Beauty in Ruins: A Chronicle of Six Days in Havana and the Cuban Countryside
This was the kind of singular experience that jolts you out of the way you live. Havana is visually and emotionally extraordinary: old-Europe grandeur in Caribbean colors, crumbling, patched together, home to vibrant and tenacious people scraping by on ingenuity and black-market trade, crowded in mansions-turned-tenements. Art and music have thrived despite political repression, and by the time of our visit, the economic system had already subtly begun to shift, under the regime of the second Castro brother.
My husband, Philip, and I booked this trip months before President Obama’s December 17th, 2014, announcement about normalizing US-Cuba relations. Americans have long been allowed to visit Cuba for Educational or Humanitarian Purposes. Our tour group, under the former category, flew straight from Miami. And so, given that historic announcement, it turned out we were traveling there at a compelling moment, alive with conjecture and possibility.
Day One: Arrival
At José Martí International Airport, our plane parks in its designated spot. The stairs-on-wheels arrive, and yet we are not permitted to open the door. There are no busses, the pilot explains. We’re only about a hundred yards from the terminal. We can see it right there out the windows. But protocol requires that we ride a bus, and all busses are busy.
Half an hour and one ludicrously short bus ride later, we enter the terminal—the airport’s oldest and most slipshod, reserved by the Cuban government for flights from the United States.
Passport control is a series of claustrophobic little particleboard booths, through which we are processed one at a time. (Spouses are ordered, via dictatorial barking, to wait behind the line.) Each of us is photographed, then finally given the buzzer that allows us to pass through an extra-extra-small, rickety door into the dingy artificial light of the terminal. The flimsy passport control structure blocks all sunlight from entering this space, except for the blinding glimpses each time one of these tiny doors opens to admit someone.
X-ray machines, metal detectors, then luggage collection: two carousels, and your bag might arrive on either one. Every Cuban coming from the States is importing a flat-screen TV. All of these are cocooned in many layers of plastic wrap, as are the Cubans’ suitcases. Under the top layer of plastic is a piece of paper bearing the owner’s name in magic marker: Maria, Manolo, Rubin, Fernando, Alejandro. The crowd is so thick you can’t see both carousels at once, so couples split up to watch for bags.
There’s a high-spirited group in matching turquoise shirts that say “Orphan’s Heart.” A nun at a desk accepts customs cards from Cuban citizens. “Gracias, mi amor, y bienvenido,” she tells a young man in a Mets cap. Two customs guys stand mid-crowd with drug-sniffing dogs on leashes. One black dog, one brown-and-white spotted. This dog looks up at his handler; the handler roughly scratches the dog’s chin. The front paw comes up; the man grabs the paw and pats it in a special, gruff way, then absentmindedly strokes the dog’s upturned face. Beside the first carousel, two little girls play at tapping each bag that rolls past. A suitcase with a broken metal handle nearly stabs them both.
It takes two hours for our group of eighteen to collect all suitcases and move through the final line, out into the sunny parking lot where our tour bus waits. First car we see is a purple-and-white, tail-finned ’57 Ford, with a couple of guys leaning on it.
Cuba is really big. Most Americans don’t realize this. It’s 780 miles long—which, give or take ten miles, is as long as California or Texas. (Cuba’s nearest neighbor, Florida, is only 447 miles north-to-south.) Population: eleven million plus; highly concentrated in urban areas. Government: Marxist-Leninist single-party state. President: 83-year-old Raúl Castro, baby brother of Fidel. Natural resources: sugar, tobacco, fish, citrus fruits, coffee, nickel, oil. Literacy rate: 98%, one of the highest in the world. Average salary: about twenty bucks a month, but pretty much everyone lives on black-market trade, or at least works multiple jobs. Three triumphs of the revolution, from an obvs. bright-side perspective: healthcare, education, and public safety. (It’s true—no guns on the street.) Three national sports, as people like to say: baseball, infidelity, and running after the bus.
