A Day in Vedado

Before our short digression into the graffiti of Havana, we were just about to pull up to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, right on the eastern edge of Vedado, a neighborhood that extends from the west side of Centro Habana to the Almendares River and southward down to the Plaza de la Revolucion (which we’ll visit in an upcoming post on May Day).

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Looks like a ’50s film, no?

Vedado is quite a step up from Centro Habana. The houses are far better maintained, and it’s dotted with higher-end hotels and embassies (including the new US embassy). Even though I spent a good part of my free morning exploring the area around the Hotel Nacional and along La Rampa (aka Calle 23, the main street in Vedado), I didn’t get to see it all.

The Hotel Nacional alone was worth the drive across town. Standing high atop the former Santa Clara Battery (duly marked with cannons), the hotel opened in 1930 and was famously the site of the Havana Conference in 1946, when Lucky Luciano brought together the Mafia leaders of the United States and Cuba.

There’s a room named after Jean-Paul Sartre, who stayed there with Simone de Beauvoir in 1960, as well as a Winston Churchill bar. The hotel also appears in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (like so many other spots around town, as explored in this article from Atlas Obscura).

After sneaking around the Hotel Nacional for bit, I headed over to the Tryp Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton). The lobby feels like a set for Mad Men.

While my group later drove past some of the famous casinos of the Batista era, unfortunately I did not get a chance to go inside or take pictures. I was fascinated to learn, though, that those American Mafia–run casinos were one of the first targets of the revolucionarios when they took Havana on January 1, 1959.

After a brief stop at a flea market in a vacant lot, where I made an regrettable decision about a straw hat, I continued up La Rampa to La Coppelia.* This is Havana’s famous “ice cream cathedral,” where locals and tourists alike go to enjoy a sundae. Since tourists use a separate currency from Cubans, there are different lines for foreigners and locals, but in both cases one pays by the weight of the ice cream.

*The opening scene of Fresa y chocolate, a well-known Cuban film about sexual politics under Castro, takes place at La Coppelia. The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it’s quite good—kind of a Cuban take on an Almodóvar movie.

Long ago, back in my post on Habana Vieja, I promised that we would find a Don Quixote to go along with the Sancho Panza statue on the Calle Obispo. Entonces mira:

I also wandered around the backstreets of Vedado searching for a synagogue. One of my workshop partners, Nancy, had asked about Jews in Cuba, and this sign was the only trace I saw of their presence on the island.

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I followed the sign but never found the synagogue, and the people I asked looked at me like I had two heads.

Instead, I stumbled upon a neighborhood cafeteria where local workmen were stopping in to get lunch, which was doled out on aluminum trays. No one seemed to be paying for this food, so I asked the lady at the counter if I was allowed to eat there. She was perfectly willing to give me a free plate, but her manager soon emerged to explain that only locals could eat there.

So I walked back from the Hotel Nacional to the Plaza de San Francisco (a 4.2 km hike beneath the blazing sun), and I stopped for some paella and a cold beer along the way …

The video below was taken on a different day. Here, the Cuba Writers Program is taking Bus 5050 through Vedado to Marianao.

Marianao is another neighborhood I was eager to explore, as I had decided to use it as the location of Elena’s mother’s home in my novel The Crimes of Paris (“on Avenida 41, just across from the Cine Lido, a run-down movie house with a blank marquee and a colorful but faded geometrical design on the façade”). I didn’t get to see the Cine Lido, but the neighborhood conveniently conformed in reality to my fictive descriptions of it. (Sometimes we novelists get to give ourselves the rare pat on the back.)

We traveled all the out to Marianao to see the Habana Compás Dance company perform. Afterward, we headed to still another area called Diez de Octubre to visit a barrio that’s been transformed into public art by the Muraleando Artist Community. But you’ll have to wait for my next post to see those …

Graffiti

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Before we move on to Vedado, I’d like to pause to give you a closer look at one of the most interesting aspects of Centro Habana: the graffiti.

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As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s very little advertising in Cuba. You see the occasional product ad on the backs of bicitaxis, but that’s about it. Outside the cities, most of the billboards are about the Revolution or the Castro brothers (as we will see later on a trip to Cienfuegos and the Bay of Pigs).

