The script I’d been writing for our trip to Cuba went something like this: Fly into Varadero. Order a mojito. Lie in the sun. Order a mojito. Enjoy a romantic dinner with Jeanne, a bottle of wine and a few more mojitos. Kiss on a moonlit beach and . . . fade to black. But one morning Jeanne rolled over and said, “Cam, let’s take the kids.” And just like that, the Billy Wilder film I’d been crafting jammed up, spilling out in large loops onto the dusty floor of my imagination.
She was right, of course. Taking Maggie, 11, and Shawn, 16, to Cuba was exactly the right thing to do. When we travel with our kids, they open more doors than they close and yank us into places we’d miss left to our own devices. Bottom line: We never did get to the popular resort area of Varadero. Instead we flew directly into José Martí International Airport in Havana, where the immigration officers and passport clearance area served only to confirm my preconceptions of Cuba – views supported by our dentist back home. “I met one Cuban while we were in Varadero and you know what he told me?” he’d asked just 10 days earlier while fitting my new crown. “Nhhho,” I replied.
“Castro’s secret police are everywhere, people have no freedom and, outside Varadero, everyone is starving.”
“Yourrrr kiddding, rhhhight?”
Clearing customs is no better. Officials promptly haul Maggie off for trying to smuggle in the pomegranate we bought her in Toronto. When Jeanne returns triumphant from springing her from a lifetime in Cuba’s gulag, we swiftly exchange our dollars for convertible pesos (CUC), grab our bags and a taxi into town.
“Dad, roll up the window! It’s too hot!” Unlike my kids, I love the sweet smell of the tropics and their humid embrace. With the window open, we can breathe in the warm, thick air of outer Havana. Fields of newly turned russet soil rimmed with broad-leafed banana plants soon give way to ramshackle shops filled with second-hand machinery and the flash of welding torches. We pass the vast, dreary Plaza de la Revolución and numerous images of Che Guevara, though surprisingly only one billboard of Castro, bearded and avuncular, accompanied by the caption “Vamos bien” (loosely translated, “We’re doing well”).
Soon we are negotiating the narrow streets of Old Havana, a crumbling barrio seeded with sherbet-hued colonial buildings carefully restored with UNESCO World Heritage funds. Suddenly our taxi brakes, backs up a narrow one-way street and stops in front of a dull grey building. The cobalt-blue door is the only hint of the two-storey colonial row house’s past glory. An elderly woman opens its rusty wrought-iron gate.
“What’s this?” asks Shawn.
“Our casa particular.” Aiming to give the kids a taste of home-style Havana, we’ve chosen to bunk down in the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast. We reserved our first casa online before leaving Canada, but only for one night, in case we didn’t like it – a smart move as it turns out.
Where are the windows?” Shawn asks as we drop our bags in the room.
Our first day in Havana is spent in quest of a new abode under the guise of: “Hey kids, let’s go exploring!” But we easily find another colonial casa, this one with four-metre ceilings and equally grand windows overlooking a convent. The next morning we move in with the help of two of Cuba’s ubiquitous Coco taxis – canary-yellow, helmet-shaped contraptions pulled through Havana by burpy two-stroke motorcycles. Located near the Plaza Vieja, our new casa is the perfect launch pad for our week in the city. We hand over our passports while the kids study the family’s shrine, puzzling over the meaning of G.I. Joes dressed in Santa suits standing in rotting fruit next to a statue of St. Lazarus.
They find a few clues the next day while exploring near the monumentally domed Capitol building. Attracted by yelps and rhythmic thumping, Shawn leads us into a nondescript building where followers of Babalú Ayé (the Afro-Cuban version of St. Lazarus) are whooping it up in the foyer. As it turns out, he has stumbled across the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba and its fine little museum. And we discover how Santería – Cuba’s widely practised religion – mixes traditional beliefs of the Yoruba slaves (brought from western Africa between the 1500s and 1800s) with the Spanish Catholicism of their masters.
Content in now knowing the source of Desi Arnaz’s hit song, “Babalu,” I herd the family east from the Capitol. We walk through the many lives sloshing out into the narrow streets leading down to the cobblestone plazas near Havana Bay. Kids jerry-rig baseball games in the shells of collapsed buildings. (Reports of 300 buildings dropping every year from exhaustion just might be true.) Shirtless men leaning against old cars hold animated debates about their favourite baseball team. Women gossip as they stand in line for their family’s weekly chicken ration. Rather than drab and lifeless, Havana turns out to be a riot of primary and pastel colours.
