Thank You, My Good Frenemies

February 15
Dateline: Callejon de Hamel y Jaminitas

As we prepared to get off the bus and stroll the art district of the Callejon de Hamel, our Cuban guide Luis issued his version of that traveler’s warning heard round the world:: “Open your eyes really well, but keep your purses and wallets really tight. It is safe, but I have to warn you about this.”

Luis’ warning made me pause for reflection. Since arriving in Havana, I had never once felt unsafe or even uncomfortable. We had walked big streets and back streets. We had walked in guided groups and Judy and I had explored on our own. We had encountered some children asking for money, but all the adults requesting money had offered something in return – a quick sketch, a cigar, a roll of nuts. We had encountered some military presence at government sites, but had seen few police. Of course, as there would be in any city, there is crime in Havana. But punishment is swift and it is severe. Apparently, that serves as a deterrent, at least as far as outside visitors are concerned.

At the beginning of Hamel street, we met our local guide, Elias, who gave new meaning to the term constant patter. He looked like a cross between the actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Black. Dressed in jeans and a vintage biker T-shirt and with a green and brown band tied around his head, Elias greeted us. “I welcome my wonderful enemies from the United States. You are my good frenemies,’ Elias said, his face breaking into the widest of grins.

For the next hour, Elias regaled us with tales of art and mysticism as we walked past the colorful murals and crowded art stalls. “These murals are from local artist Salvador Gonzalez. He is a crazy guy, but he is a most famous artist,” Elias said.

Elias said most of the people in this section of Havana believed in the power of Orishas, a religious tradition originating in Africa and somewhat related to the Cuban practice of Santeria in which spirits are invoked. “It is a very practical religion,” Elias said, twirling an unlit cigar through his fingers. “It gives you hope of solving your problems in your life, not in death. It says you should be in communication with natural forces by using natural forces.”

“You were born with your Orisha; you don’t choose your Orisha. You use it to fulfill your proper destiny,” he added. “Some people look at this as witchcraft. But it is not witchcraft; it is a good religion. Cuba is closed-minded about many things, but it is open-minded when it comes to religion.”

As others broke from the group to check out the art for sale, Elias and I kept talking. Or rather I kept asking questions and Elias kept answering them. “I can see you are a seeker,” Elias said, beckoning me to come with him into a stall containing books, many of them on Cuba and religion. “I have read many of these,” he said. “I will recommend some to you and you can read them when you get home.”

After we returned to the street, Elias said, “You are now one of my special frenemies. We will seal our new friendship with this.” Reaching into his pocket, he produced a hand-rolled cigar, which he then handed me. “There are many good cigars in Cuba, but this is not one of them,” he said. “But you are now my friend and I want you to have it.”

Soon, the rest of our group gathered and it was time to take in the African-influenced drum and rhumba dance street show. “Thank you, my good frenemies. We have now all traded with the enemy” Elias said, riffing on our National Geographic guide Tom Miller’s book title as his way of leaving us.”

Following our Hamel visit, we headed to lunch on the 33rd floor of a downtown Cuban hotel. The food was good (I was really begining to disbelieve this story that you couldn’t find good food in Cuba) but the views of Havana were magnificent. The entire dining room was lined with windows which made for some pretty spectacular photos for the photo buffs among us.

After lunch we traveled to the Jaimanitas district on the outskirts of Havana and the workshop of renowned ceramic artist Jose Fuster, who has been called the Picasso of the Caribbean. It can be truly said that Fuster has covered a lot of ground with his art.  Roofs, walls, doorways and benches, stretching for blocks around the epicenter of his studio enclave, are adorned with his brightly colored sculptures and mosaics : mermaids, fish, palm trees, roosters and Santería saints, as well as quotations from Alejo Carpentier, Onelio Jorge Cardoso, and Ernest Hemingway. More than 80 neighbors have allowed Fuster to use their homes as his canvas.

On the way back to the Melia Cohiba, we were given a choice. Tonight, we could go to Havana’s most spectacular nightclub, the Tropicana, which is the one symbol of pre-revolutionary Cuba that was not allowed to die. First opened on New Year’s Eve 1939  (exactly 20 years before the successful conclusion of the Communist Revolution),  the Tropicana is still world-famous for its flamboyant cabaret routines highlighted by showgirls’ extravagant costumes that hide very little. Having been to Las Vegas (which owes a great debt to pre-revolutionary Cuba) many times, we opted for dinner on our own and more Havana street exploring.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order