Published: February 6th 2011February 6th 2011
Church in Habana Vieja
There are many beautiful ancient churches in central Havana that the tourists flock to in large numbers.
Our Havana Days and Nights Begin
A week of living in a world that time has forgotten for 50 years has now passed, and we are growing more comfortable each passing day with the humidity and warm temperatures that sometimes make staying alert in our morning classes a challenge.
Touchdown in Havana on a mainly sunny afternoon with temps around 24C was perfect for making the transition from Summerland/Vancouver/Toronto chills to the more tropical Caribbean climes. A light orangy smoky haze hung over Havana, and as we descended, we noted some fields alight with small fires to clear vegetation ... perhaps this was in prep for sugar cane regrowth ... Cuba desperately needs the sugar and rum trade, as much as turistas
, to bring in outside $$. After the usual customs stuff and visiting the money exchange for convertible pesos, otherwise known as CUC's (pronounced "kooks", more on this later), we jumped into a cab and headed off into our language adventure.
The cab driver was happy to chat with us as he pointed out in rapid-fire Spanish heaven-only-knows-what, and we managed to play along nodding, catching the occasional phrase and smiling, until out of the jumble of
Embassy Row Boulevard
Havana has several beautiful boulevards that run for miles with a wide walking path in the centre. We walked home serenely from class every afternoon ... sweating but happy.
words we heard treinta or "30"! 30!, we thought the agreed-upon fare was 20 CUC and we began to protest when, with our faces maple-leaf red, it turned out he was actually telling us about his daughter's 19th birthday that day, January 30th (our son William's birthday, too! Happy Birthday, William) ... LO SIENTO ("sorry") senor. Everyone was smiling in the end, but you can now see why we need the Spanish classes!
We have settled into our rooms at the Hotel Comodoro in the Miramar district of Havana. This large, and in its earlier days, undoubtedly luxurious hotel complex has its ghosts, like most everything here. At one time, in the 1950's, a young Senator John F. Kennedy stayed here for a brief holiday with his family. While it still has its charms and obvious history as a playground for the rich, it shows many signs of neglect and wear.The "enchanting" beach area looks a bit more like an industrial workyard than a sandy recreation area for cervezas and snorkelling...this is probably a good thing, we don't want TOO many distractions from the work of studying, si??
For us, it works just fine ... we have a
Our bedroom in Bungalow 827 looks out onto a spacious patio.
large, modern air-conditioned suite in a two storey, sunshine yellow bungalow-style building with a bathroom (with ample hot water), small kitchen area and living room whose terrace looks over one of the many hotel pools. There is also a large bedroom with a 15-foot high ceiling, two double beds and another patio where we sit out in the morning practicing our previous day's lessons while enjoying the warm Caribbean air (usually tinged with diesel fumes from nearby passing trucks and buses and antique cars!).
This hotel looks like an all-inclusive (meals, drinks, and activities included), functions like an all-inclusive, but is not an all-inclusive. The little kitchenette provides plates, three types of glasses,cutlery, and tea cups for two. The cookware is a lovely set of brand spanking new, shiny pots in five convenient sizes. However one has to be resourceful to produce a meal (once you learn the ropes on how to find supplies) without any shape or size of bowls, paring knives, can opener, cutting board or even countertop! We eat breakfast cereal in the wine glasses and use the smaller pots to mix things. We managed a terrific chicken tomato stew and stashed the leftovers in our
Classe con Xiomara
Larry, Maureen, Xiomara (teacher), Walter (Swiss), and Wolfgang (German). Photo taken by Stefanie (Germany but working in Yemen).
bar fridge in the smallest pot. May our Swiss Army knife live a long life.
Spanish classes began Monday morning at 9:30 but first we were met at the front door of the hotel by the school bus, known as a "guagua" (pronounced waawaa
) and its driver Jesus. Ten or so of us clambered aboard for the 3 km ride to the restored home that houses the school. The school is a large 2-storey building on a residential street that lies just a stone's throw away from the Canadian embassy for Cuba. The area in which we live and learn is called Miramar and it is the location for all of the world's embassies - nice work if you can get it, we think! By Cuban standards, it is a well-to-do area, but once again, shows many signs of wear and neglect...the huge, and pardon us, somewhat penis-shaped Russian embassy is a monolith jutting high above all else in the Miramar area...the symbolic testosterone of a previous era perhaps!?
After being introduced to the manager of the school Sergio (a slight 30'ish young man with excellent English)in the crowded front lobby and given a quick explanation of the
Larry and Maureen in front of the statue of Jose Marti to whom the accompanying towering obelisk and museum is dedicated.
school , we were swooshed upstairs with one other student from Austria. We sat in a room with two middle-aged women who gave us a whirlwind oral examination to assure them that we were the same people that scored less than 50% on the placement exams taken online! It appears that we did a fine job of showing our (in)abilities in the language and were asked to move on to classroom 1 ... hold on now, NOT the basic beginners class!
