Dispatch: Docking in Havana
Photos by David Cogswell
Havana! It’s one of those places that inspires excitement, the very thought of it. The magic it has generated during centuries of history was palpable as we approached by sea on the Celestyal Crystal. To see the legend come to life in front of us as we reached the harbor was enormously exciting. People were lined up on the decks watching in awed rapture as we traveled toward the larger-than-life encounter that was awaiting us. Havana.
It was as if the Grande Dame was sitting back in calm confidence and announcing to us, “You have read of me, heard of me, seen movies of me, listened to songs about me. You are aware of my legend. Now you are about to meet the real thing.”
The mystique of Havana is heightened immeasurably by its incomparable isolation from Americans for the last 50 years. And it is heightened again now by President Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba over the last year and a half, culminating in his visit to Havana only a couple of weeks before we arrived.
READ MORE: Dispatch: Circling Cuba on the Crystal Ship
The energy from that momentous political move was still hanging freshly in the atmosphere when we encountered Havana. An event of such magnitude will have huge repercussions far beyond any foreseeable horizon, and it was really exciting to be there at that moment.
Meanwhile, there was Havana, opening herself to us, and there was nothing to do but get off that ship and get into the city.
I gathered with my group of 15 or so and we wove our way down to the shore, where a fleet of 1950s American cars outfitted as taxis were waiting for us by appointment. Our first tour around Havana was going to be aboard these flashy antique convertibles. It was a rush, a perfect way to dive into the consciousness of Havana. You could awake from a coma in that car and instantly know exactly where you are. There is nowhere else that looks like that.
Our group divided itself up about three or four to a car and we roared out like a fleet of mad cats zooming out of some "Twilight Zone" time travel scenario. My car was a bright red De Soto from about 1958, with pointed tailfins jutting out a foot from the rear deck of the car, a fifties image of a rocket ship.
This thing was really dressed up, with shiny red surfaces and unblemished red and white pleated vinyl interior. It was one of those old wide-body cars that float around on giant suspension springs like boats. And it was in impeccable condition, with the exception of a dirty exhaust system that belched out its carbony indigestion in clouds that encircled the car.
With the top down we had a wide open view as our driver cruised around Havana and our guide, Isora, pointed out notable and scenic places. We rode through Miramar, the former aristocratic district, where many of the old mansions are now political embassies or institutional buildings.
We drove along the Malecon, the Avenida de Maceo along the sea wall on Havana’s shoreline, where the waves splash high in the air and sometimes throw water across the highway.
We drove up to the entrance of Old Havana, up to where the cars aren’t allowed entry. We saw Sloppy Joe’s Bar, one of the alleged Hemingway haunts. All around we saw many of the amazing old car relics. Few were as perfect as the taxis, but they all showed the immense creativity that has gone into maintaining these things generations after they disappeared from the streets of the U.S.
We saw the capitol building, modeled after the American capitol in D.C.; Revolution Square, a five square mile plaza bordered by 10-story line drawings of Revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos; and we stopped and spent some time exploring the exquisite National Hotel, which dates back to 1930.
PHOTO: National Hotel.
Among the hotel’s elegant interiors we saw photographs of historic figures who had stayed at the hotel during its lifetime, the true upper crust celebrities of generations, people such as Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Weismuller, Marlon Brando, Jean-Paul Sartre, and of course, Hemingway.
But even without the notable sites, and in all the spaces between, I would have been perfectly happy with nothing more than that euphoric feeling of cruising around Havana in one of those magical old cars.
We returned to the ship early in the afternoon to rest and regroup for our evening outing, a visit to the legendary Tropicana.
I didn’t know what to expect with the Tropicana, and now having experienced it I don’t know that anything can prepare you for it. It is said to have been functioning continuously since its founding in 1939.
In the simplest terms, the Tropicana is an outdoor theater that was built in a tropical garden on a six-acre estate in Villa Mina, a Havana suburb. Trees surround the theater and tower overhead. When we first sat at one of the hundreds of tables aligned radially around the stage, a perfect half moon hung straight over us in the space between the branches.
On the stage there was a small ensemble playing mellow background music to accompany the incoming procession. A dance orchestra perched on a platform above and to the right of the stage was organizing itself in the final moments before the performance was scheduled to begin.
While the room filled up, we made ourselves at home by relaxing into our chairs, drinking rum, and getting in the mood for the show. After we had become absorbed in our conversations, suddenly it began — like an explosion that seemed to take place on all sides simultaneously.
The dinner music ensemble had vacated the stage and suddenly it was full of outrageously costumed dancers, men and women on various platforms that extended above the stage and off to the left into a labyrinth of stages and paths. Dancers flooded down all the aisles leading onto the floor between the tables. Off to the left was a whole other giant stage with elaborately costumed dancers lined up on three terraced levels.
It must have been the entire cast, all converging at once in a giant cacophony of dancing and singing. The women were decked out in carnival style showgirl costumes constructed with intricately designed explosions of colors, with giant headdresses and glittery, figure-enhancing bikinis.
It was a total over-amping of the senses from the first second, and it never wavered until the end two hours later, at which point your sensibilities were saturated. The performance of the band, the dancing, the singing, the choreography, the light show — all of it was impeccable, and designed to blow your mind, which it could not fail to do. It seems it would have overcome the resistance of the most uptight human being on the planet.
I have never seen Ziegfeld Follies, never even seen the Rockettes at Radio City in New York. But the performance at the Tropicana seemed to me to be something at least remotely like what people experienced at such historical shows as those. I’m sure the producers of the Tropicana show are students of the international show tradition and have incorporated practically all the practices that were developed at shows throughout history and throughout the world.
It was an experience I am truly grateful to have had, and will never forget. It really put the capper on my first day in Havana. I felt like I had reached back in time to the historic Havana and had a taste of the entertainment traditions that attracted people to Havana from around the world back in the pre-Revolution days.
The enchantment that was to set in upon entering Havana was not to lift for a long time, certainly not until after we had left Cuba behind. And some of it still lingers, never to be forgotten.
More by David Cogswell
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