Thursday, April 11, 2019

Havana, Cuba 2019 - Day 2 - Car Tour of West Havana

For our second day in Havana, we had pre-booked a 3-hour morning car tour around West Havana, which was listed on AirBnB under the “company” name “Josué , Family & Friends (JF&F)”.  It would take us to suburban neighbourhoods of Havana where we would learn about local history and culture, and end with a refreshment stop at a local establishment to drink Cuban coffee.  Our friend Peter decided to take the tour with us, while Suzie chose to meet us in the afternoon for a quick lunch and then a visit to the Museum of Revolution.  Again, both activities started relatively close to our hotel, so we used it as the designated meeting spot and were able to cool off and rest in our room before heading out again.

The car tour would start in front of the Bacardi Building, the gorgeous 12-storey-high Art Deco headquarters of the Bacardi Rum Company.  The building was completed in 1930 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Latin America. At its base, the façade is decorated with red Bavarian granite inlaid with brass embellishments including stylized versions of Havana’s coat of arms on either side of the central entrance way.  The upper portion features sleek, linear columns of ornate rectangular windows leading to a stepped back central tower which is topped by the bronze sculpture of a fruit bat, Bacardi’s trademark symbol and company logo.  Just below this are a pair of friezes made of European pink granite and green marble, depicting nude sirens each holding what looks like the horn of plenty.  We enjoyed looking up at the beautiful building from ground level, but could not see the bat from there.  Imagine our delight when we looked out our hotel window and realized that we had a perfect view of this building from our ninth floor room, and there at the top of the tower was the green Bacardi bat!

Our car tour was scheduled to start at 9:30am but we arrived at the Bacardi Building at 9am in hopes of being able to see the inside.  Luckily the security guards welcomed us in and let us wander around the ground floor lobby and side rooms.  The interior has retained its stunning Art Deco details including walls of pale green and black inlaid marble, sunburst patterns on the marble floors and on the elevator doors, stucco reliefs, brushed and polished brass, Art Deco-styled lamps and sconces, and the ornate ironwork details on the doors and windows.

We were not sure what type of car we were going to get, but we had seen so many nice ones on the roads, so we were hopeful.  To our delight, our car turned out to be a bright red 1953 Chevrolet convertible with its top down on a beautiful sunny day.  This met our expectations in every way.  Our tour guide was Beatrice, a Cuban college student who was the niece of Josue, the owner of vehicle and the driver was also a family friend.  Rich, Peter and I basically had a private tour, as Beatrice pointed out attractions to the left and right as we drove by.  Peter sat in the front seat with the driver, while Rich and I sat in the back with our guide.  We saw some beautiful buildings along the way and I only wished we could have gone a bit slower so that I could take better photos and write down some notes of what it was that I was capturing.  Luckily we actually stopped and walked around at a few of the major attractions.

Because I couldn’t take photos (from our speeding car) and take notes at the same time, I’m not completely sure of our route and had to piece it together based on the sequence of images that I managed to capture.  By my best guess, I think we drove along the Malecon seawall route and then 5th Avenue (Avenida 5ta) where many beautiful homes and foreign embassies can be found, en route to see the quirky mosaic art pieces in Fusterlandia.  On the way back, we stopped for coffee at Café Fortuna before passing by the Colon Cemetery and a stop at Revolution Plaza.

One of the highlights of the tour was when we stopped in the parking lot of a large green space, where tons of other tourist vehicles were also stopped. This seems like a known stopping point for these tour vehicles, which probably all take similar routes.  We took the opportunity to sit behind the wheel to pose for a photo and act like we owned this beauty.  This actually might have been the main point of this tour stop since there was no other attraction to see, but it gave us the opportunity to get a closer look at this car.

Driving west along the Malecon, we could see the waters of the Straits of Florida on the north side and interesting buildings on the south.  Beatrice pointed out an apartment building which she described as the “saddest building on the Malecon”.  The building is a tribute to a 15-year-old girl who drowned and accordingly, each floor is shaped like a coffin.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but we also saw several examples of places that were decked out for the Havana Biennale, a bi-annual city-wide art exposition.  We passed the monument of General Antonio Maceo (nicknamed the Bronze Titan), the second in command of the Cuban Army of Independence.  We also caught a glimpse of the Hotel Nationale, a lovely Spanish-styled hotel built in the 1930s that sits on a hilltop and provides a great view of the harbour and the city.  We would see much of this again in a few days when we walked along the Malecon sea wall.

The Malecon ends at the east end of the river Rio Amendares, and Avenida 5ta (5th Avenue), and starts on the west side in a neighbourhood called Miramar.  While the US Embassy was on the Malecon in the Vedado district, we saw many foreign embassies on 5th Avenue including the Canadian Embassy, which along with the US Embassy were closed after the mysterious illnesses experienced by their staff members.  We also saw the Russian Embassy, which was a gorgeous example of Brutalist architecture and resembled a lighthouse in its shape.   We also saw some beautiful mansions along this long boulevard, including the “Green Gables House” which is now a museum.  The story we were told about this house was that the green roofs were a tribute to and in memory of the owner’s deceased wife’s emerald green eyes.  Whether this is an urban legion or not is questionable, but it made for a good story.

Located in the village of Jaimanitas just west of Havana, Fusterlandia is a large public art installation, named for the creator of wild and wacky mosaic creations that were inspired by and rivals Antonio Gaudi’s Parque Guell in Barcelona.  This is the work of local artist José Fuster, a Cuban artist specializing in ceramics, painting, drawing, engraving, and graphic design, who worked in the “naïve” style, known for its child-like simplicity and frankness.  Fuster started by covering his own house from ground to rooftop with vibrantly coloured intricate patterns of tile work and sculptures, then expanded into the surrounding area, creating spiraling walkways, pools,  fountains, balconies, gazebos, benches, walls and sculptures all covered in mosaics.

