Friday, 26 August 2016

More of Havana

Cuba - a real treasure.

Havana is a cool city, and I think it would be hard to find somebody that doesn't like it. Sure there are annoyance for tourists like any other city, but that's normal. It is a photographers dream though - not just for the cars but the people here are very interesting too. People watching is a national past-time and they have no shame or reservations about looking - if you're on the street you're going to be looked at (sometimes cat-called!) and maybe commented on. I stayed in the heart of Havana, 2 blocks away from the Capitolio building. The first night was a 'hostel,' but I ended up moving here so I could be right in the middle of it all. When in Cuba you stay with families in 'casas privadas,' or private houses, and pay the person directly. There are signs above the house or flat, a little blue 'anchor' symbol, with the name of the person who rents it out. For 25 CUC, $25 US, Laurel and I had a nice room on the 3rd floor with air-con and our own bathroom. From here we could walk 10 minutes to the Malecon, Havana Vieja and just about anywhere you'd want to go in the city. The days went like this - breakfast of a pizza and coffee for less than $1, walk around and take pictures, always discovering something new or meeting an interesting local, come back early afternoon for a siesta (with the air-con running of course!) and then head back out at around sunset time and enjoy Havana in the evening. Not a bad way to spend your time really!

Plaza de Independencia - Che and Camillo light up at night too.

The Capitolio building.
The fortress that guards the city.
The Malecon in Havana is worth mentioning as it is THE hangout place for the youth of Havana. Along the harbour there is the stone wall that protects Havana from the sometimes wavy and rough Caribbean Sea, running from the far West of the city all the way around Havana Vieja and provides a seat and somewhere to sit and watch the sun, people watch or even car watch. We spent a fun night chilling there, talking to locals and drinking freshly-made Mojitos ($4 bottles of Havana Club). Most people here don't have mobiles and if they do, they aren't Smartphones. One girl I got talking to didn't know what Youtube was, doesn't have Facebook, never heard of most of the current bands popular with young people and was generally 'out of the loop' for news and information regarding most things (she knew who Justin Beiber is though). Sadly, this is Cuba - a restriction on information. At the same time, who needs silly teenage pop singers and Facebook when you have cheap booze, great weather, a view of the Caribbean and the Morro Fortress in the harbour and also have friends to hang out with and share it all with?

The view from the Malicon - looking towards the Hotel Nacional.

You're in my spot.
Some lovely music performed by some lovely women.
If you want a little Cuban music, some expensive (for Cuba) drinks and a bit of culture, pop into the Hemingway Bar in Havana Vieja. I didn't know this, but he's famous here - he lived near Havana for nearly 20 years with his wife Martha and even met Fidel! Another place to hang out in Havana with your friends is the nightclub "Fabirica de Arte." This is the 'high-end' of hang outs though - every night there is a long queue, fancy people all dressed up, bouncers and of course cool cars doing laps. I went there one night but waited for ages and the line never got any shorter, so our group (4 recently High School graduated Brits and a Dutch girl) decided to find another place. We sat at the bar across the road and had a beer to help us decide - the bar was empty and smelt like piss, but the barman was friendly and the beer cheap. After wandering around the streets looking for another party to go to, we finally found one but were denied access (invite only), so we had another beer in the smelly bar before getting a taxi home. The ride back was probably the best thing that happened all night - 6 people crammed into a 1960s Chev which was driven by the coolest taxi driver ever. Manolo owned his car and had made it look awesome on the inside with fluorescent lights and had his favourite American music pumping from the stereo - we all sang along to the "Rhythm of The Night" in our different accents, British, Australian, Dutch and Cuban. In Spanish though, the chorus is slightly different... This is the rhythm of the night = Esos son Reebok o son Nike...

Staying right in the heart of the city for $30 a night between two people.

A truly 'holy' experience.
Some ladies selling cigars.
During our wanderings in the city, we bumped into and met 2 locals who became out friends for the who time we were here - in fact they kind of fathered us a little. Fidel and Raul, 59 year old brothers, born in Panama and named after the two revolutionary brothers from Cuba. We were caught admiring a car across the street and they started talking to us - we ended up going out for dinner with them and having dinner at their place the next night. Both boys are sailors and do a fair bit of travel - they loved showing us postcards, travel brochures and all their souvenirs from the places they'd been. They took us to the Plaza de la Revolucio, a quick 4c bus (or 'guagua' in Cuba) trip away. I need to mention the name they have for buses here - pronounced 'wa-wa,' it comes from the noise the old buses used to make, but in Chile a 'guagua' means baby. In Spain you 'coger' or 'catch' the bus, same in Cuba I found, but the rest of South America you 'toma' the bus as the Spanish word means 'to fuck.' I always felt strange asking where I could catch the bus in Cuba... Back to the plaza, which is quite cool - there are two building either side of the square, one with a big outline of Che Guevara and the other of Camillo Cienfuegos - both of which light up at night. There is a monument to Jose Marti (revolutionary who fought for independence against the Spanish), a huge structure and the pride of the Cuban people - they love this man. Inside there are some interesting pictures of Fidel and the other revolutionaries after the war, but not much else. The brothers enjoyed taking us there, they did however get a little possessive with us - if anyone come up to either me or Laurel in the street, the brothers would move in and shoo them away, as if to say 'these are out gringos, go find your own.' We were also lucky enough to see a church service and meet the local priest - a very interesting experience which I'm not too sure I want to do again. This is a real 'hallelujah' church, singing, people with their hands up and swaying, but the biggest thing were the people falling over and shaking. Once is enough for me.

