When I was 11, my grandparents took me on vacation to Key West, Florida. I can still picture my grandfather looking south and reminiscing about the time he took his mother–my namesake–to Cuba in the ’30s.
Even to a sixth grader in 1981, the name seemed mysterious, forbidden, exotic. And it quickly jumped to the top five places I wanted to visit (along with Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Hong Kong). In 2004 I had the chance to visit Cuba. And unlike when I went to Vietnam, this trip was approved by the US government.
It was what I’d pictured, but more. Old Havana is charming and UNESCO-protected.
Whereas other parts are, well, quintessentially Cuban. Neglected, impoverished, wanting.
Although many places have retained Havana’s old school charm.
Che is everywhere.
As is Hemingway.
I’d heard about the plethora of 1950s American cars, but there were also Coco taxis.
And camel buses.
During a free afternoon, I took another woman on my tour and headed to Chinatown. Between my poor Cantonese and almost non-existent Spanish, I could communicate a bit with the shop keepers. The ones I met were at least third-generation Cuban and had never left the island.
Those eight days were a fascinating look at a country so close, yet still so distant from mine.
In the coming days I’ll post photos of Havana’s famous hotels and some about its Jewish community, the purpose of my visit.