Surprisingly, there was no admission fee for entering Fusterlandia, although donations were welcome and go towards the upkeep and future expansions of the area.  Small pieces of art work were available for sale in the gift shop.  In addition to Gaudi, Fuster’s works pay homage to other artists including Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), a Chinese-Cuban artist well known in Havana who dabbled in various styles and media including painting, sculpture and ceramics.  It is a wonderland to walk through Fusterlandia and see the kaleidoscope of colours all around.  If you climb the three flights of mosaic-covered steps to reach the top level, you get a bird’s eye view of the installation and surrounding neighbourhood.
While the works inside Fusterlandia are for the most part whimsical and cartoon-like, several pieces on the outside have a political slant.  There is a large mosaic of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (who supplied Cuba with cheap oil) with the caption “El Megor Amigo” (The Best Friend).  Across the street is a mosaic mural of the Granma yacht that transported 82 people including Castro from Mexico to Cuba to fight in the Cuban Revolution.  We would see the actual vessel at the Museum of Revolution later in the day.  Fusterlandia is a living project that has been ongoing for over 20 years and goes beyond Fuster’s own property, spanning several blocks as over 80 neighbours asked or allowed him to “Fusterize” their houses and buildings.  He has even added his designs to bus shelters and street signs.

Leaving Fusterlandia, we weaved our way east back towards the heart of the Havana, passing by hospitals, schools and more nice houses along the way.  Our next stop was at Café Fortuna where we were served what Beatrice called “real Cuban coffee”.  Rich had a coffee with rum, Peter had an espresso and I had a café mocca.   We sat in a private section that once again featured art depicting John Lennon, which we had been seeing all over Havana.  Beatrice told us a bit about her herself and presented us with souvenir bracelets as mementos of our car tour.  We asked her what brand of coffee beans we should buy if we wanted to take some Cuban coffee home and she recommended Serrano, which we were able to find at the airport and used up our last Cuban currency to buy.

On our way again, we drove by the Colon Cemetery which was founded in 1876 and named after Christopher Columbus.  It has over 500 major mausoleums, many elaborately sculpted memorials and famous interments including General Máximo Gómez, whose monument we saw the previous day. Unfortunately we did not stop to go into the cemetery since there was a fee and it would have taken too much time.  Our final stop was the huge Plaza de Revolucion (Revolution Square) which measures 72,000 square metres and was built in 1959, the year Fidel came into power.  It is known for being the location where Fidel Castro addressed the Cuban population during important occasions, making speeches that could last over 9 hours long.  Other political rallies took place here and Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis held papal masses here.  At the centre of the square is yet another José Martí Memorial, featuring a 109 metre tower with an 18 metre marble statue of inspirational poet and revolutionary hero Marti at its base.  The tower is the highest point of Havana and you can travel to the top by climbing the 579 steps or taking an elevator up 109 metres in order to get a panoramic view of the city.  Across the street, the facades of the offices of the Ministries of Interior and Communications boast large steel memorials outlining the faces of Cuba’s two major heroes of the revolution—Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos.  Guevera’s memorial is accompanied by the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Ever Onward to Victory), while Camilo’s is inscribed with “Va bien, Fidel” (It’s going well, Fidel).  We saw similar but smaller steel memorials of these two figures the in the Plaza 13 Di Marzo.  

From the Plaza de Revolucion, we were driven back to our starting point at the Bacardi Building.  This car tour was an excellent way to see and learn about sights in Havana that we could not get to easily on our own and that were too far to walk to.  Riding around in the classic car with the breeze blowing and the sun shining was quite the treat as well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Havana, Cuba 2019 - Day 1 - Paseo de Marti North, Ivan Chef Justo

Havana, the capital and largest city in Cuba, is a fascinating place that is full of history, culture, arts, music, and most of all, vibrant colours.  After landing at the Varadero airport around 12:30pm, going through customs, getting our money exchanged from Canadian dollars to the Cuban CUC, and sitting through a 2 hour taxi ride, we arrived in Havana just after 3pm.  Since our hotel room in the Iberostar Parque Central would not be ready for another hour, we dropped off our bags and set out to explore the nearby attractions.  We decided to do a quick stroll north along the pedestrian promenade Paseo de Marti, heading towards the coast to get a glimpse of the seawall called the Malecon before looping back past several historic squares.  On the way back, we wanted to pass by a restaurant that we had tried several times to make a dinner reservation for while still in Toronto, but received no reply.

As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, we were inundated with the sight of all the brightly coloured old American cars roaming the streets and stationed in the parking areas.  These were shiny, well-maintained vintage vehicles from the 1940s and 50s that are used in the tourist trade, for hire either as taxis or as tour vehicles that could take you on guided tours to the far reaches of Havana’s borders.  We learned to our surprise that many of these vehicles were owned and operated by government workers and other professionals, who do not earn enough in their day jobs and require the tourist trade to supplement their incomes.  There were classic Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths and other brands, many of them convertibles with their tops down to take advantage of the warm weather.  Having read about this phenomenon during our the planning of our trip, we had pre-booked a tour of Western Havana in one of these cars for the next day.  It was exciting to see all these beautiful vehicles and we hoped ours would be as nice.

Rich took advantage of a special feature on his camera that isolates a single colour in a photo while rendering the rest in black and white.  The colour needs to be fairly bright in order to show up.  A bright red works best but bright blues, greens and yellows also work.  The trick is that you need to pre-select the colour setting before taking the photo and switching between the colours is not that easy.  So we set up a system where I would stand several metres in front of him and as I spotted the oncoming vehicle, I would yell out the colour and he would try to make the switch in time to capture the image.  It was not always successful as he fought to get the proper colour, lighting, composition and focus, all before the car sped away.  Eventually we realized how much easier it would be to just find a nice parked car sitting still in front of an interesting background.  But it was fun trying to snap the cars in motion and he did manage to get a couple of cool shots including a few where he panned the camera to follow the path of the vehicle.

