16/04/2011/5:31 pm, Havana, Cuba
It was a big day in the city: the 50th anniversary of victory at Playa Giron - what we recognize more readily as the Bay of Pigs. We saw signs and heard from our hosts of the big gathering at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Vedado. Over breakfast, we watched Raul Castro give a speech and saw the beginnings of a parade. We had naively thought we could just follow the people to see where the parade was going but we were wrong.
We got ourselves out on the street by 8:30 - and headed for Av Simon Bolivar, that turned into Av Salvador Allende, that led to the plaza. When a pedicab driver offered to take us there for 3 CUC, each couple hopped in a cab and took off. We passed lines and lines of buses parked along the street and when we got as far as we could go, we saw masses and masses of people leaving the plaza. We could see the 138.5 m tall tower with the 17 m statue of Jose Marti seated at its base in the distance, but that was about as close as we ever got. As we searched about for the best direction to go (there were people coming and going on every street in sight) we spotted a line of military trucks and tanks speeding by ahead of us. It was all over. Things happen early here - perhaps because of the heat? We ended up standing on a corner and watching hundreds and thousands of people come flocking past us - waving placards and shouting. There were school children and workers groups and many other groups that we couldn't identify - thousands of them. We had heard there would be a million people there, and we believed it!
One really funny incident was when the rather bullish looking motorcycle cop ahead of us reached under the seat of his motorbike, pulled out a mickey of rum and took a swig before replacing it and lighting up a cigarette. I sure wish I had been faster with my camera! We did get to see some of the tanks as we walked back to the foot of Av Salvador Allende and there was surprising little fuss around. Soldiers sat atop them and there were lines of men and women in white 50 anniversary T-shirts keeping people on the sidewalks, but picture taking seemed to be just fine.
We walked up the street and decided to have a look in the Carlos III shopping mall. It was very modern, had a ramp circling the food court (yes - food court) and rising three floors. Chris and I checked out the prices at an appliance store - a little more expensive than home - blenders 60 CUC (these were neat ones, with spigots (for pouring off the pina coladas?), a 3-D TV for over 5,000 CUC!, a 19 inch flat screen for 800 CUC. Hair dryers ran about 30 CUC. What we need to remember is that these prices are far more than the average Cuban can afford. Marcelino told us later that 50% of Cubans have relatives living abroad and sending them money, and these are the folks who shop there.
It was in this mall that one of the shopkeepers asked if we had been to the Plaza. I said yes - as close as we could get - that it seemed to be a big event. He replied excitedly, "Si - that is the day we kicked the ass of the Americans!! Is right? Kicked the ass?" "Yes, senor. Kicked the ass!"
Another pedicab ride later, we were back in Habana Vieja. The district of Vedado - the city's commercial area, more modern than the areas we visited, and home to the jazz clubs and what skyscrapers there are, will have to wait for the next visit.
After enjoying refreshing mohitos with a young Cuban couple (who would like to have been treated to lunch as well, had we not declined) in the bar where Buena Vista Social Club was filmed (so she said), we walked to the waterfront, and strolled the seawall, watching the children splash and play in the shallows created by carved out areas of the rock. It seemed a poor substitute for a beach, but there was a lot of laughter happening there. Once more we made our way through criss-crossing streets, admiring the old and the modern, peeking down alleyways to see what we could see, and exchanging greetings with the always friendly locals.
We had arranged with Dagoberto for a 50's car to take us back to Varadero. It would be about the same price as the bus (no need for a cab on this end to take us to the main bus station, or on the other end to take us from the terminal back to the marina) and we could pick the time. Until then we chatted with Marcelino in our Casa. His grandson played on the street with a bunch of his buddies - running in periodically for a drink of water from the used and reused pop bottle kept just inside the front door. Again, it brought home to us that there is so very little that is thrown away here. When the day comes that there is more money and more freedom, I sure hope the careful husbandry of resources, the sharing, the reduce/reuse/recycle practice doesn't disappear. We can learn so much from them in this area.
Marcelino told Jim that things are very different from the days when the soviets supported the economy. He echoed what our guide in Santiago told us - the black market is alive and well. People must get involved in it in order to survive - and they are really adept at it! He commented on the absurdity of earning 25 CUC per night for providing a bed for us for one night, while his son earns 27 CUC per month - with all his education and responsibility. He told us that the Casas can lose money on providing breakfast if they are not careful. They can buy fruit and bread and eggs for pesos, but they must pay CUC's for coffee and milk and cheese and meat. Yet the meals provided for us were always lavish - limited in variety perhaps, but lavish in quantity and quality. As always, along with the shakes of the head and the wishes for the system to be better for the next generation, there is a huge pride in the people for their country. They are very happy we come to visit. They want us to like it. And I am dead sure it is not just because they want our money. Marcelino told us to come back in December to have dinner with his family on December 31. Wouldn't that be an experience?
The young man in the 54 Chevy picked us up at 5:30 and we set off in the direction of Varadero. Oops - but first we had to stop at his home on the outskirts of the city for diesel. He and his brother poured gallons of diesel into the tank, using a cut off pop bottle as funnel. I had a few markers left so I gave them to the children in the yard, and then we were off again. It was a lark to arrive at the front door of the marina a couple of hours later and tumble out of the car.
And then of course, it was time to sit at the picnic table on the dock and tell the others about our travels and our experiences. Richard (Sanctuary) had arrived from deeper in the Caribbean, and Sam and Alex (-oops - can't remember their boat) from England were here for a bit before they head up to Boston and back across the Atlantic. Debbie was planning a fishing trip the next day, and Donna and Rick were making plans to leave with us on Monday - if the weather was right.
I feel exhausted at the end of writing all these blogs about Havana, and I know I haven't half done justice to our visit; interestingly, it reflects the way we felt at the end of our trip. There was so very much to see and do and hear, and we ended the trip tired right out. A few days at a time is probably a good way to experience Havana, but now, having looked back through my notes and consulted the guidebook, I realize there is so much more to see and I want to go back - right now! ... but here I am in Florida. Next year ... next year ...
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.