My husband and I LOVE to travel. And yes, we’re lucky. Lucky to be able to travel. But even more lucky to open up our world and get out of the “Stone Oak bubble”. To experience other cultures and other people. To eat different foods (even if they are questionable). To peek into history and walk the same path as others have before. And sometimes, it helps us realize that home is truly sweet.
Most recently, we followed Hemingway from Miami to Key West to Havana (and the Caribbean in between). Now, I’m not a big fan of Hemingway’s by any means, so it’s not like this was the point of our trip. It just so happens that our ultimate destination of Havana happened to be among his favorites and the points that led us there were too.
The city of Miami. Vibrant. Colorful. Buzzing. Loud. Hot (both figuratively and literally). This was the start of our journey.
South Beach. Where exposed skin is pervasive; ask Keith about the multitude of thong-wearing and topless sun-bathing women. Where adults cruised Ocean Drive in their Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Bentleys and such. Where the tropical humidity was not a good thing when coupled with a woman’s hot flashes. Where every bar has Happy Hour, where you can get 2 for 1 drinks of the 56 oz. variety (and which we did on more than one occasion). Where Latin music infuses the streets. Where you hear a variety of languages spoken, some of which you can’t even identify. It’s that kind of place.
And apparently Hemingway liked Miami.
After a couple of days on South Beach (both on the beach and touring the Art Deco district), we decided we wanted to see a little more of Miami. First, we toured the city by bus, with a stop in Little Havana. Here, we watched cigars being hand-rolled, enjoyed spicy chicken empanadas and Cuban (i.e., mango) smoothies. I’m not a smoker by any means, but I must admit, the smell of that shop was almost as delicious as the empanadas. By boat, we cruised past houses currently and formerly owned by the rich and famous, with names like Shakira, Ricky Martin, Al Pacino, Will Smith, and Beyonce on the tax rolls.
Cruising is probably Keith’s favorite way to travel. You unpack once, and you visit multiple cities. I must admit, it’s not half-bad. On day 5, we bid Miami adieu and embarked on a 5-night Caribbean journey aboard Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas.
Having made certain lifestyle changes (of the dietary variety) less than a year ago, we knew this would be a challenge. Not only with the never-ending buffet that’s available 20 hours out of every day, but in the dining room too; the bread is plentiful, and you can order any number of appetizers, entrees and desserts. All in all, I’d say we didn’t do too bad. We indulged, yes (who can say no to ice cream and cookies?), but we tried to stay reasonable, while still enjoying ourselves.
Our first port of call: Key West. I visited Key West at the age of 13 and cannot say I remember much about it except for the drive to get there (on all the bridges, over all the water). As an adult, I found it far less exciting than anything I might’ve felt as a teenager. Admittedly, that is solely because of the heat and humidity (again) that resulted in my having a raging headache that I could not get rid of, no matter how many pills I managed to get down my throat.
There is no shortage of touristy-type of things to see and do and buy in Key West.
We opted for a hop-on/hop-off trolley tour of the island, but we only hopped off once, to see The Little White House. Recommended by a friend, we both enjoyed this tour of former naval commandant housing, which appealed to President Truman and which he often visited during and after his term as President. The house is filled with both original and replicated furniture from the 1950s and was extremely charming. As were many of the homes on Key West.
Our trolley tour also took us past Ernest Hemingway’s house, home of the 7-toed cats. We also passed several famous (or … infamous?) bars along the way and about 2,001 souvenir shops.
The heat, humidity and my headache got the best of me and it was everything I could do not to spout off to the trolley driver (whose incessant chatter became rather annoying), the drunk woman up front who wanted to get off at Stop 9, when we were approaching Stop 10 (pay attention!), or the bickering couple from the northeast who sat directly behind us and who, based on the husband’s comments, appeared to have never gotten out from under their own roof. For example, this exchange actually took place:
HIM: Look! A Taco Bell! Take a picture!
HER: Yes, they have Taco Bells here too, Harold.
