Havana - take two: slip, slidin' around!! (Literally!!)

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Central America Caribbean » Cuba » Oeste » La Habana
October 14th 2018
Published: October 29th 2018
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The day after Belize we arrived in Cozumel, a small holiday resort on an island off the Mexican Yucatan coast. The plan was to hire a taxi to take us to the nearby Mayan ruins, wait for us then bring us back to the ship. However, there were four cruise ships in Cozumel today. It was also another hot and sticky day. We had vison of the ruins being absolutely heaving with impatient tourists, those part of a ships tour and those independent travellers, probably all queuing to buy tickets!! All this, whilst tackling greedy taxi drivers and greedier little biteything bastards that take the piss when feasting on my ankles!! Having been to Cozumel less than ten months earlier we’d seen all there was to see in the town so we just stretched our legs for an hour ending up at a nearby Starbucks and free wi-fi (that actually worked). It was so picturesque that I didn’t bother to post a blog last time either!!

On this particular cruise, disembarkation was a long and drawn out process. The ship arrived back in to Havana at 10:00am. Our slot to disembark was given to us as 10:15. As the ship would remain in port for two nights, the final disembarkation slot was 19:15 that evening. We could not check in to our accommodation until 15:00 so we approached customer services to see if we could remain on board for a few extra hours. No problem, apparently, we could stay on board as long as we liked providing we vacated our cabin by 12:00 noon. We were also advised that our inclusive drinks and internet package would also be valid until we left the vessel.

After lunch we said our goodbyes to Candice who we found in the theatre directing passengers through their disembarkation time slot. After chatting in between her addressing the microphone, she presented Roisin and I with a couple of the new style t-shirts and a back pack as I happened to mention a few days ago that my current backpack (that she gave us back in January) was seeing some wear and tear. We honestly didn’t think she’d deliver as she has been so busy since boarding the Armonia last week. It just goes to show, you don’t need to win a culinary game show to win the goods. It just pays to know the right person!!

The entrance to the cruise terminal in Havana leads out on to a narrow and uneven pavement on the San Pedro Road. Ironically, outside a place where many people arriving require transport to the airport and other destinations, taxis are not permitted to park outside the cruise terminal. It was another hot and humid day but we weren’t perturbed by the lack of taxis to greet us. Within seconds of walking along the pavement we heard the familiar call as a taxi approached from behind. I gave a nod as acknowledgement. The taxi drove on but pulled up about a hundred and fifty yards further up the road in a lay by. It’s widely recommended to ask the price of a journey before accepting. The cost to our accommodation in the district of Centro - $15.00. We know that the place was only about three kilometres so I thought $15.00 was little bit pricey. However, if we managed to reduce him to $10, we would have saved $5.00. It was hot and sticky. We just wanted to get in to some air conditioning. For the sake of £3.00 we were happy to take the hit. The charge certainly wasn’t extortionate as Roisin and I had agreed only to pay a maximum of $15. As we didn’t have to haggle down to a price we were prepared to pay, I’m notching that up to a moral victory!!

Our casa was a similar set up to the place we stayed prior to the cruise: tucked away in a rundown back street, a single well air conditioned room, a mini bar containing reasonably priced beer, soda and water and a small but well-designed court yard where breakfast was served. The added bonus was that the housekeeper, Deanna, spoke and understood reasonable English (except for the time we had checked out and returned several hours later to collect our bags and wait for the taxi. I asked her for a bottle of cold water as we no longer had access to our room or the mini bar. She bade us to sit down. The sweat was dripping from us!! A few minutes later she brought out two tea cups. She then went back in to the kitchen and returned moments later with a pot of boiling water. We were too hot and sticky to correct her. I suppose ‘bottle of water’ ‘could sound like ‘pot of water’ to someone whose first language is not English!!).

During our cruise we met a couple from our home town of Widnes but who are now living in Warrington. They recommended a meal at the National Theatre restaurant. Excellent value for money. As this was less than a ten-minute walk from our Casa we decided to ‘give it a try’

Walking through the back streets, although similar to the Old town in as much as crumbling buildings, uneven pavements and many folk sitting on door steps or just generally hanging around, we didn’t seem to be approached by as many people. Centro district is less touristic than the Old Town and everyone just gets on with their lives. There are lots of tricycle rickshaws operating the back streets. These basic but effective means of transport are used by locals and charge so little for their service, they may as well be free!! But ‘no’ is still ‘no’!! I looked down one of the side streets & noticed a crowd of school uniformed clad children playing games in the middle of the road. It looked like an organised event as there were several adults directing proceedings. The narrow street had been blocked off from traffic not by displaying a no entry sign but by a crude but effective method of tying a taut rope at head height across the road. Now this may be OK if you’re driving a car but any unsuspecting rickshaw driving peddling at speed could be in danger of decapitation!!

