music is everywhere. There are small bands and combos playing at every restaurant and street corner. The music is wonderful, very Latin. Every band knows at least two songs Americans might be familiar with—Guantanamera and Cielito Lindo. I'm sick to death of both. Every time a band asked if we were American and I said yes, they immediately launched into one of those songs and then tried to sell me their CD. Every band has a CD to sell to tourists. I bought a couple and I'm still not sure why.
To me, the most interesting thing of all was that I asked every Cuban I met where they would like to visit once the embargo is lifted. Not one of them wanted to leave Cuba. Not one.
If you have a chance to visit Cuba before we ruin it, you must go. Seriously, go before it's not Cuba anymore. I'll have the Lovely Louise book it for you while you're watching TV and not paying attention.