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Trip 21 -- Cuba

Part 1: Dining in '20

Cuba has been on my list for a few years, inching up with each absurd hindrance imposed by our government. It is still easy for US citizens to visit Cuba and fly direct from the states. They must self-certify that their purpose of travel falls into one of 12 categories, only one-half of one of which (individual "people-to-people" travel; the group version is still allowed) was rescinded in 2019. Many now use the similarly named but separate "support for the Cuban people," which means they intend to spend a certain amount of time each day patronizing individuals' (as opposed to the state's) establishments and interacting with Cubans, such as in lodgings and bars. Who wouldn't do that anyway?

Being a pianist, I designated my category as "professional research," as I intended to experience the myriad kinds of music Cuba offers. The designation was part of my ticket purchase through JetBlue. Health insurance was included in the ticket cost.

JetBlue subsequently sent me a list of requirements that were open to interpretation. My eight-year-old passport had to be "in good, clean condition" (it was if you overlooked the small tear at the spine and the missing first seven letters of "PASSPORT"), and it had to have "two blank pages" (it did, but not facing each other). I also wondered whether the check-in agent might think "professional research" required a business visa.

But the only questioning was whether any of my Chinese stamps were from the previous two weeks. I purchased the required $50 tourist card at JetBlue's special Cuba check-in area and completed it with the provided erasable pen. This ensured that I wouldn't have to buy a new one if I made a mistake, such as by following the sample card presented for reference, which incorrectly used lowercase letters.

Purely by coincidence, my second cousin Rachel was booked on the same flight as I; she and her friend Colby had originally planned to visit southeast Asia but changed their travel plans in light of the recent virus scare. After three hours in the air, we were hastily given customs forms and health questionnaires -- they had forgotten to distribute them midflight -- and disembarked into Havana's humid heat.

Getting out of the Havana airport isn't easy. First you clear immigration, where you pick one of the many sizable queues. Then you bunch up to hand over the flimsy health questionnaire, perhaps a recent addition. The actual customs line, after which you exit to the real world, is pretty quick, but then you need money. The ATMs look promising, but cards from the USA don't work, and there's no obvious exchange counter.

I'd read that a good strategy was to go upstairs and use the exchange office there, but the line was a half-hour long: This is also where people reconvert their pesos before leaving. I held our place while Rachel and Colby did more investigating downstairs. I had almost reached the front when they returned victorious, having learned that the ATMs exchange cash.

Ah, money, one of Cuba's quirks. It's the only country that still has a separate currency for tourists (China did until just before my first visit, 25 years ago). One "CUC" (convertible peso, used by visitors) is worth about one US dollar, but because US dollars are penalized 10% at exchange offices, it's better to bring euros, pounds, or Canadian dollars. Since cash exchange rates in New York are awful, I'd gotten my euros a couple of months before in Hong Kong, where the dozens of moneychangers in Chungking Mansions keep rates competitive.

I brought to Cuba 1800 euros -- 100 per day -- plus about 350 US dollars, just in case. This would have to last the whole trip. I changed 200 euros into about 215 CUC and then changed five of those into CUP, national pesos used mostly by Cubans. Visitors pay for most items in CUC, but they might use CUP for local public transport or out-of-the-way eateries that don't deal in CUC. One CUC equals 24 CUP at exchange offices or officially 25 CUP at merchants that take both, but some places give inferior rates.

The thing is, I needed only one CUP, about four cents, to get into town. There isn't really an airport bus, but the local P12 and P16 buses run along an avenue a 20-minute walk from the international terminal. Rachel and Colby negotiated a taxi, and we agreed to message each other to perhaps meet up once we found wi-fi.

Ah, the Internet, one of Cuba's quirks. I'd read that the experience of getting on-line was particularly fickle and cumbersome: the need to buy a wi-fi card at a communications office and then search for a signal in a city park.

So imagine my surprise to discover that the reality was much worse. The communications office had all the charm of an interrogation room, and buying the $1 one-hour cards involved handing over my passport and waiting for volumes to be typed into a computer. The signals were hard to find, and where they worked one day they might not work the next. Once connected, I'd frantically type in the 24 digits that constituted my user name and password and hope to sustain the connection. Since there was no way to get back to the login screen, I could only try to preserve the remaining credit by disconnecting from the network altogether and hoping the system recognized that I was done.

When Rachel and Colby walked ahead for their taxi, I turned right toward the bus stop, and immediately I saw the more convenient exchange office, with its considerably shorter line. Who would have thought you had to go outside first?

