Havana Cuba -People to People-Cars, Art, Canons and Cemeteries

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April 17th 2018
Published: April 17th 2018
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Havana, Cuba

People to People

Cars, Art, Canons and Cemeteries

Finally, the heart of our cruise, Havana, Cuba. This has been on the bucket list for years. Cuba, so very close, 90 miles to Key West, Florida, and yet unreachable for most Americans. Visa’s and passports in hand we disembark in Old Town Havana. We head down the gangway to the terminal where we go first through a metal detector just like at the airport, then down another hall where we line up in front of a half dozen, small immigration and customs stations. One person at a time, we step forward until it is our turn. Cope goes first. I can’t see the officer as the glass is frosted, but I see Cope, who is seriously answering questions from the officer. I see his passport handed back to him and he moves on. My turn. I’m a little nervous as I have filled out the VISA form incorrectly. The information is right, but…it is on the wrong lines. I hope this won’t be a problem.

As I step forward, I hand over my passport and visa. The young officer doesn’t even look at the visa and just puts it aside. He’s focusing on the passport. Whew ?. He says, “Take off your glasses”, which I do and he takes a photo. We have been told not to smile or we will have to have the photo re-done. He looks down and says GEEN CAR OL, GEEN CAR OL, then he looks up at me and smiles. I smile back. Ker thump, ker thump, he stamps my passport and says, “Buenos Dias”. I am through.

Meeting up with Cope we head across a large room with small shops to the Currency Exchange. We will need “Cuban tourist dollars called CUC’s (KOOKS). This currency has monuments on it as opposed to the currency that locals use which has important people on it. The exchange rate is $1 dollar to 87 CUC’s. Then there is a 10% tax and a 3% fee LOL. There are 13 little locked kiosk cubby’s open with people exchanging money. We will not be able to use US dollars here. After about 5 minutes we are directed to window 13. We hand over 250 US dollars and get our CUC’s. As with most countries, these are much prettier than our US dollars. We stuff them in our wallets, put the passports away and head downstairs to the underground garage where our “Best of Havana” tour will begin.

Greeting us at the bus is our guide, Manuel, Manny. He is a professor of American (meaning all of the America’s) History. He speaks perfect English and is quite funny. The bus starts off and we head to some of the oldest and poorest parts of Havana. The buildings are decaying after decades of sea salt air and lack of money for maintenance. Along the roads and rail road tracks, there is trash. There are people picking through the trash and putting items they want to save in plastic trash bags.

As we move along there are such contrasts. On the streets are the old but beautiful American cars, muscle cars of the 1950’s, and many painted vibrant pinks, turquoises, yellows and greens. Cope is in heaven. Many are taxi cabs. Intermingled with the old cars are, pedicabs, bicycles and Mercedes, Ladas and BMW’s. Although the American embargo has prevented Cubans from getting American goods, they do trade with the rest of the world, especially Europe.

After about 20 minutes we pull up in front of an Art Cooperative that was founded 17 years ago by artists in Cuba. They took an old concrete water tower, cleaned it out, started soliciting donations and began an effort started by “the people” and not the government. Today, the entire building is a work of art. The walls have art embedded in them such as beer bottles artistically displayed in the walls, old irons that were powered by charcoal and beautiful murals depicting life in Cuba.

The art cooperative, a place of peace, has classes for adults and children and also for those with Down’s Syndrome. One of the girls in the Downs Syndrome class comes to dance with us as we listen to live music. Her mother, Maribel, has some canvas’ that her daughter has painted and they are for sale. Jean buys one of a lovely parrot and she and Maribel, trade Facebook addresses?

The harbor coming into Havana is absolutely spectacular. It is narrow and easily defended and a perfect spot for securing boats in a storm. At the entrance to the harbor is the fort, San Carlos de la Cabana which is one of the largest in the world. At 9pm every night they close the fort with a ceremony and a canon shot.

As we move on, Manny provides political commentary as well as insights about the people, economy, and history of Havana. He tries not to take “sides”. He tells us of how things used to be, before the various revolutions, during the Che and Castro regimes, and how people are living and working today. He makes careful comparisons about how people live and exist during all the changes in governments. He has interesting insights about how the government reacts to changes in the economy. For instance, when the price of sugar rose in the global market, the government decreed that all crops should become sugar cane and they would become the sugar cane capital of the world. Unfortunately, when the price of sugar dropped precipitously, the farmers suffered terribly as did all of Cuba. Manny also told us about another situation with milk. Milk was in short supply around the world so the government imported lots of dairy cows from Canada with the idea of building wealth in Cuba, only to find the cows did not like the grass in Cuba.

