Havana: rubble and hustle

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September 2nd 2013
Published: September 10th 2013
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Pereira to Havana

Walking around the streets of Old Havana, it feels like the city has not changed in a long time. The majority of the wonderfully architectured buildings have not seen a coat of paint, let alone any maintenance in decades, whilst the potholed streets have piles of rubble and debris that has fallen from above, and the sound of salsa bands and old men playing domino's echoes from within the hollow buildings. If the street is large enough, then an American Yank Tank from the 50's will roar past full of big Cuban men with their arms firmly planted on the open windows, trying to let in any cool air from the oppressive heat. If it is a small street then expect to see a motorbike with sidecar splutter past, or a bicycle tuk tuk painted in resplendent colours with names like El Diablo or Da Puta Madre, and an iPod listening driver. In the afternoons, storms roll in and the thunder reverberates off the decaying building facades as lightning illuminates a dark purple sky for hours on end. At night, every place selling a beer, let alone a cocktail, has a fantastic band providing live music.

It is a very
Street Art - Havana CentroStreet Art - Havana CentroStreet Art - Havana Centro

Bender would fit in well in Havana
picturesque area of the city, full of character and hidden gems, and at times it overwhelms your senses. However, there is another side, that is very much in your face, and one that can grind you down over time; the unrelenting hustle of people looking to make a buck from the massive influx of tourists that flock in their millions each year to Cuba. Be it the incessant call of 'amigo, amigo, taxi, taxi?' to the 'psssst amigo, cheap cigar, good quality, best price for you', to the guys waiting out the front of restaurants who will chase you down the street trying to show you the menu, or a flyer for the nights entertainment. I completely appreciate that these guys are trying to make some extra cash to supplement the piddly amount they are all paid by the government, but one has to wonder how many tourists are actually turned off going to a place to eat or a place to buy souvenirs or cigars by this approach. I know if i want to eat something, or rest my legs and get a taxi then i will, but not if i am hassled for minutes to do so. But these guys have nothing on the people who will follow you down the street, asking the standard set of questions trying to sucker you in to get them to 'show you around'. A typical conversation goes like this.

hustler: Happy holidays


hustler: Where are you from?


hustler: is this your honeymoon?


hustler: Do you want restaurant, cigar - good quality, see Buena Vista Social Club, taxi?

us: no gracias (no thanks)

hustler: You must want something, let me show you around?

us: no gracias. no quiero nada (no thanks, we do not want anything)

By this stage, they have followed us down the street for a few hundred metres and have either realised that our resolve is strong and we won't break, or they have found some new fresh tourist meat to try and prey on. Of course our resolve was not this strong at the beginning!

We flew out of Pereira at 5am after having a fabulous meal of Argentinian steak and Malbec with Alex, Claudia, Manuela and two family friends of theirs. I'd forgotten how good the combo of a enormous piece of perfectly cooked cow along with a top notch Malbec is. With a 3 hour stopover in Panama City, we arrived in Havana around 12:30, and despite getting some sleep on the last leg we had not really had any sleep in 30 hours. After getting a taxi to the Casa Particular we had booked into, and after meeting the owners, we stumbled out into a steamy Havana looking for a cold beer and something to eat. We quickly located a great little outdoor terrace that we would visit most days, and resolved the beer issue and avoided the afternoon heat under the shade of a vine covered pagoda. Still needing food, we left the bar and walked up the Prado, the main street in Central Havana. Soon, a friendly taxi driver approached us and asking if we wanted a ride, after receiving a nice declination, he then asked if we wanted somewhere to eat or drink, to which in my tired state (remember 36 hours no sleep and 3 or 4 beers later, and hungry) stupidly replied affirmatively. Soon Alberto was pulling us into a nearby bar, and before you could say hola to the bartender, 3 beers were quickly opened and popped onto the table. Soon Alberto's mate, a big black Cuban man came over and tried selling us tourist guide, wanting an exorbitant price. The tourist guide had a decent map, which we did not have, and so after haggling down to half price along with two cigars, we bought it. We wanted to buy a bottle of rum, so Alberto convinced a not so happy bartender to sell us for the local price of $7, making sure that the change came in three one peso notes. Tips were duly paid, and Mojo and I extricated ourselves from the bar, wiser for it. The next day we were still polite in our rebuttals, but after a few days and around 200 requests later, our resolve was steeled and we more then often did not even respond with a no gracias, a firm shake of the head and a pissed off glare from Mojo was enough to keep most of them away. We observed that most tourists walked around with their eyes on the ground in an attempt to not make eye contact with anyone, this is no way to enjoy a place, and it is a great shame.

