By Mike Di Paola | Bloomberg
We had just left a baseball game near midnight in Havana when a thief made a grab for our bags. It might have been a simple snatch and grab, instead of a mugging, if I hadn’t tackled the crook. His two pals pummeled me, scampering away as a sizable crowd looked on with indifference.
I lost a camera, my eyeglasses and the shoes off my feet in the scuffle; my companion, Irene, lost her money, credit cards and, temporarily, her faith in human nature. We gained the experience of seeing a Cuban hospital and police station up close, as we were shuttled between both institutions for the next six hours, getting perfunctory treatment for my scrapes and filling out endless police reports. They caught one of the assailants, a skinny teenager, and recovered the credit cards. I don’t know who got to keep the money and camera.
It was three days into our weeklong trip to Cuba, and we had just $150 left between us. (Irene had to use $18 of those remaining funds to buy me a pair of canvas shoes). Credit and debit cards issued by US banks are useless here. Still, we found that Havana on the cheap can be surprisingly delightful.
Even outside the colonial historic core, the city is an eye-popping, endless panorama of architectural evolution: neoclassic, baroque, art deco and modernist buildings reflecting the many aesthetic expressions taking root here since 1519.
One of Havana’s many English-speaking tour guides implored us to “look at Havana with our hearts,” since our eyes alone would see much squalor, and she was right. Most of the buildings from eras past truly show their age, and the same is true for Havana’s famous 1950s cars. Some classic beauties still purr through the streets, but most of the Detroit dinosaurs are chugging along on life support.
Classy Hotels, Juke Joint Old Havana is another story. A massive restoration project has spruced up this historic area, bringing many of the city’s classy, classic hotels back to their pre-revolutionary glory—such as the Hotel del Tejadillo, built from three 18th- and 19th-century mansions, the art nouveau Hotel Raquel and the fin-de-siecle Hotel Plaza.
The occasional street robbery notwithstanding, this is a superb city for pedestrians. After the mugging, we skipped our plans to travel outside of Havana and moved instead into a “casa particular,” one of the city’s many no-frills, low-budget guest houses. Ours cost $35 a night.
From the dusty alley on Cuarteles Street, lined with modest housing, a juke joint and an immovable, vintage Buick, it was just a short walk up the hill to the opulent former presidential palace of Batista and his predecessors. It’s now the Museo de la Revolucion, with a tank menacingly poised on the front lawn.
Nearby is the glassed-in display of “Granma,” the yacht that Fidel Castro, his brother, Raul, and Che Guevara used in 1956 to cross the Gulf from Mexico with a small army and launch their revolution.
“Granma” is also the name of the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. While I was perusing sympathetic articles on Al Gore and Cindy Sheehan and a less complimentary one about Dick Cheney, a doorman noted that there was “nothing about Castro”—namely, nothing on his health, which has been dodgy since at least last July. Indeed, the populace knows far more about the doings of President Bush, who has even lower job-approval numbers in Cuba. Billboards compare him unfavorably to terrorists and Hitler.
Cubans seem quite open when they talk politics, or anything else. >From my informal survey, I’d say Havana residents believe that El Jefe has lost a little velocity off his fastball, even though there is still palpable pride in the revolution. Raul, Castro’s brother and Cuba’s vice president, has been the country’s de facto leader since Fidel fell ill, and he hasn’t shown much evidence he’ll shake things up.
Pause even for a moment in one of the grand plazas—Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral or Plaza de Armas—and a local will invariably approach to chat and, almost inevitably, try to sell something, if only a sob story. Everyone seems to have relatives in Miami, and feelings are mixed toward the exiles. Some speak of them with envy; others blame them for Cuba’s ruined economy.
Speaking of economic ruin, on the last full day of our trip we were robbed yet again in what appeared to be an inside job at our humble casa particular. We were left with just $40, too little even for the $50 airport exit tax. We’d have to beg, or sell something to get out of the country, once we figured out a way to pay for food.
Fortunately, a guide I’d hired earlier, pre-robberies, lent us $100—probably three months’ salary for him. Another fellow, a cultural historian I’d met for just a few minutes, kicked in $30. These singular acts of generosity and trust erased whatever dark thoughts we’d had about humanity. Better yet, we could once again flout US law and eat, have a beer with dinner, perhaps go so far as to buy a cigar.
I hope the day will come when US citizens won’t have to sneak in and out of Cuba through Cancun, Mexico, or through Nassau, as we did. (Both houses of Congress have proposed legislation lifting President Bush’s ban on travel to Cuba by US citizens and legal residents). Until then, most Americans won’t get to experience this truly picturesque capital, and many Cubans will only know the US through Granma.
(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)