My last full day in Cuba was cool and overcast, rare for Havana even in winter, and the gray light washed the color out of the streetscapes. It made my shabby neighborhood look even shabbier than usual.

I went walking anyway, up to the Hotel Ambos Mundos — the name means “both worlds” — to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway, for whom it had been a temporary home.

The hotel’s rose-colored facade was being scraped and repainted, and thick flakes of the old pink paint now littered the street out front like petals from wilting bridal bouquets. I gathered some as souvenirs, then took the wrought-iron elevator up to Room 511.

It’s been called the author’s first refuge in Cuba, but it’s surprisingly small and Spartan: just a double bed, a bookcase, a typewriter on a small table facing the corner windows. Not homey, but all you’d really need if you were concentrating on your work.

This room has the best view, the curator said. True: It overlooks the Spanish palace across the street and a fringe of greenery in the plaza beyond. The view is supposed to be even better from the rooftop, but the weather didn’t make that idea inviting. I said thanks and went back down to the lobby.

I ordered a Coke (imported from Mexico) and settled into the olive-green embrace of one of the big plush armchairs, and only then did I notice the live music. There’s live music everywhere in Cuba, usually a male combo with maracas and a conga drum. But here it was being provided by two women — one on flute, the other on the hotel’s grand piano.

I sipped and listened and realized that this was the first moment of the trip when I was actively not “doing” anything. It felt a little odd to be sitting still. Pleasant, but odd.

And then the sky ripped open.

Tropical rain crashed down with the shocking violence of a Midwestern thunderstorm, the blinding kind that makes you take refuge under bridges because you can’t see to drive.

Water leapt from the stone drain spouts of the palace and ricocheted off the cobblestones below, until the gutters filled and overflowed. The air chilled, and a rainy mist began drifting in through the tall narrow windows. It felt like sea spray. Waiters rushed around, pulling the shutters closed, and the interior darkened and felt intimate.

Passersby, caught in the street by the sudden downpour, took refuge in the hotel entrance and now were huddled there, silhouetted against the dim light.

Through all the tumult, the two musicians kept right on playing.

They were alternating old show tunes with classical pieces. I could hear the piercing voice of the flute above the storm, but sometimes the piano was drowned out, and I couldn’t catch enough notes to recognize what the pieces were.

It was more like eavesdropping on music than listening to it. Or hearing it through static on an old AM radio.

Then one melody came through sweet and clear and familiar, and it made me catch my breath.

It was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” the climax of his Ninth Symphony, when the choir joins in, and voices soar. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder …” is how its best line goes in German.

“All men shall become brothers …”

The unexpected symbolism stunned me. Here, in a country on the brink of change, after half a century of tension with my homeland, I was listening to a message that both sides needed to hear.

Suddenly, I could see how the ordinary people of both worlds — Cubans and Americans alike — have all been huddling together on a threshold, waiting out separate versions of the same long storm.

The image gave me hope. There’s a sweet certainty about storms, after all: As frightening as they may be, even the longest ones eventually do blow over. Remembering that on a rainy day in Havana made the music sound like a promise.


Catherine Watson is a journalist and author and former travel editor of the Star Tribune.