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Published: March 4th 2016
The next morning we woke to face a typically British problem. There were three bedrooms but only two tables for breakfast, both of which were already occupied. Would it be more rude to impose ourselves, or retreat to our room having already opened the door? We tried retreating, hoping that they'd finish soon, as this seemed least likely to provoke discomfort. However, time was ticking by and we were acutely aware that we didn't have time to waste. After a while we gingerly opened the door and went to sit down, whereupon one of the couples announced they had finished and departed. Crisis averted, we tucked into the strange breakfast of chopped banana and papaya along with a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, all served with exceptionally strong coffee.
I don't think we've ever walked into a city with less information... Literally all we knew was that the main part of the city lay down the road. We had no internet, so no ability to use Google maps, and hadn't had time in the airport to pick up a map. The guide to Havana I had downloaded turned out to useless. This was going to be a real adventure!
The morning was hot and sticky and we had to push our way through crowds as we headed into the main part of the city. We were almost through when a guy came up to us and engaged us in conversation. I think he was just friendly and wanted to practise the English language skills he was acquiring parallel to his international business degree. The thought crossed my mind that we were being distracted as part of a scam or to make us more vulnerable to petty theft. This suspicion was growing as it was becoming difficult to disengage from the conversation. Eventually we cut him off by saying we had to walk in a different direction.
This actually worked to our advantage as it took us to El Capitolio, the Capitol Building. The huge gleaming palace was built in imitation of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. All around the base was construction, but this did not obscure the facade or the immense domed roof. It was obvious that despite the city's maintenance problems, they have made it a priority to keep this centrepiece in good condition. Next to the Capitol lay a park of stunted trees,
it's main purpose to display busts of the heroes of South American revolutionary wars, rather than to parade the beauty of Cuba's vegetation. All around the park were busy roads, with dozens of taxis speeding by every minute. Crossing was difficult but we managed and found ourselves in a small wasteland behind the Capitol. The area was rubble-strewn and smelt strongly of urine but we'd been attracted by the incongruity of seeing an old red steam train gleaming in the sun. We were puzzled but finding no explanation as to why it was here, we moved on.
We headed towards the Old City, hoping to start with Plaza Viejo - the Old Square. En route we were greeted by someone else wanting to speak English to us. I set aside fears of a scam again to have another friendly conversation. The problem was that I was counting streets at the time and by the time we said goodbye to our new found friend, the distraction meant we were lost in the midst of the Old City.
Before continuing I should describe the Old City. It is a place of two distinct atmospheres: the first is the vibrant tourist
hub centred around the Main Street, Obispo. Here there are luxury hotels, occasional bars with local jazz bands playing over cocktails, doorway-sized gift shops and even a tiny tourist information kiosk. Plaza Vieja, a grand old square with fountains in the middle and European style restaurants and hotels around the outside is not far from this area.
Away from Obispo and it's immediate neighbours, the vibe is completely different. This is the real Old City, where the once grand colonial buildings, long since fallen from their glory, are inhabited by the proud but poor residents. Many of the buildings are literally crumbling away from years of neglect and the harsh sea air. Others have been maintained but show obvious signs of damp or just the need for a couple of coats of paint. There are simple shops, such as bread bakeries, but they are few and far between. The cobbled pavement, once obviously well laid, is now broken, and at times missing entirely. Many of the darker corners have a pungent odour betraying regular use as a urinal. It is not unusual to find women sweeping the streets or hanging washing out. The men were either sitting in doorways,
tinkering with their cars or heavily laden with parcels. Occasional stray cats and dogs, all emaciated, wander from doorway to doorway seeking scraps. Amidst all the squalor, though, there are bright spots. We would suddenly happen upon a building that has just been given a lick of brightly coloured paint; completely changing the ambiance of the area. There are several churches or convents which have been well maintained. Competing with religion to provide hope, despite the immediate living conditions, are constant reminders of the Revolution: posters, murals and statues defending socialism or praising heroes of the struggle. There are also Government buildings of various types which are in immaculate condition.
Around the outside of the Old City runs a road, which is as close as taxis can get. The far side looks out over Havana Bay to a large oil refinery, a statue of Jesus and a couple of old forts. On our side of the harbour was a gleaming cruise terminal surrounded by older docks and a sewerage treatment works. This is where we found ourselves when we got lost.
Not far from here, also on the shore, we stumbled across a tourist market, the Almacenes San
José, housed in a huge warehouse. Inside we found rows of small cubicles. There were four or five shops repeated a couple of dozen times each. One was selling wooden products, another jewellery, the third paintings... By the time we'd been there a few minutes we were used to the products, many of which were crudely made, as well as the standard sales technique. This consisted of warmly greeting us, asking us where we are from, picking up an object to show us and then with the object in our hands asking us to look at more. It didn't take long for this to get very old. The one rarity in the market was food and drink. We did come across a coconut stand where we saw the owner breaking a coconut. We paid 1 peso (1 $US) and were handed a huge green fruit with a very leaky bottom. We drank the milk which I found quite unpleasant and then took the fruit back to the barman whereupon he deftly scored and then levered out large chunks of delicious coconut flesh. As our hands were dripping with coconut milk by this point we struggled to eat it but it
was a relief to find food. Strangely, outside the market we also found another incongruous steam train. It was almost like they were being used as markers for tourist sites.
