Cuba Journal, Part III

Mar 22, 2015 | Travel


Day Four: Art Tourism

Another day, another mansion full of art. This time a breakfast visit. Our first warmish morning, and we all drift, groggily, with coffee and guava juice and buttered toast and pineapple slices, through the towering French doors to the side patio, in the sun. Across the lawn there’s a large mirrored wall-type sculpture reflecting trees. Alberto, omnipresent art agent, is with us again as tour guide. He wrangles us all back inside, and we wander from room to room, catching most of his explanations while also kind of snooping around, in the kitchen, the sixties-mod bar room, the three or four living rooms, etc.

Art includes super-jumbo-sized paintings of Russian prostitutes, by the gorgeous young Cuban-art-scene darling Rachel Valdés Camejo. In one, the subject clutches her breasts, which are actually giant ketchup- and pickle-oozing hamburgers. In others, dripping ice cream figures prominently. The first thing that greets you in the foyer (marble floor, marble stairs, brass railing) is one of those giant inflatable rats the unions are always camping with in front of corporate New York buildings, but this particular rat is painted and adorned as sculpture. Plus also there are more works in paint and linen by Roberto Diago, whose stuff I’m getting interested in. Alberto is sending us (Donald & Virginia, Philip & me) to Diago’s studio later.



... and Not (This one's Diago, with just a touch of his signature linen.)

Not (This one’s Diago, with just a touch of his signature linen.)

Bussing back to the hotel post-breakfast; starting to miss Collin and the stuff he tells us. Like about the times he met Fidel (Ultra-charismatic, naturally, and super-bright. Reportedly sleeps only four hours a night; reads vociferously. Prior to meeting w/ Vermont senator plus Collin, F. had read several books on Vermont industry and knew his shit.). Or about the general TV situation. Which is that actual Cuban TV gets only like three channels, airing télénovelas and state-approved programming. Owning a satellite dish is strictly forbidden (punishable by confiscation of your house). So, the people’s black-market solution: El Paquete. Everyone has a thumb drive. Guy comes to your house with El Paquete, a giant hard drive containing all American TV from the week, plus movies that aren’t even released for rental yet. You give him a couple bucks and he transfers whatever stuff you want. So everyone’s watching House of Cards, dubbed.

We stick with the group for one more planned thing—another Powerpoint lecture in the hotel seminar room, this time with Carlos Alzugaray, former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. He’s focused, of course, on the current hot topic: the prospect of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Fun fact: before he chose Russia, Edward Snowden tried to come to Cuba, but Cuba didn’t want him; the Castros, it seems, felt that giving Washington the finger in this totally blatant and highly publicized way would not be in their own best interests. We might be their last lifeline after all. But still the process of patching things up is extremely fraught.

The embargo will have to be lifted. Both countries will have to stop doing things to undermine each other. We’ll have to remove Cuba from our list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (currently Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria), which status precludes embassies from opening and makes international banking incredibly complicated—so many reports to file, etc. We’ll have to revise our decades-old Cuban Adjustment Act, under which the U.S. Attorney General can give Cuban citizens political refugee status and green cards. We’ll have to put Guantánamo on the negotiating table, Mr. Alzugaray says, because it’s Cuban sovereign territory. Then there’s that little issue of restitution of property, which apparently Cuba is starting to accept they’ll have to do for U.S. Citizens.

Mr. A. explains Cuba’s longstanding position toward the United States, policy-wise, like this: Plan A—try to normalize relations; Plan B—resist (This is how Cuba became so radicalized; we wouldn’t normalize relations, so they found help from the Soviets; we played into the radicals’ predictions by using our CIA against the regime, etc.); Plan C—move beyond resistance to active defiance. But so the Snowden development seems relevant here; letting him in would have been a very Plan-C-ish move, and Cuba is clearly not in that mode right now.

We’re the only country with any restrictions vis-à-vis Cuba. Tourists from just about everywhere else flock to the resorts at Varadero Beach, which our group, on this “educational” trip, does not even get to see. Cuba has recently hosted several important-sounding summits and heads of state. For the Caribbean and Latin America and even the Pacific islands, Cuba’s medical system is a major resource; people come to the hospitals for treatment, and foreign students attend med school here on scholarship. Mr. A. points out that several Caribbean nations have sided with Cuba and snubbed the U.S., in their own tiny-and-nonpowerful-country ways. (No further details obtained.)

