Monthly Archives: November 2010

Havana by Day

Soccer kids in Plaza Vieja

I head out for the day, wondering how it will greet me.  It’s amazing the difference daylight makes.  Rather than sinister, the streets are full of life.  I head today to check out the Plazas, of which there are plenty zig-zagging northwards. 

Boys play soccer in Plaza Vieja, and gleaming renovations display the magic of Havana.  Tourism is changing the face of Cuba, and no doubt finances so much of the desperately-needed renovations.  However, some of the results seem absurd: a planetarium in Plaza Vieja?

In and out of art stores I go: I love Cuban art, and have a couple of requests from home to fulfil.  The art is marvellous, especially the naive paintings, using varied materials from canvas to cardboard to paper. 

A coco taxi

Walking on, I reach the waterfront, lined with taxis, coco-taxis (odd half-shelled cabs on motorised bikes), tourist buses and cycle-powered cabs.

Cigars and good looking men: two of Cuba's most common sights

Another, an attractive young black guy, greets me with a “Where are you from?”  I smile and shake my head; he knows I know his game.  Cuba is famous for its jinteros, or touts, who hassle tourists for a living.  Surprisingly, I am only offered cigars once today. 

After lunch, I make for a loo stop.  An old woman delicately hands me the equivalent of 2 sheets of toilet paper.  I reel back in horror: doesn’t she know us foreigners are not that economical?  Notwithstanding the poor equipment (at least there is soap) I am expected to drop a few cents onto her plate on the way out. 

I resolve to embark on future outings with my own supplies.

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Casa

Mandatory Havana snap: 1950's Americana meets decaying Cuban street

I stay in a Casa Particular in Havana Vieja (Old Havana).  There are two parts to Havana Veija – that which has been restored, beautifully, and the other, which lies still in ruin and decay. 

My bed for the next few nights is in the latter.  People hang over their balconies, perhaps to catch the breeze that brings relief to the heat of the day.

Fabio on his rooftop terrace

Cuba is a world away.  As expected, there is no wireless signal to be found: until just a handful of years ago the internet and mobile phones were banned here, and even today very few Cubans can afford mobile phones or have an internet connection.  My mobile locates Cubacell but fails to connect.

Fabio's front door

Fabio, a doctor who has worked outside of Cuba, and his parents run 2 casa particulares – homes that are (meant to be) authorised by the Government to let out a few rooms to tourists.  Enormous fees are charged of them, whether they make money or not; there are plans afoot to increase to 3 the number of rooms that can be rented in any home.  The nightly rate in Havana Vieja, the old part of the city, is 30 CUC per night (convertible pesos – each CUC is worth around US$1.05 each) . 

Fabio’s home is a marvellous affair.  Located in unrestored streets, the lurid green of the door bulges out at the passer-by.  A colonial house with soaring ceilings, marble columns and over-decorated rooms aplenty. 

The view from Fabio's balcony

All of the dust-gathering trinkets have been shoved into the dining area while Fabio renovates part of the house.  Fabio and his family have lucked out: they are in Lonely Planet and this must deliver them a steady stream of hard currency. 

Each morning he serves breakfast for an extra CUC4, an over-catered extravaganza of piled-high fruit plates, eggs to your liking, fresh rolls, juice and cut vegetables.  Just enough tto prepare you for an intensive day of Havana’s sights.

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Havana night

After arriving in Havana, I while away a couple of hours watching my latest obsession on iTunes – Entourage – and my host Fabio recommends a nearby paladar (a restaurant in a local home).  I requested one of the places that are in homes, where the food is famously much better than the ordinary fare in public, often government-run, eateries. 

Walking through Havana’s streets at night feels safe enough.  Violent crime isn’t what you need to worry about: it’s more the pickpockets and muggers.  Fabio implores me to hold my handbag tight. 

