The sky finally opened up our last day in Havana, quenching – at least briefly – the withering heat that had been one of the few constants of this trip. Tourists and street vendors scrambled for cover as the fat drops of rain spattered against dusty cobblestones; many of the locals just seemed to straighten their shoulders and throw their heads back a little as if to say “Here I am – come and get me.” Ten minutes later the streets were almost dry, and the heat had returned with a vengeance.
I’ve been spending as much time roaming these streets as I can this last day; half to savor my remaining moments in an ageless city perched on the brink of change, and half to cling to my remaining shreds of sanity amid the constraints of group travel. Things always start to fray a bit in the final stretch of any trip, and it feels like we entered that stretch a couple of days ago. You know how it is: when people get tired, they start letting their petty grievances ride a little closer to the surface and take less care to hide their annoyances. I’m as susceptible to this as any on our usually merry band, and when I found myself on the verge of losing my temper over an excursion gone wrong, I knew it was instead time to lose myself in the city streets for a little while.
It’s hard not to be struck by the similarities between Paris and old city here. Plaza del Armas is Havana’s Left Bank, with lovers entwined on shaded street benches, roving musicians and panhandlers out for fresh meat, and row after row of daydreaming booksellers hawking decayed 19th century leather-bound texts and History-of-the-Glorious-Revolution comic books.
My sense of place here has been accentuated (entirely unreasonably) by the Panama hat I picked up last summer and have been sporting any time I have an excuse to step out. It’s been a lovely addition to the trip, and has left me more convinced than ever that a good hat conveys the same gravitas to a man as a coat of arms. Worn with deliberation, it serves as a statement of stature and intent. In my case I could scarcely make it ten steps down the street wearing this hat without catching myself humming Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.”
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like
Peter Lorre contemplating a crime
That being said, I’ve practiced my Bad Spanish on enough unsuspecting strangers that I wouldn’t be surprised if there were an upcoming city ordinance with my name on it. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I discovered long ago that like karate, Bad Spanish is not only fun, but it can be brought to bear as a defensive skill, turning any unwanted advance into a language lesson. In the past day alone, I’ve deflected half a dozen “Hola amigo – come look!”s with something like “It’s beautiful, but my wife would kill me.” Or at least my first pass at the phrase. My would-be huckster can never resist correcting my grammar, and each time we’ve gone through a couple of iterations with me apologizing for massacring their beautiful language and them praising my efforts. Then it was on to it being my first time in Cuba and how wonderful the people are, and a few minutes later I was on my way under a hail of buen viaje’s and a new appreciation for the conditional future tense of “matar”.
But it has been a challenging day and we’re all tired. Last night Jeff was taking a survey around the table soliciting advice for future travelers to Cuba. Mine was, unequivocally, “Things will not go according to plan. Keep smiling.” We’ve had some spectacular little fiascos beyond anyone’s control, but honestly, when the pieces come to ground, it’s all been fine. Even better than fine, I’ve found, if I keep smiling and assuring the desk clerk, or docent or whomever that really, it’s okay, and it’s not her fault. The more appreciative I am, I’ve discovered, the luckier I get.
All in all, the trip has been precisely long enough, and I’m ready to be done. We’re on the morning flight out to Miami, and westbound to California the next day. Plan is to spend the intervening evening with an old college friend I got in touch with earlier this year. It’ll be interesting to come back in a couple of years and see how the place has changed with the impending (we hope) end of the embargo and influx of tourist and investment dollars from Cuba’s northern neighbor.
I’m sure a few more posts will trickle out over the coming weeks as I have time to start reconstructing some memories, but as soon as we land stateside I’ve got to dig in and get back to that grant proposal that’s due May 1st. So for now, I’ll sign off and thank you for following along on the latest roadtrip – talk to y’all again soon, I hope!
[Just landed back in Miami – I promise I’ll start actually responding to email now!]