Walking up San Jose on to Passeo del Marti we stopped to admire the building that dominates the skyline of Centro, el Capilolio or National Capitol Building. It was strikingly similar to its more famous namesake in Washington DC although modelled on the Panthéon in Paris. This building used to be the seat of the central government until after the revolution in 1959. It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. The restaurant of the Gran Teatro de La Habana stood on the next block. We passed a row of classic American cars and egg taxis waiting patiently for their next fare and shouting the ‘T; word to anyone who remotely looked like a tourist!! and entered the restaurant.

The restaurant, as the theatre, was of neo-classical design (or did I just make that up??) with its high ceiling and fancy covings and moulded cornices. The menu looked enticing but this was Cuba after all!! Roisin ordered the salmon and I ordered roast chicken. Both meals came with the same accompaniments; boiled rice and a vegetable garnish. The salmon was the largest cut of salmon I had ever seen served to one person. The was well cooked and even had a crispy skin (I’ve seen MasterChef and I don’t mean the MasterChef at Sea kind either!!) However, I have to agree with Roisin that it emitted a weird smell and tasted unlike any salmon I’ve had. Roisin took one mouthful and her decision was made. The dish had to be returned.

‘How’s your chicken?’ she asked me as I looked up with yet another chicken bone protruding from my mouth that had been picked clean. She looked down at the remaining chicken carcass on my plate realising she had the answer her question without me uttering a word.

The waitress was apologetic and asked if there was anything else she could bring. Roisin ordered a portion of sweet potato fries. We were expecting the French fry variety and instead got a rather enormous bowl of a something that resembled a nacho but had the texture of a crisp (potato chip).

During the meal we were serenaded, rather loudly, by the house band. The guitar, bass, piano and horn section made it difficult to have a conversation so although the music played was traditional Cuban jazz and gave the locale an ambience that Havana is famous for, it came as a relief when the band took a break. This was only the eye of the storm though as within five minutes a tall man in his mid sixties with a saxophone resting on the side of his body, bent over our table with a basket full of CDs. Who, in this day and age actually owns a CD player? Even if I bought a copy & downloaded it to an MP3 player what do I do with the residual CD. The answer, I found the following day on a ferry across the bay to neighbouring Casa Blanca. By the way, the total bill for the meal at the theatre restaurant came to $14. Without any fuss, we had not been charged for either the salmon or the nacho sweet potato things!!

The Havana ferry terminal is located across from the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a police check point at the entrance to the open jetty. All large bags are thoroughly searched. Overkill for a short ten-minute crossing? Not at all. I understand that in the past these ferries have had a habit of being hijacked and sailed with all their passengers to foreign shores, namely the USA. Key West, the western most point of the Florida Keys is only 70km from the coast of Cuba. In fact, Key West is actually nearer to the coast of Cuba than to the coast of mainland USA!!

In one such hijacking, hordes of people boarded the ferry in party spirit. Men, women, children passed through the police check with crates of beer, bottles of rum, pots of food and snacks. Strumming their guitars and shaking their maracas they boarded singing, dancing, laughing & joking. Half way across the bay the ferry turned left and headed out to sea. This change of route was noticed by the security police on the jetty who quickly advised the coast guard. In true ‘ma<em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">ñana’ style, the coast guard was not quick off the mark as they thought: ‘Well the ferry has hardly any fuel so they won’t get far!’ Not since Napoleon told his troops that Russia is rather quite pleasant this time of year has a situation been grossly underestimated!! This had been well planned and executed. The crates and bottles were full but of fuel and not beer or rum and so the ferry partied on to Miami!!!

After paying our 20-cent toll we were shepherded in to a single cabin void. There were no seats. We hung on to one of the rails along with a few back packers, several cyclists and many locals. I couldn’t help noticing the front wheel of one of the bicycles contained several CDs in the spokes. So, the Cubans have found a use for CDs surplus to requirements!!

Once safely ashore in Casa Blanca it was only a short walk through a small park and up along a road to the base of the statue Cristo de La Habana. This twenty-metre-high statue of Christ is made completely out of marble and looks out over the Bay of Havana. This point is only seventy-nine metres above the Bay but provided a marvellous skyline of the city. The statue is not on the same scale as its Rio counterpart but equally as imposing. The Jesus statue is standing with the right hand held near the chin and the left hand near his chest. Locals suggest that the statue was sculpted to depict a cigar in the right hand and a mojito in the left, honouring popular Cuban culture!!!

