Thursday, May 16, 2013


Day Two is Monday, February 18th, and the day began with the breakfast buffet in the Hotel Nacional--an activity which will be a daily ritual every morning we are in Havana.  Everyone eating in the restaurant is a tourist and everyone waiting on us is a Cuban and there is virtually no interaction between the two to my regret.

Today begins with Eric taking us on a guided walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Havana.  Our first stop was Cathedral Square, home of the Cathedral of Havana.  

Walking the streets of Old Havana was a fascinating experience.  It is an area of layers.  Much that is old, not very much that is new.  All of it with a sound or a smell.  

Photo by Jennie Stoltz

 Photo by Jennie Stoltz

In the square, we find more art:  here is a metal sculpture by Roberto Fabelo that, for obvious reasons, stops every tourist in the mall.  It is called Fantastic Voyage (Viaje Fantastico).  

On this square, I purchased a print by an artist named Alberto Areos from a shop .  I was drawn to this print because of the juxtaposition of the boy and the icon Che portraits.  However, I also wished I had been able to take this photograph.  

Eric's most interesting revelation of the tour was the concept of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución ( Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), or the CDRs. Historically, they are a way for the people in a neighborhood to monitor the neighborhood (and possibly each other).  The CDRs consist of about 125 households but perhaps even more importantly, a doctor.  The doctor lives in the CDR and knows all the family members and everyone of their needs.  Health care in Cuba is free to all residents.  You start with your doctor, move to a clinic and then to one of the many hospitals on the island.  Most of the hospitals we saw were specialty places like "over there is the eye hospital."   

Because Hemingway is important to everyone both on and off the island, his various resting spots in Havana and the surrounding areas are treated like major tourist spots.  First stop today is the Hotel Ambos Mundos (which is bright pink) wherein Hemingway stayed in Room 511 when he first arrived in Cuba in the 1930s.

Next we made our way down to Plaza de la Catedral which is fun to visit for a number of reasons.  First, of course is the massive cathedral that dominates one side of the square.

In the square, there are many buskers who will work the tourists to get a few CUCs to have their picture taken.  I was not afraid to get a smooch as long as it led to a great photograph.

Photo by Jennie Stoltz

Just off the square is the Taller Experimental D'Grafica printmaking cooperative that I visited because I have a print cooperative that I use in my home town.  There were artists working in the back and a display of their works in front.  

Next stop was La Bodeguita Del Medio, the busiest spot in Havana.  The reason why this bar is so popular is because it was Hemingway's favorite watering hole.  The bar even has a posted signature to prove it.  

Plaza de Armas (Military Square) has an interesting story to tell.  Evidently one of the first rich home owners, named Antonio de Cespedes, had a wife who complained about the noise of the traffic on the cobblestones.  So, he paved the road in front of his house with wood.    

On this same square is where the used book dealers set up.  Shopping here was fun as I bought found objects for my assemblage, some old movie lobby posters ("I AM A CAMERA") and a book or two.  While my miserable attempts to remember my high school Spanish failed miserable, each book dealer would say to me, "I speak English but not too well."  Au cont rare my friend, you speak excellent English.  

We had lunch at La Mina.  While the food and music was excellent, the local bird population proved to be the real high lite.  

After lunch we made our way to towards the International Book Fair of Havana 2013 at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, known as La Cabaña Fortress ( the Fort of Saint Charles).  The Fortress was built by the Spanish in 1763 and was used to defend the island and as a prison.  When Cuba won its independence, it continued as both.  Even Fidel used it for those purposes at first but now the site is a museum and the home of the annual International Book Fair of Havana.  

The Book Fair turned out to be a bit of a conundrum for us.  While we were free to roam every where, I am not sure we understood what we could be doing including how to buy stuff.  Obvious, the language differences was a barrier.  However, so was the money.  Evidently most of the transaction were being done in pesos, not the CUCs tourists carry.  This makes a lot of sense considering the fair is for Cubans to buy books they cannot normally obtain, not for tourists like us.  I did manage to buy a CD collection of Cuban music in one booth but I did not purchase anything else while we were there.

As far as the displays of materials, each country had its own booth within the various halls in the fortress.  While the signage was great, the people staffing the booths did not seem to be very approachable.  Not sure if this says more about us or if it had to do with the fact that our name badges clearly said "Estados Unitos."  I did have one experience at a children's book booth where the woman standing next to me noticed by name tag and (not very subtly) poked her friend in the ribs and pointed it out to her.  I tried to be cool but inside I was thinking, "I can see youuuuuuu!!!!"  

The guest of honor this year was the country of Angola.  There display included some great art as well as their published materials.  

There was a number of activities going on during the fair.  There was a children's area and there we found a school group modeling clothes that had made from recycled materials.  

We also found some rockets left over from the Cuban missile crisis.  We wondered if these were a permanent part of the fortress but someone found out they were only brought in for the book fair.  Hmmmmm.....

From the Fortress, I could see the giant Jesus that guards the harbor.  We never got close to the statute but Eric at some point told us that the Cubans can no longer take the ferry over to see Jesus close up because the ferry was hijacked twice to try to sail it to Florida.

We probably spent a total of two hours at the fair but I am not sure we really benefited from the experience. This was a disappointment for us more out of sense of not understanding than anything lacking in the fair itself.  I think if I could have had a do-over, I would have had Eric accompany us so we could have had an interpreter for interactions.  

We certainly did see a wide variety of people at the Book Fair and I guess you never know who will put in an appearance.

The parking lot proved to be a great hunting ground for more cool old cars. 

After we left the book fair, we hit the streets in the bus again.  We pasted a cruise ship in the harbor, a normal sight as tourists come here for all over but -- yup, Estados Unidos.  

Eric took the time while we were on the bus to fill us in on the education system in Cuba.  Education is free but you do have to work for what you want.  Eric himself graduated high school, pasted the exam for university and graduated.  In Cuba, when you graduate, you are guaranteed two years of work.  In order to be a tour guide in Cuba, Eric had to earn a Master's degree and speak three languages.  Of course the first is his native Spanish, and to that he added the English that we were enjoying plus French.  Later on the trip, more will be revealed about Mr. Eric Garcia and his path to being our tour guide.  

We headed over to an arts and crafts building where we could shop for tourist items.  There was a lot to choose from, most of which was too crafty for me.  I did pick up a wooden hummingbird for my Mommy and one of those ubiquitous Fidel military caps (hey, c'mon--how many time am I going to be Cuba?).  I thought before time slipped away I needed to buy one of the little wooden cars that appear to be everywhere in Havana.  I picked up a '57 Chevy then decided to pick up an art print of the same car.  Because I have not had time to frame this print, here is a partial scan of the print.  It should come as no surprise that the work also includes the face of Che.  

Tonight dinner was at La Moneda Cubana, a paladar.  This was a rooftop restaurant where the wind off the ocean meant we had to bundle up.  I ate seafood tonight and the music was terrific.  

Then it was off to a house in downtown Havana where we climb some rickety stairs to a woman's home.  We knew that she was going to teach us how to salsa but what we did not know was that she was going to have a whole band on her balcony. 

So, we finished the night, under a Havana moon, dancing to the music of this fiery country.  

For a complete set of all the photos from this trip, please visit me at