I don’t often see New York, my city, at 4:30 in the morning- empty streets, towers of dark windows and the sparkling necklace round Manhattan when I look back over the East River as we zip across the 59th Street Bridge. The bodegas are open in Queens and the “party palaces” beckon with flashing neon, “NAKED BODIES.” I immediately assume they are naked women’s bodies, but who knows, the bodies could be men’s, transvestites or even animals. New thoughts about a whole culture working at night and sleeping in the daytime. Maybe they are like I have been lately, only sleeping three or four hours a night or day. My flight to Miami takes off at dawn.
After checking into a room at the Miami International Airport Hotel, friends living in West Palm Beach pick me up and we drive to the Miami Design District. I forgot how flat Miami is. Today’s weather couldn’t be more perfect, sunny, not too humid. I am comfortable in my summer weight olive suit, with a short sleeve cream color blouse. Why is it that the sun in Florida seems filtered in a way that light refracts from the low buildings making everything seem flat to me?
The furnishings appear flattened and squat and they are bought by the flattened, tamped down people that live in Florida, even though Miami is known for it’s “cool”, hot culture. This environment all seems like it is meant for a transient life. The whole Design Center feels like it could be a temporary trendiness and if I come back again in two more years, it may not exist in it’s present form.
Perhaps the stucco buildings will be fractured and crumbling allowing weedy vegetation to grow between the cracks, with giant water bugs scurrying to find moldy, moist refuge from the searing sun. This area is located too far inland to get swept away by a hurricane. I just now become aware that I have always felt this way when I’m in Florida, as if all the juice and energy have been drained from me, and I won’t come back to a real life until I leave the state. My friends joke about how the brain becomes fried in Florida and maybe that is what is happening to me again, this day before I’m leaving for Cuba.
After a terrific lunch almost on the patio, with an attractive bunch of fashionable, tan locals at Michael’s, we drive off to C Madeleine’s famous thrift shop in North Miami.
I have never seen a second hand store like this, totally organized so you can find clothing and accessories separated by period within 10,000 square feet of space. You can tell the employees love keeping their merchandise in order and they take pride in knowing the history of every item. My friends buy Kenneth Lane new condition vintage earrings at a good price knowing full well the value of their investment.
They leave me at the airport hotel in time to change for dinner at the restaurant on top of the building where one can watch the heavy plane traffic as if it were a highway in the sky. I meet several couples seated around me from NYC, St.Louis and Chicago, all leaving on the same trip to Cuba tomorrow on our chartered plane. We don’t linger long, as we have to be at the terminal at 6:30 AM for the flight scheduled for 9:00 AM.
The departure is madness. Luckily, I brought breakfast to the gate, because I have plenty of time to eat it standing around waiting for packets of information to be passed out and am not sure when I will get my next meal. We pick up our tickets, try to check our luggage through, only to find out carry ons have to be weighed and paid for, if exceeding their limitations, of which we have just been informed for the first time. Because of that, I open my bags several times, shuffle some items from the carry on to my suitcase, then call on people that are not overweight to take some of my heavy donations we were told to bring. I end up scrambling all my beautifully organized packing in the process and am sure I will have a horribly disheveled wardrobe and items that may have gone missing in the process. Our crowded plane takes off about 10:30
The flight to Cuba takes less than an hour. When we arrive at the St Marti airport, I experience the first clue that it requires a lot of patience to do anything in Cuba. Two or three customs booths are open as we enter and they each have long snaking lines that fill the arrival area. After an hour, more cubbies open up and everyone rushes to form a shorter line at a newly opened enclosure, that soon becomes as long as the others. I gamble on following some new friends I just made, that are with our group, to another line and all goes well until it is announced that formation will be for families with children. Suddenly I am surrounded by local families with at least ten suitcases that each has brought back from somewhere and the babies start crying as we once more go to the end of another long alignment of exasperated travelers.
We finally are able to board our buses almost two hours later and are happy to find they look brand new and efficient. The first thing our lively young guide tells us, after hearing a few complaints about the long airport process, is that they have a saying in Cuba. “That’s the way it is”! She held her right hand in the air and touched each of her five fingers as she said the five words, “That’s-the-way-it-is”. Then she held up her left hand and ticked off those fingers as she proclaimed, ”It-isn’t-going-to-change!”
It does not take long for us to be smack into the middle of Old Havana where the streets are very narrow, the buildings packed tightly together. We already are seeing many crumbling Deco buildings that are part of a veritable history of architectural styles from the 16th, 17th, 18th century. It is noticeable that nothing has been built beyond the mid 20th century. Looking down, I observe masses of people, moving, lounging, selling from stoops or small ground floor shops. Looking up, I see some primitive restoration going on, bright colored paint slapped on here and there and clumsy wood buttressing. I am amazed by our skillful driver. There are times that we narrowly miss scraping into Colonial style metal balconies or running over casual pedestrians that don’t seem to be aware of gigantic buses competing for their space.