One of the local tour guides suggested food and drinks at Two Friends Patio Bar and we were not disappointed. We opted for shrimp dinners (a Cajun shimp wrap for Keith and a shrimp salad sandwich for me). The Pina Coladas with Meyer’s Dark Rum floaters were divine. It turns out I only needed food to erase my splitting headache. Or maybe alcohol.
Key West boasts the Southernmost Point in the Continental US – 90 miles to Cuba, they say. It’s a quick overnight where nautical miles are concerned.
That night, we enjoyed dinner in the ship’s specialty restaurant, Chops Grille. Steaks, grilled asparagus, a bottle of their finest Malbec, and the most amazing key lime meringue pie I will probably ever eat. Afterwards, hand in hand, we strolled Deck 6. The sky and the water dark as ink, except for the stars and the satellites dotting the night sky. As the lights of Key West diminished behind us, I saw a shooting star and made a wish.
After our departure from Key West, the ship was filled with Latin music. In every venue where alcohol was being served, the sounds of bongos and trumpets were prevalent. It was a nice precursor to our arrival in Havana the next morning.
The ship was abuzz as we entered Havana’s port. To the left, one of the city’s forts, El Morro, complete with a lighthouse, and to the right, the city’s skyline.
We waited patiently as the computers in the immigration and customs building had gone down and they wouldn’t clear the ship until they could make things right. Finally, we joined the other 998 passengers and the 1000 passengers from another ship which had just arrived and proceeded through customs and immigration.
Paperwork. Paperwork. And more paperwork. This is vacation. If you wish to visit Cuba.
Tourist VISAs are required and were handled largely by the ship. When I say this, I simply mean, they handed the paperwork to us to fill out and charged us $75 each for the pleasure. We also had to complete paperwork certifying what we would be doing in Havana and were told to hold onto this for five years, lest we’re ever asked what we did while in country. They could’ve been pulling our proverbial legs, but you never know.
Foreign credit cards are not accepted here and US Dollars may or may not be accepted, so exchanging money was necessary. The thing about it is, you don’t want to exchange too much because not only does the Cuban government take about 13% right off the top in the exchange (when exchanging US Dollars – it’s much less if using other forms of currency, e.g., the Euro), but it takes another 13% if you want to re-convert to US Dollars.
Additionally, there are two types of Cuban pesos – one used by the locals, the Peso Cubano, or CUP (they have faces of Cuba’s leaders) and one used by tourists, the Peso Convertible, or CUC (pictures of historical landmarks).
1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP
In town, you really have to be careful and ask whether prices quoted are CUC or CUP (and that you get the correct currency back in change).
Because of this, I didn’t want to exchange any more than we had to. I asked someone who worked one of the gift shops in the port terminal, the average cost of a meal in town. In return, I received a blank stare. For this is not something the locals can (afford) to do. My heart hurt just a little.
Our first shore excursion introduced us to the city of Havana. As the bus exited the cruise terminal, we got our first close-up look into the heart of Old Towne, Plaza Veija. And driving past it, were several early model cars. As if the tour guide were the director and we were her choir, we collectively ooh’d and aah’d on que as we were transported back in time.
Between Old Towne and New Havana, we saw several major landmarks. We exited the bus and saw a couple of the landmarks up-close: The Christ (think of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer), El Morro and Revolution Square (where Fidel Castro spoke to the masses).
We finished our tour at the local market, where private vendors sold a multitude of goodies to take back home. The vendors were welcoming. A polite "No thank you" and they smiled politely in return. If you showed interest in something, they were quick to bargain. And bargaining didn't require you to say a word; if they sensed any amount of hesitancy on your part, they started dropping the price!
As the rain moved in, we decided to return to the ship for a breather and to cool down a bit. Only it didn’t help to cool things down so much as to only make it more humid.
After the rain subsided, we headed back into town. We wandered the streets, popping into various shops and looking at menus to see what we might fancy for dinner. Along the way, puddles filled the myriad of potholes that punctured the cobblestone and un-paved streets.
It was easy to see how grand the city once was; influenced by Spanish architecture, the tall buildings with rounded corners and ornate windows and balconies are now falling into disrepair. Literally, they are crumbling to the ground. And my heart hurt just a little more.