Paseo de Marti, formerly known as Paseo del Prado, is a beautifully landscaped pedestrian promenade that runs north-south in between the central two-lane boulevard which divides Old Havana to the east and Central Havana to the west.  The wide, tree-lined promenade is covered with decorative marble-tiled sidewalks and flanked by stone walls, Victorian-esque lamp posts and marble benches.  Bronze lions mark the entrances to the walkway which starts at Parque de la Fuente de la India to the south and ends just before the Malecon sea-wall to the north.  Artists and souvenir vendors hawk their wares on either side of the promenade throughout the week, and especially on the weekends.

Many of the buildings on both sides of the north and south-bound Paseo de Marti are colourfully painted and/or ornately decorated, but also often run down from disrepair, as is the case throughout Havana.  You can still see the former splendor that once graced this magnificent boulevard.  It was originally designed in 1772 by Don Felipe Fonsdeviela y Ondeano, and modeled after Paris’ Champs Elysées and Barcelona’s La Rambla.  We spent some time on this promenade playing "capture a photo of the cool car".

As we reached the northern end of Paseo de Marti, we could spot the start of the Malecon, an 8km esplanade, roadway and seawall stretching from Old Havana through Central Havana to the neighbourhood of Vedado.  We would actually walk much of the Malecon on a future day, but for now, it was great to get a glimpse of it as we looked upon the long expanse of stone wall hugging the coastline.  We were also by the fortress Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, one of several forts and lookout points built in the 16th century to protect the entrance to the Havana Bay, which was a strategic entranceway into the harbour and the town.  We didn’t have time to go inside, but viewing it from the outside, we could see multiple cannons sitting on the castle walls.

Carrying on east away from the Malecon, we headed towards Parque Martires del 71 (Martyr’s Park), a spherical strip of green space surrounding the massive monument dedicated to General Máximo Gómez, a major figure in Cuba’s 10 Years’ War (1868-78) and War of Independence (1895-98).  Completed in 1935 by Aldo Gama, the monument is topped by a bronze sculpture of the general on his horse, supported from below by white marble bas-relief carvings depicting scenes of struggle and sacrifice for a free homeland.  Several other bronze sculptures include a seated classical figure and a set of spirited Horses of the Sun, representing Cuba’s march towards freedom and prosperity.  A mausoleum and tomb under the monument contains the remains of the warrior.

Continuing south, we reached Plaza 13 Di Marzo (Park March 13), which marks the date in 1957 when the revolutionaries took over the Presidential Palace.  In the middle of the park stands a Cuban flag, and a sculpture of poet and inspirational national hero José Martí, once again depicted on horseback just like General Gomez.  This was the first of many sculptures of Marti that we would see throughout Havana. This aptly named park leads directly to the Museum of the Revolution. Years later, Fidel Castro would make long speeches in this park. Ironically, another infamous event happened on a tugboat also named “13 de Marzo”.  On July 13, 1994, forty-one Cubans attempted to leave Cuba on the hijacked tugboat and most drowned when it was allegedly sunk by the Cuban coast guards who then refused to rescue the passengers.  Beside Plaza 13 Di Marzo, the top of a government building is adorned with wire outlines of the profiles of 3 prominent figures.  Not up on our Cuban history, we were only able to recognize Che Guevera, the prominent Argentinian revolutionary who fought for Cuban independence, and who’s bereted image has become as universally known as Elvis or Marilyn.  It was a bit more difficult to learn who the other two were, but with some persistence, I got the answers.  The figure in the centre with the “cowboy hat” was Carmilo Cienfuegos, another revolutionary hero who was one of Castro’s guerilla commanders.  The last figure on the far left was Julio Mella, co-founder of the Communist party.  It is interesting that each of theses heroes died an unnatural death that may or may not have been politically motivated.

When researching where to dine in Havana, we were introduced to the concept of paladars.  Named after the Spanish term for “palate”, these are privately owned, family-run businesses which serve more authentic Cuban cuisine, in contrast to the touristy state-run restaurants that try to cater to foreigners.  Reading reviews online, we came across multiple sites that recommended the paladar Ivan Chef Justo as one of the best in Havana but were warned that reservations were required as it was difficult to get a table last minute.  I went on the restaurant’s website and used their online form to make a reservation but got no response.  Next I tried emailing directly to the contact email, but again no response.  So we had decided that we would just stop by on our first night to see if there were any openings at all for any of the evenings that we would be in town.  When we arrived at the restaurant, we told the attendant sitting on a stool on the street in front of the door that we wanted to make a reservation.  Before allowing us to go up the stairs, he hit a gong mounted on the wall to announce our entry.  As we climbed the stairs, we took notice of the eclectic posters and art hung on the walls.  At the top, we spoke to the hostess and asked if there was a slot for dinner that night for ourselves and two of our friends who happened to be in Havana at the same time.  To our delight, she said that there was room and went to write our names in the book.  But guess what?  My original reservation was already entered there.  They just didn’t bother to inform me!  Had we not dropped by, we would have missed out on the reservation that we didn’t know we already had.  That would have been a shame, since we found out later that Chef Ivan Justo (not sure why his restaurant is called Ivan Chef Justo??) was one of Fidel Castro’s former private chefs.  If its good enough for Fidel, its good enough for us!

Completing our quick initial tour of the northern part of Old Havana (we saw a lot in an hour, didn’t we?), we returned to our hotel, checked into our room and freshened up.  Already we were appreciative of how centrally located our accommodations were.  We returned to the hotel lobby to meet up with our friends Peter and Suzie who had arrived in Havana a few days before us.  Together we would take another jaunt through the heart of Old Havana before heading for our dinner reservations at Ivan Chef Justo.  We would check out the shops and restaurants on O’Reilly and Obispo streets and then visit some of Havana’s major squares, which we would learn more about on a historic walking tour scheduled for our third day.  This blog is getting long so I will describe the squares when I write about the walking tour.

