Group travel has always been a bit of a challenge for me. No matter how wonderful one’s traveling companions, how comforting the safety in numbers, there always feel to be too many voices. I’d be a poorer soul for having missed the beautiful little duet in the shadows of the square pointed out by a tug on my sleeve and “Hey, look over there,” but there’s a flow, a reverie that only comes with being left alone with your own thoughts and whims in a new place.
I don’t mean to complain (well, not much). Yesterday’s introduction to the old city was lovely and essential. A big shiny bus in from the airport into Havana Vieja crawling amid the crush and swirl of Cubas fabled gorgeous old Chevys and Fords. A short stroll through one of innumerable colonial squares for lunch at La Bodeguita del Medio, apparently an obligatory baptism for pilgrims to the city. Then half a dozen plazas and twice that many avenidas. Crushing heat and street corner music everywhere. Wonderful, wonderful. But overwhelming. And with my (fascinating and widely-traveled) companions constantly pointing out the uncountable look-at-that’s and relating their own relevant and timely anecdotes (“That reminds me of something the Dalai Lama told me over a couple of beers the other night…”), I’ve had almost no time to simply settle in and feel the rhythm of the city.
La Bodeguita is, apparently, one of the old city’s touchstones. Names scrawled on the walls everywhere, carved into of the bar, going back to the days when it was a favorite watering hole for the likes of Hemingway and half a million other celebrities whose names should really means something to me.
The ghost of Hemingway looms large over this city. Not as large as the youthful, rougish and ever-present portrait of Cuba’s other famous “Ernest”: Ernesto “Che” Guevera, beret cocked to the side and gazing out like Big Brother over the millions from t-shirts, posters and six stories tall, rendered in metal girders on the side of tourist hotels. But large enough. Seems there’s a photo of “Papa” in every place the old man paused to tie his shoe, noting that it was his favorite place to stop and tie his shoe.
I can’t claim to be immune to the call of his ghost. His bravado about living a life large enough and interesting enough to write has had more than a little influence on my career choices. I hunted for his signature among those on the wall at lunch. And I was shameless about sticking my foot out to drag the group to a stop the group long enough for a photo in front of Ambos Mundos, the hotel where he stayed for a while, and the bar that was apparently one of his (many) favorite places to tie one on. I don’t mean shoes here.
Joel, our guide here, has a wry sense of humor, something that – at peril of blatant overgeneralization – seems to be characteristic of Havanans (Havanese?), from stuffed-shirt receptionists at Hotel Nacional to the sharks on the avenue hucking drugs, girls and Bob-knows-what. To survive as a Cuban, I’m coming to understand, you have to have a sense of humor. I’ve always loved the Huxley quotation that “To travel is to learn that everybody is wrong about other countries,” and as I’d hoped, we’re getting a lovely, if filtered, sense of the world through Cuban eyes. It’s a lovely world, and I’ll admit that, more than once, I imagined myself ensconced at “my usual table” at one of the innumerable corner cafes in the heart of the old city, sipping on my frighteningly strong shot of Cuban coffee (if it’s morning) or nipping at a freshly iced mojito (if it’s late enough in the afternoon) while I tap-tap-tap away at my latest insightful epic of life in the world at large. Yeah, I could definitely see it.
But Cuba these days – Havana, at least – is living in two worlds: the romantic glory of its Latin history and the romantic dreams of its self-liberation from the predations of an unholy trinity of the church, multinational corporations, and the mafia. They are both, I am sure, somewhat embellished accounts of a more mundane reality – the histories we tell ourselves always are – but they are both compelling narratives. It’s hard, in the moment, not to let yourself get swept up in both, even if they each tug you in a different direction.
For now, I’m letting Joel tug us all along. There’ll be time to wander on our own, time to put my ear to the stone walls of this ancient city and listen for its pulse. Big changes are coming, no doubt. But Havana isn’t going anywhere.