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Many Adventures of a Nomadic Poet A young poet with Asperger's makes travel his passion, and away he goes...

'50s Time Capsule

CUBA | Wednesday, 21 October 2009 | Views [2600]

National Geographic shot

National Geographic shot

When I first landed in Cuba, I must admit I was a little bit scared. In the "address in Cuba" I wrote the address of a casa particular that I had no intentions of staying at. Since I'm American I had to ask the customs official not to stamp my passport (which they normally don't stamp anyway unless you ask). The odd thing about going through customs here is that the officials smoke inside and everyone is wearing masks; presumably because of swine flu. An official interviewed me (likely since I'm American) and then searched my bag top to bottom, wondering why I had the mouthwash the dentist prescribed to me and then writing down every phone number I had on a piece of paper that I had (phone numbers in Cuba, Costa Rica, New Zealand, etc.). They must've been thinking that I was plotting to overthrow Raul. Ugh, I was fed up afterward. When I went to the waiting area I exchanged some money, getting 66 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) for 50 euros. The CUC is the highest-valued peso unit. Following David's instructions, I was looking around for the bus stop to catch the La Conexion to Rancho Boyeros. The taxi drivers were heckling me, telling me there are no buses (the same thing happened in Costa Rica). When I asked where the bus stop was, the woman asked to see my reservation for a casa particular but I just told her that I didn't print it. Anyways, a man pointed out the bus and I ran to get it. Incredibly the driver refused payment when I tried to pay him! With a busload of Cubans I was enjoying my first sights of Cuba. Painted on the walls are all manner of messages defending socialism, saluting Fidel and Che, etc. A few minutes up the road I had to get on another bus. A few old cars passed me by and then the bus came. It was so full I could barely fit inside the bus with my huge backpack. The bus was jam-packed with high school students and the first thing that I noticed (and this surprised me) is that it seemed that all of them had iPods stuck in their ears; that's surprising after always hearing about food shortages and poverty in Cuba. I really had no idea where I was going and it seemed that the bus was driving around in circles. As the bus went into Havana, I didn't know where I was until I saw the Jose Martí Memorial; then I had an idea because I had a map in my Lonely Planet guide. One of these days I have to stop travelling with Lonely Planets. When I got to Ave Salvador Allende I got off the bus. It was blasting hot so I immediately got an ice cream cone for 1 peso (0.04 US cents) and received my change in moneda nacional, or pesos cubano as Cubans call it. On my map was comtemplating going to Lisdey's or Angie's, so I ultimately decided to walk to Lisdey's house because she's very close to the Malecón. She's charging me 15 CUC per night to stay, and Angie said he wouldn't charge me to stay. As I walked I saw a man working under the hood of his vintage Lada.

If you look under some of the cars in Havana, or Cuba for that matter, you're likely to see cardboard, coathangers, guitar string, and just about anything possible improvised to keep a vehicle running. Americans get angry if they get so much as a scratch in their shiny Mercedes Benz, yet Cubans are driving around in vehicles that are often older than the owners themselves. Jineteros where bugging me trying to lead me to a casa particular but I ignored them and made my way toward Lisdey's apartment. She lives on like the fifth floor of an apartment block. High-rise living quarters seem to be common in Cuba as they are in many other communist countries. Lisdey's cousin is visiting from Miami and he told me about life in Cuba, pointing out that I probably have more money on me than what Lisdey makes in 4 or 5 years. He's probably right as Cubans make only about 15 CUC per month. However, there are a lot of countries in this world where people don't make much. Personally I don't think it's that the rest of the world has nothing; it's that Americans are a bunch of spoiled brats. That evening, Lisdey and I decided to go for a walk along the Malecón. The Malecón is to Havana just like the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It's an 8 km seawall built years and years ago. We went for a nice, long walk and I got a hot dog at a cart for about 30 cents. Locals hang out up here drinking rum, playing dominó or just chatting the night away. My first night in Havana has been quite an experience. It's more beautiful than what a lot of Americans think about. Since it's technically illegal for Cubans to host foreigners for free, I couldn't speak to Lisdey while in the hallways of her apartment building for fear that someone may denounce her to the police. Lisdey and I just hung out in her tiny apartment. There's an old TV, a fan without a cage, and the kitchen counter was in need of some re-tiling. There isn't much food in the refrigerator; it's mostly bottles of water. For dinner Lisdey made some mashed potatoes, which were alright. After making a cup of tea for each of us, I took a cold shower and then lie down...

