As usual, departure day snuck up on me. Not in a quaint oh it’s here sort of way, but more like a cougar pouncing on me from behind, sinking his teeth into my jugular. Worse yet, I knew deep down I couldn’t afford two weeks in Cuba. But on the other hand, with Fidel Castro sequestered in Cuba’s finest hospital room suffering what many believed to be a terminal illness, I knew I had to go now. With hundreds of millions of dollars on standby to be pumped into Cuba upon the collapse of the Revolution, and with the eagerness of the US and the Miami Cubans to enact swift change upon the island at such time, it seemed evident to me that Cuba’s days as a unique, iconic timewarp were numbered. And so there I was, standing in the multi-hour customs lineup at José Martí International Airport in Havana, ready to explore.
I’d been joined on the trip by an old friend of mine, Duncan, and we’d decided to rent a car and explore the island independently. After a somewhat protracted rental procedure we pulled out of the airport in the banged-up Citroën Berlingo that was to be our ride for the next two weeks. There was just enough signage along the way into town to avoid complete catastrophe. We cruised through rundown Marinao into the luxurious mansions of Miramar, finally arriving in middle-class Vedado.
As many nice hotels as Havana has, we decided to stay at a casa particular, which is essentially a B&B. The house looked rather shabby on the outside, but the inside was beautiful, with marble floors and lovely antique furniture. The hosts were welcoming, and offered up a taste of Cuban coffee. Made in a French press, it is a strong, thick and chocolatey. It’s not dissimilar to Vietnamese, though you just add roughly refined sugar to it, rather than evaporated milk.
With these key details settled, I took a walk outside to check out my surroundings. Warm winds gusted off the ocean and people were everywhere, sparking impressions of a neighbourhood full of life. Classic colonial houses lined the streets. An itinerant rice peddler made sales calls. Guard dogs barked, horns honked, kids played and adults gathered on patios to chat. Cuba got off to a good start.
A furious downpour erupted just as we were heading out for a night on the town. So we dashed to the humble bar across the street instead. After the first tentative beer, we met a sports writer who knew as much English as I know Spanish. Having moderately functional abilities in each others’ languages allowed for relatively fluid conversation. As usual, Duncan was making friends with everybody. That’s his style and sometimes it’s good to have someone like that on your team.
Beers were consumed rapidly at that point. A drunk came in and before the manager could kick him out, Duncan had bought him a beer. That guy was hilarious. I accidentally knocked over a garbage can that had an ashtray on top. It rested a little against the wall so nothing spilled. The drunk guy decided to help me put it back, but he put it back upside down, spilling ashes and garbage everywhere.
I don’t usually travel terribly well with other people so I was a bit nervous about this trip – still am – but so far it’s working well. He’s making friends and breaking ice (at this point all the cooks from the kitchen were also out drinking with us); I’m translating and explaining some of the quirks of life outside of Western society (like toilets that don’t flush).
The bar was pretty raucous for a while there. Smiles all round, but I was beat and after a couple of quieter beers elsewhere I crashed.
Day Two: Havana
The next morning as I went in search of shampoo and shaving cream I found a local bar and a local market. There are two currencies in Cuba – convertible pesos (CUCs) and local pesos (MN – moneda nacional). There’s something like 25 local pesos to a CUC. So if you go to a bar that charges CUCs, a beer is 1 CUC. At a local’s bar (in this case an open-walled dive for working men) a beer is 6-10MN. For the mathematically challenged, that’s a heck of a lot cheaper. You see the same thing at the market.
This can create big profits. For example, a plate of fried plantains at a CUC bar will be able to buy plantains at the local market for 50 local centavos per plantain (that’s 2 cents in CUCs). They can fry up two of those and charge a CUC for it. Almost the entire dish is profit. The government owns the bar, and this is one of many little examples of how the Cuban government squeezes money out of tourists (and wealthy locals).
I struck out on my own in the afternoon heat for some exploring. Most of Havana seems to be crumbling, densely-populated territory featuring neighbourhoods that more or less run into each other. A chunk of Old Havana is pristine, with fully-restored buildings, fresh coats of paint, and few Cubans. Walking from outer Vedado to Old Havana, however, you see what those tour groups in the old town don’t see. People are everywhere. They mainly seem to be hanging around, with nowhere in particular to go and nothing in particular to do. The decay of the buildings, even in relatively wealthy areas, is very evident. I can only presume Havana is not in an active seismic area, because it wouldn’t take much to knock most of these buildings down. Many have come down without any such help.
Multi-hour wanders are standard procedure for me in any giant city, but that may have been overkill here. This must have been a beautiful town in the 50’s. Each building is stylish and architecturally unique from its neighbours (like Lincoln Park in Chicago if you’ve been there). But at this point, the decay has overwhelmed much of that beauty and it doesn’t take long to get bored of walking past crumbling edifices and bored Cubans.
It’s a strange the way that the dual currency sets you apart from the everyday Cuban people, though. The CUC establishments I found around the old town were strictly tourist joints. And the lack of local currency in my wallet made me feel as though I really wasn’t welcome in local’s establishments. True or not, that’s the impression it gives.
I bummed through Havana’s tiny Chinatown and managed to not see a single Chinese person. The restaurants there boast as much of their dollar mojitos as they do of their Chinese cuisine. Nevertheless, I can get very good Chinese food on any street corner in Vancouver, so I wasn’t about to risk Cuba’s interpretation. For lunch, I settled on lomo ahumado, which is smoked loin of pork. No matter what country you’re in, the combination of the words “smoke” and “pork” is something you can take to the bank.
As darkness fell, the crowds started to die down. There aren’t a lot of street lights in Havana and there are a lot of people just bumming around those dark streets, but I never once felt unsafe. Despite reports of petty theft (don’t worry, I was victimized by that before journey’s end), things like muggings are pretty rare. I’ve stumbled around after dark in much more dangerous places. Havana is the sort of place where old ladies can walk the pitch black streets and night and have nothing to fear. That’s at least one thing that can be said for totalitarianism.
I found my first full day a touch overwhelming. I had a strange twilight zone feeling about Cuba. I was watching everything, trying to take it in, but I wasn’t a part of it. There was just too much to learn and being relegated to tourist joints as I was in Old Havana, it wondered if I’d ever be a part of it. I worry that by the time I got Cuba sorted out I’d be on a plane back home. I’ve also spent a lot of time today thinking about my unfinished business and I’m not sure that I don’t want to be on that plane. Ah yes, the joy of being flung into a vacation when you’re not ready for it. Time off is honestly the first, and last, thing I need right now.
I took the long walk home along the Malecon, Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard. In addition to being the fastest way to travel between the old town and Vedado in the car, it’s also the simplest way to get back on foot. The Atlantic crashes into the seawall, spraying pedestrians and cars passing by. Local kids know the dry spots and hang out there, doing the usual teenager stuff, albeit without the booze, since they can’t afford that.
In Vedado I attempted to procure an ice cream at the famous Coppelia, but could not find the CUC section. The ladies at the peso stand looked at me almost with pity. Well, I was half-drunk and still splattered with Atlantic, and clearly had no clue how make something as basic as an ice cream purchase happen for myself. Dammit! I need local pesos!
I got back to the casa, had a shave (beards in Cuba’s heat are not so much fun), and went to bed.
Just because it’s after midnight and you’ve crawled into bed does not mean that all is well in Cuba.
“Hosh! Wake up! There is a problem. Dúncan is in the police station.”