We left the market and continued along the shore road where we came to a grand old stone-built church, the Iglesia Paula. This was our landmark for re-entering the labyrinth of streets. We followed one called San Ignacio which took us straight to the Plaza Vieja. We admired the architecture and then went to find the Tourist Information Office. Finally we managed to buy a map so we could figure out where we were. We also found a set of old post-cards, long since faded, but all the more representative because of it. With new information we headed to a hotel's restaurant to try to get internet. We ended up ordering a comparatively expensive coffee and ice-cream but not getting internet because you needed a token from the national provider.
After our ice-cream we decided to head down the scenic boulevard, The Malecón. The beauty of the setting sun over a sweeping curve of the Caribbean could not obscure that this was the most decayed part of the
city. The sea and time have ravaged this area to leave buildings crumbling to almost nothing, with walls of hollow bricks and large chunks of masonry hanging from former grand hotels. From this road we got great views back to El Capitolio and also across the bay to an old fort, the counterpart of which we walked through on our side. We walked part way down the Malecón and then headed back towards El Capitolio to go into China Town for a meal. After walking under the Chinese Archway we wandered dark streets and ended up in a mediocre restaurant. Following the meal, we retraced our morning's walk and were soon back at our accommodation.
The next morning started in the same vein as the previous one had.. This time we were bolder and had our breakfast immediately. The sun was already hotter by 9 am than it had been the afternoon before. We headed out into a different part of the city to approach the Malacón from the opposite direction. Sadly this backfired as the tourist map we had was inadequate. It had gotten us through the Old City just fine but in the rest of the city
it had several problems: some roads had different names; we found roads that weren't on the map; some roads had different shapes; some just didn't exist. We discovered we'd made a big mistake when we came across a huge walled cemetery with a large yellow church in the middle. Looking at the map, we realised we'd found the Necropolis de Colon which lay in the opposite direction to the Malecón. We decided to take a look and were charged the steep sum of 10 pesos for the visit. What we discovered was obviously a remnant of former prosperous times. Where there weren't grand gilded mausoleums, huge marble angels or brightly coloured tombs, we found row after row of large marble gravestones. My only thought was that here was a vast collection of top quality building resources, gleaming in impeccable condition, commemorating people long dead, whilst buildings for the living were being held together with ropes and bed sheets. I understand the sensitivity of a graveyard but it seemed wrong to me.
From the Necropolis it was a long walk back to the Malecón. This was only exacerbated by our attempts to follow the map which somehow led us, via
a circuitous route, to the opposite side of the burial ground. After a detour through residential streets and the grounds of a teaching hospital, with impeccably dressed doctors mingling with patients outside, we found our way back to the shoreline. We hadn't realised how long the Malecón was and by mid-afternoon we were toiling our way down it with limited water and no food. The Malecón itself was extremely slippery due to a coating of oil. Our map was so useless that we walked straight past the Hotel Nacional, one of the key landmarks we'd been told we must visit, without realising what it was. After walking solidly for three hours we eventually came to a café and ordered food and a piña colada. The food was disappointing and the drink seemed to contain no pineapple juice.
When we finished, we cut back into the city. Our objective was to get a taxi for an hour's drive around the highlights of the city. We negotiated a price of $30, though Lindsey showed her cut-throat side by starting negotiations at $15! Our driver, Alfredo, was the proud owner of a gleaming, cherry red, 1948 Buick. He took us down a
tunnel across the harbour and we emerged at a military base. I was starting to wonder whether this was a scam, especially when we were charged an extra peso each to enter a museum.
The museum was Havana's Military Museum, though calling it a museum may have been a little generous. It was actually just a collection of Soviet-era military hardware: a MIG-21 jet, a tank and some anti-aircraft guns, all exposed to the elements, were the main features. With the setting sun behind the machinery we couldn't see much. We drove onwards and came to the statue of Jesus, who has the best view over the city. When we arrived the skyline glowed in the golden sun. Opposite Jesus was Ché Guevara's house, now also a museum.
Behind Jesus was a small market, with traders selling the same tat we'd seen in the Almacenes San José. One trader caught us in a trick... He came over to us, very friendly, and 'gave' Lindsey a piece of jewellery. As it was happening we could see the tricks he was employing - it's rude to refuse a gift, you can't be 'mean' to someone so friendly, it's hard for
a rich westerner to say no to a poor trader, etc. He then handed me a 'magic box', which I proceeded to open, briefly taking the wind out of his sails. He told us it was all free, because we are English. Then when we tried to give it back, he said that we should just give him what we wanted to give for them. I quickly weighed up the situation... The necklace was around Lindsey's neck and I didn't want her to get hurt; the box was loose in my hand; I had three pesos in my pocket. I decided the quickest and safest way out was to give him the three pesos for the worthless necklace and hand back the box to him. As I did so he half-heartedly protested he'd usually get five pesos but he knew he'd won and let us go. I felt cheated but had a sliver of satisfaction in not paying for the box too.
From the market we drove on to the fort where we got another great view over the city. Here was another market and I could see another trader trying on the same trick. From the fort we
took a drive down to the Old City, which we'd seen already. It was nice to be seated and have the wind in our hair rather than walking in the afternoon heat. We said goodbye to Alfredo at El Capitolio and our mind turned, once again, to food.
We ended up standing outside a hotel looking at its menu when someone came up to us with a menu and we decided to follow him. He led us to a building across the street and then followed us up two long, plain, white flights of stairs. This didn't look like a restaurant and I started to feel a little scared. It turned out though, that we were at a 'Paladare' - a Cuban Home restaurant. The food was simple but well cooked - roasted meat, rice with black beans, local vegetables and fried banana. We were delighted to have this cultural experience. It was a great end to a fantastic couple of days.
(The puzzle of the trains appears to have been solved here
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