The resiliency of the Cuban people is truly astounding and even with embargos, crisis and lack of money for infrastructure, the country remains full of music, art, laughter and dancing.

As we drive around the city, we see unimaginably beautiful seaside mansions that are now crumbling but are a testament to the wealth and status of Cuba in the 1800’s right up through the 1950’s.

Since Jean loves to renovate homes, she was looking at each crumbling roof, wall and shutter with the eye of a designer wanting to return these historic homes to their original beautiful states. Some of these old dilapidated homes on the waterfront have signs that say, “se vende” thank heavens we can’t buy here, LOL.

It’s lunch time, and since we are mostly Americans on this tour, we are being treated to a steak lunch at Don Cangrejo. We’re actually feeling a little guilty about it as Manny has told us how expensive beef is in Cuba. We have a table overlooking the sea and although we are not big beer drinkers, a very cold Cuban beer, Crista Cerveza, hits the spot as the temperature reaches 90 degrees with 85% humidity. A Mariachi group serenades us with Cuban songs, some of which we know, so we sing along. We are in the land of manana and lunch is a leisurely 2 hours.

Other than passing a military school near the entrance to the harbor, we don’t see a military presence or police officers. We are told that Havana is very safe, and there is a 99% literacy rate in Cuba. As we drive around the city, there are many parks with trees and dirt but no grass. People happily walking and pushing babies, children in uniforms coming home from school, teasing each other, chatting with friends and laughing. For the most part the people of Havana are dressed like you would see people in the states. T-shirts, dresses, patterned nylons, nails done in colors and painted with flowers and beautiful designs. Jeans, purses, backpacks and tennis shoes.

As we travel on, we see three beautiful 3 story, arches that invite us to Christopher Columbus Cemetery. It is the second largest cemetery in the world. We see incredible marble statues, crypts, monuments expressing the previous wealth of the citizens of Havana. White marble everywhere with other types of expensive stones in between. Some of the pillars at gravesites have been shortened to 13, ½ 2/3 and this is to represent a life cut short.

As we are walking through the cemetery, an older man happens by and starts talking to Jean in Spanish. He is Cuban and asks her in Spanish if she would like to see the tomb of Che Guevara’s friend Rafael Llanes Monteagudo. She says “si” and follows him a few rows off the beaten path where they find Rafael’s tomb. Nice mini adventure ? Jean tips him and rejoins our group walking tour.

A tour of Havana wouldn’t be complete without a stop for cigars, a look at Hemmingway’s neighborhood and of course, “The Market” for more “people to people time”.

We are given a quick tutorial in what makes a great cigar versus those sold on the streets that have banana leaves in them or those that are machine made and wrapped in cellophane. Fortunately, Cope passes on cigars at the tiny cigar store where we stop.

On to Plaza de Armasand Plaza de la Catedral. The heart of old town Havana. Beautiful squares where people are visiting, sitting and chatting with friends. We are wearing out. It has been 9 hours since we started this morning and the sun has been relentless. Our spirits are not dampened but our feet are starting to tell us something else.

There is of course, one last stop. The Market. This is an indoor craft market in a warehouse along the harbor. There are hundreds and hundreds of vendors selling the normal touristy things as well as beautiful handcrafted goods made in Cuba. We search for Cuban coffee but can only find “ground” and no “coffee beans” so we pass. We pick up some souvenirs, talk to the vendors who are anxious to sell us something but not pushy. If we say no, they say “gracias” and we move on. We talk to young ladies who work there and old men who work there. We have been able to meet Cuban’s and talk about everyday life. We’ve seen a little of Havana and understand so much more than when we docked. The people have been so gracious, we’ve practiced our Spanish, shared stories and hugged and smiled our way through the day. We are soooo glad we came.

Additional photos below
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17th April 2018

Hello you two. Is there a Hemingway house in Cuba that you can tour like the one in Key West? We so loved visiting that house with the six toed cats. Love your blogs.
17th April 2018

No Hemmingway House
Nope on the house Connie but... there is a bar that everyone knows he did not patronize but he left a note there saying that it was a great bar, so everyone thinks he went there and all the tourists go there. The bar he frequented was on the Main Plaza but no bar to visit.
18th April 2018

Very insightful
Sounds a lot nicer than what I’ve heard. Nice description of daily life. Be safe!
18th April 2018

Hemingway Bar
Too funny - and in the Caribbean, oh so predictable. Enjoy!

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