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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture Tour Part 3, and some musings...

Saturday afternoon, Sitting on the roof deck of the Hotel Raquel.

 Our group had its final dinner last night, in a well known restaurant where, apparently, everyone who is anyone, and a lot who aren’t, have to go when in Havana. Hemingway has,of course, been there. Perusing the photos on the walls, I saw Mohammed Ali, Woody Harrelson, Harry Belafonte, Hemingway’s son, his nephew, all in signed photos. The less well known sign there names directly on the walls, on which there is barely an inch of space to fit one in, even up high on the walls. We had, as usual, too much food, all delicious. After dinner the group convened briefly in the lobby of another hotel, where I assume Hoji is known, as we didn’t have any drinks, just talked, posed for a group picture, and began to say our goodbyes. Some have already left, a few are staying here another night or two, the three women friends are going to Trinidad and la Boca and the Casa Sol y Mar that  we recommended highly to them. We also gave the info to Hoji, at his request, since he wasn't familiar with la Boca, and may want to refer other folks there. I feel glad that we are giving them some more business.

 Some of us came up to the roof deck here last night. Great view of the city, If you go to the Hotel Raquel, even just for a drink, make sure to go up there. We ran into some of the group again this am, but who knows, may still encounter them again. We have extended an open invitation for people to visit, and perhaps some of them will.

This is our last day in Cuba. Soon we will go over to Casa 1932, where we spent our first night and will spend our last. We spoke to Giselle, who had invited us to have dinner with us tonite. She said it would be too hard for us to find her place, so she is going to come get us at the casa.

This morning we walked one more time around the old Havana neighborhood, which is getting to be familiar. We visited two museums, one at a university which does artistic restoration, among other things. Some interesting paintings, but more interesting, the stories behind them that the woman who guided us through told us, about the painters, whether they were Cuban or had lived here. One portrait was particularly striking, and she said people called it the Cuban Mona Lisa. I aksed if we could take a picture. She said, officially, no, but if we stood here, indicating a specific spot, we would be out of range of the security cameras! And of course we did.  Next we went to another museum also on the grounds of the University, but only a couple of rooms were open, and not particularly interesting.

Wandering further, we came to the Ceramics Museum, whose lobby we had stopped in on our first day. In the courtyard and upstairs there was an iimpressive array of modern ceramics, in a beautiful setting, a serendipitous find, which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting here. Again, like at the art gallery, no entrance fee, just a tip to the guide.

There is a wonderful view of old Havana from the rooftop where we are now sitting and drinking a couple of Buccanareos. When there is a breeze it is comfortable, well at least tolerable, but when it stops, as it now has, it is barely so. We may have to head indoors to the quasi air conditioned lobby soon, and before long will head over to our casa.

I have learned a little more about the Jewish connection with the hotel, and am hoping to learn a bit more before we head out. The day bartender, Wilbur, is Jewish and if he is available we may be able to chat with him a bit.  What I do know is that the building was originally a mercantile buiding housing textiles, then later became a bank and one or two other things. When the historic center was being restored, the city historian realized that there was nothing in the city commemerating the Jewish population, and decided to use this building for that purpose, as well as making it a hotel. It has only twenty five rooms, a lot of art by Jewish artisits, and, interestingly, a dinner menu featuring traditional Jewish dishes, things like borsht, potato latkkes, marinated fish, chicken soup.  We did have breakfast here this morning, a large buffet like we have had previously at the Telegrafo. No Jewish dishes at breakfast, though, except possibly for one pastry that could have been an interpretation of rugelach.

We went searching for one of the synagogues yesterday afternoon, and found it. There are apparently two active congregations here. We entered the building, saw two glass fronted rooms. One was clearly the synagogue itself, the other adjacent one a room with tables,. About 30 people sitting at them, some with glasses of wine. I took a picture of the synagogue side, and a man immediately came out to us from the other room and said no pictures were allowed. He said we could come back this morning at 9, or this evening at 7pm. But we don’t have time, and I am not particularly interested in attending a service. It would, though, be interesting to talk to some memebers of the congregation.

On our way out, we encountered a man who said he was the cook for the temple. We talked for a while, he said if we were staying longer he would cook us a good Jewish creole meal.  He told us about his ailing 93 year old mother, whom he lived with and cared for. He asked if we could give him a small donation to help with her medical care. I had a hard time believing a man in his 60’s wearing a yarmulke, on the grounds of a synagogue, could be scamming us, and we did give him a few pesos, about three dollars worth, which he said he would use toward a new pair of eyeglasses for his mother, which he said would cost about ten peson/dollars. 

I don’t want to think it was a total scam, and so I won’t. I have no doubt that many people truly need the money or items that the hope to get from foreigners. What I don’t like is being taking total advantage of, being told a story that isn't at all true. I don’t think I’ve written about the two familes that did indeed try to scam us on El Prado a few days ago. The first was a couple with whom we stopped to talk after they asked where we were from. They told us about themselves, and that it was their anniversary but had no money to celebrate so this was their celebration, sitting on a bench on the Prado. Loring is much more of a skeptic, and I am quite gullible, so he had them pegged long before I did. They eventually told us about their two kids, and how one of them was diabetic but that they couldn’t afford to get the insulin he needed. And could we come with them to the international pharmacy and purchase it for them, and they could see they were using it for bona fide purposes. This is where I began to get suspicious. And Hoji, smiling the next day when we recounted the story, said, oh, the anniversary story and the medication story, two of the most commom scams. That at least made me feel better that I had eventally said no to the couple, that I was very sorry, but that we had made our donations as a group to various organizations, rather than to indiviiduals. But I had continued to feel bad as I said no, wondering all the time if their story was  true.

The second incident involved a young couple and a baby. As soon as I related this much to Hoji he said, did they ask you for money for powdered milk? Indeed they had.

I wonder sometimes if it matters how people ask the more well off to help them. Does it really matter if they are clever enough to fool us, if they are truly needy?  Is it important for me to feel appreciated and acknowledged when someone receives the benefit of my largesse? No one want to be taken advantage of or deceived. But who determines the morality in a situation?   I always think  back to the moral dilemmas and stages of development we studied in grad school. What about the man who steals medication that he can’t afford that will save his wife’s life?

Well, on that note I will stop for now. It is becoming increasingly hot up here, and it’s time for us to move on, either to the lobby and to perhaps get some info from Wilbur on the Jewish community here, or onto Casa 1932, our home for the last night of our Cuban sojourn. We haven’t been that successful at finding internet access here, so it is entirely possible that this account will finish and be posted online after our return home, tomorrow.

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