CUBA – MAY 2016 24th
We caught our flight in Guadalajara, changed to International at Mexico City and flew into the Aeropuerto Internacional Jose’ Marti’. La Habana.
What a fabulous journey we were able to make, a dream come true in fact. A couple of Australians free of any encumbrance the Americans have, on their 50 + year embargo placed upon travel and trade to this wonderful hot, steamy and really economically downtrodden country. We weren’t the only tourists of course. Havana is a World tourist honey pot.
In the early presidential term of John F. Kennedy. The Bay Of Pigs and the CIA inspired (fiasco) invasion of Cuba loomed large on the world stage. Nuclear war was a terrible and “very real threat”. We “baby boomers” according to the now “Y” and “X” generations the 60’s had the new “rock n roll”, Flower Power and “free sex”. To them we were on easy street, free education and health care (we’ve had discussions about this with the X and Y’s since we’ve been travelling). Pen and I reckon we must have been in the local library, looking up “Free Sex and Flower Power”, no Wikipedia then! (Ian said this, not me!). While everyone else was getting some! Anyways we became part of the 60’s “set”, we guess, much as we could. Pen wore higher hemlines (she tells me), and I grew my very red hair (I told her). How very, very ultra cool were we? Back then! (I was very cool, says Pen). But we did grow up in the shadow of A nuclear Armageddon
Che Guevara, the then, and todays’ iconic revolutionary Hero sells T shirts. Che is not revered by all In today’s Cuba. Far from it. (The Castro’s have a dynasty going on here, so no T Shirts!). But Guevara, as a dead hero and revolutionary figure is well represented, sells lots of T shirts in Cuba, as does John Lennons’ round glasses portrait, in Cuba? Go figure! Nearly bought one myself, of both (wanted red X large. Sold out!). Must admit being in somewhat awe, for decades of this motorcycling Doctor by profession revolutionary by cause. This handsome bearded, bereted freedom fighter ultimately won his cause but lost his life in Cuba.
The Castro’s have developed a dynasty. Soon to be democratic(?) 2 party elections are to be held this year for the first time in most Cuban people’s lives. We Didn’t experience too much enthusiasm for the outcome. Many Cuban people we spoke to were willing to talk about their lives. Most have no idea what their future might hold, if it would change or remain the same. One would need a crystal ball to see how they will be impacted as a population, post elections.
Obama’s legacy with the 2015 new free trade between USA/Cuba hardly raises an eyebrow. Cuban reaction. Yeah, heard, so! What will drift down to me? The people are totally pragmatic and honest. The revolution didn’t deliver. The future they can’t see delivering, either!
Back to our journey…..
We flew into Havana at midnight, straggled in a queue for an hour at the only exchange booth to get some Cuban cash to at least pay pay for the cab ride to downtown old town Havana. We sat in the back as you do, looked out of the windows into a completely moonless night. Our taxi driver was giving a midnight driving lesson to his daughter as we drove a long. How to change gear, indicator useage etc. Hey just sit back and relax, open the windows (those that worked) and smell the new exotic smells of a new city. Our driver and pupil really didn’t have an idea where we wanted to go.
As always, we made it with lots of help. The Havanas people were sitting on broken and uneven kerbs in the heat of the night smoking their smokes, drinking cool drinks and trying to suck in some cool outside air on the cobbled, dirty and pot holed streets. They were happy to give directions to our very confused driver and pupil.
We had booked online in Mexico for a AirBnB room 2 blocks from the heart of the old city. A fabulous, eye opening district, the area full of happy but poor people with very little and not much else. Our AirBnB apartment proved to be very close to the magnificent Old City Centre which has a definite French/Portuguese feel. Beautiful, seemingly at first glance derelict buildings (many are mere shells); one wouldn’t have a clue what lay behind the beautiful original wrought iron gates.
Murals adorn many of the corner buildings depicting the revolution, Guevaras’ portrait is common.
We could not have scripted our entry into Cuba if we tried. Greeted at our AirBnB door, by David (owner, with German but no English ) and Angel, who was take care of us. We climbed a stifling staircase 4 floors to an apartment that boasted 4 bedrooms for their AirBnB clientele. We had our Australian particulars including passport details registered. Cuban police check almost daily the whereabouts of foreigners in their country.
Exhausted after a day that started at 4.30am, we showered and slept.
Our AirBnb also had a roof top sitting area. A great place to sit late at night, relax with a glass of wine and listen to local sounds and music drifting up from the streets below.
Angel, a gorgeous young Cuban with excellent English, had our breakfast waiting each day at a time requested by us. Fresh fruit from the local market, omelette and aromatic Cuban coffee. Heaven! He was an excellent source of information for all things Havana, and made our stay so much easier and interesting. Day one in Cuba we had first hand experience of the US embargo. Our credit card and Travel money card are Australian but issued through MasterCard, an American Organisation. This meant no Cuban ATM or business could transact (those with Visa, no problem). Only one bank in Cuba (The Government bank of Cuba) would allow MasterCard or Travel Card transaction. We paid a pretty hefty 10% fee to buy Cuban currency.
