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Cuba Part 12: Havana, The End of the Road

This is the final part of my 12 part series on Cuba. I've had to pick this series up and put it down several times along the way. Good memory or not, my scrupulously detailed notes are the only way I've made it to the end. I spent so much time on the trip jotting things down in my little blue notebook that it began to worry our guide, Tony. At one point, he half-jokingly remarked that he would probably end up in jail by the end of the trip based on whatever I'd found so interesting to keep writing down. I do have to thank Tony (and all of Wijin Cuba) for having so much patience with me during the trip. I wanted to know, see and do everything, and I'm sure my energetic determination was exhausting at time. I'm sad to see the end to my writing on Cuba, but this isn't goodbye for good. As they say in Spanish, hasta luego (I'll see you later).

This morning we are headed back to Havana for our final night in Cuba. We are getting an early start because my husband has gotten it into his head that he wants to check out the Museum of the Revolution which we didn't have time to see when we were in Havana at the beginning of the trip. Per Tony, the drive back is about four hours, so we depart Trinidad at 7:30am. This means we have to skip breakfast at our AirBNB--a serous shame as it was delicious yesterday--but we have plenty of emergency granola bars in our luggage to get us through the morning.

The drive back to Havana is a scenic one, with fields giving way to the mountains in some parts and views of the ocean in others. It's a sunny day which just adds to the picturesque quality of the scenery. We drive back much of the way we drove in, going through Cienfuegos (on the highway which skirts the city) and several other smaller municipalities.

We pass a car with a freemason symbol on it, and my husband asks Tony if Cuba has many masons. He had noticed someone with a freemason ring on the previous day, so seeing a second sign of the organization has him wondering how prevalent the group is in Cuba. Tony says Cuba has a large group of members. In fact, the Cuban flag was made in America by freemason, Narciso López. López was a Spanish Army general, born in Venezuela. He lived in Cuba and eventually became a Cuban revolutionary, forced to flee to the United States. From the United States, López planned and launched an uprising against the Spanish (who controlled Cuba at the time), but he was captured and ultimately executed.

The flag López designed to represents Cuban independence while in the United States, though, lives on. The colors represent the blood the Cuban people have spilled (red), the purity of the warriors (white), and the sky (blue). Tony says the flag's depicted star and triangle came directly from Freemason symbolism.

Clearly, the Cubans have a history of attempting to overthrow their government. My husband privately remarks to me that he thinks the reason the Cuban people have not revolted against their current repressive regime with force is because they have already done so in spirit. The people have banded together against the government through the black market, capitalist initiatives, and bribery in order to survive. They very much execute passive resistance though their daily actions, as we've witnessed time and again on this trip.

When we arrive in Havana, Tony takes us to lunch at the upscale Hotel Florida. It's our final meal together. The hotel is beautiful inside with towering marble columns, polished floors, and Spanish colonial architecture. However, ironically, the white tablecloth meal is not nearly as good as those we've had under thatched roofs in little rural homes turned restaurants. That being said, the meal isn't bad, and there is entertainment in the form of a piano player in the restaurant which is a nice touch. We are served vegetable soup; bread and butter; grilled pork; mixed vegetables; rice and beans; and flan for desert.

After lunch, Tony takes us to our AirBNB to check-in and drop our luggage. It turns out to be the nicest of our trip. The interior is modernized with recessed lighting and a polished floor. The entire apartment is air conditioned (vs. just the typical bedroom), there is a very modern shower in the bathroom, and a comfortable bedroom. I am surprised how modern these lodging feel in comparison to the others we've had thus far.

Then, Tony takes us to the Revolution Museum. As a U.S. citizen, we are required to be accompanied through the museum by a museum guide. Tony takes care of setting up the visit for us, but he cannot take us inside. So, it is time to say our goodbyes. Tony offers to wait for us to finish our tour and drive us back to our AirBNB, but we aren't far from where we're staying, and we want to walk back and do a little shopping along the way anyway. Plus, he deserves a bit of a break after taking such good care of us this past week. Our farewell is bittersweet after spending so much time together. We insist Tony take any medications we brought with us on the trip (Tylenol, pepto, etc.) since we know how hard they are to come by in Cuba. We also give him some of the coloring books and crayons we brought as a gift for his daughter. After much thanks (and a little sadness), Tony departs, and we're officially on our own.

