Published: February 20th 2011February 20th 2011
Puesta del Sol en Habana
Sunset seen from the back "beach" area of our hotel in Havana
HABLAMOS EN HABANA or HALFWAY TO HUMMUS or SADLY SEEKING A TOILET SEAT
Finding just the right title to start out this blog segment has been too challenging for these sun-soggy minds so we took the cowards' approach and went with three ...
• one for our language adventures
• one for Maureen's adoration of a Cuban breakfast dish of delectably soft chickpeas
• and the last for the ever-present challenge when outside of Cuban resorts for a comodious ring on which to place the pampered (not "Pamper
Week Two has quickly come and gone - Spanish classes continued on with our teacher Xiomara and our class size shrunk to only four of us. Such an interesting and eclectic group: Walter from Switzerland, a pony-tailed retired chemistry teacher who absorbs information like a sponge, but responds to questions slowly and with such a vacant stare that one is unsure if he has heard the question or is perhaps, not even awake ... and then suddenly to our great envy, he blurts
the correct response winning glowing approval from Xiomara: Wolfgang, a 65 year-old burly German lawyer, seems to rarely know an answer to even fairly simple questions...but when he knows
Sprachcaffe Spanish School
Maureen guards the the entrance to our school
an answer, he spreads his arms like an orchestra conductor and literally sings
out his reply joyfully: and then us, somewhere in the middle, muddling along, perhaps knowing the context and answer to questions, but still struggling at times to find the right verb, the right tense, and/or the right conjugation ... all the while attempting humour (most often bad
) to lighten the task. Fortunately, we've all absorbed a good deal of new vocabulary in the past two weeks which is always helpful when trying to discern what someone speaking "native-speed" Spanish is saying to you.
It is hard not to compare our learning experience in Havana with what we found in Cusco, Peru last year. In Cusco, we had two classes each day as we have here, but there was a changeover of teachers between classes so that there was variety in teaching styles, and even in individual accents of the various teachers. They also then changed sets of teachers for us each week too! The approach here in Havana is to continue with one teacher as much as possible to give consistency to the learning experience - someone who knows exactly what you did ... or
Some of our school's dance teachers put on a demonstration of Salsa, Rumba, and Reggaeton dance during our morning coffee break
didn't do ... in the last class and can build on it. We score one plus
point for Cusco on this.
Cusco's school used a methodical and fairly dogmatic teaching approach so that each week there was a particular curriculum to be covered and at the end of the week, you were assumed to have learned and understood the concepts taught, a bit of surfing by language!. By the end of the 8 weeks in Cusco, we had been shown nearly all of the grammatical language concepts and were considered "advanced" students but we didn't "own" the concepts. In Havana, we were slotted into an intermediate language class based on our pre-tested written and oral skills. Challenging areas of grammar that used multiple past tenses, and reflexive and imperative verbs were reviewed and taught in a more thorough manner than in Cusco ... we just kept practicing the concepts over and over with lots of examples until there was a fairly good grasp of the idea. Where Cusco used chatter about our student life for practice, Xiomara used more neutral, illustrated story sequences (mainly about male inadequacies!
) for us to describe. We declare a point for each school here
Cigars Focus the Mind!
Maureen recaptures an image from her youth...sitting on our hotel room patio...puffing a Cuban Cohiba while studying her Spanish lessons
as they served the purpose well for the stage that we were at...
Anyway, as far as our Spanish skills go, we've moved forward, but of course as with so many things in life, we realize that the more we know, the more we don't know. Part of our challenge has been that until a year ago, we couldn't even remember in English
grammar what the names of many grammatical terms were, much less explain what they meant
!!) We'd probably feel comfortable in about primary school level Grade 2 or 3 for Spanish. For every Cuban that compliments us on how well we speak Spanish... and we begin to proudly glow... there is one that corrects our usage of verbs or nouns, and whom we humbly thank for being our profesores
For anyone who has visited Cuba, it is well known that Cubanos live a life much different from the Turistas
, whether in a resort or in everyday life in the street. In most Caribbean and South American countries, there is a huge amount of poverty and grinding hard work is involved in daily survival. In Cuba, due to its government and the effects of the blockade by
Some of Our Classmates
Coffee break on the terrace with some of our fellow students from Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Cuba, and Austria.