Our first stop was at Ojo del Ciclon (Eye of the Cyclone), a gallery of weird, funky, avant-garde art created by Cuban visual artist Leo D'Lázaro, who incorporates pieces of repurposed junk and found materials into his works.  As you enter the space, you are met by a giant sculpture featuring a ceramic head of John Lennon and a skeletal body made of miscellaneous metal components.  Lennon seems to be a revered figure in Cuba these days, due to a change of heart by Castro who initially equated him and the Beatles with Western decadence.  In December 2000, on the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s death, Castro unveiled a bronze sculpture of the singer in the John Lennon Park named in his honour, as Lennon has been reimaged as a political dissident hounded by the U.S. Government.  It’s too bad that we did not have time to go visit this park in person, as it was too far away.  Other art installations include giant eyes and hand sculptures made from various materials, painted suitcases, crushed cars and psychedelic paintings.  The eclectic works were strewn all over multiple rooms including tiny little nooks and one space that looked like a grotto.

One of the most fascinating pieces was a fooze-ball machine made from rusted old spare metal parts with wires wound everywhere, mangled metal men that looked like aliens and mismatching handles to spin the rods that move the men.  There were several works that the artist created by carving into large blocks of concrete, forming abstract humanoid shapes.  It was interesting to see that the restaurant across from the gallery had commissioned such a piece for its front pillar.   If you like oddities and curiosities, this gallery is worth checking out.

Our second walk through the centre of Old Havana was all about capturing the vibe of the city.  Once again, we marveled at the colourfully painted buildings with ornate cornice moldings around the windows and roof tops, the intricate metalwork in their balconies, and the occasional stained glass window.  The designs of various buildings in Havana were influenced by Moorish-inspired Spanish Colonial, French neo-classical and Italian Baroque architectural styles (seen in the Grand Theatre which we would visit on a future day).

Other than being harassed by taxi drivers, cigar sellers and the odd beggar, we felt quite safe walking along the streets, even at night.  The streets were intermixed with both tourists and locals, as we learned that unlike other cities such as Venice, many residents of Havana still live in the Old Town.  Only the wealthy could afford to move out to the more affluent suburbs.  Some of the smaller streets were in rough shape with huge pot holes, but I guess that’s not much different than some Toronto roads after a cold, icy winter.  As dusk approached and the weather finally cooled to a comfortable temperature, it made for perfect conditions for strolling.  We had some nice views of the sunset with the art deco styled Bacardi Building and the Capitol Building in the distance.

There did not seem to be much in terms of “grocery stores” in Havana.  We saw some fruit and vegetable stands on the street, selling bananas, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and possibly papayas or mangos.  The onion vendor that we spotted had a traveling cart that he pushed along the streets.  The closest thing that resembled a grocery store was a rundown old warehouse space that didn’t seem to have much to sell from what I could see.  We were told on our various tours that the Cuban population receives ration cards or supplies booklets that allows them to buy a limited amount of rice, sugar, oil and matches, although in general, the rations allocated are not sufficient to feed a family.  Fresh potable water seems to be an issue in Havana (we were warned not to consume the tap water).  On several occasions, we noticed locals filling up large jugs of water from stationary water tankards.  One day when we tried to order cold, frosty drinks at a coffee joint/bar, we were told that they could only serve hot drinks since they did not receive their supply of water.  As we walked around, we saw dogs wandering around or lying asleep in the sun.  To our surprise, we were told by our tour guide that most of these were not strays, but actually had homes which they would return to at night to be fed.

Wandering along Calle O’Reilly and Calle Obispo, we encountered various shops and art galleries.  There was a flea market where different vendors sold knick knacks and souvenirs.  We were a bit taken aback by the caricaturish “Aunt Jemima-esque” black-faced dolls that would probably be considered racist had they been offered for sale by a white vendor.  There were also some “homages” to Andy Warhol soup cans and a naked Trump doll (not meant to be flattering).  In several of the art galleries, we watched as the artists worked on their paintings.  One particularly interesting gallery contained elaborately detailed sculptures of animals and plants (a frog, turtle, snail, mushroom, flowers), all made from stacking together and shaping pieces of card board boxes.  Of course, there were revolutionary posters everywhere.  There were the odd graffiti pieces on the walls, including one that was a stenciled advertisement for the Havana Biennial.  This is a bi-annual art festival that exhibits and promotes contemporary works by artists from developing countries, giving priority to Latin American and Caribbean artists.  We would have a chance to visit some of these Biennial shows towards the end of our trip.

Everywhere we went, the sound of music emanated from the streets, restaurants and bars, played by bands that featured guitars, drums, keyboards and maracas.  Some groups traveled from one establishment after another, performed few songs and then busked for donations.  We saw a surprising number of all or mostly female groups.  The entire time that I was there, I wanted to bust into song, singing Camila Cabello’s “Havana ooh-na-na”.

As the time of our dinner reservation approached, we wandered back towards Ivan Chef Justo and once again, the gong was rung to announce our arrival.   The walls of rest of the restaurant was as fully covered with eclectic prints, posters, paintings and photographs as was the stairwell leading up to the place.  The main dining area was full so we were given the choice of either climbing a steep spiral staircase to a dining area that seemed rather cramped up on the top level or a cosy, private table in an alcove on the middle level next to the kitchen.  It was a no-brainer for us to choose the single table and we had the extra pleasure of watching some of the food being prepared and plated.

