Havana, Day 2
15 April 2011 | Havana, Cuba
Beth - 90's
After breakfast at Marie Elena’s (fruit plate, buns, egg, coffee) we set off for the Museo de la Revolucion. It is housed in the former Presidential palace, originally decorated by Tiffany’s of New York, and containing the still grand Salon de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) reminiscent of the one at the palace of Versailles. It is pretty much a must do visit and fortunately most of the exhibits are labelled in English as well as Spanish. I thought there would be more extensive Cuban history there, but it was all revolutionary - not surprisingly. By the time we had seen a few hundred photos and guns and letters and news clippings and the odd blood stained uniform, we were museumed out, although it was quite something to review the events leading up to and during the revolution. What a passionate, fiery and committed band of rebels these people were!
The Hall of Mirrors must have been gorgeous in its day, and it still echoes that. In the Havana version though, the elegant chandeliers and murals and stonework and mirrors, are side by side with crumbling plaster and broken shutters and peeling paint. Oh and let’s not forget the bullet holes in the marble walls of the grand staircase. It is interesting how we became accustomed to the grandeur and pride running hand in hand with decay and lack of money. Like all else in Cuba - there are layers and layers of reality. How can you put the dollars needed into restoration when you have people to feed and educate? And yet how can you let the buildings that reflect your amazing history and culture crumble? The answer is to do some of each, and that appears to be what is happening in Havana.
The Granma, the 18 metre yacht that carried Fidel and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba sits inside a glass enclosure beside the museum, and it too made us think about the revolution and the struggle to free themselves from the rule of dictators like Batista. They made plans in the mountains of the Sierra Maestre, they recruited and proclaimed in Santiago, they carried out their plans and when something didn’t work, they found another opportunity and tried again.
In the afternoon, we strolled the streets of Obispo and Mercaderes until the heat made us join dozens of others on the benches at Plaza de Armas where booksellers set up their stands and people sit in the shade and children play on the plaza. On this day, we discovered music and dance! We were about to wander away after an hour or so when Jim discovered a group of Spanish bagpipers around the corner. As we stood to listen, a whole troop of beautifully costumed mimes on stilts gathered around us. We had stumbled into part of the festival of dance. What luck!
We watched another pipe group - two pipers and a man with bongo drums - it put a new flavour to Celtic music. I mentioned to one of the pipers that we have a CD by the Spanish Celtic singer, Carlos Nunez and he told me they had played with him several times. We went back around the corner to take in a dance performance back at Plaza de Armas. The women wore brilliant yellow, and white and green and purple satiny dresses with flounces and frills, while the men wore white pants and coloured shirts. A percussion group beat out the rhythm and a purple shirted man sang the story of the dance. We didn’t understand a word of it, but it kept us enthralled. What energy, what rhythm. There must have been 30 people involved between dancers and drummers; their smiles were wide and their enthusiasm bigger yet. As that dance ended (and it must have lasted nearly half an hour) one of the mimes sounded a horn and the troop led the crowds down Mercaderes to a little plaza where two women were performing a modern dance - their sinuous bodies and athleticism making it look seamless. The horn sounded, the troop moved off mingling with the crowd and we ended up in Plaza Vieja where the pipers piped again. It was with regret but with weary bodies that we pulled ourselves away and went home for a wee rest before setting off again for dinner and whatever the evening would bring.
What the evening brought was more good food although it was slow coming - at La Torre de Marfil on Mercaderes (can you picture Cuban food with an Asian flair? It happens!) Unfortunately, it was so slow that by the time we got to the Plaza de Armas afterward, the Celtic music we were hoping to hear was over. We did find more dancing though - in a large outdoor area. It was dark and the place was crowded but we wiggled our way in to where we could see, and watched several performances. There didn’t seem to be many tourists there, and the crowd was intent on the dance. One was quite funny - a number of muscular young men with bare chests and military type pants seemed to be finding their feminine selves. Their movements changed from abrupt and competitive, to flowing and cooperative. I must have chuckled at one point because the dreadlocked man beside me smiled and whispered, “You like?” I responded, “Very much” and his next question was, “You understand?” to which I said, “I think so!” and he nodded and smiled some more.
We finally tore ourselves away, walked home along the darkened streets, feeling safe, exhilarated, exhausted. What a city! What sophistication of culture and attention to art and dance and music. What amazing architecture. What an array of museums and historic buildings. We were barely scratching the surface of it and yet we were feeling saturated with Habana.