Here’s a particularly vivid example from Habana Vieja, where one side of the corner celebrates Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement and states that “The Revolution Is the People” while the other side gives props to Hugo Chávez and Che Guevara.

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All around the city, you’ll see what I call “official” street art: this includes everything from political propaganda to business and community organization signage to street markers.

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Yet there’s also a good deal of “unofficial” graffiti. And much of this is to be found in Centro Habana.

I asked our guide Orelvis if there is a lot of street art in Havana. He shrugged and said, “Not so much. Havana’s not a city of graffiti.” But if you wander around Centro Habana, you can’t help but remark the prevalence of some subversive—well, let’s be socialist about it and say “ideologically impure”—graffiti.

These pieces seem to me to be by the same artist, though I can’t be sure.

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Compare this face to the small figure on the far left in the façade a few pictures back

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But the graffiti below definitely seem to be the work of one person—perhaps it’s a series of self-portraits. I call him “El Graffito Bandito,” and his work is to be found all over Centro Habana, out in the open and hidden high and low. Always with a little “2+2=5” somewhere near the figure.*

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*Later on during this trip, we would meet with Michel Encinosa Fú, a science-fiction author in Havana, who noted that Orwell’s work has only very recently become available in Cuba. He also explained that criticizing the government in this way is generally acceptable. It’s only when you call out specific politicians or local organizers by name that you find yourself in trouble with the authorities.

Now let’s continue on our way to Vedado …

 

 

Centro Habana

Centro Habana looks to me something like the atomic blast–shadow of capitalism. Not just because most of the buildings have a bombed-out appearance due to decades of dilapidation, but also because so much of this newer part of the city west of the Prado is a vestige of capitalism’s heyday in Cuba.

A detail that slowly dawns on you after about a day in Havana is that there are no advertisements. There are some understated shop signs, but mostly these are painted on the glass or on the building’s façade or hung from a modest board.

Havana from between 1930s-50s

Back when Havana was a playground for gangsters and starlets, the neon lights that lined the streets made it seem a Caribbean Las Vegas. But nowadays the brightest sign you’re likely to see is a faded mural reminding you that Fidel’s still with you, and always will be.

The absence of the trappings of modern commercial culture that we’ve all come to expect has a strange effect. It’s a bit like reading Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic masterpiece La disparition (A Void): About a paragraph in, you sense something unusual is happening, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then after half a page or so it hits you—there are no e’s!

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On our first afternoon in Havana, my workshop partners Sue and Linda and I walked back toward the Capitolio Building. The National Capitol was built by President Machado in the late 1920s and was the seat of the government until the Revolution. It is currently being restored to house the Cuban National Assembly.

During our walk, we stumbled upon the Barrio Chino, a small area in Centro Habana that was once home to a sizeable Chinese population. These immigrants, most of them men, started coming in the late 1850s to work as sugarcane cutters, but after the Revolution when their businesses were nationalized they had less incentive to stay. But they left their mark on the neighborhood.

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La Entrada del Barrio Chino

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Calle Cuchillo is one of the few remaining vestiges of the once thriving Chinese community

After cutting over several streets and paying a visit to a large but mostly empty mercado (where not a single piece of meat was refrigerated as far as I could see), we strolled through a large indoor feria, where vendors sold everything from jewelry to artwork. The flea market was about to close, and we soon were hustled through to the exit.

Spilling out onto a random backstreet, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of rum-tippling workmen. Sue and Linda managed to slip through them, but the men insisted I stop for a chat. One particularly muscular guy with bleary, bloodshot eyes asked where I was from. “USA,” I told him, using the Spanish pronunciation, and completing uncertain of how my response would be received.

“America!” he shouted, offering his hand. “I love America! The best!” In the coming days, I found this to be a nearly universal response.

Before I knew it, his friend had handed me a shot of rum. (I have a weird talent for being offered booze by strangers in foreign countries.) I found myself firmly entrenched in a conversation with them. In Spanish. A language I don’t actually speak (as evidenced in the video at the end of this post).