We stumbled onto a bar with crowds tumbling into the street, the sounds of live music filling the square as the doors opened and closed. All the guests were sipping grapefruit infused daiquiris; a bust of one Ernest Hemingway sat in the corner. Unbeknownst to us, we had happened upon one of his old (and maybe favorite) haunts, El Floridita. The crowd was thrilled when the 5-piece band played the song “Havana”. We started with the famed daiquiri at a cost of 6 CUC each. We each had a Cubano, because … why not? We finished with a local beer at a cost of 4.50 CUC each.
When the band packed up their guitars and violins, we walked to the bar (literally) next door and enjoyed the same local beer for 1.50 CUC each. Sure, El Floridita was fun, but I’d much rather pay 1.50 for a beer than 4.50.
As we stood admiring the architecture of the square, someone approached us in the “pssst … hey … you want to buy some cigars?” kind of way and much to my surprise, my husband followed him. We struck a deal for a case of Cubans under a low wattage lamp in the man’s home.
With rain drops falling again, and the promise of more to come (if the lightning in the sky was any indication), we made our way back to the ship for the evening.
The next morning, we exchanged more money and made our way into town for more sightseeing and in my case, picture-taking. Inspired by my sister’s earlier works of art (some of which were shot in Havana), I set out to find beauty amongst the rubble.
After lunch, we embarked on our second shore excursion: a Hemingway pub crawl and walking tour through Old Towne. We start at where else, but El Floridita. If I thought happy hour the night before was crazy, I was mistaken. THIS was madness. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as fire codes in Havana, but if there are, I’m quite certain the place was in violation at that very moment. Nevertheless, the daquiris were cold and even tastier than the night before.
Our next stop was El Bodeguita, Hemingway’s favorite place to score up a refreshing mojito. With crowds spilling into the street (the bar itself no bigger than a storage room), we tried to find a sliver of shade in which to enjoy the minty, sugary concoction as the brutal sun beat down on those of us not able to fit into the bar.
The “pub crawl” version complete, we finished our walking tour a short while later, having traversed a small portion of Old Towne, visiting churches, glimpsing into historic homes, admiring government buildings and resting in beautiful parks.
We finished our time in Havana wandering the streets, looking for nooks and crannies which we had not yet discovered. We stopped at one of the local breweries, Factoria Plaza Vieja, and enjoyed a drink, some snacks (grilled shrimp, brown rice and black beans) and a cigar. Here, a little boy no older than 5, stood silently at our table, watching our every move. He moved from one side to the other, finally tapping me on the arm and saying something in Spanish I didn’t quite understand (I understood “Englis”, but that was it). I told him (in Spanish) that I spoke very little Spanish and asked if he spoke English. He shook his head “no” and disappeared.
Satisfied that we had seen all that Old Towne had to offer, we made our way back to the ship before departing at 8:00 p.m..
As we reflected on our visit to Havana, we agreed the city is much like some of the poorest areas you might have seen in Mexico (yet different because of what once was). Yes, they have free medical and free (higher) education, but what good are those if a government employee (someone who works in a government-owned business, which is most of the businesses there), earning $20-$30 CUC PER MONTH can’t even afford aspirin or toothpaste? And even if they could afford it, I suspect it might be difficult to find in the government-run grocery stores, the shelves of which were mostly empty. Can non-government employees really cover the cost of repairing the architecturally un-sound buildings which are crumbling from the top down, when they’re earning $200-$400 CUC PER MONTH?
It breaks your heart.
In hindsight, I wish I would’ve done a little more research before going, because I would’ve liked to have taken something to the locals (toothpaste and aspirin maybe).
That said, we found the people to be happy. And grateful to any foreigner who might help their economy in some small way.
We were told that after incident at the US Embassy there, most, if not all the Embassy workers have left. I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the country is closed to US visitors again.
As we departed Havana, we lounged on the stern of the ship, smoking a cigar as we glided past El Morro, its lighthouse showing the way to the sea, and the lights of the city flickering to life.
Cars on the Malecon honked as we left, I imagine not only to say “adios”, but to say, “thanks for stopping by”.