Following a post-midnight arrival, we taxi through blackness to our lodging, where some knackering knuckle-knocking finally succeeds in getting the attention of the bleary-eyed owner to unlock the doors and let us in. Christine and I have just arrived on the time-locked, rum-soaked island of Cuba.
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. Shunning the resort areas of Cuba, we’re staying in a private home called a ‘casa particular’ in Havana’s Vedado District. Although the room is bare bones, with no radio, TV, or internet; the owners living downstairs are lovely accommodating folks.
Most visitors to Cuba suffer digital detox here with Wi-Fi 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 furiously finger-pummel an iPhone. Although the Wi-Fi may be rare, the rum is rife; another situation with which I certainly have no issues!
Every day here feels like summer, and we appreciate the sun swallowing our skin as 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 is infiltrated by an unending buffet of car porn trundling about, turning the streets into 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 right into our frame. These lovable old fossils are vibrantly painted in every color of the rainbow; with ‘Bubble-gum’ and ‘Barbie’ pink topping the most popular list! It feels as if the sea-surrounded speck that is Cuba has been trapped in a Castro-induced coma for the past sixty years!
Taking random lefts and rights exploring the nooks and crannies of different districts leads us into the cruelly neglected area of Centro. The ruined residential area is decaying to the point that people generally walk in the center of the road to avoid the danger of falling masonry from many of the hazardous habitats; a grim reality for many Cubans.
Roaming through Havana’s continuing conundrum of charm and crumble, our eyeballs share street time between deteriorated facades with paint flaking off like a bad case of psoriasis; women hanging laundry from balconies; people taking their cakes for a walk; vendors pulling sparse fruit and vegetables carts; bicycle rickshaws; and folks queuing outside threadbare shops to use communist ration cards.
Walking past the impressive Capitola building in the ‘Old Havana’ neighbourhood, we come to the tourist heart of Havana called Plaza Vieja. We’re greeted by a puzzle piece begging for a fit; as a bronze statue of a voluptuous woman with alopecia 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. An interesting theory suggests 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 harsh reality of the brutal times, these women were not looked down upon, but treated with respect for doing whatever was necessary to provide for their families.
In the square a one-legged man sits in the shade listening to the 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 that would put Princess Leia’s to shame!
Drinking tap water is literally a crap-shoot here, so we purchase two heavy five-liter bottles of water, along with a liter bottle of 7 year old Havana Club Rum for happy hour; or as we like to think of it here, ‘rum-o’clock’. Walking 30,000 steps today, drinking water is important, but drinking rum is ‘importanter’! However, lugging all this liquid for over a mile I’m now shuffling along like a bent over Quasimodo.
With Christine’s foot blistered from yesterday, 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 ‘almendrones’ or ‘colectivos’, and chug along different routes throughout Havana.
Elderly Caddies, Buicks, Chevys, Fords, Dodges, and Studebakers all form a fleet of relics that have been in play since back when Castro was clean shaven. Their odometers have more turnovers than a bakery shop, but the fatigued jalopies 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 and a great deal of patience. Whenever one of these clunkers does decide to limp to a 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! A grin is smeared across our faces as we cruelly barrel down the lumpy streets in this resuscitated relic with all the comfort of a refrigerator on wheels!
It’s a common sight to see heads under hoods tinkering with cars 65 year old entrails, attempting to entice the vintage carcasses back to life. Cobbled together by cannibalizing 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, many of the resuscitated fossils limp along, held together only by duct tape and wishful thinking. They are the equivalent of geriatrics sucking on an oxygen tank, or sitting dribbling drool into their pureed prunes!
Another of Havana’s amusing transports is the hilarious yellow ‘coco taxi’. It resembles 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 an accident with anything larger than a cricket, and the horn’s beep-beep sound is so ‘road runner’ perfect, we cast a glance behind, half expecting to see Wile E. Coyote giving chase!
We walk Vedado’s leafy streets, riddled with tree roots puckering up the sidewalks, out to John Lennon Park; immediately spotting John contemplating his surroundings from a bench. Christine sits down beside the life-sized bronzed Beatles legend and a woman scurries over from under the shade of a nearby tree. Fishing for a round-rimmed pair of spectacles in her purse, she places them on the bridge of Lennon’s nose for our picture. It seems people kept stealing the glasses as a souvenir, and so this woman now has one of the most unusual jobs in Cuba; she is the official keeper of John Lennon’s glasses.
The Malecon, known as ‘El Gran Sofa’ or ‘Havana’s Living Room’, is an eight kilometer seawall where inspiration comes in waves. Separating Havana from the sea it is the soul of the gritty city, and during the soothing sunsets it functions among other things, as a 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 the place where fishermen, looking for help from the sea to feed their families, patiently wait for a tug on their line while wistfully staring 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 shortages and scarcities, they have interesting uses that stretch far beyond the bedroom. Women use them as hairbands to secure ponytails, and if parents can’t afford or find birthday balloons they 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, and 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 process is complete and the wine ready for bottling!
At several sections along the Malecon we see 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 super cheap prophylactics to the size of balloons and tie them all together. The cluster 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. A sense of long-gone prosperity is predominant, with once opulent buildings now languishing in neglect. Havana comes across as an old woman who was clearly stunning in her youth, but even though now wrinkled and decrepit, her elegant bone structure is impossible to hide.
Street-performing musicians and dancers on stilts clog the narrow 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 over 25,000 sole-slaps a day we can handle the calories.
Across town, we’re greeted by a riot of color entering 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.
