Following a post-midnight arrival, we taxi through the blackness to our lodging, where some knackering knuckle-knocking finally succeeds in getting the attention of the bleary-eyed owner who unlocks the door and lets us in. Christine and I have just arrived on the time-locked, rum-soaked island of Cuba.
Shunning the resort areas, we’re staying in a private home called a ‘casa particular’ in Havana’s Vedado District, and although our tired room is very bare-bones, with no radio, TV, or internet; the owners living downstairs are lovely accommodating folks. After capturing a few vital hours of sleep, the sun’s gentle ascent in a powder blue sky has us anxious to introduce the soles of our shoes to the streets of Havana.
Most visitors to ‘Coo-ba’ suffer from digital detox, with Wi-Fi being almost nonexistent in what is the second most disconnected country in the world after North Korea. However, as somewhat of a Luddite, it’s no cell-hell for me, having never acquired an addiction to continuously finger-fondle a cell phone. Though Wi-Fi may be rare the rum is rife; a Cuban circumstance I certainly have no issues with!
Every day here feels like summer and we appreciate the sun swallowing our skin while we saunter about the streets in shirtsleeves and shorts. After visiting a currency exchange and plumping up with pesos, we stroll into town, immediately noticing that Havana has been infiltrated by an unending buffet of car porn trundling about. The streets are a mobile classic car museum of Yank Tanks from a vintage back when the Dead Sea was only sick!
It seems like we never have to wait more than a minute before some cool, conspicuously chromed classic cruises past. These lovable elderly fossils, with their health in a nosedive, are vibrantly painted in every color of the rainbow; with ‘Bubble-gum’ and ‘Barbie’ pink topping the most popular list! They further the feeling that Cuba has been trapped in a Castro-induced coma for the past sixty years!
Taking random lefts and rights while exploring the nooks and crannies of different districts, leads us into the area of Centro screaming neglect. Decayed to the point that people generally walk in the center of the road to avoid the danger of falling masonry from hazardous habitats, the ruined residential area is crying out for the wrecking ball.
Roaming through Havana’s continuing conundrum of charm and crumble, our eyeballs observe women hanging laundry from balconies; people taking their cakes for a walk; vendors pulling sparse fruit and vegetables carts; bicycle rickshaws; folks queuing at threadbare shops to use communist ration cards; and old paint flaking off the deteriorated buildings like a bad case of psoriasis.
Walking past the impressive Capitola building in ‘Old Havana’, my tourist-trap-o-meter is red-lining when we reach the tourist heart of Havana. In Plaza Vieja we’re greeted by a puzzle piece begging for a fit. A bronze statue of a voluptuous bald-headed woman sits on a colossal rooster, with a giant fork in her hand. Straddled atop her stoic steed, she is completely naked except for the heeled shoes on her feet. Apparently the artist created this sculpture as a tribute to Havana’s history of prostitution after Cuba became an economic basket case.
When Russia abandoned Cuba times got incredibly tough and money dried up, so in order to feed (fork) her children, women often had to resort to selling themselves (nakedness/heels) by riding the rooster (or its alias), which represents the man paying for her services. Given the grim reality of the brutal times, these women were not looked down upon, but instead, treated with respect for doing whatever was necessary to put food on the table for their famished families.
In the square we join a one-legged man sits in the shade listening to invigorating salsa sounds from a group of musicians, and spreading out below his nose is one of the bushiest ‘lip-sweaters’ I’ve ever seen. In fact, his ‘stash’ could likely be braided into ropes to create hair-buns putting Princess Leia’s to shame!
A liter bottle of 7 year old Havana Club Rum is collected for happy hour; or as we like to think of it here, ‘rum-o’clock’. We also need water after walking 30,000 steps today, and since drinking tap water here is literally a crap-shoot, we purchase two five-liter bottles from a store. Lugging the liquid load for an arm-lengthening mile, I’m shuffling along with my frame beginning to resemble that of Quasimodo.
