Monday, December 26, 2016

Out and about in Havana (Cuba): Day 1

First some context. We traveled to Cuba during the official period of mourning for Fidel Castro's death. The restrictions on public activity put in place to honor his death colored the lenses through which we saw Havana and served as a limiting factor on our Havana experience.

When Fidel's death was first announced, I was unsure as to whether it would be a good idea to embark on the planned trip. After many consultations with my wife (who would be accompanying me on the trip), my family, and friends, I decided to continue as planned.

Once we got to Cuba, the effects of the mandated restrictions on daily life became readily apparent. First, no public playing of music or dancing was allowed. And this held true for the man (or woman) in the street as well as the professionals plying their trade in the nation's cultural centers.

On the day of our arrival, the restriction on alcohol sales was still in effect. This curtailed the sales of alcohol beverages except at a restaurant in a hotel. And if the hotel/restaurant was government owned, they were excluded from the exception. The restriction on alcohol sales expired on our second day in town but the restrictions on music and dancing remained in place for our entire stay.

The impact of these restrictions manifested itself in interesting ways. For example, we met a group of Rice University boosters who were traveling with the baseball team as part of an educational visit. The team was slated to travel around the country, playing against teams and attending lectures, all contributing to college credits for the athletes. With Fidel's death, the Cuban players were no longer able to play the scheduled games, leaving the Rice University tour leaders with the unenviable task of keeping 40+ players occupied when more than half of their daily activities had been wiped out.

So back to the task at hand.

After a lengthy check-in process (not the norm), we decided to do lunch in Sierra Maestra, the Havana Libre's top restaurant located on its 25th floor. The views of Havana and the sea from the vantage point of the dining room were stunning. One of the things which struck me as unusual though was the lack of boating activity in the waters around Havana. The waters off the coast of Havana are the Florida Straits, the body of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the givens in the waters of the coasts of Florida and the Caribbean islands, is a lot of boating and other water activities. For the duration of my stay in Havana, the only boats I saw in the water were the two cruise ships pictured below and a Roll on-Roll off cargo ship exiting the harbor.

While we were at lunch, Parlo struck up a conversation with a grandmother, mother, and kid and was so engrossed in it that I decided to vacate the premises. I figured I could get some writing in while she was otherwise engaged. After a while, the daughter and son accompanied Parlo back to our room (the young lady was of Cuban heritage and lived in Miami) to give me pointers as to the way things were during the mourning period, things I could and could not do, and places to avoid. From our room we had a pretty good view of Old Havana so she was able to physically point out areas to me as she spoke.

After the young lady left (we were going to meet them for dinner at 8:00 pm at a location outside the hotel), Parlo and I began discussions as to what to do with the remainder of the day. I preferred to start exploring on the morrow but she wanted to get out immediately. Neither of us were budging so she decided to go tour the city on her own. She rented a CoCo taxi (a three-wheeled vehicle with a single seat for the driver upfront and space for up to three passengers in the rear). She was gone for  a while and came back all bubbly and full of stories of the places they had visited and the pictures she had taken. I regretted my decision.

After Parlo's return, we began preparations for dinner. As mentioned, Parlo had arranged for us to have dinner with the family she had met at lunch. The dinner was scheduled for 8:00 pm at a restaurant called La Torre, located on the 35th floor ( or 33rd or 36th, depending on your source) of the Focsa Building. The Focsa building was within walking distance of our hotel so we strode out of the hotel lobby and into the streets of Vedado. Our destination is the tallest building in Vedado so finding our way there was not going to be a problem.

As we were walking a man approached us, engaging us in conversation as we went. He asked where we were from (He loved the US), how did we like Cuba so far, and where we were going. When we told him the name of the restaurant, he told us that it was closed as a result of Fidel's death. We said we wanted to see that for ourselves so he offered to show us the way. We got there and the restaurant was closed. He then offered to take us to one of the best paladares (small, family-run restaurant, usually setup in a converted part of a home) in Vedado for our dinner. We walked with him to this paladar named Santa Barbara, but it was full. He walked us to a second paladar but, after we were seated, we found out that this establishment was not selling alcohol beverages because of Fidel's death. Faced with the choice of a drinks-free dinner at that establishment versus dinner with wine at the hotel, we opted for the latter.

In Havana, tourists are a key part of the city's income source. The needs of these tourists are met by restaurants, hotels, bars, nightclubs, craft shops, and suchlike. But there is a thriving industry of business facilitators. These are folks who approach you on the streets and try to steer you to a particular establishment be it a restaurant, a taxi, or cigar co-op (as we will see in my upcoming post). These "steerers" are compensated by the benefiting establishment but are not averse to receiving a token of the buyers appreciation. The gentleman who attempted to help us find a place to eat that night was a steerer.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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