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Day 7: Last night in Havana | www.ed-rex.com

Day 7: Last night in Havana

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Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Image: Photo of block tourist map of Cuba, logo for Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 7: Cocotaxi, Habana Vieja & a '56 Ford Fairlane (sort of)

(And plumbing, redux)

Image: Photo of statue in Old Havana portraying a very fat Don Quixote riding his burro
A statue of the Man of la Mancha, somewhere in Habana Vieja.

Hola! Hotel Nacional!

December 20, 2015, Havana, Cuba — We woke up determined to give the Old City another chance. Seeing it dog-tired yesterday, after sunset and in the rain really didn't do it justice. Especially considering Havana's less-than-First-World street-lighting.

But first, we needed food!

Image: Photo of entrance to the Hotel Nacional
The Hotel Nacional on a wet and windy morning.

Our Canadian contacts had all insisted we must experience the Hotel Nacional while we were in Havana, and so we decided to see what they had on offer for breakfast, despite its fancy facade.

The Nacional is newer by about 20 years than Ottawa's Château Laurier but looks like an architectural sibling. It's a bit more eye-catching from the outside and extremely similar once you pass through its doors. (It is, after all, a great big hotel, now I think of it.)

Where the Nacional really shines is in its grounds looking out over the Malecón and out to the Caribbean. Even in the drizzle that marred our visit, it was kind of spectacular.

Image: Photo of the sea, with Havana at right, seen from rear of the Hotel Nacional
The Hotel Nacional's grounds, looking out on the Caribbean on a wet and windy morning.

Much less so was the breakfast we endured ate.

Pizza is everywhere in Cuba. At least, signs advertising pizza are everywhere, but after my encounter with espaguetis in Santa Clara, I wasn't in a big hurry to sample Cuba's version of it.

On the other hand, the Hotel Nacional's breakfast menu was either pricey or unappealing, or both. So when Raven, no great fan of pizza in the first place, suggested we try it, who was I to argue?

Image: Photo of the author preparing to demolish a pizza at the Hotel Nacional
Hungry Young Geoffrey is hungry.

I thought a relatively cheese-light and garlic- and basil-heavy pie might be to her liking, so we ordered it.

Well ...

I want to say it was the very worst pizza I've ever had, but in truth, it was edible. The cheese was probably grated from one of the packages we saw yesterday at the Americana grocery store — it sure didn't taste like any mozzarella (never mind chêvre) I've ever tried, and if there was any basis or garlic in the sauce why were unable to detect it.

Possibly the most famous eatery in Havana; our worst meal since that dive in Santa Clara.

Image: Photo of sculpture of woman in Hotel Nacional hall, left; painting of Don Quixote, right.
Samples of the art on view at the Hotel Nacional.

Ah well, calories are calories. More amused than appalled, we paid and left the dining room to wander around the hotel a bit, more, admiring photos and paintings, before heading back out into the daylight (if not the sunlight; drizzle and rain would be a constant threat and occasional companion for the rest of the day).

Image: Photo of the entrance to the Hotel Nacional, from inside.
View from where the other half live.

Cocotaxi ho!

Image: Photo of a Cocotaxi stand near the Malecon in Havana.
Suuuure they're safe!

Undeterred by stronger winds and more rain than we endured yesterday — strong enough to close the Malecón to traffic again — we negotiated a fare with the driver of a "Coco taxi", a fibreglass-bodied three-wheeler that carries two passengers as they belch black smoke into Havana's filthy air. But there's no doubt they are, as Raven puts it, "Cute" as hell.

Image: Photo of the author at the controls of a Cocotaxi.
(Oh well, what the hell...)

Turns out the Coco Taxi is an under-powered beast (I'm guessing no more than 150 CCs), and so the ride was a lot less scary than I'd feared it might be. Actually, it was fun! The driver proved an enthusiastic guide about the territory we were covered (even if we walked much of it yesterday). [Author's note, January 11, 2016: Wikipedia advises the auto rickshaw's engines are actually half my guess: 75ccs, closer to lawn-mowers than what we in the first world think of as motorcycles.]

