February 12
Dateline: Havana Vieja

I awoke to a cacophony of loud noise that sounded like a freight train racing through our hotel room. I looked out our windows. The whipping winds were driving flags in every direction. The waves were pounding against the stone walls of the Malecon, causing giant bursts of sea spray to soar through the air. Leaving Judy to complete her morning routine, I rushed outside to try to capture the wild scene on camera.

Outside, I saw that much of the road leading to the Malecon was flooded. I found a a path through the swirling water, stopped, focused my camera, and shot some pictures. It only took minutes, but when I turned to head back, I found water now everywhere blocking my way. Across the street, a heavy-set cab driver observed my predicament. Laughing uproariously, he made swimming motions with his arms. I pulled up my pant legs and made a run for the dry spot where he was standing.

Arriving, I had my first conversation with a Cuban.

“You like our waters, heh” he said, in halting English. “You are Canadian?”

“No, from the United States,”  I replied.

“Estados Undidos. Es verdad?,” he responded, indicating that people from my country were a rarity for cab drivers in Havana.

“Si. I am with Natiocianal Geographica,” I said in my made-up mix of mangled Spanglish. I asked him where he had learned his English, which despite his heavy accent, was definitely much better than my Spanish. “I listen good to the peoples in my cab,” he said with a wink. “You try to stay dry now. No swimming in Havana.”

I darted through the water and, with soaked sneakers and dripping pants, headed to the hotel conference room to hear our first talk by writer-in-residence Tom Miller. (For those details, check out the previous post.)

By the end of Miller’s talk, the strong winds hadn’t subsided. Our National Geographic tour manager Hilary said that we would be altering our itinerary. The rough water made it impossible for our boat trip across the bay to visit the Church of the Black Madonna. Instead, we would be heading directly to old town Havana for  a guided introductory stroll through that part of the city. Then we would have some time to explore on our own before returning to the hotel.

As we entered Habana Vieja, Judy pulled on my arm excitedly and pointed. “Look, there’s a classic car show,” she said. “No hon, that’s a parking lot,” I said. And I was right. But, in a way, so was Judy. Everywhere you looked were vintage American cars. Our Cuban guide Luis probably put it best when he said: “On your left is Havana’s Old Car Museum. I don’t know why you would have an old car museum. All of Cuba is an old car museum.”

The Classic Cars of Cuba

As usual when we travel, we were sitting in the back of the bus. The couple across from us, Peter and Linda, were from San Diego where they ran a wreckage business. Since my knowledge of old cars is extremely limited, it was great that they both happened to be classic car enthusiasts. We would constantly be taking advantage of  their insights on the subject. “Would these cars be worth anything in the US?” I asked. “Oh my God yes,” replied Linda. “Collectors would pay a lot. And there’s so many in good shape.” Maybe that would be a way for Cuba to boost its economy I thought as we headed off the bus.

Our first focus was to be on the spectacular Plaza de Armas, the main touristic square and a site we would revisit several times during our short stay. As we strolled the plaza, I watched the large number of individual Cubans of all ages with paper following tourists. It quickly became apparent what they were doing. They were sketching their subjects and then trying to entice them to buy their work. If rejected, they quickly moved on to their next project. Several younger Cuban males were also moving through the crowds, offering great deals on cigars. Once again, a polite no sent them on their way.  The same held true for women offering the Cuban treat of a roll of peanuts.

We also took in the Gran Teatro de la Habana (the Great Theater of Havana), the home of the National Opera Company and the National Ballet of Cuba. We were already beginning to learn that both music and art are highly valued in Cuban culture. Every street corner featured musicians. In addition to the sketch artists, art for sale was displayed everywhere you looked.

After lunch, Hilary pointed out a spot at Parque Central where we could catch taxis if we wanted to stay downtown for more sightseeing. I knew exactly where I wanted to go – The Museum of the Revolution. So with our newly designated “daughter” Traci, Judy and I headed to that facility, only to find it closed for the day. However, outside on display, where several vehicles used in the battle to create a Communist Cuba, including the yacht Granma which carried Castro and 81 other exiled fighters for the revolution from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. Both Traci and I vowed to return to see the museum the next occasion we had free time.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order