Varadero Beach (photo:

Varadero Beach (photo:

Mr. A. has none of our Ambassador’s dapperness and polish. Rather he seems kindly and humble and wears high-school-teacher-ish clothes on his paunchy frame. One thing I’ve noticed here is cell phones are just allowed to ring. His rings twice mid-lecture, and he does what others have done while talking to us: checks caller ID, then just forges ahead as though the jaunty computerized ditty were inaudible to him. Same thing has happened enough times that I’m beginning to wonder if there’s some oddball socialist anti-silent-mode policy. Or maybe news of the “decline call” button just hasn’t reached Cuba. Or is it somehow Americanly impatient of me to want the ringing to stop?

So now obviously, diplomacy-wise, there’s been movement in a friendlier direction, with Pres. Obama’s December 17th remarks topping the list of Major Policy Shifts. And Cuba’s made their own changes, too, like allowing their U.S.-residing expats to visit Cuba and send significant amounts of cash to their relatives here. (Condition of apartment exterior and balcony makes it clear who’s got relatives in the States and who doesn’t.)

Mr. A. sounds cautiously optimistic. It’s a big deal, he says, that Cuba has accepted the resumption of diplomatic relations with the embargo still in place. Raúl is very different from Fidel. He (Raul) is pragmatic. He calls in experts, listens to opposing views, never makes up his mind quickly, strives for consensus. He’s said he’ll step down in 2018; he’s thinking about his succession plan and his legacy. And legacy-wise, Obama must be thinking about the same thing. Plus, Mr. A. says, we could collaborate on things, like tracking storms, preserving marine life, foiling drug traffickers (at which the Castros have succeeded, BTW—no guns, no drugs on the streets of Havana).

He leaves us with a trio of sayings: “Hablando la gente se entiende” (When people talk to each other, they understand each other); “Good fences make good neighbors”; and, redundantly, just to drive home the point, I guess, “Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.”


D/V/P and I, plus another couple, ditch the Chinese bus and the rest of the day’s program and take boring 90’s-vintage Korean taxis to Roberto Diago’s studio. It’s in a formerly-swank house, in a formerly-swank neighborhood. We’re on a schedule, because in half an hour or so, Alberto is set to arrive with a prominent Wall Street personage, and we want first dibs.

We pore through stacks of paintings—towering canvasses of black and white, in the artist’s signature layered and knotted linen. The upcoming Havana Art Biennial, a major hotel-selling-out big deal, will feature a massive Diago installation in salvaged metal (from fences, née oil drums). Some of the works in metal are here, and some in salvaged wood. D.&V. and P.&I are drawn to the same series, large square works in tawny white linen. We’ve almost decided who gets which one when Alberto and co. arrive, at which point we shake hands with the famous person, whisper our choices to Diago’s agent, and head to lunch.

Diago work (photo: Magnan Metz gallery)

Diago work (photo: Magnan Metz gallery)

The artist, Roberto Diago (photo:

The artist, Roberto Diago (photo:

The restaurant, VIP Havana, is ultra-chic and new, designed with modern steel and antique wood and brick. The back-garden nightlife oasis is still under construction. We—the six of us rogue art shoppers—share croquetas, grilled calamari, and paella. And then V. recommends the café con leche, basically an extra-rich latte w/ foamy scalded-milk pouf on top. (D.&V. ate here yesterday with Alberto, while the rest of us were wolfing that ambrosial country-hilltop feast.)

We’re planning to rejoin the group at another art stop, listed on the itinerary as “the home of a curator and art collector.” The address is a pink house with arched colonnade. No sign of our Chinese bus. Virginia knocks on the door—persistently, because she likes the painting in the vestibule—and finally the “curator” appears. She has sent the group away because she wasn’t ready for them. She didn’t have her makeup on, or something. And wasn’t dressed properly. V. assures her we don’t mind any of that. She agrees to let the six of us in, but only if we’ll give her just ten more minutes.

It turns out she’s not so much “collector” as dealer. The house is crammed with pop art and contemporary stuff by young artists. The assistant delivers a tray of bland mojitos, and the two women launch into selling mode. There’s a pop art Marilyn on a big dollar bill. There are several dark, ominous humanoid paintings that the women seem to want very much to sell me. Philip, on shopping overload, heads for the couch. D.&V. take the foyer painting, a lavish pop image of a radiant and sexy Cuban woman.

