I have a room on the fifth floor. Above me on the sixth are the terrace restaurant and its kitchen. All night long I hear the random scraping of furniture on the tile floor and strange whirs and clatters, as I flop about in the clamminess of casual air conditioning. Breakfast happens on that very terrace which overlooks Old Havana to the sea. In the distance, a four-masted Spanish naval vessel begins its stately entry into Havana harbor with a cannon salute and the fort on the other side responds with booming shots. This is grand and nautical.
Sightseeing is scheduled for the morning. Tim shepherds us around the corner to a pedicab stand and we fill seven of them. I ride with lovely Tracy from Flint, Michigan. The driver plays anthemic pop from the ’90s as we hurtle along the cobblestones. Our first stop is one of Havana’s fresh produce markets. Everything looks beautiful and unblemished: perfect. Under the building’s arcade, flower sellers display their elaborate arrangements.
We pile back into our cabs and lurch down dusty streets. Overhead run enough wires and tubes to provide shade to the street below. The city’s great railway terminal is being cleaned and restored as the colossal generating station next to it spews terrible black smoke from a stumpy red and white stack. Tim next brings us to a dark hall he calls a ‘bodega’, where people pick up their monthly rations of cooking oil, flour, refined sugar, and other staples. A chalkboard displays today’s prices for the various commodities. Cuba’s economy is strictly regulated and thus is one where distinctions of wealth and class do not exist, sez Fidel.
We bid our drivers adios and they pose for a group picture. Thalia rejoins us along with an architecture student who walks with us, giving detailed descriptions to the sights in Old Havana as Thalia translates. We visit plazas and churches (now used for secular purposes) and absorb what information we can. Finally, we stop at Café El Escorial, a coffee shop. Sit. Drink. I purchase a kilo of coffee that takes forever to grind. Hot and footsore, lunch provides a happy distraction.
This afternoon we meet as a workshop for the first time. A cool, dark room, a bar, actually, has been secured for us in a neighboring hotel, Hotel Florida. We are eight, guided ably by Alden. Half the group consists of undergraduates, opinionated young women, from Emerson College where she teaches.
We meet at six o’clock back at Hotel Florida for a talk by Tim on Cuban history which begins with Columbus’ landfall in 1492 and runs up to the Revolution in 1959. It is a rich and complex story with a heavy strain of the sorrow of exploitation. Spain ruled the island for four hundred years, but the twilight of empire was endless. This may account for the melancholy that I feel on the street.