“Venezuelan rum,” the fellow bragged.

“Venezuelan?” I said. “Why not Cuban—the best?” I thought I was paying him a compliment.

Porque soy venezuelano,” he explained.

¡Ah, perdoname!” I said, clapping him on the back, and all was well.

The party didn’t last long, but I did end up scoring some Internet cards from them for a few CUCs less than the hotel sells them. (I later learned it’s common for locals to hawk them on the street.)

On our bicitaxi tour the next morning (which I mentioned in my post on Habana Vieja), we returned to Centro Habana.

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Heading west from the Hotel Telégrafo, we soon stopped in at a local bodega (where Habaneros go to get their state-rationed foodstuff) and a mercado selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Next, we visited a Santería supplier, where they had a bin full of chicks and a backyard of hungry goats—all of them raised for ritual sacrifice.

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On our free morning the following Sunday, I took the opportunity to return to Centro Habana to conduct some critical research for my novel The Crimes of Paris. I have a number of scenes set in this part of the city.

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At one point, I passed an old theater, the Teatro America, which proved to be a cool respite from the morning heat. In the echoing, high-domed foyer sat a bored attendant. I asked if I could have a look around, and with a yawn he waved me into the auditorium.

While Old Havana has a thin veneer of restoration and revitalization, Centro Habana hasn’t profited as much from the influx of foreigners. You see them in ones and twos, but they are rare birds, and locals live here relatively unmolested by the tourist hordes.

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Can you spot the tourist?

In fact, when you wander around on this far side of the Prado, you will remark the stand-out tourists and you will in turn be remarked by residents, who’ll regard you with a mixture of tentative curiosity and mild annoyance. In the more crowded areas, the taxi drivers will eagerly approach you, along with many residents eyeing an opportunity to get their hands on some CUCs.

Each district in Havana has a Comite de Defensa de la Revolución, a committee of so-called vigilantes, kind of like a neighborhood watch. One of the reasons crime is so low in Havana is that everyone knows their neighbors will report on them if they do wrong.

Back to my novel research: I have my character Casey staying at a casa particular on the Calle Trocadero, a perfectly unremarkable street that runs from the Old Havana side of the Prado to within a couple of blocks of the Malecón.

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While I was wandering up and down this street, a man approached and asked me how I was doing. I explained what I was up to, and he was happy to help.

“Are there a lot of casas particulares along here?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “There and there, and several over here.”

“And if you go into these buildings, is there a courtyard?” We had to do a little dance on this one, since I couldn’t remember how to say courtyard in Spanish and he didn’t know it in English. But I managed to remember traspatio, and that seemed to get the idea across well enough. And, yes, they had courtyards.

“Is there a cafeteria nearby?”

“Yes, just up the street and around the corner.”

Other details definitely jarred with my fictional version of the neighborhood, and so revisions were needed. But I left room for a little poetic license.

It seemed to me you probably wouldn’t hear a whole lot of street music at midnight from your window above the Calle Trocadero (as you probably would in Habana Vieja). But since it provides a nice atmospheric touch in the scene where Casey and Elena first make love after his arrival in Havana, I decided it’s not always necessary to submit to the tyranny of realism.

As we shook hands, the man asked my name, and I told him. “I’m George,” he said.

“That’s my son’s name,” I replied with a smile. “But you’re Jorge, no?”

“Yeah, Jorge. George. Same thing … You need a car?”

“As a matter of fact, George, I do.”

He led me up a side street to a restored Chevy parked just off the Malécon. His partner was waiting for him there. George told him I wanted to go up to the Hotel Nacional. I hopped in the back and George rode shotgun.

As we zoomed up the Avenida de Maceo, our conversation downshifted into him trying to sell me discount cigars and me lying that I’d already bought some. But it was an otherwise pleasant drive along to the seawall to our next destination: Vedado.

El Malecón

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The Malecón is near the top of my list of favorite places on Earth. It is a uniquely fantastic coordinate in space-time, and walking down it at dusk is like a gift from the universe.

