Hotel Nacional de Cuba – Mojitos and Mobsters by David Latta

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Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about Cuba outside its popular mythology but knew instantly where I wanted to stay.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was popularized in the movie Godfather II as the venue for what came to be called, in real life, the Havana Conference. Held in December 1946, it brought together America’s top crime bosses including “Lucky” Luciano, then in exile in Italy, and Meyer Lanksy, who was to head the push by American organised crime into Cuba’s numerous casinos under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.

The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirst for when travelling. The hotel opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder of the firm, Stamford White, had his own literary pedigree; his 1906 murder forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Havana was everything I was expecting and far, far more. While the people may be poor, they are overwhelmingly hospitable with a ready sense of humour. It seems as if every second Cuban is a musician; linger for more than a few minutes in a bar or café and a group will wander in unannounced and strike up a tune that would have the Buena Vista Social Club tapping their toes in appreciation.

The Nacional, however, was a mixed bag. The public areas, in dark local mahogany and imported Spanish tiles, are an intoxicating melange of Moorish and Art Deco, the design equivalent of Othello dancing a tango with Nora Charles. The guestrooms tend to the smallish and could most kindly be described as Period Shabby Chic but many have histories that almost make up for their lack of comfort.

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The breakfast buffet was a constant feast of surprises, some of which were actually edible. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what had most likely originally been a huge slab of frozen pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and then been boiled in one piece. In another country it would have been a prop for a particularly obscure piece of performance art or an unwanted item from the Damien Hirst factory store. Guests gathered around it, curious and rather unsure of what to do with it. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.

Hotel staff generally, with the exception of the friendly and efficient housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is terminated with a sigh of detached reservation and a polite refusal. I was determined to get a tour of the hotel and eventually found a concierge who defrosted slightly under a relentless barrage of flattery and a folded €20 note.

It opened up a seemingly endless exploration of the second floor, where all the celebrities of the last 80 years stayed. The so-called Mafia Room is a double suite, numbers 211-13. It doesn’t appear like a hangout for a mob of wiseguys and their henchmen, where the 1947 hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was sanctioned or the corporatisation of the American drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place your grandparents would stay for their golden wedding anniversary.

Celebrity guests of a more benign nature included Frank Sinatra (Room 214), Nat King Cole (218), Ava Gardner (225), Fred Astaire (228) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller (232).

Errol Flynn stayed in Room 235, two doors down from mine. If our rooms were identically sized, I figured he needed to be extremely dexterous to exercise his growing reputation. Flynn was also said to have been a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway although it must be noted that, if you had a pulse and were in Cuba anytime between the 1920s and 1960s, there’s a pretty fair chance you’d end up drinking with Hemingway.

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The Celebrity Hall of Fame in the Bay-View Bar shows that celebrities have been a little light on in the recent past, the best-known being Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone and The Backstreet Boys

The rear gardens amble down to a cliff-face overlooking the harbor. Pancho, the Nacional’s pet peacock, lives in a small shed in front of La Barraca, an outdoor restaurant promising, although not exactly delivering, Cuban cuisine. A living and breathing contradiction in terms (locals will readily admit that the best Cuban food is in Miami), I overheard a group of Australian tourists refer to it as La Berocca.

The centre of the hotel’s social scene is the colonnaded verandah just off the lobby. At any time of the day or night, hotel guests gather to consume fat cigars and over-priced, shamefully bad mojitos and watch the security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.

The long driveway from the street to the front entrance is lined with the immaculate late-model Mercedes that function as official hotel taxis and decrepit but vigorously-maintained 1950s American cars. Enormous mid-century land yachts, masterfully-wrought slabs of Detroit steel, what little remains of their original paintwork faded and blemished but fastidiously polished, chrome pitted and cloudy, body panels rusted out by sea spray and held together with wire and prayers, these leftovers of the days when Cuba was America’s playground can be hired for tours of the city. The owner-drivers, once you break through their habitually gruff exteriors, are like classic car custodians the world over – proud and more than happy to share their enthusiasm. Cut off from such niceties as spare parts by more than 50 years of economic sanctions, a look under the hood of these automotive dinosaurs reveal wondrously inventive repair methods that would make MacGyver green with envy.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as the Cubans might say (if they spoke Spanish as badly as me), offers up buenos tiempos but it’s all a matter of interpretation.

