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HAVANA CUBA : To see the city today is to glimpse its past, too. In the narrow streets of Antigua Habana, the old town, time seems to have stopped somewhere back in the pre-revolutionary past.

May 29, 1988|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers .

HAVANA, Cuba — Time is the least thing we have of.

--Ernest Hemingway, quoted in a New Yorker profile by Lillian Ross, May 13, 1950

They still serve big double frozen daiquiris at La Floridita, the ones without sugar that Hemingway once described as feeling, when you drink them, "the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow."

They call them Papa Hemingway daiquiris on the menu and charge three pesos (around $3.60 U.S.), double the price of an ordinary daiquiri and triple the cost of beer.

Inside the sheltering midday darkness of La Floridita's restaurant, time is stuck back somewhere in the pre-revolutionary past. A tarnished silver stand is piled with a Carmen Miranda pyramid of wax fruit, the maitre d'hotel is in correct black tie and a trio of strolling musicians strums silken melodies for families enjoying a leisurely Sunday lunch.

On the streets of the old town area the layers of time peel back like the scabrous paint from once-proud buildings in the unflinching sunlight, until one imagines the hoofbeats of Spanish horses against the cobblestones in the Plaza de Armas amid the restored colonial buildings turned into museums.

Amid the rubble, dust and confusion of buildings being demolished or rebuilt in the narrow streets of Antigua Habana, the Art Deco tile towers of the Edificio Bacardi still loom proudly as a reminder of the boom time during the palmy days of Prohibition.

Just off the square, the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where a wall plaque says Hemingway stayed in the 1930s, is trussed with scaffolding and painted a glowing pink and white. But a quick look inside reveals only grim and rudimentary 1940s furniture, a naked light bulb, a dark reception counter with a few keys hanging from it and a dingy stairwell.

Next door an orderly queue has formed at a bakery, and each customer leaves with an armload of crusty brown loaves wrapped in paper.

We had sailed into Havana harbor in the early morning light on a Sunday, past the sun-gilded old Spanish fortresses that have guarded its mouth since a century after Columbus, through acrid fumes from a refinery that the breeze was stubbornly blowing back toward the city.

We cruised past East German and Soviet tankers and cargo ships, a handful of gray naval vessels including some small submarines, a bright red passenger ferry chugging back and forth across the bay and a clutch of listing, rusty, Cuban-flag derelicts that appear to be in a state of perpetual anchor in the middle of the harbor.

The East German and Soviet ships come to take on sugar and drop off oil and consumer goods, including still more of the small Soviet-built automobiles called Ladas that are used as taxis and private vehicles all over Cuba and a few other Caribbean islands.

But the real aristocrats of Havana's streets are the rusting tail-fin era Buicks, Chevys, Kaisers, Packards, Fords and Pontiacs--the pre-revolutionary vehicles that have been lovingly cared for, cannibalized, repaired and painted over so many times that their origin is sometimes indecipherable.

They still lumber along, their Miami tropical colors faded in the sun, chrome stripped away, some of them smeared with so much putty-like dent filler that the contours of the vehicle have been altered.

On a 1958 Chevy, the trunk opens and closes with hardware-store hinges, but there is also an unforgettable 1947 Studebaker in lime green tootling along the street near the port, so polished that it could have just rolled off the assembly line. When a visitor lifted a camera to photograph it, the proud owner slammed on the brakes while he and his passengers waved delightedly.

Cuba is one of the last Caribbean ports of call for the Astor, a Mauritius-registry ship sold to the Soviet Union only days before this sailing left Jamaica. From here it goes on to cruise the Mediterranean for the summer, then is scheduled to be delivered to its new owners in October.

Our traveling companions were primarily Europeans--British, West German and a sprinkling of French--although the Cuban tourist office, it is immediately apparent, has expected us all to be German, and so the signs strung along the pier wish us Wilkommen and inform us in Deutsch that we can find anything we could wish to buy.

The going tourist currency these days turns out, to everyone's great surprise, to be the U.S. dollar, so all the Europeans hurry down to the purser's office for a good supply of small bills in order to snap up at dockside boxes of 25 Havana cigars for $30, $2 all-cotton T-shirts, $1 cassettes of Cuban music, $4 rum and $3 men's sport shirts bearing labels from Cuba, Brazil and Mexico.

Only much later, after a teen-age girl at one of the stalls shyly asks if a visitor would take two $1 bills across to another vendor to buy two music cassettes for her, was it apparent that some of these goods are not readily available to the Cubans.

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