72. Havana (Part One)
The flight from Cayman Islands to Cuba was less than an hour long, but once again that was long enough to serve everyone a rum punch. The time between receiving the drink to the time they collected the empty cups was so short we almost had to skol our cocktails. Not the first time we had done that.
Unless you could afford exclusive hotels, accommodation in Cuba was all about casa particulares. These were private homes set up with 2-4 guest bedrooms and a sometimes a shared living space. A simple breakfast was often included. Our casa was about a 15 minute walk from the the old town, in a typical city street lined with old, three-storey townhouses. The owner was lovely and spoke fantastic English. She had little ornaments and decorative pieces all over her house (think teacups hanging on the walls) - it felt like we were staying with someone's grandparents. She gave us plenty of information to help us get around then sent us on our way into the enigma that is Cuba.
We had no real plans on our first day except to wander around, figure out this dual currency system they had and see if Havana lived up to the hype. It did. It was incredible. It seemed familiar but also like nothing I had ever experienced before (I know that doesn't make sense, but that's the only way I can describe it). All the streets outside of downtown were lined with crumbling houses in a variety of faded colours, with the occasional building restored to its former glory. Most people seemed to spend their days hanging around on their front steps, chatting to neighbours or watching their kids play together on the road. Everyone's balcony was lined with washing. Things that we normally did in the backyard in Australia (playing, washing, socialising) all took place on the streets, giving a close-knit community vibe. I felt like I had stepped back to the 1950s.
One thing that surprised me was the lack of traffic. No streets were backed up with cars, no impatient honking of horns, no one in a hurry. Most of the vehicles were the stereotypically large, vintage American beasts, with a few small Russian cars and local cyclos thrown into the mix. It seemed that everyone was a taxi driver, with cars and cyclos constantly slowing down to see if we needed a lift. It became exasperating in the end.
Another notable feature on our walk into town was that there were no supermarkets, no brand name shops, no tour offices. People bought supplies from street markets or in haphazard, unnamed stores (and lived much more cheaply because of it). I guess this will all change in the coming years.
What Havana did have plenty of was drinking holes, as we discovered on our arrival in the old town. They were mostly old-school style, with dark, wooden interiors and long bars - something you would see in a black and white gangster movie. I kept expecting to see Al Capone walk in. Bartenders were frequently lining up a dozen daiquiris or mojitos, ready to be served as soon as the order came in. Havana Club rum was clearly the drink of choice, given the number of bottles on display. Drink menus were a mile long, providing us with any drink we could ever want. We spent the rest of the day exploring these. Havana clearly had the best bars in the world.
The next day we needed to go to the bus station to book a bus for the following day (Cuba hasn't quite caught up with the online world yet). As it was five kilometres out of town, there was only one way we were getting there: Chevrolet. An enormous, petrol-guzzling, V8 beast that was running surprisingly well. Another tick on the Cuban bucket list.
Love the woven seat covers.
We tried to visit a few sights but many buildings were undergoing restoration or closed on a Monday. The one place we managed to find open was the Museum of the Revolution, housed in a grand building that was formally the Presidential Palace. It was a pity the exhibits didn't live up to its surroundings. Memorabilia was presented randomly with short descriptions underneath each one. There appeared to be no cohesion or logical flow, so I had little sense of what significant events had transpired over Cuba's past and the effect of them on the country. It was (obviously) pro-revolution and I picked up some interesting morsels of information here and there, but it wasn't the best history lesson I had ever received.
Museum of the Revolution.
Old Havana captured our attention for much of the day again. Plazas, palaces, cathedrals, markets, fantastic architecture that had been well-maintained, Latin music in the streets, live bands at restaurants, narrow laneways full of modern cafes, street stalls selling various delectable tidbits, cigar and souvenir shops - we could have been on a movie set. We stopped at several bars (partly to get out of the blazing sun, partly because it was drink o'clock), happily watching life go by.
As soon as we exited the downtown area, the scenery changed instantly. Buildings once again were falling apart, there were no touts calling out to us, no souvenir shops, cafes disappeared (as did tourists). It was like two different worlds, equally amazing and trapped in their own time warp.
We had read about a must-try restaurant (tailored for tourists) in Old Havana, so we made our way there for dinner one night. It was relatively early but there was already a line out the front. I'm usually far too impatient for lines, but after being told it would only be a 10-20 minute wait, we decided to make an exception. 45 minutes later we made it inside, taking a seat in a darkened, ornate dining room. Service took almost as long as the wait to get inside. When someone finally came to take our order, I was informed that the only vegetarian meal was not available ("It's too late to cook paella"). There was nothing else they could offer except a side dish. Looking over at the open kitchen all we could see were chefs standing around chatting, or heating food up in microwaves. We stood up and left. Probably served us right for going to a touristy restaurant rather than checking out the local cuisine.