The next day I got up to go for a stroll. Washing up and getting ready to hit the Malecón again. Finally I've found a city free of visual pollution: no McDonald's, Starbucks, or giant parking lots. No neon lighting! Is this another planet called Cuba? During my walk I was having trouble trying to find a place to grab a bite to eat. Very few restaurants in Cuba serve breakfast; your only real chance is if you stay at a hotel or casa particular. Walking all the way to Habana Vieja, I got a coconut full of water and then walked over to Catedral de San Cristobal, the cathedral that's all over images of La Habana (in Cuba it's "La Habana" and in the U.S. it's "Havana").

Filling out a postcard for Teressa I had jineteros bugging me but I didn't listen to them; instead I listened to some locals playing music nearby. For the first few days of my trip I have to watch my money carefully because as an American I couldn't have my father wire me any and I can't use any American credit card. In a worst case situation I'd have my father (or a friend) drive to Mexico and wire money from there but knock on wood that never happens! As I strolled around the Plaza de Armas I saw a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who is one of the pioneers of Cuban independence. Cuba became independent from Spain in 1898. There are many statues of Céspedes and of José Martí but I hear there are no statues of Fidel, which is rather uncommon of a communist country. There are thousands of statues of Lenin in Russia and of Kim Il-Sung in the DPRK. As I continued my walk I saw a man who looked very familiar to me. In taking a closer look at him I realized he's on the cover of Cuba's Lonely Planet! He even had the book next to him (I'm assuming someone gave it to him). Before I get home I may have to get rid of my Lonely Planet book. As I was looking at it, I wandered to a place that I was eventually fall in love with: El Museo del Chocolate. There I got a fabulous hot chocolate for about 50 cents. Very good it was! Chocolate, in my opinion, is good for the soul. On calle Obispo I was; one of Habana Vieja's most popular streets (tourist-wise), I got one of the ubiquitous peso pizzas. It tasted OK, filling myself up before continuing my "walk through time". Havana isn't just a journey around the world, it's a journey back in time. It's seriously like it's still 1959 while the rest of the world is in 2009. Walking the full length of Obispo I turned left onto Calle Prado. El Capitolio was where I stopped next; it's modelled after the nation's capital in Washington DC. Situated next to the Capitol is the striking Gran Teatro. It's a very beautiful building with angels on the roof. Classic yank tanks line the street in front of these two buildings; their owners herding tourists in for photos to make some cash. As I walked down Avenida Maximo Gomez toward Angie's house I made my way out of the touristy Habana Vieja and into the dilapidated Centro Habana. As I sat down for a minute in a park a jinetero was bothering me. The best thing to do is just pretend you're deaf and don't even look up at them. Looking at where Angie lives on