We head into the building to meet up with our museum guide, and I instantly know we are going to have a bit of a problem. She speaks next to no English. So, I get to keep attempting to understand what she's saying and then at the same time, in rapid succession, translate it into something semi-comprehensible for my husband. Initially, our guide starts out slowly, explaining exhibits in a few words at a time. I'm surprised how well I can keep up--I'm rather impressed with myself. Unfortunately, our guide sees my comprehension as freedom to speak more and more rapidly as we progress, and I quickly move from vague comprehension to picking up one in every three words... luckily, most of the exhibits have sign in English and Spanish.

Our guide walks us through the former Presidential Palace, last occupied by the dictator Fulgencio Bautista prior to the 1959 revolution. She points out the ballroom (modeled after Versailles Hall of Mirrors), dining room, and meeting room. She also directs us to the palace's fine Carrara marble and the bullet holes in the entryway and courtyard. The latter are remnants of Castro's uprising against the government; 24 died in the process. Our guide also shows us Bautista's infamous golden telephone (seen as a symbol of America's influence in Cuba under his rule), and a copy of the phone that we are allowed to touch. We are also taken through a three room display on the Cuban Revolution and guerrilla warfare. There are pictures, artifacts, and newspaper articles depicting the event on display. (Everything is obviously told with a bit of propaganda mixed in.)

After, we exit the palace and are taken across the street to a more recent structure. This one was housed to hold the Granma, the boat that Castro and his 81 compatriots sailed in from Mexico to Cuba to begin their fateful revolution. It is a lesson in how large, historical movements can begin with quite a small spark.

Walking outside the Granma's resting place, we encounter vehicles representing the revolution, some with bullet holes in them; the eternal flame, honoring heroes of the revolution; active military on patrol; remnants of a U.S. plane shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion; tanks, including one used to fire on the USS Houston; and a missile, representing the "so called missile crisis," as the museum so aptly explains. Finally, just to ensure we understand who the hero and who the villain is in the Cuban story, we are paraded past a gallery of some rather unflattering caricatures featuring: Bautista, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 under a caption that reads "Cretins' Corner" in Spanish.

Our tour complete, we bid farewell to our guide at the museum's entrance. I am mentally exhausted from trying to follow her rapid-fire Spanish throughout the tour. We decide to do a bit of window shopping down Calle Obispo and then Mercaderes as we check out that area of the city. Somewhere along the way, we bargain for some carved wooden cars for our girls and a hat for my husband. My husband also gets one of the vendors to trade him a Che Guevara CUP for a U.S. Dollar ($0.15 for $1... seems fair). Our ramblings end in Plaza Vieja, which somehow we haven't seen up until this point. The area immediately around the plaza is probably the most beautiful and well kept in Havana. Interestingly, even though we have discovered it last, this turns out to be our favorite area of the city. We stop at a brewery on the square, Cerveceria Plaza Vieja, to try a claro (light) and oscuro (dark) beer.

Once we've finished our beers, we backtrack to the Museo de Chocolate (Museum of Chocolate), which we had passed on our way down Mercaderes. We select a cold chocolate drink and a 12 piece chocolate sampler to share and sit at one of the shop's tables. I find the chocolate pieces to be a bit bitter for my liking, but the chocolate drink is delicious! (I may drink a bit more than my fair share.)

After a bit more city ramblings, our feet are simply exhausted. It's been a long 7 days. We stop at the Hotel Ambos Mundos for a drink on the rooftop to enjoy the view across the water. I order a daiquiri, and my husband orders another cocktail featured on the menu. Neither of us are overly impressed with our drinks--we may have just gotten spoiled with too many good cocktails on this trip--but the view is why people come here, so we relax and take it all in.

Our drinks (mostly) complete, we decide to head back to our AirBNB to shower before dinner and rest for a few minutes. On the way, we pass someone grinding coffee beans at Cafe O'Reilly, and my husband decides to buy a bag to bring home. I despise coffee, but for some reason I have grown quite fond of the Cuban brew and am more than happy to bring some home.

