By Mia Del Rosario Villarin
SUITE HABANA: The author with her husband at Plaza de la Revolucion
SUITE HABANA and at the AirBnB balcony
7 DIAS EN LA HABANA: Magazines for sale at a Havana Home
7 DIAS EN LA HABANA: Hotel Nacional from the Malecon
7 DIAS EN LA HABANA: Pilar at Finca Vigia
7 DIAS EN LA HABANA: Hemingway’s desk
7 DIAS EN LA HABANA: and Art at Fabrica de Arte
A MOVEABLE FEAST: A typical day in Havana
A MOVEABLE FEAST: guava with cheese from Los Amigos paladar
A MOVEABLE FEAST: Hemingway bust at El Floridita
A MOVEABLE FEAST: a vintage car dash along the Malecon
A MOVEABLE FEAST: hats for sale at Callejon de Hamel
A MOVEABLE FEAST: Antonio Maceo monument and park
A MOVEABLE FEAST: Coppelia, a state run ice cream parlor
A MOVEABLE FEAST: Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis
A MOVEABLE FEAST: and costumed locals at Plaza de la Catedral
Despite his graying hair and the wrinkles and laugh lines etched on his face, I see a boy. I look at him and I see a 16-year-old. And my heart responds like a girl’s. It beats the way it did when I was young. My pulse goes faster as I am getting ready to give him a present. He has no idea. He has no clue I’d been saving for months and it feels good being able to give him something he really wants.
He has always talked about wanting to visit Havana. So I hand him a Lonely Planet book on Cuba and he smiles and appreciates the thought. He opens it, finds a slip of paper, and slowly unfolds it. I hold my breath. When he realizes what it is, a smile gradually appears on his face as well as on mine and, in that moment, as the smile makes its way to our eyes, we are two teenagers again, giddy over the prospect of going on an unsupervised trip.
IN LOVE ON THE MALECÓN
And so, in no time at all, we arrive in Havana geared up with information from research we’ve done. Although we feel prepared for the adventure we are about to take, the first experience at the Jose Marti International Airport sets the tone as well as our expectations for the rest of the trip. With one line going at a snail’s pace at the only currency exchange counter and with no other choice but to await our turn, as credit cards are not widely accepted in Cuba, we decide right there and then to adopt a laidback attitude, follow the local pace, and throw our plans out the window.
Our AirBnB home is along the Malecón, a highway bordered by a seawall that stretches for eight kilometers along the Gulf of Mexico. Our home in Cuba is a multi-level house influenced by Spanish colonial architecture one would typically find in Havana, decrepit and antiquated yet colorful and proud. We would look out from the balcony at the relentless waves of the sea and the most recognizable of all thoroughfares in Cuba.
ROMANCE BY THE GULF OF MEXICO
First sight of Havana and we are transported back to a place so familiar, the land we grew up in, the busy Roxas Boulevard and the golden sunsets of Manila Bay. We are so enamored of this sight that we are rendered speechless by the dream-like quality of taking a step back in time.
By day, the vintage cars in candy colors would rush through traffic looking like a rainbow of skittles against the shimmering sea and the frothing waves. At night, the city would come alive and people would gather by the seawall armed with their rum or cerveza, salsa-dancing to a drum-heavy beat played out of old-school boomboxes. Tempted by the call of the music, my husband grabs my hand and, like a scene from The West Side Story, I am Maria being led by Tony, running from the balcony down the steps to the front door. With one hand holding down my floral skirt to keep it from being blown by the sea wind, we cross the highway, eager to join in the revelry.
In Central Havana, we walk for miles, visiting major sites like the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, which reminds me of the historic churches of Manila. There is Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fort originally built against pirate attacks that made me recall the battlements of Corregidor. In Plaza de la Revolucion, the site of many political rallies, we can’t help but climb onto a classic car to take that iconic picture with Che Guevarra’s mural in the background. We take a stroll to Coppelia, the quintessential Cuban ice cream parlor, lining up with the locals in the afternoon sun.
In between seeing the sights, we talk about the things we experience and people we meet and I still discover new things about him that delight or sometimes even annoy me. At the 200-year-old bar El Floridita, we channel the spirit of Hemingway and toast with his favorite daiquiris. When meal time comes, we search for paladares, locally owned restaurants usually out of private homes that serve my husband’s favorite, fried plantains. And then we come to a place like Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an art gallery and club set in a former cooking oil factory, and we are both ecstatic, our shared love of art deepening our connection. Even absent of conversation, we are elated in each other’s company while we view pieces that, unfamiliar to our eyes, resonate with our soul.
On our way to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house in San Francisco de Paula in the southeastern outskirts of Havana, now a museum, just like his Key West home, we decide to take the local bus. Packed like sardines in a can, we take the ride on our feet, swaying with the group as the bus makes its stops and turns in the rain. Not knowing exactly where to get off, we are totally dependent on the kindness of the local passengers.
At one point, my non-existent claustrophobia kicks in. My husband, sensing my panic, starts moving to the music being blasted out of the bus’s speakers. The sight of him with his newly purchased straw fedora gyrating with the pole on that busload of Cubans is a welcome diversion.
We get there, braving the pouring rain with no umbrella to keep us dry, and we slosh through puddles, not a care in the world. We are soaking wet but laughing at the inevitability of it all, recalling a time in our youth when we crossed the Edsa overpass during a downpour.
After another bus ride back town, we decide to reward ourselves with a candlelit paella dinner at Los Nardos, a legendary semi-private restaurant in Havana. As a pianist playing in the background sets the mood, we have the best meal in Cuba while trying to ignore our toes shriveling up inside our cold, soggy shoes.
AN AFFAIR IN OLD HAVANA
At Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the likes of Fidel Castro and Frank Sinatra once stayed, we catch a concert by the legendary Buena Vista Club, its members aging and wrinkled but agile and passionate, like Havana itself. The dance floor soon fills with guests swaying to the beat, following the rhythm of the live music. Once again we find ourselves back in time, sweat dripping down our backs, our moves basically the same, except in our youth, we were side-stepping to Madonna’s “Holiday” or slowing down to Mike Francis’s “Let Me In.”
We walk through a square to get to Old Havana, the bronze statue of one of the leaders of Cuba’s liberation movement, General Antonio Maceo, is reminiscent of Jose Rizal’s monument at Luneta Park. Both tributes serve not just as historical testaments but a grand backdrop to picnicking couples. Another reminder of a simpler time in our adolescence when with nowhere to go and time to spare, we spent the afternoon people-watching at Quezon Memorial.
After 23 years of marriage, these recollections map out our journey from the simplest joys of young love to the here and now of responsibilities and raising a family. Ours is not a perfect marriage, nor is it ideal, but we do have perfect moments. And this trip is filled with those countless sublime occasions.
When we first got married, money was too tight and days were limited. We couldn’t just take off from our newly acquired jobs so a honeymoon was not possible. But now when we do go off on our own, whether on an overnight anniversary trip or on an adventure somewhere we’ve never been, every single trip is the honeymoon we never had.
Tags: Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, Central Havana, Cuba, Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Havana, Honeymoon in Havana, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Jose Marti International Airport, Lonely Planet, Plaza de la Revolucion