A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba

Vedado

I woke up and showered. The water wasn't cold or hot, and it felt great, although there was a bit of a pressure problem. But Nancy said that they'd fix it. She made me a HUGE breakfast. I couldn't eat it all. The omelet was tasty. The fruit salad was tasty, even though they weren't my favorite fruits. The fresh guyaba juice was delicious, which was a surprise because I don't usually like it that much. Then, out came a sandwich, that was also good. But I was stuffed at this point and mostly downed it to not be wasteful. When the bananas came out, I wanted to try them, but at the same time wanted to be able to walk. Tomorrow... Today's rough plan is to see the non-downtown things, and then see where I end up. I started by walking along the Malecon to the park. The parks here are sort of half plaza half park in that there is a lot more pavement than greenery, but there's still plenty of benches to chill on. I walked around the neighborhood in that direction (Vedado) and enjoyed the less-touristy area. Classic cars are not just for tourists. You find them on every street, driven by normal people. I noticed that the movie theater was showing Dr. Strange and a Spanish comedy. On the one hand, I'm surprised they had an American movie. On the other hand, Dr. Strange left theaters by me months ago. I stumbled upon a more touristy area, or at least I'm guessing so because I passed the Zorro y Cuervo club, which is relatively famous, and a street craft fair. I stopped to investigate and talked to some of the Cuban artists. One of the painters was really good, but it's a bit early to be picking up souvenirs. Lots of the stands had carvings that showed off both skill and a Cuban heritage. What I didn't see was a bunch of plastic crap made in China. I recommend it as a good place to get gifts to bring home and support the Cuban people. I passed by the synagogue to see what it looked like, and ended up talking to some of the community. (One lady has a son living not too far from me!) I had arrived just before services start (10am), so I went to services. The building itself is modern but sparse, so there's not a lot of busy-ness to examine during the service, but the service didn't leave me bored or feeling the lack of decoration. The community is great. The community is egalitarian and inclusive. They call up groups of people for each aliyah, so by the end of the 7th, everybody has been called, including guests and foreigners (including me). The service is relatively traditional- they use prayers and melodies similar to everywhere in the world, but with a Spanish accent on their Hebrew. A couple of teens led a lot of the service, and their voices were beautiful. This was one of the nicest synagogue services I've been to in a long time. From there, I walked back towards the Malecon. I was interested in eating at what looked like a cross between a street fair and a stereotypical boardwalk joint, but they didn't have food that was vegetarian. The guy there directed me to a different restaurant across the way. It was half filled with tourists and half with Cubans, so I figured it must be ok. Like last night, the food was plentiful, if not particularly flavorful. I guess spices are not cheap or plentiful here, so they probably don't know what to do with them, they way most people wouldn't know how to cook escargot where I live. Taking the Malecon back, I passed several monuments. One had a plaque for revolutionary martyrs from all over the world. Another was for the victims of the boat bombing that started the Spanish American War. I also passed the "American offices." There is no official embassy here, because of the bad relationship between the governments, but there are some buildings where Cubans can go to get visas or to protest the latest USA interference abroad. I wonder if chatting a bit with the guard in the police box counts as a "people to people" interaction. Certainly, stopping at a street baseball game should. A bunch of guys were playing in what appeared to be an old open stadium. I stopped to watch for a bit. Most of Havana consists of small colonial or art deco houses, with a smattering of apartment buildings. But one building stands out. The National Hotel is a gorgeous building that looks more like it belongs in run-down Disney world than in Havana. By this time, the sun was scorching. I needed to refresh my sunscreen and sit in the air conditioning for a few minutes, so I took a quick break at the casa. I didn't have time to get to Fusterlandia and back, but I did have time to run some errands. I purchased some overpriced birthday candles at what appeared to be a huge pinata store. But the pinatas weren't the tissue-papered Mexican kind. They were more solid and Cuban. Following their directions, I headed downtown to pick up a cake to go with the candles. On the way, I stopped in to several shops that took CUP and were designed for Cubans. Many reminded me of old fashioned general stores. The items stood on shelves behind a counter and the clerk would retrieve them. Another was a government store. It was set up like a standard grocery store, but each aisle had about 5 products. There were no choices of brands. You want oil? Great. This aisle has 10 feet of shelf space for