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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: September 2011

SunWings finally opened, and a crowd quickly formed. Once again, the destination was Veradero. This planeload of Canadian tourists, like the one in ‘06, had little interest in anything beyond the Veradero beach resorts. Living in Miami Beach, this is something we don’t need to travel for.

We somehow were invited to jump the line. I was concerned about seating because we’d need to change money and catch our bus on arrival.. I hoped to be near the front, but we were placed in the 26th row on SunWings, flight 680. Canadian security is quick - no shoe removal required. The flight was prompt and took about 3 hours. It was full. We had a hot breakfast. The route went over central Florida and the descent actually began over the Everglades. Going through passport control, this time the cameras were visible, small and mounted right on the front edge of each booth. We were sent back to the health insurance desk and had to pay $50 Can. Total for coverage. No one else that I could see had to do that. A tall Cuban man approached me. Had I been to Cuba before? Yes, once. Why did I go via Canada when I lived in Florida? I explained that. Then followed the x ray baggage screening. By then almost everyone else had gone through everything and I was concerned. I didn’t see money changing booths inside, but when we got outside there were numerous buses and a man selling cans of cold beer from a tray for $2 each. We were directed to our bus, a full size one, and I brought the 2 cans with me and we drank them. The money changing booth was outside and it became apparent that I could still make it there and back; the bus wouldn’t leave with E but not me. The beer man was still there and I figured I’d get two more from him but when I finished at the booth he was gone.

There wasn’t much to see along the way, other than Matanzas and the bridge and, of course, the shoreline and the ocean. The bus was mostly full, but at least 80% of the passengers were dropped off at seaside resorts. Almost the entire trip is along the coastal road on the north side of Cuba. Traveling along it five years ago, I had counted exactly one oil pumper. This time, I counted 10. Havana doesn’t really become apparent until soon before the port tunnel. My first sight of the Antonio Maceo on horseback monument. High on a column, there are subsidiary statues below, within a concrete circle and a fence. Then, the Malecon - first its out pouching where the fishermen gather and then the long seawall. The Malecon is 7 km long , and the seawall is about two feet high and two and a half feet wide, and a popular gathering place - I have photos of my daughter and I and some other Cubans sitting on it from 2006. It has occasional indentations where people can sit on actual benches, and on the other side were the buildings, medium height, and for the first time I really noticed how dilapidated so many of them were - one, near the Prado - which I couldn’t see from there - was literally half crumbled. The old cars were still there, endlessly, seemingly more than I could recall from ‘06. I didn’t recall having gone all the way to its end on the previous trip - there had been only the one trip as far as Vedao, to the synagogue. Overhead green and white signs announce Calle Calzada and request driving with Modere Velocidad, accompanied by a triangle with a lightning slash through it. There is what appears to be a very large athletic field and fenced in playground. Neat small houses, one in sore need of repainting, one being repainted as we looked. On the way to its end, on the land side, was a large playground and a sort of very large tilted gray wall with the words PATRIA O MUERTE painted on it in red. The Spanish-style exclamation point appeared at the beginning of the slogan, but the right-side-up one was lacking at its end. Shades of New Hampshire’s “live free or die,” I thought. About halfway down, the avenida turns inward and there is a crossing and a place where vehicles have to make a partial turn in order to rejoin the seaside boulevard and its stream of traffic. The bus passed the hulking Hotel Nacional, still elegant and still very much in business, minus the gangsters. I looked, as I did many times after that, for the building housing the U.S. “embassy,” now minus its black flags. The Cubans had erected a screen of them, years earlier, to block the anti-Castro messages flashed on a diplomatically-protected outdoor screen. I had never been able to spot the building. The aggressive quasi-ambassador had since left the diplomatic service and entered politics, and both screen and flags were reportedly gone.

There are two ways to cross into Miramar, both requiring a crossing of the Almendares River. One is a bridge, well inland; the other is a tunnel, and that’s what we too. I had never seen it before; I’d never been to Miramar.. Emerging, there was a sign about revolution involving heroism and honesty. The bus continued along the now rather nondescript seaside for a while, then turned inland and through a few narrow side streets.