We started our meal with the most delicious mango daiquiris, which we enjoyed while perusing two large whiteboards listing starters/appetizers and main courses.  Rich and I were starving because we had not eaten a full meal since our breakfast at the Toronto airport.  Accordingly we ordered appetizers to share.  We selected the fish ceviche and fish croquettes, and they both looked and tasted great.  For our mains, Rich ordered the much recommended suckling pig which had nicely crispy skin and moist meat underneath, while I chose the octopus.  I intended for us to share but didn’t realize that Rich was not that fond of octopus (although he loves calamari!), so I didn’t get as much suckling pig as I had hoped for.  Peter ordered the seafood casserole which came in a large pot and contained fish, mussels, clams and vegetables, while Suzie chose the grilled fish over chickpeas.  We all thoroughly enjoyed our meals as well as the cool ambience and intimate setting.

For dessert, Rich ordered a four layer “milk cake” which didn’t really interest me (where was the chocolate option?).  It was the least memorable part of the meal and I became convinced that Havana was not the place to find desserts that met my taste anyways.  The bill came in a fancy little box that seems to be the standard for the higher end restaurants in Havana since we saw similar boxes at other places.  The cost came to 75CUC (equivalent to 75 US dollars) per couple, which is on the higher end of what you can spend dining in Havana, but not very expensive at all when compared to meals in other cities in Europe and North America.   When I visited the washrooms at the end of the meal, it was interesting to note that once again, John Lennon was featured on the door, this time in his infamous pose in a naked embrace with Yoko Ono.  It was also interesting to note that the sign actually said “Washroom”, since we were used to terms like “Rest Room”, “Toilet”, “Lavatory” or “Water Closet/WC” when we travel.  This made us Canadians feel right at home!  Rich and I enjoyed our experience here so much that on our last day (Sunday), we tried to walk up and make another reservation for that evening.  No such luck, as there were no available tables left.  We were very lucky to get our initial reservation after all!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Havana, Cuba 2019 - Planning, Travel

My husband Rich and I have wanted to visit Havana, Cuba for some time now. This would be another new country for both of us, and the first time in the Caribbean for Rich.  Neither of us like sun vacations, so we have no interest in any of the resorts or beaches in Cuba.  But the history and culture of Havana sounded really interesting, so that is where we planned to spend the 5 days of our vacation.  During the Obama administration that saw a thawing of relations between United States and Cuba, we felt an urgency to go before the place became inundated with Americans with a
Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner.  That risk seems to have diminished with the new U.S. regime, but we still decided that it was time to make the trip.  Our timing was vindicated when we learned that Havana was in the process of upgrading their docks in order to accommodate a total of six major cruise ships at one time, when currently they can only handle two.  Once this happens, the city will be swarmed with tourists from around the world.

Planning our travel to Cuba and specifically to Havana did not turn out to be as simple as our previous visits within Europe or North America, where we could just go online to book flights and accommodations.  Since most people who go to Cuba are headed for resort destinations such as Varadero, there are hardly any direct flights available from Toronto to Havana.  The only one we found was an Air Canada flight that left Pearson airport at 8:21pm and arrived at the José Martí International around midnight!  From there, it was a 40 minute taxi ride into Old Havana.  We did not want to be trying to navigate this trek in the wee hours, so we put ourselves in the capable hands of a Flight Centre travel agent and let her advise us as to our best options.  What the travel agent came up with was a package deal that included flight, transport and hotel.  The good news was that the Air Transat flight departed at a much more reasonable time of 9:10am arriving at 12:45pm.  The bad news was that the flight landed in Varadero at the Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport and we would have to take a 2 hour taxi ride from there to Havana.  I initially resisted this idea, but in the end, the difference in the timing of the flights won me over. Also, at least the transport to the hotel would be pre-arranged, was included in the price of the package, and the ride to and from the airport gave us a chance to see the Cuban countryside.

Wanting to avoid the need to take taxis to get around the city (especially since the price can be a moveable feast unless you pre-negotiate prior to the trip), we searched for accommodations in the heart of Old Havana within walking distance of all the sights that we would visit.  Since we heard that the standard of accommodations are not on par with what we are used to, we decided to stay in one of the highest rated hotels that we could find, understanding that a “5-star” hotel in Cuba would probably be equivalent to a 2-3 star one back home.  We chose the “five star luxury hotel” Iberostar Parque Central, run by the same chain of hotels that we recently stayed at last year in New York City.  It was situated in the perfect location within walking distance of all the sights we wanted to see.  Having a hotel at such a central location meant we could stop by in the middle of the day for a rest or a bathroom break before heading out again!  We were also lured by the promise of a roof-top pool and bar with a spectacular view of the city and the inclusion of a comprehensive breakfast each day.  Yet we took it all with a grain of salt, keeping in mind that the standards might not be the same.

In addition to the conundrum of the flight, we had to deal with other nuisances that are not typically issues that we that we face in our travels.  We required multiple Twinrex shots for protection against hepatitis and were told that we needed proof of our travel medical insurance coverage, which we get with our credit card.  We jumped through a few hoops to get this from our credit card’s insurer, but as it turns out, no one asked us for it.  We could not buy local currency (CUC) until we reached Cuba and had to ensure that we exchanged any remaining CUCs back to Canadian dollars before leaving Cuba, since it is illegal to take the currency out of the country.  We knew that we should not drink the water in Cuba and had to rely on bottled water.  This was sold at a premium at our hotel, but we found a cheaper government-run source and stocked up.  We were warned that there would be no local cell service and very slow or spotty WIFI service available, so we planned to go without for the duration of our trip.  This would be quite the “first-world-problem” sacrifice since we have come to rely so much on our internet connectivity at home.  There were also warnings online about the lack of toilet paper in restaurants and other sites, so worry-wart Rich ended up packing TEN packages of travel-size Kleenex.  Needless to say, he left nine behind at the hotel.  He even wanted to bring soap and shampoo but I was sure that a “5-star” hotel (even by Cuban standards) would provide this for us.  Luckily I was right or I would not have heard the end of it!

