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Another week in Havana - via Toronto

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

Close by was the Café 254. We sat on upholstered chairs in a sort of small lobby; an employee invited us to take a table inside, but we only wanted cold beer. There are two popular beer brands in Cuba; Cristal and Bucanero. The beer was brought. Most places iun Havana only charge one CUC for a beer, but this charged two. I had no small change or bills, so handed the employee what I thought was a 20 CUC bill. He walked off with it. After 10 minutes, I began to worry about getting my 16 CUCs change, but he finally returned, shaking his head sadly and handing the bill back to me. I thought they had no change available, so I handed him a US $5 bill, the only American money I had left other than some quarters. I knew that would cover it, even with a 10% exchange penalty. He didn’t look happy about it, but he took it and we left it. It was only later that I realized what I had done - confused by the similar and, to me, unfamiliar colors of Cuban and Canadian same-sized bills, I had handed him a Canadian 20. One of those “I screwed up” travel moments - like the time a gas station attendant in France had come running after me - and caught me - as I drove away because I had, mistakenly, paid him with cheaper Belgian francs instead of French francs.

W sat some more, both of us tired. Across the way, colorful clothing hung on a balcony railing. Opposite us sat two pretty young women, one, white, in a red top and blue shortys, the other, brown, in a pink top and jeans. A couple perhaps late 30s or early 40s passed by - next to them, facing the other way, a boy, perhaps 5 or 6, white shirt and multi colored baggy shorts, holding a toy telephone or player to his ear.

We had six more days in Havana and were even more tired than before - we’d gotten hardly any sleep the previous night. I suggested we head back to the corner of the cheap old-car collectivo taxis. Ignoring the invitations of regular cab drivers whose more expensive cabs had taxi “hats” on them, I looked for a small cluster of especially worn-down cars with men hanging out around them. I remembered to ask for “Third and 70" rather than give a hotel name and to have my peso bills ready.

The Supermercado 70, the neighborhood supermarket, is one of the few visible retail places in that area of Miramar. A word about Miramar. Havana, like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts. Or at least that part of not that’s anywhere near the ocean. Four, really, but it’s convenient to think of Habana Vieja and Habana Centro as parts of Part One, linked by the Prado. West of that, marked on the map but not by any visible landmark save, perhaps, the coastal Hotel Nacional, is Vedado, which bulges north into the sea. Vedado is where you find the Plaza of the Revolution, the zoo, and the famous Colon (Columbus) cemetery. Vedado has a lot of commerce and many small apartment buildings and small houses, what some in the US would describe as “working class.” It is bisected, east-west, by La Rampa a/k/a 23d Street, a major retail thoroughfare. Traveling west, Vedado ends at the Almendares River, which flows south from the ocean. The most-used crossing of the Almendares is a tunnel, near the ocean and adjoining the river’s mouth. The next most used is a pedestrian and vehicular bridge about a mile inland, linking the western end of La Rampa with a group of streets on the other side.

Miramar is what’s west of the river. I had never been there before. It’s an area of wide avenues and side streets - several of the major avenues and side streets feature medians with greenery, trees and walking/jogging/cycling paths. It would be easy to mistake much of it for any pleasant suburb in the US. Although there are several commercial and government installations, it’s not at all commercial in character, featuring mainly what we would think of as middle and some upper-middle class homes and a few beyond that, many unfortunately in considerable need of maintenance. It’s a quiet area, and its Fifth Avenue houses most of the embassies. The embassies appear to have been among the finest homes, and are all in perfect shape. Many have beautiful trees and gardens.

The Supermercado 3/70 sits on a small side street, facing a wide empty lot and ocean-front Third Avenue. From the front, it looks like any large supermarket. On the other side of 70th street is a small collection of retail - a little café, a few food stands, a car rental office.