©David Latta. Words and photographs. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

 

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Vlad The Amazer by Glenn A. Baker

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There is a sense, as you stroll easily about what has been described as “one of Russia’s greatest wandering cities”, that you, indeed we all, know so very little about Vladivostok. Its skyline is not familiar in films, it does not appear in novels of note (though Colin Thurbon’s In Siberia travel tome does have him wash up there at the end of a particularly long wander), anecdotes are not bandied about where travellers cross paths. 

For a very long time that was entirely intentional. During the Soviet era (a phrase uttered often by its citizens to excuse everything from potholes to ugly architecture) it was, as the headquarters of the USSR’s Pacific Fleet, a “closed city”. Not only were foreigners not allowed but Soviets needed permission to visit and so generally didn’t. After all, it is a nine hour flight from Moscow and tenth of the vast nation’s eleven time zones. Most of those who did set foot in the far eastern city were – and still are – weary souls alighting from a week on the Trans-Siberian Railway, all 9289 kilometres of it.

The fleet is still there; in fact, it has been said that were you to get much closer to it as you poked about the historically-layered town you would have to enlist. Now you can pretty much line up and have your photo taken with a crew of a destroyer back from a six month deployment off Somalia warding off pirates. Jump on one of the ferries zig-zagging across Golden Horn Bay and you can sun yourself on the beaches of islands once restricted to navy folk.

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Over days of investigating ornate Russian orthodox churches, stone fortresses, the Art Deco house where actor Yul Brynner was born and raised, cobbled courtyards, a tiny funicular railway near a beguiling Pushkin statue, a silver Neptune head spilling out over a park, a Maxim Gorky Theatre, Siberian tiger, mermaid and war warrior statues, a GUM department store with preserved architecture, the odd surviving hammer’n’sicle emblems, spectacular views of bays, harbours, inlets and peninsulas, family-thronged parks, impromptu sun bathing platforms where near-nakeds loll by slabs of melting ice, and vivid sunsets over bays, viewed through birch trees – you come to realise that nobody cares much where you nose about. Security guards and other uniformed spoilsports don’t dot the landscape here. The western world’s obsession over private property doesn’t carry over to a realm where, for a very long time, there was no such thing.

Leaving the Arsenyev Museum after trawling through the entrails of the natural, military, social and cultural history of Eastern Russia and Siberia, admiring everything from a giant black bear to savage swords to the gowns and pumps of a famous ballerina, I couldn’t help but fall down Alice’s wonderland hole through a basement door, to nobody’s particular concern, and there come upon a dusty tumble of giant marble busts of Soviet heroes – Lenin, Stalin and even cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Once venerated, they are now remnants of a past that cannot be entirely left behind.

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It is the lack of familiarity, it is the one surprise atop another and it is the sheer improbability of pure Russia where, really, it should not be, that renders Vladivostok so appealing – and, for Australians, it is the proximity and ease of access. Just as going to outer Mongolia is no harder than flying to Seoul and walking off one wide-bodied jet onto another for a further three-hour leg, visiting Vladivostok is nothing more complex than taking a Qantas flight to Tokyo and settling into an S7 Airbus at Narita for a little over two hours. When you get there, you are almost close enough to smell the Chinese city of Harbin and the North Korean border. Within not much more than a couple of hour’s air reach is 200-300 million people, all of them Asian. Yet, apart from the smattering of Chinese workers who are replacing the 5,000 or so locals who move west each year, you could be in St. Petersburg (or San Francisco to which it was compared by none other than Nikita Khrushchev).

Had it not been for China being able to defend the region after being defeated by Britain in the Opium War and some nimble movement by the Russians, you would not be encountering the palette of vodka, mini-skirts, borscht, anguished literature and some suspicious-looking characters in black Volgas and recycled Mercs.

Vladivostok’s aspirations to be a hot Pacific Rim city were boosted considerably in September 2012 when twenty heads of government came to town for an APEC meeting. A hundred million dollars of development projects are on the board, including a vast casino complex being dubbed as a “Northern Macau”. The Japanese are already assembling Mazdas there. A couple of hours out of town, you can encounter safari parks of Siberian tigers – somebody knows that tourists are coming.

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© 2014 Glenn A. Baker – words and photos. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

Cusco’s Monasterio: The Sin Of Wanderlust? by John Borthwick

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In Cusco, the ancient Inca masonry is so supple you’d swear the stones were woven. The ten-, twelve-, fifteen-sided blocks fit together as though diced from plasticine. For good reason this improbably-finessed granite is known as “pillow masonry”. Keyed together, the massive, irregular blocks made formidable ramparts that have endured the upheavals of Andean time – earthquake, invasion and revolution.

