The long day

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm awake at 4:30 a.m. I only sleep eight hours typically, so when we settle down with the kids at 8:30 p.m. it means a lot of laying in the predawn, my mind wandering over strange topographies and ideas. By 6:00 or 6:30, I usually give up even trying to doze and start the day. If only the sun would hurry up.

Our balcony captures the first morning rays fingering through the gardens of the Hotel Nacional. Padded in a big comfy rocking chair, birdsong about me, it's a pretty decadent location for journal writing. Even Julie is up on time for our 8 a.m. breakfast in the sun room, just inside from the balcony. I wonder if we're driving the family bonkers eating here just outside their bedroom door instead of in the dining room? We stroll across to the HN lobby on time for the target 9:30 meet-up with the parental units. Everyone (except Julie, who retains an acute sense of UV indexes) is keen to do a bit of touring in another big old convertible, and I've confirmed it will be about $30 an hour.

Nine-thirty is a theoretical meet time. I inherited my Late gene from these people, after all, so there's always at least a half hour of phone calling and wandering to track down their whereabouts. When my mother-in-law, Rosemary, arrived this week, I anticipated her scrupulous observation of etiquette to motivate my parents. Instead, the three chatterboxes linger longer at the breakfast buffet. Ah well. None of the old convertibles are parked out front right now, at any rate.

Mom and Dad still haven't heard from their woman in Havana. All the tour companies arrange for customers to have debriefings with a local tour operator, but it's a flawed system. More than once we've commiserated with people waiting impatiently for a meeting; it's a busy lobby full of foreigners, after all. My folks' contact, Christine, is especially elusive, giving them an out of service phone number and not sending any word on their connection back to Varadero airport in the wee hours of tonight. So instead of mom worrying less about the travel details, it's been a growing concern all week. An hour later we track down Christine, who offers no apologies and has arranged nothing.

It all works out, and a 1955 magenta DeSoto convertible arrives just in time to drive us in style to the Plaza de la Revolution, notoriously hot, but not oppressively so at 10:30 a.m. While our driver Rafael and his car get photographed by every passing tourist, we amble across the expanse where well over a million Cubans have gathered to hear Castro and the Pope pontificate. Having seen it all out the window of a bus, I could miss this closer look at the Che mural on the exterior of the Ministry of the Interior building. There are a lot more intersting places in Havana. I certainly have no interest taking the elevator for a view of it all from 150m up the Memorial Jose Marti.

The Necropolis de Colon, a few minutes' drive away, likewise doesn't really gain much with a stroll on foot. The townhouses in Vedado are every bit as elaborate as the mausoleums -- in fact a building a block from our apartment resembles Dracula's townhouse more than anything here --  although the statues in the cemetery are spectacular. I stumble upon Ibrahim Ferrer's grave in our short stroll, which clears up my confusion about the concert for Monday night; it must be a memorial. Some guy stands by his grave requesting money if you want to take a picture of his friend Ibrahim.

Besides the obvious history on the plaques of a million tombstones here, it's also the location of more recent events. Castro launched his political debut giving a speech on the fresh grave of Orthodox leader Eduardo Chibas. Ten years later, he also used another burial service here to announce the socialist nature of the revolution.

Raphael takes us back into old Havana via a new route along the avenues of other politicians, Salvador Allende and Simon Bolivar. With no roof in our way, it's a great way to absorb all the buildings and smells of the city.

We bid farewell to Raphael in front of the Museo de la Revolucion. Mom and Dad head for the Cuban fine arts museum just behind it, and the rest of us assault Batista's former Palacio Presidencial. Maybe it's because we pulled up in a bright pink convertible, maybe because we're smiling when we should be solemn -- who knows -- but the cashier asks for Julie and my passports and writes out everything, including our place of residence from our tourist cards. Since Rosemary, right in front of us, has handed over her 5 pesos and strolled right in, the ordeal is puzzling. I'd love to see what she actually wrote for our addresses. I scribbled something illegible and wholly incomplete on mine. The street and last name of our casa owners are missing, for instance.

Like Castro speeches, the museum is full of a lot of words (fortunately translated). It makes for interesting, occasionally ironic reading. Here's a display on the campaign for literacy, an amazing success where school children were sent out across the country to teach farmers to read and write, dropping the illiteracy rate by 25 percent. There's a picture of the leaders of all the other political parties, jailed for stating counter-revolutionary opinions.

It's not the kind of museum to do with an impatient 3-year-old and baby -- even if the baby is being carted around by smiling museum staff half the time. Rosemary and I do a quick recon of the top floor. A few moments hearing an English-speaking guide discussing the more interesting exhibits up here shows we should have started our tour at the top of the building.

We're reunited with my folks for lunch at Paladar Dona Blanquita. For more than a month we've walked down the Prado past its enticing second-storey balcony. The food and location are excellent, but the portions, even for a Cuban paladar, are immense. I'm the only one who finishes. Lucy keeps herself occupied naming all the knicknacks inside the restaurant while my Dad tries to eat more than half of the piece of pork that overflows his plate.
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