Havana, CubaJanuary 29, 2017 in Cuba
Where do I even start? Five nights in Havana have blurred into one so this entry won't be chronological, but instead representative of the jumbled memories in my idling brain.
Old Havana is exactly that. It's dirty, it's smelly and it's falling apart but the original architecture is gorgeous. I would have loved to see this place in its heyday. We're staying near Old Havana in a casa on the third storey with a very helpful and friendly young couple. They've made some good life decisions and got set up on Air BnB, now they own their house and their car (rare in Cuba) and have a steady stream of income and plenty of guests to fill her old man's taxi. Well played.
It's hard not to overlook the poverty in this area of the city. It's not poverty like you see in countries like China or India (I assume - never been). There are few beggars and fewer homeless, and the majority are well dressed and look well fed. But the state of infrastructure is a mess. Empty shells of direlect buildings - some now hosting a variety of vegetation - are common, and piles of rubble from not-yet-completely-demolished buildings lay unsafely over the footpath. Gutters are non-existant and pipes spurt water (?...or worse?!) freely onto the street or the unsuspecting passer by. Roads and footpaths were once respectible, I'm sure, but now are buckled and cracked or with dangerously large potholes or, more commonly obstructed by piles of aggregate, rubbish, rubbish bins or a poorly parked three wheeled bicycle taxi.
In addition, the streets are filthy (making jandals and rain a dangerous combination) and it's difficult even for the dullest of us olefactors not to be nasally assualted many times per day. Unhealthily skinny stray cats and dogs loiter the streets and skulk in the shadows, searching helplessly for aid.
New Havana is a different storey, it's much cleaner and greener and slightly less smelly. It's on the edge of our walking range so we've only spent a morning there and to be honest we really only went for the ice cream!
One thing the government has begun to do well is restoration. Havana contains many truely beautiful buildings, many more in fact, than could be reasonably expected to be maintained. The museum of the revolution is one such building which we spent an afternoon reading (or looking at pictures as it was almost entirely in spanish...grrr) up on our mates Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. A history every Cuban is overwhelmingly proud of, demonstrated with busts and faces created in every form of art and displayed at any opportunity. We're also yet to visit a monument or statue not dedicated to a soldier of Cuba's independence. We took a walking tour with Ernesto, who offered reasonable english, excellent insights and a ridiculous amount of dates and spanish names. Woosh!
We've clocked up some serious distance on foot, averaging well over 20,000 steps per day. We're making in roads on waking fitness but cardio fitness is well and truely gone, as discovered on the first run in months. Two actually, along the Malecon boardwalk in the early morning, which was dotted with fishermen and some fairly impressive catches for a handline! Come to write about it, we've actually spent almost all of our time in Havana walking or drinking dangerously strong mojitos - after all we are in the home of the mojito.
The best part of Cuba is most definitely the people. All of our hosts and guides have been fantastic. It's so nice to see locals stopping just to say hi to one another, handshakes and kisses and smiles all round. Honks and waves too, an intricate part of the daily routine. I wish I spoke better spanish and could have had some better interaction, but that's my own undoing.
There are two things that have really been bugging me about Cuba so you're in for another rant! The first is the lack of internet. Cuba has been shielded from the world by their communist government for over half a century, and it's worked, largely I'm guessing because they're an island. Perhaps someone can tell me how that's going for mainland China or North Korea - I'd look it up but, oh yeah, I don't have internet. Private internet is non-existant - you can't buy it for all the money in Cuba. ETESCA is the only (government operated) internet provider. Cubans can set up an account with ETESCA which they can top up with cash at the shop (read: wait in line for hours) up to about 10 hours internet at a time. Everybody else waits in the same line (Scott loves doing this) and can get a max of three hours at $1.50 per hour. Then you get to walk to the nearest plaza or park, and enter the codes to get you online. Then you spend the majority of your valuable hour watching the wheel of doom spin. Or disconnecting and reconnecting. Or fending off chancers trying to sell you more internet at five times the price. IT'S HORRIBLE! Skype or data calls? You're dreaming. You'll be lucky if a picture message goes through. Oh and remember - the government controls what you can or can't see, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's blocked American content i.e. half the internet. I wouldn't know, I'm yet to buy enough time to load a webpage.
Why don't they get with the times? Clearly they have the infrastructure, and the majority own phones. Surely it's the readily available access to information they so desperately need. The world is leaving Cuba even further behind, but perhaps that's the way they like it. Although, apparently privatisation is well on the rise, we'll see how that goes!
The second on my list is the food. It's awful. I can and will list all the food in Cuba in one sentence. Rice, beans, chicken, pork/ham, beef, fish, bread, spagetti, cheese, eggs, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, onion and (to be fair) a reasonable variety of local fruit. So we've eaten omelettes and fruit for breakfast (read: ham, cheese, bread and egg). Sandwiches or pizza for lunch (read: ham, cheese and bread) no butter, mayo or tomato sauce of course. And for dinner we opt for spaghetti or rice, beans, questionable cuts of plain fried meat and salad (read: cucumber, lettuce and if you're lucky - tomato). Oh and when I say ham, it's often that gelatinous sausage that looks like dog food. Yum. That's dining at 99% of food outlets. We took a stroll through some local food markets on our 9th day in Cuba. We found chilli, capsicum, herbs and spices - litterally everything you need to turn the boring meals on their head. Why oh why do you do this to yourselves!?!? The impact of communism on Cuba for us, is most visible through the food. Citizens still queue for their free daily rations of rice, beans, oil and coffee at unmarked stores that make the 40's look like the distant future. There is only one brand of bottled water available, period. It's full of chemicals and usually makes you gag (at least on the first few gulps). Actually, the tap water tastes better but we've been warned away on that one. Coke and for that matter, anything US made - you're having a laugh. Infact, anything imported whatsoever is a lucky find. We've been on the street-food hunt, trying anything unidentifiable, hoping to crack the local secret dish - so far no luck. It's abysmal. The only incentive to eat is that it's cheap, and we're burning some serious calories on foot that need replacing. On this front, Mexico can't come soon enough.
We stepped up our game on the last two nights and found some chinese in Chinatown which was a welcome change, followed by a Swedish restaurant which was delicious - fine dining at $15 per head. I was battling an upset tummy by this stage so I was grateful for some food I could look at without feeling sick.
Cuba's history is repressed and unfortunately quite dyer at times. A fascinating read if you have the time, and offers a bit of insight into the above - famine and governement induced economic depression. Surprisingly, Castro even admits to making a few bad decisions.
Perhaps I'm spoiled but in my opinion Cuba is only for the intrepid traveller. The cultural shock and intrigue wears off after a few days and the inbetween is a battle a lot of time. If I were to do it again, I'd start in Havanna, spend less time there and spend more time in the country visiting the natural beauty.
If I haven't put you off, here a few tips I wish I had recieved prior to arriving in the tobacco capital:
- Do you research beforehand. Plan your route, research your destinations and book your flights.
Accommodation, buses and taxis are easy enough to get when you're there if you know where to look.
- Triposo App is worth it's weight in gold, offline too!
- Book buses as early as you can, they often sell out.
- Learn some spanish.
- Bring with you all your favourite treats.
That's Cuba done and dusted. An empty, delayed and very short flight later, we were in the americanised metropolis of Cancun. Stomach status: on the rise. Happy days!Read more