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
Betty and I were in the dining room when it opened for breakfast at 7:00. The buffet offerings appeared vast, but we soon learned to stay with fried eggs and toast. The variety of juices, particularly orange and guava, was good. Ross joined us after a rough night changing rooms. We had time to walk down to the Malecon, the seawall that runs for miles on Havana’s north side. Few people were out, as it was Sunday. The wind had calmed. We crossed the street to walk along the seawall, but a lone runner warned us that it was slippery.
Everyone met Darwin and the bus at 9:30 to start the day’s adventures. This became the standard procedure for successive days. The only question was who would show up. Turista and colds took their toll on everyone throughout the week. There were 25 in the group, plus our tour guide, Ileana. Regla Albarrán Miller, Tom’s wife, spent time with her family and accompanied us when she could make a special contribution. A few people chose to do their own thing and skipped some of the outings. Therefore it was common to have 15 to 16 or fewer people on the bus.
We stopped first that morning at the Hotel Cohiba, a huge complex named after Castro’s favorite cigar. The exchange rate to obtain convertible currency or “CUCs” was supposed to be better. Betty and I, of course, had already changed our money at our hotel at a less favorable rate.
Ileana said that Castro’s favorite hotel used to be the Havana Hilton, which was completed under the personal auspices of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958 – not a good year to be making major investments in Cuba. At the time, it was the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America. Welton Becket, the architect for the Beverly Hilton, did the design.
When Fidel Castro rolled into Havana on January 9, 1959, he established his headquarters in the hotel. Later, in October 1966, he nationalized all of Cuba’s hotels, renaming the Hilton Habana Libre. Thirty years later, during the Special Period, he permitted a Spanish hotel operator to take over its management.
I kept looking for the old cars that are so famous. At first all I saw were twenty-year old green Russian Ladas. In front of the Hotel Cohiba were two restored Model A Fords, wonderful old vehicles, but clearly there for the tourists. Very soon, as we traveled along the Malecon toward Old Town, Habana Vieja, I was rewarded with the sight of many Chevrolets, Plymouths, and Pontiacs, none less than 55 years old. The Cubans are self-conscious about the cars, at least as they relate to tourists. Old Chevys appear constantly as a theme in the tourist art. Tom Miller wrote an excellent article in the New York Times describing a resourceful subculture of homemade parts, scavenging, and parts substitution.
What amazed me is that most of the cars were used as taxis on the road every day, all day. If my arithmetic is correct, this means these old Detroit products have been driven millions of miles in the last 55 years. I saw other makes – Skoda, Honda, Geely, Kia, and even one new VW. However, the cost of any of these remains well beyond the reach of the average Cuban wage earner. Most don’t drive.
By this time on Sunday morning, people – families, musicians, runners — were out on the Malecon. I saw one man sitting with his trombone. Old Havana faces the harbor. The entrance is flanked on each side by 16th century Spanish fortifications, including a light house and numerous Spanish cannons.
Darwin parked, and we followed Ileana through the Plaza de Armas where the Spanish soldiers drilled, to the Plaza San Francisco. Four plazas make up the core of Old Havana. They comprise Cuba’s first World Heritage site. The entire area was attractive – clean with wonderful restored buildings. Clearly tourists congregate here. Groups of musicians played on every corner and often followed us through the streets. It had a festive flair.
We entered one building that contained a large scale model of Old Havana. There we met Professor Oristes Quintana, who gave us a tour through the model, then through the old plazas. He described Cuba’s Spanish Colonial Baroque architecture as more severe and less opulent than the more exuberant buildings found in other Latin American countries. This was partly due to a lack of skilled stone masons and partly due to the quality of the Cuban limestone, which was a very solid building material but not good for the detailed carving typical of the Baroque. The Spanish built ships in Cuba, and the skilled workers tended toward carpentry, not masonry.
Professor Oristes Quintana considered the cathedral to be the best example of Cuban Baroque. He said it was done in the style of Juan Guerrera, one of the great Spanish architects.
The Dominicans established a university very early in Spanish times. Unfortunately, their original church was torn down in 1955 and replaced by a modern, Russian-built structure. This scandalized the professor, who said it was a terrible building and badly located in the heart of Havana’s area of colonial architecture. Someone in the Castro regime must have agreed. A great deal of restoration has occurred in Old Havana. As part of that, the façade of the building in question was modified to make it more in keeping with the surrounding buildings.
The professor joined us for lunch at a well-known restaurant, Doña Eutimia, at the end of a short dead-end street. The Cuban version of diet cola is called TuKola. Ileana said it was not necessary to tip the professor but we all did and I am sure he appreciated it.
After lunch Darwin took us to Callejón de Hammel. Tom Miller talks about this in Trading with the Enemy. In 1994, he discovered Salvador González and his murals. He calls it an Afro-Cuban Religion Sanctuary. González has covered the alley walls with Santería murals. Every Sunday, like today, the alley is jammed with young people listening and dancing the rumba. Salvador’s house was wide open. We walked all through it, met him, and admired his art, his collections and religious shrines. He teaches art free to young people and takes no government aid, subsisting on his art sales and donations. A great scene.
The next stop was China Town, Barrio Chino, where Regla grew up. Many Chinese workers came to Cuba to work in the sugar mills and fields. They were absorbed into the Cuban Afro-European mix, and we saw few that we could identify as Asian. We heard there were good restaurants in the area, but except for some obvious gates that had been installed in recent years, we saw little that was Chinese. What we did see was the typical Havana tenement neighborhood. Old crumbling buildings, many dating to the 19th century, house multiple families. The difference between a tenement and an apartment is that the latter has its own bathroom. Whole floors share a single bathroom in tenements. Some of the images we expected – men playing checkers and garbage in the streets – were evident. No musicians followed us here.
The end of a long day brought us back to El Presidente, a nap, shower, and beer on the veranda with Ross and Steve Auer. Steve and wife Sandy live in the Hollywood Hills. He manages the Culver Studios, a movie, TV, and commercial production studio, formerly RKO, which was run by David Selznick.
Dinner was in a rooftop paladar called Atelier. We climbed up many steps and stairs to reach the roof. The setting was magnificent, but the service was slow, and it turned cold. It is hard to believe that we could be cold in this tropical climate, but except for the last two days, most wore jackets even during the day.
The best part of the evening was listening to Tom tell the story of meeting Regla. As was common in the 90s, he had mail to deliver to locals from their families in the U.S. He knocked on Regla’s door and gave her the mail for someone in her complex. He regretted not getting her name, especially later when he obtained two tickets to the movies. Then he saw her walking down the street. He stopped her and asked her to the movie. She finally agreed, but said she would have to go home to get her identity card. It was too far to walk and return in time, but she would not be admitted without it. Tom hailed a taxi. At that time, it was illegal for locals to ride taxis. The cabbie protested, but Tom gave him a wad of bills and insisted he take Regla and return with her if he knew what was good for him. The cabbie complied, they saw the movie, and that was the beginning. Tom tells and writes stories well. We heard about his days writing for underground newspapers and his book On the Border. He later gave me a copy.
Tomorrow: Making books, an encounter with a jinetero, and a Bill Clinton story.