That meant a 30 minute each way journey to the nearest bank branch but it did provide an extra view of Havana, by Gogomobile taxi, or pedal taxis. The bank branch (read hot and stifling cubicle) was situated in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba a very ornate Hotel, by the sea, in what’s called the ‘new city’. The hotel looks out towards the Florida coast and has old powder fired guns emplacements located on its grounds built to ward off the imminent 60’s invasion by the USA during the Bay of Pigs scare and the hapless CIA inspired invasion. The biggest threat ever of a nuclear war between the USA and USSR and potential World annihilation.
Cars, let’s call them (American) autos are wonderful in Cuba and are really a step back in time. The US embargo has meant there are very few autos under 40 years old.
Without auto manufacturing of its own Cuba is home to undoubtedly the best array and number of American 50’s and 60’s iconic vehicles, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, GM’s and Ford.
Many are lovingly restored, but most are old noisy bangers running on unleaded fuel and belching out black exhaust fumes. Cubans have had to be very inventive about keeping these vehicles on the road. Strands of wire and assorted tapes hold on mirrors, lights and and a host of other accessories. Without exception horns worked!
Many of the restored gas guzzlers are also a form of employment for the Havanas being used as “taxis” and hired out with driver for tours around Havana and nearby countryside. Must be close to one hundred superbly restored and maintained convertibles that line up daily, opposite the Exquisitely ornate Gran Teatro Del Habana. We hired a car and driver to take us to Pinar del Rio a 3 hr drive west of Havana. Our new friend Mr Welcome (real name) organised this for us and brought with him his lovely 11yr old son Eric who was fascinated by the Sketch App on our iPad. A piece of equipment used many times daily for us but so out of monetary reach for Cubans. Our day trip allowed us to see the beautiful Cuban country side and a tobacco growing farm where we witnessed cigars being hand rolled. A fascinating art. The Cuban Government takes 80% of a farmers crop ( for which we assume at a contracted price) for Cigar manufacturing and export providing much needed foreign currency. The other 20% the grower is able to market himself, personally, cooperatively or by way of back alley “retailers”. Ian helped!
The geography of Pinar Del Rio reminded us so much of North Vietnam, with its towering limestone buttresses and subterranean waterways, which provided an important “secret” route for many slaves desperately attempting escape from the sugar cane and tobacco plantations owners and overseers brutal treatment. Cubas slave population was the largest in the 17 and 18th century as being one of the first landfalls Countries out of the West Coast of Africa.
We paid for everything by the tourist currency, the Peso and Cuban dollar. Cubans also prize the American dollar. Local Peso currency (a two tiered system) allows locals to buy their basics on this currency while the tourist pays much more. The Cuban Government issues monthly coupons for absolute basics ( rice, sugar, flour, nuts etc). Money gained by other means (read tourist, read us!) is an absolute bonus.
Cheap drinks in Havana when you keep out of the hotels are unbelievably good. (Am still able to write, but vision impaired in Cuba a couple of times). Excellent inexpensive restaurant food. On Angels (our AirBnB host) recommendation we went to a restaurant which was 5 star in food, taste, appearance, presentation and absolutely cheap. Hola! Why would you go elsewhere?
In old Havana there is beautiful wide pedestrian avenue “The Passeo del Marti (del Prado) that leads to the Malecon (Promenade) and Straits of Florida. Very fashionable (which we suspect will become Embassy or Consulate territory when the embargo filters through). Permission from the USA notwithstanding of course! Its very architecturally pretty. Imagine a tree lined avenue of 4 storied residences. Absolutely ripe for foreign investment and government money to hyper inflate!
On Saturdays, In this avenue the locals gather to market their properties, mostly apartments for sale or rent. Maybe 200 people with hand written signs stating what they have to sell, or rent.
As well as the property marketers touting their wares, there is an absolutely fabulous array of wonderful artists displaying their excellent work. About half a kilometre of pleasure. We managed to snaffle 2 art works to hang pride of place on our travel gallery art wall in our home in the Central Highlands of New South Wales, Australia.
It was here on the avenue we were interviewed by 4 students doing a project that we didn’t entirely understand. No Habla Espaniole! Their English was pretty good though But we had a good time chatting and they thought we were celebrities when we showed them a picture of Wiggie and said we were travelling the world and had been on TV’s “Travel channel”. What a hoot!
Obama and the US is lifting embargo thank goodness, but it will take a long time for benefits to trickle down to the Cubans. We can see this changing Cuba once US money floods in. We were very happy to see Cuba and Havana before this inevitable change, and to connect with so many good gentle and savvy people.
We walked our little legs off tramping around, took a rest, people watched from a side walk cafe (as you do) then walked around a whole lot more. We loved every step. Only one mishap on our Cuban journey, we were walking through a crowded market when 2 men bumped into Pen. Not a normal bump, instinctively she pushed them away. It was only outside the market that she noticed her shoulder bag had a cut, not a tear near the bag bottom. A sharp bladed cut obviously caused with the intention of spilling contents. Nothing stolen.
Our 7 days in Cuba was fabulous, Havana we both agree, is one of our favourite cities visited where ever we have travelled in the World to date.
Go see it before money ruins it!
We travelled back to Lake Chapala, Mexico via Mexico City and Guadalajara. Had our tourist visas stamped for another 180 days. Had 2 bottles of duty free booze confiscated by security. WTF!
The customs officer didn’t find my find Cuban cigars though.