the U.S., a further challenge is added to its people's survival, limited supply of goods and revenue. The average Cuban wage is somewhere between 15 and 20 CUCs per month (approx $20-$25 CAN) paid in Cubano Pesos. However, the true average wage is generally increased by any number of alternative means (ie. the grey (not black) market - government knows very well what is happening here) that unofficially increase the take. For example, our school administrator Sergio earns an official 20 CUCs per month, but on the side he also sells cigars, and occasionally rum, to students. This, according to Sergio can normally increase his monthly earnings by an additional 40 CUCs. When we were visiting a rum factory with Sergio, some workers from the facility approached Sergio with an offer to sell him bottles of rum for 3 CUCs that he could then resell to students or tourists for 6 CUCs. Doing laundry on the side, using a personal vehicle as a taxi, setting up a casa particulares
(bed and breakfast), or having a paladares
(restaurant in your home) are all ways to supplement the national allotment. And, illicit drugs (marijuana and cocaine) have also been on offer from
The ration book carried by Cubanos used to procure essential food and household items
strangers on the street as a means to bolster income- we'll stick to cigars thanks!
The ration card is the lifeblood of the poorly compensated Cubano. Each Cuban, regardless of age is provided with a ration card, or libreta
, that is used to obtain the basics of food and hygiene items. The Cuban family signs up with their neighbourhood bodega
where they are expected to pick up most of their ration items. Until the age of 7, there is provision for 1 litre of milk daily per child, but beyond this age, the government does not provide dairy products. As mentioned in our previous blog entry, each person is allocated a small bread loaf daily; in addition to this, some of the items provided monthly to each person are: 5 pounds of beans (the type could vary from one visit to the next), 4 pounds of sugar, 5 pounds of rice, 1 pound coffee, 1 litre of oil, and 1/4 chicken bi-weekly (if available). Additional foods are purchased at local markets using Cubano Pesos ( 24pesos = 1 CUC) from employment income plus grey market funds from other "jobs". Some Cubans manage enough funds to shop in the tourist
The Canadian Embassy was just about 100 metres away from our school in the Miramar district of Havana
stores using CUCs.
Supplies can vary from one trip to the mercado
(grocery store) to the next. One week there was an entire section of UHT whole milk, but only whole milk. The next store we visited had no milk and the third we happened upon later had a small section of skim, 2%, and whole milk. The second week of our Havana stay, the first store offered all three types of UHT milk. Full shelves of coffee in one store dwindled over two weeks and weren't replenished before we left ... rumours flew at school that local coffee was sometimes cut with something to make it go further ... hence a weak cappuccino or perhaps a bizarre tasting coffee. A good supply of individual yogurts in several flavours dwindled down to only four measly pineapple yogurts. The panaderia
(bread store) had only white (actually various shades of yellow) bread in a variety of loaves and buns but a lovely selection of dulces
(sweets). The big fruit and vegetable market had an inviting array of tempting items on our first visit but we couldn't find a decent orange the second time around. The little vegetable stand, just across the
Sergio Proudly Displays his Carro Antiguo
Our school manager Sergio drives his old Ford to school each day
main drag from our hotel, had a little less on offer the second time around - short supply or just sold out?. We aren't sure where supplies of fruits and veggies come from but we did see many commercial vegetable gardens in vacant lots throughout our explorations of Havana.
What is more stereotypical of Cuba than old 50's cars?...some beaten up and worn to a mere bit of twine and wire and others in mint-restored condition...the roads of Havana-and elsewhere in Cuba- are full of antique Chevs and Fords. While some are owned for private use such as the old Ford driven by our school chief Sergio, the greatest majority are used as a source of $$ and so they pound back and forth through the sometimes smooth, and more often potholed rough streets of Havana. While a trip to central Havana from our hotel in Miramar with a more traditional Lada or Toyota taxi might run about 10 CUC's (approx $12 CAN), flagging down one of the huge numbers of antique 50's vintage cars called collectivos
would only run to 1 CUC per person...however, this meant sharing your ride with anyone else who might also flag the passing
The New and the Old
Newer expensive taxi on left versus inexpensive "collectivo" taxi on right...the old black-smoke-spewing collectivos are so much more fun for a trip into central Havana
vehicle...by the time you reach Habana Vieja
(Old Havana), the poor old clunker could be laden down with 5,6,7...8 people perhaps...an experience not to be missed!
