The last flight for Havana is 12:55 this afternoon, says the US Embassy alert.
And so, for a time, the only way for Americans to visit Havana now is by fantasy, and time travel. One might argue, that was the best way all along.
Here is the first of sixteen Chapters, written to cover the average Corona quarantine.
Hopefully, it makes for a fun escape. It’s time travel historical fiction (think Midnight in Paris, for Havana) written shortly after being ushered out of the country for suspicion of assisting entrepreneurs. I hope you enjoy “Back to Havana”. I did help the entrepreneurs.
Chapter 1- First Time in Havana?
Illustration from Ermitas Blanco- ‘57 Chevy hit by Malecon Wave
Finn and Nina (friends with benefits) decide on a weekend adventure and take JetBlue flight 242 from New York, just a three hour trip to Havana. The crew is 100% Latino, and they’re having fun with the generally-boring in-flight announcements, saying something to the effect, “Never has there been more fun in the air since the Club Tropicana tourist package: the Cubana Airlines’ 1956 ‘Tropicana Special’ round-trip flight that ferried customers to the Tropicana and returned them to Florida at 4am the following morning.” With FlyFi, Finn and Nina look up the “Tropicana Special” and imagine what it must have been like to be in Havana back then.
The WiFi goes out after Miami, and Finn shuffles the cards that he always carries to pass the time… and then they land in Havana, present day.
At the airport, they’re met by Pablo, an accomplished professor in architecture who doubles as a tour guide to make extra cash. He drives a classic 1957 powder Blue Chevy Bel Air convertible provided by his Almendarone Cooperative. As the sun begins to set, they drive along the Malecon on the way to the Nacionale hotel to drop their bags. After a quick check in and change of clothes, they hop back into the car with Pablo as evening descends on Havana.
Pablo is a master of architectural detail, pointing out the Spanish colonial, beaux arts, and deco styles along the Prado, the Opera and Capitolo, Bacardi, and Plaza Viejja. As they pass El Morro at the entrance of the harbor, Nina notes the rising full moon reflecting off the Straits of Florida as they begin down the Malecon. Pablo honks at the endless stream of pretty girls on the boardwalk. Finn slouches in the backseat, looking up at the stars, wondering why he brought “sand to the beach.”
As they approach the Nacionale garden, the moon seems as close as a streetlamp. Suddenly, a giant wave disrupts the tranquil night, hitting the seawall and swamping the old Chevy. The engine stalls, the fuse box fails. Pablo and Nina are dazed, Finn doubly so as he didn’t see the wave coming. When the water subsides and the windshield wipers clear, the three realize the car isn’t going anywhere, without at least a jumper cable. Nina and Finn choose to walk back to the hotel, while Pablo stays behind long enough to get the engine started. He soon catches up to them while parking the now-functioning car at the Nacionale.
On their walk, the three notice that the people they’re passing on the street seem to be dressed from a different era. Nina remarks that there must be some theme party nearby. Pablo notices all the cars are “classics” from the 50’s, but that’s not so weird for the Malecon. They walk down the long palm-lined driveway of the Nacionale as Nina gets out her camera for a first few shots of Havana. As they reach the grand entrance, they pause by a ‘54 Chevy Deluxe DelRay and snap some shots with Pablo. Suddenly, a wiry young man in pleated pants and crisp linen shirt runs down the steps, sweating and looking over his shoulder at two others in hot pursuit. He trips on the last step, falls into Pablo, mumbles something unintelligible, and plunges his hand momentarily into Pablo’s blazer pocket before regaining his balance and hopping in a taxi and yelling: “Solo vamos. en cualquier sitio. Ahora!” The two meatheads in pursuit grab the next cab which takes off behind him, belching smoke into the surprisingly unpolluted air
Then, a black limo pulls up and grabs Nina’s attention.
She trains her camera on the back door, as she’s done so many times as an amateur New York paparazzo, and starts clicking every shot she can at the man and the three voluptuous women emerging, being hustled VIP-style into the side entrance.
Once the party disappears into the hotel, she looks in her viewfinder and does a double take: the showgirls are Tropicana-types, common enough in Havana, but the man? No doubt at all: the man is Frank Sinatra. A very young Frank Sinatra. Nina is speechless. If this was some kind of an impersonator, he was a dead-on doppleganger.
She grabs Finn who looks at the shot, and is taken aback as well. Pablo scratches his head. Suddenly, everything starts rushing back to them: the wave, the moon, the clothes on the people, the absence of any cars later than 1956, Sinatra???…
They go to the front desk and grab a Havana Daily Telegraph newspaper: clear as day, the date reads [December 13, 1957] What the f*ck? What the f*ck? Nina, Finn and Pablo are yelling out loud in the vaulted ceilings of the Hotel Nacionale Lobby. “What. The. F*ck?”
Gabriel, the hotel manager, comes to quiet them down. This kind of language is totally inappropriate for a vaulted ceiling in an elegant hotel. He suggests they continue their overly-animated conversation outside on the veranda. A bit of fresh air will help, he assures them. Perhaps a bit of rum, as well.
The three of them sit on a couch overlooking the gardens, the Malecon and the full moon over the Florida Straits. The waiter pours a rum and each of them quaff it straight away. It’s good, with no “bite” at all. Before he leaves, they ask for another pour of… the label reads “Bacardi.” But in Havana? Pablo hasn’t seen anything but “Havana Club” since he was allowed to drink; Bacardi officially left the island in 1959, along with most everyone else who could escape. So where did that bottle come from, they ask?
Oh, from today’s delivery, the waiter answers.
What the F*ck is going on, they think. Where are we? When are we? Thinking he had just another pair of fun-loving American tourists on his hands, the waiter pours another and says, “It’s your first night in Havana, guys. You’ll be talking about [May insert- 1956] for a long time!”
(Next Chapter tomorrow)
Prefer the whole Book One? Here is the Table of Contents, with links.