The Spanish Conquistadors, who stomped uninvited into Cusco in 1533, built their own grandiose temples and palaces atop these invincible footings, having first demolished the existing Inca equivalents. The resulting architecture is a tale of two histories – Inca from the knees down, and Spanish to the crown.

The Seminary of San Antonio Abad was founded in 1595 on the site of an Inca palace. Today it is the five-star Hotel Monasterio, listed on the Peruvian National Heritage register. Step across its threshold – beneath the historic escutcheon of no less than Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – and you brush against centuries when these colonnades shaded piety and intrigue, cruelty and riches. As you wander below ceilings marzipanned by centuries of whitewash, portraits of remittance men grandees and their collaborative friararchy gaze down from adumbral portraits to interrogate your presence.

Undaunted, indeed, relaxed by a quick, strictly medicinal snort on the oxygen cylinder in the hotel lobby and a belt of coca tea from the adjacent urn – it’s the 3325-metre altitude, y’know – you proceed through garden courtyards and flag-stoned corridors towards the Monasterio’s piece de resistance, its baroque chapel. Not so much a private chapel as a pocket basilica, its altar is an orgy of gold glittering by pale candlelight.

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More portraits by the brilliant, anonymous Incan painters of the Cusquena School look down within the chapel. In one major painting (as a local author put it), “… celestial hosts gaze down on lurid infernos … a demon even dares to appear before Christ, whispering sulphurous advice into the ear of a Jesuit who is advocating the closure of this very seminary.”

An air-conditioned guestroom and cable television, plus fine ceviche and crème caramel in the restaurant (once the priests’ refectory) remind you that you haven’t died and gone to the 17th century but remain alive in a 123-room hotel. Still, somewhere beneath your feet –according to legend – is a subterranean passage that obligingly ran from this all-male seminary to the adjacent convent of Nazarene nuns. Sacred vows of chastity, as with those of poverty, were much observed in the breach. You can take coffee beneath a 300-year-old cedar in the inner quadrangle that has witnessed the building’s serial incarnations, as a seminary, a Royal Pontifical University and, from 1965, a hotel.

Taking a breather from all this cloistered pomp, you step out into Cusco and its nearby centre, Plaza de Armas. The seminarians and horny friars of San Antonio are long gone, but Cusco is still a university town. Its cobble-stoned streets are awash with students and raggle-taggle backpackers. The internet cafes, pizzerias and music clubs of Tecsecocha Street are pumping behind colonial portals that were already old when Captain Cook was still finding his sea-legs.

By night, the Plaza de Armas, flanked by World Heritage cathedrals and dished in an Andean valley of lights and stars, is almost other-worldly. High on the rim of the valley above the town, an illuminated white statue of Christ is caught like a brilliant bird in flight. All of which seems rich stuff until you step out even further beyond the town centre. The soft geometries of that Incaic “pillow masonry” reach monumental scale at the giant fortresses of Sacsayhuaman and, even further away, at Ollantaytambo.

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The best is yet to come. Leaving Cusco on an early morning train you travel the narrow cleavage of the Urabamba River valley. Your destination is, of course, Machu Picchu. Its stones remain in almost perfect condition some 500 years after they were abandoned. The Incas often built with a sense of drama. In the case of Machu Picchu, high on its Andean spine, they made a city that resembles an altar of stone amid a temple of mountains. Or, as poet Pablo Neruda saw it, “a city raised like a chalice”.

Back at the Monasterio, an Inca harpist in the lobby maintains the transcendent theme. A few steps away is that chapel which makes this perhaps the only hotel in the world where you might seek in-house forgiveness for – should it be deemed one – the sin of your perpetual wanderlust.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

 

 

The End Of The World Came To Bombay Beach A Long Time Ago by David Latta

 

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Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but, when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach, you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.

Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.

In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up along its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to wipe out the fish life.

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Although boating remains popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death like the sun-bleached bodies of fish along its shores. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.

Turn off the highway, past the sun-battered Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.

It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the hearse to pick up her dead chimpanzee.

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At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three-metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly sucked into the earth, the salt slowly eating away and devouring everything.

The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than usual, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, clamber back into their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.

My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.

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© David Latta – words and photos. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.