To reach the bus stop you turn right out of the terminal building and hug the barbed-wired wall that separates you from the airplane taxiway. You walk under an overpass, through a parking lot of old Ladas and Moskviches, past someone's campsite, and into a grassy area, where you climb up to the airport access road. After about 15 minutes you reach the domestic terminal, then turn left (the only way to go) and continue to the traffic light, where you cross the road and wait for something to take you into the city.

The P12 came immediately, but it was too full to take on more passengers. After a few minutes the P16 arrived, and I handed a coin to the conductor. He didn't look at it. Maybe I could have used any coin.

I was surprised to get a seat for the 45-minute journey. A man boarded with hard candy to sell, and his spiel had the other passengers in stitches, but his Spanish was too fast for me to understand. I didn't know exactly what route the bus would take, but I recognized the neighborhood on its sign and figured it would get me within a 30-minute walk of where I'd be staying. When it veered away from my direction, I got off.

Ah, lodging, one of -- well, you get it. In the 1990s the startup of private enterprise meant that Cubans were allowed to rent out rooms for the first time. It's easy to find these places, which have a blue symbol resembling an inverted anchor. (The red ones are for Cubans only.) Cuba has hotels as well, but they tend to be expensive, and it's better to support citizens, and arguably more interesting, to sleep in these homes, called casas particulares. They usually cost $20 to $30 per night.

I'd booked just my first two nights in Cuba, at Casa Novo, where a friend had stayed 15 months earlier. I had my own room and bathroom, and while the sink dispensed only hot water and the bed springs had seen better days, there were a refrigerator, a terrace with a hammock, and plenty of security: Everyone entering had to ring in, and a second gate halfway up the stairway was locked late at night.

Nicolas, the owner, was friendly and concerned about my safety. Cuba isn't dangerous, but scams are common. I shouldn't change money on the street, he said (though he changed some dollars for me, without the 10% penalty, in order to get his hands on some hard currency). And I shouldn't show his business card to people, either. They might send someone for me, pretending to be his friend, who would give me costly misinformation.

Casa Novo was in central Havana, convenient to the Casa de la Música a few minutes' walk away, old Havana to the east, the Malecón (seafront promenade) to the north, and the more modern area of Vedado to the west. The grid of narrow streets had hardly any car traffic. The early-20th-century buildings were pastel-painted and had iron window guards and curved, artistic molding. They were two or three stories -- tall enough to shade the street except at high noon -- and many were somewhat run-down on the outside, but people put a lot of effort into making their interiors artful and welcoming.

The streets themselves could use some work, though. I felt safe walking around as long as I looked down so as not to trip over a pothole or a dog or step in what it might have left behind.

When I headed out for the evening, I was assaulted by music of all types. On one block was a mariachi band; on the next, "Empire State of Mind" competed with a drumbeat across the street. Then came a church choir. And the ubiquitous salsa, of course, and trova, calmer songs generally sung by two men in harmony and accompanied by guitar (think "Guantanamera"). By the time I finished dinner on my restaurant's terrace, the main floor had turned into a salsa party.

I walked around the old city and followed the music. Loud rhythms on one bar's ground floor belied the calm that was upstairs: four women in white, a singer, a keyboardist, a drummer, and a cellist. I ordered a cocktail and listened to their beautiful, tranquil arrangements of "Despacito" and Adele's "Someone Like You."

There were only about six of us in there. I watched the bartender, a young, tall, bearded man who could have easily been from a hipster part of Brooklyn, make other drinks and serve a Coke to the man who sat down next to me. We got to that awkward moment when the band was about to finish up and I wouldn't want the drink anymore. They did and said good night. The bartender and I exchanged smiles. "Thank you," I said, and I went back downstairs.

Across the street, a tout led me into another place with aggressive African-Cuban rhythms. The music was very pleasant, but he kept trying to push the girls on me, and eventually the drugs, and I got discouraged and left. Salsa took me home, as it could be heard continuously along the way.

The following night, I showed up at the Casa de la Música just before the second show at 11 p.m. Nicolas had warned me that an entrance fee of $5 meant the band was poor, while $25 was more promising. On that night it was $10 for foreigners but $5 for Cubans, which could have meant anything.

Most problematic was the delay in starting. For an 11:00 seating I thought the show would begin before 12:47, but I was wrong. I nursed a couple of $3 Cuba libres and considered making conversation with the group of Dutch and Mexican women at the next table, but I didn't want to interrupt what seemed a girls' night out, and their frequent use of a selfie stick marked them as the sort of people best left on their own.