During our early web check-in the day before our flight, we were happy that we were able to snag the second row of the plane, allowing us to be among the first passengers to get off.  Things got a bit tense when it was announced at the departure gates that there would not be enough overhead bin room for everyone and there were multiple pleas for people to gate-check their carry-on bags.  This would defeat the purpose of our trying to get off the plane quickly, so we resolutely lugged our bags onto the plane and hoped for the best.  As feared, there was no room in any of the overhead bins near our seats.  Undeterred, we decided to stuff our bags in the leg room space under the seats in front of us.  They barely fit and it made for a bit of an uncomfortable flight, but at least it was only 3.5 hours and we were the first ones to zip through customs and process our money exchange.  As we landed, we saw the word “Fidel” marked in the grasslands beside the runway, making it very clear whose country we had just entered.  Going through customs was interesting and a bit stressful.  On the plane, we were given Cuban travel cards that we were told to fill in carefully and keep safely throughout our stay, since we would need to produce them again when we went home.  If we made a mistake filling out the form, we would have to pay to get a replacement card to start again, since corrections were not accepted.  When we got to the customs booth, we were told that we had to go one at a time (whereas most other locations allow a family to show their passports together).  When it was my turn, a photo was taken of me, my travel card and passport were stamped and then I was told to go through a closed door that made me feel like Alice going through the Looking Glass but actually just led to the exit.  It seemed weird that each customs booth had its own door that led to the same place on the other side.

On the 2-hour drive from Varadero airport to Havana, we rode in an air-conditioned 7-seater van taxi with a couple from Burlington, Ontario who were staying at the same hotel.  The ride was bumpy and luckily after some digging, we found some seat belts, albeit only lap belts instead over-the-shoulder ones.  We were not so fortunate on the way back to the airport, as we rode in a rickety old limousine with no seat belts, no air-conditioning and manual windows that barely opened.   As we drove along the coast towards Havana, we saw views of the Straits of Florida, as well as various resorts and little towns and municipalities.  We also spotted multiple signs with Fidel’s name and face on them.  On the way back, passed through several police checkpoints and were stopped at one of them while the driver’s papers were inspected.

The Iberostar Parque Central Hotel is actually two separate buildings found on either side of Calle Virtudes, connected by an underground passageway that links the two buildings.  Alternately, you could walk outside for half a block to avoid going up and down a flight of stairs at each building, but then you would face the blazing heat.  The main hotel is a Spanish Colonial building with featuring a gorgeous Tiffany-styled lamp held up like a torch by a female bronze right by the entrance, a beautiful lobby with a massive glass-domed ceiling and a swooping staircase leading to a bar and art gallery on the second floor.  The windy underground passage that leads to the modern side is decorated with photographic views of Havana that inspired us for our own photo-taking endeavours.  We chose a room on the Modern side since it was a bit less expensive, but still gave us access to all the features on the Colonial side.  This included the musical entertainment in its lobby bars, the large breakfast space that offered more choices than on the modern side and roof-top pool and bar area. 

Our room was spacious and well stocked with all the typical amenities similar to what we would find in high-end North American hotels.  This included ample power outlets located in convenient places, a mini-bar fridge, a digital safe, large bath towels, standard toiletries, and even bathrobes. From our 9th floor unit, we had a stunning view of Old Havana including the Art Deco headquarters for the Barcardi Rum Company.  Our bathroom had BOTH a sizable rain-head shower AND a separate large, deep bathtub, where most other hotels that we’ve been in only offered one or the other.  Due to the heat in Havana, I did not think I would have any interest in my usual indulgence of taking a “hot bath in a big tub”.  But after multiple days of intense walking, I did take some relaxing hot baths, turning it into my own personal hot tub to soothe my tired muscles.  Our maid even treated our room like a cruise ship and would turn our blankets and bed sheets into different creative shapes each day, including two love-birds, a swan and a heart.  We were given a free bottle of water by the hotel every second day, but this wasn’t enough to drink and brush our teeth with, so we supplemented by buying a case of water from the government store.  All in all, we were extremely happy and relieved with our accommodations, especially since we weren’t sure what to expect before we arrived.

The only thing missing was reliable internet access, but this was true throughout the country.  The hotel actually provided several free WIFI cards good, each good for 5 hours of connectivity.  But the WIFI was only accessible from the lobby of each building, required carefully entering a 12-digit userid and a 12-digit password, and the connection would drop every few minutes so that you would have to type in the onerous credentials all over again.  Despite our best intentions to try to go 5 days without Internet access, when we learned that we could use the Bell roaming service which would cost us $12 Canadian per day and would use the data from our cell phone data plan from back home, we jumped at the chance.  Not only did this give us more reliable (abet still slow) internet service, but we could access it on the streets and therefore use Google Maps to help us get around.   We decided to use this option on Rich’s cell phone, while I struggled on and off with the WIFI cards.  At least while sitting in the beautiful Colonial lobby trying to connect to the WIFI, I had the chance to listen to various musical acts play including a pianist and a jazz singer

The breakfast at the Iberostar Parque Central was every bit as fabulous as it was touted to be.  There was so much choice that we literally ate something different each day.  There was a wide assortment of cold cuts, cheeses, various types of plain and flavoured butter, freshly baked bread, assorted fruit including pineapple, orange, papaya and guava, multiple types of fruit juices, various flavours of yogurt and granola, a full salad bar and eggs or omelets made to order.   In the hot food section, there was bacon, scrambled eggs, and each day, a rotating selection of sausages, grilled vegetables and a variety of starches including roasted potato, hash browns, spring rolls and wontons.  In the seafood section, there was smoked salmon every second day, and once there were fish croquettes and a seafood salad with shrimp and mussels.  There was a variety of pastries and churros, and on the first day after our arrival, there was an actual chocolate fountain.  Coffee was served and refilled regularly, but what seemed to be at a premium was water, which we often had to ask for explicitly.  On our second last day of breakfast, we discovered that there were mimosas being served as we entered the breakfast area.  Had I known, I would have had one every day!  We often ate so much for breakfast that we did not need a lunch and saved ourselves for dinner.

