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Inside Cuba: Music, Culture and the Art of Waiting

Everyone is waiting for something … waiting for that perfect girl or guy to come along. Waiting for that dream job. Waiting to get into the right college. Some are even waiting to move on to the next life.

If there’s a country that has mastered the fine art of waiting – and doing it patiently, it’s Cuba. After a three-day visit to Havana (yes, it was all-too-brief), I keenly watched from our air-conditioned minivan taxi, complete with tour guide Rene and driver Manuel, as Cubans waited for overcrowded buses, waited outside libreta, bodega and carnicería stores for rationed supplies, waited for tearful reunions with family and friends at José Martí International Airport, waited in long lines to get into the Spanish Embassy to apply for visas.

Rene is looking for a publisher for his book on Cuban architecture; Manuel is longing to see his grown children in Miami but has been denied a visa several times. He missed his daughter’s wedding. Still, he waits and he hopes and says “maybe later this year.”

They all wait with the patience of saints. In the land of fast food, the United States, Americans rarely have to wait for anything. They can get their meals, their movies, their Uber driver in seconds or mere minutes.

I had to wait to share photos and stories about our trip because of the limited access to WiFi and cell-phone coverage, but it was worth the wait. (See, you can learn a lot from Cubans.)

This is our story, in words and pictures.

Arrival at José Martí International Airport.

Day One

Who the heck gets up at 3 in the morning for a 7:15 flight out of Tampa? We do, especially if your destination is Havana. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip. U.S. airlines are now flying regular passenger flights to Cuba for the first time in five decades; Southwest (our airline of choice) launched their routes just four months ago.

We were a party of 10: myself, my wife Britt and our three children, Nate (age 18), Josie (15) and Jamie (7); Britt’s mother, Jackie, and my sister-in-law Leigh, with her husband Todd and their two boys, Parker (6) and Jack (3).

Wait … what? I thought Eastern Air Lines went out of business in 1991. A Southwest flight attendant said that a new charter service bought the trademark in 2014 and operates flights between Miami and Cuba, among other areas in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This was all because Jackie has always wanted to visit Havana with her husband John, but they never got the chance: John died in early November 2013 after an aggressive form of cancer took him in less than a month after being diagnosed.

Leigh used to work for Sea to Shore Alliance, a group dedicated to protecting threatened marine species such as manatees, sea turtles and right whales. She got it into her head to contact CEO/executive director, Buddy Powell, and do a little research: Is it safe to travel to Cuba with children? Is it worth going to Cuba, period? He said an emphatic yes. He has traveled to Cuba many times for research and cooperative marine rescues with the Cubans, and has always enjoyed the Cuban people and their hospitality. And more importantly, it’s safe: Cubans are prohibited from owning guns. Petty theft, such as pickpocketing, is the biggest problem.

With Powell’s help and others at Sea to Shore, Leigh was able to find a travel agency, a rental casa and a tour guide and a driver. A few months later, we all had passports, plane reservations and nervous anticipation. We were actually going to Cuba, and purely by coincidence, part of the trip would fall on Jackie’s 70th birthday.

When we arrived, I expected a long wait at immigration and customs, but we were out of there in no time. I was struck by how small the airport is; I half-jokingly said to Nate, “I think Albany, New York, has a bigger airport.”

Outside the main terminal, we waited for Rene and Manuel to arrive (there’s that word again, “wait”). Hundreds of people were crowded at the entrance, waiting for relatives to come home. It was moving to see the joy and tears. I wanted to go up and ask their stories, but that’s too intrusive.

Right away, you’re awed by the sight of so many 1950s-era vehicles, bought “before the revolution” and handed down from generation to generation because they can’t afford newer cars. (Car parts were on the list of  items you can’t bring into Cuba.) The airport looked like the parking lot of Arnold’s Drive-In on “Happy Days.” You’ll see an occasional Mercedes-Benz, Kia or a Peugeot, but mostly it’s 1950s American classics, tiny Lada cars from 1960s Russia and Polski Fiats from the 1970s. The owners take pride in their automotive gems; I couldn’t stop staring at them throughout the whole visit.

A blast from the past … there are an estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars roaming the streets of Cuba.

Turns out Rene and Manuel were on time to pick us up, but the airport had changed the gate number at the last minute and it was on the other side of the airport. We ended up using two taxis to take us all to our casa owned by Rigoberto Ley and Daima García on Nuevo Vedado, La Habana; we had four rooms for the 10 of us, each with a shower and a minibar filled with bottled water (more about that later), colas and Cristal and Presidente beers.

Rene and Manuel eventually made their way to our casa and apologized for the mix-up, but it wasn’t their fault. Later, the owner of the travel agency came by and asked us to “please accept our apology. Will you accept it?” Of course, we do. No harm done. They even subtracted the $80 in taxi fees from our bill.

