Getting Acquainted with Havana

Trip Start Sep 27, 2011
Trip End Oct 05, 2011

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Havana is so much larger and grander than I expected! Over two million people live here! We checked into the historic Hotel Nacional last night. Upon check-in, the marquee heralded the upcoming performance of a band once associated with the Buena Vista Social Club – that venerable musical group that played in the U.S. to huge critical and popular acclaim. We were greeted with a refreshing Mojito, and took a brief tour of the famed hotel. There’s one room that is a veritable who’s who of past and present Hollywood royalty. From Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra to Naomi Campbell and Bono, every celebrity who has spent time in Cuba has at least stopped by to visit the Hotel Nacional

While grand, Havana is indeed crumbling. We learned that upwards of 30 homes collapse each year. Most homes were built in the late 1800s and 1900s, and few have undergone the level of repairs needed to house so many people. The cars are also quite old. While old American cars dominate, Russian-made Lada’s and Fiat’s are also on display. The most common form of transportation however is the horse and buggy. 

Because of the housing shortage, many young adults are forced to live with their parents long past the time when they’d prefer to have their own lodging. That said, hundreds of people hang out on the Malecon every night simply to have some ‘privacy’ and to hang out with friends. A lecture at the hotel focused on the challenges faced by the Cuban family. Similar to the U.S., many Cuban women are working outside the home, which puts stress on the family. Divorce is common but more common is young people making the decision to live together instead of tying the knot. Birthrates are down simply because couples cannot afford to have more than one child. Unlike the U.S., there are virtually no nursing homes for older people. Children are expected to take care of their aging parents. And grandparents are an integral part of the family, expected to care for young children. I observed many doting grandparents shepherding their charges to school both in Cienfuegos and Havana. 

Our next visit was to the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana. We dropped off more medical supplies and discussed the history of the relationship between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Cuba. The Cuban Jewish community in Havana is much larger than other cities in Cuba (about 900), and the synagogue was quite grand. The surrounding neighborhood was also one of the nicest that I saw in Cuba, although the homes were still quite damaged. 

Between stops, we visited a street dedicated to the religion called Santeria, brought to Cuba by slaves of West African and Caribbean descent. A guide gave a brief talk about its origins and practices that culminated in a Rumba band playing well into the afternoon. The street was awash in color and packed with local Cubans and curious tourists. Once the Rumba band took the ‘stage,’ the energy was contagious. Everyone from small children to grandmas sang alone and moved to the infectious rhythm. 

We also visited Ernest Hemingway’s beautiful home on the outskirts of Havana. His office is still intact, as is the typewriter that he wrote a few of his famous works on.

We ended the day with a brief visit to the Rosenberg Memorial and dinner at the historic El Morro Castle. A great first day in Havana!
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