2017
04.11

Study

SYNOPSIS:  TYING LOOSE ENDS.  ABOUT GOOD CUBAN FASHION…  A TOUR OF THE HOTEL NACIONAL, VISITING A TOBACCO FACTORY, PAYING HOMAGE TO HEMINGWAY AND MAKING A QUICK STOP AT THE UNIVERSITY AND THE # 1 ICE CREAM PARLOR OF CUBA.    IT IS AN EXTRA LONG BLOG…  SORRY!   TRIP IS ALMOST OVER. 

It was the worst tour ever by the worst guide ever.  This tour had come so highly recommended by our German friends Wulf and Karin, we had made an extra effort to attend it.  Every day at 10 AM (except on Sundays), you can join a guided tour of the Hotel Nacional, one of the most famous hotels of the world.  But the little old lady who led the group, charming and sweet as she was, was ill equipped for the job.  Her whisper-voice, more conversational than anything was at best fit for a group of 1-3; not for the 20+ we were.  And in typical Cuban fashion, she left us in the dark on what she would do next, where to turn, what to expect.  It was pure agony.  But we got a good view from the top tower of the hotel, the only part worth anything.  The tour was advertised as free, but it turned out non-hotel guests were required to purchase $5 tickets which doubled as vouchers for a drink.  But of course not at the garden terrace that Celi had chosen for her drink.  That one did not honor the vouchers, which in good old Cuban fashion again, nobody told you and which you only found out after it was too late.  What a wasted morning!

Celi left the tour about 15 minutes into it.  I hung in there for one of the two hours.  Then I charged ahead.  I had gotten on the lady’s nerves enough, asking her to at least face us when she was talking.  Open to anyone, tour or not, is the Casino, preserved with its original decoration. A picture of some of the mobsters who frequented the joint, including legendary Meyer Lansky, decorated the foyer. 

A trench from the Cuban Missile Crisis located on the property, is also worth hiking the loop.  On the lawn of the hotel, several air and exit shafts covered in green metal are visible.  The trench seems to be a few hundred feet long, narrow and gloomy.  To contemplate how close we came to World War III at that time is chilling even today. 

Frank Sinatra stayed at the hotel, among many other dignitaries, entertaining the mobsters at their most famous Havana Conference in 1946.  Obama, when he visited Havana in 2016 was not a guest at the hotel, but stayed at the more secure quarters of the American Embassy.  Aside from its reputation, there is not much glory left at the Nacional.  The rooms seem run down and aged, the roof balustrade was crumbling, the walls in the halls are fading.  It’s the Cuban fate.  Why should the Nacional escape it?

I had a full program today.  I had hoped to visit a rum and a cigar factory during my stay; after all, these are the hallmarks of this country.  But I had run out of time.  The cigar factory won out.  When I arrived at the Fábrica de Tabaco Partagás, an English-speaking guide was just about to depart.  She hustled me into a small room and required that I left bag and camera in there — no tag, no security, no lockers, just a shelf with open boxes.   Guides from all the other tours requested their visitors to drop off their larger bags there, too. But most people have pockets and could at least take money and passport along.  I had nothing.  I hardly could focus on the tour.  I had been stripped of all belongings that mattered; aside from money and passport, my large big camera was sitting there in full view.  What if anyone just took even half of it?  I almost dropped out of the tour in fear of losing everything. For the next 1/2 hour I sweated blood and tears.  All was there when I returned.  Thanks, Ganesh!  This could have backfired badly.

The factory — no pictures allowed — was a four-story building in which several hundred workers rolled cigars day in and day out; up to 180 cigars per day per person.  We were told this was a temporary location since the original factory was under reconstruction.  But there would have been little difference to what we were allowed to see.  The tobacco preparation process was not part of this tour.  There is much science involved in picking the right tobacco, drying it, etc.  This was only about the rolling part. 180 cigars was the norm.  If they rolled more, there were bonus payments in CUC.  Between 7AM and 3PM they worked, with two 15-minute breaks for breakfast and coffee, and a 30-minute lunch break.  That is a lot of repetitive motion…

Throughout the day, music accompanied the rollers.  It alternated with live reading of the newspaper.  On last year’s trip to Indonesia, I had visited a similar operation in the Sampoerna Factory, where the famous clover-scented cigarettes known as Kretek were still hand-rolled.  There, the workers received a comparatively fair wage.  Here, we were told, they worked for 500 Cuban Pesos; the equivalence of 20 CUC, or what I would spend in one night for a dinner for two, on the open market in Havana!  But, we were assured that they nicely supplemented their income by 5 free cigars they could take home daily.   Each one of those, if sold officially could fetch between 5-15 CUC. 

They could also smoke as much on the job as they wanted.  Yes, just imagine!  Even if you did not smoke yourself, you would be exposed to second-hand smoke daily from 7-3 if you worked there.   Is that something the Cubans have even heard of?  Smoking was presented to us as if it were a great bonus, not the work-hazard it really is.    

I could have bought some cigars there — in that very same room in which all the luggage was so insecurely stored.  The guide herself conducted this hush-hush operation after the tour was over.  I opted not to.  This is probably a place where you get the real deal, alas, without the proper bands and packaging which I think is half the fun in buying a Cuban cigar.  I don’t smoke anyhow, but I have a few of my neighbors who I intend to surprise with a puffable gift from the island.  I want the real thing, band and all.