A night at the 1830
nightclub in Vedado barrio is a wonderous evening of loud Salsa-Rumba music and dancing under the Caribbean stars with a backdrop of lights reflecting across Havana harbour. A group of young students from the school somehow decided we weren't too ancient to be seen with ( or perhaps it was that it would be dark and so we wouldn't be so noticeable!) and invited us to accompany them for a visit to the 1830 . At our Spanish school, language classes are held in the morning; the afternoon is reserved for dance classes for those who choose: Salsa, Rumba, Tango, and the VERY energetic and bone-jarring Reggaeton. The 1830 gave our young classmates an opportunity to show their stuff in a real professional-style Cuban nightclub setting. We enjoyed the fun but, having learned with certainty in Peru last year that our ''Salsa feet'' are actually 2 left feet, we stayed on the sidelines and watched in awe as the Habanero
and tourist dancers twisted, shimmied, turned and gyrated
Havana Nights at the 1830 Nightclub
Salsa Steps from Habaneros and Turistas- two of our fellow students, Beatrice (Brazil) and James (England) are on the right
to the infectious Latin beat.
To celebrate the end of classes and our last days in Havana, we ventured out to experience Habana Vieja at night. After snapping pictures of a huge orange sun sinking below the Strait of Florida's horizon we caught a collectivo
outside the hotel grounds and asked to be dropped off at El Capitolio. Don't spend a lot of time on your hair ladies, all windows are open for air-conditioning and the cross-drafts are wicked for hair conditioning. Once we were standing along side the Capitolio (a near copy of the Washington capitol building, was the seat of government before the 1959 Revolution, is now the home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and is now being given a makeover) we were overcome by the lack of lights. El Capitolio, an architecturally significant building, was unlit and the street lamps on Del Prado in front of it were unlit, likely due to the renos. It took a few minutes to adjust before we could begin our quest for a restaurant recommended by other students, that we knew was in the area, but we didn't have the street address or the name written down - oops.
Havana in Darkness
There is an eerieness to wandering near the Capitolio in central Havana after dark...no illuminated street lights in the central core mean avoiding bumping into the throngs of people by the light of cars and some buildings
Fortunately, after stumbling along in the dark to a better lit area, Larry prevailed upon a hotel employee who courteously directed us back the way we had come but with the correct name to look for and the right side of the street. We found our restaurant, Los Nardos, and began our wait in the line-up ... ten minutes they said. As we stood there, a little hungry and a little bored, we became a little irritated when we saw groups of people march up, announce themselves and then be ushered up the same stairs that we were waiting to climb. Turns out there were three restaurants using the same entrance so we relaxed and waited in good Canadian fashion for another 30 minutes. The restaurant was lovely with high end ambience and a reasonably priced menu that worked into a high end bill ... in Cuban terms
. In Canadian terms we had a very gracious night out for two, with superb service, for $34.
After dinner we walked the busy but relatively dark Paseo del Prado
, the very historic and lovely boulevard that leads from El Capitolio down to the long, wide walkway around the harbour called El
The major walkway around Havana's harbour is a draw for musicians and fishermen during the day and young lovers at night
. Along the route, we were gently but enthusiastically asked by a young couple if we would be willing to give them our "doggy bag" of leftovers from Los Nardos. We passed it on gladly, and were thanked very gratefully...for us it was an even trade...they get some good food... we get to practice our Spanish...a win-win situation !
A beautiful evening walk listening to waves splash into the firm fortress-like walls of the Malecon...peering across the sparkling water of the harbour as spotlights warmly illuminate the lighthouse called El Morro
that guards the entrance to Havana Harbour...breathing in the warm, salt air and discerning the countless young Cuban couples seeking, as couples have done here for decades, companionship and love in a difficult world, while sitting on the walls of the Malecon.
There are more photos below