15/04/2011/5:26 pm, Havana, Cuba
After breakfast at Marie Elena's (fruit plate, buns, egg, coffee) we set off for the Museo de la Revolucion. It is housed in the former Presidential palace, originally decorated by Tiffany's of New York, and containing the still grand Salon de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) reminiscent of the one at the palace of Versailles. It is pretty much a must do visit and fortunately most of the exhibits are labelled in English as well as Spanish. I thought there would be more extensive Cuban history there, but it was all revolutionary - not surprisingly. By the time we had seen a few hundred photos and guns and letters and news clippings and the odd blood stained uniform, we were museumed out, although it was quite something to review the events leading up to and during the revolution. What a passionate, fiery and committed band of rebels these people were!
The Hall of Mirrors must have been gorgeous in its day, and it still echoes that. In the Havana version though, the elegant chandeliers and murals and stonework and mirrors, are side by side with crumbling plaster and broken shutters and peeling paint. Oh and let's not forget the bullet holes in the marble walls of the grand staircase. It is interesting how we became accustomed to the grandeur and pride running hand in hand with decay and lack of money. Like all else in Cuba - there are layers and layers of reality. How can you put the dollars needed into restoration when you have people to feed and educate? And yet how can you let the buildings that reflect your amazing history and culture crumble? The answer is to do some of each, and that appears to be what is happening in Havana.
The Granma, the 18 metre yacht that carried Fidel and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba sits inside a glass enclosure beside the museum, and it too made us think about the revolution and the struggle to free themselves from the rule of dictators like Batista. They made plans in the mountains of the Sierra Maestre, they recruited and proclaimed in Santiago, they carried out their plans and when something didn't work, they found another opportunity and tried again.
In the afternoon, we strolled the streets of Obispo and Mercaderes until the heat made us join dozens of others on the benches at Plaza de Armas where booksellers set up their stands and people sit in the shade and children play on the plaza. On this day, we discovered music and dance! We were about to wander away after an hour or so when Jim discovered a group of Spanish bagpipers around the corner. As we stood to listen, a whole troop of beautifully costumed mimes on stilts gathered around us. We had stumbled into part of the festival of dance. What luck!
We watched another pipe group - two pipers and a man with bongo drums - it put a new flavour to Celtic music. I mentioned to one of the pipers that we have a CD by the Spanish Celtic singer, Carlos Nunez and he told me they had played with him several times. We went back around the corner to take in a dance performance back at Plaza de Armas. The women wore brilliant yellow, and white and green and purple satiny dresses with flounces and frills, while the men wore white pants and coloured shirts. A percussion group beat out the rhythm and a purple shirted man sang the story of the dance. We didn't understand a word of it, but it kept us enthralled. What energy, what rhythm. There must have been 30 people involved between dancers and drummers; their smiles were wide and their enthusiasm bigger yet. As that dance ended (and it must have lasted nearly half an hour) one of the mimes sounded a horn and the troop led the crowds down Mercaderes to a little plaza where two women were performing a modern dance - their sinuous bodies and athleticism making it look seamless. The horn sounded, the troop moved off mingling with the crowd and we ended up in Plaza Vieja where the pipers piped again. It was with regret but with weary bodies that we pulled ourselves away and went home for a wee rest before setting off again for dinner and whatever the evening would bring.
What the evening brought was more good food although it was slow coming - at La Torre de Marfil on Mercaderes (can you picture Cuban food with an Asian flair? It happens!) Unfortunately, it was so slow that by the time we got to the Plaza de Armas afterward, the Celtic music we were hoping to hear was over. We did find more dancing though - in a large outdoor area. It was dark and the place was crowded but we wiggled our way in to where we could see, and watched several performances. There didn't seem to be many tourists there, and the crowd was intent on the dance. One was quite funny - a number of muscular young men with bare chests and military type pants seemed to be finding their feminine selves. Their movements changed from abrupt and competitive, to flowing and cooperative. I must have chuckled at one point because the dreadlocked man beside me smiled and whispered, "You like?" I responded, "Very much" and his next question was, "You understand?" to which I said, "I think so!" and he nodded and smiled some more.
