One More Day in Havana
16 April 2011 | Havana, Cuba
Beth - 90's
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 ...