The lobby of the Aparthotel Montehabana was long and dark, with a stairway and, to the left, an elevator and the reception desk. Near the door were two computers - internet access was available at 3 CUC per half hour. Nearby were a number of large wooden cushioned chairs and a bar which, we were told, would not be opening just yet. The hotel had been closed for renovation and we’d been hoping to be rerouted to its sister hotel - same ownership - the Occidental Miramar, next door. We’d been taken there first, and told that we’d be staying there, but then discovered we’d been misinformed. The driver/agent had been mistaken, If we’d arrived a day earlier, we would have been checked in at the Occidental. . But the Montehabana had just reopened, and there we were.

Quickly emerging from the shadows was a man I will call Ramon. A slightly baby-faced fellow, Lori and I had met him in the Viazul bus terminal 5 years earlier. He had said he was a musician, had played a gig in Miami, had been treated with hostility by the Cubans there who kept calling him a communist for living in Cuba, and that he’d never return there. I had apologized to him on behalf of my community. I’d reestablished contact with him by e mail, but it was an uneasy contact. He kept making references in his e mails to taking us on tours in classic old cars, and we neither wanted nor could afford that. As we usually do when we travel together, we chart our course independently and do a lot of wandering.

It was an awkward situation. I’d told him where we’d be, but I thought he would call us first rather than just show up. We checked in; the desk staff consisted of a group of uniformed 20s to 40s men and women, all of them pleasant., We needed to get settled in our room first, so we left Ulises in the lobby and took the elevator to the second floor. We were signed up for a standard room, but what we had was a suite, number 119 - a living room with a balcony, a kitchenette with a fridge, stove and dishes, pots, pans and cutlery, a sizeable bathroom, a large long closet, and a bedroom. The living room included chairs, a table and a couch, and a cable TV. I was surprised to discover that it included CNN, but then remembered that CNN had a news bureau in Cuba and that Ted Turner had been buddies with Fidel. We quickly found out that only the bedroom was supplied with air conditioning, but the a/c wasn’t working.

We were anxious to get to Habana Vieja - Old Havana - on our own, but weren’t certain how to do it. I was well supplied with printout, photocopies from guidebooks and one pocket sized Havana guidebook from the public library at home. But we were perhaps 7 miles from there, and people posting on TripAdvisor had said a regular taxi would run perhaps 10 CUC - a net cost of $11-$12 to us. I had information about, and a map of the routes of the cheap “collectivo” taxis and knew they ran along the nearby coastal Third Avenue, but didn’t know how to hail them or what they charged. Nor did I know - yet - about the four-times-daily free shuttles available to us from the Occidental next door.

I made it clear to Ramon that we weren’t interested in a tour but perhaps could meet later for drinks and/or dinner, for which I expected and wanted to pay. He had also asked me for a family picture, and I gave him a photo of Lori that I’d printed out and brought with me. We just wanted to get to Habana Vieja right away, and he indicated that we should follow him. He and Ellen walked ahead of me down past an empty lot and close by the Supermercado 70, the area supermarket, to the corner of 70th street and 3d Avenue. After a moment, he and Ellen suddenly walked around the corner, and they motioned for me to follow. There was a 50s American car, one of tens of thousands in Cuba. This one looked rather beat up, and there was a woman sitting in it along with the driver.

I quickly learrned how to use the collectivo taxi system. It relies on more-than-usually beatup 50s American cars, some of which have a piece of paper with the word “taxi” scrawled on it in a window, and some of which do not. The fares are standardized - 40 national pesos between Miramar and Habana Vieja, and 20 pesos within the Vieja/Centro area and to and from Vedado. Passengers are expected to have their peso bills in hand, in the correct amount, and simply hand them to the driver.

A word about national pesos or “pesos” versus convertible pesos - pesos convertible - or CUCs, pronounced “kooks.” This is the dual monetary system that exists in Cuba and nowhere else. A peso is worth about four cents; a CUC, about a dollar. Dollars and euros can be exchanged at banks and some exchange windows in hotels, but CUCs can be exchanged for pesos at cadecas, smaller exchange windows which are found almost everywhere that any kind of business is being transacted. Cubans are paid in pesos, and most of what they buy - or are able to buy - is paid for with pesos. Cubans can, for example, use pesos at most cultural events - non-Cubans have to pay in CUCs. Groceries want CUCs, but numerous food stands, including those referred to as “peso pizza” places, are happy to accept pesos.

