Monday, August 11, 2014

Oh Havana!



Spanish Fortress at the entrance to the harbour in Havana
Who says Vision Boards don't work? In 2000 I stuck a picture of  a blue vintage car like this on my Vision Board (trendy at the time) and decided that Cuba was one of the places I wanted to see. My sister had been there as a volunteer twice and couldn't stop talking about how friendly the people were and how modestly they lived.

That blue car!

My experience wasn't at all like that. In fact, I felt that I had come about forty years too late. My first encounter was with a taxi driver who charged me fifty dollars to take me from the airport when it should have cost less than half that, as I later found out. The friendly man who offered to show me where the bank was demanded payment afterwards for walking me one or two blocks even though I hadn't asked him to. These are just two examples. Although things were much better once I was out of the city, they tended to leave a sour taste.  Eventually I found an honest taxi driver who didn't keep my change and I called him whenever I had to go anywhere in this sprawling town.

Alexander the honest cabbie with Havana in the background
 My impression was that Cuba was only used to wealthy tour groups (until recently almost the only way to come in) and had no idea about budget travellers. Certainly there were no Backpacker hostels. The only option cheaper than a hotel were little Bed and Breakfast places in private homes. While all my hostesses were charming and made excellent breakfasts and other meals, these were considerably more expensive than the type of accommodation I usually use. It was also a bit lonely as there were rarely other travellers to talk to, go out with in the evening or make up a group to share a car. Normal tourist transport was very expensive. Tour buses generally left only once a day and you had to go miles (by taxi) to the main bus station the day before to buy your ticket or the chances were that you wouldn't get a seat. I assume they learnt bureaucracy from the Russians. One lady knitted while we lined up for hours waiting for a tour operator to finish her bookings.
Cubans may not earn much , even a doctor earns only $15 - $30 per month, but in terms of universal education and medical care they are way ahead of many other countries, especially in Latin America. They also have their own stores where basic goods including cigarettes are much cheaper than in conventional shops.
That said, I did have a good time in Cuba. It was hot and tropical, around 27 -32oC with 100% humidity and the golden thongs I'd bought in desperation because I couldn't get my snazzy boots back on after flying to Europe, certainly came into their own. Palm trees lined the squares and broad avenues. The beds were comfortable and most places had air conditioning.

My bed at Casa Barbara was a welcome sight!
Thank you Barbara for all the coffee and for feeding me when my card didn't work!
This  Casa Particular as the B & B's are called, was in Old Havana and dated from the colonial era. It was built around  a central courtyard with high ceilings, narrow stairs and a balcony that overlooked the street. Not long after I arrived, Barbara's son Frank, took me on a guided tour in a bicycle taxi. This is one of many different kinds of transport, not just the vintage cars which were very expensive. You would have to be certifiably insane to drive in Cuban traffic.

The  bicycle taxi driver
We drove past the churches in the Plaza de la Catedral, the grand buildings of the Plaza de Armas with a brief nod to Hemmingway's former hotel, Fidel's train, the tunnels from which the revolutionaries emerged, a covered market  in the former train station, the imposing Capitolio and the Plaza de la Revolution. We passed countless museums, but only stopped at two. In truth I am more interested in living culture, the day - to -day doings of ordinary people than spending much time with the past but we did stop in at a small dark cigar museum  and another dedicated to rum where I was introduced to the local brew. Mojito is a mixture of mint, white rum and lime. The official recipe per glass is ten crushed mint leaves, half a lime cut into wedges, two tablesspoons of caster sugar, ice cubes to the top of glass, 45 mls of white rum and topped off with 125 mls of soda water. Rum being amazingly cheap in Cuba - about $3 per bottle and the only thing which was, the barman was very generous with the rum. I'm sure Frank was a little disappointed that I didn't want to buy a box of cigars at a cost of about  $ 575. It's a pity though that you can't photograph smells. The smell in the tobacco shop was divine. 


One of the oldest churches
Beautifully restored buildings in the Plaza de Armas
The back streets of Old Havana 
Despite the embrace of Capitalism, Che and the heroes of the Revolution are not forgotten

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