I managed to visit Havana before the rules changed (again). I’m glad I did. I’ve experienced island life before (lived in the Florida Keys) and I spent years in a soul-crushing dictatorship (Roosevelt Jr. High Class of 1988), but combining the two was a new experience.
Turns out it’s a new experience for everyone. We had booked a three-hour walking tour of Old Havana to get us started. You know that disclaimer “Tour is subject to change without notice”? What I have never really internalized is that part of the “change without notice” might be both the mode and the sights. We waited for the walking tour to start until someone from the cruise line came and told us our walking tour of Old Havana was now a bus tour of Havana’s historic highlights. Someone asked the cruise person why the tour was changed so significantly (and also starting 60 minutes late besides) and she shrugged wearily and said “They are still figuring this out.”
So, y’know, fine. We got on the buses and were driven to a giant cemetery. One of the reasons I had voted for the walking tour was that there were no cemeteries. With the exception of paying respect to specific graves, I don’t understand why people cheerfully visit cemeteries on vacation. While I think about death enough already, thank you, I should note that my objection isn’t about the morbidity, it’s about the monotony. I don’t need to go look at graves or monuments. I especially don’t need to look at row after row of identical stones. They’re not doing anything interesting with their dead – taxidermy or whatever – they’re just sticking them in the ground with flowers. I can see that anywhere.
I did enjoy seeing Che Guevara’s house, largely because the tour guide threw some absolute top-shelf shade as we drove by. Che’s house is on the far side of the harbor from downtown Havana, and has approximately the same placement, prominence, and view as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. As if this were not enough, the house wears as decoration an enormous replica of Che’s autograph. Our tour guide, as we drove past, said “This was the home of Che Guevara, hero of the revolution, during his time as commander of the military,” and then with FLAWLESS comic timing added “As you can see, it’s quite modest.”
Eventually we got off the bus. It being 1:30 by now, we were ravenous, and walked into Old Havana in dire need of some food. We found a restaurant perhaps a hundred yards into the city, read the menu posted outside on a whiteboard, and grabbed a table. The server walked by after a bit, and we flagged her down and attempted to order. We were not terribly successful. Five minutes’ discussion in pidgin Spanish of what they did not have peaked with her saying “We have one san’wich.”
We ordered it, though between the language barrier and the Communism we weren’t at all certain whether she meant “We have one kind of sandwich” or “We have one total sandwich.”
It was the former, which we discovered after waiting 40 minutes while drinking Cuban coffee and guava juice, both of which were wonderful. The sandwiches were less wonderful; lunch-bag grade ham-and cheese on cottony Cuban bread. The Cuban Mix is one of the world’s great sandwiches, and this was like a version of it concocted for an airline meal in 1975. But whatever, we were by that point ready to eat the stray cats that hung out with us while we listened to the outstanding salsa band.
We wandered around Havana for the next six hours – got gelato (great), pizza (awful), souvenirs (plentiful and crazily inexpensive) and visited several museums (excellent new perspective, hilarious translations). Rode in a late-fifties Dodge convertible something or another, which was beautiful to behold and I wish American cars still looked like that but the joy was somewhat offset by the odd sensation of riding in an open vehicle on a bench seat without even the option of a seatbelt.
The people of Havana with whom we interacted were much nicer to the tourists than most American tourist-town residents tend to be, and in conversation with at least two we got to the point of warmly agreeing that all governments and politicians everywhere are so terrible that we normally would all just vow not to hold anyone from anywhere responsible for the behavior of the fools and crooks and ideologues in charge of their home country, which I thought was a lovely display of universal humanity and a sensible policy to adopt permanently.