Anthony Bourdain Takes Me Back to Cuba

“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.”

Walking through Old Havana is like walking through an archeological dig undergoing a fairy-godmother transformation

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.

A city under construction
An old city under slow and plodding construction

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…

At the Museuo de la Revolucion, the delivery truck that allowed the students to rush the palace and thus begin the change in government
A wall label at the Museo de la Revolucion
The leaders of the revolution, Castro, Che and Camillio

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.”

A street vendor in Havana
There is a profound sense of community

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.

the vintage car that showed us Old Havana

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