the map, before I got to Cuba, I was thinking of (as an American) a well-manicured lawn with rosebushes. Angie and his family live in Cerro, which is an area of Havana that is totally off-the-beaten path for most tourists. Just a few blocks from Angie's house, I wandered into an agropecuario, getting some fruit. I was so excited to finally meet Angie! He lives in a three-story block with no yard whatsoever. In fact the only flora I saw were a couple of potted plants on the porch. Angie and I chatted for a bit. He speaks very little English so I had to hone my Spanish skills with him. Tonight I'm staying at Lisdey's again but I told Angie I'd come stay with him and his family tomorrow. Shelling out 15 or 20 CUC every night can get pricey. Knowing someone in Cuba is the best way to save money but it's a bit risky because Cubans are officially not allowed to host foreigners for free. If you don't know anyone you'll almost always have to stay in a casa particular, which in Habana can cost anywhere from 15-35 CUC per night, although they're usually about 25 CUC. Some of the street food here in La Habana is quite good. Cuba is not renowned for it's cuisine. It's OK; definitely not on par with Italian, Ethiopian, or Indian, but it's OK. Angie walked with me to the bus stop so I wouldn't have to walk like 4 km back to Lisdey's. In Havana it's easy to walk so much that your feet will hurt, so bring some good walking shoes and a big bottle of water and you'll be set. In French, Havana is "La Havane". So, we have Havana (English), La Habana (Spanish), and La Havane (French). The bus, called a guagua (pronounced like wa-wa) was packed solid again but I was back at Lisdey's house in no time. There I hung out for a bit before going for another famed night Havana walk. Along the Malecón I walked, getting a hot dog. This young Cubano I was chatting with told me he feels like a slave to Fidel and Raul. As a result, I was beginning to wonder if my hypothesis was untrue. In a way I felt like a slave under George W. Bush. The Malecón is something special! Cubans are up here, happy-go-lucky. My friend Al told me that Cubans live longer than Americans because there's no stress. It's easy to believe despite the fact that Cuban food is very heavily fat-loaded and it seems that 90% of the population smokes. As I was chatting with these guys they asked me if I could buy them a bottle of rum but I left all my money at Lisdey's apartment. Someone else up there asked if I was gay. A girl in the U.S. told me that Fidel forces electric shock on homosexuals but based on what I observed at the Malecón tonight it seems that Cuba has a thriving gay scene. Lisdey, for example, is a lesbian. However I don't want to get involved in any of that stuff because I feel that homosexuality is a choice. Anyways, Cubans are aficionados when it comes to chess, so I walked past a number of people playing. With their timers, these young men were taking their game very seriously. As much as I wanted to join in for a game, I wanted to get back to the apartment and hang out with Lisdey because I'm going to be leaving tomorrow and staying at Angie's house.