The school experience is similar to Cusco in many ways, so similar in fact that one of our classmates is a 60-something lawyer, Wolfgang, from Germany whom we recognized from our Spanish school in Cusco. Instead of mostly students in their gap year, we also have a collection of working 30-somethings who have extended leaves from companies such as IBM, Xerox, Microsoft, and KPMG. Another fellow is a 19 year-old Brit, James, who is now on his way to Cusco, interestingly enough. Many of the students also stay at our hotel/bungalows, but James is staying with a family not five minutes from the school. We asked him if his home stay had hot water because it was uncommon
Bird on a Wing
Larry managed to capture one of the many turkey buzzards that ride the drafts at the top of the tower. Havana spreads out below.
in Cusco and he startled us up by revealing that not only did his family not have hot water but they didn't have running water or even electricity. The family lives on the government issue food rations as do all Cubans and then James spends about $45/week buying them extra food basics as part of his room and board. It is hard to fathom such stark differences in living standards, embassies and hotels to humble homes, in such intimate proximity.
Our first two days in class were spent in a crammed classroom with 9 students, all of German or Swiss heritage except for the one middle-aged Canadian couple-that would be us! It appears that we are the ONLY Canadians at this school, however, English is the go-to language for when anyone runs short of Spanish conversational ability. There was an obvious gap in Spanish abilities between the students in the crowded class, and so on Wednesday we were separated into 2 far more comfortably-sized classes, and the last 3 days of the week we were in a group of 5 ... three men and two women. Xiomara ("See-O-Mahr-Ah"), our instructor is a 58 year old, slightly larger Habanera lady
Books and beasts.
with a husband, 2 older sons, and 4 grandchildren. She likes to laugh- between frequent coughing spells from asthma- and for the poor men in the class, she finds example after example after example
of photocopied cartoons useful for us to practice Spanish conversation, demonstrating just how lazy, slothful, and libidinous men truly are!!
The school offers a series of activities after each school day such as dancing, cultural trips, and evenings out. These are all for a fee, but are reasonable. This week we visited the Memorial to Jose Marti at Revolutionary Square (and from whose obelisk top we could view the entirety of Havana), and another day we had a lovely drive through the country south of Havana to Ernest Hemingway's 20+ acre estate museum, called Finca, where his famous works For Whom The Bells Toll
and The Old Man and the Sea
were written. Fortunately, Larry was reading a book about Havana that coincidently gave some background to Hemingway's time in Cuba, so we had some insight into the significance of the house, writing tower,etc. There was very little documentation at the site, just a home preserved ... books and more books, including a three level
Mattias (Germany), Larry (Canada), and Sergio (Cuba) in front of the Pilar, Hemingway's adored fishing boat.
bookcase beside the bathroom throne. Also of note were many and various animal heads, mainly African, shot, mounted and displayed by Hemingway throughout the home. The entrance fee was 3CUC per person and 5CUC per camera!
... we kid you not.
Cuban currency ... such complications! What a country, where most items bought by tourists are priced in CUC
s and those for Cuban residents are priced in Cubano Pesos
! The exchange rate on the CUC is just about 1 for 1 with the US or Canadian dollar. Most food type items we've encountered so far sell for a similar price to what we would pay at home when paying with the CUC. However, the exchange on the Cubano Peso is 24 for 1 dollar. Depending on whether the store or market sells its products in CUCs or Pesos, the price for similar items is about the same ... so ... a loaf of bread bought for 1 CUC (approx $1) in the "tourists" store can be bought in the "locals" shop for about 3 Pesos, or 12 cents. For less than a dollar, we can go to a nearby fruit and vegetable mercado and stock up on fresh fruits
Bread Store for Cubans
Each Cuban is rationed to one loaf of bread daily, according to Xiomara. Each small loaf is pre-bagged and given out after stamping the ration card.
and vegetables for a dollar or two using the Cubano Peso.
With the economy enduringly low, there are many ways for inventive people to enhance their meagre living. Some will run taxis in their private cars at risk of great penalty if they get caught. Others offer legitimate services under the table such as laundry at half the hotel's price. Still others outright ask for money to buy their child milk or for food to eat,"tengo hambre". Then there is the sneaky group who overwhelm you with friendliness - where are you from, do you like Cuba, great picture you just took, where are you staying, I am so and so, I do such and such, here is a picture of my family, ... let me tell you about a free dance performance - come with me NOW ... and then when away from the mainstream, they try to sell you cigars at such a good price (not!) or ask you to buy something for them in CUC that they can't afford and will probably sell on the black market. We call this the "engage, flatter, and devour
One more week of classes and then it's total
Young boys take time out from their street soccer game.
relaxation with, of course, some additional Spanish practice while on the beaches of Varadero...see you in a week after classes ... STAY WARM!!