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Published: February 28th 2016
It didn't matter that there were no seat belts in the taxi because it turns out everyone in Cuba is really protective of their cars. In a country that was cut off from most of the rest of the world, keeping cars running despite all the odds has become a source of national pride.
The cars on Havana's roads give a potted history of its last century: Around thirty percent of them reflect the legacy of their former close relations to the USA, huge pristine 1940's and 1950's Buicks, Chevvies and Cadillacs gleaming in all colours of paint. Around thirty percent are much smaller, more subdued, often rusting imports from the former Soviet Union, generally Ladas. The remainder are more modern imports, familiar across the world, which represent the recent thawing of diplomatic relations and resumption of trade. The surprise for me was just how many cars there were because I have always had a notion of Cuba as much poorer than it actually is.
We had decided to come to Cuba for several reasons but first amongst them was that Cuba has reached a turning point in its relationship with the US and we wanted to see it
before it was colonised by American brands. Given that our first sight of Mexico City had been the huge Golden Arches of McDonalds, this reasoning seemed sound.
As we drove from the airport we had half an hour to just sit back, calm down from the stresses of the journey and just take it all in. The road was wide and initially had only very light traffic. We drove through fields and then a small industrial area before we reached the city. As we entered Habana, we glimpsed from a distance the huge twin faces of Castro and Guevara staring at us from across Plaza de la Revelución. I was expecting posters everywhere with their faces but was disappointed to find the propaganda was much more subdued and infrequent - though both obvious and interesting when you noticed it.
We drove past the nation's heroes and onto a wide boulevard and then quickly turned into a small residential street. Here, for the first time we noted the former grandeur of the buildings around us but also their decay. At the end of the street was an historic cigar factory with its columned portico. Beside this was a children's
playground, long rusted but still in use. Across the street from the swings, several bins had been tipped over and their contents had been rotting for some time. Half-way along the road our taxi abruptly came to a halt, the driver dropped our bags on the pavement, looked at us as if to say, "Will you be okay here?" and then sped off. We were standing in the middle of a row of anonymous looking houses. The only indication that the one we were outside was a tourist place was the tiny Trip Advisor placard we saw after a few minutes. We stood on the pavement and looked around, excited and nervous in equal measure. We had no idea what the next few days would hold.
Lindsey pressed the bell and a voice answered in mumbled Spanish. Lindsey said her name and then tried to explain she had a booking... given that she doesn't speak Spanish this was well done! The intercom went dead and we waited. We waited a bit more. Finally, someone bustled downstairs and opened the door a crack to see us. Standing like this she spoke again in Spanish to which Lindsey uttered, "no hablo
espaniol". The woman shouted back up the staircase behind her and a couple of minutes later an old woman came out. In broken English she explained that they couldn't find the key to our room and that we were welcome to come in. As our bags wouldn't fit through the door the old woman stood guard over them whilst we were led up several steep flights of stairs to a terrace where a gesture told us to wait. A few minutes later, we were led downstairs again and taken to our room which was comfortable but basic.
Since we had lost a day in Cuba due to our delayed flight we had no time to lose. As the city was completely unfamiliar to us we decided to take it slowly at first so did a couple of loops around the immediate neighbourhood to get our bearings. Then, feeling a bit braver we wandered down the main road towards the city. We weren't sure what to expect and we didn't want to venture too far as the light was already starting to fade. Initially we kept our cameras in their bags - this did not appear to be a tourist
area and we reasoned most Cubans had probably never seen large cameras.
We wandered down the street trying to take in as much as possible... the dull but pristine government offices; the second floor homes with washing hanging out to dry; the tiny shops selling fresh meat or vegetables that had sprung out of people's front rooms; the cars speeding past; the blaring music from a large shopping centre; throngs of people everywhere; the tuktuk drivers hawking for business. Most of all we noticed the dilapidated state of the buildings. Through occasional open doors we could glimpse dirty rooms lined with cardboard, sparsely furnished. Often the outside was just as bad, with bed sheets or thin plywood boards roped over gaping holes. Some of it was merely cosmetic, nothing a lick of paint wouldn't fix, but most spoke of a people without access to the basic resources needed to keep their homes secure, dry and comfortable. This contrasted strongly with the people themselves, who were generally immaculately dressed and obviously put effort into their appearance.
We decided to stop at a small busy square where we found a convenient wall to sit on, as the locals did. We
sat watching Havana go past us, soaking in the sights and sounds. In the bright yellow and green building opposite us we could see a woman hanging her washing out. Below her, the owner of a cart with a pile of yellowy-brown bananas and a pile of green bananas, was doing a lively trade. On the road itself we saw a woman waiting for a taxi. She stopped at least a dozen of them but for whatever reason decided not to take them. She finally got into one just before we left. As well as the taxis, we saw buses, obviously of different standards, carrying people home after a hard week at work. We found ourselves surrounded by people, most too busy to even notice that we were sitting there watching them. Weekend was just beginning and most seemed generally cheerful and keen to complete their business as soon as possible. I decided at this point to take my camera out for the first time. I felt nervous doing so but it generally didn't attract much attention. After a while though I could see a man opposite staring intently at me and we decided it was time to move on.
By now we were starving and had no source of food. We decided to go back to the shopping centre to see what we could find. Sadly, it was early evening and most of the shops were closing. We found that there were three supermarkets, one for sweet things, one for fresh things and one for dry goods and drinks. Only the dry goods one was still open but this did allow us to buy some water - a relief since we had been advised not to drink the from the taps. We wandered through the still busy shopping centre and found shops selling electronics, sporting goods, perfume and furniture. The only restaurant we could find which accepted tourist currency, and was still open, was a small burger and pizza fast-food place. We sat on the plastic chairs and a surly waitress asked us what we wanted. When I ordered a pizza I was told there was none. We both ordered a simple burger and after a few minutes a dry patty on a greasy bun was dumped on the dirty plastic table in front of us. It wasn't the greatest meal and far from satisfied my hunger.
Darkness had come down on the city whilst we were having our burgers. We left, not sure of how to get back to our accommodation but also glad of the relative anonymity granted by night. We no longer glaringly stuck out as tourists and we felt we could relax a little. We made it back to our room with out incident, glad to have survived our first day in Cuba and excited to see more over the next couple of days.
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