The collectivos follow set routes; visitors posting on line suggest advising the driver of a destination by street and.avenue names/numbers or by monument or park, rather than mentioning a hotel, which could supposedly result in being asked to pay in CUCs. Our route went through the tunnel into Vedado, swerved off the Malecon and took streets inward, terminating at Parque Centrale. The day was well underway now, and people were everywhere.

I was back in familiar territory from my trip of five years previous, but the lay of the land people-wise was totally unfamiliar. Five years before, Fidel was still in charge, and communism still held forth in every respect. If you wanted a cab, a carriage ride or a bicycle-taxi, who approached the driver. If you wanted to buy anything, you approached the merchant. If you wanted to be serenaded by strolling musicians along the Malecon, you made eye contact or otherwise indicated that you were interested as they approached. If you wanted to eat at what were then the relatively few private restaurants - paladores - you had to know where they were and enter the correct door - not even the semblance of advertising, i.e. restaurant appearance, was permitted. In short, there was no hustling.

We left the taxi and stood by Ramon. I mentioned about having drinks, He said perhaps later - he had to go see someone in the hospital right away. I was prepared to do it then and there. Again - awkward. I thought perhaps he would call us at the hotel, but he never did. He left quickly. There we were, on a crowded corner next to a crowded small park, with a few high priced hotels and a few buses close by. We were at the start of Neptuno Street, a long thoroughfare, at collectivo taxi central.

Five years ago, there had been no hustling. Now, it was everywhere. Most persistent were the bici-taxi drivers. Often called bicycle rickshaws in Asia, there had been a number of them five years earlier - this time, they seemed to have multiplied, like wire hangers. Various guidebooks said that they were not allowed to take tourists, and that if one did you, you needed to approach it and then might be asked to leave it before reaching your destination. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Their drivers never stopped hustling us and anyone else who looked remotely like a visitor or glanced at them. The carriage drivers were not as aggressive, but instead of always remaining in the carriage or within touching distance of the horse, they vould approach any likely prospect. Drivers of regular - CUC-paid - taxis were on the hustle, as were tour guides. The cigar peddlers were more circumspect - one sidled up to me and whispered “Cohiba” in my ear. I knew that the two top brands - Cohiba and Monte Cristo - sold on the street were invariably fakes.

In 2006, there had also been no begging - at least, none directed at me, and that was when my daughter and I, having little money, walked the streets and haunted small lunch places and bars endlessly, always in Habana Vieja and Habana Centro. Not one person had simply begged me for money on the street. This time the begging was not that frequent but neither was it unusual. I wasn’t targeted by the “milk for the baby” game, but my wife was. We already knew that children under seven in Cuba get virtually unlimited milk for free from the state.

I looked across the park, and there was El Floridita, Hemingway’s old haunt and the place where the daiquiri was not invented, although they persist in claiming it was. Even those most determined to be a “visitor” rather than a “tourist” should visit El Floridita, and nearly everyone does. When I’d gone there with my daughter - the one and only touristy thing we did all week - she, age 35, attractive and friendly and speaking a little Spanish, was offered a free daiquiri by the bartender. I contented myself with plantain chips from one of the bowls. This time, I immediately ordered a daiquiri for Ellen - 6 CUCs - while I once again snacked on plantain chips. As you walk in, the bar is to the left, tables ahead and to the right, and a small band is often playing by the entrance, as it was this time as well as on my previous visit.

ernest hemingway floriditaHemingway may have departed this life by his own hand in 1961 - as with many who remember where they were when something shocking happened, I was standing on a corner in the Polanco district of Mexico City and had just bought a copy of the Mexico City News, and there was the headline. But he spent a good part of his later life in Havana, with a house just outside of the city, and, in Floridita, he still rules. He spent a good deal of time there, and his photos - including one of him with Fidel - grace the walls. But where the bar curves to the left and parallels the wall, and where there are a few bar stools squeezed in, two of which we occupied, right at the end, standing and leaning to one side, is Hemingway - life size and incredibly lifelike, cast in bronze. His expression is one of curiosity and a touch of arrogance, and his eyes seem to sweep the room. He takes in everything and everyone - perhaps for material for his next novel.

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