I prefer self-planned over organized travel. In fact, I tend to avoid sightseeing experiences where I’m part of a constantly directed group. That’s why I rarely take themed cruises. The cruise to 3 Cuban cities that Ruth & I took recently was, therefore, a travel exception. It was presented as a cultural exchange. All participants were encouraged to interact as much as possible with the Cuban people. This sounded fine but in reality didn’t happen much. One man in our group told me that an aging prostitute beckoned him through a window during a student performance. Feeling sorry for her but admiring her persistence, he went outside and gave her money.
By our 7th day I was tired of group-think and really desiring independence. We were scheduled for an Old Havana Walking Tour that would last for about 8 hours. It began promisingly. We went to a grocery store where citizens redeemed ration cards. I blogged about it on January 20th of this year. We went from there to a cluttered folk museum and were entertained by some rappin’ Cuban grannies.
Then we went to the Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest. This urban plaza has played a major role in Cuban history for centuries. It had been prettied up for tourists. On one side of it was the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Now the city museum, which could have been interesting, it was closed. Instead of the plaza’s fountain and sculptures of historical figures, I watched street vendors, dodged beggars, went the other way when stray dogs appeared, and wondered why vendor kiosks were full of pictures of Castro and Che.
Next was the Plaza de la Cathedral. It was a typical big-city Latin American church. Its plaza had several older, turban-wearing women with unlit cigars in their mouths. They wanted us to have our pictures taken with them. I kept wondering why we were visiting a cathedral built by Jesuits in 1727 in the land of Santeria and once-official atheism.
It was almost noon. We had two plazas to go. I checked my map. The closest attraction not on our Havana tours was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It was 4 blocks away. We bolted. The joyous freedom of being on our own in a typical Havana street was liberating. I took photographs. The part of the museum that we had time and enough money for was excellent. Camera use was forbidden beyond the reception area where I took pictures of the murals.
I saw an American who was resting after looking at the exceptional, top quality Cuban art in this architecturally sensational building. I asked him about his experiences. He told me that he had been coming to Cuba for more than 15 years on church missions. I asked him about the government. He said, “I ignore them. They ignore me.”
We were back with the tour group for lunch. Although I got to hear “Guantanamera” again, I will probably never get to experience Havana’s San Francisco de Assisi Square.