With Christine’s foot blistered from yesterday wayfaring, we pass on the seven kilometer walk into town and hail one of the old American-made shared taxis. These plentiful, and pitiful, gas-guzzling geezers are called ‘colectivos’ or ‘almendrones’, and chug along different routes throughout Havana.
Caddies, Buicks, Chevys, Fords, Studebakers, etc. are all part of a fleet of time machines with odometers having more turnovers than a bakery shop. The fatigued jalopies, in play since back when Castro was clean shaven, are workhorses, costing only 20 cents for locals to ride and a buck for us.
However, getting one of these old land yachts to pull over requires fancy finger waggling skills, along with a great deal of patience. Whenever one of these clunkers decides to stop, it’s immediately swarmed by dozens of potential passengers with absolutely no concept of a queue; to the quickest go the seats!
After having our ride intercepted a few times, we finally manage to muscle ourselves into a 1947 robin’s egg blue, beat-to-hell Hudson with suicide doors! With a grin smeared across our face, we cruelly barrel down the lumpy streets in the resuscitated relic that has all the comfort of a refrigerator on wheels!
It’s a common sight to see people with heads under car hoods, tinkering with the 65 year old entrails and attempting to entice the vintage carcasses back to life. Cobbled together by cannibalizing their comatose cousins, these road rescues are truly a testament to mechanical ingenuity in the face of scarcity; with odd bits and pieces transforming them into a kind of an automotive platypus! Coughing clouds of carcinogens, and held together only by duct tape and wishful thinking, the fossils are the equivalent of geriatrics dribbling drool into their pureed prunes!
Another of Havana’s smile-generating transports is the hilarious yellow ‘coco taxi’, resembling a yellow football helmet minus the faceguard mounted on a tricycle and powered by what sounds like a lawnmower engine! The comical carriages would likely never survive a collision with anything larger than a cricket, and their horn’s bleeping beep-beep is so ‘road runner perfect’, one natural reaction is to cast a glance behind to see if Wile E. Coyote is giving chase!
Mindful of tree roots puckering up the sidewalks on the leafy streets of Vedado, we walk to John Lennon Park, and quickly spot John contemplating his surroundings from a bench. As Christine sits down beside the bronzed Beatles legend, a woman scurries over from under the shade of a nearby tree. Fishing in her purse she pulls out a round-rimmed pair of spectacles and places them on the bridge of Lennon’s nose for our picture. It seems people kept stealing the glasses as a souvenir, so this woman now has one of the most unusual jobs in Cuba; she is the official keeper of John Lennon’s glasses.
Separating Havana from the sea , the Malecon, known as ‘El Gran Sofa’ or ‘Havana’s Living Room’, is an eight kilometer seawall where inspiration comes in waves. During the soothing papaya sunsets it functions as a pleasant setting to enjoy a rum transfusion, as well as a canoodling couch for amorous teenagers clinging together like Siamese twins with their mouths attached. It is also a place where fishermen, looking for help from the sea to feed their families, patiently wait for a tug on their line, while wistfully gazing across the waves to Florida.
Cuban condoms are absurdly cheap, costing only four cents for a box of three, and on this island of constant scarcities they have interesting uses stretching far beyond the bedroom. Women use them as hairbands to secure ponytails, and parents unable to afford or find birthday balloons unfurl a few prophylactics and start puffing. Budget-minded party-goers also use them as a makeshift flask, filling them with rum to sneak into nightclubs in their underwear to avoid paying for expensive drinks.
Crafty winemakers also make use of condoms, by stretching them over the necks of wine carboys instead of aging the wine in oak casks. Slowly inflating as the fruity mix ferments and produces gases; an erect condom indicates fermentation is taking place. When there are no more gases, the condom stops inflating and falls, with the limpness indicating the wine has come into its own and is ready for bottling!
At several sections along the Malecon we notice the ground littered with dozens of empty condom packages, bringing us to perhaps the condom’s most ingenious use of all. Cuba’s government is paranoid about illegal departures to the U.S., and therefore strictly control the use of boats. As a result, anglers have cleverly figured out how to hunt their slippery prey using a method known as ‘balloon fishing’.
