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Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 4: De Matanzas a Havana

It’s the bus.

Amistad sailed from Matanzas very early this morning. Those of us who were left behind were scheduled to leave the hotel in Matanzas at 9:00, but that was delayed due to our bus needing oil and having to wait until it could be delivered from somewhere else. We were on the road by about 10:30 and retraced much of our drive along Cuba’s northern coast between Matanzas and Havana. The countryside was still beautiful and it is still surprising to see such a mix of modes of transport: everything from oxcarts and horses to 1950s classics from Detroit to Soviet cars that were imported to the island at later dates. There are lots of new vehicles on the roads, too, but my favorite was when we saw Amistad sailing West toward Havana, her sails shining in the sunlight.

When we arrived in Havana, the bus dropped us at the Hotel Habana Libre, which was once the Havana Hilton until Castro nationalized it in the 1960s. The Hotel Habana Libre is also the hotel from which Castro ran his government when he first took control of Havana. We were scheduled to meet the rest of the crew at 2:00 to drive down to the port where Amistad would later dock, but I made other plans to be dropped off at the harbor entrance, at the end of the Malecón, where I would have a good angle for shooting Amistad as she made the turn into the harbor after she made a pass along the Malecón. Since we were too early to check in, Bill and I had a great lunch of ropa vieja, a stewed beef dish whose name literally means “old clothes” because of the way the meat falls apart.

Finally, even though it wasn’t quite check-in time, the desk clerk managed to get us into our room on the 18th floor. As the bellhop settled us into our room, he opened the curtain onto the balcony and there we say Amistad making her final passage into the harbor – an hour and change ahead of schedule. I whipped out my camera and shot over 100 pictures as she made her way into the harbor and out of sight. The angle was good, but I hope that Wojtek, Amistad’s official photographer was able to get better shots, since I was shooting from more than a mile away.

Since we had missed being in the right place at the right time to photograph Amistad from up-close, Bill and I went ahead and met the group at the Hotel Nacionál, as we had originally planned, then we went to the commercial pier, where Amistad was already tied up, flying the United Nations, Cuban, United States, Connecticut, Mystic Seaport and United Church of Christ flags. We arrived just as the press conference was starting, but security wouldn’t let us in because we didn’t have the official invitations that were required for admission.

The group of eight of us stood around while our guide, Jorge, argued with the guards. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, I approached the woman who seemed to be in charge of the guards and, pointing out my crew shirt and hat, explained to her that I was a member of the schooner’s crew and needed to be inside. That, at least, got her moving and she came back a couple minutes later and declared that I was allowed to go in, along with two others of the group. Fortunately, before we could really start arguing among ourselves who the other two would be, the representative from the Ministry of Culture arrived with invitations for all of us and we were finally allowed to enter the cruise ship terminal where everything was already well under way.

The event was the typical dignitary-laden function where everyone stands up and says how happy they are and how great a historical moment it is to have Amistad in their port. This time, however, there was additional poignancy, as today is the 10th anniversary of Amistad’s launch in Mystic. It also marks the completion of her journey to the three points in the triangle of the Amistad story: Freetown, Sierra Leone; Havana, Cuba; and New London, CT. Today also is the UN Slavery Remembrance Day, celebrating the passage of the Wilberforce Declaration by the Parliament of Great Britain in 1807, which outlawed the international trade in slaves. The Wilberforce Declaration also influenced the policies of the United States, which banned the importation of slaves the following year, and of the Spanish Empire, which also outlawed the importation of Africans in short order, paving the way for the legal arguments about the status of the Amistad captives in 1839.

But back to the events of the day. After all of the dignitaries had had their say, an Afro-Cuban dance and music group presented a piece featuring Yemayá (the sea-spirit of Yoruba religion and Santería) dancing with several other orishas (the general name for the godlike spirits of Santería. Like the dancers at the UNESCO museum yesterday, they put on quite a show and I was sorry when they were done.

We finished up the evening with a recption hosted by the Ludwig Foundation, one of the major cultural foundations here in Havana. Again, we were surrounded by notable Cubans from academia, the arts, and political circles. Neither Fidel nor Raul joine us, but we had the next best thing in the person of the Cuban National Assembly Speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, with whom I'm chatting in the picture on the right.

Now, itis 1:30am and I'm just finishing up this blog post at the Hotel Nacional. When I'm done, I'm going to head back to my own hotel (where internet access costs $25/day) and go to sleep. Tomorrow, I'll do some sight-seeing.

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