A Week In Havana, Cuba

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to spend a week in Havana, Cuba.  I was tagging along with my wife as she was attending a Pan-America Nursing Conference. While she and her colleague attended the conference during the day, I explored Havana. The week was amazing.

Hotel National

People in the United States do not often think of the possibility of even going to Cuba. For so many years it was seemingly off-limits to US citizens, but in the last few years, midway through the Obama presidency relations “normalized” a bit – whatever that means. Getting into the country, flying in from Miami was no problem. A simple stamp on our flight boarding pass was all that seemed necessary. Checking the the box “cultural education” seemed the obvious choice but nothing was questioned. The usual custom form. Welcome to Cuba.

We stayed at the Hotel Riviera about three miles west  along the ocean of central Havana.  I can unequivocally say that the Hotel Riviera is a great place to stay. The rooms are fantastic. The staff is incredible. The pool is awesome. The buffet breakfast in the morning is awesome. When we left, we felt that we were saying goodbye to good friends and this is a hotel with hundreds of guests and 20 floors of rooms.

My main route into town was along the Malecon which runs along the entire north side of Havana. We walked this many times. It is a colorful place. The people. The architecture. The people fishing off the wall. Not far from the Hotel Riviera is the US Embassy.

Us Embassy in Havana

Recently there was a issue with these mysterious waves of energy that were targeted at US Diplomats and people in the CIA. At the time I did not think about that at all. Along the Malecon you would see trumpet players, even trumpet sectionals rehearsing, impromptu parties late into the night with live music, young lovers watching the sunset.  Often when walking this route someone would walk along side you and start up a conversation. “I work as at biologist. I make $50 a month salary.” Eventually the conversation would end up at “can I get some money for milk for my kids?”  This is what we soon realized was what we called the “Cuba tax.” Of course as the week went along we figured out how to avoid or ignore this scenario.

I saw Havana Vieja, The Museum of the Revolution, Hotel Nacional, Jose Marti’s birthplace, the Revolutionary Plaza. At nights we would venture out and hear some great music. The first night at a neighborhood social club, where in the back was a 12 piece Son band. Four trumpets invigorating themselves between mambos with a bottle of rum. Passing it around like a bunch of teenagers. The bass player, playing a home-made baby bass –  in the pocket and swinging hard, maybe a little bit more modern than the style dictated but he was in his 70’s so who is to say. Other nights spent at an extraordinary rumba concert where even Pedro Martinez played a solo set. A late concert with the group Interactivo that was fantastic. A few sets on the top floor of the Lincoln Hotel listening to the Septepto Nacional, a traditional son band that is an internationally touring act. All of these events and contacts courtesy of my son Kai who has blazed the trail in Cuba the last few years and made many friends.  Special thanks to Koton, Bencomo and Gioser who’s friendship we value like family.

Of course for people from the US, just seeing and driving in all the old Chevy’s, Fords, Plymouth’s from the 40’s and 50’s is a treat.  There is something a bit ironic about that fact that cars in the US now last often only 10 years. The old cars in Cuba are over 70 years old and probably because they were made to last to begin with they keep them running out of necessity. Often, they are completely reupholstered and the drivers consider them like a novia.

The historic city of Havana is a beautiful place even in its crumbling decrepitude.  Buildings are literally falling down. Balconies are falling off. People live in these 400 year old structures that are definitely not safe.

For a week after returning from Cuba, I could not help but think about the people and geography. Visit Cuba. 25 miles from the US mainland, it is a world way.

If you want to see an outstanding documentary to get an idea of Cuba, see Cuba and the Cameraman by Jon Alpert

 

 

 

The Worlds’ Greatest Hitchhiker Quote

“This one little car ride instantly redeemed us and rejuvenated us, offering an almost irrational hope for what lay ahead down the road. This I realized was the real magic of hitchhiking: not how it supposedly affirmed your faith in the goodness of humanity, but how it could make and break the faith, over and over again, often multiple times in a single day.”