Fishermen inflate four of the prophylactics to the size of balloons and tie them all together. The cluster of ‘cum catchers’ is then attached to a baited fishing line and cast into the sea, where currents sail the bait out to the deeper waters for a chance at the bigger fish. Who knew condoms could be so versatile? Forget talking about the condemnation of Cuba; we should be talking about the condom nation of Cuba!
Letting a mental toss of the coin dictate our path, we begin another of our mega rambles through the shambles. With once opulent buildings now languishing in neglect, Havana comes across as an old woman who was clearly stunning in her youth and even though now wrinkled and decrepit, her elegant bone structure is impossible to hide.
Musicians and dancers on stilts clog the slender streets of Old Havana hoping to loosen pesos from tourist wallets. On Calle Obispo, ‘Street of the Bishop’, we patiently line up at a cubicle selling tasty one dollar pizzas and ten cent ice cream cones, and as big time spenders, order one of both. I suspect that averaging 25,000 sole-slaps a day we can handle the calories of the frozen cow juice and a mouthful of mozzarella.
Across town, we’re greeted by a riot of color in the two block alleyways of Callejon de Hamel; an Afro-Cuban community art project creatively adorned from pavement to rooftops with paintings and eclectic sculptures fabricated with everything from car parts to bathtubs.
We marvel at the sophisticated design of the majestic Paseo del Prado Boulevard dividing Old and Central Havana. Under the tree canopies, marble benches and iron lamp posts are flanked by silently roaring bronze lion sculptures; guarding the walkers, rollerbladers, dog-walkers, painters, and those just yearning to park their bums on a bench.
Curiosity then leads us into the famous pastel-pink Hotel Ambos Mundos, one of Hemmingway’s old haunts back in the 1930’s. In a blast from the past, we climb into an iron caged elevator and the elderly gent operating it slides the door closed and transports us to the rooftop bar to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Havana while slurping a mojito.
Most Cuban women fearlessly test the limits of Spandex, by stuffing plump rumps into oh-so-tight tights resembling a sausage casing. However, exiting the hotel we notice a Cubana clad in a vivid ruffled rumba dress, and between her fuchsia-splotched lips she’s sucking on a jumbo cigar like it’s an air hose. From her hand basket, a small doll is peering out with a mini stogie of its own creepily stuck in its plastic mouth.
If you are a ‘foodie’, this island from another time may not be the perfect spot to capture your bliss, but if you know where to look exceptional seafood can be found. A restaurant called ‘El Idilio’ provides some of the most spectacular seafood to ever venture down our esophagi! Our gorgeous grub includes delicate young octopus grilled in garlic and olive oil in a hot cast iron skillet, and a medley meal of fresh lobster, shrimp, and swordfish; all cooked to perfection by the chefs in the outdoor kitchen. Havana-ooh-na-na!
In our travel notes I’ve made mention of a restaurant with ‘Flamenco on the menu’ as entertainment. Reading this during a happy hour, Christine turns to me, and with incredulity in her voice, exclaims “they have Flamingo on the menu?” Struggling to contain myself, I reply, “Why yes my darling, and the gangly, pink-plumage fowl will joyously wade about your plate with its bent beak in the air while stomping its webbed feet”. Quickly realizing her faux pas, she’s not exactly tickled pink with my unbridled guffaws.
Cuba is obviously known for its Rum, and I’m most appreciative of a country so perfectly calibrated to my tastes. As a rum aficionado myself, I find myself in good spirits as rum pheromones lure me into a shop selling Havana Club 7. Just not genetically coded to say neigh, I readily fork over my pesos in exchange for our third bottle of rum, diligently doing my part to support the country’s sugarcane by-product!
Most taxis are a bit of a snore, but not here in good old Havana. We’re less than halfway through our stay, and in addition to the 47 Hudson, we’ve limped around town in an array of other ‘colectivos’; including 48 and 52 Fords; 41, 53 and 55 Chevys; and a rare 1951 hearse-sized Chevy Saloon wagon! The city has such an old school vibe we half expect to bump into the ‘Fonz’ and a flock of pony-tailed poodle skirters.
