“Of all the places you’ve been,” asked Frank over a drink, “what’s your favorite?”
I paused to consider — when you’ve been a lot of interesting places and made an effort to make the most of your journeys, the answer is always: all of them. But in an attempt to be both cool and thoughtful, I cited Havana, Cuba.
In June of 2008, I was a fencer en route to a World Cup competition. I arrived in Havana dressed in white linen and a straw hat, hoping to capture a bygone era, thirsting for a Mojito, and hungry for a taste of a forbidden city. I could travel there, the letter from the US Treasury said, but I couldn’t spend any money.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, but like Anthony Bourdain said on “No Reservations” last night, “I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful…Even run down, shabby, neglected Cuba is beautiful…heart-breakingly beautiful.”
I was struck by many things during my stay — mainly that walking through Old Havana is like walking through an archeological dig undergoing a haphazard fairy-godmother transformation. The architecture is striking. A mix of deco and colonial baroque styles set against the ocean’s edge. From afar, the skyline still beams the promise of a cosmopolitan city. Up close, the buildings’ dilapidated state becomes abundantly clear. Beautiful buildings a shell of their former selves.
Before I left New York, I made sure to do some reading on the Cuban Revolution — The Motorcycle Diaries would not be my only source of information on Che Guevara. But to visit the Museo de la Revolucion to see a Cuban history of the shift to a communist regime was enlightening. It’s always healthy to compare one side’s propaganda with the other’s…
As Bourdain experienced, I found the Cuban people to be warm and approachable, proud and resourceful. “We like Americans. We love Americans,” my bellhop said. “It’s only your government we don’t love.”
Unlike Anthony, I can’t say I ever had a great meal — several good mojitos, yes, fantastic dinner, no. I got to ride around town in a vintage car, with native Cubans who spoke little English but who were eager to converse. But if there’s one thing I wish I could have done while in Cuba, it was go to a baseball game. On that, Anthony has the one-up.