Pop Culture Junkette

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Havana Nights (and Days)

No, this is not a post on the wonders of the sequel/remake to Dirty Dancing that came out a few years ago that neither I nor most other humans saw. Instead, today's post is about the past week Mrs. Bartender and I spent in the fascinating city that is Havana.

First, a note. Our trip to Cuba was legal with the blessing of our Treasury Department. Second, I am not going to use this post to discuss the wisdom of the travel ban/embargo on Cuba other than to say that I thought it stupid, ineffective, and a valuable propaganda tool to Castro (i.e., blame Cuba's economic woes on the US) before I went and I still think so now. (Note, despite this opinion, I am no fan of Fidel and hope that his exit from the scene (which will happen sooner rather than later) will enable relations between the two nations to improve.)

Instead, I want to focus on what a special place Havana is. First off, the city is simply beautiful. The setting, on the Gulf of Mexico with a fantastic natural harbor lends itself to fantastic natural beauty and the architecture simply reinforces that. Habana Vieja (Old Havana for those not to savvy at Spanish) is a UNESCO world heritage site and essentially a 17th and 18th century city containing one architectural treasure after the next, and restoration efforts since 1994 have done some amazing work. We stayed in a hotel that has been recently restored which was spectacular. (Sure, you didn't have every amenity you would in most big cities, but it was a great old building in a perfect location.) Nonetheless, much of Habana Vieja is still rundown (as is most of the rest of the city) and many of the restored buildings remain dilapidated inside. Yet there is simply nowhere like this that I have been (although I would imagine that a few of the spectacular South American cities are comparable).

In addition, there is the Malecon, the road that goes along the gulf with waves frequently crashing into it. The buildings along the Malecon are, for the most part, in terrible condition, but there are some spectacular ones including the Hotel Nacional (former home of Lucky Luciano) and the American Embassy which is involved in a propaganda war with Cuban authorities. Add to this the numerous 1950s automobiles and the city is truly a time machine.

We went to a baseball game (we had seats right behind home plate for $3) and afterwards the manager, a player, and a retired star (German Mesa) were mingling with fans on the street outside the stadium. We saw the Buena Vista Social Club and chatted with the members after the show. We were in the 1950s.

And for New Years Eve, we were at the Tropicana, a night club that even Castro would not close. So the dinner was pretty bad, the red wine not drinkable, and dancers' choreography quite weak, but it was an experience I will always remember. I'm sure that some day Cirque de Soleil will run the whole thing, but to ring in 2007 there was a unique experience .

When Cuba is finally opened to Americans, it will change, hopefully mostly for the better but something will be lost. A city that can be flown to in essentially the same amount of time as Miami, that offers architecture and a landscape that few cities can match, that has better weather than Florida (every day we were there was around 80 and sunny), and offers the excitement of a different culture (or, more accurately, cultures) will insure that the Americans "invade" once again. Plus the Cuban cigars and great cocktails--your bartender certainly had a few mojitos and Cuba Libres. I only hope that even when Habana Vieja has numerous Starbucks and McDonalds, the buildings these places are in get the restoration they deserve.

So if you get a chance to visit Cuba before it opens up, go. If not, hope that we can all go soon enough. Ideally, the Cuban and the American people will greatly benefit from the opening.

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Blogger Laura Ingalls Wilder said...

I've been dying to go to Havana since reading the excellent book The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

Your trip sounded amazing.

1/05/2007 3:43 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

Nice article, I'm heading back for my 4th time this feb.

1/07/2007 8:24 PM  
Blogger Laura Holt said...

I was in Havana for three weeks around New Years, 1999. It was the 40th anniversary of the revolution, and by far the most fascinating and special trip I've ever taken. Like Isaac, I went legally and ever since I've been dying to go back. And I totally agree about the baseball game. I don't even like baseball, but it was the highlight of my trip. Unlike Isaac, I paid the non-gringo price, a single Cuban peso (about 10 cents at the time) and it was so magical. There's no assigned seating, so the best seats go to the people who care enough to get there early, usually little kids and old people, who talked to the players throughout the game, and who were close enough to the dugout for the players to talk back. It was amazing.

One thing that Isaac didn't mention is the ice cream. Cubans LOVE their icecream and it's everywhere and delicious.

1/09/2007 5:32 PM  

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