As i mentioned we stayed in a Casa Particular, a local house where the owners will rent out a spare room, or the whole apartment if you are lucky. They are a helluva lot cheaper then Hotels, and i think you get to see more of the real way of life in the process. It gives you a chance to really talk to locals, who are not trying to scam or hustle you. Our Casa was in Central Havana, overlooking the Museum of Revolution (complete with the tank used by Fidel to storm Havana parked out the front, and the boat he and Che sailed from Mexico in, parked out the back). We were near the ocean, and a good 15 minutes walk away from the madness, a perfect location. Javier and Andriana were fantastic hosts, with Javier plying me with cigars that cost 1 nacional peso (equivalent to .04 Cuban tourist peoss CUCS), instead of paying 5+ CUCS for a cigar. We had some great nights talking spanglish and drinking rum.

Despite the constant attention being a tourist brings on the streets, it is a very safe city, with hefty criminal charges deterring most from doing anything untoward. On our second night we went to dinner with Michel and Thomas, a Swiss father and son combo who were also staying at the same Casa. Thomas was here to study cinema school for 6 months, and his dad was here to help him settle in, which included chatting up two Swiss nursing students that he had met in one of the museums, and inviting them to dinner as well. The restaurant, Los Nardos, required us to queue for nearly an hour, but it was well worth it. The inside of the restaurant was completely decked out in old Mahogany furniture, i mean everything was Mahogany, and it looked like it was straight out of the Roaring 20's, when rich Americans and Hollywood-ites would come to Havana to drink, and get way from the speakeasy's that sprung up during prohibition. Then there was the meals, for around $5 you are served about a kilo of meat, along with rice, beans and fried plantain. Near impossible for me to finish, Mojo really struggled and we asked for a takeaway container for the remaining food that was still left. This took up the whole container! After leaving the restaurant, I found a group of homeless men and gave them our leftovers, which was a couple of meals worth.

Over the next few days we found out that food everywhere is served in ridiculous sizes and at very cheap prices, especially when compared to everything else. Cuba is not a cheap place to visit, and it would be near impossible for someone on a tight budget. You can find cheap bars outside of Old Havana, but most do not have live music and are not generally frequented by non locals after dark. For the ones that have live music, expect to pay 2-3 times more for a drink, as well as the obligatory tip to the barstaff, and the musicians who come hat in hand every three songs. Pretty much every band will also have a CD that they have cut and try and sell it as well. We were getting a decent breakfast at our Casa, and so tried to last on that for the whole day, but one late afternoon we were famished and found a nice restaurant, and as it was early we had the place to ourselves. Soon enough a band arrived, the Martinez brothers, two in
Sloppy Joe's - does a mean hamburgerSloppy Joe's - does a mean hamburgerSloppy Joe's - does a mean hamburger

Still looks like a prohibition era bar inside
their late 70's and one 83 years of age. They played beautiful music and mojo wanted to buy their CD, to which i did. The CD cost $10, only having a $20, that is what i gave them expecting some change. None came. Either lost in translation, or hustled by a bunch of old men who could hardly walk. Neither of us had the heart to ask about it, and let it be. Having no CD player i don't even know if the thing works, or if it is just a blank! They at least serenaded us for more then the obligatory songs with their wonderful music and voices.

So our week in Havana involved lots of walking through the streets, museums and castles, eating gigantic portions of food, drinking local cocktail classics like Mojito's and Daquiris, skulling icy cold beer in an attempt to cool down, watching amazing sunsets and fierce storms out over the harbour, and furiously puffing away on cigars. And of course avoiding getting hassled. It was a great experience, but we are also happy to be moving on.

For any travellers thinking of visiting Cuba, i can provide the name of the Casa's we stayed in Havana and Vinales (next blog).

Additional photos below
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Statue of Maximo GomezStatue of Maximo Gomez
Statue of Maximo Gomez

Dominican freedom fighter who purged the Spanish from Cuba

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