After a few days in Viñales I made my "triumphant" return to Havana. Going through the tough neighbourhood of Mariano, I was dropped off at the guagua stop. From there I got on a bus to David's house. He wasn't home when I dropped by but Teresita was. She let me have a vaso de agua y jugo de guayaba (guava juice). Ahhh it's very good after a long day of hitchhiking. Next up I might head to Santa Clara because I really want to go to Che's mausoleum. When I was finished I got on a really packed guagua and headed toward the Malecon and Habana Vieja. Tomorrow I'd like to go to the beach. You can go to Guanabo for only 0.40 CUP, and I'd love to go there because it's a Cuban beach, not a tourist beach.

Waking up early I decided to wanted to go to Guanabo and go to the beach. For breakfast I cut up some frutabamba and then hung out at the house for a bit. When I made my way toward the guagua stop. For those of you interested in going, take the 400 bus to Guanabo. Instead of walking along Maximo Gomez I decided to walk another route slightly east where I walked along an inland bay that's presumably used as a port. After I got a botella de agua a local pointed me in the right direction of the guagua stop. I had just missed one but another came about 15 minutes later. The bus was jam-packed with locals and the only foreigners on the bus were myself and a man named Paul from South Africa. He's 60 but only looks about 40 or 45. Getting to Guanabo would take about 20 minutes or so. Guanabo is where the Cuban beaches are and, slightly to the west, is Santa Maria where the big hotels and tourist beaches are. When we arrived in Guanabo we played a game of chess and chatted about how much we enjoy Cuba. This is Cuba style; sit and chat over a juego de ajedrez. Cuba certinly has its share of problems but what country doesn't? No place is perfect! Paul beat me at the game; the only person I've won a game against in Cuba is Angie and he's not much of a chess player. Paul and I got an ice cream and then I headed to the beach. Setting my stuff on the beach in my sight (that's important on the beach anywhere) I jumped into the warm waters of the Strait of Florida. The water was quite shallow so I went pretty far out. Locals were there enjoying themselves, swimming, playing volleyball, and so forth. After swimming for about a half hour or so I looked around for a place to grab a bite to eat. There's a sandwich shop called Pan.com (no there's no website) but there was nothing there that interested me. The bus going back to Havana wasn't as crowded. Havana is famous for its classic American cars but it's surprising, at least coming from LA that it seems there's few cars on the road. In Habana Vieja I visited the Museo del Chocolate again; the chocolate beverages are so good that sometimes I get two of them. As I walked out, a young lady named Renee caught up with me. She was overhearing my conversation with a local about being an American in Cuba. We chatted for a bit, and I showed her where the old man on the cover of Lonely Planet sits but he wasn't there today. Renee is from Hong Kong and she's quite pretty. I showed here where to get some peso pizza before we traded emails and parted ways. Then I cruised around parts of Habana Vieja that were yet to be re-painted. Havana sure needs lots of cans of paint. Then I decided that I wanted to go visit David, so I caught the P-5 guagua to Vedado. Of course it was overcrowded but what can you do? That's Cuba for ya. David wasn't home again but Teresita told me to give a call tomorrow and that he'd most likely be there. From there I strolled around Vedado. It is markedly different from Habana Vieja and Centro Habana; these areas were founded in the 1500s and Vedado was founded in the late 1800s to early 1900s. The architecture is much more modern and it's much greener than the other areas of Havana. It was dark and I wanted to get back to Angie's house so I caught the guagua that would go back to Ave. Maximo Gomez and Calz de Infanta. By then I was exhausted and I looked out of place on the bus carrying my plastic bag and chess board. The guaguas are much less crowded at night. When I yelled out for Angie or Anita, neither of them seemed to hear me but one of the neighbours invited me into her home to relax and have a bowl of ice cream. It felt great to sit down for a bit and at the same time expierence more Cuban hospitality. Anita showed up a short time later and I was back inside. She made me some delicious frijoles negros y arroz (black beans and rice). Sometimes it's called "morros y cristianos" (Moors & Christians). Tonight I noticed that some of my money is missing. I noticed 20 euros missing in Vinales and another 20 missing tonight. However I'm quite confident that Angie nor Anita took it because they're a very nice couple. It's gone and I'm upset but all I can say is that I hope someone who needed it found it (and in Cuba that's most likely the case). Last year in Fiji I lost $50 and all I said is that I hoped someone who needed it found it after learning that minimum wage in Fiji is only $12 per day! Wherever you are in the world, you have to guard your money carefully. Especially in Cuba as an American, because I'd hate to call my father (at the cost of $3 per minute!) and ask him to drive to Tijuana to wire me money via Western Union (you can't wire money to someone in Cuba from the U.S. unless they're a family member). When I called David from the payphone he told me I could leave money that I don't need in his dresser and that I could pick it up later. Many homes don't have a telephone but there are plenty of payphones and local calls are very cheap: 1 CUP gets you about five minutes or so. When I got home I washed up and decided it was time for bed. Tonight I wanted to sleep on the roof but Angie said there's too many mosquitoes out tonight. I'll do it another time.