For a change of pace, we bus 30 km outside of Havana to Santa Maria del Mar, lazing about on a lounger on the uncrowded beach with little birdies hopping about looking for fallen crumbs. Mellowed by the hypnotic rhythm of frothed waves devouring the sand, we slip off our Tevas and enjoy a stroll in the shallows of the tepid turquoise sea. Two spear fishermen emerging from the surf proudly display their colorful victims to us before disembowelling them on sands as white as a surrender flag.
After another full day of footwork, we drop in to Artechef Café for dinner. Picking up a menu with “ofertas dei dia” (specials of the day) quickly induces a joint grimace. Our ‘beef’ with the menu is a gruesome offering called “Lard Shit of beef”! The marketing translation screw-up has us hardly in possession of enthusiasm, and the chances of us placing an order are teenier than a hummingbird’s toenails!
Along the Malecon, Christine and I see, for the second time in as many days, fisherman setting up their gear for a night of ‘balloon fishing’. They recognize us, and I cordially try engaging in a rudimentary conversation. Wanting to learn more about my new found amigo’s angling methods, I offer to lend them a hand setting up their lines. They eagerly agree, and as expected, a package of four condoms soon appears.
They smile and hand me one to inflate, and during the unique experience I am Havana good laugh with the fishermen. Huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf, we blow up the love gloves to near poppable proportions, which is great training should I ever want to learn to play a wind instrument. “Balloon Fishing” in Cuba; I love it! We shake hands with the fishermen wishing them ‘tight lines’. There are two types of fishermen – those who fish for sport and who fish for fish. I believe the fishermen in Cuba have need to fish for both!
We cross Havana Bay to the municipality of Casablanca using the crowded ‘La Launcha’, likely the lowest priced ferry on the planet with a ridiculous fare of 20 centavos, or roughly one cent Canadian! A huge white marble statue called the Christ of Havana offers a panoramic view, but with little else to offer, Casablanca is a letdown; not dissimilar to another Casablanca in Morocco we visited back in the eighties.
Inside a bank today, the teller shows me the currency rates and the amount of pesos we will receive for exchanging money, so I pull my phone from my pocket to use the calculator app and check the math. In what now appears to be a ‘Cuban bristle crises’, a security guard races over shouting “no phone, no phone”. Perplexed, I inform him I have no intent to partake in a bank heist, I’m simply ensuring that I’m receiving the correct funds; to which he replies, “Calculator OK – no phone”.
I show him that the calculator is on the phone, but he becomes angry; shaking his head and again yelling “no phone”. In a grump over this perplexing demand by a guard showcasing a need for extra training with his people-skills, I ask him why; to which he shockingly responds, “I don’t know”! The ridiculous episode is beyond the reach of reason, and shrugging our shoulders we simply walk out the door.
In a café this morning, I recount this befuddling behavior to the English speaking owner, to see if he may have an explanation. With a sly grin, he informs us there is a saying in Cuba: “Never ask question beginning with ‘why’; as trying to close one door will simply open up four more”.
While ordering breakfast the lovely young waitress, with an unhurried fluttering of her richly lashed eyes, asks how we would like our eggs cooked. We reply ‘easy-over’, which draws a blank look; so I say ‘medium’, drawing another blank. So, holding up one hand, saying ‘no cooked’, and then the other saying ‘hard’, I point in between my hands, telling her ‘me-di-um’. Then, with a light the world smile that blossoms easily, she replies ‘Ahh jess, I know meester; eggs in dee meedle’. Bingo, mission accomplished!
Of all Havana’s vintage cars, only a few hundred are of a good enough quality to have been granted a license qualifying them with ‘classic status’; a designation entitling the owners to transport tourists fort $45 – $50 per hour. This rate is about 40 times higher than the normal taxis, and twice the average monthly salaries of Cubans doctors! Again, we can’t help but ponder how this makes any sense, but knowing better than to ask why, we put it down to simply another defect of Communism.