Home of the "curator"

Home of the “curator”

Across the street

Across the street

Next door

Next door

A nap has never felt so decadent. The traffic’s clanking and honking seep into the cool cave of our room. We reconvene later with D.&V. for dinner at Vistamar, where we knock back a bottle of good champagne with our rice and beans and chicken and fried ripe plantains. This afternoon, in the late sun, Virginia took a postcard-worthy iPhone photo of the Capitol building, with just the right car in front; quintessential Havana.

Photo by Virginia Z.

Photo by Virginia Z.


Day Five: Classic Cars, Cemetery Splendor, an Artist’s Jungle Home, a Famous Eatery

Choose Your Classic Car, the program says. Outside the hotel is a fleet of restored, candy-colored 50’s American cruisers, owned and operated by Nostalgic Cars, Cuba’s first (post-Rev.) private car company. There’s a kind of slow-mo musical-chairs jostling as people try to figure out which car to get into (based, I guess, on appearance of car, potential co-passengers, potential route. We finally realize that there’s actually no planned route, and some people are taking cars to special destinations, like a certain museum, etc.).

Philip and I end up in by far the most crowded car: it’s the two of us crammed in front with the driver, and three others in back. We’ve all opted just to drive around and see things, like the fortress called El Moro, up on the hill at the mouth of the channel, then circle back to Old Havana.

I’ve got more Spanish than anyone else in the car, so it’s up to me to talk to the driver. He’s either taciturn or resentful or maybe just not that into tourists. (But on the bright side for him, he has a non-govt. job.) We reach an impasse when he says there’s no way to park near El Moro, while the rest of the passengers continue to insist that we must see El Moro.

At a lookout point by the Havana Jesus Christ statue (marble colossus on that hill the British attacked from in 1762; see Cuba Journal, Part I), we find the aqua-and-white car containing Donald, Virginia and Alicia and driven by a very personable-looking woman who turns out to be Nidialys, co-owner of the company. (Her uniform is white pants and a tailored men’s guayabara shirt—you know the kind, vertical pleats and four pockets; our driver’s in tee shirt and jeans and has a shaved head.) I ask Alicia for help with this Moro/parking situation, as in could she maybe talk to the driver for us. She eyes him across the lawn. “I don’t like his face,” she says, but marches over to see what she can do.

Nidialys's ride

Nidialys’s ride


Our car and driver

Our car and driver

Nidialys leads the way in her aqua two-tone car, with only a couple of reversals of direction, around the book-fair roadblock and into a parking area at the far end of the fort. We’re getting a little tight on time. We hurry up the hill (parched grass, packed dirt, a few beer cans and miscellaneous litter) and stare anticlimactically over the wall at the fort, which looks just as grey and solid and plain as in the pictures, and across the channel at the city.

El Moro

El Moro

Back on the road, I keep trying with the driver, translating things Philip wants me to ask him about the car, then also the thing Philip says about how patient he (the driver) is with us. He does finally warm up a little. He likes to talk about the car. Its nether regions, of course, are full of nonconforming parts. He’s been very clear on not wanting us to slam the doors. It’s the first time we’ve cruised the city in a low, open-windowed vehicle; I take a bunch of pictures out the window with my iPhone.


We have only twenty minutes to walk in Old Havana. The driver deposits us at the Plaza de Armas, beside a couple of horse-and-buggies whose drivers try to sell us rides. The book fair has a sleepy outpost in this square—a few racks of wares featuring several books about Ché and Fidel, and no shoppers. “I don’t get it,” says Bill, our co-traveler, who has a Roger-Sterling-esque manner of dapper dress and wry commentary. “These guys take over your country and screw everything up. What do people want all these books about them for?”


All cars reunite at the Classic Cars garage, where Nidialys’s husband, Julio, runs the restoration business. He imports parts at something like a 30% markup, but he can find most of what he needs to do things right. In the shop he’s got a stripped-down ’50’s Impala minus its front end, a cream-and-coffee-colored ’37 Chrysler (eggish domed body, running boards, suicide doors), a Mercedes 6-cylinder engine on a stand, and leaning on a shelf, half-obscured by a pile of bumpers and carpet such that only his eyes and impressive military headwear are visible, a picture of Fidel. Out back there are guys welding things and painting things, plus more cars. Philip asks where he can buy a Cuban license plate, and Julio gives him one as a gift. It’s robin’s-egg blue, which we later learn means govt. vehicle.