La Habana Vieja

We debarked at the ancient Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a Spanish fort which faces the vast fortress on the eastern side of Havana's harbour.

Image: Photo of Castillo de la Real Fuerza seen from the entrance.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza dates to 1577 and was a pointless boondoggle right from the start.

It's a well-maintained relic of an imperialism long past, boasting real coins and relics (gold and silver bullion, coins, jewellery, etc) brought up from sunken wrecks in recent years as well as some well-made educational models.

Though it's a small walk through the past as these things go, we didn't begrudge the 3 CUC entrance fee. A couple of rooms in we came upon the treasure room, and were then approached by one of the guides, dressed in the standard green and white government uniform, who pointed to the sign forbidding photography and whispered that she would make sure we wouldn't get caught.

Image: Photo of chest filled with Spanish silver coins.
Real treasure chest, real treasure.

Besides providing cover for Raven's surreptitious picture-taking, she proved knowledgeable about the artifacts on display. These included, apparently, real sunken treasures, recently brought to light. A god damned fortune was in that room if she was telling the truth; and now I think of it, I wonder if she was. Fort or not, the place wasn't noticeably well-guarded.

Culture-shock set in once we'd finished the tour of the small diptych of rooms. "Did you enjoy the tour?" she asked us near the door.

Yes, we did. "Perhaps you would like to ... contribute something to show your appreciation?"

I don't think I need to tell you I don't expect to tip tour guides at the ROM, but Raven was experienced enough to cover for my surprise. She took out a couple of CUCs and gave them to the woman. "Nothing comes free," she said to me later.

All things considered, a sobering reminder that the salaries paid for official jobs in Cuba are 20 or 30 CUCs per month.

Image: Photo of Havana's harbour taken from roof of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.
Havana's harbour, see from the roof of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

Anyway, from there we climbed to the roof and had a good look both at the narrow entrance to Havana's port. Even a landlubber such as myself can easily see what made Havana an important city. We were there on a very windy day, and the waters inland barely did more than ripple.

But I started off on the subject of the state of Cuba's toilets, and to that fetid subject I must now return. Keep in mind, that I am now talking about our experience at the outer edge of Havana's Old City, right next to ancient fort of striking beauty (if you like ancient forts). In other words, tourist areas don't come much more fucking prime than maybe Saint Peter's Square or the Parthenon.

Image: Photo of Calle Obispo, Old Havana
Calle Obispo, facing the Old City.

To make a long story short, by the time we'd finished wandering around the Castillo, we were hungry.

We wandered through the Plaza de Armas, an open square bordered by old buildings turned restaurants and bars, with vendors selling old books and jewellery — tourist junk — at the edge of the grassy centre.

After some debate, we settled on a pretty fancy-looking, government-run restaurant, Café al Cappuccino Habana: patios inside and out, with peacocks roaming the inner.

Image: Photo of a peacock in Cafe al Cappucino's interior patio.
Always contrasts in Havana. A peacock roams the inner patio of the Café al Cappuccino Habana while a confused patron looks on.

The food was more or less what we have learned to expect from the state-run restaurants: bland and short on condiments — apparently salsa was in short supply in the old town this afternoon. But with portions were substantial the bill at the end was pretty cheap at CUC 10.65.

But if the food was mediocre, the bathroom was worse.

Image: Photo of the urinal at Cafe al Cappucino', blocked by cardboard.
The urinal at the Café al Cappuccino Habana.

Once again a doorward sat sentry, a wicker basket containing a sort of handkerchief and a few coins on a table near her. No sign indicated a price. Raven went first and reported that this was the worst one yet.

No door on the stall; par for the course. No toilet seat; as normal. No toilet paper? Check? A bowl full of un-flushed shit? Absolutely! Leaver to flush? Er, no. Running water in the sink? You're joking, right?

