Friday, September 11, 2009

Cuba, Part 5

Danielle and I waited until the two lovebirds disengaged, before we approached them.

Melanie introduced us to her boyfriend, Reydel. He couldn't take his eyes off of Melanie. He was quite excited!

"Welcome to Cuba," Reydel said softly, with decent pronunciation.

"Should we go?" Melanie asked him.

"Yes. My friend is coming," he replied. He stumbled a bit, but he wasn't bad.

The four of us went outside, in front of Jose Marti airport and I felt a wall of humidity, much greater than Cancun's, hit us. My suitcase even felt heavier. I looked at my watch. It was midnight.

We stood outside, in the middle of a moving crowd, and Reydel looked for his friend's car. He didn't see anything and that made me nervous. Danielle and I didn't have a hotel.

"Maybe Danielle and I should take a cab," I suggested to Melanie.

Reydel understood what I was saying and replied.

"No, it is expensive!" he said, raising his voice above a whisper for the first time.

I wasn't sure if I should insist. I didn't want to be rude. I looked at Danielle for some input.

"We should go with them," she said to me, "we don't even know where we're going, anyways!"

She had a point. We did have a guidebook with addresses, but still. Maybe midnight was not the time to figure out the lay of the land for two Americans by themselves. The sky was an inky dark blue with the outline of a few clouds barely visible, and the blanket of humidity pressed down.

Cars pulled up nearby, and it was a thrill to see the '50s American automobiles working perfectly. Truly, it was like a time warp. I had almost forgotten that cars used to look like that. Spacious and sprawling with those big, angular fins for taillights. Much friendlier than they look these days, but, still with purpose and vigor.

We waited about half an hour before Reydel's friend pulled up to the curb in front of us, and got out of the car.

Another round of introductions had me shaking hands with Manuel, the driver, who it appeared spoke no English at all.

As I got into the car, I noticed a wire clothes hangar protruding from the back, near the rear window, that was functioning as an antennae. It was a symbolic reminder of the embargo. There would be no re-ordering of car parts from the U.S. Everything had to be makeshift from here on out. I suddenly realized that there must be a lot of good mechanics in Cuba.

More old-timey American cars passed by, and I had the strong urge for a vanilla milkshake. Any reference to the 50's always made me thinks of diners, milkshakes, and roller rinks.

We all got seated in the car, with Reydel in the passenger seat, and Melanie, Danielle and I in the back. The stuffing was coming out to the vinyl seats and there was junk all over the floor. The roof liner was also coming down around our heads a little bit, but I couldn't have been more comfortable. I was glad to be with people we knew.

Reydel turned back to address me.

"Where?" he said, pointing to the guidebook in my hand.

"La Fortuna, por favor," and I gave him the address of the hotel which was on the outskirts of old town Havana.

Reydel repeated the address to Manuel and we were off. Danielle and Melanie started talking and my mind drifted off somewhere. As we hit the road and got away from the airport, I noticed two things that surprised me, while looking out of my window. The first was that Havana had one hell of a lot of billboards. Just like the United States, but more so.

The difference was that ALL the billboards were government propaganda. They would say things like "Cuba, Si!!" in huge red graphic letters, as if the emphatic support of the Cuban government on a billboard would brainwash an entire population. Which it sort of did, actually. The second thing was that Havana had their stoplights positioned sideways. They looked cooler that way, I thought.

It took us about twenty minutes to arrive at the hotel, which I could not even see from the car window.

Manuel came to a stop at the base of a very steep hill. The grounds were well manicured, with lots of trees and shrubbery of uniform height. Concrete steps ascended to the hotel, which looked like a mansion, yet small in comparison to all the landscaping surrounding it.

I asked Reydel if it would be possible to wait while I checked on the availability.

"Sure," he said.

But Melanie fidgeted with her hands in a way that made me nervous. She really wanted to go home.

"OK. I'll be right back."

I walked briskly up the oversize, concrete steps which had small, wrought-iron lamps every twenty feet or so, casting a small circle of light. It would have been pitch black without them. I looked at my watch. It was just after 1 a.m.

The entrance to La Fortuna featured a very tall and massive wooden door with a brass handle. I pulled it open with my body weight and proceeded into the lobby. It was so stunning in its antiquity and stillness that I paused to take it all in. There were black and white marble floors throughout, large, intricately carved wooden cabinets and tables, and, about fifty feet in front of me was the concierge area where an old man, (who didn't look completely unlike Fidel Castro), stroked his beard and considered his next move on the chess board in front of him. He took a puff of his cigar and adjusted his cap, concentrating.

His opponent was perched on the edge of his stool, hovering over the board, engrossed in the game as well. Neither of them even so much as looked up from the board when I came in. It's not that they didn't hear me. They had to have heard me, it was silent as a tomb for chrissakes! They just simply didn't care that someone had come in. They both had rocks glasses of alcohol in front of them, (presumably whisky), that had created large, wet rings around them from the condensation, which shone from the overhead light above the board.



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