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75. Havana (Part Two)

Cuba

Another lengthy bus trip, another successfully avoided over-priced lunch at the obligatory restaurant stop by bringing leftovers from breakfast. Again, there wasn't much to see out the windows, so the five hours were filled with podcast-listening. I felt like I could have completed a whole university degree with the amount of time I had spent on buses with the headphones in. 

 

We had booked a casa particulares in Havana online, with the arrow on the map showing us that it was close to the old town. The arrow lied. It was at least three kilometres away, in a not-so-nice part of town. To be fair the house was lovely, and we had the place to ourselves, but that didn't make up for the location.

 

Despite the sweltering heat we made the long walk into town, looking forward to spending our afternoon meandering through the maze of streets once again. The familiar, "Taxi?" "Cigar?" "You hungry?" tune returned immediately, which we had forgotten but not missed. We popped into art shops, wandered through artisan markets, bought cheap drinks, underwent the familiar struggle with ATMs and absorbed everything Cuban. 

After dinner we made the same lengthy walk back to the house. We needed bottled water, presuming it would be easy to stop in at one of the shops operating out of people's homes. Of course it wasn't. Soda, beer and rum was all we could buy, not water. I lost count how many stores we tried. In the end we walked into a restaurant and asked if they could sell us a bottle of agua. They seemed a little wary of us, as I was sure it was not a usual request, but we were desperate. They complied, and our hydration needs were sorted for the night.

 

The malecon was a perfect place to go running the next morning. A few other runners were also braving the heat and humidity. I presumed that a breeze would come off the water and relieve this, but I was wrong. No breeze, no relief. I continually reminded myself that it was only another two weeks until we were back in the land of runnable weather. I was on the countdown.

Having not had my hair cut in about a year, I thought it was about time I changed that. On our walk into town I kept a lookout for anything resembling a hairdresser, but this was not an easy task. Eventually I saw a poster of various out-of-date hair styles and a pair of scissors, so I made my way up to the second floor store to see if they could help. At 10am they weren't open yet, but after an extended game of charades the woman agreed to give me a haircut. Twenty minutes and $5 later, I walked out a happy woman - happy with the haircut and happy with the bargain price.

 

We were big fat tourists today. Here was the rundown:

1. A ride around town in a 1956 convertible Plymouth. Original, deep-sounding engine, eight cylinders, white with red interior. The journey was pretty cool but also unbearably hot in the direct sunlight.

2. Callejon de Hamel, a street that is the home of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana. We weren't there at the right time for the weekly rumba performances, but we did admire the crazy murals and sculptures lining the street.

3. Up the tower of the Bacardi building. Beautiful art deco design, sweeping views over the old town.

4. Floridita, a Hemingway hangout back in the day, that was now a tourist magnet for this reason. It was so busy that we couldn't find a seat, so we left.

 

5. Sloppy Joe's, a bar popular with American tourists during Prohibition, and the origin of the sandwich that meant nothing to us Aussies. It was closed for 48 years after a fire but was now restored to its former glory. Photos were plastered all around the long, mahogany bar, showing scenes from the early 1900s.

6. Ferry ride over to Casa Blanca, a district of Havana across the river. It took us way longer than it should have to find the boat harbour to get the ferry across. Once at the dock, we walked through a metal detector, which immediately picked up Danny's Swiss Army knife. No getting on the ferry with a knife. I should point out that Danny was in love with his Swiss Army knife, and there was no way he was parting with it. After negotiating with the guards to get it back on our return, he reluctantly handed it over and boarded the vessel.

7. Casa Blanca. Not much going on there. A dehydration-inducing climb up the hill landed us at the foot of a giant Christ statue covered in scaffolding. A quick photo of the monument, some snaps of the view over Havana, and we were done.

8. Bar-hopping around old town.

 

9. Dinner at a small, modern bar that we had visited about five times already. Deep-fried banana balls with a selection of savoury sauces was an odd appetiser but surprisingly delicious, as was my veg moussaka. Danny went local and ordered "old clothes", an item we had seen before on menus and presumed the name was lost in translation somewhere. It turned out to be shredded beef stew. Still not sure of the clothing link. 

It was a pretty great day overall.

Our final day in Havana was slightly less jam-packed but still involved ticking off items on the Lonely Planet list. The Museum of Art offered a small international exhibit as well as an enormous Cuban collection, covering multiple centuries of art. The artists were limited in number, focusing on a select few, which resulted in the artworks looking very similar after a while. Overall it was worth the visit.

We stopped in at la Bodeguita del Medio, another popular bar of Hemingway fame, where the mojito was first invented. If this is true, I sincerely thank you. The bar itself was tiny, consisting of only a handful of tables, but there was seating out the back for meals. The walls were covered in photos and signatures of famous people who had frequented the venue over the years. A band was playing, tourists were cramming themselves in and the cheerful atmosphere was fantastic. 

The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets, stopping in at various art and souvenir shops, tasting mojito ice cream (awesome), eating rice and beans for lunch (we hadn't escaped it yet) and buying vegetables from the street vendors. Being a tourist I generally only used convertible peso, but street stalls dealt primarily with national pesos. One stall accepted the convertible peso, then gave me change in national peso. The national pesos were not worth much and no touristy place would accept them, so I needed to buy more vegetables to get rid of them. I worked out that it cost a lot less to buy food with national peso. I wished I had known that sooner.

Dinner ended up being salad rolls, with vegetables from the street vendors and the yellowest bread rolls I had ever seen, also bought on the street. This turned out to be our breakfast and lunch the next day too. We were the masters of thriftiness. 

 

We caught a taxi to the airport early the next morning. So early, in fact, that it appeared there was almost no one else there. We scoured the screens, looking for our flight but nothing came up. Eventually we asked a staff member what was going on. Apparently there were two airports in Havana, only a few kilometres apart, and the taxi had dropped us off at this empty building rather than taking us to the major international airport. Another way to make a few extra dollars I guess. Fortunately we had a bit of time up our sleeves.