We invited Walter and Betty Parks to join us on Tom Miller’s Literary Tour of Havana in early January. Miller published Trading with the Enemy in 1992. It is the best single piece of writing we have seen on Cuba in the Castro days. When we returned, Walt (The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, Rio Nuevo Publishers) shared his personal trip journal with the other travelers in our group and now agrees to share it with you. A wonderful trip, a wonderful read. Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell, Rio Nuevo Publishers.
By Walter Parks
Today’s excursion was across the bay to the city of Regla, a historic area with sacred sites as well as Havana’s refinery. Most took the ferry, but the blustery weather caused some of our group to stay on the bus and go through a tunnel to the other side.
Our Lady of Regla Church is dedicated to the Black Madonna. This incarnation of the Virgin has a long history — more than three centuries — in Cuba. She is the patron saint of sailors, but more importantly in Cuba, is associated with the Santería religion. Many girls bear the name, including our Regla, Tom’s wife.
More of this fusion of the West African religions and Catholicism came out in our tour of the Guanabacoa Museum. Ileana, Regla, and a guide described the initiation ceremony as we toured the exhibits. So-called fused saints occupied the altars. Santa Barbara is fused with the West African deity Chango. Colors play an important role, and initiates wear all white for one year. We often saw people around Havana all in white. This religion clearly is an active part of Cuban life. At the end of the tour, musicians and dancers performed. As I understood it, the good spirits were battling the bad on our behalf. This area is very rundown with shabby tenements.
We moved on to a better area near a military installation. We had a fleeting glimpse of a monument to the 1962 Missile Crisis. The lunch restaurant, Doña Carmela, was in a suburban-like area of almost identical single-family homes. They had been built as military officer housing and remained occupied by officials and some foreigners. Illeana said that the houses could be bought and sold, but a state real estate agent had to be used. As with so many Cuban contradictions, I did not understand.
In the garden restaurant, I had my best meal in Cuba. They served an abundance of pork, lamb, shrimp, and chicken – all well prepared. The ever-present band was great, and I even had a Bucanero beer, breaking a longtime lunchtime vow.
Most considered the afternoon trip to Ernest Hemingway’s Finca La Vigía a sort of pilgrimage. Nicholas Delbanco (along with his wife Elena, a charming couple) teaches creative writing and has written more than 20 novels. I felt bold enough to ask him a few questions as we strolled around the house and extensive gardens. Tom said that La Vigía is a most attractive, ideal place for a writer to work. Originally 15 acres, the site still is extensive, although a working-class neighborhood has grown up around it.
Hemingway moved from his first base in Cuba, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, to the Finca in 1939. After Martha Gellhorn joined him, they rented, and then purchased the property. The house, solidly built but open and airy, dates to 1888. Visitors can not go in, but can peer through the ample windows. Local women would open windows and point out various features inside for small tips. A short walk down a path is the pool where Ava Gardner swam in the nude.
Hemingway left Cuba in 1960, although during that first year after the ascent of Castro, he seemed to have gotten along well with the new government. He committed suicide the next year. The government always claimed that Mary Hemingway gave the property to the “people of Cuba.” However, it was expropriated along with all other private property in the country. Mary was able to retrieve a few paintings, including a Miró and a Goya; 9,000 books still remain in the house. Apparently, the house and Hemmingway’s famous boat, “Pilar,” fell into such serious disrepair that it became an international controversy. Somehow, in recent years the National Trust for Historic Preservation has funneled funds for what appears to be a complete restoration of house, grounds, and boat. The interiors are set up to appear as if Hemingway just stepped out.
On the way back, I was struck again by one of my visual impressions of Havana — block and block, mile after mile of three-to-four story buildings of every color faced with covered arcades, soportales, supported by columns of every order.
Dinner that night at the state-run Santo Angel on the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana flopped for most. The old colonial interior was a great beginning, but it was downhill from there. The only truly bad band we heard all week played endlessly. The instruments included a bassoon, oboe, flute, and French horn, all capable of truly unpleasant sound. Ross ordered a bottle of the featured Santa Rita, a Chilean wine, but another table had ordered the only bottle in the house. The waiter tried to serve Casillero del Diablo without saying anything, but Ross caught it. This was not a big thing but, along with the band, it set the tone for the mediocre food that followed. However, the company was good.
After dinner, Regla led a group to the One-Eyed Cat to hear Cuban music. I chose not to go because the music did not start until after 11:00, and I wanted to be ready for our next day’s adventures.
Tomorrow: theater, poetry, and Cuba’s Jewish community