In Havana, the Cubans are waiting. Waiting in line for a bus, waiting for an ice cream, waiting to use the food-ration cards at the bodega, waiting for the street lights to come on—which they don’t. If you are young and Cuban, you hang out on the street with your friends waiting for morning. And of course, everyone is waiting for the U.S. to lift the trade embargo…and that won’t happen any time soon.
If you’re a tourist in Cuba, things are different. There is no waiting, except in the immigration line at the airport, which moves very quickly, and in the money-exchange offices if other tourists have arrived ahead of you. In Cuba, tourists are golden. They get the best seats, the best food, the best treatment.
Nothing can be done about this division. And sometimes…it comes in handy… On Sunday morning at Callejon de Hamel—a famous two-block alleyway in Havana eccentrically decorated by artist Salvador Gonzalez—the little boys are ready. In a pack, they descend on you, competing for your attention. “Do you have something for me?” they ask. “Some tissues, clothes, candy? Do you have something for my mother?” (Women can always pull something from their purses that a little boy’s mother might like.)
This is all in Spanish, of course, and all the while you’re digging in your bag and trying to be civil to these little rogues, you’re also trying to take in the artwork. Callejon de Hamel assaults the eyes with its madly colorful murals, found-object shrines, sculptures made from plastic, concrete, old tires, and more…it’s a public temple to Santeria and other Afro-Cuban influences.
Like little pups nipping at your heels, the boys follow you down the alley until Big Mama comes along and with a few choice words sends them sulking down the street. She smiles, shakes her head sympathetically, then whisks you over to her friend’s refreshment stand where a cold El Negron is concocted for you—rum, lime, basil, ice, and water. “That will be $4 please.” Tourist prices.
After that, she marches you over to a roped-off area in the center of the alleyway. Soon, you hear the first beats of the drums. Louder and more frenetic they become as the barefooted and wildly-attired performers careen down the alleyway and into the small performance area.
To a pounding beat that defies count, they sing and shout and whirl and twirl. They summon up the spirits of the orishas (Santeria deities) and pull you out onto the dance floor. It’s raw and intoxicatingly heady… the most fun you could possibly have on a hot Sunday afternoon in Havana.
Too soon it is over. Big Mama bids you a warm farewell. “Come back soon,” she says, smiling, her gold teeth glinting. “We’ll be here…waiting.”
Editor’s Note: View Suzan’s videos of Callejon de Hamel to learn more.
The U.S. Travel Ban
The 1962 trade embargo imposed by the U.S. restricts U.S. citizens (except under special circumstances) from traveling to Cuba. President Obama says he will maintain the trade embargo, but there are bills in both the House and Senate proposing to lift the travel restrictions. Despite the travel ban, many U.S. citizens travel to Cuba via flights from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica…or elsewhere in Latin America.
The Cuban government does not stamp tourist passports, but remember… you are not allowed to import any goods from Cuba into the U.S.
If you go…
While Europeans go to Cuba for the Varadero beach scene, I’d skip this and spend time instead in Havana (or Santiago, or Trinidad).
Go for luxury hotels or gourmet food and you’ll be disappointed. Still, I’ve enjoyed my stays at Havana’s historic Hotel Nacional, overlooking the malecon, and friends send good reports about the Hotel Inglaterra near the Capitol building.
A restaurant I recommend is La Cocina de Lilliam, a family run paladar—one of the few restaurants with part private ownership allowed in Cuba. Do spend time in historic Habana Vieja and visit the Museum of the Revolution and the Bellas Artes Museum. Hemingway fans will want to tour his Finca Vigia home and the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja. Room #511 is as it was when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls there in 1939. And of course, do not miss Callejon de Hamel on Sunday. The music by the Clave y Guaguancom Afro-Cuban folkloric group starts at noon.
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