Our tour guide, Alicia, has never been off the island. She is forty-three years old, wearing blue eyeshadow and an earnest expression as she stands at the front of our bus, holding the microphone. She speaks of the beauty of Havana, her lifelong home. She shows us ruined mansions, painted in patchwork tropical colors, sixty people living in a house built for six. She shows us the grey marble tower of the Plaza de la Revolutión, where Fidel used to give his seven-hour speeches. She tells us these nice new busses were sent by the Chinese; those tiny Polski cars, imported from Poland during the Soviet era, are nicknamed Poliquitos; the big American ‘50’s cars, mostly used as taxis now, are almedrones—big almonds.
We’re staying at the Hotel Saratoga, across from the Capitol building, overlooking a chaotic intersection through which those old patched-together cars clatter and honk at all hours of the day and night. If you’re expecting third-world accommodations, you’re pleasantly surprised: aqua-tiled shower with rain head and glass door; large bedroom with desk, sofa and chairs and relatively clean tile floor; several cans of faux-Pringles and salted sunflower seeds in the mini-bar; large bottle of water; abundant toilet paper; even a box of Kleenex.
In early evening our group gathers on the roof deck, beside the surprisingly glamorous modern pool, for cocktails. The house-special mojitos are watered-down and bitter, and thus begins our weeklong thirst for really good ones. (Everything I know about mojito-crafting, I learned from the bartender at a Cuban place near Stanford that serves killer ones. You have to muddle the mint, lime and sugar together first, using one of those mini-baseball-bat tools, then add the ice, booze, etc. on top. Muddling is kind of labor-intensive, though, and if you’re working at a Castro-govt-owned tourist joint, turning out hundreds of these things a day, you probably just don’t care to bother.) Our thirst will not be truly quenched—I mean enough to finally lay off the mojito-guzzling—until we land in Miami, breeze through Global Entry, and proceed directly to Bazaar in Miami Beach. Whose mojitos have that minty/limey/just-sweet-enough perfection and plenty of good rum, and come with spears of sugar cane. Ah, the almost-Cuban experience!
Our first-night-in-Cuba dinner, though, is one of the best. Raúl’s regime has allowed more private restaurants to open—called paladares. (Under Fidel, just a handful of paladares could exist within a given area, in houses only, with a restricted number of seats, and only family members working there.) So this is a really big deal: these people own their own businesses, and what results—like magic!—is pride of ownership. Paladar Atelier is in a grand old house, the pre-revolution home of a senator. The chef/owner serves us a feast of traditional cuisine: aromatic rice and beans, tender ropa vieja steak, marinated and roasted chicken, soft little fried croquetas to start. After our full day of travel which consisted mostly of waiting around in places where the only available food was (a) nothing, (b) the sad, slimy offerings of cafeteria Chinese or pizza crafted of composite meats and chemical cheese, or (c) the heavily salted and non-nourishing fare of the aforementioned mini-bar, we’re all more than a little hungry (by privileged American standards of what hunger means). We scarf that warm, deliciously spiced meal and don’t come up for air until every serving platter is empty.
Day Two: Educational Purposes
The architect and urban planner Miguel Coyula lectures us, via Powerpoint and one of those microphone units that clips to your belt, about the history and development of Havana. Eg., some sophisticated things early on: oldest fortress in the Americas, La Real Fuerza, 1558; aqueducts and running water, 1592. Then two more fortresses, plus three miles of walls around the city. But the Spanish neglected a crucial geographical feature. In 1762 (during the Seven Years’ War), British batteries occupied the hill across the channel and, from that position, took the city. This was when Cuba’s economic boom really began—no more Spanish taxes and trade restrictions, new trade routes with North America, many hundreds of ships coming to port, ten thousand West African slaves populating the sugar plantations. Havana’s streets are paved with cobblestones from Massachusetts, sent as ballast in the ships that were to be loaded with sugar.
After less than a year, during which malaria and yellow fever ravaged the British in Havana, the war ended, and the British traded Cuba back to the Spanish in exchange for Florida (see Treaty of Paris, 1763). At which point the Spanish built a half-mile-long, 22-acre fortress on the hill from which the British had attacked.