We finally tore ourselves away, walked home along the darkened streets, feeling safe, exhilarated, exhausted. What a city! What sophistication of culture and attention to art and dance and music. What amazing architecture. What an array of museums and historic buildings. We were barely scratching the surface of it and yet we were feeling saturated with Habana.
14/04/2011/5:24 pm, Havana, Cuba
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.
13/04/2011/5:22 pm, Varadero
With Debbie as our guide, Chris, Tom, Jim and I walked over to the delightful town of Santa Marta on Tuesday. One of the lovely things about being at Marina Darsenas is that it is just a short walk to this little town where we can shop at the local market, the bakery, eat at a fine little restaurant - all with pesos. (Remember roughly 24 pesos to the dollar!) The market (every day except Monday) is much smaller than the Santa Lucia one, but it has all the produce we need - and some very fine pork. We bought squash, peppers and potatoes, 100 pesos worth of smoked pork chops (about 6) and then stopped at a little bakery for a loaf of that crusty white bread that shows up regularly.
It is the perfect place to watch the 1950's cars, to see bicycles of every description, to wave to the immaculately uniformed school children - to see more than the hotel strip along the beach. And so, we determined that this is what we wanted to show the visitors who came on Wednesday.
Friends from Ottawa, Caroline and Brian, Francine and Rick, were vacationing up the way at Jibacoa and they hired a car to bring them down to Varadero for a day. We wished we could have taken them out for a sail, but that is one of the difficulties in this country. We cannot go out for a day sail unless we get the paperwork done by Customs, Immigration etc. both departing and returning. It wasn't worth the effort for an afternoon. And because we could not use our dinghy either, there was no opportunity to cruise up and down the canal. So - we entertained in the cockpit and gave them a tour of our grand home on the water, and they just had to imagine what it is like to go sailing on Madcap. After picture taking opportunities, we walked over to Santa Marta - across the road, across the old runway, around a couple of corners. I forgot one of those corners so we did a little detour, but eventually made our way to the little restaurant especially recommended by Gail. For about 30 pesos each, we dined on chicken or fish or shrimp along with rice and salad all served by the smiling Michael. He has a job waiting for him in Saskatchewan if he can get a visa from the Canadian government. His English is excellent; his smile is wide; his personality is charming; his ambition is clear - and we all hope he is able to come to Canada.
The six of us walked across the bridge to Varadero and hopped on a horse drawn carriage for a drive to the centre of the town. Rick was anxious to see the Hotel International where he and Francine stayed a number of years ago, so from there, we walked along the beach, splashing our feet through the crystal clear water, and enjoying the sight of families enjoying themselves. It seems odd that in all the time we were at Varadero, we never once went to the beach to swim. I guess we had done lots of that in the Bahamas - and we were here to do other things. Some of the other cruisers took advantage of the bus that runs up and down the strip and the daily rates to enjoy the services of some of the hotels.
From the Hotel Varadero Internacional, (opened in 1950 and while not as big and fancy as the newer ones, still maintaining an elegant retro look) we took a taxi back to the marina. It seemed only fitting that it be in a 1954 Buick that the driver was clearly pleased to see us enjoying. The windows were down, the radio was blaring and the six of us were crammed in there as if we were teenagers back in the day (but none of us is old enough to have done it then!!)
After a full day of enjoying each others company in Cuba, the others headed back to Jibacoa (where they were very pleased with their resort - the snorkelling opportunities - the entertainment - the facilities) and we joined our fellow cruisers for dinner - back at that same little restaurant near the market in Santa Marta.
Gail and Peter (Jabiru) were leaving the next day to head south, so it was a farewell dinner for them, along with Debbie (La Vida Dulce), Rick and Donna (Lorbas), and Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer). Once again, we dined well for little money, and enjoyed practicing our Spanish with Michael.
It was a fine day - of visiting with the folks from Ottawa, and of celebrating the connections with cruising friends. We were thankful - for about the hundredth time this year - for our good fortune.