oil, but there is only one type. You want spaghetti? Fine. 15 feet of shelf space. But if you want pasta in a different shape, you're out of luck. They basically had soft drinks, bottled water, spaghetti, breakfast cereal, oil, and about 10 other things in the whole store, even though it was a sizeable supermarket. For vegetables and fruits, it appears that Cubans use street markets. I passed several produce stands selling a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables. I also popped into a neat used book store. It was lucky that I had CUP (moneda nacional) on me, because they only took that and not CUC. Finally, I reached my goal-the patisserie by the Inglaterra hotel. It's reasonably priced, and they packed me a cake to go. I walked back and realized that my friend was due to arrive soon, so I decided not to head back out. I opened the balcony door of the casa and sat outside reading. After a while, I finished one of the books I was reading and started people watching. I saw some neighbors painting a gate. I waved to some of the other neighbors who waved to me. I watched an apparently-drunk guy attempt to put on shoes. Eventually, Nancy, Jesus and Jorge came out to wait with me and street watch as well, but they went back in after a while. After several hours of waiting, I decided to try Murphy and go get food. Surely, as soon as I left, she'd arrive. I ventured out for peso pizza. I asked some Cubans on the street where to get good pizza, and they directed me to The Italian. This is a take-out counter decorated in a manner reminiscent of a Jersey diner. A guy takes your order for either pizza or pasta. If you order pasta for there, he plops down a plastic plate full of pasta, sauce, and the local cheese. You eat it while you stand out in the street, and then return the plate. If you want it to go, you need to bring your own plastic containers and he'll have them loaded up for you. If you order pizza, he plops down your personal-pan sized pizza on a sheet of standard paper, and hands that to you. Unless of course, you ordered several pizzas to go. Then, he puts each on the paper, folds them taco-style, and then rolls each so that they fit nicely into a plastic bag. The process is actually quite fun to watch. Plus, the food is cheap. It is designed for locals, so the prices are in CUP (moneda nacional) instead of CUC (convertible money aka tourist money). My pizza with onion on top was 18 pesos- about 70 cents. The food isn't anything special. The tomato sauce used for the pizza and pasta is just tomatoes- no spices, not even garlic. The cheese is the one type of generic white cheese that is all you can get here. But, it's no worse than the food at the more expensive places, and the crust is quite good. I returned to the casa with my dripping-with-grease paper roll. I figured that surely, I would be able to share. No. I ate it by myself and then started to worry. Nancy tried calling the airline for me to see if the flight was delayed, but the line was repeatedly busy. I decided to suck it up and pay for internet. She told me where they had a stand for internet connectivity down the block. When I was close, I asked a random guy where I could get some wifi connection. He assured me that his friend had the hookup. At first, I was doubtful and concerned about shady dealings, but decided that I was desperate. His friend took my phone, entered a password, and my phone magically showed that I had wifi connection. It wasn't super fast and many pages didn't want to load, but ultimately, I was able to confirm that my friend was not in the USA and that her flight was a bit delayed, but not drastically. I returned to the casa half in a panic. I was elated to find that she had arrived ok and Nancy was checking her in. Phew. She was starving, so we walked up the Malecon, looking for a restaurant. The only one that appealed to her was Abadia, so that's where I ate again. However, tonight, I got the sandwich (not very good). She ordered exactly what I had ordered the night before, but it was pretty different. For one thing, my rice was red and hers was yellow. I guess they use what they have and what they have changes daily. Afterward, we stopped at some of the multiple block parties. Every few blocks along the Malecon, a street party entertained the locals. Each had live music, a food tent, and dancing. We stopped briefly at a couple, and then stopped to listen at the one close to the casa. As we tapped our feet to the beat, an older man named Franklin came and chatted with us. He asked us to dance and my friend ended up dancing while I held her bag. But then, a guy named Hermes came and danced with me, both our bags flying everywhere. At some point, the band stopped and recorded music started. Both guys were talking to us and making friends. It was quite funny. Hermes would speak rapid Spanish to my friend who doesn't speak Spanish. She'd give him a blank stare. He would turn to me and say it slower. I would translate to English. She would attempt to answer the question in her almost nonexistent Spanish, and I or Hermes would correct every other word. Then, repeat. After a while, we had to decide whether to turn in or stay out and drink. You can say we're old, but really, I'm just not a people person. I had people-to-peopled enough today.

