The importance of setting expectations, whiny travelers and making unlikely connections in the wee hours of the morning
There is a hotel in downtown Havana that holds a special place in my heart. It is called the Hotel Sevilla. The history of this hotel, once famously known as the Sevilla Biltmore, is rich, motley, even uplifting. It was once managed by a gangster and mafia bigwigs like Al Capone stayed here. When the Hotel Nacional denied access to world renowned chanteuse Josephine Baker based on her skin color, the Sevilla rolled out the red carpet, welcoming her with open arms. Not surprisingly, the press soon followed, further heightening the Sevilla’s fame.
As with so many decrepit and neglected edifices in Havana, it can be difficult to see the grandeur that was the Sevilla, but when you push past the dust, you see the bones of a fine old beauty – a neo-classic, eclectic architectural gem. The Sevilla’s most distinguished feature is its cupola, which is home to a magnificent top floor ballroom, Greek in feel, with white marble floors, columns and terraces, offering exceptional, sweeping views of the Capitolo and across the city. It really is a magnificent room – you feel as if you’re sitting on a perch, high in the clouds.
This was typically the second hotel destination we would bring our groups to stay during one of our programs. Upon arrival into the country, we would have already spent a few nights acclimating at the Hotel Nacional – another iconic architectural treasure and my favourite hotel in town – after which we would have escorted them to other parts of Cuba for a snapshot of life outside the big city. Returning for a few nights in Havana before departing, and wanting to offer a different hotel experience, both in location and style, the Sevilla is a good choice.
We learned very early on that setting expectations with the group members prior to traveling to Cuba was essential. We quickly adopted the catch phrase, “that’s Cuba” (said with eyes rolling to the heavens), which could refer to all manner of challenges encountered when traveling to a country whose infrastructure hasn’t changed since 1958. The Sevilla was no exception to the challenge with traveling to Cuba – particularly with a group – as the room sizes, style, location and general maintenance was as varied as can be.
We checked the group into the hotel and watched them head up in the slightly rickety mid-century elevators to their appointed rooms. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before a few members of the group descended in those same elevators back to the lobby in a state of shock, faces contorted like Edward Munch’s “The Scream”, horrified by the state of their room. Too small. Mold stains on the wall. Dusty. Small bathrooms. “This is Cuba people”, we wanted to scream, but as the trip director, one must placate not bash over the head with the first available heavy object, as tempting as that can be.
Authors note – in my experience, the people who whinge and complain tend to be fairly miserable people in general, and most certainly to be avoided when creating the delicate balance of personalities that make up a small group travel program. Such was the case with a few of these group members, agonizingly unhappy individuals. Of course, rooms were changed, but attitudes stayed the same.
At dinner that evening, another couple (who happened to be warm, generous and engaging members of the group), and who had been randomly assigned a spectacular suite with Juliette balconies, (good things come to good people) commented that when they unpacked their things, to their surprise, they found the drawers filled with someone else’s clothes. A quick call down to the front desk confirmed the room was not double booked, and a hotel staff member came to collect the things. We all had a good laugh about it at dinner that night, citing the “that’s Cuba” catchphrase, and shared our suspicions – was a staff member living in the room? Did a guest leave in a hurry as a result of some nefarious infraction? In the end, we chalked it off to guests leaving their clothes for the maids, which so many of us do when traveling in Cuba. Not sure why the clothes were still in the drawers, but still, pretty funny.
Later that same evening after we had all gone up to bed, one of these whiny members called me to complain that a bulb was out in a lamp in her room. Rather than let her stew in her darkened misery, I grabbed one of my lamps, threw on my robe, crossed the large atrium, took the old (old old old) stairs up the three levels to her room and swapped her, at which point, I think she was actually a little embarrassed at her precious antics. Good!
It was the last night at the Sevilla. After dinner at an old world, elegant French restaurant in Old Havana, the group members were off to their own devices on that warm Cuban night. Our flight home the next day was early, and as any American will tell you when they’ve visited Cuba, there is always a bit of a sense of relief to go back to civilization where you can use your phone and credit cards. As the tour director, I was on call that evening to ensure everyone made it back to the hotel safely. And so, I made myself comfortable, sitting at the lobby bar with its full view of the hotel lobby doors. And there I made the acquaintance of the senior bartender, an elegant man in his late 50s, with greying temples and a kind face. We had had pleasant exchanges each night as I went down to collect my much-deserved glass of wine before heading up to bed. As with those evenings, he was the only one working.
On this night, I had no place to be other than right there, and his shift didn’t finish until 7AM. And so a conversation began – one that would carry on during my subsequent visits to the hotel – and that would develop into a lovely friendship. We must have talked for six hours that first night. At first the conversation was broad stroke – an exchange of pleasantries and general information. As the hours passed, against the backdrop of this formerly grand lobby that ebbed and flowed with the arrival of guests checking in, of the cleaners mopping the tile floors, of dated elevator music filling the space, we got to know each other, and he began to feel more comfortable in sharing the details of his life and his dreams. He spoke of the difficulty of life in Cuba, yet as with so many Cubans I met, his tone was not bitter. He still had hope for his country, but seemed resigned to the fact that in his lifetime, he would not see the Cuba he imagined for his grandchildren.
On my next trip to Cuba, I saw him again, and our conversation was as easy as if we’d known each other all our lives. In the short period since I had been away, he and his family had caught onto the opportunities afforded by American travelers and had established their own casa particular – or B&B, which was just beginning to take off. He was now more hopeful about the future and the slow change of events that might take place so that he, and not just his grand children, might see a Cuba that provided opportunities to its people. For anyone visiting this grand hotel – and I recommend it strongly – please take a moment to introduce yourself to my friend. I’m sure he’ll be there, with his friendly smile and kind eyes. And tell him I’m thinking about him.