Pass The Cigars

Trip Start Oct 07, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Monday, February 3, 2014

Cuba was a big deal for us while were in this part of the world. At some point soon I would expect that the long-standing dispute between Cuba and the U.S. will end, not with a bang but a whimper, and Americans will pour in here and, as they are prone to do, rearrange the furniture in a very dramatic way. Even the current presence of Canadians and Euro sun-seekers has resulted in carved out and somewhat surreal beach enclaves in Veradaro and Holguin.
Forget the beach. Head directly to Havana and prepare to be amazed. This city might be the ultimate mash-up. Weaving in and around classic Spanish colonial architecture are vintage American automobiles (you can almost see Lucky Luciano driving to a meeting with fellow mobsters - during prohibition and beyond, Havana was a decadent playground for the well-heeled with the American mob having far too much influence on the Batista regime). And layered on top and in between is the austere spectre of too many years of communist rule ('grocery' stores with shelves of cooking oil, another filled with diapers, a mixed assortment of canned food and drinks, and... not much else). Stir in a little bit of the art deco style the mobsters brought with them, the remnants of Soviet architecture (think square concrete box) and vehicles (Cubans might be the only people in the world able to get extended life out of what might be the worst car ever built- the Russian Lada), add a dollop of very limited and controlled free enterprise, and you get Havana.
You don't sight-see in Havana, you experience Havana.

Pointless Fact #1: Key West, Florida is actually closer to Havana than it is to Miami but despite being only 90 miles away, even on a clear day Key West cannot be seen (I suspect that it probably can be seen but all Cubans are probably ordered to face south for the day so as not to catch a glimpse of their hated Imperialist enemy).
Our experience starts with the Casa Particular we're staying at- some Cubans have been given permission to rent out 1 or 2 rooms in their homes and these quasi B&B options are a much better choice than the overpriced government-run hotels. Among the very few Cubans (or communists anywhere) who recognize the value of a good reputation and word-of-mouth advertising, our hosts are really trying hard with somewhat limited means. And living in a Cuban home within a very traditional Cuban neighbourhood is half of the fun. I think there was an old Laugh-In skit that had shutters opening and closing with muppets/people enthusiastically jumping in and out of the conversation- that's every residential street in Havana and the loud conversation and music was non-stop 24/7 (not always great when trying to sleep). If a conversation was particularly important it seemed to move to a local square largely to allow for the space required to swing arms, perform Madonna-like body gyrations, and pace back and forth while feigning a headache. Perhaps it's a lost skill we all had before the Internet, instant messages, and Facebook, but Cuban people love to talk, and we've already spent a good deal of time perched on a park bench watching the verbal symphony play out.

Our second casa in Havana was a bit of a step down from the first- the front door opened directly into the living room with various family members grouped around a TV that seemed to have the volume control stuck on full blast (which meant, of course, that all conversations had to be even louder). Stepping over and around bodies was a bit awkward but it was the only way to get to our room in the back. Our tissue-paper door did little to keep the riot noises out but everyday, precisely at 10:00pm all noise stopped only to be replaced by what had to be the single worst choir in the world which was practicing (not sure there was any hope) across from us, and numerous wandering/chanting street vendors (who is buying bread from a horse-drawn cart at midnight??). Not great for sleep but quintessential Cuba.
We did track down a Cuban cowboy with a gold '52 Chevy Convertible (original parts, front to back) who took us on an extended drive through most of Havana including the famous Malecon (seaside road). Suitably hooked we looked for excuses to grab a ride with a vintage car whenever we needed to get from Point A to Point B (as one Cuban told us, not all of these vehicles are legal taxi's but they all must work or the owner will have to sell). DH would normally insist on a convertible in order to more easily wave to her peep's as we were given the royal Cuban treatment. I assume we were in Havana during the high season for weddings since almost all other convertibles were filled with brides in full regalia also doing the DH Wave.
Pointless Fact #2: Cuba has so many vintage cars in part because of the U.S. embargo, but mainly because only pre-1959 vehicles can be privately owned (even the crappy Lada's are state owned... although it's likely that no right-thinking person would ever want to own a Lada).

