Just a hop...

Travel poster: Just a hop and you are in CubaAfter 2011's fabulous Rick Steves jaunt to Spain (which, yeah, I haven't yet gotten around to writing up), I hadn't given much thought to where to go next, still replenishing the trip fund coffers. My friend Louise, whom I first met through the 2006 China Study Abroad program, recommended CCSF's Winter Break in Cuba, headed by Greg Landau. She and Bob had gone about ten years earlier, but the program went on hiatus during the Bush regime when regulations tightened. (It's technically illegal for US citizens to go to Cuba except through approved educational programs and/or other official channels.) Last year City College reinstated the trip, and its popularity ensured that the roster would fill up really quickly. I got my name on the list, and asked my Spain trip roomie Susie if she'd be interested. Her answer: "Of course!"

Turns out, there is absolutely no better person to lead a visit to Cuba than Greg. An artist, musician, music producer, and filmmaker, he has made many visits to the country since 1968, when his father, Saul Landau, directed a documentary film on Fidel Castro. Greg attended school there, even spending time working on rural farms as a student, and he knows just about everybody in Cuba (and they know and love him). So we had incredible access to artists, musicians, religious leaders, and even government officials (you'll see). Starting from our pre-trip lecture, we saw that Greg's knowledge and understanding of Cuba's history, politics, and culture was comprehensive, and his appreciation and enthusiasm was totally contagious.

Even politics aside, getting to Cuba is not easy. Bleary-eyed after a red-eye flight to Miami, our charter flight to Havana was inexplicably delayed four hours. I did manage to run into some friends at the airport, Louisa and Bill, whom I knew from the Global Volunteers teaching gig (2009, Kunming) and whose privately arranged architectural tour of Cuba had pretty much completely unravelled. They did manage to get on a charter to Havana that amusingly arrived the same time as ours did, so we met again in line at immigration. After extricating our luggage from immense piles of plastic-wrapped parcels belonging to emigrant Cubans visiting relatives, our group met up with Gustavo, our guide, and Jorge, our driver. After a blink-and-you'll-miss-it tour through Central Havana we were deposited at the Hotel Habana Riviera, on the Malecón in the Vedado district, where we got checked in before Cuba libres were handed around to start our welcome dinner in the hotel dining room.

Hotel Riviera lobby in 1950s gloryThe Riviera was built by mob financial genius Meyer Lansky and opened in 1957, the first hotel in Havana with air conditioning and considered the epitome of resort construction. Its elaborately designed nightclub, the Copa Cabaret Room, headlined such luminaries as Ginger Rogers, Abbott and Costello, and Steve Allen, while famous guests included Nat King Cole, Ava Gardner, William Holden, and Esther Williams (who got to about in the largest seawater pool in Havana). Whereas Lansky left Cuba for the Bahamas the same day Batista fled the country, the Riviera's public area decor is preserved in all of its 1950s glory, including murals by Rolando Lopez Dirube and Florencio Gelabert's sculptures: a white marble intertwined mermaid and swordfish fronting the entrance porte cochere and a large bronze lobby piece — "Ritmo Cubano"/"Cuban Rhythm" — depicting twirling male and female dancers). The rest of the hotel is a bit the worse for wear (suspiciously large red stains on the hallway carpet conjured tales of possible mob hits), but our room on the 14th floor faced the Atlantic with a panoramic view of the Malecón (the balcony door handle had been removed but I was able to crawl out through the window and take the photo featured on this page).

Elephant soft sculptureOur lodgings during the trip were not 5-star but generally quite decent. Getting hot water for showers could be a crap shoot, but at least we had toilet seats (not the case in public bathrooms: where the heck did these go??). Our maids always left us lovely notes, in passable English, wishing us a pleasant day, and fashioned our towels and blankets into fanciful soft sculptures (my favorite was an elephant with shampoo bottle tops for eyes). Hotel breakfasts are pretty much the same everywhere: buffets featuring an assortment of sometimes puzzling foods. I was pretty happy: fresh papaya every morning, decent coffee, a nice cheese selection, and, in the Riviera, the delightful Leticia creating tortillas (ie, omelets) to order. The Study Abroad materials warned us that nobody visited Cuba for the food, and to expect a lot of beans and rice and not much in the way of seasoning; but in fact most, if not all, of our meals were quite decent. We had shrimp and fish often, and lobster at least twice (!).

Next: Exploring Havana
Return to Cuba 2012-2013 Index