When the band did start, it wasn't bad, if lacking in variety -- the volume and the tempo stayed high and fast. It included a Noah's ark of instruments: two trumpets, two trombones, two drummers, and a handful of guitars and singers. I stayed for an hour and left before the end, nervously rousing the staff at Casa Novo when I rang the bell around 2 a.m.

Havana has some promising museums, but the most historically alluring ones, the Museum of the City and the Museum of the Revolution, leave visitors to fill in a lot of spaces. Sure, Revolution has gruesome torture instruments such as testicle twisters used in the Batista dictatorship, and City has impressive religious candlesticks and one of the country's original flags (blue for the sea, white for purity, red for blood) and a staff member who asked me to change money, but many of the displays in both consisted of paragraphs and photographs that didn't add up to a compete story. More interesting was the Granma, the yacht that carried Fidel Castro from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolution.

The rum museum gave a truer chronology, starting with the crude sugarcane-based alcoholic beverage called taffia, which pirates drank to prepare for siege or celebrate victory. The steam train and the development of continuous distillation allowed for the production of a smoother light rum, and further aging techniques give it the tastier, darker drink we know today. Light rum is still the preferred ingredient for a Cuba libre, whereas the dark rum is drunk by itself or used in more refined cocktails.

Near the rum museum is the Los Marinos restaurant, which hangs out over the canal near the cruise terminal. I started with the $10 lobster cocktail and expected a dinky lump for that price. What arrived was virtually a whole cold lobster in its shell, plentiful if a bit dry -- a dash of olive oil perfected it. Now you New England purists are going to come back from Cuba and complain to me that it was a Caribbean lobster without the hefty claws and messy tomalley of the Maine variety, but that's not the point. The point is that you can sit outside over the water and have a whole lobster for $10 while watching the pelicans and listening to the band.

I met up with Rachel and Colby after they finished a long walking tour. We sat outside and enjoyed mojitos and what would have been a magnificent sunset view of the Malecón if daylight-saving time had started a week earlier. (It surprises me that Cuba observes the time change.) We examined the rationale behind black-market currency exchange such as that proposed by casa owners -- it's not only (or even primarily) to help tourists; it facilitates purchases of items that can be purchased only with hard currency and hedges against the government's devaluing the local money. And we discussed Colby's adventure in trying to buy bottled water.

As many stores as there are in Havana, there's no one-stop shop for everything, and bottled water in particular can be hard to find. What promise to be fully stocked grocery stores -- they're twice as large as New York bodegas -- turn out to be spacious establishments with rows and rows of the same canned fruit, soap, cooking oils, and that most vile of condiments, mayonnaise. Some have long lines outside, because they let in only a few people at a time. If you want vegetables you go to a corner produce market. If you want bananas you might find a street cart with loads of them for sale. If you want meat you go to a butcher. If you want cotton candy you go to the lady who sells it out of a stairwell at 477 San Rafael Street. If you want fish, you can go to the Malecón and cast a line for it yourself.

The Malecón isn't just a path along the water; it's a microcosm of Cuban life. People get on-line on their phones; it's one of the more reliable spots. Lovers sit and watch the sun set. Here someone sings; there someone plays "Nature Boy" on the trumpet. A row of fishermen hope to bring home dinner. Cadillacs and Buicks from the '50s belch their way down the seafront boulevard. The pavement is uneven and sometimes slippery. And there's the P16 passing just a few blocks from my casa.

I shared a car with three other people to the city of Trinidad, near the southern coast in the middle of the island. The trip took just over four hours, including a 15-minute coffee stop and a 15-minute stop to fix the car. Upon our arrival, just before dark, I walked a few cobblestone blocks to a casa recommended in my guidebook. The owner didn't have any rooms for three nights, but her sister Adelfa did, just a few minutes away. When I stepped out for the evening, I could see salsa lessons being taught across the street.

Trinidad's compactness and activity drew me in instantly. The neat quadrants of its central park, the Plaza Mayor, were presided over by the yellow Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad. Just to the northeast, near the Casa de la Música, was a staircase leading to a bandstand where one could drink $2.50 mojitos and listen to salsa concerts at dusk. At the foot of the stairs a man sold pulled-pork sandwiches from a cart; I couldn't resist giving my last bite to one of the stray dogs that eyed me woefully. Nearby, at the intimate Casa de la Trova, I heard salsa and ballads, fast and slow, played by a band or just a pair of guitars. There was even a store specializing in bottled water. The very center was closed to cars, and I never tired of exploring, though the cobblestones were hard on the feet.