We even tacked down another of the many bars of the world apparently frequented by Ernest Hemingway and tried out the daiquiri he made famous. Most of the time, however, we just aimlessly wandered Habana Viejo (Old Havana). We also made the long trip along the Malecon to Hotel National which has had a very colourful history hosting the largest mobster convention ever organized and serving as Castro's command centre during the Cuban Missile Crisis (trenches and gun placements are still there)- there's even a pic of our PM Cretien giving Castro a big hug in the lobby. 

Having just gotten over my addiction to taking far too many photos of monkeys, I found myself taking far too many photos of vintage automobiles- adding my collection to the billions that have likely been taken already is probably not needed but that's the photo monster Tina B has made me. 

Pointless Fact #3: Apparently Cuba, despite its agricultural base, imports two thirds of its required food products... but based on our initial dining experiences, it doesn't import any of the 'good' food the world has on offer.

While wandering we met members of that first wave of American invaders- the illegals. Cuba has no problems letting Americans in but the U.S. government has made it illegal for U.S. citizens to spend U.S. currency in Cuba. Kevin and Art from Minnesota solved that problem by not bringing enough money for their time here and with Americans not able to access funds, we left them discussing plans to build a raft to get back to the U.S.. We keep watching CNN to see if they made it.
Some American influence is here already (including their most bothersome of exports- tipping for every conceivable reason), but the clock is ticking and a trip to Havana should be on everyones near term wish list. A big Wow!!
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gilmer on

Looks amazing. Cuba is on my to do list. How did you find out about the bread and breakfasts in Cuba. I would definitely prefer this over staying at a hotel. We are from Canada. I thought you needed to stay at a hotel when you visited Cuba. I guess I was wrong. Would love to hear any advice you have about visiting Cuba.

Tina on

Definite WOW on these photos. Enticing. Exciting. And want to get on a plane right now and join you. Looks like you're definitely having a fab time!

Lance Simmens on

Hey guys, wow is right, an adventure far too few Americans have experienced and one day I will one of the few, before the hordes actually descend upon the poor island and make it Disneyland Buono Mucho Gusto!

Sounds like you have duly left Costa Rica behind and will soon be embarking on the next leg of your journey. Enjoy every minute. I am envious, particularly in what looks like 50's and 60's Chevy Heaven. Keep in touch. My book is out sometime in March, putting last minute details together on my soon to be unveiled website, Of course it is up already but not nearly completed. About 70% but will be done in time for book release. Take care and hope to hear from you soon. Lance

Lorena on

am glad you made it .. Cuba is a place to visit.
Havana for sure is a stop you have to make
I also recommend Holguin, seeing your pics brought back memories.
enjoy and practica tu espanol-- Abrazos. LO:)

Elaine & Doug on

Some great shots of this beautiful Country and wonderful (and not so wonderful) automobiles. You have to admire the Cuban's display of drive and ingenuity at keeping the vehicles running through all the years of blockades & sanctions (as long as you don't think too long & hard about the toxic emissions spewing into the streets from all of these old beaters of the pre-catalytic converter era.
We'll be sending you an email re the June reunion in the sunny, relatively smog-free Okanagan, with brother Vaughan and ourselves.

Vern on

Your photos are, as usual, fascinating, especially the pink taxi. It looks like a 1928 Ford Model A with updated wheels. I also find it curious that the street scenes are not crowded with people.

Martin on

Deb and Vic, always a treat to read about your exploits abroad. Yes, Habana, so unique in the tourist-manufactured Carribean. Love the pictures, though I'm not buying the 'smoking-cigars-thing'. They looked unlit to me. Good thing, they're deadly -especially in terms of theromance department! I've done the stay-with-locals experience. Amazing. I found Cubans to be wonderful. Hope you get to a baseball game in old Havana. Baseball at it's purest. FYI Castro played baseball fir Havana University. A slow fastball relegated him to baseball obscurity. So why not take his career in a different direction? Like being El Commidant. Pitcher-Dictator?! Neither normally have much longevity. But 55 years and baseball player ever pitched that long.

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