Mine was similar, though the bowl was clear of feces and the tank was covered. In that there was a button in the centre which might have been a flushing mechanism, but I wasn't going to test it with hand un-gloved.

There was a bar of soap by the sink but, when I made the mistake of turning the knob well ... it turned, but of water none was forthcoming.

Thank god Raven had had the foresight to bring a bottle of hand-sanitizer on our trip!

Image: Photo of a long pile of bricks blocking part of a road in Old Havana.
A pile of bricks in the Old City, no indication of why they are there.

I harp on the state of the toilets here because it is a such a fundamental public good in what I think of as a civilized society. Even the crappiest restaurants in Canada usually have a roll of toilet paper somewhere nearby, and all of them have seats. (Okay, almost all of them. But those one-pump rural gas stations are going extinct pretty quick.)

I'd heard of similar (and worse) horror stories from the Soviet Union and Raven, who in her youth visited various parts of mainland China with her family, told me that the Cuban toilets were nothing compared with what she remembered from her ancestral regions.

What strikes me though, is the common factor of the attendants, who stand guard asking payment for, basically, no service at all.

What is it about "socialist" societies that they can't provide such basic necessities? I've asked before: Why can Cuba provide its citizens with free education from kindergarten through university, but not safe drinking water or a shitter that flushes?

And again, my disbelief is so strong because we were in the heart of a tourist area.


Image: Photo of two black women enjoying a pipe and a cigar in Old Havana.
Two local women enjoy a smoke in Habana Vieja.

Old Havana is a lot like the other Old places I've been. Old Montreal, Old Québec, Old San Francisco ... and er, well, that's about it, I guess. I'm not actually all that well-travelled.

But I'm starting to think that four might be enough. After a certain point, narrow cobblestone streets and European-style buildings dating back three or four hundred years start to look a lot the same, kind of like one modern city's shopping district looks a hell of a lot like another's.

Image: Photo of street in Old Havana.
Tourists explore a street in Habana Vieja.

If anything, Old Havana seems more "authentic" than the other three because it looks like a lot of "normal" people still live in it, making their lives in the flats and apartments above the restaurants, bars and gift shops that dominate the street level.

Image: Photo of building in Old Havana. Street-level features trendy cafe, 2nd floor a run-down apartment.
Contrasts abound in Habana Vieja.

The other thing that distinguishes Old Havana from Old Québec is that so much of Havana's Old City (much like the rest of it) is practically in ruins. Long stretches of street have been dug up and not filled in, others have big piles of bricks with no sign that any work is being done any time soon. And some of the buildings look utterly derelict.

Image: Photo of ruined building looming over Old Havana.
A ruin looms over Habana Vieja.

But in the end, as a tourist, who cares?

After a certain point, old buildings are old buildings. Whether they are crumbling piles begging condemnation or magnificent edifices handsomely restored towards some glorious future separating tourists from their money, that is the prime reason for their existence, a function not so different from that of a casino or a rub-and-tug massage parlour.

Speaking strictly from my own aesthetic, I'd rather wander through a slightly newer barrio, such as that we touched upon yesterday in Havana's Centro, where the people live their lives within their own economy, and not one built to service foreigners.

Image: Photo of pedestrians in Old Havana.
A woman points out a sight in Habana Vieja.

All that said, if you like just looking at old buildings in various states of repair — from the derelict to the buffed — then Old Havana is your town. Doubly-so if your taste in music tends to saccharine, fully-pasteurized and mostly acoustic jazz.

Sorry. Sometimes even the best of us feel compelled to snark.

Back to Detroit (by way of Seoul)

It started to rain in earnest as night came on and we decided neither to find a bar in which to to wait it out (Raven doesn't drink) nor to damn the rain drops and walk (again!) from the old city to the new(er).

Since Raven had fulfilled her fantasy of a ride in a Cocotaxi, I opted to exercise mine and insisted we return "home" in the comfort of one the living fossils that prowl Havana's streets.