This five-kilometer seawall runs across the top of the city and then continues down along the inlet into Havana Habor. You can go there any time of day and find Habaneros hanging out: couples relaxing on the seawall, fisherman casting their lines, kids swimming, musicians jamming. It’s a 24-hour party, and one of the city’s defining features.

Unfortunately, every time I encountered this beauty, I had only an iPhone. So my pictures of it are rather unimpressive. Also, it’s five kilometers long, and unless you are out in Havana Bay looking back toward the city, it’s hard to capture its magnificence.

But here are a few of the sights I did manage to capture—many of them taken on our free Sunday morning when I walked from the Hotel Nacional all the way down to the port. And with these pictures, I’ll now shut up.

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Linda Michel-Cassidy crosses the Avenida de Maceo to reach the seawall

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You see a lot of broken-down cars in Havana

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The Hotel Nacional seen from the seawall

Fisherman are a permanent presence along the Malecón:

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From the corner of the Malecón at the top of Habana Vieja, you get a nice view of the Morro Castle:

Some boats in the inlet and harbor:

A giant statue I came across while walking down the Malecón:

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24-Hour party people

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“You’ll only be happy once you learn to distinguish the permanent from the temporary.”

El Paseo del Prado

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A long tree-lined promenade after the European style, the Paseo del Prado divides Habana Vieja from the newer Centro Habana. Originally built in the late 18th century, it was redesigned in the 1920s. But after the 1950s, and particularly after the Revolution, the buildings along the Prado began to dilapidate.

Today, parts of the Prado have been restored—particularly around the Parque Central, where there are a number of well-known hotels, include the Telégrafo (where I stayed), the Hotel Inglaterra, and the swanky Parque Central Hotel (where my group met for lectures on Cuban history and culture).

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In one of his lectures, Tim Weed told us of his attempt to find the pre-Revolution U.S. embassy in Havana. Some clever gumshoe work and squinting at photographs led him to the address, which today is an Alliance Française building. A few days after he delivered his lecture, I stumbled upon the building myself.*

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*The new U.S. embassy is in Vedado, right off the Malecón, in what was formerly the United States Interest Section run by the Swiss embassy. It appears our current president is far more likely to keep Guantánamo open than he is this diplomatic hub.

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The Prado runs all the way up to the Malecón. The seawall skirts the Havana and is my favorite part of the city. It’s also our next stop …

Habana Vieja

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You will go to Habana Vieja. Old Havana … You’ll go there and you’ll say, “This is exactly what they said I’d see.” And you’ll see just what they said: The crumbling pastel façades. The narrow and uneven streets, crowded with onion vendors and kids kicking flat footballs. The feral cats and dogs*, the vintage cars.

*My workshop partners specifically made fun of my overuse of the word “feral” in my workshop piece. They were right. But, ladies, here they are. (Click for full-size versions.)

The old town is tucked into the corner formed by Havana Bay and the long inlet to the harbor. The Spanish built fortifications (the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña) on the far side of the inlet to defend the town from higher ground. Along the edge of Habana Vieja runs the Avenida de Maceo, better known as the Malecón, a five-mile seawall and multilane roadway.

All of Havana spreads out from this colonial core. As the city grew, it crept westward into the areas now known as Centro Habana, Vedado, Miramar, etc., each successively newer than the last and with its own architectural identity.

map of Old Havana

Habana Vieja will look very much like the pictures you’ve seen in books and online, where all the colors seem too bright. But it really is that oversaturated, and that vivid.

Of course it’s also a tourist trap. From one end of the Calle Obispo to the other, the residents have transformed their foyers into shops hawking postcards, straw hats, and trinkets. And this has been a great boon for them. There are take-out restaurants no local person would ever frequent or could ever afford—but which provide a lot of local jobs.

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We’ll find Don Quixote later in Vedado, but for now notice the feral cats at Sancho’s feet

And then there’s the onslaught of Hemingway pilgrimage sites: La Floridita (home of the daiquirí and favorite watering hole of drunk Papa—a bronze idol of him now warms his spot at bar’s end), La Bodeguita del medio (the supposed birthplace of the mojito and another alleged Hem haunt, though this has been called into question), the Ambos Mundos (Ernesto’s former flop pad before his loaded second wife, Paula, insisted on an estate outside of town, which we’ll soon visit).