Some photos by Philip in this batch. (Specifically, the engines and tools closeups, tail fins detail, and workshop out back.)


At the Hotel Nacional, former seat of mafia shenanigans, we eat a sad, touristy-mass-production-type lunch, heavy on rice and beans and involving an odd electric-orange liquiform dessert (just a viscous puddle of this, on a plate, with a tiny pitiful dollop of something cream-related).

Everyone’s so tired and toured-out that we vote to skip the cigar-rolling-and-tasting expedition and stop at just one last place: the Christopher Columbus Necropolis, which, as mentioned in Part I, covers sixty city blocks and is a non-missable, mind-blowing sight. A vast village of mausoleums and raised-coffin tombs and vaults with coffin-drawers and extravagant sculptures, all in Italian Carrera marble, each built so decadently as to try to outshine the already absurdly decadent neighbors. The cemetery is a who’s who of the sugar dynasties. Columbus himself was to be interred in the middle of a prominent circular intersection here, but Spain snatched his remains back.

The result of all these tombs being so glitzy and tall and crowded together on streets and avenues named after those in the ritzy neighborhood of Vedado, where many of the deceased once resided, is that the place feels paradoxically alive and actually kind of cheerful.

One mausoleum has windows crafted of Lalique glass. There’s a soaring monument to a group of firefighters who died in 1890 when a hardware-store proprietor (Why did he do this?) called them to a fire and didn’t tell them the store contained explosives. The most-visited grave by far—we’re talking many hundreds of people a day—is that of Cuba’s unofficial saint, La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One).

The story: late 1800’s, two sisters married on the same day, which was considered bad luck—superstition warned against it, the idea being that one of the marriages would suffer a terrible fate; which did happen—one sister died in childbirth (preeclampsia, they say) and was buried with her also-deceased child at her feet in the casket. Her desolate husband visited the grave daily, knocking three times to communicate his presence, walking backwards to the street so as not to turn away from his beloved. When the remains were exhumed (with exhuming and relocating being common cemetery practice here), the miraculous Amelia was discovered to be holding her baby in her arms.

Now people visit Amelia in droves to ask for miracles and wide-ranging favors. The required ritual mimics the bereaved husband’s. The thing you knock with is a heavy brass ring, much handled and worn, one of four whose real purpose must be for lifting the marble-slab lid. Then you touch the marble sculpture of Amelia-cradling-baby, silently make your request, and retreat backwards—around the other side, so as not to crash into all the people coming through behind you. This grave and the surrounding area are covered with little offerings—pictures and carvings and messages of thanks for the miracles Amelia has granted, ranging from “Thanks for helping me win the big game,” to “Thank you for curing my son.”

Firefighters' monument

Firefighters’ monument


Photo by Philip

Photo by Philip



One thing about communication here: American cell phones don’t work. Halfway through lunch Alicia handed me her phone; it was Virginia calling from I guess Alberto’s phone, or their driver’s, to ask Philip and me on another excursion, this time to the countryside home and studio of the artist Manuel Mendive. So post-cemetery we meet D.&V. at the hotel and hit the road again.

This driver they’ve been with all afternoon has a good, boring, reliable Korean car with seatbelts, even. He’s telling us about life in Cuba. It’s like Alcatraz, he says. No freedom. (Our taxi driver the other night called it an “open prison.”) We’ve noticed people won’t say Fidel’s name; the driver says, “This man here,” and gestures to indicate a beard. It’s eerily like the Harry Potter proscription against uttering the name of the Dark Lord.

We turn off the highway onto a rutted dirt road. The place is in the jungle. Rangy dogs greet our car. A tall brawny guy leads us down a boardwalk, past caged peacocks, a ferny ravine, a shaded patio w/ view of distant ocean, and into a hut containing four large paintings and a hanging sculpture. Vivid colors of earth and ocean; birds and fish and primitive-type human forms with extra limbs and large eyes. The whole upper parts of their heads, actually, are way enlarged—which effect, we are told, is the artist’s depiction of the phenomenon you could derogatorily call “over-thinking.” One of the paintings has four little bowls on the ground that somehow go with it, and that I almost step on while gawking up at the sculpture (boat hull painted with fish), except that Philip grabs my elbow just in time.

