February 14:
Dateline: Old Havana

Arriving back at the Melia Cohiba, we had about 2 hours of free time before we were to leave for dinner in old town Havana. Judy and I decided to explore the neighborhood near our hotel, In addition to sightseeing, we were on a mission – my camera battery had decided to die while we were at Las Terrazas and so I needed a replacement. In most countries, no problem. In Cuba, with 50 years of an American embargo, big problem.

Striking out in the gift shop of our own hotel, we decided to try the Riviera Hotel next door. No luck on the battery (we would never find one in our entire Cuba stay), but I did use my Spanglish to make our 1st art purchase, an intricate nautical wood carving of swimming fish.

Next we headed out to explore the back streets. We saw children, many in uniform, returning home from school. The younger ones were escorted by their parents. The older ones chatted. Not a cell phone or MP3 player in sight. We did however come across a trio of teenagers singing a Cuban pop song loudly in Spanish.

We ducked into a corner grocery store. The shelves weren’t bare, but they definitely weren’t well stocked. We were surprised to see a couple of American brand names on the canned goods, but learned later that they had been rerouted from other countries that Cuba has trade relations with.

We saw several destroyed houses, visual proof that more than 3 Havana structures a day are crumbling away. In the driveways and the streets, one of the main late afternoon activities appeared to be careful car washing. We stopped and perused some of the merchandise at the on-the-porch home stores that the Cuban government now permits.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to board the bus for dinner. On the way there, we drove for a while next to the Malecon which was packed with thousands of people, most of them couples, out to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Dinner was scheduled at El Patio, an outdoor restaurant in Cathedral Square. The ancient square. The historic Cathedral. A band for dancing. The Cuban love of passion and romance. The Havana moon. It made for a once-in-a-life-time Valentine’s Day dinner.

And speaking of dancing, while most of our party headed back to the Melia Cohiba after dining, Judy and I joined 1 other couple for a 2nd late night of Cuban salsa instruction at Jennifer’s home. Jennifer and her mother, Paula, practice Santeria, a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World and Cuba by enslaved West Africans sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions. I had read about the misunderstood religion and wanted to take a picture of the decorated altar in Paula’s living room. She said I could, but since I would capturing some of the spirit of the shrine, I would have to leave something personal behind. So now there is a Santeria altar in Havana that includes my pen.

As for my dance movements, I thought I had vastly improved. And I believed Jennifer confirmed that when she said “I’ve never seen such dancing as yours.” Our Cuban guide Luis had joined us for the evening. After watching me engage in a particular  difficult routine (you had to salsa while moving around in a small square), Luis shook his head. “Dave, my friend, you give all us men all over the world a bad reputation for dancing. You should not be doing this.” But I think Luis was just jealous of my unique moves. In my mind, I was already well on my way to becoming the Cuban King of Salsa.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order