My first glimpse of Old Havana came on the evening of our arrival. A few of us had spent the afternoon tooling around near the Capitolio building in Centro Habana. But for dinner we bussed over to a paladar called La Moneda Cubana, just behind another old Spanish fortification: the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

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As night fell, we walked through the Plaza de la Catedral, and from there all the way up the Calle Obispo to our hotel, the Telégrafo—stopping along the way for some añejo rum and live music.

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The Hotel Telégrafo and Hotel Inglaterra on the Parque Central

The next morning, we took a bicitaxi tour around Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. (I’ll save the Centro Habana pictures for a later post.)

Tim noted that while this might seem like the most touristy thing you could do, it actually provides a bit of cover—you go by so fast that the locals hardly notice you gawking around every corner and snapping pictures.

My bicitaxi driver told me that he’d noticed a distinct increase in business toward the end of the Obama years. There’s been a lot of foreign visitors since Castro opened the island to tourists during the so-called Special Period after the collapse of the USSR, but he said that the influx of Americans resulting from the loosening of travel restrictions had brought a flood of income for hard-working, pedal-pumping men such as himself.

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Let me pause a moment to talk about this guy’s profession. He pedals a two-seat rickshaw attached to a single-gear bike around a tropical city for ten hours or more a day. He makes a pretty good living doing this compared to the average professional in Cuba. But he busts his hump to convey his clients across those potholed streets.

And this is the guy that the new American policy will hurt the most. The Castro regime (Fidel, who’s dead; Raúl, who’s announced his retirement in 2018), those guys survived the Período especial. They’ve lasted through 60 years of the embargo. I don’t see how stopping cash payments to private paladar and casa particular owners or bicitaxi drivers is going to topple communism on the island.

I’m really no expert, but maybe, perhaps, just possibly Donald Trump doesn’t know the first fucking thing about what’s going on in Cuba.

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A man hauls hundreds of ceramic tiles in Centro Habana (a shot taken during our bicitaxi tour)

Over the past several years, American tourist money has also greatly increased the amount of restoration work in Habana Vieja. Construction cranes are everywhere, and as you pass open doorways or dilapidated buildings, you see people making repairs.

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That morning, we stopped at the Plaza Vieja, another of the five main squares in the old city. On the northeast corner stands a building with a cámera oscura at the top, based on the designs of Leonardo da Vinci. For small fee, visitors are given a nice panoramic view of the entire city. You feel like you’re looking at still photos—until you notice, say, a worker walking across a rooftop or a bird swooping past.

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Top of the Edificio Gómez Vila, Plaza Vieja

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La Plaza Vieja

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While the others sat on the terrace of the Café El Escorial, a well-known establishment on the southeast corner of the old square where they take an inordinate amount of time to roast and prepare your coffee, I split off to take a few more pictures.

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All Cuban students wear uniforms: primary school students sport the colors of the Cuban flag

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V. Hansmann on the Plaza Vieja

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Author Tim Weed outside the Café El Escorial

The group then headed back to the Plaza de Catedral. One of the highlights of the morning was a visit to the Taller Experimental de Grafíca, a printshop tucked into a dead-end alley off the plaza. In the large open workspace, artists set type and produce reductive linocuts, woodcuts, and lithographs.

Though we didn’t make it there that morning, I later came back to explore the Feria de publicaciones y curiosidades just off the nearby Plaza de Armas. Until recently, this book and curios market was in the plaza proper (and that’s where Casey finds it in my novel), but it was recently moved.

Next, we’ll move on to the Paseo del Prado, the wide promenade that separates Habana Vieja from Centro Habana.

The Cuba Writers Program

My trip with the Cuba Writers Program consisted of a 9-day stay on the island, starting with 5 nights in Havana, then 2 in Cienfuegos in the south, and 1 final night in Havana. And unlike those young travelers at the Finca Vigía I mentioned in my last post, we were intent on earning our person-to-person visas.