Up the hill there’s another, bigger gallery of several rooms, with paintings and bronzes and whimsical cobalt-blue bird sculptures made from scythes. Lots of the work has little Santeria shells scattered across it. There are paintings in the shape of enormous axe-heads, with carved handles suspended below. A woman who seems to be the agent hands us glossy high-end catalogues and tells us, through translation by V., that the artist is seventy years old and his work is in big-time museums and private collections. I’m into the scythe birds, but prices are steep enough to make us think hard.

Work by Manuel Mendive

Work by Manuel Mendive

The artist with one of his axe-head paintings (photo: Diasporic Roots)

The artist with one of his axe-head paintings (photo: Diasporic Roots)

On the way out, the assistant guy shows us Mendive’s pet monkey. There used to be two, but the female died in a brutal way: she fell asleep with her hand outside the cage, and a dog attacked and killed her. The surviving male is traumatized and lonely and not behaving well these days. Stand back, the assistant tells us, because recently the monkey peed on somebody. The cage adjoins a one-room concrete building made extra-desolate-feeling by the spare table and chairs in one corner—this seems to be someone’s idea of a habitable space. The picture I took of the monkey behind bars and dirty glass, looking into this room, is perhaps the saddest image from our trip.

As a final depressing sendoff, the assistant shepherds us through the artist’s bunkerlike home: floor-to-ceiling birdcages; several grimy tanks of lethargic fish; large and mostly empty concrete bedroom with cot-type double bed, under which twelve or fifteen jumbo plastic bowls serve as dog beds; and that suffocating animal-cage stench. It’s unclear whether the assistant knows this to be a horrifying scene and wants us to see how eccentric and artisty Mendive is, or if he (the assistant) maybe thinks all this is just charmingly quirky. Virginia and I bolt for the exit.



Dinner’s at a hidden-away famous place called La Guarida. It doesn’t seem possible that the bus can fit down these alleys, let alone make the turns. A guy on the side of the road helps direct our bus driver, Jorge, around an especially preposterous-looking tight corner; we all cheer Jorge’s name and he gives us two triumphant fists in the air. Just before arrival we glimpse an extreme tenement-living setup—a kind of warehouse divided into endless-seeming cubicles, dimly lit, with sheets-on-strings as partitions, and no apparent way to get to the inner cubicles but walk through other people’s bedrooms.

At first we think we’re in the wrong place. A marble staircase in partial ruin leads to a marble colonnaded room, also crumbling, with laundry lines strung across it. We backtrack once; climb up again. It’s one more staircase up. (A headless marble mini-statue adorns this banister.) We alight, finally, in the restaurant’s clubby anterooms. Photos of celebrities-who-ate-here line the walls. Our two tables are in what must have been someone’s bedroom. There’s a sparkling chandelier and lots of contemporary art. Soaring French windows open onto tiny balconies in which are nestled, under soft canvas awnings, candle-lit tables for two.

The menu is the most sophisticated we’ve seen here. The daiquiris and piña coladas taste of real fruit. The pork belly is tender and artfully plated. The friend plantains have that crispy caramelized singe. Our long-lost Collin materializes mid-meal, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and apologizing about his attire. Everyone is generally happy about pretty much everything. The restaurant’s signature dessert, Strawberry and Chocolate, is velvety and just exactly the right richness and totally worthy of its fame.


D/V/P and I share a taxi, a junky Russian Lada that Philip, in high spirits, becomes obsessed with wanting to buy. Which discussion puts the driver in high spirits, too, until we stop in front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar and a cop pulls up behind us. The driver mutters to Virginia in urgent Spanish and pushes the money away. “Just get out and walk away,” she tells us. “Say we’re his friends if the cop asks.” We slink into the bar wishing we could still pay our guy somehow, and wondering what happens to someone who drives a taxi without one of those expensive permits—because judging by his level of agitation, it doesn’t look good.

Inside the bar, black-and-white movies play and more old-timey celeb photos adorn the walls and columns. It’s an almost customerless night, but Sloppy Joe’s is legendary—a 1950’s A-List hangout, born in Prohibition, closed for half a century post-Revolution, and reopened, after a deluxe multi-year renovation, in 2013. Well, now we’ve seen it, and had another round of drinks.

We walk the six blocks home to our hotel, down the Paseo Del Prado, past the Capitol Building and Grand Theater of Havana, all lit up in exuberant, high-culture style.



Read more:
Cuba Journal, The Final Episode

See the pictures:
Photo Portfolio: Beauty In Ruins

Or return to part one of this series here.


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