The buses leave us about 3:00, by a square that is being renovated and is near the water. There is a huge open pit in the cobbled street we walk on, with men doing work meant for bulldozers. Upstairs, on the second floor, we walk into a different world, a high ceilinged baronially appointed large room with tables set and waiting for our entire group of about one hundred and fifty worn down travelers. They hand each of us a sweating tonic glass of a clear refreshing drink, made with white rum, club soda, muddled sugar, lime and garnished with fresh mint- the first of the daily mojitos that greet us everywhere we go in Cuba. The eye is immediately attracted to the stained glass ceiling, then to the heavily draped and festooned windows. I hear music that draws me to them and the activity below on the square. There are colorful costumed and masked performers, musicians and dancers in the street.
Those of us left standing now rush to empty seats, to have our first real meal of the day. We are served generously, family style, while being entertained by Mariachi type musicians on a small stage. Before coming to Cuba, I was prepared by other travelers not to expect much fine dining on this excursion. I’m glad I am forewarned. The entree is chicken and it is rock hard and difficult to cut. The rest of the food is edible and filling. Dessert is the most divine flan that I have ever eaten.
Around 5:00, Mojitos greet us again upon arrival at the National Hotel located impressively on the ocean. I finally am assigned a room after they discover I’m not on their list and I haul my luggage to the 2nd floor and let myself into a small space almost entirely filled with huge dark wood furniture. Overwhelmed by the musty atmosphere, I rush to the heavily draped window that shuts out all light. I yank the curtains open to behold a construction site. A few feet outside my window is a huge, flexible chute coming from above, that is meant to remove plaster and refuse from the renovation going on somewhere upstairs. I can imagine how noisy and dusty it will be out there when the workday begins tomorrow because I see the particles of debris that have stuck on the trees and vegetation that block what little sunlight filters into the window.
I had envisioned a room high above the ocean as we had driven along the sea wall! I lock my luggage in the tiny room and march down to the desk and request that room facing the ocean from a uniformed woman at the front desk of the government run Hotel. I’m matter-of-factly told they don’t have any other rooms, I’ll have to wait until tomorrow afternoon at check out time. I pitifully wail I’m claustrophobic, allergic to dust, too tired to unpack and have to pack again the next day. I am sent to another woman behind the desk that makes me wait again. She tells me to come back in the evening. With the third person behind the desk that I talk to, I am so exasperated that I start crying pent up tears, and think I am having little effect on these nonchalant ladies.
Finally, one of them calls a bellman, gives him keys and tells him to get my luggage and take us upstairs to the sixth floor. He opens a door up there and we surprise a couple that are unpacking in their room that has a side view of the water. The bellman backs out, apologizes and leaves me there telling me to wait, as he goes back downstairs.
When he comes back, I’m finally put in a huge room on the seventh floor, where the same kind of heavy furniture I saw on the second floor looks appropriate. This space has two large windows facing a big open expanse overlooking the long U shaped drive in front of the Hotel, and a lot of the city. I’m still promised an ocean view, if I come back to the front desk tomorrow afternoon, most likely around the time I intend to be seeing another part of the city. In two days I will finally learn how to flush the toilet with a sort of a pumping action, and I will give up trying for the fantasy view. I become very fond of my spacious room, jumbo size bathroom, king size bed, cool tiling on the floors and the expansive urban view.
More Coming on March 3rd, 2014[fieldset]
I have just enough time to unpack and prepare for the first formal event of the International Art Deco Society being held in the Salon on the main floor of the Hotel. It’s a totally packed stand up affair, with a large portion of the Deco Society members decked out in their authentic clothes from the Deco era. A sense of gaiety prevails, while many things are happening simultaneously. There is a film about the Conference In Cuba playing on a huge screen at one end, transvestite looking models preening and posing in too many pearls, feathers and cigarette holders, as the worst hors d’oeuvres and watery drinks in the world are passed around to the hyper excited crowd. Announcements and introductions are made by our group’s leader, their Cuban counterparts and officials that have made it possible for this extravaganza to convene for a week in Cuba.
Wonderful, Marilynn. I wondered if you wrote from memory or you had notes as it was so vivid.
Hi Cyn-I always journal when I travel- just short snips of things that get my attention.
Then I do a rough draft putting
the story together & if I’m missing details of something, I
might google it or look at the trip literature. Thanks for your
Wow! As I read your story I felt like I was there with you! What a great vivid story!
Loved reading your story…some of your experiences sound similar to those I’ve had in India. Can’t wait for the rest!
You manage to frame frustrations and fatigue within your enormous curiosity for the new world of Cuba. The reader “feels your pain” but nothing of the architecture or culture is subordinated to kvetching.