Havana may be crumbling a bit, but it's doing it cheerfully


Right now, Geoffrey Baer is back home in Chicago, filming the latest of his river-journey specials. On Tuesday, however, we'll see him far from his comfort zone, in an entertaining visit to Cuba. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Geoffrey Baer is
used to criss-crossing the nation for PBS specials.

He's shown us “10
Towns That Changed America” ... and 10 parks .. and 10 homes ...
and 10 buildings. He's taken river journeys through his Chicago home
town. But now “Weekend in Havana” has whisked him to fresh turf.

“I had never been
to Havana,” Baer said. “I really didn't know what to expect.”

Well, he sort of
expected crumbling buildings, crumbled lives and old American cars.
He found all of that (plus some newer Russian cars), but also found
surprises. “What amazed me was to see a night life that could have
been in Soho.”

Yes, Cubans' basic
pay is tiny, redeemed partly by the fact that the government takes
care of housing, health, education and more. But some people
supplement that with outside money – anything from tourism to music
tours. Baer found young people with money to spend.

Some packed into a
former factory building, now repurposed with nightclubs, galleries
and performance spaces. Others went to mini-restaurants, tucked
inside private homes.

“They used to
operate in secrecy,” Baer said. “They were sort of a precursor to
Airbnb.”

He traveled with
jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca and flamenco dancer Irene Rodriguez,
both the products of arts academies. “The government is very
pro-arts,” Baer said.

In the city, he
found noise, color, street musicians and odd little “coco taxis”
that are sort of like riding in a coconut. Away from the city, he
visited the cottage where Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and
the Sea” and more

“Hemingway adored
Cuba and thought of himself as a Cuban writer,” Baer said. “He
lived in Cuba longer than anywhere else.”

Then Hemingway and
other Americans departed. Now some are returning, at least for a
visit.

-- “Weekend in
Havana,” 8 p.m. Tuesday (July 18), PBS