Thursday, February 13, 2014

CUBA continues…the legendary Hotel Nacional


Our home in Havana is the legendary the Hotel Nacional. 

I love 1930’s architecture and I read that this building has elements of art deco and Hispanic-Moorish in the interior.  It was built designed and built in only 14 months by the American firms McKim, Mead @ White and Purdy and Henderson Co.   From the outside it reminds me of The Breakers in Florida, which was built in the same era.  I can’t wait to explore…

IMG_8601 Jan 13 hotel Nacional plaque


It is cocktail hour and my friends are over their in those wicker chairs.  They tell me the Cuban beer is good, I hope so because there seems to be only two brands to choose from. 


The lobby shows the influence of the 1930’s…love the design’s on the ceiling beams. 

The hotel like everything else is owned by the Cuban government, but it was designed and built by Americans so it still stands strong.   The Cubans have worked hard to restore and maintain this building, and they consider it a 5 star hotel.  Since I don’t stay in 5 star hotels, I would not know. 

I just love that they respect the history of the place and have not ruined its look and feel in the process of making it modern. 

I see people sitting on the floor in the hall using their laptops under a router with an HP logo on it.  They say that is the only way they could get the signal and it is dial up speed.  I’m skipping it, I am on vacation and I prefer to live like its 1930 here! 

IMG_9098 who slept in what room

The “Who Slept Here” or the “Who Slept Where” sign that sits on the front desk of Hotel National shows a mix of celebrities dating back to the 1930’s.   Here are just a few of my faves on the list…Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Mickey Mantle, Buster Keaton, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary cooper, Marlon Brando, and Earnest Hemingway.  In 1946 Winston Churchill stayed in the Republica Suite.  And of course most famously, in December 1946 the Hotel Nacional hosted an infamous mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and attend by Santo Trafficante, Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and others.  Francis Ford Coppola memorably dramatized the conference in his file The Godfather Part Two.   I don’t see my room number on this sign.  Maybe it is just as well as there might be ghosts…

IMG_8953 view from my room city and sea

View from my room on the 7th floor of the Hotel Nacional.  Note the traffic…


Walking out into the garden I turn to take this photo, and then walk on toward the sea.  That is when I discover this…



Well this is different!  Not every hotel has this in the garden!

Cuba continues….the famous old American cars

Yes all you car lovers the 1950’s and older American cars that you hear about really do still exist in Cuba.  Sometimes it seems like time has stood still here, locked into 1958.  

Until January 1, 2014 it was illegal to buy and sell cars in Cuba, so cars are mostly government owned.  However, Cubans are resourceful and creative people so those that owned cars at the time of the Revolution have kept them or traded them for other cars.  They are lovingly maintained by their owners.

Most of the American cars are general motors dating from 1953 – 58.

IMG_9687 me and my Buick

Me and “my” car.





Here is a really old one!  The modern car in the background is a government owned taxi.


IMG_9604 iconic 57 Chevy

IMG_8600 Jan 13 red roadster at hotel

Most of the taxi’s show up in the driveway of the Hotel Nacional in  hopes of picking up International riders who tip.  Many of these taxi drivers are now working for themselves driving their own cars because Raul’s new rules permit people to be self-employed in many careers including taxi driver.  

A taxi driver can make tips so he or she makes more than a doctor in Cuba.   This is a communist country so everyone works for the government and makes $16.00 to $30.00 a month.  The government pays doctors $30 a month.   Now that Raul Castro is allowing some private enterprise things are beginning to change.


These guys have to be the world’s most resourceful and creative mechanics.  They make their own car parts, they get friends to bring car parts in from Canada, some drop Russian engines into their cars and some are even fitted with diesel engines.  


I see this couple on their way up the driveway to the Hotel Nacional  and snap a quick photo


And here is the family following the bride and groom, note the little boy in the suit with the very cool haircut in the back seat.  This tells me the couple is Cuban so they must be doing well to afford a reception at this hotel!


Our last night in Cuba, Matthew arranged for all of us to ride to dinner in the coolest taxi’s in Havana.   Sandy and Sandy ride in a “time machine”.



Rick had a special bond with this car, here he stands with the proud owner of the car.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

CUBA…was on my bucket list.

Cuba has been on my bucket list since I knew what a bucket list was. 


One day I was driving home from Sacramento with my radio tuned to Capitol Public Radio (our local PBS station) and I heard an announcement that the radio station was taking listeners to Cuba on a “People to People” trip.   


I have heard that since Raul Castro took over from Fidel things have begun to change in Cuba.  He seems to be taking baby steps toward Capitalism, allowing his people to work privately not for the state in certain jobs.  He has allowed people to open private restaurants, drive private taxi cabs, and now they can buy and sell cars and even buy and sell real estate.   (Of course the state sets the prices and they are too high, but that is another story.)  


I remember my friend Kathy telling me about her trip to China with the very first group of American tourists to visit China.  She described people all wearing their “Mao pajamas” and living in a country very different than the China I saw in 2007.   How exciting it would have been to be in China when she went and then return again in 2007. 


If I go to Cuba now, I can see it as it is now.  When Cuba opens up to Capitalism and allows private enterprise we could see resort hotels, casinos, oil wells and whatever else invades this tiny island.


I know Americans who have snuck into Cuba through Canada, Mexico or some other country but it is illegal and you can be fined for doing so.  I travel to Europe to teach Watercolor Sketching every year so it is important that I not offend the US State Department.  But this trip was licensed by the US Government, so this was legal.  I signed up.


36 adventurous souls and our guide Matthew Brumley owner of Earthbound Expeditions boarded a charter flight in Miami on January 12, 2014.




