Thursday, April 7, 2011

Travel columnist explores Cuba

HAVANA — As evening pedestrians, we stepped cautiously around and into alarmingly large holes packing nearly ink-black downtown streets, lit only every other block or so with the dimmest of lights.

As night bus passengers, we marveled how our driver navigated the same areas where vehicles, bikes and human shapes, indistinct in the darkened roadways, converged.

But sundown was a gift, obscuring blocks and blocks of once-resplendent, now-shockingly dilapidated offices, shops, apartment houses and previously elegant mansions where laundry sags from decaying windows and chickens cluck through weedy, unkempt yards on which, decades ago, armies of gardeners lavished love.

The guide’s standard explanation is: Everything is “under restoration.” Indeed, a few buildings, cherry-picked across this famous city, are beautifully restored. The stark contrast provides, unintentionally, a poignant, glamorous frame for the crumbling infrastructures that dominate.

We traveled to Cuba on a charter flight from Miami as U.S.-sanctioned delegates from the American Association of Museums with a mission to meet for six days with Cuban museum personnel on issues of mutual concern.

Havana evinces a surprising number of eclectic museums — staffed by Cubans who are universally friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming.

“We love Americans!” one staffer whispered, blowing a surreptitious kiss.

Cuba showcases a dynamic arts culture. Poets, musicians, writers, artists and dancers are popular. The Museum of Fine Arts featuring, in one building, only Cuban artists, is knock-your-socks-off spectacular.

We enjoyed an evening at the delightful Buena Vista Social Club, an Old Havana vestige out of a movie.

Veteran singers and musicians entertain with classic cultural songs to an enthusiastic crowd of young and old — mostly locals.

Less interesting is the iconic Tropicana, a Las Vegas-style feathers-and-fans, tourist-oriented cabaret, dating from 1939, where scantily clad women cavort in an open-air theater to salsa-style music for two hours.

We rode there in a caravan of Cuba’s classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s, snagging a salmon-colored ’56 Chevy like the one I drove in high school.

We ate in upscale restaurants arranged by the travel agency — that, we were told, most Cubans, on their average monthly salary of about $25, could not afford.

I wandered away to bread lines where the clerks scowled at me disapprovingly when I photographed. Our guide said every Cuban is given a free ration book to obtain bread and other staples.

But what locals termed “grocery stores” or downtown markets had some bare shelves — and fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as other standard food, and routine consumer products we take for granted seemed in short supply or absent entirely.

We lunched at Club Havana, the luxurious oceanside villa in Havana’s upscale neighborhood where Cuba’s elite played pre-1959. Members of our group said Fidel Castro lives nearby.

Havana is too complex, and our experiences there too intricate to relate in a short column.

Next month, I will discuss the many Cuban haunts of America’s nobel laureate writer Ernest Hemingway.
By Janice Law in

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