We wanted to make dinner in our kitchenette and eat in the comfort of our living room, so we went inside. The shelves were well stocked, but the market was notable for what wasn’t there. There were lots of canned goods, crackers, cookies, packaged foods, frozen foods and a fair choice of meats. There was plenty of beer, even more rum, and some wine. But there was no bread, no fruit and no vegetables. None. There were two kinds of cheese, both in sealed chunks - queso and “tipo gouda.” We bought some of each. There was a store downstairs in the hotel, but it also had none of those missing items although, oddly, there were stacks of cartons of vodka at its entrance. Between both stores, we also bought crackers, cookies, water, beer, cereal, milk and Havana Club rum. Back in our suite, we made a meal of all of it. The queso cheese was as bland as water, but the “tipo gouda” cheese was not bad - it actually tasted somewhat like real Gouda. I realized that I could avoid having to buy more bottled water for our suite by boiling water on our stove with one of the supplied pots and using the funnel I had brought to put it into empty bottles and then into the fridge.

I had heard of a free shuttle service, available to Montehabana guests, running four times each day between the Occidental next door and Habana Vieja. I went to check that out, and also went to avail myself of the Occidental’s pool. The shuttle did indeed exist, and would cost us nothing.

To get from the Montehabana to the Occidental, I had to walk through the back portion of the lobby, which was long and always dark, and down a long outdoor flight of stairs, with a wobbly sort of metal bannister in the middle, which led into a concrete path and a wide expanse of lawn. The Occidental’s building was to the right. A shorter flight of stairs then led to the pool area, with lobby access to the right.

I’ve been to many hotels and resorts with pools, but had never seen any like the Occidental’s. There were basically three pools. The first one I encountered was shallow and just short of olympic size; a wading pool for children. Just past it was the second pool. It was never deeper than between 4 and 5 feet, but it was huge. Length and breadth were both at least olympic size; to the far side, against a sport of wall, was a basket, providing for water basketball games. There was also a net for water volleyball. Off to the left, the pool narrowed into a sort of channel and ended at a spill wall, where it cascaded into another pool, set well down at a lower level and as large as the first pool. The pools were surrounded by loungers, few of which were ever in use at any one time. Almost completely surrounded by water was an outdoor bar. On my first trip to Cuba, I’d stayed in a private home and become one with the locals. This somehow didn’t compute. It was decadent. Shame on me. I loved it.

We live in Miami Beach, but convenient swimming opportunities are limited. The ocean is close by, but requires either parking or a fairly long walk, usually in the heat and bright sunlight. There’s an excellent public pool about a mile away, free to city residents, but hardly on our doorstep. During the summer, adult hours are limited. This was special and different. I swam endlessly. When I passed the wall-mounted basket, I noticed three signs next to it with red lines through them. I wondered why they would put up signs prohibiting use of the basket. Later, I discovered that this wasn’t the case at all. I watched a small circle of teenage girls dancing in a circle in the water. It reminded me of a similar scene from long ago, at a state park near Buffalo, and another circle of teenage girls who had been older than I at the time.

I’d finally had enough, and returned to our suite. We settled in with another round of drinks, now chilled by the fridge, and watched CNN. Our living room had floor to ceiling sliding glass doors leading to a balcony and, then, a night time dark landscape. We opened the those doors for a slight breeze and barely cooled nighttime air, That night, we brought the living room standing fan into the bedroom, as the air conditioning, which hadn’t worked when we checked in, functioned, though barely. It was a warm night, and a chilly morning - the hot water wasn’t on, either. However, unlike the casa particular - the home stay - on my previous trip - and unlike experiences in Argentina and Nicaragua - there was no water pressure problem. In fact, when flushed, the toilet resounded with minutes of noise and a violent internal waterfall.


