We’re up early today for our drive back to Havana. I start the day with a quiet half hour in the courtyard garden of our home-stay casa, catching up on my journal and soaking in the last few minutes in this beautiful space. Breakfast is soon on the table – eggs, fresh fruit and today a white, gluey fruit loaded with large black seeds – guanaba. It’s a bit challenging to get at but worth the effort.
The mood, as we pile our bags into the back of the van is a little subdued. I’m thinking about the end of our tour approaching. It seems like a lot longer than eight days but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s not ready for it to end. I’m going to miss these wonderful
women, our uber-intelligent and animated guide, Jorge and our stoic and capable driver, Pedro. We have another long day on the road today back to Havana but will stop half-way at the Che Memorial in Santa Clara. Dani, Margurite and I luck into the comfy front seat for the first leg. We all pass the time by peppering Jorge with our questions about local custom, Fidel, Cuba and Cubans, Jorge’s own life and his travel experiences. He responds to all knowledgably and with good-humour. I think he must have heard these same questions about a million times but you wouldn’t know it. He’s a real professional. We also swap bad jokes.
We’ve been driving for a while when the morning coffee begins to take effect but we are in the middle of nowhere with no really good options for a bathroom break. Jorge directs Pedro to pull over along a sugar cane field and they laughingly invite us to pick out a spot but no one wants to wade across the ten feet of deep mud to get into the cane, so we drive on. There are small homes at intervals along the road and we pull up in front of one. Don’t try this at home….Jorge strides up to the front door and with all the charm we’ve seen through our week with him he asks the woman who answers his knock if some of our group might use her bathroom! A number of our group are relieved (pun intended) in the nick of time. Dani gives one of her pens to a little guy who peeks out from behind his mom, watching strange women in designer sunglasses traipse in and out of their home. Such an incredible illustration of life here, of simple courtesies and the dependence on each other that feeds the immense pride of country we’ve seen in everyone we’ve met in the past week.
The Che Memorial in Santa Clara is beautiful and impressive. A broad expanse of marble walkway is lined with low walls and dominated by a towering bronze of the man himself in mid-stride, rifle at his side looking toward the Sierra Maestra Mountains where many of his battles were fought. A museum at the memorial has many artifacts of the revolution, weapons, photographs, medical instruments (he studied medicine in university) and original notes and letters all in remarkably good condition. We spent almost an hour browsing the displays and hearing an overview from the docent before going into the cool, quiet mausoleum under the memorial. No photos permitted. Jorge has described the difficulties overcome by Fidel Castro to recover the body of his friend after Che was assassinated in Bolivia, adding to our sense of reverence for the place. The walls of the mausoleum are blocks of yellow-golden, edge-cut lumber broken by vertical rows of marble burial chambers that identify each man with a bas relief of his head, and his name. I take the time to read each one. Che’s burial chamber, his profile with distinctive beret is set out slightly from the rest. A single orange gladiola in a small glass tube is attached to the wall beside each chamber and the lighting is intentionally low, augmented by an eternal flame set in a raised area of the floor at the far end of the low-ceilinged room. Before leaving the memorial we browse the bookstore which has a good selection of books on the revolution, Fidel Castro and Che in Spanish and English.
On the way out of Santa Clara we stop at a palador for cheeseburgers and beer and then Dani, Margurite and I settle in to make the last leg of the journey in the backseat. I pull out an old Saturday Crossword from the Globe and Mail – “Canada’s National Newspaper” – and we set to filling in the blanks. In spite of our hilarity as we strain to come up with an eleven letter word for….Jo, Nicola and Priti nod off in the front seat. At some point, needing to get the kinks out of our cramped legs we finagle our feet up in front of us and stretch our legs out to rest them on the back of the front seat. Jorge takes photos of our six feet and thirty toes hanging like an awning over the heads of the group in the front seat, who are fast asleep and oblivious to our antics.
Havana feels much too busy after our week of adventure in the country, and the reception at the Nacional distinctly chilly after the warm greetings and welcoming smiles of our home stay hosts. The lobby is crowded and noisy and the woman at the front desk is distracted and inattentive. Everyone at this hotel seems to be trying to do three things at one time, carrying on multiple conversations at the expense, I think of good service. We are sorry to have to say good bye to our driver, Pedro before we check in. I’m relieved that the concierge is able to locate the suitcase that I left in storage last week and I do manage to get checked into Room 218, once occupied by Nat King Cole. The room is decorated with photos and anecdotes from his stay here, including the caveat that he did not stay at the Nacional on his first two trips to Havana, as in those days blacks were not permitted as guests.
Our last group dinner is at Emperado, in the “second-tallest” building in Havana and a very short walk from the hotel. Pre-game drinks are in the modern, minimally furnished cocktail bar on the top floor of the building. The place gives the impression of being neon pink and has floor-to-ceiling windows with a stunning view of the sea, the malecon and most of Havana. Our view is partially obstructed by the condensation that runs thickly down the inside of the windows of this 33-storey apartment building and I wonder briefly if there are such things as building construction by-laws in Cuba. We are in a party mood, having all treated ourselves to long, hot showers or baths at the Nacional and we are dressed for a night out. We order exotic Cuban cocktails. I like one called a ‘campahrina’ or something like that and Jorge gets kick out of hearing me try to order it. Whatever it’s called, it’s yummy. Both of them. Okay…all of them.
We’ve had a couple, or maybe a few cocktails by the time we head down for dinner and that makes ordering our meal something of a challenge. It’s all screamingly funny. At some point Nicola tries to charm one of the hostesses in the restaurant out of her lace stockings and I sing a duet of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with the keyboard player who naively approaches our table with a microphone. We dine up-scale on chateaubriand and lobster. Jorge takes a phone call in the middle of dinner and we insist on all taking a turn saying inebriated Holas! to whoever is on the other end. I hope it wasn’t his mother! Cameras are passed around to capture this last supper together and restaurant staff are good natured about being pressed into service for group shots. We linger over our wine after dinner. Our charming tour guide buys roses for all of us from a street seller and another round of photos ensues. It was a great, hilarious and fitting last evening together. By midnight we have agreed to meet for breakfast in the Nacional in the morning and we drunkenly and reluctantly call it a wrap.