Mr. Coyula is grey-haired and slightly stoop-shouldered and peppers his lecture with endearing little deadpan-delivery jokes. I’m still not sure why the microphone, given that we were twelve people or so, in a small seminar room. He speaks with the most wonderful kind of accent—thick but comprehensible. So many palaces in Havana, the result of prominent Cubans sending descendents to study in Europe; they brought European architecture to the island. He shows the ornate white-coral façade of the Cathedral of Havana (Cuban-Baroque, 1777), the sea of sculpted Italian Carrera marble at the Christopher Columbus Necropolis (founded 1876, sixty city blocks), the soaring arched arcades of neoclassical mansions (19th century), and the Capitol Building, a copy of ours but six feet taller (1926).
Eighty percent of Havana was built between 1900 and 1958. It was built well, and in a very short time. And now all these buildings are aging together. The average house is seventy-five years old. Maintenance, of course, is sparse. Funny thing: when nobody owns the building, nobody takes care of it. People tend to their own apartments (which they either own or just occupy), and often those DIY modifications aren’t exactly good for the building. All this leads to a stat that’ll get your attention. Average number of building collapses per day: 3.1.
Coyula shows a picture of a red-painted balcony beside a lime-green one, both on the same building, both creatively patched and customized. “When nobody is in charge,” he says, “it generates individualism, not collectivism.”
My version of a balconies photo:
In the 1950’s, American mafia families met at the Hotel Nacional and planned their transformation of Havana into gambling mecca. What followed, architecture-wise, was the frenzied construction of modern high-rises, all built between 1956 and 1958. A lot of Cubans weren’t happy about all that gaming, depravity, advantage-taking, money laundering, etc. One of the first actions after the Revolution (1959)—an action taken within hours, in fact—was to abolish gambling.
Coyula shows a famous photo of Fidel and Che Guevara playing golf, in combat gear. Of course with so much wealth, Havana had several luxurious clubs, now in military/govt hands. This particular golf course became the site of a bizarre architectural drama, in which the Castro regime appropriated the land; began construction of the innovative National Arts Schools, a complex of vaulted and domed, organic-feeling structures; moved students in during construction; and finally, as Soviet style came into favor, halted the construction just months before the project was to be finished, accused the architects of creating designs (and I’m lost as to the logic here; take a look at these buildings) that invoked the Capitalist past, and sent the architects into exile. The jungle took over some of the unfinished buildings. Others were used for classes but allowed to deteriorate. Now the place is a national monument.
See that famous golfing photo and more about the National Art Schools here.
In came the Soviets, whose two-decade presence (1972–1990) is responsible for the “proletariat” concrete-block buildings: grey and square and utterly soulless. Plus there’s the Russian embassy, which is something to see. Sited on the northernmost possible place, facing the ocean (and, well, us), it’s a tall concrete structure reminiscent of a robot, square-shouldered, with slits for windows, and a suspended uppermost section that very much suggests a watchful presence within.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba fell into what surely gets the prize for All-Time Most Euphemistically Named Historical Era: the “Special Period.” Which involved widespread hunger, malnutrition, power outages; no fuel for cars, busses, tractors, combines, harvesters, transport trucks. Minus the massive quantities of petroleum that had been flowing from the USSR, Cuba was paralyzed. People ate cats and dogs and, reportedly, animals stolen from the zoo. The Chinese sent 500,000 bicycles.
Nowadays much of the land lies fallow. Cuba imports 80% of its food ration, i.e. govt-regulated rice, beans, cooking oil, eggs, sugar, sometimes meat, etc., and 65% of its total food. Part of the problem is population distribution—too many people in cities and suburbia, and not enough agriculture. This is one of the many ways in which the system quite obviously isn’t working. Another is the job situation in general. There are 65 universities in Cuba, but hardly any professional-type jobs. Taxi drivers in Havana can earn in one day what a doctor earns in a month. So all these educated young people are leaving, on visas to Canada and Australia and Angola.