I have already documented the poor state of the pavements and some of the side roads in Havana but, a poor country as it is, the Local Authority are trying to address these issues, On the way back to our accommodation Roisin and I were chatting about our plans for the following day, walking through a busy side street that connected two of the main roads within the Centro district I was aware that the road was closed to traffic (but not pedestrians) as the old cobbles that made up the centre of the road had been dug up. The pavement we were walking on was also recently newly cemented. Suddenly, as we approached the main junction on the corner of Parque Fe del Valle I skidded and slipped but luckily managed to maintain my balance (if not my dignity!!). My immediate reaction was to look down expecting to see an oil slick or some other spilt liquid. The ground below was definitely wet…..wet cement!!! We had both walked on to a section of the new pavement that had not yet had time to set. The Cuban Government are making a concerted effort to improve their outdated and antiquated facilities at great expense (by Cuban standards!) and within seconds, some tourists come and undo all their good work. No wonder the pavements are in a state. They probably think: what’s the point of spending all the time and money on improving our streets if Johnny foreigner comes and dances with their size 9s all over our hard work!! At least you could say we left our lasting mark on Havana!!!

This brought us to our final day in Havana. Our flight was not until 19:30. I was interested in visiting a local Department store, somewhere where the locals shop. If the cost of living was so low, I was interested to find out how much Cuban’s pay for necessities such as clothes (although looking at the few clothes many Cuban’s wore, perhaps clothes weren’t a necessity after all!!). In any case, I could do with some new socks!! (As if £6 for five pair from ADSA isn’t cheap enough – forever after a bargain!!!)

We passed such an establishment yesterday which was only a short walk from our accommodation. The entrance was inconspicuous as was the façade of the building. One is not allowed in to Department stores or malls with large bags or backpacks. This policy is the same for supermarkets. The bags have to be left at the cloakroom that can range from a hatch in the outside of the building to a few shelves near the entrance managed by a ten year old!! The ground floor of this particular Department store contained only several concessionaires one of which, I think, was some sort of perfumery. The rest of the stores (all three of them) on the ground level remained closed…and empty. They were devoid of any business although I didn’t see a To Let sign, only a sign of the times!! There were five levels with only two or three stores on each level to this, what I suppose could be called a mall. I wandered up to each level in turn and checked out a few of the stores. I popped my head in to a soft furnishings store. A few double divan beds were displayed in the centre of the floor whilst the shelves were less than half stocked with bedding and cushions. Through some double doors and another white goods store displayed two fridge freezers and a washing machine. I then realised I have wandered in to the staff’s utility room and kitchen!!! However, a boutique and a sports shop echoed the pattern of the previous stores I visited. Poorly stocked shelves with questionable quality goods. I felt I had wandered in to 1982’s Poland!!! I imagined that in more prosperous times, this mall was bustling with shoppers who were all eager to grab the latest imported fashion. Needless to say, I never found any socks!!

We checked out at noon. Deanna was happy for us to leave our luggage until we returned at 15:00. Our cab to the airport had been booked for 16:00 to pick us up outside our Casa. We headed for our grand finale of this trip - a one-hour ride in an old Classic American car. All the cars were lined up opposite the National Theatre with their drivers standing around chatting in small groups. Roisin picked a 1951 Red Chevrolet convertible. Our driver, Roberto, who spoke and understood reasonable English wanted $40 for an hour’s drive but when I told him that others were charging $60 for two hours and half that amount for one hour it is only fair to charge us $30 as well. With a shrug of the shoulders and a little more pleading from us he agreed (We were so pleased with the outcome we gave him a $10 tip anyway so everyone went away happy!!).

My first question to Roberto as we pulled away was regarding the fuel consumption. My understanding was that these gas guzzling monsters consume fuel at an alarming rate. However, Roberto explained that a diesel engine had been fitted so these cars are now somewhat more economical than the original 12mpg.

Within five minutes Roberto turned into a side street, and parked up outside the Romeo and Julieta cigar factory. The building was inconspicuous brown and box-shaped and could have been anywhere in central Europe. For one horrible moment I thought he was going to lead us inside as Roberto turned to us and asked: ‘Do you want to get out?’

Without a second glance, we both answered ‘No, just drive on!!’

At our next place of interest, Revolution Square, though, I did get out, camera in hand. The Plaza de la Revolución is surrounded by grey administrative buildings that house some of the most important offices of Cuba’s vast governmental bureaucracy. The square is dominated by the Jose Marti Memorial. At 109-metres, it is the largest monument to a writer in the world. Arguably one of the most iconic images in Cuba is a giant mural of Cuba’s revolutionary hero Che Guevara. This was plastered on the side of a grey concrete monolith, the offices of the Ministerio del Interior. The square has not just been used for political rallies (both Castro brothers have made political speeches here) but more than a million congregated in the square to listen to Pope Francis celebrate mass in this square in 2015. This was also the place where thousands kept vigil for four days following the death of Fidel Castro.

