City of Columns
Posted on June 12, 2015
We waded through the throngs of people awaiting relatives from Miami bearing flat screen TVs, baby cribs, bicycles, and car tires to be greeted by billboards praising both the lovely Caribbean beaches and the virtues of the Revolution. The air in Cuba was thick and the light reflected the verdant hue of the lush green landscape.
The road to Havana was sparsely traveled by open-air buses, antique cars and horses as we made our way to our first stop, Hemingway’s beloved Finca La Vigia where he spent much of his declining years writing stories inspired by the people and place he had adopted as his own.
Translated, “the Lookout House”, Finca La Vigia was airy and light, with its crisp white walls and Cuban tiled floors. Washed in a gentle ocean breeze, rooms filled with art and hunting trophies were frozen in time as though Earnest would walk into the room at any moment, shirtless, cocktail in hand, to greet his guest; his bar cart and writing desk, scattered with shotgun shells, left as though he had just stepped away. After a requisite veneration of Pilar, his famous Wheeler fishing boat custom built in Brooklyn for his deep-sea fishing expeditions (and sometimes German Submarine hunting), we headed to the city.
We emerged from the harbor tunnel to a Havana of glorious marble monuments back-dropped by beautiful classical buildings. But instantly, these images melted away to a city of despair and disrepair. Fifty years of deferred maintenance had taken a ruinous toll on the city. Buildings were simply melting away in the salt air- one said to collapse every three days.
We made our way through small, congested streets to our first stop, a paladar, or government sanctioned citizen restaurant. On a street of crumbling structures we entered a building one would expect to be condemned, moving up a worn marble staircase back-dropped by a Fidel Castro quote stenciled on the plaster wall. The grand piano noble of this once proud building stood empty with the exception of a few workers sitting on the cracked stone floors under banners of napkins strung between columns to dry in the humid tropical air.
Ascending to the next level, we were suddenly transported to Hemingway’s Havana; a rich tapestry of art and photographs lined the wood paneled and plaster walls; a bartender working furiously to serve fresh mojitos (the national drink) to all his new American guests. Curiously, as though still awaiting its moment, an eight millimeter film projector stood queued at the back of the bar. The dining room buzzed with conversation as cigar smoke from the adjacent room wafted through the high ceilinged rooms.
In these first few hours of our visit, Havana had met all expectations, while at once undermining all we felt we knew. Conversation and questions flowed as we attempted to justify the foreign with the familiar; the romantic with the raw; the people with the politics- the real with the surreal. Almost inevitably, the answer always ended with, “It’s complicated.”
– To be continued