We all piled into Manuel’s minivan and headed out for our first tour stop: Ernest Hemingway’s estate, Finca La Vigía (lookout house), situated on a hilltop about 9 miles outside Havana. Rene told us that Hemingway at first rented the 15-acre property and then purchased it in 1940 for $12,500. The house itself was built in 1886 by Spanish architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer. It was there that Hemingway wrote many short stories and much of his novels “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The Cuban government took control of the estate after Hemingway’s death in 1961 and eventually restored it. The house is brimming with Hemingway’s books, manuscripts, paintings, albums and animal heads from his hunting adventures. It’s a much bigger collection than the Hemingway house in Key West. Oh, and there are no Hemingway cats at Finca La Vigía. Sorry.

Rene told us fascinating stories of Hemingway’s rum-running days and hard-drinking lifestyle. Much of his time was spent in Cojímar, a quaint fishing village nearby. It was also where he was inspired to write “The Old Man and the Sea,” with his fishing guide, Gregoriow Fuentes, as “the old man.”

Hemingway used to dock his boat, El Pilar, next to the 17th century fort at Cojímar.

From there, it was on to Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro would hold political rallies and address the nation. The José Martí Memorial oversees the square, with an impressive 358-foot-tall tower and a statue.

Across from the memorial, the facades of the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications feature steel memorials to the key figures in the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara, with the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always), and Camilo Cienfuegos, with the quotation “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).

By then, our troop was running out of steam, having been up since 3 a.m. Manuel drove us back to the casa and we rested until it was time for dinner. Rene recommended a restaurant around the corner.

The dinner was a two-hour affair (which appears to be the norm there), and though the food was OK, there was nothing special about it. Here’s where things got a little murky: We were all warned ahead of time “do not drink the water” anywhere, and we stuck to that rule. We only drank bottled water and even used bottled water when brushing our teeth. Ah, but the kids ordered Sprites and they came with ice. Did ice cubes become our downfall? Read on.

Day Two

We had a full day ahead of us: beautiful Old Havana. Here’s where we could have felt like everyday tourists, like the ones that come off big buses, wear name badges and follow guides in packs, but we had Rene and his detailed knowledge of the history and architecture of Havana all to ourselves.

Paseo del Prado, Hotel Telegrafo, Great Theatre of Havana, Payret Cinema, and most impressive of all, Catedral de San Cristobal, aka Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, a stunning example of Spanish Colonial Baroque architecture … we covered a lot of ground in just a few hours.

Music fills the air wherever you go, from the restaurants, the cafes, bars and shops. A colorful band of musicians and dancers on stilts parade down narrow streets. If only I could have found a record store …

Lunch again was a drawn-out affair, but then it was time to journey to Plaza Vieja, a vibrant area for cafes and restaurants. But then someone in our group suddenly came down with a nasty stomach virus … was it the ice cubes in drinks from the previous night? Was it food poisoning or was it a stomach virus that boarded with us in Tampa? We may never know.

We rushed back to the casa so that the group member could rest. Then, over the course of a few hours, others had taken ill. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting. By the end of the day, five were down for the count, with Nate being the last one in the middle of the night.

I said out loud at one point, “My penchant for beer kept me from getting sick.”

Day Two was over for most of us, but Todd and I (with Parker in tow) weren’t about to miss the 9 o’clock cannon-fire ceremony at the ancient fortress of San Carlos de Cabaña. The shot is fired precisely at 9, as it has for hundreds of years, signaling the closing of the city gates. When Havana was a walled city, the Cabaña and Morro fortresses were used to guard the entrance from the naval fleets of rivaling powers such as England and France. Soldiers dressed in 18th century uniforms give the ceremony an extra touch of authenticity.

BTW: There are no railings or signs to warn visitors about the deadly drop-offs from the walls, so stay clear of the edges.

Day Three

With five of us out of commission, Britt volunteered to stay behind and attend to the sickies. Rene had other clients to help, so Manuel took me, Leigh, Todd and young Jack-Jack to Santa María del Mar for some beach time. Red flags were out because of high winds and strong waves, but it was worth it for the stroll. Rain cut our visit short, so Manuel took us to Morro Castle at the entrance to Havana bay. It has incredible, panoramic views of Havana.

Morro, combined with Cabaña, makes the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, look small.

Thus ended our tour of Havana. We had to go back to the casa and prepare for our Southwest departure time of 6:15. After an hourlong flight and a swift breeze through customs and immigration, we were home by 8:30.

That penchant for beer keeping me from getting sick? I spoke too soon. In the middle of the night, I came down with the bug. I’ve been writing this piece between trips to the bathroom. TMI, I know.

To sum up: Havana … great city, nice people, not terribly expensive. Put it on your bucket list, you won’t regret it, even if you get food poisoning or a stomach virus. I would do it all again.

Cheers to you, John Wallace.

Our driver, Manuel (far right), was the best. Everyone should be so lucky to have him on their first trip to Cuba.
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