I will be posting my thoughts, photos and sketches of Cuba over the next few days and weeks.  Stay tuned, and please add your comments to this blog.

CUBA my first impressions


Walking across the airport tarmac a pretty young lady wearing a smart military style uniform ushers us into the immigration department.  Her uniform skirt is mini length and she wears black fishnet stockings.


My passport and visa stamped, I pass through security, customs, turn in my health form and enter the Havana Airport lobby.  It is small like the old Sacramento Metro Airport in the 1960s.  I see no advertising signs anywhere. 

The airport parking lot is almost empty, save for a few old 1950’s Chevys, a Kia, a couple of Ladas (Russian cars) and our shiny modern Volvo bus.   No advertising signs anywhere.




Our first stop is Plaza de la Revolucion.  Where is everybody?  The government buildings (all built in the 1950s) surround a huge open  area, cement, light poles with dangling wires, a monument, and two huge portraits of Che Guevara …not Fidel?  This is where Fidel made his 4 hour long speeches and where the Pope came, but it is empty today.




I expected to see huge Fidel faces everywhere but instead it is Che Guevara.




Back on the bus we head to Old Havana…
we pass a neighborhood that looks like a bombed out war zone.




…we seem to be on a main street but there is no traffic.  Just a car here in there, or a Lada  (those Russian cars) that Ali told me are not cars more like jokes.




People walking on the sidewalks, congregating in small groups in doorways, sitting on steps, chairs, balconies and not one person is talking or texting on a cell phone!


IMG_8221 Jan 12 Old Havana


OLD HAVANA…Walking through Old Havana we see lovely Colonial buildings restored by the department of historical preservation.  Our guides tell  us that this is the only government department that still exists after the revolution.   The oldest buildings in Havana are the ones in best condition because the government is restoring the oldest first.


IMG_8205 Jan 12 girls group


This group plays Cuban music during lunch of shrimp, lobster and rice.   They play in front of the door to the kitchen so the servers keep walking between them with food.  The sisters have beautiful and powerful voices and their sound makes us all want to dance but we are hungry so we eat.


IMG_8212 Jan 12 Cafe Taberna bar


We are all familiar with the music of the Buena Vista Social Club so after lunch Matthew asks Ali and Laura to show us the Café Taberna where they played.   This is the Café Taberna bar…feels like 1930s here…


IMG_8215 Jan 12 Beny More' RCA poster


I spot a poster on the wall of famed Cuban singer Beny More’ and see that it advertises RCA Victor records.  The first advertising I have seen in Cuba, I wonder if it will be the last because this is a Communist country where all companies have been owned by the state since 1959.


IMG_8190 Jan 12 Old Havana street


We wander down streets of Old Havana, our Cuban guides Ali and Laura answer our questions and point things out to us.  People smile as we pass them, some wave from balconies.  


IMG_8230 Jan 12 reeds trio


We hear music coming from a small hotel lobby.  It is a reed ensemble.  We  investigate, listen for awhile,  LOVE THEIR SOUND!  I buy their homemade cd.


IMG_8232 Jan 12 art deco glass


My pre-trip research mentioned Art Deco buildings that have not been changed, so I am pleased to discover this lovely glass work over the reception desk in this small hotel lobby.


IMG_8244 Jan 12 street performors


We hear drums and discover a crowd surrounding stilt walkers and everyone is swinging to the Cuban beat.


IMG_8250 Jan 12 stilt walking girl


Seeing our cameras, this lovely young woman poses for us before hurrying off to catch up with the others.


IMG_8261 Jan 12 Hotel Ambos Mundos Hemmingway stayed here


Hemmingway slept here…


Another beautiful 1930s style bar, this one in Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemmingway and his friends stayed.


IMG_8259 Jan 12 piano mans Hotel Ambos Mundos


It is mid afternoon but the piano man is playing at the Hotel Ambos Mundos.  Music seems to be a 24 hour thing here.


IMG_8262 Jan 12 photo of Hemmingway at Hotel Ambos Mundos


I love old black and white photos.  These show the Good Old Days at the Hotel Ambos Mundos.


IMG_8186 Jan 12 contemperary sculpture


Love this!


IMG_8280 Jan 12 mural of colonial life


More public art, a mural of Colonial life in Cuba.


IMG_8278 Jan 12 beginnings of Capitolism


Beginnings of Capitalism? 


IMG_8289 Jan 12 boat in the street


I am not sure why this boat is sitting in the road, but I like it…


IMG_8288 Jan 12 Old Havana church


Lovely Old Havana church


IMG_8268 Jan 12 old women in Old Havana


and lovely Old Havana ladies


IMG_8265 Jan 12 historical preservation in Old Havana


Some buildings in Old Havana are restored and painted with fun Cuban colors, while others are in total disrepair.


Art Deco door and balcony


I whip out my journal and standing in the street below this balcony I quickly get the bare bones of the scene sketched.  I snap a photo and plan to add the watercolor in my hotel room at the end of the day.


This is not a painting trip.  I am not traveling at the slower pace that I do on a painting trip.  This is a People to People Tour which means we are on the go from one thing to the next, no time to sit and sketch.  So I carry my Watercolor Journal with a pen clipped to the spiral binding in my backpack.  My Cannon SLR camera is around my neck.  I am determined to capture some scenes on this trip in watercolor and ink sketches even if it means they get started on the trip and finished from photos when I return home.


I will continue to post my thoughts, photos and sketches of Cuba on this blog in the next few days or weeks.  Check back for more, or better yet subscribe to this blog. 


What do you think so far?  Please post your comments below.  Thanks!