From takeoff in Miami to touchdown in Havana was 42 minutes. My seatmate looked down and saw the island of Key West directly under us as we flew past, and a few seconds later we began our descent into the island of Cuba, the black hole, the forbidden fruit, the great unknown, so close, so exotic, so beautiful, with 500 years of history. From Key West, we are closer to Havana than we are to Miami, and we have almost 2 centuries of shared history.
I was traveling with a cultural exchange group, legally licensed by Mambi Group in Miami, arranged by Melissa Trader, owner of Stone Soup Gallery on White Street in Key West. There were 15 of us, many artists, several like myself, affiliated with The Studios of Key West. It was an adventurous and happy group of people, anxious to discover what we could learn from Cuba and its people.
After arrival and an afternoon nap, I took off on my own, on a mission of discovery, my favorite thing to do when I am in a city new to me. I walked through the crowded streets of old Havana, filled with centuries-old Spanish buildings, looking a lot like Seville, with graceful archways decorating the historic district and the big plazas, the great diversity of people going about their daily business – school children in their uniforms, circus-like performers on stilts, dressed in elaborate costumes and face paint. Mothers pushing baby strollers, guitar players strumming and singing, poor people asking for money, construction workers repairing the cobblestone streets, installing fiber-optic cable in the oldtown, men hawking restaurants, piano players in open-air bars, locals with ice cream cones, beautiful prostitutes asking for business, but not in a pushy way, women in folkloric costumes asking to be photographed for tips, older men sitting on park benches, friendly and curious. When I said I was from “Cayo Hueso,” their eyes lit up with interest.
I walked up to the famous Floridita Bar and ordered a beer. They brought me a plate of crispy plantain chips, served warm. They were salty and delicious, perfect with my ice-cold Cuban beer. A bronze statue of Hemingway hung out in the corner of the room, leaning casually against the bar.
Pedicabs are serious transportation here, cheap and efficient. Police in pressed blue uniforms are helpful with directions, and nice too, smiling and courteous. The entire old town Havana, established in 1514, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Eee-yow! Eee-yow!” My friends the peacock pair, the hotel’s mascots, called to me every morning at 7 AM. What a great wake-up call. They were loud, with overtones of a reedy clarinet and the hint of a kazoo. I stayed in a medium-priced hotel, built in 1712 as a mansion for a wealthy Cuban family. The guest rooms are spaced around the traditional Spanish courtyard, with a beautiful tropical garden in the center and peacocks walking the grounds freely. Stained glass decorations were everywhere in this small boutique hotel. There is a full bar and a great Cuban restaurant with live music every day. On the TV in my hotel room there were 42 channels, including CNN, ESPN and some channel that carries the Bill Maher Show.
Havana is a city as beautiful as any in Spain; this is Europe at our doorstep. Magnificent buildings are everywhere, under repair or in a state of gradual ruin. I saw no homeless people sleeping on the streets of the old sector of Havana. I was treated warmly everywhere I went. On the streets, I am blond, so I stood out as a tourist, and everywhere I walked on my early morning walks around the city, I was greeted with an eagerness to interact with me. “Where are you from?” they asked as I walked by.
“Cayo Hueso!” I would reply, pointing out into the ocean in the direction of Key West. Only 150 kilometers! We are your close neighbors!” That started many conversations for me and allowed me to meet dozens of everyday people around town. Many spoke English. I took photos of the historic city center, my charming hotel and most of the people I met.
Article previously published in Solares Hill, Key West,FL.