HAVANA GOOD TIME
Trip Start Feb 11, 2008
27Trip End Ongoing
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This top-secret correspondence comes to you from Havana Airport, Cuba. Apparently laptop computers are forbidden here and if you get caught with one it will be confiscated. So, we're in hiding, settled beneath a thick plume of cigar smoke, as we spend another night in an airport awaiting our flight back to Mexico.
After a last-minute decision to dash to Cuba, we spent nine nights in heady Havana, soaking up the sun and the sights and grooving to the seemingly endless beat that fills the air here.
It was a good time to be in town too, with the recent 50th anniversary celebrations of the Cuban Revolution.
Viva la revolucion!
We arrived on the afternoon of January 23 after a short flight from Cancun, Mexico.
Our first priority was to find a place to sleep and when in Havana that place is a casa particular - a private room in someone's house. We caught a cab from the airport to Habana Veija (the old town) and began scouting the area. The first one we tried was full but they put us in touch with another one around the corner and we secured four nights there in a private room with an ensuite bathroom.
Accommodation in Havana is quite expensive, considering, with most casas charging 30 Convertible Pesos (CUCs, roughly $50) per room per night.
Actually, this is probably a good time to mention Cuba's unusual monetary system.
CUBA'S UNUSUAL MONETARY SYSTEM
Just to make things extra confusing, there are two currencies in circulation, the CUC (1 CUC = $1.60) and the Moneda Nacional, or Cuban Peso (1 Peso = $0.06). Restaurants and shops use one or the other (though most CUC places are aimed at tourists, while the Cuban Pesos are used in places frequented by locals) and it is much better to pay for things in Cuban Pesos (though some things, like taxis and accommodation, only take CUCs).
For example, a beer in a CUC bar costs 1 CUC ($1.60), while a beer in a bar that uses Moneda Nacional costs 18 Cuban Pesos ($1.03). You can get a pizza at CUC restaurant for 10 CUC ($16) or at a local eatery for 25 Cuban pesos ($1.43). You can only get Cuban Pesos when you are actually in Cuba by swapping some CUCs. And you can only get CUCs by changing Euros or Canadian dollars. It's quite the process.
So, back to the story.
We checked into Casa Luis Batista for four nights as we were unsure as to whether we would stay in Havana during our entire time in Cuba.
It was a nice enough place, but the people were a bit grumpy and extremely unhelpful, so we spent as little time there as possible, instead spending our days exploring Havana Veija.
Havana is a strange place - almost trapped in time with its glorious, albeit dilapidated, buildings and classic America cars cruising the streets. With a bit of spit and polish, it would be a spectacular city, rivalling places like Spain and Italy, but many years of neglect have left Havana's glory days in the past.
We presumed it has a little to do with Cuba's lack of financial injection from the US and a lot to do with the government's spending on other things instead of improving the city.
A ration card, or libereta, for example was introduced in 1962 as a safety net for the community. It includes around 30 basic food items, like rice, sugar, salt and pasta that are sold at subsidised prices, while babies, the elderly and pregnant women also receive special help.
On top of this, there are huge subsidises for cultural and sporting events like cinema, theatre and baseball, the country's favourite pastime. Apparently all this is a huge drain on the government finances, but the poverty that would exist without it would be an even bigger problem.
So Havana with it's beautiful but decaying facades and ramshackle homes, comes across as looking much like a third world city, or to be more precise, a first world city that was once bombed and is yet to be rebuilt. Much of the disrepair also comes from hurricane damage. Hurricanes rip through Cuba each year (last year there were two in one week!)
But despite all this, we hear that Cubans are among the healthiest people in the world (Cuba is at the forefront of medical research). And we read in Lonely Planet that "more than 400 million women are illiterate worldwide, but not one of them is Cuban".
And then of course there are the cars. Classic American beauties that were imported prior to the US trade embargo against Cuba and are still being driven be pretty much everyone on the road. Sure, the odd modern Peugeot rolls past, but it looks completely out of place.
So for our first few days, we simply explored the old town, strolling along the Malecon (the waterfront boulevard) watching the locals fish and swim.
Not surprisingly, we also spend much of out time drinking with locals in some of the dodgiest little dives we have ever been in.
We discovered quickly that shopping for bread at panaderias (bakeries) and tomatoes and cheese at agropecuarios (farmers market selling fresh fruit and vegetables) was the cheapest way to procure breakfast, while for other meals, we ate at street stalls or local restaurants.
On January 25, when it was January 26 - Australia Day - back home, we celebrated with Havana Club rum in the park and several rounds of ostiones, around a dozen small oysters served in a glass with tomato sauce and lime juice (for 29c).
We know it sounds completely rotten, but they are super delicious and super cheap.
Viva la revolucion!
Then on January 26 we had our own Australia Day celebration. We hung the flag in our room, compiled our own Triple J (Cuba) Hottest 10 (extremely hard considering we've been out of the musical loop for almost 12 months and only have a few new albums on our iPods) and drank Havana Club while we counted down.
The wining song (which we later we discovered we had predicted correctly) was hardly the edge-of-your-seat surprise it usually is on Australia Day but it was fun to pretend nonetheless.
By this stage we'd decided we were having way too much fun in Havana and would skip travelling elsewhere in Cuba, but with no more nights free at our current casa particular, we had to move. We spent one afternoon pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to try and find a place to stay for our four remaining nights.
After several attempts, we came across Casa Jesus y Maria, where we were given our own little room, with ensuite, on a rooftop balcony - complete with deckchairs - overlooking a busy Havana Veijo street.
