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Published: January 23rd 2010
Me and Syd in Cuba
ha ha. Not us, but I just loved this picture.
I couldn't have planned a better time in my life to visit La Habana.
Feeling a little midlife crisis-ish, Havana screams rebel & non-conformity. My kind of place. To add to the overall experience, I just happened to be reading the Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Sorta like eating a dirt sandwich, and liking it.
While traversing across Cuba on a twenty-two day odyssey, I was in Havana three separate times...and an unexpected thing happened. I actually craved Havana! So badly, that it caused me fleeting thoughts of 'dropping out' of my own cruel world for a six month sabbatical here. Why? Well, I found Havana to be a fascinating melding pot for all of Cuba. It's not just those old crumbling buildings and smiley malecon dwellers. There is something quite ingenious about this country that has only recently opened its doors to the world.
Don't worry, I'm not going to give any kind of political commentary about Cuba, nor go on an ignorant ramble about the Cuban way of life. I have no right. But in my short years on this planet...and endless travel through most of the Latin Americas, I observed one screaming fact
swimming the malecon
I'm thinking sewer but no one seemed to care
about Cuba: Cuban people are by far the happiest, friendliest, unstressed, interesting, educated people in all the Americas, hands down.
Having said that, I have to admit, I went to Cuba pretty jaded.
Countless people warned me about Cuba. The food was bad, the services terrible, the people criminals and beggars, and every thing and every place was scary dangerous. When I did touch down day one, I remember peering out my taxi window as the rain crashed down wondering what I had gotten myself into. It appeared insanely decrepit. Now I know better. See, most of those henny pennys that offered up that advice, had only been to Varadero or Holguin, taking day trips into Havana. Now, it is one thing to step off your fancy air conditioned tour bus for just a second to take an uneducated look around, but it's another to actually live amongst. Although my stay was short, I did get a pretty good snapshot of what regular life is really like. ...and I like.
...oh and the Cuban people. Never, ever have I felt so warmly received. Almost every Cuban I met was smiling. Even if they didn't know you were
streets of Habana
streets off Opispo were so cool
looking. Content and happy. Healthy and intelligent. I looked around. Really, I did. Everyone riding their bike was smiling, strolling the malecon laughing, grinning while standing in a queue, gossiping in front of their casa on the stoop. Impossible you say? I can already hear all the pessimistic explanations for such odd behaviour. Why Cabochick....maybe they smile only because they cannot do anything about their current situation? Or maybe they don't have the energy to fight the corrupted system? Or perhaps there is a judicial fear of speaking or acting out? Or maybe, Mr/Ms. Pessimistic, it is because they have all their basic needs provided for: shelter, food, clothing, education, medical, and employment. What's that song, don't worry be happy?
A strange epiphany came over me. Maybe we are the repressed ones? Stay with me here a minute. See, I took this new theory back with me to Canada, and applied it as soon as I got off the plane. My conclusion? No one in Canada is smiling...anywhere. Every person looks so worried and stressed out. Everyone is bustling around coughing and hacking. There is no interaction, no social gatherings on street corners, no conversations or debates occurring while
This statue near la rampa is amazing in a sunset
sitting on a bus. Everyone lives in their own bubble, texting, or IPODing, or staring off into space. Frowning and exhausted. There is a sort of feeling of freedom here in Cuba that I have never known back home.
So, what is Freedom really? Freedom to buy unnecessary gadgets from Future Shop during their Boxing Day blowout sales? Freedom to work 80 hour weeks to pay off that endless mortgage for a huge echoing mansion with matching window treatments...a home that a small village could live in? Freedom to eat excessive amounts of deep fried oreos until you can't fit into a plane seat? Don't get me wrong. I KNOW what I have in Canada, but I sorta wonder if genuine happiness and contentment was the tradeoff for that freedom?
Oh, but right. I promised not to have any kind of rant, political or social, so I'll get back on track and tell you about my Havana adventure.
While in Havana, I stayed in a bustling one-star hotel called El Colina situated near La Rampa. La Rampa is raw. There is a real euphoric vibe as men trip over themselves to get a better look at you.
high seas fort
stand there long enough and you too will get soaked
As you stroll the streets of Vedado in the evenings, the boys cluck as you pass and although you aren't supposed to acknowledge it, it's flattering. Everyone is out and about, gossiping and trying to be seen. Either in a queue for the local movie theatre, or the queue for a Coppela ice cream. Oh, and the Coppela ice cream. For those who don't know...Fidel (to keep his people happy) arranged extremely cheap but amazing ice cream (and free rum too), for every citizen! Fidel gets a big ticky mark for this one.
All queues are basically an excuse to be seen. Coconut drivers yell in flawless English at anyone who looks like a tourist. That incestuous beat of reggaeton blasts from all directions. Old cars rumble past belching black smoke. Back at the hotel, there is a motley bunch hanging out in the lobby, watching CNN and looking suitably bored. Yes, some are jinerteros (husslers), but most are students from a nearby university checking out the news on the widescreen while they wait for their bus home. The Colina looks like it may have been quite the fancy place back in the 50's, but now it may crumble
I loved that everyone stands around chatting all the time
at any given moment. The elevator only takes 1 and 1/2 people at a time. The corridors are intimidating to navigate at night without any hall lights, and you have to use the shower head to fill up the toilet tank occasionally. I pretend there is no possible way cockroaches could make it up to my 4th floor room.
