Cuba first impressions
HAVANA: Noisy, chaotic, untidy, but somehow it functions. At 10.30 pm as we are walking back to our Casa, a door opens and a chef appears loading perfect pies into a glass cabinet on the street outside his door. Guava or coconut - still warm from the oven. One CUC each – equivalent to one Euro for a perfect seven inch pie with a melt-in-the mouth crust! As his whistle is recognised and doors open from the buildings along the narrow street many are sold in minutes.
WIFI is patchy and practically non-existent in Havana most of the time, so communicating home on Facebook or email fades in importance and surprisingly is not missed by many. The ‘organised’ tours are not always up to expectations but sometimes other interesting things happen along the way. This is still an ‘adventure’ destination and it pays to be flexible. To go off the beaten track and be open to whatever comes along is the best course.
After searching Havana for salsa dancing in nightclubs it is found in the street outside a bar as locals lead the crowd in dance. In fact, the music basically stops at 10.00pm in old Havana so the inhabitants can sleep. Walking back to the Casa after 11.00pm on a Sunday night, a street level front room of a private house reveals a private party where a woman with an amazing voice is accompanied by a friend on acoustic guitar. They invites us in to join their party.
The old crumbling facades of the buildings give no inkling of what may be inside. Fortunately many of the gracious old buildings are intact although they may not now be used for their original purpose. Similarly the engines of the dilapidated old cars contain surprises under the bonnet and very few original parts. There are more of these vintage models than could be expected and some are surprisingly well maintained while others have evidence of extreme rust, dodgy paint work wear and tear.
Friendly locals tout for trade but none are aggressive. Helpful and accommodating. Offering everything from a ham sandwich and a coffee from the open doorway of the house, to seasonal fruits and vegetables from hand drawn trollies. Slices of pizza and plantain banana chips are sold from a hole in the wall, and peanuts wrapped in coiled photocopy paper offered by an older lady from trays in the square.
Tourists are a boon to the meagre wages and as more commodities appear in the shops there is incentive to earn higher wages to procure small luxuries like hair shampoo and body lotions. There are compounding pharmacies but only one international pharmacy had supplies of ‘Bandaids’. Take your own supply of Panadol and toothpaste.
First world problems quickly disappear and are replaced with saving plastic bags and recycling anything which may become useful later.
There has been investment in hotels and transport for the tourist dollar and although the higher priced hotels look great, the plumbing and electrics can still be patchy even here. Conditions in the Casa houses are also variable. These ‘private’ houses are still government controlled and can only offer up to six or seven rooms. Ours was of a very high standard but not all come up smelling of roses. The allocation is done by the ‘authority’ so free choice is limited as it is in many areas of Cuban society.
As the history of the Cuban struggles is revealed in the tours by informative guides it becomes evident that the Cuban people have struggled to achieve their independence. Their pride and toughness is seen in so many ways and it is impossible not to admire their efforts. Crime is low and we never felt unsafe.
The streets and footpaths in the old city are a twisted ankle waiting to happen so stepping carefully is recommended. Bicycle taxis approaching quietly from behind are an added hazard. Escaping all these inconveniences needs eyes in the back of the head but the streets are swept clean every day. As the city becomes more familiar it is easy to relax and take it all in. on the day it rained the streets flooded quickly but within an hour of the rain stopping order was restored.
The cuisine is seasonal food, simply cooked and served with an apology for whatever else requested that was not available.
Havana grew on me as I became familiar with its rhythm, but some of the street noise was best left outside our peaceful Casa.
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