Eventually we give up dodging sofa-sized holes in the sidewalk to join the locals strolling down the middle of the street.
Music – salsa, son, Latin pop, reggae and countless other rhythms – seeps out of every open door we pass.
On lively Calle Obispo, we run into a whirling parade of performers on stilts dressed in animal masks and brilliant splashes of colour, chanting and banging drums in seductive rhythms. Awestruck, Maggie insists we drop a handful of pesos in the dusty blue felt hat being passed around before we make our way to the Café Paris, where we plunk down at thick wooden tables to dine on pork chops, beans and rice. While the kids and Jeanne stay to listen to a Buena Vista Social Club-like son band (is everyone in Cuba an amazing musician?), I slip around the corner to La Bodeguita del Medio to search for Fidel’s autograph on the wall of this famous Hemingway haunt. (No luck, but one of the staff points out what may be Salvador Allende’s – or not.) “So,” I ask on returning to the Café Paris. “Anyone up for a post-prandial circumambulation of the Malecón?” Maggie rolls her eyes and pleads with Jeanne for one of the ice-cream cones being dispensed from a window in the bright ochre building across the street.
Ice cream is Jeanne’s weapon of mass distraction, used to quell dissent on family trips. Most anywhere in the world, a bit of searching turns up a good ice-cream parlour, and Havana is no exception. But after three more days of dragging the kids around town, exploring, among other things, the immense Christopher Columbus Cemetery (“too creepy”), the soaring José Martí Memorial (the vultures circling the 150-metre tower are mesmerizing, but not to the kids), a miniature model of Havana (“But we’re in Havana”) and the Literacy Museum, celebrating the amazing success of Castro’s 1962 literacy campaign (“boring!”), we need something particularly riveting to quell the rebellion. Fortunately, we find kid heaven at Coppelia in the Vedado district of Havana. Cubans of all ages make regular pilgrimages to this block-sized ice-cream fairground, where, for a mere 24 pesos total (about Cdn.$1.10), we each gorge on our own five-scoop pleasure bowl of honey, chocolate, vanilla and mocha.
The kids now sated, we gamble on one more museum foray. In Havana, the Museum of the Revolution is essential viewing as it offers important context to the experiment that is modern Cuba. I’m particularly taken by the dioramas of famous battles; Shawn is intrigued by the black-and-white photos of the revolution, noting that, like Woody Allen in Bananas, everyone seems to be sporting a fake beard. Enclosed in glass in the plaza behind the museum is the Granma, the S.S. Minnow-like yacht Castro, Che Guevara and their eclectic crew sailed from Mexico to start the revolution in 1956. Pieces of U-2 spy planes shot down in the ’60s dot the plaza. And there’s a bullet-ridden delivery van used by the revolutionaries on what the sign insists was a “successful” raid. Maggie isn’t enthralled with any of this, but she does enjoy poking around former dictator Fulgencio Batista’s opulent private railcar off Calle Oficios – a startling glimpse into the gold-plated corruption of the pre-Castro regime.
As marvellous as Old Havana is with its museums, cathedrals, bougainvillea-draped plazas and the thud, thud, thud of Santería drums long into the sultry nights, touring it for too long begins to feel as if we’re stranded in a jumbo-sized amusement park. We try a number of diversions, some of which actually work. The well-worn, cavernous Cine Payret movie house, across from the Capitol, is a definite crowd-pleaser. For only two Cuban pesos each (about 10 cents), the Payret is also great value – even if Jeanne is the only one in the family who understands Spanish, and then just barely. We watch Barrio Cuba, a locally produced blockbuster.
The melodramatic plot peters out well before the predictable ending, but experiencing a movie with 1,200 other souls is a rare event in these days of shoebox-sized Cineplexes. Besides, the kids are more interested in the brief – and thankfully tame – nude scenes.
The day before we are to return home, Jeanne takes us down to the Plaza de San Francisco, where dozens of Lada taxis wait listlessly in front of the cruise-ship terminal. Glistening in the middle of this sea of Soviet technology is a red-and-white, 1954 Mercury convertible with new upholstery. I know exactly where Jeanne is heading. Armed with a stack of classic car calendars she picked up from our mechanic for just this occasion, Jeanne begins serious negotiations for the 20-kilometre ride out to Havana’s eastern beaches, the Playas del Este. The driver starts out at 20 CUC. Jeanne counters with 10 CUC and the calendars. We end up paying 20 CUC and the calendars. But it’s well worth it.