A rickety diesel tourist train, pulled by a Russian locomotive from 1975, leaves every morning for the Valle de los Ingenios, stopping at a defunct sugar plantation, a scantily captioned museum of sugar-refining machinery (they did little more than tack on "Museo" when the plant closed in 2004), and a rural resort with banana trees. The ride was pretty enough, past broad fields and grazing horses, with the mountains in the distance, but the timing was poor: too much time at the resort, where we were captive for an overpriced lunch, and too little at the estate, where there was barely time to ascend the seven-story tower. I got halfway up and waited for others to pass me -- I do better with heights when I can follow someone, especially when the handrails are wobbly. Masters would have observed their slaves from up there. I refreshed myself with a quick glass of sugarcane juice, and there was no chance to explore the grounds or examine the immaculately white woven textiles for sale on the pathway to the tower. I did buy a CD from a man on the main house's porch who was playing the marímbula, a large thumb piano.

Back in Trinidad, in the Museum of the Fight Against Bandits, I climbed the bell tower for city views, and then I hiked up the steep Loma de la Vigía, about 20 minutes from the Plaza Mayor. At the top were a radio tower and an electrical station, the kind of communications equipment that in the USA would be surrounded by a tall fence and foreboding "High voltage! Keep out! No trespassing!" signs, maybe with a skull and crossbones.

But here, the gate was open, and the overseer offered me a mojito and invited me to climb the roof of the complex. I could follow the train line around the north of the city and see all the way to the sugar estate. To the south were Trinidad's protruding churches, the airport, and, way in the distance, the thin Playa Ancón peninsula, where I hoped to head the next day. I lingered for an hour and watched the sun set.

A restaurant called El Secreto, open to the public for just two months, had caught my attention with its airy main room. It looked cozy and elegant at the same time, with posh glassware and stately candle holders. I couldn't pass up the chance to dine in these surroundings.

I stepped into a year ending in 20. Was it 2020? Barely. The only hints at the present were the unnecessary TV screen showing photos from the establishment and the modern paintings on the wall, many with bright colors and figures with distorted proportions. The more captivating artworks were by Carlos Mata, who paints only nocturnal scenes and also collected all of the fascinating objects in the restaurant. This place is his project.

Was it 1920? More likely, given the music being played on records: Spanish-singing pop bands with just the right amount of warble that indicates you're hearing vinyl spun with decades of love. A modern phonograph was used, but only because Carlos won't let the staff operate the functional Edison-era gramophones, explained Junior the waiter. There were also a jukebox and countless antique wall and grandfather clocks, all working (though not all in operation, to avoid an excessive cacophony each quarter-hour). And then there's the telephone from that time, a two-piece specimen where you hold the earpiece and speak into the separate receiver. Imagine the feeling of old-meets-new when Junior made the two bells come alive by calling it with his mobile and I answered by lifting the earpiece.

How about 1820? Quite possibly, given the white tablecloths with embroidered floral patterns, the etched glassware, and the white statue of a barefoot person holding a carafe and chalice that greeted me. In the back was a grinding apparatus for coffee beans, perhaps from around then.

Off to the side was a Mastertone upright piano, an American brand from the 19th century. I played an excerpt of Beethoven and the staff applauded. "You must come tomorrow morning and meet Carlos," Junior said.

The manager, Carlos's daughter, showed me pictures of celebrities who had dined there and made the extreme leap to include me in that number. "You must be famous in the United States," she said, and she had me take a picture with her, much as she had with Michael Douglas.

And what's that you're saying, Junior? The building dates from 1720, as does the sturdy chair I'm sitting on? It's all been tactfully restored, but the history is real.

Junior lit the braided candle at "the most romantic table in the restaurant" and replaced the candle cover. I barely looked at the menu, since he explained a special of dogfish steamed in a tobacco leaf and cooked with coffee beans, honey, and rum. What better way to have the main tastes of Cuba together in harmony? For a starter I had the lobster cocktail, and somehow the chef made even its mayonnaise covering palatable. I drank a Hemingway-style lemon daiquiri with the lobster, and then I moved on to chardonnay with the fish.

"We have a dessert that brings together the cooking of our grandparents," Junior said. It was a combination of guava, papaya, mango sauce, stringy cheese, and coconut dulce de leche. The flavors came together as agreeably as I imagine meals with the staff's ancestors progressed: a bit of bickering but always ending in love. I finished with rum aged in the restaurant's own little barrel.

The cost of the meal was $38, and I gave Junior an extra $5. The only thing that might have made the experience better, apart from the removal of the TV screen, would have been the presence of any other diners.