Classic Car

Classic Car


Inside Synagogue

Inside Synagogue


Monument

Monument


Baseball game

Baseball game


Book store

Book store


Street party

Street party


Gathering at Pizza Place

Gathering at Pizza Place


Hotel Nacional

Hotel Nacional


Craft fair

Craft fair

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Welcome to Havana

I had this exit row seat with infinite legroom, but no window, so I didn't get my first view of Cuba until I got off the plane. My first impression was "standard Caribbean." The airport area was hot, green, and flat in a way that reminded me of the St. Kitts airport, but this was much bigger. (I was briefly reminded that I miss St. Kitts, though.) The airport looks old (and probably is), but it functioned. I quickly made it through immigration and customs (no checked bag) and found myself in the arrivals hall, surrounded by the usual people holding signs for their pickups. I saw no signs of an ATM or money changer, which was unusual, so I asked information. I went outside to a guarded booth with a long line and waited. The guard was only letting 2 people up to the desk at a time and I felt pretty comfortable and safe there. Behind the desk, two Cubans sat and chatted per booth. I'm not sure what the role of the second was- maybe checking the first or keeping her company- but they chatted the whole time. The lady working the counter didn't say a word to me. I just slid my Euros across the counter to the changer and received my CUC. It's not like there was really another transaction option. The nice part was that they don't charge a change fee like the money changers at most airports. Also, the difference in the "buy" and "sell" rates was relatively small, and there was no fee for changing. I appreciate that they give a fair deal, even though they're the government monopoly. I tried to split a taxi with a couple of Americans I had chatted with in line, but they were heading elsewhere. Instead, I was able to share with a Swiss guy who regularly visits Cuba. I didn't save a lot by splitting the taxi, but it was something. The taxi pulled right up to my casa particulare. This is the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. It's somebody's home, but they have extra rooms, so they rent them out. Casa Villa Azul, mine, was located in a residential neighborhood in old Havana, right by the Malecon- a perfect location. The outside looks just as old as the rest of the area, but the inside is well-maintained and comfortable. I use the word "old" and not "run down" because that's really what it is. It's not that people have abused their homes or that nature has triumphed, it's just that the homes haven't received the cosmetic TLC that they would have elsewhere. Nothing is covered in graffiti or looks vandalized, it's just a bit crumbly. It's still functional- I didn't see boarded up windows, for example- they just don't put painting it pretty as a priority (for good reason). I climbed the stairs to the casa- this one is all second floor, no elevator, sorry- and was greeted by Nancy and her son Jesus. They were very nice and accommodating. We spoke Spanish, although Nancy knows some English. When I can separate my Hebrew out, my Spanish is decent. I just kept having to correct myself so that my sentences weren't half Spanish, half Hebrew. Check in was official- passport forms, and signatures. I'm sure they have to keep good books in order to keep their government permit. She explained the place to me- breakfast is 5 CUC, hot water takes a minute (like most homes), here is the AC remote, which key is what. It was all very standard. The room itself was very classic Spanish colonial. It reminded me of a room we had in Lima. The ceilings were very tall- double "normal" height. The windows were tall, opening into the "courtyard" of the house. The room and bathroom were well-maintained- very clean, fresh paint, nothing broken, solid furniture, toilet seat on the toilet. This is much nicer than the Cuba I read about in the guidebooks. I got settled, and Nancy gave me some suggestions. Then, I headed out. I walked along the Malecon (the "boardwalk" equivalent). This was a popular spot for sitting, probably due to the great view and the sea breeze. Several Cuban kids asked me for money as I passed. Some guys whistled or made comments that would be considered rude in the states, but my understanding is that they are closer in intent to the "compliments" guys give in St. Kitts. I passed a lot of tourists. What I didn't pass was a ton of restaurants. With the amazing view of the sea, any other country would have a ton of restaurants lining the Malecon. But not here. It seemed mostly residential. I did find one restaurant, Abadia. It had 3 long tables, and people just came in, self-seated, and sat with whoever. I ended up near a friendly American who said that she had eaten here thrice already, so I felt comfortable that it was safe. The service is Caribbean slow combined with European hands-off. You have to flag the one waiter down to ask for a menu, and then it takes a while to arrive. You have to flag him down to order. Like many Caribbean places, you have to ask what they do have today, because they don't have most of their menu. You wait for the food, and again have to flag the waiter down for the bill at the end. For somebody unused to the way European waiters never initiate a table visit or somebody unused to the Caribbean speed, it could have been frustrating. I ended up with a veggies and rice dish that wasn't even on the menu (but was good), and a Cuban orange soda that tasted just like Fanta. Originally, I had been offered Sprite and Coke, but I asked for Cuban, and this is what they had. I walked back to my casa in the dark, but the streets were lit and there were a ton of people hanging out, so it felt very safe. Many of the people still out were teens who were sitting in parks, staring at their phones. My understanding is that the parks have wifi. While it's slow, expensive, and regulated, since people don't have internet at home, this is where they all come to use the web. I'm not sure what they have the bandwidth to do, but the teens in the park here are just as glued to their phones as teens around the world.

Malecon

Malecon


View from Casa

View from Casa

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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