After our first breakfast in Havana, we rode the elevators up to the top levels of both the Colonial and the Modern buildings to check out their respective pool/bar areas and the views of the city.  Both locations provided stunning panoramic sightlines of the neighbouring points of interest, including the Capital Building, the Grand Theatre, the lovely Hotel Inglaterra, the Bacardi Building, and the Central Park.  We also had a bird’s eye view of the vibrantly painted old cars and convertibles parked in the lot across from the hotel.  This would become quite the past-time for Rich as he tried to capture images of the cars driving past various settings.
While the pool areas on both the Colonial and the Modern sides were beautiful, we preferred the one on the Modern side where we were staying, since it was less of a trek from our room, and also seemed to have more areas providing shade to cover the lounge chairs.  The days were so hot during our trip that after the first few full days spent touring the city, on the last couple of days we only went out in the early morning and later in the evening.  We spent the hottest hours in the heart of the afternoon relaxing by the pool while sipping pineapple mojitos and jumping in for a quick dip whenever we needed to cool off.  This was the closest that we came to partaking in “beach resort-like” activities while enjoying our time in Cuba.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Manhattan 2018 - Day 3

On our 3rd and final day spent in Manhattan, we only had until about 1pm to do some final sight-seeing before we needed to hop on the Penn Station subway, followed by the New Jersey Transit back to the New Jersey airport for a 4:10pm flight home.  Despite our compressed time, we still had a full schedule planned.  We would check out early from our hotel, pass by Bryant Park en route to City Bakery for a proper breakfast before heading to the Chelsea art scene where there are a slew of small art galleries lining the area spanned by 21st to 27th Street and 10th to 11th Avenue.

Bryant Park is a 9.6 acre public park located in the heart of Manhattan’s midtown, running from 40th to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  Between October to January of each year, a winter village is set up with a large skating rink and over 150 stalls selling seasonal food, drink and gift items.  Although none of the booths were open so early in the morning, we still had fun peering through the windows to look at the quirky items including a popup card shop, pottery stores, knitted crafts, paintings and even a shop that sold giant Darth Vader sculptures made from spare parts.

City Bakery is a popular bakery and coffee bar that offers cafeteria-style items for breakfast and lunch, using local and organic ingredients.  There are frequently long lineups of people waiting to be served at the wrap-around counters that offer pastries, muffins and other baked goods in the morning.  Luckily, there is plenty of seating in the large space including a second floor.  City Bakery is known for its rich flavourful hot chocolate that comes with a big fluffy square of marshmallow, so we knew that we had to try this.  While we were impressed with the look of the giant marshmallow and approved of the taste of the drink, unfortunately it was not very hot.  What we enjoyed more were the fluffy scrambled eggs with spinach and herbs, and the baker’s muffin, which contained apples, raisins and walnuts.  After sharing these items and thinking that we were still hungry, we watched a server come out of the kitchen holding a tray of good-looking stuffed croissants. Rushing to rejoin the line, we were able to snag what turned out to be a freshly baked “pretzel croissant” filled with duck egg, bacon and pear jam, as well as a raspberry scone and a cup of hot coffee.  The pretzel croissant is flaky and buttery like a typical croissant, but is topped with a crunchy topping of salt and toasted sesame seed to give it a pretzel feel.  All in all, we loved everything we ate here and after the second round of food, we were finally sated and ready to be on our way.

The streets in Chelsea where the art galleries have congregated feel grittier and more industrial compared to the more commercial art district in Soho.  Running along the Highline Trail and flanked by tall office and apartment buildings, there is a distinct lack of restaurants, cafes and shops in this area.  It is likely that the rent is much cheaper here  as well, and this is reflected in the art on display, which also feels edgier and less mainstream.  I wasn’t sure whether the metal humanoid form in front of one of the galleries was a sculpture or a bike rack.  We spent the morning walking between 10th and 11th Avenue while making our way northward from 21st to 27th Street.  We would peek in the window of galleries to see if we were interested and went into the ones that appealed to us for a closer look.  In some cases, the galleries were located on different floors of an office building, which took more effort for us to access and required repeated waits and rides on the elevator.  We went to a few of these in the beginning and then couldn’t be bothered after that, since there were so many other galleries to see that had a street presence.

We saw works by graffiti artist Keith Haring at both the Gladstone Gallery and Pace Prints.  But these were not the earlier Keith Haring pop-art that we were used to seeing, which were bright, cheerful images dominated by his iconic “Radiant Baby” and colourful humanoid forms engaged in joyful, exuberant actions such as dancing and hugging.  The works on display at the two galleries were from the last few years of Haring’s life before he died from AIDS-related complications at age 31.  The drawings shown at Gladstone Gallery are much darker and closer to something that Jean-Michel Basquiat would produce.  These large-scaled drawings, augmented by collage and violent streaks of paint, reference popular culture, historic references, sexual imagery and religious iconography.  Pasted on his works are clippings from newspapers and magazines, reproductions of famous artworks and homoerotic advertisements.  The exhibition at Pace Prints, titled Apocalypse, is a collaboration between Haring and beat poet and novelist William S. Burroughs. Ten pages of Burrough’s free-form text are paired with ten images by Haring, which comment on life and death, heaven and hell, political activism, mass consumerism, religion, sexuality and conformity.