I stepped out into the street, next to the bell tower I'd climbed earlier. Couples were strolling, people were chattering in all sorts of languages, and there was a moderate breeze and the blissful absence of car traffic. I sat down in the Plaza Mayor under the neon cross of the yellow church. At the next wrought-iron bench, city youth were playing music out of a mobile phone. It was classical piano. A couple blocks away was the thump-thump of salsa blaring from the staircase near the Casa de la Música.

"Wow," I said aloud to no one in particular. What a delightful city.

Several people had mentioned to me a nightclub set in a cave on the way up to where I'd watched the sun set. I climbed up the hill and joined a short queue ready to descend to the entrance.

"It's really a cave!" said a woman behind me. "When I heard it was a cave, I thought it would be a big space open to the sky."

"That's the very opposite of a cave," said her friend.

I paid the $5 cover charge, which included a drink -- the bartenders knew how to make large quantities of mojitos quickly. The place was really a cave, not open to the sky at all, with plenty of places to hit your head. There were flashing lights and techno music -- everyone needs a break from salsa. It was very hot, and the dance floor was packed with Cubans and tourists alike.

One dancer had a fan, which was a welcome accessory. I bought her a beer and she identified herself as transsexual. She tried to get me to go home with her, and I wondered whether hiring a prostitute would be considered "support for the Cuban people" and what minimum hours would fulfill the requirement.

The next day I went to the beach, and lest you think that treads on the grounds of tourism rather than professional research, let me assure you that there was plenty of music on the way. I waited at the dusty turn-off toward the beach road, hoping for either the $5 tourist bus or a local bus for pennies, but neither arrived around the expected 11:00 hour. And so I headed part of the way to La Boca, the start of the coastal road, in a shared car with four friendly Cubans. When the driver turned on the music, it was deafening, and I was relieved that he recognized the excessive volume as a mistake.

La Boca had a beach of its own, but the prettier one was five miles away at Playa Ancón. It was a refreshing day to walk it: hot but with a substantial breeze. For most of the way the sparkling, clear bluish-green water was in sight. As I headed out of La Boca, wafting music connected me from one establishment to the next. Then I was alone on the straightaway. Two bikers approached in the opposite direction, one singing softly. A tractor passed me at barely faster than walking speed. Even its overworked engine had rhythm and a mournful melody.

The going was easy until I arrived at the cluster of buildings at Punta María Aguilar, where construction of a resort detoured me onto the sand. Once I found the road again, I walked the last mile to the brilliantly clear main beach, where I removed my shoes and socks and stepped into the water.

Many of the food shacks were closed up, but La Piragua served me a piña colada and a fried palgo, a fish that migrates to Cuba only in the winter. Then I enjoyed some time in the sea, which was a little cooler than I wanted but still comfortable and refreshing.

I didn't know how easy it would be to find transportation back to Trinidad. My guidebook mentioned a 3:30 tourist bus, but it had also mentioned the 11:00 bus to the beach, which as far as I could tell hadn't materialized. Still, I thought it prudent to seek out a ride sooner rather than later.

Across the road I saw a clunky reddish bus pointed in the right direction. It was full of Cubans. I confirmed that it was going to Trinidad. I looked for a place to pay, but there wasn't one, and no one asked me for money during the trip. As we pulled out, just after 3:30, I saw the tourist bus depart behind us. No one paid getting off, either.

I tried to meet the painter Carlos Mata at El Secreto, but he'd come in after I'd left for the beach and gone just before I got back. His daughter tried to get him on the phone, but he was tied up. And so she and I lamented the downturn in USA-Cuba relations while I enjoyed a special Trinidad drink, a canchánchara: rum with honey and lemon, served in a little, stout, brown cup. "Oh, my God," she said every few seconds, often after a mention of our president.

The bus from Trinidad to Camagüey took five and a half hours, including 40 minutes at a rest stop with chickens strutting around. The outdoor cafe was clean and well-appointed, but it was way too early for lunch. What was I going to do with all that time?

My fate was sealed when a stray dog approached me. "Hello," I said.

The dog lay down on her back and put her paws in the air. I scratched her belly. She closed her eyes and put her paws around my arms. I scratched her neck and behind her ears. Her nipples were worn and she had fleas. Clearly she had earned this half-hour of attention.

"I wish I could clean you up and take you home with me, but I gotta go," I said. She understood. I went to the restroom and scrubbed my hands and fingernails. When I came out, she was gone. The passengers boarded the bus and we finished the journey to Camagüey.

Go on to part 2: Friday the 13th