October 3, 2016
I normally do not like organized tours, and our Old Havana (Havana Vieja) walking tour reminds me why. While the guide is good, it is largely a standing tour, listening while the guide explains some aspect of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I begin to wander off to find a book seller in the Plaza de Armas, or some musicians in a square near the Cathedral, (where a Vatican and Cuban flag flew side by side, I didn’t expect that?) or a car junk yard where resourceful mechanics and bodywork men are piecing together a classic 1950s American car from pieces of other cars. Just as things get interesting the tour moves on.
I draw particular attention during our walking tour. Perhaps because of my full beard and portly profile, Cubans call out “papa” or “Papa Hemingway.” Two different caricature artists sketch me. Others on the tour do not get this attention. Either I look wealthy or it is the Hemingway thing. By the way, we learned that Hemingway’s favorite drink is the grapefruit daiquiri. I don’t think of Papa as a cocktail man, he seems to me to be more of a whisky or beer guy.
I’m on this tour because of the Helms – Burton Act, which limits American Travel to certain categories like family visits, reporting, or, in this case, “Person to Person” (p2p) tours that help facilitate individual contact with the Cuban people. Until recently p2p programs were individually licensed by the US government. While now we can do “self-guided” p2ps, the paperwork makes it easier to go along with the organized p2p program.
The tour showed us the four major squares of Havana Vieja and provided us with a good lunch of pulled spiced Cuban beef. The music during lunch was hot. At the next table a Chilean family watched their toddler shake the maracas that the musicians had loaned her. She shook her entire body and the table as well.
The highlight of the tour may have been the thunderstorm deluge that happened around 4 PM. We watched people scatter from sheets of rain as we sheltered in an arcade in one of the old town squares. The storm dropped the temperature by 10 degrees and cleared the air for the rest of the evening. While sheltering I asked our guide about live music. He gave me a tip and I peeled off from the tour to book a table for the night at the Café Taberna, the place where Beny More, the Cuban master of Mambo, Bolero and Sun performed back in the day.