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When the heart is in Havana!

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Deccan Herald Travel on June 8, 2018

If Havana knew Tom Miller by his shoes it knows me now by my bare feet...
Well, almost.

And if he had 50 breathless reasons to land in Cuba, I've cherished one and that goes by the name of Che Guevara. Having read his biography by Lucia Alvarez de la Vera and more relevant to Cuba, his diaries of the Cuban Revolutionary War and last but not the least his Motorcycle Diaries. In Cuba lay his resounding success story... An uncorrupted Idealist revolutionary, he was instrumental in the victory of the Revolutionary army in the overthrow of the Batista govt. in Cuba.

Landing in Havana in the evening hours and being instantly enveloped by the balmy sea air and the warmth of the setting sun after the bone chilling cold of NYC, the several layers of woollens are shed with great alacrity…

The walk by the Malecon on our first evening in Havana, the seaside promenade with its low wall that spans a length of Havana (8 kms.), brings to mind the Marine Drive in Bombay where families meet and chat and clandestine lovers share moments of togetherness until late into the night.  As we stroll along leisurely taking in the sea breeze, guitarists strum their guitars and singers hold impromptu concerts for a very willing audience. Some of them are salsaing. Music fills the air. There is a certain camaraderie and a conversation that goes on between the ocean and the Habaneros at the Malecon.

The next morning, feeling an instant connect with the local milieu I step out early in my worn tracks and tee shirt and a pair of hawai chappals. It is that leisurely part of the morning yet, just before things speed up. There are the neighbourhood ladies with infants dangling at their hips doing their vegetable/meat shopping. There are a few men hanging about smoking their first cigar of the day. There is the heavenly scent of  freshly brewed coffee that comes wafting in the air. Cubans make the most divine coffee in the world but I am yet to discover that…

Walking down south in the morning towards Havana Vieja (old Havana) from Hospital San Martin where we are staying, we pass by Kahlo Galleria and the imposing gothic structure of Biblioteca-Instituto de Literatore Linguistica also called the Biblioteca Publica, (the sun touching the crown of these buildings, turning them golden) gaping at the vintage cars whizzing by.

In Cuba you get to not just drool over them but ride in them as well, as long and as far as you want to, with hair flying a la Marilyn Monroe or a Jean nothing less than 50s models in ice cream pink, sky blue and sexy maroons.

Setting out on a kind of walking tour with our young friend Alex who is a profesoro at the University of Havana (and speaks good English with a Spanish lisp while we struggle with our newly acquired espaniol) we pass by buildings that look like aged gentlemen, with that slightly unkempt, ramshackle air as if they have been caught in a time warp and are watching the years pass by helplessly...and would welcome a little upkeep and a lick of paint.

The sun is on its ascent and the day turns rather warm as we reach Centro Habana and we see the heritage building of the Office of Telecommunications, the ETECSA. The ETECSA is owned and controlled by the Cuban govt. and the telecom ministry is also one of the most powerful. We pass by the  ornate and beautiful biscuit coloured Edificio Bacardi de la Habana, the Bacardi building of the house of Bacardi ,(the family that supported the Batista govt.) before they shifted base to US. We see the large, very well preserved Cemetery, the largest in Latin America. We stop by to look at the midget copy of the Flatiron building.Cute!

We lunch at the 5 Sentidos sharing ambience with the posh Habaneros, the food a far cry from the regular limited option Cuban food. We have a delicious spinach soup, sautéed vegetables  and black bean gravy… curated and presented beautifully… Money talks everywhere! Even  in a communist, resource-limited Cuba!

Speaking of money, Cuba has the CUP, the Cuban Peso (Moneda Nacional) 25 of which equal one US$ and the CUC, the Cuban equivalent of the US$.

We pay in CUCs.

The grand facade of El Capitolio, which until the Revolucion of 1959 held the govt. offices, now holds the Cuban Academy of Sciences in one wing and the Govt. in the other in the days to come. Designed after St.Peter’s Cathedral, it is very similar to the Capitol, Washington. It is undergoing an ambitious renovation, a project of 10 years now and still going, says Alex with the Cuban ‘sideways’ smile. Are we surprised? Of course not.

It holds us rooted for a while not just because of its stunning facade but also because of the rows of vintage cars parked outside! We get ourselves photographed with the beauties…

We come across the old Cigar factory and pass by the entry to China Town.

It's mid-afternoon and the air of languor is slowly replaced by one of activity though not remarkably so. We walk through the beautiful stretch of the Paseo del Prado (a walk from Hotel Inglaterra on our left towards Castillo San Salvador de la Punta in the walking path in beautiful patterns of mosaic)

In the midst of Paseo de Marti stands a statue of Jose Marti, on a pedestal, in the stance of falling off the horseback after being shot.

The length of the avenue is officially Paseo de Marti that opens into, where else, the Malecon.  It houses, among others, the Escuela Nacional de Ballet (National School of Ballet) run by the renowned Cuban Ballerina Alicia Alonso. The Gran Teatro de la Habana is the only monument named after a living legend, Alicia Alonso who is now 97 years old and continues to choreograph for ballet fact there is one on, on the next day, for which we try to get tickets but they are sold out, of course.

Later noon we are at the Plaza de la  Revolucion also known as Jose Marti Square. It has at one end the imposing tower 358 ft. tall with a 59 ft. seated statue of  a thoughtful Jose Marti at its foot.

If Fidel was the man of action, Jose Marti was the thinker and writer and his inspiration.

Next day, we are seated in the plush back seat of a beautiful wine-coloured vintage 1960s Chevrolet BelAir convertible and are driven around in style across the city, feeling much like a Sophia Loren or a Nanda. The only thing missing is a tiny scarf to hold our (un) coiffed hair in place. We sail along Havana Forest Park, across the Almendares and over to the 5th Avenue fringed by the embassies in Miramar

On our way out of the country, about 10 days after we first landed in it, we keep our date with Museo de la Revolucion. Cuba is all about its Revolucion of 26th of July 1959. If we in India count the years since we gained our freedom from the serfdom of the British, the Cubans mark each year from this year of overthrow of the Batista’s inglorious dictatorship...

And therefore this Museum is dedicated to documentation of this great movement and its victory through photographs and mementos and life size souvenirs and photographs from the Revolucion. It takes us a good part of two hours to go from floor to floor viewing and reading all the details. We get a peep into what has gone into the making of this proud island nation…

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