Playas del Este is a perfect 10-km stretch of white-sand beach lined with jade-green pines. To savour the hours ahead, I’ve brought along a hand-stapled bootleg copy of The Old Man and the Sea, printed on a dot matrix printer and purchased for 4 CUC (a little over Cdn.$4) at one of the many bookstalls in Havana’s Plaza de Armas. I lather up and set about rereading the novella while Maggie and Shawn frolic in the same azure waters where Santiago battles the marlin. Jeanne procures chilled Bucanero beers from the beach vendors; the kids poke sticks at the translucent blue-and-pink body of a small Portuguese man-of-war washed up on the beach, its tentacles a stinging tripwire across the sand. Around 4 p.m., we break the spell to find something to eat at one of the many hotels behind the trees. Not one is open.
I’m confused. The height of tourist season, and the Cubans have chosen to close all their hotels? It isn’t until the fifth hotel that we find someone who speaks English and the mystery is explained.
“Until last week they were full of people from Latin America who came here for free eye operations,” the woman tells us. “The Venezuelan government picks up the travel costs, the Cuban government supplies the doctors.” The hotels are closed, she says, to get scrubbed down for the hordes of Canadian tourists, laden with convertible pesos (the equivalent of U.S. dollars), expected to arrive in two days.
Maggie leads us back to the beach and a palm-roofed gazebo restaurant where we enjoy our best meal in Cuba – not much of an achievement, actually. All the classic cars here are reminiscent of the ‘50s, but it’s really the Cuban cuisine that is stuck in that decade. Think Swanson TV dinners, which is what passes for food in many state-run restaurants and cafeterias. Spices and garlic don’t seem popular with local chefs. So it is a treat to have a wondrously fresh neon-coloured fish, pan-fried in garlic and served with zesty moros y cristianos (“Moors and Christians,” the vernacular for black beans and rice). And Maggie and Shawn, who prefer TV dinner-like fare anyway, seem more than happy to watch Shakira shaking her booty on the TV over the bar while Jeanne and I enjoy a bevy of minty mojitos.
That night, back in downtown Havana, I finally corral the family into an after-dinner walk on the Malecón, the city’s famous seawall. We stand on the walls of the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and watch a large ship slip through the narrow mouth of the harbour, momentarily blocking the lighthouse blinking at us from across the bay before it glides out to sea. It seems appropriate to end such a great day by scooting into La Floridita (Is every bar in Cuba a famous Hemingway haunt?), where they invented the daiquiri in the 1920s. Shawn, who dreams of being a writer, asks to pose with the life-sized statue of Papa at the end of the bar. Where better to buy him his first daiquiri (he swears!) and a virgin daiquiri for Maggie? And where better than in Havana – with the kids – to realize “Vamos bien”?
Before You Vamoose
Bring your loonies
Up until two years ago, Cuba was awash with U.S. dollars. No longer. In November 2004, Castro banned the use of any foreign currency in retail stores. Then, to really stick it to the Americans, he announced “the exchange of U.S. dollars for convertible pesos will bear a 10-per-cent tax.” So the U.S. greenback is persona non grata in Cuba. Convertible pesos (CUC) are worth about $1.10 Cdn., or about the same as a U.S. dollar. Natch. Note: Buy a few Cuban pesos as well. There are about 25 Cuban pesos to the CUC, which makes buying things with them cheap like borscht.
Don’t let the high prices at Havana’s Al Medina restaurant put you off. Head up the stairs, overlooking the lush courtyard, for Cuban or Middle Eastern meals for less than 3 CUC – including mojitos. (On Oficios, south of Plaza de Armas.)
For the price of renting a towel (1 CUC), take the kids swimming on the roof of the Hotel Saratoga. The pool isn’t heated, but it’s mighty refreshing. So too are the pricey drinks. The view of the Capitol dome is unsurpassed, as is the sunset over the city. (Across the street from Parque de la Fraternidad.)
Freedom for the parental class
The music at Jazz Club La Zorra y El Cuervo in Vedado is often stunning. End with a drink on the rooftop of the Miramar de la Bahía overlooking Havana Bay. Look for the elevator in the foyer of the building just to the left of the National Museum of Natural History on the south side of Plaza de Armas.