However, there is an eeriness about these streets in the unrestored section of Old Havana; as you walk through more shadow than light, there are almost no cars, although the occasional bike taxi trundles by.  As I walk down the centre of the road, men, women and children linger in doorways, or drift in groups on the street.  Voices and music echo from crowded homes, the city’s human soundtrack.  A little girl greets me: “Hola”.  Walking by takes on the self-conscious feel of voyeurism: open spaces on ground floors reveal a handful of barber’s chairs overwhelmed by cavernous rooms, staircases rise into the darkness; a man walks shirtless in his lounge; a family gathers around the TV.  Life spills onto the street.  Men wave to me from dimly lit bars. I am asked to stop several times but keep moving.

I overshoot the street I am meant to turn left on and wind up lost.  Stopping to ask a middle-aged man draped in a dirty singlet for directions, he thrusts his chest against my arm; I reel back involuntarily.  He turns inside an enormous open room to two friends, junk strewn everywhere, and returns to point me one block back.

I arrive at the paladar, Don Lorenzo, to find it is not what I asked for: this is a proper restaurant, albeit one you must ring a bell for.  I smile politely as the worn out band delivers a predictable list of Cuban standards, and consume my over-cooked seafood, a salad of cut vegetables lining a plate, a mojito made half of ice (doubtless from the tap water one is not meant to drink) and a bill many times more than I think it’s worth.  This is Havana: good meals come for 15CUC or less, not the 32 I’m being charged.  I am assured that service is not included, and another 3CUC is taken for this.  A pleading musician targets me with an empty napkin-lined bread basket.  With the average Cuban wage being around CUC15 a month, I think I just paid the equivalent of US$10,000 for dinner.

On my way back, I am lost once again.  This time, the city is enveloped in a dark and surreal feeling.  I am Yossarian in Rome.  It dawns on me that I’ve brought no map.  The street signs are faded and high up: almost indecipherable in this light.  The echoes swirl about me, the shadows longer – seemier – than before.  I haven’t familiarised myself with my location yet, and panic rises in me.  None of the street names seem to be mine.  Eventually, I recognise the name of a nearby cross-street.  But as I pan out in different directions, only to return and take a new route, I am more disoriented yet no closer.

A woman leans in a doorway.  I call out “Calle San Ignatius?” and she points the way.  Another couple of blocks, and finally I am there.   

Tonight, I have felt so foreign.  Foreign and lost.

Sleep is interrupted; my gut tightens around the thought that I have arrived in Cuba woefully under-prepared: almost no Spanish (I was hoping to cram from the three apps on my iPhone), nothing but my Havana accommodation pre-arranged. 

I obsess: will Old Havana be better or worse in daylight?

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Miami to Cuba

Groaning bags cram into already overflowing bins; passengers wear a steely resolve as they and flight assistants shift and pull and shove carry-on items into the lockers. I am in Cuba already.

Miami check-in (I wonder what this guy's extra baggage bill was)

At check-in in Miami, the plastic wrapping machine works overtime to protect enormous bags stuffed full. The Cayman Airways counter is lined with passengers nudging along their heavily laden trolleys.

How WILL that TV survive the baggage handlers?

My eyes bulge as a huge 37 inch LCD TV, new tyres and wheel rims, toys spilling over the top of backpacks, trundle past to check in. It is only when I observe the pandemonium from the back of the plane that I realise: they are all Cubans. Either living in Miami (the US used to grant residency to all Cubans who arrive on its shores) or wealthy Cubans returning from their shopping trip in Miami. Not being able to source a great many things, Cubans have been forced to recycle endlessly in order to keep the old moving (hence the enormous amount of 1950’s American cars and 1970’s Soviet era trucks that remain on Cuba’s roads).

Two tyres and a couple of wheel rims for check-in, thanks!

A man desperately separates the small LCD screen and some speakers that he wrapped together to carry, and hunts out space in the lockers. Another, more confused looking, ponders the task of fitting a large basket with a handle into lockers that don’t conform no matter how he twists and turns it. The man across the aisle from me carefully nurses a santa toy on his lap.

