We Finally Made It!
14 April 2011 | Havana, Cuba
Beth - 90's
When we set off from Ontario with Blair and Mary (Strathspey) in 2007, it was with the idea of making our way to Cuba to find the music of Havana. Four years later, we made it. We don’t regret all the things we did in the intervening years, but we sure are glad we got here. (Mary and Blair - put it on your list again!!)
Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer) and Jim and I decided, on the recommendation of friends, to take the bus to Havana and it was a good choice. Parking is more difficult there and we had no need of a car in the city. We took a cab to the Viazul terminal in Varadero and boarded the 8 o’clock bus. These are modern, air-conditioned buses (built in China) going directly to Havana and the cost was 10 CUC per person. We made one stop on the way - at the pina colada stand. Well - there were other options - bathrooms, sodas, souvenirs - but who can resist pina coladas (where you add your own rum from the bottles on the counter) and music from the resident troubadours?
By 10:30 we were exiting the bus at the Centro/Vieja stop and off to find our Casa Particular. It’s a good thing we had explicit instructions from the folks back at the marina. Debbie has a package of information that gets handed from person to person; Gail and Peter, Donna and Rick had been there the week before, so we were well prepared. The taxi drivers were bombarding us before we even got our feet off the last step of the bus, but we knew we needed to say no, turn left, and walk up one of the main streets toward Parque Central. It sure helps to know a thing or two ahead of time.
Debbie had called Dagoberto, with whom Jabiru and Lorbas stayed, to reserve rooms so we had the address (on San Miguel near Industria) and since our only luggage was our backpacks, it was easy to walk there. (We had a map, but it would have been easy to find from the map in the Lonely Planet Guide too - I didn’t go anywhere without that book!) We found the spot; Lia, Dagoberto’s daughter came down to let us in and we sat down for a cup of coffee with them in the attractive flat they let out to visitors. It was then that he told us he no longer had the rooms available. We learned later that Cubans generally give the rooms to the first person who appears at the door. The income is so important that they don’t take the risk (considerable - since there is no credit card guarantee) of holding a room for no-shows. But not to worry! Cubans are so hospitable that we discovered they always locate another spot - and that’s what Dagoberto had done. After our coffee, we walked with Lia and him to a house on Barcelona. Turned out Marie Elena had only one room but Marcelino across the street also had one available. We tossed a coin and Jim and I chose to stay with Marcelino and Pilar, while Tom and Chris stayed with Marie Elena. Our room had no window and a shared bathroom, and did not serve breakfast - we ate across the street at Marie Elena’s - but Marcelino spoke excellent English (and loved to talk) so we were happy.
On the subject of Casa Particulares - there are many listed in the guidebook, and many many more with those blue, upside down anchor signs out. It is really just a matter of choosing an area, getting suggestions from a guidebook or friends, or wandering the streets, knocking on doors to have a look, and picking one. Both Habana Centro and Habana Vieja would be good, central areas to start looking, although the Vedado looks to be an interesting area too.
We dropped our bags and set off to find food and to sightsee. We found the food at the next corner. Like us, Chris and Tom are fans of street food, so we bought ham and cheese buns for a few pesos and continued on our way. Barcelona St brought us right out by the Capitolio Nacional - that magnificent building that was once the seat of the Cuban Congress, but now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the national Library of Science and Technology - and alas - was closed for renovations. It is impressive! It is similar to the US Capitol building but richer in detail.
The gorgeous and ornate Gran Teatro de La Habana stands on the corner nearby and our breaths were taken away by the ornateness. There were so many wonderful grand buildings in this area that we just swiveled our necks and gaped at the beauty. I felt like Dorothy, “Carvings and Tilework and Sculpture - Oh My!!!” Many of these buildings have had some restoration and there is clearly money going into preservation in some areas.
As we debated where to walk first, we passed a number of horse drawn carriages along the Prado. They all offered rides and we picked the smiling Ariel and his horse Sandy to take us on a one hour tour. It was pricy at 10 CUC each but he said the price was government controlled and non negotiable. It seemed to be a good way to start so we set off and it was indeed a good idea. We discovered the general lay of the land - passed some buildings that we might not have gotten to on our own - and found a couple of leafy squares to which we returned later. We looked at block after block of beautiful old buildings, and streamlined modern ones that seemed in great contrast. We drove down narrow streets lined with row houses 3 and 4 stories tall where laundry hung from balconies - some in perfect shape and some in terrible states of disrepair. We saw crumbling tile work and worn marble steps, and we found busy people everywhere - sweeping, shopping, coming from school, selling, buying, The market economy is alive and well - everyone has something to sell - from a few nuts and bolts and screws to shoes to CD’s to books. We passed by the police station, housed in what looks like an old fort, and noted that it had a very modern security camera mounted on the wall.
Not least of the experiences, was the stop at Dos Hermanos - where we had the best mohitos! In tall glasses, tart and with loads of fresh mint, they were also more expensive (4 CUC) still less than we’d pay at home! We bought drinks for Ariel and his cousin Osvaldo and they were pleased.
As we walked home toward the end of the afternoon, we heard the sound of drumming, and searched for the source. It was Tom who spotted a young man in the open window of a third floor apartment, and when he waved and beckoned for us to come up, the four of us gladly agreed. (It was handy that we are all the spontaneous type!) We found a sparsely furnished room with three drummers, a woman in shorts and T-shirt doing freeform dance and a couple of children avidly watching the drummers - or was it the tourists? It was just fascinating to be here in this room with young men who were clearly into their music - not performing - just playing. Their drums were double ended and held on their knees. The beat was complicated and I kept watching them watch each other as they slid from one rhythm to another and back around again. The room itself was shabby - but had an intricate tiled floor, marble columns, ornate crown molding. We stayed for quite a while, then gave them some pesos (unasked for) and pens to the children and went on our way, feeling privileged to have been part of it. They didn’t need to invite strangers into their home, but they did! It was moments like this that made Cuba such an absolutely wonderful experience for us.
Jim and I enjoyed having coffee with Marcelino when we got home. We were about to decline but he encouraged us, “Say Yes ! Say yes!” As we sat in the dining area of his second floor flat, (the tourist rooms are on the main floor) he introduced us to his daughter and grand daughter. His son the doctor who lives upstairs came home, and the doctor’s 2 sweet children still dressed in their school uniforms, shyly came in and kissed our cheeks without prompting. As is so many other households, Marcelino grew up in this building. Most of the furnishings and decorative pieces date from the time of the Russian support when “We had everything.” Now - “is not so good”. He shook his head as he told us that his son the doctor earns 27 CUC per month. Marcelino provides us with a bed for one night and gets paid 25 CUC. The down side to the room rental business is that he must pay the government 200 CUC per month for each room he rents out. No wonder they don’t save rooms for people who call ahead.
We ate at La Pina de Plata that night - on Obispo at Bernaza - a recommendation from Jabiru and Lorbas. We were early - at 7 - so the place was almost empty, but the food was plentiful and a good price - about 6 CUC each. Our wanderings afterward took us along Obispo - a wonderful store-lined walking street to Mercaderes, where we stopped in a charming little courtyard to listen to the musicians - whose music was gentle and their voices melodic. Guy - from Montreal - joined us as he finished his wine, and one of the musicians sat down as well. He is a veteran of the war in Angola, and brought out the carefully saved citations for valour that he kept in his wallet.
We were pretty well done in by the excitement of the day and we slept well that night.