Parque Cental has a staggering selection of these ‘classic’ rides available for hire, so we decide to bite the bullet. Perusing the sea of long and low eye-candy with shiny big-assed tail fins and chrome grills, our choice of chariot is a hot-pink 55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.
Cruising down the road with the wind whooshing over our face and through our hair feels fantastic on such a hot day! My youth is temporarily recaptured as I fondly remember from the basement of my brain, a time when as a spirited teenager I was rumbling through the streets of Victoria in a 55 Chevy of my own. Even though this reckless youth is now leaning more towards a youth-less wreck, it still feels incredibly cool to be reunited with such a classic set of wheels!
After driving through Revolution Square, we have our driver detour into El Bosque (the forest), known as ‘the lungs of Havana’. The 300 year-old banyan and jagüey trees, heavily draped in trailing green vines, resemble giant green monsters; with one in particular called the ‘Elephant Tree’ bearing an uncanny likeness to its namesake. Cruising back along the Malecon during today’s throwback joyride is a heavenly Havana highlight.
Today we randomly distributing packets of soap and shampoo brought from home, and the recipients on the streets all seem appreciative, as in this country the book of luxuries is whippet-thin on content. Cuba appears be in grave need of the Heimlich Maneuver, to stop it from choking on the embargo put in place almost six decades ago. Fidel’s decision to embrace Russia and communism at that time was responsible for turning Cuba into a catastrophe in slow motion, sabotaging almost every aspect of its people’s lives.
Still, at no point during our stay have we ever felt threatened or unsafe. Over and over we have been impressed by the kindness of a people always eager to offer help. In fact, asking for directions one day, an old fellow of very modest means tells us it is too far to walk, and reaching into his pocket, pulls out a few centavos which he tries to offer to us so we can take a bus. We graciously decline the heart-warming gesture that seems to epitomize the generosity of Cubans.
In the historic city center of La Habana, an older black dude about the size of a refrigerator sits on steps of a cathedral, as if on his break from some 1950’s movie set. He is nattily bedecked in a checkered sports jacket with a rose on the lapel, white pants, cowboy hat, and polished spats on oversized feet. One hand holds a polished cane, while the other fondles a ludicrous cigar resembling a presto log. Christine can’t resist, and plops herself down to snuggle with him while I preserve the encounter with a photo.
Cuba may be far from Utopia, but the people mostly seem a happy bunch despite their hard sentence. One of the country’s passions is the game of dominoes, and people mingle with friends sharing a cigar, the latest gossip in the hood, and a few gurgles of rum, that perhaps help them manage the unmanageable in a nation of frustration looking for probation from a crime called Castro.
Walking a gritty stretch of road we come to a dominoes table set up on the street, with a ghetto blaster thumping out a beat from the hood of some fifties relic. The characters are playing with fervor, but at the sudden uncommon sight of tourists in the area, they stop clacking down tiles to try to make conversation. Politely offering a glass of some of the high-octane hootch they’re drinking, they raise a glass to toast us in a cordial manner.
Loyal to the soil of cushy Canada, we cap off our last day in Cuba with a return to ‘El Idilio’ for another meal that does not disappoint. The waiter brings out grilled lobster and pineapple mixed with melted cheese and served in a hollowed out pineapple shell, and we hoist a pleasing glass of Argentinian wine, extolling our travels in yet another of our planet’s thoroughly intriguing countries.
Strolling back to the casa particular along the Malecon, we’re accompanied by a choice bottle of rum which we plan to share among the fishermen. Unfortunately, for the second time in as many nights, a nasty weather system puts the kibosh on our plan, as wicked winds are slamming enormous angry waves into and over the Malecon, leaving a seawall normally heaving with bodies now eerily empty.
Nature’s fury may afford a good photo opportunity, but sadly thwarts the enjoyment of a social evening with the good natured fishermen. To us, the stormy scene before us somehow seems to represent life here; as for half a century Cubans have been flailing about in a stormy sea, just trying to stay afloat. Let’s hope for the sake of these fine folks that somebody tosses them a life-jacket soon. Nobody deserves it more.
Mark Colegrave 2018