If Havana knew Tom Miller by his shoes, it knows me now by my bare feet... Well, almost. And if he had 50 breathless reasons to land in Cuba, I’ve cherished one and that goes by the name of Che Guevara, having read his biography by Lucia Alvarez de la Vera, and more relevant to Cuba, his diaries of the Cuban Revolutionary War, and last but not the least, his Motorcycle Diaries. In Cuba lay his resounding success story... An uncorrupted idealist revolutionary, he was instrumental in the victory of the Revolutionary army in the overthrow of the Batista govt in Cuba.
Landing in Havana in the evening hours and being instantly enveloped by the balmy sea air and the warmth of the setting sun after the bone-chilling cold of NYC, the several layers of woolens are shed with great alacrity… The walk by the Malecon on our first evening in Havana, the seaside promenade with its low wall that spans a length of Havana, brings to mind Marine Drive in Mumbai where families meet and chat and clandestine lovers share moments of togetherness until late into the night.
The next morning, feeling an instant connect with the local milieu, I step out early in my worn tracks and T-shirt and a pair of hawai chappals. It is that leisurely part of the morning yet, just before things speed up. There are the neighbourhood ladies with infants dangling at their hips doing their vegetable/meat shopping. There are a few men hanging about smoking their first cigar of the day. There is the heavenly scent of freshly brewed coffee that comes wafting in the air.
Walking down south in the morning towards Havana Vieja (old Havana), we pass by Kahlo Galleria and the imposing gothic structure of Biblioteca-Instituto de Literatore Linguistica, also called the Biblioteca Publica, gaping at the vintage cars whizzing by. In Cuba, you not only get to drool over them but ride in them as well, as long and as far as you want to, with hair flying a la Marilyn Monroe or a Jean Harlow.
Setting out on a kind of walking tour with our young friend Alex who is a ‘profesoro’ at the University of Havana, we pass by buildings that look like aged gentlemen, with that slightly unkempt, ramshackle air as if they have been caught in a time warp and are watching the years pass by helplessly, and would welcome a little upkeep and a lick of paint.
The sun is on its ascent and the day turns rather warm as we reach Centro Habana and we see the heritage building of the Office of Telecommunications, the ETECSA. We pass by the ornate and beautiful biscuit-coloured Edificio Bacardi de la Habana, the Bacardi building of the house of Bacardi before they shifted base to the US. We see the large, very well-preserved cemetery, the largest in Latin America. We stop by to look at the midget copy of the Flatiron building. Cute!
We lunch at 5 Sentidos sharing ambience with the posh Habaneros, the food a far cry from the regular limited option Cuban food. We have a delicious spinach soup, sautéed vegetables and black bean gravy… curated and presented beautifully…
The grand facade of El Capitolio, which until the Revolucion of 1959 held the government offices, now holds the Cuban Academy of Sciences in one wing, and the government in the other in the days to come. Designed after St.Peter’s Cathedral, it is very similar to the Capitol, Washington. It is undergoing an ambitious renovation, a project of 10 years now and still going, says Alex with the Cuban ‘sideways’ smile. It holds us rooted for a while not just because of its stunning facade but also because of the rows of vintage cars parked outside! We come across the old Cigar factory and pass by the entrance to China Town.
It’s mid-afternoon and the air of languor is slowly replaced by one of activity though not remarkably so. We walk through the beautiful stretch of the Paseo del Prado. In the midst of Paseo de Marti stands a statue of Jose Marti, on a pedestal, in the stance of falling off the horseback after being shot. The length of the avenue is officially Paseo de Marti that opens into, where else, the Malecon. It houses, among others, the Escuela Nacional de Ballet (National School of Ballet) run by the renowned Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso. The Gran Teatro de la Habana is the only monument named after a living legend, Alicia Alonso, who is now 97 years old and continues to choreograph for ballet performances.
Next day, we are seated in the plush back seat of a beautiful wine-coloured vintage 1960s Chevrolet Bel Air convertible and are driven around in style across the city, feeling much like a Sophia Loren or a Nanda. We sail along Havana Forest Park, across the Almendares and over to the 5th Avenue fringed by the embassies in Miramar…