And so what will happen to this glorious, crumbling city? Coyula shows us photos of the restored St. Francis of Assisi church. There’s a group working to restore and preserve Old Havana. But it’ll take just an incredible amount of work—and money. One faction wants to preserve Havana as-is; another wants to bulldoze and rebuild. I’m holding out this probably-naïve hope that the magic of these grand buildings—so much like old Europe—might capture people’s imaginations enough that the city will not be razed, even when corporate America rolls in.
Post-lecture, we bus over to the Partagas cigar factory, where we mill around the shop (murky light and smoky air), buying cigars and waiting for our tour. The fanciest cigars come in colorfully adorned, individual metal tubes. Cameras are forbidden inside the factory. Our tour guide, a bright-eyed young guy in a Qatar soccer jersey, explains the anatomy of a cigar. All the leaves come from the same kind of plant—the wrapper leaves from shade-grown plants, the blend of filler leaves from sun-grown plants. The plant’s top leaves give strength and flavor, the middle leaves aroma, and the bottom leaves combustion. Different blends of these make the different brands of cigar. All the good Cuban brands are made here: Montecristos, Romeo and Juliets, Cohibas.
The government owns the factory. Tobacco farmers can long-term lease the land, but they must sell their crops only to the government, and at the govt’s price. Factory workers are allowed to take home five cigars a day, but, our guide tells us, shrugging, “You can get more.” This is how things work in Cuba. “Salaries are just symbolic,” our guide says. It seems that where you work determines what you can steal, and then sell. Everyone knows what everyone else can get, and thus where to buy flour, sugar, toothpaste, etc. (As we learn later, the guys who deliver gas to the stations siphon off a whole bunch and sell it to the taxi drivers, at a discount.) When you work for the government, and they don’t give you a whole hell of a lot, it turns out you don’t feel all that bad about taking what you can.
The Partagas factory is a soaring warehouse-ish building with grand windows and marble stairs. In the first room, women sitting on low individual benches prepare the wrapper leaves, smoothing them over their thighs. (This job is considered delicate work, and no men want to do it.) In the next room, the rollers, a mix of men and women, sit in rows at wooden stations—mini desks, essentially, with lots of shelves and compartments. Those literature-inspired cigar names are because of the old tradition in which it was someone’s job to read the classics to the rollers as they worked. Nowadays, a scratchy radio blasts Reggaetón music.
Each roller makes the cigar from start to finish, minus only the label. Today they’re making Montecristos. They pack the blended leaves into these cylinder compression cases, then later they stretch and cut the wrapper leaves and roll them onto the cigars. The wrapper leaves have a leathery texture, and the shapes the rollers have to cut are not as straightforward as you’d think; not rectangles, but curved-edge triangles. As we stand and watch, several men sidle up to us, palming bundles of cigars and offering, under their breath, “Five Cohibas, ten pesos.” A couple members of our group go for it, stuffing the cigars into their pockets and later slinking past the exit guard, who doesn’t seem to be watching too closely anyway.
Our host for this trip, along with Alicia, is the American proprietor of Cuba Educational Travel, Collin Laverty. Back on the bus, he tells us those black-market cigars from inside the factory might not be Cohibas, but they’re probably good Cuban cigars. Unlike what you’d get from the non-factory-worker guys hawking “cigars” on the sidewalk outside. Those could be anything just made to look more or less like Cuban cigars. But since Cohibas are the mack-daddy label, once reserved exclusively for Fidel, and now the most expensive in the shops, the guys inside of course want to brand whatever they’re actually selling with that famous Cohiba mystique.
We disembark in Old Havana and eat lunch at Doña Eutimia, at the end of a sunny alley. A hen with a brood of chicks wanders between the tables. Two men sing and play guitar in front of a pink stucco wall. Umbrellas shade the outdoor tables. Next door is a lithographic shop with a gallery in front. At the first station, two shirtless men in aprons work at inking the machine.