For the next four days we checked out the Museo de la Revolucion (the inside was apparently decorated by Tiffany's of New York) with it's great photo collection and virtual army of tanks, planes and boats that have played crucial roles in Cuba's history, including the Granma, on which Fidel Castro sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1856.
There was also a hilarious mural painted inside cartoonising American presidents Gerorge Bush Snr and Ronald Reagan and Cuban President Fulgencio Batista) who was run out of town by Fidel and his revolutionaries). 'Rincon de los Cretinos' the mural pronouced, 'Corner of the Cretins'.
We visited the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel has addressed up to 1.2 million supporters, strolled the Prado and checked out the local markets lining the Malecon.
We marvelled at the futuristic coco taxis as they transported tourists around and watched the local kids play baseball with a stick and a bottle top.
We admired the Capitolio Nacional building, an almost exact replica of the Capitol Building in Washington DC, but apparently more detailed (if that's not an up-yours to America, what is?)
And we sat and watched the Cuban men debate baseball at La Esquina Caliente (The Hot Corner) in the leafy Parque Central.
For decades men of all ages have come to argue - loudly - about the nation's favourite sport from dawn until dusk.
Apparently the state-controlled news agencies don't report on the major leagues and neither of the TV channels broadcast it. You can see it on cable, but only in tourist hotels and Fidel's own home.
We also went to Coppelia for ice cream, a cultural experience in itself. The ice cream parlour has several entrances where hundreds of Cubans queue daily for up to an hour to sample the treats inside. For each queue there is a noticeboard posting the flavours available at that particular entrance.
You choose what flavours you like, join the appropriate queue and wait. About 20 people are seated at a time, a waiter takes your order and you pay when you're done. We weren't entirely sure what we were doing, but managed to order a huge bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream for 5 Cuban Pesos (29c) each.
Afterwards we walked 3km down San Rafael back into Havana Veijo, stopping by Pizza Celina's where you walk across the road, shout your order to a man on the roof five storeys up. He sends your pizza down in a basket on a rope, and you drop in 10 Cuban Pesos (57c).
On our final night we celebrated with a proper meal at a proper Chinese restaurant, where we enjoyed our first bit of red meat in nine days. Slaughtering cows is actually illegal in Cuba as the government uses them for state-run restaurants and rations.
And so here we are, sitting in the smoke-filled Havana Airport, drinking rum with all the other passengers trying to keep warm from the air-conditioning, which appears to be stuck on 'Artcic' and sharing the few shreds of valuable toilet paper we have left.
It's a tough life...but someone's got to do it.
Today we fly to Mexico, where we plan to do little else than eat tacos and relax in hammocks while we look at beautiful white sand beaches with crystal-blue waters. From there it's south onto Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.
Not sure when our next update will be but...
Chris and Caroline xx
We hope everyone back home had a great Australia Day and we're sorry we missed the party at Simmo's. Really, we were totally bummed we couldn't celebrate with you all. We tried to call, email, Skype, send smoke signals etc., but Cuba is well behind on the technology front. We couldn't get a phone card that worked for Australia and the internet cost more than $10 an hour and is as slow as buggery. We were thinking of you all on the day though!
Sucking back ostiones and having "Ostiones momentos" as they caught dangerously in our throat.
Being in a place that isn't a slave to America - no Coca Cola advertising, no McDonalds and no Cuban homeboys. Refreshing.
The music - for all its repetition and annoying addiction.
The feeling we were stuck in a time warp. The cars, the colonial facades - the general lack of any progress past 1963.
Getting back into the swing of the Spanish self-schooling. It's
amazing what we've already picked up and we look forward to beginning
proper classes in Guatemala.
Our random meeting with Bismal - a young Cuban - at the local bar. We gave him an American $1 note, and he took us home to meet his lovely family (despite Caroline initially fearing he was going to steal our kidneys).
WHAT WE LEARNED IN...CUBA:
So much about the country's extremely interesting history - a history that goes well beyond those infamous Che Guevera t-shirts.
All the dogs in Havana are exceptionally long. We believe this is due to the freakishly high number of Daschunds (sausage dogs) in Havana.
Ham (jamon) is Cuba's national delicacy. It's in and on EVERYTHING. Pizzas, rolls, pasta and rice. Even the tap beer at our local (30c a glass) tasted hammy. Eat it or starve.
After the keys to your room, the three most important things to make sure you have with you when you leave for the day are: toilet paper, forks (for the cheap street food served in cajitas - little takeaway boxes) and plastic bags (you are always stumbling across a little panaderia or agropecuario, where they don't supply bags).
There are always random queues for everything - banks, fruit and veggie markets and ice cream parlours. As courteous travellers, we always asked for ultimo (the end of the line), but we quickly learned not to be surprised when middle-aged women simply pushed to the front.
Music in Cuba consists of the one beat (a "boom badum boom" that sounds much like someone hitting a pipe with a wrench), played over and over and over and over again. Sometimes, for variation, the beat is sped up or slowed down or another rhythm is played over the top.
Havana is a very, very noisy place. Possibly the noisiest place on Earth. Aside from the aforementioned beat, which you fall asleep and wake up to and hear all day long, other commonly heard noises are ducks and roosters (kept on balconies), dogs (in the streets), engines being revved (a classic car is being tinkered with in every street) and lots of yelling. Lots. There's also this horrible hissing noise, almost like a loud "psst" that men use to get the attention of women. Often it feels like you are walking through a snake sanctuary.
THAT famous picture of Che Guevera that appears on t-shirts, posters and keyrings all over the world, was taken by Alberto Korda while Che was at a memorial service for the victims of the French ship La Coubre, which exploded while unloading munitions in Havana. The image is known as Guerrillero Heroico.
Viva la revolucion!