Right outside the tobacco factory I had my pick of official and unofficial taxi drivers.  I picked Lazarus, a guy in his 30’s, for his knowledge of English.  His car, an old beaten-up Lada, left much to be desired.  But I did not care.  We hit it off right away talking about Cuba, our trip, his family, his car(s).  According to Lazarus he is not allowed to own two cars under Cuban law. So he owns one.  Another one, an American Oldie, is listed in his father’s name.  He works 12 hours 6 days a week and over many years has been able to work himself up into owning these cars.  Because of that law, he can also have only one operating license.  If caught with a car for which he does not hold a license, he has to pay off the officials…  It works. No problem, he assured me.  Corruption in Cuba is indeed well and alive.   Always has been, and as long as there are shortages and rations most likely, always will be.  Theft, for one thing, has taken on epidemic proportions.  By one estimate, 60% of all gasoline in the country is stolen.  And that is just gasoline…

I asked him about his country, Fidel, Raoul, the future, the past, his son, his opportunities, housing, and all.  He loves Fidel.  I got the distinct feeling that not loving Fidel is just not an option he (or others) could ever seriously consider.  But Raoul… that is a different matter.  He has no use for Raoul and is hoping that the future will bring changes once Raoul has left.  But who will it be, after Raoul?  Fidel’s grandson perhaps?  In that case, will he give himself permission to criticize an offspring of Fidel?  Or will he be stuck having to love him?  Will Cuba become a family dynasty of the North Korean model with a Caribbean touch, perhaps?

The reason I needed a taxi was that my next destination was about 15 km south of Havana Center, the suburb of San Miguel del Padron where Ernest Hemingway once had his Finca Vigia.  Hemingway is revered in Cuba as hardly any other foreign writer.  He had adopted Cuba as his second home and by all official accounts was a sympathizer of the revolution.  One would think that he would have been treated well by Fidel, but after his death, his widow was forced to sign over his villa with all of its content to the government… The house was left untouched since the time of Hemingway’s death.  And in good old Cuban fashion things were left to their own devices.  Thousands of books, letters, and documents were forgotten and rotted away in the damp basement.  It is anyone’s guess how much would be left if Cuba had not agreed to a multi-million-dollar restoration of the property, including the digitization of some of these papers, all paid for by the U.S, a nearly unprecedented “joint venture” between the two countries! 

Today, the property seems to be in good condition and is open for visitors.  One cannot enter the house, but 1/2 dozen large windows provide ample viewing spots into the house.  Rum bottles, arts, personal items, everything was (supposedly) as Hemingway left it.  There were books everywhere, even in his bathroom.  Next to a scale, the bathroom had a curious spot on the wall covered with tiny scribbles in several columns.  Was that his fluctuating weight?  Were those ideas for the next book?  In good Cuban fashion, information was hard to come by.  Over 20 stuffed animals attest to Hemingway’s love of hunting. 

I seek out house museums and homes preserved by famous people.  They provide such an insight into people’s personalities, tastes, and habits.  This was no exception.  I was creeped out just looking in on all of these dead animals staring at you, from a distance.  How could Hemingway ever sleep with all of these guys looking down at him?

Not only was his house preserved, his famous fishing boat, the Pilar (which he had willed to his friend Gregorio Fuentes), also mysteriously ended up in the government’s possession and was on display next to his swimming pool.  His car, a 1955 Black Chrysler, is still at large… The property was filled with mature trees and lushly covered gazebos.  In the far distance you could see the skyline of Havana.   The weirdest part perhaps, is a little graveyard, unadorned and unsentimental, yet right there — of four dogs who had passed on the property.  It reminded me of Peggy Guggenheim’s dog cemetery in Venice.  At least she had put in some aesthetic effort in creating this oddity.  Hemingway did not.

An older wooden home on the property, now used as offices, may have been the servant’s quarter.  Hard to tell, but I did not see a kitchen in the main house…  Middle class Cubans, even today have servants as a matter of course; much more than we are used to as Americans of any social class.  Many of our AirBnB hosts even employed cooks and cleaning ladies.  It would surprise me if Hemingway would not have followed that local custom.  Hemingway’s home was the highlight of my day.  But it was still early and so I asked Lazarus to drive home following a different loop.

I wanted to go pay respect to another man of rank and file: Lenin.  Lenin Park is one of two large parks in the Havana area.  Lazarus told me how much his wife and children love this park, but he never had seen the Lenin sculpture I was after.  I will be a tourist today, he exclaimed, visibly excited.  We had to search around the vast park but finally found it:  Lenin immortalized in stone.  Contrary to East European Block countries, where sculptures of the fathers of socialism, Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, were everywhere; in Cuba, these patriarchs are noticeably absent.  This was only one of two Lenin monuments, the other much smaller.  And so I checked off yet another “should see” on my list. 

Since it was on the way, I asked Lazarus to drop me off at the University of Havana, a humungous neoclassical building perched atop a hill, overlooking the city.  From the top of the stairs, I contemplated this trip.  A wonderful breeze cooled the air.  American Oldies whizzed by looking awfully small from up here.  I will be sad to leave.  We easily could have spent another month exploring this big island.  Who knows when I w

ill return.  Perhaps never. Perhaps, soon.

Thanks for once again traveling with me! 

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. Thanks for sharing the journey with me and I hope that you get to return there again some day soon. Time now to catch your breath and then begin a new adventure.

  2. I enjoyed you writing tremendously! I read your reports almost every day! I would love to go to Cuba before tourism and the Americans “mess up” the originality of it. I hope that I will see you soon and am able to talk with you about your trip!

  3. Wonderful tour and I love your commentary .
    Beth

  4. Thank you for a wonderful tour of Cuba with great commentary .
    Beth