Havana, Cuba

Dec 14, 2017 - Harmony V

There are places you love from the moment you set foot in them and Cuba is definitely in my heart. Right after landing at Havana Airport, on December 13th, we were taken for lunch to a private restaurant called Vida (or Life), a word that truly encapsulates the best of this country. Cuba is all about life—you see it in the young people walking along the streets, very talkative and vibrant and you see it in the strangler figs, which are new life sprouting on top of older trees. When you get to the seaside, you feel it in the strength of the ocean crashing over the Malecón, spraying the pastel colored vintage cars and the guaguas (buses) with its Atlantic salt.

After lunch we visited “Fusterlandia”, in Jaimanitas, a neighborhood of artists. We met Alex Fuster, the son of Jose Fuster, a renowned international artist who decided to give back to his country, and to his community by building a whimsical art kingdom. His mosaics of colorful tiles showcase an array of subjects from the bearded men who came to Cuba on board the Granma on November 1956, to mermaids and crabs, to Picasso-inspired women. The art all combines with the proximity of the sea, which you can smell, and from the roof of Fuster’s house, you can hear and admire. This used to be a place where people came to buy fish, and now it’s a vibrant space to meet artists. 

We met another family, around the corner. It was Nelson Almaguer, whose sons Nelson and Alvaro have studied at the Havana School of Arts and have specialized in naïve painting. Almaguer 1 and Almaguer 2 (as they sign their paintings) were very proud of one of their professors, Luis Pablo Jimenez, who is today 74. They all paint, with bright colors, the spontaneous atmosphere of the Cuban people.

Nostalgic cars took us along Havana’s Fifth Avenue to a restaurant called La Bonita (the pretty one) where we had dinner in the company of a young and very inspired jazz band. On Thursday, we were taken to Habana Vieja, to walk the streets of Andaluz Spanish houses. Some have been turned into museums, one is a planetarium, there are several restaurants and shops, and the best of all, a primary school. Buildings from the distant past are now brought to life with the day-to-day activities of a pulsating town. La Plaza Vieja is now a playground for children who run over century-old cobble stones—past and present connected.  We also went into a ration store, where Juan Jose explained to us the ration system and the difference between the products that are subsidized by the government and the “liberated” ones, which are more expensive and you can buy without restriction.

After lunch at La Moneda Cubana (Plaza de la Catedral) with lovely Cuban music again, we separated into two groups. I went to Ernest Hemingway’s state, Finca Vigia, northeast from Havana. We were welcomed by Isbel Ferreiro, the vice-director of the museum, a researcher and an expert on Hemingway’s life. She took us around the house, and across time. We discovered Hemingway through his work, the people he befriended and the walls and decoration of his place.

The other half of the group went to “Taller Nostalgica”, an auto restoration workshop where they met founder and owner Julio Alvarez. Julio has been able to get and adapt replacement parts for US antique cars, and now he has a fleet of beautiful pieces of art that run the streets and that took our guests for a ride. The group also went to the famous cigar factory in downtown Havana, the “Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas”.

In the evening, we were hosted by economics professor Jorge Mario Sanchez for an interactive talk entitled “Socioeconomic Reform in Cuba”.  We had Cuban Creole food for dinner at our historical hotel from 1930, the Hotel Nacional. I can’t believe that we have met and interacted with so many Cubans in just a day a half! But this is just the beginning of our people-to-people expedition.

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About the Author

Paula Tagle

Expedition Leader

Paula grew up in Guayaquil where she obtained an undergraduate degree in geology from the Polytechnic University of Guayaquil. She enjoyed many field trips all around Ecuador and during her vacations traveled in Central and South America in the hope of learning more about her people and culture. The last year of her studies she worked at a mine looking for a more ecologically responsible way of recovering gold. Interested more in volcanoes than in raw materials, she came to Galápagos, a mecca for geologists, in 1992. She was bewitched by the other wonders of the islands and became a naturalist guide for the Galápagos National Park.

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