Ten minutes cruising (poor choice of words!!) and we arrived at, what was for me, the highlight of this tour – Parque Lennon. The story goes that after the introduction of a communist regime in Cuba, Fidel Castro commissioned a park in the centre of Havana to be dedicated to the father of Communism, Vladimir Ilych Lenin complete with statue. Unfortunately, the request was made to a partially deaf designer hence why there is now a bronze sculpture of John Lennon sitting on a bench as the focal point of the park. In reality, Castro was a big fan of John Lennon and the statue was unveiled in 2008 on the 20th anniversary of his death. Ironically Beatles music was banned in Cuba during the 1960s and 70s. Nowadays there is a guard watching over this statue. Night and day, remaining in the shadows (on the day we went she was trying to hide behind a tree!!) but constantly vigilant. The reason for this precaution is that the characteristic round wire rimmed glasses synonymous with John Lennon are detachable from the sculpture and have been subject to theft on more than one occasion.

Opposite the John Lennon statue sat a large detached property. It was run down and had certainly known better times. It looked derelict. I made a comment to Roberto. Pointing across the street, I said: ‘I bet that building was fantastically ornate in its time.’

Roberto replied: ‘Yes, it used to be the residence of Fidel Castro.’

‘It’s a shame it has been left to rot.’

It hasn’t’, said Roberto. ‘There are five families living there at the moment!!’ Havana never ceases to amaze us or perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise!!

Every large city in the world has a China Town. Havana is no exception. As we drove through Barrio Chino, Havana’s China Town, our host asked us if we noticed anything unusual. We didn’t. Many of the store fronts had Chinese characters. We passed a Chinese gate. This had all the characteristics of a Chinatown. One thing it didn’t have, though, was Chinese people!! There were white Cubans. Black Cubans, brown Cubans but no Chinese. Apparently in 1959 when Fidel Castro nationalised all businesses, most Chinese fled the island and the few who stayed have since dispersed to other districts or parts of the island.

During our one-hour tour, Roberto also asked questions about life in Europe. When we told him that the poorest paid job in the UK earns a minimum wage of $12/hour he nearly stalled the car!! In contrast, the poorest paid job in Cuba pays $12 PER MONTH!! By comparison, Doctors are the highest paid profession in Cuba earning up to $60/month. In Havana, a landlord is not a profession but a vocation. If you are privileged to own property and have spare rooms, you have to give these to people less fortunate. Rent does not exist in Cuba. Roberto and his family live in a house rent free. If that’s the case, we should have asked the owners of our accommodation we had just stayed in if we could have rented the rooms for a few days and then point them to the communist manifesto!!!

We were now near the end of our tour in a classic American car. We drove back up the Malecon, a broad esplanade that stretches seven kilometres along the coast, passed the Hotel National de Cuba, where in 1946 it held a mob conference run by Lucky Luciano. We passed a six-metre sculpture celebrating women in Cuba. Roisin said it looked like Medusa!! I’m not sure the sculptor had that in mind when he started this piece of work as no one would EVER compare women to a snake haired demon!! After he finished the art he took a few steps back to admire his handywork and was heard to mutter the following: ‘Oh! Bugger!!’ At the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, an ancient fort that stands guarding the inlet to the bay, we turned and skirted around the Museum of the Revolution back towards the National Theatre where our very enjoyable journey came to an end.

From there we walked straight in to the restaurant of the Hotel Inghletterra where we had arguably the best meal since we landed in Cuba. OK, it was only a club sandwich but nevertheless, very tasty. Even the house band played at a level and with a rhythm that was a joy to listen to without fear of one’s ears bleeding!! I could have sworn even my foot started tapping
Sculpture to celebrate women in Cuba...Sculpture to celebrate women in Cuba...Sculpture to celebrate women in Cuba...

...or Medusa in disguise??!
in time to the beat!! I even popped a dollar in to the hat as it was passed round (although I still refused to by one of their CDs!!) as I don’t own a CD player (or a bicycle!!).


Both Roisin and I did lots of research on Cuba and Havana and we also know many people who have visited this city. We have not heard or read a negative thing about Cuba, Havana or its people. For us we are happy to have experienced this vibrant and welcoming country but once the initial novelty wore off, you see openly a very poor country with many problems but the folk are genuine and warm. For those people who stopped us and wanted to chat, we never once had the feeling of ‘what are they after?’ The locals genuinely want to help and promote their country in the best possible light (although in some districts that ‘light’ has to be pretty soft focus!!). The cruise was just a means to an end. It was always about Cuba. Are we glad we came to Cuba? Yes, of course. Cuba was my 76th country* and Roisin’s 69th country*. There were experiences we’ve had here that we’ve not experienced anywhere else we’ve been to so we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend anyone to visit should the opportunity arise. Are we likely to return? Probably not!! The world is a big place and there is so much more that needs exploring. Next stop – Singapore and South East Asia…….(sooner than you think!!).

*By country, we mean a sovereign state that is a member of the UN in its own right!!

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