Habana Vieja

Havana Vieja

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.

Welcome to Cuba

Last April, I finally made it to Cuba.

I’d been dying to go for nearly a decade, after becoming infatuated with the island while writing my second novel, The Crimes of Paris.

The book’s actually about a love affair in Paris. (But not that love affair—and not that Paris.) Casey Merkin washes up in the City of Light, where he falls in love with a Cuban woman named Elena. Slight problem: she’s married and has a young daughter. But in the last quarter of the book, Elena returns to Havana to take care of her ailing mother and sort out whether she wants to start a new life with Casey or stay with her husband … I won’t spoil the ending.

Right from the start, I knew I wanted my female protagonist to end up someplace where it would be virtually impossible for her lover to follow. Since North Korea seemed a little overkill, I opted for Cuba.

The novel’s set about eight years before the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana, back when Americans had to be either very legit or very sneaky about traveling there. (See below for a note on recent unpleasant developments.) Casey does follow Elena to Havana, but he knows for sure he cannot stay.

I was happy with my choice of setting, but I’d chosen a country and a culture I knew very little about. Thus, I had to do a whole lot of mental tourism—via books and movies and photos. But the thing about Cuba is that once you’ve broken the surface, you want to plunge in deep.

From the 400 years of Spanish domination following the arrival of Columbus to over half a century of American exploitation, and from the Revolucíon through the Período especial to the present day (not to mention all that Hemingway shit), Cuba is a profoundly fascinating place. The palimpsest of cultural influences to be discovered in the country’s landscape, people, music, art, dance, and architecture is uniquely captivating.

Seriously, check it out:

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Long story short: I happened on this place by accident—and for somewhat arbitrary narratological reasons—but immediately I was hooked.

The Cuba scenes of my novel were based on extensive research and imaginative reconstructions derived from trips to other tropical and socialist or communist countries. I’d spend a month in Bali (a beach in Sanur became the inspiration for a scene between Casey and Elena’s daughter) and a month in Vietnam (the cramped streets of Saigon underwent a sort of cultural transliteration in more than one chapter).

I wrote parts of the book in Key West (borrowing a hotel courtyard for Casey’s casa particular in Centro Habana) and at a beachside bar on the Yucatán peninsula (where I also stole some pelicans), and I took notes on the Caribbean climate in Jamaica. Together with bits of novels and blogs and films and songs, I cobbled together my own imaginary Cuba.

But just how similar to the real Cuba my reconstructed version actually was I couldn’t know. I had only a keyhole view of the island and its culture—which was only slightly more limited a view than my character himself has.

I had to—had to—had to expand that view by actually going there. When I learned about the Cuba Writers Program run by Tim Weed and Alden Jones, I signed up with reckless abandon. Here at last was a legitimate way to explore Cuba in person and confirm the details of my book!

Now, at the time, I didn’t quite realize just how easy it was toward the end of the Obama era to visit Cuba. In those halcyon days, there was little enforcement of “person-to-person exchange” requirement. So little, in fact, that many American tourists didn’t even bother to come up with a cover story.

One of my traveling companions stumbled upon a pair of American college girls at the Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s estate just outside Havana. After a brief exchange, they asked, “But wait—what’d Hemingway write again?” Their cultural exchange apparently consisted of mojito afternoons on the Plaza Vieja and rum-shot nights along the Calle Obispo. (And, frankly, you could do worse while in Havana.)

I knew that pictures in books and journalistic accounts, even when coupled with analogous sensory experiences, would never be enough to convey authenticity. And I also know that my nine-day trip to Cuba did not supply me with that authenticity either. But it did, as I hoped, stretch that keyhole open just a bit wider. And with the much-appreciated help of the other writers in my workshop group, it allowed me to correct some pretty embarrassing mistakes in my fictional re-creation of the place. I’ll share some excerpts from the novel in future posts.

Now, as I was preparing to write this introduction—getting my pictures together and, with the help of my wife, making them look reasonably presentable (I’m no photographer)—I was thinking to open with a call for people to book their flights to Havana this instant. In fact, the opening line of a Great Courses pitch I wrote a few weeks back for From Columbus to Castro: A Traveler’s Guide to Cuba read: “Today Cuba is more accessible to American travelers than it has been in nearly sixty years.”

Then this past week, a certain White House squatter announced his knee-jerk rejection of the carefully negotiated Obama-era policy on Americans traveling to the island. Lucky for me I went when I did! So now Cuba’s not quite as open as I hoped it would be for readers of these posts. (You can be sure I’ll have more to say about this in future installments.)

That being said, even with the tightened restrictions, it’s still possible to go to Cuba with relative ease. And you should.

You should find an approved reason to go, and you should spend money at Cuban paladares (private restaurants run by regular Cuba folks) and you should stay at casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts run by regular Cuban families). Not just because doing so is really helping regular people make a living and improve their towns and cities (and that’s the number-one reason), but also because Cuba is unforgettable and goddamn life-alteringly beautiful!

So.

In the series of posts I’ll be producing over the next month or more (one every couple of days), I hope to show you why you should go—through the pictures that I took on my trip, through stories of my experiences while I was there, and through some of the stories I’ve read and others I’ve written.

Here’s a little foretaste: some shots I took from the top of the cámera oscura building on the northeast corner of the Plaza Vieja:

 

I hope you’ll come back for more.