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Every day was packed with multiple cultural excursions. Traveling around on foot, by bicitaxi, or in what my fellow traveler V. Hansmann* referred to as “Chinese Bus #5050” (not pictured, but imagine your standard charter coach), we would crisscross the city or traverse vast expanses of countryside in a single bound.

*You can read V.’s far more diligently contemporaneous account of the trip here. And do, damn your eyes!

We went to dance studios, a print shop and an art gallery; we met with writers and poets; we attended a guitar orchestra concert and other musical performances; we ate at some of the best-known restaurants on the island; we listened to Tim Weed’s lectures on Cuban history and Hemingway; and we took part in writing workshops led by authors Ann Hood and Alden Jones, and a special lecture by food writer Michael Ruhlman.

At the end of each day, I’d return to my room at the hotel or casa particular by about 10 pm thinking, “Maybe I’ll pop out to a bar, catch some live music, smoke a cigar.” And almost every night, after a frustrating attempt to get online with my ETECSA card and talk to my wife and baby boy, I’d end up falling asleep with the TV babbling away at some Spanish-dubbed movie.

The point is these were a very packed nine days. And before passing out at night from fatigue (from walking miles upon miles, yes, but even more from having intense conversations with some extremely smart, engaging human beings—writers all—for thirteen or fourteen hours straight), not to mention the heat exhaustion, I’d type up an account of the day’s activities, reread the workshop pieces we’d be talking about the next day, review my other notes, and back up my latest iPhone and Nikon photos.

I did all this assuming I’d simply blog my notes and jazz them up with a smattering of pictures. The problem is, though, that I took a metric fuck-ton of photos and each day was its own mini-odyssey. A straight-up chronological info dump of text and images would be almost incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t take part in the trip—a bit like watching your friend’s kid’s cell phone video of a roller-coaster ride.

Over the past two months, it’s become abundantly clear that chronology is simply the wrong organizing principle here. So rather than giving you a day-by-day account, it’ll be more effective, and I hope more enjoyable, for me to organize my pictures and anecdotes thematically.

First, I’ll take you through Havana from east to west (which is the direction in which the city historically grew), from Old Havana across the Paseo del Prado, through Central Havana to Vedado. Then I’ll explore some aspects of the city that I find particularly compelling.

After that, we’ll pop down to Cienfuegos, and I’ll invite you to listen in on a reading that the Cuba Writers Program did on the rooftop of a casa particular overlooking the water.

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This is actually just some place where we had lunch, not the aforementioned casa rooftop—but I figured you’d derive greater pleasure from this more dramatic-looking panoramic shot …

Finally, I’ll share the revised version of the chunk of my novel The Crimes of Paris that I workshopped in Cuba, and I’ll note some of the changes I made as a result of the trip and my workshop partners’ insightful comments.

Now, let me just wrap this up by saying that if you’re a writer and you’re interested in going to Cuba, I highly recommend this program. In fact, if you’re a writer and you aren’t yet interested in Cuba, I still recommend this program—it’ll blow your mind. I met a great group of people on this trip, and the organizers were magnificent.

Along the way, I’ll share more pictures of my fellow travelers. But here, I want to introduce our local guide, Orelvis. He’s a lawyer by training, but he makes a good living leading yanquis and yumas like us around the island. (And he’s precisely the sort of person that the Trump administration’s new Cuba policy hurts directly.)

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When I met Orelvis, he said to me: “My name is Orelvis, but you can call me Elvis.” To which I replied: “I will.” (This was the first edit I made to my novel on this trip. Who wants a local-color character called Hector when he can have one named Elvis? More on this later …)

I also want to introduce our bus driver, a quiet guy named Frank.

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I took this picture on a hotel roof in Cienfuegos, as a local guitar orchestra played in the background. This is my favorite shot I took that day. To me, those clouds are like a thought bubble over Frank’s head as he turns away from our tourist group and gazes out over a city hours from his home town of Havana. Fill them in yourself as you like …

If I can maintain my posting discipline (already impinged upon by an July 4th weekend trip to Ocean City, MD), there’s much more to come—and soon.