Finally, a night’s sleep. We woke at 7:45 - breakfast was milk, cereal, cheese, crackers, apple juice and CNN news. We’d been told that a woman from SunWings would be coming to the lobby in mid morning to give us some useful information, but the agent turned out to be a personable young man named Osmay. He was our private tutor, and went over maps and tour info with us. We were tempted by the two day/one night tour of Santa Clara and two other towns, with an overnight in a national park. The question was whether or not we’d have sufficient time - and sufficient cash. I also asked him about the cañonazo. This is an odd but intriguing ceremony that dates back to the late 1600s, when a cannon would be fired to mark the closing of the city walls, letting people know that if they were outside the walls, they wouldn’t be able to get back inside until the morning. Originally, it would be fired again early in the morning to announce the opening of the walls. In the 1774, when the San Carlos de La Cabana Fortress was finished, the firing was relocated there, and in the late 1800s, the firing was reduced to once daily, at exactly 9 PM. Since then, through revolutions, occupation and war, capitalism and communism, it has continued, every night, at the same place and time, complete with participants dressed in Spanish 19th century infantry uniforms, acting out chants, marches and ceremonies of that era. The cannon now fires bags of jute rather than cannon balls, but the mechanism is the same, and the sound can be heard everywhere in Havana. Osmay recommended it highly, saying that he was taking his children that very night and had been before. I figured that if a local enjoyed it that much, I would, too.

We just missed the 10:45 AM shuttle; the next one was at 1:25, so we walked back down to Third and 70th street. A woman operating a food stand was selling empanadas; she demanded CUCs, but it was still cheap, so we each bought one. They were thick, barely cooked and tasted horrible. I spat out my first bite; Ellen swallowed a few bites, then declared she’d probably be sick as a result. At the small adjoining café, we sought solace with cold beer and chatted with a visiting Spanish family and their sweet toddler son. I asked at the car rental center, thinking that might be a way to get to Santa Clara and back in one day, but they wanted a three day minimum rental. The national aquarium was only a block or two away, but there was no time for that if we wanted to make the next shuttle.

The Occidental lobby is large and posh, but like ours was not airconditioned and had become hot. I picked up a copy of the government-published newspaper, Granma, for one CUC. It’s printed every few days in English, and on the back page was an enlarged photo of a hand and the words “OBAMA - GIVE ME FIVE!” The plea was for the repatriation of the five Cuban “spies” who were convicted in a Miami federal courtroom, essentially for infiltrating private Cuban exile groups. The term “railroaded” comes to mind, but this isn’t a political website. The paper also ran, as it does in every issue - it’s available on line - the names and prison addresses of the “spies.” urging people to write to them. I changed the rest of our Canadian money at their exchange booth, and we boarded the shuttle, a large posh air conditioned bus which, as we discovered, runs on time, to the minute. It proceeded nonstop, through the tunnel into Vedado and then along the entire Malecon, past the Maceo monument and to its first stop at the Palacio de la Artesiana, a blue and white low rise building that apparently served as some sort of school and cultural center. Across the road were wall-less tents with tables and chairs, a few small café stands, a green area and a parked row of perhaps the finest-looking and most colorful 50s American cars I’d yet seen in Havana. Beyond the green area was a bayside road, Avenida Cespedes, and just past it, the bay. The second stop of the bus would be Plaza de San Francisco, farther down the bay from the harbor, then nonstop back to the hotel.

The maps indicated that the shortest way from there into the center of Habana Vieja would be along Cuarteles Street, which I quickly began calling Stray Dog Street. Not that I thought most of the dogs were true strays, though they could have been. Turning into Cuarteles offered quick respite from the hustlers and bici-taxi drivers who besieged the shuttle’s arrival. Cuarteles was strictly a working peoples’ street, lined with low to medium rise buildings There was the occasional car, bike and wagon. At an alcove, a woman offered tiny cups of Cuban ciffee for one peso; at one corner, there was a small indoor market, its open counters displaying whole and partial chickens.

Our immediate goal was Cathedral Square, and it was hard to find, even with the map. We floundered about, both frustrated and happy to be wandering aimlessly. At one point, we encountered one of the many cops; speaking English, he urged us to visit an adjoining museum, which, he assured us, was free. It was some sort of colonial religious museum, thankfully air conditioned, with two floors - the exhibits - sculptures, paintings and religious art objects - were beautiful, if limited in scope. There were no other patrons. A woman who worked there escorted us, happy to have us there and, quite clearly, not angling for a tip. She only knew a few words of English but was able to offer explanations- the informative signs were all in Spanish. She took our photos for us, and I gave her a couple of CUC coins. W passed a school - Escuela Primera - Simon Rodriguez. Cuban children, in or out of school, seem as happy and healthy as any I’ve seen anywhere.

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