Another particularly edgy and downright confrontational exhibition called “Vote Feminist” was found at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, which was showing works by artist Michele Pred.  Through various sculptural installations, Pred advocates for equal rights for women and her exhibition is a call to arms to resist against the “fear-based, misogynistic policies of the current American government” by voting Democrat in the November midterm elections.  A display of vintage designer purses are implanted with glowing slogans including “Vote Now”, “Power to the Polls”, “Resist”, “Equal Pay”, ‘Times Up”, “Pro Choice”, “Nasty Woman”, “My Body, My Business” and “Pussy Grabs Back”.  The work called “Wage Gap” uses portions of an American dollar and a Swedish krona to show the wage gap between what women earn compared to men in each of those countries (42% on the dollar vs 88% on the krona).  Re-imagining an automatic voting machine like the one used in the 1944 election between Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) and Thomas Dewey (Republican), Pred created a pink version that called for a vote for Ruth Baeder Ginsberg (representing Feminism) over Donald Trump (Patriarchy).  There was a full-bodied suit made of satin and Velcro called “Pussy Riot Gear” which Pred planned to wear at demonstration marches, and a neon-light display over a embroidered floral pattern with the in-your-face slogan “Feminist as F**k”.

We were very taken with the silhouette paintings in watercolour and acrylic created by artist Idelle Weber in the 1950s and 60s.  On display at the gallery Hollis Taggart, Weber’s silhouettes depict anonymous, yet universally recognizable archetypes such as couples, girlfriends, brides and grooms, athletes, and most notably, business men in office settings. It is likely that the opening sequence from the TV show “Mad Men” was influenced by Weber’s works.  Rich especially liked the watercolour titled “Babes” of three bikini-clad women looking down upon their reflections, which was going for just over $6000 US.  I liked the silk-screened images covering all sides of a lucite (solid transparent plastic) cube that we could have owned for a mere $20,000 U.S.  I guess I have expensive tastes.  Needless to say, we did not come home with either of these pieces.

Yossi Milo Gallery was presenting the works of Kyle Meyer called “Interwoven”, which consisted of giant photographic prints with pieces of fabric woven into them.  Meyer, who originates from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland in Southern Africa), creates a hybrid between a digital photograph and a lush, vibrant, tactile weaving using traditional Swazi techniques.  He photographs members of the LGBT community who are marginalized in Eswatini, giving them a voice while allowing them to “hide” behind the head wrap which he asks them to wear for the picture.  Meyer then weaves vertical and horizontal strips throughout the image, which helps to obscure the identities of his subjects while still allowing them to express themselves.  I found these to be extremely powerful and thought-provoking pieces.

At Bernaducci Gallery, John Baeder’s quaint oil on canvas paintings of roadside diners, eateries and food trucks capture the essence of small town America.  Practising photorealism, the art of reproducing an image on a photo in as realistic a fashion as possible, Baeder’s initial paintings were inspired by linen-finished colour postcards.  Baeder’s exhibition is called “The Road Well Taken”, referring to his travels through the United States in search for more subject matters.  Also on display were paintings he did of matchbook covers which he collected during his travels.  Baeder’s paintings feel nostalgic due to the old-fashioned diners that he depicts, but also has a surreal feel due to the flatness and dulled colours of the paints that he uses. 

On display at Winston Wachter Fine Arts, Zaria Forman’s large-scale pastel drawings of aerial views of landscapes in the Arctic and Antarctic are so detailed and realistic that they look like photographs.  Forman traveled with NASA’s science missions to track shifting ice flows, with the objective of illustrating the rate that our polar regions are melting, cracking and shifting.  A video projected on the floor further highlights the issue.  Rendering images of icebergs, glaciers, ice streams and snow fields in shades of white and blue, the beautifully majestic drawings almost seem abstract.

We were lucky to come across an exhibit by graffiti and street artist Mr. Brainwash (a.k.a. Thierry Guetta), famous for being featured with Banksy in the 2010 documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop”. Held in the historic Starrett-Lehigh Building and in collaboration with the campaigning organization “It’s A Thing”, the exhibition was part of a larger campaign intended to raise funds to benefit cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre.  On full display was Mr. Brainwash’s trademark style of recreating and then subverting, combining and repurposing works from other famous artists and street artists, resulting in a “new work of his own”.  There were reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous self portraits substituted with Basquiet-like faces.  Robert Indiana’s iconic positioning of letters to form words like HOPE and LOVE were decorated with images of flowers.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is cradling a Jeff Koon’s balloon dog in her hands.  What looks like a 16th Century portrait of a woman is given a face reminiscent of Picasso’s Cubism works.  A pastoral scene is overlaid with the image of a Star Wars storm-trooper holding a paint brush and a can of paint.  The words “Star Wars” have been painted over to now say “Stop Wars” and the paint drips off the canvas onto the picture frame.  This piece is so like a work by Banksy that it could easily have been mistaken for one.  I particularly liked the set of paintings that together form “The Surrealist”.  The top painting of a coastline is covered with an image of Salvador Dali with his trademark mustache.  Hanging from the mustache are two ropes that span this painting and its frame, continuing onto the second frame and painting where the ropes form part of a swing that a little girl is sitting on as she looks out into the meadows.  This is Mr. Brainwash’s version of a diptych!

There were several large collages with paper clippings from various sources and bright blue neon lighting in front of them.  One pair formed the words “Always Smile”, so I guess they are meant to be sold as a pair, since “Smile” by itself would make sense, but “Always” on its own would seem strange.  My favourite pieces were the sculptures of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and the famous armless “Venus de Milo”, made from pieces of rubber tires.  While there did not seem to be many original ideas in his works, there is no denying that Mr. Brainwash is a clever and talented artist who makes fun and quirky pieces, abet by appropriating other people's ideas.

Our impromptu 2.5 day trip to Manhattan turned out to be a great success and we managed to pack a ton of activities into this short time span.  Basically the visit was all about art, theatre and dining, which was exactly what we were looking for.  We watched some great shows, ate at wonderful restaurants and saw some amazing art exhibits.   More and more, I am liking this idea of short quick trips to nearby cities, requiring only a small carry-on bag that can be tucked under the seat of our airplane.  We will definitely try this again in the future.