Wandering the majestic tree-canopied avenue of Paseo del Prado dividing Old and Central Havana, we marvel at the grandeur of its sophisticated design. 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. Climbing into the iron caged elevator, an elderly operator slides the door closed and transports us up to the rooftop bar, to quaff a mojito while enjoying a bird’s eye view of Havana.
Most Cuban women fearlessly test the limits of Spandex by stuffing plump rumps into oh-so-tight tights that resemble 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 mouth.
If you are a ‘foodie’, this island from another time may not be the absolutely perfect spot to capture your bliss, but if you know where to look,exceptional seafood can be had. At a restaurant called ‘El Idilio’, we’ve savored some of the most spectacular seafood to ever venture down our esophagi! Their 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 that has ‘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 likely 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 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 when rum pheromones lure me into a small 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 in working towards the eradication of the city’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 rumbled 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! It’s such an old school vibe around town that we half expect to see the ‘Fonz’ with a flock of pony-tailed poodle skirters.
For a change of pace we bus 30 km outside of Havana to Santa Maria del Mar. On the uncrowded beach we laze about on a lounger, with little birdies hopping about beneath us looking for fallen crumbs. Mellowed by the hypnotic rhythm of the frothed waves devouring the sand, we slip off our Tevas and stroll in the warm turquoise sea. Two spear fishermen emerge from the depths, proudly displaying their harvest before gutting their colorful victims on the sands that are as white as a surrender flag.
After another full day of footwork, we drop in to Artechef Café for dinner and pick up a menu with “ofertas dei dia” (specials of the day). Number three of four on the list is a gruesome offering that grabs our attention: “Lard Shit of beef”! Hardly in possession of enthusiasm, we promptly request the regular menus, as chances of us ordering this nasty-ass meal 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 we cordially try engaging them in a rudimentary conversation, and 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 I’m enjoying the unique experience while Havana 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!
This morning we ferry across Havana Bay to municipality of Casablanca on the crowded ‘La Launcha’, which we suspect is the lowest priced ferry on the planet with a ridiculously fare of 20 centavos; roughly the equivalent of one cent Canadian! We hike up to a huge white marble statue called the Christ of Havana for a view looking back towards the city, but with little else here, Casablanca is a disappointment; not dissimilar to a Casablanca we travelled to in Morocco back in the eighties.
Inside a bank today, the teller shows me the currency exchange rate and the amount of pesos I will receive for exchanging money, so I pull my phone from my pocket to use the calculator app and check the math. In a flash a security guard races over, shouting “no phone, no phone”. Perplexed, I inform him I have no intent to partake in a bank heist, but am merely checking to ensure I’m receiving the correct amount; 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 that 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 lavish eyelashes, asks how we would like our eggs cooked. We reply ‘easy-over’, which draws a blank look; so I say medium, drawing another blank. Holding up my left hand, saying ‘no cooked’, and then my right saying ‘hard’, I point in between my hands, telling her ‘me-di-um’. She instantly gets it, and with a light the world smile that blossoms easily, replies ‘Ahh yes, I know meester; eggs in dee meedle’. Bingo, mission accomplished!
Of all Havana’s vintage cars, only a few hundred have been granted a license to qualify with ‘classic status’; a designation entitling the owners to transport tourists about at $45 – $50 per hour; 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 flaw of Communism.
Parque Cental has a staggering selection of these ‘classic’ rides parked and 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 like the locked teeth of a grinning piranha, our choice of chariot for today is a hot-pink 55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible, as a tribute to my youth.
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 travel down Memory Lane remembering 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 youthless wreck, it still feels incredibly cool to once again be reunited with such a classic set of wheels!
After driving through Revolution Square, we have our driver detour into ‘El Bosque’ (the forest). This domain, known as ‘the lungs of Havana’, has 300 year-old banyan and jagüey trees heavily draped in trailing green vines. The trees resemble giant green monsters, and one particular tree called the ‘Elephant Tree’ bearing an uncanny likeness to its namesake. Today’s joyride is indeed a heavenly Havana highlight.
Today we hit the streets to randomly distribute packets of soap and shampoo brought from home. The recipients are all very appreciative, as in this country of scarcities 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 turned 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 their 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 exemplify the Cubans generosity.
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 the size of a presto log. Christine can’t resist, and plops herself down to snuggle with him while I preserve the encounter with a keepsake 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, where people mingle with friends sharing a cigar, the latest gossip in the hood, and a few gurgles of rum that perhaps helps them manage the unmanageable in a nation of frustration looking for probation from a crime called Castro.
On an emptyish stretch of road we come to a dominoes table set up on the street, with a ghetto blaster thumping from the hood of a fifties relic. The characters are playing with fervor, but at the sudden uncommon sight of tourists in the area, they stop clacking down tiles and 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, before we bid them a fond farewell to continue our wandering.
Loyal to the soil of cushy Canada, we’re returning early tomorrow; so for our last night we’re back one more time to ‘El Idilio’ for another munching that does not disappoint. After the waiter brings out our dinners of grilled lobster and pineapple mixed with melted cheese served in a hollowed out pineapple shell, we hoist a pleasing glass of Argentinian wine, toasting our travels in yet another of our planet’s thoroughly intriguing countries.
After our orgasmic dinner we take a choice bottle of rum for a stroll down to the Malecon, to share among the fishermen. Unfortunately, we’re foiled for the second night in a row by a nasty weather system that puts the kibosh on our plans. Wicked winds are slamming huge angry waves into, and over, the Malecon and high into the air; 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