Our first try was a 51 Buick, all baby blue curves. We told the driver where we wanted to go and asked for a quote.

Image: Photo of taxi stand in Old Havana.
A taxi-stand on the edge of Habana Vieja.

20 CUCs, he said.

Raven and I both laughed, rain or no, and just waved him off. Yesterday's 7 CUC ride back from the Viazul terminal was at least as from from Abby's Place as the Old City. So we passed on to the next car. I pointed to the spot on our map and asked how much.

The driver said 10 CUCs. Raven and I glanced at each other briefly, considering: pissing rain; tourist district. Yup. Sounds good enough.

I started for the door, but the driver waved me off, pointed to the next car down the line. A '56 Ford Fairlanee (I learned later; I'm not the sort of car buff who can cite model and year. "Old car" is close enough for me.)

We circled behind to the next vehicle. This one came with a driver and a young side-kick who rode shot-gun and spoke pretty good English. He couldn't have been more than 23 or 24 years old. He roused himself from the back seat and beckoned for us to enter, before he hopped into the front.

How much, we asked, double-checking? Still 10 CUCs, so we grinned and said let's go!

The kid riding shot-gun told he's working towards a diploma in teaching English, which helps to explain his facility with the language. He was also the best (almost the only, admittedly) guide we've encountered on our travels. We learned more from him about the state of Cuba today than we have over the past five days. (It really is strange to go somewhere and not speak the language; and those who tell you that "almost everyone" in Cuba speaks English have obviously spent almost all their time in resorts or with tour groups.)

Image: Photo of our taxi driver and translator.
Inside a '56 Ford Fairlane.

Most interesting to me, was to learn Cubans no longer need to get an exit visa to leave the country and haven't had to for some time. "We don't need an exit visa," said our informant, "but most countries won't give us an entry visa. Because we know many of us would stay. We can make more money elsewhere."

Which explains something the language barrier stopped me from pursuing with our host in Santa Clara. How were you able to visit Sweden?, as he had said that he'd done in the recent past. I now guess that he explained to the Swedish authorities that he was leaving behind a wife, a child, and a business.

We also learned that, like a lot of the old cars trundling along Havana's roads, the Ford Fairlanee in which we were ensconced was a bit of a sham. Under the hood was a (relatively) late-model diesel engine built by Hyundai, as was the the transmission and rear differential (whatever that is!).

Image: Photo of Young Geoffrey standing behind VERY old car this morning.
Authentic under the hood or another Hyundai?

He said that a lot of the cars one sees are in fact still more or less originals, but that it gets harder and harder to find parts, given the 50 and 60+ years of the vehicles and the U.S. economic embargo [Author's note: now in its 56th year].

And that's it, really. I'm typing this at a bar a couple of blocks from Abby's Place while Raven takes a nap.

It's another state-run establishment, now competing with the restaurante particulares which have been springing up since private enterprise was opened up about six years ago.

It feels like a neighbourhood bar. Dark, cozy, TVs playing bland fucking videos. But of the two domestic beers that seem to be available in this country — Bucanero Fuerte and Cristal — only Bucanero is available. Naturally.

I'm reminded of something my father said to me many years ago, to the effect that, were he to somehow become Chairman of a People's Republic, he'd make damned sure that any and every state-run enterprise would have at least one state-run competitor, so that each would keep the other honest.

And with that, I'm off to return "home" to find out where my darling Raven wants to dine on this, our last night in Havana.

Image: Photo of Young Geoffrey smiling in expectation of supper.
Author's Note, January 11, 2016: That's me, at another restaurante particular, hoping for one last culinary Happy Havana Surprise. Though this place was only a building or two away from the marvellous Cafe Laurent, the meal I got here was awful. I nibbled at the vegetables and left the meat on the plate, preferring a handful of nuts to keep me going when we got home.


Next up: Day 8 – A hovel in the lap of luxury

Previous: Day 6 – From slum to Old Town!

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