Taxi ride to the beach... old but notice the USB plug and new stereo?
Vamos a la playa!
Not my hotel.
A trip to Havana wouldn't be complete without a day at the beach. We grabbed a taxi for $5 and headed for Santa Marta, just outside the city. The car was the oldest Landcruiser I've ever seen, but had air-con and went well, it had the driver and front passenger and the rest of us were in side bench seats in the back. Duly decorated with a Cuban boxing gloves hanging from the mirror, the car cruised down the main highway along the coast. There wasn't much traffic and there were very little buildings once we went under the tunnel and got to the other side of the harbour. We did get stopped by police along the way (and way back), but not for anything really serious - the police just want to make sure they it is a legal taxi taking tourists around. The beach was lovely - the postcard picture of palm trees, sun and blue sky and a turquoise sea, the real deal. Back in the city we headed out for the evening, just walking aimlessly but always finding something of interest. We came across an old-fashioned looking ice-cream parlour, right out of Back to the Future (the people even wore those little paper Navy hats) where the only flavour to choose from was chocolate. That's how it is here, one, maybe two flavours if you're lukcy - but chocolate is my fav so problems there. The ice-cream was awesome (and I even got vanilla topping drizzled over my 3 'boletas') and so was the price - 3 scoops for 5 CUP (35c). We also found a small 'natural spring water' shop hidden away in the centre. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but it's called the "Casa del Agua del Tinaja," and there is an older gentlemen selling 'healthy' water - he has a few pots on the counter and pours you a glass for a bit of change - the water tastes good and is refreshing. The water is filtered using the methods of those from the former colony here - there were many of these 'water houses' all over the city to help keep the citizens cool, now this is the only one remaining. The man was lovely and loved a chat - you can also get your photo taken with him and he'll post it up on the back wall of the store - he prefers young, pretty women though.

A Caribbean beach at it's best.
War medals and memorabilia - it's all here.
Old camera? Book about Che? We have it all!
Old Havana is a wonderful part of town - so much to see and do, and all accessible by foot. Small streets with 5 or 6 storey apartment building, you could be in Barcelona but for the sad condition of the buildings. In the main plaza of the city, surrounded by posh restaurants, you can find the locals selling all sorts of thing in a daily market. I found Adolf's 'Best Seller' in Spanish, war medals, Cuban cooking books, old LPs of unheard of Cuban salsa and some old cameras - the shopkeepers are always open to a little haggling, my backpack for space, however, had a very set limit. Cathedral of Havana San Cristobal is in another Plaza a few blocks away and worth seeing. The Cathdedral was built in 1777 in the Baroque style and seems out of place in this city - it would fit very well in some northern Italian town though. Free to get in and free to climb the tower, you get a good view of the plaza and the neighbourhood - you're really able to see day-to-day life from up there, the lost tourists and all the people trying to make a living of those same tourists. People watching from 30m is sometimes the best - also quiet.

A little bar around the corner from my casa privada.

How much is that cat in the counter?
Fidel and his Revolutionaries.
The Museum of the Revolution is worth a visit too, and it also free. Although repairs were being done, you can still see the outline of the famous 'Granma,' the yacht that took the small group of 50 something revolutionaries from Mexico to Santiago de Cuba to take the good fight to Señor Batista. The museum's information regarding Che and the other leaders is quite bias - Che was a superior leader, a great guerrilla fighter and doctor, physically strong with amazing constitution, brave and a true inspiration to everyone. These are true to some degree (and I was paraphrasing a little, but this is more or less what the plaques said at every opportunity) - he was a doctor and did lead men to victory, but they never mention his divorce from his first wife Hilda Gadea, after he had fought in Cuba and fallen in love with Aleida March. Nor does it state anywhere of his poor health, fighting bad (and sometimes debilitating) asthma in the southern jungles of Cuba. I could go on, about how there is nothing about his poor campaign in The Congo or Bolivia, but it's a revolutionary museum in a 'communist' country that is 'still having' it's revolution - visit, enjoy and take it for what it is.

The most recognised face in the World.

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