From The World’s Best Hitchhiker on the Secrets of His Success – The New York Times – 3/22/2018

Hitchhiking

The Sunday New York Times Magazine has been producing some very entertaining issues. In the travel issue was an article about a crazed Polish man, Aleksander Doba who obsesses about kayaking to the point where he has kayaked across the Atlantic three times by himself.
In the same issues is the story about “The World’s Best Hitchhiker on the Secrets of His Success,” quoted above. It is 2018. Rarely do we ever see someone hitchhike in the United States on America. There probably is an app for that, or perhaps just craigslist, of this thing called facebook. It is unfortunate that hitchhiking has died out as hitchhiking is ultimately a way to challenge people’s beliefs, perceptions of reality and has the potential to have people from very different walks of life and classes interact. It is a way of taking a true chance on strangers and humanity and in the end it can be profound. In the least, for the hitchhiker it can be a test of patience and a realization of how often it is more beautiful on the side of the road on an empty stretch of highway than in a car. How liberating it can be to throw off the shackles of time and schedules. “We’ll get there when we get there.”

Just about everyone over forty has a tale of hitchhiking. The cross country trip out West. The trip that got derailed in a rainstorm. The trip from New York to Key West Florida and the amazing sunrises in Georgia. The ride down the Snake River Canyon in the back of a pickup. So many tales. All of them true.

In the current fashion of personal narratives I will indulge the reader with my own experiences with thumb exposed. It started in earnest with a cross-state trip of about 150 miles to visit my older brothers who were attending a pottery camp in Iowa. I was just fourteen years old. My parents did not seem at all worried and basically said, “Sure, have a good time. Need a ride to the highway?” What different times we live in now.

I left early in the morning with a map, a backpack, some sandwiches and a few dollars for sure. I do not remember every ride but in the end it took over ten rides. I remember being picked up by farmers heading a just a few miles down the road. Truck drivers were always good as the ride tended to be longer and the chatter on the CB radio was always cryptic yet entertaining. One ride, out in that territory, maybe not on that maiden voyage, was perhaps my most dangerous. A large rusted-out Oldsmobile sedan stopped. Three people were in the car. I got in the back seat with one of the riders and soon discovered that everyone in the car was completely plastered out on a bender. In the backseat was a case of beer and I was immediately offered a beer which being fourteen I politely turned down. We then proceeded to drive away at breakneck speed, flying over the rolling farmland hills of southern Wisconsin. After about fifteen miles of so and going over 100 miles per hour we came to a crossing and the driver stopped, to which I departed the car and thanked them for the ride. I never heard later if they ended up driving off the side of the road or not as we had no internets at the time back then to scour the movements of other humans, but they probably made it home fine and ate brats and kraut for dinner… washed down with five more beers.

To be honest, I was not an epic hitchhiker by any means but I do remember some beautiful hitchhiking with an ex-girlfriend out West in Montana. I remember hitching from Bozeman Montana to Salt Lake City Utah. Somewhere along the way we were picked up by a fancy black BMW sedan. After about 5 minutes the driver’s “fuzz buster” made a sound and we slowed down to avoid the highway patrol and a speeding ticket. We had been moving so fast that when we slowed down It literally felt like we were going twenty miles per hour when we were now going sixty. In a few minutes we returned to the normal 120 miles per hour. Sort of the Montana autobahn perhaps. Rides in the backs of pickups were always a joy with the mountains and open skies, the padding of your backpack, which you used as pillow providing comfort. I remember a ride down the length of Wisconsin from Upper Michigan. We were picked up by a pastor who worked with Native Americans and he seemed like he needed someone to talk to to make the ride easier and perhaps clear his conscience. All of these rides courtesy of “the kindness of strangers.”

The last hitchhiker that I picked up was about twenty years ago. You simply do not see many hitchhikers today. It was some youngsters heading down the coast on Highway 1. I was checking out the surf at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and had a hunch that the waves were better down in Pacifica. The two people in their early twenties had a sign that said “L.A. Bound” and after telling them that I was not going but fifteen miles down the coast they said that it would suit them just fine. I let them off at Linda Mar Beach and by the time I got my wetsuit on I noticed that they were headed south, looking for a good spot to continue the journey. Free spirits on the road.

Hitchhiking. A way to connect with every walk of life and find commonality in the human condition. Way safer than the internets.