The US embargo of Cuba began around 50 years ago and has been lifted or tightened in varying degrees since then; every year the UN passes a resolution seeking its lifting and every year the US doesn’t do as they are asked.  It’s hard to find many people who think it’s still a good idea and it seems to only harm the people of Cuba and provide someone for the Castros to blame all of Cuba’s woes on.  So far, the influential Cuban lobby in Miami has triumphed and Cuba remains under embargo: the massive United States picking on a relatively tiny nation, no longer backed by a powerful Soviet friend.

A nice piece of Cuban propaganda: Free the Innocent 5!

In one way, this is one reason I so longed to visit. Not only the appeal of the place itself, but one day things will open up and Americans will flood in. As Anthony Bourdain has said, Cuba will be destined to become Miami South. As much as I like a great number of Americans, they tend to have a terrible effect on places they descend upon, and feel an overwhelming urge to reproduce far too much of themselves wherever they go.  Plus, let’s face it, you can tell them a mile away.

We arrive in Grand Cayman to change planes: the embargo means that commercial flights cannot leave the US destined for Cuba and even flights passing through another non-US port must be checked only to their first destination.

On arrival in Grand Cayman, we must pass through immigration and customs, and check in for the Havana leg. It’s the latter that is the death of us today: the Cayman check-in system is down. A planeload of dejected Cubans plus assorted extras sigh as the line fails to progress.  An hour later, the flight is called, yet we have not moved. It’s another half hour before we are moving: I buy my Cuban “tourist card” for US$20 (a piece of paper on which I write my name, passport details, date of birth and nationality in duplicate. It must be kept to show my hotel, and handed back when I leave.

As I head through the rather odd Cuban immigration area (like a series of tunnels with a door that only opens to officially deposit you in Cuba once you are cleared). I ask the officer to stamp my passport. “Really?” she asks. Yes, I reply, I am not an American.  (On my way out of the country, I ask for another stamp, and this time ask the officer to place it next to my Iranian visa, on the same page as a US entry stamp.  Oh yes, what a rebel).

Wrapped in plastic. Luggage strewn around the Havana baggage claim area

Heading into the dimly lit baggage claim area, workers sit chatting on a motionless carousel. Plastic-wrapped bags line up around it (the Cuban airport staff are notorious for helping themselves to goods they covet). Our luggage starts appearing, and my bag is one of the first to arrive. As I pass through to the public area, a throng awaits the passengers on our plane – easily 3 times as many families stand at the gate as passengers on the plane, and I must push through them to the currency exchange desk. A revolving light message informs that an additional 10% tax applies to anyone changing US dollars; I have brought Euros, half of which are from St Martin and the other half bought at Miami airport. The surprisingly efficient system spews me out of the airport, Cuban convertible pesos in hand just 35 mins after landing.

I wonder fleetingly if the huge LCD TV will make it.

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Tragedy

As reported in my last post, I have taken a week off to travel and clear my head of this project.  My destination was Cuba, so getting access to the internet was pretty tough as it was only about 3-4 years ago that the ban on the internet was lifted there and internet is beyond the reach of the vast majority of Cubans. 

Last Thursday night, a plane on its way from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, with two Australians on board, crashed. Everyone died.  Incredibly, one of them was a Sydney lawyer in her 40’s…

Thank you to all those friends who knew where I was and checked in to see I wasn’t on board.  The truth is that I could have been: I extended what was originally a 5 day visit to Havana and was planning to fly to Santiago de Cuba for 3 nights.  There is a reasonable chance that, if I had, I would have been on that plane.  Why didn’t I go?  Well, I figured there was not enough time to cross such a large country and – truthfully – I felt uncomfortable about flying a Cuban airline.  (Yes, this is after I’ve taken around 60 flights so far this year).  I certainly haven’t missed the irony in the title and contents of my previous post (written before the crash).

Cuba is a wonderful country, but forevermore those tourists’ families will be gripped with loss when they think of the place.  My heart really goes out to the families and friends of all those on board.  What a tragic loss.

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Not dead, travelling

A very quick update to let you know there will be a few “dead” days on my blog. I have a week off work and am travelling somewhere with terrible internet access, but promise to update you on my adventures next week!

In the meantime, stay safe and happy!

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