We have reservations at El Del Frente tonight, not far from our AirBNB. We ate here earlier in our trip and really enjoyed it, so we asked Tony to call yesterday and make a reservation for us. Before even cracking open the menu, we decide to each get a mango mojitos--they were so delicious the last time we were here (and are equally delicious tonight). To eat, we choose to start with an order of the empanadas and then share the grilled lobster and frutti di mare (seafood spaghetti). The grilled lobster is just as delicious as the last time we ordered it. The pasta dish is a bit al dente for our taste, but the seafood is good. For dessert, since it's our last night in Cuba, we have to go with the flan again. As was the last time we ate here, our server gives my husband the check and me a flower--I could get used to this custom!

After dinner, we return to our AirBNB to retrieve our large camera and then head back to the Hotel Ambos Mundos for a nightcap and to take in (and photograph) the view over the city lit up at night. Since we have now learned that the views--not the drinks--are the draw here, we both decide to order a beer. The bar is playing the Yankees vs. Astros game on the television, and with a beer and baseball, we feel like we are experiencing a little bit of America in the heart of Havana.

We are quite enjoying the view over the luminescent city and out to the fort (La Cabaña) and the huge, floodlit Christ statue across the waterway. As usual, when we get a chance to sit on our trip, I pull out my little blue notebook to jot down some tidbits from the events of the day, and my husband manages to document me in the act this time. We are sad that this is our last night in Cuba and want to make it last, but we are too exhausted to stay long. We decide to call it an early night and head back to our AirBNB for some much needed sleep.

Early to bed, early to rise, and we wake up early to get packed up. Once everything is ready for departure, we decide to walk to Cafe O'Reilly (which is close to our AirBNB), to get some breakfast--and of course, coffee. Their coffee is awesome, and I endeavor to enjoy my last Cuban café con leche before heading back to avoiding coffee like the plague at home.

After breakfast, we decide we need to purchase some local-made clothing to bring home. There are stores all over the city, but it's still fairly early for the shops to be open. Luckily, we find a small store that sells what we have in mind. My husband selects a guayabera (a traditional Cuban shirt) and some matching white pants, and I choose a calf-length white sundress with some intricate detailing along the asymmetrical hem. [Photo above wearing out our outfits at home.] We also take a quick stroll down to the nearby craft market where I purchase a small ceramic Cuban flag that will make the perfect memento Christmas tree ornament.

Our final shopping list complete, we head back to our AirBNB to check out. Tony has arranged for our transportation to the airport with the apartment's caretaker, Daniel. Daniel meets us promptly at the AirBNB to collect the key and drive us. Unfortunately, due to the lack of internet service in Cuba, we have been unable to look up the departure terminal for our flight. Daniel takes us to Terminal 3, which is labeled international departures. Luckily, I hop out and ask someone to confirm we are in the right spot before he pulls away--we are not. Apparently while most international departures leave from here, Southwest only departs from Terminal 2. In most airports, this would not be the end of the world. In Havana, however, the terminals are miles from one another, and attempting to get another ride would be quite difficult. Our mini-disaster averted, Daniel drops us at the correct terminal without further incident.

Once at the terminal, check-in is relatively smooth. Security is similar to arrival. We wait our turns to go up to a counter and have our pictures taken--I assume to compare to our arrival ones--and documents checked. After, we go through metal dectors, have our baggage x-rayed, and go through to a secured area to wait for our flight.

Since bringing back Cuban rum is currently legal, we hit up the duty free to buy our allowed 1 liter each of Havana Club. Then, we grab a beer (when on vacation...) and a small snack, and the last of our CUCs are gone! Luckily, our flight is on time, so we make it back to Miami for our connection without incident.

We have a few hours between flights, so we 1) head to the airport bar for a burger and fries and 2) turn on our phones to catch up on email, the news, and social media. The burgers I have missed. The constant bombardment of technology, I have not. Being forced to unplug has honestly been a welcome break. This trip has given us a chance to relax, enjoy one another's company, and look up and take in the world around us.

On our connecting flight home, my husband (who is exhausted) decides to catch a quick nap, and I spend the quiet time reflecting on our adventures. Cuba is a bit like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, and even after a week, I've only just managed to sift through the pieces and fit a few small bits together along the way. There's just so much more to this island nation than initially meets the eye; a week is quite simply not enough time to process it all. If there's one thing I hate, it's an unfinished puzzle. I only see one way to solve it--I'm going to need to go back... I'll let my husband know when he wakes up.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

Finally, I have to thank my husband for his impeccable photography on this trip. I don't always know who took which photos (he always claims the best are his), but he certainly deserves credit for many of the amazing images we captured in Cuba.


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