For the most part, even though our tour group is staying in and around El Colina, we'd meet up occasionally, but Syd and I explored the entire city from end to end by ourselves. Right in Vedado, the palador food was fantastic. Now don't get me wrong, I had my share of ham and cheese sandwiches and doughy pizza! But most of private eateries in people's homes served amazing Spanish style cuisine. A slightly odd sensation comes over you being shuttled through someone's living room (right past grandma watching TV) into a backroom, but if they have an empty table to offer you, you are welcomed like family and fed cheap 'till you are busting full.
Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is crumbling, and they are frantically trying to fix it. It is exactly how I pictured Cuba. Every single
habana art scene
the paseo de marti was one of my favorite parts of Habana
street has a lively atmosphere, including the famous calle Obispo which is best for people watching people, especially on weekends. At the top near the capitol building is their central park, where tons of men stand around and argue about baseball...in an extremely passionate way. It's more entertaining if you know basic Spanish, especially when they direct an insult towards someone's madre.
The Paseo de Marti (Prada) boulevard is west of the park and is fully treed for pedestrians to stroll at a leisurely pace for about 10 blocks. There, local artists display their paintings and art works. I struck up a conversation with one artist who was originally from Baracoa but came to University, met her husband and stayed. That appears to be the story for most living in Havana, rarely did I meet anyone born right in Havana. She was delightful and I loved the vibrant colours she used in her paintings. I bought a couple of the card sized ones, disappointed she didn't do larger. We exchanged emails and talked for some time before a local theatre group came down the prada advertising their play about an eccentric man from Paris who lived in Cuba. El
malecon fishing and hanging
to suppliment their rations, most try to get a fish for dinner. Something to do as well
Caballero del Paris it was called. The costumes for this fake funeral procession were well done and it appeared everyone in the local community was involved. Too bad we couldn't stay longer to see it.
This put us right close to the Museo de la Revolution and also the Granma Memorial. After three weeks of seeing everything revolution, I have to admit, I'm all museum'ed out. What Fidel and his revolutionaries did was remarkable, but I don't need to see another dusty uniform or a Che canteen to know it. So we passed, choosing instead just to soak up the Cuban street life and atmosphere. At the end of the Prada you are pretty much at the Plaza de Armas and the Castillo del Morro (Fort) which is right across the riverway. Several of our group (mostly guys) wanted to check out both, but we decided we would rather walk the entire length of the malecon before the sun sets.
Out on the malecon, hustlers watch carefully as you stroll by. This long breakwater is a main social gathering place, especially into the evenings. We stopped to talk to the fishermen about their catches, as well as sit
The real Me and Syd
at the van van concert...on the 3rd bottle of rum
like everyone else watching the watchers. Unfortunately, any Cuban men that struck up conversations with us were quickly harassed by police for their credentials. It got quite tiring but I understand why. Even our friend Riegen, a university track and field star, gets hassled three times but still takes the chance to escort us for the remainder because it gets very dark quickly. He hails us a cab to ensure our return to our hotel.
Natalia, our enthusiastic tour leader and relentless party girl, has not deserted us here in Havana, she invites us out nightly with her friends to hit up all the local nightclubs. Most of my crazy group are of Australian descent...so they can't help but faithfully tag along with her. Syd and I went to some selected events which included a concert for grammy winners Van Van out in the Miramar district one night. Fabulous!
Havana's touristy sites are really spread out, so for our own sightseeing venture, Syd and I got smart and hopped on the double-decker tourist bus to take us through the three different city loops, making sure we could see everything with minimal wear to our flip flops. Up near
watching the world go by
School in downtown habana. Love the uniforms
the Plaza de Revolution museum, Jose Marti is well reprensented and gets that goose-stepping ceremonial on the hour. Two of the government buildings across the way have those famous murals on the sides for Che and Fidel, and the grounds are where Fidel would address his people. Or did...I guess Raul does now.
We, along with bus loads of white pasty tourists are dropped off near the Plaza de San Francisco square, and quickly descended upon by hordes of costumed Cubans looking for tips to pose for pictures. Even some guy with trained dashounds gets into the mix. Amusing, but not really my thing. We made our way deeper into the old town to check out the propaganda book market, but we were also trying to find the calle Talon, because we heard there was an open air bazaar for some last minute trinket shopping. After being told by the third person that the market had moved, we located it in an indoor pavilion near the shipping port area. Unfortunately, it feels more like walking into a gigantic government controlled spider web, hundreds of vendors trying to entice you to come and look at their identical wares tucked away
Great place to people watch tourists and locals
in a tiny storage locker. We got in, we got out.
La Floridita was a must stop for Syd who wanted a Hemmingway daiquiri, but after coughing up a lung because of dense cigar smoke in this packed locale, we instead found the Museo de chocolate. ...and suddenly I'm loving museums again! There was a huge queue out front, so we waited patiently for almost half an hour for a refreshing glass of cold chocolate. There is also an old purfume house in the area, and as you wind yourself down the endless old streets, each single block has a little park with a statue and story to go along with it with it. I highly recommend getting a guide so that you get the entire history low down of the area. While some of our group took in ballet at the teatro central, the rest went to a baseball game out in the suburbs of Vedado. It was an interesting way to spend the afternoon with a thousand slightly drunk, but passionate fans.
Overall, Havana is amazing. Medium rare, but harmless. I feel sorry for those that told me Havana sucked. It is what you make it.
these guys were so much fun and entertained us
I loved it all. I will return some day!
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