Anita woke me early because she wanted to use my camera to take photos of Little Manyeli to send to Silvia in Auckland. I cut up some frutabamba por desayuno before we left. Anita, Manyeli, and I were off to the daycare centre. Daycare and healthcare in Cuba are both free. Why is it not like that in the U.S.? Anita chatted to some of her friends while I got a cup of coffee and then another. Cuban coffee is superb! When we reached the daycare centre I wasn't allowed inside so Anita used my camera to take pictures of Manyeli with her class. In the front of the school I saw a bicycle that actually had three seats! It's not uncommon to see whole families on bicycles with a full load of luggage! Now I wonder who the greatest Cuban inventor is! Anita works had a hospital so I now had my chance to get a glimpse of a real Cuban hospital. On an anti-Cuba website I saw a photo of a man being transported in a wheelbarrow because it said there aren't enough ambulances but I've seen plenty all around, and not just in the tourist areas. Like many buildings in Havana the hospital needs a paint job but the interior is clean. Anita asked if I could send the pictures to Silvia on the computer, which had email access but no internet. However there is no camera card slot so I'm not able to. Thinking I might be able to ask David I thought I'd give him a call later. Anita had to get to work so I get to get to a stroll. Through Cerro I walked, getting a Red Bull at the market and then walking toward Habana Vieja for my daily fix of chocolate. Habana Vieja is the only area of Havana that I've seen that's been painted nice. Hopefully those colourful coats of paint spread to other areas of this lovely city. After walking around for a bit I got on the P-5 guagua to Vedado where I stopped at David's house. Teresita was home but David was on his way back from Pinar del Rio. He's helping his elderly aunt and uncle install water piping on their tobacco farm. They're in their 70s and can still climb trees! Forget about seeing an American that age do stuff like that. When I looked at my map I realized that Parque Lennon is just a couple of blocks away so I wanted to see the statue of John Lennon. The statue actually sits on a bench; I thought it'd be on a podium on the middle of the square. There were no eyeglasses; I thought they were stolen (like they have been many times) but suddenly an elderly "guard" came along and put them on. After tipping him a few coins and getting some photos with the most famous Beatle, I continued my walk. Walking along the the well-known Necropolis Cristobal Colon, what I wanted to do next was go to the top of Memorial a Jose Marti. Jose Julian Marti Perez, better known as "Jose Marti" was born in Havana in 1853. He is Cuba's most famous poet, and chances are you won't walk down a street in Cuba without seeing a statue of him. The memorial tower was closed because the lift wasn't working but I took the time to admire the star-shaped tower from the outside. Fidel has given speeches to more than 1 million people here in the Plaza la Revolucion! There was some recent road work and the tar was still hot so I had to walk slowly across to avoid getting my jandals stuck. At around 4:00 PM I walked past the 55,000 seat Estadio latinomericano. The stadium is primarily used for baseball. Ah I was worn out after all the walking I did today. Havana is a fabulous city for walking; you don't need to rent a car and you most certainly don't need to take a city tour. When I was back at Angie's house I met up with Anita and we went to her friend's house a few blocks away. On the way we visited a bodega (ration shop) where I got a container of soy yogurt for 3 CUP. The bodega is where the people get items using the ration booklet. When we got to Anita's friend's house, I noticed it's immaculate compared to Angie's; it has a beautiful tiled kitchen, a stereo system in the living room, etc. To share I brought along some donuts that I purchased from a street-side stall. Angie and Anita, I just love them. It's going to be difficult when I leave Cuba because I've made so many friends. At around 6:00 I called David and asked if I could come over so I could email the pictures, telling him I could take a taxi over for a CUC or two. Straight away I took some photos with everyone and then I went to the roadside with my thumb out. An old beat-up Buick picked me up almost straight away and we first went up to El Capitolio. The ride turned out to only be 10 CUP. The driver had to drop off some other passengers before he took me over to Vedado. He dropped me off near Lisdey's house and then I took a guagua the rest of the way. David was home! At first he told me he was going to go out with a friend but he decided to stay home. When I emailed the pictures, he asked me if I wanted to go get some cola to make some cuba libres (rum and cola). I told him I'd prefer a mojito but he had no limes. When I told him I'd run to the store and get some he said that it's not as simple as just going to store at this time of night. Anyways I went to the store and got some cola. David told me if I gave him 10 CUC he could get some lobsters from the "lobster lady." I didn't have that much on me I told I'd pay him back for sure when I get back from Santa Clara. He said it's a bit of a gamble because 10 CUC to him is like $400 to me. David's cousin showed up and after downing a couple of cuba libres we were ready to tackle the Malecon. We were nearly splashed a few times from the thunderous sea waves but we had fun either. Some people ask "what to people talk about on the Malecon?" In Lonely Planet, a cubana answers that they talk about love. From what I observed the other day it's THE hangout spot for the local gay scene. A couple of nice girls from Canada showed up to hang out with us; they met David on CS as well. I was getting tired so I felt like it was time to head back to Angie's house. When I took a taxi I was home about 10 minutes later. Anita had some delicious, albeit grease-laden tamales for me. The water isn't working too well right now so I couldn't take a shower. Tomorrow is another journey.

Today I'm off to Santa Clara...

Stay tuned...

Tags: adventures, history, old cars, people, socialism

 

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