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December, 6, 2016

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Tourists find historic moment but limited options in mourning Cuba

HAVANA--They came for salsa music and mojitos and ended up wandering through a city turned still and silent by nine days of national mourning for Fidel Castro.

As Cuba prepares a massive commemoration for the leader of its socialist revolution, tens of thousands of high-season travelers have found themselves accidental witnesses to history — and smack in the middle of a somber city that's little like its usual exuberant self.

"Who knows what tomorrow or after nine days brings in terms of the country and what happens for the future," said Graham Palmer, a 36-year-old financial director from London. "And I think we will certainly look back at the airport tomorrow and feel quite privileged that we've been here."

"We picked up the (Communist Party) Granma paper from yesterday, so we've got that," said his companion, 36-year-old marketing worker Emma Taylor.

"I think we could quite even think about framing it," Palmer interjected. "It's quite poignant."

Yet they and other travelers said that in addition to the awe at being present as Cubans honor one of the 20th century's most influential leaders, there's a tinge of regret at seeing such a subdued Havana.

Many museums have closed their doors, and a state-sanctioned ban on live music has shuttered concerts and nightspots including the famed Tropicana nightclub. Old Havana these days is eerily devoid of the roving troubadours whose Buena Vista Social Club croonings normally echo through the cobblestone streets. And the 1950s classic cars that function as collective taxis are doing without the usual reggaeton at max volume.

Martin Sawicki, a 34-year-old accountant from Warsaw, Poland, said he was unable to visit the University of Havana or the Revolution Plaza, where Castro's ashes are to be on display starting Monday. Workers there have already cordoned off access to the towering monument to independence hero Jose Marti.

Meanwhile a citywide ban on most alcohol sales means those savoring Cuban cigars for the first time have to do so without the traditional accompanying snifter of rum.

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