The frozen mojitos here are respectable. The “grilled and marinated chicken” is curiously lumpy. I resort to beans and rice. One of our friends in the group later whispers, re: the chicken, “I think that might have been a frog.”
Alicia herds us (valiantly, I must say; we are a wandering-off type of group) through Old Havana, showing us the opulent town squares, in various stages of decay and renovation. In places, you can see down into the aqueducts. Those cobblestones from Massachusetts go on and on. One side street is lined with piles of them, beside a blue Soviet Lada, the small snub-nosed type of car that’s ubiquitous here. I’m in a picture-taking fugue state. I keep falling behind the group, trying to keep half an eye on the other stragglers so I can follow them around the next corner.
We end up at Havana’s prestigious school of dance, the Lizt Alfonso Academy, where we’re given a private performance by the two youth groups—teenagers and ten-year-olds. Stylistically, there’s ballet, flamenco, modern, Afro-Cuban, and some Chinese fan dancing. These kids are serious. For the older ones, dance is their career.
It’s getting toward evening by now. This tourist-marathon schedule allows about a ten-minute power nap, then it’s back on the bus, to the heavily guarded residence of a prominent art collector. Inside her gates, it’s another world: a pristine mansion with lions at the door and a high-ceilinged, colonnaded outdoor room, where we’re served yet more mojitos, looking over the extravagant pool (ornate wooden chaises, a thick screen of tall trees, behind which is the very tall and thorny fence). The art dealer Alberto Magnan shows us the collection. There are textural works in layered and knotted white linen by Roberto Diago; graceful geometric three-dimensional pieces by Lolo Soldevilla; social-commentary type paintings by René Francisco Rodriguez, some of which, as you see when you get up close, are comprised of lots of minisculely rendered tubes of Soviet toothpaste.
Dinner is in an enchanting roof-garden restaurant with glass lanterns under a tree canopy. The service is excruciatingly slow, and they haven’t figured out to keep pouring the wine. Next door, there’s a line down the block to get into this club that occupies two stories of the building. As the time wears on, sans dinner, I keep looking more and more wistfully over the wall, to the festive good time going on down there. (We end up coming back to this club later; it’s the Cuban Art Factory.) Food-wise, the lamb curry turns out to have been the best choice. Most of the other dishes, when they finally arrive, are cold or so overcooked as to be essentially non-chewable. I eat half the potatoes from Philip’s plate. We’re eating at eleven o’clock, and our bus the next morning leaves at 7:45 for the countryside.
On our way out, a couple coming down the stairs tells us we have to go up to the roof and take a look. The stairs form a large spiral inside an industrial-feeling tower. We climb one story up and find an open-air bar with modern sculpted chairs, lighted ferns, and banks of seats nestled against a heavy carved-stone façade, with ethereal strips of canvas forming a kind of awning that glows with candle light. (We’ll be back here, too.)
Our bus driver has been sent home for some rest before tomorrow’s excursion, so we all crowd into those almedrón taxis. Our driver’s girlfriend is with him; they have a date tonight, after they drop us off. The car is a green 1950 Caddy that rides like a piece of farm equipment. Our friend Virginia is in front with the driver and girlfriend, speaking Spanish. “He says it looks like a Cadillac but it’s really a bulldozer,” she reports. “It’s not a car; it’s an invention.” It has the diesel engine, transmission and differential from a Ford truck. Plus Audi wheels, which, Philip points out, have five lug nuts, where the American axels have four. In a normal world, you can’t put those wheels on this car.
Mid-ride, a cop pulls us over, and our driver is required to get out and show his registration papers. These random checks happen a lot, he explains, because so many people drive taxis illegally, without paying the monthly license fee.
In front of our hotel, Philip wants a picture with the car. The driver jumps out and lets him pose at the wheel, then pats the hood—sit here now—for one last pose, before he rattles away with his sweetheart.
Cuba Journal, Part II
Or see the pictures:
Photo Portfolio: Beauty In Ruins