Follow along for the Busboys and Poets Travel Tribe’s Cultural Exchange trip to Cuba (July 6-13, 2022)

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

By Andy Shallal (@andyshallal CEO/Founder, Busboys and Poets)

On the way to the hotel we make a pit stop for lunch. A sprawling thatch covered restaurant. Completely open to the elements on all sides. Linen curtains wave us in. Like most restaurants in Cuba The Aljebe is government owned and run. Today they are offering are 2 choices on the menu. Pork or Vegetarian. I opt for the vegetarian. A heaping plate of rice with black beans. Lots of shredded lettuce. Cucumbers. Diced carrots. Plenty to satisfy. Normally there would be chicken or fish as well. But the the blockade has made it much more difficult to get these items. The food is plentiful however. The ambience exquisite. The music helps to ease the almost unbearable humidity. The smell of the flame trees fills the air. The warm hospitality. We finish our meal with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. And wash it down with Cuban espresso.

I feel restored. Nourished. Well cared for. Our guide, Vladimir is a Cuban mulato. He speaks English and cracks jokes. He is small and wiry. With a smile as wide as the Malecon. He tells us that he loves Americans. On our way to the hotel we go past lots of abandoned buildings. Next to opulent tall hotels. Crumbling columns. Stunning architecture. There is a sea on one side. With gentle waves lapping at the stone wall. There are hills in the distance. We pass a handful of vintage 50’s American cars. Buicks. Chevrolets. Chrysler. Russian made Ladas. Small toy like boxy cars. The streets are mostly abandoned. A constant reminder of the blockade.

The bus driver, Victor is quiet. Stocky. With wisps of blond highlights. He’s in his mid 40’s. He traverses the narrow streets of Havana effortlessly. Weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood. Past more crumbling buildings in need to paint. Cement. A good power wash. Past the general assembly building with the golden dome. A gift from the USSR shortly after the revolution. We zip through Chinatown. And make a sharp turn onto Avenue Del Puerto.

Hotel Nacional

We arrive at the Nacional Hotel in the center of Havana. Sitting atop a hill overlooking the sea. It commands attention. It was built in 1930 to cater to the well healed. It was a different time in Cuba. A few decades after independence from Spain. We enter the circular driveway with a median full of palms that reach to the heavens. Either side is lined with deco colored vintage cars. Azure Blue. Flamingo pink. Watermelon red. We are in a time warp. We go past the lobby. Through the arched walkway with Andalusian tiles. Ahead, a door opens to a veranda that transports you to another era. A carefree time. A world of opulence. And unpretentious luxury. The lulling sound of the sea mingles with the seductive sound of the rumba and son.

It is a moment and a place that summons the senses. Gently.There are crystal chandeliers to last till eternity. Terrazzo tiles that lead to brass elevators. Two grandfather clocks. And people standing at the ready to serve you. The Hotel is a historical landmark. Every brick. Every hand painted tile. Every marble column. Oozes history.

The walls are plastered with photos of film and stage stars who have made an appearance here. Some even have the room they stayed in. Winston Churchill (room 240). Marlon Brando (room 629). Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra (room 225). We head to the sixth floor where we are greeted by a concierge. Rooms are assigned. And off I head to room 621.

In an hour I will be meeting with the Deputy Minister of Culture.

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